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Tournament Thursday: Bubble breakdown

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It doesn’t seem like Kansas State should have any shot at making the tournament — until you take a closer look at the competition.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Syracuse vs Miami
Does an ACC tournament loss by Syracuse open up another at-large spot for a team like Kansas State?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Now with updates!

Many on K-State social media and in our own commenting sections seem to have already given up hope on an NCAA bid. I get it. The ‘Cats had too many stumbles when wins were available for the taking, and there probably should be a rule saying you can’t make the tourney if you lose to your league’s second-to-last-place team by 30.

The thing about qualifying for the NCAA tournament — especially since the field expanded to 68 teams — is there is no special bar to clear to earn a spot. The question isn’t “Did you do enough to get a bid?” It’s “Did you do enough to be one of the top 36 at-large teams?” Context matters.

There are too many teams that, like K-State, failed to capitalize on opportunities and probably don’t really deserve to make the NCAA. But the committee has to fill those spots somehow, and I’m really not sure there will be 36 at-large teams better than the ‘Cats, even if they lose to Baylor tonight.

Using bracketology from Joe Lunardi, Chris Dobbertean and The Bracket Project’s aggregation of more than 100 different brackets, I’ve come up with 17 other teams that could realistically make or miss the tournament as an at-large right now. We can’t predict what the committee will value most, but I tried to highlight the good and bad for each team. I should probably admit now that I have a strong anti-Big Ten bias, although the league really is down this year.

But to try to avoid any other biases, the teams are listed in alphabetical order. You know K-State’s resume. See if you can find 10 that are better. I can’t.

California: 19-11 (10-8 Pac-12), RPI 56, KenPom 58, SOS 75 (via KenPom)
Best win: 74-73 at USC (1/8)
Worst loss: 77-65 vs. SDSU in Sacramento (11/21)
Why they deserve to be in: The Golden Bears played some decent nonconference opponents and only lost to Virginia by 4 at home before losing to Arizona by 5 to open up Pac-12 play. More impressively, Cal won 9 of its first 12 league games, with losses only to UA, UCLA and Oregon, three very good teams. Second-leading scorer Jabari Bird was absent for that ugly loss to SDSU. Update: The Bears picked up a nice win against Utah Thursday, then lost to Oregon again.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: That noncon schedule wasn’t really so tough, ranking 225th according to KenPom. Worst of all, the train went off the tracks in the last 3 weeks of the season. After a perfectly understandable loss at Arizona, Cal lost 4 of its last 5, including a 73-68 loss to lowly Stanford and a 74-44 rout at Utah.

Georgia: (18-13, 9-9 SEC), RPI 49, KenPom 55, SOS 20
Best win: 76-68 vs. Vanderbilt (1/17)
Worst loss: 80-60 vs. Alabama (1/25)
Why they deserve to be in: The Bulldogs never suffered any really bad losses during a tough (43rd) noncon schedule, although an 86-79 defeat at Oakland is questionable. They won at Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Alabama. They went 8-4 against teams ranked between 50 and 100 in the RPI. Georgia also went on the road and took Florida and Kentucky to OT, then only lost by 2 in regulation at South Carolina. Update: The Bulldogs beat Tennessee again before an unsurprising loss to Kentucky.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: The problem was the Bulldogs didn’t win any of those big games, and 9 losses in the SEC should probably disqualify anyone. Georgia didn’t beat a single top 40 RPI team and a stretch of 5 losses in 6 games midway through conference play was particularly brutal.

Houston: 21-9 (12-6 American), RPI 52, KenPom 42, SOS 92
Best win: 82-77 vs. Rhode Island (12/10)
Worst loss: 84-65 at LSU (11/29)
Why they deserve to be in: The Cougars picked up some sneaky good noncon wins against Vermont and Rhode Island, then mostly took care of business to finish third in the American. They also ended the season strong, winning 7 of 9.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: Houston missed its 3 chances at big wins, against Cincy (twice) and SMU. They also suffered some pretty bad losses, starting with that 19-point loss against an awful LSU team. Later, the Cougars lost at home to Harvard and Memphis. Update: Houston lost to a pretty mediocre UConn team in the American quarterfinals.

Illinois: 18-13 (8-10 Big Ten), RPI 58, KenPom 67, SOS 37
Best win: 64-46 vs. VCU in Miami (12/3)
Worst loss: 62-59 at Rutgers (3/4)
Why they deserve to be in: The Illini got hot down the stretch when they realized how terrible their league is, winning four straight including at Iowa, vs. Northwestern and vs. Michigan State. They also played a decent nonconference schedule (151st) in which they picked up a strong win over VCU and never suffered any bad losses.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: That regular season-ending loss to Rutgers (who still finished in last place by 3 games) makes me wonder if Illinois even wants to play in the Big Dance. Then there’s the fact that not only did they never beat a team who was ranked at the time or is currently ranked, they never even got close. The margins were 32 (!) to West Virginia, 11 to Florida State, 25 (and later 6) to Maryland, 16 to an overrated Indiana team on its way down, 23 to Purdue, and 14 to Wisconsin. Update: The Illini suffered a costly 20-point loss to Michigan in the Big Ten tourney Thursday.

Illinois State: 27-6 (17-1 MVC), RPI 36, KenPom 49, SOS 105
Best win: vs. Wichita State 79-74 (1/13)
Worst loss: 70-68 at Tulsa (12/13)
Why they deserve to be in: The Redbirds present the classic mid-major case. Why not give them a chance, since they won 1 of 3 games against the only good team (Wichita State) they played all year and cruised through a weak conference schedule with ease? They also picked up a decent noncon win against New Mexico.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: On the other hand, how would the Redbirds fare if they had to play, say, Big 12 competition every night? After all, they lost to TCU in Fort Worth. Perhaps most damning, though, Illinois State dropped games to Tulsa and San Francisco, two teams slightly better than your average cupcake but nowhere near the bubble.

Iowa: 18-13 (10-8 Big Ten, RPI 71, KenPom 66, SOS 54
Best win: 78-64 vs. Iowa State (12/8)
Worst loss: 98-89 vs. Omaha (12/3)
Why they deserve to be in: The Hawkeyes put together a nice list of good wins by weak Big Ten standards, beating Iowa State and Purdue at home, then Maryland and Wisconsin on the road during a 4-game win streak to end the season. They also suffered a pair of 2OT losses that could have gone the other way at Nebraska and Minnesota. Plus, stud freshman Tyler Cook missed losses to Notre Dame and Omaha due to injury.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: Before that win streak, Iowa was only a game over .500 overall because of some really questionable losses. They should have beaten Omaha even without Cook, and he scored 17 in a neutral-court loss to a mediocre Memphis team. A 35-point drubbing at Northwestern looks kind of awful, and the Hawkeyes got swept by fellow bubble team Illinois. Update: The Hawkeyes hurt themselves again with a 22-point loss to mediocre Indiana in the Big Ten tourney.

Marquette: (19-11, 10-8 Big East), RPI 55, KenPom 28, SOS 41
Best win: vs. Villanova (1/24)
Worst loss: 86-72 at St. John’s (2/1)
Why they deserve to be in: Signature wins don’t get any better than beating the No. 1 ranked defending champions, and the Golden Eagles also beat Creighton (twice), Xavier (twice), Georgia, Seton Hall and Vanderbilt to go 8-6 against the RPI Top 50, giving them a quality RPI of their own. They even ended the season strong, winning 4 of 5 to take some momentum into the Big East tourney.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: That loss at St. John’s is a bad one, and an 18-point loss at Georgetown looked ugly at the end of a 1-4 stretch in early February. Throw in just the 217th best noncon schedule according to KenPom that included few good wins outside of a road success at Georgia, and it’s easy to start asking some questions. Update: The Golden Eagles suffered a close loss to fellow bubble team Seton Hall in the Big East tourney.

Monmouth: 27-6 (18-2 MAAC), RPI 50, KenPom 78, SOS 211
Best win: 96-90 vs. Princeton (12/20)
Worst loss: 93-90 (OT) vs. Rider (12/31)
Why they deserve to be in: The Hawks probably deserve a break from when they got snubbed last year, but really, they need people to develop a better understanding of how difficult it is to win 27 games, regardless of the competition. That’s the biggest selling point here, although the fact they swept Iona and beat Princeton in the noncon certainly helps.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: Monmouth nearly won at South Carolina in a 70-69 loss, but they got absolutely blown out at UNC and Syracuse. They also got caught looking ahead to New Year’s celebrations against Rider and then were perhaps still hungover when they lost by 10 at St. Peter’s two days later. Of course, the most painful loss has to be the one in the MAAC semifinals to lowly Siena, 89-85.

Providence: 20-11 (10-8 Big East), RPI 53, KenPom 53, SOS 49
Best win: 68-66 at Creighton (2/22)
Worst loss: 64-63 at DePaul (1/10)
Why they deserve to be in: The Friars ended the regular season on fire, winning six straight including home games vs. Butler, Xavier and Marquette plus a big road win at Creighton. Perhaps it just took them a while to adjust to playing without two guys who left early for the NBA draft. They also won at Marquette and picked up a solid noncon win against Rhode Island.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: That RPI’s a little ugly, thanks to a miserable 1-5 stretch around New Year’s when Providence lost on the road to the worst team in the ACC (Boston College) and the worst team in the Big East (DePaul). The Friars also went just 1-4 against the RPI top 25 and suffered a bad home loss to St. John’s, as well as an early loss at Ohio State during a weak (277th) noncon schedule. Update: Providence missed its last chance at a big win against Creighton.

Rhode Island: 21-9 (13-5 A-10), RPI 42, KenPom 51, SOS 82
Best win: 76-71 over Cincinnati in Connecticut (11/19)
Worst loss: 53-43 vs. Fordham (2/15)
Why they deserve to be in: The Rams won 21 games and beat a pretty good Cincinnati team on a neutral court. Sure, the A-10 was down this year, but it's still impressive they lost only two road league games, and they ended the regular season on a 5-game win streak. That included a quality win over a top 25 RPI team (VCU) at home, and the Rams probably get some credit for scheduling the Hall-of-Fame Tipoff that gave them games against Cincy and Duke, plus Belmont at home is another decent noncon win. Update: The Rams beat a weak St. Bonaventure team to advance to the A-10 semifinal.
Why they don't deserve to make it: Rhode Island was worse at home than on the road in conference play, which is incredible when you realize the best team the Rams beat in a true road game all season was Davidson (they're bad). We can overlook a loss to Dayton, but losses at home to La Salle (RPI 100+) and especially Fordham (RPI 200+) are really inexcusable. Four RPI top 100 wins isn't going to impress anyone, even if two of them came against top 25 teams (neither of whom is ranked in the top 25, by the way).

Seton Hall: 20-10 (10-8 Big East), RPI 44, KenPom 54, SOS 35
Best win: 70-64 at Butler (3/4)
Worst loss: 78-70 at St. John’s (2/11)
Why they deserve to be in: Another Big East team that ended the season on a high note, winning four straight capped off by a 74-70 triumph at Butler. Maybe it was getting rid of Jevon Thomas. The Pirates also beat fellow bubble teams Iowa (on the road), California (neutral), Marquette (home) and Providence (home), and picked up quality wins against Creighton (home), Xavier and South Carolina (neutral). Update: The Pirates got a nice win against Marquette before just missing a signature win against Villanova at the Big East tourney.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: Like Providence, Seton Hall has a questionable RPI and only won 1 of 5 games against RPI top 25 opponents. Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if all these bubble teams stuck in 3rd place in the Big East are just equally mediocre. An 8-point loss at St. John’s doesn’t look good, and neither does a 10-9 record vs. the RPI top 100, with 3 of those wins and one loss (Stanford on a neutral court) coming against teams worse than 70.

Syracuse: 18-14 (10-8 ACC), RPI 82, KenPom 47, SOS 38
Best win: 82-72 vs. Florida St. (1/28)
Worst loss: 93-60 vs. St. John’s (12/21)
Why they deserve to be in: The ACC offers plenty of opportunities for big wins and Syracuse got a few, beating Florida State, Virginia and Duke at home. The Orange also beat Monmouth by 21 and smoked Georgia Tech by 29.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: They also missed several opportunities for big wins, especially on the road. That RPI is so terrible because ‘Cuse finished 2-10 away from home, winning only an overtime game at terrible NC State and a one-point shootout at Clemson. Then there were the bad losses. It’s amazing they recovered from a 33-point drubbing in the Carrier Dome vs. St. John’s, and Syracuse also lost a home game to UConn and at Boston College. The Orange sure didn’t do themselves any favors in their ACC tournament opener with a 62-57 loss to Miami Wednesday, their 5th loss in 7 games.

USC: 23-8 (10-8 Pac-12), RPI 41, KenPom 62, SOS 80
Best win: 84-76 vs. UCLA (1/25)
Worst loss: 83-82 at Arizona State(2/26)
Why they deserve to be in: That record sure looks nice among this group, as does a 20-1 record against RPI 75+, with a close loss at Arizona State (131) as the lone blemish. The Trojans started the season red-hot with 14 straight wins, taking down Texas A&M (road), SMU (home) and BYU (home) along the way, then added a huge win over UCLA in January.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: The Trojans went just 2-7 against the RPI top 65, and that UCLA win looks less impressive after a 102-70 loss at Pauley Pavilion. They also suffered a four-game losing streak in February before three straight wins against the mediocre Washington schools to set up a rematch with the Bruins. Plus, despite the record, KenPom really doesn’t like USC, probably because of a tendency to win close and lose big. Update: USC missed yet another chance at a big win, losing to UCLA 76-74 in the Pac-12 tourney.

Vanderbilt: (17-14, 10-8 SEC), RPI 45, KenPom 40 SOS 17
Best win: 68-66 at Florida (1/21)
Worst loss: 72-52 at Missouri (2/11)
Why they deserve to be in: The Commodores came up big when they needed to by completing a season sweep of Florida just five days after putting a serious scare into Kentucky in Lexington. They also won at Arkansas and beat South Carolina at home. Vandy also played the 34th toughest noncon schedule in the country, beating Belmont and Iowa State. Update: After beating A&M, Vandy beat Florida for a third time to reach Saturday’s SEC semifinals.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: Yeah, I know it’s kind of crazy we’re even talking about a 14-loss SEC team that lost by 20 to Mizzou (the worst loss of any bubble team, by far), but I wanted to be thorough. The Commodores fell short in the majority of those tough noncon games to finish the season with losses at home against Bucknell, Tennessee and Ole Miss. Not great. If you want a team who was more inconsistent than K-State, look no further than Vandy, 2-5 against the RPI top 25, 5-8 vs. the top 50, and 10-13 vs. the top 100.

VCU: 24-7 (14-4 A-10), RPI 23, KenPom 48, SOS, 81
Best win: 73-68 vs. Dayton (1/27)
Worst loss: 69-67 at Fordham (1/18)
Why they deserve to be in: The Rams beat A-10 champion Dayton and generally took care of business against lesser competition, going 21-3 vs. teams ranked higher than 60 in the RPI. They won 10 of their last 12 and picked up solid noncon wins against Princeton, UNC Wilmington and Middle Tennessee. Update: VCU is still alive in the A-10 tourney after beating a bad George Mason team.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: It’s not hard to identify the reason VCU is here. An ugly two-game losing streak at Davidson and Fordham in January, followed by missed opportunities at Rhode Island and Dayton late in the regular season. The Rams won just 2 of 5 games against the RPI top 50.

*Wake Forest: 19-13 (9-9 ACC), RPI 39, KenPom 31, SOS 14
Best win: 88-81 vs. Louisville (3/1)
Worst loss: 73-68 vs. Clemson (12/31)
Why they deserve to be in: The Demon Deacons picked up OK wins over Bucknell, Charleston and Richmond during a tough (46th) noncon schedule and went a perfect 13-0 against teams ranked 80+ in RPI. They beat Miami and Virginia Tech before finding a signature win against Louisville during a four-game win streak to end the regular season before losing their ACC tourney opener to Virginia Tech.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: You probably already figured out from the previous paragraph that Wake’s resume is very short on quality wins. They went 1-7 against the RPI top 25 and 3-9 against the top 60, going just 1-6 against the top 6 teams in the ACC standings and giving Clemson a third of its 6 league wins.

*Xavier: (20-12, 9-9 Big East), RPI 33, KenPom 44, SOS 21
Best win: 82-80 at Creighton (2/4)
Worst loss: 68-66 at Colorado (12/7)
Why they deserve to be in: The Musketeers started 13-2 despite playing a very difficult (37th) noncon schedule that included wins over Clemson, Wake Forest and Utah, plus the loss to the same Colorado team that also beat Oregon. Those are solid computer numbers and the Musketeers snagged a valuable road win at Creighton. Update: Xavier got a quality win against Butler in Thursday’s Big East quarterfinals, then lost to Creighton on a Marcus Foster 3.
Why they don’t deserve to make it: Four losses in five January games all came against ranked teams, but the Musketeers’ real slide started shortly after losing second-leading scorer Edmond Sumner and his 15 points per game for the season to a torn ACL. Despite beating Creighton without Sumner, Xavier lost six in a row (all by at least 7 and 4 by double digits) before back-to-back wins against lowly DePaul. Even when including the games with Sumner, the Musketeers were 0-6 against the RPI Top 25 this season, so there’s not a lot of reason to believe this is a good team with Sumner watching from the bench.