Evaluating Bubble Teams’ Paths to At-Large Bids

     This is essentially the second part of yesterday’s bracketology, which can be found here: http://toplevelsports.blogspot.com/2015/03/bracketology-week-18-mar-10.html.  I’m going to be looking at each team on the bubble and seeing what they need to do to earn an at-large bid.  In terms of the actual bracket, it remains unchanged from yesterday with the exception of officially locking in Gonzaga and Valparaiso, and swapping South Dakota St and St. Francis with North Dakota St and Robert Morris, and locking them in.  The at-large situation remains basically unchanged, except that upon further review, BYU is probably a little safer than the last team in.  I’d put them above Texas A&M and Purdue at this point, making them an 11 seed.  Now that we know where we’re starting, let’s see how the bubble looks.
     First of all, it’s important to know how many spots are realistically available.  There are 68 teams in the tournament, and 32 are decided by automatic bids.  That leaves 36 spots for at-large bids.  I would say that in my recent bracket, every team in the top nine seeds and Davidson, the first 10 seed, are locks for the tournament.  That’s 37 teams.  However, ten of those teams are currently leading conferences, so there’s 27 more teams.  36-27= 9, so there are nine remaining spots.  I believe there are 22 teams with a possibility of getting those spots.  They are as follows:

     Current 10 seeds: Colorado St, Oklahoma St, Ole Miss
     Current 11 seeds: LSU, Temple, Texas, BYU
     Current 12 seeds: Texas A&M, Purdue
     First Four Out: UCLA, Miami (Fl), Indiana, Old Dominion
     Next Four Out: Tulsa, Murray St, Illinois, Rhode Island
     Barely Hanging: Richmond, Stanford, Vanderbilt
     Current Auto-bids if they lose their conference tournament: #11 Boise St, #12 Stephen F. Austin

     So those are the teams I think stand a chance at claiming the last few spots.  20 schools playing for nine spots, plus two more if they don’t get auto-bids.  However, the tough part is that as I talked about  a couple days ago in “Are Conference Tournaments Bad for College Basketball?” http://toplevelsports.blogspot.com/2015/03/are-conference-tournaments-bad-for.html, there are potential bid thieves who may shrink that magic number of nine even lower, making the bubble race ever the tighter and more difficult to decide who makes it in and who doesn’t.
     The first two teams on the list are Colorado St, and Oklahoma St, and I’d say both of them are looking at 90+% odds at making the field.  It’s going to be really difficult for them not to make the field, so much so that a win for either in their conference tournament would make them a lock.  Colorado St has Fresno St in their first round, and should easily win.  However, if they lose, and a lot of other people win, and the bid thieves take a few spots, it’s feasible that they could find themselves closer to the bubble.  However, I think that even in a down year for the Mountain West, 13-5 is no joke.  They’re a 26 win team with an RPI of 26, which in a power conference would make them a top 5 seed no doubt.  For proof, see Notre Dame, a 26-5 (same record as Colorado St) RPI 24 team that I have as a 3.  The point is, in my book they’re a lock, but I’m a tad unsure of the committee, which has them as the top team on the bubble.
     Oklahoma St had me genuinely scared for a while, and I thought they easily could have been the next Texas when they went on their four game losing streak in the second half of February, but by beating TCU and finishing 8-10 in the Big 12, they saved themselves from being a team walking the line of in and out.  They get #15 Oklahoma in the Big 12 quarterfinals, and while a win would certainly do the job, even a respectable loss should keep them safe.
     Then we have the two SEC teams in very similar positions, Ole Miss and LSU.  The Rebels are trending downwards after losing three of their last four, while LSU put themselves in good position with a win over #21 Arkansas to finish the regular season.  A win would put each of these teams in, but while a loss would be okay for Colorado St and Oklahoma St, an opening round loss would put these teams in danger.
     The Temple Owls may suffer a bit in the eyes of the committee because while the American Conference is solid and is probably a 3-bid league, they don’t have the depth of a major conference.  So while they finished the year with three wins over Houston, ECU, and UConn, none of them are that good.  Temple holds the four seed in the conference tournament and will play the five seed Memphis.  Temple is the first team that actually needs to win their opening round matchup.  If they don’t, it will be a matter of how much the committee values a 25-point win over Kansas, because it’s by far their best win.
     Texas should be rewarded for salvaging a season that once looked to be long gone.  By winning their last two games against Baylor and Kansas St, they went from the first four out into the last four in, and as long as they beat Texas Tech, they will be in good position to advance, because they’ll have an RPI around 40, a top 15 SOS number in the hardest conferences, 20 wins, and only one loss outside of the RPI top 50, which was to fellow bubble team Stanford.  By numbers alone, the Longhorns look good.
     BYU has no more games to play, but their away win against Gonzaga near the end of the regular season singlehandedly put them into good standing.  BYU is a strong team with a few great players in Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth, that any team would be scared of in the Big Dance.  All they lacked was a signature win, and that’s what they got.  They can’t lose any more games, so they can’t play themselves out of the tournament.  They’ve done well getting on the right side of the bubble, but anything can happen now that their fate is in other teams’ hands.
     Texas A&M is in a difficult position because typically 20-win teams from traditionally strong conferences would be feeling pretty comfortable, but for a team in a potential 6-bid league, they haven’t really beaten anyone.  Their only wins against potential tournament teams came in a sweep of LSU.  Besides that, their next highest RPI victory is #76 Florida, and they have a losing record.  They absolutely must beat Auburn, and then will play LSU.  If they complete the Tiger trifecta, they’ll be dancing.  Any less and I don’t think it happens.
     Purdue has been confusing for their last couple months because of the clash of their great conference record and 219 non-conference SOS.  However, after losing two of three down the stretch they’re going to need to make a statement in the conference tournament or be passed up.  It’d be a lot easier if they hadn’t lost to North Florida and Gardner-Webb…they’ll probably play Iowa in the Big Ten quarterfinals, and it’s a must win for sure.  Too bad Iowa’s a great team, and Purdue can’t make it without a win.
     ————————————————-The Bubble——————————————–
     UCLA looked hopeless for the first half of the season, but were jumpstarted after knocking off Utah.  The Bruins have been up and down since then, and have won their last three since losing the two prior.  They’re a true bubble team, in a decent conference with decent numbers, a 12-loss record, but a couple good wins.  They need to beat USC, but that might not be enough.  The only problem is that their potential semifinal matchup is against Arizona.  I don’t think they can win that game, and I think they’ll end up in the first four out on Selection Sunday.
     Miami (Fl) is testing how far a win over Duke can carry a bubble team.  Duke and NC State are their best wins, but they could’ve been in much better position if they could’ve beaten Virginia, Notre Dame, or Louisville, all of whom they played close.  20 and 28 point home losses to Georgia Tech and Eastern Kentucky aren’t helping the cause, either.  Ok, let’s face it, if those two losses don’t happen their in the field.  They must beat Virginia Tech, and then they’ll probably need to beat Notre Dame as well.
     Indiana was an 8 seed in my first bracketology, but they’ve lost 8 of 12 down the stretch, and are in free fall.  To save their year, they will need to beat both Northwestern and a really good Maryland team.  It might seem unfair, but with so many teams competing for a limited number of spots, if they don’t go deep, someone else will.
     Old Dominion would probably just be best winning the Conference-USA tournament, as they have the best shot of any bubble team in winning their tourney.  They were a solid middle-seed when conference play started, but silly losses have put them in their position.  The issue is that I’m not sure the committee will give C-USA a second bid.  They’d need at least a trip to the title game to stand a chance, but if they want to just win it, that’d be fine too.  Remember, any of these teams can just win their tourney and get in automatically.
     At this point as we head into the next four out, everyone needs to run deep.  Tulsa would’ve been a lot better off had they not dropped their last two games, but in their defense they were against Cincinnati and SMU, the conference’s two best squads.  They’ll have to get revenge on Cincinnati and beat them in the American semis.  If they make the finals, they’ll have a case to plead.  Otherwise, move over.
     It’s really unfortunate that Belmont had to sink Murray St.  They never lost in conference play, but because they lost in the tournament, there’s not much to talk about.  They have a strong record, but they haven’t really beaten anyone.  Do they deserve a spot?  Yes, they are by far the Ohio Valley’s best team.  But, on paper basically every other bubble team has them beat.  If a good amount of the teams above them fall in the opening round of their tournaments, Murray St could sneak up and be in the discussion.  But for now, probably not.
     If Illinois beats Michigan (which is a must), they then must play Wisconsin.  There’s good news and bad news with that.  The bad is that they play Wisconsin.  The good is that Wisconsin is such a strong team that if the Illini find a way to win, they can move way up and probably in the field- even if they lose in the semifinals.  A win over Wisconsin would carry that much weight.
     For Rhode Island, Richmond, Stanford, and Vanderbilt, the message is simple.  Win the tournament.  If not, make the finals and pray.  That’s the situation they’re all in.  Stanford absolutely fell apart, losing seven of ten when they appeared to be a tournament team at one point in time.  Rhode Island are lacking any quality wins, and Richmond and Vandy have come out of nowhere but still have work to do.
     And then there’s Boise St and Stephen F. Austin, the current auto-bids that could win at-large with a loss in their conference tournaments.  Boise has a much, much higher chance of getting in, as they come from a multiple-bid league (the Mountain West) and have a pretty strong resume overall.  If they don’t win their tournament, the bubble would actually expand by one spot should San Diego St or Colorado St win (the two most likely teams), but Boise St would probably just take an at-large since they were the regular season champions.  They’re ranked right now, and have swept San Diego St.  I think Boise probably gets in one way or the other.
     And then there’s SFA.  Last year, a very similar SFA team beat VCU in March Madness.  Now they’re back, and have the best resume out of the strong 1-bid league teams (Murray St, Iona, Harvard, etc).  They are 27-4, and three of their losses have come to very good teams, Northern Iowa (an overtime loss), Baylor, and Xavier.  They’ve got three top-100 wins, and an RPI of 46 which puts them slightly above the average bubble team in that category.  They boast great offensive numbers, ranking top 15 in points scored, #1 in assists in all of college basketball, and a top 10 field goal percentage.  This is an experienced team, and if any team from a traditional one-bid league gets in, it’d be them although the odds aren’t great.
     That’s the overview of the bubble right now.  Over the next few days, many teams will play themselves in, and more will play themselves out.  Enjoy the madness.
   

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