This week's College Hoops Barometer takes on a bit of a different format. We'll look at teams fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth, picking apart their strengths, assessing their weaknesses and ultimately deciding which teams will make the dance, and which teams will end up on the cutting room floor. Each set is in no particular order, and the conference tournaments can certainly alter these predictions.
LAST BUBBLE TEAMS IN
The Tigers reached that magical 20-win plateau and finished 9-7 in ACC conference play. Their biggest issue in getting into the tourney will be their lack of signature wins. Clemson played a soft non-conference schedule; the best non-conference win came against Seton Hall, a non-tournament team from the Big East. On the plus side, Clemson has beaten Virginia Tech and Boston College, teams with near-identical records and similar tourney hopes. The victory over Virginia Tech came in its last regular-season conference game Saturday. Clemson will get a bye in the first round of the ACC Tournament, but might still need one more win to seal an NCAA tournament trip.
2. Saint Mary's
"Gaels Gone Wild" has been the mantra for Saint Mary's this season, and it might be fitting given its recent rollercoaster of a schedule. After starting the year 22-4, including an early victory over St. John's, the Gaels have dropped four of their last six, including two to Gonzaga. The latter defeat gave the Zags the West Coast Conference title and an automatic berth to the tourney, leaving St. Mary's to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. However, six losses came against quality opponents, including BYU, San Diego State, Utah State, Vanderbilt and the aforementioned Gonzaga. Only a Feb. 16 loss to San Diego looms as a truly poor loss. As such, despite failing to get the automatic berth, the Gaels should still find themselves dancing next week.
Let's take the positives first: the Bulldogs are 20-10 overall, 9-7 in SEC play, and have no bad non-conference losses, losing to Notre Dame, Temple and Xavier. They had a much tougher in-conference schedule than fellow bubble team Alabama, facing Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt twice. The bad news for the Bulldogs: they have one signature win, over Kentucky, and lost Saturday to Alabama. However, the 20 regular season wins and an above .500 winning percentage in their side of the conference gives them just enough to squeak into the tourney.
Marquette gets some major slack because it plays in the toughest conference in the land, the Big East. Barring an insane run in the Big East tournament, the Golden Eagles likely would be the last team from the conference to get into the dance, giving the Big East 11 teams in the tournament. Such a monstrous number leaves Marquette vulnerable to surprise conference champions pushing them out. Recent losses to Seton Hall and Cincinnati don't help, but the Golden Eagles have beaten Notre Dame, Syracuse and Connecticut, all in the Top 25. The Golden Eagles deserve a bid, but be wary of any madness during championship week, which could negatively affect Marquette's bid.
Michigan beat Michigan State twice this season, as well as Clemson and possible NCAA Tournament squad Harvard. That's pretty much the extent of its signature victories, though the Wolverines do not have any truly bad losses either. You can only win the games you play, and the Wolverines are 19-12 with a 9-9 conference record. They've won eight of their last 11, with those losses coming against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois. Michigan might not have the sexiest resume, but it also doesn't have the bad losses that could plague some of the teams on the wrong side of the equation.
Alabama gets no respect, largely because the SEC West is atrocious. Should the Tide make the big dance, they will undoubtedly be the only team from that side of the conference in the tournament. Still, they are 12-4 in the conference, having beaten Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. They have some bad losses in Providence, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Seton Hall and the formidable St. Peter's Peacocks. They've been about as up-and-down as a tournament team can be, but their stellar conference record should be enough to push them into the tourney.
LAST BUBBLE TEAMS OUT
The Bears came into the season with much hope; a program on the rise, an Elite Eight appearance just a season ago and arguably the top freshman recruit in the nation in Perry Jones. However, Baylor lost interior presence in Ekpe Udoh to the NBA and Josh Lomers to graduation. Quincy Acy did not have the breakout season that many had hoped, and LaceDarius Dunn was suspended for the beginning of the season and shot a meager 40.4 percent from the field this season overall. The key statistic for the Bears that will likely keep them out of the big dance: 7-9 in conference action. The committee dislikes putting teams into the tourney with losing conference records.
2. Virginia Tech
The Hokies find themselves in a familiar place, firmly on the bubble once again. It seems as though every season, coach Seth Greenberg has to pine for his team's inclusion. If not for the win against Duke, the Hokies definitely woould be out. As it is, they have had some bad conference losses, including most recently to Clemson and two losses to Boston College, two other teams fighting for a tourney berth. Va Tech has also dropped two games to bottom-feeder Virginia, as well as a 72-57 drubbing at the hands of 12-17 Georgia Tech. In sum, the Hokies do not appear to have enough signature victories to warrant a slot in the Final 68.
3. Michigan State
If the Spartans make the tournament, it will likely be on reputation alone, because 17-13 overall with a .500 conference record does not scream tournament worthiness. In a game pitting bubble teams against each other, the Spartans dropped their last conference game against Michigan, 70-63, on Saturday. Their best wins have come over Washington and Wisconsin, but they lost twice to the Wolverines, as well as once to Iowa. They have been inconsistent all season, and Tom Izzo's squad should be left for the NIT barring a Big Ten tournament surge.
The Trojans have impressive highs and abysmal lows on their resume. But USC falls short due to the plethora of bad losses on its resume. Southern Cal lost to Rider, Bradley (4-14 in the Missouri Valley Conference) and TCU (1-15 in the Mountain West), as well as Pac-10 cellar dwellers Oregon (twice) and Oregon State. On the plus side, the Men of Troy have beaten conference foes and NCAA tournament squads in Arizona, Washington and UCLA, and also conquered Texas early in the 2010-2011 campaign. Still, at 18-13 overall, USC likely needs at least one more signature win to prove it is worthy.
5. Boston College
BC has some bad losses: Rhode Island, Harvard and Yale. The irony of the latter two is that coach Steve Donahue coached at Cornell last season and had no problem dispatching those same foes when he was with the Big Red. The Eagles beat Virginia Tech twice, but also lost to Clemson once and twice to the Miami Hurricanes. BC's best non-conference win came against Texas A&M, which has nearly slipped out of the Top 25. A Top 50 RPI helps, but conference mediocrity in a weak ACC might not get the Eagles the respect or consideration they feel they deserve.
A once dominant program under John Calipari, the Tigers are instead teetering on the edge of oblivion under coach Josh Pastner. Cutting back on the hyperbole a bit, it's not that the Tigers have been horrible; a 22-9 record is certainly more than respectable. They have beaten UAB twice, as the Blazers sit at 22-7 overall and 12-4 in C-USA. However, the Tigers' biggest non-conference win came over Gonzaga, a bubble team themselves until defeating Saint Mary's to capture the WCC crown. On the flip side of the equation, Memphis lost to 16-14 ECU and 13-17 Rice in the past few weeks. Overall, the Tigers finished with the fourth-best record in Conference USA, which is not exactly known as a power conference. It seems that Memphis needs a C-USA title game appearance at the very least, if not a win in the championship, to ensure an NCAA bid.