It's February, and just about every conference has played at least half its league schedule. Even the most avid non-travelers have encountered enough true road games to be properly evaluated.
So why are there so many "outliers" across the nation? Typically there'd be two or three teams generating most of the bracket debate at this time of year. Instead, we have two or three times that number whose Selection Sunday fate could very well defy conventional wisdom.
I can't tell you the number of times over the past week somehow has asked, "What will the committee do about (fill in the blank)?" So let's fill in some of those blanks:
Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers have outrageously good non-RPI numbers (Pomeroy No. 4, Sagarin No. 8). But a program whose RPI is often built by crafty nonconference scheduling is going the other way in 2012. Wisconsin has already lost four home games -- the equivalent of 5.6 RPI losses -- and is going to pay a seeding price because of it. The Badgers are a No. 4 seed in today's bracket but will be hard pressed to stay there with four of their next five away from Madison (including games at Minnesota, Michigan State and Ohio State). Then again, maybe home-away-from-home is the way to go for this year's Badgers.
San Diego State Aztecs: They are in some ways the anti-Wisconsin. Their RPI numbers are strong across the board, even with a sub-200 nonconference schedule, but the efficiency (Pomeroy No. 63) and margin of victory (Sagarin No. 47) paint them as more of a bubble team. A lot of this has to do with an unusual number of close games, as the Aztecs are 8-1 in games decided by five points or less. Given the committee's recent history of overseeding Mountain West teams, I look for San Diego State to get a better seed than it deserves but suffer a quick NCAA exit.
Murray State Racers: No one is generating more conversation than the Racers, especially given their chance to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. However, those suggesting a No. 2 or No. 3 seed for Murray are going to be disappointed. The committee will note that three of Murray's victories are non-Division I and another dozen have come against sub-200 competition. With more to come in that category, there aren't enough Saint Mary's on the schedule to lift the Racers above a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. A win over the Gaels in BracketBusters would be worth about one seed to the good, but no more than that given the rest of Murray's profile
Florida State Seminoles: Good thing the Seminoles aren't in the Ivy League, where they'd be in second or third place after nonconference losses to Harvard and Princeton. Instead, they lead the ACC and currently own the tiebreaker over North Carolina thanks to their 33-point beating of the Tar Heels last month. The committee won't totally ignore FSU's five nonleague losses, but league play seems to be much more indicative of Florida State's actual ability. Whether or not the Seminoles are underseeded in March, they are a good bet to advance further than you think.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles: I don't want to say they are a mirage, but in their case the RPI (No. 8) is way off. Pomeroy (No. 45) and Sagarin (No. 39) seem closer to the mark. We also need to dig a little deeper into USM's record against teams under consideration (7-2). Of those seven victories, only Memphis falls within the current field. The rest (at Colorado State, Ole Miss, Marshall, at UCF and a neutral-home sweep of New Mexico State) have come against a slate that looks more like an NIT. bracket. I do not think the committee will be fooled by Southern Miss.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: As we saw last week, Notre Dame has a propensity for NCAA selection despite questionable nonconference scheduling. The Irish are at it again in 2012, sitting at 7-3 in the Big East after a thoroughly nondescript (NonConf RPI No. 164, NonConf SOS No. 228) nonleague performance. The Irish have already played seven NCAA candidates within the Big East and beaten six of them, including eventual top seed Syracuse. RPI notwithstanding, the Irish are going to make the NCAA tournament and they are going to make it comfortably. I wouldn't want to make my living with their formula, but it works in South Bend.
Pittsburgh Panthers:The Panthers started Big East play with seven losses in a row. When they make the NCAA tournament -- yes, I said "when" -- it will be one of the truly great turnarounds any of us have ever seen. I think Pitt's magic number is 10 conference wins (regular season and Big East tournament combined). The Panthers should get at least four of their last seven pretournament games, and will then be in excellent position to close the deal at Madison Square Garden. And you are correct in not wanting your team to draw an underseeded Jamie Dixon & Co. in the NCAA bracket.
Xavier Musketeers: I'm supposed to be pretty good at all this, but I have no idea what to make of the Musketeers or how the committee will evaluate them (at least not yet). If you do, congratulations. The truth is, we have no way of knowing, and anyone who says they do is kidding themselves. What we do know is that Xavier still faces difficult road trips to Temple, UMass and Saint Louis, and that the Musketeers haven't been consistently good since the Bearcat Brawl. It's hard to be optimistic, even though Xavier remains in the current field thanks to long-ago victories against Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinnati. The key words being "long ago."