Bubble Watch (cont.)
Locks: Syracuse, Pitt, Villanova, Georgetown
Pitt's incredible Big East run continues. In their last four games, the Panthers have won at Syracuse, at Cincinnati, at UConn and at home over Louisville. That is so impressive in this league. Pitt's surge into the lock category ices five bids for the league, and with turmoil in other conferences big and small, bids will be there to be grabbed by the middle of the Beast.
SHOULD BE IN
West Virginia (13-3, 4-2, RPI: 11, SOS: 13) probably didn't need to come out of the locks category, but the Mountaineers have lost three of their last five after teetering for awhile before that, so the trend isn't lock-solid. Also, they have a very tricky week ahead, oddly playing two nonleague games, neither of which will be easy. On Wednesday, they take on in-state rival Marshall in Charleston, which is always a difficult game. In the last seven seasons, WVU has lost this game twice and three of its five wins were by six, four and two points. This season, the Thundering Herd (led by freshman Hassan Whiteside) are a legit at-large hopeful, so expect a real test. Then WVU hosts Evan Turner and surging Ohio State.
IN THE MIX
After a home loss to Pitt and a damaging road loss at Michigan on Sunday, Connecticut (11-6, 2-3, RPI: 14, SOS: 1) is in need of significant reevaluation. UConn has computer numbers boosted by competitive losses to elite teams and close wins over mids having strong seasons, but there's really nothing of substance to lean on in the wins category. The home chance against Texas on Saturday now looms very large, but UConn better not look past St. John's first.
Cincinnati (12-6, 3-3, RPI: 46, SOS: 26) split a week it probably wanted to sweep, but a series of losses elsewhere made that week good enough to edge into this week's bracket. The back end of the Bearcats' Big East slate stiffens, and their repeat matchups are UConn, Notre Dame and USF, so they don't have as many chances for great wins. Out of league, they beat Vandy and Maryland on neutral floors and had tough losses to Gonzaga (OT) and Xavier (2OT).
If it's possible for a two-loss week not to be totally discouraging, Louisville (12-6, 3-2, RPI: 39, SOS: 5) had one, but not being able to grab at least one against 'Nova or at Pitt may really haunt the Cards down the road. There's basically nothing in the Cards' nonconference profile that will help them, and a couple of weak home losses that will hurt, so they really need to beat some of the league's upper crust. They had shots at both league unbeatens last week, and missed.
Notre Dame (14-4, 3-2, RPI: 62, SOS: 111) had a week to prepare for the trip to Cincinnati and lost by a deuce. Now the Irish turn around and host Syracuse Monday night. Given they lost in Chicago to Northwestern and at home to Loyola Marymount, and didn't have a quality win until they beat West Virginia, taking out the Orange at home would be a very favorable step in the right direction.
Marquette (11-6, 2-3, RPI: 75, SOS: 27) had more than a week to seethe after its second two-point drop to Villanova and took it out on Providence, pounding the Friars by 30. Now it's back on the road, first to DePaul and then to current No. 1 seed Syracuse. Fun! As mentioned last week, there's a disparity between the Golden Eagles' record and the quality of their play, but with more excruciating losses (to Florida State, N.C. State, West Virginia and Villanova twice by a total of 10 points, as well as one to Wisconsin) than quality wins (Xavier), they need to keep going. This still smells like 11-7 in the Big East.
Seton Hall (10-6, 1-4, RPI: 86, SOS: 37) is a fringe candidate, at best, right now and the Pirates run could more or less be over this week, with home dates against Louisville and Pitt on tap. They lack the nonleague wins to help and seven of their final 11 in the league are on the road.
St. John's (12-5, 2-3, RPI: 45, SOS: 32) got the two it needed at home over Cincinnati and DePaul. Now the Red Storm need to win some games in which they are clear underdogs. Wins over Temple, Georgia and Siena won't be enough to carry a mediocre league mark.
It seems incongruous to have four Big East teams and none of the three below in this category, but there have been a few more wobbles from this group. They'll all, with virtual certainty, be solid seeds in the NCAAs. It's just more fun to write a few more words ...
SHOULD BE IN
Purdue (14-3, 2-3, RPI: 18, SOS: 24) has dropped three straight after being busted in crunch time by Ohio State's Evan Turner, and then losing at Northwestern. Not so coincidentally, the skid coincides with the first three games this season Purdue has allowed over a point per possession. Suddenly, Tuesday's trip to 4-1 Illinois looks a lot more interesting, although Purdue should be able to get healthy with three home games after that. The Boilers beat Tennessee, Wake and West Virginia out of conference, so barring an epic collapse, they're fine. Worth writing about at least for a week, though.
Purdue's hopes of winning the Big Ten are in real trouble, though, with Michigan State (15-3, 5-0, RPI: 17, SOS: 36) now three games up and looking like a typical Tom Izzo team that gets better as it goes. If they continue this level of play, the Spartans will be 9-0 heading to Wisconsin on Feb. 2. First team to 40 wins. MSU beat Gonzaga but lost to Florida (in Atlantic City) and at North Carolina and Texas.
Wisconsin (14-4, 4-2, RPI: 9, SOS: 7) got another split, this time on the road, but maybe wanted more. After landing Evan Turner in foul trouble, a big road win looked possible, but the Badgers got bucked by OSU's supporting cast. Wisconsin has a better nonleague profile than the Spartans, with wins over Duke and Marquette, among others. Local rivalry helps explain the overtime road loss at UW-Green Bay. With two at home now, Wisconsin should be 6-2 heading to Purdue and then a home date with Michigan State. At stake for the Badgers: a high enough seed to land them in the Milwaukee subregional.
Ohio State (13-5, 3-3, RPI: 52, SOS: 87) is 10-2, 3-1 with Turner, which is really what the committee will consider. His crunch-time demolition of Purdue to haul OSU back from 10 points down was a master class. On the road, against a high-quality team that prides itself on effort and defense, he delivered a three-minute tour de force. Dribble/sick spin/layup, three-ball, drive and dunk, mid-range J, clutch from the line. Turner basically should skip all NBA pre-draft workouts and just send a DVD of this sequence with a note that says, "Any questions?"
IN THE MIX
For Minnesota (12-6, 3-3, RPI: 49, SOS: 52), coming up a bit shy at Michigan State is understandable. Losing in overtime after trailing the entire game at Indiana is not. That's a bad loss for a team aiming to wear white shirts on Day 1 of the NCAAs. The nonleague win over Butler is OK, but league play is providing the better read on the Gophers. After a good start, there are now some questions, and Michigan State comes to The Barn for the return match next.
Northwestern (13-4, 2-3, RPI: 60, SOS: 63) remains a good story after the rousing home upset of Purdue, but the Wildcats had a chance for a huge week disappear in the final few minutes against Wisconsin. Can the Coble-less Cats hold up for the rest of the campaign and threaten for the school's first-ever NCAA bid? The trip to Ohio State is now a pretty big game for them.
Illinois (12-6, 4-1, RPI: 68, RPI: 43) had a neutral week, edging Penn State before losing at Michigan State. The Ilini really need to continue to rack up early wins, as the last seven in league play include Wisconsin twice, Ohio State twice and a trip to Purdue. Illinois gets the reeling Boilers on Tuesday in Champaign, which is a very important game for Illinois this early in the mix. Victories over Clemson and Vandy help offset nonleague drops to Utah, Bradley and Georgia.
IN THE MIX
After edging Washington State in Pullman, California (11-6, 3-2, RPI: 25, SOS: 2) had a great chance to create separation and establish itself as the league's best team. Of course, the Golden Bears then got ripped at semi-desperate Washington. Mix in the bad home loss to UCLA, and the Bears just can't be trusted to handle prosperity at the moment. With a best nonleague win of Iowa State, though, they need to offer something more than what they are currently. Being known for losses to solid teams (Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico and Kansas) out of conference is not a great selling point.
The Cal win capped a convincing and crucial home weekend sweep for Washington (12-5, 3-3, RPI: 53, SOS: 30). Not much more to say here other than the Huskies need to keep winning, and this coming week's trip to L.A. will be a good check to see if UW has turned the corner. Their only good nonleague win, over Texas A&M, was marred by a leg fracture to the Aggies' second-leading scorer.
Arizona State (14-5, 4-2, RPI: 61, SOS: 100) clearly is the third team in the mix now after four straight league wins by a total of 70 points. The Sun Devils missed some significant chances in nonleague play (vs. Duke at MSG, vs. Baylor, at BYU), with a win over MWC middleweight San Diego State probably the best on the plus side. ASU has five of its next seven at home, so the roll could keep going. What it will be worth will take a few more weeks to fully understand.
Washington State (13-5, 3-3, RPI: 94, SOS: 137) lost to Cal and then edged Stanford. That's not going to be good enough on a home weekend in this league, especially without any legitimate nonleague plusses.
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