Bubble Watch: Fringe Big Ten teams could get burned on Selection Sunday

Tuesday February 14th, 2017

All eyes were on the selection committee over the weekend a month earlier than usual when, for the first time ever, it gave the college basketball world preview of the bracket. While that reveal was limited to the top 16 teams in the field of 68, it said something loud and clear about the entire field. If you’re in the Big Ten, you might be in trouble.

No Big Ten team was among the top 16 teams in the field on Saturday. The ensuing discussion understandably centered on Wisconsin and Purdue, the top two teams in the conference. They will be safely in the Big Dance, though. The problem in the Big Ten will be how the committee views its next tier of teams. Northwestern and Minnesota are likely safely in the field, but Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana are the bubbliest teams in the Big Ten. If the committee’s view of the conference doesn’t brighten in the next few weeks, they could find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday.

American

Locks: Cincinnati, SMU

Cincinnati (22–3, 11–1) and SMU (22–4, 12–1) will make the field of 68 safely, but they could be the only teams the AAC sends to the zdance. As Selection Sunday draws nearer, it seems likely that this conference will have, at most, one bubble team. Houston (18–7, 9–4), which has won five straight games, is 36th on kenpom.com and 57th in the RPI, both of which are suggestive of a bubble team. They’re just 1–3 against the RPI top 50, and 3–3 against the top 100, and the selection committee affirmed the importance of those records during its midseason reveal. The formula for an at-large bid for the Cougars is pretty simple. They host SMU on Saturday and visit Cincinnati in the final week of the regular season. They need to split those games, at minimum, to have a on Selection Sunday.

Memphis (18–8, 8–5) and UCF (15–10, 6–7) have both been faint blips on the bubble radar this season, but they have faded from view. The Tigers lost at home to Temple last week, dropping them to 2–6 against the RPI top 100. What’s more, they also have two sub-100 losses. UCF, meanwhile, lost to Cincinnati (understandable) and Connecticut at home (not). The Golden Knights are 0–3 against the RPI top 50 with five losses to teams ranked 101st or worse. No matter what they do the rest of the season, they aren’t getting an at-large bid.

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Atlantic 10

It’s still too early to call either Dayton (19–5, 10–2) or VCU (20–5, 10–2) a lock, but both teams will likely earn that status before the A-10 tournament. The rest of the regular season should be academic for the Flyers. They’ll be favored in all six of their remaining games, including a home date with VCU the first week of March. Dayton is likely to have a top-30 RPI, top-35 kenpom.com ranking and 24 wins going into the A-10 tournament, including a 3–3 record against the RPI top 50 and an 11–4 record against the top 100. The path to an at-large bid is a bit trickier for the Rams. While they’re in strong position right now—the Rams are 27th in the RPI, 2–1 against the RPI top 50 and 7–3 against the top 100—they have a tough road left in front of them. They play all three of the conference’s other possible at-large teams—Dayton, Rhode Island and Richmond—on the road, starting with the Spiders on Friday. If they somehow lost all three of those games, which is entirely possible, they could end up in trouble on Selection Sunday. Even if they beat Richmond but lost to Rhode Island and Dayton, games where they’ll likely be underdogs, Selection Sunday could be uncomfortable.

Friday’s game against in-city rival Richmond (15–9, 9–3) has taken on significance for both teams. The Spiders are on the fringes of the bubble discussion, still in search of a win over an at-large quality team. Friday’s meeting with VCU marks their last chance to get one in the regular season. If the Spiders win, we’ll have to monitor what they do over the final two weeks of the regular season. If they lose, they’ll be out of at-large consideration.

Finally, Rhode Island (16–8, 8–4) had a heartbreaking weekend, letting a golden chance for its best win of the season slip away. The Rams led Dayton nearly wire-to-wire, but consecutive threes by Xeyrius Williams, his only makes from behind the arc in the game, turned a four-point deficit for the Flyers into a one-point win. Instead of being 2–2 against the RPI top 50 with a pair of wins over likely at-large teams, the Rams are now 1–3, which makes a 3–8 record against the top 100 look even worse. Their home game with VCU two Saturdays from now has turned into a must-win game.

Rich Barnes/Getty

ACC

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

Syracuse (16–11, 8–6), Miami (16–8, 6–6) and Virginia Tech (17–7, 6­–6) each had net-positive weeks and safely made the field in this week’s Bracket Watch, so we’ll begin our look at the ACC with them. Syracuse spent last week on the road, beating Clemson but losing to Pittsburgh. The loss ended a five-game winning streak, but shouldn’t be seen as too serious a blot on the Orange’s résumé. That five-game streak included three wins over teams in our field of 68, including Florida State and Virginia. The Orange are going to have to fight against a low RPI, but their five top-50 wins should counterbalance that weakness. They nearly added a sixth on Monday, but lost to Louisville in overtime. The Orange end their week with a visit to Georgia Tech on Sunday.

Miami started its week by beating Virginia Tech at home, and then went on the road over the weekend, nearly knocking off Louisville. The win against Virginia Tech was Miami’s second over an RPI top 50 team this season, bringing them to 2–6 against that class. That record doesn’t jump off the page, but their 8–8 record against the top 100 helps even out their résumé. Add to that a signature win against North Carolina and the complete lack of bad losses—their worst loss was at Syracuse—and you get a strong candidate for the tournament field. Just like Syracuse, though, their remaining schedule is challenging. They still have matchups with Virginia, Duke and Florida State ahead in the regular season. A 3–3 record the rest of the way should be good for an at-large bid.

Virginia Tech bounced back from that loss at Miami to take down Virginia at home in double overtime on Sunday. The Hokies now have wins over two top teams in the conference, Virginia and Duke, and a 9–7 record against the RPI top 100. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Hokies can’t start booking hotel rooms for a first- and second-round site just yet, but they’re clearly headed in that direction. They’ll be on the road all week, visiting Pittsburgh on Tuesday and Louisville on Saturday.

The ACC’s next tier of bubble teams did not enjoy the same success last week. Georgia Tech (15–10, 6–6), which is one of our last four teams in the field, beat Division II Tusculum and Boston College last week, wins that do absolutely nothing for its résumé. A 3–3 record against the RPI top 25, and 4–6 record against the top 50, will catch the committee’s eye, but the Yellow Jackets are themselves 76th in the RPI. There’s work to be done here, but their wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame have to carry significant weight. They’re done with the truly elite teams in the conference during the regular season, though they do have road dates with Miami, Notre Dame and Syracuse. If they can get four wins the rest of the regular season and avoid a bad loss in the ACC tournament, they’ll be on solid ground on Selection Sunday.

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Wake Forest (15–10, 6–7) lost at Notre Dame and beat NC State last week, results that neither helped nor hurt its at-large chances. Still, the loss at Notre Dame goes down as a missed opportunity. The Demon Deacons are ranked 31st in RPI and 32nd on kenpom.com. It’s impossible to watch them and not think they’re worthy of an at-large bid. And yet, they’re 0–7 against the RPI top 25 and 1–8 against the top 50. Had they beat Notre Dame—and they had a nine-point lead in the second half—they would’ve notched their first RPI top-25 win of the season. They’ll have two more chances to get one in the regular season, starting at Duke on Saturday.

Finally, Clemson (13–11, 3–9) is playing its way out of the field of 68. The Tigers lost to Syracuse and Duke by a combined three points last week. Had they won both games, they would be in our field of 68. By losing both, they became a relatively easy team to keep out. At this point, they need a 4–2 finish in the regular season, and may need to do some damage in the ACC tournament, as well.

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia

None of the Big 12’s bubble teams did anything to help their at-large candidacies last week. The good news, though, is that most of them didn’t hurt their cases, either. Iowa State (15–9, 7–5) disappointed in a loss at Texas, but bounced back to beat Oklahoma over the weekend. The Texas loss was the Cyclones’ second to a team ranked outside the top 100 in RPI, but they’ve done enough to this point to feel good about their at-large chances heading into the final three weeks of the regular season. The Cyclones are ranked 55th in the RPI, but are 4–6 against the top 50, with the ultimate signature win at Kansas. They’d have to unexpectedly fall apart in their final six games of the regular season to be in any serious jeopardy on Selection Sunday. The Cyclones visit Kansas State on Wednesday and host TCU on Saturday.

Oklahoma State (16–9, 5–7) nearly added another impressive trophy to its wall last week, but came up just short against Baylor. The Cowboys trailed from start to finish—their only lead of the game was 2–0—but they railed over the final 10 minutes of the game to give themselves two chances to tie on their final possession. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, threes by Jawun Evans and Phil Forte missed the mark. Still, it was an impressive performance for a team that had just beaten West Virginia on the road. They rebounded quickly from the Baylor loss, handling Texas with ease at home over the weekend. Since losing its first six conference games, Oklahoma State has gone 5–1 with a win over Arkansas mixed in, and is trending strongly in the right direction. The Cowboys visit TCU on Wednesday and host Oklahoma on Saturday.

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It’s hard to fault Kansas State (16–9, 5–7) for losses to Kansas and West Virginia last week. The Wildcats nearly pulled off an upset of their in-state rivals at home, but they ultimately couldn’t overcome the duo of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson. They’re still in great position thanks to three top-30 wins, including road victories over West Virginia and Oklahoma State, but they could’ve removed all doubt by beating Kansas. They’re now done with the big three in the conference, though, so they should be able to get the four wins they need to finish at .500 or better in the Big 12. They’ll likely be favored in five of their six remaining games, starting with a home date against Iowa State on Wednesday.

TCU (17–8, 6–6) is in our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch after a split week. The Horned Frogs beat Texas Tech on Tuesday but lost by 18 at Baylor on Saturday. Given their standing in the field, though, that’s a net-positive week for the Horned Frogs. They’re sitting at 35th in the RPI with a 2–6 record against the top 50, and an 8–8 record against the top 100. This is a big week for them, with games against fellow bubblers Oklahoma State and Iowa State. Again, a split would go down as a successful week.

Finally, Texas Tech (17–9, 5–8) looked like it was headed to the NIT with losses to TCU and Kansas last week, but the Red Raiders rebounded with their biggest win of the season on Monday, knocking off Baylor at home. That was the signature win they needed to go along with their victory against West Virginia from the first week of the conference portion of the season. They’re 4–5 against the RPI top 50 and 5–7 against the top 100, with bad losses to both Texas and Oklahoma working against the Baylor and West Virginia wins. They won’t get any help from the RPI, where they’re outside the top 90, but it’s hard to overstate what Monday’s win means to them. They won’t have much time to enjoy it, however, with a trip to Morgantown slated for Saturday. You can bet the Mountaineers will be looking for revenge, especially after they let a win at Kansas slip through their fingertips on Monday.

Big East

Locks: Villanova, Creighton, Butler

Xavier (18–7, 8–4) played to script last week, beating DePaul and losing to Villanova. The last thing we want to do is call a team a lock and then be forced to take away that designation, and that’s why the Musketeers still appear in the Bubble Watch. Make no mistake, however. This team is going dancing. We’ll likely be able to push the Musketeers to the lock column within two weeks. Their next three games are all on the road, at Providence, Marquette and Seton Hall. A 2–1 record in those games would be good enough to remove the sliver of doubt regarding the Musketeers’ at-large candidacy.

After Xavier, the Big East could struggle to put another team in the field of 68. Marquette (15–10, 6–7) was headed in the right direction after beating Creighton and Villanova late last month, but the Golden Eagles have stumbled over the last few weeks. They’ve dropped four of their last five games, including losses to Providence, St. John’s and Georgetown. The strength of their good wins, especially the Villanova one, still has them in our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch, but anything’s possible after their recent struggles. They have just one game this week, hosting Xavier on Saturday. That’s the perfect opportunity to right the ship.

Meanwhile, the next three teams in the conference are holding on for dear life. That has been the case for Providence (15–11, 5–8) and Georgetown (14–12, 5–8) all season, so nothing has changed for them recently. In fact, both are in better position now than they were two or three weeks ago. The Friars bounced back from an overtime loss at Seton Hall that would have been huge for them to beat Butler at home over the weekend. They still have a lot of work to do, thanks primarily to two sub-150 losses and an RPI ranking of 71, but the door is at least slightly ajar. Their next two games will almost certainly determine whether the Friars can get an at-large bid. They host Xavier on Wednesday, take the weekend off, and then visit Creighton the following Wednesday. Georgetown is a bit closer to the field than Providence, but still has some heavy lifting to get an at-large bid. The Hoyas don’t have any bad losses and own impressive top-50 wins over Oregon, Creighton and Butler. Their biggest issue is their sheer number of losses. As we’ve detailed a few times in the Bubble Watch this season, just six teams have earned an at-large bid with more than 13 losses since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Hoyas are 14–12 and still have remaining dates with Creighton on the road and Villanova at home. Even if they split those games, they could be looking at a 14th loss in the Big East tournament, and that assumes they win their three other remaining regular season games, one of which is at Seton Hall (15–9, 5–7).

That brings us to the Pirates, the conference’s most disappointing team over the last three weeks. The Pirates, who lost to St. John’s over the weekend, are 0–4 against Villanova, Butler, Creighton and Xavier, and needed overtime in wins over Georgetown and Providence. Their nonconference résumé includes wins over South Carolina and California, but they’ve fallen so flat in the Big East that those wins are hard to see now. The next 10 days could determine if Seton Hall is in the NCAA tournament or the NIT. They host Creighton on Wednesday, Villanova on Saturday, and Xavier next Wednesday. They need one win at an absolute minimum.

Dylan Buell/Getty

Big Ten

Locks: Wisconsin, Maryland, Purdue

Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 may go down as the biggest day in the history of Northwestern (19–6, 8–4) basketball. The Wildcats are likely to get in the Dance on the strength of their overall résumé, but if any one win ends up the silver bullet, it will almost certainly be their triumph at Wisconsin. The Wildcats were 12-point underdogs in that game, playing without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey, and they took down the first-place team in the Big Ten, handing the Badgers their first loss in Madison in more than 13 months. The Wildcats still aren’t a lock, but now they have a top-25 RPI win to go along with a 3–5 record against the top 50, and 8–6 record against the top 100. They’re ranked 34th in the RPI and 30th on kenpom.com, and should rack up 22 or 23 wins before the Big Ten tournament. At this point, it’s far more likely than not that college basketball’s most ignominious streak comes to an end this season. The Wildcats spend this week at home, hosting Maryland on Wednesday and Rutgers on Saturday.

Michigan (16–9, 6–6) had the next best week in the conference, beating Michigan State by 29 at home, and Indiana by 12 on the road. Those wins vaulted the Wolverines back into our field of 68 as one of the last four teams into the Dance. They’re just 61st in RPI, but 31st on kenpom.com and own a 9–8 record against the RPI top 100. While they’re right on the border of the field right now, there’s a great chance they play their way onto safe ground, or fall off the bubble radar, based on their remaining schedule. They host Wisconsin and visit Minnesota this week, and still have dates ahead with Purdue and Northwestern.

Minnesota (18–7, 6–6) handled its business in wins over Iowa and Rutgers last week, though it needed two overtimes to skirt what would have been a bad loss to the Hawkeyes. The Golden Gophers haven’t had many meaningful wins since beating Purdue at the start of conference play, but they’re 4–5 against the RPI top 50, 8–7 against the top 100, and ranked 21st in RPI themselves. Barring a disaster over the next three weeks, they’ll get an invite to the Dance. They host Indiana and Michigan this week.

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No team is happier for Northwestern’s and Minnesota’s success than Michigan State (15–10, 7–5). All three of the Spartans’ top-50 RPI wins came over the Wildcats and Golden Gophers (twice). Their résumé lacks a true signature win, but there’s enough here for them to be on the right side of the bubble with three weeks left in the regular season. That could easily change, as the Spartans still have one game apiece with Purdue (away), Wisconsin and Maryland (away). If they lose all three of those, they’d likely have to do some damage in the Big Ten tournament to get into the field.

Indiana’s (15–11, 5–8) nightmare continued with home losses to Purdue and Michigan last week. The Hoosiers have lost three straight games, and five of their last six, with the one win coming against lowly Penn State in triple overtime. The Kansas and North Carolina wins can only take them so far, especially since they had OG Anunoby in those games. The Hoosiers are clearly a different team without him, and one that does not appear worthy of an at-large bid. For the first time this season, the Hoosiers are on the outside looking in at the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. They play just once this week, visiting Minnesota on Wednesday.

Finally, Ohio State (15–11, 5–8), Penn State (14–12, 6–7) and Iowa (14–12, 6–7) are still flickering on the at-large radar, but all need at least one more big win to be taken seriously on Selection Sunday. What’s more, none can really afford a misstep. Ohio State has the best chance of the three to make a statement this week when it visits Michigan State on Tuesday.

Pac-12

Locks: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA

When is a loss sort of like a win? Well, never, but California (18–7, 9–4) still has to feel good about the way it played at Arizona last week. The Golden Bears came up short in Tucson, but they were in the game from start to finish and limited the mighty Wildcats offense to 62 points on 44.0% shooting. They may have lost, but they likely impressed the selection committee in the process. The Golden Bears’ résumé still lacks a standout win, however, and they are just 1–6 against the RPI top 50. They’re done with Arizona and UCLA in the regular season, making their game with Oregon in Berkeley on Feb. 22 their biggest of the season. Before that, they must take care of business at Stanford on Friday.

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USC (21–5, 8–5) split last week, beating Oregon State and losing to Oregon. The results didn’t affect the Trojans’ at-large candidacy, which remains strong with five games left in the regular season. The game with Oregon last week was the start of a three-game run against the top teams in the conference, with UCLA on deck Saturday. Even if they lose to the Bruins and Wildcats, however, they should be in good position, so long as they avoid any bad losses.

Finally, Utah (17–8, 8–5) did what it needed to in getting home wins over Washington State and Washington last week. Given that the Utes have exactly one top-100 RPI win, they’re desperate for a signature victory. Their last chance for one in the regular season is at Oregon on Thursday. If they lose that game, it’s hard to see them cobbling together an at-large worthy résumé.

SEC

Locks: Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina

We’re now inside a month until Selection Sunday, and it’s becoming harder and harder to see more than four SEC teams in the field of 68. We’ll start this week with Arkansas (18–7, 7–5), the likely fourth team. The Razorbacks got back on track after losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt with a win at LSU over the weekend. That helped them back into our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch, but they were the final team to get an invite. Their strongest selling point might be their 7–5 record against the RPI top 100, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. They have two top-50 wins, but those were against Tennessee and UT-Arlington. In other words, Arkansas’s justifiable inclusion in the field of 68 right now is a great illustration of just how soft the bubble is this season. They could easily be on the wrong side of the bubble after games with South Carolina and Mississippi this week.

After Arkansas, we’re likely looking at Tennessee (14–11, 6–6), Alabama (14–10, 7-5) and Georgia (14–11, 5–7) as the only SEC teams still in the bubble discussion. You could make an argument that Mississippi (15–10, 6–6), Auburn (16–9, 5–7) and Texas A&M (13–11, 5–7) are on the very fringes, but we’ll wait for them to prove they belong over the next three weeks before we devote any time to them here.

The Volunteers were the last team in our field of 68 going into the weekend, but we flipped them with Arkansas after they lost to Georgia at home. A loss to the Bulldogs isn’t disqualifying in itself, but Tennessee just doesn’t have all that much at-large capital built up to save them. The loss to Georgia was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back after previous reversals against Mississippi, Mississippi State and Chattanooga. If they can go into Lexington on Tuesday and sweep the season series with Kentucky, though, we could have a very different view of them in next week’s Bubble Watch.

The Crimson Tide got the best win of any SEC bubble team last week, persevering in four overtimes to knock off South Carolina on the road. It was their first top-50 win of the season, and just their fourth over a top-100 team. They clearly still have work to do, but the win kept their fledgling at-large hopes alive. They cannot afford to slip up against either Missouri or LSU this week.

Finally, the Bulldogs ended a three-game losing streak with that win at Tennessee. The win didn’t just get the Bulldogs back in the win column for the first time in two weeks, but also served as their first over a top-50 team this season. Like Alabama, they still have work to do, but they’re closer to the field by virtue of their 7–10 record against the top 100. Their last chance to really move the needle in the regular season comes on Saturday when they host Kentucky. Remember, Georgia fell just shy of upsetting the Wildcats in Lexington late last month, letting a late lead slip away before losing in overtime. They have proved they can go toe to toe with Kentucky. If they get over the hump on Saturday, they’ll have a much more interesting bubble case heading into the SEC tournament.

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Other conferences

Saint Mary’s (22–3, 12–2 WCC) lost to Gonzaga again over the weekend, likely paving the way for a perfect regular season for the Bulldogs. The Gaels, meanwhile, will be favored in every game the play before the NCAA tournament, unless they meet Gonzaga for a third time in the WCC tournament championship game. I’m not sure the Gaels can climb any higher than a No. 7 seed in the Dance, but they will get back for the first time since 2013.

Nothing has changed for Wichita State (23–4, 13–1 MVC) or Illinois State (21–5, 13–1). Both boast gaudy records, but neither offers a compelling at-large case. Wichita State is 1–4 against the RPI top 50 and top 100, and owns an RPI of 52 and strength of schedule of 225. Illinois State is slightly better in RPI (36) and strength of schedule (148), but it is 0–1 against the RPI top 50 and 2–2 against the top 100, with three sub-100 losses. Unless the committee views them as at-large worthy teams, both will go into Selection Sunday lacking a win against an at-large squad. The softness of the bubble could help since both will likely be pushing 30 wins on Selection Sunday, but the bet here remains that the Valley is a one-bid league.

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