Bubble Watch: Depth of Big 12 leaves fringe teams little margin for error
Life on the bubble in the Big 12 can be awfully troubling. The conference has six teams in the top 25 of both the polls and the KenPom.com rankings. Those six teams -- Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia -- seem bound for the Big Dance at the moment, but one bad week could leave them feeling uneasy. If they could only imagine what it’s like for Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
The Cowboys and Wildcats squared off for the second time this season last Saturday in Manhattan, Kans., and Bruce Weber's team avenged its earlier loss in Stillwater with a 63-53 win. That gave Kansas State its fourth top-50 win as it continues to offset the damage it did to itself in non-conference play. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, has a far superior RPI and just one really bad loss, but it also has just two top-50 wins and has yet to knock off a premier opponent in a true road game.
While both teams made the field with relative ease in our most recent Bracket Watch on Monday, the high degree of difficulty of the Big 12 leaves little margin for error. After losing to the Wildcats last week, the Cowboys now begin a hellacious run that includes games against Baylor, Oklahoma, at Texas, Kansas and at Baylor. The Wildcats, meanwhile, host West Virginia and visit Kansas this week. After a brief respite at Texas Tech (which just beat Iowa State in Lubbock), K-State hosts Texas, travels to West Virginia and then returns home to take on Oklahoma. Both of the Big 12’s bubble teams may be in the tournament right now, but a run of losses against the top tier of the conference could have Oklahoma State and Kansas State teetering on the edge of the bubble.
(NOTE: Bubble teams listed in order of RPI.)
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SMU (16-4, RPI: 18 SOS: 46) -- The Mustangs are riding a six-game winning streak after easy wins over Tulane and Houston last week. They have an impressive RPI, and are ranked 21st on KenPom.com. So why is this team not yet considered a lock for the NCAA tournament? Because it still does not have a top-50 win. SMU’s best victory, in terms of opponent RPI, was against Eastern Washington (55th). That won’t change this week with games against South Florida and Central Florida.
Cincinnati (14-5, RPI: 27, SOS: 35) -- The Bearcats held serve against Houston and Central Florida last week, moving to 5-2 in the AAC. What they lack in offensive efficiency (79th in the country, 268th in three-point percentage), they make up for by cleaning up the glass. Their 38.2 percent offensive-rebounding rate is 14th in the nation. They host Connecticut on Thursday and then travel to East Carolina on Sunday.
Tulsa (14-5, RPI: 49, SOS: 114) -- After wins over Memphis and East Carolina last week, the Golden Hurricane remain undefeated in AAC play and atop the conference’s standings. But they still don't have a top-50 win, with their best victory coming at Temple. Shaq Harrison and James Woodard make up the best backcourt that no one talks about, but the rest of the team really struggles to score. They should have little trouble ove their next three games -- against Tulane, South Florida and Houston -- before getting a chance for a signature win against SMU on Feb. 7.
Temple (13-7, RPI: 54, SOS: 39) -- The luster of that 25-point win over Kansas back on Dec. 22 has begun to fade, and the Owls will need to pick up a few strong wins in the AAC to get it back. They’ve lost to all three AAC teams with a better RPI than them -- and two of those games were at home. If that cycle repeats in their return matchups against Tulsa and SMU, Temple can forget about an at-large bid.
Connecticut (11-7, RPI: 79, SOS: 62) -- If this team is going to make a run to defend its national title, it’s going to need someone to step up alongside senior guard Ryan Boatright. Perhaps that could be Amida Brimah, the 7-foot sophomore who’s shooting 69.1 percent from the floor. The AAC is one of the lowest-scoring conferences in the country, making a player like Brimah a unique weapon for the Huskies. Thursday’s matchup at Cincinnati looms as their only chance in the next two weeks to get a big win.
Locks: Virginia Commonwealth
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Dayton (16-3, RPI: 28, SOS: 101) -- The Flyers had a tough week, getting pounded at Davidson and then nearly losing at home to Richmond. While they’re a relatively safe bet to make the field at this point, their only top-50 win came against Texas A&M. A few more losses against top-level competition in the A-10 could easily send them to the NIT. They may not play another team ticketed for the tournament until Feb. 28 when they visit VCU, though George Washington, which they play on Feb. 6, is one of our last four teams in right now.
Davidson (14-4, RPI: 40, SOS: 102) -- The Wildcats notched their first top-50 win over the season when they cruised to a 77-60 win over Dayton last week. There’s still some work to do to make the Dance, but they now have the fourth-best offense in the country, in terms of adjusted efficiency. If they keep that up, they’ll likely get the handful of wins they need to earn an at-large bid. They also can’t afford to slip up in their next five games, all of which are against weak opponents. They won’t meet a potential tournament team until heading to D.C. to take on George Washington on Feb. 18.
George Washington (16-4, RPI: 53, SOS: 173) -- Speaking of the Colonials, they’ve won four straight games, though none was against a team with a real shot to earn an at-large bid. They don’t have a really bad spot on the resume -- the loss at LaSalle notwithstanding -- but they’re just barely inside our current field of 68. This is a huge week for them, with trips to VCU and Rhode Island. A win over the Rams would give their stock a major lift.
Rhode Island (13-5, RPI: 65, SOS: 98) -- The Rams remain “in the mix” for the time being, but they’re going to have to reel off a couple wins against tournament-quality competition to stick. Their first opportunity comes on Saturday against George Washington. It’s entirely possible they could be out of this column next week if they fall in that game. They do not have one impressive win to their name this season. They’re only here because they’ve managed to avoid an unsightly loss, something conference brethren Massachusetts and Richmond cannot say.
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Miami (14-5, RPI: 38, SOS: 44) -- The Hurricanes had a great week, picking up wins over N.C. State and at Syracuse. They now have two top-50 wins and have done enough to make the field of 68 in each of the last two editions of Bracket Watch. They’re now facing a lull in their schedule, as just one of their next seven games comes against a team likely to make the tournament (Louisville on Feb. 3).
North Carolina State (13-8, RPI: 45, SOS: 3) -- The Wolfpack narrowly missed out on two wins last week, both of which would have kept them away from the play-in game in this week’s Bracket Watch. Had they been able to hold their lead over Notre Dame, they would have two top-30 wins this year, both of which would have been against the upper echelon of the ACC. As it stands, they’re still resting on their upset of Duke. They’ll have a few more opportunities for resume-building wins in the regular season. In the meantime, they need to take care of business against Clemson and Georgia Tech this week.
Syracuse (14-7, RPI: 69, SOS: 89) -- The Orange have lost three of their last four games and haven’t won a game against a team with at-large bona fides since beating Iowa way back on Nov. 21. The ACC will still grant them a handful more opportunities for the signature wins necessary to make the tournament, but time is starting to run thin.
Pittsburgh (13-7, RPI: 77, SOS: 71) -- The Panthers had a golden opportunity to prove to the committee last week that they’re worthy of at-large consideration. Then they went out and lost to Duke by 14 and Louisville by 12. Beating some of the best teams the ACC has to offer would have been difficult, but it’s also what this team needs to do at this point to get a bid. Their next chance for a signature win comes Saturday when Notre Dame visits Pittsburgh, but the Panthers' tourney hopes are beginning to dim.
Clemson (11-8, RPI: 97, SOS: 57) -- We’re keeping the Tigers in for at least one more week because their non-conference wins over LSU and Arkansas, coupled with a 5-4 record against the RPI top 100, is a strong enough starting point. If they add two wins over the ACC’s elite teams, they’d be in the thick of the at-large discussion. First, though, they can do themselves a huge favor by winning at fellow bubble team N.C. State on Wednesday.
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Oklahoma State (13-6, RPI: 33, SOS: 33) -- The Cowboys are in a rough stretch, having lost their last three games against tournament-quality teams (Kansas, Oklahoma and Kansas State). Those games were all played away from Stillwater, but they’re now just 2-4 against the top-50, and their best true road win is over Memphis. And there’s no relief in sight: Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Baylor again are on deck in Oklahoma State's next five games.
Kansas State (12-8, RPI: 80, SOS: 53) -- After knocking off Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Wildcats have four wins against teams in the RPI top 40, including Baylor and Oklahoma. They may have struggled a bit in the non-conference portion of their schedule, but they’re now 5-2 in the deepest conference in the country. Barring a complete collapse in the second half of their conference slate, this is a team that is going dancing, and is doing so as, at worst, an 8- or 9-seed.
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Georgetown (14-5, RPI: 13, SOS: 4) -- The Hoyas shot up to a 5-seed in this week’s Bracket Watch on the strength of their wins over Butler and Villanova. They’ve now won four straight games and are 6-2 in the strong Big East. Four of their five losses are to teams inside the RPI top 20, and the fifth is to No. 36 Xavier. It shouldn’t be long before Georgetown is also considered a lock for an at-large bid. It gets a chance to avenge the loss to Xavier on Tuesday.
Butler (15-6, RPI: 15, SOS: 6) -- KenPom.com actually likes the Bulldogs better than the Hoyas, ranking the former 22nd and the latter 23rd. Butler is a rare team with six top-50 wins, and the blend of those victories is rather impressive. Just two of the six came at home. Two were true road games (at St. John’s and at Seton Hall) and two were on neutral courts (North Carolina and Georgetown, both in November's Battle 4 Atlantis tournament). We’ll get to see a rubber match between the Hoyas and Bulldogs on March 3 in Indianapolis, but just like Georgetown, it’s only a matter of time before Butler is locked into an at-large bid.
Providence (15-5, RPI: 21, SOS: 15) -- The Friars took care of Creighton and Xavier last week, moving to 5-2 in the conference and picking up their fifth win over a top-50 team. As I’ve written before, this is an interesting resume given their three sub-100 losses, but they are now 9-2 against the RPI top 100. With wins against Butler, Notre Dame and Georgetown, the committee may be able to overlook those bad losses.
Xavier (13-7, RPI: 35, SOS: 16) -- The Musketeers headed into Big East play after enjoying one of the league’s better non-conference performances, but they’ve really struggled to win games outside Cincinnati. They’ve lost on the road to Butler, Villanova and Providence and are now just barely holding onto an at-large bid in our Bracket Watch, even though few would say they aren’t one of the best 68 teams in the country. This is a huge week for them to prove to the committee that they can win away from home. They visit Georgetown on Tuesday and Seton Hall on Saturday.
Seton Hall (13-6, RPI: 42, SOS: 50) -- The Pirates are in the middle of a three-game slide, with a loss to DePaul sandwiched between a pair of losses to Butler. The Big East’s Midwest contingent has given the Pirates trouble, as they now have a total of four defeats to Butler, DePaul and Xavier. While the Hall is still a few losses away from being in real jeopardy of losing its grip on an at-large bid, it's more of a possibility than it was two weeks ago. The Pirates visit Marquette in Milwaukee on Wednesday before hosting Xavier on Saturday.
St. John’s (13-6, RPI: 48, SOS: 13) -- Earlier this year, the Red Storm were seen as potentially Villanova’s biggest challenger in the Big East. Now they’re the top-50 team in the conference most likely to miss out on the Big Dance. They have as many top-50 wins (one) as sub-100 losses. Close calls against Butler and Duke in the last few weeks loom right now as silver bullets that could have made making the Dance a much safer bet for the Johnnies. Saturday’s game against Providence gives them another chance for a top-50 win against a team they already defeated on the road.
DePaul (11-10, RPI: 133, SOS: 94) -- Their four losses to teams outside the RPI top 100 will make it an uphill battle for Oliver Purnell and the Blue Demons to reach the tournament. However, they cannot be dismissed at this point because they also have four wins against the top 50. You know what other teams don’t yet have four top-50 wins this year? Baylor, Louisville and Texas, just to name a few. If DePaul can pick up two more victories against that grouping, say over Providence and Georgetown, it may very well get an invite.
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Indiana (15-5, RPI: 32, SOS: 42) -- The Hoosiers notched their fourth, and perhaps best, top-50 win of the season last week, routing Maryland 89-70. We posited a few weeks ago that the Hoosiers just might be the third-best team in the Big Ten, and they certainly seem to have shot past Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State for that honor. This should be a relatively easy week for Indiana, with games against Purdue and Rutgers.
Ohio State (16-5, RPI: 41, SOS: 76) -- The Buckeyes got back into our field of 68 by beating Indiana by 12 points at home on Sunday. It was their first top-50 win of the season, and while they have still yet to beat a good team outside of Columbus, this was the first necessary step for them to prove themselves worthy of an at-large bid. They get another shot for a resume-building win when Maryland comes calling on Thursday.
Michigan State (13-7, RPI: 44, SOS: 20) -- The Spartans suffered a damaging loss over the weekend at Nebraska, their second defeat to a team outside the top 100 in RPI. They’re still liked by the various ratings systems, with a KenPom.com ranking of 27 to go along with their strong RPI, but they really need to avoid another bad conference loss, and it wouldn’t hurt if they could pair that with a win over Wisconsin or Indiana. They don’t play either of those teams again until March, and first they'll need to avoid potential pitfalls this week against Rutgers and Michigan.
Iowa (13-7, RPI: 51, SOS: 23) -- The Hawkeyes had a terrible week, getting run out of the gym by Wisconsin in Madison, and then losing a close one at Purdue. They are now 1-5 against the RPI top 50 and 5-7 against the top 100. They have just one game this week, hosting the Badgers on Saturday. It would be best if they didn’t lose this one by 32 points.
Illinois (13-8, RPI: 57, SOS: 54) -- The Illini are hanging on to their slim tourney hopes by a thread after losing at Minnesota on Saturday. They have four games left against the trio of Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Realistically, they’ll have to go at least 3-1 in those games to have a shot at an at-large bid.
Michigan (12-8, RPI: 63, SOS: 24) -- The Wolverines just missed what would have been a huge coup, falling to Wisconsin in overtime on Saturday in Ann Arbor. They’re still without a top-50 win, though they are 6-6 against the top 100. Still, that’s not going to get it done, especially with losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan on the resume. The Wolverines have six more games this season against teams likely to make the tournament. They probably need to win four of those to have a chance.
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Stanford (14-5, RPI: 31, SOS: 58) -- The Cardinal continue to coast along right in the middle of the tournament pack. They haven’t done enough to warrant consideration for anything higher than about a 7-seed, but they’ve done plenty to be safely in the field of 68. A win at Washington on Wednesday would give them a season sweep of the Huskies, as well as their third top-50 victory.
Washington (14-5, RPI: 47, SOS: 85) -- Speaking of the Huskies, Wednesday’s game against Stanford is more important to them than it is to the Cardinal. Unlike Stanford, they have a pair of unsightly losses on their resume offsetting their two top-50 wins. If they could take care of business at home, they’d add another top-50 win to the resume and move to 8-3 on the year against the top 100. They’re currently one of our first four out, and the loss of center Robert Upshaw, who was missed for the team because of rules violations, will not help them make up ground.
Oregon State (14-5, RPI: 71, SOS: 135) -- The Beavers swept Los Angeles last week, picking up victories against UCLA and USC. They’re really here, however, because of their win over Arizona at the start of conference play. Losses to Quinnipiac and Auburn, as well as a terrible non-conference schedule, are holding them back, but if they can get a couple more top-50 wins, they’ll be a more serious part of the at-large discussion. They can get one such victory when they visit Arizona on Friday.
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Arkansas (15-4, RPI: 23, SOS: 55) -- The Razorbacks got back on track after two straight losses by beating Alabama and Missouri last week, though they nearly lost what would have been a bad one at South Carolina. They’re 4-2 against the top 50 and 5-4 against the top 100 with impressive road victories over SMU and Georgia. Unless they completely fall apart over the next six weeks, they’ll be dancing in March.
Georgia (13-5, RPI: 25, SOS: 22) -- After losing to Arkansas and LSU to open up league play, the Bulldogs have won four straight games, sweeping the state of Mississippi last week. While one or two more top-50 wins would shore up the resume, they’re looking like a relatively safe bet to make it to the tourney, thanks in some part to the overall weakness of the SEC. So long as the Bulldogs avoid sub-100 losses for the rest of the year, they should hear their name on Selection Sunday.
Texas A&M (13-5, RPI: 34, SOS: 47) -- The Aggies are one of our first four teams out of the field, but they’ve done everything asked of them since losing to Alabama and Kentucky in the first week of SEC play. Their win at LSU gives them a signature road victory. If they can go at least 3-2 in their remaining games with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi they’ll set themselves up for a shot at an at-large bid heading into the SEC tournament.
LSU (15-4, RPI: 37, SOS: 88) -- The Tigers spent last week on the road, winning games at Florida and Vanderbilt. Despite having a lower RPI than Georgia and Texas A&M, they have a strong tournament resume by virtue of their three top-50 wins, highlighted by a road victory over West Virginia. LSU's next three games are against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn, so it should be able to build a nice winning streak before back-to-back games against Alabama and Kentucky.
Mississippi (12-7, RPI: 46, SOS: 18) -- The second-tier SEC teams -- ie everyone except Kentucky -- are more muddled than any other power conference group. Mississippi could leapfrog Georgia, Texas A&M and LSU with a strong finish to conference play. This week won't do them many favors, however, as they play league doormats Mississippi State and Missouri.
Alabama (13-6, RPI: 50, SOS: 41) -- The Crimson Tide lost by two at Arkansas, missing out on a golden opportunity for a signature road win. They then proceeded to eke out a two-point victory at home against Auburn, one of the worst teams in the SEC. As such, it was not a great week for the Tide. They’ll get their second shot at Kentucky on Saturday, this time in Lexington.
Tennessee (12-6, RPI: 55, SOS: 38) -- The Volunteers’ loss at home against Texas A&M on Saturday was their second in Knoxville against a top-50 team in the SEC. Put another way, they’ve now lost twice at home to their main competition for at-large bids. On the plus side, they own impressive wins over Butler, Arkansas and Kansas State, and can get right back into the field of 68 with a few more good wins. Their first opportunity for one comes on Tuesday at Arkansas.
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Old Dominion (15-4, RPI: 39, SOS: 119) -- Any realistic hope of C-USA being a two-bid conference evaporated with the Monarchs’ disastrous week. They suffered losses to Middle Tennessee State and UAB, teams ranked 131st and 176th, respectively, in RPI. They were the conference’s best hope for an at-large bid thanks to wins over VCU and LSU, but that now appears unlikely.
Western Kentucky (14-5, RPI: 67, SOS: 99) -- The Hilltoppers sit atop the league with a 7-0 record, including a win over Old Dominion. That victory is why we currently have them as the automatic qualifier out the conference in Bracket Watch. Just as with the Monarchs, however, Western Kentucky's at-large case is still flimsy. It has two top-50 wins, but its only remaining chance for another in the regular season comes in the return matchup with ODU. The Hilltoppers do play one of their prime competitors in conference this week, visiting Louisiana Tech on Thursday.
Louisiana Tech (15-5, RPI: 98, SOS: 278) -- I have to take issue with some of my fellow bracketologists, who have Louisiana Tech sitting as a potential at-large team right now. I just can’t see how that would happen. They have zero top-100 wins on the year. Their best victory is over UTEP. They have just four wins against teams in the top 200. The Bulldogs could very well win the conference tournament, but there isn’t a chance that this team will be more deserving of an at-large bid than the bubble teams in the power conferences.
Locks: Wichita State
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Northern Iowa (18-2, RPI: 22, SOS: 132) -- The strength of the Panthers’ at-large resume is the fact that they’ve mostly beaten everyone they’re supposed to, despite a misstep against Evansville. That’s what made their comeback victory at Illinois State over the weekend so important. The Redbirds aren’t a pushover, especially at home, but those are the very losses that UNI has avoided while making its case for a tourney invite so strong. The Panthers finally get a shot at the Shockers on Saturday. Remember, despite high RPI and seemingly comfortable status in the field of 68, they do not have a top-50 win this year. Iowa, which they beat in late December, is currently 51st in RPI.
Evansville (15-5, RPI: 70, SOS: 111) -- The Purple Aces are still breathing by virtue of their win over Northern Iowa, but any slight misstep will wrest away what slim hope they have for an at-large bid. That means they have to go undefeated against the Valley’s deadweight before back-to-back games against Wichita State and Northern Iowa in the last week of February.
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San Diego State (15-5, RPI: 24, SOS: 48) -- The Aztecs suffered their second conference loss last week, falling at Colorado State. If there’s any weakness in their resume, it’s the notable lack of good wins away from home. They’re 0-3 in true road games against the top 50, and their only road win against a top-100 team was at Wyoming. They also have an ugly road loss against Fresno State, a team ranked 233rd in RPI. That won’t be enough to keep them out of the field, but it could very well restrict their seed ceiling.
Colorado State (18-2, RPI: 30, SOS: 136) -- The Rams continue to yo-yo in and out of the field of 68, but they took an important step toward ending that cycle with a win over San Diego State last weekend. It was their first victory against a top-50 opponent, but it was also their first game against a top-50 opponent. That’s an indictment of Colorado State's non-conference schedule, and exhibit A as to why it still needs a few more resume-building wins in the Mountain West to feel good about its chances for an at-large bid. A win at Boise State on Tuesday would qualify.
Boise State (14-6, RPI: 66, SOS: 112) -- The Broncos have won four straight games, but it’s their performance in the next two weeks that will go a long way toward determining if they have a shot at an at-large bid. They host Colorado State on Tuesday and then welcome San Diego State to Idaho next weekend. If they find a way to win both of those games, they’ll suddenly become a very intriguing team for the committee.
Wyoming (17-3, RPI: 72, SOS: 218) -- The Cowboys continue to do what’s expected of them, beating Fresno State and New Mexico last week. They’re now 4-2 against the RPI top 100, including a win over Colorado State, and their only loss outside the top 100 came at California. They probably won’t feel safe on Selection Sunday without adding a win against San Diego State to their resume, but they’ve checked off most of the other boxes on the way to what initially seemed an unlikely at-large invite.
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St. Mary’s (16-4, RPI: 52, SOS: 108) -- The Gaels fell flat in their first shot at slaying the conference’s dragon, losing by 21 at Gonzaga last Wednesday. Even though there is some good and very little bad on this resume, it’s hard to see a team earning an at-large bid out of the WCC without beating the Bulldogs. The Gaels will get another shot at that on Feb. 21. This week, they’ll have to take care of business against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.
BYU (15-7, RPI: 62, SOS: 67) -- The Cougars have clearly fallen to third in the conference after losing to Saint Mary’s and San Diego last week. Just like the Gaels, they desperately need to add a win over Gonzaga to give their at-large case some much-needed vigor. Unfortunately, they already lost to the Bulldogs at home. BYU gets another chance at them in Spokane on the final day of the regular season. Given that they already have two losses to teams outside the top 160 in RPI, any misstep between now and then could be a death knell for the Cougars, even if they went on to beat Gonzaga.