Bubble Watch 2013: A first glimpse into the nation's NCAA contenders
Welcome back, my friends, to the column that never ends. It's the return of Bubble Watch in all its robust glory, and it can be stated, even in early January, that this is going to be one weird year for the bubble.
First off, four of the six traditional power conferences are having off years. The bottom half of the ACC is very poor. The Big 12 isn't great top to bottom after Kansas. The Pac-12 is improved, but still has some significant weakness. The SEC is truly a mess after the top two or three teams.
A ton of the quality wins in these conferences is concentrated on the handful of elite teams at the top. Look at what Duke, Kansas, Florida, Missouri and Arizona have done so far this season, relative to their league peers. What that means is there are not going to be a lot of marquee wins available in conference play. If you whiff on your handful of chances against the elite, you're building a resume on quantity, not quality.
This trend is compounded by weakness in some of the traditional mid-major conferences that sometimes grab at-larges. The Colonial is a complete disaster and will be a one-bid league, for sure. The same could happen in Conference USA if Memphis either wins the auto bid or eats too many losses. The West Coast conference doesn't have a sure-fire second team after Gonzaga. The Valley may be capped at two teams in, depending on how Arch Madness goes.
The combination of those trends should mean a couple of things: 1) There will be bids available for very mediocre teams in power conferences; 2) The Mountain West (and perhaps the Atlantic 10) is in line for a very big year.
However it turns out, it should be a great couple months. Thanks in advance for coming along for the ride!
Questions/comments go to @AndyGlockner on Twitter or email@example.com.
The Blue Devils had one of the most impressive nonconference campaigns in recent memory, and look to be the clear team to beat over 18 games in the ACC. They're obviously in. After that? Well, the league has some work to do to sort the order out, but a five-bid year still looks pretty attainable.
A tough team to gauge at this point, as an early loss to Florida Gulf Coast was without point guard Durand Scott and the two Ls in the Diamond Head Classic came without center Reggie Johnson, who's out until February with a broken thumb. The problem: Miami's ACC schedule has four of their five games against the State of North Carolina powers by Feb. 9. Johnson may miss all of those, and the committee could have a mess of a time evaluating the Canes when they're whole.
Bracket Watch: A first glimpse into the nation's NCAA tournament contenders
It's been very quiet for a preseason top-5 team. The Wolfpack were crushed on a neutral court by Oklahoma State, lost at Michigan (no disgrace) and ... pretty much haven't been discussed much since then. That's probably a mistake as a team with some young parts continues to improve.
The inexperienced Heels are still trying to find their stride, the home win over UNLV (without Reggie Bullock) notwithstanding. The first half dozen in league play should give us a much better indication of their progress, and a loss at Virginia was not a great opening statement.
The Terps' schedule looked better before the season, but teams ranging from Kentucky to LIU Brooklyn have disappointed. As a result, Maryland has a terrible (No. 292) nonconference SOS, and no quality wins. In fact, they don't even have a top-50 RPI opponent yet. That kind of thing does not sit well with the selection committee (ask 2011 Alabama). With a lot of roughage in the ACC, some pressure will be on the Terps to win the games they should and cash in a couple of their premium games.
Danger, Will Robinson! The Seminoles have a nasty habit of dropping nonleague games they shouldn't, and then finding themselves in league play, but this year's ACC isn't exactly ripe with opportunity. They have two sub-200 losses (South Alabama and at Auburn) and four home losses already.
The league is pretty top-heavy, with the two powers clearly going to dance, and a host of options beyond that. Remember, Connecticut is ineligible for postseason play this season.
If Bubble Watch had debuted a week ago, "Team Bubble Watch" would have been back in all its glory. League-opening home wins over UConn and Georgetown, though, have added some needed heft to the early resume. With home games against Seton Hall, Providence and South Florida coming within the next five, the Geagles need to continue to take advantage of a friendly early schedule.
The Irish played a lot of really soft nonconference foes, which explains the SOS even with wins over BYU and Kentucky. Unlike their gridiron counterparts, they had a good Monday night with a road win at Cincinnati.
I think the Hoyas are pretty good, even if their offense takes occasional vacations. This early run of Big East games has some wins in it, so the Hoyas should be able to strengthen their relative position in the coming weeks. The win over UCLA continues to get better while the victory over Tennessee likely will get worse with Jeronne Maymon now out for the season. (That's never made any sense to me -- Georgetown beat dysfunctional UCLA before the overhaul and beat Tennessee when they were better, but at least they sort of cancel in this case.)
The Bearcats played a better nonleague schedule than some past seasons, so they're working from a stronger position heading into league play. That said, back-to-back home losses to St. John's and Notre Dame are not helping matters. Now trips to Rutgers and DePaul will tell us more about what Cincy is.
Not a bad team, but definitely a bad profile at this point. The best win is by one at home over Stony Brook. That's not going to get it done with the committee. The Pirates are going to have to take home shots like this week vs. Louisville to help build a credible resume. Aggregating wins won't be enough.
Not really all that much different than Seton Hall. Same lack of quality wins, but toss in a season-opening home loss to Saint Peter's. The opening league stretch has some games the Scarlet Knights will have to win if they hope to build a credible profile. They already lost at Syracuse and don't play at Louisville, so the schedule works to their advantage to a certain extent.
The Red Storm actually have beaten a few semi-decent teams, but also have a questionable loss or two to offset them. Someone is going to emerge from this "middle class" in the league, and the Johnnies may be the best bet to be that club. A three-game homestand against Rutgers, Georgetown and Notre Dame is on tap, which could help define which way this is going to go.
The Hoosiers and Wolverines have the national buzz, and the Gophers are absolutely legit this season and at 14-1 with seven top-100 wins already. It would take an epic cave-in during Big Ten play for any of these three not to dance, so let's just move on from here ... there are going to be a lot more than three.
The Illini have been very solid in John Groce's first season, with two very good nonconference wins to lean on. The league-opening loss at Purdue was a touch disappointing, but the follow-up rout of Ohio State was a nice bounceback. The Illini only play Indiana at home, so they get a bit of a relative schedule break.
Not the same team as last year without Draymond Green, the Spartans should continue to find themselves as the season rolls along. The early win over Kansas in Atlanta will be a gift that keeps giving as the Jayhawks rack up victories. None of the losses are a concern. They need to grab wins now in the soft early part of their league schedule to bank for later.
The Buckeyes may be too limited offensively to really threaten the top of the league, but they're no pushovers despite getting rocked at Illinois last weekend. The other two losses were tough contests at Duke and to Kansas. No shame there. The Buckeyes don't have any good wins yet, though, either. The best conquest so far is Washington, which could very well end up as a bottom-half Pac-12 team.
A very meh profile so far for the Badgers. One suspect home loss and no good wins yet. There are obviously a ton of chances in league play to grab the wins they need, but it's unclear whether the Badgers can do that this season, especially away from home. The opening league wins over Penn State and at Nebraska didn't exactly scream quality. This next five games, in which they host Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota while also playing at Iowa, will speak volumes about the ceiling here.
It appears to be Kansas' show (again) and there's not a whole lot other teams will be able to do about it. The Jayhawks look extremely likely to get a 1-seed and put themselves on a Kansas City/Dallas path in the NCAAs. Positioning behind the Jayhawks will be important, though.
A lot of folks liked the Sooners in the preseason, and so far, so pretty good. They have a handful of credible wins and one slip-up at home against a decent SFA team that's 8-1. West Virginia is struggling, but winning on the road there is a very good step for this developing club. Hardcourt Bedlam is next.
The Wildcats may not be scintillating, but Bruce Weber is doing well with the solid roster he inherited from Frank Martin. Neither loss (Michigan and Gonzaga on neutral floors) is an issue at all. Beating Oklahoma State in the league opener was a nice start. There aren't a ton of great Ws available in the league this season.
The Puerto Rico Tipoff title, with wins over NC State, Tennessee and Akron, is a great nonconference stake in the ground. The loss at Virginia Tech isn't terrible. Letting Gonzaga off the hook may end up as a regret, depending how things go in the Big 12. The Pokes catch a bit of a break as Texas' last opponent before Myck Kabongo is eligible. They almost got the Horns twice with him in the lineup.
The Bears have been inconsistent, which isn't all that surprising with some of the roster turnover from last season. They have nabbed a few good wins combined with a couple of questionable home losses. The win at Kentucky should "improve" as the season progresses. They need to take advantage of a softer first-half Big 12 schedule. Getting past Texas in overtime was a necessary, if not impressive start.
The Cyclones have played four top-100 games and lost three of them. Their computer profile is a bit stronger than actual performance at this point. They open conference play at Kansas. Fun times! The next five after that are all winnable, though.
The Wildcats have shown considerable moxie to salvage a couple of their high-profile games and remain unbeaten. How many teams will follow them into the dance? There are some mixed signs around the Pac-12 after the league-opening weekend.
The Buffs appeared to have been denied a big win at Arizona last Thursday night, but the weekend overall, including Sunday's loss at Arizona State, underscored some of the issues Colorado still needs to work through in order to reach its potential. This is now an important home weekend with USC and then UCLA coming to Coors Event Center. A 1-3 start heading to the Washington schools wouldn't be a great position. That said, Colorado has several quality nonleague wins and its schedule rates incredible well.
I'm coming around on the smallball Bruins, who have been unleashed by Ben Howland with considerable effect. They still will have trouble stopping certain styles of teams, but the Wear twins have provided consistent scoring and Shabazz Muhammad is rounding into expected form. They're also showing developing poise and were able to put away both home games this past week after being challenged.
The Ducks, fueled by a couple exciting freshmen, look capable of a top-four finish. They have an excellent nonconference win at UNLV and neither loss will be a demerit. They have a big home chance against Arizona on Thursday to help augment their early profile and make a statement of intent.
The Sun Devils played a soft nonleague schedule, but the home win over Colorado on Sunday was evidence of their significant improvement from last season. One slip-up at home against DePaul aside, they have taken care of the games they needed to thus far. Point guard Jahii Carson will have to keep the Devils on rhythm at the Oregon schools this week as they try to nab some road wins.
The Golden Bears once again whiffed on every quality nonconference opportunity, including losing three times at home. The Pac-12 isn't good enough for the Bears to think they can nab a bunch of wins against the bottom half and that will be enough. They already lost at UCLA and don't get Arizona at home, so chances for big wins are somewhat limited.
The Huskies have a couple of decent wins (Seton Hall and Saint Louis) and a couple of bad home losses (Albany and Nevada). They're defensively fragile but have enough offensive firepower to carry them a decent amount of the time. There's a void after the first couple of teams, so there's room to make a run. They already won at Wazzu and now have a Bay Area road trip before they get a league home game.
Neither profile is stellar yet, but it's hard to imagine Florida or Missouri falling out of the field of 68 come March. Too many solid nonleague wins and too many soft spots in the SEC. After that? A couple more teams probably will come along, but this league (currently ninth in Conference RPI) has been very disappointing. A cap at three bids is entirely possible, given how things break elsewhere.
Yes, the Aggies have the third-best RPI in the league at the moment. That really sums up the SEC's nonleague performance, since A&M hasn't really beaten anyone and suffered a terrible home loss to Southern, as well. League play opens with Arkansas, at Kentucky, Florida, so this profile will move a lot in the next two weeks.
The Cats are developing and are probably better than their record, which is good because their profile currently stinks. The season-opening win over Maryland is the only thing of value right now. They don't play Florida or Missouri until mid-February, so expect the Cats to rack up some wins before then.
The Rebels missed on their two decent chances for a win, and a victory over Rutgers shouldn't be the highlight of your nonleague slate. They open with road games at Tennessee and Vanderbilt around a visit from Missouri, so anything from 3-0 to 0-3 seems possible.
The Tigers aren't much different from Ole Miss. Their best win is Seton Hall. Same kind of schedule strength or lack thereof, same kind of opportunity early in the schedule as the Rebels.
The Tide have lost five of their last seven and have a very poor profile heading into a down SEC where they only play Missouri, Florida and Kentucky once each (and the Tigers and Gators are on the road). With barely a top-100 win to speak of and two poor home losses already, the NIT is looming unless the Tide can really find a consistency they have never really had under Anthony Grant.
The loss of Jeronne Maymon for the season may make this too tough a task for the Vols, but they have wins over UMass and Wichita State, which is more than most of their SEC brethren have. Then again, they went on the road to Georgetown and Virginia, held them to a combined 83 points, and lost both games, so there are going to be some hard-to-watch nights ahead.
No one gets locked up in this conference because it's possible for anyone to finish fourth or fifth this season and then have to sweat things out. That's how good and how deep the league is. Road wins will be worth their weight in gold. If anyone could take 12-4 right now, I'd bet they would in a heartbeat. San Diego State may be the league's best team and enters MWC play with the sixth-best RPI.
The Lobos stockpiled some solid wins, including road victories at Indiana State and Cincinnati that should remain solid. Even the home loss to South Dakota State isn't terrible given the relative quality of the Jackrabbits. The Lobos also are one of the better teams in the MWC in terms of stealing road wins, so they're positioned well entering league play.
The Rams are starting to roll, mixing their incredible effectiveness on the glass with some better offense. They don't have the quality wins of a New Mexico, but they're going to be extremely hard to beat at home, so figure them for several quality Ws in league play, sort of mimicking last season. If they can get one or two good ones on the road, all the better.
The Rebels won't be a completed puzzle until Mike Moser comes back, and he may not be available for New Mexico on Wednesday according to coach Dave Rice. The Rebels have road games at New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State all in the first four league games, so this will be a stringent opening test run. Could be a very dangerous team with momentum come March, though.
The Cowboys' nonleague schedule wasn't great, but the back-to-back wins over Colorado and at Illinois State show they have some substance behind the unbeaten record. They host Boise State and then play at the two so-called "worst" teams in the league, Nevada and Fresno State, so there's a good opportunity for the Cowboys to make an early statement of league legitimacy.
One of the surprise packages this season, the Broncos opened eyes by taking Michigan State to the wire, pulled them wide open by thrashing Creighton in Omaha, and then made them into saucers when they got pasted at Utah, of all places. It's a talented team with the opening schedule in league play to make things very interesting. The toughest road games are backloaded in the schedule.
Beating Indiana State and UCLA on neutral floors isn't bad, but the resume would look a lot nicer if Nick Johnson wasn't superhuman. The Aztecs' league schedule is very backloaded. They get the other three primary contenders at home first, so expect them to be leading the league at the halfway mark, with the caveat that the return trips await. Always good to bank home wins first, though, then roll the dice.
Another league that should be a great watch with numerous quality teams battling for the league title. How many NCAA bids will depend on how much separation the top tier can create and how often (or not often) they dump games to the bottom half of the league.
Ready to make a splash in their league debut, the Bulldogs have the thrilling neutral-site win over Indiana as their profile calling card, but they also have wins over Marquette (thanks, Rotnei!), North Carolina and Northwestern. They're in very solid shape entering league play, but starting at St. Joe's and at Dayton is no bargain.
The Owls look like their typically ornery selves, having beaten Syracuse at Madison Square Garden and playing Kansas down to the wire in Lawrence. The home loss to Canisius is a bit of an offset to what really was a polarized nonleague schedule -- several big games and a lot of filler. Temple opens at Xavier this week before hosting resurgent Saint Louis.
I really like the Rams. They are deep, they can shoot it, and then turn teams over a ton. All that said, they haven't really beaten anyone yet this season. They topped Memphis in the Bahamas, but then lost to Duke and Missouri, and also fell to Wichita State at home. All very acceptable losses, but there are no truly quality wins yet. The front part of the A-10 schedule is also very favorable. Games at Saint Louis, Xavier and Temple, plus Butler at home, are all in the last five of the season.
A bit of a paper tiger at this point, the Minutemen have played four top-100 opponents and only beat one of them (Harvard, in the season opener, on a last-minute rally) so they have some work to do in A-10 play. After the opener at Saint Louis, they have four winnable games in a row, so they can position themselves for a run.
Somewhat like UMass, the Explorers have mostly filled up on 100+ RPI meals, plus they have a bad home loss to Central Connecticut State on the books, too. That said, this is a pretty good team that could do some damage in A-10 play. They can make some early statements with home games against Dayton and Butler in the first five.
After a sketchy start, the Billikens are starting to find a groove and now senior point guard Kwamain Mitchell is back. The win over New Mexico was an excellent sign, as Saint Louis toppled a quality foe without Mitchell really being back to his regular level yet. The Billikens open home to UMass and at Temple, so not an easy start to league play.
Pretty disappointing nonleague run overall, but there are some signs the Hawks may finally be finding themselves. The early win over Notre Dame should continue to hold value. There are a couple too many losses, though, for the schedule they played. Opening with Butler at home and going to VCU in Game 3 of the A-10 slate gives them chances to make amends.
I chuckled when the RealTimeRPI.com projection for the Flyers showed at 20-10 (10-6). Is that kind of teasing-but-ultimately-NIT profile just hardcoded into the page at this point? The loss to Colorado in Charleston cost the Flyers some better games, and losing to Weber State at home wasn't a great idea. They have a very rough A-10 opening: at VCU, Butler, at La Salle.
The league looks pretty strong to get two teams in. A third via mystery auto-bid winner seems pretty possible, but what about through overall profile?
The computer numbers are great, but the Sycamores have a lot of work to do left to be a legit at-large candidate in March. Losing at Creighton is surely no embarrassment, but that was one of their premium chances in the Valley gone begging. They're going to have to take a couple of the remaining three from Wichita State and Creighton to really have any realistic claim.
The Zags have a strong team and had a solid nonleague run. They should win the conference, too. Can anyone join them in the NCAAs? There's a severe lack of nonleague wins in the possible contenders.
The Cougars at this point are most noticeable as the "good win" on a number of other profiles. They're 0-4 against RPI top 100 foes, which is not a good sign for NCAA prospects when your league isn't loaded. They also lost by double digits in all four of those games. Would second-place be good enough? At least one win over Gonzaga is needed, but the home shot at the Zags doesn't come until Feb. 28.
Better than their profile, but that doesn't get you into the NCAAs as an at-large. The opening-night win at Saint Louis will continue to look good, but they couldn't beat Utah State at home, lost at Duke and lost to Gonzaga at home already. The Broncos are running out of quality chances.
Also better than their computer numbers, but this is what you get when you schedule softly as a mid-major. Winning at Utah State should be valued more than it currently is. Losing on a neutral floor to Pacific and Georgia Tech (after beating Drexel to get on the "good" side of the Anaheim bracket) is bad.
Best of the Rest
If it comes down to it, the Bruins may rue the cave-in against Northeastern in Alaska and the tight loss at Central Florida. Wins at Stanford and over Middle Tennessee State and North Dakota State probably won't be enough, even with the Ohio Valley looking very solid this season.
The Bison will be the beneficiaries from the unfortunate foot injury to Lehigh star C.J. McCollum, which may end his season. The Bison looked like slightly the better team, but they also were last season, when Lehigh won twice at Sojka Pavilion, including in the Patriot League final. Now the question becomes "Can the Bison give themselves a safety net?" By missing on premium chances already, they'd probably need to run the table until the final, but I guess it's possible. Besides wounded Lehigh, no other Patriot team is in the RPI top 200.
Not really a good enough profile for a mid-major, with a missed chance against Florida and other losses to Akron, Belmont and Arkansas State. But the computer numbers are good enough to consider, for now.
The Racers should be locked in a two-way battle with Belmont for the Ohio Valley crown and they host the Bruins in their only regular-season meeting on Feb. 7. Beating St. John's isn't going to be enough to support an at-large, most likely.
Lost at Indiana and Minnesota. Totally fine. Lost at Wisconsin-Green Bay. So did Marquette, but NDSU isn't playing a Big East schedule with ample opportunities to atone. The Bison almost certainly will need to auto bid from the Summit League.
The second-best team in a bad C-USA? The Golden Eagles, Memphis and maybe UTEP look likely to pillow fight it out. Without any good nonleague wins, it's hard to see how this builds up to an at-large profile, but the games with the Tigers and Miners will be the keys.
The Tigers knew what was riding on the Battle 4 Atlantis and they didn't deliver. Now they're in the position where, due to the weakness of C-USA, they could be in serious trouble if they don't get the automatic bid. They currently have one top-100 win (at Tennessee) and the schedule only has four more top-100 games: Southern Miss twice, Harvard and at UTEP. They really need to take care of C-USA business.