With two weeks until Selection Sunday, we have entered the stretch run of the college basketball season. There will be 13 Conference Tournaments that take place this week, with the other 19 following suit next week. The 32 tournament champions receive automatic bids to the Big Dance with 36 other teams leaving their fate in the hands of the 10-member Selection Committee. Earlier this year I wrote about the Committee’s selection process and about the relationship between the RPI rankings and at-large bid selections. This week I opted for a fully detailed update to my bracket projections with some explanations of resumes and seeding decisions. Consider this a “glimpse behind the curtain” of the bracketology process. Unless otherwise noted, any ranking numbers mentioned are RPI ranks.
With Gonzaga and Baylor going down over the weekend, it seems fairly clear that the top three seeds in the field as of right now are Villanova, Kansas, and North Carolina. There could be some debate between Kansas and Villanova for the top overall seed as Kansas has 4 wins against teams ranked in the Top 15 while Villanova has none. Conversely, Kansas has 3 losses to teams ranked 25th and lower while Villanova only has 1. It seems like splitting hairs at this point, but I have had Villanova at the top of my bracket since early February and kept them there. The harder decision was for the fourth #1 seed. I debated between Oregon, Baylor, Louisville, Kentucky, and Gonzaga. Ultimately, I chose Louisville based on the Cardinals having more Top 25 victories (3) than any team on that list but Gonzaga and having no losses outside the Top 25 (of which everyone else had at least one).
Given that I debated between 5 teams for the last spot on the top line, it should come as no surprise that the other 4 found their way onto the 2-seed line. Despite Gonzaga’s home loss to BYU, the Zags still have neutral court victories over Florida and Arizona, giving them two top-end wins that compete with anyone else’s on the bracket. Kentucky’s win over Florida this weekend vaulted the Wildcats ahead of the Gators in the SEC standings and moved them up to the 2 line as well. Baylor’s 8 Top 50 wins are certainly impressive and the Bears have wins over Louisville and Oregon at the top, but also took a home loss to Kansas St (#68) and lost at Texas Tech (#100). Oregon is my highest ranked team with a loss outside the Top 100.
The winner of the 3-way race at the top of the Pac-12 between Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona will likely find themselves on either the 1 or 2-seed line. For now, UCLA with their lack of bad losses (the only one outside the Top 10 is at #38 USC) hovers right behind Oregon on the S-curve. UCLA has victories over Oregon and Kentucky, which gives them a better win than Florida’s best (over Kentucky) while the Gators have 2 losses outside the Top 15. Arizona has yet to lose to a team outside the Top 15 but their only win against a Top 25 team is over UCLA. Butler was one of the hardest teams to seed. The Bulldogs swept Villanova and have a neutral court win over Arizona. However, 4 of their 6 losses came to teams outside the Top 50, including two brutally bad losses at St John’s (#126) and Indiana St (#222). Butler’s 10 Top 50 wins and 17 Top 100 wins are the most of any team in the nation, so it is hard to put them lower than a 3-seed as their good wins outweigh their bad losses.
This is a collection of teams that has been up and down of late. Florida State’s 6 Top 25 wins and 9 Top 50 wins are the most of any team remaining in the field. Both the Seminoles and Duke have been shaky on the road with 3-5 road records. West Virginia is the lowest-ranked team appearing in the top 4 seed lines, but the Mountaineers have victories over Kansas and Baylor which are better wins than almost any other team can claim at this point. For the last #4 seed I debated for a while between Virginia and Purdue. The two have very similar profiles with two road losses to teams ranked outside the Top 60. However, Virignia has a sweep of Louisville (#4) and won at Notre Dame by 17 while Purdue’s best win is a 5-point neutral court victory over the Irish. Virginia’s worst losses (#63 Pitt and #78 Syracuse) are also not as bad as Purdue’s (#87 Nebraska and #94 Iowa).
Since I just mentioned Purdue, it should be no surprise to see them here on the 5-seed line. As I addressed in my Major Conference Rundown a few weeks back, the Big Ten as a whole played sub-par non-conference schedules and did not score a lot of big victories in non-conference play. As such, there are not many highly rated teams in the conference which limits the opportunity for “signature” wins. Purdue is the highest-seeded Big Ten team and find themselves on the 5-seed line. Notre Dame has been quietly consistent all year with only one loss outside the Top 20. They also have wins over Louisville and Florida State at home which gives them a good enough resume to appear as a 5-seed. Minnesota is the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the RPI but their win profile is relatively paltry. The Gophers best win is over #20 Purdue but their 7 Top 50 wins are more than any other team remaining which is good enough to land them here. I debated between Cincinnati, Creighton, and SMU for the last spot on the 5-seed line. SMU has taken over the AAC lead after Cincinnati’s loss to UCF but the two split their head-to-head meetings. It is hard to know how the Committee will view Creighton who was absolutely rolling before point guard Mo Watson tore his ACL in January. Since then the Blue Jays are just 4-6 and have taken their 5 worst losses of the season. Creighton does have a sweep of Butler (one of those wins coming without Watson) which gives them two better victories than either AAC team but they also have more questionable losses. I gave the edge to SMU based on their current status as conference leader (and thus presumed conference champion).
Cincinnati and Creighton obviously fell here after I selected SMU as the last 5-seed. Saint Mary’s also landed here despite having just 2 Top 50 wins, the Gaels only loss to a team not named Gonzaga is to #34 UT-Arlington. St Mary’s also has a win at Dayton (#21) which is good enough to put them safely in the field (as long as they don’t lose to a team not named Gonzaga the rest of the season). Miami scored two of their best victories in the past week with a win at Virginia and a home win over Duke. The Hurricanes have just one loss outside the Top 50 and have 3 Top 20 wins.
Iowa State scored their second-best win of the season this weekend by beating Baylor (to go with their win at Kansas). Iowa State has two worse losses than Miami’s worst, which kept them off the 6-seed line for now. The rest of thegroup is made up of teams that have stacked their profiles with wins over teams outside the Top 50 but have little in terms of top-end wins. Wisconsin and Maryland both have wins over Minnesota while Wisconsin beat Maryland head-to-head and the Terps have a win over Oklahoma St (#27). Virginia Tech edged South Carolina for the last spot on the 7-seed line based on their two Top 20 victories over Duke and Virginia and South Carolina have slightly worse losses at the bottom of their profile.
South Carolina has the best win of the group (over #6 Florida) but they don’t have any other wins over Top 40 opponents. Michigan St and Michigan have very similar profiles. Despite having a worse loss, Michigan St also has two wins (a sweep of Minnesota) better than Michigan’s best win (over SMU). Both teams only have 2 true road wins, but Sparty’s are both better than UM’s best road victory. Oklahoma State checks in as the last 8-seed, which is a testament to the job Brad Underwood has done in his first year in Stillwater. Underwood is known for guiding Stephen F Austin to utter dominance in the Southland Conference and springing two massive upsets in the NCAA Tournament. Now, he has the Cowboys in position to make the Big Dance just a year after going 3-15 in Big XII play. The Pokes have a resume with great computer numbers and relatively light on bad losses. Their best win came at West Virginia but they are relatively light on “signature” wins after that.
Welcome to the bubble! Or at least, the very top end of the bubble. I would categorize all of these teams as “safe for now, provided they don’t take another bad loss.” USC just took their worst loss of the season on Sunday night, dropping a game at Arizona State. The Trojans still have two solid victories over UCLA and SMU which boosts their profile into the acceptably good range to stay in the field. Northwestern is seeking their first NCAA Tournament bid in school history and their situation has grown a bit more precarious over the last few weeks. The WIldcats still have a neutral site win over Dayton and a road win over Wisconsin to give them two quality wins at the top and only one loss outside the Top 60 (that happened this weekend at Indiana). Speaking of teams that have seen their Tournament position slide, Xavier was as high as the 5-seed line in mid-January but has falled to the top edge of the bubble by losing 5 straight games. Their only Top 40 win is a victory at Creighton but they have lost just once outside the Top 75 (at #114 Colorado). Seton Hall similarly has a win over Creighton and just one loss outside the Top 75 (at #126 St John’s).
This should still be considered the “Top Half” of the bubble as two current conference leaders find themselves here. I am lower on Dayton than most others, primarily because the Flyers best win is a sweep of #44 Rhode Island. Of the 24 teams I considered “on the bubble,” only Ole Miss and Georgia had a worse “best win” than Dayton. That said, Dayton does have 10 Top 100 wins which should be enough to put them on the right side of the bubble if they don’t win the A-10 Tournament. VCU lost this weekend to Rhode Island which dropped the Rams out of the top spot in the A-10 and put them right back in the bubble picture. The top end of VCU’s profile is solid but their two sub-100 losses make things questionable. Wichita State is a tough team to figure out. The Shockers have not lost a game outside the Top 50 this year, but their best wins (#33 Illinois St and #80 Colorado St) are questionable at best. The Shockers played a bad non-conference schedule and won’t have the opportunity to add any more good wins until the Arch Madness Championship if they get a rematch with Illinois St. As I discussed in my RPI analysis last week, only two teams with an RPI over 70 have been awarded an at-large bid in the last nine years. However, given the sludge on this year’s bubble, it is entirely possible that number doubles. Marquette has unappealing computer numbers but their profile looks strong in comparison. The Eagles are one of just two teams to beat Villanova this year and also have wins over Creighton and Xavier. Their worst loss (at #126 St John’s) is not as bad as the worst losses suffered by some other teams on the bubble.
The last two byes in the field go to Arkansas and Providence. Arkansas’ resume has a lot in common with Dayton’s – good computer numbers, 3 Top 50 wins, 10 Top 100 wins. This is good enough to get them in and the Razorbacks do have 2 wins better than Dayton’s best but also have a far worse loss (to #251 Missouri). Providence has overcome a bad non-conference schedule and two ugly losses to put themselves in position to make the Dance. The Friars 6 Top 50 wins and 10 Top 100 wins are tied for the most of any team on the bubble.
Last 4 In/First 4 Out
It is hard to analyze just the “Last 4 In” without seeing the teams they were stacked up against and selected over. This is bubble central. One of the trends of teams that are right on the bubble is that most of them played strong non-conference schedules. Despite a high number of losses their quality of competition is keeping them in the conversation. Vanderbilt and Kansas St are the only teams in the group with a Top 10 victory while Syracuse has the most top-end wins with 3 Top 25 victories. Kansas St and Pitt both have 2 Top 25 victories which are keeping their bubble hopes afloat despite not much else on their resumes worth getting excited about. The surprise entrant here is Illinois, who has strong computer numbers and 9 Top 100 wins (the second most of anyone on the bubble). Additionally, the Illini have not lost a game outside the Top 100, something only Wake Forest, TCU and Ole Miss can say amongst bubble teams. Illinois has a better “best win” than either Wake Forest or California and has 3 wins (Michigan and a sweep of Northwestern) better than Wake’s second-best win. Rhode Island was the last team in thanks to garnering their second-best win of the season this weekend over VCU. Their neutral court victory over Cincinnati is impressive and better than any win Wake Forest or California has away from home. That said, Rhode Island is in a shaky situation with 6 losses outside the Top 50 including one that is bordering on the 200s. Wake and Cal are both close, but simply don’t have enough good wins on their profiles to get in over any of the teams I have selected. Wake’s only Top 60 win is over Miami and while they don’t have any truly bad losses, they also have not performed well away from home with their best road win coming at #67 Charleston. California has a solid win over USC, but their profile is light on wins besides that and the Golden Bears have just 4 Top 100 victories, which is tied for the fewest amongst bubble teams that are not from the Missouri Valley Conference.
I considered all major conference teams with RPIs under 80, but those that fell outside the First Four Out don’t have many redeeming qualities in their resumes. TCU is a classic Jamie Dixon team with a lack of good wins but no truly bad losses. A lot of people have Illinois St listed close to their bubble, but to me the negatives far outweigh the positives on their resume. The Redbirds have a good RPI, boosted by a lot of wins over bad teams and relatively few losses but played a bad non-conference schedule. Their best win is over Wichita St (#40) and their only other Top 100 win is over #84 New Mexico. Illinois St has only lost 2 games outside the Top 100 but one of them was to #238 Murray St. Illinois St has been good away from home but don’t have a marquee win outside of Redbird Arena. They beat Tulsa on a neutral court (after losing to Tulsa by 2 in a road game) but their best true road win is over Northern Iowa who is barely in the Top 150. That is far and away the worst true road win of any team on the bubble. Georgia and Ole Miss have very similar profiles with their only Top 50 win being over Vanderbilt, which shouldn’t move the needle much for the Committee.