It's championship week in college basketball. Teams have had their chances to prove themselves throughout the season, and now the last opportunity has arrived. Many at large hopefuls enter this week with an opportunity to claim their conference title, and not have to break a sweat on selection Sunday. Unfortunately, only one teams can gain a conference's auto bid, and there are far more bubblers than that. ESPN currently puts 21 teams on the bubble, with only ten bids available.
For UTEP, there's good news, and there's bad news. The good news is the Miners are projected as one of the 20 plus teams fighting for an at large berth. The bad news is that they are projected as the 20th of those teams. They've got a lot of ground to make up entering the conference tourney, but here's a breakdown of their resume, and chances of making the Big Dance.
UTEP Miners (T-2nd C-USA) (22-8, 11-5) RPI: 59, SOS: 131, Road//Neutral Record: 6-6, Last 12: 8-4
Non-conference Record: 12-3, NCRPI: 64, NCSOS: 185
Pomeroy Ranking: 68, Sagarin Ranking: 72
Record vs top 25: 0-1
@ BYU (4) 68-89
Record vs top 50: 2-2
Memphis (40) 74-47
Marshall (50) 82-74
@ UAB (28) 97-100
Record vs top 100: 5-5
Michigan* (55) 65-56
Tulsa (82) 69-59
Air Force (100) 71-54
@ USM (52) 51-64
UCF (56) 68-74
@ Tulsa (82) 68-69
Bad Losses: @ East Carolina (113) 76-83, Georgia Tech* (160) 61-71, Pacific (180) 61-66
In a typical year, a resume like this would almost certainly not even be considered in the at large discussion. The RPI number is decent, but the SOS is completely suspect. But, this isn't a typical year, and the Miners should at least be mentioned in the selection room next Sunday. Again, according to ESPN, UTEP is 20th in a line for 10 spots. Beginning with the first team outside the tournament, the Miners sit behind Alabama, Georgia, USC, Missouri St, Baylor, Washington St, Nebraska, and Memphis.
Of these teams, both Nebraska and Baylor finished 7-9 in conference, and surely have slim to no chance of receiving an at large bid. At the very least, both would need to make it to the championship game of a very competitive Big 12 to even have their names spoken in that room next week. The next team that should be mentioned is Memphis. The Tigers had really begun to put together a nice resume, but just blew it down the stretch. Now, obviously the Miners would at least need to make the championship game of the conference tourney to have any shot. If they lost to Memphis in the championship, the Tigers would be out of the at large discussion. If the Tigers lose before the championship, still they'd be out of the at large talks.
Next come Alabama and Georgia. Alabama currently sits at 81 in the RPI, with an SOS of 147. Even with the couple of good wins they picked up, they've still got work to do. Alabama just knocked off Georgia at home in the season finale, and now if Alabama gets passed Auburn in the first round of the SEC tournament, it will set up the rematch in the second round. That game may very well be an elimination game for either squad. Even Georgia, who seemed like a solid bet a few weeks ago, has some holes in their resume, and obviously isn't so safe.
This leaves us with Missouri St, USC, and Washington St. Missouri St, in my opinion, has almost no chance of receiving an at large bid. The Bears did win the MVC regular season title, but the MVC was certainly down compare to recent years. Also, Missouri St. has no top 50 wins, with its best wins coming against Wichita St (62) twice, and Indiana St (88). These guys are NIT bound.
On to the Pac-10. USC has made a real push for an at large bid to end the season. The Trojans finished with five top 50 wins, including Washington, and Arizona in the final weeks of the season. They also have good ooc wins over Texas, and Tennessee that will take them a long way. On the other side of things though, USC has 5 sub 150 RPI losses. That will really weigh them down. They open up with CAL in the Pac-10 tourney, then will likely play Arizona. If they win those two they're in.
Washington St nearly locked up its bid to the NCAAs in the season ender against UCLA. The Cougs were leading for a good portion of the game, and without their leading scorer, but in the end they faltered leaving them at 9-9 in conference. WSU starts with UW in the Pac-10 tourney. The Cougars swept the regular season matchups with the Huskies, but I don't see a third win over their in state rivals in the near future. If they lose, their done.
As long as UTEP can make it to the championship game of the Conference USA tournament, they should probably move up at least into the first 4 or 5 teams out of the tournament. Being there means certainly being in the discussion come next Sunday.
Here are a couple more things of note.
1.) Obviously, teams that are currently projected in the tournament would need to lose, in order for teams from outside the tournament to move in. I'm looking at Michigan St, Va Tech, and Colorado.
-The Spartans have a completely mediocre resume, and are probably only given the credit that they are given because of previous success in the NCAA tournament. Regardless, they still need a couple of wins to solidify their spot. They face Iowa in the first round of the Big 10 tourney, and then would move on to face Purdue. I think they need both wins to get in.
-The Hokies seemed like a lock two weeks ago, but ended the season losing its last two to Boston College and Clemson. They'll face Georgia Tech, and then Florida St in the ACC tourney. Like MSU they probably need both to secure their spot. Don't be surprised if the selection committee has a soft spot for the Hokies though, as they were snubbed last year.
-Texas was up by 20 on the Buffaloes two weeks ago, and somehow let them come back and win it. That's the only thing keeping the Buffs where they are. Still, they're far from a lock. They'll play Iowa St, and then Kansas State in the Big 12 tourney. Like the others, they probably need both those wins.
2.) Obviously, these projections are only that, and are far from a set field. Still the bubble could expand, or contract. It may do a little of both, but I actually expect it to expand.
-Butler plays Milwaukee tomorrow in the finals of the Horizon League Tourney. Both are currently projected in the tournament. If Milwaukee wins, they would have three wins over Butler on the season. Butler should be done. Milwaukee doesn't have any at large chance so if they lose, they're done. Either way, it should be a one bid league.
-On the other hand, VCU knocked off George Mason yesterday, and will now play ODU in the finals of the CAA tonight. ODU, and GM are both pretty much locks, so if VCU wins, they will definitely burst someone's bubble.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Let's just go out there, win the conference tourney, and the only thing we'll have to worry about will be where we're seeded. If UTEP does make the NCAA tourney, there is possibility that they could start their run down the road in Tucson. If they win the C-USA tourney, the highest they would probably get is an 11 seed. That should start them in Tucson, in the Southwest Region. If they get in as an at large, it'll probably be as a 12 seed, and they'd probably be playing next Tuesday as one of the "first four". Either way, if we're in, we're in. I'll take it however it comes.