With the regular season wrapping up, bubble teams begin to look toward conference tournaments as last hopes for NCAA tournament berths.
The bubble picture remains a jumbled mess with championship week right around the corner, clarity will emerge from the chaos in the next few weeks, partially out of necessity. Right now, there is a group of 10 to 12 teams fighting for eight spots, but by Selection Sunday, three or four teams will be wrestling for one. The following four games taking place this week will help narrow the field, and also kick off the Bubble Watch for the penultimate week of the regular season. Note: All records and information updated as of Tuesday night.
No. 11 Louisville (21–6) at Pittsburgh (19–7)
Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN 3
The Panthers are on relatively solid ground heading into the final two weeks of the season, but will be tested in home games with Louisville and Duke this week. A split here might be good enough to secure their spot in the field of 68, so Wednesday’s game with Louisville is arguably their most important game to date this season.
Providence (19–8) at Seton Hall (19–7)
Thursday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Both of these teams are in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch, and both could survive on loss on Thursday. The winner, however, will score a résumé-building victory heading into the Big East tournament. The bet here is that both are ultimately smiling on Selection Sunday, though a disastrous finish to the regular season could also send either to the NIT. Thursday’s winner is essentially precluded from going down that disaster path.
Florida (17–10) at LSU (16–11)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN
The Gators have to deal with Vanderbilt before playing this game in Baton Rouge, while LSU will first visit Arkansas this week. Assuming they each win their early-week game, we could potentially be looking at a de facto elimination game, though Florida probably has enough leash to lose this one, especially if it adds a win over Vanderbilt to the résumé on Tuesday. LSU, meanwhile, may not be able to afford another loss to a team not named Kentucky or Texas A&M.
Michigan (19–9) at Wisconsin (17–10)
Sunday, 6 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Wolverines and Badgers are both headed in the right direction, but Sunday’s showdown in Madison will net one of them a résumé-building victory. It could ultimately be the win that removes all at-large doubt for either, but especially Michigan, given that it would provide them with a strong road victory.
The American could end up having the most compelling conference tournament in terms of NCAA tournament implications. While the conference will likely send three or four teams to the dance, there may not be a safe at-large team in the bunch. That means the only team that will feel great on Selection Sunday is the one that nabs the automatic bid.
Connecticut (19–8, 9–5) is probably the most worthy at-large team heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. The Huskies beat SMU last week before falling at Cincinnati. The victory over SMU gave them their third signature win of the season, to go along with previous wins against Texas and Michigan. They are still in a position where a loss against South Florida, Houston or UCF, three of their remaining four matchups in the regular season, could push them outside the tourney field.
Cincinnati (20–8, 10–5) now owns a season sweep of Connecticut, so why are the Bearcats one of the last four teams in our field of 68 while the Huskies are a No. 9 seed? It’s because Connecticut’s RPI, which may not be a great measure, but is still of high importance to the Selection Committee, is 20 spots better. Having said that, Cincinnati is still in a good spot. The Bearcats visit East Carolina in their only game this week. If they keep it clean and then take down SMU in the regular season finale, they will more than likely head back to the NCAA tournament.
Temple (17–10, 11–4) lost to Villanova last week before earning a 69–66 win at Houston. The Owls are also in our current field, thanks to a 5–0 combined record against Cincinnati, Connecticut and SMU. Those wins more than offset bad losses to Memphis and East Carolina, especially when you compare the Owls’ résumé against their AAC counterparts. They got their toughest remaining test of the regular season at Tulsa on Tuesday, but lost by 19 points. If they win out, though, which is entirely possible given matchups with UCF, Memphis and Tulane to close the season, only a bad loss in the conference tournament could potentially keep them from getting an at-large bid.
Tulsa (19–9, 11–5) placed itself on the at-large radar with wins over SMU and Cincinnati in recent weeks, but it still needs another win or two to get over the hump. That’s what made Tuesday’s game with Temple one of the biggest bubble games of the week, a game in which the Golden Hurricane won convincingly. They notched a solid victory while dealing a blow to a fellow bubble team.
Finally, Houston (19–8, 9–6) isn’t even one of the first four teams out of the field of 68, and it might not be one of the first eight, either. Still, the Cougars have wins over SMU, Tulsa, Temple and LSU; and games left with Connecticut and Cincinnati. There’s still an at-large path available to them, but they might need to win both of those games to travel down it.
Last week was monumental in the A-10, with a few of the conference’s lesser-publicized teams getting big wins. Let’s start, however, with arguably the best team in the conference, which suffered its worst week of the season.
A couple of losses aren’t going to put Dayton (22–5, 12–3) in any real jeopardy, but the Flyers have no excuse for dropping games against Saint Joseph’s and St. Bonaventure. While they would have to lose a few more games before they really landed on the bubble, it must be noted that they only have two wins over teams in our field of 68 (Iowa and Monmouth). After that, their next best wins came against Alabama and Vanderbilt. They shouldn’t have any trouble with Rhode Island later this week, but we could be looking at a team that is ripe for a 12-over-5 or 11-over-6 upset in the first round.
On the other side of one of those games last week was Saint Joseph’s (22–5, 11–3), which got the win it needed against Dayton. The big knock on the Hawks all season was that they did not have a win over a team likely headed to the Dance, with their best win before last week coming way back in mid-December against Temple. Now that they’ve added Dayton to that side of the ledger, they should be feeling better about their at-large chances. They did, however, follow that game with a loss to Davidson. They cannot afford a misstep against either Massachusetts or Saint Louis this week.
VCU (20–7, 12–2) has now won three straight games after losing consecutive contests to George Washington and Massachusetts, and is once again in sole possession of first place in the A-10. Three of its final four games of the regular season are on the road, but they’ll still be favored in games with George Mason and George Washington, as well as a home date with Davidson. They’d likely have to lose at least one of those, in addition to their regular season finale at Dayton, to be in any real trouble on Selection Sunday. When your best win is over Saint Joseph’s, you don’t deserve much leeway from the committee.
Two teams from the A-10 outside the field of 68 still have a chance to play their way into an at-large invite. The first is St. Bonaventure (18–7, 10–4), which bounced back from a really bad loss at La Salle to win at Dayton on Saturday. The Bonnies’ résumé certainly isn’t strong enough to get them into the Dance just yet, but they’ve at least put themselves in a position to play their way in over the next two weeks. But they’ll need to win out. Their last four games are against Duquesne, Massachusetts, Saint Joseph’s and Saint Louis, with the first three all coming at home. Even if they were to win those four games, they’d probably need to add one more win over a quality team in the conference tournament to get over the hump.
George Washington (20–7, 9–5), meanwhile, avoided bad losses against Duquesne and La Salle last week. But if they’re going to get an at-large bid, they’ll likely have to beat VCU at home on Saturday, which would give them a season sweep of the Rams.
Locks: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
Notre Dame (18–8, 9–5) features the country’s top offense in adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and is all but a lock for the Dance. We still have to discuss the Irish in the Bubble Watch after they lost to Georgia Tech over the weekend, however. There’s a very unlikely scenario in which they lose to Wake Forest this week and get bounced early in the ACC tournament that could send them tumbling out of the field. Chances are strong, though, that we will move the Irish into the “lock” section as soon as next week.
The rest of the teams from this conference included here are far more interesting. We’ll go from most secure to least, beginning with Pittsburgh (19–7, 8–6). The Panthers got a great win over the weekend, going to Syracuse and beating the Orange by 14 points. They were desperate for a quality win, with their last victory over a team in this week’s field of 68 having been on Jan. 9 against Notre Dame. They can solidify their résumé this week with home games against Louisville and Duke. All they need to do is split those games and take care of Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in the final week of the regular season, to be in good position heading into the ACC tournament.
Next up is Syracuse (18–10, 8–7), which had a rough week with lopsided losses to Louisville and Pittsburgh. The Orange still have a strong résumé, with wins over Notre Dame, Duke, Texas A&M and Connecticut standing out, but they are not safe yet. They play just once this week, hosting North Carolina State on Saturday. A loss in that game would almost certainly leave them on the wrong side of the bubble. If they win this weekend and beat Florida State in their last game of the regular season, they could survive a loss at North Carolina on Feb. 29.
We still have Clemson (16–12, 9–7) in our field of 68, though that seems to have put us on an island. Yes, losses to Massachusetts, Minnesota and Virginia Tech hurt, but show us another team in this range of potential at-large contenders with wins over teams locks like Louisville, Duke and Miami and at-large contenders in Syracuse and Pittsburgh. It’s awfully hard to find that team, likely because it doesn’t exist. Now, Clemson can’t live on those wins forever, but let’s hypothetically play through the rest of its season. If the Tigers win their remaining regular season game vs. Boston College, but lose to Virginia on March 1, they’d finish the regular season at 17–13 overall and 10–8 in the ACC. That would likely make them the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament, with an opening game against a team like Virginia Tech or Florida State. If they win that game, but then lose the conference’s No. 2 seed in the next round, would that be enough to get an at-large bid? It would likely depend on what their fellow bubble teams did over the last couple weeks of the season, but we would lean toward a yes.
Finally, we can likely take Florida State (16–11, 6–9) off the bubble for bad reasons. The Seminoles have now lost four straight games, with the last two coming against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Those are going to be odious losses on Selection Sunday. Their final three games of the regular season are against Duke, Notre Dame and Syracuse. They need to go at least 2–1 in those games, and if the one loss is to Duke and they don’t do anything further in the conference tournament, those two wins might not even matter.
Locks: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia
Realistically, Baylor (20–8, 9–6) is going to get an invite to the Dance. There’s simply no way anyone could say with a straight face that it wouldn’t be one of the 36 best at-large candidates, assuming it does not win the Big 12 tournament. Having said that, the Bears are 0–4 against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia after Tuesday night’s loss to the Jayhawks, so we can’t call them a “lock” just yet. They have one game left with the latter two of those three teams, as well as league doormat TCU. A 2–2 record in those four games would remove all doubt. If they were to lose all three of those games to the conference’s powerhouses, though, and then not add to their résumé in the conference tournament, they could be sweating on Selection Sunday. Even if that happened, however, the bet here would be that they’d get in, though perhaps no higher than as a No. 8 or No. 9 seed.
Texas (18–10, 9–6) is in a similar spot after splitting games with West Virginia (win) and Baylor (loss) last week. The Longhorns now own a season sweep of the Mountaineers, and individual wins against Iowa State and North Carolina. Barring disaster, that’s going to be plenty to get them into the field of 68. In fact, so long as they don’t lose either of their remaining games to Kansas State or Oklahoma State, it shouldn’t matter what they do in matchups with Oklahoma on Saturday or Kansas on Monday.
The one true bubble team in the conference may end up being Texas Tech (18–9, 8–7). The Red Raiders are on a monster five-game winning streak that includes one of the most impressive three-game runs of the season. Three weeks ago, they were 12–8 overall and 2–6 in the Big 12. They’re now 18–9 and 8–7 with wins over Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma and TCU. If they can avoid a bad loss against Kansas State in the final game of the regular season, they should be safe.
Locks: Villanova, Xavier
Welcome to the most top-heavy conference in the country, which also doubles as the most quietly disappointing league, top to bottom. At least one of Villanova or Xavier is likely to be a No. 1 seed, with the other almost certainly getting a No. 2. After those two teams, however, the Big East likely won’t have another team seeded better than No. 7 or 8.
Providence’s (19–8, 7–7) win at Villanova feels like it was one year ago, not one month ago. Since then, the Friars have gone 2–5, with both of those wins coming against Georgetown by a combined seven points. Their last four games of the regular season are against Seton Hall, DePaul, Creighton and St. John’s. They need to spend the next two weeks getting right for the Big East tournament. If they don’t and they drop, say, two of those games, they may not have to worry about getting right for the NCAA tournament.
Seton Hall (19–7, 9–5) has won six of its last seven games, but none were against teams in our field of 68. In fact, they’ve now gone more than a month without a win over a team inside the field of this week’s Bracket Watch, and that was over the backsliding Friars. While Thursday’s return matchup with Providence is weighty for both teams, the Pirates can really do themselves a favor by beating Xavier on Sunday.
Butler (18–9, 7–8) is one of our last four teams in this week’s Bracket Watch, a reflection of the fact that it simply cannot boast of very many quality wins. Yes, the Bulldogs beat Temple, Cincinnati and Purdue in the nonconference portion of their schedule, but they are 0–4 against Villanova and Xavier, and their best win in conference was against Seton Hall. They’ve likely done enough to remain in the field so long as they can avoid a bad loss, but it’s going to be an uncomfortable Selection Sunday for them no matter what, unless they make a deep run in the conference tournament.
Creighton (17–10, 8–6) still has an outside shot at earning an at-large bid, but it would likely have to win out to put itself in that position heading into the Big East tourney. That would add wins over Marquette, St. John’s, Providence and Xavier to the Bluejays’ résumé. Anything short of that would almost certainly require them to advance to the conference tournament championship.
Locks: Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue
After beating Nebraska and Purdue last week, Indiana (22–6, 12–3) has a half-game lead in the Big Ten, with wins over Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, in addition to the recent victory against the Boilermakers. Congratulations on joining the Calamity Only Club, Indiana. Even if the Hoosiers lose their remaining games with Iowa and Maryland, they’ll hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Wisconsin (17–10, 9–5) predictably lost at Michigan State last week, but the Badgers bounced back with a win over Illinois on Sunday. They have now won eight of their last nine games and are headed in the right direction going into the final two weeks of the regular season. A win at Iowa on Wednesday would likely remove any remaining doubt, but that’s not a must-win game for them. Sunday’s tilt with Michigan (19–9, 9–6) in Madison, however, likely is.
The Wolverines lost at Ohio State and at Maryland last week. They nearly knocked off the Terrapins, which would have been a huge coup for a fringe team. They cannot afford a loss to Northwestern on Wednesday in advance of their huge game with Wisconsin over the weekend. They wrap up the regular season with a home date against Iowa next week. If the Wolverines can beat either the Badgers or Hawkeyes, they’ll be in a very good spot entering the Big Ten tournament.
Finally, let’s have a brief discussion about Ohio State (18–11, 10–6), which is making its Bubble Watch debut this season. The Buckeyes have won four of their last five games and are now sixth in the league, but they just got their first win against a Big Ten team in our field of 68 last week, beating Michigan 76–66 in Columbus. They’re not really on the at-large radar just yet, but that could change over the next two weeks. A 19-point home loss to Michigan State on Tuesday hurt, but OSU welcomes Iowa to Columbus this week before visiting East Lansing next week in its regular-season finale. The Buckeyes liekly need to win those games to enter the at-large discussion, which is unlikely, but not at all impossible. Anything short of that likely precludes them from getting an at-large invite, however, turning this into a make-or-break week for the Buckeyes.
Locks: Arizona, Oregon
We know Oregon and Arizona are the two best teams in this conference, as well as the only tournament locks right now. We also know that the Pac-12 will likely send at least six, and as many as eight, teams to the Dance. And finally, we know that three more teams, while not quite locks just yet, should have that status by Selection Sunday.
Utah (21–7, 10–5) is just a half game behind Oregon and Arizona for first place. The Utes have won four straight games, picking up a pair of impressive road wins last week by taking down UCLA and USC. Chances are we’ll look back at that week as the one during which the Utes punched their ticket to the Dance. They spend the rest of the regular season at home, welcoming Arizona State and Arizona this week, before wrapping up with Colorado. While it would be a shock if they were in any jeopardy on Selection Sunday, they would remove any doubt with a win over Arizona this Saturday.
Next up in the conference standings is California (19–8, 9–5), which has won five straight games and is now a game out of first place. Cal owns wins over Oregon, Arizona and Utah, making their inclusion in the tournament just about a foregone conclusion. They, too, could make themselves a lock this week if they manage to beat USC on Sunday.
The last of the likely-but-not-lock teams from the Pac-12 is USC (19–8, 8–6). Despite losing three of their last four games, the Trojans are in a great spot to earn an at-large bid. They can’t get complacent this week, with road games against Stanford and California. They’ll be underdogs in that second game, and Stanford has been tough at home this season, beating Utah, Cal and Oregon in Palo Alto. If they were to lose both those games, their once-solid footing = would become slightly tenuous heading into the final week of the regular season.
The Pac-12 features four more teams that could ultimately earn at-large bids, with at least one of the four likely to get an invite. Colorado (19–9, 8–7) sits at the top of that list, though the Buffaloes lost to both USC and UCLA last week. Wins over Oregon and California have them in this week’s Bracket Watch, and they have two remaining chances in the regular season to add to their résumé. The first comes at home against Arizona on Wednesday. A win there would be absolutely huge for a team that could still easily end up on both sides of the bubble.
Washington’s (16–11, 8–7) at-large hopes have taken a nosedive over the last few weeks. They’ve lost four of their last five games, and haven’t defeated a team in our field of 68 since knocking off Colorado on January 20. Their final three games of the regular season are at Oregon State, at Oregon and home against Washington State. They absolutely need to pull off an upset in Eugene to be on the at-large radar at the start of the Pac-12 tournament.
UCLA (15–12, 6–8) has been through an up-and-down season, and while it doesn’t have enough to make the tournament just yet, it does have a few huge chances to bolster its résumé over the next two weeks. The Bruins visit California on Thursday, and then host Oregon next Wednesday. They have to win both of those games to reverse the damage they’ve done to their tournament standing, but if they do, they could be a decent run in the conference tournament away from an at-large.
Oregon State (15–10, 6–8) remains in play for an invite from the committee, but it’ll probably have to win out—and then do a little damage in the conference tournament, too. Should the Beavers win their final four games, they’d add victories over Washington, USC and UCLA, with the latter two on coming on the road. Anything short of that would likely send them to the NIT.
Locks: Kentucky, Texas A&M
Any team that loses to Missouri cannot be considered a lock for the field of 68 when there are two weeks left in the regular season. So, sorry South Carolina (22–5, 9–5), you’re going to have to spend at least another week in the Bubble Watch. Realistically, the Gamecocks will go dancing, but that’s just an unconscionable loss for a team that shouldn’t have any trouble with the Tigers. It was, however, encouraging to see the Gamecocks bounce back with an overtime win over Florida on Saturday. A road game with Mississippi State this Saturday could be tricky, but they should feel pretty safe on Selection Sunday, unless they fall apart over the next few weeks. The SEC is going to get more than three teams in the field of 68, but the identities of those additional teams are still up for debate.
Florida (17–11, 8–7) is definitely next up in the conference pecking order, but nothing is guaranteed as a sixth-place SEC team. The Gators beat Georgia before losing that game at South Carolina last week, and are now looking at a three-games stretch during which they will meet Vanderbilt, LSU and Kentucky. Losing all of those games would leave them in serious trouble, whereas beating the Commodores and the Tigers would have them playing with house money against Kentucky at home.
LSU (16–12, 9–6) may have waved goodbye to its at-large candidacy last week with losses to Alabama and Tennessee, and especially after Tuesday night’s 20-point loss at Arkansas. Those wins over Kentucky and Texas A&M will carry the Tigers a long way, but they still need two more wins in the estimation of the Bubble Watch. We cannot overstate the importance of Saturday’s game between them and Florida to both teams. Depending on the result of that game, as well as what both teams do in the SEC tournament, we could look back on that as a de facto elimination game. Keith Hornsby, the Tigers’ senior guard and second-leading scorer, could miss the rest of the season as he recovers from a hernia, and that could cost LSU its chance at the tournament.
Alabama (16–10, 7–7) is just on the other side of the bubble, starting this week as one of our first four teams outside the field of 68. While they surged into the tournament picture with wins over Texas A&M, Florida and LSU, they simply don’t have the résumé to absorb a home loss to a team like Mississippi State. They can get right back on the good side of the bubble by upsetting Kentucky in Lexington on Tuesday. That, of course, is a tall order. If they lose that game, they’ll likely have to win their final three games against Auburn, Arkansas and Georgia to catch the eye of the Selection Committee.
Vanderbilt (17–11, 9–6) is a step down from Alabama, but it has the sort of remaining schedule you want when you’re a bubble team. The Commodores defeated Florida on the road Tuesday, and then they host Kentucky on Saturday. Next week, after a home date with Tennessee, they’ll travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M on Saturday. In other words, while they’re not even one of our first four teams out, they’ll have every opportunity to play themselves into at-large range over the next two weeks.
Mid-major contenders to watch
Wichita State (21–7, 14–2 Missouri Valley) has won three straight games since its disastrous loss to Northern Iowa. But those wins don’t change its at-large calculus. All the wins in the world against sub-100 RPI teams won’t do a thing for the Shockers’ résumé, and nothing will change the fact that they will have exactly one win over an at-large worthy team on Selection Sunday (Utah). If they lose in the conference tournament, why would they be more deserving of an at-large bid than a team with excellent wins like Clemson? Don’t let the name brand fool you. This team needs to win its conference tournament.
Saint Mary’s (22–4, 13–3 West Coast) earned its biggest win of the season last week, simultaneously delivering its biggest rival a potential deathblow. By beating Gonzaga (21–7, 13–3 WCC) on Saturday, the Gaels turned themselves into the only WCC team potentially worthy of an at-large bid. We have them in this week’s Bracket Watch as the conference’s automatic qualifier, a status they’ve earned by virtue of their season sweep of the Bulldogs. As for the team that has had a stranglehold on this conference for nearly two decades, there’s simply little chance it can get an at-large bid at this point. They have just one win (Connecticut) against a team in our field of 68, and two against teams in the RPI top 100. A team with that résumé cannot possibly add another loss in the WCC tournament and earn an at-large invite from the committee.
Monmouth (23–6, 15–3 Metro Atlantic Athletic) may have also seen its at-large hopes fade away after losing to Iona last week. The Hawks’ at-large candidacy rested upon two pillars. The first was, and still is, an impressive nonconference résumé that includes wins over Notre Dame, USC, Georgetown and UCLA. The second was their absolute domination of the MAAC. The loss to Iona, unfortunately, pierced their armor. The Hawks now have four sub-100 RPI losses, and three of those were to teams outside the RPI top 200. Any team that would beat them in the MAAC tournament would deal them their fifth loss to a team with an RPI worse than 100. That’s not the sort of résumé that nets any team an at-large bid.