Bubble Watch: Louisville’s ban reshapes picture
Four weeks from Tuesday, the ACC will kick off its conference tournament, with the Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big 10, Pac-12 and SEC starting theirs the following day. There are just four weeks left in the college basketball regular season, meaning bubble teams have no more than eight games to impress the committee before moving on to their conference tournaments. As such, we’ll kick off the remaining installments of the Bubble Watch with a brief look at the biggest games on the bubble for the upcoming week. You never know which win might be the one that ultimately puts a team over the top and into the field of 68.
Butler (16–7) at Seton Hall (17–6)
Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
The Bulldogs are desperate for a win against a tournament-caliber team, and it would be even better if that win came on the road. They’ll get just such a chance against a Seton Hall squad that has won four straight games and owns victories over Providence and Wichita State.
Washington (15–8) at Utah (17–7)
Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
The Pac-12 could send seven or eight teams to the tournament, and both of these teams are potential candidates. Utah lost twice last week (at Oregon and Oregon State), but it already beat the Huskies in overtime in Seattle at the end of January. Washington, meanwhile, has just two wins against teams in the field of this week’s Bracket Watch, and both of those were at home.
Florida State (16–7) at Syracuse (16–8)
Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
These teams enter Thursday’s game both playing their best basketball of the season. The Seminoles have won four straight and six of eight, with victories over Virginia and Clemson in that stretch. The Orange look like a different team with Jim Boeheim back on the sidelines, winning three straight and six of eight since he returned from his suspension, including triumphs over Duke and Notre Dame.
Georgetown (14–11) at Providence (18–6)
Saturday, noon, Fox
The Hoyas’ tournament hopes took a nosedive during the last 10 days, with losses to Providence, Butler and Seton Hall. They got back on the winning track against St. John’s Monday, but handing the Red Storm their 15th straight loss doesn’t do anything for Georgetown's tournament hopes. A win at Providence, however, would be a completely different story. Though ranked No. 20 in the AP poll, the Friars could use this win, too, after losses to DePaul and Villanova last week. Before facing the Hoyas, however, Providence will visit Milwaukee to take on Marquette.
Oregon State (14–8) at California (15–8)
Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The Beavers are coming off a great week during which they beat Utah and Colorado at home. They need to prove to the committee that they can succeed away from home, however, and they get that chance on Saturday against a California squad that is just clinging to its spot in the field of 68.
All things considered, it was a pretty good week for this conference, which is in danger of getting just one team in the field. This week’s Bracket Watch included two, however, starting with Cincinnati (17–7, 7–4). The Bearcats did suffer their first loss since the middle of January over the weekend, falling at Memphis last Saturday, but they started the week with an easy win over South Florida. That’s a net negative for the Bearcats, who already have three losses combined to Temple and Memphis, and also lost a non-conference home game to Butler, which is just barely on the ride side of the bubble. Cincinnati needs a clean week against UCF and East Carolina.
Connecticut (17–6, 7–3) also got into the field this week after cruising to easy wins over Memphis and East Carolina. Like the Bearcats, the Huskies can’t really afford many more losses either, especially considering the caliber of teams in the American this season. The committee will excuse a home loss to SMU or a road loss to Cincinnati. It will not look favorably on a loss to Temple or Tulsa this week, both of which have already beaten UConn.
Speaking of Temple (14–8, 8–3) and Tulsa (15–8, 7–4), both have eight losses heading into the second week of February, so the margin for error is even thinner than it is for Cincinnati and Connecticut. The Owls have a great win over SMU that is, for the time being, keeping them on the at-large radar. Unfortunately for them, they’ve also lost to Houston, Memphis and East Carolina, as well as to fellow bubble teams Wisconsin, Saint Joseph’s, Butler and Utah. Just one of Temple's eight losses was against a safe tournament team. The Owls welcome Connecticut to Philadelphia on Thursday, getting one of their two remaining opportunities in the regular season to really move the needle. That second one will come against Villanova, now the nation's No. 1 ranked team, on Feb. 17.
The Golden Eagles don't have a win that can measure up to Temple’s victory over SMU. Their at-large candidacy will be made or broken over the next two weeks, with matchups against SMU, Connecticut and Cincinnati on the schedule.
Dayton (19–3, 9–1) is slowly but surely approaching Calamity Only Club status, whereby only a disaster could keep them out of the field. The Flyers are now 9–1 in conference after easy wins over La Salle and George Mason last week. They do have a couple of unsightly losses, most notably to La Salle, but there’s so much more good here than bad. They couldn’t have known their November win over Iowa would end up being the marquee victory it has become, but you can count them as the biggest fans of the Hawkeyes outside of Iowa City. They should have another relatively quiet week with games against Duquesne and Rhode Island.
Next up in the conference power rankings is VCU (17–6, 9–1), which suffered its first loss in the A-10 last week. Despite that home loss to George Washington, the Rams are in a good position with eight games remaining in the regular season. If they go 6–2 the rest of the way, with those two losses coming on the road against George Washington and Dayton (March 5), the Rams would be pretty safe heading into the conference tournament.
The A-10 claimed two of the last four spots in our field of 68 this week. One of those went to Saint Joseph’s (19–4, 8–2), which started its week by losing to St. Bonaventure but bounced back with a 22-point win at Fordham. The loss to the Bonnies was the Hawks’ first to a team outside the tournament picture, and while that was enough to rattle their standing, it wasn’t quite enough to put them on the wrong side of the bubble. They are, however, on notice. They’ll visit George Washington on Wednesday and then host La Salle on Saturday.
George Washington (18–5, 7-3) got back into the field of 68 thanks to a win over VCU in Richmond over the weekend. That victory goes a long way toward counteracting losses to Saint Louis, DePaul and Richmond. The Colonials could still slip out of the field with an unfavorable week. After hosting the Hawks on Wednesday, they take a trip north to meet St. Bonaventure (15–6, 7–3) over the weekend.
The Bonnies are in the tournament discussion after upending Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia last week. They’ll still need to add a few more good wins in the conference to really have a shot at an at-large bid, but they are now on the radar. The next two weekends could determine their tourney fate. They host the Colonials this weekend and visit Dayton on Feb. 20.
Locks: Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
The news of Louisville’s self-imposed postseason ban rocked the ACC, as well as the college basketball world at large. Still, this conference has the best chance to lead the country in tournament berths. Beyond the three locks, we have five more ACC teams in this week’s Bracket Watch, beginning with Notre Dame (17–7, 8–4). The Irish bounced back from their tough loss at Miami by dealing then-No. 2 North Carolina its second straight defeat last Saturday. That’s a major net positive for the Fighting Irish, who climbed up to a No. 6 seed in the Bracket Watch. They kicked off this week with an impressive 89–83 win at Clemson and will host Louisville on Saturday.
Duke (18–6, 7–4) did exactly what it needed to do last week, beating Georgia Tech and North Carolina State to get back on the right side of the ledger. Then they scored their best win of the season on Monday, beating Louisville by seven at home. The Cardinals may not be eligible for the tournament, but they’ll still affect the field of 68, in this case by providing Duke with a signature win.
We here at SI.com seem to be a bit higher than most on Clemson (14–10, 7–5), which checked in as a No. 9 seed in this week’s Bracket Watch. In our eyes, the Tigers are still riding high thanks to earlier wins over Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami. Sure, there’s some bad losses on the résumé, including one to Virginia Tech last weekend, but those wins are going to give the Tigers plenty of leash on Selection Sunday. After Monday’s loss to Notre Dame, they have just one game left against the conference’s likely tournament teams. So long as they don’t suffer a setback in their five combined games remaining against bottom-dwellers Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, they should be relatively safe.
Pittsburgh (17–5, 6–4) looked like one of the best teams in the ACC at the beginning of league play, but the Panthers have dropped four of their last eight games. They lost their only game last week, never really giving Virginia much of a challenge in a 64-50 home defeat. They also have a brutal week ahead, with trips to Miami and North Carolina on the docket. A couple of losses would make Pitt 6–6 in conference with three solid wins (Syracuse, Notre Dame, Florida State), but nothing truly noteworthy.
Florida State (16–7, 6–5) has won four straight games, though its best win in that stretch came against Clemson. The schedule gets a bit tougher this week when the Seminoles travel to Syracuse on Thursday and then host Miami on Sunday.
Finally, Syracuse (16–8, 6–5) won its only game last week, though it needed overtime to get past Virginia Tech at home. Consider that a potential crisis avoided for the Orange. Like Clemson, the rest of their schedule is relatively light, considering the conference in which they play. After hosting Florida State Thursday, they’ll visit Boston College over the weekend. They’re trending in the right direction, and will be feeling very good about their at-large chances with a few more wins.
Locks: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia
Texas (16–8, 7–4) had a great week, defeating Baylor in Waco and protecting its home court against Texas Tech. The Longhorns were minutes away from getting one of the best wins of the entire season by any team on Monday, but ultimately fell victim to a last-second three-pointer by Buddy Hield, who gave Oklahoma a 63-60 win. Texas would have preferred the victory of course, but leading one of the best teams in the country on the road for 35 minutes matters too in proving they belong in the NCAAs.
Baylor (17–6, 6–4), meanwhile, had a terrible week, losing at home to Texas and at West Virginia. The Bears are still in fine shape, but it’s worth noting that, of their six conference wins, just one was against a team in our field of 68. The Bears have no bad losses, but they need to take down Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma or West Virginia on the second go-round. They won't get a chance to do that this week, however. Instead, they hit the road to take on Kansas State on Wednesday, and then return home to host Texas Tech on Saturday.
Speaking of Kansas State (14–9, 3–7), it got a signature win by knocking off then-No. 1 Oklahoma in Manhattan last Saturday. That’s the kind of win that can put a team over the top if it were close to the field, but the Wildcats are not close. To be fair, all nine of their losses are to teams that are seeded fifth or better in this week’s Bracket Watch. Still, you can’t lose your way into the tournament. K-State still harbors legitimate tourney hopes, but it needs to go at least 2–2 in upcoming matchups with Baylor, Kansas, Texas and Iowa State, while sweeping its four remaining games against Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech. That might not even do the trick, but it would at least make the Wildcats a topic of discussion for the committee leading up to Selection Sunday.
Locks: Providence, Villanova, Xavier
The Wildcats and Musketeers could both be No. 1 seeds, but this conference is wide open once you move beyond those two. Let’s kick things off here with Providence, which will still be a tournament team but had a terrible week that called into question just how dangerous it could be in March. The Friars lost to DePaul at the start of last week, and then failed to show up with Villanova paying a visit to Rhode Island on Saturday. The Friars are now just a game over .500 in conference play, and they may not be the team we thought they could be after they beat Villanova on the road at the end of January. They’re just 4–4 against teams in this week’s Bracket Watch, and two of those wins were over Butler, which is hurtling toward the NIT. Still, Providence would need to suffer two or three really bad losses to be in any danger on Selection Sunday.
Seton Hall (17–6, 7–4) continued taking care of business last week, winning home games against Marquette and Georgetown. That’s not going to get anyone too excited, but those are the sort of nothing-to-see-here wins that are important to get when you’re on the bubble. The Pirates have another one of those in their only game this week, hosting Butler (16–7, 5–6) on Wednesday.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are in serious trouble. Yes, they picked up comfortable victories over Georgetown and St. John’s last week, but they’re still just 2–5 against teams in our field of 68 and also have a bad loss to Marquette. This is a huge week for them, with the aforementioned trip to Seton Hall on Wednesday followed by a home date with Xavier on Saturday. A win at Seton Hall would be an impressive showing away from home, while a triumph over Xavier anywhere would qualify as a signature win for a team in desperate need of one. Butler should, and likely would, be happy with a split this week.
Georgetown (14–11, 7–5) finally got back in the win column Monday against St. John’s after losing three straight games and will need a dramatic turnaround to really enter the tournament picture. The Hoyas are 2–8 against teams that made the tournament in this week’s Bracket Watch and have ugly losses to Radford and UNC-Asheville on the résumé. (To be fair, UNC-Asheville is the favorite in the Big South Conference.) Georgetown could, however, change the trajectory of its season by winning at Providence on Saturday.
Creighton (15–9, 6–5) got blown out by Villanova last week, but turned around and beat DePaul by 22 points on Saturday. They remain on the fringes of the tournament discussion, one big win or two away from really getting involved. Their standing in the committee’s eyes will be a whole lot different if they’re able to beat Xavier at home on Tuesday.
Locks: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue
It was a tough week for the two primary bubble teams in the Big Ten. Indiana (19–5, 9–2) actually got off to a great start, beating Michigan by 13 points in Ann Arbor and seemingly asserting itself as the fifth lock in the conference behind Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State and Purdue. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they followed that with a loss at Penn State, which essentially undid all the goodwill built up from the win over the Wolverines. Their still-impressive record means they’re not really in any serious danger of falling into the NIT, but their longshot hopes at a regular season Big Ten title took a serious hit with that loss in Happy Valley. They can restore both those title aspirations and their status as a team to watch by beating Iowa (at home) and Michigan State (on the road) this week.
Michigan (17–7, 7–4) had a worse week than Indiana. After getting embarrassed by the Hoosiers at home, the Wolverines then dropped another home game, this one to Michigan State, by 16 points. Like Indiana, Michigan remains on solid ground with respect to the tournament. Its seven losses were all to teams in our field of 68, with the exception of postseason-ineligible SMU, and it owns victories over Maryland and Texas. Still, the Wolverines had a chance last week to show that they were a team that could make some noise in the NCAAs, not just get there, and they failed miserably.
Wisconsin (14–9, 6–4) is the rare Big Ten bubble team on the upswing. The Badgers have now won five straight games and is one of the first four teams on the outside of the tournament field. They can take a major step toward getting in the field of 68 this week. First, they must handle Nebraska at home on Wednesday. If they do that, they’ll have a chance to play their way into next week’s projected field with a trip to Maryland on Saturday. Wisconsin will be a significant underdog in that game, and a loss there certainly wouldn’t sink its tournament hopes.
USC (18–5, 7–3) and Arizona (19–5, 7–4) won’t have to be included in the Bubble Watch for too much longer, as they’re approaching “lock” status. The Trojans could be very dangerous come tournament time, given their ability to score. They’ve put up at least 80 points in six of their last seven games and have won their last three by an average of 13 points. The Wildcats have also won three straight games after a two-game skid, knocking off Washington State and Washington on the road last week. These two teams will meet each other in Tucson on Saturday, but both should be ticketed for the Big Dance, regardless of what happens in that game.
Four more teams from the Pac-12 were in our field of 68 this week. Let's start with Utah (17–7, 6–5), which suffered one of the more painful losses of the season last week. The Utes were about to finish off a 69-68 win at Oregon State last Thursday before guard Brandon Taylor committed an unthinkable foul on a half-court prayer from the Beavers' Stephen Thompson Jr. with 0.1 seconds left. That allowed Thompson to hit all three free throws, giving Oregon State a 71-69 victory. Making matters worse, Utah then lost at Oregon on Sunday. The Utes should bounce back from that week, but it's hard not to point out that 7–4 in conference, with an additional road win, would look a whole lot better than 6–5. They host the Washington schools this week.
Next up is Colorado (17–7, 6–5) , which was also swept by the Oregon teams last week. The Buffaloes have a nice, shiny victory over Oregon that is going to stand out to the committee. They are by no means a lock, but a .500 record the rest of the way should be good enough to get them into the field.
California (15–8, 5–5) had just one game last week, taking care of Stanford with a 76–61 win at home. The Golden Bears have a real chance to make some waves this week, with the Oregon schools paying a visit to Berkeley. A win over the Beavers on Saturday would be nice, but it’s Thursday’s game against the Ducks that could really pay dividends for the home team.
Washington (15–8, 7–4) was the last team from this conference to earn an at-large bid in this week’s Bracket Watch and was also one of the last four teams in our hypothetical field. The Huskies had a solid week, beating Arizona State and then going right down to the wire with Arizona before losing by five. While their conference record looks impressive, just two of those wins are over teams in our field of 68. If that number hasn't improved a month from now, they won’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday. They have a chance to add to that, and do so on the road, with trips to Utah and Colorado this week.
This conference has two more teams in the mix for an at-large berth, beginning with Oregon State (14–8, 5–6), which was one of our first four teams out of the field. The Beavers followed that miracle win over Utah by beating Colorado. They now have five wins over tournament teams in the conference, with Oregon and USC among them. If Oregon State can maintain this trajectory, it will be going dancing in March.
UCLA (13–10, 4–6) is on the opposite path, having now lost four of its last six games. The Bruins also have a particularly unsightly loss to Wake Forest on their résumé. Realistically, they’re going to need to win six more games in conference to feel good on Selection Sunday, and that likely has to start on Friday at Arizona. Despite wins over Kentucky and Arizona, Bruins fans should be steeling themselves for a trip to the NIT.
Locks: Texas A&M
The past several days have been significant for LSU (15–8, 8–2). First, the Tigers found a way to add to their résumé with a loss, going all the way down to the final buzzer before dropping a 77-75 decision to Oklahoma on Jan. 30. Then, they cruised to wins over Auburn and Mississippi State to move to 8–2 in the SEC. At the same time, Texas A&M was busy losing twice, moving the Tigers into first place in the conference, and Louisville imposed a postseason ban on itself, opening up an at-large spot in the tournament. All together, that creates an opening for LSU in the field of 68. The Tigers will visit South Carolina on Wednesday and then host the Aggies on Saturday, in what will be its most critical week of the season.
That same South Carolina (20–3, 7–3) squad that will welcome LSU to Columbia this week got its best win of the season when it went to College Station and took down Texas A&M on Saturday. While the Gamecocks' record looked great on paper heading into the weekend, even after a loss to Georgia, it still did not have one great win all season. Before beating Texas A&M, in fact, South Carolina had just one win over a team in our field of 68 (Clemson). Not only did the Gamecocks get a win over a very good team, they got one on the road. They have no time to rest on their laurels, however. They spend this entire week at home, welcoming LSU and then Kentucky (17–6, 7–3).
The Wildcats started the week in inauspicious fashion, surrendering a huge lead to Tennessee last Tuesday and ultimately losing to a likely also-ran in the conference by seven points. It’s to their credit, then, that they bounced right back with an 80–61 win over Florida on Saturday. That sort of uneven play characterizes Kentucky’s season and helps explain what appears to be a Sweet 16 ceiling. At the same time, the Wildcats probably won’t spend too many more weeks in the Bubble Watch.
The same is true for Florida (15–8, 6–4), which beat Arkansas last week before losing in Lexington. In fact, if the Gators win their next three games (Mississippi, Alabama, at Georgia), we will likely be able to take them off the bubble heading into the final 10 days of February.
Speaking of Georgia (13–8, 6–4), it's win over South Carolina got it onto the bubble radar. The Bulldogs don’t have a terrific record, but there’s just one truly bad loss on their résumé. They still have work to do to counteract a misstep at Mississippi back in early January, but they have plenty of time to do so. It all starts with Tuesday’s trip to Kentucky. A win there would really have them headed in the right direction. If they lose that game, however, and then fall to Florida at home next week, they’ll likely be out of the at-large discussion for good.
Vanderbilt (13–10, 5–5) has turned into this season’s best example of inconsistency. First, the Commodores won three straight in the middle of January, then got embarrassed by Kentucky. They followed that by beating Florida, then got embarrassed by Texas. Still, they bounced back from that with their best win of the season, a 77–60 drubbing of Texas A&M, and then lost to lowly Mississippi. A .500 record in the SEC won’t exactly send the committee scrambling to send an at-large invite to Nashville. Vanderbilt’s next three games are against Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State, three terrible teams that should not present any challenges. After that, the Commodores get Georgia, Florida and Kentucky. It’s going to take a 5–1 run over the next three weeks to get Vandy firmly onto the at-large radar.
Mid-major contenders to watch
Wichita State (17–6, 11–1 Missouri Valley) suffered its first conference loss last week, falling to Illinois State by five points on the road. That might not seem like a big deal, and it won’t be if the Shockers take care of business, as they should, in the conference tournament. However, if they’re upset in the MVC tournament, is their résumé strong enough to warrant an at-large bid? Their best win of the season came against Utah. That doubles as their only win against a team in our field of 68. One loss in the regular season should be fine. They might be able to weather two (including the conference tournament). They’d be tempting fate with three.
Saint Mary’s (19–3, 10–2 West Coast) is in a similar spot to Wichita State. How many more times can the Gaels lose in conference and still warrant an at-large spot? The likely answer is maybe once, and that would probably have to be at Gonzaga on Feb. 20. The Gaels, too, have two wins over teams in our field of 68. One of those was against Gonzaga, which is one of our last four teams to qualify. The other was against UC-Irvine, which is a favorite in the Big West, but could easily lose in the conference tournament, especially with a strong Hawaii team tied with it in first place. The Gaels absolutely have to beat Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and Portland in advance of next weekend’s showdown with Gonzaga.
Gonzaga (19–5, 11–2 West Coast) is Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s is Gonzaga. Well, at least in terms of their shared paths to the tournament. We still have both teams in the field, predicting that one will win the conference tournament and the other will get an at-large bid. That probably won’t be realistic if either loses to any other team in the conference. Both have lost to BYU, which could be on the at-large radar if not for terrible losses to Harvard, Portland and Pacific. If the Bulldogs and Gaels split their remaining matchups—an outcome that assumes they meet in the conference tournament championship—and win all their other games, we could be looking at two teams from the WCC in the field of 68.
Monmouth (19–5, 11–2 MAAC) kept rolling last week with wins over Siena and Fairfield. For the uninitiated, it is entirely possible for the Hawks to secure an at-large bid this season. They’ll likely have to win the rest of their regular season games and advance to, at the very least, the MAAC semifinals, to do so. If that happens, but then they get upset in the conference semis or championship, would non-conference wins over Notre Dame, USC, Georgetown and UCLA, plus a potential top-30 RPI, be enough? No power conference bubble team wants to find out the answer to that question.