With Selection Sunday less than eight weeks away, there’s no time like the present to start focusing on the bubble. Arguably, there are more exciting games to watch between teams that are battling for a better seed in the tournament, but the real drama comes in the games between teams desperately fighting for an invite.
Based on my latest bracket projection, what follows are the 10 games in the upcoming week with significant implications for teams on the bubble. It’s still way too early in the season to say that a win clinches a berth or that a loss eliminates a team from consideration, but these games will certainly move the needle in one direction or the other for both teams involved.
Implications for Kentucky:
A win could be a sign that Kentucky has turned things around after a rough November, and that the home loss to Texas A&M was an anomaly fueled by Elston Turner having the game of his life. A loss would put the Wildcats at 0-6 against the RPI Top 60 with four difficult road games in the next month that could effectively terminate their season. No pressure.
Implications for Alabama:
Thanks to the imbalanced SEC schedule, once they finish battling Kentucky, the Crimson Tide only have two more games against likely tourney teams. If Alabama wins this game, it moves to 4-1 in the SEC with 10 consecutive extremely winnable games to follow. Unless the Tide have plans of winning at Florida or at Ole Miss, this appears to be their last chance at a marquee win until the SEC Tournament.
This game means more to Kentucky, and it’s not as though Alabama has displayed much of a home-court advantage this season; just ask Dayton, Mercer and Tulane. Kentucky, 76-62.
Implications for Lehigh:
Lehigh’s situation reminds me of the 2008-09 season for Saint Mary’s in which it lost Patty Mills midway through a crucial game in January. It finished the season 26-6, and even scheduled that extra game against Eastern Washington in an attempt to prove that it was a more deserving team after Mills returned from his injury. In the end, it was likely its three losses to Gonzaga that kept it out of the tournament.
Fast-forward to the present day and we find a Lehigh team that’s both scrambling to adapt to life without C.J. McCollum, and 0-4 against teams in the RPI Top 125. If it's to have any chance of dancing as an at-large, it’ll need to finish out the regular season no worse than 10-1; which will be more reasonable if it doesn’t use up its one loss this week.
Implications for Bucknell:
With bad losses to Penn State and Princeton already on their resume, the Bison need all the RPI Top 100 wins they can get. The close loss to Missouri put them on the national radar, but their strength of schedule is far too weak to be able to absorb a home loss to a shorthanded Lehigh.
It’ll be a closer game than it probably should be, but I don’t see how Lehigh can pull off the upset. Bucknell, 78-70.
Implications for St. John’s:
If the season ended today, I would have both of these teams on the outside looking in, but they’re pretty close to the field and fairly indistinguishable from each other. However, a loss for the Johnnies would give Rutgers the head-to-head season sweep, all but assuring an edge for Rutgers should it both wind up on the bubble. Of more short-sighted interest, this is the third game in a stretch of seven winnable ones for the Red Storm, which could move them to 16-7 on the season.
Implications for Rutgers:
If you take away that season-opening loss to St. Peter’s, its resume would look a whole lot better. As is, the Scarlet Knights are 11-1 in the games they should win and 1-3 in the games they could understandably lose. Sounds a lot like South Florida’s resume from a season ago, and it needed a late-season significant win at Louisville just to sneak into one of the play-in games. There will be more important games for Rutgers, but this is the type of game it really can’t afford to lose.
St. John’s is gradually improving, but I think it's still a year away from being a consistent threat. Good thing its entire roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores. Rutgers, 64-53.
Implications for Xavier:
The Musketeers have been a bit unlucky with their schedule: wins over Robert Morris, Purdue, Kent State and Drexel aren’t worth nearly as much as most would’ve thought in the preseason; conversely, the losses to Vanderbilt and Wake Forest have proved to be more damaging than they would have seemed in October.
On the flip side of that coin, the win over Butler is only getting better with age, and this game against three-loss Charlotte is a pleasant surprise of an opportunity to improve its resume. The A-10 will likely send at least four teams to the tournament, and a win here would put it at no worse than fifth in that pecking order.
Implications for Charlotte:
I’m not a believer. At all. And its next eight games should prove me right. A 15-3 record is nice and all, but the 20-point loss to Richmond and the 31-point loss to Miami suggest this isn’t a very good team. Perhaps that’s why it was projected to finish 15th in the A-10.
The 49ers’ fall from grace will be a swift one. Xavier, 68-59.
Implications for Virginia:
A win would push the Cavaliers to 5-0 against the RPI Top 100 (too bad they have five losses to teams outside of that range). Their horrendous nonconference schedule leaves them with a lot of work to do in conference, but with no one else showing much interest in stepping up in a subpar ACC, why not UVA? It has one of the stingiest defenses in the nation, which gives it a fighter’s chance against anyone.
Implications for Virginia Tech:
The Hokies have been a tale of two seasons, opening the year 7-0 with wins over Oklahoma State and Iowa, but playing like a sixth-place finisher in a mid-major conference ever since. Regardless of how they’ve looked, it might not be too late to turn their season around for a second time. Though some of the scores were downright laughable, from a purely win/loss perspective, only one of the six losses was particularly offensive. With four games left against Duke and Miami, anything could happen, but it better start soon.
Virginia hasn’t allowed an opposing team to score 65 points in a game all season—until now. Hokies, 69-57.
Implications for Wyoming:
The Cowboys have played against precisely three teams in the RPI Top 125, and while they’re 2-1 in those games, none of them were played on the road. This is the first of six such road games left on their schedule, and if they expect to be taken seriously by the committee, they’ll need to win a couple of games in which that weird Wyoming home-court advantage doesn’t play a factor. Fair or not, this game will determine whether we perceive them as the team that beat San Diego State or as the team that scored 36 against Fresno State.
Implications for UNLV:
You never want to play a home game against a team with a surprisingly high RPI, and Wyoming is currently ranked 35th in that index. In those situations, a win is perceived as simply taking care of business and a loss is seen as a redder flag than it should be. At the end of the day, this game shouldn’t have too much of an impact on UNLV’s computer resume one way or the other, but a second consecutive loss would put it at 2-3 in MWC play and could make people start questioning whether it's good enough for the tournament.
The more I look at Wyoming’s resume and team statistics, the less I understand how it only has two losses. UNLV, 84-59.
Implications for Notre Dame:
I picked this game out several hours before the Irish got plastered by Georgetown on Monday night, which only makes it that much bubblier. Notre Dame has now lost three of its last four games, and easily could’ve lost the one that it won. At 3-3 with most of the conference danger still to come, I think the Irish are going to struggle to finish .500 in the Big East, and thus will really need to win these types of games against the bottom-feeders of the conference.
Implications for South Florida:
The Bulls broke up a four-game losing streak by knocking off Georgetown and scoring easily their best win of the season in the process. They’ve got a long way to go to even sniff the bubble, but with the parity in the Big East this season and their two most difficult games of the season already behind them, it’s conceivable that USF could finish at 10-8 in the conference and make an argument for inclusion in the tournament.
This is only Notre Dame’s third true road game of the season, and we’ve already seen the Irish lose to St. John’s in one of them. In what I’m considering the upset of the week, I’ve got South Florida winning, 67-64.
Implications for Iowa:
The Hawkeyes are a much better team than most people realize, having battled both Indiana and Michigan State down to the wire, and holding their own against Wichita State in the Cancun Challenge.
In the bracket I’ve been drafting in the aftermath of this past weekend, I have Iowa as one of the first three teams missing the cut. However, a loss to Purdue or Penn State in the upcoming days could undo all of the good they’ve done to this point.
They’ve got seven games left on their schedule that they should be able to win and another six that no one would fault them for losing. If they can close out the season 8-5 and get to an overall record of 21-10, I think they go to the tournament. In that scenario, keep in mind that for every loss in a game they should be able to win, they would need to pick up an extra win against one of the elites of the Big Ten.
Implications for Purdue:
The Boilermakers have a lot of work to do if they’re going to go dancing in March. Fortunately, the Big Ten provides a nearly nightly opportunity to pick up a marquee win. They should be in better position than they are, but they got hosed by the emphasis on elbows back in November.
Leading by four with 44 seconds remaining, D.J. Byrd had the ball with two Villanova players trying to foul him to extend the game when his triceps grazed the face of one of the defenders. Instead of Purdue going to the line to increase its lead, Villanova hit two free throws, got the ball and eventually went on to win in overtime.
Not only did that game work against it, but it was in a four-team tournament that left it playing Oregon State in the next round instead of Alabama. If that Villanova game goes differently, maybe we’re looking at a 12-6 Purdue team through the same rose-colored glasses as we just looked at Iowa. C’est la vie.
Purdue has played well at home thus far this season, but I’m guessing it’ll be a bit demoralized after what Michigan does on Thursday. Iowa, 67-61.
Implications for California:
After winning the DirecTV Classic (despite not having to face Saint Mary’s, Xavier or even Drexel in the process), things were looking up for the Golden Bears. Since then, they’re 4-7 and mired in the bottom half of the standings in the (better than last year, but still not that good) Pac-12. In fact, they’re 0-7 against the RPI Top 100 and undefeated against teams with a triple-digit RPI. If they are on the bubble, they’re somewhere near the back of it waiting to fall off, but I have a little bit of faith in Allen Crabbe to breathe some life into this team.
Implications for Colorado:
Not much unlike Cal, Colorado gained some popularity after winning a pre-conference tournament full of teams that looked a lot better in November than it does in January. Since then, it lost to Wyoming, got absolutely obliterated by Kansas and has lost four of their first six games in conference.
In case you were wondering why I’m expecting Charlotte to fall from grace, it’s because neither of these teams let me down in that expectation.] To be fair to the Buffaloes, three of their four conference losses were on the road against better than average teams—the loss to Arizona will be forever disputed—so I have reason to believe they’ll be able to bounce back to a fifth-place finish in the conference.
When in doubt, pick the home team; when still in doubt, pick the team that doesn’t rely almost exclusively on one player for all its points. Colorado, 70-68.
Implications for Florida State:
Just when you think the Seminoles might be putting it all together, they pull another inexplicable loss out of their pocket. To make the tournament, they will likely need to win two of their three remaining games against Duke and Miami, and preferably avoid losing to Wake Forest or Georgia Tech while they're at it.
Implications for Miami:
Did you know Miami has the third-best RPI in the nation? This is why I hate that RPI is one of the primary criteria that the selection committee uses. Sure, Miami is good, but better than Kansas, Michigan and Minnesota good? Come on. Yes, as a Duke fan, I fully realize that I’m essentially assuring that Miami will beat Duke on Wednesday. But I had to point it out, if only to commend it for figuring out how to beat the system.
The 'Canes aren’t at the top of the RPI because they played the best teams of the country, but rather because they limited the number of terrible teams that they played. Having said that, they are absolutely worthy of being ranked and are considerably under-valued. It would take some sort of collapse for them to miss the tournament.
I thought Miami’s season was in trouble when it lost Reggie Johnson, but it appears to have only made it stronger. Miami, 65-58.