© Old Gold Free Press Columnists
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BUBBLE
As teams now turn from their non-conference schedules to focus on conference play, the serious jockeying for that all important inside position begins. The final numbers remain the same – 31 slots for the winners of the conference tournaments, 33 at-large spots available to everyone else. Will the allocation remain in the historical 27 / 6 range? Let’s see how the race is shaping up.
As you may remember, there were 29 teams listed before the season began (and keep in mind, this is a subjective grouping. It is not based on a s-curve, or even on a RPI numerical scale. It is just how it looks from here in snow covered Indiana.). These were teams that were unofficial members of a group of teams from the Big East, ACC, Big 12, Big 10, SEC, and Pac 10 that could again this year live life above the Bubble. This is because their program attracts quality recruits, has great coaching and achieves superior performance on the court year-in, year-out, during the both the regular season and tournament time. As the year has progressed, let’s just say that this crowd has become more select. And the number of potential Bubble candidates has grown. Emphasis on the word potential, as it won’t be until we are much deeper into the conference schedule that things become more focused.
One of the things that distinguish this group is their Strength of Schedule (SOS). Not only do they have an outstanding W / L record, but they also rank near the top for SOS. Contrast that with, say, Iowa St with a 12-2 record, but a 169 SOS ranking, or Syracuse, at 14-1, with a 324 SOS ranking. So first, let’s look above the Bubble and see who is enjoying the rarified air up there:
Big East (2) Notre Dame (15-0), UConn (15-0)
ACC (2) Duke (14-2), North Carolina (13-2)
Big 12 (3) Nebraska (15-0), Oklahoma (11-3), Texas A&M (13-1)
SEC (2) Georgia (16-0), Tennessee (13-1)
Big 10 (1) Ohio St (17-1)
Pac 10 (1) Stanford (13-1)
Let’s welcome the Cornhuskers as the only new addition to the club, with an undefeated 15-0 record that includes a win over LSU, as well as two opening conference victories – a 57-49 victory on the road against Iowa St and a 91-79 shoot-out win over Texas.
Still, that is only 11 of the original 29 teams. For various reasons, you can find the remaining 18 teams in closer proximity to (above or below) the Bubble than before. At the beginning of the 2009-10 season, the projection was that there were about 43 to 45 teams from those six conferences that have a viable shot at either their conference tournament crown and an automatic invitation or one of the at-large slots. My sense is that that number has been reduced to around 38 or 39 teams. Subtract out six of them as conference automatic bids, and you have 32 / 33 teams vying for approximately 28 at-large slots. Of those, 14 have an inside track at securing one of those slots. That is to say, if they hold their own in conference play and win those games that they are favored to win, and perform well in their conference tournament, then they should be getting an invitation in the mail:
Big East (3) Georgetown (13-2), Rutgers (9-6), West Virginia (16-1)
ACC (3) Florida St (14-3), Miami, Fl (13-2), Virginia (11-5)
Big 12 (4) Baylor (13-2), Kansas (10-5), Oklahoma St (14-2), Texas (11-5)
SEC (2) Kentucky (13-2), LSU (13-2)
Big 10 (2) Michigan St (11-5), Wisconsin (13-4)
Pac 10 (0)
However, that may be easier said than done. In the Big East, Rutgers does not have a lot of wiggle room. Losses to Stanford, Georgia, Texas, Temple, Tennessee and George Washington attest to another challenging schedule put together by Head Coach Vivian Stringer, making success in the Big East critical. To date, West Virginia’s only loss is to Ohio St in the pre-season WNIT, but a home victory over Marist was their most notable non-conference win. Not exactly a compelling non-conference performance. However, the Mountaineers have opened conference play with three victories – St John’s, Pittsburgh and DePaul in overtime.
In the ACC, the emergence of the Miami Hurricanes, with their win over Florida St, may have caught some observers off guard. But there are a lot of games left to be played in the ACC. And Miami will have to show their mental toughness on the road against stiffer competition than they experienced in their non-conference schedule.
Oklahoma St may be one team that can make a case for inclusion in the “Life Above the Bubble Club”. With only two non-conference losses – at Ohio St in the preseason WNIT and to Michigan St in double overtime in the Junkanoo Jam – compared to 12 wins, the Cowgirls SOS ranks higher than North Carolina’s. And they have started strong in the Big 12 at 2-0, beating Baylor 78-65 and outlasting Kansas in Lawrence 70-68.
Kentucky finished non-conference play 12-1, securing victories against Louisville and Cincinnati, both in-state schools from the Big East. They started SEC conference play with a tough, one point overtime loss at Georgia, followed by a 10 point home victory over Vanderbilt. Away games against Tennessee and LSU, as well as a rematch with the Commodores and home / away sets against Auburn and South Carolina will tell us more about the Wildcats.
Wisconsin earned non-conference road wins against Oregon, NC State and Marquette. But Big 10 home victories against Michigan St, Purdue and Michigan have been offset by road losses to Ohio St, Iowa and Illinois. Like many other teams, the Badgers need to show that they can secure conference victories on the road.
The Pac 10 currently does not have anyone on the inside track, as Arizona State has lost five of their last seven games, losing to Baylor and Texas A&M in the Las Vegas Classic, then opening conference play with losses to USC, UCLA and Washington, before finally winning at Washington St.
That leaves 14 teams sitting on the Bubble:
Big East (4) DePaul (12-5), Marquette (11-5), St John’s (14-3), Syracuse (14-1)
ACC (1) Georgia Tech (14-3)
Big 12 (1) Iowa St (12-2)
SEC (3) Auburn (10-6), Mississippi St (11-5), Vanderbilt (12-4)
Big 10 (2) Illinois (11-4), Minnesota (10-6)
Pac 10 (3) Oregon (12-3), UCLA (10-5), USC (9-6)
with 13 slots still available. It may sound simple, but there is a lot of basketball yet to be played. Rest assured, if one of these teams sitting on the Bubble begins to slip against equal or lesser opponents, it will be noticed.
Finally, we have about 20+ teams from the six conferences mentioned above, who are living just beyond the Bubble, whose fate now resides inside their respective conferences. They will need above average conference records in order to get themselves back into consideration. They must beat some of the teams mentioned above, plus, they must win some road games and / or go deep into their conference tournaments. Coming up short on any of these metrics will limit their chances. Because, as we just saw, there are already more teams above them than there are historical slots available:
Big East (4) Louisville (10-6), Pittsburgh (11-5), Providence (10-6), Villanova (10-5)
ACC (3) Boston College (10-6), Maryland (13-3), NC State (11-6)
Big 12 (4) Colorado (11-4), Kansas St (9-6), Missouri (10-4), Texas Tech (13-3)
SEC (2) Florida (9-7), South Carolina (8-7)
Big 10 (5) Indiana (9-7), Michigan (10-6), Northwestern (11-6), Penn St (11-4), Purdue (8-8)
Pac 10 (2) Arizona St (9-6), Washington (8-6)
While no one is holding their breath, thinking these guys are going to take down a UConn or a Stanford, it is the match ups of those teams living beyond the Bubble against those on the Bubble that they must win (and have the best chance to win) if they want to play themselves into consideration. Don’t get me wrong, beating a UConn could be a game changer, but if you are playing the odds…
For example, on Jan. 14th, there is a rematch at Williams Arena in Minneapolis between Minnesota and Purdue. This is the type of game that Purdue must win if they want to increase their visibility. The same goes for Washington when USC and UCLA visit Hec Edmundson Pavilion for a week-end series with the Huskies on January 21st and 23rd. And while the Big 12 may not get a team in the Final Four every year, their conference schedule is relentless, especially with an improving north division. Just ask Coach Kristy Curry at Texas Tech, as she tries to move her team out of cellar of the super-intense south division.
It is possible that the Big East or the Big 12 could garner up to eight invitations, with as many as 12 teams in contention in their respective conferences, although nothing is guaranteed. The same can be said for up to seven invitations for the ACC and SEC, with nine teams each in the running. The Big 10 could get six, maybe seven. The Pac 10 may get one or may get four. In determining who gets those final slots, you can bet the NCAA Committee members will have their game summaries, video highlight reels, spreadsheets, calculators and magnifying glasses out.
A few final comments about each of the six conferences and a few individual teams:
In the Big East, Georgetown may be the best team that nobody is talking about. DePaul, with losses to Northwestern, Wisc.-Green Bay and Stanford, salvaged their non-conference schedule with a three game sweep against Arkansas, Florida State and UNLV in the Duel in the Desert. The Blue Demons followed that with three overtime games, winning against Illinois St. and Louisville, then losing to West Virginia. Whew! And they still have 13 conference games to go. Marquette is still a question mark, losing to Michigan, Wisconsin and Wisc.-Green Bay, but winning against Illinois. They win their conference opener against Pittsburgh, then lose to St John’s. Syracuse, Providence, Pittsburgh and South Florida (USF) had attractive non-conference W / L records, but upon closer inspection one is suspect that they may not be as successful in conference play. The Orange completed a perfect 13-0 non-conference campaign, but their only significant opponent was Old Dominion (4-9), Pittsburgh’s highest RPI opponent was Penn St (whom they lost to), while the schedules for Providence and USF are only slightly better.
NC State opened ACC conference play with a 28 point thrashing of Maryland, only to follow up with a 17 point loss to Boston College. Maryland followed its debacle against NC State with a dramatic one point victory at Virginia. By conference tournament time, all these guys could be more tangled up than multiple strings of Christmas lights.
In the Big 12, all four teams listed as living just beyond the Bubble suffer from weak non-conference schedules in comparison to other Big 12 teams (You can also add Iowa State to the list). Their non-conference W / L records may look great, but ultimately may not be that relevant when compared to their conference results. And this may hurt them when the NCAA Selection Committee starts splitting hairs to determine who gets those final invitations.
In the SEC, the pressure is on Auburn and Florida, since there just isn’t much in their non-conference records to recommend them. Auburn’s best non-conference win was against Liberty. After opening SEC play 0-2, the Tigers rebounded with a crucial overtime win against LSU. Florida, on the other hand, already has seven losses, with their only quality win, a double overtime victory against the Auburn Tigers. And Vanderbilt could quite possibly end up with a 1-6 conference record before drawing back-to-back-to back games against Alabama, Arkansas and Florida.
In the Big 10, Indiana and Purdue already have seven and eight losses respectively, while Northwestern and Michigan have started conference play with 2-4 records. Even Michigan St, with wins over Oklahoma St, North Carolina and Xavier has started conference play 2-2, losing to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Other than the Buckeyes, it looks like everyone else in the Big Ten is well skilled at digging holes for themselves.
Finally, in the Pac 10, Oregon and USC are chasing perennial powerhouse Stanford, while UCLA and Washington have surprised observers by starting conference play 3-1. These two will have to continue to be impressive in conference play to build a case for additional Pac 10 invitations.
Next installment: “They Invited Who!?”
Or, Is Anything Happening in the Other 25 Conferences that Might Burst Someone’s Bubble?