NCAAB Update: The Bubble…Disappeared?

Will Rhode Island go dancing?

Tomorrow is Selection Sunday, let that sink in.  As I’m writing this, we’re just over 24 hours away from the reveal of the March Madness field.  With the end of the regular season coming to a close, there’s one phrase that seems to be on everyone’s minds: the bubble.  Who’s in?  Who’s out?  Which teams are going dancing, and which have to settle for the NIT?

Just days ago, there was much uncertainty, as we had teams such as Xavier riding big losing streaks while Illinois and Iowa were making tournament pushes.  No one knew what to do with Vanderbilt, who seemed to have a tournament-worthy resume despite 14 losses.  But now, the day before the Selection Committee makes their final decisions, little seems to remain undecided.  Let’s see how the bubble looked in my last Bracketology, which came out on Wednesday.

Normally, I’d have a section for the “First Four Out” and the “Next Four Out”, but I determined that there were only seven teams on the outside looking in that still had a chance at an at-large bid.  The rest were just potential bid thieves.  The number is much smaller now.  Houston needed to reach the American championship game, lose to SMU, and get some help in order to have any realistic chance of an at-large, but a quarterfinals loss to UConn nipped that scenario in the bud.

Georgia comes next.  The Bulldogs made it past Tennessee in the opening round of the SEC tournament but still remained in need of a big win to really enter the bubble mix.  An upset over regular-season champion Kentucky would’ve made things interesting, but it wasn’t to be.  See ya.

A team that actually did pick up a huge win was TCU.  Jamie Dixon’s team fell off the bubble radar during February and finished Big 12 play at 6-12 despite a strong nonconference.  I still didn’t think TCU had any at-large chance after knocking off #1 Kansas in the Big 12 tournament (the school’s first ever win against an AP #1 ranked team), but if they could beat Iowa State and advance to the tournament championship, who knows what the committee might decide?  Of course, TCU lost.  Back to the list.

California’s resume looks nearly identical to Georgia’s.  The Golden Bears are slightly better off, but they would’ve needed to beat Oregon to make the tournament.  Lastly, the Big Ten duo of Iowa and Illinois are headed to the NIT falling to Indiana and Michigan in their first tournament games.  There’s nothing wrong with the NIT – it’s an accomplishment just to be playing postseason ball.  Still, while it’s technically called the National Invitational Tournament, by the way it’s treated, perhaps “Not Important Tournament” would be a more accurate acronym.  Just like that, the number of “at-large contenders” has been reduced to two: Illinois State and Kansas State.

While the number of teams that could move into the field shrunk, the reverse was also true.  I’m still confident in all of my “locks” (although, we’ll talk about Wake Forest later), so that leaves six at-large bids remaining.  Middle Tennessee has won 19 of 20 and had no problems reaching the Conference USA championship.  They should take care of Marshall as well, but I’d be really surprised if they didn’t get in regardless.  Lock ’em up.

Xavier picked up two victories in the Big East tournament which were crucial in different ways.  Losing to DePaul would’ve been killer but the Musketeers avoided the trap.  They followed up the win with an upset over Butler.  DePaul made them safe, Butler made them a lock.

Vanderbilt picked up their third win over Florida this season on Friday.  Yes, the Commodores fell to Arkansas in the SEC semis, but even with their 15 losses, this is a team that can’t be passed up.  Vanderbilt will become the first 15-loss at-large.

This leaves five teams fighting for three spots: USC, Rhode Island, Syracuse, Illinois St., and Kansas St.  Told you things became much simpler.  USC entered the final days of the season in the best position of the five, but missed out on a huge opportunity to clinch their spot should they have beaten UCLA.  Instead, the Trojans will be sweating it out during the Selection Show.

Rhode Island is the only one of the five that could still receive an automatic bid, as they take on VCU in the Atlantic 10 finals tomorrow where the Rams will be playing…the Rams.  Should the Rhode Island Rams win, the other four teams will be fighting for just two spots.  If Will Wade’s VCU Rams prevail instead, Rhode Island will remain in decent, but uncertain shape.

Syracuse lost their first ACC tourney game against Miami, and I don’t think their five RPI top-50 wins will be enough to carry the Orange.  They have an 84 RPI, atrocious as far as bubble teams are concerned.  ‘Cuse are just 2-8 in road/neutral games and have a nonconference strength of schedule of just 216.  Add in five losses to the RPI sub-100, and their resume begins to fall apart.  Compare them to a team like Wake Forest, who many people have in a similar situation to Syracuse.

The Demon Deacons have an RPI of 39, a #22 strength of schedule, and 14th ranked nonconference SOS.  Wake’s worst loss was at Syracuse, and they have six road/neutral wins.  Give credit to the team that’s played a difficult schedule and has done well, with a 19-13 record one game better than ‘Cuse.

Illinois St. is in a difficult spot.  They’ve done essentially everything they could do except win the Missouri Valley tournament.  They split regular season matches with Wichita St., and finished 17-1 in the MVC, claiming the #1 tournament seed.  They don’t have a ton of quality wins, but a 27-6 overall record and RPI of 35 have them firmly in the mix.  In the end, I expect them to fall just short, needing one or two more wins they lacked in the nonconference.  Even still, their nonconference SOS was 157, well above Syracuse.

Kansas St. has done the most for their case, knocking off Baylor in the Big 12 tournament.  In my opinion, Kansas St. was already extremely close to being in the field, but this win put them in strong shape.  It’s all up to the committee now.

My final bracketology will come tomorrow, just before the bracket is revealed.  Until then, here’s how I’d rank these final five teams.

USC (11-seed, play-in game)

Kansas St (12-seed, play-in game)

Rhode Island (12-seed, play-in game)

Illinois St (NIT)

Syracuse (NIT)

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