USF women's hoops: A week on the bubble
By nearly all accounts, USF's women's basketball team played itself into the NCAA Tournament in the past two weeks by winning four games in a row before Sunday's 37-point loss to top-ranked Connecticut.
The Bulls' record (22-10), their RPI (45, according to CollegeRPI.com) and their place in perhaps the toughest conference in women's college basketball all point to USF making the cut when the NCAA selection committee announces its field of 64 teams on Monday, March 16. That's a long time to wait, of course, so we'll give Bulls fans things to watch and wish for in the week ahead, things that could play a major role in where USF spends its postseason. Remember, too, not to trust one set of numbers too much -- RealtimeRPI.com has USF 56th, in a much more precarious position. (They also have UConn rated third). Life is never simple on the bubble ...
Root against chaos wherever possible: Those NCAA projections we've referenced so much are based on models where the automatic bids in each conference go to the top teams. Of course, this isn't always the case. In some cases, an upset in a conference tournament is harmless to the field -- some leagues are irrelevant enough they can never be more than a one-bid league. Others can definitely bump an at-large team out of the tournament with a single upset.
USF is still very much a team on the bubble -- CollegeRPI.com's most recent projected field includes just four at-large teams with lower RPIs than USF's 45. Those are Michigan State (48), Minnesota (51), Georgia (52) and Utah (63). Michigan State and Minnesota both lost in the Big Ten quarterfinals, so they're not a threat to catch the Bulls, and the same is true for Georgia, which lost in the SEC quarterfinals. It's hard not to imagine those three would be dropped from consideration before USF. We'll come back to the Utah and the Mountain West in a moment.
Know which lower conferences are harmless: Central Florida (17-16) won the Conference USA tournament Sunday as a No. 5 seed, a great story for a team that opened the year 2-11. This won't impact USF, because C-USA is an irrelevant conference nationally, with no teams rated higher than 80 in the RPI. No matter who wins, the league has just one team in the tournament. Monday's championship in the Southern conference has the No. 3 and 4 seeds in the final, but again, it doesn't matter -- it's a one-bid league regardless.
Know which leagues can be dangerous: There were, by my count, seven conferences that had a single team rated higher in the RPI than USF. That is to say, seven leagues where if the top seed didn't win the conference's automatic bid, it would merit consideration as an at-large team, potentially bumping a team out of the 64.
The good news? Marist won the Metro Atlantic, and Gonzaga won the West Coast, so two of the seven are out of the way. The other five teams Bulls fans should pull for this week: South Dakota State in the Summit, Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt, VCU in the Colonial, Illinois State in the Missouri Valley and Wisconsin-Green Bay in the Horizon. By no means am I saying all five would make the NCAAs over USF, especially after losing a tournament they should have won. They can make it interesting, though. Go ahead and pull for Bowling Green to win the Mid-American, as they're just one spot behind USF in the RPI, but they're 25-3 entering their tournament. If they were to lose in the finals, it's hard to imagine the NCAA turning down a 27-win team in the RPI top 50, potentially at USF's expense.
The Atlantic 10 will steal an extra NCAA spot: The A-10 should be a two-bid league, with Xavier and Temple both solid NCAA teams. Unfortunately, neither made Monday's championship, so either Charlotte (22-8) or RIchmond (22-9) will get an automatic bid, pushing an at-large team off the bubble. The loser of that game shouldn't get in -- neither has more than two wins against top-50 RPI teams. The Mountain West is a similar conference that should put two teams in the tournament but has three others in the RPI top 80 that could sneak in with an upset in the final.
The major conferences shouldn't threaten USF: If the Big East were to get only seven teams in -- and not the eight they've gotten in each of the past three seasons -- it shouldn't be because of any teams from the biggest six conferences. The top seeds prevailed in the ACC and SEC, which should get seven each unless Georgia drops out. The Big 12 has six great teams, then a big dropoff -- it's hard to imagine Texas Tech or Kansas getting in with 6-10 league records, and USF beat Texas Tech head-to-head. The Big Ten's best bubble teams (Michigan State, Indiana and MInnesota) all lost in the quarterfinals. The only way the Pac-10 gets an extra team is if an outsider like UCLA or Oregon State wins the tournament.
This is far more than most of you want to read about women's basketball, but it's what will decide things for USF in the next week. Again, it would probably take four upsets in those pivotal one-bid leagues to make it a real issue for the Bulls, but that's something that could happen. Barring that, USF can know that it finished strong and did plenty to help itself in the last month of the season. We'll update things as the week progresses ...