Bubble Watch: In weak field, fringe teams searching for signature wins
It may still be a little early in the season for many bubble watchers, but one storyline is starting to emerge: The bubble field is weaker than usual. The Big Ten, which has been among the best conferences in the country for 10 years running, might get just six teams in the field this year. The Pac-12 doesn’t have a team that looks like a championship contender, and, depending on the attrition inherent in conference play, could also end up with no more than six teams in the dance. The SEC is more wide open than it has been in a long time, and while that could allow an unfamiliar name like Texas A&M or South Carolina to win the conference, it’s also just as weak, top to bottom, as it has been in recent seasons. The American and Atlantic 10, meanwhile, are unimpressive.
Every team that ends up on the bubble as Selection Sunday draws near will have significant flaws, beyond what you’d typically expect from a bubble team. Let’s all remember that when we’re talking about supposed snubs once the field of 68 is announced. All of these teams will have ample opportunity between now and the end of the season to prove they belong.
Though it isn't likely, there remains a chance that this conference gets just one team into the Big Dance. With unbeaten SMU ineligible for the NCAA tournament, this league is wide-open. Memphis beat Temple and South Florida, but those are teams the Tigers should beat, especially in the friendly confines of their home gym. They visit Cincinnati on Thursday for their toughest test since playing Oklahoma back in the middle of November.
The Bearcats were one of the first four teams out of the field in this week’s Bracket Watch, largely because of a road loss to Temple over the weekend. That was their second loss to the Owls this season, but their résumé still looks decent thanks to wins over VCU and George Washington.
The only other team in the conference worthy of at-large consideration at this stage of the year is Connecticut, which was one of the last four teams in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Huskies are in a similar spot to Cincinnati, failing to secure a truly noteworthy win to this point of the season, but largely without a bad loss. Connecticut’s best win is over Texas on the road, and it also took down Michigan on a neutral floor. That’s enough to warrant inclusion in the field of 68 for now, but that won’t be the case without a few more strong wins over the next few months. The Huskies spend this week at home, hosting Tulane and Georgetown. If they are a tournament team, they should be able to win both of those games.
Houston drummed up some bubble support by the start of the New Year, thanks mostly to a weak non-conference schedule, but losses to Cincinnati and Connecticut last week, both by double digits, have the Cougars back where we’re used to seeing them, safely off the tournament radar.
It was another good week for the conference’s standard-bearer. VCU picked up wins over Fordham and Richmond, though the Rams had to go to overtime to get the latter victory. They entered the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch as one of the last four teams in, and that could be an issue all season. The A-10 simply isn’t going to afford its members that many opportunities for résumé-building victories. That means one or two missteps could overwhelm an otherwise worthy at-large bid. VCU, for example, doesn’t play a team inside the top 70 on kenpom.com until the first week of February, when it hosts George Washington.
Speaking of the Colonials, they beat Massachusetts but lost to Dayton over the weekend, moving to 3–2 in conference play. They actually led the Flyers by three with 10 minutes left, but Dayton finished the game on a 25–15 spurt to come away with the win. The Colonials and Flyers remain on the right side of the bubble with Dayton, especially, solidifying its spot with each passing win. They key for the Flyers now is to take care of business. Their next six games are against teams that almost certainly won’t go dancing. If they can hold serve in those games, which would extend their winning streak to eight games, they’d be in a great position heading into the last month of the season.
Saint Joseph’s got a couple of easy wins over George Mason and Fordham last week and will spend this week squaring off with intra-city rivals Penn and LaSalle. Those rivalries may be real, but these are two games the Hawks should win. They are still without a bad loss, but they’re going to need a win or two against tournament-quality competition at some point.
This is a crucial week for St. Bonaventure, with matchups looming against Dayton and VCU. Like Saint Joseph’s, the Bonnies don’t yet have a signature win. Unlike Saint Joseph’s, the Bonnies have a few bad losses, namely to Siena and Duquesne, the latter of which came last Saturday. If they can beat both Dayton and VCU, they’ll put themselves on the committee’s radar.
Rhode Island and Richmond are in the same boat as St. Bonaventure, but they don’t have the opportunity before them that the Bonnies do this week. Both the Rams and Spiders play just once, with the former visiting George Washington and the latter hosting Davidson.
Locks: Duke, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia
Any bubble talk in this conference this week has to begin with Clemson. The Tigers have won three straight games over teams that should be seeded on the 5-line or higher come March. Those wins over Louisville, Duke and Miami will go a long way toward securing a berth for Clemson, even though they were all at home. It doesn’t get any easier for the Tigers, with their next three games coming against Virginia, Pittsburgh and Florida State, but even one win in those three would look good on the résumé. Bubble teams need to prove they can beat tournament-quality teams, and Clemson has done that and then some over the last 10 days. Those wins should outweigh earlier losses to Massachusetts and Minnesota.
Florida State’s win over Virginia last weekend vaulted the Seminoles to one of the first four teams out of our current field of 68. They also have victories over Florida and VCU, as well as an overtime loss against Iowa. This is the ACC, so there’s another tough week ahead. The Seminoles visit Louisville on Wednesday and then host Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Notre Dame also did impressive work over the weekend, going to Duke and beating the Blue Devils, 95–91. The Fighting Irish didn’t exactly challenge themselves in the nonconference portion of their schedule, but they now have wins over Duke and Iowa, with all five of their losses coming to teams in our current field of 68. In other words, they’re in a pretty good spot heading into the last two weeks of January. At the same time, Notre Dame can’t afford to drop home games with either Virginia Tech or Boston College this week.
The Hokies do have that win over Virginia, and they took care of business against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech last week. It’s not a stretch to say their at-large fate could be decided over the next two weeks, during which they’ll play Notre Dame, North Carolina, Louisville and Pittsburgh.
Syracuse took down Boston College and Wake Forest last week, two wins that do nothing for its tournament résumé. Then it defeated Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday, extending its conference win streak to three games and getting its best win of the season (depending on how you feel about Texas A&M). The Orange face Virginia and Notre Dame in the next week and a half, after which we’ll have a clearer understanding of where they stand.
Locks: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia
Five games into its conference season, Baylor is 4–1 and looking like an NCAA tournament team. The Bears’ only loss is at Kansas, they beat Iowa State in Ames, and they took care of business against Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech. All things considered, that’s a great start to their Big 12 season. If their next 13 games follow the same script, we’ll be able to take them off the bubble by the end of February. They spend this week at home, hosting Kansas State on Wednesday and Oklahoma, the No. 1 team (until next week’s AP poll), on Saturday.
We'll include Kansas State in the Bubble Watch for the time being, but the Wildcats aren’t all that close to the tournament field. Their best wins are over Texas Tech and Georgia, and they’ve lost all five of their games against likely tournament teams. They haven’t shown any evidence of being able to compete with tournament-quality opponents, and that makes Wednesday’s game at Baylor all the more important. A win there would at least show that K-State can beat a team capable of making a tournament run, and on the road as well.
Texas Tech is in a similar situation. After beating Texas to start Big 12 play, the Red Raiders lost four straight games, but those losses came to Iowa State (away), Kansas (home), Kansas State (away) and Baylor (home). None of those is a bad loss, but the whole “we don’t have any bad losses” thing only works if you also have a good win or two that to balance it out. They’ll get a chance at that signature win on Saturday, when West Virginia travels to Lubbock.
It’s interesting to compare the résumés of Kansas State and Texas Tech with that of Texas. The Longhorns have a couple of bad losses, including one to TCU that will really jump out at the committee. On the other hand, they have wins over North Carolina, Iowa State and UT-Arlington, a team that could be good enough to earn an at-large bid despite playing in the Sun Belt Conference. So, which résumé is better: The one with lower lows, but much higher highs, or the steady-yet-uninspiring one? I’d take Texas's, but I, unfortunately, am not on the committee. Of course, the Longhorns’ résumé could look a whole lot different one week from now. They hit the road for one of the toughest possible swings in all of college basketball this season, visiting West Virginia on Wednesday and Kansas on Saturday.
Locks: Villanova, Xavier
Four distinct tiers have formed within this conference. The two at either extreme are of no concern here. Xavier and Villanova will cruise into the field of 68, with at least one of them in good shape to earn a No. 1 seed. Marquette, DePaul and St. John’s won’t come anywhere near the field without a dramatic, highly unexpected turn of events. That leaves five teams, divided into two tiers.
In the first tier are Butler, Providence and Seton Hall. Their résumés aren’t without blemishes—the Friars lost at home to Marquette, the Pirates have a loss to Long Beach State and the Bulldogs are 2-3 in the league—but each has done more than enough to earn inclusion in our Bracket Watch. Games within the tier are going to be important for all three teams. A win over Xavier or Villanova would be huge, but there are avenues to the Big Dance that don’t include victories over either of the conference’s heavyweights. Those paths consist of wins over each other. That makes Tuesday’s Butler-Providence game in Rhode Island huge for both teams. The Friars won the first meeting between the two in Indianapolis. The Bulldogs wrap up the week against Creighton, while the Friars get their first chance against one of the Big East’s top two teams, heading to Philadelphia to take on Villanova on Saturday.
Seton Hall, meanwhile, takes on both top teams this week. The Pirates host the Wildcats on Wednesday and travel to Cincinnati to take on the Musketeers on Saturday. A split would be huge, regardless of which one is the win and which is the loss.
Creighton and Georgetown comprise the next tier. Unlike Butler, Providence and Seton Hall, neither the Bluejays nor Hoyas have a signature win. Creighton’s best victory came against Seton Hall, while Georgetown’s was over Syracuse. On the other hand, the Bluejays lost to Loyola-Chicago, while Georgetown fell to Radford and UNC-Asheville. While the teams in the second tier might be able to afford a bad loss, Creighton and Georgetown cannot. The Bluejays play just once this week, hosting Butler. The Hoyas hit the road for games with Xavier and former conference rival Connecticut.
Locks: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue
Indiana has ripped off five straight wins to kick off conference play—and hasn’t lost since Dec. 2—though let’s be honest about what that means: None of the Hoosiers' Big Ten victims (Rutgers, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Minnesota) are likely to make the tournament. Just two, in fact, can even make a case for the bubble right now. So let’s not go celebrating Indiana just yet. Having said that, the Hoosiers have mostly taken care of business this season, and knocked off Notre Dame on a neutral court. They have more of that work ahead this week, with home games against Illinois and Northwestern.
Speaking of the Wildcats, they beat Wisconsin last week before losing at home to Penn State. That’s exactly the kind of loss that will submarine this team’s chances of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. The only good news for Northwestern is that it can immediately pad its résumé. The Wildcats' next four games are against Maryland (Tuesday), Indiana (Saturday), Michigan State (Jan. 28) and Iowa (Jan. 31). All of those, except for the matchup with the Spartans, are on the road.
Out of the bubble teams in the Big Ten, Michigan owns the best win, and it came last week, when the Wolverines took down Maryland in Ann Arbor. They followed that 70-67 victory with an 82–71 loss at Iowa. There’s still nearly two months until Selection Sunday, but Michigan and Indiana both look like relatively safe tournament teams. In addition to that win over the Terrapins, the Wolverines have yet to suffer a bad loss; the worst of their five defeats came against Connecticut on a neutral floor.
Wisconsin and Ohio State, two of the conference’s most consistent powers, would probably need the tournament grow to 70-plus teams to qualify this year. Having said that, the Badgers placed themselves on the tournament radar with a win over Michigan State on Sunday. They could ultimately look back at their second week of conference play, during which they lost by one to Indiana and by three to Maryland, as the difference between going dancing and settling for the NIT. Wisconsin plays just once this week, visiting Penn State on Thursday.
The Buckeyes can still point to their neutral-court win against Kentucky on Dec. 19 as evidence of their tournament bona fides, but that win appears less impressive with each passing week. Outside of that game, their best win was over Northwestern, and they just gave up 100 points in a blowout loss at Maryland last Saturday. Ohio State also plays just once this week, though its a big bubble opportunity: a road game at Purdue.
This is the country’s most confounding bubble conference. There likely won’t be more than five Pac-12 teams in the field of 68, but nailing down those teams at this stage is difficult. The only team we can really dismiss at this point is Washington State, while the only safe squad is Arizona. We’ll start at the top of the conference, where USC should be able to take itself out of the bubble discussion sooner rather than later. The Trojans traveled across town to Pauley Pavilion in their only game last week and took down UCLA, 89–75. They’re now 4–1 in the conference and 15–3 overall, with games against Oregon and Oregon State this week.
As for those Ducks, after beating Utah and losing to Colorado last week, they’re 3–2 in conference play. Wins over Utah, California and Stanford will undoubtedly help their case, but it’s early-season victories against Baylor and Valparaiso that will really help Oregon stand out.
California has now lost three straight games after beating Colorado and Utah to open their league schedule. With Arizona State and Arizona visiting Berkeley, this is now a very important week for the Bears
The same is true for Colorado, which will hit the road for games at Washington and Washington State. The Pacific Northwest is where all the Pac-12 bubble teams will need to fatten up their records. Even one loss in the state of Washington could spell doom.
That fate could befall UCLA, which started conference play with road losses to both of those teams. This is the Pac-12, though, so the Bruins followed it up with a home sweep of the Arizona schools, only to get manhandled at home by USC. They head north once again this week, visiting Oregon State and Oregon.
Utah split games with Oregon (loss) and Oregon State (win) last week. Being the regional partner of Colorado, the Utes, too, will travel through the state of Washington this week.
Oregon State is coming off consecutive losses to Colorado and Utah and will now welcome the Los Angeles schools to Corvallis this week. The Beavers also represent the cut line in the Pac-12. For now, this is where we find the teams on the outside looking in at the field of 68. Next up in that unfortunate group is Arizona State, which lost to Washington and beat Washington State last week. That win over the Cougars, unfortunately, is the Sun Devils’ only conference win. They’ve also lost to Arizona, USC and UCLA.
Stanford doesn’t yet have a bad loss—the worst of their six was either to Texas or Colorado, depending on how you view those teams—but their best win is on that same level, a home triumph over California last Thursday. That’s not going to open the committee’s eyes. What would, however, is a win against Arizona this week.
Finally, Washington headed into conference play in terrible fashion, losing to both Oakland and UC-Santa Barbara. It only made sense, then, that they would beat UCLA and USC to start conference play and now sit atop the Pac-12 at 4–1. The Huskies host Colorado and Utah this week. Again, it’s the Pac-12, where the transitive property goes to die.
Locks: Kentucky, Texas A&M
This league could be having one of its worst years in recent memory. Yes, this conference might not be known for its basketball, but either Kentucky or Florida has represented the SEC in the Elite Eight (or beyond) since 2010. That may not be the case this season, and it’s worth noting that Texas A&M looks like the conference’s best team. One more loss for Kentucky, in fact, could garner it a more prominent spot in the Bubble Watch.
South Carolina suffered its first loss of the season last week, falling to Alabama before bouncing back with a win over Missouri. The Gamecocks are enjoying a revival this season, but remember that their best wins thus far are over Vanderbilt and Clemson. They get Mississippi and Tennessee this week, and while both games are on the road, these are the kinds of wins South Carolina needs to secure if it is to secure a return to the NCAAs for the first time since 2004.
Florida, of course, has been a March fixture for years but missed the tournament last year. The Gators lost by three at Texas A&M last week, but rebounded with a solid win at Mississippi. The perception of Florida could go hand-in-glove how the league as a whole is viewed. The Gators’ best wins are against LSU and Saint Joseph’s, neither of which moves the needle all that much. At the same time, their worst loss is to Tennessee, and they played well in losses to Texas A&M, Florida State and Michigan State. They could probably go 12–6 in the conference without beating A&M or Kentucky, while avoiding any bad losses, and get an at-large berth.
Alabama boasts four wins that should jump off the page for the committee. One of those came against South Carolina last week. They added that to victories over Clemson, Notre Dame and Wichita State. That makes four wins over teams in our current field of 68. There’s certainly enough here to make the Crimson Tide a tournament team, and that’s exactly what they are in this week’s Bracket Watch, making the dance as one of the last four teams in. After visiting Auburn on Tuesday, they’ll host LSU on Saturday.
The Tigers beat Mississippi and Arkansas last week and are now 4–1 in conference, with their other wins coming against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. This is a big week for Ben Simmons and company. Before heading to Tuscaloosa over the weekend, they’ll make a stop in College Station to take on the Aggies on Tuesday. If they manage a split, they’ll be in our field of 68 next week.
Vanderbilt got back on the right side of the ledger with wins over Auburn and Alabama last week. The Commodores actually have the conference's third-best ranking on kenpom.com, trailing only Texas A&M and Florida, but that doesn’t help when your best win is either last week’s victory over Alabama or a November overtime downing of America East powerhouse Stony Brook. Vanderbilt should have Saturday’s tilt at Kentucky circled on the calendar, but it can’t afford to look past a game with Tennessee on Wednesday.
The conference’s bubble cases round out with Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee, but each of those teams are still looking for their first wins against teams sure to make the tournament. The Volunteers, meanwhile, lost to Auburn and Nebraska, while the Razorbacks are going to have to explain away losses to Mercer, Wake Forest and Akron. As for the Bulldogs, they have a win over Clemson but a loss to Chattanooga. We’ll check back in on these three teams if and win they get a valuable win.