Tried to get this up yesterday, realized that posting it at 7 p.m. when no one would see it until the St. Mary's/Siena info was obsolete anyway would be stupid. Sorry for the delay.
I'm imagining that just outside the shot, Jerry Palm has just told Lebo exactly how far down the bubble ladder he thinks Auburn is, and Lebo's curled his fist up for, uh, minor assault-based reasons.
Here, I'll spoil the ending for you: after poring over the bubble like ... like ... like a bubble-poring machine the last few days, I've reached the following conclusion: Auburn does now have a genuine, if distant, possibility of earning an at-large bid. There, I said it.
However: do not get your hopes up, Auburn fans. The Tigers would need an absolutely perfect set of results from league tourneys across the country and a Committee that, frankly, overemphasizes their "last 12" record and, most obviously, two wins in the SEC tournament. The odds on all of those pieces fitting snugly into place are long, long, long. How long? As of right now, precisely two out of 78 brackets at the Bracket Matrix have Auburn in the field.
In short: winning the automatic bid in Tampa remains as crucial as it ever was.
That said, thanks to the wholesale bubble collapse over the past week-plus, I think Auburn can at least work themselves into the mix. Let's start, however, with the current picture:
WHERE WE STAND
Bubble math isn't really so hard: you put all the locks in a pile, figure out how many spots are remaining, and establish a cut-off line. If a team below the cut-off wins an automatic bid, you move the line up a spot. Right now, the bubble looks like this according to the JCCW:
File under "duh": Cornell, ETSU, UNI, Radford, Morehead St., Siena, VCU, UT-Chattanooga, UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida St., Boston College, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma St., Michigan St., Illinois, Purdue, Ohio St., Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, UCLA, Cal, Arizona St., UConn, Pitt, Louisville, 'Nova, Marquette, Syracuse, West Virginia, LSU, Tennessee, Xavier, Dayton, Memphis, Gonzaga, Butler, Utah, BYU.
That's 46 teams. A couple of these teams could conceivably miss (the Ohio St./Wisconsin loser, Michigan, maaaaaaaybe Dayton) but regardless I don't see any way Auburn "passes" any of them.
Remaining conferences with automatic bids: America East, SWAC, MEAC, Summit, Big Sky, Big West, NEC, MAC, Patriot, Southland, WAC, Sun Belt.
That's 12 more teams. 46+12=58, so there's still seven more spots available right now.
Listed below are the bubble teams I think are currently in and out, with their 1. record vs. RPI top 50 2. record vs. RPI top 100 3. Sub-100 losses 4. Average RPI win/loss, all listed in parentheses. Information is borrowed from the indispensable NCAA Committee Selection Sheet replicas at bbstate.com. If you'd like a sample, Auburn's is here. Utah St. is left out of the list pending a possible loss in conference tournament play.
1. Minnesota (1. 5-7, 2. 8-9, 3. none, 4. 134/35)
With 8 top-100 wins and no bad losses, Gophers are probably in even with loss to Northwestern in Big 10 tourney opener.
2. UNLV (1. 4-4, 2. 8-6, 3. at 108 Wyoming, at 159 TCU, at 194 Colorado St., 4. 162/80)
Ugly losses, but plus-.500 record vs. top 100 and four wins in the top 25 including a true road win at Louisville are hard to ignore.
3. Penn St. (1. 6-8, 2. 7-9 3. at 112 Iowa, 4. 160/45)
Terrible nonconference slate, but too many top 50 wins to miss provided they don't choke against Indiana.
4. Arizona (1. 5-8, 2. 9-11, 3. at 105 Stanford, 4. 139/46)
Awful away record (0-8 vs. top 100) but did beat Gonzaga at neutral site and 5 top 50 wins include vs. Kansas.
5. Creighton (1. 3-2, 2. 9-5, 3. at 161 Wichita St., vs. 164 Drake, 4. 158/90)
Best winning percentage vs. top 100 on the bubble, 11-1 finish makes up for bad losses. Also has share of Valley title.
6. Florida (1. 2-6, 2. 8-8, 3. at 188 Georgia, 4. 174/57)
Only two wins against top 50, though one is neutral vs. 13 Washington, and average win of 174 is bad, bad, bad.
7. New Mexico (1. 3-4, 2. 5-7, 3. at 127 Texas Tech, vs. 140 Central Florida, neutral vs. 164 Drake, 4. 155/73)
Some good wins, 12-4 Mountain West record and share of conference title, but sub-.500 record vs. top 100, bad losses, and zero away wins in top 100.
8. South Carolina (1. 1-5, 2. 7-7, 3. at 101 Charleston, 4. 176/52)
Differentiating between this resume and Florida's is tough, but Florida has the big Washington win and an extra top 100 scalp to make up for the Gators' worse bad loss.
9. Maryland (1. 3-8, 2. 7-10, 3. at 109 Virginia, vs. 137 Morgan St., 4. 149/41)
Two of those top 50 wins are huuuuuge W's over UNC and Mich. St.
10. Miami (1. 2-7, 3. 6-9, 3. at 102 NC State, at 159 Georgia Tech 4. 141/43)
11. San Diego St. (1. 1-5, 2. 4-7, 3. at 108 Wyoming, 4. 155/44)
No top-100 opponent ranked lower than 58, 11-5 in good conference.
And now, finally ...
12. Auburn (1. 2-5, 2. 5-9, 3. vs. 180 Mercer, 4. 161/66)
9-3 in last 12, 5 total top 100 wins, but ... well, we'll get to that in a moment.
Several other teams are closely bunched here, including Kentucky, the Big East bubble brigade (Providence, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, etc.), Virginia Tech, Northwestern, and Kansas St. (One team that's not is Davidson, which has 1 top 100 win vs. three SoCon losses, two of them with Curry healthy. They're going to the NIT.) They would each require a huge tourney run to pass Auburn on the ladder, and if the Tigers get the match-ups they need and take care of their business in the quarters and semis, I don't think it's possible. It's the teams out in front that are the enemy. There's also this team to consider:
????????. St. Mary's (1. 2-3, 2. 3-4, 3. at 117 Portland, at 193 Santa Clara, 4. 180/82)
A wild card, but after their annihilation at the hands of Gonzaga last night, I think they're done. A close loss could have convinced the Committee to toss out the two bad losses due to the Patty Mills injury, but 3 top 100 wins is a tiny number no matter how you slice it ... you'd have to not only wipe the bad losses from the Gaels' record, but also give them credit for a hypothetical win over the Zags they would have had if Mills had stayed healthy. After last night, you can't do it. But injuries are such a weird thing, I wouldn't put it past the Committee to do something unusual here. (For the record, as a mid-major guy, of course I'd like to see them get in over a South Carolina or Miami. But Creighton is tons more deserving.)
SO WHY IS AUBURN SO LOW?
It's not so tough to figure out.
1. The worst winning percentage vs. the top 100 of any team on this list. New Mexico is the only other team to post a sub-.500 record against teams in the 50-100 range.
2. The worst bad loss of any team on this list, since the Mercer defeat came at home. And is Mercer.
3. The worst nonconference scheduling of any team on this list, with nine different nonleague games against teams ranked above 200 in the RPI, plus Tuskegee. (The only teams to come close to that number are--as you might have guessed from the "average RPI win" numbers--the other two SEC bubblers.)
4. One road+neutral win vs. the top 100, at 83 Miss. St.
5. Fewer total top 100 wins than anyone on the list other than San Diego St. (The Aztecs' wins, though, all came vs. teams in the top 60 whereas three of Auburn's came vs. teams ranked between 80 and 100.)
Tons of Auburn fans have been griping about South Carolina and Florida getting more respect from the bracket gurus, but it's easy to see why: The 'Cocks and Gators have more wins against top-100 competition, a much better winning percentage against top-100 competition, in Carolina's case a much better worst loss and in Florida's case a much better nonconference win. Not to mention that both of these teams--in case you've forgotten--also beat Auburn head-to-head in their only meetings, the Gators on Auburn's home floor and the 'Cocks in a double-digit laugher.
Right now, Auburn doesn't have a leg to stand on in the SEC pecking order, other than the wobbly "We're hot! We're good if you watch us!" leg. But a lot of teams can get hot, and a lot of teams can look good if you watch them on a particular day or week. It's about proving how good you are over the course of the season, not just the very end of it, and if Auburn didn't want the bracket guys pooh-poohing their chances or the Committee hypothetically giving them the snub, well, they shouldn't have lost so many games.
SO WHAT DO THEY HAVE TO DO?
OK, here's where we start delivering the good news.
1. Beat Florida in the SEC quarters, then Tennessee in the semis. Personally, I'd rather have a couple of upsets and easier games on the way to the final, but the SEC Tournament bracket offers something of a win-win situation for Auburn in that the Gators and Vols will give them excellent opportunities to pad their resume. The Gators (current RPI: 48) might slip into the 50-100 range, but Tennessee is a sure top-50 opponent.
2. Lose to a top-50 opponent in the SEC final. Only LSU or South Carolina need apply, please. Anybody else would be too damaging.
3. Root Virginia on to victory. Auburn fans need to send the Cavaliers all the positive vibes they can muster when they take on Boston College in the ACC first-round this week. The Cavs--who Auburn beat in Charlottesville--currently sit at No. 109 in the RPI. A win over the Eagles and subsequent match-up with Duke would likely be enough to push Virginia into the top 100. (Is it silly that there's a big difference between a win over a team ranked, say, No. 104 and another ranked No. 99, especially in so rough a guide as the RPI? Of course. But the Committee has vast amounts of information to digest in a very short time, and cut offs have to be drawn somewhere.)
4. Root the other locks onto their respective automatic bids. Like every team on the bubble, Auburn desperately wants Butler to hold serve at home against Cleveland St. tonight, wants Xavier or Dayton to win the A-10 (fat chance), wants Memphis to keep rolling through C-USA, wants no Georgia-style interlopers in the other power-conference tourneys. The cut-off line could easily move out of Auburn's range if too many bids get snatched up by teams that would otherwise stay home.
5. Root the other teams on the bubble into disaster. Auburn will likely have the privilege of handling Florida's bubble business themselves, but that alone won't do it. If teams like Maryland and New Mexico keep winning at their conference tourneys, Auburn cannot catch them. Then again, some of these teams also have hard rows to hoe--San Diego St. will face UNLV on the Runnin' Rebs' homecourt in the MWC opening round. The loser of the Miami/Va. Tech game is toast while the winner gets UNC in the next round. I think Arizona's going to get in over Auburn regardless, but a first-round loss to Arizona St. would make it interesting.
AND IF ALL THAT STUFF HAPPENS?
In the best-case scenario in which Auburn beats Florida and Tennessee before losing to LSU while Virginia moves into the RPI top 100, the Tigers' final resume looks like this:
1. 8-10 vs. top 100 (with either a 4-6/4-4 or 3-5/5-5 split, depending on whether Florida stayed top 50 or not ... my guess is "not.")
2. Four road+neutral wins vs. top 100
3. 10-2 in last 12 with both losses coming to LSU at road/neutral sites
4. For whatever it would be worth, the third-best resume in the SEC. (I think Auburn's 4-to-1 or possible 3-to-0 edge in top 50 wins plus their recent hotness would be enough to overcome Carolina's other advantages.)
That resume would--without a doubt--get Auburn into the conversation. There's also some precedent for late-charging SEC teams to receive backdoor at-large bids, as Arkansas proved in 2007 when they came from nowhere to earn a bid with three straight SEC tourney wins. (Those Hogs were playing in a much deeper SEC and had several good nonconference wins, however.)
The real question is if that resume--remember, the very best-case scenario and not necessarily the most likely one--would be good enough to not only get Auburn into the conversation, but earn them a bid. And the answer is: I don't know. But it might. If the bubble doesn't shrink too badly and teams like Maryland and New Mexico and Arizona take the pipe, Auburn will be right in the middle of things. And if the Committee decides that the "last 12" is an important criterion, and looks closely enough at Auburn's wide margin of victory in most of their SEC wins vs. the slim margin of victory against Dayton, Florida, UNI, etc.*, and just feels uncomfortable leaving the field with only two SEC teams ... then yes, I could see Auburn's name popping up on the brackets during the Selection Show next Sunday.
But here's the thing, and I can't emphasize this enough: Even in the event Auburn beats both Florida and Tennessee, a bid is not likely. For starters, that cut-off line is going to move, starting tonight when I like desperate Cleveland St. to get over the hump against a Butler team they've played dead-even twice already. Dayton and Xavier have been taking on water in the A-10 for weeks: there's no freaking way either one wins that tournament. You know we're going to have some massive upset like Va. Tech over UNC or Kansas St. over Kansas that catapults them into the bracket, you know one of those myriad Big East teams is going to get hot and rip off a string of good wins. (You heard it here first: Georgetown is going to beat both Marquette and Villanova and stick themselves right back on the bubble.) The next edition of that bubble list won't look as friendly.
On top of that, a) Virginia's much more likely to meekly succumb to BC than surge into the top 100 b) some of those teams Auburn's chasing--like that hot New Mexico team--are likely to play their way into the bracket rather than out of it c) Auburn's hardly guaranteed those shots against the Gators and Vols. Donovan's and Pearl's SEC tournament records aren't exactly inspiring, and the Vols in particular will likely have to tangle with the same red-hot Alabama team they just lost to up in Knoxville. If Auburn doesn't get the best opponents possible, it just won't have the resume-juice to make the field.
So in the end, the JCCW philosophy regarding Auburn and the bubble is the same one it's been for weeks: Three games. Win them all. And all of this other stuff is nothing but the proverbial sound and fury, signifying nothing Auburn needs to concern itself with any more.
*Hopefully, they'd skip over the three-point home win over UT-Pan American.