Philadelphia, PA – There is no crystal ball behind these words, which are instead shaped by numerical evidence and athletic displays of the best kind.
By now, there are a few haves, a collection of have-nots and a mess in the middle that will be categorically shaped over the season's final month-plus. To date, the nation's landscape has been molded by a weekly redistribution of thoughts. What you think one week rarely holds up the next, which makes a complete and thorough study of an overall body of the work the best way to judge position down the conference campaign's home stretch.
Below we look at each power conference, breaking each league's tournament hopes into safe bids and fence sitters. Feel free to dispute our first look at the tournament puzzle by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting me at @jtrex0830. I will post some of the best, factually substantiated thoughts next week when "Bubble Watch" becomes a weekly staple through Selection Sunday.
Safe bids: Duke, North Carolina, Florida State
North Carolina has handled its new-look lineup through two games, dispatching both North Carolina State and Georgia Tech with ease. As first chronicled by Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn, the Tar Heels are actually a more efficient team with Reggie Bullock on the floor, but the main issue remains the team's ability to spell Kendall Marshall at the point. What happens when/if Marshall lands in foul trouble or grows weary at season's end?
Coach K didn't like the way the Blue Devils played defensively in the second half against St. John's, and rightfully so. Duke still struggles against athletically gifted backcourts, but a big positive has been the recent play of Mason Plumlee. The big man dominated the paint on the night Maryland named its court for former head coach Gary Williams, scoring 23 points with 12 rebounds. He took ownership of the interior then backed it up with 15 points and 17 rebounds against the Red Storm. Perhaps he is now Duke's tournament barometer with the backcourt taking turns with struggling shooters.
How is a team that has already lost to Harvard and Princeton an NCAA lock? Well, for starters, it is another thin year in at-large resumes and, perhaps more importantly, that same team beat North Carolina by 33 points and won at Duke. A five-game winning streak has come after head coach Leonard Hamilton challenged his offense in the aftermath of a 20-point drubbing to Clemson. The result has been just one game less than 70 points and renewed attention to detail that has helped the Seminoles value more possessions. It doesn't hurt to hit the backboards either, as they grabbed 10 off the offensive glass in their recent win at Wake Forest.
FENCE SITTERS: Virginia, North Carolina State
The Cavaliers' outside numbers look great; 15 victories against just three losses, a win over Michigan and fellow fence sitters LSU and North Carolina State. Yet, the computer numbers are creepy toward the fringe and trips to both Tallahassee and Chapel Hill are on the horizon. Yet, the 61-60 victory over the Wolfpack is a big one for both teams. North Carolina State needs a signature victory, but missed on two chances last week against North Carolina and the aforementioned Cavs. It's a must that it holds serve over the next three before a make-or-break three-game stretch against Duke, Florida State and UNC. It may need two of those.
Safe bids: Missouri, Baylor, Kansas
The Tigers are playing for seeding and conference hardware, but their last two outings have left much to be desired. The Oklahoma State letdown wasn't overly shocking following the high that came with the Baylor victory, but a lackluster effort against Texas Tech followed. Kansas is still one the nation's best stories despite running into a buzz saw in Ames over the weekend. Baylor has taken care of business after back-to-back setbacks, downing Oklahoma and Texas. The great news from the weekend win over the Longhorns is how active Perry Jones III looked. His 22-point, 14-rebound line looked effortless as nothing was forced. He needs to bring that unmatched skill set each and every time out.
Fence sitters: Kansas State, Iowa State
For the Wildcats, two losses in two weeks to Oklahoma isn't going to help a resume. Its victory over Alabama is still its best out-of-league win, but the profile to date is truly resting on the victory over Missouri. The overall body of work is fine for now, but the Wildcats really need to sweep the next four because of a Kansas-Baylor-Missouri gauntlet on the back end. That four- game sweep won't be easy with a trip to Ames up next. Iowa State is suddenly in the tournament realm after the big victory it was seeking over the Jayhawks. There is still no out-of-conference handy work and a bad loss to Drake on the resume, but the overall strength of schedule is improving and the Cyclones have beaten the teams they were supposed to in conference play. During this season, winning games you should is a big deal.
Safe bids: Syracuse, Georgetown, Marquette
The Orange desperately miss Fab Melo's defensive presence, and just aren't the same intimidating team without him. The offensive balance is still there, and Syracuse is getting by just fine, but to capture bigger dreams, Melo needs to reinsert himself into the middle of the zone. Georgetown's loss at Pittsburgh is understandable in that the Panthers are still very formidable at home historically and the prideful bunch is more talented than its seven-game conference slide indicated. Marquette is no fence sitter this year, as the Golden Eagles impressively took Villanova's best punch and fought back for a big road win.
Fence sitters: West Virginia, Seton Hall, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Louisville, Notre Dame
When a list needs two lines, you know the middle is murky. Some of these teams are in better position than others, looking at you West Virginia, Seton Hall and Louisville. The Mountaineers were a blown goaltending call away from forcing overtime over the weekend at the Carrier Dome, but they will kick themselves for missed chances in the second half and for laying an egg several days earlier against St. John's. The profile still includes good wins over Kansas State and Georgetown, but also a couple near misses that would have stamped the Mountaineers' ticket already.
Seton Hall's once solid profile is unraveling in the midst of a four-game slide that includes bad losses to Villanova and South Florida. The Pirates still have wins over St. Joe's, Dayton, West Virginia and UConn, but they need wins, which will be tough to come by with games against Marquette and the Huskies on the horizon.
UConn is in a similar spot, losers of three straight and five of seven. The good news is that Ryan Boatright is back, but the bad news continues to come with the Huskies' scoring issues. Putting 67, 57 and 48 points on the board just isn't going to cut it, and head coach Jim Calhoun needs to find a third scorer to take the pressure off Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. The upcoming schedule also doesn't look promising, with the next four at Georgetown, home to Seton Hall in what may be a tournament deal-breaker and trips to Louisville and Syracuse.
Cincinnati is hanging tenuously to a thread with bad computer numbers and three straight setbacks. Question: does anybody in the Big East want to make the NCAAs? The answer may be Notre Dame, which was completely off the radar before three straight wins over teams mentioned above (Syracuse, Seton Hall and UConn). Those W's have pushed the Fighting Irish to 6-3 in the league. If they can split their next two games against Marquette and West Virginia, there is a good chance they will sit 10-4 in the league entering late February. Louisville is also on the up-and-up with three straight wins and a fourth should come later this week against Rutgers. The computer numbers are also at- large worthy at this juncture (RPI and SOS in the 40s).
Safe bids: Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana
The Buckeyes looked like their dominant selves over the weekend against Michigan, but the big story is Wisconsin, winners of five straight, which is a colossal move in a league where each team has at least two conference losses. Michigan State also sits in fine position, following a two-game skid by taking care of business ahead of a Tuesday trip to Champaign. The Hoosiers have gone through a small rough patch, but the numbers and quality wins (Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan) are too good to worry for now.
The losses to Wisconsin and at Minnesota aren't the ones that make Illini fans pull their hair out, but it's rather the confounding setbacks like the one in State College that triggered the three-game slide. Illinois has good computer numbers and a non-conference win over Gonzaga to fall back on, and it may have to fall back with road dates against Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin still on the schedule.
The Wolverines are likely fine, but they have alternated wins and losses since January 11 and follow up a positive showing with a head scratcher. It's tough to dog the outcome in Columbus, but if they lose to both Indiana and Michigan State this week, that's four losses in five games. Then what?
Both Purdue and Minnesota will likely need some magic to dance, but the Gophers clearly have the edge after helping themselves in a big way over the weekend. The overtime win over Illinois comes before a pair of winnable road games at Iowa and Nebraska, which would push Minnesota over .500 in the league and provide an opportunity with two big mid-February games against Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Boilermakers, on the other hand, had lost four of six before Saturday's narrow win at Northwestern and probably need to beat both Indiana and Ohio State this week to really surge on the radar.
Safe bids: None
Fence sitters: California, Stanford
Without a strong run between now and early March, it doesn't look like any other Pac-12 teams can grab at-large bids other than California and Stanford. The Bears' claim comes from strong computer numbers, seven conference wins and perhaps even the notion that they have quality players (really pulling on strings here), but the dearth of quality in the profile will catch up with them unless they get to at least 13 conference wins. Stanford has decent wins against Colorado State and North Carolina State, which are considered big-time in a league that hasn't beaten anyone of top-50 note this season. The Cardinal also have seven conference wins, including Sunday night over Cal. The magic number appears to be 13 wins for both. It would be tough for the selection committee to leave either out with 13 conference W's and a strong postseason tourney run.
Safe bids: Kentucky, Vanderbilt
The Wildcats continue to win with defense, and the numbers prove it. The Anthony Davis-Michael Gilchrist freshman combo may be the best 1-2 interior defensive punch the league has seen in ages. The sign of a veteran team is imposing its will after it has been damaged, and the surging Commodores did exactly that with two impressive showings following the Mississippi State loss. The 18-point waxing of Tennessee was followed by a solid victory over a better-than-many-think Middle Tennessee team. Vanderbilt has just one loss since December 17 and already has non-league wins over Marquette, North Carolina State and at Davidson.
Fence sitters: Alabama, Mississippi State, Florida
This is where Mississippi State has to make hay. The loss in Gainesville won't hurt as long as the Bulldogs take care of business over the next five, with the toughest test a road date at LSU. If they do, the Bulldogs will be sitting near lock land when Kentucky comes to town on February 21.
The loss at South Carolina was the very definition of a "bad loss" for the Crimson Tide, but give them credit for responding with a must-win against Arkansas. Because of the uneven conference slate, Alabama has a very winnable stretch starting Saturday against Ole Miss.
Florida's victory over Mississippi State puts the Gators on par, if not slightly above, the Bulldogs in the SEC pecking order. Florida has taken care of business, winning five straight, the first four against the league's bottom feeders. Not to repeat an earlier thought, but in this environment, winning games you should is half the battle.
From The End of the Bench will assess the mid-major situation in next week's column, touching on the St. Mary's-Gonzaga debate, trying to sort out the Atlantic 10 parity dilemma, dissecting Harvard's at-large outlook and priming you for a rash of BracketBusters.
FINE 15 (and a statistic to remember)
1. Kentucky (21-1): Two that go hand in hand, the Wildcats rank 12th nationally in rebounding with a good chunk coming on the offensive end. Kentucky shoots the ball well but also attacks the glass. Davis (3.2) and Gilchrist (2.7) average nearly six offensive boards per game, which is part of the reason the Wildcats rank 140th nationally in assists per game.
2. Syracuse (22-1): The way to beat the Orange may be to join them. Brandon Triche is the only player shooting over 35 percent (40.2) from long range. You may see more zone defense played against Syracuse down the stretch.
3. Ohio State (19-3): The Buckeyes have so many offensive weapons that teams have to pick their poison. It doesn't get any easier on the other end of the floor. Ohio State sports the nation's best defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
4. Missouri (19-2): Despite the two-game lull, the Tigers are still sharing (22nd in assists per game) and still shooting (fifth in field goal percentage).
5. North Carolina (18-3): How is the nation's top scoring team (84.9 points per game) just 27th in field goal percentage? It could be the nearly four offensive rebounds Tyler Zeller pulls down per game.
6. Duke (18-3): Another reason this isn't a typical Coach K team: Duke ranks 94th nationally in defensive efficiency.
7. Michigan State (17-4): Talk about a do-everything scorer. Draymond Green leads the team in rebounding (10.4 per game) while tying for the team lead in three-point makes (26).
8. Kansas (17-4): How did the Jayhawks drop their first conference game at Iowa State over the weekend? You can look to the backboards, where a team that averages nearly 38 a game was trounced, 34-19.
9. Baylor (19-2): Baylor shoots just over 49 percent from the floor because its big men finish off plays in the paint. Jones makes 55.4 of his shots and Quincy Acy connects on 58 percent.
10. Florida (17-4): A team in this poll position shouldn't be a "fence sitter" on paper, but the profile is still weak and February is a brutal month. What could help the Gators weather the storm? Continuing to share the ball is a good start. Florida ranks 13th nationally in assists per game (16.7).
11. Murray State (21-0): Winning is hard, but the Racers keep doing it despite ranking 251st in rebounds per game. It helps having leading board man Ivan Aska back in the fold. He missed six games with a broken hand.
12. Creighton (20-2): The Bluejays haven't lost in 2012 mostly thanks to Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott. Another reason is the men feeding him the ball. Grant Gibbs and Antoine Young combine for over 10 assists per game.
13. Georgetown (16-4): The main metrics don't support such a lofty record, but Georgetown is getting by with the 16th most efficient defense.
14. UNLV (20-3): The Rebels are a more balanced version of the Bluejays. There isn't a McDermott-type scorer, but there are plenty of good passers. Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall combine to dish out over 10 assists per contest.
15. Marquette (18-4): The Golden Eagles play stout defense and control tempo, both staples of Buzz Williams' tenure. Marquette ranks 18th in defensive efficiency and 29th in adjusted tempo.