How high can they go? That's one of the most frequently asked early bracket questions this year about Murray State and Harvard, both of which are poised to post gaudy records for consideration.
The Racers are one of four unbeaten teams remaining in Division I and are playing in the Ohio Valley, one of the nation's weakest conferences. After Wednesday's home game with Eastern Kentucky, Murray State is not scheduled to play another team in the RPI top 200 for the rest of the season. The one caveat is the to-be-determined BracketBusters matchup in February, but Murray State is a home team in that event, which means a significant chance of beating anyone who comes in. Before knowing the BracketBusters opponent, Ken Pomeroy gives the Racers a 31 percent chance of finishing the regular season undefeated, which is incredibly high for having 14 games left.
Harvard is in a similar boat as the overwhelming favorite to win the Ivy League. The Crimson are playing in a much better league, where five of the eight teams are well inside the RPI top 200 (and six of eight in Pomeroy). Pom gives the Crimson a 12 percent chance at this point to run the table from here. The Ivy does not participate in BracketBusters.
So what are we talking here if Murray State wins the OVC and conference tournament to finish 29-0 in D-I games and/or Harvard wins out (no conference tournament) to end up at an official mark of 28-1? RPIForecast.com has the Racers around No. 31 in the RPI with a strength of schedule of 227 if they lose one OVC game in the regular season. Best case scenario in 10,000 simulations is an RPI of 13. Similarly, Harvard is projected to finish at No. 45 with an SOS of 233, but that's with two Ivy losses. The Crimson's best case scenario in the sims is an RPI of 18.
Here are some historic comparables for gaudy records from non-major conferences:
• 1998 Princeton (Ivy): The Tigers went 25-1 overall and were undefeated in the conference. The only loss was by eight at No. 1 North Carolina. They finished No. 21 in RPI against the 188th SOS. They got a No. 5 seed.
• 2006 George Washington (Atlantic 10): The Colonials went 26-1 and unbeaten in the A-10 before losing their first conference tourney game to Temple. They ended with an RPI of 37 against an SOS of 207. They received a No. 8 seed.
• 2007 Gonzaga (West Coast): The Adam Morrison-led Bulldogs ended up 27-3, going unbeaten in league play and winning the conference tournament. They had an RPI of 9 and an SOS of 95. They got a No. 3 seed.
• 2008 Drake (Missouri Valley): The Bulldogs came out of nowhere to finish 28-4 and won the Missouri Valley at 15-3. They also won the conference tournament. They finished at No. 10 in the RPI with an SOS of 68 and received a No. 5 seed.
• 2011 Belmont (Atlantic Sun): The Bruins went 30-4, dropping one game in the Atlantic Sun before winning the conference tournament. They finished 51st in RPI and a weak 261st in SOS and got a No. 13 seed.
Each year is different, but these examples provide some pretty solid parameters. Gonzaga's No. 3 seed looks unapproachable, but both teams should be well ahead of last year's Belmont, even with a couple of losses. Realistically, the range between Princeton and George Washington looks reasonable. On first examination, it looks like both Murray State and Harvard would have legit shots at landing a No. 5 seed if they win out. Lose once and maybe a 7. Lose twice (depending on the L's) and it's probably closer to a 9.
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The top two teams keep chugging along, but mostly everyone behind them looks pretty winded at this point. Virginia has emerged, for now, as the clear No. 3 team in the pecking order, but the Cavaliers still have some proving to do. Everyone else is mediocre or worse at this point.
The Cavaliers' RPI dropped 37 spots from last week despite two wins. That's what happens when you play Maryland-Eastern Shore (2-10) and Towson (0-13). They'll get a boost, though, from Monday night's win at LSU, UVa's 11th on the trot. Virginia should find a good number of wins at home in ACC play. The Cavaliers don't play Duke at JPJ and don't get UNC and Florida State in the final 10 days of the season.
FSU played once and lost a triple-overtime affair to Princeton at home after scoring only 10 points in the first half. That drops FSU to 0-2 in the Ivy. Good thing the 'Noles play in the ACC! They get Duke twice and only play UNC at home, so they will have a couple chances for a marquee win, plus numerous opportunities to emerge from a pretty average middle of the league. Disappointing so far, though.
The Wolfpack picked up a couple modest nonleague wins and have one more warmup against Delaware State before league play starts. ACC play opens with Maryland, Georgia Tech and BC at home around a trip to Wake, so anything less than 4-0 will be a disappointment. No truly quality wins yet (Texas?); no bad losses, either.
The Hurricanes picked up an easy win in their only game. After a tune-up against UNC Greensboro, Miami has a tricky start to league play with trips to Virginia and UNC before the next five lighten up.
More technical inclusion than actual contender at this stage, but winning most of the games they should win is a step forward for the Deacons. The first three in league (Virginia Tech, at Maryland, N.C. State) are a reasonable proving ground.
A road win at physical Old Dominion is the latest piece of validation of Missouri's start, and the Tigers assume their proper place in the lock category after last week's omission-for-discussion-purposes. The rest of the leaders continue to roll, as well. Baylor remains perfect after handling Texas A&M on Monday. Things get real on Wednesday night when K-State visits Kansas (and then hosts Mizzou and Baylor).
The Longhorns enjoyed their holiday meal with a side of Rice and now start Big 12 play with fairly reasonable stretch at Iowa State and then home to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. The slate gets very difficult after that, so a strong start may be paramount for at-large hopes.
OU suffered a tough loss at Cincinnati when it looked like Cashmere Wright got away with a travel on the game-deciding play. Still, it counts as a loss and a missed opportunity. Now comes the potential pain. The first nine in Big 12 play include six against the league's four locks.
Beating a SWAC team at home by two isn't impressive, but it's not a profile-cracking loss, either. Now the Cyclones have some chances to impress with Texas and Missouri at home and trips to A&M and Kansas to open league play.
Upon further review, shipping Syracuse out West last week was a bad decision. The Orange claim their rightful place in Boston in this week's bracket. The gloss came off Louisville and Marquette a bit, but both still have very solid profiles to this point. Watch out for UConn, which is still having some ups and downs, but has the possibility of growing into a very dangerous team come February and beyond. The Hoyas bump up after an impressive road win at Louisville and then a home slog past Providence.
Obviously would be in today, but exercising some continued restraint given the lack of a true marquee win. After getting pantsed at Syracuse, the Pirates rebounded nicely by thrashing West Virginia at home. They seized on a big opportunity Tuesday night, with a 75-63 upset over a still Jim Calhoun-less UConn. By Big East standards, the next five after that are soft, so Seton Hall could have a very gaudy record in a few weeks.
The Mountaineers beat Villanova and then were pounded at Seton Hall, leaving them in the same position as last week. Now they have a home-and-home with Rutgers wrapped around a visit from Georgetown and a trip to Storrs. Still not 100 percent sure what to make of this team yet.
Uh oh. Are the Panthers going to be in actual danger of missing the NCAAs? After getting handled at Notre Dame, Pitt lost again at home, this time to Cincinnati to start 0-2 in Beast play. If the Panthers don't win the next two -- at DePaul, home to Rutgers, they could be looking at a 1-5 start with trips to Marquette and Syracuse on tap after that.
After losses at West Virginia and Marquette, the Wildcats are here for technical (two-digit RPI) reasons only. That said, they do have four of the next five at home, so maybe things improve a bit in the near term.
The Spartans KO'd Indiana in a game of runs before the Hoosiers took out Ohio State for their second monster home win of the season. The top of the Big Ten should be very fun. The league should get many more bids than just four, with the middle having a ton of chances for big wins and very few weak games at the bottom of the league this season.
Did what it needed to do in beating Penn State and Minnesota at home. An intriguing trip to Indiana is up next on Thursday before three more home games wrapped around a trip to Iowa. The Wolverines could have a very good Big Ten mark through seven games, but the back end of the schedule is nasty.
The Illini barely escaped Minnesota in double-overtime and then were dispatched at Purdue. That was one of those swing games in the softer front part of the schedule. They have three more winnable road games plus some quality home chances in the front half of the schedule. If they don't make a move there, the back stretch is not nearly as favorable.
Tough 0-2 for the game-but-undermanned Gophers, losing in double-OT at Illinois and by five at Michigan. Four of the next five, though, are very winnable before things get a lot tougher. The profile numbers continue to sing thanks to wins over solid mids like South Dakota State, Bucknell, Fairfield, Indiana State and North Dakota State. Not sure it's sustainable, though.
Winning at Iowa looks a lot better after the Hawkeyes' shocker at Wisconsin and a strong home win over Illinois is a nice early separator in the middle of the league. Like Northwestern and others, these wins against mid-table peers will be enough to dance if you get enough of them. Road trips this week to Penn State and Minnesota will be litmus tests for how this team is maturing.
The Cats got plastered at Ohio State, but bounced back to see off Penn State at home. They're definitely in the mix to assume the Team Bubble Watch crown from Marquette, as they continue to do what they're supposed to do, but not a ton more to help themselves stand out for an at-large. The Seton Hall win continues to look solid and the LSU victory is decent at this stage, too.
The opening weekend of league play went well from a league standpoint, with four of the best teams escaping unscathed. Stanford, Cal and Washington all swept home weekends and Arizona cruised past Arizona State at home. The best thing that can happen to the Pac-12 is for there to be clear separation at the top of the conference, so multiple teams ride gaudy league marks into at-large consideration.
California ... knows how to parrrrrty ... in the cittttttty ... of L.A. Well, the games were at home, but the Golden Bears swept USC and UCLA to kick off their league campaign. Now a tricky trip to the Oregon schools awaits before the expansion couple arrives in Berkeley the following weekend. Like the rest of the league, there's no good nonconference win here, but the Bears are probably favored to win the league, which will be enough for a berth.
The Cardinal held off both L.A. schools for a home sweep and now head north with Cal for a weekend in Oregon. Wins over Colorado State, Oklahoma State and N.C. State give them more to their profile than anyone else in the league.
After easing past in-state rival ASU, the Wildcats take to the road this week for a pair against the L.A. teams. The best thing they can do is keep winning, as the quality of opponents won't really help impress. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, 'Zona doesn't get Cal at home this season, so they'll need to win in Berkeley to (maybe) have a top-50 win this season.
The Huskies are better than their profile, but with how down the league is, the committee may have a challenge on its hands. Tough losses at Madison Square Garden to Marquette and Duke are fine. Losing at Nevada in overtime? It happens. Getting drilled at Saint Louis? Questionable, despite the Billikens' quality. Getting shredded at home by Nate Wolters and South Dakota State? Not a good look. Any top-50 wins? Nope.
The Ducks were beaten at Washington and left the Evergreen State with a split. Since they've only played one top-50 opponent (and that was at Ezeli-less Vandy), they need to take some (relative) quality road wins in the league to have any chance.
Woo! A 40-point win to open league play! Oh, it was over Utah. Either way, the Buffs appear better than expected after last season's talent exodus. They have a chance to back that this week at home against the Washington schools.
Kentucky showed it has plenty of grit to go with its glitz, winning a battle with archrival Louisville. With others stumbling behind them, the Wildcats are starting to separate a bit from the pack. Several others should comfortably follow behind them, but this has the feel of a five-bid max already.
The Gators had obeyed the script so far, beating everyone they should and losing at Ohio State and at Syracuse in competitive fashion. Then they lost in double-overtime at Rutgers. Beating Yale doesn't make up for that. Florida has an incredibly soft front half of the SEC slate, opening with three games against the bottom half of the SEC East. The Gators don't play Vandy, Kentucky or Alabama until Feb. 4.
Only had one game this week and cruised past Jacksonville. Tonight, they're at ACC minnow Georgia Tech before opening SEC play at Georgia on the weekend. After hosting LSU on Jan. 11, 'Bama goes to Starkville and Lexington around a home date with Vandy in a big early three-game sound check.
The Bulldogs were in a pair of tight holiday contests, falling by a bucket against Baylor in a slugfest in Dallas before edging Utah State by two at home. How good the Bulldogs actually are remains up for debate. They have only played three top-100 teams so far, and Baylor's the only truly good one at this stage.
Vandy! Didn't know you had that in you! The 'Dores earned the first #POLEAXED hashtag of the season after their wire-to-wire road destruction of Marquette. Ezeli's absence or not, the purpose with which Vandy played has been missing before now. Is this a turning point or an outlier? The seven-point home win over Miami (Ohio) on Monday night is not a lot of evidence of the former ...
The Tigers beat Grambling but then couldn't handle Virginia at home, which is a disappointing result for a team hoping to build a profile. Playing the old West schedule, LSU doesn't have a ton of league chances for great wins, and two of the three marquee East games are on the road (Florida, Vandy).
The bloom's quickly falling off the Rebels after a third straight loss, this time to Dayton, a possible bubble team. A win over SMU tonight won't mean much heading into SEC play, but the first seven in the league are very, very manageable. If the Rebels want to prove they're for real, they need to navigate early road games against the bottom of the league.
Not a great week for the league as Saint Joe's, Saint Louis and Xavier all punted on chances for solid resume-building wins. Dayton continues to impress while Temple continues to confound. With Xavier's ongoing fade, when these teams start meeting head to head in league play, there's really no telling what will happen.
Two more close calls against modest or worse foes aren't helping the Owls inspire confidence entering a "home" date (at the Wachovia Center) against Duke. Their start to A-10 play isn't easy, either, with Dayton visiting and then trips to Saint Louis and Richmond.
The Flyers picked up another good win, taking out Ole Miss by double digits. Combine that with the win over Alabama and Dayton could be favored to take the SEC West. There's no grace period for the start of A-10 play. The Flyers host Saint Louis and then travel to Temple.
No excuses this time, as the full-strength Musketeers couldn't handle Gonzaga at home on New Year's Eve. That's now four losses in five games heading into league play (with a Feb. 4 game against Memphis also remaining). The A-10 slate opens up favorable for the struggling X-men, with a road trip to La Salle and Fordham before having four of the next five at home. Something's got to give. This team's too good to cave.
The Hawks could barely miss the basket for the first three-quarters of the game at Harvard and then watched a double-digit lead evaporate in the final 10 minutes to lose by five. That game kicked off a stretch of seven of 10 on the road, so we'll see what the Hawks are made of over the next few weeks.
The Billikens missed a great chance for a nice resume boost, falling by four at New Mexico. That may have been the best win on a docket that already includes Washington, BC, Villanova and Oklahoma. They're at Dayton on Wednesday in what's suddenly a pretty meaningful matchup.
The Minutemen squeak in on the RPI cutoff. They're going to have to do some serious A-10 work to bolster a profile that's currently 1-3 against the top 100.
The Rebels left it late on their Hawaiian holiday, but they got past the Rainbows and continue to sit comfortably atop the conference pecking order. San Diego State and New Mexico continue to make this look like a three-bid league. And that doesn't count Colorado State as a potential bidjacker.
The Aztecs have taken the holiday season literally. Since a Dec. 4 win over Cal, San Diego State has played San Diego, UC Riverside, Elon, D-III University of Redlands and now hosts NAIA San Diego Christian on Thursday before hosting RPI 317 Chicago State. The Aztecs played a bunch of good games in a row early, so the overall slate isn't bad, but think they might have an adjustment issue when UNLV visits on Jan. 14?
Plaster New Mexico State on the road to avenge an earlier upset? Check. Hold off Saint Louis to pick up a solid home win? Check. The turn-of-the-year was kind to the Lobos, who made a big move up the S-curve this week. Now they must navigate Great West tandem Houston Baptist and North Dakota before opening league play at Wyoming on Jan. 14.
The Rams won the Sun Bowl Invitational at UTEP this past week, beating the host Miners for a victory that's better than the RPI looks on paper. This week is non-DI only before a tricky in-state battle with Denver. The computer numbers look good, but the Rams have whiffed on their four best quality chances.
This season has started as the converse of 2006, with a couple of top teams already losing at home. That will drag down the RPIs across the league if that pattern keeps happening. That said, this still feels like it should end up a multi-bid league.
The Bluejays avoided a damaging 0-2 league start, rallying from a halftime deficit at Wichita State to win after losing at home to Missouri State. The next five are more manageable before a return trip to Missouri State on Jan. 18.
Doh. The Shockers had a chance to get a big jump on Creighton and couldn't close the deal, getting throttled in the second half at home. Not that any night is easy, but the next four are against the bottom part of the league before a testing trip to Indiana State and Northern Iowa. The final seven games are very stiff, so the Shockers need to rack up some wins now.
Whoops. After losing to Ohio, the Shockers entered league play and suffered two more defeats, both to teams outside the top 150. As mentioned last week, the computer numbers were better than what the team likely was, but this was unexpected. Real trouble now looms. Eight of the next nine league games are against top-100 teams, including at Creighton, Missouri State and Indiana State.
Drake's not bad, but getting handled there by double-digits isn't the stuff of at-large contenders. They can make up for that misstep this week at Northern Iowa and then home to Missouri State.
The Golden Eagles won twice more and dropped 14 spots in the RPI. Thanks, Alcorn State and McNeese State! Southern Miss should be able to navigate league-opening games against East Carolina and at Tulane before heading to Memphis on Jan. 11 for the first of two meetings in about three weeks.
The Tigers looked better last week, handling decent Robert Morris and Charlotte teams in a proxy for what much of the C-USA schedule will feel like. They host Tennessee on Wednesday in what's really a must-win game against the struggling Vols. Then they're at UAB before hosting Southern Miss.
Vey bad week for the Herd, who lost at Belmont (understandable) and at home to Akron (Mississippi State approves!). They still have a nonleague meeting with West Virginia and have six games against Southern Miss, Memphis and UCF, so all's not lost, but it's leaking.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary's continue to set the pace in the conference, although neither has tested the unfriendly confines of the Marriott Center yet. Those games come back-to-back on Jan. 28 and Feb. 2. The league looks quite solid for two bids and three is certainly possible, especially with a surprise tourney winner.
Big week for the Zags, who crushed Portland and then got a big win at Xavier. Santa Clara may give the Zags half a game on the back end of this upcoming two-game homestand before they visit Saint Mary's for the first of what very well could be three meetings this season.
The Gaels welcomed BYU to the league by scorching the Cougars for 98 points in a 16-point win, the rolled at Pepperdine. After what should be wins at San Diego and home to South Florida, Gonzaga comes calling.
The Cougars found out the top of the league is pretty darn tough when they got rolled at Saint Mary's in their WCC debut. Now the schedule turns really soft until a trip to Virginia Tech for some nonleague fun on Jan. 25.
The Racers have about a one in three chance of running the table. A game on Wednesday against Eastern Kentucky, at No. 192, is the only top-200 opponent currently on the schedule, although the eventual BracketBusters game in February will be a very good opponent.
The Crimson rolled at Boston College, winning there for the fourth straight season, and then rallied past Saint Joe's at home, setting the table for what could be a very, very big season. As mentioned earlier, if Harvard can (mostly) take care of business in the second half of the slate, a really high seed in the NCAAs is in the offing.
The 49ers won their league opener Monday night. The Big West isn't a walkover (especially not UC-Santa Barbara), but Long Beach State better be pretty close to perfect through the conference tourney final if they want to have serious at-large consideration. The win at Pitt is starting to lose some luster and the win over Xavier came with the X-men short-handed.
Oops. Robert Morris is solid, but that's a game an at-large candidate from a mid-major conference has to get at home. Wiggle room is rapidly diminishing in the always-balanced MAC.
The Gaels couldn't get through the last game of their month-long road trip unscathed, dropping a surprising decision at Hofstra. With Saint Joe's and Denver also losing this week, Iona's profile took a hit. They open MAAC play tonight against Siena.
An at-large from the NEC? Remains highly unlikely, but the league's decent at the top this season and Wagner's done a bit of work already. The Seahawks won the Cable Car Classic on one of the shots (albeit technically illegal) of the season to keep the roll going.