February is here and for a second straight season it is time to take a look at what the Bearcats must do to make the NCAA tournament. Like many of my fellow Bearcat fans I have felt the pain and frustration at what has been by in large a very up and down year. The Bearcats played great in Maui (minus the foul shooting that cost them the Gonzaga) beating Vandy and Maryland then turned around and lost to Xavier and were smacked by UAB. They beat UCONN, but then blew a late lead against St Johns. They took down Notre Dame at home and were smacked by them on the road. UC blew double digit leads against Louisville and Seton Hall but despite that is still .500 in the conference with eight games left. It seems at times this team is there, they get it and then at times they do not.
The frustration hits on multiple levels because we are in what many fans are hoping will not be a fifth straight season without an NCAA tournament bid. After the string of 14 straight seasons making the tournament this level of mediocrity would have been unfathomable. The frustration hits because we have watched the last two seasons when the Bearcats have been in position to make a run only to fade down the stretch. We are fans...we see the negative, we remember how losing has felt and it all adds up.
Despite our worst fears of fading again...of not doing what we need to make the tournament this team will still have every opportunity to get there with a few big wins down the stretch. As of this very moment the Bearcats would be firmly on the bubble selection Sunday. I think it is pointless to try to do a projection now with so much of the season left, but I think it is fair to say the Bearcats would be compared to a number of teams sitting right on the fence (Louisville, North Carolina, Maryland, Ole Miss to name a few).
The selection committee has been pretty consistent with what makes a tournament team. They want you to play quality teams, to beat quality teams, and to prove you can win away from home. Those are the most important qualities in an NCAA tournament team... the other huge area they look at is did that team avoid bad losses. I would say avoiding bad losses is less important than earning quality victories. Maryland, for example, got in last year with several very bad losses on the strength of wins over highly seeded teams Wake Forest, Michigan State and North Carolina (hell UNC and Michigan State ended up playing for that national title...those were big wins).
The NCAA really does not look at conference affiliation in terms of number of teams per conference and instead focuses on each individual team and how they compare to everyone else. What is nice for UC is they do have some quality wins (3 top 50 RPI wins, 1 of which is a win over RPI #12 Vandy). And their worst loss of the season is to St Johns, whose RPI sits at 84. In terms of selection committee criteria that is far from a bad loss. As it stands right now the Bearcats are 3-5 against the RPI top 50 and 6-8 against the RPI top 100. Broken down further they are 1-2 against the RPI top 25 teams, 2-3 against teams ranked between 26-50 and 3-3 against teams ranked 51-100. It also big for the Bearcats that 2 of their 3 top 50 RPI wins were neutral site wins. Judging by those numbers the Bearcats have certainly showed themselves capable of competing against teams that will be in the NCAA field.
More importantly the Bearcats will get many more chances to pad their resume down the stretch. The Bearcats have 8 games remaining on their 2009-2010 regular season schedule. Seven of those 8 games will be against teams ranked in the RPI top 65 (Depaul being the only team not in the RPI top 100). This includes 4 RPI top 8 teams, 3 of which the Bearcats will play in a brutal three game stretch to end the regular season. To really help their case the Bearcats are going to need at least one victory against those RPI top 8 teams (#2 Syracuse, #3 Villanova, #5 WVU, #8 Georgetown). If they can get that and go 4-0 in the other games I think the Bearcats will be a win in the Big East tournament from clinching a bid.
To be in position to make the tournament I think 4-4 down the stretch is a must and they'll likely need to go 5-3 (if they make a deep run in the Big East tournament that can change things slightly), I think they can have a bid locked up if they go 5-3 and happen to beat 2 of those RPI top 8 teams. I believe anything better than 5-3 down the stretch would make them a lock for the tournament.
So if the Bearcats go 5-3 down the stretch their resume would look something like this:
10-8 Big East
2-5 vs. RPI top 25
3-4 vs. RPI 26-50
5-9 vs. RPI top 50
10-11 vs. RPI top 100
That is a fairly strong resume for a bubble team. Very few bubble teams are going to have 5 top 50 wins, some of which are away from home. UC will also not have a bad loss out of those games (unless they somehow lose to Depaul). They will have finished 7-5 down the stretch and gone 10-8 in the RPI number 1 conference. Not even looking at the field I think it would be possible for a Bearcat team to get in with that resume, but I would not feel safe unless they were able to get a win in the Big East tournament.
Now lets say they go 5-3 but get two of those wins against those Big East RPI top 8 teams. Now their resume looks like this:
10-8 Big East
3-4 vs. RPI top 25
2-5, or 3-4 vs. RPI 26-50
5-9 or 6-8vs. RPI top 50
10-11 vs. RPI top 100
There really is not a huge difference their, but a team that has 3 RPI top 25 wins (two of which would likely be RPI top 10 wins) would be extremely appealing to the NCAA committee. The record vs. the RPI top 50 would largely depend on where their wins and losses were...their record vs. the RPI top 100 likely would not change. The difference is not huge, but I think it makes a difference. A 10-8 team in the #1 RPI conference, with 5 or 6 top 50 wins including two top 10 wins is going to be an NCAA tournament team. I am very confident in that.
For comparison's sake lets look at Arizona last season who was widely considered the most controversial team to make the tournament.
9-9 Pac Ten
4-4 vs. RPI top 25
4-7 vs. RPI 26-50
8-11 vs. RPI top 50
Arizona would then lose in the first round of the conference tournament to Arizona State falling to 19-13. The other thing of note was they didn't win any of those games outside of Arizona and lost 5 of 6 down the stretch and yet despite those huge negatives still got in to the NCAA tournament on the strength of quality victories.
The Bearcats will have that opportunity. They already have quality wins away from home and for them to get to 5-3 down the stretch they are most likely not going to have a poor finish. Now comparing one year against another does not guarantee anything. We could have a particularly strong bubble this year that would make the Bearcat's resume not look as good (though I doubt it, particularly because last season upsets in various conference tournaments really limited the amount of bubble teams that got in). My point is I believe 5-3 down the stretch will put the Bearcats in prime position for a bid. If they go 5-3 and add a sixth win in the Big East tournament I will feel really good.
So that is it. That is where UC stands. Will we pull it off? I do not know, but I can tell you I am ready to enjoy the ride. It is year four of the Mick Cronin era...and we are in position to play ourselves into the Big Dance. It is time to take care of business and get the job done. I do not want this drought to extend to five years. I am ready to dance again. As you can see, the Bearcats certainly have every opportunity to make that happen.