Author: Jimmy D
© Old Gold Free Press Columnists
Like the pumpkin carriage and Cinderella going to the Ball, the Big Dance and the Bubble are inexorably linked together. Every year, before the 64 invitations to the Big Dance can be sent out, the fate of the many teams living on the Bubble must first be sorted out.
There are 31 conferences in the Women’s Division I Basketball Universe. One slot per conference is reserved to the NCAA Tournament, not for the champions of the regular conference season, but the winners of the conference tournaments. This leaves 33 at-large spots available to everyone else. Traditionally, the lion’s share of these spots have gone to teams from six conferences: Big East, ACC, Big 12, Big 10, SEC, and Pac 10. For the 2009 NCAA Tournament, 28 of the 33 at-large spots went to teams from these six conferences, with five slots going to teams from the other 25 conferences. In 2008, the split was the same 28 / 5. In 2007, it was 27 / 6. While it is true that these slots or ratios are not predetermined, this trend can serve as a useful guide to look at the season ahead.
At the beginning of the 2009-10 there are about 43 to 45 teams from those six conferences that have a viable shot at either their conference tourney crown and an automatic invitation or one of those 33 at-large slots, and, if tradition holds true to form, they will garner about 85% of those at-large slots. More than half of these teams are projected to live above the Bubble because of quality recruits, great coaching and superior performance on the court year-in, year-out, during the both the regular season and tournament time. These programs are recognized as such in the preseason rankings by AP and ESPN/USA Today polls and other national publications and columnists. Here is a loose consensus conference by conference run down of those teams for the upcoming 2009-10 season:
Big East (6) DePaul, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburg, Rutgers, UConn
ACC (6) Duke, Florida St., Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia
Big 12 (6) Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., Texas A&M, Texas
SEC (5) Georgia, LSU, Mississippi St., Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Big 10 (3) Michigan St., Ohio St., Purdue
Pac 10 (3) Arizona St., California, Stanford
2007 Rutgers, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Stanford
2008 UConn, North Carolina, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Purdue, Stanford
2009 UConn, Maryland, Baylor, Vanderbilt, Ohio St, Stanford
That is a total of 29 teams. Subtract out six of them as conference automatic bids from this group, as the above table for the past three tournaments shows is highly likely, and you already have 23 of the approximately 28 at-large teams. On occasion, these teams may play their way back down to the Bubble, as Rutgers did in 2008-09 and Purdue in 2004-05. This usually happens when one of these higher profile teams is hit hard by graduation, transfers or injuries, and plays a particularly challenging non-conference schedule. But because of the strength of their non-conference and conference schedules, both teams still received an invitation to the Big Dance.
This leaves the other 44 teams in these six conferences to battle for the remaining 4 or 5 spots. Technically, there are 10 spots remaining, but let us not forget the other 25 conferences, of which, recently, about three of them (Mountain West, Atlantic 10, Colonial) have a chance of getting more than one team into the Big Dance. Drilling deeper down into the national polls and preseason conference predictions, of these 44 teams, an estimate could be made that about 15 of them begin the 2009-10 unofficially “on the Bubble”, that is, with a viable shot at the at-large slots. Here is a conference by conference run down of those teams:
Big East (2) Georgetown, Marquette
ACC (1) Boston College
Big 12 (4) Iowa St., Kansas St., Nebraska, Texas Tech
SEC (3) Auburn, Florida, South Carolina
Big 10 (4) Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Penn St
Pac 10 (2) Oregon St., USC
For 2009-10, it looks like there are only a handful teams from the six conferences mentioned above that have the type of non-conference schedule that could have a real impact, that could help lift them up if they find themselves mired in the middle of their conference standings – USC, South Carolina, and to a lesser extent Minnesota, Auburn and Georgetown. And, if things don’t go so well with their non-conference games, they still have the opportunity of redemption through conference play and conference tournaments to repair any damage that may have occurred, something not always available in the other 25 conferences. For the other programs that did not try to distinguish themselves through their non-conference slate, they must improve their conference records, beat some teams above them in the standings, win some road games and go deeper into their conference tournaments. Otherwise, they will get lost in the myriad of comparisons that are the hallmark of the NCAA Selection Committees.
Of course, all of the remaining 29 teams have the opportunity to make a name for themselves. For example, last year the Michigan Wolverines had impressive non-conferences wins against Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, NC State, Cincinnati and Kentucky. But they struggled during the Big 10 schedule, ending with a 6-12 conference record. Undaunted, for 2009-10, Michigan has again assembled an ambitious non-conference schedule that includes Ball St., Marquette, Kansas, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Xavier. If they can improve their conference record, they could enter the Bubble discussion. But the fact is, most teams that reside on, near or below the Bubble seem to shy away from constructing more difficult non-conference schedules. Match-ups against good RPI rated teams from the other five conferences are usually limited to one or two, with perhaps one top team from the other 25 conferences. And without a strong, non-conference resume, conference play becomes the make-or-break part of their schedule, as it is unlikely, but not impossible, that one of these teams will break through and win their conference tournament (see 2007-09 Automatic Bids Table above).
But these 15 teams are not the only teams that populate the Bubble. There are a select number of teams from the other 25 conferences that have worked very hard over the past couple of years to upgrade their non-conference schedules to give themselves the national presence in women’s basketball usually accorded to the schools within the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big 10, SEC and Pac 10. Whereas mid-range teams from these six conferences can experience life on the Bubble, only the crème of the crop from the other 25 conferences can experience and perhaps transcend the Bubble experience. If these teams can have success with their non-conference schedules, their fate will not necessarily be dictated by their success or failure in their respective conference tournaments, but rather by their entire body of work throughout the season. Programs that are following this path include Gonzaga, Middle Tennessee St., San Diego St., South Dakota St., TCU, Temple, Utah and Xavier. And for 2009-10, I would add one more school, Western Kentucky, from Middle Tennessee St.’s Sun Belt Conference. In addition, included below are four more schools that have challenging, though less robust, non-conference schedules, and could also merit Bubble consideration - Charlotte, Dayton, Fresno St. and Marist. Let’s look at who these teams have put on their schedules this year:
TEAM (CONFERENCE) OPPONENTS
Xavier (Atlantic 10): USC, Arizona St., Kansas, either TCU or Minnesota, LSU, Michigan St., Middle Tennessee St., Missouri, Mississippi St., Michigan
Western Kentucky (Sun Belt): Duke, South Dakota St., Pittsburgh, George Washington, Vanderbilt, LaTech, Arkansas, Ball St.
Utah (Mountain West): Minnesota, UCLA, Stanford, Louisville, South Dakota St., Oregon, SMU
Temple (Atlantic 10): Illinois, Auburn, Rutgers, Duke, Villanova, Florida St.
TCU (Mountain West): Fresno St., SMU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Minnesota, either Xavier or Kansas, NC State
South Dakota State (Mid-Continent): Gonzaga, Arizona St., Utah, Iowa, Charlotte, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee St.
San Diego St. (Mountain West): Arizona, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Wake Forest
Middle Tenn. St. Sun Belt LSU, Tennessee, Xavier, Louisville, South Dakota St., Kentucky
Marist (Metro Atlantic): West Virginia (WNIT), Oklahoma St., George Washington or Michigan St., Oklahoma
Gonzaga (West Coast): South Dakota St., USC, Washington, Stanford, Montana, Baylor, Texas A&M
Fresno St. (WAC): UC Santa Barbara, USC, TCU, Boston College, West Virginia, Stanford
Dayton (Atlantic 10): Michigan St., Louisville, Georgetown, Purdue
Charlotte (Atlantic 10): Duke, South Carolina, South Dakota St., Notre Dame, Clemson
If you are looking for upsets, and positive movement in NCAA seeding consideration, these are the games to watch.
In total, 13 teams from 7 different conferences. So if each conference tournament were to be won by one of the teams listed above, that would leave six teams looking for an at-large slot. Of course, if another team were to win any automatic bid from these 7 conferences, then the at-large pool would increase. But as you can see, the odds for one of these teams garnering an invitation to the Big Dance are much more favorable, almost 1:1, than for the bubble teams from the Big East, ACC, Big 12, SEC, Big 10 and Pac 10, where the odds at the beginning of the season are about 3:1.
So while the David vs. Goliath match-ups are always appealing for their upset potential, and helpful to a team’s RPI, it is the games that bring teams together from the opposite sides of the Bubble that are intriguing to me. For example, two opposite side Bubble vs. Bubble match-ups that opened the 2009-10 season: Illinois vs. Temple, with Temple winning in overtime, at home, 82-78, and Xavier vs. USC, an exciting game that also went into overtime, with Xavier coming out on top 81-71 at the Galen Center in Los Angeles.
Here are some additional 2009-10 opposite side Bubble vs. Bubble games that could prove equally entertaining:
November 13 Penn St 71 Drexel 61
November 16 South Carolina 70 Charlotte 66 (OT)
Fresno St. 63 USC 68
November 17 Auburn @ Temple
Minnesota @ Utah
November 19 USC @ Gonzaga
November 20 Dayton vs. Georgetown (Purdue Tournament)
November 27 Fresno St vs. Boston College (SMU Tournament)
TCU vs. Minnesota (Junkanoo Jam)
November 28 San Diego St vs. South Carolina (Paradise Jam)
December 22 South Dakota St @ Iowa