March 12, aka Selection Sunday, is now less than two months away. So in this edition of SB Nation Bracketology, I’m stepping away from the bracket itself to look at the bigger picture — the prospects for each of the likely multi-bid conferences. In 2016, this exercise was relatively successful, as I was within a single bid for each power conference and correctly predicted the Atlantic 10’s three selections.
As for 2017, let’s begin by assuming that 23 conferences (everyone but the six power conferences, the American Athletic, Atlantic 10, and West Coast) will send just one team to the field of 68 — yes, it’s likely the Missouri Valley and Mountain West will both be single-bid conferences. That leaves 45 spots for the at-large pool. We start our look at how these places will be distributed with the conference widely expected to earn the most.
RPI data is from RPIForecast.com and was current as of the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2017.
Teams in current projection (10): Florida State, Duke, Louisville, Virginia, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami
Teams in contention (2): Wake Forest and North Carolina State
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 11/12
Given what else is going on nationally, it’s conceivable that Syracuse (10-7, but with an RPI rank of 161) could end up back in contention. In fact, I would have included the Orange had they won at Virginia Tech on Tuesday. But for now it’s these 12 teams, though an NC State team with no notable non-conference wins that’s now 1-2 in the ACC after losing to Boston College is on very thin ice and a Clemson squad that lost to Georgia Tech just last night is sliding into danger.
The real drama is not going to be among the first six teams I have listed, though I am curious to see how their matchups affect the race for No. 1 seeds (which I’ll discuss in a later post). Instead, it will be among the other half-dozen teams I’ve mentioned. Clemson, Pitt, and Virginia Tech are all on the right track in regards to quality wins, while Miami, Wake, and NC State have a ways to go. Win enough against your fellow mid-tier teams, grab a win or two against the top (something Virginia Tech has already done) and avoid losing to BC, and you’ll be in good shape. So far, it’s looking like the latter challenge might just be the biggest.
Final bid forecast: 10
Teams in current projection (2): Cincinnati, SMU
Teams in contention (4): Houston, Memphis, Temple, UCF
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 3/5
It’s going to take a lot for either the Bearcats or Mustangs to miss the field at this point. But it’s also going to take a lot to get any of the other four teams in. Houston and UCF don’t have the non-conference wins, with the Cougars’ non-league schedule being particularly soft, while Memphis and Temple have been inconsistent. The Owls have standout wins over Florida State and West Virginia, along with losses to New Hampshire and UMass and a 1-4 conference mark so far. That combo probably won’t do it.
Unless someone catches SMU and Cincinnati in the league race, something Houston and UCF are poised to do, the only way a third American Athletic team makes the field is by winning the auto bid in Hartford in March.
We see you raising your hand in the back, UConn.
Final bid forecast: 2
Teams in current projection (3): VCU, Dayton, Rhode Island
Teams in contention: no one else is quite in the picture at the moment
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 3/8
While it certainly looks like Richmond, which shares the A 10 lead with archrival VCU, could make a run at the league title, mediocrity and a lack of quality non-conference wins limits the Spiders’ ceiling (and the hopes of any other league squad that seeks to challenge the top three). Of course, not all is rosy for the three favorites. After three conference games, VCU looks to be a bit ahead of both Dayton and Rhode Island, though those two squads haven’t been close to healthy yet. URI has the best non-conference win of the group by far (over Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off semifinals), while VCU and Dayton have profiles that would look even more pedestrian in most seasons. Avoiding questionable losses — something the Flyers couldn’t do at UMass on Wednesday and Rhode Island couldn’t at home against La Salle just last night — is going to be the biggest challenge for the A 10’s small group of contenders.
The thing to really watch in the Atlantic 10 is the conference tournament in Pittsburgh, where a surprise team — say St. Bonaventure, George Mason, Davidson, or the offensively-efficient Explorers — could earn a surprise auto bid. I’m factoring this into my final prediction.
Final bid forecast: 4
Teams in current projection (5): Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa State, Texas Tech
Teams in contention (3): Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 5/8
Both the RPI and KenPom (8 of 10 teams in the Top 35) love the Big 12. But five of the teams on this list have a considerable amount of work to do for the conference to match its 2016 bid total of seven. Iowa State, which managed to defeat Miami in non-conference play, is a bit safer than the other four. That’s because the best non-league win the combo of Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, and Texas Tech managed was either the Cowboys’ Maui win over Georgetown, their road win over Wichita State, or TCU’s home triumph over Illinois State. Combined, the four teams have four wins over teams in the KenPom Top 100, with Kansas State and Texas Tech not contributing to that total.
That’s where Kansas State’s controversial two-point loss in Lawrence on Jan. 5 hurts. The Wildcats and the other four Big 12 bubble teams will need to pick up as many wins as possible in their games against the Baylor/KU/WVU group to sneak through, thanks to their lack of non-league wins. And given how strong that group looks so far, that’s a huge ask.
Final bid forecast: 5
Teams in current projection (5): Villanova, Butler, Creighton, Xavier, Seton Hall
Teams in contention (1): Marquette
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 5/8
On Wednesday night, the Big East’s hopes of exceeding last season’s bid total of five received a double boost, as Marquette defeated Seton Hall in overtime and the Golden Eagles’ best non-conference win — Georgia — moved into the KenPom Top 50 and consolidated its Top 40 RPI status. Thanks to Georgetown and Providence‘s struggles (and the continued difficulties of St. John’s and DePaul), the six teams I’ve listed are the only at-large hopes the league has. The top four teams, all on the top-five seed lines of Tuesday’s bracket, are as close to lock status as possible in mid-January. Neutral-site wins over Cal and South Carolina give Seton Hall real hope, while Marquette is going to have to work its tail off to overcome some questionable non-conference scheduling. That’s a lesson Steve Wojociechowski didn’t learn in 2016. A soft bubble may save his squad in 2017.
Final bid forecast: 6
Teams in current projection (8): Purdue, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern
Teams in contention (3): Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 7/11
The Big Ten is shaping up to be the most confusing conference in the country (with the Atlantic 10 being a close runner-up). Purdue and Wisconsin look to be the two best teams, but it’s possible neither will be seeded higher than fourth.
Michigan State might be rounding into form just in time to be dangerous come March. The RPI loves Minnesota, even after the Spartans’ season sweep of the Gophers, while Maryland, Michigan, Northwestern, and Illinois don’t have profiles that wow you. Nebraska and Penn State don’t have the non-conference wins to be taken seriously — neither does Ohio State, which is now 0-4 in the Big Ten. Iowa is a late entrant, as the Hawkeyes have now defeated three possible tourney teams — Iowa State, Michigan, and Purdue — all at home.
Then there’s Indiana, whose eight worst non-conference games managed to drag down a profile that includes wins over both Kansas and North Carolina. Combine that with a 1-3 start in Big Ten play, and the Hoosiers could be looking at a disappointing seed (again) at best and an NIT bid at worst if they don’t straighten up soon.
Of the eight teams in Tuesday’s bracket, all but Michigan and Northwestern should be fine come Selection Sunday. Instead, Wolverines and Wildcats are part of the muddle that will likely have to spring a few surprises to qualify.
Final bid forecast: 7
Teams in current projection (5): UCLA, Oregon, Arizona, USC, California
Teams in contention (2): Colorado, Utah
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 4/7
Even with UCLA’s resurgence and USC’s surprising non-conference run that included wins over Texas A&M, SMU, and BYU, the Pac-12 won’t repeat its record seven-bid haul of 2016. A weaker second division and disappointing non-conference showings by Cal, Colorado, and Utah virtually guarantee that. The Golden Bears are only in Tuesday’s bracket because of their Sunday win at USC — the type of result that is the road map for the Buffs and Utes. Utah managed to follow it in defeating the Trojans last night, but Colorado is now 0-4 in the league after losing to UCLA.
Final bid forecast: 5
Teams in current projection (4): Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas
Teams in contention (2): Georgia, Ole Miss
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 5/10
Look for the SEC to again earn three or four bids that have become common over the past seven or so seasons, not the five the conference earned in 2015. While Florida and Kentucky look solid, South Carolina isn’t helped by their two best non-conference wins (Michigan and Syracuse) struggling. Arkansas, the fourth SEC entrant in Tuesday’s bracket, would be out if I updated it today. Georgia and Ole Miss have decent RPIs — 38th and 50th, respectively, as I type this — but the Bulldogs’ best non-league win came against Louisiana-Lafayette, while the Rebels’ was over Memphis.
One thing Ole Miss, currently 1-3 in the SEC, has working in its favor is a home game against Baylor in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in two weeks. That’s something Georgia (Texas), Arkansas (Oklahoma State), and South Carolina (not participating) can’t look forward to. Then again, a home win over West Virginia didn’t help Florida a season ago.
Final bid forecast: 4
Teams in current projection (2): Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s
Teams in contention (1): BYU
Teams in the RPI Top 50/Top 100: 2/3
While BYU is on this list, the Cougars’ only hope is to go 3-1 in their four games against Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, which seems wildly optimistic. A non-conference profile that boasts just a win over Colorado in Provo and features losses to Illinois, USC, and, most devastatingly, Utah Valley won’t do it either.
Unless the Cougars or another surprise WCC squad cuts down the nets in Vegas during Championship Week, look for just the Bulldogs and Gaels to represent the conference in the field of 68.
Final bid forecast: 2
Potential Mid-Major Darkhorses
Since it hasn’t been a vintage season for mids, there are just a few teams to keep an eye on.
- Naturally, Wichita State appears on this list. The Gregg Marshall Act requires it. But when you consider the Shockers’ best two non-conference wins came against LSU and Oklahoma, they would be strongly advised to win Arch Madness. Illinois State, ranked in the RPI Top 50 (42 spots higher than Wichita State) will get a look, but the Redbirds’ non-league schedule won’t move the needle much.
- UT Arlington picked a bad year to defeat Texas, but a 14-point win at Saint Mary’s will carry some weight. A three-game skid that saw the Mavericks lose to Minnesota, Florida Gulf Coast, and Arkansas after leading each game at the half is particularly devastating. Still, UTA has a chance as log as it doesn’t drop many more Sun Belt games, like they did last Saturday at Texas State.
- In my mind, the mid-major with the best shot is the Middle Tennessee squad that was one of two Conference USA squads in Tuesday’s bracket. (But after last night’s win over Marshall, Middle would be in on its own as of now.) Yes, the Blue Raiders dropped home games against OVC contender Tennessee State and Ron Hunter’s Georgia State outfit, but they defeated Ole Miss on the road, Vanderbilt in Murfreesboro, and CAA favorite UNC Wilmington in Nashville on Thanksgiving weekend. Kermit Davis’ squad played a decent non-conference schedule, with only South Alabama currently outside of the KenPom Top 200. That alone will keep the Blue Raiders on the Selection Committee’s board.
My next full projection will be out on Tuesday after another busy weekend, and I’ll discuss another big picture issue next Friday.