The addition of three more at-large spots this year, combined with the absence of bid thieves, has conspired to keep the bubble exceptionally soft, which means a lot of teams with modest profiles getting in. The ordering of that final batch of bubble teams, though, has been extraordinarily difficult.
Every school has significant weaknesses, but each seems to be weak in a different way from the team's closest to them in the pecking order. I've spent many hours the last two days trying to make rhyme or reason of what the selection committee will deliver Sunday night. Here's the best guess:
Penn State (19-13, 9-9 Big Ten; RPI: 39, SOS: 6) 6-8 road/neutral, 5-9 Top 50, 10-12 Top 100
Biggest strengths: Five legitimate wins, including two neutral-site victories in the Big Ten tournament; solid RPI and excellent SOS; only one (bad) loss outside the top 100.
Biggest weaknesses: Only three true road wins all season, and none against a tournament team; mediocre overall record, although mitigated by schedule strength.
The skinny: Maybe more than any team in the nation, Penn State has seized the opportunity during tournament week, doubling its numbers of road/neutral victories and adding quality wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State to bolster its profile. Historically, any major conference team with an RPI under 40 is good to go. It's hard to see the committee passing on a hot team that played a good schedule.
Colorado (20-13, 8-8 Big 12; RPI: 65, SOS: 49) 6-11 road/neutral, 5-7 Top 50, 8-10 Top 100
Biggest strengths: Five legitimate quality wins, including two away from Boulder; no truly bad losses, although three outside top 100.
Biggest weaknesses: Very questionable RPI and road/neutral record, wretched nonconference SOS (326), struggled in road games against quality opponents.
The skinny: The Buffs badly needed to show the committee they could win closer to sea level, and did just that by beating Kansas State for a third time this season in the Big 12 tourney. In a year where teams with zero or one top-50 wins are being strongly considered, it's hard to overlook five legitimate ones, despite the obvious weaknesses in other areas. If the Buffs end up in Dayton as part of the First Four, it wouldn't be a shock, but they should make it into the field of 68.
USC (19-14, 10-8, RPI: 69, SOS: 39) 7-10 road/neutral; 5-5 top 50, 8-8 top 100
Biggest strengths: Five high-quality wins, including at Washington and Tennessee. Three of the Trojans' six bad losses came before point guard Jio Fontan became eligible (as did their win over Texas).
Biggest weaknesses: Six 100+ losses, including three 200+ ones, although two of those were pre-Fontan. Then again, they only went 13-10 with him on the roster and finished tied for fourth in the Pac-10. Very weak RPI for an at-large. Would be well beyond the worst ever selected since the NCAA's RPI formula change.
The skinny: Would you rather take a team that has no good wins, but few bad losses? Or roll the dice on a team that has shown repeatedly that it can beat NCAA-caliber teams, even on the road? In a year where the bubble is so soft, it's hard not to look at the Trojans' upside and think they have a better claim than others around them.
Clemson (21-11, 9-7 ACC; RPI: 56, SOS: 58) 6-9 road/neutral, 0-6 Top 50, 9-8 top 100
Biggest strengths: A fourth-place finish (on tiebreaker) in the ACC and making the ACC semifinals by crushing bubble contender Boston College.
Biggest weaknesses: No top-50 wins and a questionable RPI.
The skinny: Subjectively, the Tigers look the part and have been in practically every game this season. They were very competitive against the best teams on their schedule, as displayed again in the tough overtime loss to North Carolina on Saturday. Will that be enough to at least get a spot in Dayton, or will the Tigers rue letting several big chances (including Saturday) get away?
Georgia (21-11, 9-7 SEC, RPI: 48, SOS: 40) 9-7 road/neutral, 3-9 top 50, 5-11 top 100
Biggest strengths: A couple of high-quality wins; no bad losses, all but two inside RPI top 35; beat bubble contenders Colorado and UAB; good road/neutral mark.
Biggest weaknesses: Very weak top 100 record, even with the staunch caliber of opponent. Six of last seven wins were against the four worst teams in the league: Auburn, LSU, South Carolina or Arkansas.
The skinny: The Bulldogs were positioned decently before the SEC tournament, so despite a second loss in a week to Alabama, they hold on for a bid and Alabama barely misses. At the end of the day, Georgia's competitiveness against a much more difficult schedule made up for the Tide's head-to-head advantage. Profiles are built on 32 games, not two.
Virginia Tech (21-11, 9-7, RPI: 61, SOS: 75) 10-8 road/neutral, 2-5 top 50, 8-8 top 100
Biggest strengths: Huge marquee win over Duke, 10 road/neutral wins, won a quarterfinal against FSU (by a millisecond) the Hokies knew they needed, which is a plus.
Biggest weaknesses: Three suspect losses. Only two top-50 wins, with the second being over suddenly surging Penn State (mediocre win turned good). Very weak average RPI win for a major-conference team, with their 9-7 conference mark lagging behind Clemson's in quality. Lost head-to-head to Clemson (and twice to BC).
The skinny: Where else could Seth Greenberg's team be than smack on the cutline? In fact, VT may be the team that gets dumped to the NIT if Dayton beats Richmond to steal the Atlantic 10's auto bid. They had two chances in the final week of the season to solidify their standing, but couldn't get either, and now need to hope the one big win and making the ACC semis is enough.
Alabama (21-11, 12-4 SEC, RPI: 80, SOS: 114) 5-11 road/neutral, 4-4 top 50, 5-7 top 100
Biggest strengths: Posted a 12-4 mark in the SEC, including a 4-2 mark against the tougher East. Beat fellow bubbler Georgia twice in the last week.
Biggest weaknesses: Terrible RPI for an at-large, fueled by a truly bad nonconference season (8-6, RPI 236); four 100+ losses, bad road/neutral mark.
The skinny: The bottom line is there's no precedent for the committee to reward a team with an RPI like this that plays a terrible nonleague schedule this poorly. If you're looking for a "crazy profile" with wins and losses all over the map, USC's is superior. The Tide had a couple chances late to consolidate their resume and missed on them. I know they beat Georgia twice, but the Bulldogs were well ahead of them in the s-curve before those games, so Bama merely closed the gap, not eliminate it.
UAB (22-8, 12-4 C-USA; RPI: 31; SOS: 77) 9-6 road/neutral, 1-4 top 50, 10-7 top 100
Biggest strengths: Won a top-10 league (on harder "side" of the league with the unbalanced schedule mirroring football), solid road/neutral mark, very solid RPI.
Biggest weaknesses: Only one top 50 win (over fellow bubbler VCU), lost in first C-USA tournament game to East Carolina, a team they had beaten twice already.
The skinny: This will be an interesting test of the debate I had with C-USA's Chris Woolard in Indy while attending the mock selection meeting. UAB compiled a very nice RPI and won the league, while pretty much beating nobody of true substance. The Blazers were swept by Memphis, got crushed at Duke, lost at fellow bubbler Georgia, ate a bad loss at Arizona State and then bombed out against East Carolina in the C-USA quarters. It's worth noting that SMU AD Steve Orsini is on the selection committee. Since UAB's case is pretty much resting on its league crown, having someone there who can even informally vouch for the league's quality can't hurt.
VCU (23-11, 12-6 CAA, RPI: 49, SOS: 86) 12-8 road/neutral, 3-6 top 50, 8-8 top 100
Biggest strengths: A handful of very credible wins; the Rams' five best RPI wins came away from home, which is very impressive; looked like an NCAA team in the CAA final, which is never a bad impression to give.
Biggest weaknesses: Tied-for-third (and was the 4-seed) in a league that's never gotten three bids. Lost last four league games with a chance to really stake a claim. Three bad losses, also lost at bubbler UAB.
The skinny: I feel like we've seen this type of profile before in this league (Hofstra '06 and W&M '10 come to mind), and it has not ended well. Losing five of eight down the stretch could prove to be the killer. Mid-majors can't give the committee reasons to exclude them, and VCU did down the stretch.
Saint Mary's (23-8, 11-3 WCC; RPI: 46, SOS: 102) 10-6 road/neutral, 1-4 top 50, 3-6 top 100
Biggest strengths: Shared the WCC title, good road/neutral mark, have a quality win over St. John's.
Biggest weaknesses: Not enough good wins. Only two inside the RPI top 90, and the second one besides the Red Storm came in the first of three meetings with Gonzaga. Average RPI win and opponent is very weak for an at-large hopeful.
The skinny: I have been way more bearish on the Gaels than most, but I don't see what's in their profile that makes them a legitimate at-large. The win over St. John's was in the season opener, before the Red Storm figured things out. Even more, the Gaels had four straight chances down the stretch to firm things up: Losing at San Diego opened the door for Gonzaga, blowing a big lead at home to Utah State in BracketBusters, then losing at home to the Zags with the WCC solo crown at stake ... and then falling to the Zags for the auto bid in Vegas. Even in a weak year like this, that's way too many missed chances with not enough pluses to balance things out.