Every year, one of the most interesting sidebars in the final few days before Selection Sunday is the hunt for the "mystery team," the under-the-radar squad the committee is eyeing for one of the last, precious at-large spots. Last year, it was USC, a pick that confounded many bracket watchers (although SI.com's bracket had the Trojans in) because of their number of bad losses and poor RPI.
Essentially, the committee made a statement that the Trojans' quality wins were more impressive than their losses hurt. In related news, Dayton remains in this week's bracket.
Yes, Dayton, the .500-in-the-A-10, perpetually frustrating, inconsistent Flyers who just lost for the 27th straight season at Xavier. Why? Because they have a bunch of quality wins.
In a bubble world where teams like Arizona (third in a weak Pac-12, one top-50 win), Colorado State (.500 in the Mountain West, one top-50 win) and Texas (3-9 against top 100, under .500 in the Big 12) are in consideration, are you going to turn your nose up at a team that's beaten Temple, Saint Louis, Alabama, Xavier, Mississippi and Minnesota? When eight of the 10 members of the committee that took USC last year are back for this season? ... Yeah, didn't think so.
That's the magic of this final stretch run. Teams can come out of nowhere to grab bids. They may go on a late run that improves their profile or, in the case of Dayton, they've racked up some decent wins and not enough teams pass them. It doesn't matter how you get there. It just matters that you're one of the best 37 on March 11.
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There's still a three-way atop the league, but there will be some shuffling this week with Duke at Florida State and some other tough matchups for the trio. Virginia is in decent shape to get in, too. Could it end there?
The Cavaliers held off Virginia Tech in Blacksburg for a big stabilizing step toward the NCAAs. If they can get either the North Carolina or Florida State games at home, they should be in strong shape.
The Hurricanes ate a damaging loss Tuesday night, falling at Maryland. This is their first loss that can be considered questionable, but they don't have a ton in the plus side of the ledger, either. Now they really need to grab these next three, including home to Florida State and then a possible quasi-elimination bout at NC State.
The Wolfpack had three straight shots at a profile-defining victory and couldn't get any of them. Now even if they can win their last three and finish 10-6 with a sweep Miami, they'll need to do some solid work in the ACC tournament to feel like they have legitimate at-large hopes.
It's showtime at the top of the league when Missouri heads to Lawrence to take on Kansas, likely with the league lead and the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the Saint Louis regional on the table. Classic "If you want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ" spot for the Tigers, although a loss here certainly wouldn't dampen enthusiasm for a deep March run. Baylor's more than safe as far as inclusions, but the Bears' slide continues with a frustrating home loss to Kansas State.
The Wildcats just wrapped up the best back-to-back road wins in the nation this season, backing up the victory at Baylor by completing a sweep of Missouri with a win in Columbia. Things look really good now, and will look even better if they can handle Iowa State this weekend in Manhattan.
The Cyclones won their only game of the week (vs. Oklahoma) and head into the homestretch well-positioned. They should handle Texas Tech at home to get to 10 wins, and then have road cracks at Kansas State and Missouri and a home date with Baylor to add to the resume. The date in Manhattan is a huge separation chance, as it would be a sweep of the Wildcats and a huge gap in the league standings.
The Longhorns may lament getting Keiton Page'd at Oklahoma State. Things are now looking much more like 9-9, and as good as the Temple win is looking now, it's not clear that will be enough without beating much of anyone at the top of the league.
Time to start being reasonable. Neither Louisville (solid profile) nor Notre Dame (with 11 Big East wins and counting) is missing the NCAAs now. That makes five in for sure. How much deeper can the league go?
Don't mistake the difference between being a good team (which UConn isn't at the moment), playing well down the stretch (which UConn clearly isn't) and a good at-large profile (which UConn currently still has, in comparison with other options). Shabazz Napier's 35-footer that beat Villanova could ultimately be what keeps the Huskies on the right side of the cutline. Of course, they can go beat Syracuse at home on Saturday ...
The Mountaineers won at Pitt in their only game of the week, which won't help the profile much, but levels them at .500 heading into a pivotal week for their at-large hopes. Wednesday at Notre Dame isn't a bargain at all and neither is Marquette at home on Friday. With a season finale at surging South Florida, the 'Eers need to be careful here. A 9-9 league record "probably" will keep them safe, but this overall profile is weaker than many perceive. WVU only has one top-150 road win.
The Pirates picked up an enormous home win with a romp of Georgetown, getting back to .500 in the league and adding another high-quality win to the profile. Now with Rutgers at home and at DePaul remaining, 10-8 looks very attainable. That should be enough to get the Pirates into the NCAAs.
The Bearcats' 320th ranked nonconference SOS stands out like an Alabama 2011-sized sore thumb, so the best plan for UC is to keep winning league games. Handling Providence and bubble battler Seton Hall at home this week was needed work. Now it's all in front of the Bearcats, with a home date against Louisville and then a surprisingly important game in Tampa against South Florida before Marquette comes in next week. As they stand, the Bearcats would be, by a decent margin, the worst RPI team ever taken as an at-large.
The Bulls, as of Tuesday, are a top-50 win. Commence celebrating, Southern Miss and VCU! Can South Florida pull a Craig Biggio and aggregate its way to the NCAAs? The Bulls will have every chance to solidify their standing down the stretch: at Syracuse, Cincinnati, at Louisville, West Virginia. And no, I have no idea what a 12-6 USF team would look like in the at-large picture entering championship week.
Add the Wolverines to the lock list after they handled Ohio State at home. Road woes aside, there's too much quality in this resume to have any chance of missing. The greater intrigue is at the bottom of this league's at-large pool, where a group of nine may end up winnowed down to ... five??
The Hoosiers are going to make the NCAAs, but let's let them get one more league win to make it a certainty. First up, the long-awaited nonconference clash with North Carolina Central! Then the weekend has a trip to Minnesota before home games against Michigan State and Purdue next week.
The Badgers also are pretty much good to go, although this week provides interesting tests at feisty Iowa and then at Ohio State. Home dates in the final week against Minnesota and Illinois should help add a win or (probably) two to the ledger.
The Boilermakers are in the best position of this batch, having gone 5-0 against Northwestern (sweep), Illinois (sweep) and Minnesota (road win). That said, add in the sweep of Iowa and they haven't beaten a single team in league play that looks headed to the NCAAs. It's the consummate "average team" profile. Beating Nebraska and Penn State at home will get them at least to .500, but what would that really mean if they also lose at Michigan and Indiana?
The Wildcats had a win in their grasp, but couldn't close out Michigan and lost in overtime for a very damaging home defeat. Now if they can't beat Ohio State at home next week, they'll finish under .500 in the league, which makes them a dicey bubble proposition. They're no certainty to win at Penn State and Iowa, either. The streak may continue thanks to the latest in a series of tough Ls this season..
The Illini got pasted at Ohio State and now need to win at least four in a row to have any legitimate at-large claim. A complete collapse in league play.
Time's running out on the Gophers after a home loss to Ohio State and then a defeat at Northwestern. The good news, if there is some, is that the next three games (home to Michigan State and Indiana and at Wisconsin) provide a platform to make a late surge. More likely, it will end legit at-large hopes.
Cal and Washington have established some room between them and the rest of the Pac. That's good news for them. The whole discussion could become fascinating, though, if Washington goes on to win the league (softer schedule down the stretch), as Cal's profile is better than the Huskies. A non-Cal/Washington auto bid winner will set the discussion aflame.
After edging Oregon in a crucial game, the Golden Bears finished off a home weekend sweep by topping Oregon State and stay tied for first. Cal's finish is tougher than Washington's, though, as the Bears still have to travel to Colorado and Stanford. Finishing second behind Washington would open all sorts of Pandora's boxes in at-large discussion. The best move: win out.
After taking down the Arizona schools, the Huskies also finish with three on the road, but at Wazzu, USC and UCLA is relatively easier than Cal's run, so there's a solid chance for at least a share of the league title. What will that mean if they end the season with just three top-100 wins and some worrisome blips on the resume, if an at-large is needed? Only the selection committee knows. The Huskies are also 60th in Sagarin and 65th in Pomeroy, so the RPI isn't an isolated rankings weakness.
Home to Stanford and Cal are obviously must-wins this week for any hope. Nonleague accomplishments are minimal and the Buffaloes don't have a top-150 win away from home.
Similarly, the Ducks needed to win at Cal and couldn't. They can still get to 13-5 if they handle at Oregon State and then a visit from Colorado, but with only three top-100 wins in that scenario, seems very thin.
The Wildcats needed to win at Washington and couldn't do it. Road wins at Cal and New Mexico State are better than what most others in this conference can offer, but a third-place finish (at best) in a league that fits all the criteria for two bids (max) is likely not going to be enough to convince.
The Gators move into lockdom after securing road wins at Alabama and Arkansas. They'll get 10 wins, minimum, and that will be plenty this season. Vandy will be fine, too. Another week, and it'll likely be in this category, as well. Beyond that? Things are starting to get dicier for the league's middle.
The Commodores are basically good to go, but the remaining schedule is sticky enough to wait until they at least handle South Carolina at home. Chances at Kentucky and home to Florida after that will help decide NCAA seeding upside.
The shorthanded Tide lost at home to Florida, but then handled Tennessee to get back to .500. After a difficult trip to Arkansas, 'Bama hosts Mississippi State in a game where the loser could be in some trouble. On Monday, the school announced that Tony Mitchell was gone for the season, but JaMychal Green was reinstated. That changes things again.
The Bulldogs couldn't hold on to a 13-point halftime lead and lost at home to Kentucky, their fourth loss in a row. Now the weekend trip to revitalized Alabama is enormous. A loss there and 8-8 is the best the Bulldogs could do. They also could wind up with a dangerous SEC tournament draw, and an early exit there could be curtains.
Chalk up "writing a bubble blurb for the Tigers" on the list of things I didn't expect to have to do this season, but here they are, fresh off wins over Alabama and Mississippi State and then at South Carolina, to get to .500 in the league and give themselves a shot. The last four are manageable: Georgia, at Mississippi, Tennessee, at Auburn. Get at least three of the four and we'll see what the SEC tourney brings.
The Rebels couldn't get either game against Vanderbilt or at Kentucky and look like an NIT team at this point. A 3-10 mark against the top 100 isn't good enough. If they win out from here, maybe they'll be back in the mix. It's not impossible, but would take a couple solid road efforts.
When all you do is win at home, you can't then get hammered at home by Florida. 0-8 away.
The Owls have looked very formidable since Michael Eric returned and with 10 road/neutral wins and a 9-3 top 100 mark, they're going to the NCAAs. Saint Louis also seems very likely to make it, and the league still could get others in.
The Billikens handled home business like a good team should and remain well positioned. Now they have a week to prep for a trip to Rhode Island before Xavier comes calling. The computer numbers keep improving as SLU's wins add strength. Even the four-point loss at The Pit is looking much better.
The Musketeers are really going to flirt with danger if this continues. A loss at UMass drops them further into the A-10 morass below Temple and Saint Louis. They still have to play at the Billikens next week. Will 10-6 with all the suspensions and drama be enough? It's not certain. X lacks quality Ws.
The Flyers couldn't break the streak, losing in overtime at Xavier, and remain an at-large enigma. They have some very credible wins, some baffling losses and a middling computer profile. The last four are all winnable, but the flex point may be Wednesday's game at Duquesne.
The Hawks took care of business on the road against two league lightweights to stay in the mix. This week is huge with Richmond and then Temple coming to Hawk Hill. The profile is lacking in substance at the moment.
If the Explorers can win out, adding a win over Temple to the ledger, some work in the A-10 tournament could make them a discussion point. Pretty decent team, not so great profile at the moment. Winning at UMass puts them in the discussion again, at least for this week.
The Minutemen have much work left to do, but beating Xavier keeps them in the conversation, at least. Now they play at Dayton and Temple, so we'll know if they have a chance by mid-next week.
The picture in this league got much more complex and much simpler this past week. New Mexico rolled past both other contenders and also saw UNLV drop a game at TCU and San Diego State lose at Air Force. That puts the Lobos from third in the pecking order to a two-game lead in the league with four to play, and lock status for an NCAA berth. That gives the league three teams that will get in. Do I hear four?
The Rams did the deed against New Mexico, taking down the league-leading Lobos for a huge profile-improving win. They now travel to San Diego State before hosting UNLV. Get one of those two and make the MWC semis? Could be enough.
Creighton's rally past Long Beach State was a big stabilizing win for the Bluejays and pretty much settles things in this league. The Valley will get two teams in, and a third with a bid thief at Arch Madness, which is not at all implausible.
With unexpected losses from both league leaders, things got a lot more interesting for everyone in C-USA. That's not necessarily a good thing for a multi-bid league.
A disappointing loss at Houston was offset somewhat by Memphis' home defeat to UTEP. A league title, even shared, should be enough for this team with some OK wins and great computer numbers. It makes the two remaining road games important, though. At UTEP Wednesday night is the first.
It's not panic time just yet, but a home loss to UTEP leaves the Tigers with less at-large rope than you'd hope at this stage, especially with the conference tournament at home. The pressure will be on for league road games at Marshall on Saturday and Tulsa in the season finale, around a visit from UCF.
The Golden Knights were let back into the title race this week and have a reasonable chance to win their last four if they can get a big win at Memphis next week. First things first, they need to win at Rice and then handle UTEP at home.
The Herd have three of their final four at home, including shots at Memphis and Southern Miss. If they run the table, their profile won't be half bad.
Saint Mary's has to drop a tier -- for this week anyway -- but the league looks pretty well positioned for a run at three bids. Could it possibly be four if Loyola Marymount continues its road warrior ways?
Hmmm, we've seen this before from Saint Mary's. A home loss to Loyola Marymount, a road loss at Murray State, and suddenly the profile's not nearly as strong as it was a week ago. Fortunately for the Gaels, Gonzaga also lost this week, so the one-game lead remains intact. The Gaels have to finish at Portland and then at the San Francisco team that just beat Gonzaga, so this isn't sealed yet.
San Francisco got the Zags again and keeps them a game behind Saint Mary's -- and now tied with BYU heading into a home game with the Cougars Thursday night. That's a big game for Gonzaga, as BYU beat them in Provo. This is also for the double-bye in the WCC tournament.
The Cougars could really use a win in Spokane on Thursday. That would likely give them second place (or more) in the league, a bye into the WCC semis and put them in strong contention for an at-large, if needed. If they can't win at K2? Borderline case.
The Racers should be good to go. Others in this category have looked the part. Will they need an at-large? Would they get one?
The Crimson handled Yale for a second time and still lead the league by a game in the loss column over Penn. Now Princeton (the only league loss) and Penn come to Harvard this weekend. We could have anything from a title clinch to the Crimson being knocked out of first place.
The 49ers did everything but win at Creighton. Will that last-second loss be the one that keeps them out if they are upset in the Big West tournament? They have looked the part of an NCAA team in most big spots this season, but the wins just haven't been there since the early Pitt game.
The Blue Raiders need to close out strong and should handle the two remaining road games to get to 15-1 in the league. No top-50 wins, but this is a good team that has some solid victories.
The Golden Eagles look primed to win the Summit with just one loss and added a nice win over Akron to their ledger. Their early-season collapse against UT-San Antonio looms so large right now. It cost them a winnable game at Oklahoma State and perhaps a game with Syracuse at MSG. Good team.
This is another team that looks the part and is rolling right now, sitting tied for the CAA lead and trucking Cleveland State on the road in BracketBusters. Would a league crown offset a bad nonleague schedule and a lack of true quality wins? A loss to Norfolk State in the Paradise Jam was costly (although they then drew Virginia anyway ... and lost).
The Rams lost to Drexel in the only meeting and were edged at the buzzer at George Mason, with the return match this Saturday in the regular-season finale. But South Florida's now a top-50 win! For now, anyway. The Rams need to win out and hope the Dragons don't, so they can get a share of the crown. Then go from there...