With conference play in full swing, and selection Sunday less than two months away, its time to a look at where Conference USA teams stand in the line for at large bids. C-USA did fairly well in pre-conference. Six of the twelve teams finished with 10 wins or better prior to conference play, and the conference as a whole racked 16 top 100 wins, and 12 wins versus the power 6 conferences.
Central Florida, by far, has been the surprise team of the season. The Knights jumped out quickly to 14-0 and a top 20 national ranking. Memphis was handed the crown prior to the start of the season, but they are turning out to be a huge disappointment. Teams like UTEP, UAB, So. Miss, Marshall, and Tulane all have unquestioned talent, and have racked up quite a few wins, but still have a lot of work to be done in order to garner an at large bid.
This may be the year that Conference USA finally breaks through onto the national scene, placing 3 or 4 teams in the NCAA tournament, but all teams need to swim the shark infested waters of C-USA before any dreams of reaching the big dance can be realized. As it is 11 of the 12 teams in conference have lost at least one game, and all but one team, Rice, are above .500 overall.
As we all know, at least for us smaller guys, getting an at large bid is based on a body of work. It is based on a resume that must be built throughout the season. RPI rank, strength of schedule (sos), overall record, top 100 wins, bad losses, and many more factors are all considered when a team is vying for a spot in the tourney. We'll take a look, using our C-USA power rankings, to see what kind of shape the top 7 teams are in for an at large bid.
1. Central Florida - The Knights have almost put themselves in the tourney with their start to this season. As it stands, UCF is 14-1 with an RPI of 18, and an SOS of 93. The Knights have 5 top 100 wins, 3 wins vs the top 50, 1 win vs the top 25, and only the one bad loss in conference. UCF has a tough road ahead with games at USM, at Memphis, at UTEP, and home against UAB all in the next three weeks. They can't afford to give away any more games like they did Houston, and a 12-4 finish or better in conference should put Knights in the tourney.
2. Alabama-Birmingham - With Memphis quickly falling from relevance, the Blazers look to move in and fill the void the Tigers have created. UAB checks in with a current RPI of 46 and SOS of 127, 3 top 100 wins, and a lone bad loss at Arizona State. The Blazers have some solid wins over VCU, Arkansas, and now UTEP, but can ill-afford to start losing big games now. The games at ASU, and at Georgia would have helped greatly, but a 13-3 conference finish should put them in good position for an at large bid.
3. UTEP - The Miners are in a tough spot right now. Yes they are 14-4, but they have only have two top 100 wins, and two bad losses that virtually cancel those wins out. They have an RPI of 72 which is quickly improving, but the SOS of 137 isn't helping anyone. In my opinion, we cannot afford to lose anymore of our opportunities. We must win all of our remaining top 100 games, and not lose any bad games. That translates to winning out which I know sounds crazy, but just remember...last year we won out and lost in the conference championship, and barely made it in. I'm not saying the Miners won't make it to the tourney if they lose again, but they sure need a good string of wins here. Anything worse than a 14-2 conference finish puts us in tough position.
4. Marshall - The Thundering Herd are in a nice spot right now, and they can really improve that if they take care of business in conference. They have an RPI of 53, and an SOS of 78. The Herd only have two top 100 wins, but still have 8 more games versus the top 100. Win most of those, and you put yourself in real good shape. A 12-4 finish in conference puts them on the radar, while a 13-3 finish or better gives them a great shot.
5. Memphis - The Tigers have quickly gone from a 9-1 start and a top 15 ranking, to 12-4 and slipping from any chance of reaching the NCAA tournament. Memphis has an RPI of 93 and SOS of 156, after last night's loss to SMU. If the Tigers want to make the NCAA tournament, they need to get the ship righted very quickly here. IMO, anything less than a 14-2 finish puts them out of the tournament.
6. Southern Mississippi - The Golden Eagles came into conference play with high hopes behind a slew of seniors including leaders Gary Flowers and R.L Horton. USM has an RPI of 74, and an SOS of 216 with quality wins at USF, and at CAL, and not a single bad loss on their record. The Golden Eagles did however get blown out at Marshall this past week, and cannot afford to let something like that happen again. Anything less than 13-3 in conference probably won't get it done.
7. Tulane - The Green Wave have taken care of business thus far this season, but are really not in any serious contention for an at large bid at this point. Tulane currently has an RPI of 217 and an SOS of 345. They are a young team, that will continue to get better, but their soft schedule has put them in no position for an at large. For the Green Wave its win out, or win the tourney.
The reality is that at this point only a couple of these teams have put themselves in true position for an at large bid. UCF, UAB, Marshall, and UTEP have the best shot at making the tourney, but they need to continue to win games. So far in conference, UCF has lost to Houston, and Memphis has lost to SMU. That's a trend that needs to be cut now, as losses like those only hurt the conference in the long run.
Also, teams from the eastern half of the conference have the best opportunities to really put a nice resume together as 5 of the 6 teams in that division are in the RPI top 100. Meaning that each of those teams still have about 7 or 8 games left versus the top 100. Anyone that can rack up a good amount of those wins will be looking real nice come March. Bottom line for all, keep winning, the rest will take of itself.