If they aren't already, major conference teams on shaky ground for securing an NCAA tournament bid will soon be keeping an especially close watch on potential bubble busters. Those are the second-tier contenders in smaller conferences that fit the following three criteria: good enough to win their conference tournament, lacking the resume to secure an at-large bid and playing in a conference with a favorite that is likely to make the field of 68 even if it falls in its league's postseason tournament. As February draws near, there are only two bubble busters at the moment that stand out.
The most dangerous one could be BYU. The Cougars are on the outside looking in of our most recent Bracket Watch, but they've shown an ability to hang with strong competition, beating Texas and Stanford and losing by two points to Iowa State, nine to Massachusetts and four in overtime to Oregon. They likely wouldn't be challenged in the conference tournament until a potential matchup against Saint Mary's in the semifinals. If they reach the finals, they'd probably face Gonzaga, which won't scare a Cougars team that gave the Bulldogs a fight well into the second half before losing by 15 in Spokane on Saturday night. Should Gonzaga, which is a lock for the field, stumble before the conference tourney finals, BYU could steal a bid from a big conference bubble squad by prevailing against an inferior opponent in the WCC title game.
Speaking of Saint Mary's, it is not the same kind of threat as the Cougars because it hasn't shown the same ability to compete against quality foes. The Gaels have played just one game against an RPI top-40 team, a 22-point beatdown by Gonzaga.
That leaves Indiana State as the other early potential bid thief to keep an eye on. The Sycamores have a very navigable path to the Missouri Valley finals, and while Wichita State handled them with ease at home, the conference tournament is played on a neutral court. Indiana State has shown some decent chops this year, winning at Notre Dame and beating Ohio Valley Conference favorite Belmont by 12 at home, though they lost at Belmont by one in November.
NOTE: Teams are listed within each grouping by RPI. All stats and rankings are through Monday, Jan. 27.
Locks: Syracuse, Duke, Pittsburgh
Syracuse continues to make a seamless transition to the ACC, as it has created some separation between itself and the next two teams in the conference. Those two, Pittsburgh and Duke, squared off Monday, with the Blue Devils riding Jabari Parker in the first half and the hot shooting of Andre Dawkins in the second to earn its fifth straight win.
Despite being 18-3, the Panthers may not be able to do much better than a 4-seed in the tournament. They're 0-3 against top-50 RPI teams, though they still have games remaining against Virginia, Syracuse and Florida State. The Blue Devils and Orange meet for the first time as conference foes on Saturday
SHOULD BE IN
Virginia (15, RPI: 21, SOS: 12): The Cavaliers did well to cruise past North Carolina last week. They have a tough week ahead with road games at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, but it will take a serious collapse over the final six weeks of the regular season for them to miss the tournament.
Florida State (13-6, RPI: 28, SOS: 19): All six of the Seminoles' losses are to teams currently ranked in the RPI's top 25. While that will certainly impress the committee, they also have just one win against a team in the top 30, a neutral-court victory over Massachusetts. They should fatten up with games against N.C. State and Clemson this week.
IN THE MIX
North Carolina (12-7, RPI: 51, SOS: 10): While a bid for a team with wins over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky seems almost sacrosanct, the Tar Heels are no sure thing to get an invitation. They only have five wins against teams in the RPI top 100, and that loss to UAB looks worse and worse as the Blazers falter in Conference USA. Carolina must hold serve this week against Georgia Tech and N.C. State, who are a combined 5-9 in the ACC.
Maryland (11-9, RPI: 80, SOS: 40): The Terrapins missed a chance to add a gold star to their resume when they fell to Pitt at home on Saturday. They still have a decent amount of work to do to even give themselves a chance at making the tourney. They have just two wins against teams in the RPI top 100, and their best win is against Providence, which ranks 42nd.
American Athletic Conference
Locks: Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis
Three conferences in the country currently have at least three teams ranked in the top 25 at kenpom.com. You would probably guess that two of them are the ACC and Big Ten. The other is the American. However, it might not be the three teams you expect. Memphis ranks 32nd, but the Tigers will certainly hear their names called on Selection Sunday. The surprising strength of the conference could help its bubble teams and give a seeding boost to whoever makes it, especially Cincinnati and Louisville.
SHOULD BE IN
Connecticut (16-4, RPI: 38, SOS: 66): The Huskies have one very bad loss on their resume to Houston, but otherwise have nothing of which to be ashamed. The victory against Florida will likely be their best of the season, and their road win over Memphis shows their ability to beat quality competition away from home. They play just once this week, with Houston visiting Storrs.
IN THE MIX
Southern Methodist (16-4, RPI: 41, SOS: 107): The third team from the AAC that is inside KenPom's top 25? That would be Larry Brown's Mustangs, who are No. 24 on the strength of their 13th-ranked adjusted defense efficiency. They don't have a bad loss on their resume, are undefeated at home and can point to triumph over Connecticut as a quality win. This could be a big week for SMU with Memphis coming to town on Saturday.
Locks: Saint Louis, Massachusetts
While the Billikens' only two losses this season came against Wisconsin and Wichita State, they're in a bit of a holding pattern until they play some of the better competition in their conference. There's no shame in losing to the Badgers and Shockers, two teams that have combined to lose three games this year, but Saint Louis' best win is either versus Indiana State or at Dayton. UMass, meanwhile, is 3-2 against top-50 RPI teams, and similarly has yet to play the A-10's best. These two don't play each other until the final game of the regular season at UMass, which could very well determine the conference's regular season champion.
SHOULD BE IN
VCU (16-4, RPI: 33, SOS: 75): The Rams rank 27th at KenPom thanks in large part to a defense that ranks seventh in adjusted efficiency. As we've come to expect, they're first in the country in steal percentage, pilfering the ball from their opponents on 16.6 percent of possessions.
George Washington (16-3, RPI: 34, SOS: 95): The committee will overlook a neutral-court loss to Marquette, especially when the Colonials can point to a neutral-court victory over Creighton. They play two bubble teams this week, and can really bolster their case with wins against LaSalle and Dayton, although that's stretching the term a bit with regard to the Explorers.
IN THE MIX
Richmond (14-6, RPI: 47, SOS: 52): While there's still a lot left to be determined, the Spiders' case could very well be a de facto referendum on the A-10. Their best win thus far is over Massachusetts at home, and the only other potential tournament teams they've beaten are Belmont and Delaware. It will no doubt take a few more wins against the top teams in the conference for them to get a bid. They'll get a chance to make a big statement this week, with road games against Saint Louis and VCU.
Dayton (13-7, RPI: 64, SOS: 65): I feel obligated to include the Flyers, but to say they're trending in the wrong direction is putting it gently. More accurately, they're careening their way toward the NIT. They've lost four of their last five and have failed against conference foes that are likely to make the tournament. Sorry Flyers fans, but non-conference wins over IPFW, Gonzaga and California won't be enough to earn a bid.
Locks: Creighton, Villanova
These two locks met in Philadelphia last week and it was an unbridled disaster for the home team, as Creighton knocked down 21 three-pointers in a 96-68 win that moved the Blue Jays into first place in the Big East. These two could give any other conferences' top two a run for their money. Villanova is fourth in RPI and Creighton is 10th. The Wildcats rank 14th on KenPom while the Blue Jays are second. They aren't just locks for the tournament. Both will likely be seeded no worse than third or fourth come Selection Sunday.
SHOULD BE IN
Xavier (15-5, RPI: 35, SOS: 32): Xavier has one bad loss on the season, falling to USC on a neutral court. Otherwise, its season has thus far played out as expected. A neutral-court win over Cincinnati in December looks great now with the Bearcats on top of the AAC. The Musketeers host Seton Hall on Saturday, so they will have to avoid looking ahead to their big road game at Villanova the following Monday.
IN THE MIX
Providence (15-5, RPI: 42, SOS: 56): Xavier may have better credentials in the committee's eyes and a bigger name, but the Friars beat the Musketeers in their only head-to-head matchup thus far this season (they'll play again in Cincinnati on Feb. 8), and also have a monster victory over Creighton among their five conference wins. Providence will travel to Milwaukee to play Marquette on Thursday, then head south to take on DePaul in Chicago on Saturday.
Locks: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Iowa State
The Big 12 could very well get seven bids, which is where they're at in this week's Bracket Watch. The four teams listed above will all make it for sure, with Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State as good as locked into one of the 16 top-four seeds. The Sooners could be in that group after beating the Cowboys in Norman on Monday. They get no rest, however, as they travel to Ames to take on the Cyclones on Saturday.
SHOULD BE IN
Texas (16-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 36): The Longhorns' four losses this season are all to teams ranked inside the top 50 in both RPI and on KenPom. They have three wins against such teams, including road wins at North Carolina and Baylor, and have also defeated small conference powerhouses Mercer and Stephen F. Austin, both of which are in the RPI's top 100 and likely to be tourney-bound. Texas could elevate to lock status with a win over Kansas on Saturday.
Kansas State (14-6, RPI: 39, SOS: 24): The Wildcats have four wins against teams in the RPI's top 35, and their three losses to similarly ranked teams were all on the road. At no point this season will losses away from home to Kansas, Texas and Iowa State be considered serious blemishes. They did, however, lose on neutral courts to Georgetown and Charlotte, and also fell to Northern Colorado, a team ranked 144th in RPI, though it is the heavy favorite to win the Big Sky Conference. It seems the Wildcats are jockeying for position in the tournament, not trying to force their way in.
Baylor (13-6, RPI: 55, SOS: 23): While the Bears are 1-5 in conference, the loss that really stings is at Texas Tech. Home losses to Oklahoma and Texas knocked the Bears down a few pegs, but they won't be enough to relegate them to the NIT. They should be able to get right when they host West Virginia on Tuesday. Then it's right back to the grind, with a road game against the Cowboys in Stillwater followed by a home game with Kansas.
Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State
The Big Ten is the only conference with five locks this week, but this doubles as the first week in which it does not have a team on a 1-line in the Bracket Watch. Michigan has unexpectedly risen to the top of the conference standings, and now owns road wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota, and a home win over Iowa. No other team in the conference can boast such an impressive resume.
MSU lost to the Wolverines last weekend but likely remains the class of the Big Ten when fully healthy, though that's something the Spartans haven't been for a long time. Ohio State finally got back in the win column by beating Illinois, but it has just one win against a team in the RPI's top 50, and that came against North Dakota State. Wisconsin also broke a losing streak, cruising to a win over Purdue on the road after a close first half, while Iowa notched its fifth double-digit win in the conference, though two of those have come against Northwestern.
SHOULD BE IN
Minnesota (15-6, RPI: 24, SOS: 4): Thanks to a non-conference slate that included Syracuse, Florida State, Richmond and Arkansas -- as well as the tough competition they see almost every night in the Big Ten -- Minnesota's profile will be helped all season by its strength of schedule. If the Gophers want to be considered seriously, they need to take care of business in their next three games, all against lesser competition (Northwestern, at Purdue, Indiana).
IN THE MIX
Indiana (13-7, RPI: 66, SOS: 49): Yes, the win over Wisconsin two weeks ago put Indiana on the tournament radar, but it alone won't be nearly enough to get the Hoosiers a bid. They need to show the committee they can beat even a decent team on the road, something they've yet to do this season. Nebraska, whom IU visits on Thursday, may not qualify, but Minnesota does, and the Hoosiers will head to Minneapolis next week.
The Wildcats are the No. 1 team in the country, No. 1 on KenPom and No. 2 in RPI. They're one of three remaining undefeated teams and have six wins over teams in the RPI top 50. They've won away from home (at San Diego State, Michigan and UCLA) and on neutral courts (against Duke). They've done everything this season. Except lose.
SHOULD BE IN
Colorado (15-6, RPI: 23, SOS: 6): This is a completely different team since losing Spencer Dinwiddie for the season to an ACL tear. They're 1-3 since their starting point guard went down and 1-4 if you include the loss to Washington, the game in which he suffered the injury. While that obviously will affect them the rest of the way and could impact their season, the win over Kansas will do wonders for them. They should be safe, so long as they don't completely fall apart.
UCLA (16-4, RPI: 20, SOS: 26): By time the selection committee sits down to fill out the bracket, the Bruins likely won't be in any jeopardy. However, it would be encouraging to see them win a big game outside of Pauley Pavilion. Their best win away from home came against Colorado, and that was after Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL. They lost at Missouri and Utah, and were throttled by Duke on a neutral court. Oregon is coming apart at the seams, but a win in Eugene on Thursday would still quell some fears for UCLA fans.
California (14-6, RPI: 49, SOS: 69): The Golden Bears are the 2a to UCLA's 2 in the Pac-12, and it's hard to imagine this conference sending just two teams to the big dance. They have the resume of your typical 8-9-10-seed, with one top-50 win, four top-100 wins, a couple bad losses (at UC Santa Barbara and at USC) and no real signature victory.
IN THE MIX
Oregon (14-5, RPI: 40, SOS: 44): Before their five-game losing streak in conference, the Ducks were a highly touted team. You might be surprised to learn, then, that their best win this season was at home over BYU. Their only wins against teams likely to make the tournament were over Utah Valley and UC-Irvine. They need to add wins over the cream of the Pac-12 if they are to hold on to their tenuous position in the field.
Arizona State (15-5, RPI: 50, SOS: 76): The Sun Devils' best win this year is over the oft mentioned depleted version of Colorado. They've played three games against teams in the top 20 in RPI (Creighton, UCLA and Arizona) and lost those games by an average of 22 points. There's some work to do here, but they can be well positioned with a few more solid wins, starting this week with road games against California and Stanford.
Stanford (13-6, RPI: 53, SOS: 50): The Cardinal are the rare bubble team that can boast two solid road wins, one over Connecticut and the other against Oregon. If they merely win the games they're expected to the rest of the way, could it be enough to get in the tournament? It's possible, but that's also a recipe for a bubble disaster. They host both Pac-12 teams from the state of Arizona this week, a great opportunity to turn some heads.
Washington (13-8, RPI: 69, SOS: 55): Three top-50 wins will always look good, but Arizona State and Oregon could tumble outside that group, hurting the Huskies' resume. They go on the road for three straight games, and while it's never easy to win away from home, they have to take care of teams like Washington State and Utah, regardless of where they play them.
Locks: Florida, Kentucky
It seems unlikely that either Arizona or Syracuse will lose its grip on one of the four 1-seeds in the tournament. The other two are up for grabs, though the committee would have a hard time ignoring Wichita State if the Shockers go undefeated. While Florida is a 2-seed in the latest Bracket Watch, the Gators have as strong a chance as any other team to claim one of the top seeds. If they merely split with Kentucky and don't slip up elsewhere, they'll win the SEC regular season championship. If they then triumph in the conference tournament, it would be nearly impossible to keep them off the top line. The only plausible way it could happen is if the Shockers remain undefeated and Kansas pulls off a championship sweep in the Big 12.
IN THE MIX
Tennessee (12-7, RPI: 52, SOS: 11): The Volunteers are in the field according to Bracket Watch, but make no mistake, there's work to be done here. They have two losses outside the RPI top 100, one of which came at home to Texas A&M. They do own wins against Xavier and Virginia, but their best road victory is at LSU, a fact that is unlikely to change.
Missouri (15-4, RPI: 56, SOS: 109): This is a team that needs at least two more strong wins to make a solid case for the tournament. They have one win against an RPI top 50 team (UCLA), and are 4-3 against the top 100. They'll have a big opportunity over the next two weeks, with road games against Arkansas, Florida and Ole Miss, and a home date with Kentucky.
Ole Miss (14-5, RPI: 58, SOS: 89): The Rebels don't have any wins against teams in the top 50 in either RPI or on KenPom. They're 2-4 against the top 100, and have one bad loss at Mississippi State. They'll really need to tear through the back half of their conference schedule if they are going to make a push for a tournament bid.
LSU (12-6, RPI: 62, SOS: 70): The Tigers' resume is quite similar to the Rebels'. They've yet to beat a team in the RPI top 50 and are 4-5 against the top 100, with their best win coming against Missouri at home. They have one loss to a team outside the top 100 (Rhode Island) and do not have a good road victory. But hey, maybe they'll face each other in the NIT.
Arkansas (13-6, RPI: 75, SOS: 85): They might have the worst RPI of the bunch, but the Razorbacks certainly have as impressive a resume as any of the SEC's other bubble teams. They beat Kentucky and SMU at home and Minnesota on a neutral court. The Wildcats and Gophers will be in the tournament, and the Mustangs have a great shot. Arkansas has two losses to teams ranked outside the top 100 in RPI, but at least both of those defeats came on the road. The Hogs also nearly beat Florida and lost to California by single-digits. This is a big week for them, with games against fellow bubblers Missouri and LSU.
Locks: Wichita State
We knew that it would be hard to gauge just how good the Shockers were once they got into conference play. They've won all but one of their conference games by double-digits, only getting challenged at Missouri State thus far. KenPom ranks them No. 10 in adjusted defense and No. 23 in adjusted offense, one of just six teams in the top 25 in both. This should be another relatively easy week for them, with home games against Loyola (Ill.) and Evansville.
IN THE MIX
Indiana State (16-4, RPI: 44, SOS: 123): The Sycamores can't make the tournament without beating Wichita State. It's as simple as that. Could they, however, make the tournament if they win their return date with the Shockers in Terre Haute, then lose to them in the conference tournament? Such a scenario would make them 1-3 against teams in the RPI top 50. They have two more games against teams that could be in the RPI top 100, and they'll have to win those against Missouri State and Illinois State to have a chance. Still, they almost certainly need to earn the automatic bid for winning the conference tournament to make it.
Locks: San Diego State
The Aztecs are above .500 against teams in the RPI top 10. How many programs would like to say that? They are 2-1, with wins over Creighton and Kansas, and their lone loss to No. 1 Arizona. Steve Fisher's team still has to play New Mexico twice and at Boise State, but it is likely to be a 2-seed in the big dance.
SHOULD BE IN
New Mexico (15-4, RPI: 26, SOS: 37): The Lobos could move to the lock category simply by splitting their two games with San Diego State. They have one of the largest negative spreads from RPI to KenPom, as the latter has them ranked 58th. The fact that they're 128th in adjusted defense definitely does not help. They do not play the first of their two games with the Aztecs until Feb. 22.
IN THE MIX
Boise State (14-6, RPI: 57, SOS: 63): The Broncos don't really have a bad loss, but they also don't have a win over any team in the RPI top 100. That makes their Feb. 5 showdown against San Diego State all the more important. They also can't afford to drop any games to teams they should beat, meaning they have to take care of Air Force and UNLV this week.
The Bulldogs didn't really test themselves in the non-conference, as evidenced by their No. 81 strength of schedule ranking. That likely won't hurt them too much, given that they will be heavy favorites to win the WCC tournament, and would likely earn an at-large bid if they fall in the conference tourney. It could, however, knock them down the seed lines just a bit.
IN THE MIX
BYU (13-9, RPI: 48, SOS: 15): The Cougars lost by single-digits to Iowa State, Massachusetts and Oregon. If they managed to win just one of those games to go along with their neutral-court victory over Texas, they would be in a much better position to get back to the tournament. As such, their three losses against teams outside the top 100 in RPI loom much larger. Their two games with Saint Mary's, the first of which is in Provo on Saturday, will be crucial.
Saint Mary's (16-5, RPI: 45, SOS: 64): The Gaels have two bad losses (South Carolina and Hawaii) and lost to Gonzaga by 22 in their first meeting. Meanwhile, their best win is against North Dakota State. If they are going to earn an at-large bid, they'll have to, at worst, split with BYU and beat Gonzaga in the regular-season finale.
Best of the Rest
Southern Miss (18-3, RPI: 36, SOS: 131): Conference USA will likely be a one-bid conference, and that means the real show will come in the second week of March. The Golden Eagles are currently 5-1 in the conference, tied for first with Louisiana Tech, whom they beat at home two weeks ago. With just one win against an RPI top 50 team and no more such games on the schedule, they probably won't be able to earn an at-large bid.
Harvard (15-3, RPI: 46, SOS: 163): The Crimson, ranked 39th at KenPom, beat UW-Green Bay on a neutral court, and also won at Boston University, one of the Patriot League co-favorites, along with American University. Their recent loss at Florida Atlantic looks bad, but it doesn't hurt them in the grand scheme of things since it was out of conference. They play their first key Ivy League game on Saturday against Penn.
UW-Green Bay (17-3, RPI: 54, SOS: 140): The Phoneix impressively rank 49th at KenPom and 35th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their leading scorers, Keifer Sykes (20.8 points per game) and Alec Brown (16.4), both shoot 50 percent from the floor.
Louisiana Tech (17-4, RPI: 74, SOS: 220): The Bulldogs' own an impressive win at Oklahoma that continues to get better with the Sooners playing well in the Big 12. They have one terrible loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, and lost an important game at Southern Miss, the only time they'll play the Golden Eagles in the regular season. Still, it's likely not much matters in Conference USA until the conference tournament. If they can remain in the top three in the regular season, they'll avoid Southern Miss until a potential matchup in the championship.
Stephen F. Austin (18-2, RPI: 90, SOS: 335): The Lumberjacks have been so dominant in the Southland Conference that they warrant inclusion as one of the best of the rest. They're ranked 54th on KenPom and have won their seven conference games by an average of 15.7 points. They can't afford to slip up in the conference tournament though, as they lost their only game against a team with a top-100 RPI when they fell at Texas in November.