Bubble Watch: Championship Week arrives to finalize the field
One week. That’s how much time is left for bubble teams to improve their resumes and make their cases to the Selection Committee. That's also how quickly things can change for teams on both sides of the bubble.
We’ll be updating Bubble Watch and Bracket Watch every day during Championship Week to give you the most up-to-date look at the field of 68, as well as the stragglers just outside the picture. In this space, we’ll highlight the biggest bubble game of the day, new locks and teams that were eliminated from at-large consideration altogether.
The power conference tournaments don’t begin until Wednesday at the earliest, so there won’t be a ton of bubble action for another 48 hours. However, Monday’s slate does provide three games that bear watching.
[daily_cut.college basketball]The Cougars are among the First Four Out in our most recent Bracket Watch, and a win against Portland isn’t going to put them over the hump. A loss, however, would remove them from the bubble and relegate them to the NIT. In all likelihood BYU is going to have to win the WCC Tournament to earn a berth in the Big Dance. The only opportunity it would have to build its at-large resume would be in a potential third meeting with Gonzaga. That, of course, would be in the WCC championship, so if the Cougars won there, they would be going to the NCAAs as an automatic qualifier.
Wofford dominated the Southern Conference all season, going 16-2 and cruising to the regular season championship. Furman, meanwhile went 5-13 and is outside the top 300 in RPI. If the Paladins pull off the upset, they would be among the worst team ever to make the tournament. Don’t count on that happening. The Terriers, ranked 49th in the RPI, owns wins over N.C. State and fellow small-conference powers Iona and Sam Houston State.
Assuming Wofford wins on Monday, it is going to be a trendy upset pick in the first round as a likely 12- or 13-seed, so you should familiarize yourself with them now. The Terriers are one of the few smaller schools that make their money on defense, ranking 59th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. That was plenty to dominate a weak SoCon, but it remains to be seen how that would play against the big boys. The Terriers lost to West Virginia by 33 and Duke by 29 this season.
Iona was just as dominant in the MAAC as Wofford was in the SoCon, going 17-3 and locking up the regular season title with a win over this same Manhattan team in the final week of February. The Gaels, too, will be a popular upset pick, but there’s more reason to believe in them than there is Wofford. Iona is your classic up-tempo, high-possession, lights-out shooting Cinderella team. It ranks seventh in the country in three-point percentage, 13th in effective field goal percentage and 36th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Junior point guard A.J. English leads a trio of players who shoot at least 40 percent from distance, all of whom have attempted at least 146 triples this year. English also leads the team at 20.2 points per game, while senior forward David Laury is one of five finalists for the Karl Malone award, given to the top power forward in the country. Assuming Iona can get past Manhattan on Monday, no 4- or 5-seed will want to see the Gaels in its region.
IN THE MIX
Temple (22-9, RPI: 35, SOS: 71): The Owls remain one of our last four teams in the field of 68, but a mini-run in the AAC tourney could make them a whole lot more comfortable on Selection Sunday. They’ll meet Memphis in their first game on Friday, and a win there would set up a likely meeting with SMU. If they can knock off the Mustangs, they’d be looking good. A loss in the AAC semis would have Temple sweating, and a loss to the Tigers would have Fran Dunphy's team headed to the NIT.
Cincinnati (22-9, RPI: 39, SOS: 65): The Bearcats finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak, punctuated by a road win over Tulsa last week. With six top-50 wins, three of which came on the road, they should be able to survive a bad loss in the conference tournament. If they win their first game, though, which will be on Friday against the winner of Connecticut and South Florida, they’ll move into the lock category.
Tulsa (21-9, RPI: 47, SOS: 95): An at-large berth was there for the taking for the Golden Hurricane last week, and they failed to take advantage. After losing to Cincinnati and SMU, they fell to 2-6 against potential at-large teams. If Temple fails to make the Big Dance—a realistic possibility—Tulsa would be 0-6 against tournament teams. At the very least, Tulsa needs to make it to the conference championship game—it opens against the winner of Houston and Tulane on Friday—and would probably need some help from fellow teams on the bubble to get an invite.
IN THE MIX
Dayton (23-7, RPI: 28, SOS: 112): Despite 23 wins and a strong RPI, Dayton can’t afford to slip up in the A-10 Tournament. The Flyers have just two top-50 wins on the year and are 7-6 against the top 100. They’ll be in the Dance so long as they can stay away from a bad loss, but if they drop their first game, on Friday against the winner of St. Bonaventure and Saint Joseph’s, they could be in trouble on Sunday.
Davidson (23-6, RPI: 32, SOS: 106): An active nine-game winning streak gave the Wildcats the outright A-10 regular season title and top seed in the conference tournament. Realistically, that should be enough to guarantee the first at-large bid in the program’s history. They’d be wise to win at least one game in the conference tournament, but they should hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Richmond (19-12, RPI: 62, SOS: 42): The Spiders built a decent at-large case during the second half of the A-10 schedule, sweeping VCU and splitting with Davidson. We have them as one of the Next Four Out of the field, so they’ll likely have to impress in the conference tourney, and perhaps get some help in other pockets of the country. The good news for Richmond is that its path to the championship game would likely feature games with VCU and Davidson. If the Spiders beat both of those teams again, they would have a very interesting case for the Selection Committee.
Rhode Island (21-8, RPI: 69, SOS: 117): The Rams likely don’t have much of an at-large case. They don’t have a top-50 win, are just 5-5 against the top 100 and lost twice to teams outside the top 120 in RPI. Even if they lost in the A-10 championship game, they’d almost certainly have just one win against a potential at-large team. If Rhode Island goes dancing, it’ll be because it won the A-10 Tournament.
IN THE MIX
Miami (20-11, RPI: 67, SOS: 59): It has been an up-and-down season for the Hurricanes, but we currently have them as one of the Last Four Teams In the dance. That win at Duke will always shine for them, but their victory over N.C. State looks better and better with each passing week. They moved in front of Pittsburgh after taking care of the Panthers on the road last week, and also boast wins over Illinois and Syracuse. Still, one more good win could lock them into a berth. Miami's first conference tourney game is Wednesday against the winner of Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. That game is a must-win. If the Canes move on, they’ll meet Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. A win there would likely remove all doubt surrounding their NCAA tournament fate.
Pittsburgh (19-13, RPI: 58, SOS: 38): The Panthers are now a significant underdog to earn an at-large berth after losing consecutive games to Wake Forest, Miami and Florida State to end the season, but there is still a glimmer of hope. They’ll meet N.C. State in their first ACC tourney game on Wednesday. If they win that and then upset Duke in the next round, they’d at least garner significant discussion. Anything short of that and they won’t even be brought up by the committee.
IN THE MIX
Oklahoma State (18-12, RPI: 42, SOS: 16): The Cowboys had a dreadful finish to the season, losing five of their last six games. It would be one thing if all the losses come against the Big 12 powerhouses, but they fell to both TCU and Texas Tech. While it’s nearly impossible to look at this team and say it isn’t one of the 36 best at-large teams without doing some mental gymnastics, Oklahoma State could be in trouble if it loses to Oklahoma on Thursday. The bet here is that the Cowboys will survive that loss, but they probably don’t want to tempt fate.
Texas (19-12, RPI: 43, SOS: 9): The first order of business for Texas is to beat Texas Tech on Wednesday. A loss there would likely push the Longhorns into the NIT. If they win that game, but then lose to Iowa State in the quarterfinals, they’re going to be the most interesting team for the Selection Committee to consider. Texas does have a ton of losses, but all but one was against an at-large quality team, and that came in overtime versus Stanford back in December. Texas also beat West Virginia, Baylor and Iowa and played one of the toughest schedules in the country. In our eyes, a win over the Red Raiders sends the Longhorns to the Dance.
IN THE MIX
Xavier (19-12, RPI: 41, SOS: 13): Like a lot of other teams, the Musketeers open Championship Week looking relatively safe. They have six top-50 wins, including a sweep of Georgetown, a road win over Cincinnati and individual victories against Butler and Providence. Even with four sub-100 losses on their resume, that should be good enough. Their first game in the Big East Tournament is against Butler on Thursday, so Xavier can't even suffer a bad loss this week. Win or lose against the 22nd-ranked Bulldogs, the Musketeers should hear their name called on Sunday.
IN THE MIX
Purdue (20-11, RPI: 61, SOS: 66): If someone told you six weeks ago that the Boilermakers would be in a better spot than both Indiana and Illinois heading into the Big Ten Tournament, you would have thought that person was crazy. That’s exactly where we are though, as Purdue appears to have done enough to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament. The Boilermakers are 4-5 against the top 50, including wins over Iowa, Ohio State and N.C. State. They also swept the Hoosiers, split with the Illini and won nine games against the top 100. Purdue earned a double bye in the conference tournament, setting up a likely quarterfinal game against Iowa. A win there would lock the Boilers in, but they should be dancing for the first time since 2012.
Indiana (19-12, RPI: 53, SOS: 35): Halfway through the Big Ten season, the Hoosiers appeared to be an obvious tournament team, as well as a challenger for Maryland as the conference’s second-best club. They lost eight of their final 12 games, however, and haven’t beaten an at-large team since the end of January. Still, we have them as one of the Last Four In, thanks to wins over SMU, Butler, Maryland and Ohio State. There has been a lot of debate about Indiana in the last few weeks, but a win over Northwestern on Thursday should secure an invite. But the Hoosiers simply can't afford to lose that game.
Illinois (19-12, RPI: 56, SOS: 57): When the Illini’s schedule stepped up in weight class over the final three weeks of the season, they just couldn’t hang. They went 2-4 in their last six games, losing to Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue, while beating Northwestern and Nebraska. They’re now one of our First Four Out, and the only way they can reverse that is by winning at least two games in the conference tournament. That would mean pulling off a huge upset over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals.
Locks: San Diego State
IN THE MIX
Colorado State (26-5, RPI: 27, SOS: 121): While the Rams have been in the field for every edition of our Bracket Watch this season, they can’t breathe easy just yet. They have just two top-50 wins on the year, one fewer than their number of sub-100 losses. They’ll definitely get in as long as they can avoid a bad loss in the MWC tourney, but we can’t consider them a lock until they clear that hurdle. A win over Fresno State on Thursday would likely do that.
Boise State (24-7, RPI: 36, SOS: 111): The Broncos earned a share of the regular season MWC championship with San Diego State, and their sweep of the Aztecs granted them the top seed in the conference tournament. They have three top-50 wins, including a road upset of then-No. 24 San Diego State on Feb, 28. In all likelihood, they’re going to be in the field when it is announced on Sunday. Wyoming looms as a dangerous challenge in the semifinals (the Cowboys beat the Broncos in their only meeting this season), but Boise State has the look of a tournament team.
IN THE MIX
Oregon (23-8, RPI: 30, SOS: 62): After a Valentine’s Day loss to UCLA, Oregon’s season was on life support. But the Ducks went on to win their last five games, setting themselves up to make the NCAAs almost regardless of what they do in the conference tourney. Their Feb. 22 win over then-No. 9 Utah put themselves back in the discussion, and they closed the regular season with three straight road wins, including a victory at Stanford on March 1. All the Ducks have to do is win their first game in the Pac-12 tourney, against the winner of Oregon State and Colorado, and they’ll be in the field of 68.
UCLA (19-12, RPI: 51, SOS: 34): The Bruins and Ducks actually have pretty similar resumes. The major difference is Oregon has eight top-100 wins to UCLA’s four, and those are the types of wins that matter when you’re firmly on the bubble. The Bruins may have put themselves in a position where they’ll have to upset Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinals to earn an at-large bid. We currently have them as one of the First Four Out of the field and wouldn’t move them in unless they beat the Wildcats, or a whole slew of bubble teams suffer bad losses in their respective conference tournaments.
Stanford (18-12, RPI: 65, SOS: 68): How the seemingly mighty have fallen. Stanford was widely seen as the third-best team in the Pac-12, but that all changed during a three-week stretch in which it lost to Washington State, UCLA and Colorado at midseason. Losing at home to Oregon and at Arizona State preceding a blowout loss against Arizona to close the regular season certainly didn’t help the Cardinal's case, either. Stanford heads into the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 6 seed and needs to make a run to the conference championship game, beating Utah and Oregon along the way, just to get on the committee’s radar. Don’t expect that to happen.
IN THE MIX
Georgia (20-10, RPI: 37, SOS: 27): After finishing third in the SEC, the Bulldogs really should be safe, but their resume isn't unassailable, and a bad loss could have them sweating on Selection Sunday. They have just two top-50 wins, and both of those were against Mississippi. They’re 9-8 against the top 100, and have two sub-100 losses. They don’t play in the conference tournament until Friday and are likely to get a third meeting with the Rebels in that game. One win locks them into an at-large bid, but they may already be safe enough that they could survive a loss. They do not want to find out the answer to that question, however.
Mississippi (20-11, RPI: 44, SOS: 43): The Rebels are the rare team that did all of its important damage away from home. They beat both Arkansas and Oregon on the road and knocked off Cincinnati on a neutral court. With that on their resume, why are they just one of our Last Four In the dance? Well, they haven’t defeated an at-large quality team since that win against Arkansas in mid-January. They also lost at home to Vanderbilt, TCU, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern, giving them as many sub-100 losses as top-50 wins. Their first game of the SEC tournament will be against the winner of South Carolina and Missouri. If they lose there, they'll be nervous on Selection Sunday.
Texas A&M (20-10, RPI: 46, SOS: 73): The Aggies keep on gaining and losing a pair of top-50 wins, depending on the movements of LSU in the rankings. Whether or not those are top-50 wins at the end of this week won’t really matter, however. If those are still A&M's only wins against potential at-large teams, it won’t get an invite to the tournament. The Aggies have done well to avoid any sub-100 losses this year, but they still need to prove they can beat someone better than them to get into the dance. They absolutely have to beat the winner of Mississippi State and Auburn on Thursday. A win there would set up another game against LSU, which would be another must-win for the Aggies. If they make it to the SEC semis, we'll have a better sense of their tournament worthiness.
LSU (22-9, RPI: 55, SOS: 83): The Tigers may have a worse RPI than—as well as two losses two—Texas A&M, but their resume remains superior. LSU owns five top-50 wins, including road victories over West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi. What’s more, it has an impressive 12-5 record against the top 100. With all that in their favor, the Tigers should be safe heading into the conference tournament, where they have a double-bye. Not so safe that they wouldn’t be nervous if they lose their first game of the tourney—that will come against the winner of the Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State or Auburn game—but it would take a lot to knock them out of the field at this point.
Locks: Gonzaga (West Coast), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Wichita State (Missouri Valley)
IN THE MIX
BYU (West Coast, 24-8, RPI: 40, SOS: 78): The Cougars head into their WCC semifinal matchup with Portland firmly on the bubble. The real question here is can the Cougars win this game, lose to Gonzaga in the finals and still get an at-large bid? It’s awfully hard to find a reason to say yes, other than the fact that BYU is an incredibly fun team to watch. The bottom line is that the Cougars' regular season win at Gonzaga is their only top-50 victory and just one of four they had all year against the top 100. Meanwhile, they lost to San Diego and were swept by Pepperdine. A win over Portland, of course, doesn’t do anything to support their case for an at-large bid. It continues to feel like BYU needs to win the conference tournament to get a spot in the field of 68.