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Savvy scheduling may push some into NCAAs, more Hoop Thoughts

This is the time of year when you start seeing a lot of RPI numbers being thrown around. It can be hard to figure out which ones are worth paying attention to. Not to worry. Your resident Hoop Thinker is here to help.

Since we're in a political season, my suggestion is that you think of RPI rankings as if you were watching returns on election night. The first few numbers give you a good sense of what's going on, but it will be a while before we have some definitive results.

The overall RPI rankings are pretty meaningless right now. (Seton Hall is ranked fifth; Southern Miss is 15th. 'Nuff said.) There is, however, one category where almost all of the precincts have reported: the nonconference strength of schedule rankings. There may be a few relevant nonconference games here and there, but for the most part this order is set. And it's a very important slice of information. Over the last decade, the basketball committee has increasingly emphasized the portion of the schedule over which a coach has control. Even if a team loses a bunch of its games, it will still get credit for having played them against good teams, especially if it was away from home.

So as a service to my fellow hoopheads, I've scoured the data and found 10 potential bubble teams who helped themselves during the nonconference season, and another 10 who hurt themselves. (As always, my information comes from Jerry Palm's fabulous website, CollegeRPI.com.) You might say I'm sending out an SOS.

Gonzaga (Nonconference strength of schedule rank: 5). Few coaches put together a tougher schedule than Mark Few. This year's version includes road games at Illinois and Xavier, which the Zags split, plus home games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Butler. Even the Dec. 15 game against Oral Roberts, which is ranked No. 53 in the RPI, was no walkover. I doubt Gonzaga will be a bubble team, but if for some reason it goes on a skid in the WCC it has some breathing room.

Butler (12). Brad Stevens has held his ground about asking big-name schools to play home-and-home games. Both Louisville and Xavier came to Hinkle this year, and Butler returned a game at Stanford. The question is whether the Bulldogs have lost too many games to this point to be considered for an at-large bid.

Memphis (16). Josh Pastner inherited this scheduling philosophy from John Calipari, but I give him credit for maintaining it. Besides playing in the Maui Invitational, Memphis played road games at Louisville, Georgetown and Miami. The most impressive was a nothing-to-win home game against Murray State (which the Tigers didn't win).

West Virginia (19). The Mountaineers are 4-2 in the Big East and ranked 14th overall in the RPI, so they are sitting pretty. West Virginia has solid wins over Kansas State, Miami and Missouri State, but if the Mountaineers miss the NCAA tournament they will look back at that overtime loss to Baylor as the one that got away.

Arizona (22). Will the Pac 12 really be a one-bid league? Probably not, but Arizona is one of the few that would have a case for an at-large. The Wildcats' best nonconference wins were over St. John's in Madison Square Garden and Oakland at home. Arizona did lose at home to San Diego State and Gonzaga, but those losses shouldn't hurt them too badly if those teams keep winning.

Florida State (23). Despite their triumph over North Carolina, the Seminoles have struggled the last few weeks. It helps that they got a boost from playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving week and that they also played road games at Michigan State and Florida. What didn't help was losing at home to Princeton.

Dayton (33). The Atlantic 10 looks like it could be a three- or four-bid league, so the Flyers have a chance to ride that wave. They'll also spend the next two months rooting for Alabama and Minnesota, whom they beat during the first month of the season.

North Carolina State (34). The middle of the ACC is going to look like one big bubble, so this number could help N.C. State separate itself from the group. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack's best nonconference win came on a neutral court over Texas, and given the way the Longhorns are playing that might not look so great.

Alabama (39). The Crimson Tide are ranked 19th overall in the RPI, but if they find themselves on the bubble their championship in the Puerto Rico Tipoff will do them wonders -- especially since they came over three teams (Maryland, Wichita State and Purdue) who could be on the bubble with them. Alabama also added nice wins over Oakland (home) and Oklahoma State (neutral court).

Missouri State (54). The Bears scored one of the most impressive road wins of the season when they went in to Omaha on Dec. 28 and knocked off Creighton. That, however, came inside the league. Unfortunately, even though the Bears played a tough nonconference schedule they lost most of the significant games to Oral Roberts (road), New Mexico (road), Oklahoma State (neutral), West Virginia (neutral) and St. Mary's (neutral). That does not look like the profile of an at-large team.

Texas A&M (338). The Aggies' schedule is not as bad as this number would indicate. They played in the early-season NIT (where they lost to Mississippi St. and then beat St. John's) and also played Florida. But they also played five teams ranked below 300 in the RPI. Given that Texas A&M lost its first three Big 12 games, it better finish the season strong or it's going to be a long wait for this team over selection weekend.

Cincinnati (323). Lots of people were praising the Bearcats for winning games while its players were suspended for fighting against Xavier. But many of them neglected to mention that the wins came against the likes of Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Chicago State and Oklahoma (and all of those were at home). Cincinnati's also scored a win at home over Georgia, but lost to Marshall on Nov. 25. The Bearcats will probably need to finish in the top seven of the Big East to have a realistic chance at an at-large.

George Mason (272). The Patriots are looking strong in the CAA right now, but they would do well to keep it up. Not only did they play a weak schedule, they lost a lot of those games -- to Florida International, Florida Atlantic, and at home to Duquesne. If they fail to win the CAA tournament, the Patriots will have to hope the committee cuts them slack for having played their first 10 games without suspended senior guard Andre Cornelius.

Stanford (257). The Cardinal's win over Colorado State in the NIT tipoff is their best RPI win of the season. That's not saying much, especially since CSU's No. 22 ranking in the RPI is not going to hold. Stanford had a chance to beat Syracuse in Madison Square Garden but ended up losing by six. Imagine how much better their position would be if they had pulled that one off. If Stanford does get left out of the field, it can also point to its five-point loss at home to Butler on Dec. 22 as decisive.

St. John's (256). It's a stretch to call a team that is 2-4 in its conference a bubble team, but the Red Storm's nonconference SOS rank underscores how far it has to go to get into the tournament. Given that this program lost nine seniors from last season, it's understandable why Steve Lavin would anticipate a rebuilding season. I assume he'll upgrade the schedule in the near future.

Virginia (247). I'd be quite surprised if the Cavaliers find themselves on the bubble, especially given how weak the ACC is. Even so, why jeopardize themselves with this kind of schedule? Tony Bennett knew he would have a strong team this season. He should have challenged it more. The Cavs notched wins over George Mason (home) and LSU (road), and while that home win over Michigan has held up nicely, it's worth noting that that game was forced on Bennett by the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Iowa (240). I probably wouldn't have thought to include the Hawkeyes two weeks ago, but their wins over Michigan (home), Minnesota (road) and Wisconsin (road) have vaulted them into the bubble conversation. Unfortunately, their nonconference schedule -- which includes a home loss to Clemson -- will not help. That will be especially true if they're fighting Northern Iowa for a spot. The Hawkeyes lost at UNI by 20 points on Dec. 6.

Tennessee (238). The Volunteers are proving to be no pushover. They beat Florida there and fought Kentucky to the wire last weekend. The question is whether they can win enough games in the SEC to overcome their poor performance outside the league. This ranking will improve after Tennessee plays UConn on Jan. 21, but since that game is in Knoxville it won't help the Vols much if they don't win.

New Mexico (209). Steve Alford was a little snakebit on this one. When he scheduled games against Arizona State, Washington State, Boston College, USC and Oklahoma State, he could have reasonably expected some of them to be better. The Lobos' next two games are against the two titans of the Mountain West, at home against San Diego State and then at UNLV. I suggest they at least split. They'll also spend the next two months rooting hard for Missouri State and Saint Louis since New Mexico beat both those teams in Albuquerque.

VCU (195). The Rams have already lost two league games and can't afford to drop many more. Their best nonleague wins came on the road against Akron. If they're in the at-large hunt, the Rams are going to be haunted by their performance in the Charleston Classic, where they lost to Seton Hall, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky.

• It's odd that so many more people (myself included) are talking about the possibility that Murray State will go undefeated than the possibility that Syracuse will go undefeated. The Orange got a scheduling break because they only have to play Georgetown at home. I'm guessing Syracuse will lose soon just because its players are human (I think) and will turn in a lousy game. But wouldn't it be something if the Orange still had a bagel in the losing column heading into their Feb. 25 date at UConn?

• Tennessee did not get the win over Kentucky on Saturday, but it did get a terrific game from newly added freshman forward Jarnell Stokes, who had nine points and four rebounds off the bench in his first college game. The Vols are sneaky good and sneaky tough, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them in the NCAA tournament.

• If you think things are going badly for Texas, check out the team's upcoming schedule: at Kansas State, vs. Kansas, vs. Iowa State, at Baylor, vs. Missouri. That could put them at 2-7 in the Big 12 courtesy of a six-game losing streak. Hard to imagine a young team regaining confidence after that.

• One of the biggest X factors in any Michigan game is whether sophomore forward Jordan Morgan can stay out of foul trouble. He had been doing much better the last month or so, but Morgan was limited to 27 minutes because of foul trouble against Iowa on Saturday. It's no coincidence the Wolverines lost by 16.

• I'm continually amazed how few teams have a legitimate post presence on offense. I'm not talking about someone who can score a ton of points. I'm talking about someone you can just throw the ball to and force the defense to adjust.

• This may not be the best Notre Dame team ever, but UConn played its best game of the season when it snapped the Irish's 29-game home winning streak -- especially since Ryan Boatright wasn't available due to an NCAA eligibility issue. The Huskies' defensive identity is starting to come into focus, which should be a scary thought for the rest of the Big East.

• Oklahoma shot 54.9 percent from the floor and got to the foul line for 26 attempts in its win over Kansas State on Saturday in Norman. You ever hear of defense, Stan?

• If anything is going to change the game for Florida, it will be the emergence of Bradley Beal. The 6-foot-3 freshman played his best ball of the season last week, scoring a combined 31 points on 6-for-11 shooting from three-point range in wins over Georgia and South Carolina. Now let's see him do it against some better teams.

• Speaking of Florida, a coach who scouted the Gators recently pointed out to me a conundrum that Billy Donovan faces with his frontcourt substitutions: Will Yeguete is a solid defender but not a good scorer. Erik Murphy is a good scorer but not a good defender.

• There is just no way Villanova should be this bad. A head coach whose team beat 'Nova this season told me they'd be better if Maalik Wayns played more like a point guard and less like a scoring guard, but it's apparent Wayns doesn't trust his teammates.

• I love when coaches talk about watching "tape" or "film." Must be very confusing to the under-30 crowd.

• Now that Mark Turgeon is the coach at Maryland, might we finally get a resumption of the Maryland-Georgetown series? Pretty please?

• There's no shame in losing a conference road game, but you have to wonder whether a team that is capable of losing a game by 33 points can be seriously considered a national championship contender. Time will tell, I guess, but I'm officially skeptical about North Carolina.

• Just to be clear, my objection with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery's behavior last week wasn't his destruction of the chair. I have no problem with a coach trying to fire up his players. But what many people missed was the fact that it began with McCaffery getting called for a technical foul and then continuing to berate the officials. He should have been tossed before he had the chance to huddle with his players and slam a chair.

• The word is out that Marquette point guards Junior Cadougan and Jamil Wilson can't shoot. That means defenses can sag off them and help out on the other dribblers. And if Marquette can't drive, it can't beat good teams.

• Something I never thought I'd write: Duke is dead last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense.

•Something I did not know: Jeff Van Gundy was a graduate assistant on Rick Pitino's staff at Providence in 1987, the year the Friars made it to the Final Four.

• Why do I say Murray State should be seeded no lower than as a No. 4 if it reaches the NCAA tournament undefeated? Because there's a huge difference between having zero losses and one loss. It's way more than one loss. If the Racers run the table in the regular season and then win the OVC tournament (which they won't, by the way), then the committee is going to be under enormous pressure to reward them. Four is the absolute lowest they should be seeded if that's the case.

• Brandon Paul obviously deserves a lot of kudos for his 43-point outburst against Ohio State, but the real test will be whether he can maintain consistency. That has been his biggest problem for him during his college career. Paul's talent has never been in question.

• I still haven't seen anyone shot fake as well as Sam Young did.

• How many people realize how good Creighton's non-Dougies are? Not many I bet.

• This is the best defensive team John Calipari has ever coached. That includes when he was with the Nets.

• Mississippi State knew it was getting a solid rebounder when Arnett Moultrie transferred from UTEP, but this kid has turned out to be a much better scorer than anyone could have expected. He had 25 points (to go along with 13 rebounds) in the Bulldogs' win over Alabama. On the season Moultrie is averaging 16.5 points and shooting 58 percent. You know the best part? He has reduced Renardo Sidney to a role player and Sidney seems OK with it.

• It's a problem that Gonzaga couldn't play center Robert Sacre more against St. Mary's. Sacre is a big, strong defender, but he has never really developed into a fluid scorer. Sam Dower, whom Few has been bringing off the bench, is a much more effective post scorer.

• Maryland's recently-added 7-1 freshman Alex Len is still not in game shape, and I'm not sure he's going to be dominant at all this season. But I still think he has the potential to be. Track him for a few weeks and see if he makes dramatic strides. If he does, the Terps could peak at the exact right time.

THIS WEEK'S AP BALLOT

(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Syracuse (1)

2. Kentucky (2)

3. Baylor (5)

4. Ohio State (5)

5. Duke (8)

6. Michigan State (7)

7. Missouri (9)

8. Kansas (10)

9. North Carolina (3)

10. Indiana (6)

11. Georgetown (11)

12. UNLV (12)

13. Michigan (13)

14. Murray State (16)

15. Virginia (20)

16. Florida (17)

17. Mississippi State (18)

18. UConn (21)

19. Marquette (23)

20. West Virginia (24)

21. Saint Mary's (25)

22. Gonzaga (15)

23. San Diego State (NR)

24. Illinois (NR)

25. Creighton (NR)

Dropped out: Kansas State (14), Seton Hall (19), Louisville (22)

We're getting to the point where it's difficult to make major changes. Lots of teams are losing, and most of those losses are happening on the road. Michigan State lost at Northwestern, Michigan lost at Iowa, UNLV lost at San Diego State? So what?

Then again, when a team gets totally embarrassed on the road, it needs to get dinged. I probably should have dropped North Carolina further, but I didn't want to be overly influenced by a single result, and I kept running into teams who also lost. I dropped Louisville out completely because its 31-point loss at Providence was its fourth in five games. The Cardinals might well be one of the 25 best teams in the country, they don't deserve a number by their name right now.

I promised last week that I would rank San Diego State if they beat UNLV, and as you can see I stayed true to my word. But I still think I was right to wait. Before their game against the Rebels, the Aztecs' best win was by one point at home over Cal. And please spare me the angry tweets about leaving your team ranked behind UNLV. I think it's safe to say if you beat a team on a buzzer beater on your own home court, that team is better than yours. Still, Steve Fisher has done remarkable work replacing his top four scorers from last year's Sweet 16 team. Aztecs fans have every reason to be bursting with pride.

I'm a big Murray State guy, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to cap the Racers at No. 14 for a while. I suppose if they're still undefeated a month from now I'll bump them up, but even that is hard to do considering they're the only team in the Ohio Valley Conference ranked in the top 160 of the RPI.

As for the bottom of my ballot, I might have given Seton Hall a mulligan for losing by a point to a pretty good South Florida team, but I felt strongly that Illinois deserved to be ranked after beating Ohio State, even if it was in Champaign. I also wanted to rank Vanderbilt, who I think is the most undervalued team in college basketball, but I just couldn't find them a slot. (I must say that it galls me to rank Marquette even though it lost at home to Vandy by 17 points.) The Commodores have a big week ahead against Alabama on the road and Mississippi State at home. If they win both, they should be ranked next week.

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