They sit quietly in the darkness of the bubble world's subconscious until the light begins to shine on them in the middle of February each year. As major-conference teams keep beating each other and very few take definitive steps toward the at-large spots remaining, questions about the lurkers grow louder and louder until no one can ignore them anymore. They are the low-major win collectors, ready to feast on your leftover bracket spots. They are real ... and they are bubblers' worst nightmares.
This season, a number of teams below the normal national radar are ripping through leagues and are positioned to put up very gaudy win totals and/or RPIs. As we keep recycling through the standard options for NCAA berths and not finding anything that's totally palatable, one eye starts to sneak a glance elsewhere. Here's a quick look at the teams that should be starting to concern bubble fans:
** RPI information is from RealTimeRPI.com's Monday report. Questions/comments go to
Barring an unforeseen disaster, Miami is going to win the ACC regular season crown. There were suspicions that they could be quite good this season, but winning the league comfortably? An amazing accomplishment. Duke's overall performance level without Ryan Kelly, with another league loss this weekend (at Maryland), may make the committee's job more difficult in terms of where to seed the Blue Devils. How much credit do they get for the wins with Kelly, assuming he's not 100 percent back by the NCAAs? The fun question of the day: Is Maryland or Virginia ahead in the pecking order?
The Wolfpack continue to make hard work out of seemingly benign games, but they won again, edging Virginia Tech at home in their only game of the week. Will things go better on Tuesday against Florida State at home and then at North Carolina on Saturday? The four close ACC losses continue to haunt a profile that's thinner on top-end quality than most people want to mention.
All in all, a pretty solid week for the Tar Heels, who gave it a good go at Cameron before nabbing a crucial home win over Virginia. The remaining six games are no cakewalk, and the Tar Heels haven't yet beaten a sure-fire NCAA team (although UNLV likely will make it), so their job is far from done. The Heels were actually omitted during the mock selection committee meeting last week (before the Virginia win). They still host Florida State, N.C. State and Duke.
The Cavaliers suffered their first top-100 loss on Saturday when they fell at North Carolina, missing a chance to start to get separation from the middle of the ACC at-large pack. They still have challenging road games left at Miami (Tuesday night) and Florida State, plus they get Duke at home. The chances will be there, which is good, but the results of the next three games (if they go 1-2) may put the Hoos in a bad spot.
The Terps made excellent use of their one game of the week, edging Duke in the final seconds in College Park to get a huge win for their profile. They have now beaten two of the ACC's best at home ... but that's really about it. The win doesn't put them into the field at this point, but it positions them to make a legitimate run down the stretch. The schedule is pretty soft for the next two weeks, but four of their last six are on the road, so nothing will be easy.
The Seminoles couldn't get the huge win they needed at home against Miami and time is now running short. They still have N.C. State twice, Virginia at home and at North Carolina, so this isn't over in terms of forcing their way into the heart of the mix, but they need 4-2 minimum, you'd think.
Marquette and Georgetown, both at 9-3 in the league, move into the lock category. It's entirely possible both would make the NCAAs even if they lose their next seven games, and we'll gamble that sort of thing won't come close to happening.
Losses at Marquette and home to Notre Dame have taken a bit of luster off the surging Panthers' profile. They have four very winnable games remaining, though. They still should be fine.
This profile is heading in the wrong direction. The Bearcats could only split a home week against Villanova and Georgetown, leaving them at 1-2 on the three-game homestand. Their next four include a home-and-home with UConn and road games at Notre Dame and Louisville. The Bearcats may need to handle South Florida at home just to finish at .500 in the league. That should be enough ... to land them in a tough seed in the NCAAs as far as advancement.
Lose by 17 at Providence and then win at Pitt? Sure, that makes sense. This week's lone game, home to Cincinnati is a good profile consolidation opportunity. A sweep of the Bearcats would help clarify order.
Left for dead, nab two huge home wins. Left for dead, win at UConn. The clearest indication of this pattern and this season for the Wildcats? They almost unanimously were nominated for this season's "Team Bubble Watch" honor by my Twitter followers. Marquette is handing over the crown. Wear it well, Cats! Now, would 2-2 be enough the rest of the way to have them smack in the conversation heading into the Big East tournament? I think it would. They'd have a fourth good win on the ledger, at minimum.
The Johnnies got handled again in a big road chance, and now need to do some serious work the rest of the way. They get South Florida and Pitt next at home, which probably stand as must-wins. Then take two of the final three, winning at either Providence or Notre Dame and then beating Marquette and they're 11-7 in the league and in pretty decent shape.
The Badgers become the fourth team in this category, with a slew of high quality wins and (for this league), a really soft final five games. We can't have a 68-team tournament without the Badgers, so they're in. Tonight's massive clash in East Lansing is the potential national game of the season, so I'll try to ignore Magic Johnson being included on the telecast with Dick Vitale and focus on a great battle.
The Buckeyes' gift for losing three of four, including at Michigan and Wisconsin and home to Indiana? Home dates with Minnesota and Michigan State, plus a trip to Bloomington left as well. The Big Ten is ridiculous. That game Wednesday against the Gophers is pretty big for both teams. Ohio State's profile really isn't all that good when you dig into it. They can't afford a complete fade into March.
Wins would have been fine. Two wins by 20 or more was a nice bonus. The home games against Penn State and Nebraska are the keys here. Win both and 8-10 is the worst they can be, and they'll get in at 8-10. Way too many good wins. Of course, if they can win at Michigan on Sunday, they won't even have those worries.
The Gophers have 12 top-100 wins. It's crazy to think they could miss the NCAAs with that and their computer numbers. That said, this slide is getting very disconcerting. They've lost seven of their last 10 games and just got blasted at Iowa. Now they're at Ohio State on Wednesday before hosting Indiana. If Minnesota's at 6-9 with two road games still left in league play, how tight do things get for them?
The Hawkeyes struggled through a badly frontloaded league schedule and now are raking back the wins available in the latter part of the slate. Crushing Minnesota at home last weekend was a nice statement. Now three of their last five are home and one of the roadies is at Nebraska. The other one, at Indiana, is a potential golden ticket. Having five sub-300 RPI nonconference games (and seven sub-250s) is killing their SOS. Iowa's not elite enough to play that slate and not pay in some way.
It's lock time for the Wildcats, who moved to 10-3 in the league Monday night and still have home games left against the league's two bad teams. Now it's time to claim the other spot in the Kansas City regional and make that a wild weekend for the state.
The tri-leaders of the Big 12 (in the loss column), the Cowboys get both Kansas (on Wednesday) and Kansas State at home down the stretch, putting them in prime position to claim at least a share of the league crown. Only the road game at Iowa State late is daunting away from Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The Sooners (currently) have seven nonleague games against RPI 75-100 teams, plus Oral Roberts, which is at 110. They went 6-2 in those games. Look at their RPI/SOS. That's how you work the system. Well done, Sooners Scheduler. They also have the schedule to (potentially) win out from here, but they'll probably drop one or two in this stretch. Looking good for an NCAA bid.
The Cyclones were Kabongo'd in overtime at Texas as part of a 1-1 week and now have a five-game stretch that will decide their NCAA fate. They're at Baylor on Wednesday in a huge game for both teams, and then after Texas Tech at home, have Kansas at home, at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at home.
A 20-point home loss at Kansas State is a tough way to impress the committee. Now the last six games are very tough. The home date with Iowa State looks like a must-win. None of the remaining road games are easy and Kansas State and Kansas still come to Waco, too.
The Pac-12 continues to be the most closely bunched, competitively balanced league in the land in terms of
Still no Dominic Artis and still no competent ball security for the Ducks without him, even as they got two wins on their Washington trip (with Wazzu providing some help on Saturday). The next three are at home, so they probably can ride this a bit longer, but getting a couple games in before the Pac-12 tournament (or, at worst, the NCAA tournament) would obviously be a plus.
A split in the Bay Area isn't a bad outcome given how those schools have been playing lately, but it did cost the Bruins a share of first place. They're in L.A. for the next three, although the first one is at USC, which beat the Bruins at Pauley already and is playing much better under Bob Cantu.
#RevengeofChen became #AvengeofChen when the Buffaloes shoved Arizona around in Boulder, but then they lost a sloppy encounter with Arizona State at the buzzer in overtime. This team has a lot of talent, but hasn't matured to the point where consistency is a given. There's also some concern about Josh Scott, who remains day-to-day after taking a blow against the Sun Devils. They only have one game this week: Home to Utah on Thursday.
Forget the Harlem Shake. The Berkeley Shove is all the rage now after Mike Montgomery's two-hand jam to the chest of star Allan Crabbe woke him up in time to rally the Golden Bears past USC. A sweep of the L.A. home weekend has the Bears continuing to arrow toward the field of 68. If Dominic Artis isn't back for Thursday's game, Cal has a chance to get a huge road win and a sweep of the Ducks.
Things looked bleak after a loss at Utah, but the Sun Devils gutted out a gritty overtime win at Colorado to sweep that season series and stay right in the mix. After hosting the Washington schools this week, they close with three on the road, at UCLA, USC and Arizona. This profile could move a lot before Selection Sunday, in either direction.
Swept at home by the L.A. schools and now in serious trouble. Not much more to say here right now.
If they can't win at Arizona on Thursday, there's probably not enough left here for a reasonable at-large run without some crazy run in Vegas.
The big news in the conference is Nerlens Noel's season-ending knee injury, which changes the entire picture for Kentucky and may have stripped yet another at-large candidate away from this league. So what's left if Florida wins the auto bid? At least one of Missouri or Mississippi could rack up enough wins and ... ummm ... errrrrr ... where is everyone??!
However you feel about the officiating late at Arkansas, it counts as a loss for the Tigers. The remaining road is pretty difficult (for this year's SEC), starting with Florida at home Tuesday night, followed by a game at reeling Kentucky on Saturday. Does an 11-7 Mizzou team have anything to worry about?
The Rebels likely will be favored in their final six league games. How many do they need to get to support a profile that lacks quality wins? There's nothing left on the slate that will help them very much, other than in a compiling way that's the crux of their argument right now.
One week, UK looks like it's rounding into threatening form. The next, they lose at Florida while losing Nerlens Noel for the season, and then get annihilated at Tennessee, prompting John Calipari to shred his team in a press conference. The Wildcats need to show the committee something in this stretch run without Noel, or they will end up in the NIT. They have three in a row at Rupp now to get things right.
The Tide keeps winning games against sub-100 RPI league foes. And that's all they can do for another 10 days. Three more need-to-gets lead into road games at Florida and Mississippi that will help determine their position heading into the SEC tournament.
The league looks almost certain to get four bids to the NCAAs. That may be all as the middle of the league keeps coming up short in big spots. There are chances left, though, to see a fifth team emerge.
The Rams got a huge sweep last week, staving off San Diego State and then surviving the Michael Lyons Show at Air Force for a tough road win. The road doesn't get any easier this week, with a trip to UNLV followed by rested (no Wednesday game) New Mexico coming in with the league lead at stake. Get a split of the week, and the Rams should be locked up in next week's edition.
After getting shredded at Air Force, the Rebels rallied and held off San Diego State for a quality home win. Their remaining schedule is favorable, but since two of the games are on the road, who knows.
There is no shame at all in (essentially) last-possession losses at Colorado State and UNLV, but they're still losses. With roadies remaining at New Mexico and Boise State, the three home games are pretty crucial. Not sure the committee would be in love with a .500 team from this league, even with how strong it is. That would be an interesting respect test case, though.
The Broncos couldn't win at New Mexico. Now they need to get the next three -- Air Force, at Fresno State, Nevada -- and then take a mighty swing at the final three (Colorado State, at UNLV, San Diego State)
The Falcons ripped UNLV but didn't have quite enough to get past Colorado State, which was a game they really needed to make this profile look more enticing. They don't have any bad losses, but they have a lot of them. If they win at Boise this week, we can take another look next week.
Things are starting to sort themselves out ... wait, no they're not. VCU finally hits the meat of its league schedule. Saint Louis also is about to run the gauntlet. There's a cluster of at-large contenders behind the league leaders. It's exciting ... unless you have to write a weekly bubble column about it.
A surprise home loss to Charlotte keeps the Bulldogs here for the time being. After what should be a home win against Duquesne, they close with four toughies in a row as all the league contenders start squaring off.
The Explorers keep quietly moving toward an at-large spot, notching another two-win week. They have three very winnable games in between roadies at Temple and Saint Louis. The opportunity is there not only to dance, but to win the regular-season crown. The other contenders have very tough run-ins.
OK, it's go time for the Rams, who finally have reached their five-game test run to end the regular season. After games at Saint Louis and Xavier, home to Butler and crosstown rival Richmond, and at Temple, we'll have a much better sense of what VCU is capable of in a postseason. They have some OK wins to this point, but nothing really great.
The Billikens have a great show-me week ahead, with VCU coming to town and then a trip to Butler. The final four after that aren't a cakewalk, but is doable compared to what some of the other contenders have.
Five straight one-point decisions? Is there anyone left alive in the Owls' fanbase? That's seriously unreal. Unfortunately, one of those games was a damaging home loss to Duquesne, which offset the good win at UMass over the weekend. If the Owls can handle La Salle on Thursday, they have a chance to win out, or at least until the finale at home vs. VCU.
Nope, and nope. Losses at VCU and home to Temple have put a big dent in the Minutemen's hopes. The next four games are very sticky, too. There's time to salvage this, but not much and not much room for error now.
Well, the big upset at Butler keeps them in the conversation for now. Now Charlotte gets Temple and Dayton at home. Wins are here to be had the rest of the way.
It wasn't home vs. Dayton, so it wasn't a win vs. Dayton. Now the X-men have to handle a trip to Rhode Island before an epic four-game homestand (VCU, Memphis, UMass, Saint Louis) before a trip to Butler.
Another week of loopiness has further muddled the at-large picture but at least has brought a bit of clarity to the league race and maybe potential Arch Madness seeding.
The three-point escape at Evansville may loom as a turning point for the Bluejays, who were sliding rapidly toward the cutline. They have a home game against league minnow Southern Illinois before the marquee BracketEliminators game at Saint Mary's. They also close the season hosting Wichita State, so they control their own fate in terms of grabbing at least a share of the regular-season crown.
That was some straight Houdini stuff Sunday night, with the Shockers escaping Illinois State thanks to two late threes and a flying kung fu kick that earned technical foul shots for the wrong player. One of the weirdest rallies you'll ever see. The win kept them in sole possession of first place, which is good because they still have trips to Indiana State (Tuesday night) and Creighton (in the season finale)
After a brutal two-loss week, it's hard to see them landing an at-large, but they have Wichita State at home Tuesday night and two winnable games after that. They do have some pretty nice wins.
The Zags took care of business in Moraga in impressive fashion and will win the league again. Saint Mary's hopes now rest on games with BYU and Creighton this week.
Thursday vs. BYU. Saturday vs. Creighton. The Gaels need to get them both at home, as an at-large would require another loss somewhere (and no win over Gonzaga). They couldn't handle the champions-elect in their own building last week.
They need to win out, including wins at Saint Mary's and over Gonzaga, and then we can discuss.
Best of the Rest
The Tigers keep handling their business comprehensively, and aren't getting enough respect for their work. The great wins aren't there, but they've been rolling through the better teams in the league. This weekend brings the Southern Miss rematch and then a three-game road trip to Xavier, Central Florida and UTEP. If they handle all of that, there should be no question as to their competency.
The Ohio Valley is much improved, but two regular-season losses and another in the conference tournament probably are too much to overcome. The BracketBusters game against Ohio is no help.
They should end up 19-1 in the league. Then they need to win three more to take this decision out of the committee's hands. Things would look better had they handled Belmont rather than lose by 15.
They've only played five top-100 games. Good team rampaging through the MAC, but is that enough?
Two more wins, and two games closer to the season-ending trip to Denver and New Mexico State, although maybe Utah State gives them something to think about in Ruston, even while shorthanded.
Denver is now a top-100 win for them. That's not going to cut it. Better go win at Memphis this weekend, for starters.
A second Patriot loss likely means auto-bid or bust, especially with Monday's win at Lehigh giving the Bison the inside track to homecourt advantage in the conference tournament.