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March 12, 2008
From 341 to 65
Through March 11

by Joe Sheehan

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Butler comes off the board, Western Kentucky comes off the bubble, and a a dozen teams exhale. After a Monday that saw at least one and possibly two at-large bids denied by upstarts in mid-major conferences, chalk held on Tuesday as the Bulldogs and Hilltoppers locked up automatic bids by winning conference championship games. That gives us 12 sealed invites to a dance that is now just eight days away.

Here’s a recap of where we stand as major-conference tournament action kicks off. Bubble teams in the Big East, Atlantic 10 and Pac-10 will all get chances to play their way out of the tournament today, but not necessarily into it, today.

On the Board (2): St. Mary’s, Gonzaga.

In (27): North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Xavier, Kansas, Texas, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Connecticut, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Memphis, Brigham Young, UCLA, Stanford, Washington State, USC, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky.

Those 27 teams represent 9 conferences, which means that group has to take 18 at-large bids at minimum, and could account for as many as 27. Realistically, it will take 24 to 26. For now, we’ll keep calling it 27. That number drops on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, as major-conference teams get eliminated from conference tournaments and move to the big board.

Automatic Bids (12): Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Winthrop (Big South), Cornell (Ivy League), Drake (Missouri Valley), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), Siena (MAAC), George Mason (Colonial), Davidson (Southern), San Diego (WCC), Oral Roberts (Summit), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Butler (Horizon). Remaining certain one-bid leagues include the America East, Big Sky, Big West, Northeast, Patriot, SWAC, Southland and WAC.

Bubble (27): Maryland, Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech, Massachusetts, St. Joseph’s, Temple, Dayton, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Syracuse, Villanova, Ohio State, VCU, UAB, Houston, Illinois State, UNLV, New Mexico, Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, South Alabama.

Somewhere between four and 14 at-large bids remain for this crowd, which means at least four of these teams are locks to go in, and nearly half will miss. Can we make any distinctions at this point? We know that the seasons of VCU, Illinois State and South Alabama are all over, so let’s work them first. The three mid-majors have comparable resumes, a bit light on big wins, but featuring regular-season championships or outright second-place finishes. Illinois State was the only one of the three to make its tournament final, which may give it an edge.

            Rec   RPI   NC RPI   R+N   L12  Top 50  Wins
Rams       24-7    54       42  12-6   9-3     0-2  Houston, Maryland
Redbirds   23-9    34       62   9-8   9-3     0-5  Creighton (2), SIU (2)
Jaguars    24-6    39       49   9-5   9-3     3-2  Miss. St, WKU (2)

The Jaguars’ win over Mississippi State stands out in this crowd, the only win any of the three has against a top 50 team out of conference. Combined with the Jags’ regular-season crown, good RPI and 9-5 record away from home, they’re in solid shape, with a slight edge over Illinois State. VCU’s outright Colonial title, road/neutral record and fair out-of-conference work leave it third, and the line probably falls between them and Illinois State.

Anything else? Well, we can rank the teams within their conferences, not necessarily by order of finish. I’ll skip the math and position them like so:

ACC       A14       B12       BE       CUSA       MWC       Pac-10       SEC
Miami     UMass     K-State   V’nova   UAB        UNLV      Arizona      Arkansas
Maryland  Temple    Baylor    S’cuse   Houston    N. Mexico Arizona St.  Mississippi
VT        SJU       OU                                      Oregon      Florida
          Dayton    TAMU

Dayton and St. Joseph’s both have must-win games in the A14 first round. I’d call them winnable, but the conference hasn’t been predictable in a very long time. Since neither win—St. Louis and Fordham stand opposed—will stand out, these are essentially qualifying games; only Xavier can lose before the A14 semis and make the tournament.

Syracuse/Villanova is an elimination game for the ‘Cuse. It may be one, but is not certainly one, for Villanova. Should they lose, they’d have a fair resume, and heaven knows what subjective factors might come into play in the room, given their two whistle-influenced late-game losses. The rest of the Big East is playing for seeding in one of the three postseason tournaments.

I’d make a joke about the complete lack of interest in Conference USA’s first day, but I should really save it for the first day of the Big 11 tournament, which may end basketball as a pastime on Earth.

Arizona gets a walk in the Pac-10 tournament, playing Oregon State. It’s one of those situations where the only possible result is a Wildcats win, and some people will use it to say that they’re in. It’s a meaningless game, serving only to inflate Arizona’s records. Oregon State is the worst team among BCS schools, and arguably the worst team in the top 11 conferences. (Rice, Northwestern and Evansville could join the Beavers for a tournament after the season.) The game will tell us nothing; they’d have four wins in their last 11 games, just one over a tournament team since the Patriots were undefeated, and by my count their only wins against certain NCAA teams are both over Washington State. If you’re going to give this much credit for injuries—and the Wildcats have had many—why not give Ohio State a bid for missing Greg Oden?

The next three days are three of the best in sports. I’ll be running around Boston today meeting Baseball Prospectus readers, signing books and talking baseball, while frantically tracking games on my Blackberry. I’ll be back in New York Thursday with more on the bubble teams.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Joe by clicking here or click here to see Joe's other articles.

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