Countdown to Selection Sunday: 17 days
Wednesday night in college basketball was marked more by missed opportunities by teams sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The most notable of those teams was Minnesota, who led most of the game before collapsing down the stretch in a loss to No. 6 Michigan State. In a matter of three minutes of playing time, the Gophers went from a team perhaps heading to the right side of the bubble, to a team on the verge of falling out of consideration altogether.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Big Ten rival Purdue took care of business in its contest. The Boilermakers handled Nebraska at home, 83-65. The win over the last-place Huskers moved Purdue over .500 in conference play, with a game at Michigan coming up this weekend.
In the SEC, LSU also did its job against a conference foe at the bottom of its league. The Tigers defeated Georgia 61-53 in Baton Rouge, continuing their recent run of good play. Like Purdue, LSU also moved above .500 in league play, at 7-6. It remained in a tie with Tennessee for fourth place in the SEC.
With both teams holding a winning record in their conference at the moment, which is in better position to grab one of the final NCAA Tournament bids handed out? Here’s a look, with summary statistics provided below.
Purdue: 18-10, 8-7 Big Ten; RPI: 50, SOS: 28
LSU: 17-10, 7-6 SEC; RPI: 64, SOS: 59
Notable common opponents: Alabama (Purdue lost to, LSU split with), Northwestern (Purdue swept, LSU lost to)
RPI Information from realtimerpi.com, updated 2/23
Winning Record in Best Conference
Purdue currently sits at 8-7 in the Big Ten—the No. 1 ranked conference in RPI—and is tied with Indiana for fifth place. The league currently has six teams in the Top 50 of the RPI, and three more (including Purdue) between 51 and 75. Even the bottom three teams are ranked around 130 in the RPI; a really good mark even for a power conference.
With so many quality teams, Purdue has been challenged almost every time out since beginning its brutal Big Ten schedule. For them to come out with more wins than losses (thus far) is a very significant accomplishment.
Five Top 50 Wins
Not only has Purdue played plenty of Top 50 teams, it has won its fair share of them, as well. Purdue’s overall mark of 5-7 against the Top 50 is normally good enough to earn a spot in the tournament.
Within the Big Ten, Purdue has two Top-50 wins, both over Northwestern. Outside the league, Purdue picked up quality wins over Miami (at home) along with Iona and Temple in Puerto Rico. Three wins over Top 50 teams outside the league should give Purdue a nice advantage over other power-conference bubble teams.
Winning Tricky Road Games
Many times bubble teams from power conferences are on the bubble simply because they fail to beat teams in the lower half of their league standings on the road. Purdue is not such a team.
Purdue has quietly gone 4-3 in Big Ten road games this year. Compare that to teams above Purdue in the Big Ten standings: Michigan and Indiana. Michigan is just 3-5 on the road, and Indiana has really struggled with a 2-6 record away from Bloomington.
Other than a loss at Penn State early in January, Purdue has done a great job of surviving the tough environments of Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Illinois. Those kinds of wins have put Purdue in the top half of the Big Ten standings, a good place to be right now.
Can’t Beat the League’s Best
While Purdue has a winning record in the Big Ten, none of those wins have come against teams above or tied with Purdue in the conference standings. Its combined record against the league’s top five teams—Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana—is 0-6. Compounding that stat is the fact that four of those losses have come at home, where Purdue has rarely ever lost in recent years.
Teams further down in the standings, like Illinois and Northwestern, have won at least a game at home against the league’s top teams. Purdue’s inability to do so should raise a red flag with the selection committee.
Blown Leads in December
Had Purdue shown the ability to close out a couple games back in the nonconference portion of its schedule, it may very well already be a solid tournament team.
Purdue blew two double-digit second-half leads in the span of two weeks, to Xavier and Butler, respectively. The Boilers had Xavier—then undefeated and ranked in the top 10—down and almost out on their home court in Cincinnati. However, they allowed Xavier to rally behind Tu Holloway, and as a result missed out on what would have been an excellent win. Two weeks later, a similar situation—though with not quite as big a lead—played out in Indianapolis against Butler. While beating Butler would not have meant as much a win over Xavier, it was still a win-turned-loss for Purdue.
It is still possible that those two games could make the difference between Purdue making or missing the Field of 68.
Last week, Purdue kicked a key player off the team, junior guard Kelsey Barlow. Barlow was perhaps the team’s best defender, and was second on the team in rebounding. In the two games since he was removed from the team, Purdue is 1-1. However, the games were against Michigan State and Nebraska, so those results were to be expected.
The question of how much different a team Purdue is without Barlow remains to be seen. If the committee feels Purdue is not as strong without him, then a potentially tournament-worthy resume may be disregarded due to Barlow’s absence.
LSU defeated Marquette in Baton Rouge back in mid-December. It was a big win for the Tigers then, and it looks even better now that Marquette has been tearing through the Big East schedule. With Marquette currently being a Top-10 team, this is definitely a signature win for LSU. Compared with Purdue, LSU definitely has the better of the two teams’ biggest wins.
Stepping Out in Nonconference
Unlike many SEC and other power-conference teams, LSU was willing to leave the comforts of its home state to play several games against non-league competition.
The Tigers played in the Charleston Classic, winning two games after losing to Northwestern—a Top 50 RPI team. They also traveled to Houston (who recently beat Southern Miss) and Rutgers, winning both of those. Remember, Florida also made the trip to New Jersey to face the Scarlet Knights and was not as successful as LSU.
LSU is playing well at the right time of year. It has won four straight games, including victories over Alabama and Mississippi State—two teams who still have a better-than-average chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
LSU has three more winnable games on its regular-season schedule—against Ole Miss, Tennessee and Auburn. If the Tigers can ride their momentum through those three games, the committee will have a very tough time denying them a tourney bid.
Outside of Marquette, the next best win for LSU in nonconference play was Rutgers. Rutgers current RPI is 157.
While winning at “The Rack” is never easy, it’s not necessarily a good enough win for LSU to have to highlight as one of its best outside the SEC. Any SEC team looking to separate itself from other bubble teams should have a few other wins against higher-rated teams.
Coastal Carolina and South Alabama
While Marquette showcases the best of LSU this season, losses to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama show the downside. Both teams have RPI’s below 150, and South Alabama is just a .500 team in the Sun Belt—the 19th ranked conference in the RPI.
Many times, one bad loss can be excused or offset by a high-quality win. However, LSU may not quite have a strong enough overall profile to withstand two such questionable losses.
One Road Win
Currently, LSU is just 1-5 in SEC road games, with the lone win coming at lowly South Carolina last weekend. While there are few easy places to play in the SEC, LSU can’t expect to present a serious case to the selection committee if it is unable to win at least one more road game.
In order to give itself an advantage over teams like Alabama and Mississippi State, LSU must prove it can fare a bit better on the road than the other two.
Purdue has been fairly steady throughout the season, playing good-but-never-great basketball. Meanwhile, LSU appears to be rounding into form at the right time and has shown a bit higher upside with the win over Marquette.
Despite the fact LSU has moved into the upper-middle portion of the SEC standings, it still has some work to do over the final few games to solidify its case as a tournament-worthy team. With two more winnable road games, the Tigers have a good opportunity to do so.
As for Purdue, its overall profile should be solid enough to earn an at-large bid. However, keep an eye on the Kelsey Barlow situation. If Purdue struggles in any of its remaining games—including the Big Ten Tournament—without him, the committee could take that into serious consideration and judge Purdue based on who it is minus Barlow.
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