Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bubble Watch

In all the years that I have been following and studying college basketball, I have never seen a bubble so wide-open and so weak this late in the season. There are several teams that are playing themselves out of a bid, while others are making a move towards the bracket. However, most teams are failing to distinguish themselves from one another, meaning a difficult Selection Sunday for the Committee. Additionally, the bubble is extremely weak this season. Many of the teams currently on the fence would not be anywhere near the bubble in most years. Of course, conference tournaments haven't even started yet, so there is still lots of basketball left to be played. According to the numbers, there are 14 bids still up for grabs, with 30 (thirty?!) teams seriously vying for them, as of now.

Here is the breakdown:

Locks from the Big Six conferences (and the Missouri Valley): 27
Locks from the mid-major conferences: 24
51 Locks Overall

ACC (4): Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Boston College
Big East (6): Villanova, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Marquette, Georgetown
Big Ten (6): Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan
Big 12 (3): Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma
Pac-10 (2): UCLA, Washington
SEC (3): Tennessee, LSU, Florida
MVC (3): Wichita State, Creighton, Northern Iowa

One-Bid Conferences (24): America East, Atlantic-10, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Conference USA, Horizon, Ivy, MAAC, MAC, Mid-Continent, MEAC, Mountain West, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, SWAC, Sun Belt, West Coast, WAC

Here are the teams that still have a chance to get an at-large bid and what they need to do in order to get a bid:

Maryland (15-10 (6-7), RPI: 49, SOS: 15, vs. Top 50: 1-6, Last 10: 4-6): The Terrapins are falling quickly. They have lost six of eight, and have not looked the same since Chris McCray was suspended due to academics. Moreover, their profile is lacking. They have three games left, including two on the road against North Carolina and Virginia. If they go 2-1 and then win a game in the ACC Tournament, they should be in.

Virginia (14-10 (7-6), RPI: 60, SOS: 42, vs. Top 50: 2-6, Last 10: 6-4): The Cavaliers are a surprise bubble team. At 7-6 in the ACC, they have the advantage of being above .500 in the conference. They own wins over UNC and BC, but have a few bad losses. They have three games left--two on the road vs. Clemson and North Carolina, and the season finale at home against Maryland. Similarly to Maryland, they need to go 2-1 and then probably grab a game in the ACC Tournament.

Florida State (17-7 (7-6), RPI: 58, SOS: 97, vs. Top 50: 1-5, Last 10: 6-4): This is the classic case of a team looking better on the court than their profile would suggest. The Seminoles have been competitive in nearly every game this season. However, they don't have the strongest resume out there. They have won 4 of 5 and have a chance down the stretch to lock up a bid. They have road trips to Virginia Tech and Miami (Fl.) and a home rematch vs. Duke. If they take down the Devils, they will be in. If they don't, they better win a road game and an ACC Tournament game.

Miami (Fl.) (15-12 (7-7), RPI: 66, SOS: 27, vs. Top 50: 2-9, Last 10: 4-6): After looking solid a few weeks ago at 6-3, the Hurricanes have lost 4 of 5 and are nearly off the bubble. They don't have a very impressive profile, with their best non-conference win over Birmingham Southern. Two games remain, both against bubble teams. They go on the road to face Maryland, host Florida State. If they win both, they will put themselves in good position heading into the ACC Tournament.

Seton Hall (16-9 (7-6), RPI: 51, SOS: 34, vs. Top 50: 3-4, Last 10: 7-3): The Pirates, after looking like a lock two weeks, have lost 3 of 4 and are fading fast. They need to right the ship. The Hall has wins over West Virginia and North Carolina State, but also losses to St. John's and Richmond. They have three games left--two on the road against DePaul and Pittsburgh, and a home date with Cincinnati. It would benefit them greatly to go 2-1 in that last stretch, although that could be difficult. They are also going to have to grab a win in the Big East Tournament.

Cincinnati (17-10 (7-7), RPI: 25, SOS: 3, vs. Top 50: 3-7, Last 10: 5-5): Why couldn't Cincinnati have just closed out their game against Villanova tonight? Had they won that game, they would have been a lock for the Tournament. Now, they still have to win one of their final two games--either at Seton Hall or home against West Virginia. They have not been the same team since Armein Kirkland went down with an injury in early January, but the Bearcats are back on the right track. I think they will get in.

Syracuse (19-8 (7-6), RPI: 29, SOS: 11, vs. Top 50: 2-7, Last 10: 4-6): Syracuse is in a similar position to Cincinnati--they are more in the Tournament then out at this point. With their win over West Virginia on Monday, the Orange put themselves in a good position with three games left. They have road games at Georgetown and DePaul, as well as a home finale vs. Villanova. One win down the stretch and one win in the Big East Tournament would do the trick.

Indiana (14-10 (6-7), RPI: 46, SOS: 18, vs. Top 50: 4-7, Last 10: 3-7): If not for their excellent start, the Hoosiers would not even be near the bubble right now. They have lost 7 of their last 9, and their power numbers are dropping rapidly. Indiana's finish to the season is also not the friendliest of schedules. They start with a home game against Michigan State, and then face back-to-back road games at Purdue and at Michigan. Two wins are absolutely necessary, as is a win in the Big Ten Tournament. If they get to 8-8 in the Big Ten, they could get in.

Minnesota (14-10 (5-8), RPI: 62, SOS: 20, vs. Top 50: 3-7, Last 10: 5-5): Minnesota is a longshot at this point, but they have the potential to be this year's West Virginia. They have won 4 of 5, including victories over Michigan State and Iowa. The Golden Gophers probably have to win out to get serious consideration for an at-large bid, and that seems like a daunting task. They have two road games at Wisconsin and Northwestern, and a home date with Illinois. 3-0 would be difficult for Duke; it's nearly impossible for Minnesota.

Colorado (17-7 (7-6), RPI: 50, SOS: 99, vs. Top 50: 2-2, Last 10: 6-4): The Buffaloes were solidly in the field last week before getting manhandled on the road in back-to-back games against Kansas State and Nebraska. Unless they learn how to win on the road, they will be left out of the Tournament. However, luckily for them, two of their final three games are at home--vs. Missouri and vs. Iowa State. They also have an away game at Kansas. Winning just the home games would probably be sufficient, but a win or two in the Big 12 Tournament wouldn't hurt their case.

Nebraska (17-9 (7-6), RPI: 97, SOS: 89, vs. Top 50: 3-5, Last 10: 5-5): A team that does not have the necessary power numbers to gain consideration, but own wins over Marquette and Oklahoma, as well as an above-.500 Big 12 record. To finish the season, they have to go on the road against Texas A&M and Missouri, and then play a home game against Kansas State. The Cornhuskers should definitely win at least two of those games, with the potential to go 3-0. If they go 2-1, they will need at least one win in the Big 12 Tournament, and that still might not be enough.

Texas A&M (17-7 (7-6), RPI: 68, SOS: 109, vs. Top 50: 1-4, Last 10: 6-4): Another team that has recently jumped onto the bubble. Four straight wins will do that for you. However, they have a difficult schedule coming down the stretch. They have home games against Nebraska and Texas, and a road date at Texas Tech. At least two wins are necessary out of that group, and that could be tough. The Aggies would be in much better position if their best non-conference win wasn't Northwestern State.

California (17-7 (11-4), RPI: 59, SOS: 100, vs. Top 50: 3-2, Last 10: 8-2): The Golden Bears are moving away from the bubble and are closer to being a lock. That is based purely on the fact that they are tied for first in the Pac-10 with UCLA and have won 7 of their last 8. Their non-conference resume isn't overly impressive, but their Pac-10 performance is enough by itself. Cal has a tough final three games. They start with Washington on the road, and then come home for contests with UCLA and USC. If they beat UCLA and USC, they essentially lock up a regular season Pac-10 title, no matter what happens against Washington. When is the last time the Pac-10 champion didn't make the NCAA Tournament?

Arizona (16-10 (9-6), RPI: 18, SOS: 4, vs. Top 50: 3-5, Last 10: 6-4): Like Cal, Arizona is moving towards lock status. Unlike Cal, however, it is because of their RPI and SOS. No Top-20 RPI team is going to be left out of the NCAA Tournament. Moreover, the Wildcats finish with three straight home games: against Arizona State, Washington State, and Washington. Winning two of those would probably clinch a bid.

Stanford (13-11 (9-6), RPI: 86, SOS: 59, vs. Top 50: 1-5, Last 10: 6-4): Stanford is pretty much done right now. They have lost 4 of 5 and are now 5th in the Pac-10. They own wins over Cal and Washington, but that won't be nearly enough. The Cardinal finish their season with a road game against Washington State and home meetings with USC and UCLA. They would need to run the table and then win two games in the Pac-10 Tournament.

Kentucky (18-9 (8-5), RPI: 37, SOS: 26, vs. Top 50: 1-7, Last 10: 7-3): Kentucky has made a move towards the NCAA Tournament with three straight wins. However, the three wins were over teams with a combined 14-25 record in the SEC. The more important three-game stretch starts this weekend. The Wildcats travel to LSU on Saturday. Next week, they have to play Tennessee on the road and then come home for their season finale against Florida. Two wins are necessary for Kentucky if they want to feel safe heading into the SEC Tournament. If they get one win, they are going to need at least one victory in the tournament.

Alabama (15-10 (8-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 6, vs. Top 50: 3-4, Last 10: 6-4): The Crimson Tide had a chance to lock up a bid against Arkansas but blew an 18-point lead and lost by two. Now, they have to win at least two of their final three games. 'Bama is definitely capable of doing that, considering they play Florida and Auburn at home, and then Mississippi State on the road. They could have a bid wrapped up before the SEC Tournament even starts.

Arkansas (18-8 (7-6), RPI: 54, SOS: 73, vs. Top 50: 4-6, Last 10: 6-4): The Razorbacks have turned around their NCAA Tournament chances with back-to-back wins over Florida and Alabama. Their RPI is improving, and they now have a nice batch of quality wins to show the Committee. They head to Tennessee this weekend, but finish with a home game vs. Mississippi State and a road trip to Georgia. Two wins would guarantee a bid. If they get one, Arkansas needs a W in the SEC Tournament.

Missouri State (19-7 (11-6), RPI: 23, SOS: 50, vs. Top 50: 3-6, Last 10: 7-3): This might be the closest team to "lock" status on this list. They have won 4 in row and 7 of their last 8, including road victories over UW-Milwaukee and Northern Iowa. Missouri State does not have any bad losses this season and has excellent power numbers. They finish the season against Creighton at home. A win there, and they are in. If they lose, a win in the MVC Tournament would wrap it up.

Bradley (17-9 (10-7), RPI: 41, SOS: 57, vs. Top 50: 6-5, Last 10: 8-2): The Braves have made a run in the past couple of weeks to become a possible at-large team. They have replaced Southern Illinois as the 5th team out of the Missouri Valley. They have won 4 in a row and 8 of their last 10, including wins over SIU, Northern Iowa, and Missouri State. They finish the season this weekend against Drake. A win there and a win in the MVC Tournament should get them a bid. However, I don't know if the MVC is getting 5 bids this season. If they do, Bradley gets an invite.

Southern Illinois (18-9 (11-6), RPI: 47, SOS: 68, vs. Top 50: 5-4, Last 10: 5-5): The Salukis can basically kiss their at-large chances goodbye after their recent streak of games. They have lose 3 in a row and 5 of 7--not exactly the type of record you want to send the Committee. However, if they beat Northern Iowa at home this weekend, they will finish second in the MVC. That will help them if they can get a win or two in the MVC Tournament.

Charlotte (17-9 (10-3), RPI: 98, SOS: 131, vs. Top 50: 1-2, Last 10: 7-3): Charlotte is the second-best team in a team that could potentially deserve more than one bid. They have won 6 of their last 7; however, their resume lacks a quality win. They haven't defeated an NCAA Tournament team all season. To finish the season, they have home dates with Saint Louis and Duquense and then a road meeting with George Washington. If they win out, Charlotte has a legit case to make for the Tournament. If they don't beat GW, I don't think they have the quality wins necessary to get in.

UNC-Wilmington (21-7 (14-3), RPI: 34, SOS: 93, vs. Top 50: 2-4, Last 10: 9-1): The Seahawks have the inside track to a potential second bid out of the underrated Colonial. They have won 12 of their last 14, and are now tied with George Mason atop the conference standings. UNCW doesn't have many quality wins outside of conference, but what they have done in the league could be enough. Their season finale is at home against Georgia State. If they win that game, they will get the #1 seed in the conference tournament. One or two wins there could clinch a bid.

Hofstra (21-5 (13-4), RPI: 38, SOS: 162, vs. Top 50: 2-1, Last 10: 9-1): After tonight's win over George Mason, the Pride's profile continues to look better and better. They now own wins over both GMU and UNCW and are likely going to finish one game back of both. Hofstra's awful Strength of Schedule is going to hinder their hopes for an at-large bid, though. Their season finale comes this weekend at home vs. Drexel. If they finish 14-4 in the league and 22-5 overall, two wins would probably get it done in the conference tournament. However, is the Colonial good enough to get three bids?

UAB (18-5 (9-2), RPI: 53, SOS: 165, vs. Top 50: 0-2, Last 10: 8-2): The Blazers have an interesting profile. They own several decent non-conference wins (Old Dominion, Nebraska, etc.) and have won 15 of 17, but have not done anything truly impressive in Conference-USA. They have constantly beat up on inferior competition, and then lose when a quality team appears on their schedule. Right now, I would put them in, but they have work to do. They finish at SMU, home vs. Memphis and home vs. Marshall. If they can pull the upset over Memphis, they would be a lock. If they don't get that win, I think they need to make a run to the conference tournament title game.

UTEP (15-7 (9-2), RPI: 76, SOS: 130, vs. Top 50: 0-3, Last 10: 8-2): After Wednesday's loss to Memphis, the Miners lack a very solid profile. Yes, they are 9-2 in Conference-USA have won 10 of 12, but their best win (besides UAB) is New Mexico State. I don't know about you, but that doesn't really jump out at me. They finish with home games against Houston and Tulsa, and then a road finale with Central Florida. They have to win out and then make at least a run to the conference championship game.

Houston (17-6 (8-3), RPI: 56, SOS: 128, vs. Top 50: 2-0, Last 10: 9-1): Houston could have the best chance to get an at-large bid out of Conference-USA. They own two quality non-conference wins over Arizona and LSU, but also have losses to Rice and Central Florida. They have won 8 in a row and 14 of 17. The Cougars finish with road games against UTEP and Memphis, as well as a home date with Rice. Houston has to win at least one of the two road games and then, like UAB and UTEP, make a run to the conference title game.

Air Force (20-5 (10-4), RPI: 45, SOS: 166, vs. Top 50: 0-1, Last 10: 7-3): Air Force has a very interesting profile. They have 20 wins, a decent RPI, and have a couple of decent victories along the way. However, their SOS is atrocious, they have not defeated an NCAA Tournament team all season, and 16 of their 20 wins came against teams ranked 100 or below in the RPI. They finish at home against UNLV and on the road against Colorado State. Both are must-wins. Additionally, it wouldn't hurt if the Academy could make a run to the MWC title game.

BYU (16-7 (9-4), RPI: 52, SOS: 101, vs. Top 50: 1-2, Last 10: 8-2): BYU has made a late run at the bubble after winning 7 of their last, and moved to only a half-game back of Air Force in the Mountain West. They have three games left-- a road game at TCU, and then home meetings with Colorado State and New Mexico. They have to go 3-0 to finish the season, and then they need to make a run to the MWC title game. Even then, they only have an outside shot at getting an at-large bid.

Utah State (18-6 (9-4), RPI: 44, SOS: 121, vs. Top 50: 1-0, Last 10: 7-3): Utah State has snuck up on some people and moved themselves into a legit at-large contender. They have a solid profile with a good RPI and a 6-1 record against the Top 100. They do have 3 losses in the sub-100 range and a pretty bad SOS, but they have won 10 of 12 and would be in right now. They finish with three straight home games, against Nevada, Fresno State, and San Jose State. If they beat Nevada this weekend and complete the sweep of the Wolfpack, they are in very good shape. A 3-0 finish, combined with a win or two in the WAC Tournament, and the Aggies are in.

Special Mention:

Notre Dame (13-11 (4-9), RPI: 85, SOS: 35, vs. Top 50: 2-9, Last 10: 4-6): The Fighting Irish deserve some sort of recognition on the Bubble Watch. They may not look like they have the requisite resume currently, but ND has three potential wins left on their schedule, and they are not the type of team that anyone wants to play in the Big East Tournament. Could they be this year's West Virginia? They finish the season at home against Marquette, on the road at Providence, and then at home against DePaul. If the Irish finish 3-0 to get to 7-9 in the Big East, and then pick up two wins in the Big East Tournament, it could be tough turning them down.

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