Bubble Watch: Big Ten, Big 12 could flex muscles come March
Bubble Watch is back! And while it's awfully early to make concrete judgments about many individual teams, there are some definitive trends from nonconference play that will significantly shape the real bracket you see in March:
-- The Big Ten could be this season's Big East, with a rising tide that carries a lot of its teams. With nine of the league's 12 teams in the RPI top 100 and no true weak sisters at the bottom, any
-- Leagues like the Big East and SEC are already showing separation between the haves and have nots, creating a cap of sorts on the number of possible bids. The ACC has gone the other way, with no one clearly emerging from a soft middle to join Duke and North Carolina.
-- The Pac-12 is making the last couple of seasons, when the league was down, look like vintage Big East campaigns. Check out the details below on why we could be looking at the first one-bid "major" conference in the 64/65/68-team era.
Those last two bullets are welcome news for leagues like the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley and West Coast, all of which have multiple legit candidates and that could usher in three-bid (or better) seasons.
A quick reminder on the standard rules of engagement:
-- RPI cutoffs for early Bubble Watches: Top 100 for BCS football conferences, top 75 for remaining conference breakouts, top 50 for smaller-conference standouts.
-- Records listed are Division I only, per NCAA tournament selection guidelines. All RPI and SOS data are from Monday's collegerpi.com RPI report. GW = good wins. BL = bad losses. (N) = neutral-site game.
-- Auto bids go to the best RPI of the conference leaders (based on fewest league losses).
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Nothing has happened to suggest the Blue Devils and Tar Heels aren't the clear class of the league, nor has any team clearly stepped up to fill in the No. 3 spot. Overall, the league's a bit overrated by the computers at this stage, going 73-11 against teams outside the top 100. That will help bubblers come March, even though the league is just 10-22 versus the RPI top 50 right now.
The Seminoles have been moderately disappointing as fears of a post-Chris Singleton, ineffective offense have been founded. The four losses are to Harvard and UConn in the Bahamas and at Michigan State and Florida. Best win? Ummm ... hmm ... UCF?
Mark Gottfried has things looking up in his first season in Raleigh. The Wolfpack beat Texas at the IZOD Center, which makes their resume more or less the equivalent of the entire Pac-12's. No bad losses, but picking off at least one of Vandy, IU or Stanford (also lost to Syracuse at home) would have helped.
The Hokies are 56th in RPI with no good wins? Cut and paste that anytime between December and March in any season and be close to correct. The three losses are Syracuse (N), at Minnesota and against K-State. No shame there, but the only top 100 wins are St. Bona and MEAC member Norfolk State.
Now that Reggie Johnson is back, we can start to properly evaluate the Hurricanes. They did nothing to help themselves without him, but at least they won the games they were supposed to.
Don't freak out Missouri fans. I just wanted to use this week as a platform to elaborate on the surging Tigers. The Big 12 looks like the second deepest league, top to bottom, this season and NCAA bid representation should be strong even if there's no nationally elite team in the league (although Baylor could become one). The league is an astounding 68-3 against teams outside the top 100, so everyone is holding up their RPI bargain, and the double-round robin hooks everyone up.
The Tigers would obviously make the NCAAs and be a solid seed with their current profile, but what's really going on? Mizzou has
The Longhorns beat Temple and the win at UCLA may gain a bit of juice by the end of the season. The 0-fer in the Legends Classic dampens things a bit. A split there and this would look considerably better, and they likely would have had at least that had J'Covan Brown not lost his head against NC State.
Lon Kruger missed out on #MikeMoserMania but he's enjoying a nice payday and doing a really good job early in his first season in Norman. There's no marquee win yet, but the Sooners have beaten some credible opponents. They'll need to be ready when Big 12 play opens. Their first nine games in the league include home-and-homes with KU and K-State and trips to Mizzou and A&M. Ouch.
Not much to say for Team Transfer yet. Iowa State had two chances to nick a solid win (UNI and at Michigan) and didn't get either, plus it lost at Drake. The team also has a rough start to league play, but needs some quality wins, so that's not a bad thing.
Much like Missouri, Seton Hall wouldn't miss with its current profile, but it's worth an examination to see exactly what's happening. The league has had some surprises -- both good and bad -- but should reap a solid haul of bids again, thanks, in part, to shortfalls in other major conferences.
The Pirates are 8th in RPI, before Big East play starts! How'd they do it? Beating the teams in the 70-125 range. The W over Saint Joseph's looks very solid now, too. The beginning of Beast play looks manageable, too -- after Wednesday's trip to Syracuse. Rutgers and DePaul are two of SHU's three repeat matchups, as well. Could be a good story for the next few weeks, at least.
The Hoyas are one of the upside surprises, with just a tight loss in Maui to Kansas as a blemish to go with a neutral-and-home sweep of Memphis and a good win at Alabama.
The early loss to Kent State wasn't a shock given quality of opponent and experience, and the win over Kansas State will keep giving all season. The Mountaineers have a very soft (by Beast standards) road slate in league play: Seton Hall, Rutgers, UConn, St. John's, Syracuse, Provy, Pitt and ND, so they could be a sleeper candidate to finish in the league's top quartile.
Pitt's proving the truth about the NCAA's RPI formula: It benefits those who
Mouphtaou Yarou has improved a lot, but this is not a good 'Nova team to this point. They take a lot of threes, but have no one who can shoot them. The neutral-court loss to Santa Clara is the only questionable defeat, but the team doesn't have a top-100 win yet, either, so five losses is a lot at this stage.
The BIG has a legitimate national title contender and a team that's No. 1 in Pomeroy's rankings -- and they're not the same team. Ohio State has looked tremendous all season when Jared Sullinger has played. He may be the most indispensable player in the nation (unless you want to argue for Kansas' Thomas Robinson). The Badgers (Pom's BFFs) lead a very deep cadre of clubs trying to stop the Buckeyes.
The Hoosiers have looked much better than I expected and have the trump card of the buzzer-beating win over Kentucky in their pocket. Getting a win at NC State is also credible. The rest of the sked has been very weak, but the strength of the Big Ten will more than mitigate that. We'll know very quickly what we have here. IU opens league play at Michigan State on Wednesday, then hosts Ohio State and Michigan.
ZOMG! The Spartans are 0-2!! #lameNovemberheadlines. The Spartans held their own against UNC (They're on a boat!) and Duke (at Cameron Square Garden) and settled in after that, picking off Florida State and winning at Gonzaga for some profile meat. The Spartans could keep rolling for awhile --three of their four games with Ohio State and Wisconsin come on or after Feb. 11.
Credit the Gophers for exceeding expectations so far, in large part thanks to a savvy scheduling job. They've feasted on solid-profile mid-majors like South Dakota State, Bucknell, Fairfield, Indiana State and North Dakota State (all top-80 in RPI at the moment). Seven of their first 11 in league play are on the road, so things could look a lot different in five weeks or so.
Going 2-1 in Maui against Memphis, Duke and UCLA sounded awesome, but the Tigers and (especially) the Bruins have been disappointments, although the UCLA grease fire probably needs a stronger adjective. They had a post-Maui hangover loss at Virginia and here we are. Five of UM's first seven league games are at home, and one of the two away games is at Iowa, so they need to make some hay early.
The Illini have struggled since knocking off Gonzaga for a good profile win. In the five games since, they have lost "neutral" site games to UNLV and Missouri and barely scraped past St. Bona and Cornell. Blossoming big man Meyers Leonard and Co. will have to do damage against the front end of the league slate. The back stretch is much more demanding.
The Wildcats could ride the Big Ten tide to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Their nonconference performance was typically meh -- they scheduled almost no one and lost at home to Baylor and at Creighton. The win over Seton Hall may become a surprise plus. Nonetheless, it's all in front of them. They only face Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana once each and the schedule is front- and backloaded with winnable home games. Get to 10-8 and they're likely going to dance.
The Boilermakers are a couple of huge blown leads from having a really good profile. Wins over Iona and Temple in Puerto Rico should hold up well. They only play Ohio State and Wisconsin once each, so their record at season's end may need a dose of adjustment against some of their peers.
There's no way to sugarcoat how poorly this season has gone. Overall, the league is 2-20 versus the RPI top 50 and just 12-38 against the top 100. What's the league's best win? Texas on a neutral floor? Denver? Colorado State? At New Mexico State? You get the point. And there will be no good Ws to get in league play, either. With only two teams in the RPI top 85 and no one in the top 50, the "WAC-12" is going to collapse on itself -- kind of like an actual black hole, but with much less density. A one-bid league is in play if the regular-season champ also wins the auto bid.
Are the Wildcats the league's best hope as they continue to adjust to life without Derrick Williams? Their four losses have all been competitive and to solid or better teams. They only have one top-100 win, though, and Duquesne's not the fanciest pelt on the wall.
They were thrashed by Mizzou (N) and at UNLV and lost a tough one at San Diego State. Beating Denver, UCSB and Weber State is better than most believe, but those aren't great anchors for an at-large profile.
The Ducks missed on a shot to cash in Ezeli-less Vandy and suffered a tepid home loss to Virginia, but the largest loss may be that of star recruit Jabari Brown, who bailed on the program after just two games. I liked the Ducks as a dark horse league champ, and that remains possible.
The Cardinal's schedule has been pretty soft, but the numbers would have looked substantially better if they had handled Butler at home. Wins over Colorado State, OK State and NC State are something.
A technical requirement due to RPI at this stage. Can't see the Buffs as a legit NCAA at-large contender, but maybe they'll prove everyone wrong.
I can't wait to see the two Wildcats-Gators games. The contrast in size and styles could be incredibly compelling. The league should get at least three more beyond those two. Vandy and Alabama likely are hurting their seeding, not selection, and Mississippi State looks very promising. Can anyone else sneak in, too?
The Tide have struggled to score for most of the season, but it's the defense that's been surprisingly porous during the recent run of three losses in five games. The three defeats are the only time this season that 'Bama has allowed opponents to break the 1.00 points per possession barrier. None of the losses are poor, but they've caused people to pump the breaks a bit on the Tide.
The nation thought "same ol' Bulldogs" when they lost at home to Akron in the second game of the season, but they haven't lost since, beating Arizona and West Virginia along the way. They have a huge shot "at" Baylor (in Dallas) Wednesday night. The SEC still plays an unbalanced schedule this season (even with one division), so the Bulldogs only play Kentucky at home (but play at Florida and Vandy).
That the Commodores are that solid in RPI even with three home losses shows how solid their schedule has been. That said, this team looks a lot more like what I projected in the preseason than most others' top-10 predictions. Festus Ezeli's return will not solve other limiting factors, but Vandy is clearly a better team with him available.
A bit of a computer profile monster despite losing their last two games (at Southern Miss and home to Middle Tennessee State), the Rebels' best win is over Miami (Fla.) in OT. They're also on the old "West" side of the league, so they get Florida and Vandy at home only, but travel to Rupp Arena.
The Tigers were just puttering along and then -- BLAM! -- home upset of Marquette. Make it six wins on the trot now and they're being discussed heading into league play. And this is with freshmen Johnny O'Bryant and Anthony Hickey struggling offensively. Iowa State transfer big man Justin Hamilton has really helped, though.
An RPI technicality at this point. The Bulldogs' only top-100 win is over South Dakota State (although they also beat Notre Dame and USC -- which would be a much more notable accomplishment in football.)
The league looks primed for multiple bids with Saint Joe's, Saint Louis and Dayton joining presumed heavyweights Xavier and Temple as early potential at-larges. The A-10 is deeper than it has been in awhile, so if teams can get some separation at the top, they should compile strong profiles.
The Hawks made the news last week as the Todd O'Brien case blew up, but should be making it for how well they're playing. A few possessions here and there and things could be even better, but the win over Creighton really adds heft to an early profile that has a couple of names that are having down years.
Speaking of making news for the wrong reason, the Musketeers have fallen off badly since the #zipemup brawl with Cincinnati. Losing at RPI 279 Hawaii after getting routed by Oral Roberts (while short-handed) and worked by Long Beach State is not very impressive. Expect a rebound -- this team looked too good early to let the whole season derail due to the fight fallout.
The Owls haven't looked the part of A-10 favorite yet. The win over Wichita State is solid, but it came in the middle of a 1-2 Puerto Rico Tipoff. Losing at Texas sounds OK, but it's a game a legit top 25 team can get this season. The league will test them on more nights than it did the last couple of seasons.
Brian Gregory is gone, but the Flyers remain all over the performance map. Win the Old Spice Classic and beat Alabama, lose at RPI 248 Miami (Ohio) and at home to Buffalo by 29. The Flyers have an interesting bubble game this week when they host Ole Miss. Another name nonconference pelt would be nice.
The names look better than the opponents' actual quality this season (as the SOS can attest), but the Billikens manhandled Washington and took down the 76 Classic by beating BC, Villanova and Oklahoma. Their New Year's Eve showdown at The Pit in Albuquerque should be a great contrast in styles.
The Rebels have been extremely impressive in Dave Rice's first season, taking down then No. 1 North Carolina and crushing Cal and Illinois (in Chicago). This may be the best-ever season in the MW, though, with six of the league's eight teams in the RPI top 100, and one of the two that isn't -- Boise State -- is much improved. Expect the Rebs to get pushed and another three-bid season to be very possible.
This was supposed to be the transition year for the Aztecs after last season's Sweet 16 run, but they have been very solid. Home wins over Cal, USC and Long Beach State, plus a road win at Arizona, auger well for the league season.
The schedule has been soft and early Ls to New Mexico State and vs. Santa Clara in the 76 Classic opener dampened what could have been. Still, the Lobos have ripped off eight in a row since and enter important games at New Mexico State and vs. Saint Louis with some confidence. Tony Snell is a difference-maker.
The Rams have played three of the current RPI top 5 (Duke, Southern Miss and Northern Iowa), all on the road, which explains the strong computer numbers. Not a great candidate at this stage on merit.
The Horned Frogs beat Virginia in the Virgin Islands, but then lost the next day to Norfolk State and blew a shot at Marquette. Beyond that, it's more computer profile than actuality at this stage.
The Bluejays are living up to preseason billing, albeit against a modest schedule, but they're not alone. The Valley has four legitimate at-large contenders at this stage and several other capable teams. After a few years of drop-off following the amazing 2006 four-bid haul, the Valley may finally be back.
The Panthers haven't played a sub-200 team yet, which helps explain the incredible computer numbers. The actual depth of their accomplishments doesn't match those, but this is still a very credible team with wins over decent teams like ODU, Providence and Milwaukee.
The Shockers have had three excellent opportunities for statement wins, and got the last of the three, sandblasting UNLV at home. Will they regret not handling Alabama or Temple (an OT loss) in Puerto Rico?
The Sycamores got the nation's attention with a win at Vanderbilt, a surprise after falling at Boise State in their previous D-I game. The Valley almost certainly won't be a four-bid league, so ISU will have to close ground on one of the top three. They're capable of that, for sure.
The league is down a bit, and if the league's best team -- Memphis -- doesn't pick things up quickly, it could end up being a one-bid league despite the presence of several solid teams.
The Golden Eagles just polished off an SEC/Pac-12/Big East trifecta of wins. The losses -- at Denver and to Murray State in 2OT on a neutral floor -- are to two teams that are a combined 20-2 this season. The good news is that USM plays on the "stronger side" of CUSA's equal-but-separate one-division setup. That means two games each against Memphis, Marshall and UCF, which will help keeps numbers solid.
Beating Iona and Belmont is no small achievement this season and the two losses, to Ohio and at Syracuse, come to opponents that are a combined 23-1. The Herd are crashing the offensive glass with abandon (2nd in D-I in offensive rebound percentage) and DeAndre Kane is getting the help he needs.
Like Vandy, the Tigers are trending much closer to last season's actual performance than how most people saw this year's going. And like Vandy, I wasn't convinced by this team in the preseason. Beating Belmont, a poor Tennessee team and winning at Miami (Fla.) is not a great haul for a talented team that's played a very solid schedule.
With BYU's arrival, Gonzaga's surge and Saint Mary's still-capable roster, the WCC should be good for two bids in the NCAAs and could find a way to get three.
Beating ND, Arizona and Butler sounds better than it really is. The Zags may lament missing on two Big Ten shots. A trip to the Cintas Center to face reeling Xavier could be just what the at-large doctor ordered, though.
Iona's getting the pub, but these Gaels are plenty solid, too. A good W over Northern Iowa and no bad losses have them solidly positioned heading into a strong WCC. First up on Thursday? BYU.
No real shame in any of the Cougars losses -- at Utah State is a brutal rivalry game and Baylor's excellent, even with BYU at home. They certainly have the talent to win the league in their debut season; Charles Abuou has been far superior to the returning Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock has been outstanding.
It will take a lot of things to break right for these teams to have at-large profiles that will stand up to the test of bigger-conference alternatives, but with really solid starts, they have at least given themselves a chance for a safety net if the conference tournament fails them.
The Bobcats narrowly missed at Louisville and won at Marshall and Northern Iowa, which could be big wins down the line in direct comparison. Standout guard D.J. Cooper is getting good support, but will it be enough to get through the rugged MAC mostly unscathed? The East division is very stiff this season.
What can you say? The unbeaten Racers look for real. The win at Memphis was the attention-getter, but the wins over Dayton and Southern Miss could prove very important, too. They'd clearly make it in as at-large if the selection show were today, but that's not how life in the small conferences works.
Yes, the 49ers are under .500, but have you seen their schedule? Five of the six losses are roadies at SDSU, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and a loss in Hawaii to K-State. They also won at Pitt and beat Xavier on a neutral floor. If they roll through the Big West virtually unscathed and lose in the title game ... ?
The bad news: Harvard's nonconference schedule is probably too thin to help support an at-large cause. The good news: The Crimson likely won't need one, as they should win a deep-but-not-top-heavy Ivy by multiple games and there's no conference tournament in that league. Get ready for Harvard's first NCAA appearance since 1946 and don't sleep on them. This team is very, very sound and has solid depth.
For several years, the nation's best Gaels were from Moraga, Calif., but not this season. Iona's profile is very legit. A one-point loss to Purdue in the opener in Puerto Rico is a shame, but beating Saint Joe's and winning at Denver will stay solid, you'd think. Iona is also 6-1 on a December-long road trip, with the only defeat at Marshall. With Fairfield challenging in the MAAC, two bids isn't impossible.
Joe Scott has the Princeton Offense humming at altitude. Had the Pioneers not gacked up a double-digit lead against Iona, this profile would be very solid for a Sun Belt team. As is, wins over Southern Miss and Saint Mary's could prove useful in direct comparison later.