2015 NCAA tournament preview: SI's look at the bubble teams and projection for the latest full field of 68
There wasn’t much action on the bubble Monday, as the power conference tournaments have yet to start. Manhattan (MAAC), Northeastern (Colonial) and Wofford (Southern) all clinched automatic bids, while BYU kept its tourney hopes alive with a WCC semifinal win over Portland.
The ACC tournament kicks off Tuesday, but the real bubble action begins Wednesday when that conference’s will-they-or-won’t-they teams take the court, and the Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC tournaments all get underway. That's the day we’ll finally start to get some answers on the fate of bubble teams. Until then, we’ll have to satiate ourselves with a few more small conference championship games, including in the Horizon (Green Bay vs. Valparaiso), Northeast (Robert Morris vs. St. Francis of New York) and Summit (North Dakota State vs. South Dakota State) leagues. Not a bad consolation prize.
NOTE: See below for full projected bracket. All bubble teams listed by RPI.
Tuesday’s Biggest Bubble Game: BYU vs. Gonzaga (WCC title game)
[daily_cut.college basketball]This game couldn’t possibly feature a wider gulf in meaning than it does for these two teams. Gonzaga undoubtedly wants to pull off another WCC regular season-tournament championship exacta, and its seed could suffer if it lost, but the Bulldogs are going dancing and will be a threat to make it to Indianapolis regardless of what happens in Las Vegas on Tuesday night. For BYU, on the other hand, this game means everything. A win and they’re back in the Big Dance for the second straight season. A loss and they’re likely headed to the NIT, unless they get major help from some of their bubble brethren this week.
The two teams split their meetings in the regular season, and it’s that Feb. 28 win over Gonzaga—in Spokane no less—that has the Cougars feeling good about their chances on Tuesday. The rating services love BYU, which ranks 41st in RPI and 28th on kenpom.com with the ninth most efficient offense in the country. There’s no doubt this would be a dangerous team if it can beat Gonzaga and get into the tourney. Junior Kyle Collinsworth had a triple-double in Monday’s win over Portland, which would be noteworthy for most players but is basically just another day for Collinsworth this season. It was his sixth triple-double of the year, which tied the NCAA career mark previously set by Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Anderson. Meanwhile, senior Tyler Haws leads the team with 22.1 points per game. The Cougars can score and be a thorn in the side of power conference teams, from the bubble squads they would make nervous with a win on Tuesday, to the higher seeds they would face early in the tournament.
Should BYU lose, however, it would likely have trouble earning an at-large bid. Its regular season win over Gonzaga is its only top-50 victory of the year. On the downside, the Cougars were swept by Pepperdine and also lost to San Diego. They challenged themselves in the non-conference, with games against San Diego State (loss), Utah (loss), Stanford (win), Massachusetts (win) and Purdue (loss), but their resume will likely leave them a bit short of an at-large bid.
Last four in
2. Indiana: Despite the Hoosiers' terrible finish to the season, they still own wins over Maryland, Butler, SMU and Ohio State. If they beat Northwestern in their opening Big Ten tourney game, they should be safe.
3. Temple: The Owls may have just two top-50 wins, but one is over Kansas. They also have a strong RPI ranking (31) and non-conference strength of schedule (45), as well as 22 wins overall. If they avoid a bad loss in the AAC tournament, they deserve a bid.
4. Miami: The Hurricanes are the last team in the field right now, so every win they get in the ACC tournament, no matter what team it's against, will be huge. They would be wise not to stumble against the winner of the Wake Forest/Virginia Tech game on Wednesday.
First four out
1. BYU: It's simple: Beat Gonzaga in the WCC final tonight and the Cougars are in with the auto bid. If they lose, they're out.
2. Illinois: The Illini stumbled down the stretch, most recently blowing a big first-half lead in a loss to Purdue last Saturday, and likely have to do some damage in the Big Ten tournament to earn a berth. That almost certainly means upsetting Wisconsin in a potential quarterfinal matchup.
Next four out:
3. Old Dominion: The Monarchs are still hanging around the fringes of the at-large picture, but they can't really build their resume in the C-USA tournament, which doesn't offer enough chances for quality wins. They'll have to earn the auto bid at this point.
4. Stanford: The only way the Cardinal has any chance of even being in consideration for an invite is by beating Utah and Oregon to reach the conference title game.
IN THE MIX
Temple (22-9, RPI: 31, SOS: 68): The Owls remain one of our last four teams in the field of 68, but a mini-run in the AAC tourney could make them a whole lot more comfortable on Selection Sunday. They’ll meet Memphis in their first game on Friday, and a win there would set up a likely meeting with SMU. If they can knock off the Mustangs, they’d be looking good. A loss in the AAC semis would have Temple sweating, and a loss to the Tigers would have Fran Dunphy's team headed to the NIT.
Cincinnati (22-9, RPI: 34, SOS: 62): The Bearcats finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak, punctuated by a road win over Tulsa last week. With six top-50 wins, three of which came on the road, they should be able to survive a bad loss in the conference tournament. If they win their first game, though, which will be on Friday against the winner of Connecticut and South Florida, they’ll move into the lock category.
Tulsa (21-9, RPI: 47, SOS: 90): An at-large berth was there for the taking for the Golden Hurricane last week, and they failed to take advantage. After losing to Cincinnati and SMU, they fell to 2-6 against potential at-large teams. If Temple fails to make the Big Dance—a realistic possibility—Tulsa would be 0-6 against tournament teams. At the very least, Tulsa needs to make it to the conference championship game—it opens against the winner of Houston and Tulane on Friday—and would probably need some help from fellow teams on the bubble to get an invite.
IN THE MIX
Davidson (23-6, RPI: 32, SOS: 108): An active nine-game winning streak gave the Wildcats the outright A-10 regular season title and top seed in the conference tournament. Realistically, that should be enough to guarantee the first at-large bid in the program’s history. They’d be wise to win at least one game in the conference tournament, but they should hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Dayton (23-7, RPI: 33, SOS: 113): Despite 23 wins and a strong RPI, Dayton can’t afford to slip up in the A-10 tournament. The Flyers have just two top-50 wins on the year and are 7-6 against the top 100. They’ll be in the Dance so long as they can stay away from a bad loss, but if they drop their first game, on Friday against the winner of St. Bonaventure and Saint Joseph’s, they could be in trouble on Sunday.
Richmond (19-12, RPI: 59, SOS: 53): The Spiders built a decent at-large case during the second half of the A-10 schedule, sweeping VCU and splitting with Davidson. We have them as one of the Next Four Out of the field, so they’ll likely have to impress in the conference tourney, and perhaps get some help in other pockets of the country. The good news for Richmond is that its path to the championship game would likely feature games with VCU and Davidson. If the Spiders beat both of those teams again, they would have a very interesting case for the Selection Committee.
Rhode Island (21-8, RPI: 72, SOS: 124): The Rams likely don’t have much of an at-large case. They don’t have a top-50 win, are just 5-5 against the top 100 and lost twice to teams outside the top 120 in RPI. Even if they lost in the A-10 championship game, they’d almost certainly have just one win against a potential at-large team. If Rhode Island goes dancing, it’ll be because it won the A-10 tournament.
IN THE MIX
Miami (20-11, RPI: 62, SOS: 69): It has been an up-and-down season for the Hurricanes, but we currently have them as one of the Last Four Teams In the dance. That win at Duke will always shine for them, but their victory over N.C. State looks better and better with each passing week. They moved in front of Pittsburgh after taking care of the Panthers on the road last week, and also boast wins over Illinois and Syracuse. Still, one more good win could lock them into a berth. Miami's first conference tourney game is Wednesday against the winner of Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. That game is a must-win. If the Canes move on, they’ll meet Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. A win there would likely remove all doubt surrounding their NCAA tournament fate.
Pittsburgh (19-13, RPI: 68, SOS: 36): The Panthers are now a significant underdog to earn an at-large berth after losing consecutive games to Wake Forest, Miami and Florida State to end the season, but there is still a glimmer of hope. They’ll meet N.C. State in their first ACC tourney game on Wednesday. If they win that and then upset Duke in the next round, they’d at least garner significant discussion. Anything short of that and they won’t even be brought up by the committee.
IN THE MIX
Texas (19-12, RPI: 43, SOS: 14): The first order of business for Texas is to beat Texas Tech on Wednesday. A loss there would likely push the Longhorns into the NIT. If they win that game, but then lose to Iowa State in the quarterfinals, they’re going to be the most interesting team for the Selection Committee to consider. Texas does have a ton of losses, but all but one was against an at-large quality team, and that came in overtime versus Stanford back in December. Texas also beat West Virginia, Baylor and Iowa and played one of the toughest schedules in the country. In our eyes, a win over the Red Raiders sends the Longhorns to the Dance.[
Oklahoma State (18-12, RPI: 45, SOS: 13): The Cowboys had a dreadful finish to the season, losing five of their last six games. It would be one thing if all the losses come against the Big 12 powerhouses, but they fell to both TCU and Texas Tech. While it’s nearly impossible to look at this team and say it isn’t one of the 36 best at-large teams without doing some mental gymnastics, Oklahoma State could be in trouble if it loses to Oklahoma on Thursday. The bet here is that the Cowboys will survive that loss, but they probably don’t want to tempt fate.
IN THE MIX
Xavier (19-12, RPI: 37, SOS: 17): Like a lot of other teams, the Musketeers open Championship Week looking relatively safe. They have six top-50 wins, including a sweep of Georgetown, a road win over Cincinnati and individual victories against Butler and Providence. Even with four sub-100 losses on their resume, that should be good enough. Their first game in the Big East tournament is against Butler on Thursday, so Xavier can't even suffer a bad loss this week. Win or lose against the 22nd-ranked Bulldogs, the Musketeers should hear their name called on Sunday.
IN THE MIX
Purdue (20-11, RPI: 55, SOS: 65): If someone told you six weeks ago that the Boilermakers would be in a better spot than both Indiana and Illinois heading into the Big Ten tournament, you would have thought that person was crazy. That’s exactly where we are though, as Purdue appears to have done enough to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament. The Boilermakers are 4-5 against the top 50, including wins over Iowa, Ohio State and N.C. State. They also swept the Hoosiers, split with the Illini and won nine games against the top 100. Purdue earned a double bye in the conference tournament, setting up a likely quarterfinal game against Iowa. A win there would lock the Boilers in, but they should be dancing for the first time since 2012.
Indiana (19-12, RPI: 56, SOS: 29): Halfway through the Big Ten season, the Hoosiers appeared to be an obvious tournament team, as well as a challenger for Maryland as the conference’s second-best club. They lost eight of their final 12 games, however, and haven’t beaten an at-large team since the end of January. Still, we have them as one of the Last Four In, thanks to wins over SMU, Butler, Maryland and Ohio State. There has been a lot of debate about Indiana in the last few weeks, but a win over Northwestern on Thursday should secure an invite. But the Hoosiers simply can't afford to lose that game.
Illinois (19-12, RPI: 61, SOS: 60): When the Illini’s schedule stepped up in weight class over the final three weeks of the season, they just couldn’t hang. They went 2-4 in their last six games, losing to Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue, while beating Northwestern and Nebraska. They’re now one of our First Four Out, and the only way they can reverse that is by winning at least two games in the conference tournament. That would mean pulling off a huge upset over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals.
Locks: San Diego State
IN THE MIXFresno State
Boise State (24-7, RPI: 39, SOS: 114): The Broncos earned a share of the regular season MWC championship with San Diego State, and their sweep of the Aztecs granted them the top seed in the conference tournament. They have three top-50 wins, including a road upset of then-No. 24 San Diego State on Feb, 28. In all likelihood, they’re going to be in the field when it is announced on Sunday. Wyoming looms as a dangerous challenge in the semifinals (the Cowboys beat the Broncos in their only meeting this season), but Boise State has the look of a tournament team.
IN THE MIX
Oregon (23-8, RPI: 29, SOS: 64): After a Valentine’s Day loss to UCLA, Oregon’s season was on life support. But the Ducks went on to win their last five games, setting themselves up to make the NCAAs almost regardless of what they do in the conference tourney. Their Feb. 22 win over then-No. 9 Utah put themselves back in the discussion, and they closed the regular season with three straight road wins, including a victory at Stanford on March 1. All the Ducks have to do is win their first game in the Pac-12 tourney, against the winner of Oregon State and Colorado, and they’ll be in the field of 68.
UCLA (19-12, RPI: 53, SOS: 35): The Bruins and Ducks actually have pretty similar resumes. The major difference is Oregon has eight top-100 wins to UCLA’s four, and those are the types of wins that matter when you’re firmly on the bubble. The Bruins may have put themselves in a position where they’ll have to upset Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinals to earn an at-large bid. We currently have them as one of the First Four Out of the field and wouldn’t move them in unless they beat the Wildcats, or a whole slew of bubble teams suffer bad losses in their respective conference tournaments.
Stanford (18-12, RPI: 57, SOS: 50): How the seemingly mighty have fallen. Stanford was widely seen as the third-best team in the Pac-12, but that all changed during a three-week stretch in which it lost to Washington State, UCLA and Colorado at midseason. Losing at home to Oregon and at Arizona State preceding a blowout loss against Arizona to close the regular season certainly didn’t help the Cardinal's case, either. Stanford heads into the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 6 seed and needs to make a run to the conference championship game, beating Utah and Oregon along the way, just to get on the committee’s radar. Don’t expect that to happen.
IN THE MIX
Georgia (20-10, RPI: 40, SOS: 39): After finishing third in the SEC, the Bulldogs really should be safe, but their resume isn't unassailable, and a bad loss could have them sweating on Selection Sunday. They have just two top-50 wins, and both of those were against Mississippi. They’re 9-8 against the top 100, and have two sub-100 losses. They don’t play in the conference tournament until Friday and are likely to get a third meeting with the Rebels in that game. One win locks them into an at-large bid, but they may already be safe enough that they could survive a loss. They do not want to find out the answer to that question, however.
LSU (22-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 78): The Tigers may have a worse RPI than—as well as two losses two—Texas A&M, but their resume remains superior. LSU owns five top-50 wins, including road victories over West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi. What’s more, it has an impressive 12-5 record against the top 100. With all that in their favor, the Tigers should be safe heading into the conference tournament, where they have a double-bye. Not so safe that they wouldn’t be nervous if they lose their first game of the tourney—that will come against the winner of the Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State or Auburn game—but it would take a lot to knock them out of the field at this point.
Mississippi (20-11, RPI: 51, SOS: 46): The Rebels are the rare team that did all of its important damage away from home. They beat both Arkansas and Oregon on the road and knocked off Cincinnati on a neutral court. With that on their resume, why are they just one of our Last Four In the dance? Well, they haven’t defeated an at-large quality team since that win against Arkansas in mid-January. They also lost at home to Vanderbilt, TCU, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern, giving them as many sub-100 losses as top-50 wins. Their first game of the SEC tournament will be against the winner of South Carolina and Missouri. If they lose there, they'll be nervous on Selection Sunday.
Texas A&M (20-10, RPI: 54, SOS: 77): The Aggies keep on gaining and losing a pair of top-50 wins, depending on the movements of LSU in the rankings. Whether or not those are top-50 wins at the end of this week won’t really matter, however. If those are still A&M's only wins against potential at-large teams, it won’t get an invite to the tournament. The Aggies have done well to avoid any sub-100 losses this year, but they still need to prove they can beat someone better than them to get into the dance. They absolutely have to beat the winner of Mississippi State and Auburn on Thursday. A win there would set up another game against LSU, which would be another must-win for the Aggies. If they make it to the SEC semis, we'll have a better sense of their tournament worthiness.
IN THE MIX
BYU (West Coast, 24-8, RPI: 41, SOS: 83): The Cougars head into their WCC championship matchup with Gonzaga firmly on the bubble. The real question here is, Can the Cougars lose this game and still get an at-large bid? It’s awfully hard to find a reason to say yes, other than the fact that BYU is an incredibly fun team to watch. The bottom line is that regular season win at Gonzaga is their only top-50 victory, and just one of four they had all year against the top 100. Meanwhile, they lost to San Diego and were swept by Pepperdine. It continues to feel like they need to win the conference tournament to get a spot in the field of 68.