Thursday, February 22, 2007

First Edition of "Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble" - The Big East Bubble Teams

Villanova’s RPI rank, as of Monday, February 19, 2007, is #19, with strength-of-schedule ranked at #6. If the season ended today, and the NCAA did not invite them, they would be – by far - the highest-RPI-ranked team to be omitted from the field since Jerry Palm started in the mid-1990s. (All RPI ranks and SOS ranks are taken from Palm's outstanding site.) It has undoubtedly dropped a bit, thanks to the loss @ #14 Marquette on Monday, but the Golden Eagles have a strong RPI as well, so it won't be too much.

Of course, the season is not ending today, and ‘Nova’s lofty RPI would drop, if they lose any of the next three contests, and would also drop even with a win over RU, due to the latter’s anemic #191 rank being added to the mix. Nonetheless, the Wildcats, even if they lose both at Connecticut and to Syracuse at the Wachovia Center, would probably still be better-than-even odds for an at-large bid, at 7-9 in Big East play, due to the powerful strength of schedule and the good wins over Texas, Georgetown, etc.

The six other BE teams to watch out for, which hold various positions on the proverbial bubble: Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville, West Virginia, Providence, and Connecticut. Of the half-dozen BE schools on the bubble, Notre Dame, Louisville, and West Virginia are almost certainly in, needing only home victories against terrible teams to secure their bids. Of the other four, Villanova will face Syracuse and Connecticut head-to-head, and also has a good chance of drawing either in the first round of the BE tournament, which will go a long way toward clarifying the bubble situation in the Big East. Providence, although it doesn’t face ‘Nova head-to-head in the regular season stretch run, is also a likely first-round opponent in New York. (Pittsburgh, Georgetown, and Marquette are all assured of bids, regardless of what happens the rest of the way.)

Let’s look at the six other BE bubble teams, competing with Villanova:

Louisville (as of Monday, February 19, 2007 - #52 RPI, , SOS #31), 20-8 overall, 10-4 Big East

I would say that the Cardinals are 95% in, barring complete collapse. They are in the somewhat unusual position, of having a great BE record and a poor RPI, although it will rise after adding their victory over St. John’s. It’s almost unthinkable that a team that would finish no worse than 10-6 in the BE wouldn’t make it, and they still have a chance to add to their win total, @ Connecticut and finishing with lame-duck Seton Hall at Freedom Hall.

Notre Dame (as of Monday, February 19, 2007 - #42 RPI, SOS #114), 21-6 overall, 9-5 Big East

ND has just two games left, with Marquette and @ lame-duck Rutgers. The victory at DePaul on Tuesday, probably removed any doubt about a NCAA bid, since ND will now finish with a winning BE record, and should probably win at least one of their last two (they’d be favored in both). Nonetheless, the Fighting Irish played an extraordinarily weak OOC schedule, and will need a win in New York (they’ll draw a high seed, among the highest to play in the opening round) to absolutely cement a bid.

Providence (as of Monday, February 19, 2007 - #66 RPI, SOS #39), 17-9 overall, 7-6 Big East

The Friars still have a fighting chance, by defeating #22 WVU at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Wednesday. They also catch a break, in having an extremely easy schedule the rest of the way: Syracuse at home on Saturday, February 24, 2007, then traveling to two eliminated schools: South Florida and St. John’s. If they sweep the last three games they’d be certain of a bid, at 10-6 Big East; even with a loss to Syracuse they’d still be over .500 in BE play and played a tough OOC schedule: beating Boston College and losing to Florida. (What may hurt them are two bad losses: a ten-point loss to crosstown Brown and a 30-point thrashing @ Florida State). Nonetheless, they are largely in control of their own destiny: if they finish out the season with five straight BE wins (which they would if they sweep the last three), they’re in.

Syracuse (as of Monday, February 19, 2007 - #64 RPI, SOS #55), 19-8 overall, 8-5 Big East

The Orangemen have a very difficult schedule the rest of the way: @ Providence, Georgetown at the Carrier Dome, and the finale at the Wachovia Center. The only upside is that if they win two of those three, they’ll not only get a good RPI bounce but have two more decent wins. They have to overcome a weak OOC schedule. Their best OOC wins are over Penn and Holy Cross, and it’s tough to get a NCAA bid with that profile. They also only have one really good BE win, @ Marquette.

#22 West Virginia (as of Monday, February 19, 2007 - #49 RPI, SOS #101)) 20-7 overall, 8-6 Big East

The Mountaineers are in a very secure position, and not only because they are ranked. They have an outstanding signature win over UCLA, and their pair of remaining games will both help them: a potential victory @ #6 Pittsburgh on Saturday, February 24, 2007, and a home finale over Cincinnati, the BE’s worst team. I put them on the bubble because if they lost to Cincinnati (somehow) and exited in the first round in New York, it’s conceivable they could be left out, but they’re 95% in. Their OOC schedule was not all that strong, but they did not have any particularly bad losses, and they’ll also have two losses to Pitt (or a split).

Connecticut (as of Monday, February 19, 2007 - #94 RPI, SOS #79) 17-10 overall, 6-7 Big East

The once-ranked Huskies are in serious trouble, struggling all year, with a RPI of #94. Counterintuitively, they have struggled all season while playing an unimpressive non-Big East schedule, as their low SOS indicates. They would need to win at least two of their three remaining games, finishing 8-8 in Big East play, to have any shot at an at-large bid. They will have chances for good wins in all three: home battles with Louisville and ‘Nova and finishing @ Georgetown. In addition, the Huskies will certainly get more consideration than another school with an identical profile, simply because they are UConn.

Nonetheless, even with the UConn name, it’s increasingly difficult to see how the Huskies (who have lost six of their last ten) get into the NCAA tournament, without winning the conference tournament, or at least reaching the final. For better or worse, the Huskies ended up getting mediocre Syracuse and woeful Rutgers as their twice-faced opponents this season, which gave UConn three out of four victories, but also deprived them of two chances to beat somebody better. Ordinarily, Connecticut versus Syracuse is the league’s marquee matchup, but it didn’t work out that way this year – they could both be heading to the NIT, with the Huskies in particularly grave danger. Heading into this stretch, UConn’s only BE victory of any significance was over the Orangemen. All of their other five wins were over the four teams already condemned to miss the conference tournament: the two over RU, Seton Hall, @ St. John’s, and South Florida.

Overall Viewpoint for Villanova on the Bubble

Villanova is a rare bubble team, for two reasons. One is the sky-high RPI, which would likely lead them to have one of the highest RPIs of any team not invited in the history of the tournament; the only real stumbling block is the mediocre BE record. The home loss to Drexel does not look as bad as it did at the time, and the Wildcats’ schedule is so formidable that a loss like that does not glare out the way it would if Villanova had a weaker overall profile.

The other distinctive feature of Villanova’s profile this season, is the rare opportunity to directly eliminate potential bubble rivals. Should Villanova defeat UConn and/or Syracuse, the vanquished opponent(s) would likely vanish from the bubble (both the Huskies and Orangemen need a RPI and profile boost from beating somebody good).

A note about the selection process:

A common shorthand analysis tends to overemphasize the number of bids going to each conference. While it’s easy to make that generalization, I haven’t seen any evidence, in many years of watching the bubble, that the SC considers a conference “capped” at a certain arbitrary number of bids, or conversely, that there’s a minimum number of bids that go to each power conference. They have always insisted that bubble teams are compared directly to each other, not to other bubble teams in their conference, and the years seem to bear that out.

Much of the pessimism that surrounds the Wildcats stems from the idea that “the Big East can’t get __ teams into the tournament.” The Big East has a lot to do with it, to be sure, given that the BE drives the Wildcats’ RPI and SOS, but that’s already baked into the pie, so to speak. The Big East will get, by and large, the number of teams that deserve to make it. The SC recognizes that conferences are larger now, and that it’s not really fair to compare the bid process when the Big East had nine schools, in the 1980s, to the bid process when it has sixteen teams. (Likewise, the ACC had just nine schools, into the 2000s, and now has twelve.)

It happens to be a fortuitous coincidence that the Wildcats, Orangemen, and Huskies will play each other down the stretch, and probably in the first round in New York (all three will likely fall in the 7-8-9-10 seed range, with 7 playing 10 and 8 playing 9 on the first day). But what happens to Syracuse and UConn generally only will adversely affect ‘Nova, no more or no less than the performances from bubble teams from the Mountain West or ACC would. (Except, obviously, if they happen to beat ‘Nova head-to-head in either the regular season or conference tournament.)

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