Bubble races are still in their early stages, but Duke is no longer a near certainty to make the NCAA tournament.
Take a look at the six major conferences in college basketball, and something should jump out at you right away. We've reached February and there is a lot of new blood at the top of the power conference standings. While familiar faces lead the ACC (North Carolina) and Big East (Villanova), the Big 12 (Oklahoma), the Big Ten (Iowa), the Pac-12 (Oregon) and the SEC (Texas A&M) are all being paced by teams that hardly qualify as traditional heavyweights (combined Final Four berths since 1960 for the latter four schools: three).
What might be even more surprising is where the big names reside in those leagues: In the Big 12, Kansas is currently in fourth place (albeit just one game out of first). In the Big Ten, Michigan State is sixth (though another school with a rich history, Indiana, is tied for first). In the Pac-12, Arizona is sixth. And in the SEC, Kentucky is in a three-way tie for second.
The bluest blueblood to be in the middle-of-the-pack right now, however, is Duke. The defending national champion Blue Devils enter the week unranked by the AP for the first time since 2007 and reside a stunning 10th in the ACC. Duke has favorable RPI (No. 27) and strength of schedule (No. 22) ratings, and it is No. 19 overall on kenpom.com. Still the fact that the Blue Devils are not a lock for the field the month before the start of the NCAA tournament is a story all by itself.
For more on Duke, plus the rest of the bubble teams, read on.
With each passing week, it looks more and more like this is going to be a one-bid league. Only Cincinnati (16–6, 6–3) and Connecticut (15–6, 5–3) have done enough to be considered for an at-large spot, and both of those teams likely have some work to do to secure a bid. For now, the Bearcats are in our field of 68 as the automatic qualifier from the conference. They earned pole position by beating the Huskies in Storrs last week. Remember, they nearly took down SMU in Dallas at the start of conference play and also beat VCU in December. Cincinnati is a solid team that could hear its name called on Selection Sunday, even if it loses at some point in the conference tournament.
The Huskies really needed that game against the Bearcats. UConn still has a win over Texas on its résumé, but there's not much beyond that. The Huskies still get to play SMU twice, but, as with the rest of the AAC, there are more chances for bad losses than there are good wins.
These teams will have a hard time impressing the committee unless they beat Cincinnati, Connecticut or SMU. The committee isn’t going to care if about wins over the likes of Houston, Memphis or Tulsa. That’s why third-tier teams in the conference, like Temple (12–8, 6–3) and Tulsa (14–7, 6–3) are going to have a hard time earning an at-large invite. They certainly can’t be losing games to teams like East Carolina, like the Owls did last week. It takes a whole lot to offset a loss that bad, even though it did come on the road. Of course, Temple is the one team that has a win over SMU, so if it can find a way to beat Connecticut next week, it could get back in the mix. Thanks to the Philadelphia series, the Owls also have a game looming with Villanova on Feb. 17. A win there, however unlikely, would be a huge boost for Temple.
Tulsa’s season likely comes down to two games next week. First, it must take care of business against Temple and Houston this week. If it does so, it will have a chance to get on the at-large radar with three consecutive games against SMU (Feb. 10), Connecticut (Feb. 13) and Cincinnati (Feb. 18).
Dayton (18–3, 8–1) and VCU (16–5, 8–0) have put a lot of distance between themselves and the rest of the field in the A-10. Both teams are trending in the right direction, and it’s hard to imagine either missing out on the dance. The Rams are in first place in the conference, rolling to an unbeaten record under first-year head coach Will Wade. But they have yet to meet the Flyers, and that initial showdown won’t come until the final game of the season, on March 5, in Dayton. The bet here is that by time these two teams finally see each other, both will be playing for tournament seeding, not for a berth. This week, VCU will face one of the league's other bubble teams, welcoming George Washington to Richmond on Saturday.
The Flyers are just behind the Rams in conference play, with their only loss coming to a LaSalle team that will need a miracle run in the conference tournament to get into the field of 68. Dayton got revenge for that loss last week, taking down the Explorers at home after an easy win over St. Louis. This should be another easy week for the Flyers, with upcoming games against George Mason and Duquesne.
One more team from the A-10 made the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch: the Saint Joseph’s Hawks (18–3, 7–1). They’ve won six straight games after a three-point loss to VCU during the first week of conference play. All three of their losses came to teams safely in our tournament field, with the other two against Florida and Villanova. While St. Joe's has yet to beat on team on the right side of the coin, it has certainly done enough to be considered one of the most worthy at-large teams in the country. The Hawks host St. Bonaventure on Wednesday and visit Fordham on Saturday.
George Washington (16–5, 5–3) slipped out of the bracket after a home loss to Richmond last week. They already had losses this season to DePaul and Saint Louis, two teams that are nowhere near the tournament field. You can’t add a home loss to a mediocre-at-best Spiders team (11-9, 3-5) to that résumé and live to tell the tale. The good news for the Colonials is they’ll immediately get a chance to atone when they go crosstown to meet VCU on Saturday.
Meanwhile, St. Bonaventure (13–6, 5–3) and Rhode Island (12–9, 4–4) are on the periphery of the bubble mix. They’ll warrant further discussion if and when they add a big win to their respective ledgers.
Locks: Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
This conference sent 10 teams to the dance in this week’s Bracket Watch, and that is completely within the realm of possibility on Selection Sunday. We know that the Cardinals, Hurricanes, Tar Heels and Cavaliers will certainly be in the field.
The best of the rest kicks off with Notre Dame (15–6, 6–3), which bounced back from a loss at Syracuse on Thursday with a 23-point home victory over Wake Forest on Sunday. All three of the Fighting Irish's conference losses have come to teams that project to make the field: Pitt, Syracuse and Virginia. The upcoming slate, however, is brutal for Notre Dame: at Miami, home to North Carolina, at Clemson and hosting Louisville.
Speaking of Syracuse (15–8, 5–5), that win over the Irish was enough to make it one of the final four teams in our current field. Quite simply, this team has looked a whole lot different with Jim Boeheim back on the sidelines. In the last two weeks, the Orange have added wins over Duke and Notre Dame to their résumé, and now sit at an even .500 in the ACC. Syracuse has a take-care-of-business week ahead, with matchups against Virginia Tech and Florida State, both at home.
As for the Seminoles (15–7, 5–5), they have now won three straight games—albeit against Boston College, Clemson and NC State—to get back to .500 in league play. That triumph over the Tigers certainly looks good on the résumé alongside victories over Virginia, Florida and VCU, but there are no prizes for beating the Eagles and Wolfpack. Similarly, this weekend's opponent, Wake Forest, won't do much to help—but could very much hurt—Florida State's chances. The 'Noles aren't safe yet, but if Selection Sunday were last weekend, it likely would have been an easy at-large choice for the committee.
Now to Duke (15–6, 4-4), which could find itself in serious trouble in the next few weeks. The Blue Devils, who haven't played since our last Bubble Watch, have conference wins against Boston College, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, which just happen to be four of the five teams below them in the standings, and the week ahead—Georgia Tech (the fifth team behind Duke in the ACC) and NC State—don't offer a chance for the kind of resume-padding win they need. The following four games will: two against Louisville, a home game with Virginia and a road trip to North Carolina. The Devils still have to be considered in good position to make the field, but they would be wise to win at least one of those games.
Pittsburgh (17–4, 6–3) lost to Clemson and beat Virginia Tech last week. The Panthers are a relatively safe bet to make the field, but they’re nowhere near being considered a lock at this point. Their next three games will give us an idea of just how good they really are. Their only game this week is at home against Virginia on Saturday. They then spend all of next week on the road, making trips to Miami and North Carolina.
Clemson (13–8, 6–3) continues to be the ACC's surprise team, upending Pittsburgh last week before losing to Florida State on the road. All six of the Tigers' conference wins have come against teams in our current field of 68. At this point, they would likely be able to make the dance by going .500 the rest of the season.
Georgia Tech (12–9, 2–6) will have to do far better than that. But while the Yellow Jackets aren't yet in striking distance of the tournament field, they could be after this week. Brian Gregory's team already has a win over Virginia, and it will host Duke and Miami this week. If Georgia Tech wins either game, it will at least be on the fringes of the dance. If it wins both, it will be solidly in the mix.
Locks: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma West Virginia
Texas (15–7, 6–3) may not win the Big 12, but it is getting awfully close to joining Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor and West Virginia in the Calamity Club, whereby only a full-on disaster could prevent them from making the field. The Longhorns cruised to wins over TCU and Vanderbilt last week, the latter of which adds to a résumé that already includes wins over Iowa State, North Carolina and West Virginia. They followed that up with a huge win at Baylor on Monday. Texas has reached a point where it could lose a few games and still be safely in the field of 68. At this point, the Longhorns can get greedy and start thinking about a high seed in the tournament.
Will any other team from the Big 12 join them? Kansas State (13–8, 2–6), Texas Tech (12–8, 2–6) and Oklahoma State (11–10, 2–6) all share the same uninspiring conference record, and all will likely need at least six more wins to be in the discussion on Selection Sunday. At least Texas Tech can say it beat Texas, while Oklahoma State can point to a win over Kansas. The Wildcats have no such luxury. Their conference wins came against, you guessed it, their fellow 2–6 teams. Unless a couple of the top teams in the Big 12 fall apart, it’s hard to imagine more than one of these three teams getting into the dance, and it’s more likely that all will be hoping for an invite to the NIT.
This is the Big 12, though, so all three have an opportunity to add to their résumés this week. Saturday’s conference schedule features Oklahoma State hosting Iowa State, Texas Tech visiting Texas, and Kansas State welcoming No. 1 Oklahoma to Manhattan.
Locks: Providence, Villanova, Xavier
We know Villanova and Xavier are at the top of this conference, and Providence is a step behind them, but the order of the teams in the next tier is anyone’s guess. Let's start with the two other teams in the conference that also made the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch.
Seton Hall (15–6, 5–4) was one of the last teams to earn a bye in the dance, thanks largely to its win over the Friars a few weeks ago. Having said that, the Pirates are going to need a few more quality wins to feel secure about reaching the tournament. Right now, they have two wins over teams likely headed to the dance (Providence and Wichita State). They get the Friars and Musketeers once more apiece this season, with both games coming at home. A split there, coupled with the avoidance of any bad losses, should be enough to lock up an at-large invite for Seton Hall.
Everyone is focusing on Duke as a potential surprise NIT team, but what about Butler (14–7, 3–6)? The Bulldogs lost to Marquette last week and still haven’t beaten a team that will make it to the tournament since upsetting Purdue in mid-December. They’re 0–4 against Villanova, Xavier and Providence this season, and 2–5 against teams in our field of 68. If the Bulldogs lose to another one of the conference’s lightweights and don’t add any more meaningful wins, they will be sweating on Selection Sunday. They host Georgetown Tuesday and visit St. John’s over the weekend.
Georgetown (13–9, 6–3) put itself on the committee’s radar with a win at Xavier on Jan. 19, but it missed a golden opportunity at home against Providence last Saturday, falling by four points. The Hoyas had the game within six points for nearly all of the final 15 minutes, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. A win there might have been enough to get them one of the final four spots in our projected field. As it stands, they’re still looking for a few more résumé-building victories over the back half of the Big East schedule. They get a couple of road games this week that could work, as they’ll take on Butler in Indianapolis and Seton Hall in New Jersey.
Creighton’s (14–8, 5–4) at-large candidacy took a hit last week after it lost to Georgetown and Seton Hall. The Bluejays were coming off a win over Butler, and one or two more wins would have set them up well, no matter what happens at Villanova on Wednesday. With just four games remaining against the conference’s potential tourney teams (Villanova, Providence and Xavier twice), Creighton has an uphill climb. It will need to go 2–2 in those four games, at worst, to be in the discussion.
Locks: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue
The Big Ten is starting to look like one of the easier conferences to handicap. The Haywkeyes, Terrapins, Spartans and Boilermakers are in, Indiana and Michigan are likely in, and Wisconsin has a shot. Everyone else ranges from “perhaps they get in with a miraculous turnaround” (See: Ohio State, Northwestern) to “literally zero chance” (See: Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State, Rutgers). We’ll kick it off here with the two teams likely to make the final field.
Indiana (18–4, 8–1) suffered its first conference loss last week at Wisconsin, but there’s no shame in losing in Madison, even though this Badgers team is on the wrong side of the bubble. The Hoosiers bounced back from that by beating Minnesota at home, and now go back on the road this week to Ann Arbor and Happy Valley. After that, Indiana closes with five of its final seven regular season games against ranked teams.Michigan (17–5, 7–2)
One month ago, Wisconsin (13–9, 5–4) was in complete disarray. Bo Ryan had surprisingly announced his retirement in mid-December, and the Badgers got off to a 1-4 start in league play. Since then, Wisconsin has won four straight games under interim coach Greg Gard, including victories over Michigan State and Indiana. The Badgers still need to prove they can beat tournament-quality competition on the road, but they’ve put themselves back on the at-large radar in the last two weeks. They must take care of business against Ohio State and Nebraska at home this week. If they do that, they’ll be staring down their biggest week of the season with trips to Maryland and Michigan State on the docket. Two wins this week, followed by a split against two of the three best teams in the conference, would have Wisconsin feeling good about itself heading into the last three weeks of the season.
Ohio State (14–9, 6–3) has that neutral court win over Kentucky and a conference record that look good on the surface, but the Buckeyes have the same problem as Northwestern (15–8, 3–7): no league wins against a likely tournament team. If and when that changes, we will have more to say about both teams' bubble chances.
By virtue of its win over Arizona last week, Oregon (18–4, 7–2) is now a lock. The Ducks are on top of the Pac-12 with wins over Arizona, USC, UCLA, Utah and California, as well as nonconference triumphs against Baylor and Valparaiso. Sure, it’s possible Oregon could fall apart over the next six weeks, but that is about as improbable as it gets. The Ducks will be dancing again this season.
We need to talk about Arizona (17–5, 5–4) after its loss to Oregon last week. The Wildcats probably won’t be in any real danger come Selection Sunday, but it’s worth noting that their best win came against Gonzaga, a team that is barely in our field of 68 this week. If they lose either of their games in the state of Washington this week, we’ll really need to recalibrate our expectations for this team. Even if they do get in, it's hard to see Arizona climbing any higher than a No. 5 seed.
USC (17–5, 6–3) got back on the right path by beating Washington and Washington State at home last week. The Trojans, too, should be safely inside the tournament field by Selection Sunday, but it’s still too early to think of them as a lock. They play just once this week, welcoming crosstown rival UCLA to the Galen Center.
Speaking of UCLA (13–9, 4–5), it remains one of the most confounding teams in college basketball. The Bruins lost at home to Washington last week, though they did rebound over the weekend with a win over lowly Washington State. They might be Arizona’s biggest fans outside of Tucson, given that their win over the Wildcats looked like one of their best of the season. That win is losing its luster with each passing week. UCLA will need to get another good win to make the dance. That could come against USC on Thursday.
Utah (17–5, 6–3) has won five straight games, with two of those wins (Washington and California) coming against teams that appear tourney-bound. The Stanford loss doesn’t look great, but the Utes' four other losses were to Miami, Wichita State, California and Oregon, and they also have a nonconference wins over Duke and San Diego State. There’s way more good than bad on this résumé.
The story is the same for Colorado (17–5, 6–3), which has now won three straight games, including a solid home win over California last weekend. The Buffaloes didn’t do much in the nonconference portion of the schedule, but they’re up to six wins in the conference, including one over Oregon that continues to look better with each passing week. They’ll meet the Ducks again on Thursday, this time in Eugene.
After splitting with the L.A. schools last week, Washington (14–7, 6–3) grabbed one of the final four spots in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Huskies are 3–1 against UCLA and USC this season and also boast over a solid victory against Colorado. The résumé is just barely good enough for now, but if they don’t do any work the rest of the season, they’ll be on the outside watching 68 other teams dance. That makes Saturday’s game with Arizona a huge one for Washington. A win there would go a long way toward securing an at-large bid.
California’s (14–8, 4–5) five Pac-12 losses have all come on the road, including to Utah and Colorado last week. That could eventually be a problem, though we still have the Golden Bears on the right side of the bubble for now. Eventually, however, they’re going to have to be a good team or two outside of the Haas Pavilion.
Stanford (11–9, 4–5) and Oregon State (12–8, 3–6) are barely on the radar at this point. We’ll revisit their status at greater length when necessary.
Locks: Texas A&M
Teams in the SEC had everything to gain in last weekend’s Big 12/SEC Challenge, and a few of them took advantage of the opportunity, none more so than Florida (14–7, 5–3). The Gators dominated West Virginia from start to finish, eventually coming away with an 88–71 victory. That was, and will continue to be, the Gators’ best regular season win. They won’t see Texas A&M again, unless they meet in the SEC tournament, so they really needed to show up against high-quality tournament competition, and they answered with arguably their best performance of the season. Florida may not be able to get much higher than a No. 6 or 7 seed, but it would really need to fall apart over the next five weeks to be nervous on Selection Sunday.
The same goes for Kentucky (16–5, 6–2), which gave Kansas everything it could handle in an overtime loss at The Phog last Saturday night. If there is such a thing as a “good loss" that one certainly fits the bill. The Wildcats have a big game coming up this weekend, as well, with Florida visiting Rupp Arena. The winner of that game could rightly claim pole position as the No. 2 team in the conference behind Texas A&M.
LSU (13–8, 6–2) also made a positive impression in a losing effort, leading No. 1 Oklahoma much of the way before finally falling 77-75. The Tigers need to keep winning games, of course, and any bad loss could reverse the goodwill they have built up over the last few weeks. They certainly can't afford a misstep against either Auburn or Mississippi State this week. If they make it through with two wins, next week will be their biggest of the season. LSU visits South Carolina before hosting Texas A&M on Feb. 13. Four teams from the SEC made this week’s Bracket Watch. The Tigers were not one of them, but that could soon change.
South Carolina (19–2, 6–2) is on the right side of the bubble, but the Gamecocks aren't as safe as their record might indicate. Of their 19 wins, just one—at Clemson on Dec. 18—came against a team in our current field and their two losses came against Alabama (11-9) and Tennessee (10-11). If they manage to finish, say, 29–5 in the regular season, with those three additional losses coming to Texas A&M, Kentucky and Florida, they’re going to be safely in the tournament. If, however, South Carolina drops a few more games against league also-rans, it could be a nervous bunch on Selection Sunday. The Gamecocks spend this entire week on the road, visiting Georgia on Tuesday and Texas A&M on Saturday.
After Florida, Arkansas (11–10, 4–4) had the best week of any SEC bubble team. The Razorbacks dealt Texas A&M its first SEC loss on Wednesday, then followed that with an overtime win against Texas Tech. They still have a ton of work to do. After all, this team can't erase non-conference losses to Mercer, Wake Forest and Stanford. Still, they’ve put themselves in a position to get into the at-large discussion with a few more standout victories. They’ll get a chance for just such a win on Wednesday at Florida.
Vanderbilt (12–9, 4–4) seemed to take step forward with a win over Florida last week, but then it failed to show up at Texas on Saturday. The Commodores don’t have a bad loss on their résumé, but nine losses is too many, no matter how good the teams are that beat them. That is especially true given that their only two wins over teams in our field of 68 were against Florida and Stony Brook, which is the clear frontrunner in the America East Conference. Vanderbilt is desperate for a signature win, and fortunately for the Commodres, Texas A&M visits Nashville on Thursday.
Best Of The Rest
Wichita State (16-5, 10-0 Missouri Valley Conference) hasn't received the same attention it has in previous seasons, but any team led by senior guards as good as Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker figures to be a dangerous one in March. Having said that, no matter what the Shockers do the rest of the season, their best win will be over Utah. If they lose in the MVC tournament, they will be nervous on Selection Sunday.
Saint Mary’s (18-2, 9-1 West Coast Conference) looks ready to upset the usual order in its league by toppling Gonzaga (17-5, 9-2) this season. The Gaels already have a win over the Bulldogs and rank 24th in the country on kenpom.com. It warrants mentioning, though that Saint Mary's lost its only game this season against a power conference team with a good chance at earning an at-large invite (California). Gonzaga, meanwhile, had a tougher non-conference schedule, and owns wins over Washington and Connecticut. The Zags also went right down to the wire against Arizona and UCLA. We have both WCC teams in our current field of 68, but both teams would be wise to avoid losing to any of the conference's lightweights.
Valparaiso (19-4, 9-1 Horizon League) should be able to cruise to regular season and conference titles in the Horizon, where it is, far and away, the best team. The Crusaders, though, would be unlikely to be an at-large team if they were upset in the conference tournament. Their only win over a power conference tournament came against Oregon State, and they also have losses to Ball State, Belmont and Wright State. It’s almost certainly automatic bid or bust for the Crusaders.
Monmouth (18-5, 10-2 MAAC), too, will be an overwhelming favorite in its conference tournament. Every power conference bubble team will be cheering for the Hawks to win the MAAC tourney, because they could feasibly get an at-large bid. Monmouth did serious work in the non-conference portion of its schedule, beating UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown. That could be enough to get the Hawks one of the last few spots in the field of 68 if they lose in their conference tournament.
San Diego State (16-6, 9-0 Mountain West Conference) is in its familiar position: first place, though the Mountain West is not as formidable as it has been in years past. The Aztecs own a non-league win over California, but they have lost to every other power conference team they've played this season, and also has defeats against San Diego and Grand Canyon that, at the moment, are costing them an at-large bid.
Finally, Arkansas-Little Rock (19-2, 9-1 Sun Belt Conference) has been one of the best stories of the season, surging to the top of its conference standings. Despite that, the Trojans would be a longshot for an at-large bid if they lose during the Sun Belt tournament. The committee hasn’t shown much appetite for rewarding a dominant regular season team from a small conference that doesn't have the requisite signature wins, and the Trojans' best victory is over San Diego State. That isn't the kind of win that will propel them into the NCAA tournament.