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The Watch: Mississippi State’s is eyeing Missouri’s tourney bid

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No, the Bulldogs aren’t in line for an NCAA tournament. Yet. But a productive week and a slump by the Tigers could crack open the door.

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NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the aftermath of a loss to Ole Miss, we cautioned Mizzou fans against overreacting. Sure, the loss was bad, but the Tigers’ credentials for the NCAA tournament only sustained a minor ding. Oh, and Michael Porter Jr. was cleared to return. No big deal, right?

Heading into Rupp Arena on Saturday night, there was a scenario where Mizzou could snare a win — and a season sweep — of Kentucky, securing its postseason bonafides as it added an elite piece to the mix.

That’s not what happened. Instead, a perfect storm ravaged MU in a 21-point loss. When Sunday dawned, Cuonzo Martin’s crew remained a No. 7 seed in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s field. But the mood has shifted. Along with the Tigers on to the bubble. Late Sunday night, when the smoke cleared from the weekend, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm pegged the Tigers as a No. 10 seed.

Mired in a three-game losing streak, the Tigers have slid almost 20 spots in the RPI over the last two weeks. Where there was once a relatively navigable path to a double-bye in the SEC tournament, MU will need ample help during the final week fo the regular season. In fact, KenPom’s cumulative win expectancies project the Tigers to head to St. Louis with a .500 record.

All total, the Tigers’ near-lock status has slipped a bit. A loss on Tuesday at Vanderbilt would be the appropriate time to pull a fire alarm.

But there’s another reason for jitters: an SEC team is moving into position to pull off a heist, pilfering one of an expected eight NCAA tournament bids for the conference. The suspect lives in Starkvegas.

Don't’ believe me, look at the top-line numbers for SEC teams trying to make a case for the dance.

SEC Bubble Picture

Rank Team Resume Average Quality Average Super Average Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2 Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4
Rank Team Resume Average Quality Average Super Average Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2 Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4
10 Auburn 8.7 15 11.8 8-5 4-0 6-0 6-0
13 Tennessee 10.3 18.7 14.5 5-7 6-0 7-0 3-0
19 Kentucky 16 21.3 18.7 3-8 9-1 5-0 3-0
28 Texas A&M 27.7 32.3 30 5-7 6-3 3-1 4-0
31 Arkansas 30 37 33.5 5-7 3-1 7-1 5-0
32 Florida 39.7 27.7 33.7 8-4 3-7 2-0 5-0
41 Alabama 40.3 48 44.2 5-6 5-5 5-1 2-0
44 Missouri 42 47.3 44.7 6-7 4-2 4-2 3-0
55 Mississippi State 54.3 53.7 54 3-6 4-2 4-0 9-0
64 Georgia 60 72 66 4-8 4-2 4-2 4-0
65 LSU 66.3 66.3 66.3 6-6 2-5 2-1 6-0
www.barttorvik.com

No, as we sit here today, Mississippi State is on the outside looking in. Their team sheet, as you’ll see below, outlines what’s holding the Bulldogs back. First, their strength of schedule is putrid, the byproduct of the nation’s No. 306 non-con slate. Second, the Bulldogs are light on Quadrant 1 victories: Arkansas, South Carolina and at Texas A&M.

The last week of the regular season, however, offers Ben Howland’s team a chance to make their case. They start out at 9-7 and on track for a No. 5 seed in the SEC tournament. On Tuesday, State hosts Tennessee (No. 12 RPI) and a road trip to LSU (No. 81 RPI) on the season’s final day — two chances for quality wins that could enhance their profile in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.

Here are the scenarios:

No. 1: win vs. Tennessee, loss vs. LSU

  • Record: 22-9 overall, 10-8 SEC
  • RPI: 56
  • SOS: 96
  • Quad 1: 4-6

No. 2: loss vs. Tennessee, win vs. LSU

  • Record: 22-9 overall, 10-8 SEC
  • RPI: 62
  • SOS: 96
  • Quad 1: 3-7

No. 3: loss vs. Tennessee, loss vs. LSU

  • Record: 21-10 overall, 9-9 SEC
  • RPI: 72
  • SOS: 96
  • Quad 1: 3-7

No. 4: win vs. Tennessee, win vs. LSU

  • Record: 23-8 overall, 11-7 SEC
  • RPI: 42
  • SOS: 96
  • Quad 1: 4-6

The last scenario is a forecast to keep an eye on. The Bulldogs improvement in a results-based index would make their case stronger. And while the non-con schedule remains a drag, a top-four finish and a double-bye in the SEC tournament could offset playing five opponents whose RPIs are below No. 300.

Hold it up against Mizzou’s body of work and the resemblance blurs a little bit.

Right now, Mizzou’s projected to split with Vanderbilt and Arkansas, landing at 9-9, owning the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament, settling in the low 40s of the RPI and an SOS around No. 30. In that case, MU would hope its stronger slate and two more Quadrant 1 wins carry the day among assembled athletic directors.

To be clear: the odds of it actually transpiring are slim. State’s win expectancies against the Volunteers (47 percent) and Tigers (43 percent) are on the cusp of toss-up territory. And it’s more probable that the Bulldogs split and see their chase for a bid — however remote — moves Scottrade Center.

Still, so much of our focus falls on the teams in front of Mizzou and impeding its path to a double-bye. But, as I’ve said on Dive Cuts, the SEC race is one where the chase pack hasn’t strung itself out. And amid all the jostling, someone can stumble as the pack begins to kick in the final turn.

To torture the metaphor some more, the SEC slate is one big heat, with only so many slots available in the next round. If you’re not careful, what looks relatively safe passage forward can end with shock and dismay at the finish.

Finally, this is the swan song for The Watch this season. The mayhem of the conference tournaments is something beyond forecasting, so it makes sense to wrap up. It’s going out with a heavy emphasis on SEC games and bubble tilts, and I’m glad you’ve tagged along for 17 weeks.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

USC at UCLA | 9:15 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN

On Saturday, six teams tangle in the equivalent of three play-in games: North Carolina State confronts Louisville. Baylor enters the Octagon of Doom to tangle with Kansas State. Finally, it’s a cross-town showdown in the Pac-12.

For UCLA, this season was a bridge year. The Trojans, however, were cloaked in preseason expectation: a top-15 ranking and a contender with Arizona for supremacy in the Pac-12.

By early January, USC bottomed out. A 103-93 loss to Princeton by a group topped as a top-15 team will do that. De’Anthony Melton, caught up in the sport’s pay-for-pay imbroglio, watched from the bench. USC didn’t have a defensive identity and seemed poised to become one of the nation’s biggest disappointments.

But the found an identity during Pac-12 play, ranking second for adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Melton is gone, but Jordan McLaughlin stepped forward.

Over the past two weeks, the Trojans have won four consecutive games, creeping just a half-game behind the Wildcats, who, if you can’t tell, are breaking up in the atmosphere. Allonzo Trier was suspended for use of a banned substance. But the bigger news might be the implosion of coach Sean Miller’s career after ESPN reported the FBI recorded him on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for the services of freshman phenom Deandre Ayton.

It’s unlikely USC can win the regular-season title, but the crises in Tucson create an opening.

Yet the Trojans find themselves perilously close to the bubble. How?

To the team sheet we go.

The big numbers — results-based and predictive-based metrics — are sound. A cursory look shows a solid 4-5 record against Quadrant 1 foes. But their best win is on a neutral floor over Middle Tennessee. After that? New Mexico State. Also on a neutral floor. The best high-major win: against Utah on Sunday, a Utes squad that’s only 57th in the RPI. And there’s that pesky loss to an Ivy League team sitting at No. 228 in the index.

It hasn’t helped the Trojans’ case that Texas A&M and Oklahoma have slid on to the bubble themselves, while SMU and Vanderbilt — both projected to finish in the upper half of their respective leagues — have tanked.

All the while, the weakness of the Pac-12 left USC scrounging for quality wins after an inconsistent start. As long as the Trojans play well, they should sneak in, potentially knocking out their arch rival in the process.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Florida Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

No. 23 Kentucky at Florida | 11 a.m. CT Saturday, CBS

On Monday, we can’t see the tipping points in the SEC race, so we turn to a reliable standby.

And its outcome has the potential to impact whether Mizzou gets an extra day of rest going into the SEC tournament.

First, let's work through the mechanics.

Mizzou must sweep the week. It’s non-negotiable. Next, Florida can’t split its games against Alabama, whose currently favored, or the Wildcats. Let’s say KenPom’s algorithm holds up, and Florida comes home at 9-8 in the standings. A Kentucky win would push the ’Cats, who should roll over Ole Miss, to 11-7, drop Florida to .500. And voila a path opens up for Missouri, who would be sitting at 10-8, could move into the fourth and final double-bye.

That’s not the only scenario we can concoct, but it’s illustrative the butterfly effects we’ll see through the week.

On the floor, Kentucky’s run of play hints at a young team putting together the pieces for a March run. Quade Green is making jump shots. PJ Washington is scoring without direct plays run for him to generate quality looks. And Jared Vanderbilt’s emerged as a monster on the offensive glass. Heck, against Mizzou, Hamidou Diallo — an 18.5-percent shooter from behind the arc — couldn’t miss from long range.

Practically, opponents can’t sag off and clog up the middle. With Green pumping in steady production, UK can put another ballhandler on the floor, easing pressure on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to create offense out of high pick-and-rolls. The spacing also opens up wider gaps for Diallo and Knox, neither of whom has honed their ability to create their own shots, to attack off pass outs. And it forces overrotation, allowing Washington to cut into voids or have more room to operate when his number is called for post entries.

Fittingly, a loss to Florida last month epitomized the ’Cats’ woes. After UK fell in Columbia, we parsed out how this edition lacked the truly elite talent that’s defined John Calipari’s tenure in Lexington, and even the coach himself sounded resigned to entering the dance in an 8-9 game.

Instead, Kentucky may finish third, earn a protected seed and become a No. 4 seed that no one wants to see over the next couple weeks. Along the way, they could also lend Missouri a hand by jostling Florida out of the Tigers’ way.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: Rhode Island at St. Bonaventure Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Davidson at St. Bonaventure | 8 p.m. CT Tuesday, CBS Sports Network

An evergreen cause celebre is the annual exclusion of a quality mid-major team for the inclusion of a mediocre high-major in the bracket.

This season, a slew of programs who could earn that sad distinction, but the top-three are easy: Middle Tennessee, Nevada and St. Bonaventure. The Watch has already advised you to check out the first two, so I’d suggest catching the Bonnies — and guard Jaylen Adams — twice this week.

Again. To the the team sheet.

A couple weeks ago, Chris Dobbertean, who’s SB Nation’s esteemed bracketologist, joined me on Dive Cuts and we tackled the implications of the NCAA’s new Quadrant system. The selection committee and power that be in Indy pitched it as a leveling tool for programs like St. Bonaventure, quality teams whose conference slate doesn’t always offer up beaucoup shots at Quad 1 wins. The PR rollout also emphasized the addition of predictive-based metrics on the top-line.

When it released its top-16 seeds two weeks ago, traditional tools — RPI, SOS and quality wins — held sway. And that’s good news for coach Mark Schmidt’s group. The open question is how the committee would view the Bonnies’ body of work using a new organizing method. A season-split with Rhode Island is an obvious boon. A 10-point loss to TCU on a neutral floor is respectable. But what about an 11-point win over Buffalo, who’s the favorite in the weaker Mid-American Conference? Or Vermont, a top-50 program who just so happens to play in the America East?

If people are going to stump for the Blue Raiders or Wolf Pack, they should be aware that neither has as many Quadrant 1 wins — four — as St. Bonaventure. But if we’re advocating for expanded use of analytics and advanced metrics, that puts a smudge on the Bonnies’ resume — their average in predictive indexes lags well behind Middle and Nevada -- to go with a trio of sub-100 losses to Dayton, Saint Joseph’s and Niagra.

Now, compare St. Bonaventure’s resume to Louisville, who many bracketologists have as the last team in the field.

The Bonnies own better results-based numbers but are way behind in BPI, Sagarin and KenPom. The Cardinals also haven’t lost to a team rated lower than 50th in the RPI. But who has Louisville really beaten? It has one win over the RPI top-50 and missed out on 10(!) chances to score the kind of quality wins that are so plentiful in a league like the ACC.

Maybe St. Bonaventure’s relative bland schedule has protected the Bonnies. The predictive metrics, which are adjusted based on opponents, tell us St. Bonaventure would be the 12th best team in the ACC and sitting at 6-10 in the standings an out of the NCAA tournament picture. But as a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, it’s forced to argue a negative. And it’s not Schmidt’s fault if high-majors don’t want to schedule his team, which also gets locked out of premier exempt events during non-conference play.

If the past is any guide, though, anything but an A-10 tournament title will leave St. Bonaventure on the stoop. But watch the Bonnies play once. It might be your only chance.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other matchups that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

Monday

  • No. 5 Duke at Virginia Tech, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 12 Texas Tech at No. 20 West Virginia, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Texas at No. 6 Kansas, 8 p.m., ESPN

Tuesday

  • Florida at Alabama, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 16 Tennessee at Mississippi State, 6 p.m., SEC Network
  • Missouri at Vanderbilt, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 14 Auburn at Arkansas, 8 p.m., SEC Network
  • Oklahoma at Baylor, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Kansas State at TCU, 8 p.m., ESPNU
  • Miami (Fla.) at North Carolina, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • Boise State at San Diego State, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Wednesday

  • Texas A&M at Georgia, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
  • No. 3 Villanova at Seton Hall, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Thursday

  • No. 1 Virginia at Louisville, 7 p.m., ESPN 3
  • Western Kentucky at Middle Tennessee, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Friday

  • No. 17 Rhode Island at Davidson, 7 p.m., ESPN

Saturday

  • No. 20 West Virginia at Texas, 11 a.m., ESPN
  • Virginia Tech at Miami (Fla.), 11 a.m., ESPN2
  • Alabama at Texas A&M, 1 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 18 Clemson at Syracuse, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • Baylor at Kansas State, 1 p.m., ESPN
  • Mississippi State at LSU, 1 p.m., SEC Network
  • Creighton at Marquette, 1:30 p.m., Fox
  • TCU at No. 12 Texas Tech, 3 p.m., ESPN
  • Arkansas at Missouri, 5 p.m., ESPN2
  • Louisville at North Carolina State, 5 p.m., ESPN
  • Butler at Seton Hall, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • No. 9 North Carolina at No. 5 Duke, 7:15 p.m., ESPN

Sunday

  • No. 10 Cincinnati at No. 11 Wichita State, 11 a.m., CBS

THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!