Why is this feature starting so late this year, just ten days before Selection Sunday? Well, look at the last two nights. Georgetown, which seemed back in the mix after winning at Villanova, took a horrible loss at St. John's. Cincinnati, headed for 10-8 in the Big East, loses at South Florida. Maryland loses all its momentum by blowing a late lead at home against Wake. Miami gets whacked at cellar-dweller Georgia Tech. Kentucky and LSU both take home losses at the hands of teams that aren't even on the bubble.
If things can change this much in two nights, picking these teams two weeks, four weeks, six weeks further out is not an exercise that's going to add information to the discussion. The picture doesn't come remotely into focus until conference schedules approach their end, and even then we're going to have a bumpy ride. I love the work that Andy Glockner does, and the bracket updates by Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm. But I also think that this conversation is hard to have until…well, now.
And even now, it's a mess. I find myself coming to teams like Northwestern, Southern California and Western Kentucky and saying, "Well, how much are they really behind the other guys?" I have a bubble so big you have expect Glenda to be hanging out inside of it with two remote controls, two flat-screens and a faceful of nachos.
Starting tomorrow, we'll begin the work of narrowing it down. Oh, we'll have help: Providence plays a critical game to get to 11-7 at Villanova tonight; Tennessee and South Carolina match up in a game both need; Penn State has a must-win, hosting Illinois; and Dayton gets a chance to lock up a bid by visiting Xavier.
Here's how my spreadsheet lays out at 5:15 on March 5:
The following conferences have no chance at all of getting a team other than their conference champion into the NCAA tournament: America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Ivy League, Mid-American, MEAC, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot League, SWAC, Southland.
The following teams could lose the rest of their games and still get an at-large bid:
ACC: North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State
Atlantic 14: Xavier
Big 12: Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri
Big East: Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Marquette, Syracuse, West Virginia
Big 11: Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue
Conference USA: Memphis
Horizon League: Butler
Mountain West: Utah, Brigham Young
Pac-10: Washington, UCLA, Arizona State
West Coast: Gonzaga
The above teams will take at least 17 and no more than 28 at-large bids, leaving from six to 17 bids for:
ACC: Boston College, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.)
Atlantic 14: Rhode Island, Dayton, Temple
Big 12: Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas State
Big East: Providence, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Georgetown
Big 11: Penn State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern
Colonial: VCU, George Mason
Conference USA: UAB, Tulsa
MAAC: Siena, Niagara
Missouri Valley: Creighton
Mountain West: New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV
Pac-10: California, Arizona, Washington State, USC
SEC: Souh Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi State
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky
WAC: Utah State
West Coast: St. Mary's
Some of you are now shaking your heads, either because Texas and California are on here, or because George Mason and Niagara are. I have no problem with that; the first two reflect the rule of thumb, which is that to be a lock, you have to be in position to lose the rest of your games and get in. Texas might be there, but I never want to have to move a team from the Locks list, so they stay on the bubble for now. If Cal were to lose its last three games-well within the realm of possibility-they would almost certainly be left out of the tournament. They could really use a win in Arizona this weekend.
As far as the other side of the continuum is concerned, it's entirely a function of how weak the teams in contention for spots are. I don't think, in the end, that the SEC will get two bids or the Big 11 four, but those possibilities leave me including the second-place schools in top 15 conferences in seasons when those teams have soft non-conference performance.
We'll break this down further each day leading up to Selection Sunday. Come along for the ride.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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