Critical time for NCAA bubble teams
As much as any other sport, rankings systems proliferate in college hoops. There’s the AP Top 25 Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll. There’s RPI and BPI, KenPom and Sagarin, and an entire field known as bracketology where experts like Joe Lunardi or Jerry Palm tell us what the NCAA tournament field would look like if the 68-team tournament started tomorrow.
It’s all a Sisyphean task, trying to make order of the 347 teams in college basketball. Much of this year there’s been a fascination with all the fluidity at the top of the rankings. Should Indiana be the top team in the AP Top 25 Poll, or is it Duke or Michigan or Louisville or Miami? Will Gonzaga end up as No. 1 at the end of the regular season? (I say yes.)
But the next couple weeks our fascination with the top will recede for a more urgent and interesting question: Who is on the right side of the bubble, and who’s on the wrong side? Who’s in, and who’s out?
Life on the bubble is never a fun place to be. It’s rumored that one day of life on the bubble is equal to one month of regular life, and college coaches’ life spans are adjusted accordingly.
Here’s one more bit of prophesying and guesstimating how the landscape of college basketball’s bubble will shake out in the next few weeks leading into March Madness.
Missouri. The Tigers might be college basketball’s most bipolar team. At home, they’re unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable, 15-0 this year and 82-4 since 2008. But the team that plays at Mizzou Arena transforms into a different and ugly beast on the road. The Tigers are 1-6 in conference road games, and that’s playing in a fairly pathetic SEC. Their only conference road win was against Mississippi State, which doesn’t count for much, seeing that Mississippi State is 242nd in RPI. But Missouri secured its place in March last week with its first signature win of the season, a come-from-behind home win against Florida. That’s enough to prove to the NCAA selection committee they deserve a spot in the tourney.
Every other SEC team not named Florida (and, fine, Kentucky). Ole Miss? Who have you beat? Sure, it defeated a Missouri team without Laurence Bowers. But, please. This is a team that lost to Middle Tennessee and lost to Indiana State. While I’d love to see what sort of antics Marshall Henderson would cook up on the big stage of the NCAA tourney, you can’t lose at South Carolina, ranked 201st in RPI. Even though Ole Miss’ 57th ranking in RPI suggests it should be right on the bubble, it just doesn’t have a quality win. Beating Tennessee twice aren’t the quality wins this team needs to impress the committee. Going 3-5 in its last eight games won’t help, either, and there’s not another statement game available on the rest of the schedule. What a poor year for an SEC with a weak Kentucky team. Speaking of Kentucky…
All three of the struggling, talented bluebloods who’ve made their fans blood boil this year. There’s no better way to sum up this wild, unpredictable college hoops season than this: Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA — ranked third, 11th and 13th in the preseason, respectively — are all living in Bubble Land. It’s as if the basketball gods were worried that John Calipari’s one-and-done national championship squad last year would become the new path to the top in college hoops, so the basketball gods punished the youngster-dominated bluebloods this year. All three teams, however, have overcome their struggles of earlier this season with big wins in February. A Nerlens Noel-less Kentucky took care of business against Missouri on the College GameDay stage Saturday night. North Carolina has won three straight with a smaller, quicker lineup, including home wins against North Carolina State and Virginia. UCLA this weekend avenged an embarrassing home loss to rival USC — and it has a chance to prove how good it can be with games this week against Arizona State (another Pac-12 team on the good side of the bubble despite losing to Washington) and No. 12 Arizona. All three bluebloods will make the tournament. But how about some sort of punishment for them? My idea: Let’s make two of these teams — say, Kentucky and UCLA — play for a 12th seed in the First Four games in Dayton. Talk about drumming up more interest for the sport.
Unfairly, six teams from the middling Pac-12. Joe Lunardi has six Pac-12 teams making the tournament, which is only one short of the seven teams each he has for the Big Ten and Big East. He’s right in his prognostication, but that doesn’t make it right. The Pac-12 ranks sixth in conference RPI and only has one team, Arizona, in the AP Top 25 (assuming Oregon’s loss to Cal knocks them from the list); the Mountain West ranks second in conference RPI, yet Lunardi has only four Mountain West teams making the tournament. Unfair? Patently. But this is what happens when you have six teams bunched within two games of each other at the top of a conference’s standings. There’s no great team in the Pac-12, but there are six pretty good ones. And I’m not going to be the one to tell Colorado it didn’t make the cut, especially after its heartbreaking loss to Arizona in January where refs turned a win into a loss. Nor will I be the one to tell Arizona State (love me some Jahii Carson) or Cal (quality wins against Orego,UCLA and Arizona) that they’re not making it. (Embarrassing admission: I still think UCLA has a shot at making the Final Four, despite its best efforts to convince me it barely deserves to make the tourney.)
An ACC team we thought could’ve been great, but isn’t: North Carolina State. Is there a more flummoxing team in college hoops than the Wolfpack? After Mark Gottfried’s squad made a surprising Sweet Sixteen run last year in his first season at the helm, the storyline was that this high-scoring NC State team was going to upset the power balance on Tobacco Road. Part of that came true: The Wolfpack had a nice little court-storming in Raleigh to celebrate their upset of No. 1-ranked Duke in January, and they currently rank 12th in offensive efficiency for one of the most potent offenses in the nation. The part that didn’t come true? That they would give us anything more than inconsistent moments of greatness. That has to do with just not playing defense, as the Wolfpack are ranked 216th in the country in defensive efficiency, and with not winning the close games (four of their ACC losses were by a combined seven points). Even though it's only gone 5-6 since the Duke victory, North Carolina State is on the right side of the bubble. This is a team that could lose in the opening round, or could make a dark horse run to the Final Four. They’re that talented, and that flummoxing.
An ACC team we thought could’ve been great, but wasn’t: Maryland. Once upon a time, Maryland seemed like something special. They beat North Carolina State when North Carolina State was fresh off its Duke win. Their inside-outside combination of Xavier transfer Dez Wells and Ukrainian big man Alex Len — who dominated Duke’s Mason Plumlee in its upset a week ago — seemed destined for March Madness. But then Maryland lost at Boston College, 145th in RPI. Ouch. I used to be buying on this team; now I’m selling. If the Terrapins win their final four regular-season games — not an easy task when two of those are against North Carolina and Virginia — or make a run in the ACC tournament, I’ll go back to buying again.
Iowa State. Fred Hoiberg’s squad is one of the most fun teams to watch in the country. It's one of the highest-scoring teams around at just shy of 80 points per game. Hoiberg has proven to be a helluva college coach and also great at getting transfers, as the two keys on this team, point guard Korie Lucious and wing man Will Clyburn, are transfers from Michigan State and Utah respectively. The Cyclones are 51st in RPI, and they only have one bad loss (at Texas Tech). And don’t say losing at Texas in two overtimes was a bad loss, because that was Texas’ first game with Myck Kabongo back from his 23-game NCAA suspension.
Baylor. On paper Baylor is nearly the same as Iowa State. Before the two teams played last week, they had the same record in the Big 12 and virtually identical RPI rankings. But then Baylor couldn’t hold home court against Iowa State. Add a season sweep against Iowa State to very few quality wins (over Kentucky in December, over Oklahoma State in January . . . and that’s it), and Baylor is going to need a late-season burst to make the tourney. It does have the opportunity to do that with home games remaining against Kansas and Kansas State, both top-20 RPI teams. Baylor is another one of those young, talented teams that just hasn’t put things together. Pierre Jackson is a dynamic point guard, freshman Isaiah Austin is one of the most skilled 7-footers in the country, and Corey Jefferson is a beast in the paint. But its many close losses have Baylor on the wrong side of the bubble.
The Big Ten. Can we give all the Big Ten teams an automatic bid this year, just as a nod to having to go through that brutal schedule? OK, so nobody’s going to argue that Penn State, Nebraska or Northwestern belong. But what about Iowa? It's 6-8 in the toughest conference in college hoops, 17-10 overall. Iowa beat Minnesota, which would have sounded a lot more impressive in January than it does in February. They’re a lowly 90th in RPI, which doesn’t scream “put us in the tourney,” and a recent loss to Nebraska virtually assures that won’t happen this year. But they’re building something in Iowa City. They beat Wisconsin and nearly beat Indiana and Michigan State. Not even the Big Ten sympathy vote will get them in the tournament this year, but here’s an early prediction: this young, dynamic squad will be playing in March Madness next year.
Indiana State. This is another one of those “wish it weren’t so” moments. I watched in January as Indiana State went into a rocking Koch Arena in January and dominated 15th-ranked Wichita State. I love junior guard Jake Odum’s all-around game. I was as impressed as anyone with the Sycamores' four quality wins earlier in the season (against Ole Miss, Miami, Wichita State and Creighton). But you can’t lose three in a row in February — including to Missouri State, 208th in RPI — and expect to play deep into March. The only way this very good Indiana State team makes the tourney is if it can get a few wins in the Missouri Valley tournament.
Villanova. Can I make a Big East Corollary to my Big Ten Exemption? Villanova had one of the most impressive weeks in recent memory in January when it beat the fifth- and third-ranked teams in successive conference games. True, both wins were at home, which diminishes their importance ever so slightly. The Big East is such a brutal conference that Villanova couldn’t help but have some missteps. That’s what happened when they lost to Providence (a respectable 82nd in RPI) twice in mighty close games. (And the selection committee’s eyes will bug out when they look at Villanova’s November loss to Columbia.) A win over 17th-ranked Marquette over the weekend ought to help Villanova’s case in the committee’s eyes, and they have two more regular-season opportunities to get statement wins, against 20th-ranked Pittsburgh and 11th-ranked Georgetown. There’s nothing about this team that sticks out as a huge strength or a fatal flaw, but they’ve proven to be able to beat the best Big East teams. That oughta mean something. And you can’t tell me there are 68 teams that deserve playing in March Madness more than Villanova does.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.