As mid-majors fall, 2009 could be a tournament of mediocrity
The ACC has four locks while the Big East leads with five
As mid-majors continue to fall, the tournament could lack a Cinderella
The SEC is still up for grabs, with the advantage leaning toward Tennessee
Let's just accept the reality right now, a month before Selection Sunday: There are going to be some very average teams in this year's NCAA tournament.
It's looking more and more like a perfect storm of mediocrity. Mid-major leagues across America have eaten their own while many of the bigger conferences have thin upper crusts and thick, bloated, indistinguishable midsections. The result: for the past two weeks, all 34 projected at-large bids have gone to the eight biggest-spending conferences, and barring championship week upsets of teams like Memphis and Butler, the final product won't look much different.
That said, we should at least get some clarity in the new few weeks on what currently is a very muddled bubble. Even with seemingly more than enough bids to accommodate everyone, the final cluster spilling onto both the good and bad sides of the cutline remains almost indistinguishable.
There also is hope for the NCAAs itself. When you have a bracket where the 5-seeds don't differ much in quality from the 8-seeds, which don't differ much from the 11-seeds, you have the breeding ground for upsets. Same, too, if the smaller-conference champs win their auto bids, leaving the 13- and 14-seed lines with some dangerous unknowns.
Little guys might not be seen very much this March, but that doesn't mean they won't be heard.
(Records listed are Division-I only, per NCAA tournament selection guidelines. All RPI and SOS data are from Sunday's collegerpi.com RPI report.)
Locks: North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson
The battle for relative seeding and a spot in the Greensboro subregional continues. Duke remains in that spot despite a pair of losses ... for now. Wake needs to stop losing games to league also-rans. You were warned about Clemson.
SHOULD BE IN
Florida State (19-6, 6-4; RPI: 20, SOS: 24) got a dose of reality at irked Wake, but remains well-positioned after handling Virginia earlier in the week. The 'Noles are still fifth in the ACC pecking order with strong computer numbers, a 9-3 road/neutral record and the road win at Clemson.
IN THE MIX
Boston College (19-8, 7-5; RPI: 55, SOS: 56) now has two very huge wins on its résumé downing Duke on Sunday night. It was a nice bounceback from the home loss to Clemson. The Eagles are now in a virtual tie for third in the ACC. BC's game at Miami on Saturday is a big game for both teams. Virginia Tech (16-8, 6-4; RPI: 48; SOS: 42) failed to take care of business at Maryland, which isn't good news for a very hard-luck team that needs to accumulate wins and ACC position. The Hokies' computer numbers reflect their lack of non-league accomplishment, but not the heartbreaking ways in which it happened. This week Tech has two very big games -- at Virginia and home to FSU -- before it is at Clemson, home to Duke and UNC, and at FSU to close.
Miami (14-9, 4-7; RPI: 41, SOS: 12) missed another huge chance for a win, taking UNC to the wire before losing by four on Sunday. Still, the Canes are 4-7 in the league and now have to travel to Florida State before hosting BC. In the past three games, they showed they can play with just about anyone, but now they really need to start beating people. This is where the blown chances against NC State and Maryland are haunting them. Maryland (16-8, 5-5; RPI: 59; SOS: 62) at least set itself up for a shot after escaping at Georgia Tech and beating Virginia Tech. The Terps, who beat Michigan State, still have home games remaining against UNC, Duke and Wake, and start the gauntlet with a road game at Clemson on Tuesday.
The Sooners continue to roll through the soft underbelly of the league and remain positioned for a No. 1 seed. They visit Texas on Saturday and still play Kansas, at home, and at Missouri.
SHOULD BE IN
Missouri (21-4, 9-2; RPI: 17; SOS: 45) just wears people down at home with its depth and tempo. A great late rally past Kansas (20-5, 9-1; RPI: 13; SOS: 27) gives it additional ammo in a comparison with the Jayhawks for ordering. Kansas has more to lean on in nonconference play and still is ahead of the Tigers in the league against a comparable conference schedule. A two-point home win also isn't exactly concrete evidence of head-to-head superiority. Texas (17-7, 6-4; RPI: 43, SOS: 53) tried to give away what would have been a horrible loss at Colorado, but escaped in overtime to back up the rout of Oklahoma State. Non-league wins over UCLA, Villanova and at Wisconsin provide nice support, but the schedule is tough enough down the stretch that the 'Horns shouldn't mess around.
IN THE MIX
There is a very sizable gap between Texas and the next batch, and if things don't change, the league could get cut off at four bids. Addressing them more or less in order of league standing is as good as any at this point.
Losing at home to Kansas was a sizeable blow for a Kansas State (16-8, 6-5; RPI: 77; SOS: 87) team that likely needs to get to 10-6 to have a reasonable chance. The stretch run is manageable enough that 4-1 isn't impossible, but this was a chance squandered. Nebraska (15-8, 5-5; RPI: 64; SOS: 49) had a week to prepare for a trip to Missouri, but it didn't matter. They have beaten the Tigers and Texas at home, but need to do a lot more.
Baylor (15-9, 4-7; RPI: 52; SOS: 11) ended its six-game losing skid by crippling Texas A&M (16-8, 3-7; RPI: 51, SOS: 39) with a four-point home win. The Bears have some winnable games remaining, but they almost certainly need at least four of them. Schedule was a major concern for the Aggies before league play started, and the brutal slate has taken its toll. The next four are against beatable foes, but three are on the road. Oklahoma State (15-9, 4-6; RPI: 38; SOS: 6) had an ugly loss at Texas before beating Iowa State, but of this group has the best schedule to impress down the stretch. The Cowboys could be the sleeper to emerge from this group, as the computer numbers remain deceptively favorable.