Big East bubble: USF has easiest path
As you may have heard in the last few weeks, the middle of the Big East standings is the Official Home of the NCAA Bubble, with a logjam of seven teams vying for arguably two or three spots in the NCAA field.
This presumes two things -- first, that the top five teams in the conference (Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia, Georgetown and Pittsburgh) are safely in the tournament with RPIs in the top 15. For simplicity's sake, It also writes off the bottom four teams in the league (St. John's, Providence, Rutgers, DePaul).
Of the seven teams in between, USF is very much in the middle of the middle -- of the seven, the Bulls are in a three-way tie for third in league record, tied for third in overall record, third in RPI rating. What could help the Bulls the most? USF has the easiest remaining regular-season schedule.
Consider the Big East winning percentage of remaining opponents. Notre Dame (.565) and Cincinnati (.556) have it rough -- the Bearcats finish the year at West Virginia, home against Villanova, at Georgetown. Three teams -- Marquette, Louisville and Connecticut have opponents just a game or two under .500. But two teams have an easy remaining slate -- Seton Hall's opponents are a combined .413 in league play, and USF's opponents are a lowly .390. Take away Villanova, and the other four teams are 14-37 in the Big East.
Another way to look at it is to remember our three tiers for the league (in, bubble, out). Three of USF's five remaining games are against teams in the bottom four -- as many bottom-tier opponents as Marquette (1), Louisville (1), Cincinnati (1) and Notre Dame (0) combine for. Seton Hall has four of six games against the bottom tier, but USF has the head-to-head advantage over the Pirates and is a half-game up in the standings.
I'll preface this by saying that given the past week in the Big East, it's silly to project anything based on the conference standings: Just about anything has, can and will happen.
But just to play around with numbers, if you take those three tiers and give each team a win for every remaining game against the bottom tier, a loss for every opponent in the top tier and let them split the games against other bubble teams, you can get a middle ground for how things might shake out. Home and road situations can obviously influence things, but USF is in good shape in that regard, with three of its five games at home.
Since Marquette and Louisville are 1.5 games up on the rest of the bubble, we'll give them the sixth and seventh seeds in the tournament -- they're probably in unless they stumble in New York. If the next three weeks play out as we described, USF and Seton Hall would be vying for eighth and ninth place, essentially setting up a rematch on the second day of the Big East tournament.
USF goes 3-1 in the next four by that, with the final home game against Connecticut the toss-up. Based on the silly math we're laying out, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Connecticut all finish below .500 in conference play, taking the 10th through 12th seeds.
If you're USF, given the choice, you'd probably rather be the ninth seed, get the first-day win against DePaul, then face the No. 8 seed, where a win puts you in the quarterfinals and perhaps the NCAA field.
Again, it's just one way of looking at things -- with 30 games remaining in the next 18 days involving those seven bubble teams, each one will have a tiny shift on the rest of the bubble. Stay tuned ...