Bubble Watch: Fringe teams running out of time to impress the committee
Selection Sunday is a little more than a month away and teams are now into the second half of their conference schedules. At this point, we have a pretty good feel for which teams are safely in the dance, which ones are heading in that direction and which ones are bound for the bubble.
Below are the five most important bubble games of the week.
The Bearcats are one of two AAC teams that appear to be comfortably on the right side of the dividing line between the NCAA tournament and the NIT (the other is SMU). Temple, meanwhile, has gotten back on the at-large radar with its current five-game winning streak. Now the Owls need to add another top-50 win to buttress their résumé. We know their defense is legit. It’s up to guards Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey to do enough on the offensive end to push Temple to a win.
The Wildcats have lost four straight games and are just 12-12 overall. Still, they cannot be written off, thanks to their wins over Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State. A win at West Virginia would be their fourth against a top-25 team this year, including their second on the road. There aren’t very many bubble teams in any season that can say that. However, K-State is likely to be without leading scorer Marcus Foster, who is still suspended for a violation of team rules. That puts even more on scoring pressure on the shoulders of forward Nino Williams.
Injuries to Briante Weber and Treveon Graham have sent the Rams tumbling down the bracket, but they’re still going to be dancing. The Colonials have some work to do, though they are one of the last four in this week’s Bracket Watch. A win over VCU would be their best of the season and would help solidify their spot in the field of 68. How well the duo of Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage handles the Rams' pressure could determine if the Colonials can score a season-altering victory.
The only way a team from the SEC currently on the outside of the field, like Tennessee, will get in is if it can pick up a few wins over teams just barely inside the field, like LSU. That makes Saturday’s meeting between these two teams in Knoxville a big one for both of them. The Volunteers are holding onto the final scraps of their at-large hopes after losing to Mississippi State at home last week. The Tigers suffered brutal losses to that same Bulldog squad and Auburn before beating Alabama last weekend. They’re still in decent shape thanks to four top-50 wins, but they can’t afford to drop too many more games to any SEC teams not named “Kentucky.”
Both of these teams have been in our last few Bracket Watch columns, but both could fall out of the field with the right -- or wrong, as the case may be -- cocktail of losses. A win in this game would be big for either team, as it would mean another victory against a top-30 team, something no team can have too much of heading into March. The Rams won the first meeting between the teams, which was in Fort Collins, behind a Herculean effort from J.J. Avila. San Diego State ranks fifth, according to kenpom.com, in adjusted defensive efficiency, while Colorado State is 40th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
IN THE MIX
SMU (19-5, RPI: 22, SOS: 57) -- The Mustangs rebounded from their home loss to Cincinnati with a win at Tulsa. Their worst loss, from an RPI standpoint, was to No. 31 Indiana. Even though Cincinnati has more top-50 wins, SMU may have the stronger résumé since all of its losses thus far are to teams that will be in the tournament. Either way, it would be a shock if one of these two teams were not in the field of 68. SMU gets Houston and Connecticut this week.
Cincinnati (17-6, RPI: 28, SOS: 48) -- The Bearcats earned their season sweep over SMU by winning in Dallas last week. They now have four wins against teams with an RPI rank of 32 or better, and six in the top-100. With eight games left in their regular season, it looks like the Bearcats are safely headed back to the NCAA tournament.
Temple (17-7, RPI: 36, SOS: 58) -- The Owls got back in the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch thanks to a five-game winning streak. None of the wins was against a team likely to make the tournament, however, so they’re still just one of the last four teams in our field. In all likelihood, they need to add a couple more top-50 wins to remain worthy of an at-large bid. They can get a huge one on Tuesday when they host Cincinnati.
Tulsa (17-6, RPI: 45, SOS: 111) -- Even though the Golden Hurricane charged out to a 10-0 record in the AAC, their résumé was far from unassailable due to a lack of top-50 wins. They had a great chance for a statement victory against SMU at home, and instead lost by 11 points and were basically put away with 10 minutes left in the game. They’re now 1-4 against the top 50, with an ugly loss to Oral Roberts dragging them down. Frank Haith’s team has to go at least 2-1 in their remaining games with Temple, Cincinnati and SMU.
IN THE MIX
Dayton (17-5, RPI: 37, SOS: 105) -- The Flyers nearly got a great road win against George Washington over the weekend, but Joe McDonald’s putback at the buzzer instead gave the Colonials a victory they badly needed. The Flyers remain in the field of 68, but they’ve still yet to prove they can beat a tournament-quality team on the road. Their schedule lightens up for the next couple weeks, beginning with games against Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure.
Massachusetts (14-9, RPI: 47, SOS: 34) -- The Minutemen have resuscitated their tournament hopes with four straight wins, starting with a two-point victory over Dayton. They still have an uphill climb, however, thanks to three sub-100 losses. All they can do this week is hold serve with games against St. Bonaventure and Duquesne. If they win those games, they’ll give themselves a chance to make a statement next week against Rhode Island and VCU.
George Washington (17-6, RPI: 49, SOS: 132) -- The Colonials are one of the last four teams in our field of 68 this week after that dramatic win over Dayton. Kenpom.com ranks the Colonials 71st, behind teams like Oregon State and Georgia Tech, which don’t really have strong at-large cases. Realistically, the Colonials will have to avoid bad losses and, at the very least, split their remaining games with Davidson (twice) VCU and Massachusetts.
Rhode Island (16-5, RPI: 55, SOS: 115) -- The Rams had a great week with wins over George Washington and Richmond. They’ve now won five straight games, and the victory over the Colonials was their first against a top-50 team. They’re just 3-5 against the top 100, but they’ve put themselves within striking distance of an at-large bid. However, they have just one remaining game against a team ranked in the top 50 in RPI (Dayton). They may have to win out in the regular season to have a chance for an invite.
Davidson (15-6, RPI: 72, SOS: 121) -- The Wildcats hurt their at-large chances with consecutive losses to Saint Joe’s and St. Bonaventure, two teams outside the top 100 that will only be dancing if they win the A-10 tournament. The good news is they still have two games with George Washington, and one more against VCU at home. They’ll likely need to go at least 2-1 in those games to have a good chance for an at-large bid.
Richmond (12-11, RPI: 90, SOS: 33) -- While the Spiders put themselves on the radar by beating VCU, they nullified that goodwill with losses last week to LaSalle and Rhode Island. The committee will definitely note that Richmond’s win over VCU was the game that Briante Weber tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus. With three sub-100 losses and a 3-8 record against the top 100, they could win every game for the rest of the regular season and still not get an invite to the NCAA tournament.
IN THE MIX
Miami (15-8, RPI: 56, SOS: 40) -- The Hurricanes got back in the win column over the weekend with an 11-point victory over Clemson, but they took on a lot of water in a three-game losing streak. Two of those losses came against teams -- Georgia Tech and Florida State -- that are not going to get an at-large bid. Miami is one of the first four teams out of this week’s Bracket Watch after being in the field every week since their win over Duke on January 13. They cannot afford to loss in any of their next three games, which are against also-rans Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia Tech.
North Carolina State (14-10, RPI: 61, SOS: 11) -- The Wolfpack have lost four of their last five games, three of which were against teams that are outside our field of 68. In addition, their only win in the stretch came on a buzzer beater against Georgia Tech, another team on the outside looking in. N.C. State dropped out of the field after losing to Wake Forest over the weekend. However, they have a golden opportunity to get right back in with games against Virginia and Louisville this week.
Pittsburgh (16-8, RPI: 62, SOS: 59) -- The Panthers next three games will go a long way toward determining if they have a chance for an at-large bid. They play Louisville and North Carolina this week, and then take on Virginia at the start of next week, with the first and third games of the stretch coming on the road. The odds of them going at least 2-1 are slim, but that’s likely what they’ll need to do to feel decent about their hopes for an at-large bid at the start of the ACC tournament.
IN THE MIX
Oklahoma State (17-7, RPI: 23, SOS: 17) -- The Cowboys almost certainly locked up an at-large bid with their recent wins over Kansas and Baylor. They now have six wins against teams in the top 40. Even that undersells how great their résumé looks given that Kansas is ranked No. 1 in RPI and Baylor is No. 11. Nothing is easy in the Big 12 -- just ask Texas -- and the Cowboys still have to play Iowa State and West Virginia twice. Barring a meltdown, they’ll be dancing in March.
Texas (15-8, RPI: 32, SOS: 14) -- The Longhorns broke their four-game losing streak with a win at Kansas State last weekend. They’re definitely not a lock to make the dance, but the talk that they’re in serious jeopardy is overblown. Yes, they have eight losses, they were all to teams in the top 50 in RPI, and seven of the eight are against teams in the top 25. The Longhorns have a strong RPI rank themselves, and wins over Iowa and West Virginia. If they go even 2-3 in remaining games with Oklahoma, Iowa State, West Virginia, Kansas and Baylor, I don’t see how the committee shutting them out.
Kansas State (12-12, RPI: 108, SOS: 36) -- The Wildcats could be one of the hardest teams for the committee to place, not just this year, but in recent memory. On the one hand, they have three top-25 wins. On the other, they’ve lost four straight games and two to teams with an RPI rank of 130 or worse. They’re still comfortably in the mix, however, with six games left against teams that are almost certainly heading to the dance. If they split those games, they’d have at least seven wins against top-40 competition. Would the committee really be able to relegate them to the NIT with that sort of résumé? I don’t think so. That makes this a huge week, with games against West Virginia and Oklahoma. Marcus Foster and Malek Harris remain suspended, and a report in the Kansas City Star suggests they will miss the West Virginia game on Wednesday.
IN THE MIX
Providence (17-7, RPI: 20, SOS: 20) -- The Friars won at Georgetown and then lost at Xavier last week. All things considered, splitting a pair of tough road games is not a bad result. They’re now 6-4 against the top 50, with wins over Notre Dame, Butler, Georgetown and Xavier. They’ll get a chance to add Villanova to that list this week. They also host Seton Hall over the weekend. We’re getting awfully close to adding the Friars to the lock section for the Big East.
Georgetown (15-8, RPI: 21, SOS: 2) -- The Hoyas had a rough week, dropping games to Providence and Villanova. Realistically, this team is headed to the dance, and comfortably at that. They own wins over Villanova, Butler and Indiana, and all eight of their losses are to teams in the top 35 in RPI. At the same time, that they’ve lost so consistently to top competition could keep a ceiling on their seed. Five of their remaining six regular season games are against Seton Hall, St. John’s and Butler.
Xavier (15-9, RPI: 34, SOS: 15) -- The Musketeers swept the season series with Georgetown, and yet their spot in the field of 68 is perilous while the Hoyas’ is secure. Xavier’s loss against Creighton at home was their third to a team outside the top 100. That equals the Musketeers’ total of top-50 wins. While we have them as a 9-seed in this week’s Bracket Watch, they still have a little work to do to feel safe on Selection Sunday. They travel to Milwaukee to take on Marquette on Tuesday, then return home to host St. John’s on Saturday.
St. John’s (15-8, RPI: 50, SOS: 26) -- The Red Storm got off the play-in game this week, earning one of the last four pseudo-byes in our field of 68. Having said that, they’re 2-5 against the top 50 and 6-6 against the top 100, with two sub-100 losses. The remaining schedule gives them plenty of opportunity to strengthen the résumé, beginning this Saturday at Xavier. They have six games left in the regular season against teams in our current tournament field. A split in those six should be good enough for them to secure an at-large bid.
Seton Hall (15-8, RPI: 54, SOS: 66) -- The Pirates had a terrible week, dropping games to DePaul and Marquette, two teams that will have to win the Big East tournament to make it into the field. Their 4-5 record against the top 50 definitely suggests they’re a tournament team, but they’re now working against three sub-100 losses. That makes their next two weeks a potential turning point in their season. They’ll play Georgetown, Providence, Villanova and St. John’s, with the final three games coming on the road.
IN THE MIX
Indiana (17-7, RPI: 31, SOS: 35) -- You can forgive the Hoosiers for giving up 92 points in regulation to the ruthlessly efficient Badgers, though it does display how vulnerable this team is on defense. They rebounded for a nice win at Michigan over the weekend, and continue to hold onto a secure place in the field of 68. They take on Maryland in College Park and Minnesota at home this week.
Ohio State (18-6, RPI: 35, SOS: 78) -- The Buckeyes clearly missed the suspended Marc Loving in a loss at Purdue last week. Loving is the team’s best three-point shooter, connecting on 53.2 percent of his attempts from distance, and the team went just 4-for-16 without him in West Lafayette. They bounced back against Rutgers behind D’Angelo Russell’s first career triple-double. They get Penn State at home and Michigan State on the road this week.
Iowa (15-8, RPI: 38, SOS: 13) -- The Hawkeyes finally had a good week, beating Michigan on the road and Maryland at home. They jumped out to a 17-2 lead on the Terrapins and never looked back, ultimately winning by 16 points. The win over Maryland was their fourth against a team inside the top 40 this year. They have a relatively easy week with games against Minnesota and Northwestern.
Illinois (16-8, RPI: 48, SOS: 65) -- The Illini have won three straight games and are one of the final four teams in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch. Perhaps no one in the country is a bigger fan of Baylor, a team Illinois beat back in November. With each win the Bears pick up in the Big 12, the Illini’s résumé gets stronger. They also have a win over Maryland, giving them two against teams in the top 20 in RPI. The Illini host Michigan on Thursday, then head to Madison to take on the Badgers on Sunday.
Michigan State (15-8, RPI: 53, SOS: 45) -- The Spartans fell out of our field of 68 after losing at home to Illinois last weekend. They’re now just 2-6 against the top 50 and have two losses outside the top 100. It may seem surprising that the Spartans are out, but you don’t even have to leave the Big Ten to find superior résumés on the bubble. Illinois is 3-3 against the top 50 with a win over Baylor. Purdue is 3-4 against the top 50, and 8-6 against the top 100. At this point, the Spartans simply do not deserve an at-large bid. They can do themselves a huge favor by beating Ohio State on Saturday.
Purdue (15-9, RPI: 71, SOS: 52) -- The Boilermakers continue to struggle away from Mackey Arena, losing at Minnesota over the weekend. While they have the impressive top-50 and top-100 records mentioned above, their best road win came against Penn State. They’ll have to prove that they can beat tournament-quality competition on the road to earn an at-large bid. They have three such chances left, with games at Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State looming.
IN THE MIX
Stanford (16-7, RPI: 44, SOS: 56) -- The Cardinal once appeared headed safely for the NCAA rournament, but that’s not the case any longer after losses to Washington State and UCLA. They’re just 2-4 against the top 50, and both of those wins came against teams that could feasibly miss the tournament (Texas and Wofford). Like UCLA, their remaining regular season games against tournament-quality teams will be awfully tough to win. They visit Utah on Thursday, and wrap up the season at Arizona.
UCLA (14-10, RPI: 46, SOS: 18) -- Despite a road loss to California over the weekend, the Bruins are now firmly on the committee’s radar after knocking off Utah and Stanford in recent weeks. Their one big hurdle could be a lack of opportunity in the Pac-12. UCLA has just one game remaining in the regular season against a team currently in our field of 68, and that’s against Arizona in Tucson. They could win every other game left on their schedule other than that one, but that wouldn't be enough to get them into the tournament.
Oregon (17-7, RPI: 57, SOS: 63) -- Oregon has won three straight games, and five of its last six, and that has resulted in a big RPI jump. At the same time, their two top-50 wins are against Illinois and UCLA. They are 7-6 against the top 100, but this is still a team with plenty of work left to prove that it deserves an at-large bid. They can take a step in the right direction by beating UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday.
Oregon State (16-7, RPI: 66, SOS: 101) -- The Beavers swept the state of Washington last week to move into fourth place in the Pac-12. They’re still safely outside the field of 68, but that win over Arizona can be a trump card if they can pick up a few more top-50 wins before the Pac-12 tournament. They’ll get a chance for one this week when the visit UCLA on Wednesday.
Washington (14-9, RPI: 79, SOS: 75) -- The Huskies ignominious slide continued last week with losses to Oregon and Oregon State. They’ve now lost five straight games, and are almost certainly headed to the NIT, at best. We’ll keep them around for one more week, however, thanks to wins over Oklahoma and San Diego State, and the opportunity they have this week. If they can pull the upset over Arizona at home on Friday, they’d have three wins against top-30 teams. The Wildcats are the only other Pac-12 team that can make that claim.
IN THE MIX
Georgia (15-7, RPI: 24, SOS: 21) -- The Bulldogs rank highly in the pertinent ratings system -- they’re also 33rd on kenpom.com -- but they have just one win against the top 50 this year. Their spot in the field is safe for now, but they’ll have to play well against the second tier of the SEC the rest of the regular season to remain in good standing with the committee. They have one important game this week, when they travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M on Wednesday.
Arkansas (18-5, RPI: 25, SOS: 69) -- The Razorbacks bounced back from a loss at Florida by beating South Carolina and Mississippi State last week. Despite falling behind Georgia in RPI ranking, their overall résumé looks better thanks to three top-50 wins and zero losses outside the top 100. The two teams won’t meet again the rest of the regular season, but they may have put a tiny bit of separation between themselves and the truer bubble teams, such as LSU, Texas A&M and Mississippi.
Texas A&M (16-6, RPI: 33, SOS: 77) -- The Aggies suffered a couple of blows last week. First, they lost at fellow bubble team Mississippi. Then, LSU fell out of the top 50, taking away the only win the Aggies had against that class of opponent. Their next three games could very well determine their fate, as they host Georgia, Florida and LSU between now and February 17.
Mississippi (16-7, RPI: 38, SOS: 45) -- The Rebels scored a huge win over Texas A&M last week. It was their third against a team in the top 35 in RPI, as well as a strike against a team that they are competing against directly for a spot in the field of 68. The Rebels, winners of five straight, could make major strides this week with games against Florida and Arkansas.
LSU (17-6, RPI: 51, SOS: 93) -- The Tigers suffered a damaging loss against Auburn at home last week. Auburn is just 3-7 in the SEC, 11-12 overall, and ranked 132nd in RPI. The loss was LSU’s third outside the top 100, and put the team in a place where they probably have a little work to do to make the field of 68. They could take the sting out of those ugly losses by handing Kentucky its first loss on Tuesday in Baton Rouge.
Florida (12-11, RPI: 67, SOS: 10) -- The Gators held their own against Kentucky, but the Wildcats ultimately pulled away with a seven-point victory in Gainesville. At this point, with just one top-50 win and a 4-10 record against the top 100, it’s a stretch to say that Florida is really in contention for an at-large bid. They could turn things around by beating Mississippi and Texas A&M this week, but anything short of that and they likely won’t be a part of the Bubble Watch next week.
Alabama (14-9, RPI: 69, SOS: 38) -- Time is running short on the Crimson Tide after losing to LSU over the weekend. They don’t have a win against a team that is definitely headed to the tournament this year, and the last time they beat a team with even a shot at an at-large bid was January 6, when they knocked off Texas A&M. They may need to sweep their remaining games with Georgia, Mississippi and Texas A&M to get on the committee’s radar.
Tennessee (13-9, RPI: 86, SOS: 56) -- The Volunteers’ three-point loss at Georgia likely wouldn’t have hurt as bad if they didn’t lose to Mississippi State at home earlier in the week. The loss to the Bulldogs was their second outside the top 100 this year, and they’re just 2-7 against the top 100. The have four regular season games left against teams in our current field of 68 (Kentucky, Mississippi and LSU twice). The Volunteers need a 3-1 record in those four games, and can’t suffer any more bad losses, to have a chance to earn an at-large bid.
Old Dominion (18-4, RPI: 41, SOS: 131) -- The Monarchs will not play another game this season against a team in the top 50 in RPI. That means that unless LSU can climb back into the top 50, they’ll head to Selection Sunday with one top-50 win, as well as at least two sub-100 losses. I hate to beat a dead drum, but I don’t see how this can be an at-large team.
UTEP (16-7, RPI: 82, SOS: 133) -- The Miners are here thanks to a win over Xavier back in November. If they can knock off Old Dominion on Saturday, that would given them two top-50 wins on the year. They would still need some help from some of the power conference teams, but the committee, at the very least, wouldn’t be able to dismiss them out of hand.
Western Kentucky (16-7, RPI: 97, SOS: 122) -- The Hilltoppers took a huge step back by losing at home to Rice over the weekend. They do still have impressive wins over Old Dominion and Mississippi, but they also have three sub-100 losses, and Rice is just barely inside the top 300. Still, if they win out in the regular season that would include another win over the Monarchs, this one on the road. As we just discussed with UTEP, the committee would at least have to consider the Hilltoppers if they pulled off that feat.
Locks: Northern Iowa, Wichita State
Both teams are in the top 20 in RPI, both have impressive records against the top 100, and neither is likely to lose the rest of the season, except when they meet each other. Wichita State and Northern Iowa will both go dancing. The only way another Valley team gets in is if it wins the conference tournament.
IN THE MIX
Colorado State (20-4, RPI: 26, SOS: 102) -- The Rams lost at Wyoming and beat UNLV at home last week. They jumped in front of San Diego State for the conference’s best RPI, boasting a 2-1 record against the top 50 and 5-3 record against the top 100. The résumé is flawed, but it also might be the best in the Mountain West. They meet San Diego State on the road on Saturday.
San Diego State (18-6, RPI: 30, SOS: 76) -- The Aztecs lost at Boise State by 15 points on Sunday, and while that won’t hurt their tourney chances, it would have been a chance for them to make a statement that they’re still a tough out in the dance. Instead, it was another road loss against a top-50 team, their third of the season. Their best true road win was at Wyoming. In fact, it was their only road win against a team with an RPI better than 200.
Boise State (17-6, RPI: 40, SOS: 90) -- The Broncos now own wins over both Colorado State and San Diego State after taking down the Aztecs over the weekend. They’ve now won seven straight games, and are firmly in the at-large discussion, even despite two earlier losses to teams outside the top 100 in RPI. They can’t afford another slip-up, however, meaning they have to beat both Air Force and Fresno State this week.
Wyoming (19-5, RPI: 73, SOS: 182) -- The Cowboys have the worst RPI ranking of the at-large contenders in the Mountain West, but they also have the most top-50 wins by virtue of their season sweep of Colorado State. Add that to a previous win against Boise State, and their three wins in the top 50 are tops in the conference. Of course, they’ve also lost three times to teams outside the top 100. As such, they probably have the most work to do to earn an at-large bid. They could start that by beating San Diego State on the road on Wednesday.
West Coast Conference
BYU (18-8, RPI: 68, SOS: 89) -- The Cougars are the only team in the WCC in the mix for an at-large bid outside of Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s simply cannot be considered with its résumé. Its best win is over BYU, it’s RPI rank is 66, and its strength of schedule is 118. That’s not a team anywhere near the at-large discussion. The Cougars, meanwhile, own wins over Stanford and UMass, giving them a puncher’s chance of making it via an at-large selection. They’ll have to beat Gonzaga in the season finale to do it, while also avoiding any more losses this season. They host Saint Mary’s on Thursday.