Bubble Watch: Can Jack Gibbs' return push Davidson into the tournament?
There are still two weeks left in the regular season, and that’s plenty of time for the composition of the tournament field to change a few times before Selection Sunday. The number of realistic contenders for at-large bids, however, is starting to wane. While every team seeded No. 8 or lower in this week’s Bracket Watch could still fall out of the field, there are, perhaps, only about 10 teams outside the field with a realistic shot of making it in. Teams barely on the right side of the bubble have a great chance to solidify their spots throughout the rest of the regular season.
Before we get to the current state of the bubble, let’s check out its five most important games this week.
The Tar Heels, obviously, are safely in, but the Wolfpack could use one more strong win to feel good about their at-large chances. They nearly took care of the Heels in their first meeting, rallying from a nine-point deficit with three minutes left to make it a one-possession game, but they couldn’t quite get over the hump. With four top-50 victories, including wins over Duke and Louisville, the Wolfpack are one of our last four teams in the field right now. A better game from leading scorer Trevor Lacey—he was just 4-for-13 in the first matchup—could make the difference.
The Aggies are also one of our last four teams in, while the Razorbacks graduated to a lock this week. The Aggies don’t yet have a top-50 win this year, but are 6-6 against the top 100 and don’t have any damaging losses. While that’s enough to put them in range of an at-large bid, they’ll probably need to do more to earn an invite without winning the SEC tournament. Tuesday’s game in Fayetteville is their last in the regular season against a top-50 opponent.
Wednesday: Davidson at Rhode Island
Both of these Atlantic 10 teams are outside the current field, with the Wildcats a step or two ahead of the Rams. The two have very similar résumés, though Davidson is ahead thanks to a one-game lead in top-50 record. Rhode Island will have to find a way to slow down Jack Gibbs, who returned from a slight tear in his meniscus last week, if they have any hope of winning this game. A loss wouldn’t be the death knell for either team’s at-large aspirations, but the winner will likely be ahead in the bubble pecking order.
The Illini are just barely on the right side of the bubble after losing to Michigan State at home over the weekend. At this point, they need every win they can get, especially against tournament-bound teams like Iowa. If they can go into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and come out with a win, they’ll have five wins against teams that are in our current field of 68.
Wednesday: Georgia at Mississippi
Arkansas at Kentucky is the main event in the SEC this week, but this is the second big matchup on the undercard. Both the Bulldogs and Rebels are in our latest Bracket Watch, but they’re two teams heading in opposite directions. The Bulldogs were once the third-best SEC team, but recent home losses to Auburn and South Carolina have them in trouble of falling into the NIT. The Rebels, meanwhile, have won eight of their last nine and boast four top-50 wins, two of which came on the road. They’ve already met this year, with Georgia earning a five-point victory in Athens. After missing all of their seven attempts from behind the arc in the first half, the Bulldogs made four in the second, turning a six-point deficit into a lead just five minutes into the half. There’s room for both of these teams in the dance, but the winner of this game will feel a lot better at the end of Wednesday night.
IN THE MIX
SMU (22-5, RPI: 18, SOS: 59): The Mustangs can probably be considered the first lock from the AAC at this point, but we’ll keep them in this section for one more week. They’re closing in on a regular season conference championship, though there’s a chance that won’t be decided until they host Tulsa in the final game of the season. The Mustangs hit the road for games with Memphis and Connecticut this week.
Temple (19-9, RPI: 31, SOS: 44): The Owls had a bad week, dropping games to both SMU and Tulsa on the road. The loss to the Golden Hurricane could really come back to hurt the Owls, depending on how the two teams perform the rest of the season. If they’re going to get an at-large bid, they’ll have to win their final three regular season games (vs. Houston, at East Carolina, vs. Connecticut) and, at the very least, avoid a bad loss in the AAC tournament.
Tulsa (19-7, RPI: 39, SOS: 106): It was a great week for the Golden Hurricane, as they got back in the thick of the bubble discussion with a 16-point win over Temple on Sunday. That gave them a sweep of the Owls and put them within range of an at-large bid. Their next order of business is avoiding a misstep against either Tulane or Memphis this week. If they can do that, their postseason fate could be decided in the final week of the regular season. They host Cincinnati on March 4, and then travel to Dallas for a huge matchup with SMU on March 8.
Cincinnati (18-9, RPI: 49, SOS: 55): The Bearcats got back in the win column over the weekend after three straight losses, and would likely need to suffer a complete collapse to fall out of the field of 68. Despite a few unsightly losses, three of their five top-50 wins came against teams that are ranked inside the top 20 in RPI. They probably won’t be better than a 7-seed, and even that could be a stretch, but they will hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
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Dayton (20-6, RPI: 35, SOS: 118): The Flyers had been coasting along as a prototypical 8-seed for most of January and February. They were comfortably on the safe side of the bubble, but weren’t exactly shooting up the bracket. But their loss to Duquesne could be devastating. Now they have a sub-200 loss to go against just four top-50 wins. They’re still a favorite to make the field of 68, but one more bad loss could have them in jeopardy of falling into the NIT. They can change all that with a win at VCU on Saturday.
Massachusetts (16-11, RPI: 36, SOS: 18): The Minutemen swung and missed in their last good chance to impress the committee in the regular season, falling at Rhode Island and VCU last week. Neither is a bad loss, of course, but those are the types of games the Minutemen need to win to jump into the at-large picture. They may have a strong RPI ranking, but they’ll likely need to win the A-10 tournament to get into the dance.
Davidson (19-6, RPI: 58, SOS: 132): The Wildcats have now won five straight games, and likely ended George Washington’s hopes for an at-large bid last week (and just days before the first president’s birthday). They’re one of the first four teams out of this week’s Bracket Watch, but have a great chance to move into the field over the next 10 days. They visit Rhode Island and host George Washington this week, then welcome VCU to town on March 5. Jack Gibbs’ return came right on time for the Wildcats.
Rhode Island (19-6, RPI: 63, SOS: 143): After wins over Massachusetts and George Mason last week, these Rams have locked horns with the VCU Rams atop the A-10 standings. Rhode Island is still on the outside looking in for the time being, but they could change that with a strong finish to the season. They host Davidson and visit LaSalle this week, and then take on the Flyers in Dayton early next week. If they beat both Davidson and Dayton, they could very well be worthy of an at-large bid.
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Pittsburgh (18-10, RPI: 37, SOS: 25): The Panthers, left for dead in late January after a loss to Virginia Tech, are right back in the race with two weeks left in the regular season. Their résumé remains a touch weak, but wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina have them just one or two wins away from looking like an at-large team. Unfortunately for them, they have just one game left in the regular season against a potential tournament team, and even that is against fellow bubble squad Miami. They may have to win out and then pick up another good win the ACC tournament to earn a spot in the dance. The Panthers face Boston College and Wake Forest this week.
North Carolina State (16-11, RPI: 52, SOS: 4): The Wolfpack won their only game last week, an easy 16-point victory over lowly Virginia Tech. They’re one of our last four teams in the field, and now they’ll hit the road for three straight games, beginning in Chapel Hill on Tuesday. A win there would give them five top-50 wins, including individual triumphs over Duke, Louisville and North Carolina. Tuesday’s result won’t make or break their season, but a win would go a long way toward securing them an at-large bid.
Miami (17-10, RPI: 67, SOS: 66): The Hurricanes let a huge opportunity slip away last weekend, allowing Louisville to come back from a 10-point halftime deficit and ultimately losing by three points on the road. A win there may have pushed the Hurricanes to one of the last four at-large bids in this week’s Bracket Watch. Instead, they’re not even among the first four out of the field. They have two huge games left in the regular season, starting with North Carolina on Saturday. They’ll have to take care of business against Florida State on Wednesday for that game to matter.
West Virginia (21-6, RPI: 24, SOS: 48): The Mountaineers are probably a lock at this point, but we kept them down in this section simply so we could discuss the great week they just had. They started with a dramatic one-point victory over Kansas, and finished by going to Stillwater and beating Oklahoma State by 10 points. They now own four top-50 wins, and their worst loss of the season is to No. 54 LSU. With regular season games remaining against Texas, Baylor, Kansas and Oklahoma State, they could still move up or down in the field, but it’s safe to say they’ll be one of the 68 teams dancing.
Oklahoma State (17-10, RPI: 29, SOS: 5): Just how good is the Big 12? The Cowboys are going to make the tournament with relative ease, and they’re 7-8 in their own conference. They’ve lost three straight games, with their losses last week coming to tourney-bound Iowa State and West Virginia. Still, they’re stuck at a 7-seed thanks to a résumé that includes six wins against top-50 teams. They have just one game this week, traveling to Texas Tech on Saturday.
Texas (17-10, RPI: 40, SOS: 20): No potential tournament team has more than the Longhorns’ nine top-50 losses. None of their 10 losses are bad, but they also need to show the committee a little something more before they can feel great about their prospects on Selection Sunday. That makes this week crucial for Rick Barnes’ team. The Longhorns take to the road for games with West Virginia on Tuesday and Kansas on Saturday.
Kansas State (14-15, RPI: 105, SOS: 26): The Wildcats may be under .500, but they’re still alive after upsetting Kansas on Monday. They now have six top-50 wins on the season. Five of those were against the top 30, and four of those were against the top 16. They have two games left in the regular season, one apiece against Iowa State and Texas. If they win both of those games, and then make it to the Big 12 tournament semifinals, something they’re clearly capable of doing, they’ll add three more strong wins, two of which that would likely be against top-15 teams. Even with all the losses, the committee would have to consider them for an at-large bid.
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Georgetown (18-8, RPI: 21, SOS: 3): The Hoyas have won three straight games, knocking off Seton Hall, St. John’s and DePaul in succession. They’ve all but sewn up a tournament bid, and moved up to a 5-seed in this week’s Bracket Watch, whichi s probably their ceiling unless they win the Big East tournament. They have just one game this week, visiting St. John’s in New York on Saturday.
Providence (19-8, RPI: 22, SOS: 14): The Friars won twice last week, taking care of both Seton Hall and DePaul. They, too, have essentially locked up an at-large bid to the tournament, as they’re 6-5 against the top 50 with wins over Notre Dame, Georgetown and Butler. They visit Villanova on Tuesday and host Marquette over the weekend. Like Georgetown, Providence should end up in the neighborhood of a 5-seed on Selection Sunday.
Xavier (18-10, RPI: 30, SOS: 19): If the Musketeers make it into the NCAA tournament this season, they’ll likely look back on this past week as the one that sealed up their bid. They earned a hard-fought win at crosstown foe Cincinnati, then returned to their gym and blew the doors off Butler, ultimately winning by 17 points. They may have four losses outside the top 100, but they have just as many wins against top-25 teams. It has been an up-and-down season for Chris Mack’s bunch, but the ups have to outweigh the downs in the committee’s eyes.
St. John’s (18-9, RPI: 46, SOS: 32): The Red Storm are a 9-seed in this week’s Bracket Watch, and that was before a strong win over Xavier on Monday. They have four top-30 wins on the season, and while they aren’t completely safe just yet, they are definitely more likely than not to make the field of 68. St John’s hosts Georgetown on Saturday.
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Michigan State (19-8, RPI: 28, SOS: 36): No weekly column has been harder on the Spartans than the Bubble Watch, but it’s time to give them their due after a four-game winning streak that includes victories over Ohio State and Illinois. This may not be a vintage Tom Izzo team, but they way they’ve taken care of business on the road in the last two weeks has been impressive. Having said that, their work is not done, and their remaining regular season schedule isn’t a cakewalk. After hosting Minnesota on Thursday, they visit Wisconsin Sunday and then wrap up the regular season with games against Purdue and Indiana.
Indiana (19-9, RPI: 32, SOS: 33): The Hoosiers haven’t won a game against a potential tournament team since late last month, and they’ve lost to Ohio State, Purdue (twice), Wisconsin and Maryland in that time. While they’re not in any real jeopardy of falling out of the field of 68, it’s fair to wonder how far they can go in March. Their best true road victory is over Illinois, and they’ve won just two games against top-50 teams outside Assembly Hall. The other was a neutral-court win over Butler.
Ohio State (19-8, RPI: 42, SOS: 82): The Buckeyes had a terrible week up north, losing to both Michigan State and Michigan on the road. Just one month ago, the Buckeyes had knocked off Indiana and Maryland in succession, and looked like they might be the third-best team in the Big Ten. They’re now in sixth place in the conference, and will probably have to play on the second day of the Big Ten tournament. They spend this entire week in Columbus, with a big game against Purdue on Sunday.
Iowa (17-10, RPI: 53, SOS: 30): The Hawkeyes may not have played the best competition last week, but they did exactly what they needed to in games against Rutgers and Nebraska. In other words, they dominated two overmatched foes, winning the pair of games by a combined 62 points. They’ve had a few setbacks this year, but four top-50 wins, including victories against North Carolina and Maryland, have them in a good spot with two weeks left in the regular season.
Illinois (17-10, RPI: 57, SOS: 53): The Illini just couldn’t get over the hump in a home loss to Michigan State over the weekend. They’re now just barely on the right side of the bubble, with a few tough road games remaining in the regular season. The first of those comes on Wednesday against Iowa, and the second is their finale at Purdue. Realistically, they’ll have to win at least one of those games to still be in the field of 68 heading into the Big Ten tournament.
Purdue (18-9, RPI: 61, SOS: 71): For the last few weeks, we’ve been using this space to stress how important it was for the Boilermakers to beat a good team on the road. They did just that last week, going to Bloomington and earning a season sweep of the Hoosiers. Purdue is now 4-3 against the top 50 and 8-5 against the top 100. The win didn’t just keep them in the tourney field, but it also moved them out of the dreaded First Four. They play host to Rutgers on Thursday and visit Ohio State on Sunday this week.
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Oregon (20-8, RPI: 43, SOS: 58): By virtue of their win over Utah last weekend, the Ducks are now in our field of 68 for the first time this season. They’re now 2-5 against the top 50, but that victory over Utah carries a lot of weight. This is no time for them to let up, however, as they finish off the regular season with three consecutive road games. They visit California on Wednesday and Stanford on Sunday, in what could end up being an elimination game for either team. Next week, they take on in-state rival Oregon State in Corvallis.
UCLA (16-12, RPI: 48, SOS: 16): No one will fault the Bruins for dropping a game to Arizona, but their loss to Arizona State earlier in the week will look bad when the committee considers their at-large credentials. They’re one of the last four teams in our current field of 68, and all they can do for the rest of the regular season is stay out of trouble. Their three remaining games are against Washington, Washington State and USC, all at home. Depending on what happens around them in the bubble picture, they may need to pick up another good win in the Pac-12 tournament to make it into the dance.
Stanford (17-9, RPI: 51, SOS: 65): The Cardinal may test the value of top-100 wins for bubble teams this year. They have just one top-50 win (Texas), but are 9-6 against the top-100. All four of their remaining regular season games are against top-100 teams as well, including this Sunday’s matchup with fellow bubble team Oregon. That’s going to be a huge one for both teams, with Oregon one of our last four teams in, and Stanford one of our first four teams out of the field.
Oregon State (17-10, RPI: 91, SOS: 102): The Beavers remain a long shot to get into the dance, but they have to be considered still in the mix given what they’ve done and their remaining schedule. They own victories over Arizona and UCLA, and still get shots at both Stanford and Oregon. If they win both of those games, the committee would, at the very least, have to consider them for an at-large bid. Their matchup with Stanford is in Palo Alto on Thursday.
Locks: Kentucky, Arkansas
IN THE MIX
Mississippi (19-8, RPI: 33, SOS: 45): The Rebels’ only loss in the last month was a one-point heartbreaker against tourney-bound Arkansas. They’ve won eight games in that stretch, with half of them coming on the road. This looks more and more like a tourney team with each passing week, and they could all but seal their at-large fate this week against two fellow bubble teams. They host Georgia on Wednesday and visit LSU on Saturday.
Texas A&M (19-7, RPI: 34, SOS: 77): The Aggies have won three straight games, with the most important of those coming last week against LSU. They still don’t have a top-50 win this year, but they are 6-6 against the top 100 with just one loss outside that class, and that to a decent Kansas State team. They’re one of our last four teams in the current field with a huge game looming at Arkansas on Tuesday. A win would have them looking a lot more attractive with three games left to play in the regular season. A loss would likely mean they’d have to do some damage in the SEC tournament, as none of the other games left on their regular season schedule are against potential tournament teams.
Georgia (17-9, RPI: 38, SOS: 40): The Bulldogs once looked like the best of the SEC bubble team, especially after they beat Texas A&M on the road two weeks ago. Immediately after that win, they lost twice to non-tournament teams at home, thrusting themselves back on the bubble. Wednesday’s matchup with Mississippi is probably the biggest remaining on their regular season schedule, though they do host Kentucky in their penultimate game of the year. They don’t need to slay the dragon to get into the dance, however. They just need to pick up at least one more quality win, and a victory at a tough Mississippi team would qualify.
LSU (19-8, RPI: 54, SOS: 85): The last time the Tigers beat a potential tournament team, we were just days away from learning which two teams would play in the Super Bowl. That’s probably why they’ve fallen a few seed lines over the last six weeks, and are now just barely holding onto their spot in the field of 68. They have two opportunities to build the résumé in the regular season, starting this Saturday against Mississippi. With four top-50 wins, including a road victory over West Virginia, this feels like a tournament team, but they’ve left themselves some work to do with two weeks to go before the SEC tournament.
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San Diego State (22-6, RPI: 25, SOS: 80): The Aztecs notched easy victories over New Mexico and San Jose State last week and are closing in on yet another MWC regular season championship. They probably can’t climb much, if any, higher than a 7-seed, but their stifling defense will be back in the tournament this season. They have just one game this week, hosting Boise State on Saturday.
Colorado State (23-5, RPI: 26, SOS: 96): After losing to Colorado State on Valentine’s Day, the Rams began a five-game stretch to end the regular season during which they could not afford to lose again. They knocked off Fresno State and Air Force last week, and are still in good shape. They host San Jose State in their only game this week, and then visit Nevada and Utah State to round out the regular season. They could very well 30 games by time the NCAA tournament begins.
Boise State (20-7, RPI: 41, SOS: 110): The Broncos have those individual wins over San Diego State and Colorado State, but they still have some work to do to bully their way into the dance. They can do it by beating the Aztecs in San Diego this weekend. Short of that, they’ll probably have to do significant damage in the MWC tournament to get an at-large invite.
Wyoming (21-6, RPI: 78, SOS: 210): The Cowboys are in need of a lot of help, but they are still floating around on the at-large radar. They aren’t one of our first eight teams out of the dance, so clearly a handful of teams ahead of them are going to have to lose for the Cowboys to earn meaningful consideration. They also have to win out in the regular season, as all four of their remaining games are against non-tournament teams. The Cowboys are 3-3 against the top 50, and stranger things have happened, but chances are they’re ticketed for the NIT.
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BYU (West Coast, 21-8, RPI: 60, SOS: 94): Another clean week against the also-rans of the WCC, this time Pacific and San Diego, has the Cougars still on the fringes of the at-large picture. A week from now, we’ll know whether or not they need to win the conference tournament. First, they have to beat Portland on the road on Thursday. If they do that, they’ll have a chance to prove they belong in the tournament field with a win at Gonzaga on Saturday.