Top College Basketball Programs in Danger of Missing the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 26, 2018

Top College Basketball Programs in Danger of Missing the 2018 NCAA Tournament

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    Ethan Happ
    Ethan HappCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The Wisconsin Badgers and Gonzaga Bulldogs have each competed in every men's NCAA tournament dating back to 1999, but it's possible that neither staple of March Madness will make an appearance in the 2018 bracket.

    Those are just two of the top teams in danger of missing the Big Dance.

    By "top teams" we mean program who fit one of the following two pools of candidates:

    • Preseason AP Top 25 teams, or
    • Teams who have competed in at least eight of the last 10 NCAA tournaments.

    Had we gone with just the first pool, Butler, Texas, VCU and Wisconsin would have been excluded from consideration, despite near-annual showings in the field of 68. Conversely, only using the second pool would have eliminated teams like Northwestern, Minnesota and USC, despite an offseason of everyone telling us they could or should reach the Sweet 16.

    So, we're including both groups, ranking the teams in order of most to least likely to reach the 2018 NCAA tournament.

          

    Three teams who were considered before the list was trimmed to 10: Butler, Saint Mary's and Texas. All three are on the preferred side of the projected bubble, but that could change drastically in a week's time.

    KenPom.com rankings and RPI ratings (courtesy of WarrenNolan.com) current through the start of play Jan. 25.

10. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Silas Melson (0), Killian Tillie (33) and Josh Perkins (13)
    Silas Melson (0), Killian Tillie (33) and Josh Perkins (13)Kent C. Horner/Getty Images

    Tournament Resume: 17-4, RPI: 57, KP: 7, SOS: 160

    Three Best Wins: vs. Ohio State, vs. Creighton, at Washington

    Three Worst Losses: at San Diego State, vs. Saint Mary's, vs. Florida

    As far as predictive analytics like KenPom, BPI and Sagarin are concerned, putting Gonzaga on this list might raise a few eyebrows. All three of those sites have the Zags as a top-10 team in the country. Not only should they be a lock for the tournament, but they should be on the short list of serious candidates for the Final Four.

    But RPI and strength of schedule still matter, and those numbers are ugly for Gonzaga.

    The cause for that disconnect is that when Gonzaga wins, it typically annihilates the competition. Only two of its 17 wins were by a single-digit margin. Ten were decided by at least 27 points, including a neutral-court blowout of Ohio State that might be worth more than any win by any team this season. And since the three worst losses listed above came by a combined 11 points, the metrics rooted in margin of victory adore the Bulldogs.

    With 11 Group 4 wins, though, Gonzaga's cupcake diet could be a problem.

    Don't get me wrong: If the season ended today, Gonzaga would be in the field by a landslide. The loss to San Diego State was disappointing, but it isn't nearly enough to undo the four Group 1 wins this team picked up in nonconference play.

    However, it would only take one off night in WCC play for the Zags to slip perilously onto the bubble. A road loss to BYU or Saint Mary's wouldn't be much of a problem, but if they were to lay an egg against San Diego or San Francisco, it would be time to start debating what happens if Gonzaga doesn't win the WCC tournament.

9. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Robert Williams
    Robert WilliamsJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Tournament Resume: 13-7, RPI: 37, KP: 35, SOS: 13

    Three Best Wins: vs. West Virginia, at USC, vs. Buffalo

    Three Worst Losses: vs. LSU, at LSU, vs. Florida

    Like Gonzaga, Texas A&M would be somewhat comfortably in the field if today were Selection Sunday. The season sweep at the hands of LSU is a bit disturbing, but Florida lost three times to Vanderbilt last season and still got a No. 4 seed. Sometimes a conference foe just has your number. And aside from those two games, this is a respectable resume.

    The season-opening neutral-court win over West Virginia (88-65) was massive, and the road win over USC could be something of a tiebreaker if we're still talking about both teams on the bubble six weeks from now. Home wins over Buffalo and Missouri also look great.

    Selection Sunday isn't today, though, and the Aggies are reeling.

    Thanks to a combination of injuries and suspensions, they started 0-5 in SEC play. But even with a full roster, they struggled at home against Ole Miss and got smacked around by LSU on Tuesday.

    The big men have been more than adequate. Tyler Davis and Robert Williams have combined for 31.7 points and 23.7 rebounds over the last three games.

    Unfortunately, the guard play been a disaster. Per Sports Reference, DJ Hogg has a 93.2 offensive rating in SEC play, followed by 90.1 for Admon Gilder and 67.3 for Duane Wilson. And the team is shooting 26.3 percent from three-point range in eight SEC games.

    Next up is a road game against Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, followed by six straight tough SEC opponents. This is Texas A&M's chance to prove it belongs, but it could also be time to stop making excuses for this team and just write it out of the tournament picture.

8. USC Trojans

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    Bennie Boatwright
    Bennie BoatwrightLeon Bennett/Getty Images

    Tournament Resume: 16-6, RPI: 35, KP: 50, SOS: 35

    Three Best Wins: vs. Middle Tennessee, vs. New Mexico State, at Oregon

    Three Worst Losses: vs. Princeton, at Stanford, vs. Washington

    Though USC isn't No. 1 on this list, there's a strong case to be made for the Trojans as the most disappointing team in the country.

    Yes, the FBI investigation and the fact that De'Anthony Melton has not played this season because of it are huge contributing factors, but we're still talking about what was a preseason Top 10 team and Final Four contender. USC and "bubble" were never supposed to be uttered in the same sentence this season, yet here we are.

    The Trojans are still searching for a win to hang their proverbial hat on. To this point, their only bragging points are neutral-court victories over Middle Tennessee and New Mexico State, neither of which is anything close to a tournament guarantee. Couple the lack of marquee wins with one awful loss (Princeton) and four questionable losses (Stanford, Washington, SMU and Texas A&M), and I'm not sure how USC has put together a satisfactory computer resume.

    This resume could drastically shift in the next two-plus weeks. One more bad loss, and the whole house of cards could come crashing down. Conversely, a road win over Arizona or Arizona State in the second weekend of February could be what establishes USC as a single-digit seed and a team that needs to be taken seriously as an Elite Eight threat.

7. UCLA Bruins

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    Prince Ali (23) and Aaron Holiday (3)
    Prince Ali (23) and Aaron Holiday (3)Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 13-7, RPI: 64, KP: 59, SOS: 61

    Three Best Wins: vs. Kentucky, vs. Washington, vs. Utah

    Three Worst Losses: at Oregon State, vs. Colorado, at Oregon

    Gonzaga, Texas A&M and USC are projected tournament teams in danger of losing that status. But the remaining seven teams on this list are already on the wrong side of the bubble, starting with UCLA.

    The Bruins appeared to be in great shape when they picked up a neutral-court win over Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic, making up for what had been a lackluster nonconference schedule. Lose that game and they probably needed to go 14-4 or even 15-3 in Pac-12 play in order to make the tournament. But with that win, UCLA put itself in position to reach the Dance by going 12-6, maybe 11-7.

    But despite not having played any of their six most difficult conference gamesvs. USC; at Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Colorado and USCthe Bruins are sitting at 4-4 in league play and now need to play their way back into the projected field.

    Given how bad they have looked lately, that's quite the tall task.

    UCLA didn't just lose to Colorado and Oregon State in back-to-back games. It completely failed to show up for either one, scoring 59 against the Buffaloes and 63 against the Beavers. And with a defense this poor, the Bruins can't expect to win while averaging one point per offensive possession or worse.

    Now that Thomas Welsh has an impressive three-point stroke and Aaron Holiday has asserted himself as a go-to option, this team has enough talent and versatility to beat anyone. Save for one December afternoon in New Orleans, though, we haven't seen much of that this season. And we are far enough removed from the shoplifting scandal that there must be another excuse for UCLA not living up to its potential.

6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Matt Farrell
    Matt FarrellRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 13-7, RPI: 69, KP: 30, SOS: 63

    Three Best Wins: vs. Wichita State, at Syracuse, vs. LSU

    Three Worst Losses: at Georgia Tech, vs. Ball State, vs. Indiana

    Even before Notre Dame lost Bonzie Colson to a broken footan injury that may keep him from appearing in a single game in January or Februaryit had an iffy tournament resume.

    The neutral-court win over Wichita State was massive, even if it was a bit lucky, requiring a 16-point comeback and a foul with one second remaining. But the Fighting Irish effectively erased that win with a home loss to Ball State and a neutral-court loss to Indiana. Aside from those three games, nothing about this nonconference resume stands out.

    In six games without Colson, Notre Dame has been better than expected. It blew out North Carolina State (88-58) and won a road game against Syracuse. It lost by one point to North Carolina and took Louisville to double overtime. Nevertheless, the Fighting Irish have lost four straight to fall out of the tournament picture.

    The good news is there are plenty of opportunities yet to come. Notre Dame plays at Duke on Monday, at North Carolina in mid-February and at Virginia to close the regular season. Win any of those three games while taking care of business against the likes of Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College, and Notre Dame should be dancing for the eighth time in nine seasons.

    The flip side is that the schedule doesn't let up, and this team needs to quit stockpiling losses. Given Notre Dame's nonconference resume and ACC double dips against Georgia Tech, NC State and Boston College, even a 9-9 conference record might not be enough. And the Irish are already sitting at 3-4 in ACC play.

5. Baylor Bears

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    Manu Lecomte
    Manu LecomteTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 11-8, RPI: 97, KP: 42, SOS: 51

    Three Best Wins: vs. Creighton, vs. Texas, vs. Oklahoma State

    Three Worst Losses: vs. Kansas State, at Iowa State, vs. Wichita State

    Baylor loaded up its nonconference schedule with dreadful opponents, playing home against Central Arkansas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Alcorn State, Sam Houston State, Texas Southern, Savannah State, Southern University and non-Division I Randall University.

    The Bears blew out each and every one of those teams, but their RPI paid the price for it.

    We've seen plenty of teams sneak into the field with a resume devoid of both great wins and bad losses, but you have to schedule somewhat aggressively to do that. Baylor, instead, has played 40 percent of its regular-season games against teams outside the RPI top 200 and has lost 67 percent of the other 12 games.

    That's not an acceptable combination, and it's going to take a fair amount of work in the nation's toughest conference for Baylor to make up for it.

    Unless the Bears win at Florida on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, their three best nonconference wins will be Creighton on a neutral court (impressive), Wisconsin on a neutral court (not great, but OK) and home against Southern (yikes).

    A couple of Big 12 teams did more than enough in nonconference play to get an invite to the NCAA tournament with an 8-10 league record, but Baylor is not one of them.

    Maybe that would change with a win over Florida. Even if it did, though, the Bears are 2-6 and would need to go at least 6-4 the rest of the way—an unlikely proposition against this gauntlet, especially considering it has already played its home games against Oklahoma State, Texas and Kansas State.

4. Northwestern Wildcats

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    Bryant McIntosh
    Bryant McIntoshJim Mone/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 13-9, RPI: 101, KP: 84, SOS: 70

    Three Best Wins: at Minnesota, vs. Minnesota, vs. Penn State

    Three Worst Losses: at Georgia Tech, at Penn State, vs. Nebraska

    This is where it starts to get ugly.

    UCLA, Notre Dame and Baylor are in trouble, but they each have a great neutral-court nonconference win and have avoided terrible losses (for the most part). They're each one Group 1 win away from getting right back into the thick of the bubble race.

    Northwestern, on the other hand, did not do a single good thing in nonconference play, going 0-4 against the RPI top 150.

    Factoring in Big Ten games, the Wildcats are 0-5 against Group 1 and 1-3 against Group 2. If they won every remaining regular-season game, it would still be tough to sell them as tournament-worthy, considering they don't play any more games against Ohio State or Purdue.

    So, what exactly happened to the season expected to build on the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament?

    For starters, no one seemed to realize in the preseason just how important Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn were last year as seniors. Without those efficient, veteran forwards, it often looks like this offense is playing in quicksand. Many thought getting Aaron Falzon back from injury would help fill those holes, but he hasn't made much of an impact.

    Meanwhile, no one has improved from last season. Bryant McIntosh was supposed to be a contender for Big Ten Player of the Year as a senior, but he has never been particularly efficient in his career. Gavin Skelly took a step backward after entering the starting lineup, further exacerbating the departures of Lumpkin and Taphorn. Basically, Vic Law is the only Wildcat who has been better, which isn't enough.

    Northwestern can forget about the NCAA tournament. At this point, it might not reach the NIT either.

3. Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Richard Pitino
    Richard PitinoPatrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 14-9, RPI: 107, KP: 87, SOS: 80

    Three Best Wins: at Providence, vs. Alabama, at Penn State

    Three Worst Losses: vs. Northwestern, vs. Indiana, at Northwestern

    It's sometimes hard to believe how much can change in the span of three weeks in this sport.

    In my New Year's bracket projection, Minnesota was 12-3 and a No. 10 seed. The Golden Gophers didn't have a great resume, but they had an RPI of 53 and a KenPom rank of 43. It seemed they were starting to turn things around and would reassert themselves as the third-best team in the Big Ten.

    (At the time, Minnesota was the No. 39 overall seed and Ohio State was No. 46. Again, hard to believe how quickly things can change.)

    Six losses in seven games later, and Minnesota's national rank in each metric has doubled, which isn't a good thing.

    The primary cause of the sudden collapse was the Reggie Lynch suspenion and the shoulder injury that sidelined Amir Coffey for five games. For a team already lacking depth after Eric Curry's knee injury prior to the season, adjusting to life without those two pivotal starters before the heart of conference play was simply impossible.

    In the first game without Lynch and Coffey, their replacements (Michael Hurt and Bakary Konate) combined to score two points in 58 minutes. And that was the one loss that wasn't a blowout. Without Lynch to block shots and Coffey to help spread the floor on offense as a 6'8" wing, things spiraled out of control.

    Coffey has been back in the lineup for the past two games, but it has been too little, too late: The Gophers managed just 49 points in an ugly loss to Ohio State and lost at home to Northwestern.

    If the Golden Gophers were to flip the switch and win seven of their final eight games, there's still a path to an at-large bid here. Those nonconference wins over Providence and Alabama are solid, and with two games left against Michigan State (home) and Purdue (road), going 7-1 would mean beating at least one of the Big Ten's top dogs.

    However, if you've watched this team play lately, you know better than to expect anything of the sort.

2. VCU Rams

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    Justin Tillman
    Justin TillmanMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Tournament Resume: 13-8, RPI: 120, KP: 133, SOS: 103

    Three Best Wins: vs. Old Dominion, vs. Bucknell, at La Salle

    Three Worst Losses: vs. Richmond, at Saint Joseph's, at Dayton

    While it's unusual to see VCU this far removed from the NCAA tournament conversation, it's not surprising.

    The Rams lost five key seniors from last season, including leading scorer and starting point guard, JeQuan Lewis, and their enforcer and Energizer Bunny in the paint, Mo Alie-Cox. They also lost Samir Doughty as a transfer to Auburn, leaving Justin Tillman and Jonathan Williams as the only returning members of their primary eight-man rotation. Moreover, Will Wade jumped ship to become the head coach at LSU.

    Given all those changes, VCU hasn't actually been that bad. In the first four weeks of the season, this team put up impressive fights against Virginia, Michigan, Texas and Marquette. D-I transfers Khris Lane and Issac Vann and JUCO transfer Mike'l Simms have been significant contributors, helping to make up for all the lost production.

    But the Rams have taken some ugly losses in January, and all those "almost" games against major-conference foes didn't yield anything close to a quality win.

    As a result, this tournament regular is undeniably in an "auto bid or bust" situation.

    That doesn't mean the Rams are dead, though.

    In major conferences, the "auto bid or bust" label is just a fancy way of saying, "no chance in hell." In the 2017-18 Atlantic 10, it's a viable strategy. Rhode Island is the clear favorite, but that's really the only team VCU would need to worry about.

    And who's to say these Rams couldn't beat those Rams in a do-or-die conference championship game?

1. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Khalil Iverson
    Khalil IversonCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 10-11, RPI: 138, KP: 89, SOS: 62

    Three Best Wins: vs. Western Kentucky, at Penn State, vs. Indiana

    Three Worst Losses: at Rutgers, at Iowa, vs. Baylor

    If the Badgers had to go out, at least they're doing it with a bang.

    Wisconsin has been a part of the past 19 NCAA tournaments. The last time this team lost more than 14 times in a single season, Will Smith was "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It." Current second-leading scorer Brad Davison hadn't even been born yet.

    In other words, it's been a while since Wisconsin was this bad.

    As with VCU, though, we probably should have seen this coming. We ignored the warning signs in favor of stats about how many consecutive times Wisconsin has finished in the top four in the Big Ten, as though Alando Tucker, Mike Bruesewitz and Frank Kaminsky have anything to do with the current roster.

    Rather, the Badgers lost four senior starters from last season, which already wasn't one of the best units assembled in Madison. Assuming they could replace Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown without a hitch simply because they always make the tournament was horrendous logic.

    Though Wisconsin did get Ethan Happ back and has gotten some impressive play out of Davison, this team isn't any good. It struggles with decent opponents and gets destroyed by the good ones (see: results against Marquette, Ohio State, Purdue and Virginia). Wisconsin even lost by 18 to Iowa this week.

    It's not a familiar mindset for Badgers fans, but cheer up, because there's always next year. Aaron Moesch is the only senior on the roster, and considering he's tied for 11th on the team in scoring, there's a good chance they'll be able to move on without him. If Happ comes back for one more year, don't be surprised if Wisconsin goes straight from a sub-.500 season to a preseason Top 15 team.

                              

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.