The NCAA just released its official RPI rankings this week. On the one hand, that's exciting because it means the NCAA tournament is on the horizon. On the other hand, looking at RPI ratings in January is like watching the first returns roll in on election night. You might get an indicator as to where things stand, but the information is way too early to be considered conclusive.
There is one area, however, where almost all of the precincts have reported, and that's the nonconference strength of schedule rankings. And that is a very, very important category. The men's basketball committee has stressed this number for more than a decade now. If a team is on the bubble, its NCSOS rank can literally make or break its at-large chances.
Thus, as a service to my fellow Hoop Thinkers, I have made electoral projections on 10 possible bubble teams that helped their at-large prospects during nonconference play, and 10 who hurt their prospects. These rankings will change a little bit between now and selection weekend, but not much. Herewith:
Ten Teams That Helped Themselves
Miami (NCSOS rank: 3). The Hurricanes have had the best of all worlds. They got to play No. 19 Michigan State at home -- and won. They lost to No. 4 Arizona on a neutral court, and their other two losses (vs. Indiana State neutral and at Florida Gulf Coast) aren't as bad RPI-wise as most fans might assume. (The teams are ranked 24th and 94th, respectively.) The smartest thing Jim Larranaga did was schedule just three teams ranked 200 in the RPI or below, and none below 300. And in a weird way, it will help this team that it is currently without its starting center, Reggie Johnson. It gives the Canes a free pass if they lose games without him.
Colorado (9). How silly of me to suggest that the Buffaloes could be on the bubble, right? Well, last I checked, they still play in the Pac-12, and their conference season did not get off to a great start with road losses at Arizona and Arizona State. The Buffaloes also lost at Wyoming on Dec. 1, so they have a vested interest in seeing the Cowboys get back to their winning ways. I'm a big believer in head-to-head results against other potential bubble teams, so Colorado's neutral court wins over Baylor, Murray State and Dayton should give the team some breathing room.
BYU (35). The Cougars are in the West Coast Conference for the first time, and we know that Gonzaga is going to get an at-large if it doesn't win the league tournament. So if BYU is on the bubble heading into selection weekend, its NCSOS rank is going to be a sight for sore eyes. Then again, while BYU played four teams in the top 75, it lost to all of them. So they better rack up wins in the conference.
Oklahoma (34). The Sooners went 9-3 in the nonconference, and they beat West Virginia on the road in their Big 12 opener. I expect them to be riding the bubble the next couple of months. I like that Oklahoma only played two teams ranked 200 or below, but I don't like that they lost at home to Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks may be 69th in the RPI, but that is still a bad loss.
Temple (48). Fran Dunphy inherited his philosophy from John Chaney, who was notorious for playing the most rigorous schedule every year. In some ways, the Owls' road win at No. 79 Villanova was just as significant as its win over No. 13 Syracuse on a neutral court. If Villanova is also on the bubble, that head-to-head result could make a difference.
Florida State (54). It's a good thing the Seminoles' rank is this high, because they are going to need all the help they can get. They have three losses to teams ranked 150 or below (including two at home to South Alabama and Mercer), and their win over No. 61 Saint Joseph's in Brooklyn doesn't look quite as good now as it did in November. Still, this is a young team that is bound to improve (as their comeback win at Maryland Wednesday night indicated). There are some decent wins to be had in the ACC if the 'Noles can take advantage.
Stanford (69). If the Cardinal are on the bubble and don't make the cut, it will hard for them not to think about their three-point loss to No. 7 Minnesota in the Bahamas. That was the game that was decided when Stanford guard Chasson Randle fouled Andre Hollins on an attempted halfcourt shot at the buzzer, which sent Hollins to the line to convert the game-deciding three throws.
VCU (77). It may sound silly to suggest that the Rams could find themselves on the bubble, but keep in mind that their best RPI win to date was at home against No. 28 Belmont. The Rams' second-best win was over No. 70 Memphis, whose RPI rank is bound to sink as it goes through Conference USA. Still, all three of the Rams' losses came against teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI, so unless they really stumble in the Atlantic 10, they should be safe. If they fall, their NCSOS rank should provide a safe landing.
North Carolina (95). The Heels played three teams ranked in the Top 25 (they beat UNLV and lost to Butler and Indiana), and they lost badly at No. 121 Texas. They also played five teams ranked 200 or below. So they're going to need to bank more house money than their NCSOS rank suggests. Their opening loss at fellow bubble boy Virginia was not a good beginning.
Tennessee (104). You might think Tennessee is a terrible team, but keep two things in mind. First, somehow or another, 34 teams have to be awarded at-large bids. And second, the SEC is pretty terrible, too. Also remember that Tennessee is the only team that has beaten Wichita State. (The Shockers were not at full strength for that game, but that hasn't seemed to slow them down against everyone else.) Aside from that, the Vols have played four potential bubble teams, winning two (Xavier home, UMass neutral) and losing two (Memphis home, at Virginia). So their NCSOS rank is a net positive, though not by a huge margin.
Ten Teams That Hurt Themselves
Virginia (329). Seven of the Cavaliers' opponents are ranked below 200. That includes No. 307 Old Dominion, which beat Virginia at home, one of two wins the Monarchs have had all season. Virginia did not have its starting point guard, Jontel Evans, for that game, and when he came back to play against North Carolina on Sunday, the Cavs won. Still, this is a really, really bad number that will have to be overcome by a strong conference record.
Maryland (319). Like every coach, Mark Turgeon had to make a decision with his schedule. Did he want to load up on easy games to give his young team some early confidence? Or did he risk challenging them with games that would improve their RPI profile but could derail the season? He chose the former, which means the Terps have much work to do over the next couple of months. I'm also guessing that when Turgeon agreed to open the season against Kentucky, he was assuming that the Wildcats would be ranked higher than No. 62 in the RPI.
Wyoming (287). The Cowboys played two non-Division I opponents, and they only played two teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. But give them credit for winning them both -- at home over No. 8 Colorado, and on the road over No. 95 Illinois State. Though this is a suspect ranking, Wyoming is one of six teams in the Mountain West who are ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. If you can't build an at-large profile in a league like that, you don't deserve to go to the tournament.
Iowa (271). When the Hawkeyes fell at Virginia Tech on Nov. 27, it looked like it would hold up as a good loss. The Hokies, however, have lost six of their last eight to plummet to No. 113 in the RPI. Aside from that, Fran McCaffery also scheduled six games against teams ranked No. 230 or below. Iowa also started off 0-2 in the Big Ten and the schedule doesn't get any easier from here.
Ole Miss (248). Both teams the Rebels have lost to this season are ranked in the top 40 of the RPI. So while this rank certainly won't help them if they're on the bubble, it won't hurt as much as if they had lost to one of the seven teams they played ranked 200 or below. For all the kvetching about the SEC, it still has nine teams ranked in the top 85. Ole Miss had better make those games count.
Pittsburgh (257). Count me among the head-scratchers who've wondered why Jamie Dixon didn't give his players a tougher test. The Panthers played exactly one team ranked in the top 90 -- Michigan, which beat them by five points in Madison Square Garden. Pitt did play some quality midmajors in Lehigh and Detroit (home) as well as Duquesne (neutral), but the fact that it did not play any road nonconference games is a potentially bubble-bursting liability. Yet, somehow Pitt found time to play Bethune-Cookman (which checks in at No. 270), Howard (284) and Kennesaw State (330).
Seton Hall (260). Since all but two Big East teams are ranked in the top 100, Kevin Willard decided it was better to take his chances inside the league than potentially damage his team outside it. The Pirates played just one road game -- and lost at No. 73 LSU. They also lost at home to No. 92 Stony Brook. They will need to at least finish in the top eight of the conference to feel good about their at-large chances.
Oregon (256). If you're going to schedule teams like Portland State (No. 325), Houston Baptist (328) and Idaho State (346), you better take care of business when you get a shot at a top-100 team. So give the Ducks credit for knocking off No. 26 UNLV -- in Vegas, no less -- as well as No. 59 Nebraska in Eugene. Their losses to Cincinnati (neutral) and UTEP (road) shouldn't hurt them too badly. I'm not sure how deep the Pac 12 is going to go, but if the Ducks finish in the top three, that win over UNLV should put them into the field.
Wisconsin (230). An NCAA tournament without the Badgers? Say it ain't so, Bo. The Big Ten will probably hurt Wisconsin more than its nonconference schedule. This is a classic case illustrating why playing lower-ranked teams can hurt you more than playing highly-ranked teams can help. The Badgers played five teams ranked in the top 100 (they beat Arkansas and California, lost to Florida, Creighton and Marquette), but they played four teams ranked below 300. They also lost at home to No. 127 Virginia.
Arizona State (213). The Sun Devils' best nonconference wins came over Arkansas on a neutral court and Cal State Northridge at home. Since neither one of those teams is likely to make the NCAA tournament, and since ASU also lost at home to No. 160 DePaul, it will have its work cut out in the Pac-12. That task got off to a good start with home wins over Colorado and Utah, but the journey from here to the bracket is paved with road wins. Get to it, boys.
Other Hoop Thoughts
? Michigan sophomore center Jon Horford did not play against Nebraska Wednesday night, but based on my conversation with John Beilein last week, I would expect him to be in action against Ohio State on Sunday. Funny how these guys seem to heal just in time for the big games.
? Rick Pitino keeps saying defense is Louisville's weakness. The Cards are ranked first in the country in defensive efficiency, they're second in steal percentage, and they have one of the best shot blockers in the country in Gorgui Dieng. But what do I know.
? I'm surprised 6-foot-8 freshman forward Perry Ellis isn't getting more run for Kansas. This is a good team but it's getting very little pop from the bench.
? Ditto for Syracuse, by the way. If you consider James Southerland a starter (which I do), then the Orange's top five played all but nine minutes in their win at Providence Wednesday night. And when your two-guard (Brandon Triche) shoots 32 percent from three-point range, it's a problem.
? I've just never liked that baseline setup at Vanderbilt.
? I watched Minnesota up-close-and-personal for three straight days in the Bahamas. The two reasons they're better now are: a) Trevor Mbakwe has regained most of his explosiveness following knee surgery, and b) the Gophers are clicking much better in their halfcourt offense. They have both playmakers and shot makers, and not a lot of teams can say that.
? Florida's Kenny Boynton is making 34.1 percent from three. That includes his 8-for-10 performance from behind the arc in the win at Yale. He made 40.7 percent last year. Went 1-for-7 in the win at home over Georgia Wednesday night. Just making sure you knew.
? Another reason to like San Diego State: An Aztec has fouled out just once all season. And the team is on a pace to set a record for single-season field goal defensive percentage.
? Most overrated chant: "O-ver-rated!" You're just telling your team they didn't accomplish much by beating their opponent.
? You know who would be my national coach of the year right now? Gregg Marshall of Wichita State. The Shockers are still without three injured starters, yet they're 15-1 and got 39 points from Cleanthony Early in a comeback win at home over Southern Illinois Wednesday. I'm telling you: Watch. This. Team.
? It's pretty remarkable that a team like Illinois, which is chock full of guards who can make jump shots, is ranked 323rd in the country in assist-to-made field goals percentage, according to Kenpom.com. Not sure exactly what that tells us, but it ain't good.
? Slump alert: Kentucky guard Julius Mays has shot 11-for-45 in his last five games.
? Given Ohio State's offensive woes, I'm surprised freshman guard Amedeo Della Valle isn't getting more minutes. So what if he can't guard a lamp post?
?I love it when coaches come out of a time out playing a totally different defense than the one they were playing beforehand. Great chess move.
? I also love the tradition of playing a road game in the hometown of one of the seniors. Yet another reason why college hoops is better than the NBA.
? Is it possible for a team to lose at home to Columbia by 18 points and still make the NCAA tournament? Villanova has won seven in a row with a couple of pretty good Big East wins against St. John's and at South Florida, so we can't totally rule it out. I'd be shocked if they can win Saturday at Syracuse, though.
? Hard to believe Bob McKillop has been head coach of Davidson for 23 years. He is a national treasure.
? We like to think of Notre Dame as a slowdown team that runs a "burn" offense, but heading into the Cincinnati game the Irish had topped the 80-point mark in six of their previous eight games, It would take Georgetown all season to score that many points.
? Speaking of which, new rule: If you can't score 50 points, you don't get full credit for a win, even if you have more points than your opponent. Half-credit, maybe.
? Something I never thought I'd see: Indiana's Jordan Hulls going 0-for-10 from the floor at Iowa. The very definition of an aberration.
? It may look like Pitt has been struggling at the offensive end, but the Panthers' main problems have been getting beaten on the boards and not getting to the foul line enough. They did better in both categories in the win at Georgetown. If they can get a little tougher, I still think this team can do some damage.
? Pretty impressive that Arizona State freshman point guard Jahii Carson didn't score a field goal against Colorado until there were five minutes remaining against Colorado, yet the Sun Devils still won. Being defended by the 6-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was a tough matchup, but I like that Carson didn't force things.
? I realize Tennessee isn't beating up the world these days, but that was still an impressive 18-point win on the road by Ole Miss on Wednesday. The Rebs' home game against Missouri on Saturday just got a lot more interesting.
? Virginia's loss at Wake Forest made North Carolina's loss at Virginia look a lot worse.
? West Virginia's win at Texas made Oklahoma's win at West Virginia look a lot better.
? How about Wyoming losing at home to a Boise State team that was without four suspended players, including leading scorer Derrick Marks. The Cowboys are really gonna miss their second-leading scorer Luke Martinez, who broke the ring finger on his shooting hand in a bar fight. Reminds me of the scene in Bull Durham where Kevin Costner tells Tim Robbins that if you're going to punch out a drunk, be sure to use your non-throwing hand.
? I like that Boone Pickens bought and gave away 4,000 tickets so Oklahoma State would have a full house for the Gonzaga game. But I don't like that he had to.
? There may be no more disappointing team in the country than Illinois State. The Redbirds were expected to challenge Creighton for the Missouri Valley Conference, but they lost their first four league games and just indefinitely suspended Tyler Brown, their second-leading scorer, for conduct detrimental to the team.
? I saw where Sean Miller complained publicly to the Pac-12 that no Arizona player had yet been named conference player of the week. Not only was Miller on the money with his gripe, but it was the first time it occurred to me to wonder how those awards were selected. Pac-12 spokesman Dave Hirsch said it was made by a group of people in the league office. I think the leagues would be better off using a panel of writers, broadcasters and coaches. Takes the politics out of it, and when a coach complains, you can always blame someone else. That's the whole key to life.
Dipping Into The Email Bag
Thank you for not ranking Maryland. As you've correctly been mentioning the past few weeks, we haven't done anything. Sure, we're on the second longest winning streak in school history, but really, all we have to show for it is a potentially decent away win at Northwestern. If we are sitting at 16-1 (4-0) with wins at Miami and vs N.C. State, I'd like to think that we would have earned some level of national respect. Until then, I am very happy to be a bit under the radar as I believe that Turgeon is pushing all the right buttons right now. He's positioned us for extended success and there's certainly a buzz about Comcast nowadays. --Eddie, Fairfax, Va.
A rare voice of reason from Terrapin Station!
Actually, I love the enthusiasm Maryland fans are showing, even if most of them are blowing up my Twitter feed with angry comments for not ranking them. (Though those same folks were strangely silent after the Terps blew a big lead and lost at home to Florida State Wednesday night.) Clearly, Eddie is right. Maryland did not deserve to be ranked even before the loss to the Seminoles. As I noted while discussing Maryland's schedule, the Terps have done nothing to this point but beat up on bad teams.
Maryland could still get on my ballot at some point, but I would caution Terps fans not to be overly concerned about that. What matters more is the phrase that Eddie used: "extended success." Yes, the Terps will lose Alex Len to the draft, but they still only have one senior among their top six scorers, and their freshman class has been terrific. Mark Turgeon has two really good recruiters on his staff in Dalonte Hill and Bino Ranson, and they've landed two top-100 players for next season. Maryland also got a commitment from a top-50 guard in the junior class named Romelo Trimble, and they've made good inroads on several other top players from that group. There's a difference between having a good team and a good program. Maryland may be a good team, but it looks to me like Turgeon is building the program for the long haul.
When will you and the rest of the national media give Trey Burke his due as to what he is -- hands down the best player in college basketball? Watching him dismantle Northwestern this week (in addition to everyone else he has faced) I couldn't help but notice the similarities to another 6 footer that wore No. 3 -- Chris Paul. Go compare TB3's numbers to Paul's two years at Wake and tell me Burke is not the second coming. Enough about Mason Plumlee and MCW, let's give the kid the hardware. What do you say?--Jeremy, Washington, DC
What do I say? I say let's line 'em up. Here is how TB3's and CP3's career college numbers compare:
Chris Paul 33.4 mpg, 15.0 ppg, 47.1fg, 46.9 3fg, 83.8 ft, 6.3 apg, 3.9 rpg, 2.5 spg
Trey Burke 35.2 mpg, 15.9 ppg, 46.9 fg, 36.4 3fg, 75.0 ft, 5.5 apg, 3.3 rpg, 1.0 spg
As you can see, the scoring and assist numbers are close, but there's a big difference in long-range shooting and steals numbers. I think Burke can play in the NBA, but given that Paul is the best point guard in the league right now, I'd say this comparison is a little lofty.
I listed Burke as a first-team All-American in the preseason, and I still believe he's the best point guard in the country. I also acknowledge that he is moving up the short list of National Player of the Year candidates (though right now I would give the nod to Creighton forward Doug McDermott). However (you knew there was a however), there is still a long way to go. We will really find out how good Burke and the Wolverines are when they hit the road. As well as this team has been playing, it's easy to forget how young it is. Seven of the top nine players are freshmen and sophomores, and none is a senior. And the Wolverines are about to go through a brutal stretch in their next six games, with road dates at Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. I'm sure there are losses in there somewhere. So check back with me in late February, and we'll see where Burke stands in the POY race. I'd be surprised if he still wasn't in the hunt, but I've been surprised before.
Arizona at Oregon, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
The Wildcats needed a controversial replay decision to beat Colorado in overtime, and their win over a mediocre Utah team came down to the final possession. Both of those games were in Tucson, as was their one-point win over Florida. The Wildcats also beat San Diego State by a point on a neutral court. Now they have to play on the road against a good team. They're not due, they're overdue. Oregon 78, Arizona 73
Saint Mary's at Gonzaga, Thursday, 11 p.m.
Saint Mary's is ranked 336th in the country in three-point defense. Gonzaga has Kevin Pangos. Nuff said. Gonzaga 80, Saint Mary's 65
Duke at North Carolina State, Saturday, Noon
Unless you think Duke is going to go undefeated in the ACC, you have to pick the Wolfpack to win. The Blue Devils will also be without senior forward Ryan Kelly, who has an injured foot. Kelly missed three games at the end of last season, and the Blue Devils lost two of them. N.C. State 74, Duke 64
Minnesota at Indiana, Saturday, Noon
I honestly still don't know what to make of Indiana. The Hoosiers have been beating up on bad teams since they lost to Butler, and freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell has been putting up some lousy numbers. But this is a statement kind of game, and I think they'll make it. Indiana 70, Minnesota 68
Florida at LSU, Saturday, 4 p.m.
The good news for Florida is that senior forward Erik Murphy will be available despite a bruised rib. LSU may be 9-2, but its best win came at home over Seton Hall. Florida 76, LSU 64
Illinois at Wisconsin, Saturday, 2 p.m.
The Illini like to get out and go. The Badgers like to slow down and slug. It's easier to control the pace when you're at home, especially when you lead the nation in fewest turnovers per game. Wisconsin 50, Illinois 45
Georgetown at St. John's, Saturday, 11 a.m.
Given how godawful Georgetown has been on offense recently, I wouldn't be surprised if D'Angelo Harrison outscores the Hoyas by himself. St. John's 61, Georgetown 55
UCLA at Colorado, Saturday, 2 p.m.
It's bad enough the Buffaloes couldn't close out Arizona last Thursday. Losing two days later at Arizona State really put them in a bind. That makes this one a must-win, and you all know how much I love desperate home teams. Colorado 82, UCLA 74
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Saturday, 3 p.m.
The Sooners are another one of those teams that have amassed a good record against mediocre teams. This is a good matchup between speedy, perimeter-oriented teams, but the Sooners are at home. If they want to be considered legit, they need to win this game. Oklahoma 78, Oklahoma State 75
Michigan at Ohio State, Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
This prediction may surprise you given how much I've been dogging the Buckeyes this season, but I think Michigan is due to be clipped. As I indicated above, the Wolverines are very young, and they've been riding high for too long. When you hit the road against a bitter rival, that's when you get laid low. Ohio State 69, Michigan 68
Last week: 9-1 Season Record: 54-26