Covid season has been an odd one in the Big East. The traditional powers remain clustered at the top, but the field behind them is something of a mess. Butler, Georgetown, and Marquette are far worse than they should be, St. John’s is better than they should be, and DePaul remains the lone constant. Most notably, Creighton and Providence have played more conference games than Xavier has overall games and Butler, Marquette, and SJU have all played the same number of games in the Big East that Musketeers have all season. This has served to make every game Xavier plays significantly more important. Losing two in a row, then, has consequences.
Those consequences don’t extend to being out of the tournament (yet), but Xavier has played themselves firmly onto the bubble. Looking at WAB (Wins Above Bubble, not a Cardi B song), Xavier is stuck on the nice round number of one. Yesterday’s game was worth half a point. A win there and Xavier is up to two WAB, a reasonably safe place to be. Xavier didn’t win, though, and that punished them. The loss means that Xavier is way down near the bubble cut line.
A pure WAB based NCAA tournament field would have Xavier in right now, but only as an 11 seed and only one line above the play in games. This is where the relative weakness of the Big East comes in to play. Xavier has 2.2 WAB left on the schedule in their remaining five games. There won’t be any make up games played, those are all that are left. That means the best Xavier can do is 3.2 WAB. The good news is that number would mean a sure thing NCAA bid and a mid-level single digit seed. The bad news is that means there are very few chances to recover from potentially damaging losses. Butler would be a bad loss, the rest of the games all hover within .05 of the .5 mark, meaning that they are all essentially half point WAB games. Solid if you win them, hard to recover from if you don’t.
To ensure a good WAB outcome Xavier must beat Butler and then take three of the remaining four. In terms of high level wins the game against Creighton would clearly mean the most to the committee. That’s where this exercise becomes a bit more theoretical. The committee won’t use just WAB because if they admit that the computer metrics can condense things down into one simple aggregate number then there is no need for them. (There is a big push led by Seth Burn, Jordan Sperber, John Gasaway, and Bart Torvik to go to a WAB based selection process.) Because of that the traditional Bubble Watches and guesswork come in to play.
On ESPN Xavier is listed as a “should be in” after both losses. The caveat “Xavier has to record some wins sooner rather than later to preserve that seed,” looms large in their projection. Over at Heat Check Xavier is listed as “some perspiration,” but the pull quote is at least a little more encouraging. “While a team like St. John’s is moving from “out” towards “in” right now, Xavier might be doing the opposite. There is still plenty of time for them to right the ship, though, and there is a bit of a margin for error left as well.” No matter how you slice it, X has work left to do.
The Covid outbreaks that have played havoc with Xavier’s season and turned a team that on its day can beat Oklahoma by 22 into one that faces Butler with some trepidation have also made it so that every game matters more than it usually would. Find some rhythm, win a couple games, and shake off the rust and Xavier is fine. Keep sputtering, though, and the wrong side of the bubble looms.