Bubble Watch: Why the SEC is the most intriguing race right now
Two weeks into conference play, the question of whether or not a team can beat top-ranked Kentucky remains unanswered. The Wildcats are still undefeated, but they survived two overtime games last week, against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, respectively, that would have not only given them their first blemish of the year but given a huge boost to those SEC foes that are among what is, for now, the largest bubble group in the country.
In fact, this week's Bubble Watch includes no fewer than nine SEC teams, though Arkansas is building a strong case and could be just a few weeks away from moving into the "lock" category. It's hard to imagine any other teams in that league, aside from the Razorbacks and Wildcats, feeling comfortable on Selection Sunday. And that's what makes them the nation's most intriguing bubble conference.
It may just be January, but don’t let that fool you. The bubble talk that will dominate the conversation in early March is already starting across the country.
IN THE MIX
SMU (12-4, RPI: 22, SOS: 20) -- The best thing the Mustangs have going for them right now is a lack of bad losses, with Indiana being the only sub-50 RPI team to beat them. That means a lot at this stage of the season. This week’s game at Temple gives the Mustangs a chance to get their first top-50 victory.
Cincinnati (11-4, RPI: 30, SOS: 26) -- The Bearcats are probably the closest thing the AAC has to a lock right now, even though both Temple and SMU rank higher in RPI. Cincinnati owns wins over the Mustangs, as well as San Diego State and North Carolina State, all of which are top-50 teams. The Bearcats are also 5-3 against the top 100.
Tulsa (10-5, RPI: 36, SOS: 44) -- Emerging victorious at Temple last week gave the Golden Hurricane their first signature win of the season. They’re still probably running fifth among the conference’s five legitimate contenders for a spot in the field of 68, but their defense is going to make them tough all year, as they showed in holding Temple to 56 points. A win on Tuesday against Connecticut would place Tulsa on the right side of the bubble with two months remaining before Selection Sunday.
Temple (12-5, RPI: 39, SOS: 36) -- A loss at Tulsa last week is by no means a blemish against the Owls. Realistically, they're going to top out at a 5- or 6-seed, and that would require a lot of things to go right. The Golden Hurricane are trending in the right direction, so the committee won’t hold that defeat against the Owls. This is a big week, though, with games against SMU and Cincinnati.
Connecticut (11-4, RPI: 71, SOS: 37) -- It has taken the Huskies some time to get going this season, but they won games against Florida (in Gainesville) and Cincinnati in the last couple weeks, finally picking up some impressive victories. They very well may own the best defense in a defense-first conference. This is a very important week for UConn: a road game at Tulsa on Tuesday and then a non-conference road game at Stanford on Saturday.
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North Carolina State (12-5, RPI: 32, SOS: 7) -- The Wolfpack dealt Duke its first loss of the season, and scored themselves a major differentiating win in the process. Fellow bubble teams are going to be hard pressed to show off as equally impressive a win. N.C. State is now 5-4 against the top 50 and has only one loss -- at Purdue -- outside the top 100.
Syracuse (12-4, RPI: 46, SOS: 70) -- The Orange are undefeated in conference play thus far, but they’ve yet to see any of the big dogs in the ACC, with their three league wins coming against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State. They won’t really have a chance to impress the committee until they play at North Carolina on Jan. 26. One thing to keep in mind: Syracuse will be without starting forward Chris McCullough, who tore his ACL on Sunday, for the rest of the season.
Georgia Tech (9-6, RPI: 58, SOS: 121) -- It’s still very early, but the Yellow Jackets’ tourney case took a huge hit with losses to Syracuse and Wake Forest last week. These were two games they had to have for different reasons. A win over Syracuse would have been a signal that they could beat a tourney team. A win at Wake would have shown them capable of taking care of a team they’re supposed to beat. A realistic best-case scenario places Georgia Tech right on the bubble in March.
Miami (11-4, RPI: 78, SOS: 97) -- The Hurricanes earned a four-point win over Boston College in their only game last week. They are comfortably outside the field at the moment, but that could change in the next two weeks. Their next four games are against Duke, Notre Dame, North Carolina State and Syracuse, with all but the matchup with the Wolfpack coming on the road. Splitting the four would be considered a major triumph.
Pittsburgh (11-5, RPI: 89, SOS: 116) -- The Panthers lost at Clemson on Saturday, giving them their fourth loss to a top-100 team. That wouldn’t be quite so troubling if not for the fact that they have yet to win a game against a top-100 team this year. There’s also the matter of that damaging loss to Hawaii (now No. 118 in the RPI) back in November, which will take a handful of impressive wins to counteract.
Clemson (9-6, RPI: 109, SOS: 64) -- The Tigers probably wish they could switch affiliations to the SEC right about now. They’re 3-0 against teams in that league, including wins over LSU and Arkansas, both of which made the field in our most recent Bracket Watch. Unfortunately, Clemson is 1-2 in conference play, though it did hang with Louisville on the road before losing by six on Jan. 7. They have a few opportunities for statement wins this week, with games against Virginia and Syracuse.
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Dayton (13-2, RPI: 16, SOS: 75) -- The Flyers don't have a top-50 win, but they are 4-2 against the top 100, with just one loss coming against a team, Connecticut, outside the top 50. That’s a nice looking resume in the third week of January. They’re the only A-10 team ranked behind VCU in RPI and on KenPom, checking in at No. 30 in the latter.
George Washington (12-4, RPI: 37, SOS: 104) -- The Colonials can really struggle to find offense, and that issue cropped up last Saturday, as they were held to 50 points by LaSalle in a 13-point loss. Still, they remain safely in the field for now and have a series of tune-ups (Richmond, George Mason, Fordham, Duquesne) before facing VCU on Jan. 27.
Davidson (11-3, RPI: 49, SOS: 117) -- The Wildcats hung with VCU in Richmond, but ultimately fell to the conference’s best team by six points. The case for or against Davidson will be much clearer come March, but this is a tough team to gauge at present. On the one hand, the Wildcats don’t have a top-50 win, and have just one win against the top 100. On the other, all three of their losses are to teams in the top 25 (VCU, Virginia and North Carolina).
Rhode Island (11-3, RPI: 52, SOS: 120) -- The Rams may be just inside the RPI top 50, but they still have a ton of work to do to make the tournament. They’ve won six games in a row, though the best team in that stretch, at least by RPI, was Delaware State. They’ll have a chance to prove they’re true tournament contenders this week with games against VCU and Massachusetts.
Massachusetts (9-7, RPI: 53, SOS: 16) -- The Minutemen picked up two road conference wins last week, knocking off LaSalle and George Mason. It’s going to take more than that to eliminate the stink from losses to Florida Gulf Coast and St. Bonaventure, however. Games this week with against Davidson and Rhode Island will tell us more about their tourney chances.
NOTE: The Big 12 is the hardest conference to peg for purposes of the Bubble Watch. Realistically, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Baylor are all almost certain to make the field. However, with the conference schedule offering no team a respite, it’s entirely possible that any of these teams could lose five straight and find itself with an uphill battle for a bid. That’s why we can’t yet list any team, other than Kansas, as a lock.
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West Virginia (14-2, RPI: 19, SOS: 54) -- The Mountaineers suffered a slight setback with a loss against Iowa State, but even though it occurred in Morgantown, it wasn't enough to knock them off the 4-line in our most recent Bracket Watch. It did, however, illustrate the aforementioned problem facing Big 12 contenders. West Virginia's next two games are against Oklahoma and Texas, so it's entirely possible Bob Huggins' team will be facing a three-game losing streak when it faces TCU on Jan. 24.
Iowa State (12-2, RPI: 23, SOS: 73) -- By beating Oklahoma State and West Virginia last week, the Cyclones moved to 4-1 against the RPI top-50 and struck a few impressive early blows in the loaded Big 12. It only gets tougher for them this week, however, with games against Baylor (on the road) and Kansas. They could do wonders for their chances to win the Big 12 regular season by sweeping this week, though they’d have to be pleased with a split.
Baylor (12-3, RPI: 26, SOS: 47) -- The Bears may be fourth in the conference in RPI, but they still do not have a win over a top-50 team (they're 0-2 against such clubs). Their offense abandoned them in their one-point loss to Kansas at home last week. With that one defeat at the Ferrell Center against the cream of the Big 12 already on the resume, Baylor would do well to defend its turf against Iowa State on Wednesday.
Oklahoma State (12-3, RPI: 27, SOS: 53) -- The Cowboys don’t get any time to revel in their win over Texas, traveling to Kansas and Oklahoma for a pair of huge games this week. They’ll be underdogs in both, but their defense has really started to come together in the last few weeks. They’re now ranked 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.
Oklahoma (11-4, RPI: 28, SOS: 27) -- The Sooners fell to Kansas State in their last game, meaning either they or the Mountaineers will lose consecutive games just three weeks into conference play. Such is life in the Big 12. It is the Sooners, not the Jayhawks, who have the conference’s best KenPom ranking, checking in at No. 11. They need to find some scoring outside of Buddy Hield, who ranks ninth in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings.
Texas (12-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 32) -- Losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State knocked the Longhorns from their perch in the top-quarter of the bracket and have them desperate for a win against West Virginia on Saturday. Things could get ugly if they lose that game, as their following five games are at TCU, home against Kansas, at Iowa State, at Baylor and home against Oklahoma State. Offense has become an issue for Texas, as it scored a combined 107 points in the losses to the Sooners and Cowboys.
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Seton Hall (13-3, RPI: 12, SOS: 31) -- The Pirates split games with Xavier (loss) and Creighton (win) last week, moving to 3-1 in the Big East. They actually rank one slot behind Butler, which they will play on Tuesday, on KenPom. Both teams look like good bets to make the tournament, and they have very similar resumes. Seton Hall is 3-3 against the top 50, 5-3 against the top 100, and its best win is over Villanova.
Providence (13-4, RPI: 15, SOS: 12) -- The Friars made up for an ugly loss at Marquette by knocking off Butler, in Indianapolis, and Georgetown last week. That makes them 4-1 against the top 50 (with their only loss coming to Kentucky) and 8-1 against the top 100. Of course, the Friars also have three losses to sub-100 RPI teams, but there’s a whole lot more good than bad here.
Butler (12-5, RPI: 24, SOS: 11) -- For the sake of finishing the comparison alluded to in Seton Hall’s capsule, let’s take a look at Butler’s measurables this year. The Bulldogs are 4-3 against the top 50, 4-5 against the top 100, with the best win coming against North Carolina on a neutral court back in November. Taking everything into consideration, the three teams in the conference listed ahead of them have better cases for the tournament, but you can probably bet on all of them being in the field of 68. Butler has big road games at Seton Hall and Georgetown this week.
Georgetown (10-5, RPI: 40, SOS: 8) -- The Hoyas fell at Providence over the weekend, just the latest in a string of losses to top-50 teams. They’re now 0-5 against the RPI top 50, and while they don’t have a loss outside that class this season, at some point they’re going to have to impress the committee with a couple of strong wins. Their most impressive victory to this point of the season is a neutral-court triumph over Indiana, which is nothing to sneeze at, but which won’t propel the Hoyas into the field of 68. They have a prime chance for their first top-50 win over the year on Saturday against Butler.
Xavier (11-5, RPI: 41, SOS: 28) -- Beating Seton Hall at home and losing to Butler by 10 on the road should be seen as a successful week for the Musketeers. They get an opportunity for a big win at Villanova on Wednesday, and their resume is slowly but surely resembling that of a tournament team. Xavier is 3-1 against the top 50 and 4-3 against the top 100.
St. John’s (11-4, RPI: 43, SOS: 10) -- The Red Storm’s three-game losing streak isn’t exactly crippling: All three teams -- Seton Hall, Butler and Villanova -- are inside the top 30 in RPI. Having said that, St. John's now looks like a middling seed in the field of 68, whereas a notable win or two could have it rubbing elbows with the 4- and 5-seeds. The Storm gets a bit of a respite after traveling to Providence, with their following two games coming against DePaul and Marquette.
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Michigan State (12-5, RPI: 35, SOS: 14) -- After losing their Big Ten opener, the Spartans have reeled off wins against Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern, though the final one came in overtime. There’s too much talent here -- from Travis Trice to Branden Dawson to Denzel Valentine -- for Tom Izzo’s bunch to miss out on the Big Dance. The Spartans are one of eight teams to rank in the top 30 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
Illinois (11-6, RPI: 54, SOS: 48) -- The Illini had an interesting week. They lost their best player, guard Rayvonte Rice, to a broken hand, knocked off Maryland one day later, then sputtered to a 53-43 loss to Nebraska. It’s that sort of inconsistency that will likely keep Illinois from getting an at-large bid to the tournament. At the same time, the Illini own wins over Maryland and Baylor, and will have ample opportunity to build their resume in the Big Ten. They get another chance for such a win on Sunday when Indiana visits Champaign.
Ohio State (13-4, RPI: 56, SOS: 95) -- The Buckeyes are about as middle-of-the-road as it gets. They’re 2-2 in the Big Ten, with wins over Illinois and Minnesota, and losses to Iowa and Indiana. Their RPI is fine, but nothing special. They have a strong KenPom ranking of 21, but they have yet to beat a top-50 team. Everything about this team says 7- or 8-seed.
Indiana (12-4, RPI: 60, SOS: 90) -- The Hoosiers’ RPI may be down for now, but four top-100 wins earned them a spot in our most recent Bracket Watch. Their offense makes them very dangerous, as they’re 16th in the nation in adjusted efficiency and 22nd in effective field goal percentage. We’re admittedly getting ahead of ourselves, but Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon have turned the Hooisers into a potential 7-seed that no 2-seed would want to see in its region.
Rutgers (10-7, RPI: 62, SOS: 15) -- The Scarlet Knights may be here for just one week, but they deserve inclusion after dealing Wisconsin its first conference setback on Sunday. If they can somehow follow that up with a win over Maryland on Wednesday, they would suddenly boast a resume worthy of real consideration. Of course, it’s even more likely that they lose to the Terrapins, then follow that up with a loss at Minnesota, rendering their win over Wisconsin a one-game blip on the radar.
Iowa (11-5, RPI: 66, SOS: 45) -- While it would be encouraging to see Iowa beat either Wisconsin or Maryland, this should be a tournament team regardless, so long as the Hawkeyes avoid stumbling against the bottom half of the Big Ten. All five of their losses are to top-60 teams, the worst of which came against Syracuse. They also own road wins over North Carolina and Ohio State. They’ll face those same Buckeyes in Iowa City on Saturday.
Michigan (10-6, RPI: 94, SOS: 39) -- The Wolverines have put their brutal non-conference performance in the past, kicking off Big Ten play with three wins in their first four games. Of course, those victories were over Illinois, Penn State and Minnesota, so they have a ways to go before feeling good about their at-large hopes. They could take a positive step toward that goal with a win in Columbus on Tuesday.
Purdue (10-7, RPI: 125, SOS: 74) -- The Boilermakers spent last week losing to the cream of the Big Ten, dropping games to Wisconsin and Maryland. They also got a boost thanks to North Carolina State’s win over Duke. That made Purdue’s previous win over the Wolfpack look a lot better. Their formula for making the tournament is to scrape together enough wins against the flotsam and fellow bubble teams of the Big Ten, and then pull one big upset. Unfortunately, they don’t have any regular season games remaining with the Badgers or Terrapins, so such a victory may have to come in the conference tournament.
IN THE MIX
Stanford (11-4, RPI: 34, SOS: 63) -- Outside of the two locks above, there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about in the Pac-12. It’s certainly possible that this conference gets only three bids, and it likely won’t get more than four, unless a team like Oregon or Colorado can put together a strong resume in the next two months. That means there’s little room for error for the Cardinal, who lost at UCLA last week. They can’t drop too many games to the bottom half of the conference and still earn an at-large bid.
Colorado (9-6, RPI: 70, SOS: 29) -- The Buffaloes started out conference play well enough, with wins over UCLA and USC, but they failed their first real test in no uncertain terms, losing to Utah by 25 points. Next up is a road game with Arizona on Thursday. In all likelihood, they’ll have to pick up a win against one of the two heavyweights in the conference to get an invite to the Dance. They simply didn’t do enough in outside the Pac-12 to warrant serious consideration as an at-large team.
UCLA (10-7, RPI: 73, SOS: 19) -- The Bruins just had their best week of the season, picking up wins over Stanford and California. As much of a struggle as it has been, they have just one sub-50 RPI loss. Their biggest issue has been their complete inability to even hang with the best teams they’ve played. They lost to Kentucky by 39, Utah by 32, North Carolina by 22 and Gonzaga by 13.
Washington (11-4, RPI: 77, SOS: 130) -- The Huskies face the same dilemma as Stanford, and they’ve already hurt themselves with losses to California and Washington State. They built up some goodwill in the non-conference portion of their schedule by beating Oklahoma and San Diego State, but a few more losses to the Pac-12’s also-rans will have the Huskies on the outside looking in at the field of 68. They must right the ship against Oregon State and Oregon at home this week.
Oregon (12-4, RPI: 93, SOS: 89) -- The Ducks are trending in the wrong direction after losing to Arizona by 18, and then barely escaping with a three-point win against Arizona State. They don’t yet have a top-50 win, and likely only have three opportunities -- in their remaining games with Arizona, Utah and potentially Stanford -- to get one. They’ll take a tour of the state of Washington this week. A victory over the Huskies on Sunday would actually be their second-best win of the season.
IN THE MIX
Arkansas (13-2, RPI: 13, SOS: 59) -- Don’t sleep on the Razorbacks’ win at Georgia to kick off SEC play last week. The Bulldogs are an at-large contender in their own right, and the Razorbacks rallied in the waning minutes of the game for a hard-fought road triumph. They are now 3-1 against the top 50 and 5-1 against the top 100. Their one loss outside the top 100 is to Clemson, which is 101st in RPI. The Razorbacks are ranked 25th on KenPom, thanks to an offense that is 11th in adjusted efficiency. Sophomore forward Bobby Portis is at the center of that effort, shooting 58.2 percent from the floor.
Georgia (9-5, RPI: 38, SOS: 9) -- The Bulldogs had a chance for a big week to open SEC play, but they lost to both Arkansas and LSU. They were right there in both games, losing them by a combined six points. Still, all that matters is that they are now 1-3 against the top 50, rather than 2-2 or 3-1. They remain toward the top of the pecking order in the SEC, and should get back on track with games against Vanderbilt and Florida this week.
Alabama (12-3, RPI: 33, SOS: 77) -- The Crimson Tide got off to a good start in conference play, cruising to wins over Texas A&M and Tennessee. They’re 0-3 against the top 50, but they’ve yet to suffer a loss to a team with an RPI worse than 34. They’ll likely be feeling the uneasiness of the bubble until they get a signature win. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of chances for those in the SEC. However, if they can go something like 13-5 in conference with a win or two over fellow second-tier teams, they should be in.
LSU (12-3, RPI: 45, SOS: 99) -- The Tigers hurt themselves a bit with the loss at Missouri, but let’s not pretend that they were going to get through the entire conference season unscathed. This is an important week for them, with games against fellow bubblers Mississippi and Texas A&M.
Texas A&M (9-5, RPI: 55, SOS: 30) -- The Aggies let a golden opportunity slip away when they dropped a double overtime game against Kentucky at home on Saturday. That could have put them on the map and set them up to be just a couple big wins away from boasting a legitimate at-large resume. Now they’re just another team with zero top-50 wins and one top-100 win.
Mississippi (10-5, RPI: 59, SOS: 51) -- If possible, Mississippi missed an even bigger chance than A&M, given that its overtime loss to the Wildcats came at Rupp Arena. The Rebels had a chance to win the game in regulation, but could only muster a terrible, contested 25-foot attempt even though they had nearly a full shot clock to put something together. They responded with a comfortable win over South Carolina, but the next 10 days will be big for them. They play LSU before hitting the road for games with Arkansas and Georgia.
Tennessee (9-5, RPI: 69, SOS: 38) -- The Volunteers have one top-50 win and one sub-100 loss. Their four losses against top-50 teams have come by an average of 15 points. In other words, they have some work to do in the SEC to have a realistic chance at earning an at-large bid. They can kick that off with Arkansas visiting Knoxville on Tuesday.
Florida (9-6, RPI: 81, SOS: 41) -- The Gators have taken care of business at the start of conference play, picking up wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State. They don’t play either Kentucky or Arkansas until February, but these next two weeks will be crucial for Florida if it is to get back to the tournament. The Gators play Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi and Alabama in their next five games. At least three of those teams figure to be on the bubble, and all would have to be placed in the field ahead of Florida at present.
South Carolina (9-5, RPI: 115, SOS: 93) -- The Gamecocks have a whole lot of work to do to make the field of 68, but at this early stage of the season, they still have to be considered in the mix thanks to their non-conference wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Despite some missteps, those two wins over strong Big 12 teams have South Carolina within striking distance of the tournament, provided they can pick up a few more notable wins in the SEC. Their next opportunity for such a victory comes on Tuesday when Alabama visits Columbia.
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Old Dominion (13-2, RPI: 21, SOS: 96) -- The Monarchs suffered a setback in conference play over the weekend, losing at Western Kentucky. That isn’t the most damaging loss, but they won’t be able to take an at-large bid for granted, even with wins over VCU and LSU. Unfortunately, no one win in conference is going to buttress ODU's tournament resume. That means it needs to be as clean as possible before the conference tournament.
Western Kentucky (10-5, RPI: 96, SOS: 76) -- The Hilltoppers are on the radar after beating Old Dominion at home on Saturday. They now own four top-100 wins, including a victory at Ole Miss. As is the case with Old Dominion, it’s going to be hard for any team to earn an at-large bid out of Conference USA, short of posting a conference record in the neighborhood of 15-3. That means the Hilltoppers can’t slip up in games against Florida Atlantic and Florida International this week.
UTEP (11-5, RPI: 101, SOS: 129) -- The luster of a non-conference win over Xavier has started to fade after the Miners lost to Louisiana Tech last week, giving them their second loss to a team outside the top 100. Missed opportunities against Colorado State, Arizona and Washington loom large, as UTEP now probably needs at least one win against Old Dominion to make a legitimate case for an at-large bid.
Louisiana Tech (12-4, RPI: 118, SOS: 307) -- We’re including the Bulldogs for now because they’ve started conference play undefeated, including the aforementioned win over UTEP. Having said that, they didn’t do anything in the non-conference portion of their schedule, with their most impressive showing being a two-point loss at Syracuse. Unless they lose no more than two or three games in the conference and get at least one win over Old Dominion, they’re almost certainly going to have to win the conference tourney to get into the dance.
Locks: Wichita State
IN THE MIX
Northern Iowa (14-2, RPI: 18, SOS: 103) -- While the ratings systems love the Panthers, it is worth noting that they do not yet have a win against a top-50 team. Let’s say the Panthers lose both of their regular season games against Wichita State, win all the rest of their conference games, and fall in the conference tournament championship to the Shockers. Could that leave them in the NIT? It certainly could. Northern Iowa looks good for now, and may well be the class of the Valley. It needs a win over Wichita State to prove that.
Loyola-Chicago (12-4, RPI: 50, SOS: 86) -- The Ramblers will have to beat Wichita State and Northern Iowa to convince the committee they’re worthy of an at-large bid. Losses to those teams mean they shouldn’t be feeling too great at this point. They’ll get a shot at both those teams again, but they’ll have to hold serve until those return matchups.
Evansville (12-4, RPI: 85, SOS: 140) -- The Purple Aces fell to Loyola at home last week, and are still trading on their surprise victory over Northern Iowa. That isn’t going to be enough for an at-large bid, however. Whether or not they’re still in the mix next week will depend on what happens in their matchup with Wichita State on Saturday.
Illinois State (10-6, RPI: 88, SOS: 72) -- Clearly, the Redbirds can hang with strong competition. They beat Old Dominion by 19, lost to VCU and Seton Hall by four, and fell by eight to Wichita State. Unfortunately, just hanging with good teams isn’t enough to get an invite to the Big Dance, especially when your resume also includes losses to Utah State and Indiana State. Wins over Wichita State or Northern Iowa would make this team intriguing, but they’re ticketed for the NIT at present.
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Colorado State (15-2, RPI: 20, SOS: 88) -- The Rams quickly became the darlings of the MWC, but after consecutive losses to New Mexico and Wyoming, some of the at-large goodwill they built up during the non-conference portion of their schedule evaporated. They were one of the last teams in our most recent Bracket Watch, and now have some serious work to do in conference. That could all start against San Diego State on Jan. 24, meaning they can’t afford to drop the ball against either Nevada or San Jose State this week.
San Diego State (12-4, RPI: 42, SOS: 55) -- This is a big week for the Aztecs, as they take on Wyoming on the road and UNLV at home. They’re 1-2 against the top 50 and 4-3 against the top 100, so they’re definitely building a solid foundation for an at-large bid, even if they don’t quite measure up to the San Diego State teams of the past few seasons. Having said that, both Wyoming and UNLV are tough opponents, and two losses could land Steve Fisher’s team in some trouble.
Wyoming (15-2, RPI: 76, SOS: 282) -- The Cowboys made a huge statement in the MWC by knocking off Colorado State in Fort Collins last week, and now stand at 4-0 in the conference. They’ve quietly amassed a strong resume with a few months to go until Selection Sunday. They’re 4-1 against the top 100, and their only loss to come outside the top 50 was by three points at California. They’ve also already defeated three of the best opponents the conference has to offer, adding wins over Boise State and UNLV to their triumph against the Rams. They could complete the set with a win over San Diego State on Wednesday.
UNLV (10-6, RPI: 92, SOS: 57) -- The Runnin’ Rebels suffered a damaging loss last week, dropping what should have been an easy game against Nevada at home. Still, wins against Arizona and Temple have them on the at-large radar, and the MWC will grant them a few more opportunities to pick up resume-building victories. They could get two such wins this week, with road games against Boise State and San Diego State.
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BYU (14-5, RPI: 51, SOS: 42) -- Life on the fringes of the NCAA tournament can be so cruel to a team like BYU. You do what you can to schedule quality non-conference opponents, you topple a few (in the Cougars’ case, Stanford and UMass), and then it all goes for naught when you lose to Pepperdine at home. The Cougars can, of course, recover from that loss, but it made their climb toward an at-large bid that much steeper. They get lowly Pacific on Thursday, and then take on Saint Mary’s on the road on Saturday in what will be a huge game for the second- and third-best teams in the conference.
Saint Mary’s (13-3, RPI: 80, SOS: 184) -- Saturday’s game between Saint Mary’s and BYU is huge for both teams, but in a way the Gaels need it more. Not only is it a home game for them, but it would be their first win they could really show off to the committee. Right now, St. Mary's best victory is over Northeastern, its only win against a top-100 team. At the same time, the Gaels lost to Northern Arizona, a team ranked outside the top 200. Their four regular season meetings with BYU and Gonzaga are their only remaining chances for eye-opening wins. Logically, the home game against BYU will be the easiest one of the four from which to emerge victorious.