Savvy scheduling may push some into NCAAs, more Hoop Thoughts
Gonzaga, Butler among potential bubble teams helped by nonconference schedule
Texas is in for a rough stretch with games against Kansas State, Baylor ahead
After a 33-point loss to Florida State, North Carolina's title prospects are in doubt
This is the time of year when you start seeing a lot of RPI numbers being thrown around. It can be hard to figure out which ones are worth paying attention to. Not to worry. Your resident Hoop Thinker is here to help.
Since we're in a political season, my suggestion is that you think of RPI rankings as if you were watching returns on election night. The first few numbers give you a good sense of what's going on, but it will be a while before we have some definitive results.
The overall RPI rankings are pretty meaningless right now. (Seton Hall is ranked fifth; Southern Miss is 15th. 'Nuff said.) There is, however, one category where almost all of the precincts have reported: the nonconference strength of schedule rankings. There may be a few relevant nonconference games here and there, but for the most part this order is set. And it's a very important slice of information. Over the last decade, the basketball committee has increasingly emphasized the portion of the schedule over which a coach has control. Even if a team loses a bunch of its games, it will still get credit for having played them against good teams, especially if it was away from home.
So as a service to my fellow hoopheads, I've scoured the data and found 10 potential bubble teams who helped themselves during the nonconference season, and another 10 who hurt themselves. (As always, my information comes from Jerry Palm's fabulous website, CollegeRPI.com.) You might say I'm sending out an SOS.
Gonzaga (Nonconference strength of schedule rank: 5). Few coaches put together a tougher schedule than Mark Few. This year's version includes road games at Illinois and Xavier, which the Zags split, plus home games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Butler. Even the Dec. 15 game against Oral Roberts, which is ranked No. 53 in the RPI, was no walkover. I doubt Gonzaga will be a bubble team, but if for some reason it goes on a skid in the WCC it has some breathing room.
Butler (12). Brad Stevens has held his ground about asking big-name schools to play home-and-home games. Both Louisville and Xavier came to Hinkle this year, and Butler returned a game at Stanford. The question is whether the Bulldogs have lost too many games to this point to be considered for an at-large bid.
Memphis (16). Josh Pastner inherited this scheduling philosophy from John Calipari, but I give him credit for maintaining it. Besides playing in the Maui Invitational, Memphis played road games at Louisville, Georgetown and Miami. The most impressive was a nothing-to-win home game against Murray State (which the Tigers didn't win).
West Virginia (19). The Mountaineers are 4-2 in the Big East and ranked 14th overall in the RPI, so they are sitting pretty. West Virginia has solid wins over Kansas State, Miami and Missouri State, but if the Mountaineers miss the NCAA tournament they will look back at that overtime loss to Baylor as the one that got away.
Arizona (22). Will the Pac 12 really be a one-bid league? Probably not, but Arizona is one of the few that would have a case for an at-large. The Wildcats' best nonconference wins were over St. John's in Madison Square Garden and Oakland at home. Arizona did lose at home to San Diego State and Gonzaga, but those losses shouldn't hurt them too badly if those teams keep winning.
Florida State (23). Despite their triumph over North Carolina, the Seminoles have struggled the last few weeks. It helps that they got a boost from playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving week and that they also played road games at Michigan State and Florida. What didn't help was losing at home to Princeton.
Dayton (33). The Atlantic 10 looks like it could be a three- or four-bid league, so the Flyers have a chance to ride that wave. They'll also spend the next two months rooting for Alabama and Minnesota, whom they beat during the first month of the season.
North Carolina State (34). The middle of the ACC is going to look like one big bubble, so this number could help N.C. State separate itself from the group. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack's best nonconference win came on a neutral court over Texas, and given the way the Longhorns are playing that might not look so great.
Alabama (39). The Crimson Tide are ranked 19th overall in the RPI, but if they find themselves on the bubble their championship in the Puerto Rico Tipoff will do them wonders -- especially since they came over three teams (Maryland, Wichita State and Purdue) who could be on the bubble with them. Alabama also added nice wins over Oakland (home) and Oklahoma State (neutral court).
Missouri State (54). The Bears scored one of the most impressive road wins of the season when they went in to Omaha on Dec. 28 and knocked off Creighton. That, however, came inside the league. Unfortunately, even though the Bears played a tough nonconference schedule they lost most of the significant games to Oral Roberts (road), New Mexico (road), Oklahoma State (neutral), West Virginia (neutral) and St. Mary's (neutral). That does not look like the profile of an at-large team.
Texas A&M (338). The Aggies' schedule is not as bad as this number would indicate. They played in the early-season NIT (where they lost to Mississippi St. and then beat St. John's) and also played Florida. But they also played five teams ranked below 300 in the RPI. Given that Texas A&M lost its first three Big 12 games, it better finish the season strong or it's going to be a long wait for this team over selection weekend.
Cincinnati (323). Lots of people were praising the Bearcats for winning games while its players were suspended for fighting against Xavier. But many of them neglected to mention that the wins came against the likes of Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Chicago State and Oklahoma (and all of those were at home). Cincinnati's also scored a win at home over Georgia, but lost to Marshall on Nov. 25. The Bearcats will probably need to finish in the top seven of the Big East to have a realistic chance at an at-large.
George Mason (272). The Patriots are looking strong in the CAA right now, but they would do well to keep it up. Not only did they play a weak schedule, they lost a lot of those games -- to Florida International, Florida Atlantic, and at home to Duquesne. If they fail to win the CAA tournament, the Patriots will have to hope the committee cuts them slack for having played their first 10 games without suspended senior guard Andre Cornelius.
Stanford (257). The Cardinal's win over Colorado State in the NIT tipoff is their best RPI win of the season. That's not saying much, especially since CSU's No. 22 ranking in the RPI is not going to hold. Stanford had a chance to beat Syracuse in Madison Square Garden but ended up losing by six. Imagine how much better their position would be if they had pulled that one off. If Stanford does get left out of the field, it can also point to its five-point loss at home to Butler on Dec. 22 as decisive.
St. John's (256). It's a stretch to call a team that is 2-4 in its conference a bubble team, but the Red Storm's nonconference SOS rank underscores how far it has to go to get into the tournament. Given that this program lost nine seniors from last season, it's understandable why Steve Lavin would anticipate a rebuilding season. I assume he'll upgrade the schedule in the near future.
Virginia (247). I'd be quite surprised if the Cavaliers find themselves on the bubble, especially given how weak the ACC is. Even so, why jeopardize themselves with this kind of schedule? Tony Bennett knew he would have a strong team this season. He should have challenged it more. The Cavs notched wins over George Mason (home) and LSU (road), and while that home win over Michigan has held up nicely, it's worth noting that that game was forced on Bennett by the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Iowa (240). I probably wouldn't have thought to include the Hawkeyes two weeks ago, but their wins over Michigan (home), Minnesota (road) and Wisconsin (road) have vaulted them into the bubble conversation. Unfortunately, their nonconference schedule -- which includes a home loss to Clemson -- will not help. That will be especially true if they're fighting Northern Iowa for a spot. The Hawkeyes lost at UNI by 20 points on Dec. 6.
Tennessee (238). The Volunteers are proving to be no pushover. They beat Florida there and fought Kentucky to the wire last weekend. The question is whether they can win enough games in the SEC to overcome their poor performance outside the league. This ranking will improve after Tennessee plays UConn on Jan. 21, but since that game is in Knoxville it won't help the Vols much if they don't win.
New Mexico (209). Steve Alford was a little snakebit on this one. When he scheduled games against Arizona State, Washington State, Boston College, USC and Oklahoma State, he could have reasonably expected some of them to be better. The Lobos' next two games are against the two titans of the Mountain West, at home against San Diego State and then at UNLV. I suggest they at least split. They'll also spend the next two months rooting hard for Missouri State and Saint Louis since New Mexico beat both those teams in Albuquerque.
VCU (195). The Rams have already lost two league games and can't afford to drop many more. Their best nonleague wins came on the road against Akron. If they're in the at-large hunt, the Rams are going to be haunted by their performance in the Charleston Classic, where they lost to Seton Hall, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky.