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NCAA Bracket Begins to Sort Itself Out

by David Mihm | February 4th, 2007

Now that football is in the rear-view mirror and the NBA hits its mid-season lull, the nation’s attention shifts primarily to college hoops for the next two months.  We have only five weeks until Selection Sunday!

The top of the bracket is beginning to sort itself out.  UCLA, Florida, and North Carolina (despite its loss on Saturday) have established themselves as clear number-one seeds.  And until February 25th, when Wisconsin travels to Ohio State, the Badgers will almost certainly remain on the #1 line as well.  Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Kansas, and Oregon remain contenders.  This set of teams hasn’t really changed much since late December, with the exception of Texas A&M, whose profile has finally caught up with its perception.

But the lower sections of the bracket have been extremely volatile.  Three trendy pre-season Sweet 16 picks are all but out of the NCAA discussion altogether (LSU, Washington, Connecticut). Two teams we didn’t even project in the field as recently a month ago are incredibly close to earning a protected seed (Stanford, Vanderbilt).  And two teams we expected to be protected seeds a month ago are sliding perilously close to the NIT (Maryland, Alabama).

It’s important to remember cases like Maryland and Alabama when you hear uninformed members of the media throwing around the word “lock” with reckless abandon this month.  In my view, the term “lock” should not be used for any team for another two weeks.  At that point, a team could conceivably lose the remainder of its games and still head into the NCAA Tournament with a 5-5 record in its last ten.

Let’s take a look at teams that are either already being mentioned as NCAA locks, or are likely to be shortly, and what they actually need to do in order to achieve that status.

RPI data from Ken Pomeroy (www.kenpom.com)

Texas

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the Longhorns are a team that no one wants to play in the NCAA Tournament.  But there remains a chance (albeit a marginal one) no one will have to.  Texas is only 6-6 against the RPI Top 100 and is a mediocre 5-5 away from home, with an RPI in the mid-50’s.

Kevin Durant is surely this year’s Freshman of the Year and is a leading candidate with Alando Tucker, Aaron Brooks, and Nick Fazekas for Player of the Year.  It would be a shame if he didn’t get the chance to perform in the NCAA Tournament.  Nevertheless, the Committee will only select Texas as an at-large team if their resume truly merits inclusion in the field of 65.

The Longhorns picked up a key win in Lubbock on Wednesday, but couldn’t knock off surging Kansas State at home on Saturday, dropping them to 6-2 in the Big XII.  That’s great for now, but there are still eight games left.

Keys to lock status: Beat A&M or KU for a signature win, or maintain a .500 road/neutral record (which would mean defeating Baylor and Oklahoma away from Austin).

ClemsonThe Tigers were the media darling to start the New Year.  I have to admit, Clemson is a great story.  Oliver Purnell has elevated a perennial ACC doormat into Tournament contention.  But at this point, it is only contention.

Clemson began the year with 17 straight wins.  But does anyone realize they’re just 1-5 in their last six games and now stand at 4-5 in conference play?  Because of how good the ACC is this year, the middle of the league is beating itself up.  The schedule for the Tigers down the stretch is manageable, with winnable road games at Wake Forest, BC, and Virginia Tech, and no more matchups with North Carolina.

Keys to lock status: Assure a .500 ACC record (win four more games) or win the last three games of the year (@BC, H-Miami, @Virginia Tech).

West Virginia

As good as the Mountaineers have been the last two years, this may be John Beilein’s best coaching job yet.  The talent level has dropped significantly, with the loss of Pittsnogle and Gansey in particular, but the Mountaineers are still winning a ton of games.

Last week was big for West Virginia, beating Rutgers and Seton Hall away from Morgantown.  Those wins won’t get national recognition, but they are wins that an NCAA Tournament team simply has to get.  At 7-3 in Big East play, the ‘Eers are in good shape…

…except that their non-conference profile is atrocious (#73 RPI, #293 SOS), with their best win being NC State.  In fact, WVU’s only win over a Tournament-caliber team this year came against Villanova back on January 3rd.

Keys to lock status: Beat Pittsburgh or UCLA at home this week, plus one of the following games: at Georgetown 2/12, at Providence 2/20.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s computer numbers are “Eer”-ily similar to West Virginia’s at this point (#72 RPI, #291 SOS).  The difference for the Fighting Irish is that they have two non-conference wins over marginal Tournament teams in Maryland and Alabama.

But Mike Brey’s team isn’t quite the lock that Digger Phelps would probably like them to be, especially after dropping a game to South Florida over the weekend.  The triple-digit scoring output in the Carrier Dome mid-week was terrific, but ND’s R/N record is just 3-4 as of Monday morning.

Keys to Lock Status: Beat Providence and Marquette at home (2/15 and 2/24) or win all three remaining road games (@DePaul, @Cincinnati, @Rutgers).

Michigan State

Say it ain’t so—a Tom Izzo team isn’t a lock?  MSU got a lot of early-season pub for its win over Texas at the Preseason NIT, but at this point its best non-conference win is actually a blowout of BYU in Detroit.

Big Ten play has not been so kind to the Spartans, as they have dropped a number of close games away from the Breslin Center (@Iowa, @OSU, @Illinois), and their road/neutral record now sits at just 3-6.

Keys to lock status: Beat fellow bubble-dwellers Purdue and Michigan away from home, or Wisconsin and Indiana in East Lansing.

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