NCAA Tournament Projections and Bubble Watch: Kentucky returns

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Kentucky re-enters field after defeating Missouri, Arizona State says goodbye

<p> NCAA Tournament Projections and Bubble Watch: Kentucky sneaks in.&nbsp;</p>

Selection Sunday is just a few weeks away, and the picture for who’s in and who’s out of the NCAA Tournament is becoming more clear.

In general, most of the 68 spots are fairly certain. Of the 32 conferences, we’ve tabbed 20 as being one-bid leagues, determined solely by conference tournaments. On the other end of the spectrum, at least 30 teams are safely in the field barring a total collapse between now and March 17.

That leaves the bubble, where every win and loss is magnified and every result from November and December takes on a renewed significance.

Here’s our look at the NCAA Tournament field for 2013. This is not intended to be a prediction, per se, but a snapshot at how the field may look right now.

NCAA TOURNAMENT BRACKET PROJECTIONS: FEB. 28

TOP FOUR SEEDS
Indiana
Duke
Gonzaga
Kansas

ACC (5)
In: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia
Worth a mention: Florida State, Maryland
Bubble notes: There hasn't been a ton of movement in the ACC of late. Virginia remains an interesting case study: The Cavs have a low RPI (65) and some very bad losses (six to teams ranked 120 or lower), but they have three top -25 wins (including one at Wisconsin) and are 6–2 vs. top-100 teams. UVa hosts Duke Thursday night. Maryland has one great win (vs. Duke at home), but only two other top-100 wns. The Terps' "best" win away from home is at Northwestern (RPI 133). Other than a season sweep of Maryland, Florida State is running low on quality ACC wins.

Atlantic 10 (5)
In: Butler, La Salle, Saint Louis, Temple, VCU
Worth a mention: Charlotte, UMass, Xavier
Bubble notes: Temple rebounded from its crushing loss at home to Duquesne (RPI 215) by beating UMass and Charlotte on the road and La Salle at home. That's three top-65 wins to pad the Owls' profile. La Salle has a lofty RPI (35) and wins over Butler (RPI 27) and at VCU (RPI 34). UMass has hurt its chances over the last week with losses at VCU, at home vs. Temple and at St. Bonaventure. Xavier has four top-40 wins — but they are all at home — and five losses to teams ranked 135 or lower. The Musketeers are playing well of late but have too many warts on their resume. Charlotte has played its way out of the picture by losing five of its last six.

Big 12 (5)
In: Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
Worth a mention: Baylor
Bubble notes: Poor Iowa State. The Cyclones are so close to being an absolute lock. They have two painful losses in overtime to Kansas, a two-point loss at Oklahoma State and a three-point overtime loss at Texas. Iowa State only has two top-50 RPI wins (a low number for a team in a league projected to send at least five teams to the NCAAs), and both came at home. The loss at Texas Tech is troubling. As we've stated before, Baylor has a roster that is could enough to be in the NCAA Tournament, but the Bears' resume is lacking. They are 2–7 vs. top-50 teams and 4–9 vs. top-100 teams. Also, they have losses at home to Northwestern (RPI 133) and College of Charleston (150). Baylor might sneak in with home wins over Kansas State and Kansas in the final two weeks of the regular season. 

Big East (8)
In: Cincinnati, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova
Worth a mention: St. John’s
Bubble notes: It's tough to keep Villanova, which lost at Seton Hall, in the field this week, but it's also tough to keep out a team that has four top-35 RPI wins. The Wildcats will be in decent shape if they can split their final two regular-season games — at Pitt, vs. Georgetown. Cincinnati is struggling, with four straight losses and six in their last seven games. Only one of the losses, however, is to a team ranked outside the top-40 of the RPI — and that game was Providence, which is playing very well of late. The Bearcats are hanging their hat on three top-50 wins, two away from home, and no bad losses. St. John's has some decent wins (at Cincinnati, vs. Notre Dame, vs. UConn), but the Red Storm's RPI is 61, and they have three losses to sub-100 RPI teams. 

Big Ten (7)
In: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Worth a mention: Iowa
Bubble notes: Iowa was in the midst of mounting a late-season charge to the NCAA Tournament until the Hawkeyes lost at Nebraska 64–60 last weekend. They bounced back to beat Purdue on Wednesday, but this team still has a long way to go. With an RPI of 90, a non-conference strength of schdule of 321 and an overall record of 18–10, Iowa is in a tough spot. Win at Indiana this weekend and then we have something to talk about. Minnesota stopped the bleeding (four losses in five games) with a huge win over Indian on Wednesday. The Gophers' remaining schedule is soft by Big Ten standards — Penn State, at Nebraska and at Purdue. Barring an implosion, the Gophers are in great shape. 

Conference USA (1)
In: Memphis
Worth a mention: Southern Miss
Bubble notes: Southern Miss lost its only hope for an at-large bid by losing at Memphis last weekend. The Golden Eagles, with no top-80 wins, will need to win the C-USA Tournament. 

Missouri Valley (2)
In: Creighton, Wichita State
Worth a mention: Indiana State, Northern Iowa
Bubble notes: Creighton, with an RPI of 44 and three top-50 wins (two away from home), is still in decent shape, but the Bluejays missed a great opportunity with last weekend's loss at Saint Mary's. Indiana State had been flirting with a spot in the Tournament, but the Sycamores’ recent skid (four losses in their last five games) will be tough to overcome. Indiana State lost to RPI No. 212 Missouri State on Feb. 12 and No. 172 Bradley. Northern Iowa was building some late-season momentum (six straight wins), but the Pantheres lost at home to Denver last week in a BracketBusters game. They have no shot an at-large.

Mountain West (5)
In: Boise State, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV
Worth a mention: Air Force
Bubble notes: At first glance, Boise State might not have the most impressive profile, but keep in mind that this team has winning record in the nation's No. 2 RPI conference. The Broncos beat UNLV at home and won at Creighton — though that win isn't quite as impressive now. Air Force, too, has a winning record in the Mountain West, though the Falcons still have to visit San Diego State and play New Mexico State home. Their RPI is 64, 17 spots lower than Boise State's.

Pac-12 (5)
In: Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, UCLA
Worth a mention: Arizona State, Stanford
Bubble notes: Arizona State was one of the final teams out this week. The Sun Devils have lost two straight, vs. Washington and at UCLA to fall to 9–7 in the league and drop their RPI to 88. They have four top-50 wins but two losses vs. teams ranked 175 or lower. They have a great chance to pick up a marquee win in their regular-season finale on March 9 at Arizona. Stanford played its way into the discussion a few weeks ago but has since lost four of five and five of seven. The home loss to USC on Feb. 14 was very damaging. With an RPI of 68 and 13 losses, the Cardinal will now need to win the Pac-12 Tournament. California has been playing very well. The Golden Bears have won five straight and now have four top-50 wins (including two on the road) on their resume. This team is in great shape. 

SEC (3)
In: Florida, Kentucky, Missouri
Worth a mention: Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee
Bubble notes: The SEC is a mess. The league could end up with two teams — or five teams. Kentucky picked up a huge win at home over Missouri on Saturday night, but we still don't know how good this team can be without Nerlens Noel. The Wildcats only have one top-50 win. That's not good. What is good, however, is that UK has no bad losses. Tennessee, like last year, is making a late charge. The Volunteers' RPI is up to 51, and they now have three wins vs. top-50 teams. All three wins, however, are at home. Their best win away from home is against UMass (RPI 57) on a neutral court. Ole Miss beat Texas A&M at home on Wednesday night to improve to 10–5 in the league, but the Rebels still have work to do. They only have on top-50 win, though that number could be bumped to three if Tennessee (RPI 51) keeps winning. Ole Miss swept the Vols. The Rebs' RPI (currently 56) might not climb too much even if they win out. The schedule features Mississippi State (RPI 238), Alabama (62) and LSU (91). Alabama has a gaudy league record (11–4) but that was padded with a lot games vs. the bottom half of the league. The Tide's RPI is 62, and they have four losses to sub-RPI 100 teams (three at home). Arkansas should be mentioned for its wins over Florida and Missouri in recent weeks, but the Razorbacks still have a low RPI (81) and a dismal road record (1-8).

West Coast (2)
In: Gonzaga, Saint Mary's
Worth a mention: BYU
Bubble notes: Saint Mary’s doesn't have much to excited about on its resume, but the Gaels also don't have many warts. Their RPI is solid (45), but they only have one top-100 win (Creighton). Saint Mary's can't do much to improve its standing the rest of the way (a win over Gonzaga would come in the WCC Championship Game, which would make the SMC an automatic qualifier). 

One-bid conference projections

Conference Projected winner Conference Projected winner
America East Stony Brook MEAC Norfolk State
Atlantic Sun Mercer Northeast Robert Morris
Big Sky Montana Ohio Valley Belmont
Big South Charleston Southern Patriot Bucknell
Big West Long Beach State Southern Davidson
Colonial Northeastern Southland Stephen F. Austin
Horizon Valparaiso Summit North Dakota State
Ivy Harvard Sun Belt Middle Tennessee
MAAC Niagara SWAC Southern
MAC Akron WAC Louisiana Tech

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