Three potential No. 13 seeds that could be a threat in tournament
Everyone knows to pick at least one 12-over-5 upset in the NCAA tournament, but the No. 13 seeds have also put together an impressive run in the last decade. At least one No. 13 team has taken down a 4-seed in each of the last five seasons. In the last 10 years, a total of nine 13-seeds have won their first game, and three of them have advanced to the Sweet 16.
While there's almost a month remaining until Selection Sunday, we can already identify a pool of potential 13-seeds from smaller conferences at this point in the season. These three teams are not on the bubble, but if they get in they could be popular upset picks.
Delaware (19-7, RPI: 64, SOS: 153): The Blue Hens lost their first game in the Colonial Athletic Association to Towson on Monday but remain a heavy favorite to earn the conference's only bid. Delaware doesn't have a top-100 RPI win to its name, but it scheduled about as well as a team in the CAA can, and it nearly knocked off several bigger-conference teams. The Blue Hens lost by four at Villanova, by eight at Ohio State and by two at Richmond. Behind the three-headed attack of guards Devon Saddler, Davon Usher and Jarvis Threatt, Delaware ranks sixth in adjusted tempo on kenpom.com. The trio combines to average 56.7 points per game and could present a challenge to a big conference team.
Mercer (21-6, RPI: 70, SOS: 203): Led by senior guard Langston Hall at 41.5 percent, the Bears have three players who shoot at least 40 percent from behind the arc on a minimum of 77 attempts this season. The formula for the big upset early in the tournament almost always involves a team getting hot from three-point land. With three players capable of getting hot from outside -- the other two are seniors Bud Thomas and Anthony White Jr. -- the Bears could shoot their way past high seed.
UC-Santa Barbara (14-7, RPI: 93, SOS: 168): The Gauchos, who also have two wins against non-Division I teams, are the one team here not in first place in their conference. That honor belongs to UC-Irvine, which leads UC-Santa Barbara by one game in the Big West. However, the Gauchos beat the Anteaters in their only game this year and boast a win over California and a 20-point victory over UNLV. KenPom ranks Santa Barbara No. 72 in the country, ahead of teams like Southern Miss, Indiana and Ole Miss. Likely conference player of the year Alan Williams leads UCSB with 22.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
Locks: Syracuse, Virginia, Duke, Pittsburgh
The new-look ACC hasn't produced the greatest conference in NCAA history as some expected, but it has given us perhaps the most top-heavy conference in the country. Syracuse is the No. 1 overall seed in SI.com's latest Bracket Watch, Duke is a No. 2, and Virginia is a No. 4. All three of those teams look destined for the top-quarter of a region.
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North Carolina (18-7, RPI: 30, SOS: 18) -- The Tar Heels likely stamped their ticket with Saturday's win over Pittsburgh, but we're keeping them in this section for now. Behind 23 points from Kennedy Meeks, they beat Florida State for their seventh straight win on Monday. They're 5-3 against teams in the RPI top 50, and 9-5 against the top 100. Their first game with Duke this season may be a week late, but it will still be a treat.
IN THE MIX
North Carolina State (16-9, RPI: 57, SOS: 29) -- The Wolfpack came up just short of a signature win at Syracuse on Saturday. They're still without win against a top-50 RPI team, and that will likely keep them out of the bracket come Selection Sunday. N.C. State has two more opportunities for such a win during the regular season against visiting North Carolina on Feb. 26 and at Pittsburgh on March 3.
Florida State (15-11, RPI: 61, SOS: 49) -- The Seminoles haven't won a truly meaningful game since beating Massachusetts on Dec. 21. After losing to North Carolina on Monday, it's hard to see FSU getting an at-large bid unless it beats Pittsburgh on Sunday, Syracuse in its regular season finale, or makes a deep run in the conference tournament.
Clemson (15-9, RPI: 77, SOS: 93) -- The Tigers have dropped three straight games, and it's getting hard for them to continue trading on their win over Duke alone. Their loss at Notre Dame last week was their second against a team with an RPI worse than 110. They only have one more chance for a needle-moving win in the regular season, when Pittsburgh visits on March 8.
Maryland (14-12, RPI: 76, SOS: 34) -- After losing to Virginia and Duke last week, the Terrapins essentially confirmed their identity as a team that cannot beat a tournament-worthy team. Their best wins are against fellow bubble teams Florida State and Providence. Their resume looks like that of a mid-tier seed in the NIT.
Locks: Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Connecticut
It has been a great inaugural year for the AAC, and even though it will wave goodbye to Louisville after this season, this conference is on solid footing for the future. The Bearcats' Mick Cronin, the Tigers' Josh Pastner and the Huskies' Kevin Ollie each has his program set to compete nationally for a long time, while Larry Brown has done an excellent job molding SMU into a solid program that will likely be up in the lock section of this column sooner rather than later.
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SMU (20-6, RPI: 47, SOS: 125) -- While the Mustangs' loss at Temple looks bad on the resume, their 3-3 record against RPI top 50 teams, including wins over three of the four best teams in the conference, balances a bad loss or two. Right now they look like an 8/9 seed, though they could still move up or down a few slots depending on the outcome of their regular season games against Connecticut, Louisville and Memphis.
Locks: Saint Louis, Massachusetts
Saint Louis still doesn't get a ton of attention nationally, but the Billikens are 10-0 in a conference that will likely get four or five bids to the tournament. Their only two losses on the season were to Wisconsin and Wichita State, and they're the No. 2 team in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. Yet they may be relegated to a 4/5 seed since they will go into the tournament without a meaningful non-conference victory. That's your fate when you play in a conference that is, at best, the fifth- or sixth-best in the country. The next two teams listed are borderline locks.
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VCU (20-6, RPI: 22, SOS: 61) -- The Rams have lost two of their last three, though they sandwiched a win over George Washington between losses at Saint Joseph's and Saint Louis. They nearly knocked off the Billikens on the road, and even in losing likely improved their seeding in the eyes of the committee. They only play once this week but it's a big one, as they head north to take on Massachusetts.
George Washington (19-6, RPI: 37, SOS: 88) -- Despite losing twice last week to VCU and Massachusetts, the Colonials are still in good shape for a tournament berth. They have another tough week ahead -- visits to Richmond and St. Louis -- but have a comfortable end to the regular season.
IN THE MIX
Richmond (17-8, RPI: 39, SOS: 45) -- The Spiders have done well to knock off three of the lesser teams in the conference during the last two weeks, but they'll need to do more than that to make a compelling case for the tournament. They can start by beating George Washington when the Colonials come to town on Tuesday.
Saint Joseph's (17-7, RPI: 41, SOS: 57) -- The Hawks played just once last week, cruising to an easy win at La Salle. They're 2-5 against the RPI top 50 and have just one game remaining in the regular season against a team in that class. While that means they won't have much opportunity to impress the committee, they should get to 11 or 12 wins in the conference. That could be a boon to their tourney hopes.
Dayton (17-8, RPI: 59, SOS: 71) -- The Flyers have won four straight after a losing streak of the same length, getting themselves back on track for the final three weeks of the season. They have what looks like another relatively easy week with games against La Salle and Duquesne. Then, they finish the season with a four-game stretch that could determine their fate. They alternate road and home games with Saint Joseph's, Massachusetts, Saint Louis and Richmond before the A-10 Tournament. A 3-1 record could salvage their season.
Locks: Creighton, Villanova
Is there a team in the country Villanova would want to see less than Creighton in the tournament? The Wildcats have three losses this season. One was by 16 points at Syracuse. The other two were by a combined 49 points to Creighton.
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Xavier (17-8, RPI: 49, SOS: 50) -- While the Musketeers are 7-6 against teams in the top 100 in RPI, they have just one top-50 win, and that came back on Dec. 14 when they beat Cincinnati. They have games remaining with Creighton and Villanova this year, and both of those are at home. Winning one would probably make them a lock.
IN THE MIX
St. John's (17-9, RPI: 51, SOS: 33) -- The Red Storm have ripped off five straight wins, including resume-builders against Creighton and Georgetown at home, and at Providence. They have just one win against the RPI top 50, though, which they'll need to change if they are going to press for an at-large bid. They get their first shot to do that on Saturday at Villanova.
Providence (17-9, RPI: 56, SOS: 59) -- The Friars lost at fellow bubble team Georgetown last week, extending their losing streak to three games before righting the ship against DePaul on Saturday. Providence has one huge win against Creighton and another decent win over Xavier. The resume is good enough to make the Friars one of the last four teams in the tournament in the current Bracket Watch. A win over Villanova on Tuesday would take them out of the play-in round and place them in the top 64.
Georgetown (15-10, RPI: 58, SOS: 24) -- Once left for dead, the Hoyas resuscitated their season with a four game winning streak that kicked off with a neutral-court win over Michigan State and ended with a loss to St. John's on Sunday. They have only five games left this season, and three are against teams likely headed to the tournament, beginning with Xavier on Saturday.
Marquette (15-10, RPI: 74, SOS: 70) -- The Golden Eagles remain a long shot to make the tournament, but they have to be considered in the mix after recent wins over Providence and Xavier. They have two wins against teams in the top 50 (Xavier and George Washington, and eight of their 10 losses are to top-50 teams. They still have plenty of opportunity to make a case with games against Creighton, Georgetown, Villanova and Providence remaining.
Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State
The Big Ten has been the hardest conference to figure out all year. Wisconsin is the hot squad as of late, reeling off wins over Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan in succession. All five of these teams could be No. 5 seeds or better, depending on how the rest of the season unfolds.
IN THE MIX
Minnesota (17-9, RPI: 33, SOS: 4) -- The Golden Gophers are just 2-4 since beating Wisconsin at home on Jan. 22, a stretch that includes losses to Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue. They still have to visit Columbus and Ann Arbor this year, with a game at home against Iowa sandwiched in between those two road trips. If the Gophers lose all three of those games, they'll probably have to do some damage in the conference tournament to get in the big dance.
Nebraska (14-10, RPI: 52, SOS: 23) -- This is a stretch, but after the Cornhuskers downed Michigan State in East Lansing on Sunday, they at least deserve mention here. While they have three losses against teams with sub-100 RPIs, their other seven losses are all to teams in the top 35. They have three wins against top-40 RPI teams and six against the top 100. What's more, they have just one remaining game -- home with Wisconsin -- against the best the Big Ten has to offer. They could be 10-8 or 11-7 in arguably the best conference in the country.
Locks: Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Kansas State
Kansas State joins the ranks of the locks in the conference this week after back-to-back wins over Texas and Kansas. That gives the Wildcats a 6-4 record against the top-50 RPI teams. The Texas-Kansas game on Saturday in Lawrence will likely determine whether or not the Jayhawks win the outright conference title for the fifth time in the last six years.
IN THE MIX
Oklahoma State (16-10, RPI: 43, SOS: 12) -- The Cowboys' nightmare season continued when they fell to Baylor on Monday after a Leyton Hammonds three forced an unlikely overtime period. Oklahoma State ended up going 0-3 during Marcus Smart's suspension. He will return to a team on Saturday that has lost seven straight games and is now squarely on the bubble after starting the season in the top five.
Baylor (17-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 8) -- The Bears beat Oklahoma State for the second time on Monday, moving them to 5-7 against the RPI top 50. The Cowboys are the only one of those teams they beat on the road, so their next two games could bolster their resume. They head to West Virginia on Saturday and Texas next Wednesday.
West Virginia (15-11, RPI: 69, SOS: 38) -- It was a rollercoaster week for the Mountaineers, who put on a show while pounding Iowa State 102-77, then lost by 17 at Texas on Saturday. They host Baylor this week and have games left with Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Locks: Arizona, UCLA
After spending a huge portion of the season as the No. 1 overall seed, might Arizona fall off the 1-line altogether? It's possible. The Wildcats are now 2-2 since Brandon Ashley's season-ending foot injury and still have games left with Colorado, California, Stanford and Oregon. With Syracuse, Florida and Wichita State all looking secure, Arizona could come down if a team like Kansas, Duke or Michigan State rips off a long winning streak to end the season.
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Colorado (19-7, RPI: 27, SOS: 27) -- The numbers to the left seem to suggest that the Buffaloes are a shoo-in. They should finish with somewhere in the neighborhood of 23 wins, not bad given their tough schedule. They own a win over Kansas and have just two losses to teams outside the top 50 in RPI. At the same time, they only have two wins against top-50 teams, and they are not the same team they were when Spencer Dinwiddie was healthy. They should get in, but they may not make a ton of noise.
Arizona State (19-6, RPI: 28, SOS: 54) -- The Sun Devils got the statement win they needed against their in-state rival by knocking off Arizona. They're now 4-4 against the top-50 RPI teams and 8-5 against the top 100. There's a scenario in which they fall apart down the stretch and miss the tournament, but that is unlikely. Herb Sendek looks like a potential Coach of the Year in the Pac-12.
California (17-8, RPI: 45, SOS: 48) -- Cal took care of business where it had to last week, knocking off Washington State and Washington. Neither win does much for its tournament case, but a loss in either game would have been damaging. The Golden Bears have just one game this week, with UCLA visiting on Wednesday.
Stanford (16-8, RPI: 48, SOS: 41) -- The Cardinal lost at Washington last week, but their three road wins over Connecticut, Oregon and California are enough to keep them in this section of the column. The Cardinal's most meaningful games will be against fellow bubble teams in the Pac-12.
IN THE MIX
Oregon (16-8, RPI: 44, SOS: 28) -- The problem remains the same for the Ducks: a lack of statement wins. Despite respectable rankings in both RPI and KenPom (33), their best win is over BYU. They again have to hold serve this week, with Washington and Washington State making the trip south. If they can do so, they'll be rewarded with a potential resume-builder at UCLA on Feb. 27.
Washington (14-12, RPI: 85, SOS: 40) -- Realistically, it's going to take one heck of a run for the Huskies to make the tournament. For one thing, they only have two games left against teams in the RPI top 50 (Oregon and UCLA). For another, even if they won both of those games, they wouldn't be a lock for the tournament. While they are a respectable 4-7 against teams in the top 50, they've lost four games to teams outside the top 100, including two to squads ranked 170 or worse. That just might be a bridge too far for the committee.
Locks: Florida, Kentucky
It's possible that Florida and Kentucky are the only teams to make the tournament from the SEC. While the conference has five teams securely on the bubble, any of them could end up in the NIT. Meanwhile, Florida looks destined for a No. 1 seed after dispatching Kentucky in Lexington over the weekend.
IN THE MIX
Missouri (18-7, RPI: 38, SOS: 56) -- Wins over fellow bubble squads Arkansas and Tennessee last week will help the Tigers' chances of earning an at-large bid. In fact, in this week's Bracket Watch, they were one of the final teams to get in and bypass one of the play-in games. Now that they're done with Florida and Kentucky for the season, they'll need to avoid any slip-ups against teams destined, at best, for the NIT.
Tennessee (15-10, RPI: 53, SOS: 11) -- It was a damaging week for the Volunteers, as they lost to both Florida and Missouri. They have just two wins against the RPI top 50 and only have one chance for another in the regular season (against Missouri). Tennessee needs to make its case by beating the teams it is supposed to beat, starting with Georgia and Texas A&M this week.
Ole Miss (16-9, RPI: 68, SOS: 86) -- The Rebels may have spent all of last week on the road, but you don't deserve the benefit of the doubt when you lose to Alabama and Georgia, two teams outside the top 100 in RPI. If the Rebels are going to have any chance of earning an at-large bid, they'll have to beat either Kentucky or Florida this week.
LSU (15-9, RPI: 71, SOS: 78) -- Last week hurt the Tigers' tournament hopes, as they fell to Texas A&M and Arkansas. Even though both games were on the road, they needed to at least split to feel good about their chances heading into the final month of the regular season. If they can pull off the season sweep of Kentucky on Saturday, they'll look a lot better next week.
Arkansas (16-9, RPI: 73, SOS: 68) -- The Razorbacks may have the worst RPI of the bunch, but they also have something the other SEC bubble teams don't have: three wins against teams that are likely to make the tournament, two of which came out of conference. The Razorbacks beat Kentucky, SMU and Minnesota and are 3-5 against the top-50 RPI teams. They're lurking in the tournament picture, but they only play one more top-50 team during the regular season, when they visit Kentucky on Feb. 27.
Locks: San Diego State
Rarely does a team that is 22-2 overall with wins over two teams in the top 11 of both the RPI and KenPom need to make a statement in late February, but that's exactly where the Aztecs find themselves. After losing to Wyoming last week, San Diego State's doubters have gotten vocal about the team's strength of schedule, which ranks 99th in the country. They say that a team with wins against Kansas and Creighton may not be worthy of a No. 2 seed in the tournament, given the dearth of quality teams they've played otherwise. That's why Saturday's game at likely tournament team New Mexico is so important.
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New Mexico (19-5, RPI: 26, SOS: 63) -- Saturday's game may be even more important for the Lobos. They're 1-2 against teams in the RPI top 25, and they haven't played any other games against teams in the top 50. If they could just split with San Diego State, they would probably get in the tournament. Given that this week's game is in Albuquerque, it's the one they have a better chance to win.
Obviously, we don't know whom the Zags will play in their first game in the tournament. But I will almost certainly pick against them. Given their resume, they're likely to earn a seven-, eight- or nine-seed, meaning they'll likely be in a game with an evenly-matched opponent. Gonzaga has played two teams, Kansas State and Memphis, considered tourney locks by this week's Bubble Watch. The Bulldogs lost both. They have wins over bubble teams BYU, West Virginia and Arkansas, only one of which was a true road game. Quite simply, they haven't given us much reason to believe that they can beat NCAA tournament teams. I'm not sure why they would start in March.
IN THE MIX
BYU (18-10, RPI: 40, SOS: 30) -- Gonzaga's visit on Thursday is the most important game of the Cougars' season. If they win, they'll be 3-5 against the RPI top 50, with the other wins coming against likely tournament teams Texas and Stanford. They'll be 7-6 against the top 100 and would be favored to make it to the WCC tournament championship, as well.
Wichita State (27-0, RPI: 7, SOS: 94) -- With Indiana State's bubble all but burst, the Shockers get lumped in with the best of the rest for the remainder of the season. According to KenPom, they have a 76.8 percent chance to finish the regular season undefeated. Still, they're going to have their detractors unless and until they make a run in March.
Toledo (21-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 129) -- The Rockets fell to Eastern Michigan on Saturday, dropping them into a first-place tie with Western Michigan in the MAC West. This is a one-bid conference, so regular season results only matter insofar as they impact tournament seeding. The Rockets are still considered the heavy favorite to earn the MAC's lone bid.
Southern Miss (21-5, RPI: 42, SOS: 141) -- Conference USA looks like it will only get one bid, though the Golden Eagles are one of two teams that could make a case for an at-large. That was made a whole lot more difficult after they lost at UAB and Middle Tennessee State last week. They're now in fourth place in the conference, setting up a potential conference tournament semifinal matchup with Louisiana Tech.
North Dakota State (20-6, RPI: 46, SOS: 120) -- The Bison have won four straight games, including a win against IPFW that put them in first place in the Summit League. Led by senior guard Taylor Braun, the Bison have the No. 33-ranked offense in terms of adjusted efficiency on KenPom.
Harvard (20-4, RPI: 54, SOS: 190) -- After losing to Yale two weeks ago, the Crimson bounced back with wins over Columbia and Cornell last week. They remain tied atop the Ivy League with Yale at 7-1. They don't play each other again until March 7 in New Haven. Given that this conference doesn't have a tournament, the winner of that game could be the Ivy League's lone entry into the big dance.
Belmont (20-8, RPI: 62, SOS: 132) -- The Bruins are one of the few smaller conference teams with a real statement win, as they beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill back in November. They also have wins over Indiana State and Middle Tennessee State and hung tough with Richmond. They're co-favorites, along with Murray State, in the Ohio Valley Conference.
UW-Green Bay (21-5, RPI: 63, SOS: 144) -- The Phoenix bounced back from a loss against UW-Milwaukee by beating Youngstown State and Cleveland State, both on the road, last week. The latter of those wins was huge, as it gave them a two-game lead over Cleveland State in the Horizon League with three games to play. The Phoenix rank 57th on KenPom.
Louisiana Tech (21-5, RPI: 79, SOS: 230) -- The Bulldogs are the other C-USA team that could potentially earn an at-large bid, though that would take some help from the bigger conference teams currently ahead of them on the bubble. The more likely scenario for the Bulldogs is to win the conference tournament.