Bubble Watch: SEC will struggle to put more than three teams in the field

1:26 | College Basketball
Bracket Watch: UCLA stumbles in West region
Tuesday January 24th, 2017

Last week’s Bubble Watch came to you live from the eastern portion of Big Ten country. This week’s comes to you from the skies mostly over part of the southeast, with the SI.com Bubble Watch committee on a flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Chicago. Last week, our setting provided the expected nexus of this season’s bubble landscape, with the Big Ten likely to see three to five of its members on the bubble in the final days leading into Selection Sunday. This week, the Bubble Watch is traveling through a portion of the country that could be largely devoid of bubblers in early March. Later in the column, we will detail how the SEC may only send three teams to the NCAA tournament this season.

American

We’re moving Cincinnati (17–2, 7–0) into the “safely in” category this week. The Bearcats are undefeated in league play and have wins over SMU and Iowa State. They would have to suffer a dramatic, unrealistic downturn in the second half of conference play to be in any real jeopardy on Selection Sunday. SMU (17–4, 7–1) is headed in the same direction, but the Mustangs don’t have a win that matches up with either of Cincinnati’s two best, and they also have three losses to firm bubble teams (Michigan, USC, Boise State). Still, if the Mustangs can play to script the rest of the way in the AAC, they’re not going to have anything to worry about on Selection Sunday.

It was just two short weeks ago that Houston (13–7, 4–4) appeared to be the AAC’s next best hope at an at-large bid. Since then, the Cougars have dropped games to UCF, Memphis and SMU, and are now 4–4 in the conference. Their best win, meanwhile, was against a Rhode Island team that we had as one of the last four in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch. In short, Houston may not be the tournament contender it appeared to have been two weeks ago. The Cougars need to keep things clean at home against Tulane and Temple this week, before getting a return matchup with UCF (14–5, 5–2) on Feb. 1.

Speaking of the Knights, they reside on the absolute outer fringes of the bubble discussion. First-year coach Johnny Dawkins has the program headed in the right direction, but it might not have enough to get into the 2017 Dance. The Knights have three games remaining with Cincinnati and SMU, the first of which comes against the latter at home on Wednesday. If they can manage to go 2–1 in those games and avoid any unsightly losses in the conference, they’ll be a real part of the bubble picture in March.

Memphis (15–5, 5–2) now seems like the top of the second tier of AAC teams, replacing Houston. The Tigers have won three straight games, knocking off the Cougars and the Knights last week. The loss the Tigers suffered at Tulsa could break a tie against them if it comes to that, but they are trending in a good direction. They can’t add to their résumé this week, but it is paramount that they don’t slip up against either Temple or East Carolina. The Tigers simply won’t have the résumé to absorb too many bad losses.

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Atlantic 10

We’re going to keep Dayton (15–4, 6–1) out of the Bubble Watch for the time being, but the Flyers should not yet be considered safely into the field of 68. Yes, they are the best team in the A-10, with a strong kenpom.com ranking of 39. Still, their best win of the season was at home against Rhode Island. They have just one other top-60 kenpom.com win, at home over Vanderbilt. It’d be surprising to see a good Dayton team fall apart in a weak A-10, but a couple of bad losses would have them firmly on the bubble, should they fail to secure the conference’s automatic berth.

VCU’s (15–5, 5–2) maddening inconsistency continued with a loss at Fordham in overtime last week. Fordham’s résumé includes losses to Sacred Heart, Manhattan and Duquesne, so that’s not exactly the sort of loss a bubble team could afford to take. In fact, it helped push VCU out of the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Rams did bounce back with a 38-point throttling of La Salle, but they still have work to do to get into the field. Opportunity knocks on Friday, with a home game against Dayton.

Rhode Island (12–6, 4–2) was one of the last four teams in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Rams have a win over Cincinnati on which they can hang their hat, and are safely in the top tier of the conference, along with Dayton and VCU. The key for them will simply be staying the course. In a conference like the A-10, teams won’t have many chances to build a strong at-large résumé, at least via signature wins. Rhode Island’s path to the tournament will have to be littered with expected wins, true road victories, and maybe a triumph over Dayton or VCU for good measure. Given the landscape of the conference, this is a big week for Dan Hurley’s squad. Rhode Island visits a decent Richmond team on Wednesday and hosts St. Bonaventure on Saturday.

La Salle (11–6, 5–2) snatched a meaningful conference win for the second straight week, taking down Davidson seven days after topping Rhode Island. That the Explorers turned around and dropped a 38-point decision to VCU, however, took some luster off the Davidson win. The Explorers can bank a lot of wins over the next few weeks, even though no individual win will stand out. Their next eight games are all against teams ranked 88th or worse on kenpom.com. Unfortunately for the Explorers, they don’t have any remaining games against Dayton or VCU. They’re likely going to have to win 14 or 15 games in the conference to have a shot at an at-large bid.

Davidson (9–8, 2–4) has a solid win over VCU on its résumé, but losses to Charleston, Richmond, George Washington, Fordham and La Salle significantly outweigh that one victory. We’re only mentioning Davidson here to bring some closure to a case we’ve discussed in the first few editions of the Bubble Watch. We won’t discuss their case until and unless they get a win over one of the top three teams in the conference.

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ACC

Locks: Florida State, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Louisville, Duke

Clemson (11–8, 1­–6) is a case study in the double-edged sword of playing in a conference like the ACC. The benefit is that a schedule filled with at-large worthy teams creates plenty of opportunities for signature wins. The drawback is that those wins are hard to get, and a team can be, oh, I don’t know, 1–6 before it has a chance to blink. Such is the case with Clemson, which picked up its fifth and sixth ACC losses against Louisville and Virginia Tech last week. Their four other conference losses are to North Carolina, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Virginia. None of those, with the exception of Georgia Tech, is a bad loss. Unfortunately for the Tigers, no team can lose its way into the field of 68. The SI.com Bubble Watch committee firmly believes that the Tigers are one of the 36 best at-large teams, but they aren’t getting a bid if they lose 12 games in conference. They have just one game this week, at Pittsburgh. A slow week is a good time for them to get right.

Miami (12–6, 2–4) is in a similar spot, but its case isn’t quite so dire just yet. The Hurricanes have conference wins over NC State and Pitt, and losses to Syracuse, Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Duke. Right now, the only element of Miami’s résumé keeping it from being Clemson, Part 2, is its ACC schedule to date. Clemson has played more of the conference’s elite. Miami could lose those games, but they haven’t had the chance to just yet. After hosting Boston College on Wednesday, the Hurricanes will play North Carolina, Florida State and NC State in a 10-day stretch. That will go a long way toward determining whether they’re dancing.

Virginia Tech (15–4, 4–3) and Wake Forest (12–7, 3–4) joined the ACC’s big dogs in our field of 68 this week. The Hokies are going to be able to live on their Dec. 31 win over Duke for a while, so long as they don’t fall to pieces the way Clemson has in its first seven conference games. Buzz Williams has his team in good position, especially after a road win over Clemson last week. Like the Hurricanes, however, they Hokies have a harrowing stretch on the horizon. They’ll play North Carolina, Virginia twice and Louisville over the next four weeks. The Demon Deacons don’t have a signature win just yet, but the committee isn’t going to be disappointed when it looks at their losses. They may be just 12–7, but the negative results have come against Villanova, Northwestern, Xavier, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina. Yes, that is similar to what we’ve seen from Clemson, but the Demon Deacons’ 13th-ranked offense by adjusted efficiency hints that they’ll be able to hang with the conference’s elite, and could earn a win over one or two of them. If they can pair that with a .500 record in conference, they’ll be a happy bunch on Selection Sunday. They have a chance with Duke coming to visit on Saturday.

The bottom tier of ACC bubble teams includes Pittsburgh (12–7, 1–5), NC State (14–7, 3–5) and Syracuse (11–9, 3–4). Pittsburgh has lost three straight games, and these are not of the variety that stung Clemson. Three of the Panthers recent losses were to Syracuse, Miami and NC State. That run pushed the Panthers from a No. 9 seed to out of our field of 68. The schedule is about to get very tough, too, with Louisville on Tuesday, and a week on Tobacco Road with dates at North Carolina and Duke next week. Losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech precluded us from taking the Wolfpack seriously in this week’s Bracket Watch, but that was before their stirring 84–82 win at Duke on Monday. Had that win occurred before Monday, the Wolfpack likely still wouldn’t have cracked into the field of 68, but they may have been in one of the two groups just outside the bracket. They’ll be hard-pressed to follow this up with another road win at Louisville on Sunday, but they now have the signature win that can be a foundation for an at-large bid. Syracuse, meanwhile, has a lot of work to do to counterbalance losses to Connecticut, Georgetown, St. John’s and Boston College. If they can’t get a win at home this week against either Wake Forest or Florida State, we’ll drop them from the Bubble Watch.

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Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia

Last week, we discussed how Kansas State (15–4, 4–3) had been following a familiar script. While the Wildcats appeared an at-large worthy team, they did not yet have a signature win or a meaningful true road victory. They checked both of those boxes last week. First, they went into Stillwater and beat Oklahoma State 96–88. They followed that by taking care of West Virginia at home, getting them back above .500 in conference play for the first time since the first week of January. There’s rarely time for a breather in the Big 12, however, so the Wildcats need to take advantage of their upcoming schedule. They spend this week on the road, facing off with Iowa State and Tennessee (in the Big 12/SEC Challenge), before hosting TCU early next week. After that, they play Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia in succession. Still, the Wildcats have to feel good about where they are nearly halfway through conference play. No other bubble team in the conference had a standout week.

Iowa State (12–6, 4–3) nearly pulled off an upset of Kansas, which would have been a major coup, but ultimately fell by four points. While the Cyclones are in good position, their only conference win over a team in our field of 68 was their Big 12 opener against Texas Tech at home. That’s something to keep in mind when they host Kansas State this week, before turning to the conference’s elite next week with games against West Virginia and Kansas.

TCU (14–6, 3–5) had a rough week, dropping winnable games at Texas Tech and at home against Baylor. The Baylor loss had to be particularly galling. The Horned Frogs grabbed a lead with five minutes remaining in the game, only to watch the Bears close the game on a 16–4 run. TCU has a win over Iowa State, but its two other conference wins came against Oklahoma and Texas, the only two Big 12 teams off the at-large radar, and its best nonconference win was against Illinois State. The Horned Frogs’ struggles continued on Monday with a loss at Oklahoma State. They need to get back on track with a relatively tame stretch ahead. Their next four games are against Auburn, Kansas State, Texas and Texas Tech (14–5, 3–4).

We’ll move onto the Red Raiders next, given that a), I just mentioned them, and b) they’re the final Big 12 team in our field of 68 this week. They split games with TCU (win) and Oklahoma State (loss) last week. The big difference between them and teams like TCU and Iowa State is that they have a shiny win over West Virginia. If it comes down to one of those teams making the big field, and the other one settling for an NIT bid, wins over teams like West Virginia could be a tiebreaker. The Red Raiders have a trip to Baylor on tap Wednesday, before cooling down with games against LSU, Texas and Oklahoma.

Finally, Oklahoma State (12–8, 2–6) is on the at-large radar as the Clemson of the Big 12. The Cowboys are 27th on kenpom.com, 43rd in the RPI and 15th in strength of schedule. Unfortunately, they’ve dropped most of those would-be résumé-builders, and are now 2–6 in the Big 12, with losses to Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia, as well as Kansas State, Iowa State and lowly (at least by Big 12 standards) Texas. They finally got a win in conference play at Texas Tech on Saturday, and added another against TCU on Monday, but, realistically, they’re going to have go something like 7–3 or 8–2 the rest of the way to get at-large consideration.

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Big East

Locks: Villanova, Butler, Creighton, Xavier

Our theory, first posited last week, that the Big East will be the least interesting power conference from the perspective of the bubble gained steam last week. With the continued failings of Providence (13–8, 3–5) and Georgetown (10–10, 1–6), it’s likely that no more than two Big East teams will be on the bubble on Selection Sunday, and even those two could play their way safely into the field of 68 by time the brackets are revealed.

Let’s start with Marquette (13–6, 4–3), which picked up its best win of the season last week, a 102–94 triumph at Creighton. Even though it was the Bluejays’ first game without senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr., that’s the sort of win that, barring a complete disaster in the second half of the Big East schedule, could eventually lock the Golden Eagles into the field. Their three conference losses thus far were to Butler, Seton Hall and Villanova, all on the road, and they evened things up with the Pirates when they got them in Milwaukee. Marquette has the look of a tournament team at this stage of the season. They get another chance for a season-defining win when Villanova comes to town on Tuesday.

Seton Hall (13–6, 3–4) is the other true bubble team in the conference. The Pirates were one of our last four teams into the field in this week’s Bracket Watch after losing to Villanova by 30 and beating St. John’s comfortably last week. The Pirates’ résumé is quite similar to Marquette’s, minus a win over a team like Creighton. That makes the next 10 days the biggest stretch to date for the Pirates. They host Butler on Wednesday, take the weekend off, and then travel to Cincinnati to clash with Xavier the following Wednesday.

As for Georgetown and Providence, the former hasn’t beat a Big East team other than DePaul or St. John’s in a full year, while two of the latter’s three conference wins this season were against, yep, Georgetown. They’re both off the at-large radar.

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Big Ten

Locks: Wisconsin, Purdue

We’re going to start this week of “What’s Happening in the Country’s Wildest Conference?” with a team that is slowly but surely joining Wisconsin and Purdue among teams safely into the field. Maryland (17–2, 5–1) won its only game, at Iowa, last week. As well as the Terrapins have played, they don’t yet have a résumé that takes them out of the Bubble Watch on the plus side. Their five conference wins have come against Illinois (twice), Iowa, Michigan and Indiana. Their best nonconference win was against Kansas State. The foundation is certainly in place, but the Terrapins are going to have to either bank a few more Big Ten wins, or knock off Wisconsin or Purdue before we can take them off the bubble. They can add another building block when they visit Minnesota on Saturday. First, they need to take care of business against Rutgers on Tuesday.

Everyone seems ready to anoint Northwestern (16–4, 5–2), and the Wildcats are certainly trending toward their first ever NCAA tournament berth, but the team in next best position in the conference is Indiana (14–6, 4–3). Despite their missteps, the committee cannot and will not overlook wins against Kansas and North Carolina. The Hoosiers have seemingly righted the ship, winning three straight games against Rutgers, Penn State and Michigan State. They have a huge week ahead, however, with trips to Michigan and Northwestern. The day that so many Wildcat faithful have impatiently awaited seems on the horizon. It must be noted, however, that the Wildcats’ best conference win thus far, according to kenpom.com ranking, is over Ohio State, and their best nonconference wins came against Dayton and Wake Forest. Those are all solid victories, but they alone do not make an at-large résumé. The Wildcats, or any Big Ten team for that matter, can get an at-large bid without beating Wisconsin or Purdue, but it would likely need at least 12 conference wins in that scenario. The Wildcats still won’t see the conference’s elite for another week. They’ll still have an opportunity to pad their résumé, though, hosting Nebraska and Indiana in Evanston this week.

Michigan State (12–8, 4–3) had seemed to be trending in the right direction at the turn of the calendar with two wins over Minnesota, and another against Northwestern, in a two-week stretch. Since then, they Spartans have dropped road contests with Ohio State and Indiana. Like many teams we’ve discussed already, there’s no way to watch the Spartans and think that they aren’t an at-large worthy squad. They still need to build a résumé to prove themselves though. They have their best shot for a signature win all season on Tuesday when Purdue heads to East Lansing.

Minnesota (15–5, 3–4) has backslid to an alarming degree over the last two weeks, losing three straight games to Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin. The last of those really hurt, considering that the Gophers led for the entire game, only to lose in overtime. Not only would that have stemmed a mini-skid, it would have given them wins over both the Badgers and Boilermakers, a fact that would have been hard for the committee to ignore. As it stands, they’re still in good position for an at-large bid, but not nearly as good as they were two weeks ago. They have a tricky week ahead, with a trip to Ohio State and a home date with Maryland.

Michigan (13–7, 3–4) nearly had its best week of the season, but let a game in Madison that looked winnable with about seven minutes left slip through its grasp. They handled Illinois at home, and their nonconference win over Marquette gained some heft when the Golden Eagles beat Creighton, but a win at Wisconsin would have been a true differentiator come Selection Sunday. Michigan is one of the final four teams in our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch, but that has as much to do with the softness of the bubble as it does with the Wolverines’ tournament bona fides. They have a real chance to do some heavy lifting this week, with games against Indiana and Michigan State on the docket.

Penn State (11–9, 3–4), Nebraska (9–10, 3–4), Ohio State (12–8, 2–5) and Iowa (11–9, 3–4) are all on the fringes of the at-large picture for the time being, but they all have a lot of work to do. With the tournament picture starting to get its first bits of clarity, we’ll let the natural attrition of conference play crop a few of them out of the shot before we delve further into their credentials.

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Pac-12

Locks: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA

The big news out West last week was the return of Arizona sophomore guard Allonzo Trier and the Wildcats’ subsequent win over UCLA. Arizona is now the favorite in the conference and a Final Four contender. Why do we mention that in a Bubble Watch, when both of those teams are worlds apart from the bubble? Well, it’s going to be hard to find bubble news in this conference every week.

Only three teams outside of the Arizona-UCLA-Oregon triumvirate—California (14–6, 5–3), USC (17–4, 4­–4) and Utah­­ (14–5, 5–2)—are worthy of at-large consideration. The only other kenpom.com top-100 team in the Pac-12, Colorado, is 0–7 in conference play. It’s an ugly year for the conference as a whole, even though the teams at the top must be taken seriously in the national championship discussion. Utah’s only conference losses thus far have come at the hands of Arizona and UCLA. They’ve taken care of fellow bubbler USC, as well as some of the conference’s bottom-tier teams. Cal has an eerily similar résumé, with a win over USC, losses to Arizona, UCLA and Oregon, and four more nondescript wins in the conference. USC, meanwhile, only has wins against the large group of Pac-12 also-rans, though it does have the best nonconference win of the three, thanks to an early season win over SMU.

You can likely identify the problem for all of these teams. Is a solid Pac-12 record that doesn’t include a win over Arizona, UCLA or Oregon really more worthy of an at-large bid then, say, a slightly inferior record in a conference like the ACC or Big 12? All three teams have a lot of work to do, notably when you consider that they’ve all already whiffed on a few of their chances against the conference’s elite. USC and Utah both get another shot at signature wins this week, with the former hosting UCLA, and the latter welcoming Oregon to Salt Lake City.

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SEC

Locks: Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina

The SEC, of which there are 14 members, has, from this bubble watcher’s perspective, a better-than-average chance of getting just three teams into the field of 68. Last week, we shared with you the nonconference woes of the conference’s supposed bubble teams—Georgia (12–7, 4–3), Arkansas (15–4, 4–3), Alabama (11–7, 4–2), Tennessee (10–9, 3–4), Vanderbilt (9–10, 3–4), Mississippi State (12–6, 3–3) and Texas A&M (10–8, 2–5). Those teams are a combined 1–11 against Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida. At the same time, they continue to pick off one another. The result? All of them but Alabama are between 2–5 and 4–3 in conference play.

Two of Alabama’s four wins are against LSU and Missouri, the conference’s bottom feeders, and the Crimson Tide lost at Auburn by 20 points last weekend. Georgia has the highest kenpom.com ranking (41) in the conference after the top three teams, but the Bulldogs best win of the year was over . . . Vanderbilt. The Commodores scored a signature win over Florida last Saturday, but the committee has shown little appetite for granting an at-large bid to a team with more than 13 losses. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only six teams have earned an at-large invite with more than 13 losses. Vanderbilt is already at 10, with one game apiece against Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida, as well as a meeting with Iowa State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge this weekend.

Those, mind you, are the best résumés in the conference, beyond the three SEC teams that are already all but ticketed for the Big Dance. The overall weakness of the SEC could open the door to a 10-berth season for the ACC, as well as additional spots for the Big 12 and Big Ten.

Other Conferences

Saint Mary’s (17–2, 7–1 WCC), Illinois State (16–4, 8–0 MVC) and Wichita State (17–4, 7–1 MVC) will be the focus of this section of the Bubble Watch for the rest of the season. In all likelihood, they’re the only teams outside the eight main conferences with at-large hopes. Saint Mary’s bounced back from its loss to Gonzaga with easy wins over Pacific and Pepperdine last week. It’ll be a real disappointment if the Gaels lose to any WCC team not named Gonzaga this season. If they can do that they’ll be in the Dance, even if they drop three games to the Bulldogs. Illinois State continued its dominance of the Missouri Valley last week, beating Bradley and Drake. The Redbirds are now 8–0 in conference, with that win over Wichita State keeping them ahead of the Shockers for the time being. Wichita State is, of course, right on the Redbirds’ heels. While both teams have the look of being at-large worthy, there’s no guarantee the committee takes two teams from the Valley. After all, Wichita State lost to the three best teams it played out of conference—Louisville, Michigan State and Oklahoma State—with its most notable nonconference victory coming at the expense of Oklahoma. The Redbirds, meanwhile, lost to Murray State, Tulsa and San Francisco, and didn’t beat a kenpom.com top-100 team out of conference. No matter what either team does the rest of the season, the only sure way for them to be off the bubble on Selection Sunday is by winning the conference tournament.

The Mountain West likely lost all hope of an at-large bid last week, when Nevada lost to Fresno State (again) and Boise State fell at home to New Mexico. It’s a down year for the conference as a whole, and it would be a shock if any team but the conference tournament champion went dancing.

Among the small conference powerhouses, UNC-Wilmington (19–2, 8–0 CAA) is likely the only one that could possibly make an at-large case, if it comes to that point. 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 (17–3, 7–0 C-USA), Chattanooga (15–4, 6–1 Southern) and East Tennessee State (15–5, 5–2 Southern) are flickering on the at-large radar, but among that group only the Blue Raiders have more top-100 wins than sub-100 losses.

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