Five bubble games to watch as tournament picture comes into focus
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the NCAA tournament field is starting to coalesce. At the same time, the bubble teams are beginning to slot into a hierarchy.
Here are five games we at the Bubble Watch will be paying close attention to this week.
Tuesday: Xavier at St. John's -- These two Big East teams have trended in different directions, and no matter what happens in this game, both could end up missing out on the Big Dance. There's still too much basketball left to think of this as a de facto elimination game, but the winner will certainly get a bump in the unofficial bubble rankings.
Tuesday: Iowa at Minnesota -- The Hawkeyes are safely in the field, but Minnesota could come close to locking up its spot by beating Iowa on Tuesday. It would be the Golden Gophers' fourth win over a team in the RPI top 50 and would move them to 7-9 in arguably the best conference in the country. Minnesota lost its first game with the Hawkeyes this season, 94-73.
Tuesday: Dayton at St. Joseph's -- St. Joseph's is one of our last teams in the field in this week's Bracket Watch, while Dayton is on the fringes. The Flyers have gotten themselves back in the discussion with six straight wins, though just one of those is over a team likely to be in the tournament. St. Joseph's is 2-5 against the RPI top 50, and a win over Dayton could help bury a fellow bubble team.
Thursday: Arkansas at Kentucky -- The Razorbacks have already knocked off the Wildcats once this year, beating them 87-85 in Fayetteville. If they can do it again in Lexington, they'll be a huge step closer to earning an at-large bid. A win would make them 4-4 against teams in the RPI top 50 and 7-8 against the top 100.
Saturday: LSU at Florida -- Similar to Arkansas, LSU can get a huge boost by knocking off the No. 1 team in the nation. A win in Gainesville would push the Tigers to 4-3 against top-50 RPI teams, with wins over both Florida and Kentucky. That would make LSU hard for the committee to ignore three Sundays from now.
One of two new locks this week, North Carolina is here by virtue of its win over Duke, its sixth against a team in the top 45 in RPI. The Tar Heels have two bad losses in ACC play -- at Wake Forest and home to Miami -- but those were in early January. Carolina has now won nine straight games. Meanwhile, Syracuse got back on track after two straight losses by beating Maryland in College Park on Monday, and the Orange remain one of the four No. 1 seeds in this week's Bracket Watch.
SHOULD BE IN
Pittsburgh (20-7, RPI: 42, SOS: 52) -- After spending most of the season as an apparent lock, three straight losses have called into question the Panthers' resume. They're 1-6 against the RPI top 50, and their only win is over No. 40 Stanford. They have just one loss outside the top 50, and while they've had near misses against Syracuse, Cincinnati, Virginia and North Carolina, they haven't shown an ability to beat tourney teams.
IN THE MIX
Florida State (16-11, RPI: 53, SOS: 35) -- The Seminoles desperately needed Sunday's win at Pittsburgh. It was their first over a team in the RPI top 50 since they beat Massachusetts a few days before Christmas. They did not make the field in this week's Bracket Watch.
North Carolina State (17-10, RPI: 60, SOS: 41) -- The Wolfpack are barely in the mix, given their 0-7 record against the RPI top 50 and 3-8 mark against the top 100. Even if they manage to get a win or two against the top 50 before Selection Sunday, they still may not make it to the dance. The Tar Heels visit Raleigh on Wednesday, a game the Wolfpack must win to remain on the bubble.
Clemson (17-9, RPI: 65, SOS: 95) -- Each loss for Pittsburgh robs Clemson of its best chance to improve its resume before the ACC tournament. The Tigers' season finale with the Panthers is their only remaining game against the RPI top 50. Given that they only have a win against one such team -- Duke -- they probably need that game against Pittsburgh to have a realistic chance at an at-large bid.
Maryland (15-13, RPI: 77, SOS: 54) -- The Terrapins' two-point loss against Syracuse on Monday was a heartbreaker, as it would have been their first win against a top-50 RPI team. Instead, they're now 0-9 against the top 50 and 3-13 against the top 100. Even if they manage to beat Virginia in their regular season finale, they'll have to make a huge run in the ACC tournament to have a shot at the NCAAs.
American Athletic Conference
Barring an upset tournament champion, the AAC won't have any bubble drama. After SMU's victory at Connecticut on Sunday, the Mustangs joined Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis and the Huskies as locks for the field of 68. The Mustangs are now 4-3 against the top 35 teams in the RPI and are ranked 22nd on kenpom.com. The only remaining intrigue is the battle for the regular season championship between Louisville and Cincinnati. The Cardinals' final four games are against Temple, Memphis, SMU and Connecticut. The Bearcats have three games left, against Connecticut, Memphis and Rutgers.
Locks: Saint Louis, Massachusetts
The Minutemen were in need of a lift after losing three of five games, two of which were to St. Bonaventure and George Mason. They've given themselves just that after beating George Washington and VCU, two teams likely headed to the tournament, in their last two games. Saint Louis is perhaps the quietest top-10 team in the country. The Billikens are 12-0 in the A-10, with their final four games coming against Duquesne, VCU, Dayton and Massachusetts.
SHOULD BE IN
VCU (20-7, RPI: 23, SOS: 45) -- The Rams could have moved up into the lock section recently, but they lost to both Saint Louis and Massachusetts. They remain a serious threat to the Billikens' undefeated record in the A-10, with the conference leader visiting Richmond on Saturday.
George Washington (20-7, RPI: 29, SOS: 68) -- Like VCU, the Colonials could have pushed themselves into the lock category with wins in either of the recent games against Massachusetts or Saint Louis, but they couldn't quite get over the hump. But George Washington, the nation's No. 26 team in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom, will almost certainly hear its name called on Selection Sunday.
IN THE MIX
Saint Joseph's (19-7, RPI: 37, SOS: 63) -- The Hawks have won four straight games, but just one of those, a home victory against VCU, came against a tourney-bound team. They're 2-5 against the RPI top 50 with just one game remaining against a team in that class. That game, at George Washington, could make or break St. Joe's tourney chances.
Richmond (18-9, RPI: 44, SOS: 47) -- The entire college basketball universe seems to think St. Joe's has a much better case than Richmond, but I'm not seeing it that way. The Spiders are 2-6 against the top 50, won their only head-to-head matchup (albeit in Richmond) and have played a better schedule. Despite nearly identical resumes, there may not be room for both of them in the field of 68. That head-to-head matchup could be the difference.
Dayton (19-8, RPI: 55, SOS: 76) -- The next two weeks will likely determine the Flyers' fate. They end the season with games against Saint Joseph's, Massachusetts, Saint Louis and Richmond. If they go 3-1 in those games, they will have a strong case for the tournament. If they go 2-2, provided one of those two wins is over the Billikens, they would still have a decent chance. If they go 1-3 or 0-4, they'll be headed to the NIT.
If you don't count their two head-to-head matchups, both dominated by Creighton, these two teams are a combined 47-5. There's a solid chance both will be on the 2-line in the NCAAs, and either one could rise up to a No. 1 seed depending on what happens in the conference tournaments. Creighton's lone game this week is against Xavier, while Villanova will play Butler and Marquette.
IN THE MIX
St. John's (18-10, RPI: 47, SOS: 33) -- If you just look at the numbers, the Red Storm's resume doesn't differ much from Big East foes Providence and Xavier. However, drill down to the exact details, and you can see why Steve Lavin's bunch might be a half-step ahead of the Friars and Musketeers. St. Johns's ranks better in both RPI and on KenPom and has the best win of the bunch, a 70-65 victory over Creighton. The Johnnies' game with Xavier on Tuesday is filled with bubble implications.
Providence (18-10, RPI: 56, SOS: 49) -- After dropping a heartbreaker to Villanova by three points last week, the Friars have just one opportunity left to impress the selection committee before the Big East tournament. That comes in their regular season finale at Creighton. Before that, they absolutely must take care of business against Seton Hall and Marquette. A loss in either of those games would be a knockout.
Georgetown (16-11, RPI: 58, SOS: 30) -- The Hoyas picked up a big win over the weekend by drubbing Xavier, 74-52. They have just one game this week, traveling to Milwaukee to take on Marquette. However, it's the final week of the season that will go a long way toward determining Georgetown's postseason plans. The Hoyas play conference titans Creighton and Villanova in advance of the Big East tournament. If they can just split those games, they will have a great chance to earn a once-unlikely tourney bid.
Xavier (18-9, RPI: 63 SOS: 78) -- At one point, the Musketeers seemed to be safely in the field, but their season has unraveled a bit. They have just one win against a team in the RPI top 50, and that came against Cincinnati way back on Dec. 14. They are 6-7 against the top 100, but the win over the Bearcats is their only one against a team guaranteed to make the tournament. Xavier can do itself a huge favor when Creighton visits on Saturday.
Marquette (16-11, RPI: 70, SOS: 62) -- The Golden Eagles are just barely in the mix for an at-large bid, and their final shred of hope could vanish this week with games against Georgetown and Villanova. If they lose both, they probably won't be in the Bubble Watch heading into the Big East tournament.
The Big Ten is either the best or the second-best conference in the country. Four of its teams -- Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State -- are in the top 20 in RPI. Those four teams and Iowa are in the top 20 on KenPom. The latter also ranks the Big Ten as the best conference in the country. Depending on what happens in the conference tournament, all five could be seeded fith or higher in the Big Dance.
IN THE MIX
Nebraska (16-10, RPI: 45, SOS: 24) -- The Cornhuskers have charged onto the bubble with five straight wins. Their resume still needs some work, as they're 3-7 against the RPI top 50, though one of those three wins was at Michigan State. They visit Illinois and host Northwestern this week. Their regular season finale at home against Wisconsin is their best remaining chance for a statement win.
Minnesota (17-11, RPI: 61, SOS: 20) -- The Gophers have hit a bit of a rough patch, losing three of their last four and six of their last eight. Thanks to the strength of the Big Ten, though, they still have two great chances to make an impression on the committee before the conference tournament. They host Iowa on Tuesday and travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines on Saturday.
With Monday's win over Oklahoma, Kansas clinched at least a share of its 10th straight Big 12 regular season championship. It's an unparalleled run of dominance in an excellent basketball conference. The Big 12 has five teams locked into the field of 68, and another three still harboring realistic hopes.
SHOULD BE IN
Baylor (18-9, RPI: 38, SOS: 6) -- After four straight wins, including victories over Kansas State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, the Bears find themselves back on the right side of the bubble. If you stopped paying attention to them after their midseason swoon, you might be surprised to learn that they're 5-7 against the RPI top 50. The Bears have far fewer warts than most bubble teams.
IN THE MIX
Oklahoma State (17-10, RPI: 46, SOS: 25) -- The Cowboys have cruised to victories over Texas Tech and TCU in Marcus Smart's first two games back from suspension. Neither of those does a thing for their tournament resume, though. Their final three games, however, give them the opportunities they need to get back safely in the field of 68. It all starts on Saturday when Kansas comes to Stillwater, and continues next week with games against Kansas State (at home) and at Iowa State.
West Virginia (15-12, RPI: 80, SOS: 50) -- After beating Iowa State two weeks ago, the Mountaineers dropped games to Texas and Baylor by double-digits. They're 4-10 against the RPI top 50, but their RPI and KenPom (63) rankings don't exactly scream at-large bid. They likely need to go 2-1 in remaining games against Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas to get in without winning the Big 12 tournament.
Arizona remains a comfortable No. 1 seed, and it will take an unforeseen collapse in the final few weeks of the season to change that. UCLA dropped a game at Stanford last week, but the Bruins rank 12th in RPI and 15th on KenPom, one of 11 teams to be in the top 15 in both.
SHOULD BE IN
Colorado (20-8, RPI: 25. SOS: 11) -- The Buffaloes got a much-needed win over a tournament team when they beat Arizona State last week. Their RPI is sterling, but they are just 3-7 against the RPI top 50 and rank 61st on KenPom. Their win against Kansas will do a whole lot for them come Selection Sunday. Their last three regular season games are on the road, beginning with Utah on Saturday.
Arizona State (19-8, RPI: 32, SOS: 42) -- It was a rough week for the Sun Devils, as they went on the road and lost to both Colorado and Utah. The resume still looks strong, but it would benefit them to at least split against Stanford and California this week. They should be favored in both games, given that both are in Tempe.
Stanford (18-8, RPI: 40, SOS: 43) -- After beating UCLA on Saturday, the Cardinal are as close to being a lock for the NCAA tournament as they've been all season. They're now 4-5 against the RPI top 50 with two of those wins -- Connecticut and Oregon -- coming on the road. They get likely tourney squad Arizona State and tourney lock Arizona this week.
California (18-9, RPI: 49, SOS: 48) -- The Golden Bears' 3-6 record against top-50 RPI teams is likely good enough to get them an at-large bid, especially with one of those wins coming over Arizona. Like Stanford, the Bears are taking a trip to the desert this week, and a win in either game could help remove any lingering doubt about their tourney case.
IN THE MIX
Oregon (18-8, RPI: 41, SOS: 39) -- Three straight victories have the Ducks clawing their way toward .500 in the Pac-12, but they do not have a conference win against a team that might make the tournament. That changes starting this week, with three of their final four regular season games against teams that are either locked in the tournament or are likely to get a bid. They spend this week in Los Angeles, playing UCLA on Thursday and USC on Saturday.
Washington (15-13, RPI: 73, SOS: 34) -- It's not common for a team that is 15-13 overall to earn an at-large bid to the tournament, but the Huskies boast four top-50 wins, one of which came on the road at Arizona State. They have one more shot at a resume-building victory in the regular season, with UCLA visiting Seattle on March 6. Their three losses outside the top 100 undermine their resume, but a win over the Bruins could help negate that.
Locks: Florida, Kentucky
Florida finds itself as the No. 1 overall seed after Syracuse's two losses last week. As discussed in this week's Bracket Watch, that is rarely the guarantee of tournament success that one might expect. With Wichita State looking like a near-lock to go undefeated, the Gators probably will have to win out to hold onto that overall No. 1. They still have one more game against Kentucky, in Gainesville on March 8.
IN THE MIX
Missouri (19-8, RPI: 43, SOS: 60) -- The Tigers suffered a damaging loss at Alabama on Saturday, their first loss to a team outside the RPI top 100. With an 8-7 record against that subset, Missouri is on the right side of the bubble with two weeks remaining in the regular season. Its last four games are against Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Tennessee. The Tigers need to find at least three wins in those four games.
Tennessee (16-11, RPI: 57, SOS: 15) -- The Volunteers are another team careening out of the bracket. They've lost four of their last six games, two of which came against also-rans Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. What's more, they only have one game remaining against a team that might make the tournament, their season finale against Missouri. They have just one top-50 win and are 6-9 against the top 100. They'll need to make a run in the SEC tournament.
Arkansas (18-9, RPI: 66, SOS: 75) -- The Razorbacks have three wins against the RPI top 50, but their tournament hopes might come down to their game in Lexington on Thursday. A win against Kentucky would give Arkansas a season sweep over the Wildcats and make the Hogs 4-4 against the top 50 at the end of the regular season.
LSU (16-10, RPI: 67, SOS: 64) -- If the Tigers are NIT-bound in a few weeks, they may look back on last Saturday's one-point loss at Kentucky as the one that got away. Bubble teams need to differentiate themselves from the herd, and LSU has one more chance to do that in the regular season, when it travels to Gainesville to play the top-ranked Gators on Saturday.
Locks: San Diego State
Depending on what happens the rest of the season, it will be very interesting to see where the Aztecs are seeded in the tournament. They're a 5-seed in this week's Bracket Watch. San Diego State doubled its number of top-50 wins this week without any effort by virtue of Boise State's move into that class. With the deep group of teams worthy of top-four seeds, however, the Aztecs' resume just doesn't match up, in my opinion, to teams like Saint Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Virginia, Michigan or Michigan State.
SHOULD BE IN
New Mexico (21-5, RPI: 24, SOS: 66) -- The Lobos are probably a lock after beating San Diego State on Saturday. Given their weak strength of schedule, though, we'll keep them here for another week while letting the bubble herd thin. They should be able to cruise before their regular season finale against the Aztecs in San Diego on March 8.
West Coast Conference
IN THE MIX
Gonzaga (23-6, RPI: 28, SOS: 88) -- After losing at BYU last week, the Bulldogs cannot be considered locked into the Big Dance. They're just 1-3 against the RPI top 50, and their only chance for another game against such a team would come in a potential WCC tournament championship against the Cougars. If they lost that game, there would justifiably be a lot of nervous people in Spokane on Selection Sunday.
BYU (20-10, RPI: 33, SOS: 29) -- They've been the second banana in the conference all season, but it's actually the Cougars who have the best resume in the WCC. They're 3-5 against the RPI top 50, with wins over Gonzaga, Texas on a neutral court and Stanford on the road. They also lost to Iowa State by two and Oregon by four on the road. Most likely, this is a one-bid conference. It's BYU, however, that has a shot at an at-large bid.
Best of the rest
Wichita State (29-0, RPI: 8, SOS: 101) -- The Shockers can now see the light at the end of the tunnel in its quest for an undefeated season, with just two regular season games left. Florida still has one game remaining with Kentucky before the SEC tournament. One loss by the Gators could give the Shockers the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance.
Toledo (23-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 146) -- The Rockets got themselves righted in the MAC with wins over Bowling Green and Ball State last week. Still, without a win against a top-50 RPI team there won't be an at-large bid waiting for them if the fall in the conference tournament.
Southern Miss (23-5, RPI: 34, SOS: 136) -- The Golden Eagles are one of few true bid stealers this year. They have the resume of a bubble team, but they will be one of the favorites to win the Conference USA tournament. However, with teams like Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State and UTEP all looming as threats to knock them off, they may need an at-large to get in.
Harvard (22-4, RPI: 48, SOS: 192) -- The Crimson's perfect week, coupled with Yale's loss to Columbia, put them back in sole possession of first place in the Ivy League. They have four games left in the regular season, and if they can knock off the Bulldogs in New Haven on March 7, they'll likely be returning to the NCAA Tournament.
UW-Green Bay (22-5 RPI: 51, SOS: 132) -- The Phoenix are another real threat to bubble teams if they end up losing in the Horizon League tournament. They're just outside the top 50 in both RPI and on KenPom, own a win over Virginia and lost by three to Wisconsin. Needless to say, there will be a ton of bandwagon UW-Green Bay fans all across the country during the second week of March.