Bubble Breakdown: Lining Up Resumes an Exercise in Number Crunching

1:27 PM, Feb 27, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Every hoops junkie quivers at the very thought of NCAA bids warranted based on evidence spit out by computers.

"Watch the games!" they bellow. "Talk to coaches," they plead. "The RPI is flawed," they lament. And on and on goes the song and dance of those who yearn for the days of the "eye test" on the tip of every analyst's tongue.

Here is the problem with such flawed thoughts. I love watching "the games" as much as anybody - the Comcast sports package is to me as a Sex and the City marathon is to my fiancee. I estimate that I watch between 20-to-30 hours of game action each week, and by Sunday night I inevitably form biases based on what my eyes tell me.

As weeks go on, I grow attached to stories, coaches, and styles. I cling to a team I loved in November even if it has underperformed since the first of the year. And do you know what puts my opinions in check every time?

The numbers.

They play no favorites. They tell no lies. And they are the best tools available to a group of suits determining the fate of a team's blood, sweat and tears.

That's not to say watching ESPN has no merit. It provides valuable context for discussion. It helps inform the power brokers about certain teams, injuries, conference strength, level of play at different parts of the season and more.

The best way to select the most deserving at-large candidates is to put together a search committee that loves the game's nuances and respects the numerical evidence behind them.

That's also the manifesto From the End of the Bench uses in putting together its annual Bubble Breakdown. We list the numbers, point out good wins and bad losses then espouse on those hard statistics with the evidence of the eye.

And we will do that each Wednesday until the week before Selection Sunday, when we pull double duty on Wednesday and Friday.

The two key numbers next to each bubble member's record are the RPI (ratings percentage index) and SOS (strength of schedule). The NCAA selection committee uses both, particularly non-league SOS on the second number, as a barometer of discussion. If a team makes the initial cut, its profile is dissected further. We do both as we analyze each power league and the mid-major bubble boys below.

ACC

Miami and Duke are battling it out for a No.1 seed with a weekend rematch in Cameron and perhaps another tilt for the conference tourney crown deciding which clubs gets the coveted top line. Below these two heavyweights, the tournament picture is less clear. UNC's victory over North Carolina State last Saturday bolstered the Tar Heels' profile and continued the Wolfpack down a middling, maddening path.

Both are on the right side of the bubble (for now) and should stay there save a late-season collapse. The rest of the league? A fifth bid may rest on whether the committee forgives Virginia for some head-scratching early-season losses.

On the right side

North Carolina (19-8, 9-5; RPI 21, SOS 10): The Tar Heels had the classic hollow profile before Saturday's emotional victory over the Wolfpack. UNLV was their only win of merit before this past weekend, but the Heels really only have one bad loss (at Texas) and are playing better basketball since Roy Williams' switch to the four-guard offense. The computer numbers (for now) have the Heels above water, but this week contains two games with little to gain, but plenty to lose (at Clemson, vs. Florida State).

North Carolina State (19-8, 8-6; RPI 23, SOS 16): Maddening inconsistency has plagued a team that easily passes the eye test, but has had trouble putting together extensive periods of bid-worthy play. The Wolfpack are just 3-4 in their last seven games, but a favorable final four (no Duke, Virginia, Miami or UNC) and wins already over UConn and Duke have them on the right side. They SHOULD stay there, but a late-season slip against inferior competition could bring candidacy into question.

Right on the bubble

Virginia (19-8, 9-5; RPI 75, SOS 135): The computer numbers are dragged down by quizzical losses to Old Dominion (RPI 323) and Delaware (RPI 149) that put the Cavaliers in a big hole. A 10-6 conference record at the end of the week likely won't be enough to make up for the bad computer numbers. The non- conference win at Wisconsin looks a lot better now, but the Cavs make-or-break time comes Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena against Duke. Will the Blue Devils be caught looking ahead to the Hurricanes?

On the wrong side

Maryland (19-8, 7-7; RPI 67, SOS 111): There just isn't much there. And hold on, College Park, I know the Terps stormed past Duke a few Saturdays past, but they followed what could have been a season-defining win with an equally devastating loss at Boston College. Maryland's next two are manageable, but won't help computer numbers (at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest), before one final sprint to bid consideration. Maryland likely needs to get to 11-7 in conference and that would include victories over UNC and Virginia.

Big East

Otto Porter has to start receiving some Player of the Year consideration after filling the stat sheet with 33 points, eight rebounds and five steals in Georgetown's 57-46 victory over Syracuse - the last time the two rivals faced off at the Carrier Dome as conference foes.

The Hoyas have won nine straight and vaulted to the top of the crowded league standings, ahead of Louisville, Syracuse and Marquette. All four of those teams are fine, although Syracuse has lost its footing on a No. 1 seed, losing for the fifth time in its last nine games on Monday.

On the right side

Pittsburgh (21-7, 9-6; RPI 40, SOS 55): The stretch run opens up with home games against South Florida and Villanova and a road test at league bottom- feeder DePaul. The 'Nova game is concerning, but just two more wins get the Panthers to 11 in the Big East, a number that should be more than safe for inclusion. Just in case, they have racked up four solid wins (at Georgetown and Cincinnati, vs. UConn and Syracuse) with no truly bad defeats.

Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5; RPI 38, SOS 76): Unlike other bubble sorters, I'm firmly in the Irish camp. They have stockpiled wins, including victories over other possible tournament teams (Kentucky, BYU), Pittsburgh, Louisville and a key sweep of Cincinnati (a main tiebreaker over the Bearcats). The final three aren't easy, including road games at Marquette and Louisville, but 11-7 in league should be enough.

On the wrong side

Villanova (18-11, 9-7; RPI 54, SOS 37): That was the definition of a bad, bad loss. Monday's one-point setback to league cellar-dweller Seton Hall was crippling. No sugarcoating in this sphere. However, too many (if any) teams on this list can proudly showcase wins over teams like Louisville, Syracuse, UConn and Marquette since January 22. Saturday's victory over Marquette was huge. One more win (at Pitt or vs. Georgetown) gives them a fifth marquee win and puts them at the top of the 50-50 pile. The question remains - what do the Wildcats have to do at the Garden if they drop two tough games to close the conference slate at 9-9? Probably something substantial.

Cincinnati (19-9, 7-8; RPI 49, SOS 30): The computer numbers are similar to Villanova's, but these are two teams heading in opposite directions. The Bearcats have dropped five of six and now need to run the conference table to re-enter the fray. They have a week to think about a must-win home date with UConn and also must take down Louisville (a tall order for a team in a tailspin) before the home finale against South Florida.

St. John's (16-11, 8-7; RPI 62, SOS 29): Like the Bearcats, St. John's must win out. That includes a home game at Notre Dame and the season finale a week from Saturday against Marquette. The Red Storm have the win over Cincinnati in head-to-head action, but also have bad losses to San Francisco and UNC Asheville. The benchmark appears to be 11 conference wins. Without that total, 12 or more total losses and middling computer numbers probably prove too much to overcome.

Big Ten

The nation's best conference has already locked up five bids in our estimation (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State) after the Buckeyes awoke from their slumber to thump Minnesota and slip past Michigan State.

Indiana and Michigan are battling for the tournament top line, but is any team playing better than Wisconsin? The Badgers have won five of six, including a win at Illinois, a 22-point victory over the aforementioned Buckeyes and a 28- point thumping at Northwestern.

Minnesota nearly clinched its inclusion with an upset of No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday.

On the right side

Illinois (20-9, 7-8; RPI 30, SOS 6): In the nighttime hours of Sunday, February 3, Illinois needed to turn around its season in hopes of making the...NIT. What a difference a month makes. Since the home loss to Wisconsin, the Illini have won five of six, including wins over Indiana and Minnesota. Some prognosticators think a .500 league mark is key, but From the End of the Bench points at non-league wins over Butler and possible top seed Gonzaga, along with great computer numbers, to argue that 8-10 should be plenty.

Minnesota (19-9, 7-8; RPI 15, SOS 1): Breathe easy. The victory over No. 1 Indiana pretty much puts the Gophers in the tournament unless they disappear again down the stretch. Yes, prior to Tuesday, Minnesota had lost five of six, but 13 Top-100 victories and an RPI that is historically more than safe are key metrics.

Big 12

Kansas' thrilling Monday night OT victory over Iowa State was more about the loser than the winner. Iowa State has always had an at-large-discussion-worthy profile, but now it has an "A" on the visual inspection to boot. This is where the eye test is useful. It reaffirms what the computer spits out.

I won't put the Cyclones in the "lock" status, but they have moved from firmly on the bubble to an inch above it in From the End of the Bench's estimation. At press time, only Kansas and Kansas State are mortal tournament locks, but several others are looking good.

On the right side

Oklahoma State (20-6, 10-4; RPI 28, SOS 49): The Cowboys had so many chances to steal the fatigue-ridden, double-OT thriller against Kansas, but couldn't quite get the job done. The next two should be W's (TCU, Texas) before two tough games to close. Those should only be about seeding as long as the Cowboys handle business before then. Twelve Big 12 wins is a tourney lock.

Oklahoma (18-8, 9-5; RPI 20, SOS 7): The Sooners should be in "lock" territory by this time next week. A contest at Texas and a home date with bubble-sitter Iowa State provide two winnable contests to go on top of impressive computer numbers. If Oklahoma's best win other than Kansas is at Baylor, then how are the RPI/SOS numbers so high, you ask? Schedule manipulation is the answer. The Sooners played a horde of non-league games against teams they were favored against, but not the laughingstocks many of their compatriots loaded up against. I'm talking the RPI 60-100 teams that keep the RPI high once conference play kicks in. Well played Lon Kruger.

Iowa State (19-9, 9-6; RPI 53, SOS 72): Some suspect officiating down the stretch worked against the Cyclones' upset bid, but all is not lost. They need to get a game in the Oklahoma series (at the Sooners Saturday and hosting the Cowboys next Wednesday) before a season finale at disappointing West Virginia. Because of the average computer numbers, 2-of-3 is advisable, though not easy. The Cyclones would be "IN" today, but tomorrow?

On the wrong side

Baylor (16-11, 7-7; RPI 61, SOS 23): It's all in front of you, Baylor. One of the nation's most frustrating teams has dropped three straight, and now finds itself in a four-game playoff with a tournament bid on the line. Three-of-four is mandatory, and it would include a win over either of the league's two best teams, Kansas or Kansas State. Anything less and Scott Drew can write his team's NIT ticket.

Pac-12

The Pac-12 is the league of parity this year (but in a good way). Last season, even the top of the league was so mediocre that the bottom-feeders had a chance on any given night. This year, the top and bottom of the league are stronger, again providing "any-given-game" theatre in the late-night hours.

Only Arizona is a lock at this point, but four (possibly five) teams are still looking like legit tournament possibilities. Let's examine them below.

On the right side

Oregon (22-6, 11-4; RPI 48, SOS 105): The computer numbers aren't great, but the 11 conference wins are working in the Ducks favor along with a soft closing stretch. Winning two of those games would leave no doubts, especially since their SOS is projected to continue to rise. Getting Dominic Artis back is a must, and could play as early as Thursday night.

UCLA (20-7, 10-4; RPI 42, SOS 46): League wins at Arizona and Colorado along with a non-conference victory over Missouri are keeping UCLA on the right side of this bubble. A split down the stretch is probably enough, though the Bruins should be favored in three of the four games.

California (18-9, 10-5; 43, SOS 32): The Golden Bears are really making a "push" for at-large inclusion. Head coach Mike Montgomery's shove of leading scorer Allan Crabbe has reached social media all-star status, but Cal's overall play has also received plenty of Twitter praise. The Golden Bears have won five straight, including a tightrope victory walk through the state of Oregon last week. The two-point victory in Eugene was more pivotal, but avoiding the letdown in Corvallis was also key.

Right on the bubble

Colorado (18-8, 8-6; RPI 26, SOS 20): The computer numbers are better than the three teams on the right side, but a worse league record leaves the Buffaloes in this predicament. Can they jump a team above them on this list if they finish two games worse in league play? Maybe, but it leaves their fate up to a lot of variables. Colorado has its chances down the stretch, heading to Cal on Sunday and hosting Oregon next Thursday.

On the wrong side

Arizona State (20-8, 9-6; RPI 88, SOS 128): The Buffaloes are actually sixth in the conference standings (a damaging self-image problem) partly because the Sun Devils took them down in Boulder (63-62 OT) last Saturday. However, any momentum built up was quickly lost by the bad home loss to Washington. Because of the computer numbers, the Sun Devils need to win at UCLA and Arizona to increase their credibility and move back into the discussion.

SEC

Does anyone but Florida want to make the NCAA tournament. Tennessee, maybe, but were the Vols starting from too far back? Ole Miss, maybe, but the profile lacks much substance.

There are other candidates as well that we sift through below. Just know that Florida is the class of the league (although it needs to get healthy fast) and the others are just scrapping for invites.

On the right side

Missouri (19-8, 8-6; RPI 37, SOS 58): A 1-1 week actually helped the Tigers profile. Losing at Rupp is no shame, and the victory over top dog Florida gave Missouri another signature win to go on top of neutral court victories over VCU and Illinois. The end-of-season schedule is comforting, save a season- finale trip to red-hot Tennessee. The Tigers look good for now as long as they win the games they should.

Kentucky (19-8, 10-4; RPI 47, SOS 54): I still think the Wildcats are in a precarious position, sliding slightly down the stretch and already set to be judged as a team playing without its best player (Nerlens Noel). That said, Coach Cal's kids went into damage control last week, including a big-time home win over Missouri. The road test at Arkansas may sway the seesaw as the final stretch also includes two easier games (Mississippi State, Georgia) and a season ender in Rupp against Florida. Splitting the four games puts the Wildcats at 12-6 in a big-time league, but also makes them just 4-4 without Noel (if you count the Florida game he was injured in). The computer numbers aren't great either, so it would be a fascinating argument. How much does the Kentucky name intrinsically count?

Right on the bubble

Tennessee (17-10, 9-6; RPI 51, SOS 27): The wins just keep on coming. After a loss to bottom-feeder Georgia, Tennessee stood at 11-10 overall and just 3-6 in league play. Since then, the Vols have won six straight, including a win against Kentucky and Tuesday's national TV statement over Florida. The train needs to keep going to stay on the tracks.

Alabama (19-9, 11-4; RPI 64, SOS 86): Quantity vs. quality? The SEC will be tough to judge this season because it's uncharacteristically full of RPI mediocrity. Alabama has beaten up on league's soft under belly and sees 12 league wins at the end of the rainbow, but is that enough? The computer numbers say no. Kentucky is the Crimson Tide's biggest win. From the End of the Bench thinks 3-1 down the stretch with a no-harm, no-foul loss to Florida, could be good enough, but also losing to bubble mate Ole Miss is not advisable.

Mississippi (20-7, 9-5; RPI 58, SOS 130): Another one of these SEC bubble profiles where 12 league wins is possible, but it could come with a high-50s or worse RPI and a SOS in the high 120s. Missouri is the only win of note on the schedule, so Ole Miss' only defense is the abundance of league wins. The fate of Alabama and Ole Miss may be tied directly to how the committee views the league or perhaps a winner-takes-a-bid showdown on Mar. 5 in Oxford.

Mountain West

In an email conversation with a friend a few weeks back, we both applauded the quality of basketball played in the Mountain West. CBS Sports Network was a favorite late-night landing place to watch entertaining, well-played hoops between quality opponents.

Nothing has changed since then as the league looks to safely land three teams with a ceiling as high as five or six in the Big Dance. New Mexico is the lone Lobo (wolf) as a legitimate lock, but two others are heading that way as the middle of the league scratches and claws for more bids.

Right side of the bubble

Colorado State (21-6, 8-4; RPI 17, SOS 25): The Rams are as good as in as long as they navigate the remaining minefield of inferior competition. Their SOS will take a pretty big hit by the time the season ends (projected in the mid-40s) but the RPI will still be plenty good enough barring a collapse. It would have been nice to win one of the close losses to UNLV or New Mexico last week, but a sweep the rest of the way puts the Rams in, and even three wins is likely good enough. But why play with fate?

UNLV (21-7, 8-5; RPI 15, SOS 13): UNLV is playing its best basketball of the season, winners in four of five, which includes the scalps of three possible tourney teams (New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State). The rest of the schedule isn't daunting, with the only concern a bout with desperate Boise State. As long as the Runnin' Rebels handle their business at Nevada on Saturday, we may move them into the lock category.

Right on the bubble

San Diego State (20-7, 8-5; RPI 33, SOS 41): Here is where things get interesting. The Aztecs handled their business last week, but now face a difficult three-game stretch starting in the Pit against New Mexico on Wednesday night. A home date against equally desperate Air Force sandwiches a road finale in Boise. Two wins are likely good enough, but is one? That would put the Aztecs at 21 victories, 9-7 in conference with an improving SOS that reaches the mid-20s. Then what?

Wrong side of the bubble

Boise State (18-8, 6-6; RPI 45, SOS 69): The ultimate conundrum needs to finish off a three-game stretch on Wednesday against Nevada before taking a mighty swipe at a venerable gauntlet to close (vs. Colorado State, at UNLV, vs. San Diego State). I like the Broncos a lot when I watch them, but then I miss games like a 75-59 loss to Nevada and wonder what happened. What they have done to date actually may matter very little. How they close will make or break their chances.

Air Force (16-10, 7-6; RPI 68, SOS 59): That we are even discussing the chances of a pair of .500(ish) Mountain West teams, while hesitating to include 12-win SEC clubs tells you all you need to know about the quality of the two conferences this season. The Falcons need to get hot - like red/white hot - down the stretch to have a prayer. Victories at San Diego State and home against New Mexico are a must (and a pretty tall order).

Atlantic 10

The revamped A-10's gain is the rest of the bubble's loss. The league's overall strength is one of this season's biggest surprises with the possibility of four or even a league-record five bids. No one has fortified itself as a lock to date, but Saint Louis is on the brink and Butler isn't far behind.

Right side of the bubble

Saint Louis (21-5, 10-2; RPI 34, SOS 77): One of this season's best stories (as reported by TSN's Lucas Gulotta last week) is also its hottest team, winners of nine straight. A season sweep of Butler and a 14-point waxing of VCU are included in the streak. The only thing keeping the Billikens from lock status is time (and games). Another win or two seals the deal.

Butler (22-6, 9-4; RPI 29, SOS 61): They haven't looked like the Bulldogs for a few weeks, and a trip to VCU beckons this weekend. They SHOULD be fine, but a win or two down the stretch won't hurt.

On the bubble

VCU (22-6, 10-3; RPI 35, SOS 79): Where are the quality wins? The best is a neutral court victory over Memphis eons ago then maybe Belmont? Alabama? The Rams were dominated by the Billikens, and now comes the weekend tilt with Butler. Another laid egg may stick in the committee's mind.

La Salle (19-7, 9-4; RPI 39, SOS 77): Two must-win home games against Duquesne and George Washington start out a stretch run topped off by a visit to Saint Louis. Will that game be needed? Let's examine. The wins over Butler and VCU are big, and the computer numbers are manageable. If the Explorers finish 11-5 in the league, it may only take one conference tournament win. It's a thin- line profile.

Temple (19-8, 8-5; RPI 41, SOS 44): The profile looks better than it did 10 days ago. Three straight wins, including an eight-point victory over La Salle, put the Owls in the ballgame. A late-season, non-league game against Detroit precedes must-wins against Rhode Island and Fordham. Three wins would mean six in a row heading into the season-closing home game against VCU. The Owls' profile will be taken very seriously heading into the final game if they handle their business.

Missouri Valley

Cinderella has resided underneath the Missouri Valley's arches many times in the last decade. The Mountain West and A-10 are now getting the MVC's normal street pub (with good reason), leaving The Valley looking at two, maybe three, bids. From the End of the Bench is putting on a stamp and sending in Wichita State's tournament invite, but we aren't ready to do the same with Creighton.

Right side of the bubble

Creighton (22-7, 11-5; RPI 46; SOS 100): Let's start with the ugly. The Bluejays SOS and RPI scream bubble trouble, as does the 2-4 mark in their last six games. The non-league wins over Wisconsin and fellow bubble members Arizona State and Cal are more than many can say in the non-conference, but the room for error is shrinking. The season finale against Wichita State looms large.

Wrong side of the bubble

Indiana State (16-11, 9-7; RPI 59, SOS 56): The one-point win over Iona didn't instill any confidence, but it was necessary to keep this profile on life support. The Larry Bird story would have been a great tournament angle, but a 3-4 mark in their last seven has the Sycamores looking NIT. The only thing Indiana State can control is its last two regular-season games. At that point we can let it know what damage it needs to do in the conference tourney.

West Coast Conference

Welcome to another year dominated by Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. The 'Zags are a legitimate No. 1 seed and Final Four candidate, while the Gaels continue their surge into the tournament discussion.

On the bubble

Saint Mary's (24-5, 12-2; RPI 44, SOS 122): So, let's talk shop. The Gaels (again) did themselves no favors with a pathetic non-league schedule. Fortunately, ESPN's last edition of BracketBusters afforded them an opportunity against fast-fading Creighton. Granted, Saint Mary's seized the day and added a quality win to a profile short on them. Two more wins puts them at 26 and 14 in the league. A trip to the tournament final may be necessary.

Other Leagues

Let's get right to it. Several of the teams below are in better position than the Mississippi and Virginia's of the world. That can, and likely will, change. Let's examine the fluid state of several mid-majors having big-time seasons.

Right side of the bubble

Memphis (24-4, 13-0; RPI 18; SOS 83): The loss to Xavier will knock the Tigers down a seed line or so, but the computer numbers and conference dominance should be more than enough to overcome the setback.

Right on the bubble

Belmont (22-6, 12-2; RPI 27, SOS 85): The shellacking of Ohio was an important show for those committee members keeping close watch, but Belmont can't afford another conference loss until the tournament title game. The RPI is solid as is the victory over bubble teammate Middle Tennessee State, but is it enough? It's tough to find a precedent.

Middle Tennessee State (25-4, 17-1; RPI 32, SOS 133): The schedule strength is a killer, so the margin for error is negligible. The Blue Raiders are a very good team, but the lack of profile-enhancing wins coupled with the 15-point loss to Belmont is keeping them down. The only thing left to do is keep winning and wait.

Wrong side of the bubble

Akron and Louisiana Tech (Akron - 21-4, 12-0; RPI 49, SOS 163; La Tech - 24-3, 14-0; RPI 51, SOS 248): From the End of the Bench joined these two at the hip because they have similar missions. Keep winning, finish the regular season unbeaten in their perspective league and make the conference tournament title game. Auto bids are a safer route because neither league is particularly strong and both overall schedules don't provide any memorable wins, however you never know. Several others above need to fall flat down the stretch to open the door.

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