College Basketball Bubble Watch

Updated: March 3, 2015, 8:43 AM ET
The Big Ten has strength in numbers

By Eamonn Brennan
ESPN.com

Want to hear a bad idea? We've got a doozy for you. Ready? Here goes.

You should measure a conference's strength by how many teams in that conference perform well in the NCAA tournament.

That this is a bad idea should be obvious. The NCAA tournament is a joyous mess of unpredictability. Why throw out an entire season's worth of games in favor of small sample sizes and weird matchups? Besides, how do you define success? What if one league sends three teams, two of which do well, but another sends seven, most of which flame out? Which league performed better?

Soon enough, you arrive at the real issue itself: Comparing conferences at all.

Even if you hew to strict rankings systems, there will always be an argument. One league is more challenging from top to bottom, but lacks a true national title contender. Another league has several, but also more imbalance in its bottom half. Different people value different things. Unless the answer is overwhelming (cough, Big 12, cough), your mileage will always vary.

Which is how the 2014-15 Big Ten can be undeniably having a down season while, at the same time, send more teams than any other conference -- and more than the Big Ten itself has sent in decades -- to the NCAA tournament.

Currently, eight Big Ten teams are either already in, or within striking distance of, the NCAA tournament field. Wisconsin and Maryland are locks. Michigan State and Ohio State are looking safe enough for now. Iowa and Indiana meet Tuesday night in Bloomington; a win for either will shore up its résumé, while a loss for Indiana would push it even closer to the bubble, where Purdue and Illinois are currently fighting for their lives. If the stars align, and everyone manages to get in, the Big Ten would get eight of its 14 total teams in the field. Seven looks more likely, but eight is totally possible.

Would anyone argue that the Big Ten's top half is better than the ACC? No. Would anyone argue that the Big Ten is better, top-to-bottom, than the BIg 12? Of course not. You couldn't even argue that the Big Ten, in its newly expanded form, is better than prior versions of itself. From 2010-11 to 2013-14, the Big Ten ranked No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's combined adjusted efficiency rankings, often by sizable margins. It never sent more than seven teams to the tournament. This season, it ranks fourth.

There are three takeaways here:

1. Neither the NCAA tournament itself nor the dispersal of bids therein are good measures of a conference's strength. Sometimes, they're downright deceptive.
2. Arguing about conferences is kind of dumb anyway. Unless it's the 2014-15 Big 12. That league is crazy!
3. If you're looking for bubble drama these next two weeks -- for teams with chances to get in and chances to fall out and enough possibilities to sate the March junkie's pre-tourney fix -- you could do far worse than the 2014-15 Big Ten.

It's not the best league, not by a long shot. The next two weeks, though, it might just be the most fun.

Did we miss a team? Include the unworthy? Want to stump for your favored mid-major? Send your feedback, suggestions and hilarious jokes to me on Twitter @eamonnbrennan

Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through March 2.

American Athletic Conference
Locks: SMU
Work left to do: Tulsa, Temple, Cincinnati

Connecticut's home upset of SMU didn't just upset the conference title race with two games to play. It also showcased a more connected Huskies defense, and an offense with a sudden bevy of viable weapons, namely Daniel Hamilton and Rodney Purvis. Somewhere, Ryan Boatright is wondering what took them so long. In any case, sorry, UConn fans. We empathize with your eager Twitter questions, but we're sorry to say that the response is almost always no. No, UConn's not in the tournament. No, UConn's not even on the bubble. No, UConn can't get in without winning next week's conference tournament at the XL Center in Hartford. The only yes here is whether we think Kevin Ollie's team might do exactly that. If they play like they did against SMU, well, why not?

Tulsa [21-7 (14-2), RPI: 37, SOS: 123] Four straight wins, combined with SMU's loss to UConn, have seen the Golden Hurricane climb to a half-game lead atop the conference standings. When bracket folks -- including our own Joe Lunardi -- build their masterpieces, they include each league's first-place team as a stand-in for that league's automatic bid, which will ultimately go to whomever wins the conference tournament. Don't let the conceptual distinction fool you: Tulsa is very much on the bubble. The past few weeks have undeniably improved Tulsa's standing. Since back-to-back losses to SMU and Connecticut in early February, Tulsa has won four in a row, including a home game against fellow bubbler Temple and Saturday's hard-fought road win over Memphis. The wins are especially helpful to a profile that features no top-50 victories outside a sweep of Temple, and just five top-100 wins, which is the unfortunate cost of doing business in this shaky new-look American. The good news for Tulsa is the bounty available in the final week of the regular season: Wednesday's home game against Cincinnati and a Sunday trip to SMU.
Temple [20-9 (11-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 62] To be totally honest, and slightly break the fourth wall, we don't have a whole lot else to add about Temple at this point. The Owls have played just one game (an easy home win over Houston) since a dire 39-point outing at Tulsa on Feb. 22. Thanks to elite defense -- like, top-10 in-overall-adjusted-efficiency-level elite defense -- the Owls have posted some of the most promising non-SMU efficiency margins in their league, and they've looked their best throughout conference play, as Fran Dunphy's rotation has gotten whole. But the lack of quality wins (apart from a 25-point blowout of Kansas, of course) made this a somewhat bottom-heavy resume. Fourteen of Temple's 20 victories have come against teams ranked outside the RPI top 150. Assuming it wins at East Carolina Thursday, that's 15 of 21. That KU win may end up being the difference between a double-digit seed that is nonetheless safely in the field and a trip to Dayton, or even worse. The lesson, as always: Every game matters.
Cincinnati [20-9 (11-5), RPI: 50, SOS: 72] The Bearcats' win Saturday was of a piece with the previous week's work: Three games against bad teams (Houston, UCF, Tulane), three wins, no resume improvement, no real damage. Wednesday's game at Tulsa is a change of pace in this regard, and a chance to knock off a bubble competitor on its own floor in March. Speaking of bubble competitors, the Bearcats have more top-50 wins than most, five in total, including two over SMU. That should help in any committee argument wherein at least one of the members cares less about bad losses (Cincinnati has two, at ECU and vs. Tulane) than about a show of strength against potential tournament teams. A top-35 nonconference schedule also helps a lot. But Cincinnati's top-50 wins aren't so good as to lift them off the bubble entirely, or even help them avoid Dayton, which is where they began the Bubble Watch at the beginning of February. That makes this week's games -- especially the Tulsa trip -- as big as any this season.
Atlantic 10 Conference
Teams that should be in: Dayton
Work left to do: Davidson, Rhode Island

For those wondering why we took so much care locking up a team with a top-20 RPI, top-10 overall schedule and the No. 1-ranked nonconference schedule, well, now you know. If this were two weeks ago, VCU would officially be giving us post-SMU flashbacks. (Shudder.) Now, with just one week left in the regular season, the Rams' lock status can more than weather the back-to-back losses it took at Richmond and at home against Dayton last week -- losses that dropped Shaka Smart's 11-5 team out of first place in the A-10 for the first time all season and left a three-way 12-4 tie between Dayton, Davidson and Rhode Island. Crazy, right?

Dayton [22-6 (12-4), RPI: 28, SOS: 147] The Flyers got the job done. Just seven days after a loss at sub-200 RPI Duquesne -- an 83-73 defeat more damaging and inexplicable than anything this team has done all season -- Dayton won at VCU. Not only did the victory elevate Archie Miller's team (alongside Rhode Island and Davidson) to the top of the Atlantic-10, and send a more glaring reminder that all three teams have been nearly as good as VCU in conference play, it marked the biggest win of Dayton's season at the best possible time. Does that mean they're a lock? No. This team is still just 6-5 against the top 100 with mediocre schedule numbers and only two other top-50 wins (against Texas A&M and Ole Miss). Likewise, the committee will recognize that winning at VCU after Briante Weber's injury is not quite the task it was with Weber in the equation. Even so, a win at the Siegel Center is never easy to come by. When you consider the limits of Miller's sub-6-foot-6 roster, and that this team is probably better than its resume says, seeing Dayton shed most of its bubble worries heading into the final week of the regular season is nonetheless remarkable.
Davidson [21-6 (12-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 131] The Wildcats handled their business in a win over George Washington on Saturday in the same efficient, economical fashion with which they handled the vast majority of their opposition in February. A 77-66 win was the team's seventh in a row, a stretch that included just one game against a fellow bubble team --a 60-59 win at Rhode Island on Feb. 25. But the lack of quality opponents in that subset of seven means a good team has played its best basketball in the month of February (and kept pace with the top of the conference in efficiency margin) while only incrementally improving its bubble chances. Davidson's reaction to VCU's loss to Dayton this weekend must have been conflicted. On the one hand, it made Davidson's 77-60 win over the Flyers on Jan. 20 look better. On the other hand, it took another chunk out of VCU, which Davidson gets in its own building Thursday in arguably its most important game of the year. Will VCU be less vulnerable coming off two straight losses? Would two wins in the final week -- the Wildcats visit Duquesne on Saturday -- put Davidson in the tournament? The answer to at least one of these questions should be yes.
Rhode Island [20-7 (12-4), RPI: 67, SOS: 176] It's officially go time for Rhode Island. That's not something we should have to say about a team with a better conference record than VCU. But as Davidson (and even, to some extent, Dayton) proves, a first-place record in the A-10 means only so much. For Rhode Island, it is an indicator of the team's constant improvement throughout the season, its evolution into a grinding defensive force that often lacks creativity on the other end of the floor. But even as the A-10 wins have piled up, Rhody's RPI has hovered up near the 70s, close to historically prohibitive territory for an at-large hopeful. Its strength of schedule was hammered by a 243rd-ranked nonconference slate, from which the Rams emerged with nothing better than a win over Nebraska. (Which, if the Cornhuskers had lived up to their preseason billing, would have been worth something.) There are no top-50 wins to speak of. That makes Tuesday's game at Dayton one of massive importance. It wouldn't be enough to get the Rams in the field, but it might be enough to keep them in the picture -- at least until the A-10 tournament. That's something.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Work left to do: NC State, Miami (FL)

Adios, Pittsburgh. The best thing you can say for the Panthers' resume right now is that Kansas State has beaten Kansas and Iowa State in its past two games, which has boosted the Wildcats' RPI from outside the top 100 into the mid-70s, which has subsequently gifted Pitt its fifth top-100 win of the season -- and its only such win against a nonconference foe. This is not the foundation on which a strong bubble case rests. The worst thing you can say about Pittsburgh's resume, beyond the paucity of quality wins, is well, not something you can say at all. It must be viewed. The last two minutes of Sunday's 69-66 loss at Wake Forest were pocked by unforced turnovers and nonexistent execution. Here was a team that needed to win to stay alive, and on three straight crunch-time possessions, it doesn't put up a shot? All season, we've been waiting for Pitt to show us something we could point to to prove that this resume's main strengths weren't its coach's ability to successfully manipulate the RPI. Those moments have been the exception. Mediocrity has been the rule. Once you get past the decent RPI and schedule numbers and K-State not being a mess, you get the final two minutes at Wake Forest. Pitt may get back on the page, but for now the Panthers are on the outside looking in.

NC State [17-12 (8-8), RPI: 51, SOS: 5] Of course the Wolfpack couldn't make things easy. After three straight wins -- including two marquee bubble wins, at Louisville and North Carolina -- NC State had to go and lose on the road to Boston College. It was State's first sub-150 RPI loss of the season, and one that put some of its loss-column flaws, like a 12-11 record against the top 150, into sharper relief. The work done in Louisville and Chapel Hill was too good to be erased by a loss in Chestnut Hill, even a 79-63 loss. To some extent, NC State was probably just exhausted. We can all empathize. This team has come a long way in the past three weeks, both tangibly and emotionally. That's kind of the point: This team has gone from the bubble fringe to relative safety, further than any other bubble team this season. To put itself back on the bubble with bad losses now -- continuing with Clemson on Tuesday -- would be a genuine shame.
Miami (FL) [18-11 (8-8), RPI: 70, SOS: 63] A month ago, the Hurricanes shared much in common with NC State. There were bad losses, and just losses, period; there was also a massive win at Duke on Jan. 13. There are similarities even among the bubble opportunities presented to each team in February: Both teams got cracks at Louisville and North Carolina. NC State took them; Miami did not. Miami has stayed in the mix by not falling to bad teams. On back-to-back weekends against the Cardinals and Tar Heels, though, Jim Larranaga's men failed to help themselves break out of the bubble mold. Now they find themselves in not much better shape than seeming long-shot Pittsburgh, and worst of all they have to go to Pittsburgh Wednesday. A loss might sink Miami's at-large chances once and for all.
Big 12 Conference
Work left to do: Texas, Oklahoma St

Thanks to Iowa State's comeback win over Oklahoma on Monday, Kansas clinched at least a share of its 11th consecutive regular-season Big 12 title. Honestly, at this point, we're out of ways to describe how ridiculous that is. We're just going to sit here and going to drool on our keyboard for a while instead. Before we get to that, though, for those of you looking for Kansas State after back-to-back wins over Kansas and Iowa State ... well, sorry, but keep looking. We love the Most Interesting Resume in the World so much we made a video about it before it got extra-super-interesting last week. But the Wildcats, for all their great wins, are also still 15-15 with a 9-14 mark against the RPI top 150. Has a team ever been on the NCAA and NIT tournament bubbles at the same time? We love K-State, as a Kaufman-esque piece of performance art. As an actual bubble team, well, not so much. At least not yet.

Texas [18-12 (7-10), RPI: 38, SOS: 9] Hey, it's a start. After "wow, great game" and "man, Myles Turner sure is tall," that was our first reaction to Texas' 61-59 overtime win over Baylor Monday night: It's a start. That is not the kind of thing you want to be saying about a team on March 2. It's especially not the kind of thing you want to say about a team that has already lost 10 Big 12 games. But it's where the Longhorns have left themselves, and they have no one else to blame. Rick Barnes' team got to this position by somehow plowing through 89 percent of its conference campaign -- in a league with a bunch of really good teams! -- without notching more than one top-50 win. After Monday, they have two. (And, with Iowa's push into the top 50 this week, three overall. Huzzah!) If they can manage to avoid the weird off-and-on hilarity that is Kansas State, they'll finish 8-10 in the Big 12 with a 3-11 top-50 record, a 7-12 mark against the top 100, one of the nation's 10 toughest overall schedules, and a puncher's chance of turning what was rapidly becoming a disaster into at least a trip to the First Four. That's all it is, though -- a chance. On Monday night, Texas guard Javan Felix said Barnes described the Baylor win as "[giving] us another breath." There are few better ways to put it than that.
Oklahoma St [17-11 (7-9), RPI: 46, SOS: 19] Did Marcus Smart run into a crowd and get suspended again? Wait, what's that? Smart plays for the Boston Celtics now? Right. OK. Then how do you explain what's happening with the Cowboys? On Saturday, Oklahoma State dropped its fourth game in a row -- a 63-62 loss at Texas Tech, the site of the Smart incident that sent OSU into a conference tailspin a season ago. When Travis Ford's team fell at TCU on Valentine's Day, it was an understandable letdown after three straight massive wins at Texas, vs. Kansas and at Baylor. When it fell to Iowa State and West Virginia at home, those were chances to lock up a bid that ended in disappointment. Oh well. Now, Saturday's one-point bummer puts the whole latter half of the month into a different light. Suddenly, OSU is just 17-11 overall with two sub-100 losses on its previously pristine profile. Worse, it's suddenly 9-10 against the RPI top 150. A strong schedule and quality wins (including a sweep of Baylor) should still get OSU in, and the Smart thing is just a dumb joke -- this isn't anywhere near as dire as last season's collapse. Still, the Cowboys are 7-9 in conference play. A loss Wednesday at home to TCU would freak us out -- both as a horrible fifth straight loss and because it also would guarantee a sub-.500 Big 12 record. That's Texas' corner, Boys. Stay off it.
Big East Conference
Teams that should be in: St. John's, Xavier

The Big East is the clubhouse favorite in the race to tie off any and all bubble suspense. With four teams locked up, and two more edging ever closer to finishing the job -- including St. John's, which has gone from serious trouble to serious safety in the matter of three weeks -- the celebration of the 2014-15 Big East need not stop at Villanova. (Which, it should nonetheless be noted, is awesome.)

St. John's [20-9 (9-7), RPI: 31, SOS: 35] On Feb. 3, St. John's lost at Butler 85-62, and the whole St. John's thing -- talented and occasionally impressive but just maddeningly inconsistent and disappointing -- looked like the defining theme of a once-promising season. And then, all of a sudden, St. John's started winning. First, it was Creighton and DePaul at home, which didn't really get the blood pumping. A Feb. 14 win at Xavier followed, and after a blowout loss at Georgetown Feb. 17, the Red Storm won three straight, including another over the Musketeers and Saturday's 81-70 win over the Hoyas. And now? Five top-50 wins (including sweeps of Xavier and Providence), 9-7 records in conference play and against the top 100, totally solid RPI and schedule numbers, and few genuinely bad losses. (Even the loss at DePaul looks forgivable, given the Blue Demons' 6-6 league start.) All of a sudden, St. John's is a long shot to miss the tournament, not the other way around. February went by in a flash.
Xavier [18-12 (8-9), RPI: 42, SOS: 15] There's nothing to worry about for the Musketeers. Sure, from one perspective, Saturday's home loss at Villanova was a missed opportunity -- not only a chance to completely lock up their bid but also to boost their eventual seed ceiling another line or two. And yeah, a loss moved Xavier to 18-12 overall and 8-9 in the Big East, and a sub-.500 record in conference play at the end of the regular season is historically less-than-ideal for at-large consideration. Still, Saturday said more about Villanova (and how incredibly good it is) than anything about the Musketeers. If Chris Mack's team falls at Creighton on Saturday, then we'll have to reconsider. If it wins, its just about a lock.
Big Ten Conference
Teams that should be in: Michigan St, Ohio State, Iowa
Work left to do: Indiana, Purdue, Illinois

As we outlined in today's introduction, the only thing worse than arguing about interconference hierarchy is doing so using a weird, fuzzy measure such as the number of teams it sends to the NCAA tournament. If any league proves as much, it is this down-yet-also-maybe-eight-bids-deep edition of the Big Ten. "Maybe" is still the key term in that hyphenate, too. Indiana, Iowa and Purdue all have loose ends to tie up before they can feel safe, while Illinois is still on the outside of the field looking in.

Michigan St [19-10 (10-6), RPI: 30, SOS: 22] After two losses, the Spartans are still in OK shape. There are serious flaws on this resume, too, though they're different from Ohio State's -- namely, the two bad losses (one at Nebraska on Jan. 24 and that legendary home defeat to Texas Southern back on Dec. 20). But the underlying numbers, including the overall and nonconference schedules, are much better than the Buckeyes', and the Spartans also torched the nets in what may end up being a key road win at Iowa back on Jan. 8. When you stop parsing the nitty-gritty sheet so intently and step back for a second, you see a team that, home stumble against Minnesota aside, has played its best and most complete basketball down the stretch. That helps. A win over Purdue Wednesday would help even more.
Ohio State [21-8 (10-6), RPI: 32, SOS: 86] We'll admit we're not quite as impressed with Ohio State's resume as many bracket folks -- including our own Joe Lunardi, but others too -- seem to be. After Sunday's come-from-behind home win over Purdue, we're seeing the Buckeyes as high as a No. 7 seed in some brackets. That's hard to justify, given that Ohio State's only two top-50 wins have come at home. (Sunday may end up being a top-50 victory, but it isn't there yet -- and it was at Value City Arena, too.) Throw in the utter lack of quality nonconference wins against a gross nonconference schedule, and we're not quite sure we can get our heads around where many are seeding OSU. Having said that, we also don't think the Buckeyes are in any real danger of missing the tournament. If they win at Penn State Wednesday, we'll lock them up.
Iowa [19-10 (10-6), RPI: 48, SOS: 27] If there is an invisible line between "should be in" and "work to do," Iowa is probably on that line. After two straight wins over Illinois and at Penn State, we have generously slotted the Hawks in the former category. It's close enough that a loss at Indiana Tuesday, while hardly a negative in its own right, could shift the balance again. The real concern is a letdown on Saturday's senior night against Northwestern. Assuming Fran McCaffery's team gets out of this last regular-season week with a 1-1 split, they should be fine. That road win at North Carolina still looks great.
Indiana [19-10 (9-7), RPI: 44, SOS: 33] For most of the season, one of the redeeming features of Indiana's resume was its lack of bad losses. After last week's loss at Northwestern, that is no longer the case. The Wildcats aren't so bad as to be a total alba-loss (ha, because albatross and sorry). Their low-100s RPI doesn't totally blow up IU's no-bad-losses spot. Arguably just as bad was Purdue's Feb. 19 win at Assembly Hall, which gave the Boilermakers a regular-season sweep over what could become a fellow bubble team. Either way, Indiana is now in the kind of range where movement elsewhere on the bubble -- something as innocuous and seemingly distant as, say, LSU beating Ole Miss -- can have a direct impact on their own chances of getting in. There is good news, however. Indiana's last two games are against Iowa and Michigan State. Both teams are probably tournament-bound. Both teams are beatable. Indiana can still settle this thing for itself.
Purdue [19-10 (11-5), RPI: 57, SOS: 80] If you have to take losses in March, it helps to look like a tournament team. Could anyone argue otherwise about Purdue? Even this weekend's loss at Ohio State -- which followed four straight wins, including a road win at Indiana -- was impressive in its own right. The Boilermakers led for much of the game, including 35-23 at the half and defended everyone on the roster not named D'Angelo Russell (who had 28 points and seven rebounds) exceedingly well. Which, hey, it happens. Another major challenge awaits Wednesday night at Michigan State. A win there doesn't feel like a requirement, given this team's 11-5 Big Ten record and obvious improvement over the past few weeks. (For committee members who swear by their own eyeballs, well, here's your team.) But it would take a lot of the still-simmering suspense out of this team's frantic late push toward the dance.
Illinois [18-11 (8-8), RPI: 60, SOS: 58] The Illini's 86-60 home win over Northwestern Saturday was a nice way to bounce back from three straight losses, even if it didn't do much to change Illinois' bubble standing. The real news was Rayvonte Rice's return to the starting lineup. After starring for the Illini a season ago -- and by "starring," we mean "doing pretty much everything" -- Rice has missed much of the 2014-15 campaign thanks to injuries and suspensions. It has taken him until March to earn his way back into John Groce's starting lineup. But now that he has, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Illini make a major late push toward the field, a project they'd begun in earnest well before Rice's return. Wednesday's game against Nebraska doesn't offer much to that end. Saturday's trip to Purdue absolutely does.
Mountain West Conference
Teams that should be in: San Diego St
Work left to do: Colorado St, Boise State

Has anyone done a better coaching job this season than Leon Rice? Boise State began the month so far off our radar we didn't even consider it. On Saturday, the Broncos won at San Diego State -- their 12th win in 13 games, and one that tied them with the Aztecs atop the league at 12-4. Throughout his career, senior guard Derrick Marks has been the embodiment of a high-usage gunner who racked up numbers but failed to do so efficiently. This season, his top-10 usage rate (32.8 percent) and top-five shot rate (36.2 percent!) have come with 52 percent shooting on 2-pointers and 48 percent shooting on 3-pointers. And not only is Rice coaxing a dream season from Marks, he's doing this without wing Anthony Drmic, a 3-point threat who lost his season to injury in December. Seriously, who has done a better job than Rice?

San Diego St [22-7 (12-4), RPI: 25, SOS: 77] A week or two ago, some Aztecs fans bristled at our notion that SDSU's offensive woes was holding it back. Said fans were right: The Aztecs had been shooting the ball much better against league opponents, and weren't quite as prone to unwatchability as, say, Cincinnati in December. On Saturday, though, the woes emerged once more. Steve Fisher's team shot 18-of-55 and scored just 46 points in 59 possessions in a home loss to Boise State. SDSU is one of the most fearsome defensive teams in the country; this is arguably the best defense (including last season and the Kawhi Leonard romp in 2011) Fisher has ever overseen. But because the Aztecs can get so horrifically flat on the opposite end, you never quite know what you'll get. Those are more general concerns. As it relates to SDSU's bubble chances, it's no big deal. We'll keep our lock powder dry until after Wednesday's trip to UNLV, but the Aztecs are definitely going to the tournament. It's what they'll do once there that fascinates us the most.
Colorado St [24-5 (11-5), RPI: 26, SOS: 119] Colorado State is smack on the bubble. You'd think, given that will-they-or-won't-they intrigue, that we'd have some breathless new developments to analyze. You'd think wrong! The Rams' resume is hardly polarizing in its own right: CSU has a really good RPI figure thanks to some really smart, non-threatening, non-RPI damaging nonconference scheduling. It is 24-5 with two top-50 wins, both at home, over the two potential tournament teams in its league (SDSU and Boise). It has one bad loss (at New Mexico), which looks so much worse than it did when it happened on Jan. 3. (New Mexico has lost its past eight, which includes defeats to Nevada and Fresno State. Yikes.) There's not a whole lot to get you arguing one way or the other. Meanwhile, as many bubble teams have made dramatic shifts one way or the other, CSU has chugged along the cut line in relative obscurity. That's good news, actually: After a Feb. 14 loss at SDSU, the Rams' past five regular-season fixtures were against bad teams: Fresno, Air Force, San Jose State, Nevada, Utah State. An upset loss would be noteworthy because it would be such bad news. CSU made it through the first three unscathed.
Boise State [22-7 (12-4), RPI: 29, SOS: 99] Now that's how you get in the tournament. Winning at Viejas Arena is a massive accomplishment: Saturday marked the first home loss for San Diego State in 29 games. Boise State had never been all that impressed in its previous trips to SDSU; in its first three tries, it lost by one, two, and three points. Maybe we should have seen it coming. In any case, the win may well have lifted the Broncos into the tournament bracket for good. It certainly kicked their raw RPI figure up several notches, added a top-25 RPI win on the road, improved them to .500 against the RPI top 50 and 6-4 against the top 100, and perhaps most importantly, it was their 12th win in their past 13 games. The committee may not consider recent results as one of its official criteria, but there will be more than a handful of committee members who at least take it into account when comparing bubble teams side-by-side. Boise has that, and more, going for it.
Pac-12 Conference
Locks: Arizona, Utah
Work left to do: Oregon, UCLA, Stanford

Let's, pause, inhale deeply and take a moment to appreciate the majesty of Arizona's 63-57 win at Utah. It deserves at least that much. The Utes aren't just one of the best teams in the country, and they weren't merely unbeaten in the Huntsman Center this season. Before Saturday, no team in the country had so dramatically pulverized its opposition on its home floor like Utah, to the tune of .35 points per possession, a bigger margin than what unbeaten Kentucky has done in the SEC. Meanwhile, the Utes had last beaten Arizona in 1998, and Saturday presented the best opportunity to end that streak, declare the program's official return as a national hoops power and take a slice of the Pac-12 title. Arizona leaves that building with a win? What?! Given the opponent and the emotions and the stakes and the environment, are we sure any team has had a more impressive victory this season? If so, that list is short.

Oregon [22-8 (12-5), RPI: 34, SOS: 68] In the Mountain West section, we praised Boise State's Leon Rice, who, like his team, has burst out of nowhere in the final month of the regular season in pursuit of wider recognition. The same plaudits should go to Oregon coach Dana Altman. However tenuous Altman's position might have been in the offseason -- when one player scandal after another not only diminished his personnel, but his previously pristine reputation -- he has spent the past six weeks reminding Ducks brass why he was hired in the first place. Oregon is 10-2 since Jan. 22, with its only two losses coming at Arizona and UCLA. They've knocked off Utah at home, beaten the teams they should beat (ASU, USC, Cal) on the road and, on Saturday, did all but crumple Stanford's at-large bid into a ball. Altman has taken Joseph Young and some unrecognizable pieces and all but forced them into the tournament. This isn't a done deal. Wednesday's trip to Oregon State looms large. The Ducks might want to show up for the Pac-12 tournament just to be safe. But does anyone doubt, with Altman on the sideline, that is exactly what Oregon will do?
UCLA [18-12 (10-7), RPI: 52, SOS: 24] You should know the drill by now. Whereas Stanford and Oregon are moving in decidedly different directions, the Bruins are pretty much stuck on the bubble with little hope of escaping. That's what happens when you find yourself on said bubble before your final three games when those three games are all at home against some of your league's worst teams. The first two -- Washington and Washington State -- ended with wins. The final regular-season contest of the season, against still-rebuilding rival USC, should end similarly. Writing with this much confidence about this UCLA team is a victory in and of itself and speaks to the genuine improvement the Bruins have made. We feel no such confidence in regard to UCLA's at-large chances. This is a cut-line team. Opinions in the committee room will vary. The Bruins might get in. They might not. Unless they do something big in the Pac-12 tournament, we'll be saying the same thing on the morning of March 15.
Stanford [18-10 (9-7), RPI: 56, SOS: 67] We're starting to feel bad for Stanford. How so? Well, how would you feel? Your season is going well -- not great, but well -- and you're hovering around the Top 25 and safely in the tournament by all available measures. Your senior guard, Chasson Randle, is getting mentioned in award watch lists, and life is basically good. And then it's March 1 and you're playing Oregon at home and people are saying if you don't win this game you might not get into the tournament. Huh? And then you lose 73-70 to a good Oregon team, and that Lunardi guy on ESPN puts up his new bracket on Monday and -- wait, what? Next four out?! Stanford's slide toward the bottom end of the bubble has in some ways been invisible. The Cardinal have lost a few games they shouldn't have lost -- at Washington State, vs. UCLA, at Colorado -- but the decline has also come in large part thanks to Texas, which was a top-10 team on Dec. 23 when Stanford beat it on the road and now sits alongside the Cardinal on Lunardi's next-four-out fringe. The loss to Oregon on Saturday was a real killer: It gave the Cardinal a chance to demonstrate, on their own floor, their superiority to a fellow Pac-12 team. The fact that they couldn't do so is an indictment of how they've fallen. But it must still be hard for Stanford fans to wrap their heads around. We're barely there ourselves.
Southeastern Conference
Teams that should be in: Georgia, Ole Miss
Work left to do: Texas A&M, LSU

Now that Arkansas has taken its ritual thrashing at Rupp Arena, the last even remotely loseable game on Kentucky's schedule is this week's trip to Georgia. Anybody want to bet against the Wildcats? No? Didn't think so. The good news for those who a) like SEC basketball and b) don't want to know the outcome of sporting events before they take place is the still-robust SEC bubble scene, where Ole Miss, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M have all managed to put themselves in the bracket without carving out enough room to yet be called locks.

Georgia [19-9 (10-6), RPI: 33, SOS: 49] The Bulldogs passed an impressive road test on Feb. 25 at Ole Miss. A 76-72 win in Oxford wasn't just a road win over one of the SEC's stronger clubs. It was also the second leg of a regular-season sweep over Ole Miss. Georgia looked shaky a week ago after home losses to Auburn and South Carolina. The Bulldogs have since returned to the solid space they occupied early in the bubble season, when their top-30 RPI and top-35 strength of schedule made a strong first impression.
Ole Miss [19-10 (10-6), RPI: 47, SOS: 37] There's still little reason to be too worried about Ole Miss -- a home loss to Georgia and a road loss to LSU do not an NCAA tournament team un-make. Still, as we noted last week, the Rebels, who had floated as high as a No. 7-seed at various points in February, are still no guarantee. Tuesday's trip to Alabama is a tough game without much upside, and Saturday's home date versus Vanderbilt is a combination of those same factors, only slightly easier to win with even less benefit for doing so. A split in the final week probably keeps Ole Miss in decent shape heading into the SEC tournament, where it would take an early-round shock to really shake it loose. Not likely, but not impossible, either.
Texas A&M [20-8 (11-5), RPI: 39, SOS: 88] After last week's six-point loss at Arkansas and Saturday's cruise-control win over Auburn, the Aggies still don't have much in the way of impressive victories. Their only two top-50 wins have come against LSU, and they're just 7-8 against the top 100. But when you glance around the bubble, you see a lot of teams with less on their profile than even that, and with the kind of bad losses that A&M has deftly avoided thus far. Its remaining two are tricky: There's Tuesday night at Florida, which is better than its resume (at least by a little), and Saturday's home game against Alabama (ditto). The Aggies aren't safe yet; they may be the only SEC team closer to the bubble than LSU. But they're in OK shape overall.
LSU [21-8 (10-6), RPI: 45, SOS: 91] Saturday was the third-biggest day of LSU's season. The biggest came all the way back on Dec. 4, when the Tigers won a true nonconference road game at West Virginia. In the months since, they'd added just two top-50 RPI wins, one of which came on the road, at Ole Miss -- there's your second-biggest. Saturday's home win over the Rebels gave LSU a sweep of another likely SEC tournament team. That fact hardly guarantees a bid, but it's the kind of thing you like on your resume when you've been scrapping it out near the cut line for the better part of two months. Jarell Martin and Co. still have one more big road opportunity left in Saturday's closer at Arkansas, as well as a home date against Tennessee Wednesday. Barring an 0-2 finish, LSU's bubble woes may be behind it.
Other at-large contenders

Last season, right around March, every quasi-fan of a high-major team with a shot at a No. 1 bid sat up and made the least interesting argument ever: that Gonzaga wasn't good enough to be a No. 1 seed (they were) because their schedule was bad (it wasn't), and they'd probably lose in the tournament (they did). Brave stuff. Guess who they lost to? And guess who -- despite not losing since last April's Final Four -- is the target of all the exact same big-conference whines about schedule strength? Of course, if Wichita State earns a rightful No. 1 seed and doesn't get to the Final Four, all of these people will obviously admit that the tournament is just crazy like that, but hey, what a great season! Ha, just kidding! These people will all say, "I told you so!" like they were proven right. Because they're the worst. Please don't be these people. The Watch begs of you.

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