The regular season for the rest of Division I wrapped up over the weekend, which makes looking at this picture a lot easier. Well, a little easier; the teams aren't making it very easy at all, as the middle of the pack in the SEC, Big 11 and Big 12 grows more confusing, not less.
I got an e-mail from a buddy of mine over the weekend, really the guy whose responsible for me loving college basketball this much: "By the way, a 45-team bubble?" Yeah, really. It's 41 as I write this, however, and will be smaller by the time we get to end of the page. There's just a strange mix this year, with a number of teams well past the RPI cutoff point having finished above .500 in their conferences, keeping them in the mix, able to advance into the field with two good wins later this week. This group of teams is simply not very accomplished, making it difficult to distinguish among them.
Let me give you an illustration of the problem. The last column in the spreadsheet I use is just labeled "Wins." It's just that, a listing of the decision-relevant wins each team has had, with notations for road ("@") or neutral-court ("N") victories. Some teams, usually in BCS conferences, have a bunch of these; others, like Western Kentucky or George Mason, have very few, and are on the bubble for other reasons. Not having a lot under "Wins" is why Illinois State didn't make the cut last year, and why those two teams will have a hard time getting in this year if they need an at-large bid.
The top five teams, by RPI, in the spreadsheet, have no "@" in the wins column. That's not to say they have no road wins, but that they have no discussion-relevant road wins. The next five have six, three of those part of the Big 11's class project in bid maximization. Up and down the list, there's a lack of road wins against good competition. There's some neutral-court success, but not the kind of road wins that separates teams from the pack. It's another reason for the 41-team bubble.
We did have some movement this weekend. Arizona State beat Cal at home, snapping their losing streak and getting them to 11-7 in the Pac-10. That moves them into "lock" status. At the other end of the spectrum, Cincinnati, Washington State and Northwestern lost must-win games to leave the bubble. Despite losses, Creighton, Kentucky, Maryland, Davidson, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech remain under consideration. Creighton may end up cursing Osiris Eldridge all the way to the NIT. Davidson's case is down to 13 wins away from home and a win over West Virginia, which likely won't be enough. The other four can all get into the tournament, but they probably have to all play next Saturday to do so The best wins over the weekend went to Texas A&M, Michigan and Florida, none of which pushed those teams over the top.
Siena made it to the MAAC final, and even with that ugly 0-4 against the RPI top 50, is probably in regardless of the result of tonight's game against Niagara. With so many teams playing so poorly, it's just hard to make a case against a team that went 9-4 in true road games and is 10-2 in its last 12 with an RPI of 24. Niagara, should they lose tonight, deserves consideration. They have a ridiculous 15 wins away from home and would be 10-2 in their last 12 with a loss tonight-also a road game. The lack of good wins-Siena and Illinois State are their top-50 conquests-hurts, as does two bad losses in one week, to Iona and Marist, back in January. The could have scheduled better, but there is a Big East team (South Florida) on the docket, as well as MAC and CAA teams. In another year, maybe you can dismiss them, but how many 17-13 (9-9) teams do you want to put in this year's tournament?
Getting more attention is the West Coast final, which is St. Mary's last chance to impress the committee. The Gaels were just all right last night, pulling away from Portland in the last seven minutes for a final score that was more impressive than their performance. Patrick Mills looked like a guy trying to play through an injury, and even with him, it's hard to see Gonzaga losing tonight. The issue is whether St. Mary's can look good enough, whether Mills can look good enough, for the team under discussion to be the one with him, rather than the one without. Until we see them play tonight, it's impossible to slot them.
The Colonial final features two teams on the bubble with little chance of getting off of it. If it comes down to it, VCU was the regular-season champion, so they'd have a stronger case should they lose tonight. They also have a neutral-court win over New Mexico, co-champion of the Mountain West. Like the Valley, the Colonial has an incredibly difficult time scheduling quality games, and that makes it hard to build an at-large resume.
So who gets kicked off of the list? Southern California swept the Oregon schools at home this weekend, which did absolutely nothing for them. They have two road wins (Washington State and Oregon) and a neutral-court victory, making them 3-10 outside of the Galen Center. Their last win over a tournament team was January 31. They're 2-8 against the RPI Top 50. Maybe this is anti-woofing, but they don't belong in the discussion. I'm tempted to take Rhode Island off as well, but they have a neutral-court win over Penn State, ten wins away from home and a win over Dayton. That keeps them around. Maryland lost at Virginia to slip to 7-9 in the ACC, but they have two better wins (Michigan State, North Carolina) than just about any other team.
Before we get to the list, one last note: all the RPI data in my pieces come from the fantastic CollegeRPI.com helmed by the talented Jerry Palm.
Here's how my spreadsheet lays out at 3:30 on March 9:
In: East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun), Radford (Big South), Cornell (Ivy), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Morehead State (Ohio Valley).
The following ten conferences have no chance at all of getting a team other than their conference champion into the NCAA tournament: America East, Big Sky, Big West, Mid-American, MEAC, Northeast, Patriot League, Summit 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, California, Arizona State
SEC: LSU, Tennessee
West Coast: Gonzaga
The above teams will take at least 19 and no more than 30 at-large bids, leaving from four to 15 bids for:
ACC: Boston College, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.)
Atlantic 14: Dayton, Temple, Rhode Island
Big 12: Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas State, Nebraska
Big East: Providence, Notre Dame, Georgetown
Big 11: Penn State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan
Colonial: VCU, George Mason
Conference USA: UAB, Tulsa
MAAC: Siena, Niagara
Missouri Valley: Creighton
Mountain West: New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV
SEC: South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky
WAC: Utah State
West Coast: St. Mary's
Now, that's 40 teams for a maximum of 15 slots, so clearly some cutting is in order. At the top, you can probably say that as long as Dayton, Texas and Texas A&M win their next game, they're likely in. Siena, Oklahoma State, Boston College and New Mexico also seem to have an edge on the group.
Near the bottom, you have the three other ACC teams, the three Big East teams and the entire SEC. Three to six of these teams will probably find their way into the field, but we need to see them play some more to know which ones it will be. The Big 11 is a whole other animal; you know that "eye test" that the experts are always talking about, the one that always seems to put teams, especially BCS teams, into the field? How come it never gets brought up to knock teams out of the field? There's no way the Big 11 has this many teams under consideration if subjectivity is actually part of the discussion unless "subjectivity" is code for "bonus points for football schools and famous coaches."
UAB and Tulsa can probably be taken off of the bubble because of how the Conference USA standings fell. Either needed to beat Memphis to enhance their profile, but neither gets a crack at the Tigers until the conference final, where beating them would yield an automatic bid. Friday's if-seeds-hold semifinal between the two is an elimination game, and at that, neither team has a strong case.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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