February 18, 2009

Breaking Down the Big East Bubble: How many get in?

Ok, it's getting to be crunch time here, so let's take a peek at the various bubble teams from the Big East right now.

Overview: First of all, this stretch run is going to be phenomenal if you are a Big East fan but potentially excruciating if you are a fan of any one of these teams. I think this race is probably not going to be resolved until the Big East tournament. It is probably going to be a little uncomfortable from a conference solidarity standpoint because there are going to be about 5 teams fighting for 2-3 spots. Get ready for some beauty pageant type squabbles if things get really close (Poise counts!). Either way, it's probably not going to be cut and dry, and I think the relationships within the Big East will be tested.

How many teams from the Big East are getting in?? Tough to say. I just don't think there is a compelling case for more than 8 teams from the Big East this year. Before the year when you had like 8-9 ranked teams in the Big East, I would have bought it. But right now?? I'm not seeing it. Once you get past the big five, there's a lot of mediocrity out there. I don't think anyone anticipated that the teams considered 7-9 would be along the lines of Cincy and Providence and a .500 WVU team. I'd actually say that the Big East is a little overvalued this year. It's still a great league, but not the juggernaut that it was projected to be. It's a little top heavy, and ND sitting at 5-7 and Gtown sitting at 4-8 have hurt the overall profile of the Big East. Since I don't think you can justify more than half the league getting into the NCAA Tournament when so many teams are having mediocre years, I'm capping the Big East total at a maximum of 8 for now.

I don't even know that the Big East will get 8. Just throwing that out there. I think "our league" (as Brey likes to say) can justify 8 teams, but it would not stun me if "only" 7 get in. In fact, Joe Lunardi has steadily fluctuated between putting 7 and 8 teams in (more on that in a bit). That might lead to some angry cries from places like Providence or Morgantown or Clifton or even South Bend, but that's the way I see it. Now, if only 6 get in, that would be a crime against humanity, and I will scream bloody murder for all of March.

Either way, I am going to be scrutinizing those NCAA brackets to see how the snubbed Big East teams stack up with some of the othe invites.

I'm breaking down the Big East by category here with remaining schedules listed next to each team.

Already In: Connecticut, Pitt, Louisville, Marquette, Villanova

All five of these teams are straight-up locks, and I'm not even discussing them. Nova is probably the only one that would need to do the slightest bit of work, but they are getting into the dance. At 8-4 with several likely wins left on the schedule, they are playing for seeding at this point. As for the others, start calling your travel agent to make plans for March.

The only thing I wanted to add here is that I continue to be unimpressed with Louisville. Maybe I have just seen them at their worst every time I've watched them, but I don't like their chemistry at all or their offense. Then again, they have beaten Pitt, won at Villanova, and won at Syracuse, so I don't know what to make of them. I'm hoping that they end up as a really high seed because I'm picking against them in the 2nd round this year. Sign me up for some feisty 7 seed to knock them out.

Looking Good:

Syracuse - 19-7 (7-6) - (Villanova, at St Johns, Cincy, Rutgers, at Marquette) - RPI #19, Pomeroy #33

I still don't know what to make of Syracuse. When I watch them, I'm so impressed with their offensive skill level and talent but their defense is horrible. There is no excuse to give up 85+ points in regulation to anyone, especially a crappy offensive team like Georgetown. Syracuse doesn't guard at all. I can't believe they are still running that 2-3 zone. It is like a sieve. You can pass through it and around it with no problem. If they would ever commit to clamping down, they could really be a great team. But it probably won't happen.

One other thing about Syracuse that I've noticed. Even though Devendorf is a pretty good offensive player and a good shooter, he takes so many bad shots and gives up just as many points as he scores (if not more) on the defensive end. I think he has some ability, but he has the wrong role on that team. Boeheim gives him the freedom to hoist up any shot that he wants, but he really should be more of a role player who can knock down the big 3 and handle some of the ballhandling duties. The engine that makes the Cuse go is Jonny Flynn and their big men, and that's who you want creating and taking the bulk of the shots. Devendorf would make them a much better team if he embraced the idea of being a role player instead of a go-to-guy.

As for a bid here, I think they are in really good shape. I'm not ruling out a typical Syracuse fade down the stretch and they very nearly blew that game against Gtown the other day, but it seems like they are in good position at the moment. They should get to at least 10 wins in the Big East, and that would make them a lock with their strong RPI and OOC wins over Memphis, Florida, and Kansas. Plus, Syracuse is always a threat in the Big East Tournament. If they make a deep run in the BET, they are not only in but looking at a high seed.

By the way, I know I've had some thoughts on here about the Big East dissolving into separate "football schools" and "basketball schools" leagues, but then I see rivalry games like Syracuse-Gtown that go back thirty years and think to myself that there is no way those teams are breaking up. Syracuse-Gtown IS the Big East. Those games are what made the Big East what it is today, and you could feel the electricity in the Carrier Dome for that game even though Gtown is struggling this year. I can't see Syracuse and Gtown not being in the same league.

Syracuse - IN

West Virginia - 17-8 (6-6) - (Notre Dame, at Rutgers, at Cincy, at South Florida, DePaul, Louisville) - RPI #16, Pomeroy #6

West Virginia has work left to do, but they are probably the other team besides Syracuse that I would put as a likely team in the NCAA Tournament. With their ridiculously high computer ratings right now, all they are going to have to do is get to 9-9 to get in I would imagine. Every game they have left is winnable, so I think they'll get what they need. They might be in a position where they need to win a first round BET game, but I think they'll probably be in before that. They got their signature OOC win at Ohio State, and they just smoked Villanova the other day. I'm not sure there has ever been a team with an RPI that high that didn't get in.

Now, if the Irish go to Morgantown and knock them off on Wednesday night, they might find themselves with their backs against the wall. But I still see likely wins over USF, DePaul and Rutgers plus an opportunity to beat Louisville in the last game of the year.

Speaking of computer ratings, how much stock can you put in a system where West Virginia is rated as the #6 team in the country?? Isn't that a little silly?? They are 6-6 in their own league right now and sitting at 9th in the Big East standings. And yet Pomeroy has them as #6 in America?? Come on. I know there needs to be some sort of "objective" ratings system, but I hope the NCAA committee looks at these computer rankings with some level of skepticism.

Then again, this is Bob Huggins we're talking about! Huggins INVENTED the RPI manipulation technique about 10 years before the MVC and other teams caught on to it. I wrote about this a couple years ago when we were still a fledgling blog. Whoops, we still are a fledgling blog! My bad.

Go back and look at WVU's OOC schedule to see how a master does it. There are all sorts of winnable games against 80-100 RPI type teams (Iowa, Ole Miss, Miami (OH), Duquesne, Cleveland St, etc), and they won all those games. Huggins scouts these teams and gets them on his schedule. He should teach a course on OOC scheduling. I would personally pay for Mike Brey to attend it.

West Virginia - IN

Need a Signature Win and 10 wins:

Providence - 16-9 (8-5) - (at Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt, at Rutgers, at Villanova) - RPI #69, Pomeroy #73

Providence is an interesting story. They definitely have a shot to get to 10-8 this year, but how good would that 10-8 really be?? Their best win in conference play has been a win last month over Syracuse, and they have beaten Cincy twice. That's not bad or anything, but is it really enough to excite someone from the NCAA commitee?? Providence has been extremely fortunate to have a weak Big East conference schedule this year. The NCAA committees studies this stuff these days after so much complaining from various leagues about unbalanced schedules, and they are now aware that 10-8 against a weaker slate is the equivalent of 8-10 against a tougher slate. Providence has had opportunities for big home wins over Nova and Marquette, and they have lost both games.

Plus, Providence's OOC record is an abomination. They played exactly two BCS schools in OOC play this year (Boston College and Baylor) and lost both games. They also lost to St. Mary's. Their best OOC win this year is probably over Rhode Island.

Providence is widely considered to have that coveted 8th spot in the Big East right now based on their conference record and the two wins over Cincy, but they would probably be the team that gets axed if the committee decides to only take 7 teams (and I refuse to believe that the committee doesn't take into consideration how many teams they take from each league even though they say they don't).

The only way I think they become safe is by getting to 11-7 in league play. That would mean wins over ND, Rutgers, and one "signature" win over Pitt or Villanova. Either that or they make a run in the BET. I don't see all that happening. Anything less would put them at 18-12 and 10-8 in the league with no signature wins.

When I look at Providence, I don't think their profile is all that strong right now based on the weak OOC record, the weak RPI, and the lack of signature wins in conference play. Beating up on the weak sisters of the Big East to get to 10 wins is not a formula to get in from what I have observed in recent years. I think they'll come up just short, and I think people in the Providence area will be outraged about it, especially if another Big East team steals that 8th spot from them.

Providence - OUT

Cincinnati - 17-9 (7-6) - (Louisville, West Virginia, at Syracuse, at South Florida, Seton Hall) - RPI #48, Pomeroy #63

As for Cincy, I'll start with this latest brouhaha involving Mick Cronin and Joe Lunardi. Mick apparently has been reading too much Bracketology lately. When Mick found out that only 7 Big East teams were in the NCAAs last weeking according to Lunardi, he went off:

"To me, that's ridiculous," Cronin said. "I would tell Joe Lunardi he needs to buy the ESPN Full Court package. Are you telling me that Syracuse wouldn't win the A-10? Does somebody want to give me that answer? I'd like to have that argument with somebody.

"You're going to tell me that Syracuse, with their McDonald's All-Americans and their talent, would not win the A-10? They're eighth in our conference. For us to not get at least eight is only a by-product of us beating up on each other and being penalized for having too good of a conference."

Not surprisingly, these comments did not go over well in two camps: Joe Lunardi's camp and the A-10. Xavier fans were furious and interpreted it as a shot across their bow by Mick Cronin. Lunardi shot back in his ESPN column by pointing out the flaws in Cronin's argument. Feisty!! I'm assuming Mick Cronin will not be on Joe Lunardi's Christmas card list this year.

I think Mick Cronin has a tendency to come off as a whiner and a bit of a weasel (he's clearly angling for Cincy to get in with these quotes since they were above the Cuse in the standings at the time but not projected in the NCAAs), but does anyone disagree with the substance of what he is saying here?? He's right!! It's about time someone stood up for the Big East. Does anyone think Syracuse wouldn't be right there to win the Atlantic 10 this year?? They have more talent on their roster than most of the A-10 rosters COMBINED. And I'm saying that as someone who likes the A-10 a lot and pulls for Xavier and Dayton and just about everyone in the league.

I'm glad someone is making the case for the Big East to get eight teams. I'm tired of Tranghese and the suits over at Big East headquarters bending over and taking it from the NCAA committee. The Big East seems to come up one bid short of what is projected every year, and I think part of it is that we don't have strong advocates making the case for how deep and competitive the league really is. The 8th-9th best team in the Big East might be one of the top 2 teams in the A-10 or the MVC, and it's time for someone to try to make that argument.

While I will not get bent out of shape if the Big East only gets 7 teams in this year (depending on who else is in of course), I think everyone in the league should be going to the mattresses to make the case for the league to get an 8th team in. That includes Mike Brey. I want every coach in the Big East (including Calhoun and Dixon and Pitino) shouting from the mountaintop about 8 teams getting in. For all we know, UConn and Pitt will be on the bubble next year and will need that same boost to get in themselves.

The Big East needs to man up and stop deferring to these small-time conferences. Set the bar high and demand 8 teams. If you don't go all out and lobby for 8, then you'll probably get 7. The committee loves to spread the wealth, so give them a reason not to do it.

With all that said, if the season ended today, Cincy would not belong in the NCAA Tournament. As Lunardi points out in his rebuttal, they haven't beaten one team currently projected in the NCAA Tournament other than UNLV. They've played three other likely NCAA teams in OOC play (Memphis, Xavier and Florida State) and lost all of them. As for conference play, Cincy's best wins were over Georgetown and Notre Dame. They are going to need to beat someone in the NCAA field to validate a spot in the tournament. Ten wins over nondescript Big East teams is not going to get it done.

Luckily for UC, they have a series of opportunities coming up to get some quality wins, and they are currently at 7-6 in the league with a pretty solid RPI. If they can get to 10 wins, I think they will be right on the fence. The only reason people aren't projecting them in the NCAAs right now is that they don't believe UC will get to 10 wins. While that's certainly possible, UC is playing much better basketball of late. Deonta Vaughn has become Steve Logan Jr. for the Bearcats with a good inside-outside game, and this Yancey Gates guy is a low post beast. If Gates sticks around for a few years (you NEVER know with UC players), he is going to be Dejuan Blair type player for UC.

I still think UC has a shaky overall profile though. They have been off the radar for most of the year. These NCAA committee guys talk the talk about paying close attention to things, but these guys are human. They are just as susceptible to name recognition and publicity as the average fan, and the reality for UC this year is that they have not been on the national map at all until very recently. The only way for UC to really make a splash and get the attention of the committee is by winning some big games down the stretch. If they beat Louisville at home this weekend (obviously a huge if), that might be the game to really put them on the radar with the committee. Suddenly, UC would be 8-6 and staring at 10+ Big East wins, and the talk involving UC would be that they are a young team surging at the right time. These bubble campaigns are a little like political campaigns. You need a theme and a slogan to get someone to lobby for you. Making a "numbers" argument alone by pointing to your 10-8 conference record and 8th place conference finish is not going to get it done.

The other thing UC could do is make a run in the BET. If Mick Cronin thinks his team belongs, go win a couple games in the BET and play your way in.

I would love to see UC play their way in, but I think they are on the outside looking in right now. They are going to need to something significant to draw attention and get on the right side of the bubble.

Cincinnati - OUT

Lurking -

Notre Dame - 14-10 (5-7) - (at West Virginia, at Providence, Rutgers, at Connecticut, Villanova, St. Johns) , RPI #74, Pomeroy #36

Let me just start by saying that I hope I'm wrong here. I hope that Mike Brey uses this post to tell his players that even our own fans don't believe in this team, and that Zach Hillesland prints this out and puts it on Luke Harangody's locker to get the big fella fired up. I think we have a shot at making a run after that Louisville performance. We are sort of in control of our own destiny, so I'm not ruling it out by any means.

But if I have to make a call on whether or not this team is going to make the NCAA tournament, I think there are too many obstacles in our way. Assuming that Syracuse and WVU gets those 6th and 7th spots, there is going to be only one spot left at best. If we want to distinguish ourselves from Cincy (who we already lost to) and Providence for that potential 8th spot (not to mention the competition with the other bubble teams in other conferences), we're going to have to have to bring something to the table that they don't.

I think this team is either going to have to get to 10-8 in the regular season or get to 9-9 and make a run in the Big East Tournament to get in. Our RPI is not all that strong, so getting to 9-9 is probably not going to get it done alone. Between our struggles on the road and our historical struggles in the Big East Tournament, it's a tough hill to climb. If we finish 9-9, will there be a compelling case to put us in?? The committee always seems to look for a reason to leave out the 9-9 type teams from power conferences. We've seen it happen several times to bubble teams in the expanded version of the Big East conference. I think we'd need to make a run in the BET to get in under that scenario. Going to the BET and winning our first round game is not going to get it done. Our history in the Big East tournament would suggest that it will be difficult to make a deep run.

As far as running the table to get to 10-8 in the league, that is going to require running the table against WVU, Providence, and Villanova. I just don't see it happening. We've already lost to Cincy and St. Johns on the road. I don't see back to back wins at WVU and Providence and then also beating Villanova. Maybe we've turned the corner, but I've seen too many shaky performances out of this team to think we are going to flip the switch for the next six games all of the sudden. I'd love to be wrong, but I think it's going to be awfully tough.

There are a few things working in our favor though. First, the name power. Not only do we have the usual attention of being ND and carrying that stigma of being a high-profile school, we also have the added factor that we were a preseason top 5 team in a lot of polls. Pollsters don't like to be wrong, and a lot of people banked on us being really good this year. I think that is part of the reason why people are still talking about us. It's almost as if the pundits are saying to themselves "now this is the ND team I've been waiting for all year!!" So for that reason alone, we remain on the radar even at 5-7 and even after that long losing streak. People want to give us a chance to play our way into the tourney to validate the preseason hype.

Second, star power matters. We have Luke Harangody. Harangody is probably one of the five most recognizable college basketball players this year. Everyone knows Gody. Part of it is because he's white and has a bad haircut and is a lunch pail guy, but part of it is just that he's really freaking good. Whether people love him or hate him, he attracts attention and viewers. I would bet that the NCAA committee would love to somehow get Harangody in the tournament this year. If ND slips in as a 12 seed, we would be a sexy matchup for CBS with Harangody and the ND brand name and the possibility of a first round upset. Just about everyone would be hyping that game up as one of the first round highlight games.

Third, ND has two MONSTER wins already over Texas and Louisville and has an opportunity to add a third against Villanova. ND has been inconsistent (you could also insert the word bad in there), but we've also shown the ability to beat some good teams. There are very few teams on the bubble with those types of wins. We aren't in the position of Cincy and Providence that need to get some wins to gain some credibility.

One final thought on ND. I think the season comes down to this West Virginia game. If we go there and beat West Virginia in Morgantown, things suddenly could start looking good. I don't know, I've been beaten down by this team and can't seem to shake out my pessimistic thoughts. The back to back Cincy and UCLA debacles took the wind out of my sails, and it has been hard to reconcile those performances with any real thought about us becoming an NCAA Tournament team again.

Notre Dame - OUT

On Life Support-

Georgetown - 13-10 (4-8) - (at USF, Marquette, Louisville, at Villanova, at St. Johns, DePaul) - RPI #38, Pomeroy #22

I personally want to take them off the bubble, but Lunardi and Seth Davis and others continue to insist that they are firmly on the bubble with a legitimate chance to play themselves into the tournament even if they don't get to 9-9. I'll take their word for it I guess.

Georgetown is another computer darling with an RPI in the 30s and a Pomeroy at 22. I don't understand it. They are 4-8 in the league!! They have lost twice to Cincy, they got blown out at home by West Virginia, and they lost to Seton Hall. I don't see how they are even on the bubble at this point. I know they have played a really tough schedule and have beaten Memphis, UConn, and Syracuse, but they've also lost to just about every other bubble team in the Big East and currently have lost 7 of their last 8 games. If they get in at 8-10 over a 10-8 team like Cincy or Providence, that would be a joke if you ask me.

The only thing that could save Gtown in my eyes would be if they get close to .500 and then go on a red hot run in the BET. If they win 2-3 games and knock off a ranked team or two, that would probably put them at around 19-13 or something like that. Maybe that would get them in. Maybe.

Either way, I don't think they are even that good this year, and I see them losing a few more games in the regular season and knocking themselves out.

Georgetown - OUT

Bye bye -

Seton Hall - 14-11(5-8) - (at Marquette, at St. Johns, South Florida, Pitt, at Louisville, at Cincy) - RPI #88, Pomeroy #81

How long did that Seton Hall "Bubble Watch" last?? Three days?? I think that will go down as the quickest appearance and exit on the bubble in Big East history.

The Hall has an outside shot at 8 conference wins, but their distant hopes for the NCAAs ended with that UConn loss.

Seton Hall - OUT

Bottom Line:

As of right now, I'm saying that the Big East will only get 7 teams into the NCAA Tournament. I think we can justify 8 teams, but the profiles of the 3 contenders for that 8th spot are not all that compelling at the moment. Cincy and Providence have inflated conference records because of unbalanced scheduling, and Notre Dame has dug itself into a huge hole and still has a number of obstacles ahead. Obviously, the resumes of any of those teams could match up favorably against the rest of the bubble and get them a bid, but none of those teams have really earned it on the merits at this point. Based on the recent history of the Big East getting jobbed, I'm expecting more of the same this year.

I will not be surprised if the Big East Tournament is going to have a big say on things. You KNOW that someone is going to come out of nowhere and get hot in the Big East Tournament. It seems to happen every year. If it is ND or Cincy or even someone like Georgetown, the committee might have no choice but to put them in. Hope it happens. I'm also not ruling out that someone in really good shape plays their way out of the tournament.

Looking forward to the stretch run!


Matt said...

Good analysis Doug. I guess we can cross one team off the Bubble Watch. Pathetic effort by the Irish. For the love of God Brey, would you please add Carleton Scott to the rotation and play Nash 25 minutes a game. Ayers played 33 minutes and had one rebound! One!

illcommunication said...

Your comment on Huggs manipulating WVU's RPI might be correct, but your examples are a little ridiculous.

WVU played Iowa in a Vegas tournament, has played Duquense every year since 1974 (used to be a conference game), Huggs is a personal friend of former Cincy coach Andy Kennedy and scheduled that game, and the Cleveland St. game was scheduled years ago by John Beilein. He may be smarter than the average bear, but you need some better facts.

Jimmy said...

Interesting analysis counselor. And nice fact-checking "illcommunication". Doug got served.

To call Texas' win, in hindsight, a "monster" one is a tad exaggerated. The Longhorns have been unimpressive this year. We happened to squeak out a win on a neutral court when the team's confidence was sky high.

I think you're dead on in that the race for the 8th BE team lacks name and star power and that may very likely keep them out of the dance. WVU is all but a lock, especially considering their recent tourney success. That has to be worth something to the committee.

Doug said...

I stand corrected. I was not aware of this long-standing WVU-Duquesne rivalry, and also did not realize the Cleveland St game had been schedule a couple years ago. I will say that Huggins does like to find as many of those 80-100 RPI teams as possible in OOC play. Huggins figured out long ago that it is better for your RPI to play nine 80-100 RPI teams and win 7 or 8 of them than it is to play 3 top 15 RPI teams and win one. While some of this schedule may have been set up before he got there, games like Ole Miss and Miami(Ohio)-Huggs is also friends with Miami head coach Charlie Coles- fit in with what he tries to accomplish in OOC play. If you go back and look historically at Huggins' teams, they have generally had very high computer rankings without having to beat any elite teams. The point here is that WVU didn't play one top 10 RPI team, but they came out of nonconference play ranked extremely high in the RPI/Pomeroy ratings.

By the way, I'm not knocking Huggins for doing this. I think it's genius, and I've always said that it is the smart thing to do. People think of Huggins as this drunken, country boy, but he's actually a very intelligent guy who stays ahead on the trends in the game. Throughout his time, Huggins has embraced things like strength training, computer ratings, longer practices, scouting, new defenses, etc to try to give his team an edge. That is what good coaches do. If scheduling favorably toward computer rankings can get his team a higher seed in the NCAAs, he's doing himself and his program a favor.

You won't find a bigger Bob Huggins fan than me. There's a reason why he has won over 600 games in his career, been to 15 NCAA tournaments, and been to the Sweet 16 or beyond five times in his career. He's one of the very best coaches in the game.