Bubble Watch: Fringe teams running out of time
With less than four weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, it's time for bubble teams to start making a move if they want to make the NCAA tournament. Alabama, Creighton, Texas Tech and Wisconsin did just that last week, adding huge wins to their respective résumés. Who might do the same this week? Here are the five biggest bubble games over the next six days.
Creighton (17–9) at Butler (17–8)
Tuesday, 7 p.m., FS1
There might not be enough room in the field for both of these teams, meaning this could be the type of elimination game between fellow bubble squads that is usually reserved for conference tournaments. Creighton has been on the NCAA tournament radar since beating Xavier last week. As for Butler, it’s probably two good wins away from feeling solid about its tourney chances. This could qualify as one of those wins, though the Bulldogs will have an even better chance for a statement victory when it plays at No. 1 Villanova on Saturday.
Alabama (15–9) at LSU (16–9)
Wednesday, 9 p.m., SEC Network
The Tigers are in very good position after beating Texas A&M last week. Of course, they weren’t the only team to do that. The Crimson Tide did as well, then followed it up with a win over Florida in Gainesville. Alabama's résumé includes an unsightly loss to Ole Miss, but also a whole lot of good wins, including a neutral-court victory over Notre Dame. A win at LSU could propel Avery Johnson’s bunch into the Big Dance.
No. 15 Dayton (21–3) at Saint Joseph’s (21–4)
Wednesday, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network
At 11–1 in the Atlantic 10, with one huge win over Iowa, Dayton is all but locked into a tournament bid. Saint Joseph’s, meanwhile, is 10–2 in conference play, but it doesn’t have a true signature victory, with its best win coming at Temple in overtime. The Hawks would go a long way toward removing any doubt over their at-large worthiness by upending the Flyers on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh (17–7) at Syracuse (18–8)
Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2
Pittsburgh once looked like the surest best to make the tournament, but the Panthers have lost five of its last seven games and haven’t won a meaningful game since beating Notre Dame in South Bend back on Jan. 9. Syracuse has done the opposite, winning five straight games and eight of its last nine, with wins over Notre Dame and Duke included in that stretch. Both teams could survive a loss here, but a win would certainly help.
Connecticut (18–7) at Cincinnati (19–7)
Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2
The Huskies are just barely on the right side of the bubble, while the Bearcats are just barely outside. Cincinnati won the first meeting between these teams in Storrs, but UConn has the superior résumé outside that game. The Bearcats could negate that advantage with a season sweep.
The American doesn’t have one team that can say it definitely deserves an at-large bid, and that may not change by Selection Sunday. At the same time, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the league fails to get multiple bids.
At the top of the heap for the time being is Temple (16–8, 10–3), which is half a game in front of postseason-ineligible SMU in the league. The Owls have won five straight games since suffering a bad loss to East Carolina, adding a triumph over Connecticut to their résumé last week. It’s hard to make an at-large case for any other AAC team over the Owls, because they’ve swept Connecticut and Cincinnati, and won the only regular season game with SMU on their schedule. In other words, they’re 5–0 against their fellow competitors for the regular season crown.
Connecticut (18–7, 8–4) is one of the last four teams in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch. Nonconference wins over Michigan and Texas will boost the Huskies’ profile, but they’re going to have to do more work in the conference to feel confident heading into Selection Sunday. This week is their biggest of the season to date. They host SMU on Thursday and visit Cincinnati (19–7, 9–4) on Saturday.
The Bearcats had a clean week against Central Florida and East Carolina, two games they couldn't afford to lose. Still, we have them just barely on the wrong side of the bubble, even though they were in our field of 68 a week ago. Wisconsin and Texas Tech leapfrogged Cincinnati thanks to better victories. Playing in the AAC doesn’t allow the Bearcats many opportunities for quality wins. Cincinnati has a huge week on tap with a trip to Tulsa on Thursday and a home game with Connecticut Saturday.
Tulsa (16–5, 8–9) and Houston (18–7, 8–5) are on the fringes of the bubble picture, but both will need to get a few more wins over tournament-caliber teams to have a shot at an at-large bid. The Golden Hurricane get Cincinnati on Thursday for their first chance. The Cougars, meanwhile, have three such games remaining in the regular season, the first of which is on Sunday against Temple.
Like the AAC, the A-10 is going through a down year but one that should still net the conference a minimum of two NCAA tournament bids. Unlike the AAC, the A-10 has a team that can say now it will almost certainly go dancing.
Dayton (21–3, 11–1) has won nine straight games since a bad loss at La Salle. The Flyers are a week away from being considered a lock in this space. They visit Saint Joseph’s and host St. Bonaventure this week. One win would all but guarantee them a spot in the Big Dance, if they don’t already have one locked down.
Two more A-10 teams made our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch, starting with Saint Joseph’s (21–4, 10–2). The Hawks beat George Washington and La Salle last week and are just one game behind Dayton in the conference standings. That makes this Wednesday’s meeting between the two in Philadelphia huge for both teams. A win for Saint Joe's would leave it tied with the Flyers atop the conference standings and would make the Hawks a relatively easy choice to be an at-large team.
VCU (18–7, 10–2) also made this week’s field of 68, but as one of the last four teams in the dance. After losing to George Washington 10 days ago, the Rams followed it up by losing to lowly Massachusetts on the road last Thursday. They bounced back with an easy win over Saint Louis, but this team just doesn’t have the résumé that can absorb too many losses to teams like the sub-.500 Minutemen. VCU has one win over a team in the field—Saint Joseph’s—with its next best win coming against St. Bonaventure. One more loss to an obvious non-tournament team might be too much for the Rams at-large hopes to handle.
St. Bonaventure (17–6, 9–3) and George Washington (18–7, 7–5) are both still in the at-large picture, though the Bonnies look like the next most likely A-10 team to get a bid. They’ve won five straight games, a span that includes victories over Saint Joseph’s and George Washington. The problem, however, is they didn’t beat anyone worthwhile in the nonconference portion of the schedule. This Saturday’s game at Dayton is a must-win for St. Bonaventure. The Colonials, meanwhile, lost to the Hawks and Bonnies last week and are now just 1–3 against potential tourney teams from the A-10. Their early season win against Virginia will only carry them so far. Realistically, they have to win out in the regular season to have a chance at an at-large invite.
Locks: Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
Notre Dame (18–7, 9–4) and Duke (19–6, 8–4) both took huge steps toward the Big Dance this week, and it’s awfully hard at this stage to imagine a field of 68 that doesn’t include them. We’ll likely move them into the “lock” category in the next couple weeks. The Irish beat Clemson and Louisville and have a realistic chance of winning out in the ACC. They're two games behind North Carolina in the loss column, but they own the tiebreaker over the Tar Heels by virtue of their head-to-head win on Feb. 6, and they have a light schedule the rest of the way. Notre Dame faces Georgia Tech and Wake Forest this week and Florida State, Miami and NC State to close the conference season. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, notched huge home wins over then-No. 13 Louisville and then-No. 7 Virginia but now face a brutal week ahead with road games against the Tar Heels and Cardinals. A split week would be a net positive for them.
Four more ACC bubble teams made the tournament in this week’s Bracket Watch, with Syracuse (18–8, 8–5) in the best position. The Orange have won five straight games, knocking off Florida State and Boston College last week. They could move significantly in either direction this week with games against Louisville and Pittsburgh (17–7, 6–6).
The Panthers have lost three straight games, but let’s be honest about their competition in those contests. They fell to Virginia at home and to Miami and North Carolina on the road. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but nevertheless, you can’t lose your way into the tournament, and Pitt's best win was against Syracuse in December. After hosting Wake Forest on Tuesday, the Panthers embark on a difficult three-game stretch against Syracuse, Louisville and Duke. They would be advised to pick up at least one win, and maybe two, against that trio in order to feel good on Selection Sunday.
Florida State (16–9, 6–7) lost both its games last week, falling at Syracuse and at home against Miami. The Seminoles do have a win over Virginia, coupled with solid victories over VCU, Florida and Clemson that will take them a long way, but the résumé will probably be lacking if they can’t get at least one more win against tournament-quality competition. Neither of their opponents this week—Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech—qualify, so those games are must-wins.
Finally, we get to Clemson (15–10, 8–5), which has a very interesting case. The Tigers’ record isn’t exceptional, but they’ve beaten Syracuse, Louisville, Duke, Miami and Pittsburgh. That’s a great quintet of wins, and should easily counterbalance losses to Massachusetts, Minnesota and Virginia Tech. We here in the Bracket and Bubble Watch seem to be more bullish on Clemson than many, but those wins are hard to ignore. We will admit, however, that they’re not going to have a ton of leeway on Selection Sunday. They’ll need to take care of business against Boston College and NC State this week.
Locks: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia
Texas Tech (15–9, 5–7) was one of the biggest winners in the country over the last week, so we’ll start there. The Red Raiders beat Iowa State at home and Baylor on the road, getting back into the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. Now the question is: How do they stay there?? Their six remaining games are split, with three against teams headed to the Dance (Oklahoma, Kansas, West Virginia) and three against conference also-rans (Oklahoma State, TCU, Kansas State). They absolutely need to win all three of the latter contests, even with this Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State coming on the road. They may also have to add one more quality win to the résumé. Remember, the fact that we have them in now reflects where the field stats in the middle of February, not March. Texas Tech, while deserving of a bid, is just 5–7 in conference and its best nonconference win was against either Little Rock or Hawaii.
Baylor (18–7, 7–5) had a mixed week, beating Kansas State on the road but falling to Texas Tech at home. The Bears should be safe, but they have arguably the toughest remaining schedule in the country. They will play Iowa State, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia in five of the six games left on their schedule, with two of those games coming on the road. A 2–3 record in those five should be enough to get them into the Dance, but it’s within the realm of possibility that they go 1–4 or 0–5.
Texas (16–9, 7–5) also had a rough week, losing to Oklahoma and Iowa State. To be fair, both of those games were on the road, and the Longhorns nearly took down the Sooners in Norman. They should be safe, but we can’t call them a lock just yet. That could change this week, with home games against West Virginia and Baylor. If the Longhorns win both, they’ll be a lock heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
Locks: Villanova, Xavier
Without looking at the standings, guess which team is in third in the Big East. Now, be honest. Did you guess Creighton (17–9, 8–5)? The Bluejays are a half game in front of Seton Hall, and a full game clear of Providence and Georgetown. They have done enough to put themselves in the at-large discussion, really shining a spotlight on themselves by beating Xavier last week. Still, it feels like the résumé is one more good win shy of them getting into the tournament. They’ll get an opportunity to get over the hump at Butler on Tuesday in a game that could end up being an elimination game.
Butler (17–8, 6–7) beat Seton Hall and lost to Xavier last week. The problem for the Bears is that, among their six conference wins, just one—at Seton Hall—is against a team in our field of 68. They did beat Purdue and Cincinnati in the nonconference portion of their schedule, but they will not get an at-large bid if they don’t get at least one more win against a potential tournament team in the Big East. If they lose to Creighton and Villanova this week, they will not be in next week’s Bracket Watch.
Providence (19–7, 7–6) lost three straight games and nearly gave away a 20-point lead to Georgetown at home on Saturday. The Friars are still safely on the right side of the tournament picture. Remember, this team beat Villanova in Philadelphia and Arizona, but they won’t want to tempt fate with too many more bad losses. Those DePaul and Marquette reversals are going to force the committee to hold its collective nose when seeding Providence. The Friars hit the road for a showdown with Xavier in its only game this week.
Seton Hall (17–7, 7–5) played just once last week, losing to Butler at home. The Pirates are sharing a boat with Butler and Creighton, owning just one win in conference against a team in the field of 68. It’s hard to imagine all three of them making the dance, and its entirely possible that just one of the three will hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Seton Hall visits Georgetown and St. John’s in games they have to have this week.
Georgetown (14–12, 7–6) is barely showing up on the at-large radar at this point, but it has done enough to surge back into the picture in a meaningful way if it shows up over the next 10 days. The Hoyas next three games are against Seton Hall, Xavier and Butler, all at home. If they win all three, we could be talking about an at-large team heading into the conference tournament.
Locks: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue
Wisconsin (16–9, 8–4) has completely turned around its season under interim coach Greg Gard, punctuated by its 13-point win at Maryland on Saturday. The Badgers have now won seven straight games, including wins over Michigan State and Indiana. Bo Ryan’s midseason ploy to get his longtime assistant an extended tryout as head coach seems to be working for the Badgers, as they’re in the field for the first time all season. They do have games left with Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue, all on the road, but so long as they avoid what would be a bad loss against either Illinois or Minnesota, we should see the Badgers in the dance for the 18th straight year.
Indiana (20–6, 10–3) beat Iowa at home and lost to Michigan State in East Lansing last week. That’s a net positive week for the Hoosiers. Like Wisconsin, they have about as tough a remaining schedule as is possible in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers visit Purdue this Saturday, travel to Iowa on March 1 and host Maryland in their season finale on March 6. Their next game, however, is against Nebraska in Bloomington on Wednesday.
Michigan (19–7, 9–4), meanwhile, had its best week of the season, following an easy road win at Minnesota with a huge win over Purdue. The Wolverines simply aren’t getting enough credit for what they did without Caris LeVert, and now own victories against Purdue, Maryland and Texas. The bet here is that all three of these teams get in the field of 68, giving the Big Ten seven teams in the dance. Michigan spends this entire week on the road, visiting Ohio State on Tuesday and Maryland on Sunday.
When reading any and all future bubble breakdowns of the Pac-12, remember that this conference is going to get at least six invites to the dance. Oregon is in and, after wins over UCLA and USC last week, Arizona (21–5, 9–4) is as good as locked into the field of 68. They’ll officially become a “lock” if they beat Arizona State and Colorado this week.
USC (18–7, 7–5) had a bad week losing to Arizona State and Arizona. The good news for the Trojans is they have a chance to bounce right back this week against a couple of tournament-quality teams in Colorado and Utah (19–7, 8–5).
The Utes had a good week, both directly and indirectly. With respect to the former, they beat Washington and Washington State at home; As for the latter, their wins over Texas Tech and Duke gained some value with those teams really rising in the eyes of the selection committee. They’ll take a swing through Los Angeles this coming week, playing UCLA on Thursday and USC on Sunday.
California (17–8, 7–5) has won three straight games, all of which have been at home, and one of which was against Oregon. The Golden Bears now own victories over the Ducks, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, the top four teams in the conference standings. They’ll take a swing through the state of Washington this week.
Colorado (19–7, 8–5) had a solid week with wins over those two Washington schools. While the Buffaloes are safely on the right side of the bubble, they’ve done all their damage at home. Wins over Oregon, California, Washington and Oregon State were all in the friendly confines of Boulder. They need to show something away from home and get that chance this week with games at USC and UCLA.
Washington (15–10, 7–6) fell out of the field of 68 after losing at Utah and Colorado. The Huskies have lost three straight games, and while all of those were to teams currently in our field, Washington’s overall résumé just doesn’t match up with the final six or seven teams fighting for the last spots. They will get a chance to add to the résumé this week when California comes to town on Thursday.
Oregon State (15–9, 6–7) is also just on the wrong side of the bubble after a loss at California last weekend. Unlike most teams in the Pac-12, however, they have plenty of good opportunities remaining in the regular season to add to their résumé. The first one comes on Saturday at in-state rival Oregon.
UCLA (14–11, 5–7) hasn’t topped a team inside the field of 68 since beating Arizona on Jan. 7. We might be able to take them off the bubble, in a bad way, sooner rather than later. At the same time, they can turn their season around with Utah and Colorado visiting Los Angeles this week.
Locks: Kentucky, Texas A&M
The SEC has five teams in this week’s Bracket Watch, a number it should be able to maintain or increase over the next few weeks. The two locks seem to be heading in opposite directions, but both Texas A&M and Kentucky will be in the Dance.
LSU (16–9, 9–3) is also trending upward after a great win over the Aggies at home on Saturday. The Tigers started the week with a loss at South Carolina, but the week has to be considered a net positive after taking down the Aggies to enter a first-place tie with Kentucky in the conference standings. Those two teams won’t have their second meeting until the final game of the regular season. This week, LSU gets a home game with Alabama, a team that has surged back into the tournament picture, and road date with Tennessee.
South Carolina (21–4, 8–4) held serve last week, beating LSU before getting trounced by Kentucky. The Gamecocks’ gaudy record obscures the actual ability of this team, but, to be fair, it’s awfully hard to ignore that record, and they do have wins over Clemson, LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. They have a big game this weekend with Florida, but first visit conference doormat Missouri.
The last team from the SEC inside our field of 68 is Florida (16–9, 7–5), which split home games with Mississippi (win) and Alabama (loss) last week. The Gators may not be a lock until they get through the conference tournament without suffering a bad loss, but they’re still sitting in a very strong position thanks to wins over West Virginia, LSU and Saint Joseph’s. Having said that, they do have a quietly tough week ahead with road games against Georgia and South Carolina. Even if they lose both of those, they’d likely remain in the field, but they’d be very close to dropping out. The three games that follow are against Vanderbilt, LSU and Kentucky, so no matter what, Florida’s résumé will look a whole lot different during the first week of March.
Vanderbilt (15–10, 7–5) and Alabama (15–9, 6–6) were both among the First Four Out of this week’s field in the Bracket Watch. The Commodores took care of business against the two worst teams in the conference, Missouri and Auburn. They must do the same this week against Mississippi State and Georgia in advance of games with Florida and Kentucky. By time March 1 gets here, we’ll have a much better idea of where this team stands.
Alabama, meanwhile, had a phenomenal week, notching victories over Texas A&M and Florida. The Crimson Tide may be .500 in an average conference, but three of those wins have come against teams in our field of 68 (the other over South Carolina). Add to that calculus nonconference wins over Wichita State, Notre Dame and Clemson, and Alabama’s résumé is attractive. The Crimson Tide has a real chance to get over the hump when it visits LSU on Wednesday.
Georgia (14–9. 7–5) is just barely holding onto its at-large candidacy, but we might be able to write it off after this week. The Bulldogs host Florida Tuesday and take a trip to Nashville for a showdown with Vanderbilt Saturday. If they lose both games, their at-large hopes will likely be dashed.
Mid-major contenders to watch
Wichita State (18–7, 12–2 Missouri Valley) may have waved goodbye to its at-large hopes by losing to Northern Iowa at home last weekend. The Shockers will get some credit for playing a large portion of the season without Fred VanVleet, but the fact remains that they now have more losses in a bad Missouri Valley Conference—and it is bad this season, ranking behind the Colonial, Mountain West, and West Coast on kenpom.com—than they do wins over teams with realistic at-large hopes (one). Put the name brand aside, and try to spin that as a worthy at-large résumé. It’s nearly impossible. One more regular-season loss would seal Wichita State’s at-large fate. The Shockers are, however, overwhelming favorites to win the MVC tournament.
Saint Mary’s (20–4, 11–3 West Coast) may find itself in the same boat after suffering its second loss of the season to Pepperdine last week. In case you aren’t keeping track at home, the Gaels now have more losses to Pepperdine, which ranks 114th on kenpom.com, than they do wins against teams that could get an at-large bid (one, against Gonzaga). In the estimation of the Bubble Watch, Saint Mary’s has one more chance to build the résumé to the point of it being worthy of an at-large bid, and that comes on Saturday in Spokane. If the Gaels can secure a regular-season sweep of Gonzaga, they could potentially survive a loss in the West Coast Conference tournament, so long as that loss was to the Bulldogs. If they lose that game, however, they’ll almost certainly have to win the conference tournament to get in.
Where, exactly, does that leave Gonzaga (20–6, 12–2 West Coast)? The Bulldogs’ résumé really isn’t that much better than Saint Mary’s, and right now we have the Bulldogs in the field as the automatic qualifier from the WCC. While the good-win category is basically a wash between the two—Gonzaga’s best wins came against Connecticut and Washington—Gonzaga doesn’t have a blemish quite like the Gaels’ twin losses to Pepperdine. By comparison, Gonzaga’s worst losses this season were to BYU and UCLA, two teams outside the field of 68, but comfortably inside the NIT field. That cannot be said for Pepperdine. Still, playing through the above scenario, would Gonzaga be worthy of an at-large bid if it loses to Saint Mary’s this Saturday? What if it wins that game, but loses to the Gaels in the conference championship? Or what if the Bulldogs split that difference, beating Saint Mary’s this weekend, but losing to some WCC also-ran in the conference tournament? The bet here is that only the second outcome would net the Bulldogs an at-large bid. It remains likely that the WCC is a one-bid conference.
Monmouth (21–5, 13–2 MAAC) kept its stronghold on its league with wins over Marist and Rider last week. There is definitely a path to an at-large bid for Monmouth, even with losses to Canisius, Army and Manhattan on the résumé. Wins over Notre Dame, USC, UCLA and Georgetown could offset those losses. That possibility evaporates, however, if the Hawks lose at any point before the conference championship. From this point forward, they’ll have to settle for quantity over quality. If they win out in the regular season, and then lose in the conference championship, they’ll be 27–7. That could be enough, depending on the outcomes of the big conference tournaments.