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March 10, 2010
From 347 to 65
Bubble Breakdown

by Joe Sheehan

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Butler saved a spot by waxing Wright State, which made any number of teams on the bubble happy. Well, not Charlotte and Connecticut, who removed themselves from consideration with bad losses that capped ugly ends to their seasons. Cincinnati and Seton Hall tried, very hard, to reach the same fate by managed to pull out wins in at the Garden over bad teams, and live to see another day.

Finally, North Texas and Oakland won their conference championships and the automatic bids that go with them. This changes nothing on the bubble, but congratulations just the same.

Here’s where we stand through Tuesday’s action:

Automatic Bids (12): East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun), Winthrop (Big South), Old Dominion (Colonial), Butler (Horizon), Cornell (Ivy), Siena (MAAC), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Murray State (Ohio Valley), Wofford (Southern), North Texas (Sun Belt), Oakland (Summit), St, Mary’s (West Coast).

In (1): Gonzaga.

Locks (28): Duke, Maryland, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State, Temple, Xavier, Richmond, Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas A&M, Texas, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Brigham Young, California, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee.

Those 28 teams will take at least 19 and up to 28 at-large bids, leaving five to 14 bids for what is now 30 teams on my extended bubble. Let’s get into them a bit.

Bubble (30):

Oklahoma State: This is me being hyperconservative, as most readings of the Cowboys have them in thanks to their win over Kansas and strong data (RPI 28, 4-2 against RPI top 25). I’m holding out because of the T-6 finish in a bifurcated Big 12 and the potential for a bad loss against the Sooners in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament tonight. They, like the first few teams on this list, cross the Rubicon with their next win, and only a loss and some other events will keep them out.

Louisville: The sweep of Connecticut isn’t very meaningful any longer, leaving them with just a sweep of Syracuse—no mean feat—and strong numbers. Their 19 games (9-10) against the RPI top 100 trails just Cincinnati among bubble teams, and an 11-7 finish, T-5, against a Big East schedule that had them double up against ‘Cuse, UConn and St. John’s was credible. Rarely does the fabled “eye test” get used to keep a BCS team out of the field, but has any bubble team looked less like a tournament team at times than Louisville, which just in the last month no-showed at St. John’s and Marquette? Nevertheless, they get in by avoiding the bad loss tonight against Cincinnati.

Texas-El Paso: The outright leader of a top-ten conference rarely gets left out of the tournament, so UTEP just needs to avoid giving the committee a reason by losing its C-USA opener against SMU or Central Florida, either of which would be a bad loss. The Miners were let down a bit by their schedule, as Oklahoma and Mississippi aren’t helping them much, but there’s a lot of MEAC and SWAC on the slate, for which they only have themselves to blame.

Missouri: The Tigers are 1-7 against the RPI top 25, which is impressive as an SOS issue but pretty clearly demonstrates that they’re not an elite team. The road work isn’t impressive and 15 of their 22 wins are against RPI 101 and below, so they need to avoid a bad loss to Nebraska today. That should be enough. A loss today would be three of four and four of six, and unless they win their quarterfinal matchup they’ll have beaten one decent team (Texas) since January.

Nevada-Las Vegas: The Rebels are 10-4 on the road, a stat that will remain unchanged this week as they once against host the Mountain West tournament. Wins at New Mexico and over Louisville have had legs, so just avoiding the bad loss at home to Utah tomorrow should end the suspense.

Those five teams would need to lose their next game and have some stuff go wrong to miss out. Now we get into teams that need to win their next game.

Utah State: The WAC’s status as a second-tier conference, above the mid-majors, wavers a bit as programs such as Nevada and Hawaii go through down spells. Utah State, the outright leader, has a history of being spurned despite gaudy records, thanks to abysmal scheduling practices. An early-season win over BYU highlights the nonconference slate, which is pretty barren otherwise (beating Wichita State in Logan doesn’t move the needle). The bubble is so soft that it’s hard to argue for many teams over the Aggies, but 15 sub-100 wins and a non-D-I game? Come on, Stu. Utah State absolutely has to win its WAC opener against Boise to stay here. Check back Friday morning.

Marquette: Wins are wins, but let’s face it, Marquette is here because they squeaked out three road games in OT by a total of six points against three NIT teams. They had a number of close losses to good teams, as well, but with even one of those three straight OT wins flipped, they’re in much worse shape. The road wins—throw in a two-point win at UConn and a three-pointer at Providence—are holding up a sagging RPI. Not losing to St. John’s today at the Garden would be helpful, because they have just three wins against tournament teams and ate a lot of cupcakes in December. Don’t give the committee a reason.

Notre Dame: Very much like Marquette, with big wins in conference bolstering a resume that features a lot of bad teams and one egregious loss (at home to Loyola Marymount). The two road wins in the waning days of the Big East season have them in position, but beating Seton Hall tonight is a must. Their numbers are poor and they have exactly four wins outside of South Bend all year. Losing to the Pirates won’t help either of those things.

Virginia Tech: 10-6 and T-3 in the ACC seems like it should be stronger than this, but even the win at Georgia Tech didn’t change the Hokies’ narrative too much. Of the 10 conference wins, just two came over certain tournament teams, both at home (Clemson and Wake Forest). The Hokies lost at Boston College and Miami, and as has been well-documented, played a bad joke of a nonconference schedule. Seventeen of their wins came against RPI 101+. They need to win their quarterfinal; more specifically, they need to beat a tournament team this week.

San Diego State: Aren’t the Aztecs in this spot every year? Solid finish in a good conference with no nonconference pop or good road wins. SDSU’s best road win is at UC Santa Barbara, and marks of 2-5 against the top 50 and 3-6 against the top 100 argue more against their inclusion than for it. Their opener against Colorado State is a must, and really, they need to pick off New Mexico in the semis to get off the “last” something lists.

Georgia Tech: We’re not supposed to be looking at how teams finish any longer, but can you ignore that Tech’s last win over a tournament team was in January, or that they closed 3-6, or that they had just three road wins all year, just five outside of Atlanta total? The loss to Virginia Tech was very damaging to their profile; they have to beat Carolina just to stay in the mix, and may need to take out Florida State in the quarters as well.

Memphis: The Tigers made a pretty strong case that they’re not a tournament team by losing all their good nonconference games. Their best win out of conference is over Oakland at home, and they also beat IUPUI, so they have the Summit League dominated. A strong second in C-USA just isn’t a big marker in their favor, not this year. With no impressive wins to be had in the tournament until the final, it’s not clear that Memphis has any path to an at-large bid.

Florida: Two very good wins, days apart in November, are keeping the Gators alive. Even with them, they’re 3-8 against the top 50, 8-10 against the top 100, and they ended the year losing three in a row. Beating Auburn Thursday is required just to stay in the conversation, and it’s not like beating Mississippi State Friday would lock up a bid.

Alabama-Birmingham: Finished third to UTEP and Memphis and was swept by both. Beating Butler and Cincinnati doesn’t outweigh being the third-place team in a conference that won’t support two at-large bids. UAB has one win over a tournament team.

Mississippi: Left for dead after losing three in a row in mid-February, the Rebels closed with four weak wins in their own division to tie Mississippi State for the division lead. The 9-7 conference record features zero wins over tournament teams. They’re this high because of two very good wins in 2009, over Kansas State in Puerto Rico and over UTEP at home. They’re currently 6-8 against the RPI top 100, but three wins are against 99 and 100. They have to beat (presumably) Tennessee Friday to stay in the discussion.

Seton Hall: They tried to give it away, blowing nearly all of a 29-point lead, 24 with five minutes left, but survived a late three-pointer to beat Providence. Their numbers are good thanks to this nugget: the Pirates have lost just one game to any team not either in or under consideration for a bid. Their worst losses are at Connecticut and South Florida. That’s not enough to get a bid, not yet, but many teams under consideration have terrible losses. Seton Hall has none. They have to beat Notre Dame tonight to stay alive.

Rhode Island: Finishing T-5 in the A-14 with two terrible losses down the stretch probably buries them. They stay on the board thanks to a good win over Oklahoma State and a schedule light on cupcakes—just two NC games outside of the RPI top 100. The A-14 tournament provides opportunities for scalps and for jumps in the RPI, so the Rams stay alive at least until Friday’s game against St. Louis.

South Florida: They stay in the conversation by beating Georgetown today. If they do, we’ll talk more about them tomorrow.

Cincinnati: They stay in the conversation by beating Louisville today. If they do, we’ll talk more about them tomorrow.

Arizona State: I’m certain I’m letting myself be influenced by outsiders here, as I had Arizona State well down my list until I started seeing them show up as “Last Four In” in at least one place. They have no wins over likely tournament teams (just 1-5 against the RPI top-50, the win being a three-point conquest of San Diego State at home), an RPI of 54, and their entire case is “second place in what may be the first BCS conference since 1985 to not have more than one viable at-large team.” The Pac-10 Tournament is useless for quality wins. What’s the precedent for a team going 3-7 against the RPI top 100 and getting in?

Washington: The Huskies finished a game behind the Sun Devils, but have a handful of other markers, including wins over Texas A&M and Cal. Let’s stipulate that both of these teams need to win Thursday, and that the semifinal matchup is an elimination game. I don’t think either is a real good at-large candidate, but it may be hard for you to get your head around just how limited the Pac-10 was this year. It wasn’t bad, just middle-heavy, no teams like DePaul or Miami, but no at-large candidates, either. Check back Saturday.

Kent State: On virtually no one’s board, but they won the MAC and their RPI has crept into the top 50 with 13 wins in 14 games. They were completed hosed by the BracketBuster organizers, getting the second-best team in the SoCon, a win that isn’t even top 100. The Golden Flashes picked off UAB for their only top-50 win; on the other hand, they’re 6-5 against the top 100. Their case is more or less that of Utah State, but a bit worse, but it may look better depending on how the teams above them do this week.

Dayton: The good non-conference wins will only help them if they beat Xavier in Atlantic City Friday. Otherwise, the Flyers are a .500 A-14 team that lost in the quarterfinals.

William and Mary: Probably not, but the Tribe was T-3 and reached the finals of a conference that was very good, at least the top two-thirds. They have maybe the best non-conference profile of any team on the board, with wins at Maryland, at Wake Forest and at home over Richmond. Three disastrous conference losses to Wilmington, James Madison and Towson are probably too much to overcome; give them a bucket each against the first two and they’d be in the field.

Virginia Commonwealth: We’re into the stubbornness listings here, likely to be culled by the next article. Had VCU held their 11-point second-half lead Sunday and beaten Old Dominion, they would have had a stronger case. Frankly, I think they’re one of the 34 best at-large teams—I’m very high on the Colonial—and they have wins over Richmond and Rhode Island, as well as Oklahoma and Nevada, in making that case. However, you can’t go 11-7 and lose in the semis and get a bid.

Wichita State: The outright second-place team in the Valley has almost no case thanks to a lousy nonconference schedule. The Valley still plays good basketball, but it seems like the league’s decision to refuse one-way scheduling, a practice I don’t really disagree with, is crippling its ability to get good games. In total, the Valley played just 24 games against the RPI top 100 this year. Four of those were BracketBuster matchups, eight others in exempt events. That leaves just 12 scheduled games, and two of those were with Saint Louis, whose coach wants into the conference.

Scheduling practices in major college basketball have to change, and the only way they will change is by NCAA fiat. Teams outside of the BCS shouldn’t have to choose between good games and home games. They should, not always, but a few times a year, be able to get both.

Illinois: I’m not seeing it, but like Arizona State, Illinois seems higher in the eyes of others. Just two teams have ever gotten an at-large bid with 14 losses, and Illinois doesn’t have a resume that screams that they should be the fourth. If they beat Wisconsin Friday, we’ll revisit their case.

Mississippi State: They won their division of the SEC, a group that may include zero NCAA tournament teams. They beat Old Dominion on a neutral court, their only top-50 win. At minimum, they have to beat Florida or Auburn Friday. If they do so, we’ll get into them on Saturday.

Saint Louis: This is the team whose inclusion that makes me look dotty, but seriously, they finished fourth by two games in the A-14, and while they didn’t play the toughest schedule, it’s not like they got Fordham five times or something. The Billikens have four top-50 wins, including a sweep of Dayton, and it’s hard to win at Dayton. They would need to reach the A-14 finals to have a case, but if they do, they’ll have added a win over Xavier and have bumped their RPI into the 60s, maybe the 50s. I’m not saying they’re deserving now, but I listed them because they’re two winnable games away from it. Check back Saturday.

Minnesota: No case now, but they finished .500 in the Big 11 and will have a shot at some scalps in Michigan State and Purdue. The Big 11 has seen runs like this with some frequency. Check back Saturday.

Most of today’s relevant action is in the Big East, although the Big 12 could make some news. South Florida has a must-win game against Georgetown at noon ET. At 2 p.m. ET, Marquette plays one of those, “don’t make it interesting” games against St. John’s. They might be in already, but why create trouble by losing? Missouri is in the same spot against Nebraska at 3 p.m. Maybe the biggest game of the day is at 7 p.m., when Seton Hall and Notre Dame play at MSG. Seton Hall must win this game just to stay in the conversation, while Notre Dame is on the right side of the line and trying to stay there. It’s not quite an elimination game—ND might be in even with a loss—but it’s close. At the same time, Oklahoma State tried to avoid the bad loss against Oklahoma. Finally, Cincinnati gets its chance to stay alive by beating Louisville at 9:30.

Starting tomorrow, it’ll be easier to list the games that aren’t relevant.

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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<< Previous Article
Big Ten Tournament Pre... (03/10)
<< Previous Column
From 347 to 65 (03/09)
Next Column >>
From 347 to 65 (03/12)
Next Article >>
Is Duke for Real? (03/10)

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