Which high-profile teams should start sweating at-large bids?


Just in time for Christmas, here’s Part II of the at-large landscape.  This version focuses on teams from the BCS conference along with those from the Mountain West, Conference USA, and Atlantic 10.  As we noted in Part I, conference season begins in full force next week, and a lot of basketball remains.  The goal is to provide a quick peek into the at-large picture ahead of Bubble Banter in February.

It’s too early to lock any teams into the NCAA Tournament.  For the purposes of time and space, however, we’re not going to dwell on the at-large possibilities for teams like Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, Duke, etc.  If January turns sour, then we’ll catch up on those teams in February.  Let’s go Inside the Bracket:

Kansas State
The Wildcats play Long Beach State on Sunday for the Diamond Head Classic title in Honolulu.  A victory would add LBSU to a win list that includes Alabama and Virginia Tech (road).  K-State lost a neutral court game to West Virginia.  While the rest of the non-conference resume is light, the Wildcats enter Big 12 play in pretty good position.  West Virginia and Virginia Tech are both potential bubble teams, so a split is OK.  The key will be finding victories against Kansas, Baylor, and Missouri and finishing among the top four or five in conference play.  Kansas State opens at rival KU on January 4.  After that, it’s Missouri and Baylor at home.  So the Wildcats can set an NCAA footprint early.

Texas A.M.
If you take a closer look at the Aggies, one thing becomes apparent: an NCAA bid is in serious jeopardy.  The Aggies non-conference schedule strength (No. 337) is dreadful, and A.M.’s best win is St. John’s.  Furthering the issue is a lopsided loss at Florida and follow-up home loss to Rice.  It will take some serious work in the Big 12 to overcome the Aggies’ start.  That work begins at Baylor on January 2.  Flashback: Colorado (last March).  The Buffaloes won some big games in the Big 12 but were left home on Selection Sunday thanks to a non-conference SOS that mirrors the Aggies’ in 2011-12.

Not many people had the Sooners as a potential at-large team, so that speaks to the work done by new coach Lon Kruger.  At the same time, OU has an uphill climb.  The Sooners best wins are Oral Roberts, Washington State, and Arkansas.  Their loss is to St. Louis at the 76 Classic.  None of those victories are going to push the Sooners into the bracket (at least not right now).  A road trip to Cincinnati (Dec. 29) will be OU’s first true road game.  After that, the Sooners open Big 12 play by visiting Missouri and hosting Kansas before a trip to Oklahoma State.  If Oklahoma wants to stay in the hunt, these next two weeks could be telling.

Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have missed every non-conference opportunity except for a victory at Missouri State.  A strong schedule helps, but not without at least a few wins.  OSU has losses to Stanford, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, New Mexico, and Alabama.  The Cowboys’ at-large hopes would look a lot better if two or three of those were victories.  As it stands now, OSU needs a very strong showing the Big 12.

A home victory over Temple and a road win at UCLA are the Longhorns’ highlights.  At this point, neither is helping Texas too much – especially when you factor in losses to Oregon State and NC State at the Legends Classic.  Both of those teams are potential bubble partners.  Also of note, of Texas’ nine wins – six have come against teams ranked below 200 in the RPI.  The RPI isn’t too meaningful yet, but it provides a glimpse into the Longhorns’ schedule.  Much like OU and OSU, Texas will have to make a splash in the Big 12 to be an NCAA contender.  The road starts favorably and UT has the chance to be 3-0 in league play before heading to Missouri on January 14.

West Virginia
After falling to Baylor in overtime Saturday night in Las Vegas, the Mountaineers best win is a double-overtime victory against Kansas State.  WVU’s other losses are to Mississippi State (neutral) and Kent State (home).  Neither is a bad loss – although Kent State has struggled much more than expected.  Other notable wins include Miami-FL and Missouri State.  Would either push the Mountaineers in the Field?  Not at this point.  The good news: WVA looked like an NCAA team while losing to Baylor.  If the Mountaineers continue that type of play, there should be enough Big East victories to keep them in the hunt.

Seton Hall
The Pirates moved through non-conference play with just one loss – Northwestern.  Of course, that’s a potential bubble contender with which SHU could be compared later.  Seton Hall’s best wins are Dayton (road) and St. Joseph’s (home) – two more bubble teams.  Basically, the Pirates have won enough games (or avoided enough losses) to be in the at-large picture as conference play begins.  But there’s not a lot of beef on the resume.  SHU opens Big East play at Syracuse before hosting West Virginia and Connecticut.  The road to an NCAA berth resides on Big East results.

A quick note about the Friars.  Yes, Providence is 11-2, but with an SOS ranked No. 302, and losses to Iowa State and Northern Iowa.  The Friars’ best win is at Fairfield.  The opening Big East slate is loaded with heavy hitters.  We’ll revisit PC in mid-January.

Will this be the year Northwestern finally makes the NCAA tournament?  That’s the never-ending question for Wildcat fans.  And once again, it looks like a close call entering Big 10 play.  Northwestern has a solid win against Seton Hall at the Charleston Classic, but also a blowout loss at home to Baylor and a road loss at Creighton.  Looks very much like bubble territory.  One thing that will help is a much-improved non-conference SOS.  It all depends on conference performance.  An improved Big 10 will also help: more quality wins and fewer pitfalls.  Finding a few road victories could be the determining factor.  Northwestern opens Big 10 play at Ohio State before hosting Penn State and Illinois.

The Gophers are without Trevor Mbakwe for the remainder of the season.  While Minnesota has survived thus far (only loss is to Dayton on a neutral court), there are serious questions as to whether the Gophers can survive a Big 10 season without their best player.  Minnesota does have a win over Virginia Tech, but the rest of slate isn’t really NCAA caliber.  That means a successful conference campaign or bust.  The Big 10 road starts with trips to Illinois and Michigan, and four of the Gophers’ first six games are away from The Barn.  Minnesota likely needs a .500 finish in conference play to be an at-large contender.  Then, it will depend on how those wins and losses stack up against everyone else.

Robbie Hummel is playing well, and the Boilermakers have looked like an NCAA team for much of the season.  But their overall results are somewhat mixed.  Purdue beat a good Iona team in Puerto Rico, along with Temple.  The Boilers then lost a competitive game to Alabama before returning to the States.  Since that time, Purdue has lost at Xavier (after blowing a big lead) and to Butler in Indianapolis.  The best win in that span is Miami-FL in the Big 10/ACC challenge.  Those results suggest that Purdue needs to regroup a bit heading into Big 10 play.  Do we expect to see Purdue in the bracket on Selection Sunday?  Yes.  But the Boilermakers will need a steady performance within the conference.

The Illini opened the season as a potential bubble team.  Right now, Illinois is above the cutline, but it’s hard to see the Illini as a sure thing.  A victory over Gonzaga at home is noteworthy.  In the Illini’s other two NCAA-level games, they are 0-2 – falling in Chicago to UNLV and in St. Louis to Missouri.  Add in a 48-point survival victory over St. Bonaventure and it’s easy to see why questions remain.  Illinois has played just one true road game – a victory at rebuilding Maryland.  How the Illini handle life on the Big 10 road will be telling.

There’s plenty of excitement in Bloomington these days, and with good reason.  We won’t spend a lot of time on the Hoosiers other than to point out a non-conference SOS that ranks No. 279.  IU has left the state of Indiana just once – a solid road victory at NC State.  Everyone points to a last-second win over Kentucky.  But if that last shot falls short, the Hoosiers’ best win would be against a potential bubble team.  There’s no reason to think IU won’t be an NCAA team, and even earn a spot in the top half of the bracket.  It’s just worth noting that eight (8) of the Hoosiers’ non-conference wins have been to teams ranked 230-plus in the RPI with a combined 32-71 record.

While the Wolverines’ two losses (Duke in Maui and at Virginia) are acceptable, Michigan’s best win is Memphis (in Maui).  That’s a quality win via the “eye test,” but Memphis’ results have been largely disappointing.  Other than that, Michigan has a victory over UCLA.  Unless the Bruins rebound, it’s a win that won’t help much.  The Wolverines need to take advantage of a favorable Big 10 slate in which they host four of their first five games — the road game is at Indiana.

Oregon State
Other than a win over Texas (another bubble team), the current OSU resume offers little to help the Beavers’ at-large chances. A close loss to Vanderbilt at the Legends Classic is fine, a home loss to Idaho isn’t. OSU has a lot of work to do in Pac-12 play. It doesn’t help that the conference has once again under-performed in non-conference action.  Maybe that’s good news for the Beavers: no reason not to finish among the top three or four. It may take that type of performance to have any hope of at-large consideration.

If you watched the Huskies play Duke and Marquette in New York then you watched a team with NCAA talent.  Results, however, haven’t matched that potential.  The Huskies’ best wins are Santa Barbara and Florida Atlantic.  There’s also an overtime loss at Nevada.  Washington has the talent to win the Pac-12. Time to kick it in gear. There’s nothing from the first two months helping the Huskies.  UW better plan on a strong January and February or risk a long wait on Selection Sunday.

A good schedule will help the Wildcats.  What Arizona can’t hide, however, is that its best victory is at New Mexico State.  The Aggies may win the WAC, but how much will that victory help for an at-large berth?  Someone has to win the Pac-12 and Arizona has the talent to complete the task.  Like every other team in the league, the Wildcats need a strong conference showing.  It’s very plausible that only three or four teams ultimately make the Field of 68.

The Bears’ best win is Denver at home.  That’s solid given how the Pioneers have played thus far.  But it’s not the type of victory that will stand out in Indy come Selection Sunday.  A close loss at San Diego State is worth mentioning.  Of course, the Bears were blown out by Missouri in Kansas City, and were largely dominated Saturday at UNLV.  If this sounds like a broken record, then it does: Cal needs to be among the top two or three teams in the Pac-12 standings come March.

The Cardinal were cruising along until a home loss to Butler.  Prior to that, Stanford’s lone loss was to Syracuse in New York.  Other notable wins include Oklahoma State and North Carolina State.  Overall, it’s been a good season for Stanford, and the Cardinal should be in the mix for an NCAA bid.  The biggest concern is a non-conference schedule that ranks No. 254.  That’s not the type of number that will help if the Cardinal stumble in Pac-12 play.  Stanford needs to keep pace with the league leaders.

What’s wrong with the Commodores?  A consensus Top 10 team to open the season, Vandy has missed out on most of its non-conference chances.  Wins over Oregon State and NC State are worth noting.  But it’s the losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State that are the most head-scratching, especially since both were at home.  Vandy also lost OT games at Louisville, and at home to Xavier.  It’s hard to imagine the Commodores missing the NCAAs. There’s simply too much talent.  But Vandy has given itself less margin for error if its struggles continue in the SEC.  VU’s final chance to make a non-conference splash is at Marquette on Dec. 29.

Ole Miss has lost two straight (at So. Miss, Middle Tennessee St) and has thus really hurt its at-large profile.  The Rebels would be behind both of those teams right now.  The team’s best win is Miami-FL at home in overtime.  Ole Miss has a final non-SEC tune-up at Dayton.   With Alabama a heavy favorite to win the SEC West, Ole Miss will have to put together a strong SEC run to stay in the conversation.

Virginia Tech
Once again the Hokies prepare for life on the bubble.  The good news is that the third spot in the ACC standings is up for grabs.  The down side is that VT’s best non-conference victory is Oklahoma State – another bubble team.  The Hokies also lost to Minnesota and Kansas State, two others who could be competing for the final at-large spots.  In a schedule quirk, VT plays at Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve.  Sweeping the Cowboys would certainly help.  Then it would be up to how VT fares against teams like Virginia, Florida State, and Miami-FL in ACC play.  An upset of UNC or Duke would help, too.

The Cavaliers have a home victory over Michigan and a road win at Oregon as its top resume builders.  The latter may not help much, but overall, Virginia’s schedule has been solid – including wins over mid-majors like Drexel and George Mason.  The Cavaliers’ lone loss is against TCU at the Paradise Jam.  Virginia still has three non-conference games remaining, the most notable being at LSU on January 2.  As we said with Va. Tech, the third spot in the ACC standings is up for grabs.  Virginia needs to play well against teams battling for that spot – Florida State, Va. Tech, and Miami.

Florida State
Defense carries Florida State, but will it be enough?  Right now, no.  The Seminoles have lost all four of their games against NCAA-level teams (Harvard, Michigan State, Florida, and Connecticut).  FSU’s best win is Central Florida.  That will need to change.  Florida State is perhaps the favorite to finish third in the ACC standings, but FSU has to fare well against Virginia Tech, Miami, and Virginia to claim that spot.  They may also need to find a victory over Duke or UNC to solidify an NCAA bid.

Miami (Fla.)
The Hurricanes have a long climb to get back in the NCAA picture.  Their best wins is either UMass or at Charlotte.  Miami has lost its NCAA level games with Purdue, Memphis and West Virginia.  And all of those are potential bubble teams – especially when you add in Ole Miss.  The scenario is simple: Miami has to finish well against FSU, Virginia, and Virginia Tech.  It will also take at least one win over Carolina or Duke.

New Mexico
San Diego State and UNLV have grabbed the Mountain West headlines.  Can the Lobos be the third-place team?  They will have to be to earn an at-large bid.  Wins against Missouri State and Oklahoma State will help in at-large discussions, but probably won’t carry New Mexico into the field.  Losses are to New Mexico State at home and to Santa Clara at the 76 classic.  The Lobos final non-conference chances are a rematch at New Mexico State and a home date with St. Louis.  Within Mountain West play, it would be helpful for New Mexico to split games with UNLV and SDSU.  The Lobos could be in a tough spot if they are swept by the league contenders.

The Tigers have been one of this year’s most disappointing teams.  Beyond that, Memphis has put its NCAA hopes in jeopardy by losing to Georgetown twice, Louisville, Michigan, and Murray State.  The Tigers’ best win is Belmont at home.  Although Marshall, Southern Miss, and Central Florida are NCAA contenders in Conference USA, Memphis has greatly diminished its margin for error.  Finishing second or third and losing early in the C-USA tourney could make it difficult for the Tigers to garner at at-large bid.  That said, Memphis has the talent to dominate league play.  Do that, and the Tigers will be fine.  A Top 5 seed is highly unlikely, however.

Southern Mississippi
The Golden Eagles have quietly moved into the at-large picture heading in C-USA action.  The Eagles’ two losses are at Denver and in overtime to Murray State in the championship of the Great Alaska Shootout.  They also beat WAC favorite New Mexico State in Alaska.  What USM doesn’t have is an NCAA-level victory at this point.  Beating Ole Miss at home would qualify as the team’s best win.  The good news for USM is that Memphis, Marshall, and even Central Florida all provide chances for quality wins.  Whether or not the Eagles can take advantage of those opportunities remains the question.  As we saw with UAB last year, a regular-season title could be a big boost.

The Thundering Herd – not Memphis – has C-USA’s best non-league profile.  Marshall has wins over Cincinnati, Iona, and Belmont.  Two of those are potential NCAA teams, and the Bearcats were a projected Top 20 team to start the season.  Marshall’s losses are by two points at Ohio, and by six at Syracuse.  Up next is a trip to Belmont, followed by a home date with Akron.  Closing out the non-conference season with just two losses would put the Herd in pretty good position.  Ultimately, Marshall will need to handle Memphis and the other C-USA contenders.  But the Herd may have a little more wiggle room thanks to a strong non-conference showing.

Central Florida
UCF made headlines by upsetting Connecticut in the Bahamas before falling to Harvard in the title game.  The rest of UCF’s slate has been pretty bland – and includes a loss this past week to Louisiana-Lafayette.  The Golden Knights were dominated in a game at Florida State, so it’s hard to know whether the Knights can sustain a high level of play.  It will take consistency to make it through an improved C-USA slate that includes Marshall, Memphis, and Southern Miss.  UCF needs to finish near the top of the league standings and beat Memphis and Marshall along the way.

St. Louis
The Billikens are an interesting case study.  SLU has beaten Washington, Oklahoma, and Villanova.  They also lost a contest at Loyola-Marymount following an extended West Coast trip.  For now, it’s easy to overlook the “bad” loss because the Billikens have been consistent everywhere else. A trip to New Mexico is the final chapter in an overall successful non-conference campaign.  SLU is in good position for an at-large bid and is probably the Atlantic 10′s second best team right now (behind Xavier when the Muskies are at full force).  Temple, Dayton, and St. Joseph’s are also in the mix.  How the Billikens handle those matchups will make or break its NCAA resume.  The good news: SLU has given itself some cushion.

A borderline NCAA team right now, the Owls are always dangerous in the A-10 and have often dominated the conference tournament.  Temple lost to Purdue in Puerto Rico before winning a game against Wichita State – another potential bubble team.  Since, the Owls have lost to Bowling Green and Texas, while beating Villanova.  All that adds up to a very average résumé, which puts Temple squarely on the bubble as A-10 play opens.  Of course, the Owls’ outlook would improve dramatically of they were to beat Duke at home on January 4.

St. Joseph’s
With back-to-back victories over Villanova and Creighton, the Hawks have snuck into the at-large picture.  St. Joe’s also has a close, double-overtime loss at Iona.  The rest of the Hawks’ résumé includes losses to American and Seton Hall.  Wins over Iona and Seton Hall probably won’t carry St. Joe’s into the NCAA’s, but it does add some strength to an overall solid schedule.  A date with Harvard on New Year’s Eve is particularly interesting.  It could be a huge game for both teams.  Once the A-10 season begins, St. Joe’s will have to contend with Xavier, St. Louis, and Temple.  They probably can’t be fourth best out that group.

Once again, the Flyers are hovering around the NCAA bubble.  Dayton has a way of posting big wins and bad losses.  The Flyers have beaten Alabama by 12 and Minnesota by 16.  They’ve also lost to Miami (Ohio), Buffalo, and at Murray State (by 17 points).  Seton Hall also beat Dayton.  This type of inconsistency had kept the Flyers in the NIT.  For that to change, Dayton must prove it can play with Xavier, Temple, St. Joseph’s, and St. Louis.  And avoid losing ground to teams at the bottom of the league.  Winning away from home has been an on-going issue.

Certainly, this list is not all inclusive.  Teams will come and go throughout the year.  Bubble Banter begins in February.  By that time, we’ll have a better idea about which teams are in contention for at-large consideration.  Until then, enjoy the hoops.  Weekly brackets begin January 2.

Dave Ommen is a college basketball bracketologist. You can read more of his work at Bracketville or follow him on Twitter @BracketguyDave.