Monday, February 08, 1999

NCAA Tournament: League-by-league outlook

        Duke (1 RPI ranking), Maryland (6) and North Carolina (12) can start making their plans for the NCAA Tournament, though the Terps and Tar Heels have started to see their seeds slip. In what many concede to be the worst year in the ACC in recent memory, it seems unlikely the league will get more than five bids.

        Florida State (25) is the front-runner for the fourth, with the potential fifth bid up for grabs. Georgia Tech's home loss to N.C. State on Tuesday left the Yellow Jackets (35) with a tough stretch that began with a loss at home to Duke Saturday and a three-game road trip to follow. Meanwhile, N.C. State (46) has been playing well and plays host to Maryland on Wednesday, a game where it can build its RPI.

Atlantic 10
        Two years after getting five bids for the first time in conference history, it seems doubtful the A-10 will get more than three unless some team other than Temple (23), George Washington (50) or Xavier (62) wins the league tournament in Philadelphia next month.

        Rhode Island (85) has finally begun winning with some regularity. But the Rams will have to keep on winning, and are scheduled to play three of their last four on the road.

Big East
        Despite the comeback the onetime power league has made this season, it is still filled with bubble teams. After Connecticut (4), St. John's (13) and Miami (22), it's anybody's guess how many more will get in. The fourth now likely will be Syracuse (42).

        Rutgers (30) and Villanova (28) are strong bubble teams, but Providence (59) didn't help itself by losing at Notre Dame.

Big Ten
        Can the 11-team league break its record of seven bids by getting eight this year? The power ratings certainly suggest so. Five are already a lock, seven a likelihood: Michigan State (2), Wisconsin (9), Iowa (11) Purdue (18) and Ohio State (19), with Indiana (8) and Minnesota (14) closing in.

        Northwestern (33) also could make things interesting down the stretch, but the Wildcats have road games remaining at Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa.

Big 12
        Going on the assumption that former powerhouse Kansas (15) is still a potential No.4 seed despite its departure from the Top 25, Missouri (31) and Texas (44) have a pretty good chance as well. The Longhorns have overcome an 0-4 start this season in Rick Barnes' first year in Austin and have won 11 of their last 12 to go 14-9.

        While Texas has the easiest road during the second half of the conference season — the Longhorns play three teams in the upper half at home — Oklahoma probably has the toughest. The Sooners (45) have to play at Texas and Missouri, then play host to Kansas.

Conference USA
        Cincinnati (5), a likely top seed, is the only team to have locked up an invitation. Alabama-Birmingham (43) is 16-7 overall, with five of its losses coming to teams that were either ranked in the Top 25 when they played the Blazers or in the Top 25 now. The Blazers also will get to play the conference tournament in Birmingham.

        North Carolina Charlotte (21) has beaten the Bearcats, and also has an overtime loss against North Carolina. After that, it depends on whether Louisville (27), now that its postseason ban has been reversed, can continue to right itself after a recent four-game losing streak. DePaul (64), with a star-studded freshman class, will likely have to win the conference tournament to be invited.

        This conference has been getting more respect each year, getting two teams into the NCAA tournament last season. Either Miami (24) or Toledo (41) could make it without winning the tournament.

        Five has been the SEC's magic number when it comes to NCAA tournament invitations, and it looks like that will be the number for the third straight year. Kentucky (10) and Auburn (7) are both looking at No.2 seeds. Tennessee (38) and Florida (26), which had that impressive win over Kentucky, also should be in.

        Georgia (32) and Arkansas (48) are on the bubble; Alabama (83) has a long way to go.

        After getting five bids in 1995 and 1997, only four teams were invited last season. Three are in right now — Stanford (3), Arizona (17) and UCLA (20). After that, five teams are in contention for one or two spots. Because of its RPI, Washington (16) probably has the best chance.

        Oregon State (111) has yet to prove they can win away from home in the league (0-4) or in a neutral setting (0-3).

        Arizona State (58) has been solid under new coach Rob Evans, but has no big wins. Cal (71) has a win over North Carolina, but could finish the league with a losing record.

        Tulsa (40) has the highest RPI in the league, and, despite a recent three-game losing streak, Texas Christian (47) is in good shape with five of the next seven games at home. So is Utah (36), which has been steadily climbing with its 13-game winning streak and has been mentioned as a possible fourth seed by some.

        The bubble teams are last year's conference tournament champion, Nevada-Las Vegas (54), and Fresno State (55), which has won four of its last five and six of eight. Despite a questionable RPI, New Mexico (114) will get plenty of consideration with a win over Arizona.

        And how about the teams from smaller conferences with high individual power ratings? Those who could make it even if they don't win their respective postseason tournaments are Siena (34) in the Metro Atlantic, and either Southwest Missouri State (37) or Creighton (49) in the Missouri Valley. Baltimore Sun


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