It's easy to forecast an NCAA tournament without Maryland and Syracuse, the champions in 2002 and 2003.
There were times last month when Arizona, Kentucky and Indiana were in similarly dire straits, but those college basketball bluebloods located the proper direction and added a bit of clarity to a selection process of 34 at-large teams that is as murky as ever.
The bracket for the 65-team NCAA field will be announced Sunday night. The Missouri Valley Conference made a big push up the computer rankings this winter and could get as many as five teams, the kind of representation that has traditionally been the domain of six major conferences.
Over the next five days, those leagues will contest their conference tournaments and enjoy a different meaning of survival in March. While a team such as Coppin State knows it has to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, a spot in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament would bring a sigh of relief to the Terps.
Here's a look at the six major conferences, with locks and bubble teams. The NCAA updates its Rating Percentage Index every Tuesday, so the RPIs referenced in parentheses are from Ken Pomeroy's online replica.
Four locks, two bubble teams.
Weak RPIs mean Florida State (56) and Maryland (47) have to win one or two games at the ACC tournament, where geography could come into play.
The Seminoles have gone 6-2 in their past eight, including a win over Duke. Ordinarily, a 9-7 record in the ACC would mean an at-large invitation, but Florida State could be undone by a lame nonconference schedule. It has to beat underachieving 12th seed Wake Forest in the first round, which won't be easy in Greensboro, N.C.
Assuming Maryland is good enough to beat Georgia Tech three times, it will take momentum into Friday night's quarterfinal against Boston College, which last played a postseason game on Tobacco Road in 1975.
Unless it continues last week's pratfall, Duke will still get a No. 1 seed, while North Carolina has surged to a higher line.
Slumping North Carolina State (40) has 10 ACC wins, but it's not as solid a lock as Boston College (32).
Six locks, three bubble teams.
They're doing things backward in the Big East tournament, since the first game at Madison Square Garden could be more important than the last.
At noon tomorrow, in a first-round game, eighth-seeded Cincinnati (31) meets ninth-seeded Syracuse (43). Each won on the other's floor in the regular season. The Bearcats got to .500 in conference play with a huge win over West Virginia. The Orange lost three straight to finish 7-9 in the league, no better than Rutgers (82), and could be out of the NCAAs for the first time since 2002 unless they string together some wins.
Villanova and Connecticut are No. 1 seeds. Pittsburgh, Marquette and West Virginia look like Sweet 16 material. Georgetown, 2-4 in its past six, has earned a spot. Comparatively weak fare in an unbalanced conference schedule helped Seton Hall (48), but it also beat Syracuse, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
In a league where only 12 of the 16 go to the Garden, Rutgers, Louisville and Notre Dame all need miracles.
Five locks, two bubble teams.
The Big Ten tournament is being played at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, hardly a neutral court.
Despite winning four straight and getting to 9-7 in conference play, a loss to Wisconsin in Friday's quarterfinals would leave Indiana (33) with a losing record in its past 10 games, one of the barometers used by the committee that makes the at-large selections and seeds the entire field.
The other bubble team is slumping Michigan (36), 2-6 in its past eight after a loss at home to Indiana. It may have to beat Iowa in Friday's quarterfinals to earn its first bid since 1998.
Michigan State (16) has a stronger resume than Indiana, but is the sixth seed and has to play in Thursday's first round. It's still a lock, along with Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa (14) and Wisconsin (17).
Three locks, two bubble teams.
The biggest bubble game in Dallas figures to come in Friday's quarterfinals, when fourth-seeded Texas A&M; (49) will meet Colorado (52), unless the Buffaloes stumble against Baylor in the first round. Texas A&M;, seeking its first NCAA berth since 1987, has seven straight wins. Last week's win over Texas was its first over a top 50 team, compared to two for Colorado. The NCAA rewards challenging nonconference schedules, which could doom both.
Texas could still wind up a No. 1 seed. Oklahoma (12) will also be a high seed, and Kansas (35) finished the regular season on a 12-1 roll. Like North Carolina, the Jayhawks are young, loose and dangerous.
Three locks, one bubble team.
A latecomer to the conference tournament crowd, the Pac-10 will hold its fifth tournament over the next four days in Los Angeles.
California (59) went 12-6 in conference play, but is a December win at UCLA enough to counter losses to low RPI teams such as Eastern Michigan (300), Oregon State (182) and Arizona State (166), the last two at home? The Bears might have to reach Saturday's championship game to avoid the NIT.
UCLA (13) does not have to do a thing, nor does Washington (20). It was not a good weekend for Arizona (24), which lost at home to Washington and had senior guard Hassan Adams arrested on a charge of suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol a few hours later.
Three locks, three bubble teams.
Arkansas (45) has five straight wins. Alabama (46) played some tough nonconference opponents, but beat none and has three wins on road and neutral courts, the same as Maryland. Kentucky (39), conversely, has nine wins away from Rupp Arena.
Tennessee (6) had been the class of the Southeastern Conference until it lost at home to Arkansas and Kentucky, then had two players charged with possession of crack cocaine. The Volunteers hope things stabilize at the Gaylord Coliseum in Nashville. LSU (11) and Florida (23) are the other locks.
MARYLAND RPI: 47; RECORD: 18-11
TEXAS A&M; RPI 49; RECORD: 20-7
SYRACUSE RPI: 43 RECORD: 19-11
KENTUCKY RPI: 39 RECORD: 19-11
INDIANA RPI: 33 RECORD: 17-10