Selection Sunday isn't quite around the corner, but it's definitely on this block. As we get closer to the big day, you'll start to see more references to the RPI, but at this relatively early stage it's hard to figure out just how much attention we should pay to all those numbers. Reading the RPI rankings in mid-January is like reading the voting returns early on election night. Yes, the numbers tell you what trends might be forming, but it's far too early to make a projection.
There is, however, one race in which almost all the returns are in, and that's the all-important nonconference strength of schedule rankings. Most teams have either played all the nonconference games they're going to play, or they only have one or two left. So we pretty much know where this category will stand on the big day.
And it is an important category. Over the last decade, the men's basketball committee has put an increasing emphasis on this portion of a team's profile because it is the only part of the schedule that teams can control. The committee seeks to reward teams that seek out tough competition and punish those that don't. If you're a bubble team, your NC SOS ranking looms large when the committee is deciding those last few at-large bids.
So now that we can make some projections, I've assembled a list of eight potential bubble teams who helped themselves during the first few months of the season, and another eight who hurt themselves. I've placed the NC SOS rankings in parentheses. (As always, my data comes from Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com.) We'll find out in two short months just how much these rankings matter.
California (3). The Bears will not be able to improve their RPI profile much during Pac-10 play, so this surprisingly high nonconference ranking will be a huge help. They lost their four toughest games, but in three of those (Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico) they played without an injured Theo Robertson. The committee will definitely take that into account.
Connecticut (7). It's hard to imagine the Huskies will still be on the bubble come Selection Sunday, but given that their best RPI wins are at home against William & Mary and Harvard, they'll need all the house money they can get. Their loss at Michigan on Sunday did not help their cause, but of course they can dramatically change the picture if they can somehow knock off Texas on Saturday.
Butler (8). The Bulldogs are ranked 24th in the RPI, but all it would take is a couple of losses in the Horizon League to drop them onto the bubble. They've got good wins over Ohio State and Xavier (in that weird clock-malfunction game), and their win at Northwestern back on Nov. 18 is looking better by the day.
Xavier (12). It would be ironic if the Musketeers' chances of making the NCAA tournament came down to that crazy ending at Butler. I doubt that it will, considering Xavier is 14th in the RPI and the Atlantic 10 is tough, but this NC SOS ranking is a nice asset. It's a little concerning that the Musketeers' best win came in double-overtime at home against Cincinnati, while the other toughies (Marquette and Baylor on a neutral court, Kansas State, Butler and Wake Forest on the road) resulted in losses. But at least they played some quality teams.
Rhode Island (35). The Atlantic 10 could be looking at four (maybe even five) teams getting into the NCAA tournament, and the Rams' terrific nonconference schedule helps explain why. If they had won at VCU on Dec. 2 instead of losing by two, that would have been huge, especially since the two teams may end up competing for an at-large spot. URI's neutral-court win over Oklahoma State could go a long way for the same reason.
William & Mary (38). The Tribe are currently 28th in the RPI, but that number will fall as conference play progresses. As always, those wins against fellow bubble teams are huge: Richmond, VCU, Wake Forest and Maryland -- and the last two were on the road. Well played, gents.
Washington (40). This is one case where you have to go beyond just one number. Yes, the Huskies have a high NC SOS ranking, but their schedule included just one true road game, which they lost in overtime at Texas Tech (a team that has lost five of nine since). Moreover, Washington's best win outside the Pac-10 came at home against Texas A&M in a game where Aggies guard Derrick Roland gruesomely broke his leg. I give Lorenzo Romar credit for avoiding the really bad teams (the lowest-ranked team UW played RPI-wise is No. 219 San Francisco), but if the Huskies hope to get at an at-large bid, they need to finish no lower than second in the Pac-10.
Illinois (64). The Illini's nonconference profile includes two very important wins against probable NCAA tournament teams -- at Clemson and home against Vanderbilt. The Illini would be in better shape if they had managed to finish off Gonzaga instead of falling in overtime, but as long as they continue to take care of business against the bottom teams in the Big Ten, they should be in pretty good shape.
Miami (343). For the life of me, I can't understand why Frank Haith did not put together a stronger nonconference schedule. It's why I did not vote Miami into my Top 25 ballot even while the Hurricanes were rolling up a gaudy record. The one notable win came against Minnesota at home, but the 'Canes also played eight teams whose RPI is ranked 230 or lower, and four that are ranked below 300. They need to finish in the top five in the ACC or they could be in trouble.
Illinois State (334). The Redbirds just missed out on an at-large bid last year even though were ranked 47th in the RPI. But their overall strength of schedule was ranked 105th, and so far this year it is 225th. Part of the problem with playing a weak schedule is the losses look especially bad. Illinois State dropped two games to teams ranked below 100: at home against Niagara and on the road against Ohio. I seriously doubt they will be able to get an at-large bid if they don't win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Virginia (292). I probably wouldn't have even considered the Cavaliers a bubble team two weeks ago, but their 3-0 start in the ACC brings them into the picture. Unfortunately, because of their nonconference schedule the Cavs will not have much margin for error inside the league. Their four losses during the first two months came against teams that will probably not make the NCAA tournament: at South Florida, Stanford on a neutral court, home against Penn State and at Auburn.
Notre Dame (260). I've often said there are three certainties in life: Death, taxes and Notre Dame on the bubble. It's a good thing the Irish knocked off West Virginia when they had the chance because their NC SOS means they don't have much room to spare. In fairness, Mike Brey had every right to expect that UCLA (RPI rank: 167) would be a better win, but Notre Dame has also played six teams ranked 230 and below -- and one of those, Loyola Marymount, beat them in South Bend.
Florida State (253). Two years ago, the Seminoles were the poster child for what not to do in the nonconference. They were 10-6 in the ACC and ranked 15th in the RPI, but because their nonconference schedule was so weak, they did not get an at-large bid. Leonard Hamilton put together a better slate last year and got to the tournament for the first time since he came to Tallahassee, but apparently it was a one-year lesson. This season, Florida State has played three teams in the nonconference ranked 300 or lower and nobody in the top 50.
Washington State (232). It's especially problematic for a Pac-10 school to play a weak nonconference schedule this season because wins inside the league won't help the RPI much. When the Cougars did play good teams, they reached too high, losing on the road to Gonzaga and Kansas State. Washington State also caught a bad break that LSU, which is 174th in the RPI, is having a down year. Then again, maybe that's why they were on the schedule in the first place.
Seton Hall (224). The Pirates are undoubtedly a tournament-caliber team, but their inability to win close games could cost them a bid. They have now lost seven of their last nine games, and even though their road win at Cornell is going to look good on Selection Sunday, they also played six games against teams ranked 250 or below. Seton Hall needs to somehow get to .500 inside the Big East or the Pirates will likely be on the outside looking in.
Missouri (215). The good news for the Tigers is that despite this number, when they had a chance to play a quality team, they took advantage. They beat Oregon and Georgia at home and blitzed Illinois on a neutral court. They stumbled at Oral Roberts to lose by one, but their other two losses (vs. Richmond on a neutral court and at Vanderbilt) were respectable. A top-six finish in the Big 12 should leave them in pretty good shape.
• A Big East coach who has scouted West Virginia told me that part of the Mountaineers' problem is that their guards who can defend are not good shooters, and their guards who can shoot are not good defenders. Case in point: The Mountaineers could not hit outside shots against Syracuse's zone, but when Bob Huggins substituted Casey Mitchell into the game, Brandon Triche, the Orange's freshman point guard, took him to school.
• An ACC head coach let me in on a secret about North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland: "He can only dribble with one hand. He has no left."
• Funny how the comments I'm now hearing about Virginia are so similar to the ones I used to hear about Tony Bennett's teams at Washington State. From a coach whose team has played them: "They're so hard to play because they screen you so much. They don't mind taking you to the end of the clock, either, because it wears you out. Then they just let [Sylven] Landesberg create his own shot."
• From Duke's perspective, one good thing about the way Kyle Singler has struggled this season (by his standards anyway) is that it reduces the chance he will turn pro after this season. He's a terrific player but he doesn't look like an NBA small forward to me.
• Just to be clear, the reason the NCAA's new prohibition against hiring people connected to recruits is limited to minor staff positions, as opposed to full-time assistants, is not because there is something more legitimate about hiring an AAU coach as an assistant. It's because there is very little history of head coaches using full-time assistant positions for hires, which means prohibiting it would be more vulnerable to a legal challenge. If head coaches think they can get around this new rule by hiring players' relatives or AAU coaches relatives as full-time assistants, it will be easy for the NCAA to eliminate that in its next go-round.
• Sorry to rain on Clemson's parade after its big week, but the Tigers nearly blew a 21-point lead at N.C. State on Saturday before winning by three. Remember, this is the same team that frittered away a 23-point lead at home against Illinois. That should give future opponents encouragement if they get down big against the Tigers.
• Gonzaga pulled off an amazing feat when it opened conference play by beating its top three WCC rivals on the road. But the Zags are making 66.3 percent from the foul line, which ranks last in the league. That has to catch up with them sometime, right?
• Speaking of Gonzaga, an interesting scenario is developing there. Spokane is hosting an NCAA tournament first-round site, but because Washington State is technically the host school, and because the Zags will have played fewer than three games in Spokane Arena, that means they are allowed to play at that site if they are a high enough seed. As Bud Witherspointed out in the Seattle Times, this kind of home-court advantage is not unprecedented, but it is unusual. That has to be a huge motivator for the Zags to really dominate the league to get a high seed.
• When I asked Rick Barnes on Saturday night if he was concerned about his team's foul shooting, he told me he wasn't because he can put his best foul shooters on the floor late in games. Funny, but I remember John Calipari telling me the same thing about Memphis two years ago.
• The most head-scratching thing about Purdue's three-game losing streak is how poorly the Boilermakers have played on defense. Wisconsin shot 41.1 percent and took 27 free throws. Ohio State shot 51 percent and shot 18 free throws. Northwestern shot 45.7 percent and made 30 free throws. For a program that prides itself on guarding the dribbler, that's gotta stop.
• Not enough is being said about what a terrific passer Georgetown's Greg Monroe is.
• Michigan State's Durrell Summers has to be the biggest tease in college basketball. He has good size and dazzling athleticism, but he is incredibly inconsistent. Tom Izzo has been bringing him off the bench for most of the last month, but Summers had been playing better so Izzo gave him the start against Illinois on Saturday. The result: seven points on 3-for-10 shooting in 29 minutes, though to his credit he did have nine rebounds.
• Walk-on guard Skylar McBee shot 1-for-7 (1-for-6 from beyond the arc) in Tennessee's win over Ole Miss. And I thought he'd never miss again.
• It is hard to believe this has escaped my notice for so long, but I feel compelled to inform you that there is a senior walk-on guard playing for Siena whose name is Just-in'love Smith.
• I can't believe anyone would suggest that Evan Turner's draft stock was going suffer because he got hurt. I wonder how that theory's holding up now.
• Oregon is about the last team I'd expect to overturn the theory that it's hard to win on the road in college hoops. McArthur Court is supposed to be one of the toughest places to play, yet the Ducks, who opened Pac-10 play by winning at Washington State and Washington, have now lost three in a row at home. Their main problems: lousy defense and lousier three-point shooting.
• Whenever I hear an announcer say a player was called for "over the back," I hear Clark Kellogg's voice in my head saying, "You can go over the back. You can't go on the back."
• The thing I most respect about Villanova is that even though they have small teams every year, they still do a great job on the boards. This season they have a +6.8 rebound margin, which is ranked fifth in the Big East. I also love that they get to the foul line so often instead of settling for threes.
• Here's something older players tend to know that younger players don't: There's a difference between intensity and emotion.
• It's starting to get ugly at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have lost six in a row, and it's hard to see where their next win is going to come from. Their next four games are vs. Villanova, at Georgetown, at Marquette and vs. Notre Dame. Plus, one of their top big men, Gregory Echenique, just transferred to Creighton.
• Three really good players on really bad teams: Dominique Jones, South Florida; Landry Fields, Stanford; Charles Jenkins, Hofstra.
• Bill Self has an interesting conundrum. Cole Aldrich is one of the best centers in the country, but in many respects Kansas is actually a better team when he's not in the game. There's more space for drivers, the fast break is quicker, and the ball moves around better in the half court.
• I'm sorry, but Seton Hall guard Jeremy Hazell is one of the most overrated players in the country. Not only does he give new meaning to the term "volume shooter" (it takes him 18.5 shots per game to average his 22.9 points), but he does very little else to help his team win. When the Pirates lost at Georgetown, Hazell scored 17 points but did not have a single rebound or assist.
• I'm a little surprised that more details haven't leaked out about the statement of facts the NCAA sent to Mississippi State last week about Renardo Sidney. From what I'm hearing, there are some extremely problematic allegations in that document. The school has the option of challenging those facts, but I think it's safe to say that Mr. Sidney will not play a minute of college basketball.
• I know UConn is struggling, but it is absolutely mind-boggling that the Huskies are on pace to lead the nation in blocks for the ninth straight year. That has to be one of the more remarkable streaks in sports.
• One of the better rule changes of in recent history was the decision to count technical fouls as a personal foul as well.
• I'm not ready to say that Oklahoma has turned the corner, but the Sooners at least stopped the bleeding by edging Oklahoma State and Missouri at home last week after losing three out of four in embarrassing fashion. Willie Warren played a terrific all-around game against Mizzou (21 points, five assists), but Cade Davis played arguably the best game of his career. OU has three out of its next four on the road, followed by a home game against Texas, so we'll know in about two weeks whether this team will be a factor down the stretch.
• You all better start paying attention to Dee Bost, Mississippi State's sophomore point guard. Over his last five games he is averaging 16.6 points, 4.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds.
• Don't look now, but Siena is looking like a bracket buster again. The Saints won at second-place Fairfield on Saturday to improve their record in the MAAC to 7-0 (14-4 overall). Remember, when they stumbled earlier this season, it was partly because their best player, Edwin Ubiles, wasn't fully healthy.
• It's a good sign for BYU that long-range marksman Jonathan Tavernari, a 6-foot-6 senior from Brazil, has apparently rediscovered his touch. Tavernari, who has converted a career-low 33.7 percent from behind the arc this season, endured a brutal four-game stretch in December when he averaged 4.0 points. But he has scored 14.0 points per game off the bench over his last five outings to help the Cougars improve to 18-1.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Texas (1)2. Kentucky (2)3. Kansas (3)4. Villanova (4)5. Duke (6)6. Syracuse (7)7. Georgetown (8)8. Tennessee (11)9. Michigan State (13)10. Pittsburgh (19)11. West Virginia (9)12. Gonzaga (16)13. Ohio State (NR)14. Kansas State (15)15. Wisconsin (10)16. Purdue (5)17. BYU (22)18. Clemson (NR)19. Georgia Tech (NR)20. Northwestern (NR)21. Temple (18)22. North Carolina (14)23. Northern Iowa (20)24. Ole Miss (23)25. Siena (25)
Dropped off my ballot: Connecticut (12), Dayton (17), Baylor (21), Virginia Tech (24).
Skinny: This was the most fun I've had this season filling out a ballot. There were lots of consequential results last week, so it was a challenge deciding how far to drop the teams that lost.
The biggest casualty was the UConn Huskies. Normally I wouldn't punish a team so badly for losing on the road, but Michigan has been so mediocre this season that when UConn lost in Ann Arbor, it forced me to step back and reevaluate where I've been ranking them. The Huskies may be one of the 25 best teams in the country, but do you know what their best win is so far this season? At home against William & Mary. Sorry, folks, that's not enough.
I might have said the same for North Carolina after their two losses last week, but since both Clemson and Georgia Tech are ranked ahead of the Heels on my ballot, I didn't want to drop them completely out. Plus, at least North Carolina has some quality wins over Ohio State (with Evan Turner) and Michigan State at home. As for Purdue, I may have gone a little easy on the Boilermakers by not dropping them further after their third straight loss, but I still believe they are better than the teams I ranked behind them -- including Northwestern, which got on my ballot for the first time this season after knocking off the Boilermakers in Evanston.
As for the risers, Ohio State has earned my respect by beating Purdue on the road and Wisconsin at home. With Evan Turner back in the fold, this is obviously a different team. Pittsburgh cracked my top 10, and while it's not easy for me to reconcile not putting them ahead of Syracuse considering they won in the Carrier Dome, the Orange also helped their own cause by winning at West Virginia. It's a close call which I'm sure will sort itself out in the coming weeks.
It was also tough figuring out what to do with the three schools atop the Atlantic 10. I've been voting Dayton on my ballot consistently, and it's hard to punish the Flyers for losing by four at Xavier. But I also didn't want to rank them ahead of Xavier in the wake of that result, so it was easier just to leave those two out. Temple remains on the board largely because of its win over Villanova.
Dayton and Xavier are thus at the top of my list of teams I strongly considered but left out, followed by Vanderbilt (which still does not have a win against a ranked team), Baylor and Virginia Tech. Texas A&M would have been ranked if they had pulled off that road upset of Texas, but at this point in the season, close enough isn't good enough.