NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Now With More Locks (And The Usual Confusion)

COLUMBIA, MO - FEBRUARY 21: Jamar Samuels #32 of the Kansas State Wildcats smiles as the Wildcats defeat the Missouri Tigers to win the game on February 21, 2012 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

With Selection Sunday a mere 16 days away, SB Nation's Resident Bracketologist has handed out a few more locks. Yet, the bid picture is not rosy for everyone, as a growing number of teams are dropping further from safety.

There are just three Fridays left before Selection Sunday, and the Bubble Watch picture is as confounding as ever. Sure, a few teams (Kansas State and New Mexico, for example) have significantly boosted their cases for selection since last week's edition; however, there are still plenty of others around the country who are either treading water or slipping perilously toward the NIT. (Yes, I wrote that sentence with Mississippi State and West Virginia in mind, though the Bulldogs and Mountaineers are certainly not alone.)

For more information about the concept behind this version of Bubble Watch, please read my first entry for the season.

Today's post will begin with a quick look at the locks. Then, I'll jump into a more detailed explanation of what's going on at the other end of the bracket.

Note: Conference leaders in the tables below are marked with an asterisk (*). All RPI/Strength of Schedule (SOS) data is from BBState.com and is accurate as of Feb. 23, 2012. Records are accurate as of Feb. 24, 2012, and only account for games against Division I opponents.

Locks

1 seeds 1. Syracuse*
2. Kentucky*
3. Michigan State*
4. Duke*
2 seeds 8. North Carolina
7. Ohio State
6. Missouri
5. Kansas*
3 seeds 9. Marquette 10. Georgetown
11. Michigan 12. Baylor
4 seeds 16. Indiana 15. Louisville 14. Temple* 13. Florida
5 seeds 17. Wisconsin 18. UNLV 19. Wichita State*
20. Florida State
6 seeds 24. Gonzaga 23. New Mexico*
22. Notre Dame 21. Murray State*
7 seeds 25. Kansas State 26, Creighton 27. Virginia 28. San Diego State
8 seeds
31. Vanderbilt 30. Saint Louis 29. St. Mary's*

Last week, I was a bit stingy when it came to handing out locks. But now that Selection Sunday staring us all straight in the face, I'm in a giving mood today. That's why teams like Vanderbilt and Virginia, whom I directed a suspicious eye toward seven days ago, are back in my good graces, and five others, including Kansas State and New Mexico, all earned promotions.

At the top of the S-curve, Tuesday's loss to the Wildcats cost Missouri their (relatively) secure spot on the top line, though they could easily grab it back with a win at Kansas on Saturday.

Nearly There

8 seeds 32. California*



9 seeds 33. Iowa State
34. Memphis*


Once again, this group continues to see a considerable amount of movement, as teams either march toward a bid or slip down toward the NIT. Out of this trio, Iowa State has the best chance to move up to Lock status, thanks to its remaining trips to Kansas State and Missouri and a home game with Baylor. The schedules for California and Memphis aren't nearly as favorable, as the Golden Bears are on the road for their final two (Colorado, Stanford), while the Tigers have trips to Marshall and Tulsa on either side of a visit from UCF.

Bubble In (For Now)

9 seeds

35. Alabama
36. Harvard*
10 seeds 40. Washington 39. Purdue 38. Seton Hall 37. Connecticut
11 seeds 41. Cincinnati 42. Arizona

12 seeds
46. Long Beach State*

This weekend is a crucial one for this group as every team here will play at least one game that could alter its fate.

For starters, Harvard faces a significant Ivy homestand (more on that later), while Long Beach State looks to stay perfect in Big West play when UC Riverside comes calling. Among the contenders from multi-bid conferences, Cincinnati, Purdue, and Washington can all grab huge road wins, while Alabama, Arizona, and Seton Hall face tricky challenges on their home floors. Meanwhile, UConn will look to be rude hosts when No. 1 overall seed Syracuse visits. I'll have more specifics on all of these games at the end of the post.

Last Four Byes

Last 4 Byes
43. Mississippi State 44. West Virginia 45. Southern Miss 47. BYU

These four just avoid a trip to Dayton at the moment, with Mississippi State, Southern Mississippi and West Virginia all here because of recent struggles.

Four straight losses -- three of which were rather unexpected -- put Mississippi State (19-9, 5-7 SEC, RPI: 60, SOS: 64, non-conf. SOS: 50) in a spot of trouble. Yes, the Bulldogs won at Vanderbilt, and victories over Alabama, West Virginia and Arizona will provide a bubble boost, but the club's road struggles (losses at Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss) may still lead to Selection Sunday heartbreak. Saturday's visit to Tuscaloosa is an opportunity to change that.

West Virginia (17-11, 7-8 Big East, RPI: 43, SOS: 10, non-conf. SOS: 10) is in real trouble now, thanks to two wins in their last eight. The Mountaineers' strong computer numbers, bolstered by wins over Cincinnati, Georgetown, Kansas State and Miami, along with victories over Akron and Oral Roberts, a pair of underrated conference leaders, mean they should just make it in, but they'll need to make a late run to improve their rapidly declining seed.

The Mountaineers' troubles pale in comparison to those of Southern Mississippi (20-6, 9-4 C-USA, RPI: 11, SOS: 39, non-conf. SOS: 90) faces. That's because the Golden Eagles dropped their second straight Conference USA game on Wednesday night, following up a bad loss at Houston with a questionable double overtime setback at UTEP. Those are two significant blemishes for a profile that looked quite respectable heading into last weekend. Larry Eustachy's team now owns a trio of wins against the RPI Top 50 (at Colorado State, Memphis, USF), but none of those teams are locks for the field.

Thursday's loss at Gonzaga means BYU (21-7, 11-4 WCC, RPI: 46, SOS: 108, non-conf. SOS: 123) only owns a single victory over a team in the RPI Top 50--the Cougars victory over the Bulldogs in Provo. Still, BYU's profile is relatively blemish-free, with its worst losses coming against surprising Loyola Marymount (at home) and at Utah State in the first game of the season. Victories over fellow bubble team Oregon and possible auto-bid winners Nevada and Weber State also help the Cougars' case.

Last Four IN

Last 4 In
(First Four)
48. Colorado State
49. Northwestern
50. Xavier
51. Texas

Of the Last Four In, only Colorado State has won since my Monday projection. The other three teams remain in because their profiles are just a bit stronger than those of the teams who sit just out of the field ... many of whom also happened to lose over the past few days.

Colorado State (17-9, 6-5 MWC, RPI: 26, SOS: 9, non-conf. SOS: 38)
The Rams appeared to be destined for the NIT after consecutive road losses to TCU and Boise State, but home wins over Wyoming and New Mexico, with the latter happening three days after the Lobos took control of the Mountain West race, resuscitated Colorado State's chances. Yes, the Rams' computer numbers are excellent, but that's mostly a function of their losses (at Duke, UNLV, New Mexico, Northern Iowa and Southern Miss. at home) than quality victories (New Mexico and San Diego State in Fort Collins). Tim Miles' team is not safe by any means, but they can grab a little breathing room with wins at San Diego State and back home against UNLV over the next week.

Northwestern (16-11, 6-9, RPI: 48, SOS: 6, non-conf. SOS: 12)
If Greg Gumbel fails to read Northwestern's name out on Selection Sunday, the nightmares of Wildcat fans will likely feature a loop of Tuesday night's overtime home loss to Michigan. By all rights, the Wildcats should currently be on the outside looking in, but results elsewhere see them just hanging on, thanks primarily to wins over Michigan State and Seton Hall, excellent computer numbers, and an absence of bad losses. (Seriously, very few teams can claim such a spotless mark against teams from outside of the RPI Top 100 this season.) Unfortunately for the Purple and White, that selling point is in real danger over the next week and a half. Two bad loss opportunities--trips to Penn State and Iowa--lie on either side of a huge Feb. 29 home game with Ohio State.

Xavier (17-10, 8-5 A-10, RPI: 56, SOS: 49, non-conf. SOS: 72)
Up until a 76-53 win over, and subsequent brawl with, Cincinnati on Dec. 10, the Musketeers looked like a surefire tournament lock and solid bet for a protected seed. Since that day, Xavier hasn't even played .500 basketball (going 9-10), which means they'll be lucky to play in the First Four, an event that happens to take place on their other significant rival's home floor. The highlights of Xavier's profile are a trio of early wins over Vanderbilt, Purdue and, of course, Cincinnati. However, the Musketeers' two best wins post-brawl, over St. Joseph's and Dayton, don't quite pack the same punch. While a victory at Saint Louis on Tuesday night would provide a late boost, the Musketeers can't afford to drop upcoming home games with Richmond and Charlotte.

Texas (17-11, 7-8 Big 12, RPI: 58, SOS: 21, non-conf. SOS: 25)
Much like Northwestern, Texas stays in the field partially because of others' failings, as consecutive losses to Oklahoma State and Baylor should have cost the Longhorns a place. However, a win over surging Temple and splits with Kansas State and Iowa State are enough to keep Rick Barnes' side around for now, though that loss to the Cowboys and consecutive losses to Oregon State and N.C. State at the Legends Classic may give the Committee pause. Of the Longhorns' three remaining games, only one is a quality win opportunity, and that's a trip to Kansas on March 3.

Last Four OUT

Last 4 Out 69. Miami 70. USF
71. Dayton
72. N.C. State

Three of these four teams are on the outside looking in because of a relative lack of quality wins, while Dayton sits out thanks to a couple of damaging losses.

Miami (16-10, 7-6 ACC, RPI: 49, SOS: 32, non-conf. SOS: 47)
Two factors work in Miami's favor: a victory at Duke and an absence of losses to teams that are outside the RPI Top 100. However, the Hurricanes' 1-7 record against teams in the field, compounded by an inability to close the deal (see a recent 1-3 stretch, with the defeats coming at the hands of North Carolina, Florida State, and Maryland), keeps them out. Yet, all is not lost for Miami, as the Hurricanes have two chances to make an impression this week, a return game with the Seminoles in Coral Gables on Sunday and a visit to Raleigh for a likely elimination game on Wednesday night.

USF (16-11, 10-5 Big East, RPI: 50, SOS: 44, non-conf. SOS: 18)
USF's 4-8 mark against the RPI Top 100 is not quite as strong as it appears, as they have just one Top 50 win (Seton Hall) and the three wins against teams that rank between 51 and 100 came against Pittsburgh (twice) and Cleveland State, a pair of teams that are fading right now. Stan Heath's team has opportunities in the final days of the regular season, as they host fellow bubble boys Cincinnati and West Virginia and visit Louisville. Plus, the Big East Tournament may result in a quality win opportunity or two.

Dayton (17-10, 7-6 A-10, RPI: 75, SOS: 53, non-conf. SOS: 63)
Dayton's profile will provide a challenge for the Selection Committee, mostly because it features a little bit of everything. There are some really nice wins (at Temple, Saint Louis, Alabama), some OK ones that might help boost the Flyers above other bubble teams (a split with Xavier, Minnesota), a lack of consistency during conference play, and some bad, and I mean BAD, losses (at Miami (OH) and Rhode Island at home).

N.C. State (18-10, 7-6 ACC, RPI: 64, SOS: 33, non-conf. SOS: 64)
Simply put, N.C. State's inability to close out Duke back on Feb. 16 likely cost them twice. The first setback was the defeat itself; the second, lost momentum, which likely cost the Wolfpack when a physical Florida State squad visited the Research Triangle less than 48 hours later. Now, N.C. State is stuck with a profile that's highlighted by a couple of so-so wins.

Next Four OUT

Next 4 Out 73. VCU
74. LSU
75. UMass
76. Minnesota

At this point it will almost take a miracle, or at least some well timed wins, to get Minnesota back on the right side of the bubble.

One of last season's most debated at-large teams, VCU (24-6, 14-3 CAA, RPI: 71, SOS: 199, non-conf. SOS: 180), has jumped into this season's picture, thanks to 13 wins in their last 14 games (with the loss coming at George Mason by a point). While the Rams' winning ways have moved them back into the conversation, a relatively weak CAA and a few poor choices and bad breaks in their non-conference scheduling will likely keep them out.

Don't look now, but LSU (17-10, 7-6 SEC, RPI: 67, SOS: 57, non-conf. SOS: 33) is in position to earn a bye in the SEC Tournament, which the Tigers can earn with victories at Mississippi, against Tennessee in Baton Rouge and at Auburn. Of course, given the Tigers' record away from home, a 3-0 finish isn't a given. Even though the Bayou Bengals own victories over Marquette, Alabama and Mississippi State, they'll likely need to win a game or two in New Orleans to have a shot.

Massachusetts (19-8, 8-5 A-10, RPI: 79, SOS: 140, non-conf. 122) owns wins over St. Joseph's, Saint Louis, and Xavier, but the Minutemen have also been swept by La Salle and lost at last-place Rhode Island. The biggest knocks against Derek Kellogg's team are a relatively weak non-conference schedule and questionable form away from home (UMass' best away win is against Richmond). Basically, the Minutemen must win at Dayton (Saturday) and Temple (Wednesday) to have a legitimate chance.

Wednesday's home defeat at the hands of Michigan State pushed Minnesota's (17-11, 5-10 Big Ten, RPI: 76, SOS: 59, non-conf. SOS: 6) losing streak to four, and there's a good chance an upcoming three-day stretch, a visit from Indiana Sunday followed by Tuesday's trip to Wisconsin, could completely burst the Golden Gophers' bubble. Single wins over Indiana and Northwestern won't be enough, especially since Iowa swept Tubby Smith's team.

Also Considered

UCF George Mason Illinois
Loyola Marymount
Oregon
St. Joseph's
Wyoming

All of these teams, except for the idle Ducks, are outside of the First Eight Out because of recent losses. Wednesday was a particularly difficult night for teams on the outside looking in, as four of them suffered potentially fatal defeats. First, George Mason status as the third choice from the CAA was cemented after the Patriots fell in overtime at Northeastern. Then, St. Joseph's couldn't even get an extra five minutes out of its home game against Richmond, as the Hawks picked up a questionable loss. A bit later, UCF took a tumble after it picked up a third loss against a team ranked 150+ in the RPI, Rice. Finally, while Wyoming owns two Top 50 wins, a loss at San Diego State illustrates how the Cowboys aren't quite the same team away from Laramie.

As for the other teams on this list, their odds are shrinking. Illinois has now lost nine of 10 and the Illini's issues are well documented. West Coast Conference auto-bid threat Loyola Marymount's profile deserves more attention because of three Top 50 wins. Unfortunately, a quartet of bad 150+ losses, including Thursday's home defeat at the hands of San Diego, makes it more difficult to make a solid case for the Lions' at-large candidacy. Further up the West Coast, Oregon still lacks a Top 50 win, though victories over Washington and Arizona are helpful. However, the Ducks simply can't afford to be swept by Oregon State on Sunday.

Potential At-Larges From Likely Single-Bid Leagues

13 seeds 54. Iona* 53. Drexel* 52. Middle Tenn.*
14 seeds 55. Oral Roberts*

Given the "quality" of this season's bubble, these four have a legitimate opportunity to earn an at-large, provided they at least reach their respective conference championship games. An earlier elimination, however, may prove costly. With that in mind, the team out of this quartet with the biggest challenge is Drexel, as it is always a struggle for non-Virginia squads -- especially the teams who joined the CAA via Northern expansion -- to win in Richmond. The last Colonial final that did not feature a Virginia team was in 2006.

Auto Bid Only

14 seeds
56. Davidson* 57. Akron*
58. Belmont*
15 seeds 62. Long Island U.* 61. Valparaiso* 60. Nevada* 59. Weber State*
16 seeds
(Second Round)
63. Bucknell* 64. Stony Brook*


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

Akron, Davidson, and Nevada fell down into this group after their BracketBusters defeats last weekend. With most mid-major conference tournaments starting next week, significant changes may be ahead for the bottom four lines of the field.

Weekend TV Preview

To close this post, here's a look at the most significant games on the TV schedule between now and Monday. The biggest non-televised games of the weekend are in the Ivy League, and Cambridge, Mass., specifically, as Harvard (9-1) can take a huge pair of steps toward its first NCAA bid since 1946 when it hosts 6-3 Princeton on Friday and second-place Penn (7-2) on Saturday.

Friday, Feb. 24
Butler at Valparaiso, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
This is a possible Horizon League championship game preview, as the Bulldogs are doing what they do best -- hitting their stride late in the season -- and the Crusaders have clinched the regular season crown. If the two meet for a third time with the auto bid on the line, the matchup will also be at the ARC.

Marquette at West Virginia, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Mountaineers need to pull off a significant upset after Notre Dame demolished them in South Bend on Wednesday night. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles are looking to move closer to earning the No. 2 seed in the Big East Tournament.

Fairfield at Iona, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The hosts can wrap up the Metro Atlantic regular season crown, and at least a place in the NIT, with a win. However, I have a feeling the Gaels are destined for bigger things.

Saturday, Feb. 25
Vanderbilt at Kentucky, 12 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Wildcats can clinch the SEC regular season title outright with a win Saturday afternoon, while the Commodores would love to grab a win at Rupp to boost their seeding.

Iowa State at Kansas State, 1:30 p.m. ET (Big 12 Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Cyclones look to sweep the season series with the Wildcats, which would provide a late boost to a decent profile.

LSU at Mississippi, 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Rebels, relegated to the spoiler role, can derail the Tigers' late charge. An LSU loss would likely send both to the NIT.

UCLA at Arizona, 2 p.m. ET (CBS Regional)
All season, the prospect of three Pac-12 bids seemed like a pipe dream, but it's a definite possibility now. If the Wildcats lose to the Bruins at home, the conference may have to be happy with two entrants.

N.C. State at Clemson, 2:30 p.m. ET (ACC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
A fourth straight loss would knock the Wolfpack completely out of the at-large picture. Keep an eye on the Tigers at the ACC Tournament in a couple of weeks.

Missouri at Kansas, 4 p.m. (CBS)
What might very well be the final regular season meeting between these two bitter rivals may just decide the Big 12 title -- and a place on the top line.

North Carolina at Virginia, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Much like a win for Vanderbilt over Kentucky would provide the Commodores with a late seed boost, a win for the Cavaliers over the Tar Heels would have a similar effect. The difference, Virginia's upset chances are higher because the game is in Charlottesville.

Memphis at Marshall, 4 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
Even though Southern Mississippi's loss to UTEP gave the Tigers some breathing room in the Conference USA race, another conference loss would push the Tigers closer to needing the auto bid to make the field.

Drexel at Old Dominion, 4 p.m. ET (Comcast SportsNet Regional)
These two could meet in a CAA semifinal in Richmond in a little more than a week.

Florida at Georgia, 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Gators need to figure out how to (again) play without Will Yeguete...and fast. Athens may not exactly be the place to do it, but Vanderbilt and Kentucky loom in the final week.

Rutgers at Seton Hall, 5 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Pirates picked up a true marquee win on Tuesday night when they hammered Georgetown, but they need to keep their momentum going against the tricky Scarlet Knights.

Mississippi State at Alabama, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
A fifth consecutive loss would push the Bulldogs ever closer to the three-letter tournament, while the Crimson Tide are a team on the rise now that the three of the four players Anthony Grant suspended are back in the head coach's good graces.

George Mason at VCU, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Patriots' Sherrod Wright broke Ram hearts with a buzzer-beater on Valentine's Day. Bradford Burgess and company will attempt to gain some revenge in the regular season finale in Richmond.

Massachusetts at Dayton, 6 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
The Minutemen took care of Xavier in Amherst Tuesday night to open their season-making or breaking three-game stretch. Now, the more difficult road stretch begins against a Flyer team that's looking to stay in the at-large conversation.

Purdue at Michigan, 6 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
While a win for the Boilermakers would all but lock up a bid, the Wolverines will be looking to keep their Big Ten title hopes alive.

Temple at St. Joseph's, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
This contest lost a considerable amount of juice when the Hawks lost at home at Richmond on Wednesday night; however, St. Joe's Big 5 rivals can edge ever so closer to the conference crown, and a possible surprise protected seed, with a victory at Hagan Arena.

Washington at Washington State, 8 p.m. ET (Root Sports NW/FCS Pacific)
The Cougars welcome the Huskies to Pullman, where they can seriously dent their archrival's at-large hopes.

Syracuse at Connecticut, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
After averting disaster with an overtime win at Villanova on Monday, the Huskies will look to stun the Orange and give themselves some bubble breathing room.

Northwestern at Penn State, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Wildcats have to forget about Tuesday's home loss to Michigan, as a loss in State College would all but end their hopes.

Colorado State at San Diego State, 10 p.m. ET (The Mtn.)
On Tuesday night, the Rams took advantage of New Mexico's visit to grab a late quality win. However, a second win over the Aztecs would mean a bit more, especially since it would come in San Diego.

Sunday, Feb. 26
Cincinnati at USF, 12 p.m. ET (Big East Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
Yes, it was a lot to ask the Bulls to win at the Carrier Dome on Wednesday night, but if USF wants to be taken seriously over the next two weeks, they need to take care of the Bearcats, who gave themselves a boost by knocking off Louisville on Thursday night, at the building formerly known as the Ice Palace.

Indiana at Minnesota, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Could the Golden Gophers sweep the Hoosiers and miss the Tournament completely? It's a possibility.

Wisconsin at Ohio State, 4 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Buckeyes are falling back in the race for a No. 1 seed, and a season sweep of the Badgers would provide a slight boost to their case.

California at Colorado, 5:30 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
The Golden Bears can clinch at least a tie for the Pac-12 regular season title with a victory in Boulder. Meanwhile, the Buffaloes' thin hopes are all but gone after Stanford blew them out on Thursday.

Florida State at Miami, 6 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Hurricanes lost to the Seminoles in Tallahassee on February 11th. They've won only once (over Wake Forest) since. Florida State, on the other hand, will look to bounce back from Thursday's home loss to Duke that cost them control of the ACC race.

Iowa at Illinois, 6 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
A win over the Hawkeyes would be a start for the Illini, but not nearly enough to get them back in the field.

Oregon at Oregon State, 7:30 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
The Ducks, who are still hanging around the bubble, look to avenge a damaging 76-71 home loss to the Beavers from four weeks ago.

Akron at Ohio, 8 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Zips (12-1) can clinch the MAC regular season title outright with a win over the Bobcats.

My next full bracket update will come on Monday. However, since we are nearly in the homestretch of the season, this will be the final edition of Bubble Watch, at least in this format. Next Friday, I'll have a full bracket update, accompanied by a rundown of the most significant games of the final weekend of the regular season for the major conferences, and the first weekend of Championship Week.

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