As the regular season closes, fringe teams look to solidify their spots
It's March, and the madness has already started. Some leagues -- including the Missouri Valley, home of the undefeated Wichita State Shockers -- begin their conference tournaments this week. And with just one week remaining in the regular season for power-conference teams, there are a dwindling number of bids up for grabs. Many of the teams still on the bubble are going to be in must-win mode.
As of this edition of Bracket Watch there are 33 teams that are locks for the NCAA tournament, five more that should be in and 22 spots reserved for champions of what figure to be one-bid leagues. That leaves just eight open spots in the field of 68, and 19 teams from the multi-bid conferences alone still fighting for them.
These five games are the biggest with bubble implications for the week ahead:
The Hoyas boast four top-50 wins, three of which came on neutral courts. They also have three losses to teams outside the RPI top 140, including one to No. 222 Northeastern. For now, those bad losses are doing more harm than the wins are doing good. That could all change if they can knock off Creighton in Washington D.C. in its last home game of the season.
With six top-50 wins, including neutral-court victories over Kentucky and Colorado, the Bears already have a strong case for an at-large bid. Still, they could end up taking the decision out of the selection committee's hands with a win over the Cyclones. That would make Baylor 7-8 against the top 50 with just two losses coming to teams outside of that class.
The Sun Devils should be comfortably inside the field of 68, but the same cannot be said for the Ducks. While they earned a spot in the field in this week's Bracket Watch, they have just one win over a team that is guaranteed to be in the tournament, and that came last week against a UCLA squad that was without the suspended Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. Another win over a team headed to the big dance would do wonders for Oregon's resume.
The Flyers looked bound for the NIT at the end of January, but they've won seven of their last eight, punctuated by a win over Massachusetts last weekend. They're 3-5 against the RPI top 50 and 7-6 against the top 100, a resume into which the committee can still poke too many holes. They could patch up a lot of those by winning in Saint Louis. It would be Dayton's first statement victory on the road, and would be its second win over a team in the RPI top 20.
After beating St. John's and Creighton in what might have been their best week of the season, Xavier dropped a demoralizing game at Seton Hall, its second loss to the Pirates this season. The Musketeers now have as many losses to sub-100 teams as they do wins over top-50 teams, a fact they'd like to change before the committee convenes in a little more than two weeks. They may be able to do that by upending the Wildcats in Cincinnati. Not only would it be their best win of the season, it would give them two victories against teams in the top 10 in RPI and three over the top 20.
Virginia clinched the ACC regular season championship with its win over Syracuse on Saturday. Both the Cavaliers and Orange, along with Duke, have a chance to earn the final No. 1 seed that is still up for grabs. Each of the three would have to win the ACC tournament to do so.
IN THE MIX
Pittsburgh (22-8, RPI: 46, SOS: 85): The Panthers suffered a damaging loss at home against North Carolina State on Monday, potentially setting in motion a series of events that could leave them in need of a win or two in the ACC tournament to lock up a spot in the field. Now they put themselves in what feels like a must-win situation at a tough Clemson team on Saturday.
Florida State (17-11, RPI: 58, SOS: 42): The Seminoles got back in the tournament discussion by beating Pittsburgh two weeks ago, then took care of business against Georgia Tech in their only game last week. There's still an opportunity to do the type of work that would impress the committee when Syracuse visits Tallahassee on Sunday. A win there would have FSU back in serious contention for an at-large bid. Short of that, it will likely need a pair of statement victories in the ACC tournament.
American Athletic Conference
Louisville and Cincinnati enter the final week of the regular season tied atop the conference standings at 13-3. The Cardinals have the harder remaining schedule, as they visit SMU and host Connecticut. Cincinnati welcomes Memphis to town on Thursday, then has a quick turnaround at Rutgers on Saturday. All five of these teams have done enough to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.
VCU and George Washington join long-time locks Saint Louis and Massachusetts this week. The Rams got back on track last week after losing three times in four games by beating Fordham and then taking down the Billikens. GW won its only game last week, a relatively comfortable home victory over George Mason. The ratings systems love VCU (No. 15 in RPI and No. 17 on KenPom) and like GW (No. 31 RPI, No. 44 on KenPom), but they both have secured at-large bids. Saint Louis, on the other hand, had a terrible week, losing to Duquesne and VCU. Given their weak strength of schedule, they probably have to get to at least the conference tournament championship game to receive better than a No. 5 seed.
SHOULD BE IN
Saint Joseph's (21-7, RPI: 33, SOS: 67): After another perfect week, the Hawks have won eight of their last nine, a stretch that includes wins over Dayton (twice), Massachusetts and VCU. They're 4-4 against the RPI top 50 and 7-6 against the top 100. A win at George Washington on March 5 would all but assure them a spot in the field.
IN THE MIX
Dayton (20-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 70): The Flyers played themselves back onto the bubble periphery in the last few weeks, but they really got back in the picture by beating Massachusetts over the weekend. They visit Saint Louis on Wednesday and host Richmond on Saturday in what could be two more resume-building victories. A win over the Billikens, in particular, would look great to the committee and would be Dayton's fourth over a team in the RPI's top 35.
Richmond (18-11, RPI: 65, SOS: 73): The Spiders likely played themselves off the bubble by losing to George Mason and Rhode Island last week, two teams with RPIs worse than 140. Even if they manage to beat both VCU and Dayton this week, they'd likely have to do more work in the A-10 tournament to offset four losses to teams outside the RPI top 100.
LOCKS: Villanova, Creighton
Villanova still has an outside shot at a No. 1 seed, but the Wildcats would likely need some help. Even if they won out and swept the Big East regular season and tournament championships, both Kansas and Wisconsin would have better resumes if they won their respective league tournaments, and that doesn't even get into what could happen with Virginia, Syracuse and Duke in the ACC. It's possible for the Wildcats to move to the top line, but not probable.
IN THE MIX
Xavier (20-9, RPI: 42, SOS: 53): The Musketeers had a banner week last week, winning at St. John's and then knocking off Creighton. They nearly undid all that good will by losing at Seton Hall on Monday, though. A date with Villanova looms on Thursday before the Big East tournament. If they lose to the Wildcats then bow out of the conference tournament early, they could be disappointed on Selection Sunday.
Providence (19-10, RPI: 54, SOS: 63): The Friars are one of the last four teams in SI.com's most recent Bracket Watch, but this week's game's against Marquette and Creighton will determine how much work they have to do in the Big East tournament to hold onto that spot. A win at Creighton would make them breathe a whole lot easier, though they'd still have to avoid a bad loss in the conference tournament to be safe.
Georgetown (16-12, RPI: 60, SOS: 24): Whether or not the Hoyas can earn an at-large bid may be decided this week. They host Creighton on Tuesday and visit Villanova on Saturday. If they lose both, as they will be expected to do, they will be 4-7 against the RPI top 50 and probably need to win the conference tournament to get in the dance. If they split, they'll be riding the bubble. If they win both, they will likely be a happy bunch on Selection Sunday.
St. John's (19-11, RPI: 61, SOS: 40): A crushing defeat at the hands of Xavier likely put the Red Storm in a position where they must win the Big East tournament to get in the big dance. They have just one top-50 win and two losses to teams ranked outside the top 100.
Marquette (17-12, RPI: 69, SOS: 49): The Golden Eagles likely needed to beat Villanova over the weekend to keep alive any hope they had for an at-large bid. They didn't, and still have just two top-50 wins, meaning they have to tear through the Big East tournament and earn the automatic bid to avoid the NIT.
This has been the most confounding conference all season, but it appears that Michigan and Wisconsin have separated themselves from the pack. The Wolverines are closing in on their first outright regular season championship since 1986, but it's the Badgers -- with their eight top-50 wins and statement victories over Florida, Virginia and, yes, Michigan -- that could earn a No. 1 seed by winning the conference tournament.
IN THE MIX
Minnesota (18-12, RPI: 47, SOS: 3): The Gophers have slid out of the tournament picture over the last few weeks, losing seven of their last 10 games, two of which were to Northwestern and Purdue, which both have RPIs worse than 125. Their only remaining regular season game is against Penn State, so they need to do some damage in the Big Ten tournament to make the field of 68.
Nebraska (17-11, RPI: 55, SOS: 36): The Cornhuskers' loss at Illinois last week was damaging, though it didn't sound the death knell for their tournament hopes. They have one more opportunity for a statement victory in the regular season with Wisconsin visiting on Sunday. They probably need at least two more top-50 wins to have a shot at an at-large bid.
Indiana (17-12, RPI: 79, SOS: 55): It's a longshot, but after beating Ohio State, the Hoosiers may be able to earn an at-large bid with a few more big wins this season. They still have a trip to Ann Arbor on tap before the Big Ten tournament and need, at the very least, two more top-50 wins to have a chance to dance. Realistically, they need three to feel good on Selection Sunday.
Kansas moved to the top line in this week's Bracket Watch and now has the inside track to stay there if they win out. In addition to the five locks, the Big 12 has two teams that should make the field, and that would likely make it the only conference with at least seven teams in the tournament. Given that there are just 10 teams in the conference, it has been an impressive year for the Big 12.
SHOULD BE IN
Baylor (19-10, RPI: 43, SOS: 10): It might seem unlikely for an eighth-place team that is two games under .500 in its conference to be worthy of an at-large, but the Bears are in good position for a bid. They have six top-50 wins, including neutral-court nonconference victories over Kentucky and Colorado when the Buffaloes were at full strength. They have a very challenging final week of the regular season, however, and that could determine what they need to do, if anything, in the Big 12 tournament. They host Iowa State on Tuesday and visit Kansas State on Saturday.
Oklahoma State (20-10, RPI: 45, SOS: 31): Since Marcus Smart's return from a three-game suspension, the Cowboys are 4-0, punctuated by a 72-65 win over Kansas on Saturday. They followed that by cruising to 77-61 win over Kansas State on Monday. They now have five top-50 wins and are all but assured an at-large bid.
IN THE MIX
West Virginia (16-13, RPI: 90 SOS: 56): The only way the Mountaineers could realistically be in play for an at-large bid is if they can beat both Oklahoma and Kansas this week. Otherwise, they'll have to win the conference tournament to get in the field of 68.
LOCKS: Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State
Arizona State moves into the lock category, thanks to its ability to avoid bad losses. The Sun Devils have four top-50 wins, including one over Arizona, and their worst loss is probably to Miami on a neutral court. They will not be left out of the big dance.
SHOULD BE IN
Colorado (20-9, RPI: 32, SOS: 12): The Buffaloes had a bad week, losing on the road to Utah. They still haven't lost a game outside to a team the top 100 in RPI, and their resume still looks tournament-worthy. They could do themselves a big favor by at least splitting their games at Stanford and California this week.
Stanford (18-10, RPI: 40, SOS: 19): The Cardinal lost twice last week, both on the road, but they won't be downgraded here for losing at Arizona State and Arizona. They still have four top-50 wins, two of which came on the road, and just one loss outside the top 100.
IN THE MIX
Oregon (20-8, RPI: 35, SOS: 43): UCLA may have been shorthanded when the Oregon visited last week, but it still goes down as a road win over a top-25 RPI team for the Ducks. They badly needed such a win, as they had just one top-50 triumph before knocking off the Bruins in double overtime.
California (18-11, RPI: 53, SOS: 38): Cal got swept by Arizona and Arizona State on the road last week. The Golden Bears could have used a win in either of those games to buttress a resume that could use another win over a team bound for the tournament, but they remain in the field in this week's Bracket Watch. The regular season finale against Colorado on Saturday could give them the final push they need.
LOCKS: Florida, Kentucky
The Wildcats had their worst week of the season, losing to a decent Arkansas squad and then falling at South Carolina, which ranks 176th in RPI. They finish the season with a game in Gainesville, but even if they win that one, they're going to have trouble earning much better than a No. 6 seed in the big dance without winning the SEC tournament. Florida, meanwhile, has a stranglehold on the No. 1 overall seed.
IN THE MIX
Tennessee (18-11, RPI: 48, SOS: 16): The Volunteers won both of their games last week, but all they did by beating Mississippi State and Vanderbilt was avoid any deadly damage. Their remaining regular season games are against Auburn and Missouri, so they'll probably have work left to do in the SEC tourney.
Missouri (20-9, RPI: 49, SOS: 78): The Tigers lost to Georgia last week for the second time this season, and that's exactly the kind of loss a bubble team cannot afford. The Tigers are 2-2 against the top 50 and 8-8 against the top 100, but have just one win against a team that will definitely make the tournament. They were one of the last four in this week's Bracket Watch, but there's still work to do in the conference tournament.
Arkansas (20-9, RPI: 57, SOS: 75): By earning a season sweep over Kentucky last week, the Razorbacks put themselves back in the tournament field in this week's Bracket Watch. They'll have to avoid missteps against Ole Miss and Alabama this week, as well as any potential landmines in the SEC tournament, but the Razorbacks look set to get back to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2008.
Georgia (16-12, RPI: 84, SOS: 69): Yes, the Bulldogs are alone in third place in the SEC. Yes, they have two winnable games this week against teams they've already beaten this season in Mississippi State and LSU. But Georgia has just three wins against teams that even have a chance at making the NCAAs, two against Missouri and one against Arkansas, neither of which is a lock for the field. The Dawgs would need to beat Kentucky and/or Florida in the SEC tournament to have a shot, and doing that would probably mean they'd secure the auto bid.
The Lobos are 23-5 overall, No. 15 in RPI and have two wins against RPI top-25 teams. With just one week left in the regular season, that makes them a lock for the NCAA tournament. San Diego State has been in this stratosphere most of the season, so much so that it might be easy to forget that it owns wins over Creighton and Kansas. Barring a surprise champion in the conference tournament, the Mountain West will only put two teams in the field of 68, but both could be very dangerous.
IN THE MIX
Gonzaga (25-6, RPI: 25, SOS: 91): The West Coast Conference regular season is over, and while the Bulldogs could miss the big dance if they fall in the conference tourney, they're realistically equal parts "should be in" and "in the mix."
BYU (21-10, RPI: 36, SOS: 33): The Cougars enter the WCC tournament on a four-game winning streak that includes an all-important win over Gonzaga. They have three top-50 wins and beat Stanford on the road and Texas on a neutral court. They're one of the last four teams in the field in this week's Bracket Watch, and they will have a strong chance for an at-large bid so long as they make it to the conference tournament championship.
Best of the Rest
Obviously, Wichita State will be in regardless of what happens in its conference tournament this week, but if it stumbles there it will take one bubble spot off the table for another team. Southern Miss and Green Bay each have a chance at getting a bubble bid without winning their respective league championships. Toledo and Harvard have to win the auto bid to go dancing. Thos five teams are presented here in decreasing order of RPI:
Wichita State (31-0, RPI: 6, SOS: 99): The Shockers finished off the first undefeated regular season since Saint Joseph's pulled off the trick in the 2003-04 season. Some still question their resume because of its weak schedule, but even an early loss in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament might not keep them off the top line in the NCAA tourney.
Toledo (24-5, RPI: 37, SOS: 152): The Rockets will enter the Mid-American Conference tournament as the favorite, but they have zero top-50 wins and just four in the top 100. If they end up losing unexpectedly, they will almost certainly be NIT bound.
Southern Miss (25-5, RPI: 39, SOS: 156): The Golden Eagles are back on top of the Conference USA standings after winning four straight games. That's good news, given that they will likely avoid Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State until a potential matchup with either in the conference tournament championship game. If they end up losing in the conference tourney, they will have a tough time getting an at-large big with just one top-50 win.
Green Bay (24-5, RPI: 51, SOS: 145): The Phoenix won the Horizon League regular season championship, and point guard Keifer Sykes was named conference player of the year. They're a heavy favorite to win the conference tournament and would have an outside shot at an at-large bid should they fall along the way thanks in part to a win over ACC regular season champion Virginia and a three-point loss to Wisconsin.
Harvard (24-4, RPI: 52, SOS: 207): The Crimson are one win away from clinching their third straight Ivy League championship. They face second-place Yale on Friday with a chance to earn the first bid to the field of 68 in 2014.