By Mike Bachini, CBS Connecticut
With the Super Bowl now a thing of the past and with only 29 days until Selection Sunday, it is time to start focusing on everyone’s favorite tournament, March Madness.
At the beginning of the season there were three teams that were favorites to win it all: Duke, Arizona and Michigan State. Now, on February 10th, it is anybody’s guess.
Duke at times has looked like the best team in the country, beating Michigan State, Texas, Florida and Miami. They also have losses to St. John’s and Boston College and have now lost three of their last four games. A streaky team is to be expected when you rely so heavily on Freshman, no matter how talented they are.
The beginning of Arizona’s season was extremely ugly. They played in the “Battle 4 Atlantis” tournament on Thanksgiving weekend with other notable schools such as Villanova, Purdue and Tennessee. Mostly everyone was hoping for a Villanova/Arizona final, but Arizona fell in their first game to NC State, then again in their 2nd game to SMU and then again in their 3rd game to Purdue by 25 points to fall to 3-3 on the season. They got their act together and rattled off wins in 16 of their next 17 games, but have now lost 2 straight to Washington and UCLA.
Michigan State doesn’t have any bad losses. Their three have come to Duke, Michigan and Ohio State. But they also haven’t beaten any good teams outside of their big win over North Carolina. It’s not entirely Michigan State’s fault. The Big Ten is having a very down season and their league schedule is very crooked. They only play Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue once this season while playing Rutgers, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana twice. The Spartans have a big test today at home against Purdue, but finish the season with Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin. There’s a very realistic chance that after today, they won’t be tested again until the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament in March.
In the meantime other teams have stepped up to the elite tier and planted their flag as title contenders. Virginia, Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky, Xavier and North Carolina are hanging around per usual. But there have also been some nice surprises. Auburn, Ohio State, Tennessee, Clemson, Texas Tech, Rhode Island and Cincinnati will be teams no one will want to face come March.
The question is, which teams will have the opportunity to play those teams in just over a month? We’ll try to take a look at the field and take our best shot at determining who would make up the 68 teams if the tournament started today.
In = The team could lose all of the rest of their games between now and March 11th 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.
In (4) – Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson
Almost In (2) – Miami, Florida State
Bubble In (3) – Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina State
Bubble Out (1) – Virginia Tech
– Miami has one questionable loss, on the road to Georgia Tech. Their non-conference strength of schedule leaves a little to be desired (ranked #138th nationally) but the ACC offers plenty of opportunities for big wins and they already have a few against Louisville, Florida State, N.C. State and Virginia Tech. Beat Boston College today and Virginia on Tuesday and Miami will find themselves “In”.
– Florida State has an even worse non-conference strength of schedule (#294) but they have beaten Florida and Louisville on the road and North Carolina, Syracuse, Miami and Louisville at home which makes them a very safe bet to get in the tournament. The rest of their schedule is on the lighter side, with the exception of 2 games against Clemson.
– Syracuse has a non-conference strength of schedule that is ranked 22nd nationally. They have wins over Maryland and Buffalo out of conference and Louisville and Virginia Tech in conference while also not suffering any resume-crippling losses either (Wake Forest and Georgia Tech on the road come close). Their schedule is heavy on big time opportunities down the stretch with games against Miami, North Carolina, Duke and Clemson.
– Louisville‘s season started off miserably with all of their off-field issues. But they have been able to weather the storm on the court for the most part. They lost their three biggest non-conference games to Purdue, Seton Hall and Kentucky and their biggest conference games to Virginia, Miami and Clemson as well. But they’ve avoided any ugly losses and they’ve beaten the teams they should beat so far. They aren’t safe by any stretch, but today I’d consider them in.
– North Carolina State has some awful peripheral numbers (289 non-conference SOS, 163 non-conference RPI) but they have some very powerful wins on their resume that cannot be ignored. The Wolfpack have beaten Arizona, Duke, Clemson and North Carolina this year. Not many teams in the country have that group of elite wins. Losses to Northern Iowa and UNC Greensboro cannot be completely ignored however. If they can muster up one more big win, and avoid losses to Wake Forest, BC and Georgia Tech down the stretch, they should be OK.
– Virginia Tech has the same problem N.C. State does as far as out of conference numbers go. What they don’t have, is the group of elite wins that N.C. State has. They will have to do a little better than 1 win over North Carolina at home to sneak their way in to the field. Good thing for them is that opportunity is right around the corner starting today at Virginia followed by another road game at Duke on Wednesday.
In (2) – Villanova, Xavier
Almost In (3) – Creighton, Seton Hall, Butler
Bubble In (1) – Providence
Bubble Out (1) – Marquette
– Creighton didn’t do too much outside of the Big East this season, but they have been solid, if not spectacular in conference. They have wins over Butler, Providence and Seton Hall and have avoided any back-breaking losses. If they beat Xavier at home today, chances are they will be moved up to “In”.
– Seton Hall won a couple of good non-conference games against Texas Tech and Louisville, but also lost to Rutgers. They are also only 6-5 in conference after getting swept by Marquette. At this point, they’ll just need to avoid letdowns against Georgetown and DePaul and they should be fine.
– Butler played a very solid non-conference schedule which included games against Texas, Ohio State, Purdue, Maryland and Utah. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they only beat Ohio State and Utah. In conference they have a huge win over Villanova, but not much to speak of after that. If they earn the season sweep over Villanova today it will be hard to keep the Bulldogs out.
– Providence has a very solid RPI (27) and has wins over Washington, Xavier, Butler, Creighton and Marquette. They also lost to Umass and Minnesota out of conference, and the advanced metrics (KenPom, Sagarin and BPI) hate the Friars. Last season I thought Providence was comfortably in the field, but the committee disagreed and sent them to Dayton to play USC in a “first four” game. This season is going an awful lot like last season in terms of results and metrics so the Friars should be safe for now, but need to avoid any big let downs in the next few weeks.
– Marquette‘s season is unfolding an awful lot like last year’s as well so far. They don’t have any bad losses, but they have a lot of losses (10). They’ve swept Seton Hall and they’ve won at Providence which helps. Their conference schedule was also very front-loaded as they’ve already played Villanova, Xavier, Butler, Providence and Seton Hall twice. If they can feast on the bottom half of the league down the stretch, they could make their way in to the field.
In (2) – Texas Tech, Kansas
Almost In (3) – West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, TCU
Bubble Out (1) – Kansas State
West Virginia and Oklahoma should find themselves in the field barring complete meltdowns to finish their seasons.
– TCU on the other hand is starting to trend in the wrong direction, just like last season. They’ve lost three of their last four and seven of their last ten dating back to January 6th. They don’t have any true resume building wins to fall back on out of conference (St. Bonaventure on a neutral court was their best) and in conference they are currently hanging their hat on a home win over West Virginia. Lucky for them they’ve already played Oklahoma and Kansas twice. They’ll need to beat the teams they should beat and avoid losses to teams sitting on the bubble like Texas and Kansas State as well. The problem is that even though the top of the Big XII isn’t as great as it has been in years past, the bottom is really good. When Baylor, Oklahoma State and Iowa State are your worst teams, the opportunity for slip-ups are greater than usual.
– Texas played a very challenging non-conference schedule and beat Butler and Alabama along the way with wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma in conference. A win over fellow bubbler TCU today will help their long term outlook.
Kansas State is projected by some outlets to make the field. I’m a little skeptical. Their non-conference strength of schedule sits at 326 and their non-conference RPI at 139. Even if you consider basing your judgment off of the advanced metrics, their resume doesn’t hold up to other bubble teams. They have beaten Oklahoma, TCU and Texas, which is a good start, but not near enough to be considered in at this point in the season.
In (3) – Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State
Bubble In (2) – Michigan, Maryland
Bubble Out (1) – Nebraska
– Michigan has good wins over Texas and UCLA out of conference and a huge win over Michigan State in conference. That should be enough to get them into the tournament if the season started today. The problem is that their Big Ten schedule down the stretch does not offer many big opportunities. The Wolverines need to avoid as many slip ups as possible.
– Maryland has lost seven of their last ten just like TCU and are also trending in the wrong direction. Losses in conference to Indiana and Penn State won’t help their resume so they need to avoid letdowns starting with today’s home game against Northwestern.
– Nebraska is currently playing some of the best basketball in the Big Ten. Any other year and a 4-0 record against Wisconsin and Minnesota should get you in to the tournament. Unfortunately for the Huskers, those two teams have fallen off the map this season. Nebraska has a shot to win their remaining five games (Rutgers, Maryland, Illinois, Indiana and Penn State) to get to 14-4 in the conference. But those 4 losses will have come against Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Penn State. Have their opportunities passed them by already in this weak Big Ten?
In (1) – Arizona
Almost In (1) – Arizona State
Bubble In (3) – USC, UCLA, Washington
– Arizona State started the season very hot with a 12-0 record, winning all of their non-conference games including ones against Kansas, Xavier and Kansas State. Since then they’ve gone 6-6 in league play with 5 losses coming to Colorado, Stanford, Washington, Utah and Oregon. Not exactly the metal of the league. They beat USC at home on Thursday night, which is a good start. But they’ll have to continue to win at home in their next 2 games against UCLA and Arizona to feel completely safe.
– USC had opportunities like Arizona State to pile up some big wins, but they fell short. Their best non-conference wins are against New Mexico State and Middle Tennessee. Those teams are very solid teams, but they won’t exactly move the needle on Selection Sunday. They righted the ship in conference play, starting 8-2, but have now lost their last 2 to Arizona State and UCLA. Beating a vulnerable Arizona team on the road today will be a big step forward for the Trojans.
– UCLA‘s season started out with some drama but they’ve evolved into a very solid team as the season has gone on. They have wins over Kentucky, USC and Arizona that boost their resume and their only head-scratching loss was at Oregon State almost a month ago.
– Washington is probably the hardest team to sort out at this point in the season. The advanced metrics hate them, but the results based numbers like the Huskies. They won at Kansas and at USC and they’ve just recently beaten Arizona and Arizona State at home. But they’ve also failed to show up in a few losses. They’ve lost by 19 to UCLA and they followed up their great stretch against the Arizona’s with a 25 point no-show at Oregon. If the difference between bubble teams is so thin, I believe the committee will give the nod to a team that has proven it can beat some of the best teams in the country. Which is why I currently have the Huskies as the last at-large team to make the tournament.
In (3) – Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky
Almost In (2) – Texas A&M, Akransas
Bubble In (3) – Florida, Missouri, Alabama
– Texas A&M opened the season with a convincing win over West Virginia and thrashed USC on the road a few weeks later. They lost by 3 to Arizona, which was of course excusable. After that, they won 4 in a row against beatable teams to run their record to 11-1. They then forgot how to play basketball and lost seven of their next nine and looked lost in the process. Aside from being swept by LSU, their losses were to mostly good teams. But it wasn’t just the results, it was how they looked in the process. Well, since losing to Kansas in the ACC/Big XII showdown on January 27th, the Aggies have looked for real again. They beat Arkansas by 14 and South Carolina by 23 at home, before going to Auburn and pulling out a 1-point win there as well. After playing Kentucky at home today, 4 of their next 6 games will be on the road. Which Aggie team will show up?
– Arkansas has wins over Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee which is a nice base for a resume. They also got swept by LSU just like Texas A&M did. Those are the only 4 league wins for the Tigers so far this season, which is why they do not appear in this article. Arkansas has winnable games against Vanderbilt and Mississippi before things get real tough down the stretch.
– Florida was one of the most exciting teams in the country to start the season. They scored 108 and 111 points against Stanford and Gonzaga respectfully and scored 84 against Duke in a 3-point loss to the Blue Devils. They followed that up with 2 no-shows at home against Florida State and Loyola-Chicago before beating Cincinnati on a neutral court in New Jersey. They have a few good conference wins against Texas A&M, Missouri and at Kentucky. But they’ve also lost a few games to either the bottom or the middle of the league against Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina. They are a very hard team to figure out. Not getting swept by South Carolina today would be a good start for the Gators.
– Missouri lost 5-star recruit Michael Porter Jr. at the beginning of the season to an injury, but the Tigers have kept the season afloat since then. Out of conference they didn’t do much, and even lost to Illinois on a neutral court, but they have put together a nice season so far. They have beaten Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky and they have opportunities against Texas A&M, Kentucky and Arkansas coming up.
– Alabama had high expectations coming in to the season with a elite group of freshman joining last year’s solid crop of freshman. Unfortunately for the Tide, their season didn’t start as most fans would have hoped. They have turned things around with 6 wins in their last 8 games with wins over Auburn, Oklahoma and Florida on top of already solid wins over Texas A&M and Rhode Island. Tennessee at home today would be another resume booster that could put the Tide over the top.
In (2) – Cincinnati, Wichita State
Bubble In (1) – Houston
– Houston has solid non-conference wins against Providence and Arkansas, but also a puzzling neutral court loss to Drexel as well. If that loss is a win, Houston is up in the “Almost In” category. In conference, they’ve beaten Wichita State, Temple and SMU with only a loss to Tulane holding them back. As of right now, I have them just barely in the tournament and escaping Dayton in the process.
Almost In (1) – Nevada
Bubble In (1) – Boise State
– Nevada‘s RPI has moved all the way up to 14, which is not getting enough attention nationally in my opinion. Even their non-conference strength of schedule is currently sitting at 23 which will help come Selection Sunday. They have a win over Rhode Island, and tough losses to Texas Tech and TCU so far. If they can avoid any more slip ups like the one they had to UNLV on Wednesday, they should feel safe.
– Boise State won at Oregon, which seemed to be a huge win at the time, and could still go a long way if Oregon turns their season around. They’ve avoided bad losses as well only slipping up in conference at Nevada and at Wyoming. Their resume doesn’t look all that appealing, but when putting it up side by side to other teams such as Marquette and Kansas State, it looks just a little bit better right now.
In (1) – Rhode Island
– St. Bonaventure is lurking just outside of the bubble, with teams like Temple, Mississippi State and Utah right now. In a few days it might be a different scenario however.
Almost In (2) – St. Mary’s, Gonzaga
– St. Mary’s didn’t have the most challenging non-conference schedule. They lost games to Georgia and Washington State, which didn’t look too bad at the time, but are only getting worse as time goes by. They’ve won 19 straight games since those losses, with a win at Gonzaga mixed in and now sit at 24-2. They’d need to meltdown to not make it at this point.
– Gonzaga has wins over Texas, Ohio State and Creighton out of conference which should be enough to propel them in to the tournament. Even if the rest of their resume is sub par by their standards.
Almost In (1) – Middle Tennessee
– Middle Tennessee is building a strong case to be included in the field of 68 even if they don’t win their conference. Their non-conference strength of schedule is currently 5th in the country. They lost very close games to Miami (3 points) and USC (5) on a neutral court in Hawaii around Christmas and by 6 points to Auburn on a neutral court as well. Unfortunately for them, what looked like a great win at Vanderbilt early in the season has fallen a little bit flat as the season has gone on. In conference their only slip up was at Marshall. If they can take care of business the rest of the way, they should be fine even if they slip up in their conference tournament.
4. Rhode Island
6. Seton Hall
10. Middle Tennessee
15. Florida Gulf Coast
16. UNC Ashville
4. North Carolina
7. St. Mary’s
16. NC A&T/Nicholls St.
5. West Virginia
4. Ohio State
6. Texas A&M
11. N.C. State
3. Texas Tech
14. South Dakota State
7. Florida State
15. Wright State
16. Penn/Arkansas Pine Bluff
5. Wichita State
12. New Mexico State
11. Boise State/USC
14. UC Santa Barbara
2. Michigan State
LAST 4 IN – USC, Louisville, Boise State, Washington
FIRST 4 OUT – Marquette, Kansas State, Virginia Tech, Nebraska
Follow Mike Bachini on Twitter @MikeBachini