Locks: Arizona State
The Sun Devils survived a trip to Tucson and continue to look well positioned, even though their overall schedule isn't great. They get the Washington schools at home and then travel to the Oregon schools, so they have a solid chance to solidify they position.
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It's hard to separate the next three teams at this point. The nation cast a wary eye on California (16-4, 5-2; RPI: 35; SOS: 64) after the Bears lost at home to Oregon State. Cal handled Oregon, but its lack of defense in the past three league games is a concern. You can't make threes forever, even though Cal seems to try. Are the Bears ahead of surging Washington (15-4, 6-1; RPI: 30; SOS: 26)? Maybe not, even though Cal beat the Huskies in overtime in Seattle. The Huskies, who have beaten Oklahoma State, looked good in handling UCLA (15-4, 5-2; RPI: 40; SOS: 106). The Bruins were a missed Wazzu three away from a damaging washout of a weekend. Still, 5-2 in the league is OK and they now have four straight at home (Cal, Stanford, USC, Notre Dame) to improve their credentials.
IN THE MIX
Like Cal, Stanford (13-4, 3-4; RPI: 64; SOS: 174) felt the SOS impact of playing the Oregon schools, and the RPI impact of losing to Oregon State at home. Beating Cal remains their best win, so the Cardinal wasted an important chance to get above .500 in league play. They're likely now behind teams like USC (13-6, 4-3; RPI: 54; SOS: 62), which lost at Washington and won at Washington State. Beating Houston in overtime doesn't make up for Arizona (12-8, 2-5; RPI: 73; SOS: 60) having wasted a chance to beat Arizona State at home. Beating Kansas and Gonzaga will only go so far.
It's become harder to separate the league's top three teams, and it's a virtual certainty that the league will get at least three teams into any NCAA tournament, so let's address them together this week.
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A last-second vapor lock at South Carolina cost Florida (17-3, 4-1; RPI: 32; SOS: 99) its perfect SEC mark, but the Gators rebounded well, hammering Vandy on the road on Sunday. Their profile seems similar to but slightly better than Kentucky's at this point, mostly due to the lack of a VMI-type loss. Florida's nonleague losses are to Syracuse and Florida State.
Memphis avenged last season's home loss to Tennessee (12-6, 3-1; RPI: 19; SOS: 3) by winning by two in Knoxville. The Vols have lost three of their last four at home, which usually is RPI poison, but Tennessee's schedule is so strong, it's offsetting a lot of the harm. Are the Vols, with wins over Georgetown and Marquette, still ahead of Kentucky (16-4, 5-0; RPI: 48; SOS: 103)? That's a tough question. The Wildcats' lone nonleague helper is beating West Virginia and four of their five SEC wins are against the bottom of the league, albeit with three on the road. That said, they're playing better basketball right now and the one "up win" in SEC play was Jodie Meeks' destruction of the Vols in Knoxville. One game does not a profile make, but that's certainly a plus for the Cats. Speaking of one game, the truth is, if Kentucky didn't lose at home to VMI, the Wildcats' RPI would be in the low 30s. Tennessee probably would still be seeded ahead of Kentucky at this point, but it's close.
IN THE MIX
After that, this league is a complete mess. It was worth listing all of these teams this week just to paint a proper picture.
Mississippi State (13-6, 4-1; RPI: 80; SOS: 78) is the leader in the SEC West, but the Bulldogs did virtually nothing out of conference and their one league loss is by 24 at LSU (15-4, 3-1; RPI: 81; SOS: 180). How about those Tigers? They lost at home to Xavier on Saturday, failing to add anything to an empty nonconference profile that includes a 30-point loss at Utah. South Carolina (14-4, 3-2; RPI: 62; RPI: 170) beat Florida and lost by three at Tennessee, but didn't do anything in nonconference play besides earn a solid win at Baylor. The Gamecocks still barely missed the bracket this week. South Carolina is the anti-Arkansas (12-5, 0-4; RPI: 86; SOS: 109), which has wins over Oklahoma and Texas, and now is 0-4 in SEC play after getting destroyed at home by Auburn. Mississippi (10-9, 1-4; RPI: 77; SOS: 15) is done without point guard Chris Warren.
You'd think someone would emerge from this to at least give the league four teams into the NCAAs, but who knows.
The Musketeers keep rolling after winning at LSU on Saturday. The only question with them, like last year, is how high a seed can they land.
IN THE MIX
Dayton (17-2, 3-1; RPI: 45; SOS: 221) keeps winning against so-so competition and pays for it in sliding computer numbers. The schedule improves soon, but the Flyers need to make sure they keep tailing Xavier. Routing Saint Louis and Charlotte at home did nothing for the computers, but it does keep Temple (11-7, 3-1; RPI: 49; SOS: 45) in the mix. The Owls did beat Tennessee and Penn State but, like last year, have a series of questionable losses. Saint Joseph's (11-7, 4-0; RPI: 68; SOS: 58) is perfect in the league but way too imperfect outside it.
Crazy. This league effectively has six teams tied for first with two losses apiece. What looked a couple of weeks ago to be heading toward a multi-bid year has devolved into a parity-driven mess. Unless a couple of teams can separate, there might not be an at-large if the regular-season champ also wins the automatic bid.
IN THE MIX
The concern after the beating at New Mexico may have been warranted for BYU (14-4, 3-2; RPI: 36; SOS: 39), which followed that by losing at home to UNLV. The Cougars did come back to beat San Diego State, but without any real nonconference heft, they need to do better. UNLV (16-4, 4-2; RPI: 46; SOS: 100) is next in the pecking order. The Rebels' win at Louisville keeps looking better and they look like they have bounced back from early league losses at TCU and Colorado State. Utah (12-5, 3-2; RPI: 25; SOS: 14) lost its only game of the week, but its Teflon computer profile stayed mostly intact due to its nonconference schedule which included wins over Gonzaga and LSU (along with a couple of terrible losses). San Diego State (11-5, 3-2; RPI: 58; SOS: 61) almost certainly needs to win the league to have an at-large chance.
Locks: Memphis, Butler
Memphis (by outlasting Tennessee) and Butler (by waxing its two closest Horizon challengers) consolidated their positions. Beyond that, there are three teams that are solidly positioned and a whole mess behind them. Forced to choose at this point, the odds are that no other league besides Conference USA, the Horizon, WCC and the SoCon have a chance for multiple bids -- and three of those four are contingent upon the heavy favorite losing in the conference tourney.
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Gonzaga (13-4, 5-0; RPI: 51; SOS: 129) rolled past terrible Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount teams and saw their RPI drop 14 spots. Gonzaga has solid nonconference wins, including Oklahoma State, Tennessee and Washington State. A home loss to Portland State hurts. Davidson (15-3, 9-0; RPI: 37; SOS: 121) also won twice last week and saw their profile weaken. That's what happens when you play in the SoCon, where nine of the 12 teams have overall records of .500 or worse. The automatic bid is still the safest route for the Wildcats, who have beaten West Virginia. Looking for something to do Thursday night? Settle in for the first of two meetings between Gonzaga and WCC co-leader Saint Mary's (16-1, 5-0; RPI: 52; SOS: 286). The Gaels probably need the regular-season crown more, since their OK-at-first-glance schedule gets battered by the computers.
IN THE MIX
Two things are working for Siena (15-5, 9-0; RPI: 20; SOS: 23) at the moment. The Saints are sweeping through a decent MAAC and their nonconference opponents (Tennessee, Pitt, Oklahoma State, Kansas ... even Boise State and Cornell) are also doing quite well. Remember, though, Missouri State was left out of the NCAAs with an RPI of 21 in 2006, and deservedly so, since their profile was empty, much like Siena's. On the contrary, Utah State (18-1, 7-0; RPI: 44; SOS: 231) is being held back by its schedule. The Aggies should continue rolling in the WAC, but similar to Kent State last season, they really need a desirable matchup in BracketBusters to give themselves a shot at a late-season win that resonates. (More on this later this week.)
ON THE PERIPHERY
Losing John Vaughan to a concussion late in a one-point loss at Northeastern clearly didn't help George Mason (14-5, 7-2; RPI: 53; SOS: 122) against VCU (15-5, 8-1, RPI: 57; SOS: 137), either. The Rams are now the conference co- leader along with Northeastern (13-6, 8-1; RPI: 60; SOS: 111), but none of the three looks to be in great shape for an at-large. Neither does Illinois State (17-3 (6-3), RPI: 55; SOS: 247), which had a very weak nonconference schedule and continues to drop games in the balanced Missouri Valley. UAB (13-7, 3-2; RPI: 47; SOS: 38) won three times last week, but the Blazers' at-large hopes probably went up in smoke in four days after Christmas when they lost to Louisville and Butler. They also have already lost at Memphis, so the return game is the only regular-season game of value left. Miami, Ohio (10-7, 3-2; RPI: 41; SOS: 19) has a solid list of opponents and not much else.
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