Bubble madness arrives for hopefuls in major conference tournaments
Wednesday night was a quiet one for automatic qualifiers, as only one bid to the NCAA tournament was handed out. But that doesn't mean tourney fates weren't on the line. Indeed, the first day of major conference tournaments saw six teams in action that needed to avoid losses that would have damaged, and in some cases, torpedoed, their tournament hopes.
One of those torpedoes hit its mark, as DePaul sunk Georgetown's hopes of making it to the tournament. The Hoyas entered the Big East Conference tourney with a schizophrenic resume that included five top-50 wins but 13 overall losses. The one thing they could not afford was a bad loss. That's exactly what they got in dropping their first-round game to DePaul, a team that is 162nd in RPI and, after the win Wednesday, 11-20 overall.
The other five teams lived to see another day: Colorado edged USC in the Pac-12's opening round, as did Stanford against Washington State and Oregon against Oregon State. With their respective wins, both Colorado and Oregon appear safely in the field. In the Big 12, Oklahoma State routed Texas Tech and Baylor beat TCU to ensure their tourney status would not be in jeopardy.
Of the 14 teams still hanging around Bubble Watch that are not yet locks for the field yet are still alive in their respective conference tournaments, 11 were or will be in action on Thursday: Pittsburgh and Florida State in the ACC, Dayton in the Atlantic 10, Xavier, Providence and St. John's in the Big East, Minnesota in the Big 10, Stanford and California in the Pac-12 and Arkansas and Missouri in the SEC.
Several other teams are not yet serious candidates for an at-large but that could change if they make a run this weekend in their respective conference tournaments. Among those are Clemson and N.C. State in the ACC, Illinois in the Big 10 and Georgia and LSU in the SEC.
SI.com will be updating Bubble Watch throughout the day on Thursday to reflect the most recent developments in the conference tournaments. We will also be updating the bracket right up until the moment when the selection committee ends the suspense and unveils the field and pairings on Sunday evening.
Could an ACC team still finish as a No. 1 seed? Duke and Syracuse probably took themselves out of contention with ugly losses last week, but regular season champ Virginia might be able to climb to the top line if it wins the conference tournament and gets help elsewhere.
IN THE MIX
Pittsburgh (24-8, RPI: 43, SOS: 73): The Panthers have just one top-50 win and entered the ACC tournament with a non-conference strength of schedule of 238. In other words, they really needed to avoid the bad loss in the ACC tournament that would have kept them out of the Big Dance. They did so by routing Wake Forest on Thursday, setting up a showdown with North Carolina in Friday's quarterfinals. Beating the Tar Heels, who are 23rd in the RPI, would certainly punch Pitt's ticket, but the Panthers are looking good for a bid even if they lose to UNC.
Florida State (19-12, RPI: 58, SOS: 41): The Seminoles won a thriller over Maryland on a dunk by Boris Bojanovsky that broke a 65-65 tie with 0.4 seconds left. They remain one of the first four team's out in SI.com's up-to-date field, but that would all change if they can knock off ACC regular season champion Virginia on Friday. A win in that game would give the Seminoles four top-50 wins, three of which would be over the top 20. That would be enough to earn them an at-large bid.
There is debate in some corners as to SMU's worthiness as a lock, but you won't find that here. The Mustangs have four top-30 wins, an RPI of 45 and a KenPom rating of 26. Losses to Louisville and Memphis in the final week of the regular season may have marginally damaged their seeding but didn't jeopardize their spot in the field.
With four teams locked into the tournament and another two currently on the right side of the bubble in our most recent Bracket Watch, it has been a nice year for the slimmed-down Atlantic 10. It probably won't get a team seeded higher than fifth in the tournament but it looks like it could be one of five conferences -- the others being the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 -- with six teams in the field.
IN THE MIX
Dayton (23-9, RPI: 39, SOS: 58): In all likelihood, the Flyers had already solidified a bid with a strong finish to the regular season that included wins over Massachusetts, Saint Louis on the road and Richmond. All they really needed to do in their conference tournament was avoid a bad loss. They did that, beating Fordham and advancing to the quarterfinals. Next up: St. Joseph's. The Hawks, a fellow bubble team, swept the season series. Whoever wins will almost certainly be safe. The loser should be as well, but will still anxiously watch the rest of the action around the country to make sure no unexpected team rises up to steal a bid.
Saint Joseph's (21-9, RPI: 41, SOS: 69): It was a rough final week of the regular season for the Hawks, who lost both at George Washington (which is fine) and to LaSalle at home (which is not). They're still on the right side of the bubble for now, but they probably want to beat Dayton, their likely opponent in the A-10 quarterfinals, for the third time this season just to be sure.
Speaking of thinned-out conferences doing well for themselves, the first year of the new Big East produced a potential No. 1 seed in Villanova, two legitimate Final Four candidates in the Wildcats and Creighton Bluejays, and as many as five entrants into the tournament field. That's not bad for a conference that waved goodbye to Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Connecticut after last season.
SHOULD BE IN
Xavier (21-11, RPI: 51, SOS: 45): With the Musketeers win over Marquette on Thursday, they solidified a tournament case that already appeared on solid footing before the game. They'll meet Creighton in the Big East semis, but a loss to the Blue Jays won't look bad at all. The Musketeers should be safely in the field of 68.
IN THE MIX
Georgetown (17-14, RPI: 52, SOS: 10): The Hoyas became the first bubble team during Championship Week to all but secure a bid to the NIT by suffering a terrible loss at the hands of DePaul. They were already teetering on the edge of the field coming into the week, buttressed by five top-50 wins, but held down by 13 losses, including three outside the top 100. The loss to the lowly Blue Demons seals Georgetown's fate as an NIT team.
Providence (20-11, RPI: 54, SOS: 62): The Friars kept their tournament hopes alive and put an end to those of St. John's on Thursday afternoon. They're just 2-6 against the top 50 and 7-10 against the top 100, so there's still likely more work to do. They may have gotten a bad break when Villanova lost to Seton Hall. They really needed the opportunity to beat the Wildcats to get another signature win. As it stands, they are barely holding onto a spot in our projected bracket.
St. John's (20-11, RPI: 56, SOS: 47): The Red Storm's furious rally against Providence fell short in the Big East quarterfinals and so too will their hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA tournament. St. John's has just one top-50 win, is 6-10 against the RPI top 100 and has two losses outside the top 100. If it's any consolation, the Red Storm will likely earn one of the top seeds in the NIT.
The Big Ten finished the year as the best conference in the country according to KenPom. Its top two teams, Michigan and Wisconsin, both still have a realistic shot to be a No. 1 seed if either can win the conference tournament. They would probably need some help, notably in the form of Kansas and Villanova losing in their respective tournaments, but it remains within the realm of possibility.
IN THE MIX
Nebraska (19-11, RPI: 42, SOS: 26): By virtue of their win over Wisconsin on Sunday, the Cornhuskers look primed for their first trip to the dance since 1998. They get the winner of Ohio State and Purdue in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals on Friday. A win over the Buckeyes would certainly lock up a bid, though Nebraska could, emphasis on could, survive a loss to them.
Minnesota (20-12, RPI: 49, SOS: 6): The Gophers took care of their first order of business this week, dispatching with Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. The true test of their NCAA bona fides will come on Friday when they take on Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. The Gophers have already beaten the Badgers once this year, and another win over their border rivals could have them dancing.
Baylor and Oklahoma State, down on their luck as recently as mid-February, have both surged in the final few weeks of the season to lock up bids in the tournament. The Bears have won eight of their last nine, a run that includes two wins over Kansas State and individual victories against Oklahoma State and Iowa State to improve to 8-8 against top-50 teams. The Cowboys, meanwhile, beat Kansas and Kansas State, and nearly knocked off the Cyclones in Ames before losing in overtime in the regular season finale.
Oregon lost five of its first six Pac-12 games and was still teetering on the bubble before a road win against UCLA at the end of February. That got the Ducks back into a decent spot for an at-large bid, but they removed all doubt by beating Arizona State and Arizona last week. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, got swept on a trip through Oregon, but they've done enough to this point to be considered on solid ground. Arizona's loss to Oregon should not keep the Wildcats off the top line when the bracket is revealed on Sunday.
As for the Buffaloes, they are now a lock after surviving USC in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. A loss there would have made for a tense few days in Boulder, but at 21-10 with an RPI of 33 and a SOS of 14, Colorado will not be left out of the field even if tit loses Thursday's quarterfinal to California.
SHOULD BE IN:
Stanford (20-11, RPI: 46, SOS: 17): The Cardinal advanced to the Pac-12 semifinals with an easy win over Arizona State on Thursday. With five top-50 wins, all of which came over teams that should be in the tournament, it's safe to call the Cardinal a tournament team. They'll meet UCLA in the semifinals.
IN THE MIX
California (19-13, RPI: 55, SOS: 31): The Golden Bears were one of the many teams that probably needed at least one good win to solidify their tournament resume this week. They came up just short on Thursday, losing 59-56 to tourney-bound Colorado and ceding their spot in our bracket. Cal accomplished enough in the regular season, most notably a win over Arizona, to at least hold onto a shred of hope heading into Selection Sunday, but it is most likely NIT-bound.
The SEC wasn't expected to be among the best power conferences this year, but it was nevertheless a disappointing season for the conference as a whole even by those low standards. Florida is the rightful owner of the No. 1 overall seed in the field of 68, but most of the rest of the conference has underwhelmed. It all starts with Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 team in both polls. The Wildcats finished the regular season outside the top 25, and likely will not be higher than a No. 6 seed in the tournament. Don't expect more than four bids from this league.
IN THE MIX
Tennessee (20-11, RPI: 44, SOS: 24): The Volunteers' lone top-50 win is a good one, coming over Virginia, but they need to play their way into the field of 68 during the SEC tournament. They have a bye to the quarterfinals on Friday where they will meet South Carolina in a game that can only hurt their tournament chances. A win there would set up a meeting with either fellow bubble squad Missouri or No. 1 ranked Florida.
Missouri (22-10, RPI: 50, SOS: 75): The Tigers nearly careened into the NIT field on Thursday afternoon in Atlanta, but they survived a double-overtime challenge from Texas A&M to advance to the SEC tournament quarterfinals. Missouri didn't exactly inspire any confidence, giving up a seven-point lead in the final seven minutes of regulation, and a five-point lead with less than a minute left in the first overtime.
The Tigers will now get the chance they need to impress the committee Friday when they take on Florida. Even a win there might not get them in the field, however, given that it would be just their second win over a team that is guaranteed to make the tournament and the number of bubble teams still in contention around the country.
Arkansas (21-11, RPI: 60, SOS: 81): It was just one week ago that the Razorbacks appeared to have a tourney bid well in hand. They had a sweep of Kentucky to their credit, as well as two other top-50 wins and were riding a six-game winning streak. That's how quickly life on the bubble can change. A bad loss at Alabama in the regular season finale put the Hogs in jeopardy, and their quarterfinal loss to South Carolina, a team ranked 146th in RPI, likely knocked them into the NIT.
The Aztecs and Lobos split their two regular season meetings and are on a collision course for a rubber match in the Mountain West tournament championship. Regardless of the outcome of that potential game, or if these two teams even make it there, they will hear their names called on Selection Sunday. In the up-to-the-minute Bracket Watch, San Diego State is a No. 4 seed and New Mexico is a No. 7 seed, but both could move up a seed line by winning the conference tourney.
West Coast Conference
IN THE MIX
BYU (23-11, RPI: 32, SOS: 29): The Cougars now find themselves firmly on the bubble after losing to Gonzaga in the WCC finals. They went 3-6 against the top 50 -- with the wins coming over Gonzaga, at Stanford and on a neutral-court against Texas -- and 8-7 against the top 100. In our updated Bracket Watch, they're one of the last teams in the field, slated for a matchup with Providence in the First Four.
Best of the Rest
The above 13 teams have all clinched berths in the field of 68 by virtue of winning their conference tournaments or, in the case of Harvard, the regular season championship. Wichita State became the first team since UNLV in the 1990-91 season to enter the tournament with a perfect record, and the Shockers are all but a lock to be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. Harvard could be seeded as high as 12th, and will be a tough out for any No. 5 seed. The Crimson are ranked 34th on KenPom and feature the No. 30 adjusted defense and No. 60 adjusted offense in the country.
IN THE MIX
UW-Green Bay (24-6, RPI: 62, SOS: 141): The Phoenix dominated the Horizon League all season, but fell in the conference tournament semifinals to UW-Milwaukee. That loss also made them Public Enemy No. 1 for all of the power conference bubble teams. They went 4-3 against the top 100, a record that includes a win over Virginia. They're not likely to receive an at-large bid, but they will certainly be discussed while the committee meets this week.
Field of 68
|1. Wichita State |
16. Alabama State/Wofford
|1. Florida |
16. Mount St. Mary's/Coastal Carolina
|8. Baylor |
|8. Oregon |
9. Kansas State
|4. Oklahoma |
|4. San Diego State |
|5. Michigan State |
12. Southern Miss
|5. Saint Louis |
|3. Duke |
|3. Cincinnati |
14. North Carolina Central
|6. VCU |
|6. Ohio State |
11. Saint Joseph's/Tennessee
|7. Kentucky |
|7. New Mexico |
10. Arizona State
|2. Kansas |
15. American University
|2. Michigan |
15. Stony Brook
|1. Arizona |
16. Utah Valley
|1. Wisconsin |
16. Weber State
|8. George Washington |
|8. Oklahoma State |
|4. Iowa State |
13. Georgia State
|4. Creighton |
13. Stephen F. Austin
|5. Connecticut |
|5. North Carolina |
|3. Virginia |
|3. Louisville |
14. North Dakota State
|6. Memphis |
|6. Texas |
|7. Massachusetts |
|7. UCLA |
|2. Villanova |
|2. Syracuse |
15. Eastern Kentucky