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March 10, 2009
From 344 to 65
Tuesday Update

by Joe Sheehan

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Siena and Virginia Commonwealth played themselves off of the bubble last night by winning the MAAC and Colonial championship games. Gonzaga closed out their perfect WCC season as well, ensuring that they wouldn't need an at-large bid. The three losers who had spots on the bubble--George Mason, St. Mary's and Niagara-will be hard-pressed to avoid the NIT, or even the CBI.

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 5:15 a.m. on March 10:

In (9): East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun), Radford (Big South), Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial), Cornell (Ivy), Siena (Metro-Atlantic), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Morehead State (Ohio Valley), Chattanooga (Southern), Gonzaga (West Coast).

One-Bid Conferences

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.

Locks

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

The above teams will take at least 19 and no more than 29 at-large bids, leaving from five to 15 bids for:

The Bubble

Let's start talking about these teams in an effort to get the list culled. In RPI order:

Dayton: Dayton has the highest RPI of any bubble team, at 24. That isn't enough to get them in by itself, but it is a strong marker. Unlike last year's team, this one has had the services of Chris Wright all season, which has made all the difference. They finished tied for second in a strong Atlantic 14, with neutral-court wins over Marquette and Auburn, the latter of which looks better by the day. As is often the case, they struggled in true road games: 5-6, with just one top-100 win on the road, and some bad losses (St. Louis, Massachusetts, Charlotte). As long as they avoid a bad loss to the Richmond/St. Bonaventure winner on Thursday-which would exacerbate the questions about their ability to win away from home-they should be in.

Oklahoma State: Some of the same strengths and weaknesses as Dayton, with a couple of good neutral-court wins (Siena, Rhode Island) hiding poor road work (4-6, best win at Nebraska. Because of imbalanced schedules, it's worth taking a look at conference RPI; Oklahoma, playing the north half of the Big 12 twice, has a 28 conference RPI despite a 9-7 record. They also drew the short straw in the four-way tie for fourth, and will play Iowa State as the #7 seed Thursday. It's a no-win situation-the win is valueless, and the loss would be devastating. Win it, and they get Oklahoma again in a win-and-in situation. Even without it…they have just one loss outside of the RPI top 50, an OT loss at Baylor. They're probably in as long as that remains the case.

Utah State: Just three of their 26 wins have come against teams in the top 100 of the RPI, just one against a team likely to be in the field. Their best road win is at Idaho. Subjectively, they had a chance to show something against a St. Mary's team missing its best player, and didn't look good at all. The WAC isn't strong enough to support an at-large bid for a team with a non-conference SOS of 180. With all that said, if they get to the conference final and lose to Nevada, they'll probably get a bid. Any loss before that-and I'm not excited about their chances to beat Fresno State, much less the Boise State/New Mexico State survivor-gives the committee an excuse to leave them out.

Texas A&M: Another of the many, many home-court heroes on the bubble, A&M has wom six straight, ust two of those against postseason teams. Their best road win is at Nebraska, although they have a sweet neutral-court takedown of LSU that didn't look as good at the time as it does now. They also beat Arizona at home and won at Alabama in a game that started the Tide's spiral. The problems are that the non-conference schedule outside of that stuff, and there are a couple of losses to bubblers Tulsa and Kansas State. Like Oklahoma State, as long as they can get to Friday, they should be safe.

Texas: I may be the only person with Texas on the bubble, and I'm not sure I can defend that. Six top-50 wins, including a road win at Wisconsin, stand out in this crowd. There's some softness on the road-just four true road wins, with losses at Arkansas and Nebraska-but all of these teams have that. Their trip to Maui screwed them but good: Notre Dame, St. Joseph's and and Oregon have not helped the Longhorns' numbers at all. They're at the top of this list, and in as long as they beat Colorado Thursday. The only reason they're not a lock is that they don't fit the primary criterion; you'd have to rethink them if they were to somehow lose to the Buffaloes. The lesson is, don't finish in four-way ties.

Ohio State: I'll just state this up front: I think the Big 11 is entirely unimpressive after Michigan State and Purdue. You have to give bids to five or six Big 11 teams, but if the conference gets more than that, it's a mistake. The middle of this conference is larded with mediocrity, not parity, with records inflated by the 1-17 team at the bottom (of the muddled middle, only Michigan was denied two free wins over the marginally Division I team) and some execrable performances by the three "good" teams when playing those teams.

Ohio State probably has the best case of the teams in this group, with a home win over Butler, a road win at Miami (Fla.) and a neutral-court victory over Notre Dame out of conference. They went just 1-5 against the good teams in the league; however, a sweep of Michigan keeps them ahead in the pecking order. A win over Wisconsin Friday locks up a spot; a loss and they'll sweat for three days. Their worst loss is Northwestern, although they didn't exactly challenge themselves in nonconference. A tip for the future: leave the state more. The Buckeyes played one true road game prior to January.

Wisconsin: This looks familiar. Wisconsin went 1-4 against the good Big 11 teams, beating one of them at home, swept Michigan and won its ACC/Big 12 Challenge game on the road against a bubble team. They also wear a lot of red. Ohio State beat them the only time they played (Wisky missed TOSU and Michigan State in the rotation, giving them one of the softer conference slates). The Badgers did more to challenge themselves but lost to Connecticut, Marquette and Texas. They're missing what Ohio State has, the Butler win. Again, the winner Friday is in, the loser sweats. I give a slight edge to Ohio State's profile because of the Butler win and the lack of a bad loss (Wisconsin has one top-100 loss, at Iowa). I can't put excessive weight on the head-to-head matchup because of the lack of a return game. Hey, Big 11, here's an idea: instead of everyone playing two Horizon/MAC teams, play a full round-robin.

Temple: They have to be listed because of their top-40 RPI and runner-up finish in a good conference. Throw in a win over Tennessee (at home) and one over Penn State (at State College!), and there's enough here to talk about. They scheduled almost entirely within the RPI top 150, and had virtually no guarantee games: their worst home game was against Kent State. I'll always advocate for a team that doesn't schedule eight wins for itself. Their 17 true road games are the most of any bubble team and tied for the most of any team in the RPI top 100 (American, Miami (Ohio)). Beating Xavier in the A14 semis would put them over the top; it's not clear if they can get in without that. They did win at Penn State, though, and it's certainly interesting to contrast the two approaches to nonconference scheduling.

Creighton: One of five bubble teams, for now, that have completed its schedule, Creighton may end up one win shy of the promised land. Illinois State is certainly a quality loss, but the manner of the loss was not quality, and besides, Creighton needed a quality win. Home wins over Dayton and New Mexico, right on the bubble, help, and they went 11-5 away from home. One of the toughest cases for the committee, the Bluejays personify the issue of whether the committee looks at raw quality wins or takes the realities of schedule-building-opportunities-into account. Too close to call.

Minnesota: One of Rick Pitino's charity cases, the Gophers are one of three bubble teams (UNLV and Western Kentucky the others) whose case falls apart if not for a win over Louisville. That win, in Arizona in December, was the only nonconference challenge for the Gophers, who played one true road game away from home. They went 1-4 against the Big 11's good teams, missing Purdue once, and swept Wisconsin. Like Ohio State, they lack bad losses, but for the same reason the Buckeyes do. That and the five top-50 wins mean that they're in if they beat Northwestern Thursday. If they don't, they'll be 9-10 in conference with three of those wins over Indiana and Iowa, 5-7 in their last 12, and it will be tough to make a case for them, in part because...

Michigan:…they couldn't close out these guys Saturday. A home win over the Wolverines would have made Minnesota 10-8 in conference and been worth a few RPI slots, while also consigning Michigan to desperation. With their comeback win, Michigan got to .500 in conference, a mark that includes a 2-3 record against the good teams and a sweep of Minnesota. They also have two fantastic non-conference wins over Duke and UCLA. As long as they beat Iowa-and they failed to do this once already-they're in good shape.

Alabama-Birmingham: It feels like we're here every year with the Blazers, waiting for them to beat Memphis and put themselves in. This year's version again lacks bad losses (none outside the top 100) and good wins (0-5 against the top 25). Honestly, if the Arizona Wildcats don't melt down back in November, we're not having this conversation. Even if UAB wins out to the final and loses to Memphis again, they'll need a lot of help elsewhere.

San Diego State: They're here mostly because of an overtime win at UNLV on February 3, without which their best road win would be at TCU. Losses to St. Mary's and Arizona don't help their bubble position. However, their numbers are solid (44 RPI, 68 SOS, 8-4 last 12, maxes out at 8-4), making the quarterfinal game Thursday-playing UNLV in Vegas again-an opportunity to leapfrog the Rebels, who are ahead of them at the moment in the pecking order. A second win in Vegas might be necessary, however.

Western Kentucky: Their win over Louisville is evidence that they can play tournament-caliber basketball, and being the regular-season champ in a conference that occasionally gets an at-large bid is pretty much the rest of their case. They have a pair of hideous losses (at Florida International and Denver) that may be too much to overcome, given that a loss in the final tonight (to South Alabama) will cripple their numbers. Like UAB, they need the dominoes to fall perfectly; drawing USA in the final instead of Arkansas-Little Rock did not help the process.

St. Mary's: We've established that they can lose to Gonzaga, and as much as the case will be made for judging them as they were before the injury to Patrick Mills, the team that had him the last two nights was not impressive at all. They did try to schedule well, but a critical loss in the first round of a tournament in Anaheim, to UTEP, cost them games against Wake Forest and either Baylor or Arizona State. Getting Fullerton and Providence instead is weighing them down now. (Note to Gazelle Group: That's what happens in real tournaments.) They probably have to be ahead of the bubble teams they beat (Utah State, San Diego State, Providence), but that's a weak case. Unless everything falls perfectly, they're out.

Georgetown: It would be unprecedented to offer an at-large bid to a team that lost 12 conference games; making it happen probably requires Georgetown to win four games in New York this week. Their four top-25 wins and strong numbers keep them in the discussion until they lose, and at that, it'll take playing Friday to keep them there, and probably a win that day to get them into the tournament. Check back Wednesday evening.

Florida: The SEC is an unholy mess, and perfectly capable of leaving itself with just two bids come Sunday. Auburn, Alabama and Vanderbilt are playing the best basketball in the conference right now, so if you thought Georgia was an unlikely tournament winner last year, you might love this year's event. Florida has one top-50 win (Washington) and two road wins, total. If you want to know why a team like Western Kentucky is on the bubble, here's your answer. The Hilltoppers match up point-for-point with the Gators, profile-wise. Beating Arkansas-not a certainty-shouldn't be enough; if they win, Friday's matchup with Auburn is probably an elimination game.

South Carolina: Their only top-50 win was over Florida, #49, on a last-second mad rush up the court. The Gamecocks swept Kentucky and won at Baylor, both of which seemed more impressive six weeks ago. They can't afford to lose to Mississippi State or Georgia Friday. A win there coupled with a 10-6 SEC record should be enough; other than the 2003 Georgia team that disqualified itself, no 10-6 SEC team has been left out since at least 1993. You'd like to see them punished for the schedule: eight NC wins over sub-200 RPI teams.

Niagara: Like Creighton and Western Kentucky, Niagara had a strong season in a mid-major conference while not playing a strong schedule out of conference. They played 16 road games-including, it should be noted, their conference championship game-and 21 games away from home. Just three of their nonconference opponents, however, finished in the top 100 of the RPI. Five losses outside the top 100, including two outside the top 200, are likely the death knell. The Purple Eagles would need a lot of the right teams losing in the BCS leagues, and the committee making a conscious choice to not fill the bracket with 12-loss squads that played 17 home games.

Arizona: Not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular. The Wildcats have five top-50 wins, all in the state. They have two road wins, both in the state of Oregon, which would be at least a little impressive in almost any other year. They have to beat Arizona State at Staples on Thursday afternoon to stay in the discussion, but if they do pull that off, they're probably in thanks to sheer quantity of good wins.

Miami (Fla.): If it's possible for 7-9 to be even less impressive…Miami played the ACC's big five seven times, just two above the minimum. They did sweep BC, but also finished two games behind the Golden Eagles, so it's hard to say who's ahead there. The Hurricanes have one top-100 win out of conference, at Kentucky. They may get near-miss points from the committee for playing Duke and North Carolina tough, but they also lost at North Carolina State and Georgia Tech, the latter a brutal last-week smudge on the record. The opening round game against Virginia Tech is an elimination game; but not a quality win; for that, they need to beat Carolina, which would put them in.

George Mason: Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking. The Patriots were the outright #2 in the Colonial, but with absolutely no good wins: 2-5 against the top 100, with one win against the field (Radford, at home). Let's just forget this happened.

Nevada-Las Vegas: The last of Ricky's Kids, the Rebels squandered a couple of good nonconference wins (Arizona, too) by going 9-7 in the Mountain West, taking road losses at Wyoming, TCU and Colorado State and getting swept by San Diego State. A sweep of BYU, and the little "@" next to Louisville, make this the Sybil of profiles. They can't afford a third loss to the Aztecs, and any loss at all in the tournament would be at home, which makes the semifinal against BYU a possible must-win as well.

Boston College: They made out even better than Miami did, playing just six games against the ACC's top five. They also beat both Duke and North Carolina, which is why they're 9-7 and in pretty good shape. Wins over UAB and Providence help as well, and they kindly ask that you forget they lost to Harvard. At home. Days after winning in Chapel Hill. Not losing to Virginia Thursday should be enough to seal a bid. Remember: they just barely survived Georgia Tech at home Saturday.

New Mexico: Their win over Wyoming Saturday, in which they survived a last-second drive by Brandon Ewing, was huge for bolstering their road record and giving them a tie for first in the #7 conference. That latter point is going to be a big help to them in comparison to the 9-9, fifth-place teams they're fighting. With that said, the Lobos can't afford a bad loss, so beating Wyoming Thursday night is mandatory. That should be enough-the Mountain West can certainly support four bids this year. Note that they played just two nonconference games outside the top 200.

Tulsa: An outright second-place finish in the #8 conference should yield better than this. Tulsa does have a neutral-court win over Texas A&M and beat UAB in their only meeting. There's not really enough difference between them and UAB to worry about. The winner of their semifinal is the only viable Conference USA squad, and it's most likely that neither team can lose to Memphis again and get an at-large bid.

Virginia Tech: Their 7-9 in the ACC is slightly better than Miami's by virtue of road wins at Wake and Clemson. However, they did less than nothing out of conference-a neutral-court win over Fairfield, a win at St. John's, a home win against Richmond-and have lost eight of their last 12. Even eliminating Miami Thursday wouldn't lock anything up for them, but it would allow us to potentially reprise last year's discussion of whether a tough loss to North Carolina should push the Hokies over the top.

Penn State: They went 10-8 in the Big 11, and they did so while playing the full complement of games against the top three teams and winning at two of their houses. So why does this candidacy cause me to grate my teeth? Well, Michigan State tried to beat the Nittany Lions without Raymar Morgan and failed. Illinois hosted Penn State and tied the record for fewest foul shots taken (zero), losing a game in which they allowed as many field goals, 13, as they forced turnovers. (The Illini also went scoreless in the last 3:52 in their game at State College in a 64-63 loss, going 2-for-7 at the line along the way. That's two made foul shots in 80 minutes of basketball. When I make cracks about the Big 11's class project in bid maximization, this is why.) Penn State's other road wins? A two-point win against the worst team in the ACC, a ten-point win against the worst team in the Big 11, and a 12-point win against a middling Ivy League team.

Just 36 teams played a worse nonconference schedule than Penn State did, and the Lions lost to the only two remotely good teams on that schedule, Temple and Rhode Island. I know it's hard to leave out a 22-11, 11-9 team from the Big 11, but if that's where Penn State is come Friday night, it will absolutely be the right thing to do. The two wins separating them from oblivion just aren't good enough, and if your "eye test" doesn't catch that, it's time for LASIK.

Rhode Island: The loss to Massachusetts…man, that's a tough one to swallow, a devastating loss for RPI and standings purposes. That they have the same RPI as Penn State and hold a neutral-court win means they deserve to be listed, but they need a run to the finals, with a second win over Dayton included, to make the field.

Auburn: Winning eight of their last nine in the crumbling SEC, the only loss at Baton Rouge, makes them viable. As mentioned above, there's no precedent for leaving out a 10-6 SEC team. Now, if we were going to start one, we might choose to do so with the team with no top-100 wins outside the conference, and just two in the top 200. There's also a home loss to Mercer in there. Precedent or no, Auburn needs to beat Florida (preferably) or Arkansas Friday, and even then they'll have a really weak profile. It's that kind of year.

Maryland: They went 7-9 while playing seven games against the top five, but they did get a full helping of Duke and Carolina. The loss to Virginia may be too much to overcome, but in their favor are two wins-Carolina and Michigan State-that will never stop looking good. Just beating North Carolina State won't be enough; they need to take out Wake on Friday to get back in the mix.

Nebraska: They're listed because they have an identical RPI to Kansas State and split with the Wildcats. As you look, though, you see the 4-7 road record, the total lack of nonconference heft-Creighton is it, and they canceled that with a home loss to Maryland-Baltimore County-and five weeks since their last win over a team in the field. They beat Missouri, Texas and Creighton at home by ten points, combined. They'd have to beat Kansas Friday to be viable.

Davidson: As talented as this team is, as great a story as they are, and as wonderfully as they've scheduled this season, they just didn't do enough. There's no case for a 69 RPI team that won a minor conference, got bounced in the semis and picked up just one top-100 win all year. Two if N.C. State wins their next game. They're off.

Providence: I'm hoping to write an article this week about unbalanced schedules and how they make conference standings all but irrelevant. Or at least, hard to parse. Providence went 10-8 in the Big East, but had just two wins over teams in the NCAA field. They'll need a third-beating Louisville Thursday-to get an at-large bid.

Notre Dame: "At least we didn't go 7-11." I'm pretty sure no team has ever had 11 top-50 losses before, and with wins over Louisville and Texas, Notre Dame can argue that they've proven they can play with the best. Winning at Providence gives them a leg up on the Friars as well. Beating West Virginia is the bare minimum here; the Irish may need to beat Pitt Thursday as well, or at the very least put in a fantastic loss.

Kansas State: Sweeps of Iowa State and Colorado bolster that Big 12 North-flavored 9-7 conference record. Their nonconference work stinks, even in this crowd: Cleveland State, Oakland, Southern Miss and Idaho State are the only top-200 wins. Having drawn the long straw, they get Thursday off; they have to beat Texas (presumably) Friday to sustain a candidacy.

Kentucky: The RPI is subterranean and they are 4-8 in their last 12. However, they have four top-50 wins, including a sweep of Tennessee, and they hold wins over bubblers Auburn and Kansas State. Beating Mississippi Thursday would give them a shot at LSU, and that's their path to the NCAAs. Even that might not be enough, but it's where the discussion begins.

There is no outcome of the SEC tournament that would surprise me. Every team in that league, Georgia and Arkansas inclusive, can beat every other one on a neutral court. If we end up with some kind of bizarre, committee-killing Mississippi/Arkansas final, just remember you were warned.

Mississippi State: In a year like this, finishing above .500 in a BCS league has to put you on the bubble. Providence, Kansas State, Penn State and the Bulldogs are all here pretty much for that one reason only. Mississippi State has an awful profile, including four sub-100 losses, but if they get two wins and lose Saturday, they're going to be on the board.

That's 38 teams. George Mason and Davidson are done, so that leaves 36, some of whom are matched up in elimination games. Here's how I would order those 36:

Texas
Dayton
Texas A&M
Michigan
Oklahoma State
Ohio State
Wisconsin
Creighton
Boston College
New Mexico
Auburn
San Diego State
UNLV
Minnesota
Temple
South Carolina
Western Kentucky
Penn State
Florida
Kansas State
Utah State
Niagara
Notre Dame
Maryland
Providence
Virginia Tech
Arizona
Miami (Fla.)
Georgetown
Rhode Island
St. Mary's
Alabama-Birmingham
Tulsa
Nebraska
Kentucky
Mississippi State

Let's just say I'm glad there are more games to be played. It would take a lot for Niagara and St. Mary's to make the field, but until some of these teams win another game, we'll leave them on the board.

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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