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College Basketball

Deep field of contenders making life hard for power-conference teams

Photo: Darron Cummings/AP

Noah Vonleh and Indiana suffered a damaging home loss to Northwestern after a win over Wisconsin.

We're three weeks into conference play, and that means we have enough evidence on hand to reveal the first SI.com Bubble Watch of the 2013-14 season. The ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 have started to separate themselves from the other power conferences, both in terms of depth and championship contenders at the top of the conference. The Pac-12 boasts the No. 1 team in the land, while the new-look Big East features two teams capable of making Final Four runs, and the totally new American Athletic Conference has four teams that will almost certainly be no worse than six-seeds in the tournament.

Add to the mix two mid-major conferences -- the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West -- with multiple contenders and it could be one of the most crowded years on record for power-conference teams on the bubble.

We'll add the familiar "Should Be In" and "In the Mix" designations to the Watch as the season progresses. For now, we're focusing on teams that are anything short of a lock for the tournament, no matter how strong their cases may be.

NOTE: All records, RPI and strength of schedule numbers are through Monday, Jan. 20.

BELLER: Bracket Watch: Wichita State moves up to No. 1-seed line

ACC

Locks: Syracuse, Duke, Pittsburgh

The Orange and Panthers have taken well to their new conference, sitting in first and third place, respectively, in the ACC. For all of Duke's defensive struggles, they are 4-2 against the RPI top 50 and have the second-best offense, according to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offense rankings.

Florida State (12-5, RPI: 22, SOS: 20)

There's some good news and bad news here for the Seminoles. Their RPI number will almost certainly look good at the end of the season and they do have one very strong win over Massachusetts, but they've also lost five games to top-50 RPI teams, including two to Virginia, a team right next to them in their conference and also on the bubble.

Virginia (14-5, RPI: 24, SOS: 9)

The Cavaliers own those two wins over fellow bubble team Florida State, wins that could loom large in March, though both teams were in SI.com's Bracket Watch this week. Virginia also benefits from the fact that it has not yet lost to a bad team, though it did fall by 35 at Tennessee.

North Carolina (11-7, RPI: 57, SOS: 25)

This remains the hardest team in the country to figure out. The Tar Heels own those three huge non-conference wins over Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville, but they've also lost to UAB, Wake Forest, Miami and Belmont. They're 1-4 in the conference and have yet to play Duke or Pittsburgh.

Maryland (11-7, RPI: 68, SOS: 27)

You can't make the Big Dance if your best win is against a Providence team that is currently just inside the top 50 in RPI. Maryland is comfortably on the outside right now but has a chance to do work with upcoming games against Pittsburgh and North Carolina.

Clemson (13-4, RPI: 74, SOS: 172)

The Tigers thrust themselves into the tournament discussion by beating Duke on Jan. 11, though it's the only resume-building win they've picked up this season. Luckily for them, the ACC will provide them with plenty of opportunity to get victories that would help them build a stronger case.

American Athletic Conference

Locks: Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis

Cincinnati has somewhat surprisingly risen to the top of the conference, ripping off 10 straight wins including a 16-point victory at Memphis. Louisville's best win is against Connecticut, and it remains No. 7 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. The Tigers are the third-best team in the conference, but they're safely in the tournament.

Connecticut (14-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 30)

Kevin Ollie's squad struggled over a five-game stretch from mid-December to early January, but wins over Harvard and Memphis have the Huskies looking like a safe bet for the tourney right now. They're 3-2 against top-50 RPI teams.

SMU (14-4, RPI: 41, SOS: 100)

The Mustangs' inclusion or exclusion could go down as a referendum on the AAC. They'll probably need a win over one of the conference's locks to go along with its victory against Connecticut to give the committee enough of a reason to take them in March.

Big East

Locks: Creighton, Villanova

Both these teams are in, but we may have seen a shifting of power within the conference on Monday night when the Blue Jays stomped the Wildcats by 28 in Philadelphia.

Xavier (14-4, RPI: 35, SOS: 19)

Outside of a disastrous run at the Battle 4 Atlantis in which the Musketeers lost to Iowa, Tennessee and USC, they've lost just once, at Creighton. Barring a February slump that resembles what happened in November, Xavier should have a relatively straightforward path to the tournament.

Providence (13-5, RPI: 46, SOS: 53)

The Friars are 1-3 against top-50 RPI teams, and two of those losses, against Kentucky and Villanova, were by double-digits. Neither of those games was at home, however, and their third loss in that group was by two at Massachusetts. Providence has a bad loss to Seton Hall at home, and that could be particularly damaging without another strong win to counter it.

Georgetown (11-5, RPI: 58, SOS: 43)

It's going to take some work for the Hoyas to give the committee reason to overlook their bad losses. They've fallen to three teams outside the RPI top 100, including a loss on a neutral court to Northeastern, which ranks 220th in RPI.

Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa

The Spartans are on the shortlist of the best teams in the country, but all three of these teams have legitimate Final Four aspirations. On the flip side of that in the same conference is the first team below, which just two weeks ago was ranked No. 3 in the country.

Ohio State (15-4, RPI: 11, SOS: 15)

It's hard to imagine the Buckeyes falling out of the bracket, but they've now lost four straight games, including one at home to Iowa and another at Nebraska. In their last two games, losses to Minnesota and the Cornuskers, they've scored a combined 115 points. They won't be able to reclaim true contender status without significant improvements on offense.

Michigan (13-4, RPI: 27, SOS: 40)

Somehow the Wolverines have played their best basketball since losing Mitch McGary to a season-ending back injury. They've measured up well to their best competition, beating Wisconsin in Madison and falling narrowly to Arizona, Iowa State and Duke. They have no time to rest on their laurels after beating Bo Ryan for the first time on the road. They host the Hawkeyes on Wednesday before traveling to East Lansing to take on the Spartans on Saturday.

Minnesota (13-5, RPI: 30, SOS: 16)

Richard Pitino has the Gophers trending in the right direction in his first season in Minneapolis. They're 2-4 against teams in the RPI top 50, though they had Michigan State on the ropes in East Lansing and couldn't close it out. They do have one loss to a team outside the RPI top 50, Arkansas, which looks better now than it did in November.

Illinois (13-6, RPI: 54, SOS: 52)

There was a lot of optimism in Champaign earlier in the season after the Illini nearly beat Oregon and then earned a one-point victory over Missouri, but they've now dropped five consecutive games in the conference and have yet to defeat a team in the RPI top 50.

Indiana (12-6, RPI: 70, SOS: 75)

The Hoosiers did themselves no favors with a non-conference schedule that included nine teams with RPIs worse than 150. Their Jan. 14 win over Wisconsin, which knocked the Badgers from the ranks of the unbeaten, put them back on the map, but they followed that up with a home loss to Northwestern. That likely was more harmful than the win over the Badgers was helpful.

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State

Like the Big Ten, the Big 12 features three Final Four contenders and one of the country's best teams. Kansas hit some speed bumps as its young roster coalesced, but its win over Baylor on Monday moved it to 5-0 in the conference, with road wins against Oklahoma and Iowa State, and home victories against Kansas State and Oklahoma State, in addition to the victory against the Bears.

Oklahoma (14-4, RPI: 16, SOS: 6)

Lon Kruger has the Sooners back at the heights not dreamed in Norman of since Blake Griffin left town. Wins over Iowa State, Baylor and Texas, the last two on the road, will go a long way to getting them back to the tournament. Their worst loss was to a Louisiana Tech squad that will likely battle Southern Miss for the one bid out of Conference USA.

Kansas State (14-4, RPI: 33, SOS: 34)

As of right now, the Wildcats look like a solid bet for the tournament. They're 4-1 against teams in the RPI top 50 and their one really bad loss came to Northern Colorado, the favorite to win the Big Sky Conference.

Baylor (13-5, RPI: 36, SOS: 32)

After losing just once in their first 13 games, the Bears have lost four of their last five. One of those losses came at Texas Tech, which is just barely inside the RPI top 100.

Texas (14-4, RPI: 37, SOS: 44)

The Longhorns did well to beat Iowa State last week, but they're still just 1-4 against teams inside the RPI top 50. They don't have any losses to teams outside the top 50 and have beaten North Carolina on the road and Mercer and Stephen F. Austin, two mid-majors that will likely go dancing. It will be an interesting resume come March, but one that likely needs another few big wins to earn a bid.

Pac-12

Locks: Arizona

The No. 1 team in the country for most of the season, the Wildcats currently have the inside track on the top overall seed in the tournament. They have four wins over top-50 RPI teams and five more against teams ranked between 51 and 100.

Colorado (15-4, RPI: 19, SOS: 12)

The Buffaloes are 3-3 against opponents in the RPI top 50, including a win over Kansas, but this is a much different team after losing point guard Spencer Dinwiddie. Colorado should still be tourney-bound in March, but its ceiling got a lot lower once Dinwiddie tore his ACL.

Oregon (13-4, RPI: 23, SOS: 22)

The Ducks went undefeated during the non-conference portion of their schedule, but only one of those teams was in the RPI top 50. Meanwhile, they've lost four of their five conference games, with all of those losses coming to the only Pac-12 teams they've played that have a top-100 RPI.

UCLA (14-4, RPI: 28, SOS: 31)

The Bruins only have one win against a team inside the RPI top 50, and that was against Colorado after Dinwiddie's injury. Their resume doesn't include a very noteworthy win, but they could do themselves a lot of favors in games against Stanford and California this week.

California (14-4, RPI: 34, SOS: 57)

The Golden Bears own a win over Oregon, though that doesn't look nearly as impressive as when they earned it on Jan. 9. They don't have a bad loss, either, and the two teams outside the RPI top 50 to beat them -- Dayton and UC Santa Barbara -- could both make the tournament.

Stanford (12-5, RPI: 53, SOS: 47)

The Cardinal could end up being one of the more interesting cases before the committee. They're 2-4 against the RPI top 50 with wins over Connecticut and Oregon, and losses to BYU, Pittsburgh, Michigan and California. The Pac-12 will give them more chances to get resume-building wins, but it might take a victory against Arizona or Cal to lock up a spot in the tournament.

Arizona State (13-5, RPI: 60, SOS: 103)

The Sun Devils are definitely on the wrong side of the bubble for the time being. They're 0-3 against the RPI top 50 and 3-5 against the top 100. They have enough time to turn that around, but they need multiple wins against the elite in the Pac-12 to convince the committee they deserve a bid.

Photo: Lenny Ignelzi/AP

Xavier Thames and San Diego State are tourney locks and might even have a chance at being a top seed.

SEC

Locks: Florida, Kentucky

Florida is the one title contender no one is talking about. They have just two losses, at Wisconsin and at Connecticut, by a combined seven points, and both came when the Gators were short-handed due to injuries and suspensions. Kentucky is still a team trying to put together all of its talent, but they have the inside track on a high seed in the tournament.

Missouri (14-3, RPI: 52, SOS: 130)

The Tigers could rue the day they compiled such a weak non-conference slate, especially given that they play in what is likely the worst power conference. They've played just one game against a team inside the RPI top 50, and though that was a win over UCLA, they also have two losses against teams outside the top 100.

Tennessee (11-6, RPI: 59, SOS: 26)

The Volunteers fit the bill of a typical bubble team. They're 2-3 against teams in the RPI top 50 and 4-4 against the top 100, but they've lost games to two teams, UTEP and Texas A&M, that are outside the top 100. Their only chances for needle-moving wins before the SEC tournament may be their two games against Florida.

Arkansas (12-5, RPI: 61, SOS: 80)

There may be no bigger fan of the Minnesota Golden Gophers than the Razorbacks. They beat Minnesota on a neutral court back in November, and it can help raise Arkansas' profile with each of its wins in the Big Ten. Even with their additional top-50 wins over Kentucky and SMU, the Hogs may need some help after losing to Texas A&M and Georgia.

Atlantic 10

Locks: Saint Louis, Massachusetts

The A-10 is the premier mid-major conference in the country, with Saint Louis and Massachusetts leading the way. The Billikens do not have a win over a top-50 RPI team, but their only losses are to Wisconsin and Wichita State. The Minutemen, however, are 4-1 against the top 50, with their only loss of the season coming to Florida State on a neutral court.

George Washington (15-3, RPI: 20, SOS: 76)

The Colonials look set to get back to the tournament for the first time since 2007. They're 2-1 against top-50 RPI teams and 6-2 against the top 100. The A-10 will likely buy them some credit with the committee without putting too many hurdles in their way.

Virginia Commonwealth (14-4, RPI: 44, SOS: 93)

It has taken awhile for the Rams to get everything together this season, and a recent loss to George Washington could hurt when the committee gets together in March. Still, there's enough time for VCU to pick up the handful of wins necessary to secure a bid, starting at Dayton on Wednesday.

Dayton (13-5, RPI: 51, SOS: 64)

The Flyers have two wins over teams in the RPI top 50, but both of those came on neutral courts back in November. When your two best wins are against Gonzaga and California, you probably have more work to do to get into the tournament.

Missouri Valley

Locks: Wichita State

If the Shockers end the season undefeated, they'll likely earn themselves one of the top seeds in the tournament. One loss might be enough to knock them down to the 2-line, though, given their weak overall schedule when compared with teams like Wisconsin, Villanova and Florida. Whether they're a 1 or a 2, they're safely in the tournament.

Indiana State (14-4, RPI: 55, SOS: 126)

The Sycamores stand as the Valley team most likely to hand Wichita State its first loss, though they missed their first chance to do so when they lost by 20 to the Shockers last Saturday. Unfortunately for Indiana State, even that likely wouldn't be enough for it to earn an at-large bid. It will likely have to win the conference tournament to avoid being consigned to the NIT.

Mountain West

Locks: San Diego State

Whereas Wichita State will likely have to enter the tournament undefeated to get a top seed, the Aztecs could be the rare mid-major with a blemished record that still finds itself on the top line. That's what happens when you beat Kansas and Creighton and give Arizona one of its toughest tests of the season.

New Mexico (13-4, RPI: 47, SOS: 58)

The Lobos do not play San Diego State until the final week of February, but then they face off twice in three weeks. If New Mexico manages to split those games, it will have a great chance at inclusion in the tournament.

Boise State (13-5, RPI: 50, SOS: 50)

The Broncos are enjoying their best season in a long time, but they're just 1-5 against RPI top 100 foes. That's the sort of resume that lands a team with a solid seed in the NIT, not an invitation to the NCAAs.

West Coast

Locks: Gonzaga

This may not be a Gonzaga team that can realistically win four consecutive games in March to reach that elusive Final Four, but it is still a safe bet for the Big Dance, as it will enter the West Coast Conference tournament as a heavy favorite to earn the automatic bid. The Bulldogs have lost their only game against a team in the RPI top 50 in Kansas State, though they are 6-2 against the top 100.

BYU (13-7, RPI: 40, SOS: 14)

The Cougars have played a surprisingly strong schedule for a team in the WCC. While they fell to Iowa State, Wichita State, Massachusetts and Oregon, they played all four close. They boast a neutral court win over Texas and a road win over Stanford, but that probably isn't enough to get in the tournament quite yet. They can change that on Saturday at Gonzaga.

Saint Mary's (14-5, RPI: 56, SOS: 65)

Four of the Gaels five losses are of bad ones -- very bad, in fact. They've lost to four teams outside the RPI top 100 in South Carolina, Hawaii, George Mason and Santa Clara, the latter two of which are outside the top 150. Unless they rip off a string of victories, they'll probably need to win the WCC tournament to earn a bid.

Best of the Rest

UW-Green Bay (15-3, RPI: 43, SOS: 92)

The Phoenix are 1-3 against teams in the RPI top 50, with the win coming against Virginia. They also nearly knocked off No. 9 Wisconsin and played Harvard to a close finish on a neutral court. Green Bay is a heavy favorite to win the Horizon League and could be seeded as high as a 12, assuming it makes the tournament.

Harvard (14-2, RPI: 45, SOS: 149)

The Crimson likely won't be challenged for the Ivy League crown. That will make them the first team to clinch a bid for the tournament, but they won't be heavily tested before the Big Dance. Harvard has played just three teams in the RPI top 100, beating UW-Green Bay and losing to Colorado and Connecticut. It will be a hard team to peg come March, but it should do enough to be seeded somewhere in the 10-11 range.

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