Bubble Watch: Big Ten should be the most interesting conference in the country
- In a down year for the Big Ten, only Wisconsin and Purdue look like NCAA tournament locks. Beyond those two, the league's bubble picture is murky right now.
This week’s Bubble Watch comes to you from the crossroads of America’s heartland. My fiancée and I spent the weekend in Cleveland visiting her family and, as I type, she’s driving us back to Chicago. It’s a fitting setting for this week’s Bubble Watch with what we’ve seen in the first three weeks of conference play. The Big Ten is going to be the center of the bubble universe for the next two months, for reasons we will explain in more detail later. The depth of the ACC will give that conference its fair share of bubble teams, and the lack of sure-fire tournament teams in the SEC will place a number of its members on shaky-yet-hopeful footing through the beginning of March, but no conference can match the Big Ten’s volume of potential middle seeds (Nos. 7–11) in the field of 68.
With that, let’s dig into where things stand as we head into the fourth week of conference play.
Cincinnati (15–2, 5–0) drew first blood in the battle for AAC supremacy, knocking off SMU (15–4, 5–1) at home last week. Both teams will likely be safely in the field of 68 long before Selection Sunday, but the win is now the best of the season for the Bearcats. They’re set for an easy week ahead, taking on Temple and Tulane. Given the overall strength of the conference, the Bearcats have a shot at a gaudy record. If they go, say, 16–2 in conference and sweep the regular season and tournament titles, they could play their way up to a No. 2 or 3 seed.
The Mustangs end the coming week against Houston (13–5, 4–2), a team that was one of the first four out in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Cougars fell short at UCF (13–4, 4–1) over the weekend, dropping a game that would have been a solid résumé-builder for a true bubble squad, given that it would have been a strong road victory. The Knights did well to protect their home court, but these teams are in similar spots. If they can’t get a win or two against Cincinnati or SMU, will they be able to do enough to get an at-large bid? The lack of strength in the AAC works against its teams. That makes Saturday’s game at SMU huge for Houston.
Finally, Memphis (13–5, 3–2) went 1–1 last week, with the loss coming at Tulsa. That’s the sort of loss a team with one top-50 kenpom.com win can’t really afford. The Tigers visit Houston and host UCF this week. A 2–0 week would go a long way toward putting them on the fringes of the field of 68.
From top to bottom, the A-10 looks like the weakest conference that will likely get multiple bids to the tournament. If Dayton (13–4, 4–1) or VCU (14–4, 4–1) falls off at any point this season, we could realistically see just one A-10 team in the Dance. It’s more likely, however, that those teams hold on, and another squad does enough to join them in the field.
Rhode Island (11–6, 3–2) looks like the best of the rest right now, and indeed has a better kenpom.com ranking (49) than VCU (52). Still, the Rams have losses to Valparaiso, Providence and La Salle on their résumé, the latter of which came at home last week. They’re going to have to get a win or two over the best teams in the conference, and they can’t afford many missteps.
Rhode Island can’t really bolster its résumé this week with road games against Duquesne and Richmond (11–6, 5–0). We should add the Spiders this week, given that they’re unbeaten in league play. We must also be realistic, however. Their best conference win was at Davidson, and they lost nonconference games to Old Dominion, Bucknell and Oral Roberts. In other words, we’ll take them seriously if they win at Dayton on Thursday. Until then, consider them the beneficiaries of a weak schedule to start conference play.
Davidson (9–7, 2–3) and La Salle (10–5, 4–1) are faint blips on the radar for the time being. The Explorers scored a big win over Rhode Island on Thursday, and they need another of that brand to really get into the bubble discussion. They’ll have a shot at that when they visit VCU on Sunday. Davidson, meanwhile, got its best win of the year by knocking off VCU last weekend. Before either team can set their sights on bigger fish, they’ll play each other in Philadelphia on Thursday.
We’re still two months out from Selection Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine any fewer than 10 ACC teams getting into the tournament field. Six of them—North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, Virginia, Duke and Notre Dame are as good as in already. Four more are likely, starting with Miami (12–4, 2–2), Clemson (11–6, 1–4), Pittsburgh (12–6, 1–4) and Virginia Tech (13–4, 2–3).
The Hurricanes won at Pittsburgh over the weekend to pull to .500 in the conference. They don’t have any wins that jump off the page, but are ranked 31st on kenpom.com and don’t have any unsightly losses. Clemson had the tough luck of facing North Carolina, Notre Dame and Virginia in three of their first five conference games. They lost all of those, as well as one more to Georgia Tech. It’s awfully hard to watch Clemson play and come away with the impression that they won’t be worthy of an at-large bid, but you can’t lose your way in to the Dance. At some point, they’ll have to beat the ACC’s elite. They’ll have yet another opportunity when they visit Louisville on Thursday. Pittsburgh has lost three straight games to Syracuse, Louisville and Miami, the last of which came at home. They can still live on wins over Virginia and Maryland for the time being, but, like Clemson, they can’t count on losses to great teams to save them. The Panthers play just once this week, visiting NC State on Thursday. The Hokies can point to wins over Duke and Michigan as evidence of their fitness for an at-large bid, and they did well to beat Syracuse last week. If it turns out that there isn’t room for all of these teams in the tournament, their matchups with one another will be crucial. Virginia Tech takes a trip to Clemson on Sunday. Bubble watchers won’t want to miss that one.
The next tier in the conference includes Syracuse (11–8, 3–3), Wake Forest (10–7, 1–4) and, generously, NC State (12–6, 1–4). The Orange scored a couple of solid wins over fellow bubblers Miami and Pittsburgh. That’s a solid base for launching into the at-large discussion. Still, they need to add a win that really moves the needle. After losing to North Carolina on Monday, they’ll have another shot at such a win at Notre Dame on Saturday. At this point, the Demon Deacons have proved they can lose to good teams. All seven of their losses are to teams ranked in the top 33 on kenpom.com, and five of them were on the road or on a neutral floor. That’s not enough to really be in the at-large picture, though, when your best win is over the College of Charleston. In that vein, Wake Forest can do itself a favor or two with games against Miami and NC State this week. As for the Wolfpack, they just slogged through a disastrous week, losing to Boston College and Georgia Tech. Depending on what they do against Pittsburgh and Wake this week, they could be out of the Bubble Watch in short order.
Among the Big 12’s true bubble teams, TCU (14–3, 3–2) is coming off the best week. The Horned Frogs went on the road and knocked off Texas, then returned to Fort Worth and protected their home court with a win over Iowa State. They also got a little boost to their nonconference résumé when Illinois State, a team they beat in November, took down Wichita State over the weekend. First-year coach Jamie Dixon has the Horned Frogs pointed toward their first tournament berth since 1998. The work never ends, and rarely gets easier, in the Big 12, though. TCU visits Texas Tech (13–4, 2–3) and hosts Baylor this week.
We’ll move next to the Red Raiders, which beat Kansas State and lost to Oklahoma last week. The Oklahoma loss is a bit disconcerting for a team that also has a neutral-court loss to Auburn on its résumé, but the win over West Virginia is going to carry Texas Tech a long way. The early bet here is that a .500 record in the conference, with another strong win or two mixed in, will be plenty to get the Red Raiders into the field of 68. They face a couple of fellow bubble teams this week, hosting TCU and Oklahoma State.
Iowa State (11–6, 3–3) checks in next from the Big 12, largely because the Cyclones are trending safely toward an at-large berth. First and foremost, they the No. 23 team on kenpom.com, with wins over Texas Tech, Miami and Oklahoma State, all of which are top-40 teams. They aren’t quite on the same footing as the Red Raiders, even though they own a win over them, because they don’t have a win against a team the caliber of West Virginia. Still, they’re on safe footing for now. Like Texas Tech (and TCU, for that matter), if they can manage to go .500 in the Big 12 with a couple of wins against the conference’s elite, they should feel good on Selection Sunday. They nearly missed what would have been a huge coup on Monday, falling by four points to Kansas.
We’ve seen the script playing out in Manhattan before, and it typically doesn’t end well for Kansas State (13–4, 2–3). Yet again, the Wildcats are taking care of business against teams they should beat, falling just short against elite competition and struggling on the road. All four of their losses are to top-50 kenpom.com teams. All 13 of their wins are over teams ranked 70th or worse. They don’t have a true road victory this year, having won just three games outside the Little Apple. Even though Oklahoma State (10–7, 0–5) isn’t in our field of 68, a win in Stillwater on Wednesday would be huge for the Wildcats.
The Cowboys round out our look at the Big 12. They don’t have any losses to be ashamed of, but all they’ve done so far is proved to the committee that they can’t beat at-large competition. The Cowboys won’t see the best the Big 12 has to offer for a few weeks, but they still have opportunities to build the résumé with their next four games coming against Kansas State, Texas Tech, TCU and Arkansas in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
The Big East has some of the most interesting teams at the top of its conference, with Villanova, Creighton, Butler and Xavier all harboring legitimate Final Four hopes. After those four, however, there’s a chance this conference won’t send any teams to the Dance.
Seton Hall (12–6, 2–4) and Marquette (12–6, 3–3) are its next best bets. We’ll start with Seton Hall here, since they were in our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Pirates lost at Marquette and Providence last week, but remained in the field thanks to a nonconference résumé that includes wins over South Carolina and California. They dropped their third straight game, losing at Villanova by 30 points on Monday. They must take care of business against St. John’s on Sunday, and then get ready for an eight-day stretch that includes matchups with Butler and Xavier.
Marquette, meanwhile, protected home court with wins over Seton Hall and DePaul last week. They could have done wonders for their at-large worthiness on Monday, but blew a big first-half lead against Butler, losing 88–80 at Hinkle. Had they taken down the Bulldogs, they would have opened a path toward a No. 5 or 6 seed. They have an opportunity to bounce right back, but have their work cut out for them at Creighton on Saturday.
Providence (13–7, 3–4) went to D.C. on Monday and pummeled Georgetown (10–9, 1–5), 74–56. While it was a solid win for the Friars, they still don’t have a résumé that makes them fit for the field of 68. That could change instantly if they pull off a huge upset at Villanova on Saturday. At this point, the Hoyas are all but off the at-large radar.
If a certain Bracket and Bubble Watch writer you know ends up losing his mind this season, you can blame this conference. The Big Ten has just two teams—Wisconsin and Purdue—locked into the Dance. They’ll likely get at least four or five more, but the identity of those teams is anyone’s guess. Eleven of the conference’s 14 teams are ranked between 33rd and 86th on kenpom.com, and the transitive property does not seem to apply in the Midwest.
Here’s just one loop. Maryland (16–2, 4–1) beat Indiana; Indiana (12–6, 2–3) beat Illinois; Illinois (12–6, 2–3) beat Michigan; Michigan (12–6, 2–3) beat Penn State; Penn State (11–7, 3–2) beat Michigan State; Michigan State (12–7, 4–2) beat Minnesota (twice); Minnesota (15–4, 3–3) beat Northwestern; Northwestern (15–4, 4–2) beat Nebraska; and Nebraska (9–8, 3–2) brings us back to the beginning with its win over Maryland. Add in Ohio State (11–7, 1–4), which just beat Michigan State last week, and Iowa (11–8, 3–3), which owns wins over Purdue and Michigan, and it’s clear that the Big Ten is the most unpredictable conference in the country, at least outside of Madison and West Lafayette. Again, it’s likely that the conference places at least six teams in the field.
After Wisconsin and Purdue, the best bets are Maryland, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern, with Michigan and Illinois a step ahead of Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska.
Three weeks into conference play, the Pac-12 has just three true bubble teams. California (13–5, 4–2) has won three straight games, though the only one of those that moved the needle was its road victory at USC two weeks ago. That’s the Golden Bears’ only win of the season over a team with at-large hopes, and the Pac-12 isn’t going to give them too many more chances at résumé-building victories. They do get one this week, however, with a visit to Eugene to take on Oregon on Thursday.
Utah (12–5, 3–2) had a great week, knocking off USC by 22 points and nearly pulling off an upset over UCLA, ultimately losing 83–82. The Utes are positioned for a run in the conference now that they seem to have figured out an offensive identity. They have the fifth-best two-point field goal percentage in the country, and rank 13th in kenpm.com’s effective field goal percentage. They need to keep things clean when they take a swing through Washington state this week, battling the Cougars and Huskies.
Once upon a time, USC (16–3, 3–5) looked like the class of the second tier of Pac-12 teams. After losing to both Cal and Utah, however, that is no longer the case. The Trojans went undefeated in nonconference play, but the only top-50 kenpom.com they beat in that time was SMU. Since getting into conference play, they’ve fallen to three top-55 kenpom.com teams. Arizona visits Los Angeles this week, with its first game of the week coming at USC. The Trojans could certainly get back in the committee’s good graces with a win in that game.
South Carolina (14–3, 4–0) is slowly but surely becoming a tier of one in the SEC. The Gamecocks can’t quite hang with Kentucky and Florida, but they’re clearly better than the rest of the bubble driftwood in the conference. They took down Michigan and Syracuse in the nonconference portion of their schedule and are now 4–0 in the SEC, with wins over Georgia, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Mississippi. We’ll know much more about South Carolina after this week, when it hosts Florida and visits Kentucky.
Here’s the issue that will plague the rest of the bubble teams in the conference—Georgia (11–, 3–2), Arkansas (13–4, 2–3), Alabama (10–6, 3–1), Tennessee (9–8, 2–3), Vanderbilt (8–9, 2–3), Mississippi State (12–4, 3–1) and Texas A&M (9–7, 1–4)—when they come before the committee: There isn’t an especially strong nonconference win among them. Texas A&M beat Virginia Tech, but the Aggies are 1–4 in the SEC, with their only win coming against also-ran LSU. Arkansas beat Houston and Texas. The former is just outside our current field of 68, while the latter of isn’t on the at-large radar. Given that reality, these teams likely have two paths available to an at-large bid. Perform incredibly well against Kentucky and Florida, or dominate the other teams at their level.
Let’s take Arkansas as an example. The Razorbacks are likely in the best spot of any of these teams three weeks into conference play. However, they’re 2–3 in the conference with losses to Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi State. They’re done with Kentucky, but play Florida once more. Assuming a loss there, how many games would they have to win in conference to feel strong on Selection Sunday? The bet here is 12, and that is likely true for every SEC bubble team.
Kentucky and Florida are for real, but the SEC remains one of the weakest power conferences in the country. Unless there’s a surprise conference tournament champion, we won’t see more than five SEC teams in the field of 68.
Saint Mary’s (15–2, 5–1 WCC) got its first shot at Gonzaga over the weekend, but came up woefully short. The Gaels lost to Gonzaga by 23 points, putting a chasm between the top two teams in the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga will be a contender for a No. 1 seed, however, and the Gaels should be completely safe on Selection Sunday. It would take a couple of losses in the conference to teams not named Gonzaga for the Gales to be in any real jeopardy.
The Missouri Valley saw a surprising result when Illinois State (14–4, 6–0) took down Wichita State (15–4, 5–1) over the weekend. Assuming one of these teams wins the conference tournament, the other will be firmly on the bubble. Illinois State is ranked 39th on kenpom.com, with the 18th-best defense by adjusted efficiency. The Redbirds do have three ugly losses on the résumé to Tulsa, San Francisco and Murray State, but the win over Wichita State makes them clear players in the conference. Wichita State doesn’t have any bad losses—they’ve dropped games to Louisville, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and, of course, Illinois State—but they also don’t have a standout victory. Their only win over a top-100 kenpom.com team came against a rebuilding Oklahoma squad. The MYC may have two at-large contenders where they had one just a week ago, but this still might be a one-bid league.
There’s a natural tendency to want to include San Diego State (10–7, 2–3 MWC) in the Bubble Watch given their recent track record, but the bottom line is the Aztecs don’t belong. With losses to Loyola-Chicago, Grand Canyon, Arizona State and New Mexico dotting the schedule, the Aztecs will not be worthy of an at-large bid, no matter what they do the rest of the season in the Mountain West. In fact, it’s unlikely any Mountain West team will deserve an at-large bid. Nevada (15–3, 4–1) and Boise State (11–5, 4–1) are the class of the conference, but both have bad losses. Nevada dropped games to Iona and Fresno State, while Boise fell to Evansville and Fresno State. Despite wins over Nevada and Boise State, Fresno State (11–7, 3–3) does not deserve at-large consideration. Losses to Prairie View A&M, Cal State Bakersfield, New Mexico, San Jose State and Air Force preclude a team from being an at-large selection. That might not be in the NCAA bylaws explicitly, but it should be.
Among the small conference powerhouses, UNC-Wilmington (17–2, 6–0 CAA) is the only likely at-large contender, if it doesn’t win its conference. The Seahawks only losses this year are to fellow mid-major behemoth Middle Tennessee and Clemson. Recall the case of Monmouth last season. The Hawks had four wins over top-70 kenpom.com teams, but also three losses to sub-200 teams. If UNC-Wilmington loses, say, one regular season game in conference and then falls in the conference tournament championship game, will that be a better body of work than 2016 Monmouth? It isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but that’s a good general thought to have in mind when considering Wilmington’s at-large prospects.
As for the rest of the small conference elite, Middle Tennessee (15–3, 5–0 Conference USA), Chattanooga (14–4, 5–1) and East Tennessee State (14–4, 4–1) are flickering on the at-large radar but will have to hope the committee can deal with sub-100 losses without any top-100 wins to balance them. UT-Arlington (13–5, 3–2), meanwhile, is off the board for good after losing consecutive games to Texas State and Troy.