Bubble Breakdown: Questions nearing answers

For bystanders, a subjective procedure is an exercise in patience.

As the NCAA Tournament selection committee nears its new dawn, convening as one entity to sort through computer models and mounds of printed criteria, we as interested observers have only the threads built by hypotheses to fall back on at the water cooler, on message boards and at the next happy hour.

Questions pile up in our collective minds, filling our brains to the brim, because no inquiry has been definitively answered. Certainties are adjectives only used for automatic invites, at least until CBS' Greg Gumbel goes line by line through the committee's finished product.

Will the Big East actually get 10 invitations? Is the loser of November's cross-town bloodbath, a team that lost to Presbyterian, making the tournament (Cincinnati), while the winner (Xavier) aches at the thought of suspensions and turmoil that cost it valuable victories back when 2011 was still in style? Can the Ivy League and Big West actually earn at-large bids if need be? Will Northwestern end its historically inept tournament drought?

All are valid questions with only theories as adequate retorts... for now. We are entering crunch time with Selection Sunday just over a week away. One of the best weeks of the season (conference tournament week) serves as both an appetizer to March's main madness, and the time when puzzles will be solved, some quickly and others coming down to the final line of the bracket.

From the End of the Bench doesn't contend to have all answers, rather logical assumptions that can be used as your favorite team's benchmark heading into make-or-break week.

We discussed the formula used below in the initial Bubble Breakdown (head a few paragraphs down at this link: In rapid-fire terms, the tournament selection committee uses a team's Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS) as barometric tools of discussion, while digging further into the metrics that make up such numbers as quantitative measures of inclusion.

This column will not include anything of substance about teams deemed to have already sewn up bids. They will be mentioned underneath conference affiliation and left to discussion for another day (the Monday column or analysis once the field is released).

If you have any questions or comments, contact From the End of the Bench on Twitter at @jtrex0830 or email me at

RPI and SOS Rankings are current as of end of play on Thursday, March 1, courtesy of


On the guest list: Duke, North Carolina, Florida State

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Virginia, Miami, North Carolina State

Virginia (21-8; RPI 49; SOS 83)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-5 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 5-1 Record outside RPI 100: 14-2

The Cavaliers could be THAT team, you know, the one that everyone sees as a comfortable attendee only to realize they weren't invited at the last second. You've been forewarned, Wahoos. Listen, it's likely that Virginia will make the field despite a poor non-league SOS (224) because it handled Michigan (even though it was back in November) and took down several other bubble- sitters (Miami, North Carolina State, Drexel). The Cavaliers' profile isn't great, but the computer numbers support an invitation unless they face plant this weekend and in the first round of the ACC Tournament. If they lose both to Maryland and early in Atlanta, it will be a Selection Sunday full of nerves.

Miami (17-11; RPI 52; SOS 32)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-6 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 1-4 Record outside RPI 100: 14-1

The Hurricanes captured that resume-enhancer without Reggie Johnson against Florida State, then turned around and lost in Raleigh to the Wolfpack. Miami has only three Top-100 wins, but also no debilitating losses. It must win on Senior Day against Boston College, then at least once in the ACC Tournament.

North Carolina State (19-11; RPI 58; SOS 23)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 0-8 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 5-0 Record outside RPI 100: 14-3

Mark Gottfried should get T-shirts printed that read, "We swept Miami." That is North Carolina State's lone argument for inclusion... with its other "shining" moment a late November win over Texas. The Wolfpack don't have the computer numbers or the quality W's without a trip to the ACC final that includes a win over one of the conference's big three.

Big 12

On the guest list: Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Kansas State, Iowa State

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Texas

Texas (19-11; RPI 53; SOS 31)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 3-8 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 1-1 Record outside RPI 100: 15-2

The Longhorns were just guarding against leakage since last time we spoke, avoiding bad losses and adding a pair of victories outside the Top-100. This is that classic power conference profile that doesn't overly impress you, but may just be enough. Either way, Texas has a chance to punch its ticket on Saturday at Kansas. Good luck. Without that win, the Longhorns need at least one, maybe two, victories next week in the Big 12 tourney. The 4-9 record versus the Top-100 doesn't look NCAA worthy.

Big East

On the guest list: Syracuse, Georgetown, Marquette, Louisville, Notre Dame

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Cincinnati, South Florida, Connecticut, Seton Hall, West Virginia

Cincinnati (21-9; RPI 68; SOS 97)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 6-3 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 1-3 Record outside RPI 100: 14-3

Yes, the Bearcats' non-conference schedule was awful (SOS of 322), but they have won four times away from home in the league, including two of their six Top-50 wins. There is a noticeable soft under belly, but three of Cincinnati's Top-50 wins have come since mid-February, which indicates a team on the rise. If they win at Villanova to reach 12 conference wins, I think one win in the Big East tourney may be enough, but two would be wise with weak computer numbers. It seems reaching the Big East semis is the line in the Big East bubble sand.

South Florida (19-11; RPI 35; SOS 19)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-7 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 4-1 Record outside RPI 100: 12-3

The Bulls have the 46-45 victory over Cincinnati last Sunday, but only two Top-50 wins and a 6-8 record versus the Top-100. If South Florida beats West Virginia, even with the unbalanced slate as a major assist to the gaudy conference mark, it probably stamps its ticket to the dance. With a loss, the Bulls enter the battle royale at the Garden in the same predicament as their bubble foes.

Connecticut (17-12; RPI 36; SOS 2)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 5-7 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 2-3 Record outside RPI 100: 10-2

That 72-70 loss to Providence is not one becoming of an NCAA Tournament team. The Huskies can still hang their hat on five Top-50 wins and seven overall in the Top-86, but they are just 3-9 since mid-January and are looking at an under .500 conference mark even with a Saturday victory against Pittsburgh. If the Huskies fall this weekend, the tournament is a long shot without a trip to the final or an auto bid. If they win, the goal is the Big East semifinals. Sound familiar?

Seton Hall (19-10; RPI 47; SOS 42)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-6 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 6-2 Record outside RPI 100: 11-2

The Pirates must beat DePaul this weekend to reach 9-9 in the league and 20 victories, both important benchmarks when trying to separate tournament suitors. If the Pirates make the Big East semis, they are in, but just reaching the quarters puts them right on the edge.

West Virginia (18-12; RPI 56; SOS 13)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 3-8 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 5-3 Record outside RPI 100: 10-1

The RPI and SOS are good enough to get into the conversation, but then what? There is just one Top-100 road win on the resume (at Pittsburgh), but some very good non-conference W's at home or on a neutral floor as well (Kansas State, Oral Roberts, Miami). The South Florida game is an elimination one for the Mountaineers, who need the W plus a run to the... I think you know.

Big Ten

On the guest list: Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Purdue, Northwestern

Purdue (20-10; RPI 43; SOS 25)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 3-7 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 6-1 Record outside RPI 100: 11-2

Last week I chided the Boilermakers for beating up on the middle and lower tiers of the league and losing out on a signature conference victory. That all changed with the 75-61 waxing of Michigan, and now the Boilermakers look to be in pretty solid position unless something crazy happens.

Northwestern (17-12; RPI 51; SOS 10)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-10 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 3-2 Record outside RPI 100: 12-0

Oh so close against the Buckeyes, going from the ecstasy of tying the game on a three-point prayer to losing it just seconds later. The Wildcats have played a quality schedule, but have 10 losses to Top-50 teams, which is a double-edge sword. It improves schedule quality but also indicates that the Wildcats may not be quite ready for prime time. They are on the wrong side for now with a game at Iowa and the Big Ten tourney left to state their case.


On the guest list: None

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Washington, California

Washington (21-8; RPI 50; SOS 85)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 1-6 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 2-2 Record outside RPI 100: 18-0

The Huskies claim the top spot this week because From the End of the Bench finds it nearly impossible to believe that the regular-season champion in a power league wouldn't receive an at-large invite if need be. However, this isn't a normal power league profile. There are only three Top-100 wins, and Washington loses the head-to-head battle with the Golden Bears just in case neither claim the auto bid.

California (23-7; RPI 37; SOS 96)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 3-3 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 3-2 Record outside RPI 100: 17-2

Only six of the Golden Bears' 23 victories are against the Top-100, and after getting steamrolled by Colorado, they no longer control their own fate in the conference race. Cal doesn't need the league title as proof of its worth, at least as much as Washington does, but it better win at Stanford this weekend and make at least the Pac-12 semifinals.


On the guest list: Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama

Bubble-sitters: Mississippi State

Mississippi State (20-10; RPI 66; SOS 67)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-4 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 5-3 Record outside RPI 100: 13-3

A loss to South Carolina would have been the nail in the at-large coffin, but the Bulldogs somehow found a way to survive with some help from the Gamecocks. Mississippi State needs to get by Arkansas this weekend then prove they have turned a corner next week.

Atlantic 10

On the guest list: Temple, Saint Louis

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Xavier, Dayton

Xavier (18-11; RPI 54; SOS 43)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-7 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 5-3 Record outside RPI 100: 11-1

The loss to Saint Louis was Xavier's last big chance to enhance its resume prior to the A-10 Tournament. The Musketeers haven't beaten a Top-50 team since early December, falling in seven successive chances. The only way left to prove their worth is a run to at least the semis if not the final in Atlantic City.

Dayton (18-11; RPI 73; SOS 58)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 3-3 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 6-5 Record outside RPI 100: 9-3

Another "bad" loss to Richmond (RPI 123) may have been the straw that broke Dayton's at-large hopes, its fourth loss against teams with an RPI of 100 or higher. That is just too many bad defeats coupled with middling computer numbers. If the Flyers ride to the A-10 final and knock off Temple along the way, maybe the resume can be revisited. Otherwise, it's auto bid or NIT.

Mountain West

On the guest list: UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State

Bubble-sitter: None

Missouri Valley

On the guest list: Wichita State, Creighton

Bubble-sitter: None

Conference USA

On the guest list: None

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Memphis, Southern Miss

Memphis (22-8; RPI 18; SOS 17)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 1-6 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 8-1 Record outside RPI 100: 13-1

Like Southern Miss, the Tigers just needed W's, and they got them against Marshall and Central Florida, boosting their at-large hopes and crushing the Golden Knights' chances in the process. All that stands between the Tigers and a regular-season conference crown is a win this Saturday at Tulsa.

Southern Miss (24-6; RPI 17; SOS 57)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 3-2 Record vs. RPI 51-100: 6-1 Record outside RPI 100: 13-3

The Golden Eagles just needed to avoid bad losses and they did just that with wins over East Carolina and SMU. Nine Top-100 wins and an RPI in the historical lock category should be good enough save a complete collapse.

Best of the Rest Rapid Fire

On the guest list: Saint Mary's, Gonzaga, Murray State

Bubble-sitters (in order of inclusion): Long Beach State, Harvard, Drexel, BYU Middle Tennessee State, VCU

Harvard's home loss to Penn blew open the Ivy League race and put another dagger in the Crimson's at-large hopes as a fallback option. To play the hypothetical game, what would the committee do with a 25-5 Harvard team that has wins over Florida State, Saint Joseph's and a mid-40s RPI? I suggest the Crimson don't put themselves in a position to find out. Long Beach State has a strong RPI (34), but just two Top-100 wins despite the best non-conference schedule in the nation. Will the committee reward a non-league murderer's row that didn't produce a victory? If I was a betting man, I'd say the 49ers have the best at-large case out of this bunch.

Drexel has won 17 straight, hasn't lost since early January and won a league that has produced two recent Final Four teams (VCU, George Mason). The committee will say the past is the past, but it's a matter of inherent influence inside that war room.


Below is another look at the "last four in" and "first four out" of the at- large pool. I will take an educated guess at the entire bracket next Friday.

LAST FOUR IN: Texas, Miami, Connecticut, Xavier

FIRST FOUR OUT: Northwestern, BYU, Seton Hall, North Carolina State