Quick! What does this list of teams have in common: Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Oklahoma, and Stanford? Under normal circumstances, one might say:
1. "They are all ranked in the top 10."
All would be good guesses in most years. This year, the answer is "powerhouses currently on the NCAA bubble." That's right, all five of these juggernauts are in real trouble, and we are past the halfway point of the season. I would wager that at least two of these teams will be in the NIT or at home come March. Old-school traditional powers UCLA and Indiana are flying high this season, but the fellow royalty on this list have real chances of missing the Big Dance.
No college basketball program has more wins than the Big Blue. They routinely finish first or second in attendance. They have been to more NCAA Tourneys than any other team. Only Duke could argue that they have had as much success on the college basketball hardwood over the past fifteen years. Their stretch from 1993 through 1998 arguably represents the most dominant six-year stretch of college basketball since Wooden's UCLA dynasty. But these are not your mid-1990's Wildcats, or even your mid-1980s Wildcats. In fact, this team just collected a critical win at Georgia on Tuesday night to bring them to 11-6 overall and just 1-2 in the SEC. They are 0-4 against RPI Top 50 teams, and while they do own a valuable win over West Virginia, every serious college hoops fan knows that the Mountaineers are on a completely different level now than they were on November 22.
Rabid fans have questioned Tubby Smith in past seasons only to have the coach right the ship and prove his naysayers wrong time and time again. But, if he is able to get this group to a top 5 seed in the NCAA Tourney, he should be collecting some postseason accolades. This team has been demolished by both Kansas and Indiana by 25-plus. They lost to rival North Carolina in Rupp Arena. They needed a last second shot to get by Central Florida in Rupp. They have had a three-game losing streak. Rarely does a win over Georgia cause so much glee in the Bluegrass State, but a desperate Kentucky club pulled out a must-win (in January!) in Athens on Tuesday.
The return of a more focused Randolph Morris has and will continue to help UK, but they have to get some consistent outside shooting to salvage any kind of season that will satisfy UK fans. If they get perimeter scoring from Patrick Sparks, Ravi Moss, Joe Crawford, and Ramel Bradley, they can return to the NCAA tourney. If they continue to struggle from the outside, they will struggle to get to the Dance, even in a depleted SEC. Smith's track record says they will get there, but it will likely be with a much worse seed than UK Nation is accustomed to seeing.
Chance of Missing the Dance: 30%. Tubby Smith usually gets his teams to jell late in the season, and although this team is not nearly as talented as some of his past teams, they will probably find a way to get into the bracket.
The two-time national champion Jayhawks have been to 16 straight NCAA tournaments. They have multiple Final Fours and a gaggle of Sweet 16's over this 16-year run. They have earned a 3-seed or better in every one of the last 16 brackets save one (they were a 6-seed in 1999). They are among the four or five most successful programs during this run. That being said, KU has major hurdles to clear if they are to reach March Madness for a seventeenth consecutive season. Their current RPI is 123, which is way out of NCAA at-large range. The worst RPI ever to get in was #77 New Mexico in 1999, but the Lobos' AD was the selection committee chair that year (for you conspiracy theorists). They are 1-2 in the Big 12, and one of those was a home loss to Kansas State. The biggest positive for Kansas is that the Big 12 is as weak as it has been in ages. There is room for them to win a lot of games from here on out, but they need to start now.
Chance of Missing the Dance: 50%. The Jayhawks have a major RPI mountain to climb. They have good talent, but it is young. The hope rests in the weakened Big 12. There is room for a couple of Big 12 teams to finish strongly, and KU has as good a chance as any.
Another team from the Bluegrass State has even bigger problems. Partly due to one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country, Louisville has struggled mightily against quality Big East competition. They were able to win on the road at Providence, but have dropped home games to Pitt and Villanova. Then, they took a double-digit loss to a mediocre St. John's team in New York on Tuesday. The Cards are also without a Top 50 RPI win, and they were thoroughly handled by struggling rival Kentucky on December 17.
Da Ville could be at Da House during the NCAA tourney. In their next four games, they host UConn and Cincinnati, and then they take a road swing at Rutgers and at Villanova. It really does not get any easier the rest of the way, as the Cards will play roadies at Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Syracuse in February. With the pitiful non-conference slate that they played, a .500 conference record may not be enough to get Pitino's crew back to the Big Dance. Again, history says Pitino will get these guys to mesh together, but last year's club of seasoned vets was very different from this group of youngsters. The Cards must find themselves in a hurry and at least split this upcoming critical four-game stretch to maintain hope.
Chance of Missing the Dance: 60%. Pitino is known for getting the most out of his players. Optimists still claim that UL is not 100% healthy and that this team will flip the switch at some point. That needs to happen soon, or UL will have too many conference losses to overcome in a brutal Big East.
Much like Stanford, the Sooners have been a powerhouse over the last decade. They have been to nine of the last ten NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 in 1999, a Final Four appearance in 2002, and an Elite Eight spot in 2003. They were a consensus top 10 team in the preseason, but have vastly underachieved to this point. Not only have the Sooners failed to play up to expectations, but they are also mired in allegations of illegal phone calls to recruits. Allegations aside, the boys in Norman have major issues on the court. They have the horses up front in Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout, but the perimeter play has been spotty. Oklahoma found a spot in my bracket yesterday, but they were the last team in.
Chance of Missing the Dance: 25%. They still have a healthy RPI of 32, and three of their next four games are at home. Maybe that will get the Sooners on track.
The Cardinal have been the punching bag for the California State school system this season, suffering losses to both UC-Irvine (at home by sixteen!) and UC-Davis. The preseason top 20 Cardinal have been to ten straight NCAA tournaments, and have failed to win at least one game in the tourney just once (last year). That run included a trip to the 1998 Final Four and to the Elite Eight in 2001. Stanford had such a strong, sustained run under Mike Montgomery that is hard to imagine an NCAA tourney without them, but it will take a major, major turnaround for Trent Johnson's club to make it back this season. They are currently on a three-game winning streak (all at home), but they are 0-4 on the road and they face Arizona on Thursday and Arizona State on Saturday. In fact, six of their next eight are on the road. This stretch will tell the tale for the Cardinal.
Chance of Missing the Dance: 90%. Those early losses were bad ones. It will take a Herculean effort to get their NCAA resume anywhere near palatable. The Cardinal will probably will need to win the Pac-10 tourney.
Of course, if some of college basketball royalty does miss the NCAA tourney, some new blood will have a chance to experience Bracketville. Not all of these teams are going to miss, but it will be interesting to watch these clubs fight for bids instead of 1-seeds.