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Tuesday, February 27, 2007's Seth Davis "The Bubble Breakdown"

The bubble breakdown
Teams that are in, on the edge and still work to do
Posted: Tuesday February 27, 2007 11:38AM; Updated: Tuesday February 27, 2007 11:38AM

A few thoughts to keep in mind as you read yet another bubble column:

First, not all bubble teams are created equal. Some bubble boys are all but assured of an at-large bid. Some will need a small miracle to get one. It's important to understand the difference.

Second, not all "locks" are really locks. By my definition, a "lock" is a team that will get a bid even if it does not win another game. You have to look at the remaining games on a team's schedule and ask yourself, if this team really does not win again, is it definitely, unequivocally going to the tournament? If the answer is no, you've got yourself a bubble boy.

Third, it's not very helpful to list the bubble picture according to conferences. When you really get down to the nitty gritty of deciding who's in and who's out, conference affiliation doesn't mean squat.

Finally, the final bubble picture is not as muddled as you might think. Once the final games and conference tournaments are played, you're usually looking at 10 to 12 teams vying for 3 to 5 bids. For all the talk about parity, compression and congestion, I expect this year will be the same.

Thus, allow me to present to you how I see the NCAA tournament picture heading into the regular season's final weekend. Any mention of rankings refers to the RPI, not the polls. And all RPI-related info comes, as usual, from College

Let's start with the locks. The following teams are going to the tournament even if they do not win another game: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Boston College, Duke, Maryland, Kansas, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Marquette, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Southern Illinois, Air Force, UCLA, Washington State, USC, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

This group totals 27 teams from eight conferences, which accounts for 19 at large bids. That leaves 15 spots remaining for the bubble boys.

There are also a handful of teams that are the only teams from their respective conferences who have a chance to win an at-large bid, should they not wrap up the automatic bid. They are: Memphis (Conference USA), Butler (Horizon), Nevada (WAC) and Winthrop (Big South). Should any of these wild cards lose in their conference tournaments, that will eat up a bid that would otherwise go to a bubble boy. For now, I'm going to assume all four win their league tournaments, still leaving us with 15 bids to hand out.

(Incidentally, unlike the other three schools in the above group, Winthrop is not assured of an at-large bid. Though, if the Eagles do get snubbed I'm going to go Packer on the committee during the CBS Selection Show.)

Now for the fun part: the bubble. As I mentioned at the top, it's not enough to give you "ins" and "outs" at this stage of the season. So I've divided the bubble into four flights. Flight A is comfortably in, Flight B is barely in, Flight C is out but close, Flight D is for long shots. I've also listed the teams in each flight from strongest to weakest so you can see exactly where they are on my board. Here's how it breaks down:

Flight A
How can the Rebels, who are ranked 12th in the RPI, not make my automatic list? Because their final two games are at New Mexico and home against Colorado State. Those are two pretty bad teams, so if UNLV loses those two plus its first game in the Mountain West tournament, it will have to sweat out selection weekend. Still, UNLV gave Nevada its only loss at home this year and it also has a win at Texas Tech to its credit, so it would be tough to leave the Rebs home regardless of what happens.

The only reason I left the Cardinal out my automatic list is because they play Arizona State at home on Thursday. A loss there would hurt, especially since it would be their third straight, but this team still has a very strong profile for a bubble team: wins at home over UCLA, Oregon, USC and Texas Tech as well as a road victory over Virginia. Get by the Sun Devils in Maples and their work is done.

Quick: What are Texas' best two wins this season? Answer: at home against LSU (in overtime) and at Texas Tech. Hardly an overpowering resume, but the Longhorns have no losses outside the top 100. They also end the regular season against Texas A&M and at Kansas, so they could drop their last two and not lose any ground. The sweep over Texas Tech looks pretty good, but one more win in the Big 12 tourney would erase any lingering doubt.

I almost put the Cougars on my automatic list, but their loss at San Diego State kept them off for now. Keep in mind they also have some bad losses at Boise State, Lamar and Colorado State. Losing at Air Force in their next game wouldn't hurt them, but if they lost at home to Utah and then lost in the first round of the Mountain West tournament, that would mean four losses in a row.

Notre Dame
I left the Irish off my list o' locks for two reasons. First, their last game is at Rutgers, which is not an easy win but would still qualify as a bad loss, especially if it's followed up with another bad loss to the start of the Big East tournament. But the main reason Notre Dame is here is that putrid nonconference strength of schedule (SOS) ranking of 301. (Though it should be said the Irish beat Maryland and Alabama.) It looks like Mike Brey has been spending too much time hanging out with Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim, but his club has played well down the stretch.

This is a great example of a team that is in good shape because its coach put together an intelligent schedule. The Wildcats played four true road games and three neutral-court games in the nonconference season, which is almost unheard of for a major conference team. None of Villanova's nine losses came against bad teams, but the finishing stretch is a bit dicey -- at UConn followed by Syracuse at home. Two losses would mean four out of five, which would tighten Nova's collar heading into the Big East tourney. One more win would put them safely in.

The Orange moved from Flight C to the Flight A with Monday night's statement win over Georgetown, but I still think they need one more win to seal the deal. The win over the Hoyas was just their third against the top 50 of the RPI, and they do have that 107 nonconference SOS ranking staring the committee in the face. Losing at Villanova wouldn't hurt them too badly, but the best thing Syracuse did this season was avoid any real bad losses. The Big East tournament would not be a good place to get one.

Bruiser Flint's Dragons did themselves no favors by losing at William & Mary on Feb. 14, but their win at Creighton three days later put them in a good position. They also have road wins at Villanova and Syracuse, a 13-4 record in road games and the seventh-toughest nonconference schedule in the country. This team is operating on very little margin for error, but even if the Dragons lose to VCU in the CAA semifinal, I think they'll be tough to leave out -- though a trip to the final would their case much, much stronger.

Flight B

The Illini really benefited from the Big Ten's imbalanced schedule. They only had to play Wisconsin and Ohio State once, and both games were at home. It is especially important that Illinois play well late in the season, because it needs to show it can win games without the two players who were injured in an auto accident. The Illini notched home wins over Indiana and Michigan State and they have no losses outside the top 100. As long as that remains true, I'm thinking they're in pretty good shape.

The Bluejays were cruising along through the meat of their Missouri Valley schedule before hitting a late stretch where they lost three out of four, including a bad loss at Illinois State. Creighton also lost at home to Drexel on Feb. 17, which means the committee would be unlikely to take the Bluejays over the Dragons if it comes down to that. Still, Creighton does have five wins against the top 50. If the Jays get to the MVC final they'd be a cinch, but as long as they win their first game against the Illinois State-Indiana State winner, I'm guessing they'll be OK as well.

Texas Tech
I'm not saying the Red Raiders are a shoo-in, but I'm amazed how many mock brackets don't include a team that has a sweep over Texas A&M and a home win over Kansas. Their only bad loss came on the road by three points at Baylor, and their nonconference SOS is ranked 48th. Again, any bubble team by definition has weaknesses, but few bubble boys boast these kinds of strengths.

Old Dominion
First, the Monarchs played the 18th toughest non-league schedule in the country, which included a win at Georgetown. Now, they have won 11 consecutive games. They are 8-5 on the road and have a terrific RPI ranking. Plus, they have a season sweep over Drexel, which has won some tough non-league road games itself. In fact, ODU's entire schedule includes just one slipup, a loss at James Madison on Jan. 17, which is why this team has clearly demonstrated it deserves to be in the NCAA tournament even if it loses in the CAA final. In fact, even a loss to Hofstra in the semifinal would keep the Monarchs very much alive on my board.

Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets are in better shape than many people realize. They have six top-50 wins, including over Purdue and Memphis back in Maui. (I think it's especially helpful to have wins over fellow bubble boys. How could the committee take Purdue and not Georgia Tech if Tech beat them head to head?) Tech's finishing stretch (home games vs. North Carolina and Boston College) could cut both ways. A split would make them a lock. Losing both shouldn't hurt, except it would mean losing four of five to end the regular season.

Missouri State
The Bears better be rooting hard for Winthrop to win the Big South, because they lost at home to the Eagles two weeks ago. If Missouri State gets an at-large bid, it will be thanks to the classic hang-your-hat win they garnered by two points over Wisconsin back on Nov. 24. I also like the Bears' 8-4 road record and nonconference SOS ranking of 43, but they can't afford to slip up in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

Florida State
The Seminoles might be the toughest team to decide on in the whole country. Yes, they lost five in a row, but they were without their starting point guard, Toney Douglas, in four of them because of a fractured bone in his shooting hand. Leonard Hamilton expects Douglas to be back for the ACC tournament, but the Seminoles still need to make a good impression on the committee down the stretch. If they can win their final game at Miami, they'll finish 7-9 in the conference. They also have four wins over teams in the top 25 of the RPI, including Florida and at Duke, plus no losses outside the top 100. Like I said, a tough call, but for now Florida State is my last team in.

Flight C
I don't see DePaul being included in a lot of mock brackets out there, but this is a team with home wins over Kansas, Notre Dame and Marquette plus a road win over Villanova. There are not a lot of bubble teams that can compete with that. Yes, the Blue Demons stumbled out of the gate losing at Bradley and at Northwestern, but since then their only really bad loss came at St. John's on Jan. 3. With four wins against the top 50 and a respectable nonconference strength of schedule ranking (94), DePaul is right on the cusp of at-largedom.

I've got a feeling the committee is going to spend a long time talking about the Boilermakers. Yes, they beat Michigan State and Indiana at home, but didn't everyone? Their two road wins this year came at Penn State and Northwestern. They lost at Minnesota. In the final analysis, I think a team has to beat some good teams to get into the tournament, and though other teams might have more warts on their resume, I just don't think Purdue has done enough to prove it belongs in the field. It will need a real strong showing in the Big Ten tourney to demonstrate otherwise.

Steve Alford's club has hung in there fairly well. Though they beat Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue, all those wins came at home. Otherwise, Iowa is 2-8 on the road, including bad losses at Arizona State and Drake. (They also lost neutral court games to Alabama and Villanova in November.) Iowa needs to win its last two games at Penn State and at home against Illinois to stay alive, then make one of its patented runs deep into the Big Ten tournament. Otherwise, for now they're on the outside looking in.

The 'Zags would have been right on the in-and-out line even if Josh Heytvelt hadn't been suspended following his arrest for drug possession. Without him, they dropped two games at home to Santa Clara and Memphis. Gonzaga did play a murderous nonconference schedule, but they also lost a lot of those games. That drubbing of North Carolina in Madison Square Garden seems like ages ago, especially since it remains the Zags' only victory against a top-25 team. A spot in the WCC final is the minimum they'd need to get an at-large bid, but without Heytvelt I still think it probably wouldn't be enough.

San Diego State
You've got to give the Aztecs credit for getting hot at the right time. They're 7-3 in their past 10 including home wins over the big three in the Mountain West. The thing that gives me pause about them is their three losses to teams outside the top-100 (including getting swept by Wyoming) and a middling nonconference schedule ranking (170). A trip to the Mountain West final and a good showing there might be enough, but even then this team would be far from a lock.

Kansas State
I thought this team was in good position until I took a closer look. The Wildcats have zero wins against the top 25 and two against the top 50 -- over USC in Las Vegas and by one point at Texas. Throw in a couple of bad (albeit early) losses at New Mexico and Colorado State and a nonconference strength of schedule ranked 216th, and it's evident K-State is a long way from earning a bid.

I tried to give the Tide, whose best win was at home against Kentucky, the benefit of the doubt. But their loss at home to Auburn on Saturday knocked them out of the tourney and into Flight C, especially since they lost at Auburn as well. If you can't beat a mediocre team at home with an NCAA bid on the line, you're probably not tournament worthy. Even winning its last two over Ole Miss and Mississippi State would leave the Tide with work to do in the SEC tournament.

West Virginia
If the Mountaineers didn't beat UCLA on Feb. 10, they wouldn't even be considered a bubble team, much less in the field. When you consider the Bruins didn't have their starting point guard, Darren Collison, for that game, and that West Virginia played the 285th-ranked nonconference schedule in the country, you can see why they'll probably be on the outside looking in. A win at Pittsburgh plus another over a top-tier team in the Big East tournament would change the game, but that's a tall order.

Flight D
Oklahoma State
It has been stunning to see the Cowboys unravel after starting out 15-1 with wins over Missouri State, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Yet here we are, the last few days in February and the Pokes still do not have a road win. That, plus their six losses in their past seven games, has dashed their at-large hopes.

The Musketeers have taken care of business in the Atlantic 10, but the league is so weak it hasn't helped their cause much. That win over Villanova on Nov. 19 seems a long ways away right now -- it is still Xavier's only win over a top-25 team. Maybe the committee will surprise us and extend the Musketeers a bid if they reach the A-10 final, but I think most experts see this as a one-bid league.

The bad news for the Dawgs is they have just two wins over top-50 teams, and their best nonconference win (over Gonzaga) has not held up. The good news is they can play their way into the field this week. All they have to do is win at Kentucky on Wednesday and beat Tennessee at home on Saturday. Easy, right?

This team has stood out in a very mediocre Atlantic 10 and does have a win at Louisville to its credit. Unfortunately, that is their only win over a top-50 team. There are too many other teams out there with more quality wins to expect the Minutemen will get an at-large bid.

It turns out Oliver Purnell's guys were paper Tigers after all. That 17-0 start doesn't amount to much right now considering their best win was at Old Dominion. Clemson has now lost four in a row and 9 of its last 11, and even wins against Miami and at Virginia Tech would leave them needing to win the ACC tournament. Here's hoping Purnell will learn the lesson Leonard Hamilton learned last year after Florida State got snubbed and upgrade his non-league schedule next season.

The Rams are currently in first place in the CAA, but unlike Drexel and Old Dominion I don't think they can earn an at-large bid. Their best nonconference opponent was Xavier, which beat VCU by three back in November. Zero games (not to mention zero wins) against the top 25, plus an overall SOS ranking of 144 does not usually equate an NCAA tournament appearance.

The Friars are yet another team with a bad road record (1-6) and no wins against the top 25 of the RPI. The last thing they could afford was a loss at home to another bubble team from their league, but that's just what they suffered last weekend against Syracuse.

The Hogs do have a sweep over Alabama and an overtime win over Southern Illinois in November, but they have lost 9 of their last 13 to take themselves out of consideration. A win at Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale would help, but they'd still have to beat one of the SEC East powers in the league tourney to have a shot.

Ole Miss
Some folks seem to think Ole Miss is close, but I don't. Their best win was at home over Tennessee, but that comes with an asterisk because the Vols didn't have Chris Lofton. Otherwise, the Rebs are 2-9 on the road and have a nonconference SOS ranking of 205.

I had the Pride in the tourney last year and George Mason out, so you can see how much the committee values my opinion. That said, there is very little chance Hofstra can get an at-large bid. The Pride has just two wins against the top 50 (none against the top 25) and several bad losses, including a four-point defeat at Delaware on Jan. 29. When you're trying to get in from a conference that is ranked 12th in the RPI, you just can't lose those kinds of games.

Once again, Lorenzo Romar put his team in a hole by assembling a soft non-league schedule filled mostly with home games. (The one road game was a loss at Gonzaga in an annual series that Romar has brought to a halt.) The Huskies had ample opportunity to state their case in league play, but inexperience, injuries and poor defense has led to a 6-10 record and a very low RPI ranking.

The Braves have just one top-50 win and helped their cause by winning their Bracket Buster game at VCU. But they had a chance to prove their mettle with early games against Illinois and Michigan State and came up empty.

Outside of a four-point win at Stanford and a two-point win at home over Oregon, the Bears haven't given the committee any reason to believe they belong in the tournament. They did play a good nonconference schedule (ranked 28th), but they didn't win any of the tough ones. A run to the Pac-10 final might make the committee pay attention, but they probably will need to win the automatic bid to make the field.

Appalachian State
I'd love to tell you the Mountaineers have a shot at an at-large bid, but the only reason they're on this list is because of their neutral-court wins over Virginia and Vanderbilt back in December. They have four losses against teams ranked below 100 in the RPI, including a one-point loss at No. 286 Elon on Jan. 13. Big South leader Davidson has even less of a chance at an at-large bid.

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