As the calendar rolls into February, the NCAA Tournament picture is beginning to take shape. There is still a month and a half of basketball before the Big Dance where teams can make moves and where we will be inundated with Joe Lunardi's Last 4 In and First 4 Out. Here's a primer on where things stand at the end of January as we approach the halfway mark on the conference schedule. I tend to be conservative in my estimations of where teams stand, so rather than declaring any team "in" the field as of right now, I'm going to take the cautious route and say they are "in good position." Also, rather than declaring teams to be "on the bubble" at this point in the season, I'll say they "have work to do" to ensure themselves a bid to the Tournament. Today I'm going to look at the Major Conferences that have the highest likelihood of being multiple-bid leagues.
Conference Leader: Miami
In Good Position: NC State, Duke
Work to Do: North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Florida St
The Hurricanes have been the surprise of the ACC this year, running out to a 7-0 conference record, including a throttling of then-#1 Duke. Miami's only losses this year have come when leading scorer Durant Scott and/or big man Reggie Johnson were injured. At full strength, the Canes are unbeaten. Duke played one of the toughest non-conference slates in the nation and should be in good shape to make the tournament, barring some kind of epic collapse. NC State started strong and handed Duke their first loss, but have gone only 2-3 since with losses to Maryland, Wake Forest, and Virginia. The Cavaliers have a lot of work to do in conference play and enter February with some prohibitive computer numbers (RPI 95, SOS 183, NCSOS 331). Similarly, Maryland's poor computer numbers (RPI 69, SOS 92, NCSOS 289) could come back to bite them if they don't start stacking good wins. North Carolina has been hot and cold all season. They have a Top 20 win over UNLV, but also a 20-point loss to Texas (RPI 141). Their wins over Florida St and Maryland are enough to put them in the field right now, but they'll have to avoid any upsets in conference play. Florida St is hanging around the fringe of the bubble right now but lacks any high-quality wins (best win over #47 BYU) right now. Their 3 losses to teams with RPIs in triple digits (#163 Mercer, #178 South Alabama, #220 Auburn) are a huge red flag on their resume.
Conference Leader: Butler
In Good Position: VCU, La Salle
Work to Do: Charlotte, Xavier, St Louis, UMass, Temple
The A-10 currently has 9 teams all within 2 games of first-place Butler. VCU and La Salle have the best computer profiles of the group, with Massachusetts and Temple not far behind. Charlotte, Xavier and St Louis all have RPIs in the 60s and will need to make a splash in conference play to make a run at an At-Large bid. La Salle recorded wins over Butler and VCU last week, but turned around and dropped a game to UMass. Aside from their win over La Salle, UMass lacks any top-75 wins. St Louis has two Top-50 wins (#6 New Mexico and #46 UMass) but has a horrendous loss to Rhode Island (RPI 180). Similarly, Temple has a great win over Syracuse on a neutral court but has two terrible home losses to St Bonaventure (RPI 130) and Canisius (RPI 132).
Conference Leader: Kansas
In Good Position: Oklahoma, Kansas St
Work to Do: Baylor, Iowa St, Oklahoma St
As they seem to do every year, Kansas is running away with the Big XII field. Their 7-0 start in conference play, coupled with a 19-1 overall record puts them squarely in the discussion for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas St, Oklahoma, and Baylor are all sitting two games back with Oklahoma St and Iowa St three back. None of those teams will catch Kansas, and as long as all five of the other teams stay the course and avoid any bad losses to the teams at the bottom of the league, all 6 should hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Oklahoma has the best computer profile of the group (RPI 16, SOS 8, NCSOS 29) but their best wins are over Oklahoma St (RPI 37) and Baylor (RPI 39). Kansas St also has an RPI in the 30s but has wins better a win than Oklahoma over Florida (RPI 5) and a head-to-head win over the Sooners. Baylor's profile is very similar to Oklahoma's and the Bears will be dancing again as long as they avoid any upsets. Iowa St has the weakest profile of the group (RPI 48, SOS 72, NCSOS 148) and only 2 Top-100 wins (Kansas St and BYU) with a horrendous loss to Texas Tech (RPI 198). Of all the Big XII teams on the radar, Iowa St definitely has the most work to do in February.
In Good Position: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville
Work to Do: St John's, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Villanova, Rutgers
Another year, another pack of teams from the Big East with quality resumes. Syracuse and Marquette have a two-game lead over the rest of the field. Syracuse, Marquette, Louisville and Cincinnati all have RPIs in the Top 25 and are in good position. Pitt, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Rutgers all have to continue to win as their horrible non-conference slates (NCSOS's over 225) did not provide a good base to their resumes. Villanova recorded two huge wins over Louisville and Syracuse last week but lost at Notre Dame and remain squarely on the bubble. Nova's great wins are offset by two bad losses (#125 Providence and #218 Columbia) so the Wildcats will need to continue their strong play in conference. Rutgers is the most precariously positioned of the group with a 3-6 conference record, no Top 50 wins, and a loss to St Peter's (RPI 274). However, their 4-1 mark against teams ranked between 51-100 puts them on the bubble right now.
Conference Leader: Michigan, Indiana
In Good Position: Michigan St, Ohio St, Wisconsin
Work to Do: Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern
Michigan and Indiana are set to square off on Saturday night with the Big Ten lead at stake. Behind them, Michigan St, Ohio St and Wisconsin are all in good position for At-Large bids, barring any kind of collapse down the stretch. Minnesota has a great computer profile (RPI 10, SOS 3, NCSOS 20) but lost 4 consecutive games before beating Nebraska on Tuesday. They need to get back to their winning ways down the stretch to keep their bid secure. After a hit start to the season, Illinois has lost 7 of their last 10 games and now are dropping precariously close to the bubble. Their resume still has good computer numbers (RPI 33, SOS 15, NCSOS 39) and their 3 Top 25 wins (Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio St) are nothing to scoff at, but at some point they have to stop losing games. On the other side of the coin is Northwestern who has some shaky computer numbers (RPI 84, SOS 24, NCSOS 187) but has 3 Top-40 wins and no losses outside the Top 100. The Wildcats are still on the wrong side of the bubble, but if they can stack together some more wins in conference play and get their RPI into the 60s they'll have a shot at the tournament.
Conference Leader: Wichita St
In Good Position: Creighton
Work to Do: Indiana St
The Missouri Valley Conference is back. Wichita St holds the conference lead thanks to a head-to-head win over Creighton, but don't count out the Bluejays. Creighton features National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott and is one of the best shooting teams in the nation. Indiana St still has some work to do and seemingly fell off the radar when they lost to Southern Illinois (RPI 215) in mid-January. However, last week's win at Wichita St propelled them back into the discussion and their solid computer numbers (RPI 38, SOS 43, NCSOS 20) and 3 Top-50 wins give them a solid case for consideration. The knock on the Sycamores is their 3 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs, so they will need to avoid any more stumbles if they want to stay in the conversation.
Conference Leader: New Mexico
In Good Position: San Diego St, UNLV
Work to Do: Colorado St, Boise St, Air Force, Wyoming
Good luck trying to figure out any kind of order for these teams. New Mexico is the current conference leader, but Colorado St, UNLV, San Diego St and Air Force are all sitting just a game behind. Of the top 5, Air Force is in the most precarious position due to a terrible non-conference slate (RPI 79, SOS 110, NCSOS 263). However, with no losses outside the Top 75 and an RPI under 80, the Falcons could make a run at an At-Large bid if they can stack together some wins over the top teams in the conference down the stretch. The Top 4 in the league all have RPIs in the Top 30 and are well-positioned to make a run towards the Big Dance. Boise St and Wyoming both started the season well but have fallen to 2-4 and 2-5 in conference play respectively and their RPIs have fallen into the 60s. Low RPIs coupled with Non-conference slates that rank in the 200s means that both teams have some work to do to get back on the right side of the bubble.
Conference Leader: Oregon
In Good Position: Arizona, UCLA
Work to Do: Arizona St, Colorado, Washington, Stanford
Oregon looked like the team to beat, running out to a 7-0 record in conference play before losing to Stanford on Wednesday night. The Ducks still control their own destiny in the Pac 12, and their main challenge will be from a talented Arizona team that is in the conversation for a #1 seed. UCLA has been up and down all year. In the past week the Bruins have beaten Arizona on the road by 11 then lost at Arizona St by 18 and at home to a terrible USC team. Arizona St and Colorado are two polar opposites that make them hard to place right now. The Sun Devils have poor computer numbers (RPI 62, SOS 106, NCSOS 276) but have 2 Top 50 wins, are 3-3 against the Top 100 and have only 1 loss to a team with an RPI over 100. Similarly, Colorado has 2 Top 50 wins and no losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs, but their computer numbers are much better (RPI 21, SOS 7, NCSOS 19) thanks in part to their 6-6 record against the Top 100. Washington and Stanford are both middle-of-the-road teams with one Top-25 win on their resumes that are keeping them in the conversation. The Huskies biggest downfall is their 4 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs, 3 of which came at home. However, Washington's resume is boozed by their 5 wins against Top 100 teams while Stanford only has 3 (though the Cardinal only have one bad loss).
Conference Leader: Florida
In Good Position: Missouri, Ole Miss
Work to Do: Kentucky. Alabama
The SEC is Florida's to lose and if they keep playing the way they are they should be favored in every remaining game. The Gators have dominated SEC play so far with an average margin of victory of 28 points per game. The Gators face Ole Miss at home on Saturday with the top spot on the line, and the Rebels will be lucky if the game is still close at halftime. Missouri started the season strong, but has been devastated by injuries and just dropped a game to woeful LSU. Kentucky has slowly started to turn things around and is trending in the right direction after their 13-point win over Ole Miss this week. The Wildcats are a bit of an enigma right now with middle-of-the-road computer numbers (RPI 49, SOS 48, NCSOS 55) and only 1 win against the Top 50 (#40 Ole Miss). Kentucky has a 3-6 record against the Top 100 but their worst loss is to Texas A&M (RPI 76), which gives them an edge over other bubble teams with losses to teams with 100+ RPIs. Alabama has almost the exact opposite problem as Kentucky. The Crimson Tide have a 5-4 record against the Top 100 (including a head-to-head win over Kentucky), giving them more good wins, but also have a 4-3 record against teams in the 101-200 range with alla 3 losses coming at home in non-conference play. The Tide do have decent computer numbers (RPI 65, SOS 39, NCSOS 50) but will need to boost their resume with quality wins in conference play and prove that their December meltdown where they went 1-5 without Senior guard Andrew Steele was an anomaly. Since Steele's return the Tide have gone 6-2 and were 5-0 before his injury.