Bubble Watch: Pac-12 foes UCLA, Oregon battling for at-large bids
It was another exciting weekend on the bubble, with North Carolina State and UCLA clawing their way back into the field of 68 by virtue of wins over Louisville and Oregon, respectively. Meanwhile, Seton Hall, a team that could once dream of a relatively high seed, looks destined for the NIT now.
Before we get to the current state of the bubble, let’s check out its five most important games this week.
The Tigers are just barely inside the field, and the Aggies are just outside. Texas A&M used a 20-8 spurt in the final 10 minutes to win the first meeting between the two, a nail-biter in Baton Rouge decided by three points. That win stands as A&M’s best victory of the season, while LSU has four top-50 victories on its resume. Time is running thin for the Aggies, making this a slightly more critical game for them.
The Boilermakers put themselves in range for an at-large bid to the tournament with a four-game winning streak that included a 16-point victory over Indiana. Of course, that game, just like all of Purdue’s strong wins this year, came at home. If they’re going to be in the field of 68, they’re going to have to show they can win away from Mackey Arena. A sweep over their in-state rivals would put them in prime contention for an invite heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
We’ll touch more on Kansas State in the Big 12 section, but this team cannot be left for dead. The Wildcats may have 13 losses, but they also have four wins over top-20 teams. Bubble teams need to differentiate themselves from the pack, and even with all those losses, there isn’t another bubble team with as strong a group of wins as the Wildcats’. Still, they need to do a little more work to balance all the losses they’ve racked up this year. If they can split their four remaining regular season games against tourney-bound teams, starting with Baylor on Saturday, they should get a bid.
Saturday: Seton Hall at St. John’s
It’s unlikely both of these teams can get an at-large bid. It is, of course, possible, but given their resumes and remaining schedules in the tough Big East, the chances of both doing enough to get in are slim. This shouldn’t be considered a play-in game—St. John’s is in too strong a relative position—but the loser of this game will take a huge hit to their at-large hopes. A loss could be the end of the Pirates’ chances, though. They won the first matchup between these two teams in Newark, with Sterling Gibbs scoring 25 points, but there’s a possibility he won’t be eligible for this game.
Sunday: Utah at Oregon
The Ducks are not too far outside the field of 68, but they’re running out of chances to impress the committee. Their best chance is this Sunday when they host Utah. The only other potential tournament team they play in the regular season is Stanford, and a win over the Cardinal may not do enough for the Ducks at this point. A win over the Utes, however, would at least set up the Ducks with a shot at an at-large bid.
IN THE MIX
SMU (21-5, RPI: 23, SOS: 65): With four games left in the regular season, the Mustangs are headed toward a conference championship and a likely berth in the NCAA tournament. They may have just two top-50 wins this year, but all five of their losses are to top-40 teams, and they now rank 22nd on kenpom.com. The AAC is down this year, with Memphis and Connecticut both in need of a conference tournament championship to get into the field, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Mustangs are the class of the conference. They host Temple on Thursday in their only game this week.
Temple (19-7, RPI: 30, SOS: 48): The Owls entered last week on a five-game winning streak, but none of the entries in the run were against teams with even a slight chance for an at-large bid. That changed last week when they rolled through a Cincinnati team that will go dancing unless it falls apart in the final few weeks of the regular season. The only thing left for the Owls to do is prove they can beat tournament-quality competition on the road. They get their chance at that this week, with trips to SMU and Tulsa on the schedule.
Cincinnati (17-8, RPI: 34, SOS: 44): The Bearcats can be excused for losing by 16 points at Temple, a team that is trending in the right direction as it claws its way back into the field of 68. Its home loss to Tulane, however, is a serious blemish that could really hurt their seed should they make the tourney. While they have five top-50 victories, including a sweep of SMU, they’ve now lost three games to teams outside the top 100. Their annual meeting with crosstown rival Xavier is Wednesday, giving them a chance for their sixth win against a potential tournament team.
Tulsa (17-7, RPI: 48, SOS: 108): Connecticut ran the Golden Hurricane right out of Storrs last week, beating them by 25 points for their second straight loss. They’re on the outside looking in at the field in our most recent Bracket Watch, with just one win this season against a potential at-large team. They still have one game apiece with the three tournament contenders in the AAC, beginning with Temple on Sunday. They’ll have to go at least 2-1 in those games, and then avoid a bad loss in the conference tournament, to have a realistic chance at an at-large invite.
IN THE MIX
Dayton (19-5, RPI: 31, SOS: 105): The Flyers’ 23rd-ranked defense, in terms of kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency, showed up in wins over Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure last week, allowing a total of 105 points. They’re among the group of teams inside the field that are just barely on the safe side of the play-in game. In other words, they’re not one of the last four in, but they’re likely among the last 10 in. That means they have to take care of business against lowly Saint Joe’s and Duquesne this week.
Massachusetts (16-9, RPI: 35, SOS: 33): The Minutemen are on the at-large radar, having won six straight games, beginning with a victory over Dayton on Jan. 29. They’re still not even in the “first four out” range, so there’s work to be done. They have a golden opportunity this week, with trips to Rhode Island and VCU. If they can sweep the teams with Ram mascots, they could be in the discussion for one of the final few spots in the dance.
Davidson (17-6, RPI: 61, SOS: 124): The Wildcats picked up wins over George Mason and LaSalle last week to resuscitate their flagging tourney hopes. Even though George Washington is also fading, a win over the Colonials in D.C. on Wednesday would be a boon to the Wildcats’ resume. What they really need to do, however, is avoid any more bad losses and knock off VCU on March 5.
Rhode Island (17-6, RPI: 67, SOS: 131): The Rams don’t have any top-50 wins this season, but they are 9-3 in the A-10 with a pair of games remaining on the schedule that could have them in contention for an at-large bid. If they can beat Massachusetts on Wednesday and Dayton in the final week of the season and make a strong showing in the conference tourney, they could at least earn a seat at the table. It all has to start with a win over the Minutemen this week, though.
George Washington (17-8, RPI: 74, SOS: 145): The Colonials may have seen their at-large bubble burst with losses against Duquesne and VCU last week. The loss to the Dukes, a team ranked 243rd in RPI, may have been more strain than the Colonials’ tenuous bid for an at-large spot could hold. They have just two top-50 wins, and may not face another tournament team for the rest of the regular season.
IN THE MIX
North Carolina State (15-11, RPI: 49, SOS: 4): The Wolfpack are going to present the selection committee with one of its toughest decisions. On one hand, it’s hard for any team with 11 or more losses to get an at-large bid. On the other, they have four top-50 wins, including victories against Duke and Louisville. The Wolfpack also have a good chance to win out, with just one game remaining in the regular season against a team headed to the tournament. They play just once this week, hosting Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Pittsburgh (17-10, RPI: 52, SOS: 39): The Panthers got a huge win over North Carolina last week, their second against a top-30 RPI and top-20 kenpom.com team this year. Their offense, which shot 64.9% from the floor, including 8-for-15 from three, in the win over the Tar Heels did not have the same success against the great Virginia defense on Monday. That was the Panthers last chance to impress the committee in the regular season
Miami (15-9, RPI: 64, SOS: 47): The Hurricanes have lost four of their last five games, and are now under .500 in the ACC. What’s worse, three of those losses—to Georgia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest—were against teams that won’t make the dance without winning the conference tournament. Despite an otherwise decent résumé, the Hurricanes have likely put themselves in a spot where they have to win their two remaining games against strong teams (Louisville and North Carolina) to earn an at-large bid.
Clemson (15-11, RPI: 80, SOS: 52): The Tigers may be 3-4 against the top 50 but last night’s loss at home to Georgia Tech adds to a bevy of bad losses that, realistically, will keep them out of the dance. They do have games remaining in the regular season with Duke, N.C. State and Notre Dame. If they go 2-1 in those games, they may have a chance to steal an at-large bid with another strong win or two in the ACC tournament. That game with Duke is on Saturday in Durham.
IN THE MIX
Oklahoma State (17-8, RPI: 25, SOS: 13): After ripping off three straight impressive wins over Texas, Kansas and Baylor, the first and last of which were on the road, the Cowboys ran out of steam in a loss at TCU on Saturday. Still, they’ve put themselves in a great spot for an at-large bid, and just need to avoid a total collapse to go dancing. The Cowboys can struggle when Le'Bryan Nash or Phil Forte isn’t scoring, but this looks like a dangerous team heading into March. They have a tough week ahead, however, with games against Iowa State and West Virginia, both at home.
West Virginia (20-6, RPI: 29, SOS: 61): The Mountaineers needed a monster win to correct course this weekend, and they got it in dramatic fashion over Kansas. The win nearly erases their four-game losing streak. They’re still just 2-5 against Big 12 teams bound for the NCAA tournament, but they can get a decent seed in the field of 68. They have arguably the toughest remaining regular season schedule in the country, with two games against Oklahoma State and individual matchups with Kansas, Texas and Baylor.
Texas (17-8, RPI: 33, SOS: 21): The Longhorns did exactly what they had to do after losing four straight by reeling off consecutive wins against Kansas State, TCU and Texas Tech. Now they have to pick up just a few more wins over the teams actually headed to the tournament to cement their spot in the dance, as well. They travel to Oklahoma on Tuesday, and then host Iowa State on Saturday.
Kansas State (13-13, RPI: 99, SOS: 29): I may be the only Kansas State apologist left outside the Little Apple, but I can’t shake the feeling that this should be a tournament team. Yes, the .500 record may not be exactly what you look for in one of the 34 best at-large teams in the country, but pay attention to the nature of those 13 wins. They swept Oklahoma, and also own wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State. There wouldn’t be another team outside the field of 68 with as strong a quartet of victories. If they can take care of TCU on Wednesday, and then split their remaining four games against tourney-bound teams, it will be very hard to keep them out of the dance, even with 15 losses
Georgetown (16-8, RPI: 21, SOS: 2): The Hoyas dismantled Seton Hall on the road on in their only game last week, after losing three of their previous four games. Despite having eight losses, they’re not in any serious jeopardy of falling out of the field of 68. All of their losses are to teams inside the top 35 in RPI, and six of the eight are to top-30 kenpom.com teams. They spend the entire week at home, hosting St. John’s on Tuesday and DePaul on Saturday.
Providence (18-8, RPI: 24, SOS: 10): The Friars’ recent experience mirrors that of Georgetown. After losing three of four games, including reversals against Xavier and Villanova, they got back on the winning path with a victory over Seton Hall. They haven’t yet sewn up a spot in the field of 68, but with six top-50 wins, four of which against teams ranked 21st or better on kenpom.com, the Friars certainly are in a comfortable position. They play just once this week, tuning up for next week’s game at Villanova with a trip to Chicago to take on DePaul.
Xavier (16-10, RPI: 40 SOS: 22): The Musketeers cruised to a win over Marquette early last week, but then dropped a game to St. John’s at home over the weekend. It seems that whenever this team takes a step forward, it quickly takes a corresponding step back. At 3-4 against the top 50 with three losses to teams outside the top 100, the Musketeers are a 10-seed in our Bracket Watch, but they’re not safe. This is a huge week for them with games against Cincinnati and Butler.
St. John’s (17-8, RPI: 41, SOS: 31): The Johnnies picked up their third top-50 win of the season last weekend, knocking off Xavier in Cincinnati. Like the Musketeers, they’re now a 10-seed in our Bracket Watch with three weeks remaining in the regular season. They have a tough road ahead, with four games against likely tournament teams, starting on Tuesday when they travel to Washington to take on Georgetown. They’ll need to at least split those four games to feel good on Selection Sunday.
Seton Hall (15-11, RPI: 73, SOS: 69): The Pirates have now lost five straight games, including three in a row against teams headed to the tournament. Right now, they’re on a trajectory that would result in them being one of the top seeds in the NIT, and that is unlikely to change without a decent run in the Big East tournament.
IN THE MIX
Indiana (18-8, RPI: 28, SOS: 24): The Hoosiers nearly pulled off a season sweep of Maryland, but Yogi Ferrell’s three-pointer went off the back rim, and then his attempt to tie the game went begging, as well, giving the Terrapins a two-point victory. It was an impressive but disappointing showing on the road, but the Hoosiers rebounded with a dominant victory over Minnesota on Sunday. They’re now 6-6 against the top 50, and all eight of their losses are to teams currently in our field of 68.
Ohio State (19-7, RPI: 36, SOS: 88): While the Buckeyes’ defense ranks 31st in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com, this is a team that wins with its offense. It has just one win this season in which it scored fewer than 70 points, and that was a 69-67 victory over Big Ten doormat Northwestern. When the offense fails to produce, as it did against Michigan State over the weekend, the Buckeyes lose. They have just one game this week, traveling to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines on Sunday.
Michigan State (17-8, RPI: 39, SOS: 38): The Spartans desperately needed that win over Ohio State on Saturday, making Denzel Valentine’s game-winning three one of the biggest shots of their season, to date. A loss in that game would have pushed them outside the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. As it stands, they’re an 11-seed with some work left to do before they can feel safe. They take to the road this week, with games at Michigan and Illinois.
Illinois (17-9, RPI: 46, SOS: 53): The Illini hung with Wisconsin for most of the first half in Madison on Sunday, but the Badgers completely dominated the second half for an easy 19-point victory. Illinois remains tucked just inside our field of 68 with five regular season games remaining on its schedule. Three of those games are against teams also currently in the field, so they could still greatly improve their résumé before the conference tournament. That effort may begin this week with a home game against Michigan State on Sunday.
Iowa (15-10, RPI: 56, SOS: 20): The Hawkeyes had a terrible week, losing to Minnesota and Northwestern, two teams that will not be dancing without a dream run in the Big Ten Tournament. They’re still relatively safe with four top-50 wins and a decent RPI ranking, but they need to avoid any further bad losses. They take on Rutgers and Nebraska this week.
Purdue (17-9, RPI: 66, SOS: 76): The Boilermakers picked up wins over Rutgers and Nebraska last week, and are one of the last four teams in our field of 68. The true test for them, however, begins this week. While they’ve significantly outperformed expectations this year, they still need to show an ability to win big on the road. That makes Thursday’s game at Indiana their most important game of the season.
Locks: Arizona, Utah
IN THE MIX
UCLA (16-10, RPI: 38, SOS: 18): While it was the twin victories over Utah and Stanford a few weeks ago that put UCLA on the at-large radar, its win over Oregon last weekend was nearly as significant. There’s a decent chance that one, but not both, of these teams will get a bid to the dance, and there’s no doubt that the Bruins now have the better resume. Their last chance to impress the committee in the regular season comes this weekend, when they take on Arizona in Tucson.
Stanford (16-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 58): Once safely a tournament team, the Cardinal are now firmly on the bubble after losses at Utah (not bad) and Colorado (very bad) last week. They have just two top-50 wins against three sub-100 losses. Just as damaging is their 0-4 record against Arizona, Utah and UCLA. They absolutely cannot afford missteps in their next three games against California, Oregon State and Oregon.
Oregon (18-8, RPI: 60, SOS: 73): The Ducks loss at UCLA over the weekend hurt their chances for an at-large bid. But they can rebound with a pair of games remaining that could increase their at-large profile. They have to get past Colorado at home on Wednesday. Assuming they do, they could make a statement with a win over Utah, also at home, on Sunday.
Oregon State (16-9, RPI: 82, SOS: 101): The Beavers are admittedly a long shot to make the dance, but UCLA’s resurgence means that they now have two top-50 wins on the year. They’d likely have to win out to really earn consideration on Selection Sunday, but if they did, they’d head into the Pac-12 tournament with an 8-6 record against the top 100, and at least three of those wins would be against top-50 teams. This could all be moot by Thursday night after they host mighty Utah, however.
IN THE MIX
Arkansas (20-5, RPI: 17, SOS: 59): The Razorbacks had a great week, first scoring 101 points in a thrashing of Auburn, and then going into Oxford and knocking off tourney contender Mississippi by a point. At this point, it would likely take disaster for them to fall out of the field of 68. They’re 4-2 against the top 50, and three of those four wins have come away from Fayetteville. They have a relatively easy week with games against Missouri and Mississippi State.
Georgia (16-8, RPI: 32, SOS: 30): The Bulldogs slid down to a 10-seed in this week’s Bracket Watch after a bad loss against Auburn at home last weekend. It was their third loss outside the top 100 this season, but at least the previous two were on the road. One more bad loss could have the Bulldogs holding their collective breath on Selection Sunday. They host South Carolina on Tuesday and visit Alabama over the weekend.
Mississippi (17-8, RPI: 37, SOS: 42): Had the Rebels taken down Arkansas last weekend, it would have given them a sweep over the team widely seen as the second best in the SEC. They didn’t get that win, but this is a much-improved team from the one that lost three games to sub-100 teams by the middle of December. Four of their five losses since then were to teams that will go dancing, and the fifth was to LSU, which is in our current field. So long as they can stay the course and avoid any bad losses for the rest of the season, they should be in the 8-seed-to-10-seed range.
Texas A&M (17-7, RPI: 44, SOS: 85): With LSU falling down the RPI ranks, the Aggies no longer have a top-50 win this season. After losing to Georgia last week, they’re now 0-5 against the top 50 and 5-7 against the top 100. They also fell out of the Bracket Watch, but are one of the first four outside the field. The next week is huge for them with games against LSU (Tuesday), South Carolina (Saturday) and Arkansas (Feb. 24).
LSU (18-7, RPI: 53, SOS: 91): Had the Tigers given Kentucky its first loss last week, which it came devastatingly close to doing, they would have had five top-50 wins, including one over the best team in the country, which could have punched their ticket. They’re still in our field of 68, but their place isn’t nearly as secure as it would have been with a win that win. They visit Texas A&M on Tuesday and host Florida on Saturday.
Alabama (15-10, RPI: 75, SOS: 46): In all likelihood, the Crimson Tide’s fleeting chances for an at-large bid evaporated with their home loss to Vanderbilt last weekend. They’re just 4-8 against the top 100, and have two losses to teams outside that class. If they’re going to land back on the committee’s radar this season, they’ll likely have to sweep their remaining games with Georgia, Mississippi and Texas A&M. The first of those, against the Bulldogs, is on Saturday.
Tennessee (14-10, RPI: 85, SOS: 55): The Volunteers’ last stand takes place this week, as they’ll host Kentucky on Tuesday and visit Mississippi on Saturday. If they can find a way to win both games, they’ll have four top-50 wins, and will have been the first team to slay the Kentucky beast this season. That would certainly have them in contention for an at-large bid heading into the final week of February. Should they lose against Kentucky on Tuesday, it’ll be SEC tournament championship or bust for the Volunteers
IN THE MIX
San Diego State (20-6, RPI: 20, SOS: 54): The Aztecs had a great week, scoring wins over Wyoming and Colorado State to take command of the MWC. Defense is, of course, they’re calling card, but they had one of their better offensive nights of the season in the win over the Rams, making nearly 61 percent of their two-point field goals. With just one game left against a potential tournament team in the regular season, the Aztecs should be able to keep themselves comfortably inside the field of 68.
Colorado State (21-5, RPI: 26, SOS: 94): Despite a loss to San Diego State last weekend, everything is looking good for the Rams to earn their third bid to the NCAA tournament in the last four years. Their resume isn’t overwhelming, but they do have a pair of top-40 wins and just one bad loss on the year. They really shouldn’t be challenged the rest of the regular season, with their five remaining games against teams outside the top 150 in RPI.
Boise State (18-7, RPI: 43, SOS: 97): The Broncos own wins over both teams listed above them, but the résumé still does not reflect that of an at-large team just yet. That’s what made last weekend’s loss to Fresno State so disheartening. This team can’t afford to lose games like that, especially since they have just one opportunity remaining in the regular season for a résumé-building win, and that will be at San Diego State. They may still have some work to do in the conference tournament, even if they beat the Aztecs, but they’re definitely in the at-large discussion.
Wyoming (20-6, RPI: 79, SOS: 190): The Cowboys actually have more top-50 wins than either Colorado State or Boise State, as they’re 3-0 against those two teams. Unfortunately, there are also two sub-150 losses on their résumé, and they’re non-conference strength of schedule ranked 323rd in the country. They may have a gaudy record, but they still need to strengthen their case to earn an at-large bid. They’re done with the Aztecs, Rams and Broncos in the regular season, meaning they’ll need to beat at least one, if not two, of those teams in the conference tournament.
All Other Conferences
IN THE MIX
Old Dominion (Conference USA, 18-6, RPI: 54, SOS: 132): We’ve been writing this for some time now, but it should now be evident to everyone who has been suggesting otherwise: The Monarchs cannot get an at-large bid. They couldn’t get one before last week, and the definitely can’t get one now after losing to UT-San Antonio and UTEP. They now have four losses outside the top 100, three of which were to teams with an RPI of 150 or worse. Conference USA is a one-bid league.
Saint Mary’s (WCC, 19-6, RPI: 55, SOS: 112): All that really matters for the Gaels is their matchup with Gonzaga at home on Saturday. A win there, and they can start thinking about the chance of an at-large bid. If they lose, they’ll need to win the WCC tournament to get into the field for the third time in the last four years.
BYU (WCC, 20-8, RPI: 59, SOS: 92): The Cougars have done everything required since their at-large bid went on life support a few weeks ago. Since then, they’ve picked up wins over Loyola Marymount, Pacific and, most importantly, Saint Mary’s. They still can’t afford even one more bad loss, so their next two games against San Diego and Portland are crucial. If they win both of those, they’ll given themselves a chance to bully their way into the field of 68 with a win at Gonzaga in their final game of the regular season.