Bubble Watch: Big 12/SEC Challenge offers good chance for hopefuls
The Big 12/SEC Challenge takes place this Saturday, with 10 interconference games scheduled. The biggest is Kentucky at Kansas, but Iowa State at Texas A&M, West Virginia at Florida, Vanderbilt at Texas, and Oklahoma at LSU all carry resume-building ramifications for both teams. Even downticket matchups like Texas Tech at Arkansas and Georgia at Baylor could be important for teams hurtling toward the bubble, which could end up describing all of those teams except the Bears.
There’s still a lot of season left, but we know what’s at stake for these teams on Saturday. We all know that a Florida win over West Virginia would be a significant coup for the Gators. We know that Texas A&M could take a major step toward a No. 1 seed with a victory over Iowa State. And we know that the Wildcats have a chance to establish itself again as a team capable of making a deep tournament run if it can beat the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse. All of that helps to make these games a true highlight of the college basketball schedule.
With that, let’s get to the Bubble Watch.
The further the season progresses, the more this conference starts to look like a one-bid league. Right now, the only teams that could justifiably hope for an at-large invite are Cincinnati (15-6, 5-3), Connecticut (14-5, 4-2) and Temple (11-7, 5-2). This week’s Bracket Watch includes only the Owls, which are tied for second place with Tulsa behind only SMU, which is ineligible for the tournament. On Sunday, Temple handed the previously undefeated Mustangs their first loss. The Owls' quality league wins—in addition to the victory over SMU, they've topped the Huskies once and the Bearcats twice—is enough to anoint them as the favorites to secure the conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
Cincinnati and Connecticut were two of our first four teams out this week, and they’ll face off in Storrs this Thursday. Whichever one wins could join our field of 68 next week. Memphis (12-7, 3-3), which was in the field last week as the projected conference tournament winner, lost to lowly East Carolina at home last week, and its best win is over an Ohio State team that is as bad as we’ve seen during the Thad Matta era. Until they get a win that actually means something, the Tigers shouldn’t be thought of as a serious at-large hopeful.
Tulsa (13-6, 5-2) is tied for second in the league, but its wins were over East Carolina (twice), Tulane, Connecticut and Central Florida. Not one of those moves the needle.
This is, quite simply, a bad conference. Any AAC team hoping to get an at-large bid would be wise to win out, because outside of SMU, there really aren’t any teams that will provide opportunities for signature wins, but there are plenty that could deal a bubble hopeful a damaging loss.
Like the AAC, the A-10 isn’t quite as good as it has been in the last few seasons. Unlike the AAC, this league should get at least a handful of teams into the Dance. Three made it in this week’s Bracket Watch, led by Dayton (16-3, 6-1). The Flyers might be the biggest Iowa fans in the country outside of Iowa City. With every win the Hawkeyes get, Dayton’s win over them back in November looks even better. The Flyers are helping themselves, too; they've now won four straight in the conference after a surprising loss to LaSalle on Jan. 9, and they now sit in second place.
First-place VCU (15-5, 7-0) has yet to lose in conference, knocking off Duquesne and St. Bonaventure last week. The rub for the Rams is that they do not have a win over a team that appears likely to make the tournament. In fact, VCU has played just one team—Duke—that falls into that group, and the Rams lost to the Blue Devils back in November. While we’re all accustomed to VCU being the powerhouse in this conference, it's really just a loss or two away from being on the outside looking in at the tournament field. The Rams don’t play Dayton until the final game of the regular season, and the A-10 isn’t strong enough this year for them to survive a few bad losses.
George Washington (15-4, 4-2) beat Virginia, Seton Hall and Tennessee in non-conference play. The win over the Cavaliers figures to hold up as a quality W, but the strength of the other two wins will be tested all season, as the Pirates and Volunteers are likewise on the bubble. The Colonials are going to have to do enough to counteract losses to DePaul and Saint Louis; they missed a chance to do just that by losing at Dayton on Jan. 15. Their next chance will be against VCU during the first week of February.
Saint Joseph’s (16-3, 5-1) has won five straight games and is one of the first four teams out of our current field. They have the same issue as VCU, in that they lack a meaningful win. While they’ve avoided a bad loss so far, one or two in that column could effectively knock them off the at-large radar. The rest of the conference does not warrant any at-large consideration.
Locks: Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
Last week we had Duke (15-6, 4-4) as a lock, and while the Blue Devils aren't in dire straits, they’re going to have to beat a few tournament-quality teams before we can restore them to that status. Duke bounced back from its three-game losing streak with a nice 88-78 win over NC State last Saturday but then lost on Monday at Miami, a team that is quite simply better than the Blue Devils. Duke has two good wins: the one over VCU in November and a home victory against Indiana, which came way back on Dec. 2. The Blue Devils will soon have plenty of chances to add to that total, when they start a four-game stretch against Louisville (twice), North Carolina and Virginia on Feb. 8.
Notre Dame (14-5, 5-2) could only hurt itself last week with games against Virginia Tech and Boston College. The Fighting Irish won both and are now in a similar spot this week, traveling to Syracuse and hosting Wake Forest. After that they get Miami, North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville in succession. Notre Dame is safely in the field for now, but that four-game stretch will tell us a lot about just how dangerous it really is.
One of the four teams in that run, Clemson (12-7, 5-2), has already made plenty of noise in the ACC. Sure, the Tigers lost at Virginia in their only game last week, but they kept it close throughout before losing by seven. That’s a fine performance on the road against a Final Four contender. Despite losses to Massachusetts and Minnesota, Clemson should be on relatively solid ground thanks to its wins over Duke, Louisville and Miami.
A couple of potential bubble teams faced one another in Tallahassee on Saturday, with Pittsburgh (16-3, 5-2) taking down Florida State (12-7. 2-5). The Panthers now have a couple of wins against mid-tier ACC teams, having already beaten Notre Dame as well, that should help offset a loss to NC State. Still they're missing a truly impressive win, and until they get one we can't keep them as a lock. As for FSU, it is one of our last four teams in, thanks to its Jan. 17 win over Virginia, but the Seminoles failed to follow it up with another impressive victory, dropping games last week to Louisville and Pitt.
Syracuse (13-8, 3-5) got in the committee’s good graces by winning at Duke last Monday, but the Orange still have a lot of work to do to overcome losses to Wisconsin, Georgetown and St. John’s. They get just such an opportunity when the Irish visit the Carrier Dome on Thursday.
Virginia Tech (12-8, 4-3) nearly had a huge week but instead went 0-2, falling at Notre Dame by two points and at home to North Carolina by five. We’ll be able to make a better determination on the Hokies, which do own a victory over Virginia, after their matchups with Louisville and Pitt this week.
Locks: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia
The three teams above make up the Big 12’s Calamity Club (i.e. only a calamity could put it on the bubble). Baylor (15-4, 5-2) looked like it belonged in that group too, but the then the Bears needed two overtimes to dispatch lowly Kansas State and got blown out at home by Oklahoma. Still, it’s hard to imagine this team on the outside looking in at the tournament field. It would have to somehow fall under .500 in the conference, and that outcome carries barely a shred of realism. The Bears get Oklahoma State on Wednesday, and then host Georgia in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday.
Among the four true bubble teams in the conference, only Texas (12-7, 4-3) did itself a favor last week. The Longhorns followed up wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State with a road win against West Virginia, holding the mighty Mountaineers to just 49 points. Add those victories to its December win over North Carolina and Texas may soon join the Calamity Club. It won’t get there this week, however, with home games against TCU and Vanderbilt looming, but a three-game stretch in mid-February—at Oklahoma, at Iowa State, vs. West Virginia—could do the trick.
Texas Tech (12-6, 2-5) let a golden opportunity slip through its hands over the weekend. The Red Raiders led West Virginia by four points with 1:10 left in the game, but the Mountaineers went on a 10-2 run to pull out an 80-76 victory. That was exactly the kind of win Tubby Smith's team needed to firm up its at-large candidacy. It’ll have another chance for just such a win at Oklahoma this week, but that is a much taller order.
The depth of the conference is keeping both Kansas State (12-7, 2-5) and Oklahoma State (10-9, 2-5) alive. Neither team is really all that close to the field of 68 right now, but they both still have plenty of opportunities to get there. Four of the Wildcats' next five games are against West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Baylor. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will meet Baylor and Iowa State over the next two weeks. Kansas State doesn't have a signature win just yet, but all seven of its losses are to teams that will be dancing in March. Oklahoma State's resume is stained by a few bad losses, but they also have a shiny, blowout win over Kansas. A big win or two by either team would certainly change their tournament calculus.
Locks: Providence, Villanova, Xavier
Both Butler (13-6, 2-5) and Seton Hall (13-6, 3-4) are on the right side of the tournament picture for now, but both are sliding toward the bubble. Let’s start with the Pirates, which lost to Villanova and Xavier last week. Those are fine losses, and Seton Hall played well in both games, losing by a combined nine points. The problem for the Pirates, however, is that they still have to string together a few good wins to feel safe on Selection Sunday. It’s hard to get into the tournament simply by avoiding bad losses, and Seton Hall actually has one of those, against Long Beach State in November. The Pirates do have a couple of nice wins over Wichita State and Providence, and it’s hard to say with a straight face that they aren’t one of the 68 best teams in the country, but they have yet to remove all doubt with their on-court performance. They don't play a currently ranked team for a month, so they need to take care of business against less impressive competition in the meantime.
Butler's resume mirrors that of Seton Hall. The Bulldogs lost twice last week, dropping road games to Providence and Creighton. Their only win over a safe tournament team came against Purdue one week before Christmas. They, too, need a few more strong wins before they can feel good about themselves. They won’t get a chance at one until they visit Seton Hall on Feb. 10.
Creighton's (14-6, 5-2) win over Butler last Saturday, which helped knock the Bulldogs out of the top 25, was huge for the Bluejays. While they’ve lost to the two best teams they’ve played in conference (Villanova and Providence), they have placed themselves on the committee’s radar. They still have a lot of work to do before getting in the field, starting with games against Georgetown and Seton Hall this week, but if they knock off the Hoyas in D.C. and then upend Seton Hall at home, they’ll be in great shape.
Speaking of Georgetown (12-8, 5-2), it got its best win of the year last week, going to Cincinnati and taking down then-No. 5 Xavier, 81-72. Of course, the Hoyas followed that up with a loss at Connecticut. The win over the Musketeers gives them something to point to, assuming they can sprinkle in at least three more solid wins the rest of the season. The next two weeks, therefore, will be telling. Georgetown hosts Creighton and Providence this week, and then travels to Butler and Seton Hall next week. If the Hoyas can split those games, preferably with at least one win coming on the road, they will be a player in the bubble world heading into the backstretch of the regular season.
Locks: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue
When it comes to seeding, Indiana (17-3, 7-0) is one of the most interesting teams in the country. The Hoosiers have a glittering record, and the last time they lost was Dec. 2 at Duke. Having said that, they have exactly one win against a team in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch (a neutral-court win over Notre Dame), and they have yet to play any of the big four teams in the conference. In fact, they won’t meet Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State or Purdue until a Feb. 11 date with the Hawkeyes in Bloomington, but that begins a stretch in which five of Indiana's final seven games in the regular season are against those four teams. That will give us a better sense of just how good the Hoosiers are.
The last team from the conference to earn a bid according to this week’s Bracket Watch is Michigan (15-5, 5-2). The Wolverines beat Minnesota and Nebraska last week, and they still have that big win over Maryland from Jan. 12; plus their only league losses came to Purdue and Iowa. This is a take-care-of-business week for Michigan, which will face Rutgers and Penn State. Once they’re clear of those two also-rans, they can start thinking about firming up their at-large resume with home games next week against Indiana and Michigan State.
Wisconsin (11-9, 3-4) made itself into a tiny blip on the at-large radar by beating Michigan State on Jan. 17. If the Badgers can take down Indiana in Madison on Tuesday, that blip will get a little brighter. Remember, though, Wisconsin has non-conference losses to Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette on its resume. The Badgers will need more than wins against the Spartans and Hoosiers to earn an invite to the dance for the 18th consecutive season.
Ohio State (13-8, 5-3) and Northwestern (15-6, 3-5) have to be considered long shots at this point. The Buckeyes’ conference wins have come against Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern and Rutgers, while they have non-conference losses to UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Memphis (though they did beat Kentucky on a neutral court). Ohio State can only hurt itself this week, with games against Penn State and Illinois. As for the Wildcats, their bid to reach their first ever NCAA tournament has stalled amidst a three-game losing streak. Two of those defeats (at Maryland, in overtime, and at Indiana) are excusable while the third (home against Penn State) isn’t. This is the week for Northwestern to make a move. It hosts Michigan State on Thursday and visits Iowa on Sunday.
Here’s a good way to sum up the Pac-12: Arizona is the top-ranked conference member on kenpom.com, checking in at No. 12 overall. That is comfortably the lowest ranking for one of the big six conference’s top-rated team (next is the SEC's Texas A&M at No. 7). Yet, the Pac-12 as a whole is the third-best conference, behind the Big 12 and the ACC. The way this league has played out in the first half of the season, it’s relatively safe to say it will ultimately send six teams to the tournament, but figuring out three of the six will be a challenge.
Oregon (16-4, 5-2), which is tied for first in the conference with Washington, had a great week, picking up wins over USC and UCLA. The Ducks are headed in the right direction and could make their case to be viewed as the conference’s best team by winning at Arizona on Thursday.
USC (15-5, 4-3) was in that mix, too, before losing at Oregon and Oregon State last week. The Trojans are still safely inside the tournament picture, but they'd be wise to get back on track soon. They open a three-game homestand on Thursday against Washington State, the only Pac-12 team not on the tournament radar.
California (14-6, 4-3) picked up an enormous win over the weekend, beating Arizona 74-73. That, when added to previous wins over Arizona State, Colorado, Utah and Saint Mary’s, was enough to make the Golden Bears one of the last four teams in our current field of 68. They’ll take a trip through the mountains this week as they attempt to pull of season sweeps of the Utes and Buffaloes.
In addition to Cal, Stanford (11-7, 4-3) will take a quick swing through the Mountain Time Zone this week. The Cardinal are safely on the outside the tournament field for the time being. They need to prove they can win on the road and will have that chance over the next 10 days, with an early February trip to Berkeley also on the horizon.
As for Utah (15-5, 4-3) and Colorado (15-5, 4-3), this is a big week for both of them. The Utes have won three straight games, knocking off Oregon State and then both Washington schools, the latter two on the road, and need to keep that momentum going. The Buffs, meanwhile, are still searching for a signature win. Neither Cal nor Stanford would be a game-changer, but Colorado can't afford to miss chances to beat fellow bubble teams.
UCLA (12-8, 3-4) did just that, beating Oregon State but losing to Oregon. The 14-point margin of defeat to the Ducks may have been a bit humbling, but what had to sting more for the Bruins was that they fell below .500 in the conference. They get a chance to even their league ledger, and for a statement win, on Thursday when they host first-place Washington (13-6, 5-2). The Huskies beat UCLA earlier this season and also have wins over USC and Colorado. They are in the at-large discussion, but all their meaningful wins have come at home, and they still have to explain those non-conference losses to Oakland and UC-Santa Barbara. A win at either UCLA or USC this week would help.
Just when Oregon State (12-6, 3-4) appeared to be entering a downturn, they pulled out of their tailspin with a 15-point win over USC on Sunday. They’ve got a big week on tap, with a trip through the state of Arizona.
Finally, it’s put up or shut up week for Arizona State (11-9, 1-6). The Sun Devils are tied for last place in the conference and welcome Oregon State and Oregon to Tempe this week. If they lose either game, you won’t see them in next week’s Bubble Watch.
Locks: Kentucky, Texas A&M
The Aggies and Wildcats should both be safe at this point, and it helped that Kentucky beat Arkansas and Vanderbilt last week after having suffered a loss in each of the previous two weeks. Neither the Razorbacks nor the Commodores project as tournament teams for the time being, but the Wildcats couldn't afford another bad conference loss after they fell at lowly Auburn on Jan. 16. Kentucky gets a golden opportunity to cement its bid when it visits Kansas on Saturday.
Florida (13-6, 5-2) has now won three straight games after losing by three points at Texas A&M on Jan. 12. The Gators are just shy of the Wildcats in our estimation, and they would have been comfortably in the field of 68 if Selection Sunday were last week. This is a huge week for Florida, with a trip to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt on Tuesday and then a matchup in Gainesville with West Virginia on Saturday. A win over the Mountaineers would be, by far, the Gators' best of the season, and it would do wonders for their at-large prospects.
After starting the season 15-0, South Carolina (17-2, 4-2) has lost games in consecutive weeks. As impressive as that opening stretch was, just one of the wins—over Clemson in mid-December—came against a team in our current field of 68. Losses to Alabama and Tennessee do not look good on the Gamecocks' resume, either. They are safe for now, but if they suffer a reversal against either Mississippi State or Alabama this week, that might not be the case much longer.
Among SEC teams currently projected outside the tournament field, LSU (12-7, 5-2) is likely in the best shape. The Tigers have wins over Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Arkansas, though they also have losses to Marquette, NC State and Wake Forest, among others. The SEC is going to make it tough on bubble teams like LSU because it just doesn’t have enough depth to provide a significant number of chances for eye-opening victories. LSU has a chance to get a huge one against top-ranked Oklahoma in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
Vanderbilt (11-8, 3-4) has thus far avoided an embarrassing loss, but it has too many defeats overall right now to be considered a tourney team and it doesn't have anything that would count as a statement win. You can’t lose your way into the tournament, even if all or most of them are against teams that go dancing. The Commodores host Florida and visit Texas this week, making them another SEC team thankful for its matchup with the Big 12. A couple of wins this week would have Vanderbilt climbing the bubble ranks.
Arkansas (9-10, 3-4), Georgia (11-6, 4-3) and Tennessee (10-9, 3-4) are all in striking distance to be within striking distance of making a run at the tournament. Of the three, the Volunteers are probably in the best spot, thanks to their wins over Florida and South Carolina.