It's that time again--time to start talking about the bubble in the NCAA Tournament. In this post, I will take a general overview of the entire country, so we can get a feel for how Big Ten teams stand in their quest to be included in the field of 65.
Once you fill out the field with the winners of automatic bids, via the conference tournaments, there are 34 at-large spots available. As we overview each conference, we'll assume that the automatic bid will go to one of the teams that's already a lock, although history suggests there will be 1-2 cases where an upstart steps up and takes away a bid.
This is also a crude, limited overview in that I pretty much am going by W-L record and RPI rating. The committee will dig much deeper, and look at who's playing well in the last 10 games, who specifically have you beaten, etc. So I don't hold this analysis out as a prediction, but it will give a general lay of the land. As a final caveat, the RPI numbers I have were last updated Sunday morning, so the last two days' worth of games were not included.
On we go. The Big Ten has three teams in very good shape right now. Michigan State is a mortal lock, and Illinois and Ohio State are both in the Top 20 of the RPI. To give some sense of perspective on the RPI, the Top 40 is NCAA-caliber, 40-50 is good, but still bubble level, 50-60 starts to lean outside the bubble and over 60 means you better have something else to impress the committee with. Minnesota is sitting on #25, and also in good shape.
The Big Ten is the #2-rated conference in the RPI, behind only the ACC and ahead of the more fabled Big East. Getting 5-6 bids this year, possibly even 7 is realistic. Purdue and Wisconsin are each in the Top 40, at 36 and 37 respectively. The Badgers are reaping the rewards for playing UConn, Marquette and Virginia Tech in non-conference play. Michigan is at #48, and surprisingly Northwestern is ahead of Penn State. The Wildcats are #61, with the Lions at #69. And keep in mind these rankings came out before PSU lost to Wisconsin at home on Sunday, meaning the push for an NCAA bid is dangerously troubled in Happy Valley.
We can realistically toss Northwestern out of the at-large picture. If we assume that one of the remaining eight teams wins the league tournament, that's seven left fighting for one of 34 spots. How does the math stand up? Here's a snapshot of other conferences:
ACC: You have five teams that are locks. Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest and Florida State are all in the Top 20 of the RPI and are in. Miami and Virginia Tech are each strong at 40 & 42, while 18-6 Boston College is surprisingly weak at #51. Pencil in five at-large bids for the ACC.
Big East: Six teams are in for sure. Pitt, UConn, Villanova, Louisivlle, West Virginia and Marquette. Syracuse is in good shape. Georgetown has a strong #36 ranking, but is fading fast. They may be replaced by Cincinnati, who is at #50, but coming on strong. Notre Dame has collapsed and is a non-factor. Eight overall bids, mean seven more at-larges get filled up.
SEC: A rough year for this conference. No team individually is a lock, although we can cautiously fill in Tennessee and Florida. South Carolina and LSU, Ole Miss and Kentucky all have a chance to make noise. In a down year for the Big Ten last season, the conference got four bids (3 at-larges). It seems safe to make that same assumption for the SEC this year.
Big 12: Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri are in, especially after the latter beat the Jayhawks last night. This conference is quiet after that, as Texas has been in a funk. Between the Longhorns, Texas A&M, Baylor and Nebraska, you probably get 5 teams in, but if this conference ended up with only 4 it wouldn't shock me.
Pac-10: Another league not particularly deep. Pencil in UCLA, Washington and probably Cal. Arizona State and USC are well-situated to make a run, and Arizona still has a chance. Mark the Pac-10 a four-bid league.
Mid-Majors: The Mountain West is the major threat here, with five viable teams. The positive side, if you're a fan of a BCS conference team, is that only Utah is a lock (though BYU would also get invited if the season ended today). Watch teams like San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico. The fate of these three will determine the fate of a lot of bubble teams in the major conferences.
The Atlantic 10 will also get multiple bids. Xavier is a dark-horse Final Four threat, and Dayton will also go. A possibility for a third bid, among Temple, Rhode Island, St. Joe's.
Conference USA: More than just Memphis this time around, as UAB is also in good shape under Mike Davis.
Elsewhere, Butler, Siena and Utah State are all in very strong shape. Fans need to root for them to win their league tournaments. No one else in their respective conferences is going anywhere, but these teams would take away an at-large bid if tossed into that pool.
The Final Math: I count up that I awarded 33 bids as locked. Subtract six, since we are assuming BCS conference tournaments will be won by a team that's already a lock. Hopefully you can subtract two more in the Mountain West & Atlantic 10, but with only two locks apiece, that's far from assured. So we'll cautiously say 27 of the 34 at-large spots are filled before we get to the Big Ten.
For the time being, we'll just assume Michigan State gets the automatic (and if they don't, it will probably be someone else who doesn't need the automatic guarantee). We'll also assume that the conference will defintely grab at least four of those remaining seven spots. As of today, that would go to Illinois, Purdue and either Minnesota/Ohio State. Which leaves Wisconsin, Penn State, the Ohio State/Minnesota runner-up and Michigan all in a dogfight with teams across the nation for three bids. In all probabilty, those last three spots would get eaten up by Cinderella teams.
But in future posts, we'll go much more specifically into the resumes of the teams in the running for the very last spots in the draw. For now, this is how the math adds up. Eight Big Ten teams are gunning for about five spots, and it's anyone's game right now.