Tuesday January 20th, 2015

There’s an interesting debate forming about which conference is the best in the country. Is it the ACC, with its top-heavy roster that includes Virginia, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame and North Carolina? Or is it the Big 12, which might not have an individual team on par with the Cavaliers or Blue Devils, but which could have at least six that are as good as the ACC’s trio of second tier contenders?

Three of the five ACC teams listed above are among the top nine in the nation on KenPom and the other two (No 12 Louisville and No, 18 Notre Dame) aren't far behind. The highest-ranked Big 12 team, meanwhile, is No. 10 Oklahoma, but six other teams are in the top 25. Kansas, for instance, will play its fourth straight such opponent on Saturday. Virginia, on the other hand, is in the midst of a four-game stretch against ACC bottom-feeders Clemson, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Of that quartet only the Yellow Jackets, at No. 93, are in the top 100 on KenPom. There’s no such respite to be found in the Big 12.

Despite that fact, there may not be a true Big 12 bubble team when the Selection Committee convenes in March. Kansas is obviously going dancing. We’ve also moved Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia to locks this week. They’d all be in with ease if the field were set today, and realistically that isn’t going to change. Sure, one of them could go 2-12 for the rest of the season. Also, John Calipari could resign tomorrow and hand Kentucky’s reins to Ashley Judd.

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Baylor, too, is likely in the tournament, though we held off from making the Bears a lock this week. That really leaves Oklahoma State and Kansas State. We’ve had the Cowboys safely in the field in each of the last two Bracket Watch columns, and that’s not going to change as long as they can keep from drowning in conference play. The Wildcats, too, have rallied in recent weeks, with wins over Oklahoma and Baylor. Would a .500 conference record (they’re currently 4-1) and a couple more top-50 wins earn them a ticket? That would most likely be good enough.

TCU went 13-0 in non-conference play but is just 1-4 against Big 12 foes. The the lone win came against Texas Tech, which is the only league member with no hope of reaching the Big Dance. The Horned Frogs could rip off a few wins and get in the discussion, but right now they haven’t done enough to warrant a serious examination of their resume. If that doesn’t change and the Cowboys and Wildcats can stay the course, the Big 12 could be absent of intrigue come Selection Sunday.

American

IN THE MIX

SMU (14-4, RPI: 21, SOS: 41) -- The Mustangs have been taking care of business in the AAC, a loss at Cincinnati notwithstanding. They have just one top-50 win, which came against Temple, but all four of their losses are to quality opponents. Indeed, the four teams that beat SMU (Gonzaga, Indiana, Arkansas, Cincinnati) were all comfortably in our latest Bracket Watch. So long as the Mustangs can sidestep any bad losses and pick up a few nice conference wins along the way, they’ll be dancing in March for the first time since 1993.

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Cincinnati (12-5, RPI: 33, SOS: 15) -- The Bearcats may have lost at Memphis last Thursday, but they propped up their resume with a 31-point thrashing of Temple two days later. Another interesting facet of Cincinnati’s schedule is the volume of small-conference favorites it has defeated this year. The Bearcats own wins over Eastern Illinois, St. Francis (Pa.), North Carolina Central and Stony Brook. All four of those schools could be in the field, and three of them -- all but St. Francis -- would have to be considered the favorites in their respective conferences.

Tulsa (12-5, RPI: 42, SOS: 82) -- You’ll see Tulsa in a lot of bracket projections (including ours), but typically as one of the last four teams in. The Golden Hurricane lost to the three best teams they’ve played by an average of 18 points. Then there’s the matter of their losses to Oral Roberts and Southeastern Oklahoma State, Dennis Rodman’s alma mater, which also happens to be a Division II program. Sorry, but they don’t warrant more than a play-in game at this point.

Temple (12-7, RPI: 56, SOS: 33) -- The Owls are on a three-game slide that has really served as an indictment of their tournament-worthiness. Losses to Tulsa, SMU and Cincinnati gave them five defeates against top-50 competition. They continue to get by thanks to their lone win against a top-50 opponent, though you’ll recall that was a big one: A 25-point beatdown of Kansas on Dec. 22. Temple will need more than that, however, to ensure a berth the field of 68.

Connecticut (9-7, RPI: 74, SOS: 32) -- The Huskies figure to be one of the more interesting teams when Selection Sunday arrives. They already have seven losses, though six were to top-50 teams. They also have wins over Dayton and Cincinnati, and they’re good enough to pick up a few more top-50 wins in conference. They can’t afford any terrible losses, though, which means they have to make short work of UCF and South Florida this week.

Atlantic 10

Locks: VCU

IN THE MIX

Dayton (15-2, RPI: 25, SOS: 103) -- The Flyers have won eight straight games since losing to Arkansas on Ded. 13 and are on top of the A-10 with a 5-0 record. Having said that, the best team they’ve played during their winning streak is Mississippi, and they’ve yet to play any top competition in the conference. They should welcome challenges against Davidson and Richmond this week.

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George Washington (14-4, RPI: 41, SOS: 125) -- The Colonials had a clean week, but they were pushed to double overtime at home by Richmond. They can’t help their case for the tourney with games against doormats Fordham and Duquesne this week, but they also can’t get caught looking ahead to VCU on Jan. 27.

Davidson (12-4, RPI: 51, SOS: 98) -- The Wildcats are one of the nation's best shooting teams, ranking 13th in effective field goal percentage, 21st in two-point percentage and 35th in three-point percentage. The offense is going to have to carry them to the tournament, and they’ll get a great shot to make a statement this week with a home game against Dayton on Tuesday.

Massachusetts (10-8, RPI: 61, SOS: 14) -- A win over Davidson last Wednesday got the Minutemen's week off to a good start, but they lost to Rhode Island on Saturday. All told, it was essentially a wash, and that’s not going to cut it for a team that is currently on the outside looking in at the field of 68. Their only game this week is at St. Joe’s on Wednesday.

Rhode Island (11-5, RPI: 83, SOS: 111) -- The Rams had a real chance to prove they were worthy of inclusion in the tournament last week, but dropped close games to VCU and Massachusetts. If they do miss the tournament, they’ll look back on that game against the Rams with heartbreak. They were at home and leading by eight points with just more than seven minutes remaining only to be outscored 22-9 the rest of the way.

ACC

Locks: Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina

IN THE MIX

North Carolina State (13-6, RPI: 36, SOS: 6) -- A two-point loss to North Carolina and comfortable win at Florida State make a positive week for a bubble team. The Wolfpack were one of the last four teams in our most recent Bracket Watch, but they have an opportunity to make things more comfortable with two big games this week. They’ll travel to Miami to take on the Hurricanes on Thursday, and then host Notre Dame on Sunday.

Miami (12-5, RPI: 55, SOS: 55) -- The Hurricanes are an 11-seed in this week’s Bracket Watch on the strength of their 16-point win over Duke in Durham. It was their second win of the season over a top-50 opponent (Illinois was the first). No one is going to confuse their offense with Notre Dame’s, but Miami is 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 50th in effective field goal percentage. This is a huge week for Miami, with games against bubble foes N.C. State and Syracuse.

Syracuse (13-5, RPI: 57, SOS: 80) -- A loss at Clemson isn’t a resume-buster -- the Tigers are in contention for a bid themselves -- but it doesn't help a bubble team. The committee will need to see the Orange beat some quality opponents away from home to put them in the field.

Pittsburgh (13-6, RPI: 69, SOS: 101) -- The Panthers now have a pair of top-100 wins after beating Florida State and Georgia Tech last week. They got trounced by Duke on Monday but have a shot for a signature win when Louisville visits this weekend.

Clemson (10-8, RPI: 75, SOS: 38) -- The Tigers didn’t stand a chance at Virginia last week but picked up an impressive 13-point win over Syracuse at home on Saturday. They then gave back nearly all that goodwill by losing to Florida State at home on Monday, however. That’s the sort of loss they really can’t afford, as it’s always easier for the committee to find a reason to exclude a team like this rather than include it.

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas

IN THE MIX

Baylor (13-4, RPI: 18, SOS: 34) -- The Bears are still a couple good wins away being a lock. They got off to a great start last week with a win over Iowa State, but they dropped a heartbreaker at Kansas State on Saturday. Baylor is going to be in the dance. Right now, it’s just a matter of when it realistically cinches a bid. After a detour against Huston-Tillotson on Wednesday, the Bears host Oklahoma on Saturday.

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Oklahoma State (12-5, RPI: 32, SOS: 26) -- It was a rough week for the Cowboys, as they suffered road losses at Kansas by 10 and Oklahoma by 17. While they’ve done enough to make the field if the committee were filling out the bracket today, it would be encouraging to see them add another signature win or two to the resume That won’t happen this week, with games against Texas Tech and Kansas State on the schedule.

Kansas State (11-7, RPI: 96, SOS: 69) -- Entering Tuesday, Bruce Weber’s Wildcats, which are 4-1 in the conference after wins over Texas Tech and Baylor last week are tied for first. They’re now 3-3 against top-50 competition, though we’ll get a window into what kind of team they are in the next two weeks. Their next four games are against Iowa State, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas.

Big East

Locks: Villanova

IN THE MIX

Butler (13-6, RPI: 14, SOS: 8) -- The Bulldogs got a big win at Seton Hall last Tuesday and nearly had a perfect week but lost on a buzzer beater at Georgetown on Saturday. Still, the Bulldogs are well on their way to a tournament invite. They now own five wins over RPI top-50 teams, and their only loss against a non-top-50 squad came to Tennessee, which is currently 54th. Butler hosts Creighton on Wednesday before a return matchup with the Pirates on Sunday.

Seton Hall (13-4, RPI: 17, SOS: 40) -- The Pirates have hit a bit of a slide, sandwiching a win against Creighton with losses to Xavier and Butler, two of the better teams in the Big East. They’re still safely in the field of 68, but their seeding could take a hit if they continue to come up short against top competition. DePaul, which they host on Thursday, has proven to be a tough out. They also travel to Indianapolis to get another shot at Butler on Sunday.

Providence (14-5, RPI: 23, SOS: 18) -- The Friars are going to be one of the harder teams for the committee to place. They already have quality wins over Notre Dame, Butler, Georgetown, Miami and UMass; and decent wins against Stony Brook, Rhode Island and Yale. At the same time, they lost to Boston College, Marquette and Brown. They get both sides of the coin again this week, with games against Xavier and DePaul.

Georgetown (12-5, RPI: 28, SOS: 10) -- Coming off wins last week over DePaul and Butler, the Hoyas picked up their biggest win of the season on Monday, trouncing Villanova by 20 points in D.C. The resume was already shaping up quite nicely, but their performance Monday showed just how dangerous they can be. They now have three top-50 wins this season and have yet to lose to a team outside that class. In fact, their “worst” loss of the year, by RPI standards, was against No. 35 Xavier. This should be a tournament team.

Xavier (12-6, RPI: 34, SOS: 16) -- The Musketeers lost at Villanova last week and barely sneaked past Marquette at home on Saturday. If one of these Big East teams ends up missing out on the dance, the most likely ones at this point in the season are St. John’s or Xavier. The Musketeers have two sub-100 losses on their resume (Auburn and DePaul). That could be the sort of thing that sets them apart from other tourney hopefuls.

St. John’s (12-5, RPI: 40, SOS: 17) -- After losing to DePaul on Sunday, the Red Storm fell to 1-4 in the Big East and one of the last four teams in this week’s Bracket Watch. On the other hand, they did beat Providence last week, giving them their second win over a top-50 team and likely their best victory of the season. After hosting Marquette on Wednesday, they get a chance to make a statement against Duke on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, where Mike Krzyzewski will be going for his 1,000th career win.

Big Ten

Locks: Wisconsin, Maryland

IN THE MIX

Michigan State (12-6, RPI: 37, SOS: 13) -- The Spartans probably don’t need to be worried about making the dance just yet, but they slipped down the seed lines a bit after Maryland beat them by 16 in College Park. This isn’t the same caliber of team we’re used to seeing under Tom Izzo, but the Spartans still have three wins against the top 50. Their one loss to a team outside the top 50 came against Texas Southern, which is cruising through the SWAC and also knocked off Kansas State on the road.

Iowa (13-5, RPI: 43, SOS: 36) -- The Hawkeyes are widely seen as the third-best team in the Big Ten -- despite the worst RPI of the non-locks -- thanks primarily to their win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill in early December. They are now the proud owners of a season sweep of Ohio State, and that does it for their top-100 wins this season. KenPom likes them better than Indiana and Illinois, and they’re in no real danger of missing the dance at this point, but they could use another strong win or two just to be safe. Iowa hits the road this week, with a huge game at Wisconsin and a not-so-huge game at Purdue.

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Indiana (14-4, RPI: 44, SOS: 72) -- The Hoosiers are now 4-1 in the Big Ten after beating Penn State and Illinois last week. They’re 3-3 against the top 50 and 6-4 against the top 100. Their only loss outside the top 50 came to Eastern Washington, the favorite in the Big Sky Conference and owner of the No. 55 RPI in the country. There’s a lot of room to maneuver in this conference behind Wisconsin and Maryland, and it’s entirely possible that Indiana is the class of the second tier.

Ohio State (14-5, RPI: 58, SOS: 75) -- You know which Big Ten team needs to be worried about making the tournament? This one. The Buckeyes’ best win is a home victory over Illinois. Their only other top-100 wins thus far came against Michigan and High Point. They don’t have a bad loss on the resume, but if they don’t prove they can beat tournament teams, they won’t be one, either. They get that chance on Sunday when they host Indiana. Maybe they should see if Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones can play basketball, too.

Illinois (12-7, RPI: 64, SOS: 58) -- The Illini missed a golden opportunity for a big win against Indiana, letting a nine-point second-half lead slip away, eventually losing by six at home. John Groce’s squad has rallied since losing guard Rayvonte Rice to a broken hand, but they still need a couple statement wins to really have a case for an at-large bid. All the Illini can do this week is hold serve against Purdue and Minnesota.

Pac-12

Locks: Arizona, Utah

IN THE MIX

Stanford (13-4, RPI: 26, SOS: 62) -- The Cardinal are on a three-game winning streak that includes a 72-59 win over UConn on Saturday. They’re now 2-1 against the top 50 and 4-3 against the top 100, giving them a pretty safe spot in the field at this point. They can firm that up with a win over Arizona, which visits Palo Alto on Thursday.

Washington (13-4, RPI: 50, SOS: 85) -- The Huskies snapped a four-game losing streak last week, sweeping the Oregon schools at home and showing UCLA the way to keep at-large hopes alive. The Huskies can probably lay claim to the fourth spot in the Pac-12 right now, thanks to impressive non-conference wins over Oklahoma and San Diego State. Those non-conference victories will look good when the Selection Committee gets together and will help make up for that skid, which sent them tumbling down -- but not out of -- the bracket. Washington is on the road for games with Colorado and Utah this week.

UCLA (11-7, RPI: 65, SOS: 35) -- The Bruins beat California and USC last week, but that didn't do much to improve their chances for an at-large bid. With the Pac-12 down again this year, UCLA likely needs a win over Arizona or Utah to start the conversation regarding an invite to the dance. The Bruins travel through Oregon this week, taking on the Beavers on Thursday and the Ducks on Saturday.

SEC

Locks: Kentucky

IN THE MIX

Georgia (11-5, RPI: 27, SOS: 11) -- The Bulldogs had a nice week, earning victories over Vanderbilt and Florida. They’re inside the conference's second tier with Arkansas, but the SEC is one of the more topsy-turvy leagues in the country. Tuesday’s matchup with Mississippi is an important one for Georgia. If it is going to solidify an at-large spot, these are the teams it needs to beat, especially at home.

Arkansas (13-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 50) -- The Razorbacks suffered through a tough week with losses to Tennessee and Mississippi, but they remain the second-best team in the SEC. They don’t get a shot at Kentucky until the end of February, so they’ll have to build their resume by beating their fellow second-tier teams in the conference. They host Alabama on Thursday and visit Missouri on Saturday.

Texas A&M (11-5, RPI: 39, SOS: 4637) -- The Aggies were looming just under the committee’s radar for the first couple months of the season, but they have to be considered now after getting their first top-50 win by knocking off LSU in Baton Rouge last week. They’re going to have to add to that, but A&M has avoided bad losses, with its lone non-top 50 defeat coming to Kansas State on Dec. 20.

Mississippi (11-6, RPI: 47, SOS: 25) -- While the Rebels are behind most of their fellow SEC bubble teams in RPI, they also own wins over Cincinnati and Arkansas, and nearly toppled Kentucky and Dayton. Those near-wins aren’t going to get them over the hump, however, especially with losses to Charleston Southern and TCU weighing them down. Ole Miss visits Georgia on Tuesday and hosts Florida on Saturday.

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LSU (13-4, RPI: 49, SOS: 84) -- The Tigers went 1-1 last week, beating Mississippi in Oxford and losing to Texas A&M at home. This will be an interesting week for them, with road games against Florida and Vanderbilt. The Gators and Commodores will likely be headed to the NIT at best when the regular season ends, but that doesn’t mean these will be easy games for the Tigers. At the same time, wins here would really help to shape up their resume.

Tennessee (11-5, RPI: 52, SOS: 44) -- Wins over Arkansas and Missouri pushed the Volunteers to 3-1 in the conference, while the former gave them their second victory against a top-20 RPI team. They can really make some noise over the next 10 days with games against South Carolina, Texas A&M and Arkansas again, this time in Fayetteville.

Alabama (12-5, RPI: 53, SOS: 53) -- The Crimson Tide lost both of their games last week, though no one is going to hold the Kentucky loss against them. They also fell at South Carolina by two points, and that would have been a nice win for a team that is just 1-4 against the top 50 and 3-5 against the top 100. Their game at Arkansas on Thursday is just as important for them as it is for the Razorbacks.

South Carolina (10-6, RPI: 107, SOS: 76) -- The Gamecocks defeated Alabama last week, giving them something that only Kentucky and Arkansas also have, among SEC teams: three top-50 wins. What they do over the next two weeks will likely determine whether or not they have a shot at an at-large bid. Their next five games are against Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Georgia and Arkansas.

Conference USA

IN THE MIX

Old Dominion (15-2, RPI: 29, SOS: 117) -- The Monarchs got back on track with wins over league whipping boys Rice and North Texas last week. In all honestly, this team shouldn’t be challenged until a Valentine’s Day meeting with UTEP in El Paso. While four teams in this conference are crafting resumes that could be worthy of an at-large bid, there remains a possibility that only the C-USA tournament champion gets an invite. That means all the power conference bubble teams are huge Old Dominion fans.

Western Kentucky (12-5, RPI: 73, SOS: 95) -- The Hilltoppers have won five straight games against D-I opponents, including a 72-65 win triumph over Old Dominion. They have two top-50 wins (the other was against Ole Miss), but would that be enough to earn them an at-large bid? They likely need to be the Monarchs again, or emerge from conference play almost entirely unscathed to really have a chance at an invite, short of winning the conference tournament. They do get a chance for another top-100 win against UTEP on Thursday.

UTEP (12-5, RPI: 80, SOS: 114) -- The Miners held serve last week with wins over Southern Miss and UT-San Antonio, but this week they’ll actually get a shot to add to their resume. They visit Western Kentucky on Thursday, and while that win alone isn’t going to secure them an invite, it would give them a second top-100 win, as well as their first impressive true road victory.

Louisiana Tech (14-4, RPI: 97, SOS: 287) -- While the Bulldogs are definitely in the conversation right now, their only top-100 win came against UTEP, and they don’t have any top-50 wins. In fact, their only top-50 opponent thus far has been N.C. State, though both Temple and Syracuse, are just outside that class. Unfortuantely for Louisiana Tech, it lost all three of those games, so despite beating perfect so far in conference play, they won’t really have a shot at the tourney without at least a win over Old Dominion.

Missouri Valley

Locks: Wichita State

IN THE MIX

Northern Iowa (16-2, RPI: 20, SOS: 122) -- The Panthers are slowly turning themselves into a lock with each double-digit victory they rack up in the Valley. They could probably remove any doubt about their at-large case with a win against Wichita State on Jan. 31. Until then, they’ll have to bide their time beating up on the Valley’s lesser teams. Up next are Indiana State and Illinois State, the latter of which could actually give them a test, especially since it is on the road.

Mountain West

IN THE MIX

San Diego State (14-4, RPI: 19, SOS: 45) -- The Aztecs had a huge week, beating Wyoming on the road and then returning back home for a 53-47 victory over UNLV. They’re now 5-3 against the top 100, and are starting to firm up their resume for an at-large bid. A win at Colorado State on Saturday would give them an inside track to a spot in the field of 68.

Colorado State (17-2, RPI: 35, SOS: 146) -- The Rams haven’t done themselves any favors this year, compiling a terrible non-conference schedule and losing to Wyoming and New Mexico, two of the better Mountain West teams they’ve played thus far. At this point, their resume does not warrant inclusion in the field, despite a strong RPI. They have just one game this week, but it’s the biggest one they’ve played to date: hosting San Diego State on Saturday.

Boise State (12-6, RPI: 54, SOS: 61) -- The Broncos do not yet have a top-50 win, but a strong schedule filled with close losses to North Carolina State, Colorado State, Loyola-Chicago and Wyoming have Boise a few solid wins away from putting together a resume the committee would have to consider. That means they’ll likely have to defeat teams like Colorado State and San Diego State the next time they see them.

Wyoming (16-3, RPI: 92, SOS: 256) -- The Cowboys took a hit last week when they lost to San Diego State at home. While that certainly isn’t a bad loss, a win in that game would have given the committee proof that the Cowboys can regularly rise up against tournament-level competition. At this point, their best wins are over Colorado State and Boise State, two teams that likely wouldn’t make the tournament if the field were set today.

UNLV (10-8, RPI: 102, SOS: 52) -- Losses to Boise State and San Diego State last week added more evidence to the case that the Runnin’ Rebels’ upset victory over Arizona was an anomaly. They’re now 1-4 against the top 50, 2-6 against the top 100 and have a pair of ugly losses to Arizona State and Nevada. Barring a major turnaround, this will not be a tournament team.

West Coast

Locks: Gonzaga

IN THE MIX

BYU (15-6 RPI: 48, SOS: 47) -- Realistically, only one of BYU or Saint Mary’s is making the dance alongside Gonzaga, assuming there isn't a surprise champion in the conference tournament. That means the Cougars missed a huge chance to topple the Gaels on the road over the weekend. Had they done that, they’d own a 4-4 record against the top 100 and a win over St. Mary's, which could serve as a de facto tiebreaker between the two. They’ll have to exact revenge when the Gaels visit Provo on Feb. 12.

Saint Mary’s (15-3, RPI: 63, SOS: 148) -- After taking care of BYU at home last weekend, St. Mary's is 7-0 in the WCC, tied for first with Gonzaga. It gets its first shot at the big dogs of the conference on Thursday up in Spokane. If the Gaels can go on the road and take down Gonzaga, they’ll almost certainly make their debut in the Bracket Watch next week. Even if they don’t, last week’s win over BYU gave them first blood against a team with which they are competing as directly as possible for a spot in the tournament.

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