NCAA Tournament 2014: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Week 18
Selection Sunday is a mere 10 days away, and the stock watch for teams on the bubble is murkier than it has been in months.
All of a sudden, SEC teams are actually playing like they want to make the tournament, and it's keeping the bubble as large as a hot-air balloon.
By my count, there are still 29 teams fighting for the final 18 at-large spots. There are another eight teams that aren't quite on the bubble but could conceivably play their way onto it in the next 10 days. You'll find those teams listed under "Coveting the Bubble" on the following slides.
And the math behind those 18 spots is assuming (foolishly) that conference leaders or teams that are locks to make the tournament will secure automatic bids. For every rogue conference-tournament winner, the bubble will further shrink.
It's going to be a wild ride over the next week and a half.
In the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park: "Hold on to your butts."
Win-loss records on the following slides exclude games played against opponents not in D-I and are current through the start of play on Thursday, March 6. All Rating Percentage Index (RPI) rankings (via ESPN) and KenPom (KP) rankings (via KenPom.com) are current through the start of play on Wednesday, March 5.
Definitely Dancing: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia
On the Bubble: Florida State, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh
Coveting the Bubble: Clemson
Florida State (18-11, RPI: 59, KP: 37)
Wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech in the past week didn't exactly move the needle in Florida State's favor—the Seminoles actually dropped a few spots in both computer rankings—but you can't put a price on avoiding terrible losses at this point in the year.
They are now above .500 in ACC play and have a home game against Syracuse on Sunday. A win would be a huge shot in the arm and would propel them to either fifth or sixth place in the ACC standings.
Should they lose to Syracuse, they would likely be headed for the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament. That would set them up for a third chance at a huge win against Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals.
One way or another, the opportunities will be there. It's up to the Seminoles to actually take advantage of them.
North Carolina State (18-12, RPI: 62, KP: 79)
Just to be clear, the Wolfpack are still well behind Pittsburgh in the bubble hierarchy. Their stock is up and Pittsburgh's stock is down, but that does not at all mean that they have bypassed the Panthers.
NC State has certainly gained some ground on them, though, by winning at Pittsburgh on Monday night behind a mind-blowing 41-point effort from T.J. Warren. There are entire teams that just barely scored 41 points against Pittsburgh this season—and we're talking about quality teams like Cincinnati and Virginia.
Still, that was NC State's only win against the RPI Top 50 this season, and it's hardly a guarantee that Pittsburgh will be in the RPI Top 50 come Selection Sunday.
Even a run to the ACC Championship Game might not be enough for the Wolfpack, but they are much closer to the bubble than they were on Sunday.
Pittsburgh (22-8, RPI: 46, KP: 26)
This slide's photo really captures the ACC bubble. North Carolina State is charging, and Pittsburgh is half-heartedly trying to keep the Wolfpack at bay.
Pittsburgh has lost six consecutive games against RPI Top-100 opponents. The Panthers have just four wins in the past five weeks. All have come against teams that are well below .500 in ACC play, and they needed overtime to win three of them.
This team was once 18-2 and regarded as one of the best teams in the country by most computer metrics. But now, there might not be a single bubble team failing the eye test more miserably than Pittsburgh.
The Panthers close out the regular season with a road game against Clemson on Saturday. Neither team would be clinching a tournament bid with a win, but the loser could fall off the bubble, never to return.
Definitely Dancing: Cincinnati, Connecticut and Louisville
On the Bubble: Memphis and Southern Methodist
Coveting the Bubble: None
Stock Holding Steady
Memphis (21-7, RPI: 34, KP: 40)
Twas a weird week for the Tigers. They picked up easily their worst loss of the season at Houston on Thursday and bounced back two days later for a huge win over Louisville.
Overall, though, they're in roughly the same place they were seven days ago.
They have a respectable 4-6 record vs. RPI Top 50 but have only played one game against teams with an RPI rank between 51-150. A lot of that is because half of the AAC is dreadful—all of the top-rated teams in this conference have a similar dearth of games against average teams.
We can't even criticize Memphis for playing a weak nonconference schedule, either, as the Tigers played four RPI Top 50 opponents and a fifth game that would have been against an RPI Top 50 opponent if LSU (RPI: 67) had played as well as many expected before the season began.
Regardless, it's very difficult to look past the fact that Memphis has the same record vs. RPI Top 50 as Utah and only played one other game all season against an opponent even remotely worth mentioning.
The Tigers close out their season with a road game against Cincinnati on Thursday before hosting Southern Methodist on Saturday. Win either of those games and they'll be OK, but an 0-2 finish would leave them in dire straits.
Southern Methodist (23-7, RPI: 35, KP: 18)
It has been an unexpectedly great season for the Mustangs, but will the committee be able to overlook their biggest nonconference win coming against Wyoming?
They do have four huge conference wins (Cincinnati, Memphis and Connecticut twice), but they also have a pair of awful conference losses at South Florida and Temple.
Take the feel-good story aspect out of SMU's resume and it loses a lot of its luster.
After losing to Louisville on Wednesday night, SMU has a 4-5 record vs. RPI Top 50 and has played zero games against teams with an RPI rank between 51-100. The Mustangs also have those two ugly losses to teams outside the RPI Top 150.
Arkansas—an SEC team very much on the bubble—is 4-3 vs. RPI Top 50 and 8-8 vs. RPI Top 100. The Razorbacks don't have any losses against teams outside the RPI Top 150.
But it's more fun to talk about SMU's return to relevancy and Arkansas' role in another down year for the SEC, so people seem to think SMU is safely in the field while Arkansas is fighting for its life.
Saturday's road game against Memphis will very likely determine which AAC team desperately needs to prove something in the conference tournament.
Definitely Dancing: Massachusetts, Saint Louis and VCU
On the Bubble: Dayton, George Washington and Saint Joseph's
Coveting the Bubble: Richmond
George Washington (22-7, RPI: 28, KP: 42)
Wednesday night's win over Saint Joseph's all but locked up a bid for the Colonials.
If they were playing literally any other A-10 team than Fordham to end the season, they would be in the Definitely Dancing section. They're 10-7 vs. RPI Top 100, including a neutral-court win over Creighton and four other nonconference victories.
Dayton (21-9, RPI: 52, KP: 61)
If there's a recipe for success for bubble teams, Dayton just concocted it.
Back-to-back wins against teams in the RPI Top 15—with the latter win coming on the road—is about as good as it gets. The Flyers are now 9-6 vs. RPI Top 100 and 4-2 vs. RPI Top 30.
They do have a couple of ugly losses, but if North Carolina (11-4 vs. RPI Top 100, 3-3 vs. RPI Top 30) is in the running for a No. 3 seed with its ugly losses, I'm not sure how anyone can rationalize keeping Dayton out of the field.
Since closing out the month of January by losing five out of six games, Dayton has won eight out of its last nine. A home win over Richmond on Saturday would be more than enough to punch a ticket.
Saint Joseph's (21-8, RPI: 37, KP: 54)
The road loss to George Washington—not at all a bad loss—ended the Hawks' six-game winning streak.
Since Jan. 29, they are 8-2 with their six biggest wins of the season.
Is it enough, though? They're 2-5 vs. RPI Top 50 and 7-7 vs. RPI Top 100. That's much better than what Pittsburgh is bringing to the bubble table, but I'm not sure they have enough quality wins to feel completely safe with their lot in life—especially with Dayton making a serious case for a fifth A-10 bid.
Could this conference really send six teams to the tournament? If Saint Joseph's can beat La Salle on Sunday, it's certainly a possibility.
Definitely Dancing: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas
On the Bubble: Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State
Coveting the Bubble: West Virginia
Baylor (18-10, RPI: 45, KP: 36)
The Bears are in excellent shape after consecutive home wins over Texas Tech and Iowa State. They have now won six of their last seven games, and in their one loss during that stretch they darn near came from behind to pull out a big road win against Texas.
After the recent win over Texas Tech, head coach Scott Drew told Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News, “We need to win two more. We know what we need to do. At the same time, as long as we’re playing, we control our own destiny.”
One down, one to go.
In the ever-present-but-never-quantifiable eye test, Baylor is doing quite well. The computer numbers still leave something to be desired, though. With 10 losses, an RPI in the 40s and a KenPom ranking in the 30s, Baylor is almost exactly where Stanford entered the night—and the Cardinal aren't exactly a lock after Wednesday's loss to Colorado.
A road win over Kansas State on Saturday would lock up the Bears' bid. A loss, however, would likely put them in either seventh or eighth place in the Big 12 tournament—which means an opening round game against either Texas Tech or TCU that could serve as an awful loss. So long as that disaster scenario doesn't occur, Baylor should be in the NCAA tournament.
Oklahoma State (20-10, RPI: 39, KP: 24)
We asked the Cowboys to prove that they are a much better team with Marcus Smart back in the lineup, and they delivered with blowout wins over Texas Tech and TCU and crucial wins over Kansas and Kansas State.
Unfortunately, they have virtually the exact same disaster scenario as Baylor—with the added caveat that they were swept by Baylor during the regular season. If they lose to Iowa State on Saturday, they would draw either Texas Tech or TCU in the first round of the Big 12 tournament.
Oklahoma State should be safely in the field, but we're holding off on putting a stamp on that bid until further notice.
Kansas State (20-10, RPI: 42, KP: 44)
After Monday night's loss at Oklahoma State, the Wildcats are now 1-8 away from home against the RPI Top 100. They also have two losses to teams outside the RPI Top 150.
I can appreciate that they were short-handed in the season-opening loss to Northern Colorado and that they still hadn't tapped into Marcus Foster's full potential by the time they played Charlotte. Still, those are major eyesores for a team on the bubble.
Kansas State is currently two games clear of both Baylor and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 standings, but those early losses and the apparent inability to play away from home really chop Kansas State's resume down to size.
Ultimately, Kansas State is probably safe and the Big 12 is probably sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament.
The worst-case scenario for the Wildcats is a home loss to Baylor on Saturday and a neutral-court loss to Texas in the Big 12 quarterfinals—neither of which would be terrible losses. But whether that 20-12 record would be enough to send them dancing could hinge heavily upon what transpires among Big East, Pac-12 and SEC teams on the bubble.
Definitely Dancing: Creighton and Villanova
On the Bubble: Georgetown, Providence, St. John's and Xavier
Coveting the Bubble: Marquette
Providence (20-10, RPI: 51, KP: 53)
It won't go down in the computers as a big win, but Providence's road win over Seton Hall on Friday was huge. The Pirates have been an absolute thorn in the Big East bubble all season, as they entered that game with a 5-0 record against Georgetown, Providence and Xavier. They also had one-point road losses to Creighton, Marquette and St. John's.
(With the highly rated incoming recruiting class that they have, the Seton Hall Pirates are going to be a very good team next season.)
Building on that win over Seton Hall with a double-overtime win over Marquette simply capped off a nice stretch of wins for the Friars.
Saturday is the big one, though.
Providence has 10 losses overall and just two wins against the RPI Top 50. At the moment, there's very little separating the Friars' resume from those of not-even-on-the-bubble teams like Clemson and Richmond. But a road win over Creighton would almost certainly catapult them into the field.
Georgetown (17-12, RPI: 56, KP: 49)
The Hoyas continue to make no sense whatsoever. In the past five weeks, they have wins over Creighton, Michigan State, Providence and Xavier.
They also have losses to Marquette, Seton Hall and St. John's—and were absolutely blown out in the latter two.
Do they want to make the tournament or not?
Saturday's road trip to Villanova could seal the deal, but Georgetown has yet to win a true road game against the RPI Top 125 all season.
It could be the Hoyas' sixth win against the RPI Top 50, or it could be their 13th loss of the season.
Outside of the Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game, this is the one instance on Saturday of a team that could clinch a bid to the NCAA tournament with a win or resign itself to the NIT with a loss.
St. John's (19-11, RPI: 64, KP: 41)
Other than a home victory over DePaul this past weekend, it has been more than two weeks since St. John's last won a game.
And let's just say that absence did not make the heart grow fonder in this situation.
The Red Storm have a 1-7 record vs. RPI Top 50. Kentucky and Pittsburgh are the only other legitimate at-large candidates with just one RPI Top 50 win. The Wildcats are still in good shape because of an 11-1 record against teams with an RPI rank between 51-100, but sharing a boat with Pittsburgh isn't the best way to endear oneself to the selection committee these days.
A road win over Marquette on Saturday would keep St. John's in the bubble discussion, but there would definitely still be work to do in the Big East tournament in order to actually earn a bid.
Stock Holding Steady
Xavier (19-10, RPI: 43, KP: 43)
Winning at home against Creighton was a gigantic step in the right direction, but finishing off the receiving end of a Seton Hall season sweep was not.
Those two games ended up being a wash, which has pretty much been the case with Xavier for the past six weeks.
The Musketeers are 6-6 in their last 12 games. As soon as we start to believe in them, they lose in ugly fashion. Then, after we've sold our stock, they pick up a key win. They went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis only to come back to the mainland and win eight straight, including a 17-point shellacking of Cincinnati that still stands as perhaps their best win of the season.
Higher ranking teams like Ohio State and North Carolina have gotten all the publicity reserved for completely unpredictable teams, but credit where it's due to Xavier. As soon as you think you've figured them out, assume the opposite will happen.
What does that mean for Xavier's season finale at home against Villanova on Thursday? Who knows? I suppose we're really expecting the Musketeers to lose in light of a knee injury that is going to keep leading rebounder Matt Stainbrook out of the game.
Anything can happen with Xavier, but a win over Villanova would very likely send them to the NCAA tournament.
Definitely Dancing: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin
On the Bubble: Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska
Coveting the Bubble: Indiana and Illinois
Nebraska (18-11, RPI: 48, KP: 57)
Wednesday night's 10-point win over Indiana was Nebraska's seventh win in the last eight games, which includes that season-altering win at Michigan State.
The Cornhuskers aren't a lock yet, but they're getting closer.
The nonconference portion of the season certainly isn't helping them. They only had two RPI Top 150 wins prior to Jan. 20—a home win over Miami in the ACC/B1G Challenge and a neutral-court win over Georgia in the seventh-place game of the Charleston Classic—but they do have an impressive 10-3 record vs. RPI Top 150 over the last six weeks.
Iowa (19-9, RPI: 32, KP: 12)
Last week, a lot of people weren't too pleased about Iowa being on the bubble, but I'm standing by it.
Perhaps the easiest trick to determining whether or not a team is on the bubble is by looking at the first four or five teams outside the field, and determining if there exists a scenario in which those teams could bypass the team in question.
Iowa is 19-9 with games remaining against Michigan State and Illinois. If the Hawkeyes lose both of those games, they would be 9-9 in conference play, and likely paired up against Penn State in the first round of the B1G tournament. A third straight loss in that game would put them at 19-12 with only one RPI Top 25 win.
That's not an extremely likely scenario, but it's a possible one. And if it happens, it would absolutely be plausible for wrong-side-of-the-bubble teams like Florida State, Providence and Nebraska to put together better resumes than Iowa.
A 7-9 record vs. RPI Top 100 is good, but it's not "lock them up and throw away the key" good. Arizona State is 8-8 vs. RPI Top 100, and the Sun Devils are still on the bubble. And it's not as if Iowa's nonconference schedule was that much more impressive than Arizona State's.
So, accept it, Hawkeyes fans. Feel free to be mad but please direct your anger at the team with a 5-6 record since Jan. 22 instead of the person pointing it out.
Minnesota (17-12, RPI: 47, KP: 55)
It wasn't a surprise that the Golden Gophers lost at Michigan on Saturday, but the loss did ensure that they'll be on the bubble for the foreseeable future.
In last Thursday's projected bracket, I compared Florida State to Minnesota and found very little difference between the two. Since then, Florida State is 2-0, and Minnesota is 0-1.
A potent strength of schedule is keeping Minnesota in the conversation, but strength of schedule doesn't help you unless you actually do something with it. The teams directly before and after Minnesota in the SOS ranks are Alabama and Temple, and those teams would be extremely lucky to even be invited to the CIT tournament.
Minnesota will need to beat Penn State on Sunday and win at least one game in the B1G conference tournament—potentially against Illinois—in order to still be in the mix 10 days from now.
Definitely Dancing: Arizona, Colorado and UCLA
On the Bubble: Arizona State, California, Oregon, Stanford and Utah
Coveting the Bubble: None
Oregon (21-8, RPI: 31, KP: 29)
If they had just spaced out those eight losses a little better, the Ducks would be a stone-cold lock for the tournament.
They went 5-0 in the nonconference against the RPI Top 100 and have four RPI Top 100 wins in conference play.
Kansas State is the only other team in the country that is on the bubble with nine or more RPI Top 100 wins. The Wildcats have two more losses than Oregon and frankly aren't anywhere close to missing the tournament.
Oregon's one "bad" loss was a road game against an in-state rival just outside the RPI Top 100. The Ducks' only remaining regular-season game is against the best team in the country (Sorry, Florida).
Utah (18-9, RPI: 83, KP: 34)
RPI, ShmarPI. Utah has very much played its way onto the bubble with consecutive key wins over Arizona State, Colorado and California.
The Utes didn't do much to challenge themselves during the nonconference portion of the season, but that home win over BYU is sure looking pretty these days.
As a matter of fact, BYU might be the perfect comparison to show that this Utah team belongs in the tournament.
The Cougars are 3-5 vs. RPI Top 50, 7-6 vs. RPI Top 100 and have four losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100. The Utes are now 5-6 vs. RPI Top 50, 6-8 vs. RPI Top 100 and only have one bad loss on the year.
But because Utah played (and won) a bunch of home games against terrible teams in November, the RPI has never been able to recover.
Arizona State (21-9, RPI: 38, KP: 35)
Despite Tuesday night's loss to Oregon, Arizona State is still marginally trending in the right direction.
The Sun Devils' biggest problem is something they can't do anything to fix now: a 1-1 record against nonconference opponents in the RPI Top 100—and boy how did they get destroyed by Creighton in that loss. A two-point home win over Marquette was the best thing they did until late January.
Much like Nebraska, though, Arizona State has been picking up quality wins left and right over the past six weeks, tallying six RPI Top 50 wins since Jan. 25.
If they win at Oregon State on Saturday, it'll be time to write the Sun Devils into the tournament field in permanent ink.
Stanford (18-11, RPI: 41, KP: 38)
Life in the Pac-12 is hard.
Since picking up a crucial win over UCLA on Feb. 22, Stanford has lost three consecutive games to Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado. The season finale against Utah won't be a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination, either.
If there's good news in the Cardinal's 11 losses, it's that nine of them have come against the RPI Top 50, against whom they are now 5-9. Of course, the bad news is that there are 11 losses. There's no magic number of losses for bubble teams to avoid, but they would be getting pretty close to it if such a concrete integer existed.
The win over Utah is a must. Otherwise, Stanford is going to be battling Washington for the No. 9 seed in the Pac-12 conference tournament. In what might be a seven-bid conference, that's not a great place to be.
California (18-12, RPI: 50, KP: 64)
On Jan. 18, the Golden Bears were 14-4, working on a six-game winning streak and had key wins away from home against Arkansas, Oregon and Stanford. Since then, they have added a home win over Arizona and lost to virtually everyone else they played.
Cal has lost eight out of its last 12 games. In the past two weeks, the Golden Bears are 1-4 with a win over 1-15 USC, three blowout losses and a particularly painful home loss to surging Utah on Wednesday night.
Save for that two-point win over short-handed Arizona, there's really nothing California has done in the past two months to show it belongs in the NCAA tournament.
However, this team does have four RPI Top 50 wins and an upcoming home game against Colorado to try to make it five. Beat the Buffaloes and pick up a couple of Pac-12 tournament wins and Cal will be right back in business.
Definitely Dancing: Florida and Kentucky
On the Bubble: Arkansas, LSU, Missouri and Tennessee
Coveting the Bubble: Georgia
Arkansas (20-9, RPI: 49, KP: 45)
The Razorbacks have won six in a row and eight of their last nine.
If there's a hotter bubble team in the country, I haven't met them.
Since our last update, they completed the season sweep of Kentucky with a win at Rupp Arena, beat Georgia by 12 and beat Ole Miss by 30.
There aren't many teams convincingly playing their way into the tournament, but Arkansas is one of them. As long as the Razorbacks can avoid a bad loss at Alabama to finish the regular season, they'll be a lock for the tournament.
Missouri (21-9, RPI: 60, KP: 59)
You certainly won't find anyone arguing that their come-from-behind win over Texas A&M was a thing of beauty, but wins are wins, and the Tigers got two of them in the past week.
Going 2-0 against Mississippi State and the Aggies was mathematically the best we could ask from them, and it leaves them in prime bubble position for the season finale at Tennessee. The winner will be in great shape for the NCAA tournament. The loser? Not so much.
The real secret to Missouri's increasing stock has been the inspired play of Arkansas. Missouri swept Arkansas before the Razorbacks were