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Why USF men’s basketball is still on the bubble despite leading the AAC

TAMPA — First of all, let’s celebrate the accomplishment.

The USF men’s basketball team was ranked No. 273 in the nation when the NCAA’s first NET rankings of the season came out in early December. Since then, they’ve passed Indiana, UCLA, Georgia, UNLV, Michigan and 176 other schools while moving up to No. 92 in the latest rankings.

That’s a remarkable ascent, worthy of all the praise the Bulls have been hearing in recent days.

It’s also not enough.

At least not if USF wants to guarantee itself an NCAA at-large bid if it fails to win the American Athletic Conference tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, in a few weeks. In the short history of the NCAA using NET rankings as a primary evaluator for tournament invitations, no program has gotten an at-large bid while ranked No. 90 or higher. Or, for that matter, No. 80 or higher.

That means USF likely has some climbing to do, with not a lot of games remaining.

While the NET rankings aren’t quite gospel, they are the main tool the selection committee uses when doling out bids and seeds for the NCAA Tournament. And since the NET rankings replaced RPI for the 2019 tournament, the lowest ranked team to get an at-large bid each season has been No. 73, No. 72, No. 77 and No. 67. (The 2020 NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic.)

The Bulls still have time to climb into that 70-79 range, but the margin for error is slim even for a team with a 19-5 record.

Without getting too deep into the calculations, the NET basically assigns values to each game based on the quality of opponent and whether it’s a home/road/neutral affair. The games are divided into quadrants from Nos. 1 to 4. While every game counts, a victory in Quad 1 or a loss in Quad 4 can have the biggest impact on the rankings.

USF has five regular-season games remaining, and none is currently classified as Quad 1 while two (including Wednesday night at UTSA) are Quad 4. That’s going to make it a little tricky for the Bulls to continue making major leaps in the rankings before the AAC tournament.

“It’s not my job to sit up here and politic for why we should be in the tournament,” Bulls coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said Sunday after beating Florida Atlantic. “We’re just going to stay focused, we’re going to do our job and take care of our business. If they put us in, they put us in. If not, they don’t. It is what it is.”

Much of this is out of USF’s hands. For instance, the Bulls’ first big splash of the season was a come-from-behind win at Memphis on Jan. 18. They leapt from No. 141 to No. 127 in the rankings after taking down the Tigers. Unfortunately, Memphis has gone 3-6 since then and tumbled from No. 40 to No. 87, and that tailspin ends up having an adverse effect on USF’s ranking.

On the other hand, home losses to Central Michigan (No. 238) and Maine (No. 231) in November are looming large. You could argue that those losses are excusable in the first month of a season when a new coach is taking over a program with 12 new players on the roster, but the selection committee has said in the past that the timing of wins/losses is not a factor.

Which means if the Bulls stumble against USTA or Tulane or Tulsa in the coming weeks, they’re going to be in trouble.

“If we go down to UTSA on Wednesday and play like we’re a first-place team and don’t prepare, nobody’s going to be talking about us anymore,” Abdur-Rahim said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re all the way out.’ I’m not getting caught up in it, I promise.”

The simplest solution, of course, is for the Bulls to win the AAC tournament and the automatic bid that comes with it.

But having sweated out a 90-86 win against FAU in a sold-out Yuengling Center on Sunday, a potential rematch at a neutral site in three weeks is no guarantee. And while the Bulls are currently sitting in first place in the AAC with an 11-1 conference record, the reality is that FAU (No. 29), SMU (34), North Texas (79) and Memphis (87) are all ahead of them in NET rankings. And Charlotte (No. 95) is not far behind with a home game against USF scheduled for March 2.

The AAC has gotten one at-large bid in each of the past three seasons, and that was before Houston, Cincinnati and UCF bolted for the Big 12.

“The truth of it is, we worked hard, we stayed together to put ourselves in this position,” Abdur-Rahim said. “But we know there’s more work to be done.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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