Saturday, March 15, 2014

From 351 to 68: Moving Days

You get a lot of clarity in 38 hours. St. Bonaventure and LaSalle tipped off a tick after noon Eastern time on Thursday afternoon. Cal State-Northridge closed out an upset of Long Beach State around 2 a.m. Saturday morning. In that time, 105 games were played, giving every bubble team one or two opportunities to make their case or make themselves scarce.

I love reading Bracketology content in-season. I love seeing the numbers go up and down. It's catnip to someone who loves college hoops and numbers in, if not equal amounts, proportional ones. However, I jump in at the end because for however much enjoyment I get from looking at mock brackets, I don't think you can generate conclusions off partial seasons. Not having those last one, two, three games against conference competition, good competition, in generally neutral environments, renders the conclusions reached up to that point insufficient. It's not that conference-tournament games are more meaningful than the rest, but that when you're teasing out the differences among teams with similar profiles, the additional data point -- a quality win, or a bad loss -- can swing the entire decision. We simplify this to "they played their way into the discussion" or something akin to that, but we're still looking at all the data -- it's just that conference games on neutral courts are an excellent barometer for a team's skill.

That's what the last two days do. They thin the herd. At this point, frankly, there's not much left to do. North Carolina State and Georgia are the only remaining teams whose status is in question who could still both pick up a win and not gain an automatic bid. For Louisiana Tech, Providence, Stephen F. Austin, it's a matter of whether they play their way in or whether they're good enough even with a loss of varying quality. For everyone else, we have all the information.

Among that information, by the way, is this: the bottom of the NIT is going to be much better than the bottom of the NCAA. Nine regular season champions with no shot at an NCAA at-large bid have lost in their conference tournaments. A number of others play today, with realistic chances of losing. We could see a dozen or more NIT bids end up in the hands of automatic qualifiers.

Let's see where we are as of early afternoon Saturday.

Automatic Bids (13):
Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Coastal Carolina (Big South), Delaware (Colonial), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Horizon), Harvard (Ivy), Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Mount St. Mary's (Northeast), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), American (Patriot League), Wofford (Southern), North Dakota State (Summit League), Gonzaga (West Coast)

The following teams are no longer eligible for automatic bids and are listed as having clinched at-large bids:

On the Board (14): Kansas, Villanova, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Memphis, Kansas State, Iowa, Southern Methodist.

Like a lot of people, I took another look at SMU after their loss to Houston. I elected to keep them on the board, but not only will they be wearing red later this week, they could conceivably slip into Dayton.

There are 36 at-large slots this year. These 21 teams are locks to be granted an at-large bid if they don't claim an automatic bid. Welcome, Pittsburgh and Baylor!

Locks (21): Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh; Louisville, Connecticut; Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington; Creighton; Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State; Iowa State, Baylor; San Diego State, New Mexico; Arizona, UCLA; Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee.

Those 21 teams come from nine conferences, and will use somewhere between 12 and 15 at-large bids, leaving seven to ten slots for bubble teams.

Since I last wrote, four teams took losses that eliminated them from consideration: Middle Tennessee State, Illinois, Louisiana State and Clemson. All needed to pick up quality wins and probably to make their conference final; none did. Georgetown has also been removed.  (Note: this list omitted Arizona State the other day.) There are 23 teams currently under consideration. In rough order...

Bubble (23):

Brigham Young: The best RPI (31) in this group, an 8-7 mark against the RPI top 100, KenPom #49, made their conference final. A 1-5 mark against the RPI top 25 and 12 sub-150 wins on the other side of the ledger. They're probably in, with so few bid-stealers.

Colorado: Their early-season home win over Kansas buoys a a profile that would otherwise mostly be about what they did in conference. The numbers are there, and they did go 7-9 away from home, while playing well in the absence of Spencer Dinwiddie.

Oklahoma State: It seems most people are considering them a 21-9 team, giving them a pass for the three games they played without Marcus Smart. I'm not sure treating that as an injury sits well with me. At a full 21-12, it's not that great a profile -- 4-10 against the top 50 (although 14 top-50 games is notable) -- 3-7 in true road games, sub-.500 in conference. They rate this highly in part because of great possession-based numbers (KenPom #21) and whatever credibility you want to give subjectivity: they look, and have looked, like a tournament team.

They started the Big East tournament as a bubble team and they made the tournament final, which would all be more impressive if they'd gotten a win over an NCAA tournament team along the way. They're 14-11 against the RPI top 100, which reflects the lack of truly bad teams in the new Big East. I think they're high on the bubble; their non-conference schedule is littered with attempts to schedule reasonably well against teams that had bad years: LaSalle, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Rhode Island.

Stanford: The Pac-12 gives me a headache. i don't think any of the middle tier of teams is all that good, save a small crush on Jahii Carson and what he might do in the next week. As with Colorado, Stanford is living off one win back in 2013, theirs being on the road over Connecticut, and their win over Carson's Arizona State team on Thursday keeps them ahead of the Sun Devils.

Arizona State: As mentioned, Carson. Arizona State has been on the bubble all week, but at one point in the process, I thought they might have been in already, hence their absence from the earlier write-ups. They also had a non-conference slate fall apart on them, as wins over Marquette and UNLV are doing them no good today. It's hard to draw the line between Stanford and ASU; both are probably going in.

I expect the above six teams to get in. From here down is where it gets a little sticky.

St. Joseph's:
They're now 3-0 against Dayton, which helps to clarify the pecking order in the Atlantic 10. A win today over St. Bonventure wouldn't change much -- the Bonnies, even after their wins this week, aren't rated highly -- but advancing to the conference final would be the kind of thing that improves the profile just enough to make a difference. Losing to St. Bonaventure isn't going to help, either. Let's leave them here for a day.

Dayton: The #daytonindayton movement is about the best the Flyers can hope for after a crushing loss to St. Joseph's. Their decision to play the Maui Invitational -- where they picked up wins over Gonzaga and Cal -- looks very good right now, because if they make the tournament, that will be why.

Xavier: They seem to be in on most boards, which isn't unreasonable, although I wouldn't argue that they helped themselves in New York. I have Providence ahead of them at the moment. Two excellent non-conference wins, over Cincinnati and Tennessee, will probably be the difference for them.

North Carolina State: If they beat Duke, they're in. If they don't beat Duke, they have a case, one we'll revisit tomorrow.

Nebraska: Had they held an 18-point second-half lead, we wouldn't be having this conversation. They're 4-11 outside of Lincoln, although one of the four is a huge win at East Lansing. They're a good story, which may matter more than it should. Arguably helped by Minnesota losing as well. I suspect that if they're in, they'll go to Dayton.

California: They needed to beat Colorado more than Colorado needed to beat them. Now left with 13 losses, an RPI of 63, 4-10 against the top 100…they've more or less proven they can be beat by all the teams going to the tournament instead of them.

Louisiana Tech: They have UAB's case from two years ago, when UAB was a surprise pick for one of the final spots in the field, but without "we beat out Memphis" and "sole champion" to help. With so few teams helping themselves this week, they should get a look if they lose to Tulsa.

Florida State:
Like Xavier, two good non-conference wins (neutral-court over VCU and UMass) holding up a profile that didn't get as much bounce from its name conference than you would think. Losing to Virginia probably ended the dream. 3-9 versus the top 50, 6-12 versus the top 100 are killer numbers.

From here down, we mostly have teams who I don't think are going to make it.

Southern Mississippi:
The best profile of the various 13-3 Conference USA teams, it couldn't survive losing in the semifinals to a direct competitor. The lack of signature wins was always going to be a problem. Still, an RPI of 33, a 25-6 record, 13-6 away from home, 8-5 against the top 150…there's a numbers case here.

St. John's: The absolute zero in non-conference play -- San Francisco, Columbia? -- comes back to haunt them, as they lost some key games down the stretch and them a showdown with Providence. Given the likelihood of an NIT one-seed and the home games at Carnesecca Arena it comes with, they're a big favorite to play some more games at the Garden this year.

Georgia: Their RPI is now a not-ridiculous 66, and they'll get a shot to improve their top-50 record today. They're not in with a win, like North Carolina State is, but they will stay on the board with one -- and fall off if they lose.

Missouri: Hanging on due to a couple of good non-conference wins over UCLA and North Carolina State. Beating Texas A&M in double overtime on a neutral floor is a sign that you don't belong, not one that you do.

They went 4-10 away from home, which is the kind of thing you can survive if everything else looks good. They needed to beat Wisconsin.

Wisconsin-Green Bay: Not even making the conference final, despite a rigged tournament and home-court advantage, is a bad look that probably wipes everything else out, including a win over Virginia. If you squint, you can see some 2012 UAB or Iona here. If the committee surprises us, I suspect this will be the team they do it with.

Stephen F. Austin: Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, just two eligible teams have lost three or fewer games and missed the tournament -- Utah State in 2004 and College of Charleston in 1996. And unfortunately, the Lumberjacks look exactly like those teams, playing in small conferences and getting nothing done outside of the league. If they lose tonight…I guess the thing to keep in mind is that apparently Oral Roberts, out of the Summit League then, was right on the bubble two years ago. Win tonight, SFA.

Arkansas: It was just ten days ago that they hung 110 on Mississippi, but that's their last win. Losses to teams that aren't even going to the NIT, Alabama and South Carolina, have buried their profile.

Utah: A test case for whether the committee is moving away from the RPI and towards tempo-free stats. Utah is 36th in KenPom with an RPI of 78. Then again, they might miss just because they did little in the non-conference and went 3-9 away from home. It would reflect a sea change in the process if they were selected.