We have officially entered the Season Of The Mock Bracket. Everywhere online -- most prominently, here on SI.com, courtesy of the incomparable Andy Glockner -- you will see lots of projections and bubble watches popping up on your laptop. When you take a closer gander at some of the teams included in the field of 68, you will often ask yourselves: How in the world did they get in?
The answer lies in the old joke about the two men and the bear. As the bear stalks toward their tent, one of the men starts putting on his boots. "Why are you putting on your boots?" his friend asks. "You can't outrun a bear." Whereupon the man replies, "I don't have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you."
By definition, every bubble team has a sketchy resume. The way to get off the bubble and into the bracket is to have something, anything, that separates you from your underwhelming competition. I call these separators "hang-your-hat" games. If a bubble team with a lot of bad losses can have one or two quality wins, they can escape the bear. Here, then, are 15 hang-your-hat games that will giving the winners a chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps:
Colorado 60, Baylor 58, Nov. 16. The Buffaloes also own a win over Colorado State (14th in the RPI), but this one will be more helpful because it came at a neutral site as opposed to at home. Colorado is currently 26th in the RPI, but that's not going to be enough for a team that is under .500 in a mediocre league.
Belmont 70, Stanford 62, Nov. 18. Even though I love this Belmont team, I'm almost hoping they lose in the final of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament to force the selection committee to consider giving them an at-large bid. Belmont is ranked 19th overall in the RPI, so at this point it would seem almost impossible to leave them out, but this win in Palo Alto will help. It shows the Bruins can beat a quote-unquote power conference team on their own home floor. The question is whether the fact that it was so early in the season will lessen its impact. Technically, the committee is supposed to count all games the same no matter when they were played, but I don't think that is realistic.
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VCU 78, Memphis 65, Nov. 22. It might seem odd to consider the idea that VCU might be on the bubble, but the fact is, this is the best Rams' win of the season, and they're ranked 51st overall in the RPI. If both of these teams lose in their conference tournaments, I would give deference to the winner of a head-to-head matchup on a neutral site. Then again, since this took place so early in the season, maybe it won't have much of an impact.
Arizona State 83, Arkansas 68, Nov. 23. The Sun Devils had a very weak nonconference schedule, so their 6-3 record in the Pac 12 won't take them as far as you might think. The Razorbacks are no great shakes either (77th in the RPI), but they did just rip apart Florida at home, and this game was played on a neutral court. If Arizona State and Arkansas are fighting for one of the last few spots, this head-to-head result could loom large.
Boise State 83, Creighton 70, Nov. 28. It looked pretty significant at the time when the Broncos won this game in Omaha, and for the most part, Creighton has done its part since then to make sure it holds up. Boise State also has a road win at Wyoming and a win at home over UNLV, but right now the Broncos are two games under .500 in the Mountain West. They need to shore that up.
Illinois 85, Gonzaga 74, Dec. 8. Can the Illini really get into the NCAA touranment with a 2-7 conference record? I say no way, but there aren't too many NIT teams who have this kind of a road win on their resume, not to mention a neutral site victory over Butler and a home win over Ohio State.
Temple 83, Syracuse 79, Dec. 22. The Owls have been truly confounding this season, beating the Orange in Madison Square Garden and also notching a road win at Villanova. Yet, they also lost at home to Canisius and St. Bonaventure.
Indiana State 57, Miami 55, Dec. 25. The Sycamores are one of the most intriguing bubble teams in years. On the one hand, they are 14-8 and ranked No. 46 in the RPI. But on top of beating the Hurricanes on a neutral court (although Miami was without injured center Reggie Johnson), the Sycamores also have a home win over Creighton, a neutral court win over Ole Miss, and a road win at Wichita State. That's four top-50 wins. Most bubble teams will have one or none.
Saint Louis 60, New Mexico 46, Dec. 31. The Billikens don't have any road wins against the top 100, but when you beat the No. 5 team in the RPI this badly, it's bound to help. Ditto for their 75-58 win at home over No. 15 Butler last week.
St. John's 53, Cincinnati 52, Jan. 5. It was only by one point, but it came on the road against a team ranked in the top 25 of the RPI. The Johnnies, who are ranked 55th, also helped themselves by beating UConn and Notre Dame at home.
Villanova 73, Louisville 64, Jan. 22/ Villanova 75, Syracuse 71, Jan. 26. The Wildcats have been doing themselves no favors by losing five of their last eight, but when you consider that some bubble teams will have zero wins against the top 50, the fact that Villanova has two over the top 10 (albeit at home) has to weigh heavily.
LaSalle 69, VCU 61, Jan. 26. The Explorers actually have three hang-your-hat wins if you include beating Butler and Villanova at home. Once again, however, there's nothing like beating a good team on the road. Although, given the overall look of VCU's resume, perhaps this isn't quite as impressive as it might first appear.
Kentucky 87, Ole Miss 74, Jan. 29. This will really help the Wildcats because a) it was in Oxford, and b) it was before the Rebels lost their top two reserves to injuries.
Oklahoma 74, Baylor 71, Jan. 30. The Sooners are 21st in the RPI, so they're in pretty good shape, but if they drop a couple in the next few weeks, this road win over a top-50 team is going to help.
The Numbers Prove It: Scoring Is On The Decline
Last week, I wrote about about how scores in college basketball appeared to be in decline. I asked the good folks at STATS, LLC. to run some numbers for me. What they came up with confirms all of our suspicions: Offense in college basketball is getting offensive. Take a look at the last 10 years:
The trend is unmistakable, which is why I continue to believe that the rules committee should initiate a serious discussion about moving to a 30-second shot clock and eliminating physical plays like hand-checking. I'm all for good defense and giving lesser-talented teams every opportunity to win, but at some point, we have to recognize that the game is changing and the rules need to change along with it.
While there are a lot of explanations for why scoring is going down (decline of fundamentals, departure of underclassmen to the NBA, etc.), I really believe one of the main reasons is that the defenses have gotten so good. If you watch games that were played 20 and 30 years ago, you will notice a stark difference in the effectiveness of defenses. Because of advances in technology, scouting is far better now than it was even 10 years ago. Moreover, because of the increasing pressures on coaches to win every single game (as opposed to taking a few losses to build for future success), coaches are a lot more controlling they used to be. That's why they call multiple timeouts during the last few possessions of close games. Not only does that curb their players' offensive freedom and decision making, it drags the games out.
There will be some disagreement over these ideas, and that is fine. But it's long past time to start talking about them.
Other Hoop Thoughts
? I asked my Twitter followers to help me come up with a regular season upset as shocking as the one No.5 Kansas suffered Wednesday night at TCU, but the only one that surpassed or even matched it was the standard-bearer for all upsets: Chaminade over No. 1-ranked (and Ralph Sampson-led) Virginia, way back in 1982. Some more recent examples included Santa Clara over No. 4 North Carolina in 2004, and Wright State over No. 8 Michigan State in 1999. However, in those games, the favorites were missing injured point guards (Raymond Felton and Mateen Cleaves, respectively). When Gardner-Webb beat Kentucky in Rupp in 2007, UK was ranked 20th. I also don't count any NCAA tournament upset as being this surprising, because a team has to be good to get into the tournament. I don't care what league it's from. By any measure, TCU is terrible, having come into Wednesday night's game with an 0-8 Big 12 record. Therefore, until further notice, I hereby declare this to be the biggest regular season upset in college basketball since Chaminade-Virginia. Pretty amazing.
? Which segues into my next Hoop Thought: I have been saying for many years that it is only a matter of time before a 16 seed defeats a No. 1. Doesn't this just feel like the year?
? This might not sound like a compliment, but it is: Bruce Weber is really good at coaching players that someone else recruited.
? It really doesn't look like Tubby Smith enjoys coaching this Minnesota team. The Gophers would be pretty good if they could stop throwing the ball to the other team.
? Michigan State center Adreian Payne was 0-for-1 from three-point range on the season going into the Spartans' Jan. 13 game against Nebrasks. In the seven games since, he has gone 7-for-13. Just making sure you knew.
? The best part about Indiana State guard Jake Odum's 22-point performance in Wednesday's blowout win over Creighton is that he didn't take a single three-pointer. He went 7-for-10 from the floor and 8-for-11 from the foul line. That's how you get Capone.
? I am very much in favor of seeing the ACC tournament come to Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Tradition is dead, anyway. Time to start a new tradition.
? Loved seeing Wisconsin senior forward Ryan Evans seal the Badgers' overtime win over Iowa Wednesday night with a pair of free throws. The kid has really struggled from the line this season, and it's obviously all between his ears. On the game, Evans was 5-for-7, so let's hope he has fixed his problems.
? I've got a feeling Michigan State is about to drop a couple. The Spartans are already banged up with backup point guard Travis Trice (concussion) being out and freshman Gary Harris (back spasms) being limited. Then Keith Appling dislocated his shoulder late in Wednesday's win over Minnesota. (He said the shoulder popped out and then popped back in, and that he could have returned to the game.) Also keep in mind that another reserve guard, Brandan Kearney, has transferred. The Spartans have a tough stretch the next three weeks with road games at Purdue, Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan, plus home games against Michigan and Indiana.
? I realize Marshall Henderson gets most of the attention at Ole Miss, but to me, this team's real strength is its senior forward tandem of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Tough, strong, always ready to play.
? Another reason to like Miami: Junior guard Rion Brown had a career-high 22 points off the bench in the Hurricanes' win over Boston College Tuesday. Good to know that's a possibility.
? I like the way Julius Mays is evolving into a Glue Guy for Kentucky the way Darius Miller did. Just one more way the Wildcats are getting better in all the right ways.
? It does my heart good when schools wear jerseys with their team nicknames on the back instead of the players' names.
? It doesn't make sense to me that shot clock violations are not reviewable on the replay monitor. I think the refs should be able to go to the monitor in the final two minutes of a game to look at both shot clock violations and plays when it's hard to tell who knocked the ball out of bounds. Don't be surprised if those changes get implemented soon.
? By the way, the Big Ten has been experimenting this season with a procedure that allows officials to make a hand gesture toward the scorer's table if they are unsure about whether a shot was a two-pointer or a three-pointer. Instead of reviewing the play at the time (and thus stopping the game), the refs can then go to the monitor during a time out. I think it's a great idea, and from what I hear it's working very well.
? I have to admit, as a college hoops fan I was jealous at all the attention given to football's national signing day yesterday. Made me wish we had a basketball equivalent. Would it help to go to a single day instead of two week-long periods in the fall and spring?
? Two off-the-beaten-path guys who have played their way onto NBA scouts' radar screens: Nevada junior guard Deonte Burton, and 7-foot-5 New Mexico State freshman Sim Bhullar.
? I've been calling for LaQuinton Ross to get more active in Ohio State's offense, and he may have found a way to do it: offensive rebounding. Ross had his best game as a Buckeye in the loss at Michigan State, grabbing five offensive rebounds and scoring 16 points. Ditto for sophomore center Amir Williams, who had nine points and four blocks. If that's the way those two are going to play moving forward, it will change the game for this team.
? I miss the Marquette bat.
? One reason for Indiana's success this season is that Tom Crean has two associate head coaches on his staff who are former head coaches: Tim Buckley (who used to coach at Ball State) and Steve McClain (Wyoming). If the Hoosiers keep winning, don't be surprised if those guys become head coaches again somewhere.
? Interesting that Rick Pitino went old school on his guys and re-instituted the treadmill as punishment for not rebounding in practice. Nothing like a little extra discipline to focus the mind.
? That was a nice win for Arkansas over Florida, but the Razorbacks still do not have a road victory this season. That includes a 19-point loss at South Carolina. If they don't fix that, they won't get an at-large bid, because last I checked the NCAA tournament is not going to be played in Fayetteville.
? Here's something we'll be hearing a lot the next two months: The Big Ten hasn't had a national champion since Michigan State in 2000.
N.C. State at Duke, Thursday, 9 p.m.
It sounds like Lorenzo Brown is not going to suit up for N.C. State Thursday night, but even if he were playing, I don't think it would matter. The Blue Devils are learning how to play without Ryan Kelly, and you know they will have revenge on the brain.
Duke 77, N.C. State 70
Belmont at Murray State, Thursday, 8 p.m.
I've been looking forward to this game all season. Murray State just joined the Ohio Valley Conference (which plays a very entertaining, up-tempo style), and this is the only regular season meeting between these two. The Racers just struggled to beat a bad Austin Peay at home in overtime, largely because they too often devolve into a one-man show featuring Isaiah Canaan, but I'm figuring that since they're at home, they'll be ready to give the Bruins their best shot.
Murray State 75, Belmont 83
Washington at UCLA, Thursday, 9 p.m.
"Will UCLA ever win another game?" Those were the words of Bill Walton Wednesday night while calling the Stanford-Arizona game. I'm guessing he and Ben Howland won't be attending any Neil Young shows together in the near future, but the Bruins, who have dropped three of their last four, have had eight days off since that disappointing loss at home to USC. They won't be so terrrrrrrrible.
UCLA 76, Washington 71
Iowa State at Kansas State, Saturday, 6 p.m.
The Cyclones have been quietly putting together an impressive season, but like a lot of teams, they just can't win on the road.
Kansas State 70, Iowa State 63
New Mexico at UNLV, Saturday, 9 p.m.
UNLV has been one of the more disappointing teams this season, having dropped three of their last five games, including a road loss at Fresno State Wednesday night. That means they're desperate for a win, and you all know how much I like desperate home teams.
UNLV 66, New Mexico 62
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, Saturday, 6 p.m.
The Bearcats shot the ball horribly Wednesday night in their loss at Providence. The rims at Fifth Third Arena should be more friendly, but the Bearcats will be tested by a mature, surging Pittsburgh team.
Cincinnati 60, Pittsburgh 59
Ole Miss at Missouri, Saturday, 1 p.m.
The Rebels hope to have senior guard Nick Williams back for this one after he missed the last two games with a foot injury. But I think Missouri is ready to get back on the winning track after dealing with injuries of its own and going through some soul searching. We'll learn a lot more about Missouri when it hits the road to play Texas A&M Thursday night.
Missouri 81, Ole Miss 71
Stanford at Arizona State, Saturday, 7 p.m.
The Cardinal has quietly been playing some pretty good basketball lately. They recently won three straight and put up a good fight at Arizona Wednesday night before losing by seven. Still, the Sun Devils are the better team, and they're playing at home. If you haven't gotten a chance yet to check out their freshman point guard Jahii Carson, check him out. He's not a good outside shooter, but he has a preternatural feel for the position.
Arizona State 90, Stanford 81
Indiana at Ohio State, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Don't tell me there's no such thing as moral victories. I think the Buckeyes found something important in that loss at Michigan, and they're ready to prove it on their homecourt. Should be a doozy.
Ohio State 78, Indiana 76
Virginia at Maryland, Saturday, 1 p.m.
This is one of the more bubblicious games on the docket this weekend. My desperate home team meter is lit up for this one. If the Terps can't win here, they might as well pack their bags for the NIT.
Maryland 61, Virginia 57
Last week: 8-2
Season total: 82-38