Monday, March 7, 2011

First Look at the 2011 Bubble

Every year at this time I break down the resume's of every team in the country and try to evaluate where I believe the committee will put them. First though lets look at two teams who have earned their way off the bubble by getting automatic bids tonight.

Old Dominion- The runner up in the CAA cemented their bid by winning the CAA championship tonight. They were probably in already finishing second in a very solid Colonial Conference, and getting road wins at Xavier and Clemson, and a home win over George Mason. It is probably not the greatest resume in the world, but it likely would be enough to get them in. Doesn't matter now. They will be dancing.

Gonzaga- Gonzaga capped of a great run to finish the year with another West Coast Conference tournament championship. They had a really good win over Xavier as well as wins over bubble teams St Mary's and Marquette this year. They also had a very low RPI and losses to RPI 159 Santa Clara and 122 San Francisco, to go with losses to bubble teams Illinois and Memphis. They would have probably been among the last teams in or first teams they have the automatic birth.

As of today my last team in is St Mary's. The thing that stands out to me the most is how much we do not need 68 tournament teams... wow some of those resumes are weak. Many of the teams battling for the last few spots have great opportunities this week to put some key wins on their resume (and hell chances to add a bad loss as well). To be honest outside of the first 3 teams I listed (Tennessee, Illinois and Marquette) I do not think anyone would have a huge gripe if they missed the tournament as of today. I do think Michigan and Washington have built fairly decent profiles for teams at the bottom. I also think Southern Cal had an unexpectedly good body of work. They were much higher than I had them going in.

As I mention every year the most important thing is demonstrating an ability to beat NCAA tournament teams. I use the RPI for evaluation not because it is the best system, but because that is what the committee uses. I take bad losses into consideration a bit, but it is not nearly as important as great wins. Scheduling as always matters and teams that schedule ambitiously are much more prone to get the benefit of the doubt. As resume's get shakier, however, I tend to favor mid majors who did well in their conference over middle of the pack teams from power conferences (again resume's being relatively equal). I do this because the teams from major conferences get more chances on the whole to demonstrate their ability against top competition. This is why for example I have St Mary's and VCU slightly above Alabama. Their resume's are all fairly marginal, but Alabama has had more chances to demonstrate what they can do (and will get more in their conference tournament).

Anyways here is my ranking of the bubble at this time. I have 26 teams competing for what will likely be 16-18 spots (depending on if there are upsets in a couple conference tournaments). St Mary's as my last team in today assume there are 18 spots.

Tennessee- They are going to the NCAA tournament. Thirteen losses and only going 8-8 in the SEC makes one skeptical, but their wins are just much stronger than any one else on the bubble they would be competing with. Tennessee boasts top 50 RPI wins over Missouri State, Villanova, Pitt (potential 1 seed), Memphis, Georgia and Vanderbilt (twice). Overall they are 7-6 against the RPI top 50. Despite some puzzling losses to Charlotte, College of Charleston and Arkansas their body of work should be good enough.

Illinois- The Illini got to 9-9 in the Big Ten and that should be enough to get them into the tournament. Wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga give them two nice non-conference scalps to go along with their wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan in the conference. Among the Big Ten bubble teams (and there are many) Illinois certainly has the most complete resume.

Marquette- Marquette played an ambitious schedule and did not close out any of those games in the non-conference portion losing to Duke, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt as well as to bubble team Gonzaga. Still Marquette has more quality wins than any other team on the bubble having beaten Notre Dame, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Uconn (the Uconn game taking place on the road). Marquette is probably in good shape despite their low RPI but a loss to Providence in the first round of the Big East tournament might not sit well with the committee. Get that win and I think Marquette will likely be in. If they get two wins they'll be a lock.

Michigan- Throwing out Illinois who I think should be in, of the Big Ten bubble teams I have Michigan first in the pecking order on the strength of their season sweeps of Michigan State and Penn State. They have a nice win over Harvard and a non-conference win over bubble team Clemson. A win over Illinois to start the Big Ten tournament would go a long way towards locking up a spot, because despite having 3 top 50 RPI wins and 3 other wins against bubble teams it is possible none of those wins will have come against teams that make the NCAA tournament.

Washington- This is a team who nearly everyone agrees is probably better than their tournament profile indicates. Washington has a sweep of UCLA and a win over Arizona to give them a 3-1 record against the top teams in the PAC Ten. If they can manage to get to the PAC Ten tournament finals I am betting it is very likely they will end up in the NCAA tournament. They are 3-4 against the RPI top 50, though one of their losses is to fellow bubble team Michigan State. They also have two puzzling to Stanford (RPI 139) and one to Oregon State (RPI 228).

Florida State- The consensus seems to be that Florida State is in and I am not quite sure why (other than someone has to fill those bottom spots). Florida State is 2-5 against the RPI top 50 (their wins are against Duke and Boston College). I guess the 11-5 ACC record is impressive until we consider that 5 of those wins came against the three worst teams in the conference (RPI 238 Wake Forest twice, RPI 160 Georgia Tech, and RPI 188 NC State twice). They split with bubble team Clemson, beat bubble team Boston College and lost to bubble team Virginia Tech. They also have just a dreadful loss to RPI 255 Auburn. They may be a tournament team, but wow are they an underwhelming one.

George Mason- They dominated the CAA this season including a win over RPI 24 Old Dominion and scored a top 35 RPI win by beating Harvard. That is really all there is to their resume. In all honesty George Mason has to hope that the committee puts some weight to winning the CAA regular season title by 2 games. That separation from Old Dominion will be nice as both seem to be on the bubble and if Old Dominion gets in it would be hard not to take George Mason as well.

USC- Given the weak state of the bubble I think a nice case can be made for USC. They have top 25 RPI wins over Texas and Arizona as well as two other top 50 wins against UCLA and Tennessee. That's a solid group of wins. They have a few bad losses to Oregon State (RPI 232), Rider (RPI 104) and Bradley (RPI 237) that are holding them down somewhat. A run to the finals of the PAC Ten tournament would put USC in great shape as that would include another win over Arizona.

Boston College- Wow is the ACC bubble weak. Boston College's NCAA hopes at this point seem to cling to their season sweep of fellow bubble team Virginia Tech and a top 50 win over Texas A&M early in the season. Boston College is in the RPI top 50, but I am not quite sure how as that win over Texas A&M is their only top 50 win. I'm interested to see how the committee handles the very weak profiles from the ACC teams.

Colorado- It is certainly possible Colorado has too many bad losses on their resume to warrant a bid, but they do have wins that exceed many of the other bubble teams. Colorado swept Kansas State and beat Texas. They managed a split with Missouri. They have a loss to another fellow bubble team in Georgia. Will one more win over Kansas State earn them a bid? It is possible.

Virginia Tech- After beating Duke the Hokies looked to be in pretty good shape... then they promptly did the Hokie thing and lost back to back games to bubble teams Boston College and Clemson. Now the Hokies have that great win over Duke, a nice win over bubble team Florida State, and an alright win over borderline bubble team Penn State. They also were swept by fellow ACC bubble team Boston College and lost in their only meeting with Clemson. Troubling losses to RPI 135 Virginia (twice) and RPI 162 Georgia Tech make the Hokie's resume look even more baffling. Yeah the win at home over Duke is nice, but other than that there is not much there that says this is an NCAA tournament team.

Richmond- I look at Richmond's resume and it reminds me a lot of Florida State and Virginia Tech. They have one really strong victory that makes them look like a tournament team, in their case Purdue, and then not much else. Richmond is only 2-3 against the RPI top 50 (their other win was against VCU) having lost their regular season chances against Xavier and Temple. If Richmond wants to lock up an at large bid they'll need to beat Temple in the A10 semis (beating Xavier and they'd win the Automatic).

Clemson- The marquee win for Clemson this year was an 18 point home win over Florida State (they lost to Florida State on the road). Clemson also victories over fellow ACC bubble teams Virginia Tech and Boston College. Clemson has 3 bad losses to South Carolina, NC State and Virginia. They also lost to fellow bubble team Michigan. They will need to beat Boston College in the ACC tournament to be in decent shape for a bid and would likely lock up a bid if they could upset conference champion North Carolina to reach the semis. I do think there is a really good chance that Clemson v Boston College could be an NCAA play in game.

Butler- The defending National Championship runners up have seemingly righted the ship in the Horizon league. Butler finished the season winning their last 8 games and making an at large bid a sudden possibility (though a long shot) if they somehow get upset in their conference tournament. Butler is 3-3 vs. the RPI top 50 with a season sweep of Cleveland State and a win over Florida State to their credit (RPI top 50 losses are Xavier, Louisville, and Duke). Their loss to Youngstown State and getting swept by Milwaukee really is holding them back.

Michigan State- The Spartans have 13 losses and have struggled much of the year, but they are right on the edge of the NCAA bubble. They have 4 RPI top 50 wins (Washington, Penn State, Illinois and Wisconsin) to go with 12 RPI top 50 losses. Among those losses are a sweep to fellow bubble team Michigan who they have to be behind in the pecking order at this point. The committee has often rewarded ambitious scheduling and 16 games against the RPI top 50 is a crazy amount, but Michigan State's resume hardly looks like that of a tournament team.

Georgia- The Bulldogs are 3-9 against the RPI top 50 earning wins over Tennessee, UAB and Kentucky. That does not scream NCAA tournament team. To their credit they really have not suffered a bad loss as 9 of their 10 losses are to RPI top 50 teams and their only other loss was to SEC west champion Alabama. If Georgia could pick up one or two more scalps in the SEC tournament their resume would begin to look pretty decent a quick loss and they could be on the outside looking in.

Utah State- Every year their domination of the Big west puts Utah State on the brink of the NCAA tournament, but their refusal to schedule ambitiously always makes them a potentially controversial at large. Utah State has had an RPI in the 20s for a while now, their best win this year, however is against RPI 48 St Mary's, their next best win is RPI 95 Long Beach State... that is it for top 100 RPI wins. They have a close loss to BYU, they got solidly beat by Georgetown and they have a bad loss to RPI 129 Nevada. Basically they've done almost nothing to suggest they are at large worthy over the course of the season and very little to suggest they are not. With 68 teams getting in maybe that will be enough...hopefully they'll just win their conference tournament and save us the headache.

St Mary's- They earned a share of the very good West Coast Conference regular season title and made the finals of the WCC tournament. On top of that they have a great win over St Johns and a solid win over NCAA tournament bubble Gonzaga. They also gave BYU all they could handle in Provo (for what that is worth). Their loss to Utah State on bracket buster Saturday is looming very large after their loss to Gonzaga in the WCC finals.

Virginia Commonwealth- Their bid for an automatic birth fell short and ten losses is probably too many for a CAA team, but VCU does have some nice meat to their resume. VCU has 3 top 50 RPI wins over UCLA, George Mason and Old Dominion, all of which could very well be in the tournament. Losses to Georgia State and Northeastern (220 and 174 in the RPI respectively) are probably going to go a long way towards keeping them out.

Alabama- Alabama might end up being the most debated team on this years bubble. One one hand they were the SEC West Champs by 3 whole games. On the other hand the SEC West is a train wreck. One one hand they have conference wins over Kentucky, Tennessee (road) and fellow bubble team Georgia, on the other hand they really have not beaten ANYONE else. They have losses to Iowa (RPI 169), St Peters, Seton Hall, Providence (RPI 146), and Arkansas (RPI 120). They have an RPI lower than any team that has ever been chosen for the NCAA tournament. I think they'll definitely need to beat Georgia (assuming Georgia beats Auburn) and I think there is a chance they'll have to beat Kentucky in the SEC semis as well if Bama wants a bid.

Penn State- I'm feeling generous so I'll talk Penn State. They do have wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois so that is the good. The bad is the losses. They have 13 of them. A few of them to the likes of Maine, Ole Miss and Maryland. They also lost return games to Michigan State and Illinois as well as games to bubble teams Michigan and Virginia Tech. Short of a run to the Big Ten championship I think Penn State is going to miss.

UAB- UAB sits at 29 in the RPI, but unless the committee values wins over Marshall and Southern Miss despite being the outright CUSA champions UAB will likely have to win the tournament title to earn a bid.

Cal- If we have USC maybe we should put Cal. Frankly I think Cal is a long shot, but possibly a run to the finals will do it for them. Cal has a nice non-conference win over Temple. Their two biggest wins in the PAC Ten are UCLA and @USC. They absolutely must beat Cal and then Arizona in the Pac Ten tournament and even then I think that might not be enough.

Harvard- If people are going to talk about UAB at all then we might as well go over Harvard's resume. They have a top 50 win over Boston College and two solid wins over Princeton and Colorado respectively. They are 1-3 against RPI top 50 and 2-1 against RPI 50-100. They will likely play Princeton in a one game playoff for a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, I doubt they will earn an at large with a loss.

Memphis- Will the committee care about a sweep of CUSA champ and RPI 29, UAB? Are wins over RPI 73 Miami(Fl), RPI 62 Gonzaga, RPI 53 Southern Miss and RPI 50 Marshall going to carry any weight. It looks to me like Memphis is sitting in pretty poor shape, especially with the couple of bad losses they had done the stretch against Rice (RPI 183) and East Carolina (RPI 110). I wish I did not even have to bring them up, but with 68 teams who knows.

Missouri State- The Missouri Valley conference has been a really good league in the past, but this year it is not strong enough to carry Missouri State to the tournament on the strength of their conference title alone. Missouri State did not do anything outside of the league to warrant a bid.

I'll have some bracket projections ready later this week as well as a breakdown of UC's resume and a few other resume's of teams at the top I found interesting. Until then keep on enjoying championship week.

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