Bubble Watch: Teams can begin securing NCAA tourney bids this week
Bubble teams have just a few more games to strengthen their résumés and make their respective cases to the selection committee. Each game featuring a bubble team has ramifications beyond the two teams on the court. The bubble is a fluid situation, and updating it in mid-week is delicate, given that some teams—such as Texas on Monday—have had a chance to strike, while others—say, Tulsa—have yet to get their chance. A win by Tulsa over Cincinnati on Wednesday, or SMU over the weekend, could leapfrog the Golden Hurricane into the field of 68. We have to evaluate the teams based on what they have done to this very point, however, which still has them on the outside of the bracket.
Here are the five most important bubble games this week, with a special sixth game that could give us our first official 2015 tournament team.
Wednesday: Miami at Pittsburgh
Unless both these teams make a run in the ACC tournament, there’s only going to be room for one of them, at most, in the field of 68. These teams have yet to meet this season, but Pittsburgh is playing its best basketball of the season lately, despite losing at Wake Forest last weekend. The winner will still be in range for an at-large bid.
Both of these teams are in our current tournament field, but they also have challenging weeks beginning with this game. Purdue will host Illinois in its regular season finale, while Michigan State hits the road for a matchup with Indiana. Neither team is completely safe, but both would look a whole lot better with a win on Wednesday. This will be their first meeting of the season. The Spartans shoot the ball very well from behind the arc, ranking 13th in the country in three-point percentage, while Purdue struggles to defend long-range shooting. A.J. Hammons, however, presents a serious matchup challenge for Michigan State.
Wednesday: Cincinnati at Tulsa
The Golden Hurricane also visit SMU in their final game of the regular season, so this week could make or break their tournament hopes. This is the first game of the year between these two defensive-minded teams, and there’s a good chance the first team to score 60 points comes away with a win. Cincinnati’s advantage is Octavius Ellis, who shoots nearly 60% from two-point range. If Tulsa fails to contain him, the Bearcats will earn a big road victory.
The Rams have experienced a precipitous decline since losing Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury, but they’re still going dancing. Davidson, however, needs one more big win to have a chance at an at-large bid, and this represents the team’s last chance to get it in the regular season. VCU won the first meeting between the two, but this game will be different for a couple reasons. First, that game was in Richmond, while this one will be on Davidson’s home floor. Second, Weber shut down Jack Gibbs in that game, holding him to 11 points on 1-for-10 shooting. Who guards Gibbs in Weber’s absence? Whoever comes out on the right side of that individual matchup could end up with the win.
Saturday: Texas at Kansas State
These two Big 12 teams are going to give the committee fits in less than two weeks. Texas already has 12 losses, but the Longhorns have played a challenging schedule, have beaten Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa, and don’t have a bad loss. They are also ranked inside the top 50 in RPI. Kansas State, meanwhile, is the most mercurial team in the country. The Wildcats are just .500 at the start of this week, but have the same number of top-30 wins as Kentucky and Duke, and more than Wisconsin. A win here would be enormous for both teams.
The Ivy League still does not have a conference tournament; instead, the league sends its regular season champ to the NCAA tournament with an automatic bid. Every team plays Friday and Saturday, but this is the game that truly matters. Both Yale and Harvard are 10-2, meaning the conference will almost certainly be decided in Cambridge on Friday. Harvard won the first meeting, so a win at home locks up the conference title, as well as the Crimson’s fourth consecutive trip to the dance. Yale would have the inside track on its first bid since 1962 with a win, but if the Bulldogs ended up losing to Dartmouth on Saturday, and Harvard beats Brown, the two would have a one-game playoff to decide the champion. You can almost see one-time friends William Howard Taft (Yale) and Teddy Roosevelt (Harvard) getting together for this one in the Great Presidential Club in the Sky.
IN THE MIX
Tulsa (21-7, RPI: 30, SOS: 101): The Golden Hurricane are one of our first four teams out, despite leading the AAC standings. A split against Cincinnati and SMU would mean another strong win, as well as a share of the regular season conference championship. That would likely be good enough to get them into the field.
Temple (20-9, RPI: 40, SOS: 68): With two games left in the regular season, Temple is one of our last four teams in the field of 68. The Owls can’t really build their résumé this week, but if they manage to beat Connecticut on Saturday, they could get a bump in the rankings should some other teams around them fall. Nothing is guaranteed for a team right on the border, but so long as they avoid a bad loss to East Carolina on Thursday or in the AAC tournament, they’ll have a good chance for an at-large bid.
Cincinnati (20-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 72): The Bearcats have won three straight games against the dregs of the AAC, correcting course after three consecutive losses. They have five top-50 wins, more than Temple and Tulsa combined and are looking like a strong bet to make the tournament. Having said that, another bad loss or two would have them in serious jeopardy. They visit Tulsa on Wednesday and host Memphis on Sunday.
Dayton (23-6, RPI: 29, SOS: 120): It would take a huge collapse for the Flyers to fall out of the tourney field after they knocked off VCU over the weekend. They’re over .500 against both the top 50 and top 100 and have just one bad loss on their résumé. Dayton defeated Rhode Island 75-59 on Tuesday and visit LaSalle on Saturday. Simply avoiding a bad loss should be enough to get the Flyers an at-large bid.
Davidson (21-6, RPI: 44, SOS: 114): The Wildcats did exactly what they had to do last week, beating Rhode Island and George Washington. Still, this team isn’t yet worthy of inclusion in the field of 68. They have just one top-50 win, and that came at home against Dayton. The biggest game remaining for them is Thursday against VCU. If they win that, then we can really see how they stack up against the very bottom of the tournament field. If they lose that, they’ll likely have to win the A-10 tournament to get a bid.
Rhode Island (20-8, RPI: 67, SOS: 133): The Rams’ loss to Davidson last week all but knocked them out of contention for an at-large bid. Their final remaining hope was wrapped up in their game at Dayton on Tuesday, which they lost 75-59. With the loss, even if they beat Saint Joe’s on Saturday, they won't have a chance to clinch even a share of the regular season conference title. It's hard to see Rhode Island being part of the discussion for the committee on Selection Sunday.
IN THE MIX
Pittsburgh (19-11, RPI: 49, SOS: 38): Sunday’s loss at Wake Forest really damaged the Panthers’ tourney hopes. Before that game, they were one of our last four teams in the field. The loss pushed them down to one of the first four out. Wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina still have them in range to make the dance, but they’ll likely need one more résumé-building win in the ACC tournament to get there. They also can’t afford a loss to either Miami or Florida State this week.
North Carolina State (18-12, RPI: 53, SOS: 5): Twelve losses is a lot for an at-large team, and the Wolfpack’s loss at Boston College certainly didn’t help. So why are they in (and not even as a last four), while Pitt’s loss to Wake Forest knocked that team out? The Wolfpack have five top-50 wins, three of which are against teams in the top 20 that are locked into the tournament (Duke, North Carolina and Louisville). You bring that sort of résumé to the table, without too many bad losses, and you get an invite.
Miami (18-11, RPI: 71, SOS: 58): The Hurricanes couldn’t overcome North Carolina over the weekend, and remain just outside the tournament field as a result. They go on the road this week for must-win games against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Even if they win both of those, they’re going to have to do some meaningful damage in the ACC tournament to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
IN THE MIX
Oklahoma State (17-11, RPI: 39, SOS: 9): The Cowboys should be a safe bet to make the tournament, but they’ve lost four straight games, and two of those were to TCU and Texas Tech. In other words, they better get things right before taking on TCU again this Wednesday. Still, six top-50 wins, three of which were against the top 10, should make this a tournament team.
Texas (18-12, RPI: 46, SOS: 12): The Longhorns got a win they desperately needed against Baylor on Monday, their second top-50 win of the season. Yes, 12 losses would be a lot for an at-large team, but 11 of those 12 are to teams ranked in the top 40 in RPI. All of those teams are going to be in the field of 68. Texas probably needs to win another game or two this season to get an invite, but it’s hard to look at this team and say with a straight face that it isn’t one of the 36 best potential at-large teams in the country.
Kansas State (15-15, RPI: 79, SOS: 13): A team isn’t ever going to get an invite with a .500 record, but the up-and-down (and up-again-and-down-again) Kansas State Wildcats are the most interesting potential tournament team. Sure, they’ve lost 15 games this year, but they also have wins over Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma (twice), Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. How many teams can say they have seven top-30 wins? Not many. If the Wildcats can beat Texas this week and avoid a bad loss in the Big 12 tournament, I think they’d be worthy of inclusion.
IN THE MIX
St. John’s (20-9, RPI: 36, SOS: 25): The Johnnies had perhaps their best week of the season when they needed it most, earning victories over Xavier and Georgetown. Sir’Dominic Pointer scored 43 points combined in the two games, and has hit double digits in 14 consecutive games. With five top-40 wins and a 9-7 record against the top 100, the Red Storm will almost certainly get an at-large bid, even if they lose out. They hit the road for games with Marquette and Villanova this week.
Xavier (18-12, RPI: 42, SOS: 16): Every time the Musketeers have taken a step forward this season, they seem to cancel it right out with a bad week. Two weeks ago, they beat Cincinnati on the road and Butler at home, looking to solidify an at-large bid. Last week, however, they lost to St. John’s and Villanova, which still has them in a state of limbo. It would still take a couple bad losses for them to be in any real danger, but they haven’t yet done enough to be considered a lock for an invite. They have just one game left in the regular season, as they’ll visit Creighton on Saturday.
Locks: Wisconsin, Maryland
IN THE MIX
Michigan State (19-10, RPI: 34, SOS: 24): The Spartans lost twice last week, including to Minnesota at home, and still have some work to do to feel good about their chances for an at-large bid. They have an opportunity to impress the committee in the final week of the season, hosting Purdue on Wednesday and visiting Indiana on Saturday. A split could be good enough, but the silver bullet would be getting a win in Bloomington.
Ohio State (21-8, RPI: 37, SOS: 77): The Buckeyes got the clean week they needed against Nebraska and Purdue, coming back on the Boilermakers late to earn their fourth win over a potential tournament team. They’re looking solidly like a tournament team, but could clinch a bid by upsetting Wisconsin in Columbus on Sunday.
Indiana (19-11, RPI: 43, SOS: 35): The Hoosiers can’t feel totally safe just yet after losing at Northwestern last week. They get to spend this entire week at home, where they’ve been a much better team, but they lost to Iowa 77-63 on Tuesday and have Michigan State on Saturday. If they beat the Spartans and avoid a bad loss in the Big Ten tournament, they’ll earn an at-large bid. With the way they’ve played defense all year, however, they’re not shaping up to be a very dangerous tournament team.
Iowa (20-10, RPI: 47, SOS: 33): The Hawkeyes have won five straight games after defeating Indiana on Tuesday, though they’ve played just two potential tournament teams in that stretch (Illinois, Indiana). The only way they don’t get an invite is if they lose to Northwestern on Saturday and suffer a loss in the Big Ten tournament to a team that is not headed for the Big Dance. If they end their season in any other fashion, they will make a happy bunch on Selection Sunday.
Purdue (19-10, RPI: 58, SOS: 69): Had the Boilermakers held on for a win at Ohio State on Sunday, they’d be feeling a whole lot better about their chances right now. Still, they have an impressive 6-4 record against the top 50 that includes non-conference wins over North Carolina State and BYU. They wrap up the regular season with games against potential tournament teams in Michigan State and Illinois. If they find a way to win both, they’ll be in the field of 68 regardless of what they do in the Big Ten tournament.
Illinois (18-11, RPI: 59, SOS: 50): The Illini could have done themselves a huge favor with a win at Iowa last week, but they took care of business in a dominant victory over Northwestern at home. They’re one of our last four teams in thanks to big wins against Baylor and Maryland earlier this year. If they can do the expected and handle Nebraska, and then beat Purdue in West Lafayette in the regular season finale, they’ll be in a decent spot heading into the conference tourney.
IN THE MIX
San Diego State (22-7, RPI: 25, SOS: 78): The Aztecs are probably just thankful they likely won’t have to see Boise State until a potential MWC tournament championship matchup. They lost to the Broncos for the second time this season over the weekend, but still appear relatively safe for an at-large bid. They’re 4-4 against the top 50, including a win over Utah, and have just two bad losses. It would take a huge reversal of fortune over the next two weeks for them to be left out of the field.
Colorado State (24-5, RPI: 26, SOS: 117): The Rams look likely to make the tournament, but their seed ceiling is probably in the 8-9 range. As it stands, they have just two wins against potential tournament teams, though they could double that number by winning the MWC tournament. They wrap up the regular season with road games against Nevada and Utah State. A loss in either of those could put this team in jeopardy.
Boise State (22-7, RPI: 28, SOS: 94): By virtue of their sweep of San Diego State, completed over the weekend, the Broncos are one of the last four teams in our current field of 68. Despite making their first appearance in the Bracket Watch this season, their spot is tenuous at the moment. They have three sub-100 losses this year, and a fourth would knock them right back on the other side of the bubble. They have to take care of San Jose State and Fresno State to finish the regular season. If they do that, and avoid a bad loss in the MWC tourney, they could go dancing for the second time in the last three years, but just the third time since 1994.
Wyoming (21-8, RPI: 95, SOS: 205): The Cowboys are still hanging around the at-large picture, thanks to a pair of wins over Colorado State, as well as an individual victory against Boise State. They’re still a long shot to get an invite without winning the MWC tourney, however. The only way they get in is if they beat Utah State and New Mexico this week and make it to the conference championship, thus adding another win over Boise State, Colorado State or San Diego State. Even in that scenario, they’d probably need some help due to their weak overall schedule.
Locks: Arizona, Utah
IN THE MIX
Oregon (22-8, RPI: 33, SOS: 59): In just the last few weeks, Oregon has gone from “wrong side of the bubble” to “comfortably in the tournament field.” The Ducks have won eight of their last nine games, but they’ve really forced their way in with victories over Utah and Stanford (on the road) in the last two weekends. At this point, the only thing that could really push them back to the NIT would be a bad loss, either against Oregon State in their regular season finale, or early in the Pac-12 tournament.
UCLA (18-12, RPI: 52, SOS: 22): The Bruins are one of our first four teams out, but there’s still plenty of time for them to end up getting into the dance. They could win their way into the field if they can make it to at least the Pac-12 semifinals. Even if they can just avoid slipping up for the rest of the season, they could get back into our tournament picture if one of the teams ahead of them loses. With 12 losses and just two wins against tournament teams, however, they haven’t done enough yet to get a bid.
Stanford (18-10, RPI: 56, SOS: 60): The Cardinal had their chance to make everything right with a win at home against Oregon last weekend, and they couldn’t take advantage of their opportunity. After losing to the Ducks, they have five straight games against potential tournament teams. The last time they beat an NCAA tournament-caliber team was on December 23 when they took care of Texas. Assuming they lose at Arizona this weekend, they’ll likely be out of the running for an at-large bid.
Locks: Kentucky, Arkansas
Texas A&M (20-9, RPI: 32, SOS: 74): The committee is going to love A&M’s strong RPI, and the fact that there isn’t a really bad loss on their résumé is going to count in their favor, as well. Still, with just a 2-6 record against the top 50, they’re in danger of being passed by fellow bubble teams with just one bad loss. A 66-62 loss to Florida is not going to help the Aggies' cause though, so they'll need a convincing win over Alabama heading into the SEC tournament.
Georgia (19-10, RPI: 35, SOS: 44): The Bulldogs earned a huge win at Mississippi last week that took them out of the last four in group and put them safely in the field of 68. Despite losing a tightly contested game to Kentucky on Tuesday, no one will hold it against them. The same can’t be said for their regular season finale at Auburn. They have to win that one to feel good about their chances at the start of the conference tourney.
LSU (21-8, RPI: 45, SOS: 80): Last week’s win over Mississippi gave the Tigers a sweep of the Rebels and their fourth win this season against a potential tournament team. Unlike many bubble teams, they can also boast an impressive 11 top-100 victories this season. If they can spring an upset over the Razorbacks in Fayetteville on Saturday, they’ll be looking strong for an at-large bid. Even if they lose that game, however, they have an inside track to the field of 68. All they have to do at this point is avoid a bad loss, either to Tennessee this week or at some point in the SEC tournament.
Ole Miss (20-10, RPI: 48, SOS: 42): Ole Miss had a terrible week, losing to fellow bubble teams Georgia and LSU. They’re still relatively safe thanks to four wins against tournament teams, three of which came away from home (at Oregon, at Arkansas, Cincinnati on a neutral court), but they have very little margin for error in the next two weeks. The Rebels defeated Alabama 82-74 on Tuesday and finish the regular season at home vs. Vanderbilt. If they take care of business against the Commodores, as they should, the Rebels will be in a good spot as the SEC tournament begins.
IN THE MIX
BYU (West Coast, 23-8, RPI: 38, SOS: 75): Three weeks ago, we looked at BYU’s remaining schedule and said they had to win out to have a chance to get an at-large bid. Six games later, that is exactly what the Cougars have done, topping it off with a three-point victory at Gonzaga that knocked the Bulldogs off a top line in the bracket. Now, the Cougars are still on the outside looking in, and they still may need some help to get an invite without winning the WCC tournament. After all, their only chance for a résumé-building victory would be in a potential matchup with Gonzaga, and that could only come in the conference championship game. However, if they make it to that point and have some teams in front of them, such as Illinois, Temple, Texas and Boise State, suffer bad losses, they could sneak their way into the field.