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March 15, 2009
From 344 to 65
The Last Spots

by Joe Sheehan

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There are just four games left in college basketball's regular-season postseason, to coin an awkward phrase. Of the eight teams playing, at least six will advance to play again, either by winning the Big 11, ACC, SEC and Southland championship games, or being the loser of the first two and getting an at-large bid. There remains an open question in the SEC, where Mississippi State has advanced to the championship game, but because it's the SEC, done so without picking up a lot of good wins.

For those who have asked, my Hamlet routine with Southern Calfornia's spot on the bubble was not some very public anti-woof. I didn't think they belonged at the start of the week, and I don't think they would have gotten an at-large bid had they not come back to beat Arizona State for the Pac-10 tournament title. And with all that said, no, I haven't quite gotten my voice back after all the screaming I did during the game.

All the RPI data in my pieces come from the fantastic CollegeRPI.com helmed by the talented Jerry Palm. As this is the end of this particular run, I want to thank Jerry for the work he puts into his site, which is fantastic and well worth the $25/year.

Here's how my spreadsheet lays out at 12:30 p.m. on March 15:

Automatic Bids (27): Binghamton (America East), Temple (Atlantic 14), East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun), Louisville (Big East), Portland State (Big Sky), Radford (Big South), Missouri (Big 12), Cal State-Northridge (Big West), Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial), Memphis (Conference USA), Cleveland State (Horizon), Cornell (Ivy), Siena (Metro-Atlantic), Akron (Mid-American), Morgan State (Mid-Eastern), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Utah (Mountain West), Robert Morris (Northeast), Morehead State (Ohio Valley), Southern California (Pac-10), American (Patriot), Chattanooga (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit), Alabama State (Southwestern), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Utah State (Western Athletic), Gonzaga (West Coast).

On The Board (24): Butler, Oklahoma, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Marquette, California, Xavier, Clemson, Wake Forest, Texas, Oklahoma State, Villanova, West Virginia, Washington, UCLA, Brigham Young, Louisiana State, North Carolina, Michigan State, Illinois, Arizona State, San Diego State, Syracuse.

The only one of those that gives me pause is San Diego State, because I appear to be in conflict with the opinions of people who do this much better than I do. The weak spots are the 2-6 mark against the RPI top 50 and the lack of nonconference wins, Northridge being the highlight. In their favor is an 13-6 mark in the Mountain West that included two wins at UNLV, and an RPI of 35. They also lost the conference final by two points to the league's best team. If they're not in, I can understand why, but I think in a year where so many teams tried to lose their way into the field, they'll make the cut.

The Bubble (18)

Southern California, Temple and Utah State played their way off in the right direction yesterday, leaving 18 teams for eight slots, or seven if Mississippi State beats Tennessee and you think they need a win to make the tournament.

What I like to do at this point, with the data basically final, is flag the leaders and trailers in every relevant category. If a team shows up with a lot of green, they're probably in. If they have a lot of red, not so much. It's a helpful visual after a week of looking at the same information again and again.

Doing this makes two things apparent very quickly: Dayton and Texas A&M are in. Dayton has the best RPI of any bubble team, the best record and the best record against the RPI top 100 (9-4). The loss to Duquesne gave me pause, but they're in the field. Texas A&M has no red in their line at all; it'd be nice to not see that non-Division I game in the mix, but if that's the worst thing I can say about your profile, you'll live. They move into the field. 16 teams for five or six slots.

At the other end of the spectrum, Nevada-Las Vegas stands out. A fifth-place finish in the Mountain West and a quarterfinal loss are unimpressive, and while their quality wins have kept them in the discussion-at Louisville, a sweep of BYU, Utah and Arizona at home-the ride ends now. New Mexico tied for the regular-season title, but went just 9-6 out of conference with their best win at home over Mississippi. They went 6-6 on the road, which is acceptable, but only Wyoming would be considered a good win. The title is devalued by the three-way tie, and they took a so-so loss in the quarterfinals to Wyoming. The Mountain West had a shot at four teams, but three looks like their limit this year. Both are gone. 14 teams for five or six slots.

Penn State has a lot of red in their line-the worst RPI and tied for the most sub-200 wins of any team still under discussion. Balanced against that are wins at Michigan State and Illinois, and some other good conference wins at home. They played an embarrassing nonconference schedule, and I want to think the committee will take note of that. Those two road wins were not without question marks. Michigan State essentially had no Raymar Morgan in the one game, and the other was the 38-33 debacle at Assembly Hall. They both count, but in the same way that teams often want credit for "good losses," I think you have to consider "bad wins," or at least lesser ones. Penn State went 6-6 in their last 12, two of those games wins over Indiana. I keep coming back to the schedule: half of their 22 wins came outside the top 200. They stay on the board for now.

Boston College has no red in their line, went 3-4 against the RPI top 25 with a win at North Carolina and a good loss to Duke in the ACC quarterfinals. They were 10-8 in a good conference, although they played just seven games against the league's top five and got five games against the bottom three. A few bad losses do mar this resume, but the way they played Duke and UNC seem to me to make the case for them. They're in. While we're here, Maryland has a lot of similarities to BC, plus win over Michigan State and a run to the ACC semifinals. They're in as well. 12 teams for three or four slots.

South Carolina has no top-50 wins and no green in their line. Florida was 2-7 on the road, 5-7 down the stretch and had nine sub-200 wins. They are, for the second year in a row, going to miss the field.

The collapse of the Valley this year stuck Creighton with ten sub-200 wins. They did schedule four home wins, although as I've mentioned before, most of Division I won't play Valley schools on their home floors, and these teams should be allowed to play home games. DePaul and Fresno State are in there as well, and neither of those is an attempt to schedule easily. In the Bluejays favor are a 26-8 record, 11-1 down the stretch, 11-5 outside of Omaha and a 9-5 mark against the top 100. The loss to Illinois State in the Valley semis should have hurt more than it did, but not enough teams, especially in the SEC, Big East and Mountain West, took advantage. They make it in.

I've stubbornly kept Niagara on the bubble all week, but the committee isn't taking a mid-major runner-up with nothing out of conference. They're done.

Michigan is at the front of the Big 11 pile, with two very good nonconference wins and a 10-12 mark against the RPI top 100. They have the most top-50 wins and top-100 wins of any team left. They're in. Seven teams for one or two spots.

I know St. Mary's has found its way onto boards again. I do not see this at all. They have three top-100 wins, they didn't win, or come close to winning, their conference, and they lost all three of the games they needed the most. If you judge them just on their performance with a healthy Patty Mills, they're good, but that also means you're giving them a complete pass for the half their relevant schedule. I think this, by the way, is the reason San Diego State is off other boards. In the endgame, St. Mary's neutral-court win over San Diego State is making the difference. I don't think the two teams are close enough to make that distinction the end-all..

There's one other thing. If St. Mary's gets in, the game with Eastern Washington may be cited as a factor. Well, whether it is or it isn't, it will be talked about. I don't think the committee should send a message that these post-postseason games are a factor in its decision-making. If they do, it opens up a can of worms whereby teams in the conferences that end a week sooner than the rest hold out a game in case they feel they need one more do-or-die win. A do-it-yourself BracketBuster, as it were. St. Mary's isn't a tournament team based on their resume-they're basically Tulsa, a mid-major that got waxed by the good team in the weak conference-and the can of worms is a good reason to pass on them.

Tulsa, other than getting crushed by Memphis, isn't as bad a candidate as you might think. Despite going 0-6 against the RPI 25, they were 6-7 against the top 100 and have a good neutral-court win over Texas A&M. They're not going to make it, but they deserved a look. (As an aside: is it time to reclassify Conference USA? They've had one at-large bid in the four seasons since the restructuring, and it's not like they're getting snubbed. Other than that they play football, I'm seeing them less as a major and more as a mid-major. Some combination of teams is going to have to raise its game to sustain this conference's place.) Five left for one or two spots.

Penn State is clearly the least of the three Big 11 teams, and there's no room for all three, so they fall off of the list.

And that makes it easy. When you compare the two Big 11 teams left (Minnesota and Wisconsin) to the two SEC teams left (Auburn and Mississippi State), it's clear which two belong. Both north teams are better than both south teams. This means the SEC gets just two teams, which would be unprecedented for a BCS league, but appropriate this season.

Last Four In: San Diego State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Creighton
Last Four Out: Penn State, Auburn, Mississippi State, St. Mary's
Next Four Out: New Mexico, Tulsa, UNLV, Niagara

Mississippi State is playing for San Diego State's spot.

What's interesting to me is how apathetic I am about this process this year. Oh, I love the game and the discussions and it's been a lot of fun, but I have no dog in any of these fights. If the committee chooses any or all of my last four out and puts them in, and I miss four or five teams-which would be a massive error in most years-all I'll be able to do is shrug. There simply weren't enough teams doing positive things in the last weeks of the season to get behind, and when coupled with how many teams didn't do positive things in November and December, we get the least-interesting bubble in memory.

Some people have said that the committee's task is harder than ever this year. I disagree. I think it's the easiest task they've had in years, because it will be very, very hard for them to make an egregious mistake. Any team left out of this field did it to themselves.

I'll wrap this up with a run at an S-curve and some last-minute comments in Unfitered before 6 p.m.

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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