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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

NCAA Bubble Watch

Early Bubble Watch for the NCAA Tournament according to www.si.com

If you needed an illustration of the Butterfly Effect as it pertains to college hoops, look no further than Saturday in the ACC. The second halves of games at Duke and Clemson may end up changing a lot about the eventual NCAA tournament bracket.
Presumed top-seed Duke, fresh off getting mauled at Clemson, was being embarrassed at home by Miami, currently a bubble team that was trying to cap its own epic week after crushing Wake Forest. Meanwhile, the surging Tigers were hammering Florida State, which still was looking for a marquee win for its at-large resume. Two huge rallies later, Duke had stabilized (for now), Clemson was kicking itself, Miami had wasted an enormous opportunity, and FSU had a huge validating road win. Crazy.
This kind of stuff happens almost daily around the nation, as one result here or there can impact league races, which can impact tournament seeding, which can impact the Field of 65, but rarely do you see examples this pronounced running in tandem.
It just goes to reiterate how every game does matter, and how March Madness extends into the months before it. If anything falls under the general definition of Chaos Theory, this is it.
(Records listed are Division I only, per NCAA tournament selection guidelines. All RPI and SOS data are from Sunday's collegerpi.com RPI report.)

Locks: Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Clemson

The locks stay the same, but to assume nothing happened would be incorrect. Can Duke's effort and resolve continue to overcome the kind of bad shooting nights that torpedoed the Devils down the stretch last season? Did Wake Forest just need a wake up call or have people figured out the Deacons and now they need to figure out how to beat a zone? Did UNC see the final score in Clemson on Saturday, and say, "See, our buzzer-beating win in Tallahassee was solid." Can you ever trust Clemson to handle prosperity?

It's hard to overstate the importance of Florida State's (18-5, 5-3; RPI: 18, SOS: 24) rally at Clemson. It pushed the Noles away from the .500-level in conference play and gave them the kind of validating road win their resume had sorely been lacking. This team is clearly positioned as the fifth team in from the ACC at this point.

Virginia Tech (15-7, 5-3; RPI: 42, SOS: 29) had eight days to prepare for N.C. State at home, and still needed to rally from a big hole to win in overtime. The Hokies would be wise to take full advantage of this stretch, which continues with a home game against Georgia Tech and visits to Maryland and Virginia. After that, the final five are very tough. Boston College (18-7, 6-4; RPI: 51, SOS: 72) faded after the half at Wake Forest after beating Virginia on the road. The Eagles now get Clemson and Duke at home, so the potential is there to add to the UNC upset.
Oh, Miami (14-8, 4-6; RPI: 39, SOS: 12). Poised to have the best week of any team this season, the Canes let Duke off the hook. Clobbering Wake Forest is still a big plus, and this team showed it could play at an elite level, but it's still 4-6 in the league and has some ground to make up. Next up, North Carolina at home.

Big 12
Locks: Oklahoma

Both games were closer than you would have expected, but Oklahoma improved to 23-1 and remains well positioned for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Let's see what happens on the road at reeling Baylor, struggling Texas and surging Missouri down the stretch.

Last week's three-way debate is now a two-way battle between Kansas (19-4, 8-0; RPI: 15, SOS: 49) and Missouri (19-4, 7-2; RPI: 21, SOS: 75), which meet tonight in Columbia, Mo., in what should be a terrific game. The Jayhawks were slightly ahead last week and remain so this week after dispatching Baylor on the road and Oklahoma State at home. They have more to lean on in nonconference play and remain perfect in the Big 12, while Mizzou has two losses against a comparable conference schedule.
Texas (15-7, 4-4; RPI: 44, SOS: 40) will stay in this category for now, in part because its closest pursuers all struggled, and looking at the big picture, this league will get at least four teams in. The struggling Horns have nonleague wins over UCLA, Villanova and at Wisconsin, but they need get back on track soon, starting with Oklahoma State at home on Tuesday.

We have to introduce Kansas State (15-7, 5-4; RPI: 69, SOS: 89) and Nebraska (15-7, 5-4; RPI: 67, SOS: 64) to the mix. The Wildcats have now won five straight after winning at Texas A&M and get struggling Texas Tech next before an in-state showdown with Kansas on Saturday. The Wildcats' nonleague slate is woefully empty, so they need to keep doing work in the league. The Huskers are a similar story after toppling Texas to go with their Missouri win. At least the nonleague loss at Oregon State looks more respectable now.
Baylor (14-8, 3-6; RPI: 55, SOS: 20), which has now lost five straight after a crushing defeat at Texas Tech and gets to host Oklahoma on Wednesday. The game against Texas A&M (16-7, 3-6; RPI: 45, SOS: 36) on Saturday looms as a virtual elimination game for both after A&M lost at home to K-State. Oklahoma State (14-8, 3-5; RPI: 31, SOS: 5) continues to be all schedule, minimal substance.

Big East
Locks: Pitt, Connecticut, Louisville, Marquette

UConn continues to look the part of a national title favorite. Pitt is not far behind. Louisville needs to find some ballhandling to go with its defense. A frustrating loss at South Florida ended Marquette's perfect league start. Now the real tests begin which will help determine how high the Golden Eagles are seeded on Selection Sunday.

Villanova (19-4, 7-3; RPI: 12, SOS: 24) is now clearly next in the batting order after edging Providence and drilling Syracuse, and you could make a strong argument that they should be one level higher than this, as the resume is quite comparable with Marquette's given the Golden Eagles' easier conference schedule so far. Nova's remaining schedule isn't easy, though, so let's hold off a week. The Wildcats can help themselves on Tuesday night when they host Marquette in the return match from their New Year's Day loss in Milwaukee.
Syracuse (17-6, 6-5; RPI: 24, SOS: 37) had a solid home win over West Virginia before losing at Villanova. The Orange have dropped five of seven and it doesn't get easier with a visit to UConn on Wednesday. After that, the Orange get some home games and should be able to stabilize. The nonleague performance continues to support the resume, with neutral-site wins over Florida and Kansas and a victory at Memphis providing much more than the Orange typically have. West Virginia (16-7, 5-5; RPI: 16, SOS: 7) buried Providence after losing at the 'Cuse, and now gets a road shot at Pitt before hitting a very favorable schedule down the stretch.

What a big week for Cincinnati (15-7, 6-5, RPI: 50, SOS: 28), which beat Notre Dame and then finished a surprising sweep of Georgetown with a two-point road win. Beating St. John's at home next is a must ahead of trips to Pitt and Syracuse sandwiched around home dates with Louisville and West Virginia. Georgetown's (13-9, 4-7; RPI: 36, SOS: 4) loss to Cincinnati was the Hoyas' eighth in its last 11 games. The next five (at Syracuse, at USF, Marquette, Louisville, at Villanova) are very tough and raises the very real possibility that this team could miss the NCAAs altogether. The Hoyas have beaten Memphis and UConn, but even 8-10 in the Big East might be a tough sell.
Providence (14-9, 6-5; RPI: 66, SOS: 27) couldn't get it done against Villanova or West Virginia and remains on the fringe. Sitting on the fringe would be an improvement for Notre Dame (11-10, 3-7; RPI: 81, SOS: 38). The Irish were crushed at UCLA after losing at Cincinnati. With seven straight losses, the Irish are life support at this point. Next up? Louisville. They also have trips left to West Virginia, Providence and UConn.

Big Ten
Locks: Michigan State

The Spartans made easy work of Minnesota and Indiana at home to maintain a two-game lead at the top of the league. They're still very much in the mix for a two-seed in the NCAAs.

Ohio State (17-5, 7-4; RPI: 19, SOS: 35) made it four straight with home wins over Purdue and Minnesota, which helped them climb the Big Ten ladder this week. They have nonleague wins over Miami, Notre Dame and Butler, which help. The struggling Illinois (19-5, 7-4; RPI: 17, SOS: 44) offense finally revived a bit as the Illini throttled Purdue on Sunday. They now have two winnable road games at Northwestern and Indiana. Purdue (17-6, 6-4; RPI: 35, SOS: 60) took a half-step back with an overtime loss at Ohio State preceding the defeat at Illinois. They need to get Robbie Hummel back. Worth noting: Purdue still has to play Michigan State twice.
The bad news for Minnesota (17-5, 6-5, RPI: 25, SOS: 41)? It was routed at Michigan State and then fell short at Ohio State. The good news? The Gophers are done with the league's top three and have four home games left against the bottom half of the league. As long as they take care of business the Gophers should be fine.

So much for that Penn State (17-7, 6-5; RPI: 68, SOS: 147) surge. The Nittany Lions were routed at Michigan and shut down at home by Wisconsin. With three of their next four on the road at Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State, these Ls could prove costly. Meanwhile, Wisconsin (13-9, 5-6, RPI: 37, SOS: 2) won a pair to right the ship for now. Michigan (14-9, 5-6; RPI: 48, SOS: 14) blasted Penn State and then came up a bit short at UConn -- no shame there, but a missed chance to add to UCLA and Duke wins on the profile. Northwestern (13-8, 4-6; RPI: 61, SOS: 43) couldn't afford to lose at struggling Iowa. This next stretch -- home to Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State -- is make-or-break.

Locks: UCLA

The Bruins took full advantage of its four-game homestand to assume top-dog status in the league. With a season-ending home weekend against the Oregon schools, it's hard to find a way for the Bruins to miss at this point, so they're locked up.

Washington (17-6, 8-3; RPI: 21; SOS: 17) bounced back from a disappointing effort at Cal to beat Stanford and remain ahead of Arizona State (18-5, 7-4, RPI: 41, SOS: 95), which beat Oregon and Oregon State on the road. A bigger test awaits Thursday night when the Sun Devils host UCLA. They're still struggling badly from the three-point arc, shooting 26.2 percent in their last seven games. Five of the last seven are at home. California (18-6, 7-4; RPI: 29, SOS: 45) had a strong weekend, taking out both Washington schools at home with a revived offense that had its best efficiency performances since a Jan. 4 win over Arizona State.

USC's (15-7, 6-4; RPI: 40, SOS: 22) lone outing of the week didn't go well at UCLA. Now the Trojans need to get something done down in Arizona. Arizona (16-8, 6-5; RPI: 53, SOS: 66) got both ends of the must-get Oregon road trip. Now they have a big home game against USC Thursday in advance of a Saturday matinee against UCLA.

Locks: None.

Things are starting to look a lot like football season in this conference, with Florida and LSU the divisional flagbearers. This wasn't a good week for many of the at-large candidates, with Kentucky fans rightfully being the most concerned.

After holding off South Carolina to get a season split and take over first place in the East, Florida (19-4, 6-2; RPI: 30, SOS: 106) had the rest of the week off. Just asking: What was up with the modest crowd at the O-Dome against the Gamecocks?

South Carolina (17-5, 6-3; RPI: 43, RPI: 80) couldn't quite get it done at Florida, but handled Georgia to remain squarely in the mix. Remember, the Gamecocks get Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky all at home down the stretch, but up next is an important road trip to Alabama and Mississippi State. Tennessee (14-8, 5-3; RPI: 20, SOS: 1) couldn't escape by the skin of its teeth a second time, losing in the final seconds at Auburn after edging Arkansas. That's a disappointing loss for a team that looked to have turned the corner a bit. They get Georgia and Vandy at home this week, which needs to be two wins. Worth considering: The Vols are like the bizarro Gamecocks, in that they have road games remaining at Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina. They also have the most nonleague plusses on their resume.
LSU (19-4, 7-1; RPI: 54, SOS: 131) hasn't had the schedule Tennessee's had, but it does have many more wins. The Tigers rolled past Alabama to continue its West division surge, and already has beaten both South Carolina and Tennessee. The Tigers get Florida and Kentucky back-to-back in late February, which will help establish pecking order. This three-game homestand is not going the way Kentucky (16-7, 5-3; RPI: 75, SOS: 96) wanted. After losing to South Carolina and then absorbing Mississippi State's three-point assault last Tuesday, tomorrow's game against Florida is now really critical. The Cats are pretty clearly fifth in the league pecking order right now, their schedule the rest of the way is not easy, and they currently have an RPI that would be the worst ever for an at-large NCAA team. Mississippi State (15-7, 6-2; RPI: 82, SOS: 79) is behind LSU in the West division, but needs many more wins to make up for its barren nonleague resume.

Atlantic 10
Locks: Xavier

A loss at Duquesne might dent X's seeding, but the Musketeers are in no danger of missing the NCAAs, especially after Dayton returned the favor and lost at Charlotte on Sunday.

Dayton (21-3, 7-2; RPI: 26, SOS: 145) saw its run end Sunday in Charlotte but still has an overall profile that's worthy of a bid.

Temple (13-9, 5-3; RPI: 46, SOS: 31) needed to beat Xavier in Cincy and couldn't get it done. Edging Rhode Island is fine, but the Owls need more. Saint Joseph's (14-8, 7-1; RPI: 72, SOS: 52) rallied at UMass to keep the dream alive. The Hawks are now tied in the loss column with Xavier and one ahead of Dayton, with a string of winnable games on tap.

Mountain West
Locks: None

There's finally some separation at the top of the league, which is not good news for BYU and UNLV.

Utah (16-5, 7-2; RPI: 11, SOS: 11) won road games at TCU and Wyoming to keep pace with league co-leader San Diego State, which visits Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The Utes have a weird profile. There are two terrible nonleague losses (home to non-DI Southwest Baptist and at Idaho State). They also lost to Cal and at Oklahoma and Utah State, while beating Gonzaga, LSU and Ole Miss. The computer numbers are better than that actual performance, but they have the best resume in the league right now and look well-positioned schedule-wise.

San Diego State (15-5, 7-2; RPI: 47, SOS: 81) got a huge overtime win at UNLV and backed it up by throttling Air Force to get to 7-2 in the league. The Aztecs now have a chance to sweep Utah and take over first on Wednesday. They have a tougher schedule than the Utes (also at New Mexico and TCU, with BYU and UNLV at home) and have less in their nonleague slate, so winning the league is paramount for them. Remember that "favorable" schedule mentioned last week for UNLV (17-6, 5-4; RPI: 56, SOS: 94)? Well, two overtime losses later, the Rebels are in fifth place in the league and in some trouble. There's only so far the win at Louisville can take them, and they'll be at least two games behind the SDSU-Utah winner with six games left. A comparison with BYU (16-5, 5-3; RPI: 34, SOS: 47) is very interesting. UNLV won in Provo and the Cougars' best nonleague win (Utah State) isn't Louisville, even though they have better computer numbers. There's not a lot separating these three teams at the moment, which makes league finish critical.

Locks: Memphis, Butler

Butler's loss at Wisconsin-Green Bay made things a lot tighter in the Horizon, but it doesn't impact the Bulldogs' lock status. Memphis flexed its muscle in Spokane Saturday night. The odds remain that no other league besides C-USA, the Horizon, the WCC and the SoCon have a chance for multiple bids, and even the WCC's quest may have been damaged by Patty Mills' injury.

After Saturday night's thrashing by Memphis, Gonzaga (16-5, 8-0; RPI: 38, SOS: 69) should feel even more fortunate that Patty Mills' hand injury altered the WCC race. Earlier in the week, the Zags did what they needed to do, winning at second-place Portland. Now two games up on the field, a regular-season league title looks almost certain and that would be enough to get them in.
Utah State (22-1, 11-0; RPI: 33, SOS: 203) gets a deserved bump this week. The Aggies still must travel to second-place Boise State and third-place Nevada in addition to a road game at struggling Saint Mary's in the BracketBusters, so they'll need to keep taking care of business.

Saint Mary's (17-4, 6-3; RPI: 60; SOS: 239) lost at Santa Clara Saturday and remains in third place in the league. The Gaels now have four straight home games against Gonzaga, Portland, San Diego and then Utah State in BracketBusters, but they continue to carry a Patty Mills-sized asterisk. The big question: Assuming they get Mills back healthy before the end of the season, how much does this stretch even matter? There are no great wins with him, but they did beat Providence and San Diego State on neutral courts and won at Oregon (along with everyone else). They also could wind up 20-2 with Mills should they finish third or fourth in the league and ultimately lose to Gonzaga in the WCC title game. That wouldn't be good enough for an at-large?
Davidson (19-4, 13-1; RPI: 49, SOS: 132) burned one of its safety nets on Saturday, losing by two at home to a solid Charleston team to end its 43-game SoCon winning streak. The game was on national TV and the Wildcats didn't look particularly good, with Stephen Curry shooting blanks after halftime. This now makes the BracketBusters home game against Butler very important. It seems less likely that Davidson could now lose that one and not win the automatic bid and still get in. Beating West Virginia and N.C. State isn't a ton to fall back on, with a tough loss at Oklahoma and lopsided Ls against Purdue and Duke the other measuring sticks.
Another team that might be down to its final loss is Siena (18-6, 12-1; RPI: 28, SOS: 50), which got nipped at rival Rider on Saturday. The Saints whiffed on every nonleague chance they had and drawing Northern Iowa in the BracketBusters isn't a plus.

Terrible midweek losses for both Northeastern (16-7, 11-2; RPI: 65, SOS: 136) and VCU (17-7, 10-3, RPI: 73, SOS: 133) make it a virtual certainty that the CAA will only get one bid this season. The league is having a MAC-type season, with some solid teams cannibalizing one another.
Northern Iowa (16-7, 11-2; RPI: 79; SOS: 166) still leads the Valley, but a home loss to Creighton puts a major dent in whatever modest at-large hopes the Panthers had. Second-place is now owned by Creighton (19-6, 9-4; RPI: 70, SOS: 152), which beat Dayton and Saint Joe's in nonleague play, after Illinois State (19-5, 8-5; RPI: 52, SOS: 223), had an awful home overtime loss to Indiana State on Sunday.
Can a second team make it from C-USA if Memphis wins the automatic bid (again)? UAB (16-8, 6-3; RPI: 32, SOS: 32), which won at Arizona, is trying to stake a claim, but the Blazers will need to finish ahead of Tulsa (16-7, 7-2, RPI: 71, SOS: 113), which beat Texas A&M. In the MAC, Miami, Ohio (14-7, 7-2; RPI: 58, SOS: 84) continues to maintain the best computer profile, but the RedHawks are still looking up at Buffalo (16-5, 8-1; RPI: 60, SOS: 203).

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