Conference tourney weekend: When things start bubbling over

Published March 15, 2013

| Sports Network

Boise State, Middle Tennessee State and Saint Mary's can do no more. And with each hour, each minute, each second, others tight-roping the NCAA invite list will join them.

It's a maddening few days that preclude THE madness as teams wrestle to keep their collective heads above water and scratch and claw under the watchful eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

An automatic bid is nice, but many trying to thread the needle on the list below would gladly take that ONE win that seals the deal. As conference tournament week heads toward semifinal weekend, we take a look at those on the bubble for the second-to-last time with another re-examination occurring Sunday afternoon when From the End of the Bench sends out a quick article with its last 3 teams in, last 3 teams out and the explanation behind those choices.

The two key numbers next to each bubble member's record are the RPI (ratings percentage index) and SOS (strength of schedule). The NCAA selection committee uses both, particularly non-league SOS on the second number, as a barometer of discussion. If a team makes the initial cut, its profile is dissected further. We do both as we analyze each power league and the mid-major bubble boys below.

ACC

In: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State

Duke is well positioned for a top seed due in large part to its unblemished mark with Ryan Kelly in tow. Miami won the ACC regular-season title and could still grab a spot on the top line if it double dips and wins the conference tournament. North Carolina put up a poor effort on national television last Saturday against Duke, but that game withstanding, the Tar Heels have leapfrogged struggling North Carolina State in the ACC seed hierarchy.

Right on the bubble

Virginia (21-10, 11-7; RPI 66, SOS 132): The Cavaliers looked left for dead until a late rally, defensive stand and strong OT play pulled out a victory over Maryland. Virginia MUST win again in the ACC quarterfinals, but will it need more than that? Five great wins say no, but three losses to the middle- to-bottom of the CAA say yes. It's one of the two or three tightest profiles out there. UVA has seven, yes seven, losses to teams ranked outside the RPI top 100, which is an awful number. No team with that many losses outside the top 100 has received an at-large bid. None. Keep that mind as we venture through the weekend.

On the wrong side

Maryland (21-11, 8-10; RPI 82, SOS 118): The Terrapins had two final-week chances to score an impressive victory. They laid an egg at home against North Carolina, then let one slip away at UVA. The result? An auto-bid or NIT.

Big East

In: Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Villanova

The six locks have never been in any true danger of missing the NCAAs, so the fascination resides in seeding, with the Hoyas trying to play their way to a top seed in Madison Square Garden. Louisville, theoretically, could join the top line with help, while Syracuse is just trying to play its way back into winning shape after a late-season swoon.

This league's fascination resided on the bubble before the Big East Tournament, but Cincinnati and Villanova got the one win each needed to leave no doubt. In its swan song, the Big East will field eight teams in the tournament.

Big Ten

In: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois

Brandon Paul's buzzer-beater accomplished two things: 1) Pushed Illinois into the next round with a 51-49 victory over Minnesota; 2) Clinched a bid for Jim Groce's Illini, who will be a team to watch next week depending on matchups.

On the flip side, it left Minnesota waiting, wondering, feeling confident, but by no means secure come Selection Sunday.

On the right side

Minnesota (20-12, 8-10; RPI 24, SOS 2): Every year there is one team that feels safe and is left stunned when its name isn't called on Selection Sunday. Yes, Minnesota's RPI and SOS numbers should be locks, but it has lost three straight, finished under .500 in the conference and went 5-7 down the stretch. Yet, each time we pull away from the hysteria, we find a team with far too many good wins surrounded by a mediocre bubble full of teams with far worse profiles. The Gophers should be fine, which isn't saying much after the incredible start to the season.

On the wrong side

Iowa (21-11, 9-9; RPI 76, SOS 125): We promised to include the Hawkeyes if they showed us something, so here they are, one of a few teams trying to play their way into the conversation as others fall off. Iowa beat Northwestern Thursday, but now must win at least one if not two games to convince the committee that the bad computer numbers are a product of November, not March. Michigan State is on the docket Friday, but a win doesn't automatically vault Iowa into the field. That's what happens when you have the 310th-ranked non- conference schedule.

Big 12

In: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State

On the right side

Oklahoma (20-11, 11-7; RPI 35, SOS 16): See Minnesota. The Sooners have great computer numbers, but an awful season-closing loss to TCU followed by a loss to Iowa State in Kansas City on Thursday don't help the cause. We can't push Oklahoma to the lock category, but as the weekend wears on, it should be on the right side of the equation.

Iowa State (22-10, 9-7; RPI 47, SOS 57): The Cyclones moved onto the right side of the bubble after beating the Sooners on Thursday and have another shot at Kansas with an invite lock on the line. Either way, the Cyclones should be in a good shape depending on how other conference tournaments shake out.

On the wrong side

Baylor (18-14, 9-9; RPI 62, SOS 18): We ask again (just like last week), is Baylor that team with an eye-popping number of losses that storms its way into the NCAAs? The answer is the same: likely not after a last-second loss to Oklahoma State on Thursday night. Baylor would need a lot of help and a committee with a short memory that forgets the mid-February to early-March slide.

Pac-12

In: Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, California, Colorado

The Pac-12 looks set after Arizona State's run lost steam late against UCLA. Oregon survived Washington to save face, and while California and Colorado hang close to the edge, each appears to be a set or two away from it. Can we actually push a team from lock status back into the pool? Maybe, but it would take a lot of madness over the next two days.

SEC

In: Florida, Missouri

While the Big East and Pac-12 crystalized their tournament hierarchy, the SEC has turned into a complete bubble bath with four teams having an opportunity to move in or out of the field before Selection Sunday.

Right on the bubble

Kentucky (21-10, 12-6; RPI 50, SOS 65): Last Saturday's win over Florida clinched a bid, right? Not exactly. The win was key for sure, but there isn't a whole lot else to the Wildcats' profile other than street cred and a home win against Missouri. Remember, the Florida win followed a bad loss at Georgia. Kentucky needs to beat Vanderbilt on Friday to feel safe. A loss could push them to the wrong side of fate.

Tennessee (20-11, 11-7; RPI 55, SOS 34): The Vols' fast finish put them into the conversation and set up a possible knockout bout on Friday against Alabama. It's a game the Crimson Tide MUST win and one Tennessee would be wise to win.

Mississippi (23-8, 12-6; RPI 56, SOS 148): In full disclosure, I personally don't think Ole Miss belongs in the field. Other than a sweep of Tennessee, the Rebels have just one top-50 win (and you wonder why we should feel so confident about Minnesota). The Rebels also have the horrible non-conference SOS around their neck. Yet, with a nice win or two in the SEC Tournament, this profile could look a lot better.

Alabama (20-11, 12-6; RPI 61, SOS 89): Wake me up when Alabama does something, anything that either boosts of cripples its candidacy. The Tide went by the book all season long, resulting in 20 wins, 12 conference W's and computer numbers that say "no dice" to invite inquiry. The key conquest is Friday's date with Tennessee. A win moves Alabama into more serious conversation, while a loss probably pushes it outside looking in.

Mountain West

In: New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State, San Diego State

San Diego State's conference tournament run gives the Mountain West at least four teams with a fifth looking like at the worst a 60-40 proposition to make the field. Let's examine the Boise State Broncos' plight below.

Right on the bubble

Boise State (21-10, 9-7; RPI 44, SOS 61): Boise State meet Virginia, meet Tennessee, meet La Salle. The Broncos are walking the tight rope after bowing out to San Diego State in the Mountain West quarterfinals. They have the non- league win over Creighton as their ace in the hole as well as a solid RPI number and three quality league wins (UNLV, Colorado State, San Diego State). However, they also have just a 4-7 record against the RPI top 50 and are finished while other bubble teams have opportunities to leapfrog them on the ledger.

Atlantic 10

In: Saint Louis, VCU, Butler

The A-10 Tournament has already made headlines for the bizarre end to the Richmond-Charlotte game, but it also provides opportunities for a pair of Philly schools trying to forge their way into the dance.

On the right side

Temple (23-8, 9-5; RPI 37, SOS 58): The Owls' neutral-court win over Syracuse is the key to their resume. Couple that with W's over Saint Louis, La Salle and VCU, and that's four wins most in the bubble discussion don't have. Simple as that.

Right on the bubble

La Salle (21-8, 11-5; RPI 38, SOS 86): Let's look at the resume. Sixteen of the Explorers' 21 wins are against teams outside the RPI top 100. That's a lot, which makes Friday's tilt with Butler very important. The Explorers can rest easy with a win, but a loss makes Selection Sunday a dicey situation.

Missouri Valley

In: Wichita State, Creighton

Nothing to see here. The Shockers and Bluejays are both dancing and looking at seed lines ranging from 6-8.

West Coast Conference

In: Gonzaga

Gonzaga is destined for a No. 1 seed. The only intrigue comes with whether the committee hands the 'Zags the TOP overall seed or not. It's semantics at this point, but meaningful nonetheless. Saint Mary's, on the other hand, is fighting for its tournament life.

On the right side

Saint Mary's (27-6, 14-2; RPI 33, SOS 105): The Gaels missed terribly in their attempt at the auto bid and now must rely on a fairly non-descript profile. Saint Mary's has just one top-50 win (at home over Creighton) in four opportunities (it lost three times to Gonzaga). It's a wait-and-watch approach with the prospects looking good, but not certain as the bubble tightens.

Other Leagues

Memphis is in, Belmont survived Murray State to win the Ohio Valley's automatic bid, and Middle Tennessee's Sun Belt semifinal loss completes one of the most interesting bubble cases in ages.

Right on the bubble

Middle Tennessee (28-5, 19-1; RPI 29, SOS 135): As a basketball fan, I have no doubt that the Blue Raiders are tournament worthy. They are a good basketball team, one that is favored by Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency models, and one that has strong RPI numbers held up by a top-10 non-conference SOS. BUT, and I hate to type that word, the truth is Middle Tennessee doesn't have a lot of substance under the numbers. The Blue Raiders don't have a single win against the RPI top-50 and just two W's against the top 100. One of those is a win over Ole Miss. This is one of those cases where a team deserves to go in your gut, but doesn't really deserve to go based on its resume. Tough call.

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