We normally hear about how the bubble is weak, as everyone forgets every other year. But this year, the bedlam of the last few weeks has produced a particularly strong bubble, at least by how the committee has traditionally decided such things. Several teams added top wins and we might see a situation where a team that would have been selected in recent past years is bypassed.
Let’s get to where we stand entering the final regular season day of the college basketball season.
I think Marquette, Seton Hall, and Providence sealed their spots with yesterday’s results in the Big East. Michigan should do the same with a win today at Nebraska.
I’ve got 27 at-larges accounted for, assuming that the teams in my top 36 secure the auto bids from the major conferences.
Here’s the battle lines heading into Championship Week:
JUST AVOID A BAD LOSS
Michigan: In this case, today’s game at Nebraska. I think they are in if they win today, playing for seeding. Lose at Nebraska, then get into an 8/9 game with Illinois and lose, and things will be more nervy on Selection Sunday.
VCU: VCU is kind of a paper ram when it comes to their resumé. The RPI is in the top 25, and no team has failed to make the field with a RPI as high as they currently sit. However, that RPI is bolstered by good RPI gaming, and they don’t have many key wins or games. They lost to Baylor, lost big at Illinois, lost to Georgia Tech, and the two best wins, by a longshot, are Middle Tennessee and Dayton at home.
Without that stretch of improbable wins, they would be squarely on the hot seat. As it is, I think they get in (but seeded much lower than the RPI rank), as long as they don’t get upset in the A-10 quarterfinals.
Wake Forest: No one had a bigger week than Wake, getting their two best results of the season and shooting from perhaps on the wrong side of the bubble to now likely in. A loss to Boston College would be disastrous, but advancing past that should have the Demon Deacons dancing.
Vanderbilt: I’m not sure anyone has more riding on one game than the Commodores, against Texas A&M. After yesterday’s win over Florida to give them the season sweep, Vanderbilt has five wins against tourney teams in the last two months. They’ve also had some bad losses in their past. Coming off Saturday’s high and not winning would drop the RPI outside the Top 50 and put the record at 17-15. I think if they play Florida again in the quarterfinal, they are in regardless of result.
Michigan State: The Spartans came close to clinching their spot at Maryland, until Melo Trimble broke their hearts. With six Top 50 wins and one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, I think they are still fine, as long as they don’t lose the Big Ten opener if they play against one of the teams at the bottom of the table (seeding to be determined by today’s results).
That puts us at 32 at-large teams, with no bid thiefs.
THE TRUE BUBBLE/WILDCARDS
Wichita State or Illinois State (MVC Runner-Up): Wichita State and Illinois State mowed through the MVC at 17-1 and are meeting in the final. In my opinion, they both should be in the field regardless of today’s result. But, I have to acknowledge the committee’s history with teams like these. They sent Wichita State to Dayton last year as one of the last four in, with a similar resume (but slightly better RPI). Neither has a signature win against other tournament teams. Their best wins are against each other. Illinois State lost to TCU and Wichita State played Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State, all losses. How the committee will assess the runner-up against the teams from big conferences is a wildcard.
If I had to guess, I’d say Wichita State is in (for no bad losses outside the Top 50, and playing more of them, and mowing everyone else down), and Illinois State is at the whim of other results.
USC: I could have put USC in the “avoid bad loss” category but I do think they are not a lock even by facing UCLA and losing again. They cannot lose to Washington. Other big conference teams to whom they will be compared will have more top wins, and the Trojans have been sliding lately. Another loss could doom them. We don’t know how the committee will view the rest of the Pac-12 (6th-best conference in RPI rankings) and whether that lack of depth will doom the Trojans.
Syracuse: For the second year in a row, Syracuse has a mediocre RPI that usually dooms teams, but a lot of top wins. Unlike last year, the “Jim Boeheim missed part of the season with suspension” thing is not a talking point.” I don’t know that the committee will keep Syracuse out if they lose to Miami, because they may already view the wins over Duke, Florida State, and Virginia as enough.
I do suspect that beating Miami would push them past a lot of teams. Without it, they would have an RPI ranking outside the Top 80 and be in historically low territory for an at-large.
Xavier: The Musketeers are kind of the anti-Syracuse when it comes to resumé. The RPI is in a range (mid-30’s) where you would say they are in. Of course, Xavier has done of good job of scheduling to game the RPI, playing quality lower conference teams and non-tourney teams from major conferences. When you look at actual results, they are 4-11 against likely tournament teams, and without Edmond Sumner, they have simply not looked like a tournament team recently. I don’t think they can lose to DePaul in the Big East tourney, and good luck discerning how the committee views them.
If they get in, you can laugh at all those “but we consider other things besides the RPI” claims.
Kansas State: The Wildcats bounced back this week with some must-win games. I think they have one more. They need a signature win and beating Baylor in the Big 12 tournament would provide it. Losing that game would have them at risk of missing out.
Rhode Island: I already talked about VCU’s outlook. Rhode Island is third in the A-10 and how the committee views them is a major unknown. They beat Cincinnati, but lost to Duke, Providence, and Houston in the non-conference. They were swept by Dayton, and beat VCU at home. I think they have work to do, by getting another big win in the A-10, and can’t afford a loss early.
That gives us 6 teams above for the last 4 spots. That assumes that no one else from the A-10 wins, or that Middle Tennessee or UT-Arlington don’t lose in their conference finals (I think both have a claim to be in the wildcard mix in that case as a Last Four In).
NEED BIG RESULTS IN THE CONFERENCE TOURNEY
The rest of these teams could get an at-large, but need multiple wins, and likely a top 25-type win along the way.