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March 13, 2010, 12:37 PM ET
From 347 to 65: Saturday morning

by Joe Sheehan

The Big 11 and Mountain West were the biggest winners yesterday, as bubble teams in both conferences beat teams already in the field, helping to maximize each circuit’s entries into the NCAA tournament. It was a welcome sight following Thursday’s endless parade of fail. San Diego State and UNLV moved onto the “Locks” list, while Illinois and Minnesota greatly enhanced their chances of selection.

We had some missteps as well. Virginia Tech dropped an ACC quarterfinal game to the worst team in the conference, leaving them with an even weaker profile than the marginal one they had yesterday morning. Dayton blew a big second-half lead against Xavier and fell off the board. Florida became the first good SEC East team to lose a game to an SEC West team, falling to Mississippi State.

Overall, it was a day where the national picture came a bit more into focus, and that picture is this: The last half-dozen or so teams to get at-large bids into this year’s NCAA tournament will do so with some of the least impressive resumes on record. I won’t make the statement that these teams are “better” or “worse” than those in previous year, just that as a whole they will be less accomplished, with fewer good wins, more bad losses, less success away from home and lower RPIs than we normally see in those spots. If there’s an effect on the field, it could be to elevate the seeds of teams that would “normally’ be 13s and 14s; this week’s train wreck has seen Cornell move into the RPI top 50, and Oakland (52) and Murray State (55) sitting just outside. This may lead to higher seeding. Also, I suspect the 5/12 and 6/11 games will be less primed for upsets, as the teams on the lower seed lines aren’t as dangerous as usual.

There are 12 conference finals and eight semis today, and teams hoping for an at-large bid from the sidelines have some definite rooting interests. We kick off with UTEP, now safely in the field, trying to keep Houston from stealing Conference USA’s automatic bid. The WAC, similarly, will see Utah State, seemingly in no matter tonight’s result, looking to fend off a New Mexico State team that won a big road game in the semis against host Nevada. Finally, Washington is probably in the field, but it wouldn’t hurt them to at least show well tonight against Cal in the Pac-10 final.

The semifinal rounds carry more danger. The ACC has two teams, Miami and North Carolina State, trying to steal bids from the middle of nowhere. Duke and Georgia Tech are charged with ending Cinderella’s night. Illinois and Minnesota are right on the edge of the bubble after yesterday’s big wins, as they still have incredibly high RPIs for at-large teams. They’ll play semis in the Big 11 against Ohio State and Purdue, respectively. Mississippi State may need to beat Vanderbilt to get into the tournament; it would be just their second win over a team above the at-large cut line. Finally, Rhode Island can move to the right side of the line for good by beating Temple to advance to the Atlantic 14 final.

Based on yesterday’s results, I moved Saint Louis and Dayton off my bubble, and advanced San Diego State, Nevada-Las Vegas and Utah State to the “Locks” column.

Here’s where we stand through Friday:

Automatic Bids (15): East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun), Montana (Big Sky), Winthrop (Big South), Old Dominion (Colonial), Butler (Horizon), Cornell (Ivy), Siena (MAAC), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Robert Morris (Northeast), Murray State (Ohio Valley), Lehigh (Patroit), Wofford (Southern), North Texas (Sun Belt), Oakland (Summit), St, Mary’s (West Coast).

In (18): Gonzaga, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Clemson, Texas, Oklahoma State, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Maryland, Texas A&M, Marquette, New Mexico, Florida State, Baylor, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Brigham Young.

Locks (18): Duke, Temple, Xavier, Richmond, Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia, Georgetown, Purdue, Ohio State, Texas-El Paso, San Diego State, Nevada-Las Vegas, California, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Utah State.

Those 18 teams will take at least eight and up to 15 at-large bids,leaving one to eight bids for 16 remaining bubble teams. In rough order:

Georgia Tech’s win over Maryland on a neutral court would seem to have them squarely in the field. They’re back to .500 in conference, for one. The Yellow Jackets have the highest RPI on my board, and now have records of 5-6 against the RPI top 50 and 10-9 against the RPI top 100. I remain a little leery of the 3-8 road record, but even that is leavened by a 7-9 mark in road and neutral-court games combined, as well as the second-highest average opponents’ RPI and wins’ RPI on the board. The catch is that losing to North Carolina State today would be a bad loss, damaging their numbers. We’ll leave them here for now, but they might be in already.

By getting to the A14 semis, Rhode Island gets to put their stats back on the table: RPI of 39, NC RPI of 5, 10-6 away from home, 7-6 against the top 100. The neutral-court win over Oklahoma State is getting lonely, and could use some company. Beating Temple would push the Rams over the top, because having just one win over a team in the field is the kind of thing that gets you left home.

Louisville is 5-8 away from home, 3-7 against the RPI top 50, 8-11 against the top 100, and in on most boards. With an RPI of 40 they’re safely inside the line-that mark is third on this board-but when you get down to it, the Cardinals are here solely and completely because of the sweep of Syracuse. Even their other top-50 win, over Notre Dame, was a double-OT home win over a team missing its best player. Having good basketball players isn’t the same as being a good basketball team, and certainly not the same has “having the best qualifications.” If Tulsa had those numbers, would be be having this conversation? They’re listed this high because I think that’s where the committee has them, but I’m not personally convinced.

Missouri is in on most boards, wearing white on at least one. I see a team with one good win, at home against Texas during the Longhorns’ freefall, since January, with a 4-6 road mark and just one win in eight shots at top-25 competition, and three sub-100 losses. Like Louisville, they’re probably in because they posted double-digit wins in a BCS league.

Washington has beaten the teams in front of them, advancing to the Pac-10 finals without beating a team in the RPI top 150. It’s not their fault that the conference isn’t very good, or that Arizona State tanked against Stanford, but the two wins are illustrative of the problem: how relevant is a third-place finish and finals appearance in a conference that has one clear NCAA-caliber team? The Huskies have twice as many sub-100 losses (four) as top-50 wins (two), and their eight best wins came at home-their best work outside of Seattle was road wins at Oregon and Stanford. It’s a weak field, maybe they get in, but this isn’t a good c.v. for an at-large team.

If Illinois doesn’t run the table in Indianapolis, they’ll be aiming to be the third at-large team with 14 losses. The first, Georgia in 2001, played maybe the greatest schedule ever, with 29 of 30 games against the RPI top 104, 27 against the top 100. They had four top-25 wins and eight wins against the top 50. Last year’s Arizona team was probably the last team in the field and a surprise pick; they had big scalps over Kansas and Gonzaga. Illinois currently has an RPI above 70 (usually no-man’s-land) and while they have five top-50 wins and three top-25 wins, none of them are the caliber of what Georgia and Arizona put up. They have an unimpressive nonconference RPI (132), a 6-9 record against the top 100 and a silly four losses outside of the top 100. Let’s just say I’d like to see them win today to make it easier.

Minnesota has Illinois’ resume, more or less: lots of losses, poor RPI, three sub-100 losses. They add in a bad record outside the state (3-7 road, 6-9 R+N) and an even worse mark against the top 100 (5-8). Let’s see what happens today; they need a win more than the Illini do.

Let’s hope this catches on: William and Mary has more good road wins in the ACC than do Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Combined. If making the tournament is about beating good teams, I’ll put William and Mary, with a 3-3 mark against the top 50 and 6-7 against the top 100, up against all these teams. Their three sub-200 losses are just killing them, but Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri and Washington all have a lot of bad losses, too. The Tribe went 10-6 on the road, 12-7 away from home in total, and they didn’t no-show in their conference tournament, reaching the final and nearly knocking off Old Dominion. There’s more evidence that William and Mary can beat tournament teams in a tournament setting than there is for most of the teams on the bubble. Maybe the 57 RPI and bad losses and third-place finish knock them off, but they deserve to stay in this discussion until the end.

As opposed to, say, Virginia Tech, which played one decent nonconference game (against Seton Hall in Puerto Rico) and has one road win over a good team (Georgia Tech), and faced with needing one win to end the discussion, lost to the #12 seed in the conference on a neutral court. If Tech gets in, it’s a repudiation of the principles the committee has tried to espouse over the last decade: play good teams in the nonconference and win on the road.

It’s possible that the gap between the SEC East and SEC West gets Florida in, because their 10-8 in conference isn’t a typical 10-8. Then again, the ability to lose to good teams is really a scheduling issue; the Gators are 1-8 against the top 25, 3-8 against the top 50. They’re one of at least three teams on this list hanging their hat on beating Michigan State one time.

Mississippi State became the first SEC West team to beat one of the four good teams in the SEC East by taking out Florida yesterday. It’s not enough; they have to beat Vanderbilt today to get into the field, because otherwise they have just one win, back in November over ODU, over a team clearly in the field.

Wichita State just keeps looking better and better, as the clear #2 team in the Valley, with a respectable RPI (43) and a 9-5 mark against the RPI top 100. It’s all bottom-heavy, though; State’s second-best win is over Texas Tech. Some years, the committee weights different factors, and if they emphasize conference performance and conference-tournament performance this time around, the Shockers could squeak into the field.

Here’s a tip: if you want to reach the NCAAs, don’t miss more than half your free throws in what is your chance to show that you belong. Mississippi won’t get to cash in their wins over Kansas State and UTEP because they didn’t beat a single SEC team capable of reaching the field.

Kent State hangs on as a lesser version of Wichita State, with a 9-5 road record, 5-4 mark against the top 100 and a depressing list of quality wins.

Memphis didn’t beat enough good teams and lost a game it had to win Thursday. They’re done.

Alabama-Birmingham can’t get in ahead of Memphis, and comes off this list now.

Just 24 games left in the regular season. It’s actually a little depressing.

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