A Missouri-Kansas showdown, a one-bid Pac-12 in Bubble Watch
While we're deep enough into league play to see the shape of the Field of 68 starting to come into focus, any "as of today" projection is going to have its quirks and flaws. There are no conference tournament upsets budgeted into the picture, which makes the at-large pool as large as possible, and more importantly, there are still schedule imbalances that will be resolved and evened out over the upcoming weeks.
Here are a few explainers for this week's bracket:
• Despite what happened in today's version, the chances of the Big Ten getting nine teams into the actual field while the Pac-12 gets only one are extremely small. The teams in the middle of the Big Ten will keep facing off and squeeze one or more out, and a one-bid Pac-12 relies on Cal winning the league and the auto-bid -- and even then, someone else might make it in as bids open up.
• Missouri and Kansas are heading toward a showdown for the path to the St. Louis regional. Kansas has the advantage of the remaining league meeting being in Lawrence, but this might not be settled until the Big 12 Championship Game. Also note that landing the No. 1 seed means likely avoiding a semifinal with Baylor.
• The two marquee BracketBusters games coming on Saturday evening have taken on a much more critical air for several teams, particularly Murray State, which dropped to 55th in the RPI after losing at home to Tennessee State last week. The Racers have a (relatively) difficult home stretch in Ohio Valley play, so if they lose to Saint Mary's at home, wiggle room for an at-large (if needed) could be gone. Creighton, loser of three straight in the Missouri Valley, also could really use a home win over Long Beach State.
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Up by 10, two and a half minutes left to play at home, and UNC looked like it had the game in hand. A 13-2 run ending with Austin Rivers' three at the buzzer and Duke had stolen a win that significantly changes the ACC title chase and likely will impact the NCAA tournament picture, too. Note to Florida State: Locks don't lose at Boston College. That result also changes the league picture, as now the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Seminoles are all square at 8-2 (with Florida State having beaten both).
Losing in Chestnut Hill is a disappointing development for a Seminoles team that seemed to be past its early-season inconsistency. Thursday's home date with Virginia Tech is important ahead of a tough stretch that includes three solid road games around a visit from Duke.
Splitting the expected way (easy win over Wake Forest, loss at North Carolina) leaves the Cavaliers in solid NCAA position. The remainder of the schedule is very favorable, starting Tuesday night at Clemson. North Carolina and Florida State have to come to Charlottesville and a home-and-home with banged-up Maryland also remains.
The Canes gave it a good shot at Florida State but fell five points short. Can they take down North Carolina at home on Wednesday? They also have the Seminoles at home along with two "should wins" in Coral Gables. This team is clearly different with Reggie Johnson, but they need more quality wins.
The Wolfpack finished off its mini-run against the league's underbelly by taking out Georgia Tech. This week is not so docile. First up: trip to Duke. Then comes Florida State at home ahead of next Tuesday's visit from North Carolina. They definitely need at least one of these. Preferably two to avoid looking like Virginia Tech's annual profile that always missed.
My Saturday tweet about Kansas clearly being the best team in this league (understandably) rankled Missouri fans, but I'll stand by that analysis. Their quants are better and if Jeff Withey is playing like he did this past week. That said, Frank Haith's the clear pick for National Coach of the Year and the Tigers are an excellent team in their own right. Both are aiming for No. 1 seeds in the NCAAs and just might be able to get there. Baylor?
The Cyclones couldn't get it done at Baylor Monday night and are still looking for some additional heft to support their overall resume. This week is not about quality, it's about winning two home games against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Get to 10 league wins and then take shots at Kansas State and Missouri on the road and Baylor in the return game at home.
Losing at Texas on Saturday and then at home to Kansas on Monday has weakened the Wildcats' profile, but they have enough solid work to stay in the bracket for now. After this coming week, we can readdress it, because serious road tests at Baylor and Missouri are on tap. Need a split here.
The Longhorns got a crucial home win over Kansas State on Saturday and now are back at .500 and inside the RPI top 50, for whatever that's worth. Not that much is easy in this league, but the Horns' remaining schedule is quite favorable, albeit with four out of six on the road. This week's two-game trip to Oklahoma will be a big factor in whether Texas' at-large hopes are OK.
The top of the league is pretty easy to figure out, but the middle is confounding. Cincinnati has one of the more bizarre at-large profiles you'll see, while UConn and West Virginia have to be evaluated on the work done and not the unseemly conference marks. The dramatic unbalancing of schedules in this league makes comparisons based on league play especially tricky (see: South Florida)
The Cardinals' six-game winning streak ended Monday, but not without a fight, as they botched a final possession and lost by a point to Syracuse at home. They'll get a second crack in the Orange in the regular-season finale, but this week the Cardinals are at DePaul and Cincinnati. If the Cards keep winning, they likely will close things out as a top-four seed in the NCAAs.
Another 2-0 week, including a win at West Virginia, has the Irish in prime position to make the NCAAs after a poor nonconference run. The remaining schedule looks like it has some wins in it, and 11 Big East wins should be enough. It would be a surprise at this point if that's all the Irish ended up with.
Two wins last week halted a massive slide, perhaps in time to salvage an NCAA bid. The rest of the schedule is, by Big East standards, really soft. Georgetown at home is the only chance at a win of considerable substance and the game at Cincinnati on Saturday could be a quasi-eliminator.
Playing the nation's toughest schedule (on paper) doesn't do you any good if you can't win enough of the games, and right now, UConn is on the short end of the output stick. Despite strong computer numbers, there's simply not enough quality here to survive an under-.500 league mark (without another huge Big East Tournament run). DePaul and Marquette at home this week more or less constitute must-wins, considering Syracuse (at home) still remains on the schedule.
The Bearcats are one of the more confounding at-large cases thanks to their budget-fueled cupcake platter in nonleague play. Cover up the ghastly RPI and there's an arguable case here. Splitting last week's road trip was big, because the last six games break very favorably. Home games against Providence and Seton Hall this week start the fun.
This has become a very big uh-oh all of a sudden after the Mountaineers lost at home to Notre Dame and Louisville to make it five losses in six games. Road games this week at Pitt and Notre Dame are now enormous, with a visit from Marquette looming after that. Finishing under .500 in league is not advised.
It's a (really) soft 8-4, but man, the Bulls have a) come a long way since their 0-2 weekend at Mohegan Sun in November and b) could create annoyance for teams multiple games below them in the standings if they get to 11 or 12 wins. The Bulls are home to Villanova and then at Pitt this week
Expectations may have changed in two hours in Columbus on Saturday when Michigan State bullied the Buckeyes around in their own arena. If you can single-cover Jared Sullinger effectively (and most teams can't), things look a lot different for the rest of the Ohio State attack. Are we primed for another dose of the Izz of March?
The Hoosiers topped Illinois at home and continue to march toward a solid NCAA seed. Trips to Iowa and Minnesota now sandwich that sweet nonconference tilt with North Carolina Central. The Hoosiers get Michigan State and Purdue at home to close the regular season, so they could pop a bit more with another marquee win.
The Wolverines beat Illinois after cruising at Nebraska and are looking very good at 9-4 in the league. Now they get a home shot at Ohio State on Saturday.
The Badgers got past Minnesota in overtime in their only game of the week. Now they get a trip to East Lansing for their troubles. Jordan Taylor's bounceback in league play is a good sign for March, though.
Losers of six of their last seven, the Illini are now in serious danger of sliding all the way out of the NCAAs. This week's games (Purdue and at Nebraska) appear to be absolute must-wins now, especially with road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin still left on the schedule. The Illini have wins over the two league heavyweights, but will that be enough to prop up a potential 8-10 league mark?
This team scraps and scraps, but ultimately might not have enough wins to make the dance. A tough overtime home loss to Wisconsin is the latest setback. They still have home shots at Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana, though. It starts Tuesday night against the Buckeyes.
The Boilers really could have used that game at Ohio State, but at least they beat Northwestern in a bubble-laden weekend showdown to sweep the season series. Now they get another bubble game of significance, at Illinois, before they host Michigan State on Sunday. If they can't beat the Spartans, the Boilers will need a win at the Illini, Michigan or Indiana to get to 9-9.
The Wildcats are through about six of their nine lives in their Sisyphean quest to make the NCAAs. Getting swept by Purdue isn't going to help matters. Wednesday at Indiana is an enormous chance for a validating road marquee win. They also get Michigan and Ohio State at home down the stretch.
There is no separation happening, as five teams remain within a game of first place. In a league where quantity of wins will be a large part of any at-large profile, that's not good news.
The Golden Bears swept their L.A. roadie and moved back into a tie for first place when Washington lost at Oregon. This is feeling more and more like 2010. Next up, the Oregon schools at home. Thursday's game with the Ducks is huge for both teams. These are Cal's final two home games of the season. The Bears close at Utah, Colorado and Stanford.
When your profile case is being built on bulk and a league title, losing by 25 at Oregon is not a good look. The Huskies currently sit 2-8 against the RPI top-100 and only have one top-100 game remaining on the schedule. By any historical standard, this is not an at-large resume, but they (usually) pass the eye test and a league (co)championship may be enough. Maybe. Arizona comes in on Saturday in a huge game.
The Buffaloes got handled in Tucson and really have very little wiggle room now. They still have home games with Cal and Stanford, along with a trip to Oregon, so they have a chance to grab some more OK wins. Best road win remains No. 193 Air Force.
The Wildcats avoided a major disaster by pushing past Utah in the final minutes. Now they head to Washington State and then a huge game at Washington on Saturday. The Cats need that one. They did a small bit of work in nonleague play and wins at Cal and Washington would look OK.
A huge home rout of Washington keeps the Ducks in the mix. This week's road trip to Cal and Stanford is a massive chance to enhance a mostly empty profile. Pretty good team, though, at times. The sloppy home loss to the Beavers looks like a huge whiff right now.
There's now a huge gap between the Wildcats and the rest of the league. The Cats are trending very steadily toward a No. 1 seed and (presumably) a spot in Catlanta for the South Regional.
The Gators had a bad week, getting trucked at Kentucky and then losing at home to Tennessee, finishing off a season sweep by the Vols. They have three top-10 losses and three losses to 100+ RPI opponents, but are also 7-3 against the top 100. Odd profile, inconsistent team. And with four road games in their next five and a home date with Kentucky to finish, this profile could move a lot before March 11.
The Commodores gave it a good go but couldn't handle Kentucky at home. Now they have to recover for a road trip to Mississippi and Georgia. The end of the schedule isn't kind, so picking up more wins now would be a good idea for seeding purposes.
That truck I saw last week backing up for wins? Georgia had other ideas and handed the Bulldogs a bad home loss. Now four of the next five are on the road, wrapped around a visit from Kentucky.
The Tide's profile evaluation is on hold until these suspensions sort themselves out. It's impossible to know how long the team will be shorthanded, so it's hard to evaluate this past week or any future efforts.
Splitting weeks is not going to do it most weeks with this profile, but the Rebels may take a split this week when they host Vanderbilt and then travel to Kentucky.
The only number that matters right now is 0-7 road/neutral. That's an at-large nonstarter. The Hogs can start to fix that Wednesday at Tennessee before hosting Florida.
Finally, we're seeing a bit of separation at the top of the league, and three teams in still seems like the most reasonable scenario. Temple likely will be one. Saint Louis is looking more likely as the second.
The Owls are rolling, with their latest win, a pounding of Xavier, making it eight in a row. The stretch run will test them, as the next five games are against top-100 foes, three of which come on the road.
The Billikens got a huge road sweep in Philly, taking out La Salle and St. Joe's. With a much softer remaining schedule than Temple, earning at least a share of the league title is very possible. The next three: Richmond, Fordham, at Rhode Island. All they do is win, win, win?
The Musketeers really could have used a road win at Temple, but instead got blitzed. Now they must handle desperate Dayton at home before a trip to Massachusetts next week.
The Flyers survived against Fordham in overtime, avoiding a profile-shredding loss. If they can handle Charlotte at home, this weekend features a shot at Cintas Center to sweep heated rival Xavier.
The Minutemen split the week, and now has four more very difficult games in a row -- which they need, because they lack good wins. La Salle and Xavier come to Mullins next.
The Hawks really could have used a home win over Saint Louis, but couldn't get it. Now the schedule's really soft, other than a home date with Temple (and at St. Bonaventure won't be a walkover, for sure). Is there enough left to make 10-6 look inviting?
The Rebels beat the Aztecs by a deuce in the second classic game this season between the two. Everyone wants to see a third installment in the MWC tourney, but could that matchup come in the semifinal? New Mexico is tied for first and now has two more cracks at the other big two this week.
OK, here we go. At San Diego State. Home to UNLV. Get both and you're in first place and a win at Colorado State away from having a pretty clear path to the league title. Get one and you probably need to do some work in the conference tourney. Get none and get lost?
The Rams very well may rue last week's loss at TCU. That's a grievous blow to their at-large hopes. They need to win at last-place Boise State this week and then handle Wyoming at home before a three-pack of shots at the league leaders, two of which come at home.
One shot down, one missed after a gnarly 48-38 loss at New Mexico. If the Cowboys can handle Air Force at home, they get road chances at Colorado State and San Diego State afterward.
Things look a lot different now after Wichita State crushed Creighton in Omaha to take a two-game lead atop the conference and a huge step toward a title. Now this week's BracketBusters game against Long Beach State is really important for the reeling Bluejays.
Three losses in a row and things suddenly look a lot less secure for the Bluejays. The remaining Valley schedule is relatively weak, but Evansville and Indiana State are capable teams. If the Bluejays lose at home to Long Beach State and dump another Valley game before the league final, could the unthinkable happen?
The top two in this league look like they're going to make the Field of 68. Not sure anyone else is all that reasonable at this point, but a surprise tourney winner in Memphis could tack on a bonus bid.
The Golden Eagles celebrated beating Memphis for the first time in ages by ... dumping a game at UAB and letting the Tigers back into a tie for first. Up until the finale at Marshall, the schedule is quite soft, but not that much softer than a game at UAB, so buyer beware.
Memphis didn't lose to UAB. The Tigers beat the Blazers by 34 at home. Their schedule is a bit tougher than USM's down the stretch, but a tie for the title seems like a very reasonable guess.
The Gaels couldn't get it done in Spokane, but still lead the league by a game and are done with the other two big teams, so the title is theirs to lose. They also get a fun trip to Murray State for BracketBusters.
Three of the last four in league play are on the road, but the one home game -- against BYU -- could be crucial. A win there would all but wrap up at least a second place finish, earn the Zags the coveted double-bye in the league tournament and snag an NCAA bid. Beating Saint Mary's helped big time.
A three-game league roadie kicks off in San Francisco and culminates in Spokane on Feb. 23. That game is huge for postseason positioning. BYU could really use a sweep of the Zags.
The Racers will stay here for one more week, with the BracketBusters game against Saint Mary's pending. Harvard's potential lifeline sans Ivy tournament involves a home loss to Penn or Yale and both teams then running the table until a playoff the Crimson would then have to lose.
The Crimson won a tough game at Penn last Friday night, but then lost at Princeton for the 23rd straight season and let Penn and Yale back into the race. The Crimson still have a huge schedule advantage and a game lead on the pack, so they're an enormous favorite to win the league's auto bid. If they somehow get caught at 12-2 and lose a playoff again? It will be really close.
Pitt and Xavier are not doing anything to help the 49ers, who get another serious chance this weekend in BracketBusters when they play at Creighton. They need to win out until the Big West final to have any legit claim. They're only 2-6 against the RPI top 100 and those two wins are losing steam.
The Blue Raiders are cruising toward a Sun Belt crown. They're two games ahead of the field in the loss column with three modest opponents left. The league tourney won't be easy, so win, win, win as long as you can and hope a flashy win total will impress.
The Golden Eagles have clinched at least a share of the league crown, and with two road games against last-place teams remaining, it looks good for an outright title. Xavier's fade is also hurting here. Will a win over Akron in BracketBusters mean anything?
I'm waiting until this week's VCU-George Mason game to start to evaluate the top of the CAA. A second team in still seems unlikely, but we'll see. VCU and Drexel appear to be the only reasonable candidates.