It's the first year of the 68-team field, and we quite possibly might have just nine conferences with multiple tourney bids. Maybe the West Coast Conference gets a second ... but that's about it. Probably not what the NCAA had in mind when they added three extra bids.
OR ... it was exactly what they had in mind.
A couple of months ago, I started these Rock-M-tology pieces by drawing up what I would do if I were the NCAA Committee ... what you see below is 100% what I think the committee will do.
Last 8 In
Illinois (19-13) - The Illini are 6-10 in their last 16 games, dropping them from "13-3 and possible Top Four Seed" to Last 8 In. But they're almost certainly still in thanks to the wins. They knocked off North Carolina on November 30, back when it was much easier to do so, but it still counts. Throw in wins over Wisconsin and three bubble teams (Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan), and I think they're safe. How are they ranked so high in Pomeroy's rankings, by the way? They are 2-8 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. Pomeroy's rankings see a team that was very, very close to something like a 24-8 record and solid seed ... and they could be a team with solid first round upset potential, assuming they actually make the field.
Colorado (20-13) - We've all considered the Buffs safe since they beat Kansas State for a third time, but ... their peripherals still really aren't that strong. RPI: 65th. Pomeroy rank (which the committee obviously does not take into account): 49th. In the end, their good wins (Texas, K-State x3, Mizzou) will likely get them in, though the fact that they lost to two other bubble teams (Harvard by 16, Georgia by 9, both on the road) and lost to San Francisco, Oklahoma and Iowa State to boot, still keeps them in the Last 8 In.
Virginia Tech (21-11) - Every time I think the Hokies are safe, they do something to almost change my mind. Their ACC tourney showing, in which they beat Florida State, likely keeps them on the right side of the bubble for once, but their 4-8 record against teams either in the tourney or on the First 7 Out list makes it shaky. (Their two losses to Virginia and 15-point loss at terrible Georgia Tech doesn't help either.) They beat Duke, knocked off Florida State twice and handled bubble team Penn State by 10 points ... but they're still not entirely safe, are they?
Georgia (21-11) - RPI: 48th. Pomeroy rank: 57th. Best wins according to RPI: Kentucky and ... UAB. Lost to bubble team Alabama twice. Georgia will be a very interesting test case in terms of teams that have few great wins and no terrible losses versus teams that have plenty of both (i.e. USC). If, earlier in the bracket, we see Mizzou (another team with little greatness and no terrible losses) end up with 10- or 11-seed, then Georgia's screwed. I like to reward teams for taking care of business against lesser teams, and UGa certainly did that ... but if they're out, they can blame that whole "3-11 versus potential tourney teams" thing.
Michigan State (18-14) - The NCAA committee typically rewards teams who challenge themselves in non-conference, and State certainly did that. Their four non-con losses came to Duke, Texas, Syracuse and UConn, all likely 1-3 seeds. They also beat Washington along the way. But ... is that enough to get the benefit of the doubt? The rest of their non-conference schedule was easy enough to sink their RPI ranking to 45th, and their record against tourney/bubble teams* is 5-13. The fact that they've played 18 games against such teams likely gets them in -- as does the fact that they whipped Purdue in the Big Ten Tourney -- but ... yuck. They've gone 7-9 in their last 16 games, and when they look bad, they look horrific.
* When I say "tourney/bubble teams," I'm not counting those who won automatic bids from mid-major conferences. Only teams who would be in the tourney/bubble without an automatic bid. In other words, Michigan State's win over Oakland doesn't win them any bonus points.
Clemson (21-11) - Clemson is another team that is probably better than their record -- they were 0-6 versus RPI Top 50 teams, but three of those losses (to UNC, UNC and Old Dominion) came by a total of eight points. In all, they are 2-6 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, and if they come up short of an NCAA bid, it's their own fault -- 3-5 in such games would have probably done the deed. (Especially since two of those games came against South Carolina and Virginia.)
USC (19-14) - I still have no idea where USC came from. When I initially drew this up, they weren't even among the First 8 Out. But I know that Joe Lunardi has talked to enough committee members over the years that, if he says they're potentially in, the committee is probably heavily considering them. The Trojans have six -- SIX -- losses to teams ranked 105th or worse in RPI. They lost to Rider and Oregon at home ... they lost to Oregon, Oregon State and TCU on the road ... they lost to Bradley -- 12-20 BRADLEY! But since they beat Texas, we're supposed to forget all of that. It really annoys me to put them in here, but if the committee values "big wins" (and ignores terrible losses) as much as Lunardi says, then I can't see the committee putting in potentially more deserving teams like Harvard or VCU in over them. Bleh.
Penn State (19-13) - But at least USC played somebody. Every year the committee seems to send a message to a major conference team (usually Virginia Tech) for not playing anybody in non-conference. And to be sure ... Penn State played nobody. Their five toughest non-conference games: at RPI No. 61 Virginia Tech (L, 69-79), at No. 83 Ole Miss (L, 71-84), No. 97 Fairfield (W, 64-49), No. 98 Maryland (L, 39-62!!!), and No. 106 Duquesne (77-73). They lost to three major conference opponents by an average of 15.3 points and lost to 15-15 MAINE (by 10 points at home) ... and they're a tourney team? Seriously? Again, I assume they're in ... and it kind of makes me sick. Yes, they've done better recently, and yes, they've beaten five tourney/bubble teams (Wisconsin x2, Michigan State x2, Illinois). Yes, that means they're 3-1 versus "last in/first out" teams. But ... 62-39! To Maryland! 7-4 against a terrible non-conference slate! PLEASE do not reward this.
If Dayton beats Richmond in today's Atlantic 10 finals (and it's not currently looking too likely), I'm curious to see what happens. In theory, the first team on the chopping block is Penn State ... but the committee is lazy enough that I could see them putting Penn State in, win or lose, just so they don't have to redraw the bracket. (They're probably not even going to end up in the First Four, honestly.) But what that probably means is, if Dayton wins, either USC or Clemson is out.
I think it's ridiculous that conferences are still allowed to play late enough on Sunday that the committee has to make some assumptions/guesses. (if you insist on playing your finals on Sunday, you should be forced to start your game no later than noon ET.)
8 7 Out
VCU (23-11) - How VCU fares in their quest for an at-large bid will probably be determined by how the committee views Old Dominion, George Mason and UCLA. If UCLA gets a 6- or 7-seed, or if GMU or ODU get a 7- instead of an 8-10 ... then VCU's wins over the three of them might be impressive enough to get them in the field. And again, if I were the committee, this is exactly the type of team I would attempt to reward -- they killed Wake Forest (yes, so did every team in the ACC, but ... it still would have been telling if they didn't), barely lost to Tennessee and beat UCLA in an early-season tournament and were bold enough to play at Richmond and UAB (both losses). Jerry Palm has them in the field, and I'd be totally okay with that ... but in the end, the fact that they finished the season 5-6 (with losses to Northeastern, Drexel and James Madison) will probably do them in. On February 9, they were 20-6 and 12-2 in the stellar Colonial, and they were probably safe. But they just didn't finish strong.
Harvard (21-6) - Man, would I love it if the committee rewarded Harvard as well. They went 2-3 versus tourney/bubble teams (3-5 if you count Princeton as a tourney/bubble team) with wins over Boston College (by 9 on the road) and Colorado (16 at home!) and a tight road loss to Michigan (65-62). Against teams ranked below 50th in the RPI, the Crimson went 20-1, with only a 1-point loss to chief rival Yale (a team that also beat Boston College). As an Ivy League team, how can you possibly put together an at-large resume better than that? But the fact that they're an Ivy team (go ahead and try to find the last time the committee gave the Ivy an at-large bid) will probably do them in.
If I'm the committee, I'm putting VCU and Harvard in instead of USC and Penn State ... but I assume the worst.
Alabama (21-11) - Like Penn State, Alabama played nobody -- and beat nobody -- in non-conference play. Their five toughest non-conference opponents according to RPI: at No. 12 Purdue (L, 47-66), No. 62 Oklahoma State (L, 60-68), No. 92 St. Peter's (L, 49-50), vs No. 102 Seton Hall (L, 78-83), No. 132 Lipscomb (W, 71-51). Oh yeah, and they also lost to Providence and Iowa. Their two most impressive non-con wins: Lipscomb and SE Louisiana. That is disgusting. They beat Georgia twice in the last week and ended up going 4-4 against tourney/bubble teams, but ... I just can't see the committee rewarding either that non-conference slate or that non-conference performance.
Boston College (20-12) - Knowing how the committee tends to overvalue performance in the Big East and ACC Tournaments (I have UConn as a 2-seed in the draw below because they won the Big East Tourney, and for no other reason -- they should be a 3-4, but we know what's coming), I have to figure their ridiculous, 23-point loss to Clemson on Friday might have eliminated them from the field. In all, BC went 3-8 versus tourney/bubble teams -- no better or worse than some teams on the "in" list -- but the Clemson loss, combined with a gross-looking loss to Yale, potentially does them in. Their sweep of Maryland would have helped them a lot, had Maryland not decided to eliminate themselves from the bubble by losing six of nine to finish the season.
St. Mary's (23-8) - If St. Mary's ends up out, they only have themselves to blame. A month ago, they were totally safe. They were 22-4, 10-1 in the WCC, and a likely 8-9 seed. Then they lost to San Diego, Utah State, and Gonzaga twice. The loss to 6-24 San Diego was the worst loss of any tourney/bubble team. The 15-point loss at Portland didn't help. Their record against tourney/bubble teams (2-6) really shouldn't put them below teams like Georgia or Clemson ... but a) four of those losses were by double digits, and b) San Diego! If I were a one-man NCAA Committee, I would always try to give mid-majors the benefit of the doubt compared to unimpressive major conference teams like the ones above, but ... San Diego! San Diego.
UAB (22-8) - UAB is another team that really only has themselves to blame. They lost to Memphis twice by four points or less, they lost to Georgia by two, they lost to Southern Miss by four, they lost to East Carolina by five (in overtime), and they lost to Arizona State by three. Of course, they also won eight games by five points or less, so the problem here might just be that they were not a good enough team to take care of business by a comfortable margin. In all, they're just 1-4 versus tourney/bubble teams, and that's probably not going to get the job done.
Missouri State (25-8) - SMS played one tourney/bubble team and lost, by four at Tennessee. Their main problem is not that they have a bad resume ... it's that they don't have a resume at all. Their losses are mostly semi-respectable -- at Tennessee, at Oklahoma State, at Valpo, at Tulsa, at Indiana State, at Evansville (okay, that's not at all semi-respectable), Northern Iowa, and in the MVC finals to Indiana State, but with a schedule this weak, SMS had no margin for error ... and they lost to Tennessee. SMS may be the Post-Dispatch's new favorite team, but ... no.
11 - Big East
7 - Big Ten
6 - Big 12
5 - ACC, SEC
4 - Pac-10
3 - Mountain West, Atlantic 10
2 - Colonial
FIRST FOUR (in Dayton)
Clemson (21-11) vs Penn State (19-13)
Michigan State (18-14) vs USC (19-14)
UA-Little Rock (17-16) vs Alabama State (15-17)
Hampton (23-8) vs UT-San Antonio (16-13)
SOUTHWEST REGIONAL (in San Antonio)
1 Kansas (32-2) vs 16 UALR / Alabama State
8 George Mason (26-6) vs 9 Villanova (21-11)
5 Vanderbilt (23-10) vs 12 Virginia Tech (21-11)
4 Wisconsin vs 13 Memphis (25-9)
6 Cincinnati (25-8) vs 11 Michigan (19-13)
3 Florida (26-6) vs 14 St. Peter's (20-13)
7 Xavier (24-7) vs 10 Florida State (21-10)
2 UConn (26-9) vs 15 Wofford (21-12)
in Washington, DC
WEST REGIONAL (in Anaheim)
1 Duke (29-4) vs 16 UC-Santa Barbara (16-13)
8 Temple (25-7) vs 9 Missouri (22-10)
5 Arizona (27-7) vs 12 Clemson / Penn State
4 Louisville (25-9) vs 13 Bucknell (25-8)
6 Washington (23-10) vs 11 Illinois (19-13)
3 BYU (29-4) vs 14 Long Island (27-5)
7 Kansas State (21-10) vs 10 Tennessee (19-14)
2 Notre Dame (26-6) vs UNC-Asheville (16-13)
SOUTHEAST REGIONAL (in New Orleans)
1 Ohio State (31-2) vs 16 Hampton / UT-San Antonio
8 Utah State (29-3) vs 9 Gonzaga (23-9)
5 St. John's (21-11) vs 12 Michigan State / USC
4 Kentucky (24-8) vs 13 Princeton (24-6)
6 UNLV (24-8) vs 11 Colorado (20-13)
3 Syracuse (26-7) vs 14 Indiana State (19-13)
7 West Virginia (20-11) vs 10 Richmond (26-7)
2 North Carolina (26-6) vs 15 Northern Colorado (19-10)
EAST REGIONAL (in Newark)
1 Pittsburgh (27-5) vs 16 Boston U. (21-13)
8 UCLA (22-10) vs 9 Butler (22-9)
in Washington, DC
5 Texas A&M (23-8) vs 12 Belmont (30-4)
4 Purdue (25-7) vs 13 Oakland (24-9)
6 Georgetown (21-10) vs 11 Georgia (21-11)
3 Texas (27-7) vs 14 Morehead State (22-9)
7 Old Dominion (27-6) vs 10 Marquette (20-14)
2 San Diego State (30-2) vs 15 Akron (22-12)
My At-First-Glance Final Four
Florida, Duke, Ohio State, Pittsburgh
Second glance: Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, BELMONT!!!
Missouri's inevitable path to destiny™ (ahem)
Temple, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, Florida, Ohio State. Easy peasy.