Sunday, March 07, 2010

Bubble Breathes A Sigh Of Relief

Northern Iowa 67, Wichita State 52
Bubble teams around the country were sitting around nervously watching Wichita State open up a six point second half lead, but to say that Wichita State fell apart down the stretch would be an understatement. From the point where they got the lead up to six points (with a little bit more than 16 minutes left in the game), their stats over the next 12 minutes of game time were as follows: 0-for-15 shooting from the field, 5 turnovers. Northern Iowa has a really good defense (Pomeroy rated their defense 13th best in the nation even before this game), but I doubt they had any stretch all season long where they stymied a team to that extent. And those 12 minutes will probably condemn Wichita State to the NIT. Here is their final resume: 12-6 in the MVC and 25-9 overall with a 10-6 record against the RPI Top 100 that seems good until you break it down (which is why people who blindly cite RPI Top 50/100 records miss the point: the Selection Committee will break down those wins and losses in more detail). They are only 1-4 against the RPI Top 70, with that one win over Northern Iowa getting more than balanced out by three RPI 100+ losses (Evansville, Drake, Creighton). Their RPI is still 44th, but their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will fall out of the Top 55 with this loss. It's not impossible for Wichita State to make the Field of 65 if they get a ton of help during Championship Week (they need to root for Butler and Gonzaga, and they need to root against UConn, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, et cetera), but I'd bet against it. As for Northern Iowa, they were in the NCAA Tournament regardless of this game, but this will have a big impact on their seed. A loss here could have dropped them to an 8-10 seed, but they'll be much higher with the win. They are 28-4 with a 12-2 record against the RPI Top 100 and with RPI Top 50 wins over Siena, Old Dominion and Wichita State (twice), with only two RPI 100+ losses (DePaul and Evansville). Their RPI is 18th and their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will be very close to breaking into the Top 20 (although their Sagarin PREDICTOR will be out near 45th, so don't get on the UNI Final Four bandwagon, please). Tournament seeds are very fluid this time of year, so UNI fans can spend the next week rooting against teams like Texas A&M, BYU and Texas. I could see them earning anywhere between a 4 and an 8 seed, although I'd bet on a 6 or 7.

#21 UTEP 52, UAB 50
I wanted to talk about one final game from last night. UAB entered this game right on the edge of the Field of 65: close enough that a road win over UTEP probably would have put them in the bracket for the time being. And they looked in good shape with a 14 point second half lead, but the suffocating UTEP defense (in my opinion, the best in the conference) absolutely shut them down over the final 15 minutes. UAB had a grand total of 12 points over the last 17 minutes of the game, including a stretch where they hit only one shot from the field over more than ten minutes of game time. Derrick Caracter scored the final six points of the game for UTEP, including the final basket with one second remaining, as the former Louisville washout had yet another huge game for his new team. UTEP has been one of the hottest teams in the nation with 14 straight victories, and locked up the outright regular season Conference USA title with a 15-1 finish. They're now up to 7-4 against the RPI Top 100 with an RPI of 36th and a Sagarin ELO_CHESS of 34th. They will play their first C-USA tournament game on Thursday, against either SMU or Central Florida, and even with a loss there we would need a dramatic improvement in the quality of the at-large bubble for UTEP to miss the NCAA Tournament. From where I'm sitting, they look like a pretty safe at-large team. But they're the only team we can say that about in the conference, and UAB is in trouble with two straight losses to close their regular season, and a 1-5 record against the RPI Top 60 (the one win was a quality win, though, over Butler). Their RPI is still 41st, but their more important Sagarin ELO_CHESS is 50th, and I'm pretty confident that UAB would be out of the bracket if the season ended now. And that means that they have a lot of work to do, because I definitely expect the bubble to improve between now and Selection Sunday. They next play on Thursday against either Southern Miss or Tulane, and will be on pace to play Memphis in the semifinals on Friday. I don't see how UAB can make the NCAA Tournament without at least beating Memphis and getting to the C-USA championship game.

#3 Kentucky 74, Florida 66
Florida put up a fight here, pulling within two points with about five minutes left in the game, but they just went cold down the stretch, and could not take advantage of a series of offensive rebounds. This wasn't a game that Kentucky really needed, as they will lock up a 1 seed no matter what if they can win the SEC tournament. At this point, anything other than a first game washout in the SEC tournament will probably be enough to get them a 1 seed. But this game meant a lot more for a Florida team that could have nearly punched their at-large ticket if they could have pulled off the upset here. Instead they head into the SEC tournament right on the bubble, with a 9-7 SEC record and a 7-9 record against the RPI Top 100. They have quality wins over Michigan State, Florida State and Tennessee, but they also have a very bad loss to South Alabama. Their RPI is 52nd, but their Sagarin ELO_CHESS will be right around 45th, which is good enough that they would have a good shot of being an at-large team if the season ended now. But they've got work to do, beginning with Auburn in the first round of the SEC tournament on Thursday. Their second round opponent would be Mississippi State, which will give Florida a great opportunity to not only collect a quality win, but to also knock another bubble team into the NIT for good (I can't see Mississippi State making the NCAA Tournament without at least one SEC tournament win). The question will be if Florida can make the NCAA Tournament if they fall in the SEC semifinals, and we won't know the answer to that for a few days.

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