SI.com's inaugural Bubble Watch for the 2014-15 season takes a look at powerhouse programs with some major work to do.
Bubble teams are beginning to feel the pressure to solidify their resumes. With conference play underway, some teams will solidify their at-large cases for the field of 68, while others will ultimately lose too many important games to qualify without an automatic berth.
It’s still just the first week of January, so no bubble has burst quite yet. However, it’s not too early to start preparing for the disappointment that will ultimately befall so many of the teams listed below. Welcome to the first SI.com Bubble Watch of the 2014-15 season.
NOTE: All statistics through Monday, Jan. 5.
IN THE MIX
Temple (11-4, RPI: 32, SOS: 34)
The Owls are always going to be able to hang their hat on that 25-point dismantling of Kansas, but that remains their only top-50 win to date. They haven’t yet had the chance for a big win in the AAC, though that will come with games against Tulsa, SMU and Cincinnati on the horizon.
Cincinnati (10-3, RPI: 33, SOS: 30)
The Bearcats are now without coach Mick Cronin, who will miss the rest of the season because of a heart condition. After losing by 21 to VCU, they’ve ripped off three straight wins, highlighted by a road victory at N.C. State and conference-opening triumph over SMU. They surprisingly don’t have one player averaging 10 points per game, and that lack of a go-to player could be an Achilles’ heel.
SMU (10-4, RPI: 43, SOS: 35)
The Mustangs were the most glaring omission from the 2014 tournament field, and they could be headed for another spring in the cold, as things currently stand. Larry Brown’s squad doesn’t yet have a top-50 win, and is just 1-4 against the RPI top 100. Having said that, they’re the highest-ranking AAC team on KenPom, checking in at 33rd thanks to a defense that is rated 22nd in adjusted efficiency.
Tulsa (9-5, RPI: 48, SOS: 49)
The Golden Hurricane is off to its best start in years, and has taken care of business against UCF and Houston in its only two conference games thus far. At the same time, this team has a long way to go before it can think about going dancing in March. Its best win is over Incarnate Word, and it is 0-3 against top-50 teams, losing all of those games by at least 15 points.
Connecticut (7-5, RPI: 75, SOS: 13)
The defending champions have looked like anything but this season, though that’s to be expected after losing a player like Shabazz Napier. Remember, too, that they were a 7-seed in last year’s tournament. A home loss to Yale will always sting, but there is plenty of time for Kevin Ollie and company to recover. They can start this weekend when Cincinnati visits Storrs.
Locks: Duke, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame
IN THE MIX
North Carolina (11-4, RPI: 19, SOS: 22)
The Tar Heels have been a little Jekyll-and-Hyde this season, but their current resumé does feature a lack of signature wins. Florida and UCLA were ranked when North Carolina beat them at the Battle 4 Atlantis but have long since fallen from the top 25. Thus UNC's two best victories this season are over Davidson and Ohio State on neutral courts. The Heels are 0-2 against the RPI top 50 and 3-4 against the top 100. They missed a great opportunity to pick up their firs top 50 win when they lost at home to Notre Dame by one on Monday but get another chance with Saturday's game against Louisville, also in Chapel Hill.
Georgia Tech (9-4, RPI: 37, SOS: 21)
The Yellow Jackets have a pair of nice wins, notably over in-state rival Georgia, which is a top-20 RPI team. They nearly knocked off Notre Dame in South Bend last Saturday, eventually falling in double overtime. There is one sub-100 RPI loss on their resume, but at least South Carolina Upstate is the favorite to win the Atlantic Sun. Wins over Syracuse at home and Wake Forest on the road this week would signal that Georgia Tech is capable of taking care of business the way a tourney team should.
North Carolina State (11-4, RPI: 52, SOS: 32)
The Wolfpack have as many top-50 wins (one) as sub-100 losses, but they’ll get a chance to change that over the next 10 days. Their next three conference games are at Virginia, home for Duke and home for North Carolina. A win over the Cavaliers or Blue Devils would be the first step toward crafting a resume that looks tourney-worthy in mid-March.
Pittsburgh (10-4, RPI: 65, SOS: 93)
For the time being, consider it a courtesy that the Panthers have even made the Bubble Watch. Forget top-50 wins, the Panthers don’t even have one top-100 win this season. Their best victory is over Florida Gulf Coast, which is 131st in RPI. The ACC will present the Panthers with plenty of opportunity for good wins, but right now this looks like an NIT team, at best.
Syracuse (10-4, RPI: 68, SOS: 88)
Their may be no bigger fan of Iowa than Jim Boeheim and the Orange. Their win over the Hawkeyes on Nov. 21 was easily their best in the non-conference slate, and a two-point win over Virginia Tech to kick off ACC play certainly didn’t build much confidence in upstate New York. An offense that ranks 72nd in adjusted efficiency and 147th in effective field goal percentage isn’t going to get it done in what is likely the best conference in the country.
Miami (10-4, RPI: 93, SOS: 119)
The Hurricanes are going to need a few big wins in the ACC after not getting any in non-conference play; winning at Florida (No. 145 in RPI) no longer looks that impressive, and Charlotte (No. 59) and Illinois (No. 69) aren’t going to cut it. That’s going to be awfully hard to do with a defense that ranks 136th in adjusted efficiency. They already whiffed on their first chance after failing to hold a late lead against Virginia at home and losing in double overtime last weekend.
IN THE MIX
George Washington (11-3, RPI: 24, SOS: 60)
A neutral-court victory over Wichita State is the hallmark of the Colonials’ resume, and that may not change unless they can beat VCU in Richmond in a couple weeks. Outside of that, the Colonials have played just as expected. They have three losses in the top 50, all of which came on the road. They don’t have one bad loss this year, but are looking for another trophy they can showcase alongside that sparkling Wichita State win.
Dayton (11-2, RPI: 25, SOS: 57)
Last year’s tournament darling is in good range to get back in the field as we sit two months out from Selection Sunday. They’re 1-1 against the top 50 and 3-2 against the top 100 without a bad loss to their name. They’ll have to hold serve over the next two weeks, with upcoming games against St. Bonaventure, Fordham, LaSalle and Saint Louis. Not one of those is a tournament team.
Rhode Island (9-3, RPI: 46, SOS: 73)
The Rams have a bizarre resume at this point of the season. Despite a top-50 RPI, they do not yet own a top-100 win. Their best victory was a four-point win over Nebraska at home. At the same time, they don’t have any bad losses, with all three of their slip-ups coming away from home against top-50 teams. We need to see what this team can do against top-level competition some more before drawing any conclusions. The next opportunity for that is when VCU comes calling on Jan. 13.
Davidson (10-2, RPI: 57, SOS: 171)
The Wildcats have kicked off their first season in the A-10 in a fashion that would make program alum Stephen Curry proud. They rank sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom and are making nearly 40 percent of their three-point attempts. They led Virginia in Charlottesville at halftime and were tied with 10 minutes left in the game, but the Cavaliers eventually pulled away and won by 11. This is a team that definitely as some at-large juice, led by sophomore guard Jack Gibbs and senior guard Tyler Kalinoski. Wednesday’s game at VCU will be a marker in their season.
Massachusetts (7-7, RPI: 79, SOS: 9)
For now, the Minutemen warrant inclusion based on their strength of schedule and expected ability to reel off a few wins in the A-10 and turn their season around. While good losses won’t necessarily count against them, their best win, and only top-100 victory, is against Iona. All the good losses in the world won’t counterbalance that deficiency.
Locks: Kansas, Texas
IN THE MIX
West Virginia (13-1, RPI: 12, SOS: 42)
The Mountaineers will almost certainly be in the field, but it’s still the first week of January so we’re trying to be not quite so exuberant when throwing around the lock tag. Don’t sleep on that 33-point win over Wofford in December. The Terriers are 26th in RPI and will be a real threat in the tournament, assuming they win the Southern Conference.
Baylor (11-2, RPI: 23, SOS: 59)
The Bears dropped their first Big 12 game, but they can be forgiven for losing at Oklahoma. They should be a little uneasy until they reel off a few wins that boost their resume. As of right now, their best win is over a Texas A&M team that ranks 49th in RPI and doesn’t have a win over a top-100 squad.
Oklahoma (10-3, RPI: 29, SOS: 38)
Just like West Virginia and Baylor, Oklahoma will be in the bracket, unless disaster befalls the Sooners over the next two months. They already have four top-50 wins, including a 21-point road victory over Texas on Monday night. Two of their losses were against top-50 teams, one of which was against Wisconsin on a neutral court. In addition to strong RPI and SOS numbers, they rank sixth on KenPom after knocking off the Longhorns.
Oklahoma State (11-2, RPI: 40, SOS: 109)
This is where the bubble truly begins in the Big 12. The Cowboys are an interesting team, ranking 24th on KenPom despite losing to the only sure tournament team they’ve played this season (Maryland). The next two weeks will be very telling for Oklahoma State; it plays Iowa State, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, with three of the four coming on the road.
Iowa State (10-2, RPI: 47, SOS: 128)
You might be a little surprised to see the Cyclones here, but we’re going to hold off on the lock tag until they beat one of the Big 12 powerhouses. They haven’t really done much to hurt themselves, boasting a 1-1 record against the RPI top 50 and 4-2 record against the top 100. Even finishing as low as sixth in this conference should be good enough to get them into the field of 68.
TCU (13-1, RPI: 97, SOS: 312)
The Horned Frogs get inclusion in the early Bubble Watch because they don’t have any bad losses. Of course, it’s hard to get one of those when your strength of schedule is among the worst in the country. Chances are TCU is safely on the outside looking in at the tournament field, but we can’t write them off until we see what they do against the Big 12 heavyweights. They held a second-half lead against West Virginia last Saturday before the Mountaineers eventually took over and pulled away.
IN THE MIX
Seton Hall (12-2, RPI: 11, SOS: 33)
The Pirates have opened eyes this year, most recently with their win over Villanova. That came on the heels of upending St. John’s, giving the Pirates a 2-0 start in conference play. The 29th-ranked team on KenPom probably won’t be in this section for long. Sterling Gibbs and Isaiah Whitehead form one of the best backcourts in the country.
Butler (11-4, RPI: 22, SOS: 19)
The Bulldogs sit one spot behind the Pirates in the KenPom rankings and look ready to re-emerge from their Brad Stevens-less run through the doldrums. They already have three top-30 wins, none of which came in Indianapolis. That will really stand out to the committee when it comes time for seeding. Butler's next four games are all against teams that could be in the tournament (Providence, Xavier, Seton Hall and Georgetown).
St. John’s (11-3, RPI: 30, SOS: 16)
The Red Storm’s breakout train ground to a screeching halt after dropping back-to-back games to Seton Hall and Butler last week. Rather than appearing like a team on the rise, as they did before the losses, they look like a flawed bunch whose best win is against Minnesota. Despite the feel-good non-conference portion of the schedule, Steve Lavin’s team is 0-3 against the RPI top-50.
Providence (11-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 28)
The Friars’ neutral-court victory over Notre Dame a few days before Thanksgiving looks better and better with each big win the Irish score. That’ll be important for Providence to counteract a loss to Brown that is always going to be an ugly mark on its resume. After a trip to Indianapolis to take on Butler, the Friars get home games with Georgetown at St. John’s.
Georgetown (9-4, RPI: 44, SOS: 20)
Right now, the most striking feature of the Hoyas' resume is a lack of top-50 wins. They are 0-4 against top-50 competition, though they did hang with both Wisconsin and Kansas before losing. Georgetown doesn't have a bad loss to its name, but that won’t be enough when the selection committee convenes in two months.
Xavier (10-4, RPI: 54, SOS: 71)
Whatever goodwill the Musketeers built up with a 17-point shellacking of Georgetown in the Big East opener, they gave right back with a three-point loss at lowly DePaul. KenPom, however, loves Xavier, ranking it 31st thanks to the nation's 14th-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating. The Musketeers are in the top 25 in both three-point and two-point field goal percentage.
Marquette (9-5, RPI: 101, SOS: 77)
The Golden Eagles own wins over Georgia Tech and Providence, both of which are inside the RPI top 40. Until and unless things turn drastically against them, that’s good enough to keep them in the Bubble Watch, especially in the first week of January. It has to be noted, however, that they also lost to DePaul and Omaha, the latter of which came in Milwaukee. Even with the strong wins already in the bank, Steve Wojciechowski’s team is going to need a few big conference wins to get an invite to the dance.
Locks: Wisconsin, Maryland
IN THE MIX
Penn State (12-3, RPI: 50, SOS: 155)
Believe it or not, the Nittany Lions are the only Big Ten team, other than Wisconsin and Maryland, with a top-50 RPI. That will not likely be the case in just a few weeks time, but with the conference looking down outside the top-two teams, Penn State could emerge from the middle of the pack. Having said that, this is a team that just lost to Rutgers, so the turnaround will have to be swift.
Michigan State (10-5, RPI: 56, SOS: 27)
The thought of a Spartan-less March is unthinkable to a lot of college hoops observers, and, quite frankly, is very unlikely to happen. The Spartans, however, have not gotten it done against strong competition. They’re 0-4 against top-50 RPI teams, losing to Notre Dame by one and Maryland by two. Close losses won’t do a whole lot for you if you can’t also point to resume-building victories. Right now, Michigan State’s best win is over Loyola-Chicago, which is actually one slot ahead of the Spartans in RPI. The pieces are there for Tom Izzo, evidenced by a No. 17 ranking on KenPom.
Minnesota (11-4, RPI: 58, SOS: 101)
If the Golden Gophers are stuck defending their NIT crown this postseason, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. They’re non-conference strength schedule ranked 219th and featured such luminaries as Seattle, Southern, Furman and UMBC. They’ll need a standout showing in the Big Ten -- think 12-6, at worst -- to have a good shot at an NCAA tournament berth. They’re already 0-2, and that includes a loss to Purdue.
Ohio State (12-3, RPI: 60, SOS: 91)
The Buckeyes have largely won and lost the games they were supposed to, though a home loss to Iowa stands out for the time being. This is a team that can get it done on offense, ranking 19th in adjusted efficiency, third in effective field goal percentage, seventh in three-point field goal percentage, and fifth in two-point field goal percentage.
Iowa (11-4, RPI: 66, SOS: 67)
Two games into the conference portion of their schedule, the Hawkeyes are crafting the resume of about a No. 6 or 7 seed. They have two great wins thus far, beating North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ohio State at Columbus. They have another strong road win over Ohio State. Even if they didn’t get one more good win away from Iowa City, those two alone will impress the committee. They also have just one loss outside the top 50, and that came to Syracuse on a neutral floor. Expect the Hawkeyes to go dancing.
Illinois (10-5, RPI: 69, SOS: 80)
The Illini began Big Ten play 0-2, and that was just prelude to the truly terrible news. Rayvonte Rice, the team’s leading scorer and best individual player, broke a bone in his hand in practice and will be out for an unknown amount of time. Losing him for a significant stretch all but consigns the Illini to the NIT, at best.
Indiana (11-4, RPI: 77, SOS: 129)
The Hoosiers rank 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 200th in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. The only teams with a wider gap in either direction are San Diego State, which is fourth in defense and 222nd in offense, and Davidson, which is sixth in offense and 244th in defense. Opportunities for signature wins will not be as numerous in the Big Ten as they have been in years past, so the Hoosiers must take advantage of winnable games, such as when Ohio State visits Bloomington this weekend.
Purdue (10-5, RPI: 116, SOS: 105)
The Boilermakers have a top-50 win over BYU, two more top-100 wins (N.C. State, Minnesota) and have started Big Ten play at 2-0. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they have two losses against teams outside the top 150 in RPI and lost to the best team they’ve played, Notre Dame, by 31 points. They won’t be expected to win, or even hang, in games with Wisconsin and Maryland this week, but the way they perform will be telling.
Michigan (8-6, RPI: 136, SOS: 51)
It was always going to be a year of regrouping for the Wolverines after losing Nick Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, but their complete fall from grace has been shocking. The Wolverines have the same number of wins over top-100 RPI teams as they do losses to sub-100 RPI teams (three). They rank 92nd overall on KenPom and 130th in adjusted offensive efficiency, a sharp decline from the last two seasons in which they advanced to at least the Elite Eight.
Locks: Arizona, Utah
IN THE MIX
Stanford (10-3, RPI: 27, SOS: 40)
The Cardinal are third in the Pac-12 (behind Arizona and Utah) in just about every measurable. It would be a big surprise to see them on the outside of the bracket on Selection Sunday. They are already the owners of four top-50 wins, and that includes a victory over Texas in Austin. They also nearly took care of BYU in Provo. This is a strong team with a solid resume.
Washington (11-3, RPI: 41, SOS: 98)
Everything was coming up roses for the Huskies when they started the season on an 11-game winning streak, highlighted by a neutral-court victory over Oklahoma. They’ve lost three straight since, including a home loss to Stony Brook, the favorite to win the America East Conference. Furthermore, their win over San Diego State doesn’t look nearly as good as it did when they got in back on Dec. 7. They may not get another chance to convince committee members until a trip to Utah in three weeks.
Colorado (9-5, RPI: 82, SOS: 55)
The Buffaloes can play some defense, but they are woefully deficient on the offensive end of the floor, ranking 108th in adjusted efficiency. That has held them back in all three of their games against top-50 teams. They lost all three and scored no more than 60 points in any of them, though they did go down to the wire with Colorado State and George Washington. Losses at Wyoming (by 23 points) and Hawaii are going to be hard for them to counter.
Oregon (11-3, RPI: 102, SOS: 158)
A team like the Ducks should really be ashamed of its non-conference slate, which included only one game against a top-50 RPI team. Sure, they can’t be blamed for the failings of Michigan, Illinois and Ole Miss, but they still should have crafted a more challenging schedule. It should also be noted that they lost those games to the Wolverines and Rebels.
UCLA (8-7, RPI: 112, SOS: 39)
Say this for the Bruins: At least the challenged themselves before the start of Pac-12 play. Their non-conference schedule included games against Oklahoma, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kentucky and Alabama, with just one of those games (Gonzaga) coming at home. Unfortunately, they lost all of them, and now have a ton of work to do in conference to secure a berth in the NCAA tournament. They are, quite simply, bereft of scoring ability, ranking 129th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 251st in effective field goal percentage.
IN THE MIX
Georgia (9-3, RPI: 18, SOS: 10)
Georgia looks set to secure its first bid to the Big Dance since 2011, and this time it shouldn’t take a miracle run in the SEC tournament. Mark Fox has the Bulldogs playing great defense, as they rank 19th in adjusted efficiency. They’re the owners of an 18-point win over Seton Hall, a victory that looks better with each passing day. They’ll get a chance to prove themselves as the second-best team in the conference right off the bat, with games against Arkansas and LSU this week.
LSU (11-2, RPI: 35, SOS: 83)
The Tigers nearly crashed the dance a year ago after racking up a handful of great wins (most notably over Kentucky), but they couldn’t find enough consistency to earn a berth. That may not be the case this season, as they already have wins against West Virginia (on the road) and Massachusetts. Furthermore, the loss to Old Dominion doesn’t look nearly as bad as it did back in November, with the Monarchs cracking into the top-25. The Tigers play an uptempo style of ball, but are ranked just 96th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their showdown with Georgia this weekend will be an early marker in the SEC season.
Arkansas (11-2, RPI: 38, SOS: 142)
Behind an offense that ranks 15th in adjusted efficiency, the Razorbacks have charged to a 2-1 record against the RPI top 50 and 3-1 against the top 100. The team relies on forwards Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls for its scoring punch, though senior Rashad Madden is the team’s most reliable shooter from distance. Tuesday’s game with Georgia will be an important measuring stick for both teams.
Texas A&M (9-3, RPI: 49, SOS: 84)
Despite a top-50 RPI, we’ll take the Aggies more seriously when they manage to get a win of any significance. They do not have a top-100 victory on their resume, losing to the only two teams -- Dayton and Baylor -- they’ve played who rank inside that group. Depending on how you look at it, their best win is over either Sam Houston State or New Mexico. Meanwhile, they have one sub-150 RPI loss.
Alabama (10-3, RPI: 62, SOS: 115)
Unlike the Aggies, the Crimson Tide do not have a bad loss on the year, dropping games to Iowa State, Xavier and Wichita State. Just like the Aggies, however, they do not yet have an impressive win, with the best victory coming by six points against UCLA at home. That means they’ll have to do all their resume-building in conference, and short of beating Kentucky or going something on the order of 14-4, there isn’t a whole lot of resume-building to be done in the SEC.
Tennessee (8-4, RPI: 67, SOS: 47)
The Volunteers challenged themselves in the non-conference slate, and the committee will look happily upon that. Of course, they lost by 16 to VCU and 15 to Kansas. They do own a win over Butler, and all four of their losses are against top-100 teams. If they end up having similar conference results to teams like Texas A&M, Alabama and Vanderbilt, their non-conference performance could be a differentiator.
Vanderbilt (10-3, RPI: 72, SOS: 113)
The Commodores are the third pea in the pod occupied by Texas A&M and Alabama. They don’t have a really good win on their resume, though unlike those two, they do have two top-100 wins (LaSalle and Yale). There will be a natural weeding out of these teams in conference play, so you won’t see all three in this space into February. This early in the year, however, they all warrant inclusion.
Mississippi (9-4, RPI: 83, SOS: 82)
Will the Rebels be able to overcome their bad losses? It will take a strong run in the SEC. They do have wins over Cincinnati and Oregon, but losses to Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern really stand out. They could very well be out of this column in two weeks time. Their first five games in the conference are against Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas and Georgia.
South Carolina (9-3, RPI: 86, SOS: 112)
Thanks to a defense that ranks sixth in adjusted efficiency, the Gamecocks are all the way up to No. 28 in the KenPom rankings. They held the vaunted Iowa State offense to 60 points, their lowest total of the season, in a neutral-court win last weekend, their second over a top-50 team (Oklahoma State) this year. A neutral-court loss to Akron is the black eye of their resume, but their on-court performance suggests that they’re easily one of the four or five best teams in this conference, even if some of the metrics don’t yet bear that out.
Florida (7-6, RPI: 145, SOS: 81)
No one said it would be easy after losing Scotty Wilbekin and Patric Young, but Florida simply has no scoring punch outside of Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier. The Gators rank 158th in the country in three-point field goal percentage, and without Wilbekin’s steady head at the point, they’re 178th in turnover percentage, giving it away on nearly one-fifth of their possessions. It’s going to take a dramatic turnaround in conference play for them to get into the field of 68.
Locks: Wichita State
IN THE MIX
Northern Iowa (12-2, RPI: 14, SOS: 43)
It’s rare for the Valley to boast two tournament-worthy teams without having a paradigm-shifting talent like Doug McDermott in Creighton’s final years in the conference, but that could be the case this season with Northern Iowa joining Wichita State. The Panthers don’t yet have a top-50 win, but they took VCU to two overtimes in Richmond and took down Iowa on a neutral floor. Behind senior forward Seth Tuttle, they rank 14th in the country in effective field goal percentage. They do, however, get into trouble on the glass, ranking outside the top-300 in offensive rebounding percentage. The Valley is better than usual this season, but the only way they’ll feel good going into Selection Sunday is by getting at least one win over the Shockers.
Loyola-Chicago (11-3, RPI: 55, SOS: 132)
The Ramblers, still in their infancy in the Valley after recently emigrating from the Horizon League, look poised for their best season in the conference. Having said that, they’ll likely need wins over Wichita State and/or Northern Iowa to craft a strong enough resume to warrant an at-large bid. At present, their best win is over Boise State and their worst loss is to Tulane, which is No. 110 in RPI.
Evansville (11-3, RPI: 90, SOS: 201)
The Purple Aces are here not because of their fantastic nickname, but by virtue of their win over Northern Iowa. If they could couple that with a win against Wichita State, they may start building a resume that would have to be discussed in the committee room. They’re 2-1 against the RPI top 100, adding a win over Wright State and a loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay. They also have one terrible loss, to RPI No. 222 Indiana State.
IN THE MIX
Colorado State (14-1, RPI: 16, SOS: 99)
The Rams rode a 14-game winning streak to the top of the Mountain West, and then promptly gave it away with a 13-point loss at New Mexico, which is decidedly not a tournament team. Still, the Rams have to feel good about their chances. The MWC is watered down this year because of San Diego State's regression, but there are four teams that could eventually make a case for getting into the Dance. The Rams are at the head of that class, with an offense that ranks 41st in adjusted efficiency.
UNLV (9-5, RPI: 21, SOS: 7)
The Runnin’ Rebels may have two sub-100 RPI losses right now, but as long as they don’t fall apart in conference play, it’s going to be hard for the committee to ignore a team that beat Arizona and Temple. Assuming they don’t tank the conference season, they would likely pick up a few more good wins along the way, be it over Colorado State, San Diego State or Boise State. That cocktail would likely be enough to earn an at-large bid.
Boise State (10-5, RPI: 39, SOS: 66)
The Broncos did well enough for themselves in the non-conference portion of their schedule, picking up a win over St. Mary’s, while losing to Wisconsin (not close) and N.C. State (close). They did not do themselves any favors by losing their first two conference games, especially by falling to Utah State at home. The Broncos have little margin for error, and the Utah State loss could prove to be their death knell if they don't roll through the conference slate.
San Diego State (11-4, RPI: 45, SOS: 61)
The one-time conference bully is now just another solid yet flawed team in one of the country’s second-tier conferences. The Aztecs had trouble scoring even with Xavier Thames in town last year. It’s no surprise that they’ve fallen all the way to 222nd in adjusted offensive efficiency without him. They still get after it on defense, ranking fourth in adjusted efficiency, and chances are strong that they will be dancing again in March. It’s hard to picture them doing much damage once there, however.
Wyoming (13-2, RPI: 174, SOS: 340)
The Cowboys didn’t exactly challenge themselves in the non-conference, but they also didn’t suffer any embarrassments and managed to pull off an upset of Colorado. The opened conference play by beating UNLV, and that has them in place to make an unlikely run at the NCAA Tournament. It will require a few more noteworthy wins, and they get three opportunities for those in the next 10 days with games against Colorado State, Boise State and San Diego State.
West Coast Conference
IN THE MIX
BYU (13-4, RPI: 34, SOS: 23)
The Cougars are back again with one of the most efficient offenses in the country, ranking eight in adjusted efficiency. They rode that to a win over Stanford, and nearly did the same in a four-point loss to Utah. They lost their first meeting with Gonzaga, which was unfortunately in Provo, but they were leading with 15 minutes left and can clearly hang with one of the best teams in the country. This is almost certainly a tournament team.
St. Mary’s (11-3, RPI: 74, SOS: 134)
The Gaels are firmly in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but they’re realistically going to have to beat Gonzaga or BYU -- if not both -- to get an invite. They do not have a top-100 win on their resume, with their best victory coming on the road against a rebuilding Creighton team. What’s more, they lost at home to Northern Arizona, a team outside the top 200 in RPI. The Gaels can undoubtedly score the basketball, but they’re 149th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They play the two best teams in the conference in consecutive games, hosting BYU on Jan. 17 and visiting Gonzaga five days later.
IN THE MIX
Old Dominion (12-1, RPI: 17, SOS: 75)
Conference USA is ground zero for power-conference bid theft, and it’s all thanks to the Monarchs, which are in the top 25 for the first time in school history. Given the university name, you can bet that history dates back pretty far. They own two top-50 wins, including a huge victory over in-state rival VCU. They’re 4-1 against the top 100 and haven’t lost since stumbling against Illinois State a few days before Thanksgiving. They play at a very deliberate pace, ranking 339th in adjusted tempo, which allows its 29th-ranked adjusted-efficiency defense to dominate games.
UTEP (10-4, RPI: 71, SOS: 127)
The Miners notched a neutral-floor win over Xavier in the non-conference portion of their schedule, but their only remaining hope for another top-50 win will likely be in their only meeting with Old Dominion this season (Feb. 14). Not only that, but Charlotte is the only other Conference USA team inside the top 100 in RPI. Assuming they beat Charlotte, lose to Old Dominion and do not win the conference tournament, will a 1-4 record against the top 50 (they also lost to Washington, Colorado State and Arizona) and 3-4 record against the top 100 (with the other win coming over Incarnate Word) be enough for an at-large bid? The bet here would be no.