It’s the second week of January, and every team in the country now has faced a few conference tests. What better time than now to start monitoring the NCAA tournament bubble. Here in the Bubble Watch, our mission is simple: Handicap the teams likely to earn the final few at-large spots in the field of 68, slowly trimming the candidates from both sides. As teams solidify their résumés, they’ll become tournament locks. As squads on the other side of that spectrum begin to lose one too many games, they’ll fall off our radar and into the NIT, or worse. By time March 1 rolls around, only the true bubble teams will remain.
At this stage of the season, we’ll simply set the scene with a 30,000-foot view of the college basketball landscape. We’re still too far away from the postseason to call any team a lock, but it’s hard to imagine a Kansas or Michigan State ending up on the bubble. We’ll do what we can to be as inclusive as possible, without bogging you down with too many teams, or adding anyone who is obviously in or out, as the case may be. As it gets closer to the tournament, we’ll also add teams from smaller conferences that may be good enough to earn at-large bids (looking at you Little Rock, Monmouth and Valparaiso). Until then, however, we’ll keep it focused on the conferences sure to send at least a few teams dancing.
With that bit of legalese out of the way, let’s get to the bubble.
It’s going to be weird all season long having a team at or near the top of its conference that is ineligible for postseason play. Once we get past SMU, though, we find a handful of teams in the American that could go dancing. Houston, Connecticut and Cincinnati seem most likely, but it’s hard to imagine this conference getting more than four or five teams—and even that could take a surprise conference tournament champion.
Houston is 3–0 in the conference and 13–2 overall, with road wins over Temple and South Florida. This is a huge week for the Cougars, with games at Cincinnati and against Connecticut. Even a split would look good when the committee really starts to consider résumés in about a month.
Cincinnati nearly knocked off SMU on the road last week, which would have been a signature win for a team still searching for one. The Bearcats also lost to Butler and Iowa State by two points apiece, so it’s clear they can play with tournament-caliber teams. Now they need to get over the hump against a few.
Connecticut suffered a home loss to Temple last week, but wins over Michigan, Ohio State and Texas, as well as close losses to Gonzaga and Maryland, suggest this will be a team that ultimately makes it safely into the field of 68. The Huskies hit the road for potentially résumé-building games with Tulsa and Houston this week. It’s worth noting that Cincinnati (No. 35) and Connecticut (No. 37) are the only top-40 kenpom.com teams in the AAC eligible for the tournament. (SMU is ranked No. 15.)
The next tier of teams in the conference includes Temple, Tulsa and Memphis, all of which are on the bubble radar because it’s January and most teams are at least showing up as faint blips at worst. If Selection Sunday were this week, though, none would be in consideration.
In the past few seasons, VCU has made this conference something in between a power league and a mid-major, but that run of success may cease this season. The Rams are still atop the league, both in the standings and on kenpom.com rating, but they are just 39th on the analytics site. It would take a disaster for this to be a one-bid conference, but it might not get more than three teams in the dance.
George Washington owns the A-10's best win, a 73–68 triumph over Virginia in mid-November. That’s going to be a key victory all season for the Colonials. Of course, they also lost to DePaul and Saint Louis, so that should tell you how things are going for the A-10 as a whole.
Dayton also has a nice nonconference victory, beating Vanderbilt in Nashville in early December. That’s the sort of résumé-building win that can help the committee look the other way when it sees that the Flyers lost at La Salle in their third conference game of the season. Dayton has a big week ahead with home games against Davidson and George Washington.
Phil Martelli’s Saint Joseph’s Hawks were just 13-18 last year, but they could get back into the tournament this season. They’ve mostly taken care of business, with their three losses coming to Florida, Villanova and VCU, the last of which was by just three points. They can’t afford too many missteps in a conference that isn’t going to grant them too many chances to get signature victories.
St. Joe's best win of the season came against a Rhode Island team that should be able to at least keep itself on the bubble for much of the season. Whether or not it gets over the hump will be determined later in the season. The Rams don’t play Dayton or VCU until the middle of February.
It’s just the middle of January, so no one is a stone-cold lock just yet, but it would take a calamitous decline for North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Louisville, Miami and Pittsburgh to end up outside the field of 68. Unless such a decline begins, we’ll ignore those teams in this space.
The next few tiers, however, will be interesting. The first includes Notre Dame and Florida State, a couple of teams off to rough starts in conference. That will happen in the ACC. The Fighting Irish are 1–2, with the losses coming at Virginia and to Pitt. The Seminoles, meanwhile, are 0–3, with understandable losses against the Tar Heels and Hurricanes and the other to a surprising Clemson team. After losing to North Carolina on Dec. 30, the Tigers have ripped off wins over Florida State, Syracuse and Louisville, putting themselves comfortably on the tournament radar. This is the ACC, however, so there’s no rest for them, at least not until February. Their next three games are against Duke (Wednesday), Miami (Saturday) and at Virginia (Jan. 19); and then after that they have a showdown with Pitt and a return date with Florida State. In other words, their candidacy will look a lot different, in one way or another, one month from now.
The Seminoles are in a similar situation, with three of their next four games against Virginia, Louisville and Pitt. The same can’t be said for the Irish. They do get Duke in Durham this weekend, but they’re otherwise in one of the softest parts of their schedule. If they have more than three conference losses heading into February, they’ll be in a bad spot.
The next group of teams includes Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Syracuse, with North Carolina State lurking, as well. The Yellow Jackets just beat Virginia last weekend, proving that they can play with the big boys. Wake owns wins over Indiana, UCLA and LSU, with their conference losses coming against Louisville and Duke. The Orange are off to a nightmarish 0–4 start in conference, but they did beat Connecticut and Texas A&M on neutral floors in November. The Wolfpack are the lone team in the group without a meaningful win, and they also have losses to Virginia Tech and William & Mary.
Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa State and West Virginia are getting the calamity-only treatment in the Big 12. We’ll have plenty of good things to say about those four all season, but this just isn’t the right venue. It’s hard to imagine Kansas State, Oklahoma State or TCU realistically being in the mix at any point this season. That leaves Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech, three of the conference’s four teams in the Lone Star State, as likely bubble teams. All made it in our initial Bracket Watch of the season, with varying degrees of certitude. The most important thing for these three is to avoid bad losses. It’s going to be tough for any of them to beat Kansas or Oklahoma, home or away. That means the only opportunity for résumé-building wins might come against the Cyclones and Mountaineers, as well as each other, though it remains to be seen how much, if at all, wins within the tier will move the needle.
Texas and Baylor own signature victories already, the former knocking off North Carolina last month and the latter beating Iowa State on the road last weekend. The Red Raiders don’t have any bad losses, but their best win is over either Little Rock or Texas, depending on how you view those two teams. All three of these squads will get a combined eight games against the conference’s heavy hitters. Will, say, a 3–5 record in those contests do the trick? It might, so long as there aren’t any ugly losses to consider, as well. Texas is the only one of the three to get one of those big opportunities this week, hosting Iowa State on Tuesday. Baylor and Texas Tech meet in Lubbock on Saturday.
Welcome to the calamity-only club, Villanova, Xavier and Providence. Outside of doormats DePaul and St. John’s, the rest of the conference could end up going dancing, though attrition will likely prevent all eight from making it.
Let’s start with Butler, likely the best of the rest. The Bulldogs already have three conference losses, though those came to the three teams mentioned in the first sentence above. That could be viewed two ways. The optimistic view is that none of the losses is one to be ashamed of, especially considering that they kept it close with both the Wildcats and Friars. The pessimistic view is that Butler is this year’s good bad team, the one that wins every game it should, but can’t punch above its weight. There’s likely some truth to both views, with their win over Purdue on a neutral floor showing what they can do when everything clicks. Of course, they lost their only other game to a likely tournament team, falling against Miami in November. At some point, the Bulldogs are going to have to pick up a few more wins against good teams to show the committee they are worthy of inclusion. They'll get a chance to do so on Jan. 19 at Providence.
The next two in the conference pecking order are Seton Hall and Marquette, each of which has one good win to its name. The Pirates took down Wichita State one month ago and started conference play with two wins (including one over the Golden Eagles), but have lost their last two, to Villanova and Creighton, respectively. Marquette, meanwhile, won at Providence on Jan. 5 for its first conference win of the season. The Golden Eagles' next best win of the season was at Wisconsin, but that doesn’t mean this year what it has in previous seasons. This is a huge week for Steve Wojciechowski’s bunch with Villanova (Wednesday) and Xavier (Saturday) on tap. Seton Hall is off until the weekend, but its next three games are as tough as they come in this conference. The Pirates visit Providence and Xavier in the next two weekends, with a home date against Villanova in-between.
Creighton and Georgetown are both off to 3–1 starts in conference play, though the six combined wins may all end up being against teams that don’t make the tournament. Both also have ugly losses to their name, too. The Bluejays fell at Loyola-Chicago (No. 228 in kenpom.com ratings), while the Hoyas lost to Radford (No. 208) and UNC-Asheville (No. 141), both at home. In other words, those teams have heavy lifting to do over the next two months.
The Big Ten could end up having one of its worst years in recent memory, as far as top-to-bottom strength is concerned, but the teams carrying the conference banner are very good. Michigan State and Maryland could end up as No. 1 seeds (both were there in our debut Bracket Watch), while Iowa and Purdue would need disaster to strike to miss the dance.
Beyond those four, however, this conference might only send another two teams to the field of 68. We can immediately write off Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers. Wisconsin is way down this season after going to the Final Four the last two years and will need to start winning in a hurry to avoid the NIT.
Indiana is likely in the best position of the remaining teams. The high-scoring Hoosiers boast four players—guards Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., forward Troy Williams (above) and center Thomas Bryant—who average in double figures, they are 14–3 overall and they should be able to win 12 games in this conference. Right now, however, they have two things working against them, and neither is the fact that Blackmon will miss the rest of the season with a right knee injury. First, their best win is over Notre Dame, and the Irish aren’t a lock for the tournament. Second, they have losses to Wake Forest and UNLV, two other teams that figure to be on the bubble at best. The good news for Indiana is that it is in the softest part of its Big Ten schedule and could exit January still unscathed in league play.
Next up is Michigan, which should be back in the tournament after falling short last season. The Wolverines have had a season akin to Butler's. All four of their losses are against top-40 kenpom.com teams (Connecticut, Purdue, SMU and Xavier), and they’ve dealt with star swingman Caris LeVert’s injury issues. Their best win was on a neutral floor against Texas, which was one of the last four teams in our initial Bracket Watch. At this early stage of conference play, Michigan is plenty good enough to be a tournament team, but it hasn't proved yet that it can beat a team that will assuredly go dancing, especially considering that all of the Wolverines' losses have come by at least 14 points. That makes this week’s slate—vs. Maryland on Tuesday and at Iowa on Sunday—their most important of the season.
Northwestern has its best chance in years to finally reach its first NCAA tournament, with a 14–3 (2–2 in Big Ten play) record. The Wildcats’ issue is going to be signature wins. Not one of their 14 victories thus far will impress the committee in the slightest. They need to get at least one win against Maryland, Michigan State, Iowa or Purdue to get an invite. They have one game remaining with all four, with all but the meeting with the Spartans coming on the road.
Finally, Ohio State already appears to be a long shot, with losses to UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Memphis on its résumé. However, the Buckeyes do boast a neutral-court win over Kentucky. If they can add another big win, avoid any terrible losses and finish .500 in the conference, they could sneak into the dance.
Welcome back, Pac-12. The conference finally has some quality depth, as it should send at least six teams to the tournament, with as many as eight or nine looking like possibilities. Arizona appeared to be the best team in the league when the season began, but the Wildcats lost consecutive games in Los Angeles last week, falling first to UCLA on a Bryce Alford buzzer-beater, and then going down to USC in four overtimes (they also lost emerging star Allonzo Trier for 4–6 weeks with a broken hand in the process). Arizona is almost certainly still the best team in the league, but that’s not the lock it seemed to be just one week ago.
Perhaps it’s the Trojans, which swept the state of Arizona last week and beat Wichita State and mid-major power Monmouth during the nonconference portion of its schedule. Of course, USC also lost to Washington and its win against the Wildcats is its only one so far over a team that will definitely be in the tournament.
Oregon began its league slate with a loss at Oregon State but has rebounded to beat California and Stanford. In nonconference play the Ducks beat Valparaiso and UC-Irvine, both of which could be tournament teams, and knocked off Baylor.
California started Pac-12 play right with wins over Colorado and Utah, but then faltered last week by losing at Oregon and Oregon State. The Golden Bears’ best win of the season to date, however, came more than a month ago against Saint Mary’s, which could finally be poised to knock off Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.
Speaking of Utah, it has the conference’s best win, a neutral-court victory over Duke at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19. The Utes, though, lost their first two conference games, to Stanford and Cal, and got destroyed by Miami in November.
UCLA has three good wins, beating Arizona, Kentucky and Gonzaga. But the Bruins also lost to Wake Forest, Washington and Washington State.
Oregon State doesn’t have a terrible loss, though falling to Stanford at home isn’t great. The Beavers also don’t have a marquee win, with their best victories coming in conference over Oregon and Cal, both in Corvallis.
Arizona State really hurt itself coming out of the gate in conference play with losses to Arizona, USC and UCLA. After a date at Cal next week, the Sun Devils may not get a chance to really impress the committee until they host USC and UCLA in mid-February.
Washington seemed to be an also-ran at the start of conference play, but it took care of both USC and UCLA at home before surviving Washington State on the road in overtime.
Colorado beat BYU and played undefeated SMU as tough as anyone has all year, and the Buffaloes don't yet have a bad loss.
What does all this mean? The Pac-12 could be right there with the ACC and Big 12 in terms of how many teams it sends to the tournament, but it also could be done by the Sweet 16.
It’s entirely possible this is the conference could yield the least amount of bubble drama. There’s a clear hierarchy, with Kentucky at the top, Texas A&M and South Carolina comprising the second tier, and Florida, Vanderbilt and LSU rounding out the teams in play right now. It’s entirely possible that a team or two in the group of Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi or Tennessee surprises us and becomes worthy of an at-large berth, but we’re going to need to see more before we devote too much time to them in the Bubble Watch.
It also may not be long before we’re talking about the Aggies and Gamecocks as teams that don’t need much mention in this column. We’ll start with the latter, which remains undefeated heading into a week where they play lightweights Alabama and Missouri. All any team can do is beat the opponent in front of them, and South Carolina has done that, ripping off a 15-0 start. The Gamecocks, however, have just one win over a top-30 kenpom.com team (No. 28 Vanderbilt) and only four more in the top 100, with none of those others inside the top 50. That means it is imperative for them to take care of business against the dregs of the conference.
The Aggies, on the other hand, beat Baylor, Gonzaga and Texas in nonconference play. Texas A&M will get a chance to build its résumé over the next 10 days, with games against Florida (Tuesday), Georgia (Saturday) and LSU (Jan. 19).
The next three teams in the conference might be the only true bubble teams it has to offer. We can say this for Florida: It challenged itself during November and December. Unfortunately, it lost every game that would have opened the committee's eyes. The Gators fell to Florida State, Miami, Michigan State and Purdue, with its best nonconference wins coming over Richmond and Saint Joseph’s. That makes Tuesday’s meeting with A&M huge for both teams.
The Commodores entered this season with high expectations, and those could still be driving the perception of a team that has, quite frankly, disappointed. They don’t necessarily have a bad loss among their seven, but the best of their eight wins is over either Stony Brook or Wake Forest. Vanderbilt played well in most of its losses to Arkansas, Baylor, Dayton, Kansas, LSU, Purdue and South Carolina, but playing those teams well isn’t the same as beating them. The Commodores are going to have to knock off Kentucky, Texas A&M or South Carolina to get any real notice.
Finally, the Tigers lost five nonconference games, including one to the College of Charleston. They immediately turned it around when conference play began, beating Vanderbilt in Nashville and Kentucky at home. If you’re a college basketball fan, that’s a good thing (unless, of course, you root for one of those two teams). We should all want to see Ben Simmons play in the NCAA tournament.