With the regular season winding down, much of the talk around men’s college basketball will begin to revolve around which schools are close to earning a berth in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, a group better known as “bubble” teams.
There are 36 at-large bids up for grabs this year, and they often go to schools that won important games at key points of the season. The NCAA Selection Committee will look at each bubble squad’s RPI and strength of schedule (SOS), both metrics that measure who a team beat and who else their previous opponents beat.
Both numbers might seem arbitrary, yet if you’re a fan of the 24-5 Colorado State Rams, a squad that hails from the less-than heralded Mountain West Conference, you will care over the next couple of weeks. As the Washington Post pointed out, no teams with an RPI of 30 or higher has missed the tournament. The Rams' RPI is currently 26, but a loss in one of their last two games could bump them out of the top 30.
Colorado State are just one of the 12 teams below who are either barely in (or on the outside looking in) before the start of conference tournaments.
Cincinnati (20-9, 11-5 American)
The Bearcats beat both of their ranked opponents this season (then-No. 19 San Diego State on Dec. 17 and at then-No. 23 SMU on Feb. 5), but outside of those wins and including their three-game losing streak last month that included a letdown to Tulane (14-14; 5-11), they might need a big showing in the American Conference tournament to earn a bid.
Rhode Island (20-7, 12-4 Atlantic 10)
The Rams have a solid RPI of 36, but their SOS is at 176, and they also lost both of their matchups to ranked opponents this season. Rhode Island is third in the Atlantic 10 behind Dayton and Davidson, and there’s a chance that only two teams from the conference make it into the tournament. If Rhode Island can outlast A10-leading Dayton on the road and earn a win over St. Joseph’s (6-10; 12-16) before a deep run in the conference tourney, that could be just enough.
Miami (FL) (18-11, 8-8 ACC)
The Canes' RPI (70) is weak, but they're SOS (63) is relatively strong thanks to playing in the ACC, a conference that currently boasts five teams ranked in the top 25. Early in the season, they beat ranked Florida and Illinois, and also bested then-No. 4 Duke by 16 points on Jan. 13. Miami also nearly gave No. 2 Virginia their first loss of the season in a double-overtime thriller before falling 89-80, making it just the sixth team to score more than 60 points against the ACC’s top defense. However, the 20-point loss to 12-17 Georgia Tech started a three-game slide at the wrong time of the season. They’ll finish the season with two-straight on the road against Pittsburgh and last-place Virginia Tech, and a loss to the Hokies could spell disaster before the tournament.
Temple (20-9, 11-5 American)
The Owls don’t score or defend particularly well, and they’ve lost to ranked opponents three times this season. But they’re RPI (40) and SOS (62) are pretty solid, and they can ride the big 77-52 victory over Kansas on Dec. 22 into the tournament with a solid showing in the American tournament.
Texas (18-12, 7-10 Big 12)
Emotions are running high in Austin, with four Longhorns ejected in Monday’s 61-59 overtime win over No. 14 Baylor. Rick Barnes’ team would be in trouble with 12 losses and a conference record two games below .500, if not for Texas’ high SOS (9). The Big 12 has five teams in the top 25 right now, so the Baylor win goes a long way after losing four-straight to ranked opponents in conference. But the Longhorns need to win at home against Kansas State and at least make it to the Big 12 conference semis to completely lockup an at-large.
Michigan State (19-10, 10-6 Big Ten)
A 30 RPI and SOS of 22, along with head coach Tom Izzo, should be enough for the Spartans. However, they have Big Ten rivals Iowa and Indiana breathing down their necks. The Spartans have lost two straight, but did beat both the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes back in January, the latter being on the road. Michigan State plays Indiana on the road to close the season, a matchup that figures to help the Hoosiers case should they prevail. What hurts the Spartans is a 1-5 record against ranked opponents, especially both losses to Maryland. In all likelihood the Spartans are in, but it’s no guarantee if they end the regular season with four straight losses and an early exit in the Big Ten tourney.
Colorado State (24-5, 11-5 Mountain West)
A great overall record boosts the Rams' resume, but the recent losses to MWC rivals San Diego State and Boise State on the road have pushed them back to third in the conference. They also haven’t played a single ranked opponent all season and have an SOS of 119. The Rams have two straight on the road to close out the regular season, and if they can win out and challenge SDSU or Boise State in the MWC finals they should make it.
Stanford (18-10, 9-7 Pac-12)
A weaker Pac-12 and barely .500 record in the conference hurts the Cardinal, as does their 56 RPI and 67 SOS. But there is a chance of redemption with their swing through Arizona on the road. Wins over Arizona State and No. 5 Arizona to end the regular season and a strong Pac-12 tourney could put them over the top, but the Cardinal need a big stretch run.
UCLA (18-12, 10-7 Pac-12)
The Bruins regular season finale against last-place USC at Pauley Pavilion won’t pad their resume much, but a loss could completely shutout their chances. A long stretch in the Pac-12 tourney is required for Steve Alford's squad.
BYU (23-8, 13-5 West Coast)
The Cougars might have punched their ticket after taking down West Coast rival and ranked Gonzaga over the weekend, but they’re 41 RPI and 76 SOS won’t exactly improve their standing with the selection committee. Reaching the conference tourney final almost certainly puts them over the top.
LSU (21-8, 10-6 SEC)
The SEC is on the verge of taking over both football and basketball, with perhaps five to seven teams making the tournament this year. The Tigers nearly upended Kentucky, falling by two points last month, and can claim their second win over a ranked opponent when they face No. 18 Arkansas on the road to end the regular season. A win over the Razorbacks even without a strong SEC tourney probably puts the Tigers in.
Purdue (19-10, 11-5 Big Ten)
The letdown over the weekend to Ohio State keeps the Boilermakers out of the top 25, and they’re 57 RPI and 80 SOS hurt their overall standing with the committee. So does the four-point loss at Minnesota last month, but Purdue has still played better than the Buckeyes in conference and it should be one of at least five or six of the Big Ten’s reps in the tournament.