Bubble Watch: A critical week for SEC teams on the tournament fringe
We’ve been breaking down the bubble here ever since the calendar turned to 2015, but now that it's February some of those bubbles are going to start popping. Below are the five most important games on the bubble this week.
Wednesday: Texas A&M at Mississippi
The Aggies have a superior RPI and have skirted bad losses to this point, but are just 1-3 against the top 50 and 2-5 against the top 100. The Rebels own wins over Cincinnati and Arkansas (on the road), but also have ugly losses to TCU ad Charleston Southern, both of which came at home. There are at least five bubble teams in the SEC, and there won’t be spots for all of them in the field of 68. That makes each head-to-head matchup all the more important.
Saturday: Tennessee at Georgia
Let’s stick in the SEC for a weekend showdown between one team just outside our current field, and another that has been included in every Bracket Watch this season. The former is Tennessee, which is one of our first four teams out. The Volunteers do have wins over Butler and Arkansas this season, which is a foundation from which they could build a resume worthy of an at-large bid. The latter, of course, is the Bulldogs, who look like the third-best team in the SEC right now. A win over Tennessee would shore up an already-solid resume for Georgia, while the Vols could use the boost from a win in Athens.
Saturday: Texas at Kansas State
The Longhorns have lost three straight games to the upper crust of the Big 12, and they’ll have to play Oklahoma State before traveling to Manhattan to take on the Wildcats. If the losing streak continues, their once safe place in the field of 68 could come into question. Kansas State, meanwhile, has lost consecutive games to West Virginia and Kansas and could be one of the toughest teams for the committee to pin down. The Wildcats have four top-50 wins, including great ones over Oklahoma and Baylor. They’ve lost 10 games, but six of those were to top-50 teams. They also lost to Texas Southern at home. If they go, say, .500 in the Big 12, could they really be kept out of the dance?
It’s possible the Pac-12 only gets three teams into the dance (Arizona, Utah and Stanford), but these two teams are still in range of an invite. The Huskies are an interesting study. They beat San Diego State and Oklahoma, and are 8-3 against the top 100. Their negative alter ego, however, has lost four times to teams with an RPI worse than 100, and three of those games were at home. Oregon, meanwhile, is holding onto its last shred of hope and desperately needs to add wins against tournament-quality competition.
Saturday: Syracuse at Pittsburgh
It’s too early to call this a de facto elimination game, but it’s hard to imagine both of these ACC also-rans doing enough in the final six weeks of the regular season to make the tournament. The Panthers are probably ahead of the Orange by virtue of their win over Notre Dame last week. Syracuse has yet to win a game against a top-50 team. Pittsburgh does not fit that bill, either, but Jim Boeheim’s team needs all the top-100 wins it can get at this point.
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SMU (18-4, RPI: 21, SOS: 71) -- The Mustangs have ripped off eight consecutive wins after losing to Cincinnati way back in the first week of January. Despite that, they still have just one top-50 victory. They have an opportunity to change that this week, with games against Cincinnati and Tulsa.
Cincinnati (15-6, RPI: 35, SOS: 47) -- The Bearcats suffered a terrible loss on Sunday, scoring just 46 points in an ugly performance at East Carolina. Offense has been a struggle at times, and they’re now ranked 100th in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom.com. But it hasn’t prevented them from racking up four top-50 wins.
Tulsa (16-5, RPI: 43, SOS: 122) -- Wins over Tulane and South Florida last week pushed the Golden Hurricane to 9-0 in the AAC. After a trip to Houston on Thursday, they’ll finally meet SMU for the first time this season on Saturday. They may have a strong record, but they also have just one top-50 win, and two top-100 wins. They still have some work to do before they can feel that they’re comfortably in the field.
Temple (15-7, RPI: 44, SOS: 45) -- The Owls have won three straight games against the dregs of the AAC after losing three straight against the conference’s top tier. They’re up to ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency, but rank a woeful 230th on the offensive side of the ball. They’ll likely have to go at least 2-1 in their remaining games against Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa to have a good shot at an at-large bid.
Connecticut (11-9, RPI: 108, SOS: 66) -- The defending national champions endured their worst loss of the season on Sunday, falling at a Houston team that is ranked 256th in the RPI. They had been hanging on to their at-large hopes by a thread, but they lost their grip of that over the weekend. Unless they sweep the rest of their schedule, they’re likely ticketed for the NIT.
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Dayton (17-4, RPI: 37, SOS: 118) -- The Flyers put on a show on Sunday, scoring 101 points in a rout of Fordham. Three different players poured in at least 20 points, and two more reached double-figures. Things should be just a bit more challenging for them when they visit D.C. on Friday to take on George Washington.Duquesne
George Washington (16-6, RPI: 51, SOS: 139) -- The Colonials had a rough week, losing by 24 points to VCU, and then dropping a close game at Rhode Island. That second loss knocked them out of our field of 68 for the first time this season. With just one top-50 win, they need to take advantage of their home date with Dayton on Friday.
Massachusetts -- (12-9, RPI: 55, SOS: 13) -- The Minutemen got their first top-50 win of the season by beating Dayton last Thursday. There’s still a lot of work to do here given that they have three sub-100 losses, but they can at least harbor at-large hopes for the time being. They’ll need to keep a clean resume over the next two weeks before they meet VCU in Richmond on Feb. 21.
Richmond (12-9, RPI: 61, SOS: 22) -- Taking down VCU on the road last Saturday gave the Spiders picked a much-needed signature win. Three losses outside the top-100 still have them on the outside looking in, but they now have to be on the selection committee’s radar. If they can get one or two additional strong wins and avoid any further unsightly losses, they could sneak into the field.
North Carolina State (14-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 7) -- The Wolfpack remain one of our last four teams in after splitting games against Clemson, at home, and Georgia Tech, on the road, last week. Even though we’ve been keeping them in the field, they’re still probably a couple wins away from feeling good about their chances. The Wolfpack have likely spent all their goodwill at this point.
Miami (14-7, RPI: 56, SOS: 59) -- Losses to Georgia Tech and Florida State last week really did a number on the Hurricanes’ at-large hopes. They’re looking like a true bubble team with six weeks remaining in the regular season. Miami is 2-3 against the top 50 and 6-5 against the top 100. Sunday's loss to Florida State was their second to a team with an RPI worse than 100. They have a chance for another statement win when they host Louisville on Tuesday.
Syracuse (14-7, RPI: 71, SOS: 74) -- The Orange haven’t played since losing by 10 at North Carolina on Jan. 26. They’re still without a top-50 win, and are just 4-6 against the top 100. They don't play the Tar Heels again but do still have to face each of the other four locks from this conference, and they have two games against Duke. If Syracuse is going to be in the field of 68 it will likely have to go at least 3-2 in those games.
Pittsburgh (15-8, RPI: 74, SOS: 52) -- The Panthers finally took a step forward this season by beating Notre Dame last Saturday, and then nearly took two giant steps back against Bryant on Monday, needing all 40 minutes to come away with a five-point win against a Northeast Conference foe. They’re just 1-5 against the top 50, 3-6 against the top 100 and have ugly losses to Hawaii and Virginia Tech. A three-game stretch against Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia that begins on Feb. 11 will likely determine whether or not Pitt has shot at an at-large bid.
Clemson (13-8, RPI: 80, SOS: 56) -- The Tigers notched an 11-point victory at N.C. State last Wednesday, giving them three wins against the top 50. They have more than their fair share of bad losses on the résumé (four defeats to teams outside the top 100, including No. 245 Winthrop), but they’ve done a better job of proving they can beat tournament-quality competition than either Syracuse or Pitt have to this point. A win at Miami on Sunday would make them even harder for the committee to ignore.
IN THE MIXTexas (14-7, RPI: 30, SOS: 15)
Oklahoma State (14-7, RPI: 40, SOS: 31) -- The Cowboys started the week with a win over Baylor and closed it with a loss to in-state rival Oklahoma. All things considered, that’s a positive week for a team that continues to trend in the right direction. They now have three top-50 wins and a 6-7 record against the top 100. The Cowboys are right back at it this week with games against Texas and Kansas.
Kansas State (12-10, RPI: 85, SOS: 28) -- The Wildcats’ at-large case took a hit last week with losses to West Virginia and Kansas. Those are, of course, understandable losses to strong teams, but the Wildcats need every high-profile win they can get because of their low RPI ranking. We still have them in the field thanks to four wins over teams with an RPI of 36 or better, but they’re one bad loss away from being in trouble. They visit Texas Tech and host Texas this week.
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Butler (16-6, RPI: 15, SOS: 10) -- We’re really just biding our time before sliding Butler up alongside Villanova in the locks category. They knocked off Seton Hall last week for their sixth top-50 win of the season, five of which have come against teams with an RPI of 35 or better. Conversely, just one of their six losses is outside the top 50, and that was to No. 57 Tennessee. They would almost have to lose out to be in any jeopardy of missing the tournament.
Georgetown (15-6, RPI: 19, SOS: 5) -- The Hoyas are in the same boat as Butler, as only a catastrophe could keep them out of the field of 68. They did suffer their second home loss of the season last week to Xavier (the other was against Kansas), but all six of their defeats are to teams in the RPI top 30. Unlike a team such as Texas, they’ve proven they can beat teams headed to the dance with consistency, notching victories over Butler, Indiana and Villanova. They’ve got a big week ahead, with games against Providence and the first-place Wildcats, this time in Philadelphia.
Providence (16-6, RPI: 24, SOS: 21) -- Here’s yet another team that will soon be considered a lock for the dance from the somehow-still-underrated Big East. The Friars beat DePaul last week before losing to St. John’s in New York. They’re 5-3 against the top 50, with two of those three losses coming to the Red Storm (the other was against Kentucky). So long as they avoid St. John’s in the NCAA tournament, they could make some noise from the 5-6-seed range. They’ll have their hands full this week, however, with road games against Georgetown and Xavier.
Xavier (14-8, RPI: 26, SOS: 11) -- The Musketeers faced a tough task last week, hitting the road for games with Georgetown and Seton Hall. They came out of it 1-1, beating the Hoyas but falling to the Pirates. The split should have the Musketeers feeling pretty good about their tournament chances. Prior to beating Georgetown, they didn’t have a true road win over a top-100 team, let alone one as good as the Hoyas. They’ll spend this week in Cincinnati, hosting Creighton and Providence.
Seton Hall (15-6, RPI: 36, SOS: 58) -- The Pirates snapped a three-game losing streak with a win over Marquette last Wednesday, then followed that up by scoring 90 points to beat Xavier on Saturday. The latter was their first victory over a team likely headed to the tournament since they upset Villanova on Jan. 3. They get a bit of a respite this week with games against DePaul and Marquette. After that, they start a brutal four-game stretch that includes matchups with Georgetown, Providence, Villanova and St. John’s.
St. John’s (14-7, RPI: 48, SOS: 20) -- Speaking of the Johnnies, they had an interesting week, losing at Creighton but beating Providence at home. The loss to the Blue Jays was their second to a team with an RPI ranking worse than 100, and it helped keep them no better than one of the last four teams in our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. We know they can beat the Friars, as they swept the season series, but those are their only wins against a top 50 team. They head to Indianapolis to take on Butler on Tuesday.
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Indiana (16-6, RPI: 33, SOS: 39) -- The Hoosiers have looked like the negative reaction to Ohio State’s positive action in the last two weeks. After losing in Columbus, they lost by 16 points at Purdue, then sputtered before pulling away from Rutgers late in Bloomington. Like the Buckeyes, the Hooisers have struggled away from home, and they’ll play their toughest road game of the season on Tuesday when they face Wisconsin.
Ohio State (17-5, RPI: 34, SOS: 69) -- Two weeks ago, the Buckeyes were coming off their second loss to Iowa and a near loss to lowly Northwestern, leading some to question if they could get it together and make the field of 68. Since then, they’ve scored dominant victories over Indiana and Maryland, and point guard D'Angelo Russell has made sure that Duke's Jahlil Okafor won’t run away with any Freshman of the Year awards. The Buckeyes are a safe bet to make the tourney, assuming they remain on their current trajectory. They have struggled away from home, however, and they have road games with Purdue and Rutgers this week.Illinois
Iowa (13-8, RPI: 52, SOS: 18) -- The Hawkeyes have lost three straight games, though two of those were to Wisconsin. The third was at underrated Purdue, and helped knock Iowa down to just .500 in conference. Its tournament standing isn’t in serious trouble yet, but that could change with a loss or two to teams that are unlikely to make the tournament. The Hawkeyes play one such team this week when they visit Ann Arbor before returning home to host Maryland on Sunday.
Illinois (14-8, RPI: 66, SOS: 63) -- It may seem curious that the Illini are in the Bubble Watch while Michigan is not, given that the Wolverines have a higher RPI (No. 60) and better record, both overall (13-9) and in conference (6-4, compared to the Illini's 4-5). What they don’t have, however, is one top-50 win this year. Illinois has two good ones, against Baylor and Maryland, and those are keeping their tournament hopes on life support. They’ll have a chance for a third when they hit the road on Saturday for a game with Michigan State in what has become an important matchup for both teams.
Purdue (14-8, RPI: 79, SOS: 65) -- The Boilermakers took down in-state rival Indiana last week, earning their second top-50 win of the season. They’re not likely to make the tournament, unless they go something like 3-1 in their remaining regular season games with Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State (they’re done with Wisconsin and Maryland), and even then they might need one more good win in the Big Ten tournament. Still, Matt Painter’s team has been overlooked all season, and they can at least make life tough for the other bubble teams in the conference.
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Stanford (15-6, RPI: 32, SOS: 61) -- The Cardinal nearly rallied from an eight-point deficit with just three minutes remaining at Washington State on Saturday, but ultimately lost 89-88. It was their second loss to a team with an RPI rank outside the top 100 and third to a team ranked 70th or worse. Those losses are starting to look threatening, given that the Cardinal have just two top-50 wins (at Texas and against Wofford). They host UCLA and USC this week.
UCLA (13-9, RPI: 65, SOS: 30) -- The Bruins had their best week of the season thanks to a big win over Utah, their second over a top-30 team this year. They’re still just 4-9 against the top 100, but they will have a few more opportunities to add to the good side of that ledger. The first comes on Thursday when they head north to Palo Alto to take on Stanford.
Oregon (15-7, RPI: 70, SOS: 57) -- We’ve been holding off on listing the Ducks as “in the mix” because they don’t yet have a top-50 win this season, but their play over the last few weeks now has them in range to jump into the at-large picture should they eventually beat Arizona or Utah. Unfortunately, they won’t have another shot at the Wildcats, who beat Oregon by 34 points last month, unless they meet them in the conference tournament. Realistically, the Ducks simply won’t have enough chances to impress the committee because of the lack of quality competition in the Pac-12.
Washington (14-7, RPI: 77, SOS: 88) -- The Huskies may have four sub-100 losses on the résumé, but they also have two very nice wins over San Diego State and Oklahoma. When you’re talking about the last few teams into the tournament field, I would always rather see a team that won quality games over a team that simply avoided bad losses. The Huskies could be one of those last teams if they can add a few more solid wins to their case.
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Arkansas (16-5, RPI: 23, SOS: 44) -- The Razorbacks kicked off the week with a win over Tennessee last Tuesday, but then lost by a point at Florida on Saturday. Their RPI ranking is strong and it would take complete disaster for them to miss out on the tournament, but they seem to have a seed ceiling in the 6-to-7 range, unless they can manage to beat Kentucky when they meet the Wildcats in Lexington on Feb. 28. They host South Carolina and Mississippi State this week.
Georgia (14-6, RPI: 27, SOS: 34) -- The Bulldogs’ 17-point loss at South Carolina on Saturday was their third to a team with an RPI worse than 90. They’re still comfortably in the field for now, but one or two more losses like that could send the Bulldogs to the NIT. They’re the next to get a crack at Kentucky, visiting Rupp Arena on Tuesday. They’ll host fellow bubble team Tennessee on Saturday.
Texas A&M (15-5, RPI: 31, SOS: 67) -- The Aggies have done a good job avoiding bad losses, and that has them as one of the last four teams in our current field of 68. If they want to be in the field when it actually matters, however, they’ll probably need to add to their stable of top-50 wins. They have just one of those, a road victory against LSU. Wednesday’s game at Mississippi is big for both teams.
LSU (16-5, RPI: 41, SOS: 91) -- Saturday's loss to Mississippi State, which is ranked 193rd in RPI, took a toll on the Tigers’ seed in this week’s Bracket Watch, but it didn’t knock them out of the field. There’s too much good here -- including top-30 wins over West Virginia and Georgia -- for one loss to cost them an at-large berth. They’re home for their next three games, with Auburn and Alabama visiting Baton Rouge this week.
Mississippi (14-7, RPI: 47, SOS: 48) -- The Rebels are also one of our last four teams in, thanks in part to victories over Arkansas and Florida in the last few weeks. They haven’t fully made up for losses to TCU and Charleston Southern, though, so they need to do a good job in their head-to-head matchups with bubble teams in the conference. Their next of those comes Wednesday when Texas A&M visits Oxford.
Tennessee (13-7, RPI: 53, SOS: 41) -- The Volunteers beat Auburn on Saturday after losing consecutive games to tourney contenders Texas A&M and Arkansas. They’re one of our first four teams out and will need to take advantage of the few opportunities they have left this season against quality competition. They get one such game this week when they play at Georgia on Saturday.
Florida (12-9, RPI: 57, SOS: 17) -- The Gators make their first appearance in the Bubble Watch after beating Alabama and Arkansas last week. The win over the Razorbacks was their first against a top-50 team this year and could finally place them on the committee’s radar. They could make that dim blip a whole lot brighter by beating Kentucky on Saturday.
Alabama (13-8, RPI: 58, SOS: 26) -- The Crimson Tide have lost five of their last six games. Sure, two of those were against Kentucky, but they’re safely outside the field of 68 and looking up at a minimum of five SEC teams that could end up on the bubble. That assumes that Arkansas and Georgia are comfortably in, as well. The Crimson Tide can’t afford any bad losses, and probably have to go at least 3-1 in their four remaining regular season games against teams that could make the tourney.
South Carolina (11-9, RPI: 101, SOS: 32) -- Just when it seemed safe to write off the Gamecocks, they dominate Georgia for their third top-40 win of the season. Few, if any, with a poor RPI ranking have a trio of wins that can stack up to the Gamecocks’ trifecta, as they previously took down Iowa State and Oklahoma State. With games remaining against Arkansas (twice), Kentucky, Georgia, Texas A&M and Tennessee, they have plenty of chances to make themselves worthy of inclusion in the field of 68.
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Old Dominion (17-4, RPI: 38, SOS: 122) -- There are still some bracket projections out there that show the C-USA getting multiple bids. Given that the Monarchs are the only team in the league with the type of non-conference wins necessary for an at-large bid that means another school would have to win the C-USA tournament. It's not as unlikely as it might seem that ODU could stumble against what at first glance appears to be weak conference competition. It already has four losses outside the RPI top 70, two of which came to teams with a sub-100 RPI. If they add another one to that, it won’t matter that they beat VCU and LSU. This is a one-bid conference.
Western Kentucky (15-6, RPI: 73, SOS: 102) -- The Hilltoppers suffered their first loss in conference at the hands of Louisiana Tech last week. The only thing that really matters, in terms of the Big Dance, is seeding for the C-USA tournament, and the Hilltoppers remain tied atop the C-USA with the Bulldogs. They should be able to stay in first after games with North Texas and Rice this week.
Louisiana Tech (17-5, RPI: 93, SOS: 278) -- The Bulldogs got a big win over Western Kentucky last week, moving them into a first-place tie. Despite a gaudy record, however, this is not a team capable of securing an at-large bid. They have zero top-50 wins and just two inside the top 100. Their only route to the NCAA tournament is via the conference tourney title.
Locks: Wichita State
IN THE MIXDrake
Illinois State (14-8, RPI: 91, SOS: 95) -- The Redbirds are still harboring slim tourney hopes after beating Missouri State and Loyola last week. Realistically, they’re going to have to sweep back-to-back games against Northern Iowa and Wichita State next week to have a chance. Until then, they have to take care of business when they meet Evansville and Southern Illinois this week.
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San Diego State (17-5, RPI: 25, SOS: 62) -- The Aztecs enjoyed a clean week against Fresno State and Utah State, and head into the back half of the conference schedule in a first-place tie with Wyoming. The Aztecs are almost certain to return to the tournament, but a three-game stretch that begins this weekend could determine how high they are seeded. They visit Boise State on Sunday, then host Wyoming and Colorado State next week. With the right mix of outcomes, it’s possible, though unlikely, that all three of those teams join the Aztecs in the field of 68.
Colorado State (19-3, RPI: 29, SOS: 120) -- The committee won’t consider the Rams’ loss at Boise State last week a bad one, but it was a missed opportunity. Despite a strong RPI, the Rams have just one top-50 win overall and one top-100 win on the road. A win over Boise State in its gym would have given Colorado State its second checkmark in both categories. Still, it is one of the final teams in the field in our current Bracket Watch. The Rams visit Wyoming and host UNLV this week.
Boise State (15-6, RPI: 49, SOS: 93) -- Last week’s win over Colorado State made possible a formula for the Broncos to earn an at-large bid. They’d have to at least split their two games with San Diego State and then pick up a minimum of one strong win in the conference tournament. Even that could still land them in the NIT, but they can no longer be ignored, at least for the time being. They get their first crack at the Aztecs on Sunday at home.
Wyoming (18-4, RPI: 82, SOS: 224) -- The Cowboys’ loss at Utah State last week really hurt their chances for an at-large bid. They’re one of the many teams we talk about in this space that really can’t afford any bad losses because they just don’t have the strong wins to offset them. Utah State is ranked 157th in RPI, making that a very bad loss, no matter where it occurred. The good news for the Cowboys is they can reverse that damage in the next 10 days. They play Colorado State on Wednesday and San Diego State on Feb. 11.
West Coast Conference
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BYU (17-7, RPI: 64, SOS: 78) -- The Cougars remained in position to steal an at-large bid, assuming they can knock off Gonzaga at the end of the month, with wins over San Francisco and Santa Clara last week. One more bad loss could sink their hopes, though, so they can’t get caught looking ahead to their return matchup with Saint Mary’s on Feb. 12. They visit Pepperdine, which already beat them in Provo, and Loyola Marymount this week,
Saint Mary’s (17-5, RPI: 72, SOS: 116) -- Last week, we noted that the Gaels still had an outside chance to earn an invite to the field of 68, but that they probably couldn’t afford to add any bad losses to their resume. They did just that over the weekend, falling to Pepperdine at home. Realistically, they have just one more chance to win a top-50 game in the regular season when they host Gonzaga on Feb. 21. Even if they sprung an upset in that game, they’d have trouble surpassing all the power conference bubble teams currently ahead of them in the pecking order.