January means conference play gets going, leaving non-conference play in the past. Nothing happens in a vacuum, however, and the ways teams played before conference opponents shapes them now. It also has a big role in their NCAA Tournament hopes, for some teams more than others.
Scheduling is certainly an art form and not a science, because one never knows just how good many teams will be. Still, many go into the season with some clear signature win opportunities, where a win would have shelf life all season. Others have very few and need to make the most of them, or might not have any. Quality wins not only help a team reach the NCAA Tournament, but more of them leaves room for error to cover up a bad loss or two.
With non-conference play mostly over, we now have a sense of which teams have the most work to do in conference. Teams like Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Virginia are known quantities; barring a complete collapse, those teams will be in the NCAA Tournament and even in the mix for No. 1 seeds. Plenty of teams have work to do in conference play to make the NCAA Tournament, but some teams have more than others. Here is a look at teams that fall into the latter camp.
A classic example of such a team, the Bears have just one top 100 win – Vanderbilt, not a lock for the NCAA Tournament – along with three losses to top teams and no bad losses. Then they feasted on teams whose RPIs largely fall below 175, with a few in the 300s. In the strong Big 12, they’ll get plenty of chances for quality wins.
Here’s a team with nice computer numbers, but a resume that lacks a win over a lock NCAA Tournament team. They lost to Iowa State and SMU, and their best wins are over Auburn and Penn State. They missed one chance against California early in Pac-12 play, but will have more as the Pac-12 looks pretty strong.
Can we really put the Zags here? Yes, unthinkable though it almost seems. They lost to Texas A&M, Arizona and UCLA (the last of which could end up hurting more since the Bruins are a tough team to figure out), and while they don’t have a loss to a team with a three-digit RPI, their best wins are against three teams whose RPIs are around 100 (Connecticut, Tennessee and Washington). Although Saint Mary’s has a good RPI, the biggest thing for Gonzaga is to avoid a bad loss the rest of the way, although a win at SMU on February 13 would also help.
The Cardinals beat up on a bunch of so-so or worse teams and lost at Michigan State and Kentucky, their only real quality win opportunities. None of their non-conference wins are against top 100 teams. But they’ll have plenty of chances to get quality wins in the ACC.
Sure, the Tigers knocked off Kentucky, but they still have a good deal of work to do. The Tigers were supposed to be a serious challenger in the SEC with their new additions. Instead, they have struggled defensively and not only whiffed on their best chances in non-conference, but also lost at Houston and to College of Charleston, the latter of which could sting more later in the season as well. Their best non-conference win is either Oral Roberts or North Florida – good teams, but not NCAA Tournament locks at all. While the loss to the Cougars might not be so bad, the Cougars likewise beat up on weak teams so the jury is still out on them. The win over Kentucky – at home – helps, as does the win at Vanderbilt the prior game, but they need to do more.
The Wolfpack began the season on the wrong foot by losing at home to William & Mary. While a good team and a likely CAA contender, William & Mary is a team NC State should beat at home if the Wolfpack are to be an NCAA Tournament team, not unlike how they did beat fellow CAA contender Northeastern after Christmas. Then they lost at Virginia Tech to open ACC play. They lost to Arizona State and Michigan, while their win over LSU doesn’t look so good since the Tigers are also on this list, and have just three top 150 wins. Only one of those three – Northeastern – is a top 100 win. You get the idea: the Wolfpack need to beat a lock NCAA Tournament team or two in the ACC.
Simply put, the Wildcats played a non-conference schedule designed to get wins and build confidence. They have ten wins against teams in the bottom half of the RPI and a neutral site loss in the only game against a top 100 team, North Carolina in the CBE Classic. They held up that end of the bargain, but now it means they need to take advantage of some of the opportunities for quality wins in Big Ten play.
The Gamecocks’ undefeated record has been the subject of scrutiny, and understandably so. They don’t have a win over a lock NCAA Tournament team, although they have a few nice ones that are better than most people think. In other words, they haven’t loaded up solely on teams with RPIs in the 300s. It adds up to a team that could use a quality win or two in conference play, and with their unblemished mark they just might have gained the confidence to pull a few off.
Certainly, the Commodores were not helped by Luke Kornet’s injury that he recently returned from; they went 2-3 in the five games he missed. But no matter how you evaluate them, their best non-conference wins are against Stony Brook (home) and Wake Forest (in Maui). They don’t have a bad loss, but missed on every big non-conference chance: Kansas, Baylor, Dayton and Purdue. All of that came before they opened SEC play with a home loss to LSU. That means they lose some margin for error and need to beat a top SEC team or two along the way.
Like Vanderbilt, an injury will be part of evaluating Wichita State, as they were without Fred VanVleet for a number of key contests they lost in non-conference. They lost five games, all to teams in the top 100 (Tulsa is the worst of them), while they beat Utah and UNLV. Utah may well make it, but calling the Utes a lock right now is a stretch. VanVleet missed four games, and the Shockers went 1-3 in those games, losing to USC, Alabama and Iowa in the AdvoCare Invitational. In Missouri Valley play, they get the chance to take on Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois twice.