Thursday’s results caused some movement just hours after we set the initial stage. Tennessee’s impressive win at South Carolina moves them off of the bubble in the right direction. They have a top-20 RPI, five RPI top-50 wins, the SEC East title and two straight good road wins at Gainesville and Columbia. Cal made the same move with a big second half in Tucson, beating Arizona to lock up a spot. They’re 6-6 outside of Berkeley with five RPI top-50 wins, and the worst they can finish in the Pac-10 is 11-7. Since 1994, just one Pac-10 team has been left out of the tournament having reached that mark, and that 2006 Stanford team had an RPI of 86 and just two wins against the RPI top 100.
It’s not a zero-sum game yet, but we will be moving one team off of the “Locks” list, something I do about once a year. Arizona State’s home loss to Stanford last night opens up the possibility that they could finish the season with five straight losses, given a tough game against Cal Saturday and a Pac-10 tournament 4-5 game next Thursday that could feature any of four opponents. Until they win again, and it should just take one, they’re on the bubble.
Dayton blew a chance to clinch a big by losing at Xavier, and not in any kind of impressive fashion. They likely will do best than a tie for third in the Atlantic 14, and could slip to fourth Saturday. They need at least one more win, maybe two, to feel safe. Arizona’s home loss to Cal means they can’t do better than 9-9 in conference, and has now lost four in a row. That’s a problem. Penn State’s last-minute win over Illinois may put them over the top, even with a terrible non-conference slate. The combination of 27 wins over Indiana and Iowa and a near-perfect distribution of wins in the middle of the conference opens up the possibility that this wholly unimpressive group could get seven, even eight bids.
I also added Nebraska to the bubble. I don’t think they’re viable, but they could get to .500 in the Big 12, and their profile isn’t that much different than Kansas State’s. I have more 70+ RPI teams on the bubble, more teams in total, really, than I ever remember listing. Forty-five teams are at least getting a look until their next loss, and eight of those have RPIs above what is usually the cutoff point.
One correction: I left the Summit League off of the list of conferences where only the champion will get a bid. Thanks to Dan for pointing that out to me. I believe I mixed up the Summit with the United, which isn’t a conference so much as a barnstorming group.
Here’s how my spreadsheet lays out at 5:30 on March 6:
The following 14 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, 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
SEC: LSU, Tennessee
West Coast: Gonzaga
The above teams will take at least 18 and no more than 29 at-large bids, leaving from five to 16 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, Nebraska
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: Arizona State, Arizona, Washington State, Southern California
SEC: South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi State
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky
WAC: Utah State
West Coast: St. Mary’s
Of these 45 teams, a whole bunch need to win out to their conference semifinal, maybe their conference final, to stay in the discussion. The candidacies of Nebraska, Washington State, Southern California and Northwestern hang by a thread, mathematical more than realistic at this point. Then again, in a season with such a lack of urgency in the middle part of the pool, you have to keep an eye on any team that might have two cracks at quality wins in front of it. A two-game winning streak, such a meager thing, will look like found money to a bunch of these squads.
At the other end of the spectrum, a number of teams just need to avoid tripping over their…ballracks…to get to the dance. Boston College’s next two games will be at home against Georgia Tech and then on a neutral court against either the Yellow Jackets or Virginia. Just avoiding the bad loss should be enough. Arizona State gets needs just one win, and is clearly the cream of this crop. Wisconsin can get to 10-8 in the Big 11 by beating Indiana at home, a win that might get them a rematch next week in the tournament opener.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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