The big conference tournaments have yet to tip and already the bubble has shrunk. Monmouth lost to Iona in the Metro Atlantic final Monday. Wichita State lost to Northern Iowa on Saturday in the Missouri Valley semis. Monmouth’s RPI is 56. Wichita State’s is 49. Both could still make the NCAA tournament field as at-large invitees. That’s dire news for a major-conference team hoping to become an at-large entrant.
As we speak, I’m not sure Georgia and Georgia Tech are even on the bubble. The Bulldogs’ RPI is 71; the Jackets’ is 67. I’ve seen no projected bracket that has either in the field of 68. I’ve seen only one — Joe Lunardi of ESPN’s — that listed either as a possibility. In yesterday’s projections, he had Georgia among his second quartet of teams on the outside; he doesn’t mention the Bulldogs in today’s. (There’s your Monmouth Effect.)
Matt Norlander of CBS Sports turns to the increasingly influential KenPom ratings and notes that, since 2002, Ken Pomeroy’s lowest-ranked team not to make the Big Dance was Florida at 45th last season. Wichita State is 11th. Monmouth is 66th. Tech is 62nd. Georgia is 68th.
For you casual fans: Being 60th or thereabouts in any ranking doesn’t mean you’re a lock to be one of the chosen 68. Thirty-two of those 68 berths will be filled by automatic qualifiers. If we go by Eamonn Brennan’s invaluable Bubble Watch on ESPN, only 10 conferences figure to receive at-large bids. That essentially diminishes the number of spots for the bigger leagues (counting their champs) to 46.
That’s why the thought of the Metro Atlantic, which would have been a one-bid league had Monmouth won, claiming two is so chilling to the bigger guys. And it won’t help if Gonzaga upsets Saint Mary’s in the West Coast final. The Dance staple Zags mightn’t make it as an at-large this time.
For the record, Brennan doesn’t include Tech or Georgia in his list of possibles. There’s a chance the Bulldogs and/or Jackets could make runs in their respective league tournaments, but I have to warn you: In my time of covering the NCAA tournament, I cannot recall a team that played its way from not-really-on-the-bubble headed into a league tournament into a Big Dance invite without actually winning said league tournament. (Not saying there wasn’t one; just saying I don’t remember it.)
Georgia has a nice draw in the SEC: It plays Mississippi State, which it beat on the road, and then would face South Carolina, which it beat home-and-away. If the Bulldogs win twice, that would put them in the semis against probably Kentucky, and the Wildcats are the only SEC team that could afford Georgia an RPI bounce. (South Carolina’s is 47.) It’s possible that the Bulldogs could make the NCAA field by losing in the SEC final — but they’d have to have beaten Kentucky en route.
Tech plays Clemson in its ACC opener: The two split during the regular season. The winner would get Virginia (RPI of 2), and the Jackets beat the Cavaliers here in January. The winner of that would probably face Miami (RPI of 7) in the semis. There’s opportunity awaiting, but Tech is on the tougher side of the bracket.
This is the time of year when not-quite-bubble-teams look back in anguish. What if Georgia hadn’t lost to Chattanooga (which won the Southern championship) at home? What if it had beaten awful Auburn on the road? What if Tech hadn’t lost to East Tennessee State (which lost the Southern final) at home? What if it had held a 14-point lead against Virginia Tech? Flip those four results and both locals would be in the NCAA discussion. Now there’s but one sure path to gain entrance to the only tournament that matters: Win the conference tournament.
And yes, there will be another edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco — the 29th, if you’re counting — coming Sunday night. Watch this space for further details.