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One night only: Surveying prospectives’ NCAA tourney hopes

February 3, 2016 Columns No Comments

We know many fans love bracketology. We do too.

We recognized it in college almost 20 years ago (gasp), when Joe Lunardi’s projections started showing up in January on a website then known as ESPNet.Sportszone.com (clearly, today’s obsession with things such as “branding” and “synergy” had yet to go to its current ridiculous lengths) and when this internet thing was still something of a novelty.

Bracketology wasn’t even a word yet, but we ate up the projections, even joining the thousands who have sent Mr. Lunardi emails with our thoughts on the field (and which he so kindly responded to then, as he has many others over the years).

Make no mistake: bracket projections are a great thing for college basketball. (And Lunardi’s work also has forced the selection committee to come out of the dark to a degree, increasing the transparency of the selection process). As much as we enjoy pondering team’s chances for the NCAA Tournament, though, from this view it’s something really not worth a whole lot of stressing oneself out over before February arrives.

Before then, most teams are still on or have just completed their first trip through the conference loop. Teams that played weak non-conference schedules-which are often many from the biggest name conferences-may still only have been partly exposed since. There is still so much to reveal in the last 1 1/2 months of the regular season.

Too much can happen. Are we going to hyperventilate because someone lost and dropped down from a 1 to a 2 seed in January? No.

All that said, the dawn of February means the regular season is starting to hit the home stretch. If there is an official time to start talking “bubbles,” it is now. It’s a great month, leading into basketball’s greatest month.

With that we present a big-picture look at where teams’ NCAA Tournament chances stand in early February, for those in the heaviest contention for bids. One night only-while we will certainly monitor and continue to allude to team’s tourney chances on an almost daily basis, we’re perfectly happy to let many others do the weekly or even daily work on bracketology. We won’t be revisiting this list in full until most likely the morning of Selection Sunday.

The near-locks. It’s impossible to call anyone a lock just yet because if they lost out the rest of the season, they realistically could miss the Big Dance. Whether it be their strength, their schedule or their conference’s relative weakness, though, it’s all but impossible to imagine any of these teams doing that, so there’s little to add to these teams.

Baylor Oklahoma
Iowa Oregon
Iowa State Providence
Kansas Purdue
Kentucky Texas A&M
Maryland Villanova
Miami (Fla.) Virginia
Michigan State West Virginia
North Carolina Xavier

The certain one-bid leagues. Even by the most optimistic, broadest definition of at-large teams, it’s hard to find candidates from these conferences.

Atlantic Sun NEC
Big Sky Patriot
Big South Southland
Ivy League SWAC

The likely one-bid leagues. We’ll discuss teams that could be exceptions below, though all of these either have 1) a clear-cut at-large candidate who will be a heavy favorite to win the league tourney (ex. Wichita State) or 2) the at-large candidate is at the fringes, but can’t be discounted totally:

America East MAC
Big West MVC
Conference USA Southern
Horizon Summit League
MAAC Sun Belt

The almost near-locks.
Just a step down from the first category. In some cases, the main reason they aren’t in the top layer has as much to do with their conference as it does with them. You can all but book these teams for flights to sub-regionals.

Arizona  Even if they somehow slide in the tough Pac-12, it’s just hard to imagine an NCAA Tournament without the Wildcats.
Dayton  The Flyers probably belong in the top flight, but we saw how they were ripped off by the selection committee a year ago.
Duke  Don’t overreact to a few regular season losses-it would still take a monumental collapse for the Krzyzewskis to miss the tourney.
Indiana  The Hoosiers have few impressive wins, but also really no bad bad losses, plus they look the part. They’ll be in.
Louisville  As proven Monday night in the win over UNC, Pitino’s teams always find a way.

On the fence, but in pretty good shape. If these teams perform as expected and can at least split the rest of their games in a tough conference, or continue taking care of business against weaker teams, they should be in. If they slip, though…

Cincinnati   Bearcats’ profile isn’t overwhelming, but wins at VCU and Connecticut and on a neutral court against George Washington are all big cards to hold. Plus, Mick Cronin’s team looks too tough to endanger its chances by losing too many to teams it shouldn’t.
Colorado  The Buffaloes, USC and Utah are almost one in the same. All three look ready to separate from the pack some in the Pac-12. It’s not quite as simple as top-half finish=NCAA bid, but it’ll be close.
Connecticut  The Huskies could easily be listed in the category below, but wins over Texas and Michigan will continue to pay off. Plus, much like AAC brethren Cincinnati, it’s hard to imagine UConn hitting the skids.
Florida  That win over West Virginia will go a long way for the Gators, as will a win over Saint Joseph’s on a neutral court. Gators thus far have mostly avoided bad losses this year, and likely need to just continue to do so.
Gonzaga  We know we’re supposed to have life support ready for the Bulldogs’ NCAA tourney-steak if they don’t win the WCC Tournament. We’re not buying it. Wins over Washington and Connecticut still matter, as does the fact few teams schedule tougher out of conference. Unless Gonzaga goes winless the rest of the way in games against BYU, Saint Mary’s and SMU-including the WCC tourney-or loses a couple more to bottom-half teams in conference, the Zags will be in.
Michigan  The Wolverines have a nice record (17-5), but their profile would be barren if not for an early neutral court win over Texas (which looks better every day) and the recent home win over Maryland. There’s a lot of work to do, but those are two big trump cards to hold.
Monmouth  If the Hawks win the MAAC-they’re a game ahead of Iona right now-there should be no questions. Just six-SIX-of their first 23 games have been at home. To not reward their accomplishments against such a schedule would be a travesty.
Notre Dame  Remember earlier in the year when people were claiming the Irish were mediocre? It’s looking more and more like that was an overreaction. Another solid Mike Brey team, and wins over Iowa and at Duke loom huge.
Pittsburgh  The Panthers played another cushy, home-loaded non-conference schedule, recently lost three of five and don’t necessarily “look” like a sure thing depending on when you see them. But there have been enough highlights (wins at Notre Dame and Florida State and home against Syracuse, plus a blowout of Davidson) that at 17-4 and 7-4 vs. the RPI top 100, it’ll be hard to keep Pitt out.
Saint Mary’s  No top 50 wins yet with BYU, Gonzaga, Stanford and UC Irvine lurking just outside of there, but the Gaels also have nothing close to a bad loss right now. Impressive offensive team. The score-based ratings formulas also love SMC, and it’s a fun team to watch. A couple losses in the WCC to teams they shouldn’t lose to, though, will put the Gaels in a tenuous spot.
South Carolina  Twenty-two games into their season, the Gamecocks still do not have a top 50 win OR loss. The cynic in us, though, says if they win 25 games in the SEC they’re a shoo-in. More pertinent, this is a team that generally just continues to take care of business in games it should win, and at some point that deserves to be rewarded, whether you’re in the SEC, WCC or MAAC.
Texas  The Longhorns have had moments where they look positively average, but their clutch wins should carry them a long way, even if they do slide some late. Their tough schedule to finish is the only thing keeping them from being a category above this.
USC  On the other hand, it’s a favorable upcoming schedule that almost moves the Trojans a line above this. Not sure how long they’ll stick around in the NCAAs, but it’ll take a collapse to keep out this fun-to-watch squad that has had a very nice year.
Utah  It feels like the Utes have been almost a mild disappointment this year, yet there they are at 17-5, 6-4 vs. the RPI top 50, with a glitzy win over Duke and solidly in the top half of the Pac-12 for now. Even if somehow they struggle down the stretch, don’t underestimate the importance of their wins against teams like BYU, San Diego State, Temple and even IPFW.
Wichita State  If you’re watching the Shockers of late, they certainly pass the eye test. And we know from last year with teams like Texas and UCLA how much the committee likes the eye test…right? We also know how much the committee loves to talk about injuries, and if they’re going to do that, then the early season one to Fred Van Vleet must be considered heavily.

Firmly perched on the fence.  These teams will convincingly play their way in or out…or will be waiting impatiently on Selection Sunday.

Arkansas-Little Rock  (Disclaimer: yes, we know, they want to be called ‘Little Rock’…the school name is still the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We use commonly known school names on first reference, “branding” names thereafter. If the branders don’t like it? Change the official name.) By any name, this team has a fair case, with a glossy 19-2 record and wins at San Diego State, Tulsa and DePaul among nine road wins already. The Trojans have also played just seven of their first 21 games at home. The only thing killing them is the overall weakness of the Sun Belt Conference.
Butler  Hard to imagine the Bulldogs would be here a month ago, but undeniably trending the wrong way. Repeat that 3-6 mark through the first half of the Big East loop, and it’s NIT for a good team that has lost too many close ones.
BYU  Do we not find the Cougars here seemingly every year? The win at Gonzaga is really the only chip right now, but the Stormin’ Mormons still get home swings at the Zags plus Saint Mary’s. Also, this may entirely be perception over reality, but it seems BYU often gets the benefit of the doubt when on the fence.
California  More and more, that 1-8 record away from home is speaking loudly for this team. How the selection committee handles the Pac-12 this year could have a big impact on if the Golden Bears-and perhaps others in Pac-12-eventually make it in or not.
Clemson  The Tigers were less-than mediocre out of conference but continue to impress in the ACC. Keep winning, and Brad Brownell’s team will have earned its spot.
Florida State  The Seminoles could easily ascend a level above this soon. Quietly, the profile has become quite solid-7-7 vs. the top 100, wins over Clemson, Florida and VCU keep looking better, plus no bad losses.
Georgetown  They could still get red hot or hit the skids, but everything about the Hoyas this year says they’ll be on the bubble the rest of the season. Almost certainly, they’ll need to win two of three against Providence, Villanova and Xavier in their finishing stretch,  but two of them are on the road.
George Washington  The Colonials were probably a line ahead of this until losing at home to Richmond last week. How far can the Virginia win carry them? GW has a tough finish in the Atlantic 10 and will need to get some tough road wins if it wants to get in.
LSU  We’re not picking on the Tigers or Ben Simmons; we’re picking on the media’s infatuation with them. More and more projections lately have been putting this team not just in, but in the field safely. If you’re looking at the numbers-which include basically a win over Kentucky and little else-LSU should be strictly a 50/50 proposition at the moment-at best. There should be no free passes for future NBA stars.
Marquette  One of the teams with a better resume than LSU-in fact, the Golden Eagles beat the Tigers on a neutral floor in November. Need to start moving up the Big East standings, but if it does, Steve Wojciechowski’s team could certainly sneak in.
Saint Joseph’s  Along with South Carolina, the Hawks are the poster child for our theory that ALL wins matter, not just top 50 and top 100 ones. SJU is 0-3 vs. the top 35 in the RPI, but 18-0 against everyone else, including 7-0 against teams ranked 100-150. Beating those teams sounds easy, but watch at the end of the year how many bubble teams have losses to those squads. Much like two years ago, Hawks will likely be on the bubble right up to Selection Sunday.
San Diego State  If the Aztecs continue to dominate the Mountain West, they at least have a case. Not a very good one given their non-conference misadventures and the weakness of their conference this year, but there is a neutral court win over California.
Seton Hall  The Pirates ebb and flow, but a win at Providence is a big chip and that home W against Wichita State continues to look better and better. Right now this is a classic bubble squad that could go either way.
Syracuse  First off: we don’t want to hear how the Cuse should get a pass because it was missing Jim Boeheim for nine games. When it comes to tough, uncontrollable circumstances for a team, a coach getting suspended as part of NCAA sanctions is about as far opposite of that as there can be and should never, ever be used as a viable excuse when evaluating resumes for the tournament. That said, the profile keeps getting better (3-4 vs. RPI top 50, 7-7 vs. top 100). If the Orange keep progressing along those lines, they likely will deserve a bid.
Tennessee-Chattanooga  The Mocs have one of the best road wins of any team this season, winning at Dayton. UTC also won at Georgia and Illinois, has played just seven of 22 games at home, dealt with injuries in two of its three losses, and is dominating the Southern Conference. At its current pace, this is a team that deserves an at-large bid if it is upset in the always-eventful SoCon tourney.
Texas Tech  At this point, the Red Raiders still have a pulse because their non-conference wins are better than most realize. If they go 2-6 again over their next eight Big 12 games, though, you can take them off the list.
UCLA  There are some glossy wins (home against Kentucky and Arizona; away against Gonzaga) but the losses are starting to pile up. UCLA still has time to make a solid case, but even if it doesn’t, wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the committee again finds a way to get the Bruins in. Right now, though, that 2-7 record vs. the RPI top 50 just indicates a team that will lose 78% of the time when it plays at-large caliber teams.
Valparaiso  Truthfully, a team that belongs in the category above this. The Crusaders tried to schedule tough, only to see several of their non-conference opponents get hammered by injuries. Valpo also has dealt with a ton of injuries itself. Still, if one watches even a little of this team, there is no question it is one of the best 36 at-large squads, but our skeptical side knows the eye test rarely is applied to teams like this one.
VCU  The Rams have played their way to this point with their hot streak in the Atlantic 10. They missed numerous shots for name-brand wins out of conference but still have plenty of chances in the A-10 to play themselves a line above this.
Washington  There’s still a lot to learn about the Huskies, who beat Texas very, very early, then were less than mediocre for 1 1/2 months before coming alive in the Pac-12, which is either really tough, really mediocre, or (most likely) somewhere in the middle. Went 6-3 on first swing through conference. Repeat that, and likely in good shape. Reverse it, and it’s likely NIT.
Wisconsin  The Badgers were nowhere near this a few weeks ago but have won four straight, including home wins against Michigan State and Indiana. UW has a nice arsenal of wins (VCU and Syracuse as well as Temple) but must keep winning to cover the warts from that 9-9 start.

Not likely, but too early to count completely out just yet.  There’s a chance, but the fact is many-if not all-teams on this list will play their way completely out of contention in the next month. In that regard, there are many others who could be listed here too, but these are the most likely candidates based on teams’ 20-game samples so far.

Akron  It’s unlikely that the MAC gets two bids, but the Zips could (or at least should) be on the fringes if they just about run the table in the No. 10-rated league. The Zips won at Arkansas, something a team like Texas A&M could not do.
Alabama  The Crimson Tide are 3-6 in the SEC, and an NIT spot is no guarantee. Still, there are a lot of teams considered almost sure things by some sources that don’t have wins as good as Bama’s over Notre Dame, South Carolina (by 23 points) and Wichita State. Should they somehow get hot…
Belmont  The Bruins’ case likely rests on 1) winning at Marquette, 2) a brutal non-conference schedule and 3) blowing through the OVC. The last one took a hit with a loss at Tennessee Tech on Saturday, and Belmont almost certainly didn’t do quite enough out of league to make the impression needed.
Boise State  Considering the weakness of the Mountain West, the Broncos have nearly used up their allotment of losses. A win over Oregon will help, but at this point it’s doubtful now that Boise will get close enough for it to matter. Better win the MWC tourney.
CAA champion  Right now there is no realistic candidate from this league yet. The CAA is currently ninth in the RPI, though, and if one team can win the regular season title, it will deserve at least some strong discussion. Hofstra in particular has a nice win with a neutral court victory over Florida State.
Davidson  The Wildcats would need to all but run the table at this point. Jack Gibbs is good, but this year’s squad has had serious deficiencies rebounding against bigger teams, keeping them from even being competitive in too many games against their biggest-name competition.
Evansville  The Purple Aces are likely the second-best team in the MVC and at 18-5 have had a very good season, but it would be hard to reasonably grade it any higher than that. UE missed in all four of its biggest chances (Providence, twice against Wichita State plus at Arkansas). Quite reminiscent of Indiana State a few years ago, a good team just not quite there for NCAAs.
Georgia  The Bulldogs frankly have done little to deserve a bid (witness a 2-7 record vs. the RPI top 75), but their win over South Carolina last night at least gets them in the ballpark.
Hawaii  A solid team with a really good record (16-3) playing in a better-than-you-think conference, but the Rainbow Warriors’ best wins (Auburn, Northern Iowa) have diminished as the season goes on, and because of that their near-miss against Oklahoma can only go so far. Only a sweep of UC Irvine and a convincing Big West title would even start to put this entertaining team into the conversation.
Houston  Beating SMU plus wins over LSU and Temple means the Cougars at least deserve a look. A weak non-conference schedule almost certainly would do them in, but weaker resumes have received spots in the past.
Middle Tennessee State  Very unlikely, but a Conference USA title could at least get this solid team a first look. Frankly, it’s the C-USA games that are killing the Blue Raiders (and UAB, too) in terms of power ratings.
Oregon State  Increasingly, the Beavers are looking less and less like an NCAA squad and more like a solid NIT team, but it’s undeniable the progress this program is making.
South Dakota State  SDSU is 3-1 vs. the top RPI 100 (in fairness, all three wins are against teams ranked 79 or lower) and might be considerably higher than their current 44 RPI had they not lost George Marshall and Jake Bittle for long stretches earlier in the year. In other words, we point it out again: if the committee really is looking at injuries for ALL teams, then this is a team that will deserve a longer look than it will likely get. Jackrabbits are not a likely at-large, but a convincing regular season title in the No. 11 conference (Summit) means they would warrant discussion.
St. Bonaventure  The Bonnies are an easy team to get behind, but it will take a red-hot finish to get into serious at-large consideration. Still, the Atlantic 10 provides opportunities to impress.
Stanford  Like Oregon State, not a bad team, but now just 11-9 overall plus 2-9 vs. the RPI top 50. Hard to make a serious case unless the Cardinal really heats up, which is still possible in the balanced Pac-12.
Stony Brook  The Seawolves are halfway to an undefeated America East season, have a few solid wins (Princeton, Hofstra), feature one of the nation’s best players (Jameel Warney) and could go into March having not lost since mid-December. Again, not likely, but would at least deserve consideration if finishing with 26-27 wins.
Temple  It’s one step forward, one step back for the Owls, who have some sweet wins (SMU, at Connecticut, sweep of Cincinnati) but also ugly losses (at East Carolina, by 27 at home to Houston). Unlikely unless can win AAC regular season title.
UAB  The Blazers could be compared to Murray State a year ago as a team that started slowly while meshing some new players but was a whole different team from December on. Losing at Western Kentucky last week, though, puts a big dent in that theory, but hurting even more is that Conference USA is really, really struggling in the power ratings. Really good team capable of some noise in March, but if they lose C-USA tourney in Birmingham, it’ll be hard to get in.
UC Irvine  The Anteaters are another very solid NIT team whose chances at an at-large are next to none and, like fellow Big West foe Hawaii, rely on just about running the table the rest of their conference schedule, a streak that would include a sweep of the Rainbow Warriors.
Vanderbilt  At this point, the Commodores aren’t particularly close, not with their 1-7 mark vs. the RPI top 50. Still, we saw last year this is a team capable of getting hot down the stretch. If it does, wins over Florida and Stony Brook could come in quite handy.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
E-mail: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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College Basketball Tonight

We hope you enjoyed COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT during the 2016 NCAA Tournament. COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT is a comprehensive look at the NCAA Tournament hosted by veteran college basketball broadcaster Ted Sarandis, along with co-hosts Mike Jarvis and Terry O'Connor, both former Division I coaches. It also included many great guests, including Hoopville's own Phil Kasiecki.

The show aired on AM 710 WOR in New York City on Sunday evenings starting with Selection Sunday and running through the NCAA Tournament.

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