USF women back on the bubble
It will be a long next few weeks for USF women's basketball, waiting to see if the Bulls have done enough to return to the NCAA Tournament. Right now, it's far too close to call.
Tuesday night's loss to No. 4 Connecticut is nothing shameful -- the Huskies have proven themselves to be one of the best teams in the country, especially on the road -- but the rest of the night's scores were a worst-case scenario for the Bulls. The three teams in closest competition with USF for the last Big East spots in the tournament all won.
Let's accept, first of all, that the Big East is likely to get seven or eight teams into the NCAA Tournament, likely the most of any league in college basketball. Let's also accept that six of those spots are likely now spoken for: Connecticut, Marquette, Rutgers, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville have RPIs of 33 or higher. Unless Pitt, 8-6 in league play, were to finish at .500 in the conference, those six are arguably locks for the NCAA.
That leaves basically four teams vying for the last one or two spots: DePaul, USF, West Virginia and Seton Hall. Remember, too, that USF has road losses at DePaul and West Virginia, so a tie might work against them in both those cases. Here's a breakdown of those four teams, using the constantly updated RPIs from realtimerpi.com (a little off from collegerpi.com, but updated quick enough to be relevant here). I'm using the league standings to order them right now ...
Team RPI Overall Conf. Remaining
West Virginia 49 18-9 9-5 Cincy, @Louisville
South Florida 61 18-9 8-6 @Marquette, Seton Hall
Seton Hall 51 17-9 8-6 St. John's, @USF
DePaul 53 17-10 7-7 @Pittsburgh, Notre Dame
It's a tough lineup -- USF now has the worst RPI of the four teams, and a loss at Marquette this weekend would give them potentially a share of the worst record. It could set up the Senior Night season finale at home against Seton Hall as a must-win play-in game, where the winner takes the loser's spot in the NCAA field.
All these teams also have the Big East tournament ahead, and a strong run of two or three wins there would be more compelling than anything we're talking about right now. But USF is in a bad spot there as well -- likely the No. 8 or 9 seed, which would mean a second-round game against a well-rested Connecticut team, in Hartford no less. If you thought tonight was tough odds for the Bulls to win, such a game would be much, much tougher.
So it's in USF's interests to find a way to finish seventh in the league standings, which at least allows for a second-round game against a more beatable team like a Rutgers or Marquette, without the added disadvantage of playing in their home state.
It's worth noting that none of the NCAA mockups -- ESPN.com's Bracketology, CollegeRPI.com's projected bracket -- have USF missing the cut, or even in the "last four in" group that anoints Official Bubble Status. West Virginia is generally listed in that group, with Seton Hall close behind. West Virginia just picked up a big win at Pitt on Tuesday, and if they move into the tournament field, they're most likely to displace a team from their own tournament, such as USF.
One thing USF has going for it is aggressive scheduling. Check out the RPIs of USF's nine losses: 3, 12, 17, 18, 19, 20, 20, 56 and 66. So seven of their nine are against RPI top 20 teams, though the 56 (DePaul) and 66 (West Virginia) have hurt them in the last two weeks. Their record against RPI top 50 teams is 2-7 right now.
The Bulls can help themselves in a big way by winning at Marquette, but road play hasn't been a strength for USF this season. Lose there, and it will be a nervous few weeks for the Bulls until the NCAA field is announced in March.