Bubble Watch 2012: Who Wants An NCAA Tournament Bid? Plenty Still Available

LOUISVILLE, KY - FEBRUARY 13: Fab Melo #51 of the Syracuse Orange dunks the ball during the Big East Conference game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on Febr. 13, 2012, in Louisville, Ky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

SB Nation's resident bracketologist takes a look at how the field of 68 shapes up with three weeks left until Selection Weekend.

With February now more than half over, and Selection Sunday a mere three weeks away, it's clear the Selection Committee will face one of its most challenging assignments, yet. That task of selecting and seeding the field is always a difficult and thankless one, and given the unpredictability of the 2011-12 season so far, the Committee will have to work hard to slot teams in a reasonable manner. Nearly every profile this season, even among teams in the lower reaches of the Lock category, has its flaws. It will be interesting to see which shortcomings will be most scrutinized in 23 days time.

Let's take a look at my thoughts on how the field stacks up on Friday, Feb. 17. For more information on the structure of this post, check out the opening paragraphs of the first edition.

Locks

Note: In all tables, current conference leaders are denoted by asterisks (*). RPI references are via BBState.com and valid as of 02/16/2012.

1 seeds 1. Syracuse*
2. Kentucky*
3. Missouri*
4. Duke
2 seeds 8. Michigan State*
7. North Carolina
6. Ohio State
5. Kansas
3 seeds 9. Baylor
10. Georgetown
11. Marquette
12. Michigan
4 seeds 16. Wisconsin 15. Indiana
14. UNLV
13. Louisville
5 seeds 17. Temple*
18. Florida
19. Wichita State*
20. Gonzaga
6 seeds 24. Creighton
23. Murray State*
22. St. Mary's*
21. San Diego State

The top two lines are a rare haven of stability in this S-curve, with the race for the final No. 1 seed providing drama that's likely only to be decided right at the end. Just like in Monday's bracket, Duke holds the final top seed, though they needed to mount a furious rally to top N.C. State last night, with Kansas falling just behind. Lines three and four saw some movement over the past week, as UNLV's previously solid position as a No. 3 seed was compromised when the Runnin' Rebels lost their fifth true road game of the season Tuesday night at TCU. Michigan jumps up to replace the Rebels.

After line four, things become far muddier. An unexpected number of teams from outside the major conferences find themselves in good position, simply because of the overwhelming mediocrity in the Big Six leagues this season. Temple has risen all the way to the top of line five, as they've been on fire since Micheal Eric returned to the lineup. Eric has been on the court for nine of 10 straight Temple wins. Note that the Owls only lost once when Eric was healthy at the beginning this season, against Purdue in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off semifinals, and he was out with a knee injury for Temple's two worst losses, at Bowling Green and Richmond, as well as the team's huge win over Duke. As the Owls keep winning, their standing in the RPI table keeps rising, which will only boost their seeding to unexpected heights.

The quartet on line six have all dropped questionable games over the past couple of weeks, with the end of Murray State's run at perfection and Creighton's recent three-game skid (which ended Tuesday at woeful Southern Illinois) well chronicled. On Wednesday night, it was St. Mary's and San Diego State's turn to slide, as both dropped home games by double-digit margins. The Gaels, maybe looking ahead a bit to Saturday's trip to southwestern Kentucky, lost by 15 to a Loyola Marymount team that may make some noise at the WCC Tournament in two weeks. On the other end of California, the Aztecs slipped out of a tie for the Mountain West lead when they fell to New Mexico, 77-67. While those setbacks won't damage the Golden State pair's at-large prospects, both teams need to shake off the defeats and get back to winning to preserve a high seed. It won't be easy for either of them. While St. Mary's next challenge has received plenty of hype, San Diego State faces a visit to Air Force, a team that just burst Wyoming's bubble, on Saturday.

Florida is another team that is in danger of sliding a bit, but the Gators' problems are more health-related. It's clear Billy Donovan's team, a distant second in the SEC right now, needs Will Yeguete and Mike Rosario back sooner rather than later, especially with a trip to Vanderbilt and visit from Kentucky looming at the end of the regular season. And this Saturday's game at Arkansas is no picnic either.

Nearly There

7 seeds 25. Florida State* 26. Notre Dame 27. Vanderbilt 28. Virginia
8 seeds 32. New Mexico*
31. Connecticut
30. Southern Miss.*
29. Saint Louis
9 seeds 33. Mississippi State
34. Memphis


The Seminoles, Fighting Irish, Billikens, Golden Eagles, Lobos and Tigers continue to make decent progress, though Florida State needed a Michael Snaer three-pointer in the dying seconds to avoid a bad home loss to Virginia Tech on Thursday night. At the other end of the spectrum, the Bulldogs, Commodores, and Cavaliers need to make another good impression in short order. After a Tuesday night overtime loss at LSU, Mississippi State's record in true road games stands at 2-4, with three of those losses coming to SEC teams further down the bid pecking order (the Bayou Bengals, Arkansas and Mississippi). Plus, their best non-conference win, over West Virginia, isn't looking so hot anymore (though the 2K Sports Classic championship win over Arizona looks considerably better).

Rick Stansbury's team also won at Vanderbilt, another team that could use a late quality victory, if only to boost their flagging seeding fortunes. The Commodores own only one win over a team that's currently in the field, a 74-57 blowout at Marquette back on Dec. 29. They won't get a chance to grab another until a Feb. 25 trip to Kentucky. (Sorry, Thursday night's blowout win at Ole Miss doesn't rally help.) Since a road win over the Wildcats is unlikely, the Commodores' final good chance really comes three days later when Florida visits Memorial Gym.

Virginia falls here because they have a Florida State-like tendency to struggle with inferior opposition, evident in Tuesday's 12-point loss at Clemson. The problem for the Cavaliers is that two quality win opportunities, Feb. 25 and March 1 home games with North Carolina and FSU, are surrounded by a trio of contests Mike Scott and company should claim with little trouble, but probably won't -- a home-and-home with Maryland and a trip to Virginia Tech, who upset UVa in Charlottesville. After a win over Michigan, Virginia's next best victories are over Miami and N.C. State. Those may keep the Cavaliers far from the bubble in the end, but they may not get a great draw when the final bracket is revealed.

Bubble In (For Now)

9 seeds

35. California*
36. Purdue
10 seeds 40. BYU
39. Seton Hall
38. Harvard*
37. Iowa State
11 seeds 41. West Virginia
42. Kansas State


Since these teams are near the bottom of the at-large pool, you'd be right to think that their prospects are mixed. California is naturally walking a tightrope as the co-leader of the somewhat unpredictable Pac-12. In the Big Ten, Purdue is the week's big winners, thanks to a pair of valuable comparison wins over Northwestern and Illinois. Over in the Big East, Seton Hall has taken advantage of some winnable games to leave its recent six-game skid in the dust, but a challenging trip to Cincinnati and home game with Georgetown awaits in the next five days. WCC contender BYU finds itself in better position than it probably would be in most seasons, thanks to 10 wins in their last 12 games, a record other bubble teams will be hard pressed to replicate. The same can be said for Harvard, though the Crimson's margin for error is thinner than it would be for virtually anyone else.

On the opposite end of the scale, Iowa State needs take advantage of home games with Oklahoma and Texas Tech because the closing stretch (at Kansas State, at Missouri, Baylor in Ames) is fraught with both danger and opportunity. Meanwhile, Frank Martin's Wildcats find themselves sliding after dropping four of their last six. A three-game stretch that starts Saturday at Baylor (with a trip to Missouri and that home game with the Cyclones) will go a long way towards determining which postseason tournament K-State will find itself in come mid-March. The team the Wildcats fell to back on Dec. 8, West Virginia, is also in trouble, thanks to a 2-5 slide of its own. The Mountaineers have only defeated two teams in this projection (Georgetown and Cincinnati) since New Year's.

Last 4 Byes
(avoiding Dayton)
43. Cincinnati 44. N.C. State
45. Arizona
46. Texas
Last 4 In
(First Four)
48. Xavier
49. Illinois
50. Dayton
51. Washington

In general, the last four teams who gain direct entry to the Second Round simply have to be thankful that there are teams with more questionable profiles out there. However, the quartet should be prepared to send some specific thank you notes should they actually make it in the field. Cincinnati needs to write the Big East office in Providence, which has helped mask some questionable early season scheduling. N.C. State should be grateful for the better play Miami and Texas have displayed of late, as the Wolfpack now owns two wins over teams in the RPI Top 50, which wasn't the case a little more than a week ago. Of course, if they would have held on to a huge lead at Cameron Indoor Thursday night, they'd be in even better position. Arizona's players should share thanks among themselves for backing each other up. Honestly, who was expecting the Wildcats to make a run with Kevin Parrom and Jordin Mayes injured? Finally, Texas must thank Kansas State, for gifting them a decent, profile-boosting win last Saturday, and Temple, for making the Longhorns' Dec. 17 win in Austin look excellent.

As for the teams ticketed for Dayton on this Friday, the distance between the NCAA field and the NIT continues to be quite short. Xavier returns to the field for the moment, thanks to three Top 50 (and six Top 100) wins--and the lack of a midweek game. The Musketeers' fiercest conference rivals, Dayton, is also back in, meaning the possibility of the Flyers playing an extra home game in the First Round is a real possibility. The Flyers have a respectable 3-3 record against the Top 50 and 7-7 mark against the Top 100 ... and two of the worst losses owned by any team on the bubble, at Miami (Ohio) and against Rhode Island at home, a pair of teams with RPI rankings of 240 or worse. Don't expect both Dayton and Xavier to be around on Monday though. The two meet in Cincinnati on Saturday night.

Surprisingly, Illinois hangs in, despite losing at home to Purdue Wednesday, the team's seventh loss in its last eight. The Illini still own four wins over the RPI Top 50 (including ones over Michigan State and Ohio State). That's a total teams like Washington and Oregon, which have no top 50 wins between them, can't claim. Still, the Huskies find themselves as the last team in, even without a marquee win, thanks to their recent 10-2 run. Sure, one of those losses came to the Ducks in Eugene, but Oregon has been less consistent, going 8-4 in their last eight, with one of those losses coming to Oregon State, the only team from outside the Top 100 to beat either Washington or Oregon.

Bubble Out (For Now)

Last 4 Out 69. Northwestern
70. Miami
71. Minnesota
72. Alabama
Next 4 Out 73. Oregon
74. UCF
75. Colorado State
76. Massachusetts
Also Considered Arkansas George Mason
La Salle
LSU

Loyola Marymount
St. Joseph's
USF VCU

Miami just falls out after it followed up a loss at Florida State with one to North Carolina, though admittedly, a win against the Tar Heels would have been an unexpected boost. The Hurricanes need to build on their three Top 100 wins, but they'll have to wait until a visit from the Seminoles and trip to N.C. State at the end of the month to do so.

Likewise, Northwestern is outside looking in with four Top 100 wins against 10 losses, which means the Wildcats have not taken advantage of their numerous opportunities to lock down a first-ever bid. Of course, most of those games have been away from Evanston, though a 3-7 record in quality road/neutral games isn't anything to write home about either. Grabbing a home win over Minnesota Saturday is vital, especially as marquee home games with Michigan and Ohio State await in the final stretch. Likewise, a Golden Gopher win would see them in better position to jump in, as they have home dates with Michigan State and Indiana on the schedule for next week.

Dayton and Xavier aren't the only Atlantic 10 teams trying to secure a bid, as UMass leads a group that also includes St. Joseph's and La Salle. The Minutemen are about to begin a crucial four-game stretch (La Salle, Xavier, at Dayton, at Temple) that could push them to the right side of the bubble. Grabbing a home win over the Explorers, who beat UMass in Philadelphia on Jan. 8, on Saturday night would be a good start.

Curiously, the team with the third best RPI in the A-10, behind Temple and Saint Louis, is St. Joseph's, who happened to beat the Minutemen last Saturday. However, the Hawks' candidacy has two significant problems. Firstly, St. Joe's has a lot of questionable losses on its profile (at American, Charlotte, at Penn) to go along with some rather nice wins (Creighton, Drexel, Dayton, UMass). Secondly, a home game with Temple next Saturday is their last quality win opportunity before Atlantic City. St. Joe's best chance may be through grabbing three wins at Boardwalk Hall. The same goes for their Big Five rivals, La Salle, who also happens to host the Owls next week. The Explorers don't yet have a Top 50 win, so their at-large chances are marginal.

The race for a possible fifth SEC bid is starting to get more interesting. Alabama is on the outside looking in because of roster uncertainty, though a 3-6 stretch and the fact the Crimson Tide haven't earned a marquee win since before Thanksgiving really don't help matters. Making things worse, teams like Arkansas and LSU are attempting a late push, though both of those teams need to start winning on the road before they can be taken more seriously. Mississippi's Thursday loss to Vanderbilt sees the Rebels fall off the bubble, while Tennessee could be a threat at the SEC Tournament in New Orleans.

Out West, Colorado State's computer numbers are still strong, but they can't mask the lack of quality wins (and presence of bad losses, including Wednesday's at Boise State) overall.

UCF hangs around simply because the Knights have avoided the bad Conference USA losses that plagued them last season. The team's case would be helped by a surprise win at Memphis on Feb. 28 or a late UConn resurgence. If neither of those happen, which is likely, Donnie Jones' squad may need to make it to the C-USA final to have a chance.

Traveling west on I-4 (and then north on I-75 to be accurate), with a victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday night, USF will have 10 Big East wins for the first time. That's the good news. The bad news for the Bulls is that they own just one victory against a team in this projection, a two-point home decision over Seton Hall back on Jan. 13. That's a formula for NIT selection. However, making an impression in a difficult closing stretch (at Syracuse, Cincinnati, at Louisville, West Virginia) may change the Bulls' fate ... provided USF completes the season sweep of the fading Panthers.

Finally, a look at the three at-large contenders in the Colonial Athletic Association shows that Drexel has the best profile at the moment, barely, as the Dragons are 3-2 against the Top 100 (with no Top 50 wins) while George Mason and VCU are both 2-3. However, the Rams' Nov. 30 home win over USF will look better and better if the Bulls surprise late in the Big East season.

Potential One-Bid Conference At-Larges

12 seeds 47. Long Beach State*


13 seeds 54. Davidson* 53. Drexel* 52. Middle Tenn.*
14 seeds 55. Iona* 56. Oral Roberts* 57. Belmont*
58. Akron*

For all of these teams, save the Sun Belt-leading Blue Raiders and their Nashville-area rivals from Belmont, this week's BracketBusters games provide one final opportunity to make a case for at-large selection or improved seeding before conference tournaments begin. I'll have more on those games in just a few lines. As it stands right now, Long Beach State, Middle Tennessee and Drexel stand the best chance of landing a surprise at-large bid, while the others are on the fringes of the conversation for now.

Like Murray State, Oral Roberts clinched its conference's regular season title on Wednesday, so the Golden Eagles will represent the Summit League for the next couple of weeks.

Auto Bid Only

15 seeds 62. Bucknell*
61. Weber State*
60. Valparaiso*
59. Nevada*
16 seeds
(Second Round)
63. Long Island U.*
64. Stony Brook*


16 seeds
(First Four)
65. UT Arlington* 66. UNC Asheville* 67. Savannah State*
68. Miss. Valley State*

The last 10 teams in this version of the field are only getting in if they win their conference tournament championship. I want to take special mention of two teams in this section of the bracket. UNC Asheville clinched the Big South regular season crown, so the Bulldogs are assured of at least an NIT berth and a place in the rest of the regular season's projections. Also, there's a new MEAC representative, the conference's newest member, Savannah State. The Tigers, who you may recall went winless in 2004-05, are a game up in the loss column on Norfolk State. It would be quite a story if Horace Broadnax's club ends up making its first-ever NCAA trip.

While the at-large chances for these teams are all but gone gone, Nevada, Valparaiso, and Weber State could boost their seeding a bit with a good showing in BracketBusters this weekend. Naturally, that event features heavily in the following viewing guide, but there are plenty of major conference games with bracket impact on the schedule as well.

Friday, Feb. 17
BracketBusters: Northern Iowa at VCU, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
This one lost quite a bit of juice when George Mason's Sherrod Wright stunned the Rams at the buzzer on Tuesday night in Fairfax and a bit more when the Panthers fell by one at Evansville on Wednesday. Still, both of these teams are capable of making a run through their respective conference tournaments to earn a surprise bid.

BracketBusters: Valparaiso at Loyola Marymount, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The relatively new Horizon League leader visits the fourth-place team in the West Coast Conference, a team that has to be considered a threat to win the conference's automatic bid, thanks to road wins over BYU and St. Mary's.

Saturday, Feb. 18
BracketBusters: Drexel at Cleveland State, 11 a.m. ET (ESPNU)
Three Viking losses in a row have robbed this one of its luster. Even so, the Dragons could use a decent road win out of the CAA to bolster a shaky at-large case.

Marquette at Connecticut, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Golden Eagles look to be in good shape to claim a protected seed, while the Huskies are in dire need of a quality win to give themselves some breathing space.

BracketBusters: Wichita State at Davidson, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
After a loss to the College of Charleston Saturday, the Wildcats' at-large chances looked to be dead and buried. A win over the Missouri Valley-leading Shockers would bring them back.

UNLV at New Mexico, 1 p.m. ET (CBS Regional)
The Lobos took control of the Mountain West race with a huge win in San Diego Wednesday night. Saturday's challenge will be consolidating at home.

Florida State at N.C. State, 1 p.m. ET (ACC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
I'm curious to see if the Seminoles' offense can get back on track in Raleigh, and if the Wolfpack feel any lingering effects from Thursday night's disappointment in Durham.

Kansas State at Baylor, 1:30 p.m. ET (Big 12 Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Bears just got past the Wildcats in Manhattan on Jan. 10. K-State needs to reverse that outcome after folding against Texas last Saturday and failing against Kansas on Monday.

Oklahoma at Iowa State, 1:30 p.m. ET (Big 12 Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Cyclones must protect their home court against a Sooner team that's fallen off the face of the earth over the past three weeks.

BracketBusters: Akron at Oral Roberts, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
This is a matchup of possible 13/14 seeds. The Golden Eagles clinched the Summit League regular season crown Wednesday night, which means they'll be in the bracket until a loss in the conference tournament (if one happens).

Arizona at Washington, 3 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
The Wildcats visit Seattle for a key Pac-12 bubble and title battle. Arizona will be looking to avenge Washington's two-point win at the McKale Center three Saturdays ago.

BracketBusters: Nevada at Iona, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Another contest between teams who are likely to play a protected seed in the Second Round, should both qualify for the NCAAs. The Wolf Pack will attempt to slow down the high-octane Gaels, which won't be easy to do in New Rochelle.

Texas at Oklahoma State, 4 p.m. ET (Big 12 Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
Even though the Longhorns are in better position than they were a week ago, they can't afford a loss to the struggling Cowboys.

Seton Hall at Cincinnati, 4 p.m. ET (Big East Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
This is a crucial bubble battle in the Big East. The loser could be ticketed for Dayton, or worse, in Monday's projection.

BracketBusters: Lamar at George Mason, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN3)
The CAA co-leaders could have used an opponent with more RPI punch than the struggling Cardinals, who are four games behind UT Arlington in the Southland race.

BracketBusters: St. Mary's at Murray State, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
A win for the Racers would end any doubt surrounding their at-large candidacy. The Gaels, meanwhile, need this win for seeding.

Florida at Arkansas, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Razorbacks look to grab another quality win at Bud Walton Arena while the Gators will be looking to permanently deflate the Hogs' bubble.

La Salle at Massachusetts, 6 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
The winner stays on the fringe of the at-large picture and the thick of the race for a bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Minnesota at Northwestern, 7 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
It's easy to call this a virtual elimination game, but both the Golden Gophers and Wildcats will still have a slim chance with a loss, thanks to the quality of opposition left on their schedules.

Dayton at Xavier, 8 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
The Musketeers found their way back in today simply because they didn't play (and lose) during the week. Tonight, they have the opportunity to put another nail in their rivals' coffin, while getting revenge for Jan. 21 blowout loss at UD Arena.

BracketBusters: UT Arlington at Weber State, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN3)
You may want to check this one out to see the Wildcats' Damian Lillard who shares the national scoring lead with Oakland's Reggie Hamilton (24.8 ppg).

Ohio State at Michigan, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Big Ten co-leaders look to bolster their case for a No. 1 seed with a sweep of a Wolverine team that's a serious factor in the race for a protected seed.

BracketBusters: Long Beach State at Creighton, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
A win for the 49ers would make them an even more legitimate threat for an at-large bid should they fail to win the Big West's auto bid. The Bluejays, on the other hand, could use another quality win to rebuild some of the goodwill lost during their recent three-game skid.

Sunday, Feb. 19
Michigan State at Purdue, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Boilermakers took a big step toward safety when they won at Illinois on Wednesday. A home win over the Spartans would just about put them over the top, especially with the way Tom Izzo's team is playing right now.

USF at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Bulls look to claim their second win over the Panthers in 11 days and 10 Big East wins in the process. However, the real challenge for USF awaits after this game.

Oregon at Stanford, 7:30 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
The Cardinal have the opportunity to knock the Ducks completely off the bubble, while boosting their own slim chances.

Enjoy the busy weekend of college basketball. My next full bracket will be out on Monday. Be sure to follow me on Twitter for all of my Saturday and Sunday thoughts.

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