March Madness: Tournament Watch 3/4

By Mike Bachini – CBS Connecticut

Connecticut (CBS) – Almost every single year since the tournament field expanded to 68 teams there’s been talk about the “Soft Bubble”. Basically what this means is that the teams fighting for the last couple of at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament are relatively weak compared to past seasons.

This season, there’s been not only talk about a soft bubble, but a lot of experts are saying that this is the softest bubble of all time. In recent weeks that’s been hard to argue. Kansas State, TCU, Georgia Tech, Rhode Island, Cal and Syracuse have all had either forgettable losses against bad teams or have gone on such awful losing streaks that it’s hard to comprehend how they remain on the bubble.

But now some teams are coming out of nowhere to join the group. Illinois, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Iowa and to a lesser extent Georgia and BYU have all shaped their resume’s in the past few weeks to the point where they can’t be ignored. Teams who were once considered but have completely fallen off the bubble radar like Clemson, Pitt, Houston, Tennessee and Indiana have made things a little less cluttered. So yes if you extend the bubble that far, it is still extremely soft. If you cut out the fat and take in to account how well some teams have been playing lately, the bubble isn’t as soft as it was once perceived.

 

In = The team could lose all of the rest of their games between now and March 12th and they would still be in the tournament. Obviously their seeding would take a hit, but it would be a complete shock if they weren’t in the tournament.

Almost In = These are the teams who are not quite there yet, but only need a win or two more, or to avoid any devastating losses between now and the end of the season.

Bubble = Teams that might be in if the field was announced today, but are in direct competition with many other teams.

ACC

In (8) – Louisville, North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Miami, Virginia Tech
Bubble In (2) – Wake Forest, Syracuse
Bubble Out – Georgia Tech

 

– Wake Forest moves up into the “Bubble In” by way of their huge win at home over Louisville on Wednesday night. This gave the Demon Deacons another very solid win alongside their win over Miami back in January. The worst things about Wake Forest’s resume are the fact that they got swept by Clemson, they lost their only meeting to Syracuse who is also hanging around the bubble picture and they only have 2 top 50 RPI wins against the teams mentioned earlier. To counter that, they have zero bad losses to teams with an RPI higher than Syracuse’s 80 and they now have 7 top 100 wins total. Another thing lacking from Wake’s profile are road wins in conference. They only have 2 and they were to the two worst teams in the league (BC and NC State). Beating Virginia Tech on the road Saturday would go a long long way. They are the quintessential bubble team and right now I’d consider them in.

 

Syracuse and Georgia Tech have a virtual play in game this Saturday in New York. Georgia Tech already has the head to head victory at home, but this one is being played in the Carrier Dome where Syracuse is usually a completely different team. Syracuse’s qualities are that they have 6 top 50 RPI wins and 9 top 100 RPI wins total. They have huge wins over Duke, Virginia, Florida State, Miami and Wake Forest. They also have some bad losses to St. John’s, Georgetown, Uconn and Boston College. On top of that they have only 2 wins away from the Carrier Dome all season (NC State and Clemson). If they beat Georgia Tech I see them heading to Dayton to prove their worth. Georgia Tech is in a similar position. They have some great wins, and some extremely bad and head scratching losses that I’ve detailed in past articles. Beating Syracuse on the road to get to 9-9 in the ACC would probably swap them in for Syracuse pending results in the ACC tournament next week.

Big East

In (3) – Villanova, Butler, Creighton
Bubble In (4) – Xavier, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette

 

– On February 9th Xavier was 18-6 and seemed headed for a #4 seed. Since then they have lost 6 in a row and are back on the inside of the bubble at 18-12. Their overall profile is still extremely strong, but it’ll be interesting to see how this recent slide affects them in the eyes of the committee. They aren’t the same team that started out so strong, having lost Edmund Sumner for the season with a torn acl on January 29th. What is also helping Xavier is the fact that even though they’ve lost 6 in a row, they’ve all been to teams that would be projected in the field at this point. They still have wins against Wake Forest, Providence, Creighton and Seton Hall. If everything breaks the right way Xavier’s next two games would be against DePaul. First this coming weekend in Chicago and then in the first round of the Big East tournament in New York. If Xavier avoids those two bad losses, they should be in.

Marquette is the team that most recently beat Xavier and it was at Xavier. Strictly by the numbers that was a huge win for Marquette. Even though Xavier has slid recently, their RPI is still very high. But common knowledge and the eye test tells another story that this is not the same Xavier team that did all their work early in the season to obtain such a high number. Still, it was a conference road win and those go a long way.

– Nothing new to report for Seton Hall and Providence. Both are looking strong right now and are projected 10 seeds in the tournament. Seton Hall plays at Butler on Saturday and a loss there won’t hurt them besides a possible slip in the Big East standings. Providence really needs to avenge their earlier loss to St. John’s on Saturday to avoid a season sweep by one of the worst teams in the league. If Providence wins that one to get to 10-8 in the conference, their first round opponent in the Big East tournament will be quality enough that a loss there won’t hurt them. Unless a bunch of craziness happens in conference tournament play next week (and that’s a distinct possibility), Providence will hear their name called on Selection Sunday with a win at St. John’s.

Big 12

In (5) – Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Iowa State
Bubble In (1) – Kansas State
Bubble Out – TCU

 

Kansas State barely jumps back into the field with their road win over TCU on Wednesday night. As of right now, they are the last team in the field in my opinion. Yes a win over a team like TCU that has fallen off a cliff is not that exciting. But if you couple that with Cal’s implosion, the likely scenario that just one of Syracuse and Georgia Tech will make the field and TCU’s complete meltdown, the Wildcats aren’t looking so bad even just one game removed from losing by 30 at Oklahoma. Kansas State has two things working for them. One is their amount of very good wins. They’ve won at Oklahoma State and at Baylor and they’ve defeated West Virginia at home. They’ve also lost to Kansas twice by a combined 5 points which proves they can be competitive against the best of the best. They also have eight road/neutral wins this season. Comparing those 8 to the 2 that Syracuse has will go a long way when resume’s are stacked up along side one another.

– There’s really not much to say about TCU that hasn’t already been said. They needed to beat Kansas State at home to stick around, and they didn’t. Aside from a run to the Big 12 championship game, their bubble is just about burst. Which is really too bad as they were one of the early season surprises at 14-3 fresh off a win against Iowa State. They’ve gone 3-10 since then.

Big 10

In (5) – Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern
Probably In (3) – Michigan, Michigan State
Bubble In (1) – Illinois
Bubble Out (1) – Iowa

 

– Wisconsin is approaching Xavier levels of worry having lost 5 of their last 6 two of which were at home. They are still in the field and probably won’t slide out even if worst case scenario happens (loss at Minnesota and in the first round of the Big 10 tournament).

– Northwestern is now considered “In” due to a game winning layup by way of a full court pass with 1.7 seconds left against Michigan on Wednesday night that prompted a lot of experts to let us know what month it was.

A loss to Purdue and a loss in the first round of the Big Ten tournament might make the Wildcats sweat out Selection Sunday due to the fact that the program has never made the NCAA Tournament, but I believe they’d be safe even in that worst case scenario.

Michigan State lost at Illinois on Wednesday night but that result probably helped Illinois more than it hurt Michigan State. Michigan State played the 19th hardest out of conference schedule and have a total of 12 top 100 RPI wins including a sweep of Minnesota and win over fellow bubbler Wichita State on a neutral court. I’m not quite ready to say they’ll get in no matter what, but if they aren’t included it would be a big surprise.

Michigan was the victim of Northwestern’s miracle last second layup on Wednesday night. After closer looks at their resume I always seem to be focusing on the positives more than the negatives. The positives being neutral site wins over Marquette and SMU and a big league win over Purdue. They don’t have any awful losses and have 11 wins over the RPI top 100 including 4 in the top 50. They are another team that are right on the edge of completely being in.

Illinois is a team that has made great strides in the past few weeks because they’ve been playing extremely well and because other teams like Cal and TCU have fallen off paving the way for their bubble resurgence. Illinois most recently beat Michigan State at home which is now added to a profile that includes a neutral court win over VCU, a sweep over another hot conference team in Iowa, a win over Michigan and a sweep of Northwestern. The worst thing about their profile are two losses to Penn State. Illinois now has 10 top 100 RPI wins and six wins away from home. Those numbers help tremendously. If they avoid a bad loss at Rutgers and get to 9-9 in the conference, the Illini might just make it on March 12th.

Iowa is making a late push to get in to the tournament as well, but they have a little more ground to make up than Illinois. Iowa has bad losses to Memphis, Nebraska Omaha at home and Nebraska on the road that can’t be forgotten plus were swept by Illinois so if the resume’s ever get to become closer to equal will most certainly be used to break a tie. This late push puts them in position if they are able to beat Penn State at home and then make a run in the Big Ten tournament.

Pac-12

In (3) – Oregon, Arizona, UCLA
Bubble In (1) – USC
Bubble Out (1) – Cal

 

USC took care of business at home against Washington State on Wednesday night which was much needed after 4 straight losses including a late game collapse at Arizona State. USC is in an interesting position. I took a much closer look at their profile and what I came away with was this. If USC beats Washington at home on Saturday they should be in the field, but their seed might be surprising. Barring a deep run in the Pac-12 conference tournament that could improve their seed of course. But if the season ended after this coming weekend they’d have nothing to worry about, but their seeding might make it look that way. They have two very good wins against UCLA and SMU, but those were their only top 50 RPI wins of the season. They also only have 5 top 100 RPI wins. What they do have going for them though is a 9-5 record away from home. That is extremely hard to ignore. It’s not USC’s fault that Texas A&M and BYU (both of whom they beat away from home) are having down seasons compared to most recent years. Yes the committee won’t factor in recent success in strength of schedule, but neither of those teams are slouches either.

Cal was safely in the tournament on February 9th after a road win at Arizona State which brought their record to 18-6. Since then they’ve lost 4 of 5 both in heartbreaking fashion like a loss at home to Oregon on a buzzer beater and in embarrassing fashion like a 30 point loss at Utah Thursday night. Cal still has a good record and a good conference record compared to some other teams on the bubble. What they don’t have are quality wins. They have one top 50 RPI win against USC and are 4-10 verses the RPI top 100. That won’t get it done. They need to win at Colorado (which won’t be easy) and then make some noise in the conference tournament next week.

SEC

In (3) – Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina
Bubble In (1) – Arkansas, Vanderbilt
Bubble Out (1) – Georgia

 

– Yes I had Vanderbilt out of the tournament after their loss to Kentucky on Wednesday night and the Commodores haven’t played since. But I feel the need to boost them up a bit after taking a closer look at their resume in comparison to other teams on the bubble. They still have the hardest out of conference strength of schedule in the country. They have 9 top 100 RPI wins and they have six wins away from home as well. Their best wins carry some weight too. Florida and Arkansas on the road and Iowa State and South Carolina at home. They have a chance to sweep Florida with a win at home on Saturday afternoon. That would be a pretty nice feather in their cap and is definitely possible if they play the way they did against Kentucky in parts of the game on Wednesday. The road loss to Missouri is holding Vanderbilt back, but aside from that they don’t have any bad losses. I think beating Florida and winning one game in the SEC tournament will probably be enough for them to get in.

Georgia is another team that deserves a second look. After taking that second look I am confident in saying that they have a lot more work to do, but they are not completely out of it. If Iowa deserves a look, so do they. Georgia has 9 wins against the RPI top 100, the problem is that 8 of those have come in the 72-97 range against Ole Miss, Auburn twice, Tennessee, UNC Ashville (who lost in the quarterfinals of their conference tournament on Thursday), Alabama, Georgia Tech and Furman. Not exactly murderers row. Five of those wins came on the road which is probably why their RPI is so high right now (51). Their best win of the season was at home to Vanderbilt and they’ve lost games to Clemson, Alabama, Oakland and Texas A&M. Their only hope is to win on the road at Arkansas on Saturday and then probably make it to at least the SEC tournament semifinal.

American

In (2) – Cincinnati, SMU
Bubble Out – Houston

 

Houston had one final regular season shot to make some noise at Cincinnati on Thursday night. They flopped however, losing by 18. They probably need to win the American and at least make it to the conference final. Their best two wins were against Vermont and Rhode Island, they’ve been swept by SMU and Cincinnati and all 4 games weren’t particularly close and they’ve also lost to Harvard, LSU, UCF and Memphis. On second thought, they probably need to win the conference tournament.

Atlantic 10

In (2) – VCU, Dayton
Bubble In (1) – Rhode Island

 

– On my last update I had Rhode Island as the last at-large team in the tournament. Since then they won by 19 at St. Joseph’s. So why do I not have URI in the field any more? A closer examination of their profile in comparison to other teams. Rhode Island has only 2 top 50 RPI wins against Cincinnati and VCU and only 4 top 100 RPI wins. Above I discredited Georgia’s wins against the 70-95 section of the RPI rankings but at least they won those games. URI has dropped games to LaSalle, Richmond, Houston, Providence and Valparaiso on top of a bad home loss to Fordham. They probably need to beat Davidson at home and then win a few in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Problem is that the Atlantic 10 is loaded with teams in that range that Rhode Island struggles with. They are Richmond, Davidson, George Washington, St. Bonaventure, LaSalle and George Mason. There’s just no room for big wins until you get to VCU and Dayton and there are realistic loss possibilities.

Missouri Valley

Bubble Out (2) – Illinois State*, Wichita State

 

Illinois State has a * next to their name because they received the number one seed in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament so if the season ended today they’d be in. If they don’t win the tournament? That could be difficult. Both them and Wichita State are two teams that I thought might be safe but their overall profiles lack the substance that other bubble teams have. Yes both teams have a bevy of victories which always helps. The problem is that the Missouri Valley Conference is so down this season. In years past you could count on Creighton, Northern Iowa or Evansville to at least be pretty good. Also, a loss prior to the Missouri Valley final wouldn’t kill you and you might even be able to improve your resume with a few good wins along the way. This year, no wins will help and losses (aside from against each other in the final) will kill your chances. Both teams only have 1 top 50 RPI win, and that was against one another. Illinois State has lost to Murray State, TCU, Tulsa, San Francisco as well.

Wichita State doesn’t have any of those bad losses, but they have 0 quality wins other than Illinois State as well. They lost their opportunities at good wins against Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Louisville earlier in the season. They are hurt by the fact that wins over Tulsa, LSU (both in very convincing fashion) and Oklahoma mean nothing this season. Advanced metrics show that Wichita State should be a tournament team, but until the committee comes out and says that they place some emphasis on those metrics, there’s really nothing to show for this profile other than win total and recent name brand. Chances are Wichita State wins the Missouri Valley and this is all for nothing anyway, but that league tournament always has a trick up its sleeve.

 

Bracket Projection

Midwest

1. Kansas
16. UC Davis/New Orleans
8. Virginia Tech
9. Xavier
5. Purdue
12. Illinois State
4. Virginia
13. Vermont
6. Minnesota
11. Wake Forest/Kansas State
3. Butler
14. Florida Gulf Coast
7. Creighton
10. Michigan
2. Baylor
15. Oakland

 

South

1. North Carolina
16. Tennessee Martin
8. Wisconsin
9. Arkansas
5. SMU
12. Middle Tennessee State
4. Duke
13. Princeton
6. Iowa State
11. Illinois
3. Florida
14. Winthrop
7. South Carolina
10. Providence
2. Louisville
15. UNC Greensboro

 

East

1. Villanova
16. Mt. St. Mary’s
8. VCU
9. Northwestern
5. Cincinnati
12. UNC Wilmington
4. Florida State
13. Monmouth
6. Oklahoma State
11. Syracuse/Vanderbilt
3. UCLA
14. Bucknell
7. Dayton
10. Seton Hall
2. Kentucky
15. Texas Southern

 

West

1. Gonzaga
16. NC Central/North Dakota
8. Miami
9. Michigan State
5. Notre Dame
12. UT Arlington
4. West Virginia
13. Akron
6. St. Mary’s
11. USC
3. Arizona
14. Cal State Bakersfield
7. Maryland
10. Marquette
2. Oregon
15. South Dakota

 

Last 4 In: Wake Forest, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Kansas State

First 4 Out: Wichita State, Georgia Tech, Rhode Island, Cal

Next 4 Out: Iowa, Georgia, BYU, TCU

Follow Mike Bachini on twitter @MikeBachini

 

 

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