To boil down field to 64, experts stew over bubble

Plenty still in mix for NCAA tournament

February 25, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

This is the time of year college basketball becomes interesting. Before there is March Madness, there is February Frenzy.

Coaches, players, athletic directors, fans and even a few sportswriters lose sleep while trying to figure out the NCAA tournament worthiness of teams on the dreaded bubble. "It's certainly not an easy task," said North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek.

That's an understatement. For the so-called experts, figuring out the 35 at-large berths to this year's NCAA tournament may threaten your credibility. Heck, finding 64 teams to fill up the field is virtually impossible. A word of advice: Bubbleologists beware.

But here's a look at the way the race for tournament space is shaping up.

America East (one): The regular-season champion has advanced to the NCAAs six straight years. Currently in third place, Delaware is looking for three in a row.

Atlantic 10 (two in, two bubble): Temple's road win over top-ranked Cincinnati on Sunday certainly helped the Owls (12 in the Rating Percentage Index, a formula used in seeding NCAA teams) in their bid for a high seed, and Dayton's RPI of 32 should get the Flyers in as an at-large. St. Bonaventure and Xavier -- at 67 and 82, respectively -- will likely have to win the conference tournament.

ACC (three in, two bubble): Duke (6) should be a No. 1 seed and Maryland (8) a No. 4 or 5. Despite its problems, North Carolina (27) will be going to its 26th straight NCAA tournament. Virginia probably clinched a spot by beating the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, but needs to improve on its RPI (66). N.C. State (54) needs to start winning again after six straight defeats.

Big East (four in, three bubble): Syracuse (11), St. John's (17), Seton Hall (38) and defending national champion Connecticut (22), despite recent struggles, will all be invited. Miami (64) has five wins over teams in the top 40 in the RPI. Notre Dame (43) was solidly in the hunt after beating Seton Hall, but Wednesday night's home loss to Providence was disastrous. It certainly helped keep Villanova (39) in contention.

Big Sky (one): Weber State's win over North Carolina in last year's opening round helped the league's credibility, but the Wildcats have struggled this year. Look for either Northern Arizona or Eastern Washington to make it.

Big South (one): Winthrop is the most legitimate candidate, with a win earlier in the season over Missouri.

Big Ten (five in, one bubble): The conference has the highest RPI of any league in the country. Indiana (10), Michigan State (20), Ohio State (24), Illinois (25) and Purdue (30) are all definites, but Wisconsin still needs to do some work despite RPI of 33. A 3-9 road record won't help the Badgers.

Big 12 (five in, one bubble): The league has five teams in the top 20 in the RPI -- No. 5 Texas, No. 14 Oklahoma, No. 16 Kansas, No. 18 Iowa State and No. 19 Oklahoma State. Despite losing to Winthrop, a 22-point win over Kansas and a solid RPI of 31 should be enough for Missouri. A win at Oklahoma tomorrow could lock it up.

Big West (one): Some feel the league will get two invitations, but the RPIs of Utah State (44), New Mexico State (63) and Long Beach State (79) will likely mean that just one of them gets in.

Colonial (one): James Madison, George Mason and Richmond will vie for the only spot.

Conference USA (two in, two bubble): Despite its loss to Temple, Cincinnati (1) is still in the running for a No. 1 seed. Louisville has gotten hot at the right time and will be helped by its RPI (28). But DePaul (46) and Tulane (49) will need to win a couple in the conference tourney.

Ivy (one): Penn has a two-game lead over Princeton.

Metro Atlantic (one): Siena and Iona are the favorites, but a team that has finished fifth or lower in the conference has gone to NCAAs three times, including last-place Fairfield in '97.

Mid-American (one in, one bubble): Kent has the highest RPI (26) of any team in a non-major conference, but the RPIs of Ball State (61), Bowling Green (62), Marshall (78) and Akron (96) mean only one bid if the Golden Flashes win the tournament.

Mid-Continent (one): Three of the top teams -- Valparaiso, Southern Utah and Youngstown State -- have RPIs south of 200.

Mid-Eastern Athletic (one): The MEAC is pretty weak, considering its collective RPI is lower than any other league except for the Southwestern Athletic. South Carolina State, which beat Clemson earlier this season, trails Bethune-Cookman and Norfolk State by percentage points.

Midwestern Collegiate (one): No at-large teams this time around, with Butler 87th in the RPI.

Missouri Valley (one): Indiana State -- at 48 on your RPI dial and with an early-season upset of Indiana -- will be the only team to merit at-large consideration. Wednesday's loss to Southern Illinois doesn't help.

Mountain West (one in, one bubble): With no automatic bid this year for the new league, Utah (34) should be in regardless. But UNLV's RPI of 45 could be offset by its strength of schedule (107) -- or lack thereof.

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