Eight winners and eight losers in early RPI; taking stock again, more
Teams that look good and bad in the RPI after the first two months
Butler may be a good program, but it doesn't belong in the Top 25 -- yet
Pitt's Blair and Fields top the list of the nation's best inside-outside duos
Since this seems to be a good week to throw out tortured political metaphors, allow me to toss another one out to explain how you should look at RPI rankings in mid-January. Think of the season as an election night where the polls have just closed. We can spot some trends based on the early returns (Pittsburgh and Duke are 1-2, for example), but until more districts report their tallies (e.g., until we get deeper into conference play), it's too early to declare definitively what has happened.
There is one exception, though, and that is the non-conference strength of schedule rankings. While most teams have only played two or three league games, everybody has completed more than 90 percent of their non-league contests. So we can analyze those rankings knowing they will not change much between now and Selection Sunday.
The non-conference SOS rankings are especially critical for bubble teams, because the men's basketball committee has been very explicit about emphasizing the portion of a team's schedule over which it has control. For example, last year Arizona State beat Arizona twice during the season, and the Sun Devils finished ahead of Arizona in the Pac-10 by one game. But Arizona's non-conference SOS was ranked fifth, while Arizona State's was 294th. So Arizona got a bid and Arizona State didn't.
Thus, before getting to this week's mail, I've identified eight teams who helped themselves during the first two months of the season, and eight who hurt themselves. I only wish I had one of those cool hand-manipulated plasma TVs to break down the numbers a la CNN's John King.
Next to each team, I've included their non-conference SOS ranking as measured by CollegeRPI.com.
Eight Teams Who Helped Themselves
Butler (3): It's hard to envision the Bulldogs being on the bubble when they're ranked 17th in the AP poll, but when you play in a mid-major league, you can't take anything for granted. Butler's road win at Xavier is going to look really good in two months, but its two best other RPI wins, over Evansville (ranked 39th in the RPI) and UAB (43rd), are not going to hold up since those rankings will sink as conference play rolls on.
Utah (17): Give Jim Boylen credit for a brilliant schedule -- the Utes have played just one team ranked lower than 200 in the RPI -- but aside from the win over Gonzaga, they haven't won a lot of quality games. The overall strength of the Mountain West should help, but the Utes will also be rooting like heck for LSU, a team Utah routed by 30 points in Salt Lake City.
Oregon (27): This ranking is all well and good, but this is one case where a coach overscheduled his team. The Ducks have lost four straight to drop to 6-10 overall (0-4 in the Pac-10). Their only win over a team ranked in the top 100 of the RPI was against No. 97 Long Beach, which won't be in the top 100 much longer.
Wisconsin (29): The Badgers are 11-4 and 3-1 in the Big Ten, but they don't have as much margin for error as you might think. They have a great win at Michigan, but they lost their three premiere non-conference games -- to Connecticut on a neutral court, on the road at Marquette and at home against Texas.
West Virginia (41): The good news for the Mountaineers is that Kentucky has turned things around, so their loss to the Wildcats on Nov. 29 doesn't look as bad as it did at the time. Otherwise, I see a few problems. The Mountaineers were unable to pull off a win over Davidson, they won at Ohio State in the Buckeyes' first game without the injured David Lighty. Also, their non-conference SOS ranking is a bit inflated since their best RPI win was over Miami (Ohio), which despite its current ranking in the RPI (16), won't be there for long. Oh, and the Big East is pretty good this year.
Washington (57): The Huskies looked like they might be in trouble when they lost to Kansas and Florida in Kansas City in November, but they rebounded from there to win 10 in a row. The problem is, nine of those games were at home. If they barely miss getting into the tournament, they might look at that triple overtime home loss to California last weekend as the difference.
Kansas (59): The Jayhawks have four wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, and all of those have a chance to hold up: Washington, Temple, Tennessee and Siena. You also have to give them credit for playing true road games at Arizona and Michigan State, even though they lost both. Their only clunker was a one-point loss to UMass in Kansas City. The bottom line is, this is a tournament team, but should they stumble in the Big 12, the Jayhawks have bought themselves some house money.
Florida State (84): If you throw out that loss at not-as-awful-as-usual Northwestern, the Seminoles have two high-quality home losses to Pittsburgh and Duke. Otherwise, they have neutral court victories over Cincinnati and California (that one's looking real good now!), a pivotal win at home over Florida (another potential bubble team) plus a win over a Western Kentucky team that won at Louisville. Leonard Hamilton usually plays a weak non-conference schedule, but this year's slate could have his team well-positioned for an NCAA bid. Combine this with the fact that the Pac-10 and the SEC are so down, and you've got to conclude the ACC has a decent shot to get seven teams into the tournament.
Eight Who Hurt Themselves
LSU (326): The Tigers are the only team from a BCS conference whose non-conference SOS is ranked lower than 300, and believe me that is going to hurt. Furthermore, their best win, which came at home against Washington State, is looking less impressive by the day. LSU didn't get off to a good start in league play by losing at Alabama, which is ranked 134th in the RPI.
Illinois State (320): It's always difficult for a team from a mid-major conference to get an at-large bid, but this ranking reveals just how wafer-thin the Redbirds' 14-0 start was. Losing two straight road games at Bradley and Indiana State (212nd in the RPI) doesn't help, either.
N.C. State (279): Not only is the Wolfpack's schedule ranked low, but they also lost all three of the quality games that were on it: at Davidson, vs. Marquette (on a buzzer-beating three by Dominic James) and at Florida (by two). In conference play, N.C. State faces the ACC's big three five times. They need to win at least once to justify even being considered on Selection Sunday.
Stanford (278): The Cardinal caused a little ripple by winning their first 10 games. Given this ranking, and given that only three of those games were on the road, you can understand why the rubber has hit the road in league play, where Stanford dropped three of its first four. You never say never, but it's pretty tough to imagine a scenario where this team could get an at-large bid.
Texas A&M (251): It's a shame Mark Turgeon stacked his schedule with so many bad teams, because the Aggies have shown the ability to beat good ones. They knocked off a solid Kent State team on a neutral court, they edged Arizona by one at home, and they won on the road against an Alabama team that is showing signs of life. Texas A&M will have four chances to get a high-quality road win in conference play this season. I suggest the Aggies take advantage.
Arkansas (242): For the Razorbacks to be ranked this low even though they played Texas and Oklahoma at home gives you some sense of just how lame the rest of their schedule was. Plus, all but two games were at home, and one of the road games was a loss at Missouri State. Still, there won't be too many other bubble teams with two wins over teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI. It's incumbent upon the Razorbacks to prove in SEC play that those wins were not flukes.
Minnesota (233): The Gophers will be clinging to that neutral court win over Louisville as hard as they can until they start beating good teams in the Big Ten. (We don't know yet if Ohio State will still be thought of as a "good team" two months hence.) With this SOS ranking, it won't be enough just for Minnesota to beat up on the bottom feeders of the league.
Alabama (231): The Crimson Tide began the season in rocky fashion, losing to Mercer and Oregon within their first three games. You may have read that from there they righted the ship by winning nine out of 10 games, but two of those wins were against non-Division I teams, and the other seven opponents averaged an RPI ranking of 238. Lotta work to do, fellas.