I've spent less time on sussing out the bubble and writing about the process than I have in decades. No one reason -- the World Baseball Classic and day-job deadlines have certainly been a factor -- but unquestionably part of the reason is the data set we're working with. I wouldn't call this the "worst bubble ever"; the pool of teams under consideration for the final at-large berths is stronger than it was a year ago. It is, perhaps, the least interesting bubble ever. There just aren't hooks to argue about, and there aren't that many teams who are going to fall on the other side of the line. I have felt all week like I have less to contribute to the general discussion that I have in most years.
Championship Week was unusually boring. Very few teams -- Mississippi, maybe Maryland, maybe Southern Mississippi -- changed their case in a substantial way. Many more teams fell aside meekly, which meant that teams in the clubhouse who we expected to see get passed didn't.
I don't think this year's bubble discussion speaks to any larger truths about the game of college basketball, at least not any more than other years do. There's still a massive gap in the middle of the sport, where teams in the #7 through #16 conferences have very little access to quality non-conference games, and no access to quality non-conference games at home. While I appreciate the economics involved, it leaves us with an almost football-like lack of data points to determine relative quality. There's simply no reasonable way to compare the work of Middle Tennessee State and Virginia, or LaSalle and Iowa State. They play virtually different sports. Until and unless the second and third quartile of NCAA basketball teams get more opportunities to play the first, we're going to be in this position every March, guessing whether 28-5 over here should mean more than 20-11 over there.
Here's my best guess for 2013. Through Saturday:
Automatic Bids (30): SUNY-Albany (America East), Florida-Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Louisville (Big East), Montana (Big Sky), Liberty (Big South), Kansas (Big 12), Pacific (Big West), James Madison (Colonial), Memphis (Conference USA), Valparaiso (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Iona (MAAC), Akron (Mid-American), North Carolina A&T (Mid-Eastern Athletic), Creighton (Missouri Valley), New Mexico (Mountain West), Long Island University-Brooklyn (Northeast), Belmont (Ohio Valley), Oregon (Pac-12), Bucknell (Patriot), Davidson (Southern),
In (7): Miami (FL), North Carolina, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Florida.
Those teams will account for at least three and no more than four at-large bids.
On the Board (24): Wichita State, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Marquette, Illinois, Michigan, Duke, Georgetown, Temple, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Colorado State, Missouri, North Carolina State, Butler, Indiana, Michigan State, Kansas State, Nevada-Las Vegas, Syracuse, UCLA.
We started the week with 23 teams on the bubble. Baylor, Louisiana Tech and Iowa played themselves off the bubble the bad way. Illinois and Oregon played themselves off it the good way. (Oregon eventually won an automatic bid, but had become a lock before that.) Akron and Stephen F. Austin won their conference tournaments. (Edit: Northwestern State beat Stephen F. Austin in the final. Not sure why I forgot that, as I watched the game. SFA's profile takes too large a hit with the loss to remain under consideration for an at-large bid.--JSS) This morning, we have 16 teams for nine or ten spots, pending the SEC tournament final. Here they are in RPI order (source: CBS Sports):
Middle Tennessee State (29): Left for dead when they took a bad loss in the Sun Belt quarterfinals, MTSU may find the back door as the SEC collapsed and a number of other bubble teams failed to make a move. Comparable to some Utah State teams in the 2000s, the Blue Raiders dominated a mid-major league that didn't have a good year and that has become bottom heavy. Their best win is an increasingly valuable one over Mississippi -- barely a top-50 win as of today -- but it's also their only top-100 win. They have the low RPI on the board, but it wouldn't be historic for them to be left out. Their 1-3 mark against the top 100 damns the Sun Belt more than it does them. Their non-conference SOS of 6 is being heavily cited in their favor; as with Davidson a few years back, you have to win some of the good games you schedule, and they just didn't. Two road wins in the top 150.
Saint Mary's (30): Living off their BracketBusters win at home over Creighton, their only win over a tournament-quality team. They beat Harvard a year after that would be very meaningful, and that win and one of their wins over Brigham Young were both extreme squeakers. The Gaels' 7-5 mark against the top 100 isn't all that bad, they were 9-2 on the road and the subjective arguments break their way -- they have a lot of talent and "look" like a tournament team, for whatever that may be worth.
Southern Mississippi (31): On the margins, losing the conference championship game in double-overtime in a time slot where they were likely to have a lot of eyeballs on them might not have hurt them. They have two wins over teams in the field: Western Kentucky and Liberty. Their best win is at home over Denver. They were 3-7 against the RPI top 100.
These three teams are of a kind. I rate them St. Mary's, Middle Tennessee State, Southern Mississippi, and while I wouldn't go to war over that ranking, I'm good with it.
Minnesota (34): This is me being stubborn. 8-10 (or 8-11) in their conference, they have two decent wins in two months, both of which were squeakers, and they lost to Purdue, Nebraska and Illinois in their last three games -- and were a miserable 3-8 on the road, 5-10 R/N. With that said…5-8 against the top 50 and 11-9 against the top 100 are impossible to overlook. They're pretty much at the top of this list, and I'm about the only guy who hasn't officially put the Gophers in at this point. Could win two games, could lose by 35 Thursday at noon.
Colorado (38): The Pac-10 just isn't that good, substituting, as John Gasaway has noted, a different kind of mediocrity, a flatter one, for its more recent brand of one-bidness. So the pool of at-large teams looks a little better, but their qualifications are largely that they all beat up on each other, and they're five percent better than they were a year ago. Meh. Colorado's best road win is at a Dominic Artis-free Oregon, and they beat Baylor on a neutral court back when that almost meant something. 4-4 top 50, 9-9 top 100 get them in.
I'll come back to both those numbers a lot. "Did you beat tournament-quality teams?" and "Did you beat good teams?" are the coin of the realm. It's hopelessly biased towards teams in the big football leagues, but it's what we have.
Oklahoma (39): One win swings so many of these teams' chances. Take away Oklahoma's win over Kansas in Norman, and the Sooners are sweating out today. You can't take that away, of course, but there are a lot of teams in the mix that would love to have a team as good as Kansas forced to come play them at home. Florida and Missouri tried to get half the SEC in, and Duke did their best with Virginia and Maryland. Oklahoma is just 3-7 against the top 50, but 9-9 against the top 100. They're home.
Boise State (41): Were this the Sheehan Invitational, Boise State might be wearing white this week. It's not clear to me why they're not. Their road win at Creighton is better than the best road win of almost every team in this mix, and it's one of four top-50 wins (4-7) and eight top-100 wins (8-8). Boise State, in the Mountain West, played 11 top-50 games; of the teams under consideration, only Minnesota and Iowa State played more, and only Minnesota and Cal had more top-50 wins. Three of their losses came without Jeff Elorriaga. If this were Baylor, they'd be long in. This is the one team who, if left out, would represent a clear mistake by the committee.
Iowa State (45): It's hard to avoid the subjective here, as two losses to Kansas might have been two wins but for a fluke shot and a bad call. Not much separates them from Oklahoma but for their comeback win Thursday in the Big 12 tournament. Like St. Mary's, they look better on the court -- a better team than tournament case, if you will. I think they're closer to the line than most people do, but they're on the right side of it.
LaSalle (46): They beat the two best teams in the Atlantic N (edit: two of the best three, they didn't beat Saint Louis.--JSS) and picked up a Big Five win over Villanova before that seemed like it would matter much. The Explorers are one of the many, many teams that could have made their case by winning their final game this week. Their 6-8 mark against the top 100 isn't anything, and actually fairly week by the standards of this group. Maybe the one team on the bubble I'm genuinely lost in evaluating, and probably #37 or #38 in the end.
Mississippi (50): No big-conference school with 24 D-I wins has ever been left out of the tournament. Mississippi would have 25 as an at-large candidate. That doesn't have to carry the day, but leaving them out would be setting a new standard, and it's the biggest reason I think they're in. The SEC is barely a big conference this year, to be sure, but if I'm thinking like the committee, I can't see them not putting in a 25-9 SEC team that reached its conference final. even if in doing so all it did was beat the 6-10 version of Missouri and Vanderbilt. (Aside: why aren't we discussing Missouri, which is a hideous road team?) Mississippi's only tournament-caliber wins are over Unhome Missouri. However, 8-6 against the top 100 -- 8-7 if they're an at-large team -- and the 25 wins and the SEC runner-up status should be enough. Should.
California (53): Take everything I said about Colorado, right down to beating a weakened Oregon in Eugene, and throw in a loss to Utah in the Pac-12 quarters. They won an exempt event in November without getting a top-100 win in the deal. (I love the four-day ESPN events, myself, but the fields have been growing weaker, especially the Thanksgiving weekend ones.) Back to the standards: 5-5 top 50, 7-10 top 100. They'll be in.
(I was unusually stubborn about some of these teams this year. Not sure why.)
Massachusetts (56): They played a four-half stretch in February in which they blew a lead to VCU, lost to Temple by a point and fell behind to St. Bonaventure. That was fatal. Could have gotten in by beating VCU yesterday in Brooklyn, but fell apart late. Wouldn't surprise me if they were back in New York in three weeks. 0-5 top 25, 2-7 top 100 are bad numbers.
Kentucky (57), Tennessee (59), Alabama (60): Kentucky is 4-4 without Nerlens Noel and hasn't been competitive on the road without him. Alabama is 0-6 against the top 50, which is a strong indication you're not good enough. Tennessee has the best overall set of qualifications -- wins over Wichita State and Massachusetts carry some heft -- but that's a tallest-midget thing. I'm prepared for any outcome here, but Tennessee-Alabama-Kentucky is how I rate them, and only Tennessee seems to have a shot.
The bottom of the SEC has just fallen apart. Yay, football and all, but they've got to get it together. For teams to go 12-6 in conference and have RPIs this poor is terrible.
Virginia (75): This is USC from 2011, with a bunch of good wins and a bunch of bad losses. Forget the RPI and look at this: 4-3 against the top 50, 8-4 (!) against the top 100. No, you shouldn't lose to Old Dominion, but… Then again, 3-8 on the road and 3-10 R/N. It's a fascinating profile. More and more, I think the committee ends up picking the last few spots based on who you beat, and Virginia's track record against tournament-quality teams is as good as anyone's.
Minnesota, the Big 12 and Pac-12 schools are at the head of the line. Put the five of them in and that leaves four or five spots for 11 teams. Actually, four for ten, as Mississippi is going in one way or another. Kentucky is out, as is Massachusetts. So the final bubble looks like….
Last four in: Virginia, Middle Tennessee, St. Mary's, Boise State
Last four out: Southern Mississippi, LaSalle, Tennessee, Alabama