This time of year, a hefty majority of all questions submitted in our weekly college chat, as well as those sent via e-mail or Twitter, center around the battle for postseason positioning. Our readers want to know how the races for national seeds, host sites and at-large bids are shaping up, so every Tuesday we'll examine how the postseason picture has shifted over the weekend. Rather than get bogged down in the jigsaw puzzle that is a full field of 64 projection, we're not going to worry about which regionals teams get sent to. We're just looking at who's in, who's out, who's on the bubble. This discussion is weighted much more toward performance and remaining schedule than projection based on talent, but it's also not intended to show what the field would look like if the season ended today. We're still looking ahead.
During this discussion, we will reference the pseudo-Ratings Percentage Index rankings at boydsworld.com, because the NCAA's official weekly report does not include Monday's games. We'll also reference the useful RPI Needs Report at Boyd's World, which provide rough guidelines for what each team needs to do in order to reach important RPI benchmarks (like top 45, for at-large position, and top eight, for earning a national seed, etc.) at the end of the season. And we'll make use of records against the top 25, 50 or 100 in the RPI—there is some margin for error with those figures, but they are accurate enough to serve our purposes.
We'll get to at-large chances in a bit, but let's start with a look at which teams are on track to earn national seeds and which are on track to host regionals through the first 12 weeks of the season:
SECURE TEAMS: North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Louisiana State
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Virginia, Cal State Fullerton, Oregon State, North Carolina State, Oregon
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Florida State, Indiana
No change from last week. We'll continue to give N.C. State the edge over Florida State based on the assumption that the Wolfpack wins its home series against the Seminoles this weekend. If Florida State wins that series in Raleigh, move the 'Noles into the national seed column, and move the 'Pack out.
Indiana remains right in the mix and could wind up earning a national seed at the expense of the Oregon-Oregon State series loser, or perhaps at the expense of a third ACC team. The Hoosiers are now 9-6 against the top 50, better than Oregon's 5-8 mark and Oregon State's 4-3 mark. Of course, those two teams have more games against the top 100 (the Beavers are 19-8, the Ducks are 18-9, the Hoosiers are 12-7), and they have gaudy records in the Pac-12, which is stronger than the Big Ten. But it's harder to build a robust RPI in the Big Ten, and Indiana is No. 12. If the Hoosiers finish strong and win the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, they have a very good chance to earn a national seed regardless of what anyone else does.
SECURE TEAMS: The eight national seeds listed above; Indiana, Florida State
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): UCLA, Arkansas, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Clemson, Louisville
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Arizona State, South Alabama, Kansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy, Oklahoma, Rice
Changes from last week: Arkansas and Clemson replace Arizona State and Oklahoma as hosts. The hosting picture seems to become more jumbled each week.
The Sooners' hosting ambitions are in trouble after they went 1-3 last week against Dallas Baptist and West Virginia, dropping them to 11-7 in the Big 12 (part of a three-way tie for first place). Kansas State now looks like the stronger Big 12 hosting candidate, with a better RPI (No. 25 vs. No. 44) and a better record against the top 50 (6-5 vs. 1-1). But the Wildcats still have to travel to Kansas and then face the Sooners (presumably with Dillon Overton back on the mound, making OU more formidable) in the last two weeks, so we're not convinced K-State will finish strong. Oklahoma can still boost its RPI into the top 32 with a strong finish against Oklahoma State and Kansas State, so don't dismiss OU's chances yet, but for now it is on the outside looking in.
Arkansas is a tough case. The Hogs are climbing in the RPI, but they're still just No. 38, and for an SEC team to host it needs to be in the 20s. But Arkansas is a strong third-place team in the SEC (15-8, two games ahead of fourth-place South Carolina), and that carries a lot of weight. We also expect the Razorbacks to finish very strong against a favorable remaining schedule (vs. Tennessee, at Auburn), and they could further boost their RPI in the SEC tournament. We expect Arkansas to win 20 or 21 SEC games in the regular season, and that's definite hosting material.
Mississippi State and South Carolina are much stronger in the RPI (at No. 10 and 11, respectively), and both are above .500 in the stout SEC (13-11 and 13-10, respectively). The Bulldogs have the better top 50 record (14-13 vs. 7-10), and the Bulldogs get to host the Gamecocks in two weeks, which is a big opportunity to boost their chances. MSU also must travel to Ole Miss this weekend. South Carolina gets Georgia this weekend. If both teams finish 3-3 to get to 16 wins in the SEC, to go with their robust RPIs, we think both could host regionals, giving the SEC five hosts.
But Clemson is also building a strong hosting resume, with a 17-10 record in the ACC, a No. 14 RPI, and a 15-12 record against the top 50. The Tigers are still behind UNC, Virginia, N.C. State and Florida State in our ACC pecking order, but the ACC actually ranks first in conference RPI, and it could conceivably get five hosts.
So if the SEC and ACC combine for 10 hosts, that leaves four in the West and two in the Midwest. UCLA has pulled ahead of Arizona State by two games in the Pac-12 standings. The Bruins are a solid third-place team in the Pac-12, with a solid No. 17 RPI—it's a hosting resume. ASU's case is built around series wins against UCLA and Oregon, but its 12-9 record in conference play undermines its case, and a series loss at home against Stanford this weekend hurt. The Pac-12 will be scrambling to produce a fifth regional team, and it might conceivably wind up with four. All four will not host, that seems certain.
We're sticking with Louisville as a second host in the Midwest (along with Indiana). The Cardinals remain in third place in the Big East (a game behind South Florida and Pittsburgh), but we expect them to finish strong (at UConn, vs. Pitt) and win the Big East regular-season title. They probably need to do that in order to beat out the likes of South Alabama and Kansas State for a hosting spot. Right now, the Jaguars are higher in the RPI (No. 16) than Louisville (No. 23), and they sit in first place in the No. 5 RPI conference. But Louisville has better records against the top 50 (7-4 vs. 4-4) and top 100 (15-5 vs. 10-10), and South Alabama has the more challenging schedule remaining (at Louisiana-Lafayette, vs. Troy). If one of those three Sun Belt teams emerges as the clear-cut top team in the conference during the next two weeks and the conference tournament, it could beat out Louisville (or a fifth ACC or SEC team) for a hosting spot. But right now, we still have more faith in Louisville's talent, so we're sticking with the Cardinals.
There are 30 automatic bids awarded to conference champions, and these 19 are safe bets to be one-bid leagues:
America East, Atlantic 10, Conference USA, Horizon, Ivy (Columbia is in), Metro-Atlantic, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, Summit, Southwestern, Western Athletic, West Coast.
We are moving Conference USA into this category because it only has one team that looks like a realistic at-large contender (Rice). Houston is still alive at No. 54 in the RPI, but the Cougars have faded in the second half, and they are mired in sixth place (9-9) in the No. 10 RPI league. They'll need a hot finish to get back into the at-large picture.
A handful of teams in these leagues might have at-large shots if they fail to win their conference tournaments: Rice (No. 37 in the RPI), Austin Peay State (No. 32), New Mexico (No. 56), Western Carolina (No. 53), Sam Houston State (No. 65 but on the rise) and maybe San Diego (No. 60) or San Francisco (No. 64). Both WCC teams need torrid finishes to boost their RPIs into at-large range; Gonzaga already has clinched the WCC regular-season title but is stuck at No. 95 in the RPI. Central Arkansas (No. 42) has a nice RPI and some good nonconference wins but is mired in seventh place in the Southland (11-10), so the Bears also need a very strong finish.
We're not calling all of those teams at-large locks, of course, but it's worth noting that C-USA, the OVC, the MWC, the SoCon, the Southland and the WCC all have at least a chance to become two-bid leagues if the top RPI teams don't win the conference tournaments. For the purpose of this exercise, we will assume that all 19 of those conferences wind up as one-bid leagues.
Below is a conference-by-conference look at which teams are on track to make the field in potential multi-bid leagues, and which teams are on the wrong side of the bubble through 12 weeks. Here are the changes from last week, in a nutshell:
IN: Stanford, Kansas, West Virginia, William & Mary
OUT: UC Irvine, Baylor, Arizona, Florida Atlantic
Atlantic Coast Conference (8 total bids)
SAFELY IN: North Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina State, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Miami, Georgia Tech
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): None
No change from last week.
We're moving Miami and Georgia Tech into the bubble category, but we still think both are in decent shape. At 11-13 in the ACC, Miami must win its road series at Wake Forest this weekend, and the Hurricanes finish with a huge home series against Georgia Tech. A 4-2 finish in those games would put Miami at a safe 15-15 in the league; 3-3 will probably be enough, given Miami's strong RPI (No. 18) and 18-16 record against the top 100.
Georgia Tech has lost four of its last five series, including a home set against Coastal Carolina this past weekend. The remaining schedule is challenging: North Carolina visits Atlanta this weekend, and then the Jackets go on the road to face Miami. Considering their negative trajectory, the Yellow Jackets need to get to 14 or 15 wins in the ACC to remain on the right side of the bubble. Last year, Tech was on the wrong side of the bubble heading into the ACC tournament, which it proceeded to win. The tournament might wind up providing a crucial opportunity for Georgia Tech to pad its crumbling resume again this year.
Atlantic Sun (2 bids)
SAFELY IN: Mercer
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): North Florida
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): None
No change from last week. North Florida's case took a hit last weekend with a series loss at Stetson, dropping the Ospreys 11 spots to No. 55 in the RPI. But UNF remains tied atop the conference standings, and its RPI can climb back into the top 45 with a strong finish. A home series this weekend against Florida Gulf Coast is critical.
Big 12 (5 bids)
SAFELY IN: Kansas State
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, West Virginia
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Baylor
Changes from last week: Baylor falls back out of our field of 64, while Kansas and West Virginia join the field.
The Mountaineers have surged into a three-way tie for first place with three straight series wins (two of three at Texas, a sweep of Kansas at home, and two out of three against Oklahoma at home). West Virginia still has a lot of work to do in order to boost its No. 69 RPI, but the Mountaineers are the hottest team in the Big 12 right now, and if they can win out, they can crack the top 45. We don't expect them to win out, but we think they can hold their own against TCU and at Oklahoma State, and get a chance to boost their RPI more in the Big 12 tournament.
Kansas rebounded from getting swept by WVU with a sweep of its own against Baylor, dropping the Bears to 25-23 overall, 11-9 in the league and No. 59 in the RPI. The Jayhawks jumped 10 spots to No. 49 in the RPI, and they get to play Kansas State at home this weekend in a huge series (followed by a nonconference trip to Utah). Kansas can finish in the top 45 by winning five of its last seven, and we think that is attainable.
Big East (4 bids)
SAFELY IN: Louisville
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Pittsburgh, South Florida, Notre Dame
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Seton Hall
No change from last week. The Bulls helped their cause significantly with a road series win at Notre Dame, vaulting them 26 spots to No. 52 in the RPI. Pittsburgh has swept four straight series to move into a tie with USF atop the standings, and to climb to No. 44 in the RPI.
Notre Dame's stock is slipping, but the Irish are still in great RPI shape (No. 34), and they still have more top 50 wins than any other team in the Big East (8-10). Notre Dame needs to improve its 8-10 conference record in its final two series at St. John's and at Cincinnati. The Irish are better than those teams, but they are on the road. Still, we're giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Seton Hall is in better position in the standings, with a 13-5 conference record. But the Pirates are just 1-4 against the top 50, and they face a stiff test this weekend against South Florida—but at least it's a home series for SHU. Seton Hall is in good RPI shape at No. 41, and it can finish in the top 45 by winning five of its last six games—all at home, against USF and St. John's. That is doable, but Notre Dame has more quality wins and a better RPI (and the head-to-head series advantage over Seton Hall), and the Big East seems unlikely to send five teams to regionals, as the No. 9 RPI conference. If Seton Hall wins its series against USF this weekend, move the Pirates into the field of 64. For now, we'll leave them out.
Big South (2 bids)
SAFELY IN: Coastal Carolina
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Campbell
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): None
No change from last week. We're moving the Chanticleers into the "safely in" category after their big road series win at Georgia Tech, helping them climb nine spots to No. 34 in the RPI. Campbell's gaudy record (39-9) has allowed it to stay at No. 40 in the RPI despite its 0-1 record against the top 50, 5-1 mark against the top 100, and 15-2 mark against teams outside the top 200. The Camels just need to keep winning; they finish with home series against Liberty and RPI killer New Orleans (No. 272).
Big Ten (3 bids)
SAFELY IN: Indiana
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Michigan State, Ohio State
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Illinois, Nebraska
No change from last week. Ohio State has taken care of business in conference play, winning its last four series to build a 14-7 Big Ten mark heading into its challenging eight-game home stand to finish the season (vs. Georgia Tech, Oregon, Louisville, Indiana). If the Buckeyes win three of those games, we think they get in.
Nebraska is 12-6 in the Big Ten and No. 48 in the RPI, but it remains 21-25 overall, so it needs to catch fire to finish above .500 and be eligible for an at-large spot. Don't count on it. Illinois is in better shape, with a No. 35 RPI and a 28-15 record, but the Illini are trending in the wrong direction, with road series losses at Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana and a home series loss to Nebraska. Illinois is just 9-9 in the Big Ten (seventh place), so it needs a strong finishing kick. For now, the Illini remain on the wrong side of the bubble.
Minnesota is 11-4 in the Big Ten, but a No. 106 RPI keeps the Gophers out of the bubble discussion.
Big West (2 bids)
SAFELY IN: Cal State Fullerton
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Cal Poly
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge, UC Santa Barbara
One change from last week: UC Irvine falls out of our field of 64 after a 1-3 week at UCLA and UCSB. The Anteaters can still play themselves into regionals if they perform well in the last three weeks against the meat of their conference schedule (Cal Poly, at Fullerton, vs. Long Beach State), but they are stuck at No. 75 in the RPI, and that Santa Barbara series loss was a big blow.
The Gauchos (No. 72) essentially need to win out to get their RPI into at-large range, and we don't see that happening. Matadors (No. 89) sit in second place at 14-4, and seven wins down the stretch could boost their RPI into the top 45, but we don't see that happening against their back-loaded Big West schedule (UCSB, at Cal Poly, vs. Fullerton).
Colonial Athletic Association (2 bids)
SAFELY IN: UNC Wilmington
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): William & Mary
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Delaware
One change from last week: William & Mary rejoins our field of 64 after a sweep of Hofstra, which helped the Tribe climb seven spots to No. 47 in the RPI. The overall strength of the CAA helps William & Mary; the Colonial ranks eighth in conference RPI, so it stands to reason it has a better chance to send a second team to regionals than the ninth-rated Big East has of sending a fifth team. William & Mary must not get swept at UNC Wilmington this weekend to keep its at-large hopes alive, and a series win would be a huge boost. For now, we'll assume the Tribe wins at least one game in Wilmington and takes care of business in its final four games against Old Dominion and Georgia State, then has a solid showing in the conference tournament. That should be enough to help the Tribe snag an at-large spot, unless mid-major conference favorites start losing, reducing the number of at-large spots available.
Pacific-12 (5 bids)
SAFELY IN: Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Stanford
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Arizona
One change from last week: Stanford replaces Arizona in our field of 64. Both teams still have a long way to go to get their RPIs into at-large range (Stanford is No. 74, Arizona is No. 83). The Wildcats sustained a crippling blow this weekend when they lost two of three at home to Washington. That was a must-win series given the difficulty of the next two weeks (at UCLA, at Arizona State). The RPI Needs Report says Arizona needs to win seven or eight of its last nine games to get its RPI into the top 45, and we don't see that happening. Arizona would be the first defending national champion to miss out on the postseason since Oregon State in 2008.
Stanford recovered from getting swept by Oregon with a huge series win at Arizona State, giving the Cardinal five series wins in the last six weeks. Stanford is fortunate to get Oregon State and UCLA at home in the next three weeks, sandwiched around a winnable road trip to Cal, and three winnable midweek home games. The Cardinal needs to win nine of its last 12 to get into the top 45; that will be a tall order, but it's doable. Seven or eight wins seems more likely, and that might be enough to get Stanford into regionals whether its RPI climbs into the top 45 or not, because the Cardinal has positive momentum.
Southeastern Conference (9 bids)
SAFELY IN: Vanderbilt, LSU, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Alabama
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Texas A&M
No change from last week. Alabama's footing became a bit more precarious after it was swept by Mississippi State, and this weekend's home series against Missouri is a must-win for 'Bama, because it must travel to Vanderbilt the following week. A 3-3 finish in those last six games would get the Tide to 14-15 in the league, and that should be good enough for an at-large spot, especially with another win or two in the SEC tournament. Even getting to 13-16 in the league might get Alabama in, but the margin for error is small.
Sun Belt (3 bids)
SAFELY IN: South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): None
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Florida Atlantic
One change from last week: Florida Atlantic falls out of our field of 64 after losing a home series to Arkansas-Little Rock. The Owls have lost three straight series and four of their last five, undermining a resume built around a 9-11 record against the top 50 (compared with South Alabama's 4-4 mark against the top 50). And FAU's finishing stretch features back-to-back road series, at Western Kentucky and Florida International. The Owls are trending in the wrong direction, and so is their RPI (down from No. 38 last week to No. 57 this week).
Troy is moving in the opposite direction, with 11 wins in its last 12 games, including a road series win at FAU and a sweep against FIU. The Trojans are up to No. 28 in the RPI and they are in second place in the No. 5 RPI conference at 16-8, so we're moving them into the "safely in" category.