Bubble Watch: Fringe teams running out of time to impress committee

2:27 | College Basketball
Big Ten's struggles could cost the conference come Selection Sunday
Tuesday February 21st, 2017

Championship Week is just around the corner, meaning bubble teams have precious few opportunities left to make their case for an at-large bid to the selection committee. With the softness of this year’s bubble, even the early rounds of conference tournaments won’t provide the sort of résumé-building chances they do in a normal season. It is officially make-or-break time for teams right on the border of the field of 68.

American

Locks: Cincinnati, SMU

With two weeks left in the regular season, we can safely say that the AAC is a two-bid league, barring a surprise champion in the conference tournament. Houston (18–8, 9–5) had its last good chance in the regular season to score a win over one of the top two teams in the league with SMU in town over the weekend. The Cougars surged out to a big lead, and were still in front with just more than 10 minutes left in the game, but couldn’t finish the job. SMU’s eventual win saddled Houston with an 0–4 record against the RPI top 50. What’s more, the Cougars have just two top-100 wins. They still have a road date with Cincinnati in the regular season. Even a surprise win there likely wouldn’t be enough to earn the Cougars an invite. Their total body of work is simply too weak. We’ll keep an eye on them the rest of the season, but chances are we’re only going to hear Cincinnati and SMU from the AAC on Selection Sunday.

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Atlantic 10

Locks: None

Dayton (21–5, 12–2) and VCU (22–5, 12–2) continued their twin paths to the Big Dance, both getting a pair of wins last week. The Flyers knocked off Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure, while the Rams took care of Saint Joseph’s and Richmond. Neither team has the profile to earn better than a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, but both should be safe come Selection Sunday. Like the American, the A-10 has the look of a two-bid league, unless a team that isn’t Dayton or VCU can make a run to the conference tournament title.

Rhode Island (17–9, 9–5) has been right on the border of the field of 68 all season, and it suffered possibly the death knell for its at-large chances last week. The Rams’ home loss to Fordham was their worst of the year, and first against a team with an RPI worse than 150. Couple that with just one top-50 win, and you get a résumé lacking the strength necessary for an at-large invite. Rhode Island can breathe some life back into its tourney hopes if it can beat VCU at home on Saturday, but even that likely won’t bring it all the way back from the brink. Rhode Island is two big wins from entertaining real at-large hopes.

Richmond (15–11, 9–5) forced its way into the bubble discussion by virtue of going 9–3 in its first 12 conference games. The Spiders are now 9–5 after losses to George Mason and VCU last week. The Spiders’ best win of the year was a home triumph over Rhode Island, and they have four losses outside the top 100, including one outside the top 200. They will not get an at-large bid.

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ACC

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

Miami (19–8, 9–6) kicks off this week’s look at the best conference in the country. The Hurricanes enjoyed a spotless week, with wins over fellow bubblers Georgia Tech and Clemson. Those aren’t signature wins, but the one they scored on Monday at Virginia was. With seven top-100 wins and no bad losses, Miami should be able to rest easy on Selection Sunday.

Syracuse (16–12, 8–7) was one shot away from getting its third top-15 and sixth top-50 win of the season. Instead, it fell to Louisville in overtime, and then lost at Georgia Tech over the weekend. The Orange have lost three straight games, but don’t lose sight of how much ground they gained with their five-game winning streak that spanned two weeks in late January and early February. The Orange are 5–6 against the RPI top 50, with two of those wins coming against top-15 teams (Virginia and Florida State). Your typical bubble team has neither the quantity nor quality of Syracuse’s wins, and it’s not like any of their reversals on this mini-losing streak are that damaging. The Orange are still in good position, though they have a brutal week ahead with Duke and Louisville on the schedule.

Life is tough for a bubble team that has to play the Cardinals—that seems to be the theme of our jaunt through the ACC’s portion of this week’s Bubble Watch. Virginia Tech (18–8, 7–7) visited Louisville for its only game last week and nearly pulled off the upset. The Hokies had a one-point lead at halftime and stayed within arm’s length of the Cardinals the whole game, but could not get over the top, losing 94–90. Even with that loss, though, the Hokies are on the right side of the bubble. They own a pair of top-15 wins (Duke and Virginia), 10 top-100 wins and only one loss outside the top 100. They get Clemson and Boston College this week.

Finally, we come to the three most confounding teams in the ACC. Let’s start with Georgia Tech (16–11, 7–7), the only one of the three in the field in this week’s Bracket Watch. The Yellow Jackets had a split week, losing at Miami and beating Syracuse at home. They’re now 4–7 against the RPI top 50, and 6–10 against the top 100. Those numbers don’t scream “at-large bid,” especially when they’re paired with an RPI of 73 and a kenpom.com ranking of 76. But then you look at the names of the teams on the left side of the Yellow Jackets’ ledger and you see North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame and VCU, all four of which are ranked 26th or better in the RPI. The Tar Heels and Seminoles are top-12 teams in the RPI. In short, Georgia Tech owns the sort of wins that will allow the committee to overlook its bad RPI and kenpom.com ranking, as well as, for now, 11 losses. If the Yellow Jackets can go 3–1 in their four remaining regular season games and avoid a bad loss in the ACC tournament, they should go dancing. They host N.C. State and visit Notre Dame this week.

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Wake Forest (15–12, 6–9) and Clemson (14–12, 4–10) are on the outside looking into our field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. Both fell into the First Four Out category, and, with an extra 24 hours of reflection, that feels a bit generous to the Tigers. We’ll start, however, with the Demon Deacons. There is no doubt in my mind that they are a tournament-quality team. They’re ranked 31st on kenpom.com, and eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency. The last time a team in the top 10 in offensive efficiency didn’t make the tournament was 2011, when Colorado ranked ninth. In John Collins, the Deacs have a nightly double-double threat who’s on the fringes of the National Player of the Year discussion. At some point, however, Wake is going to need to get across the finish line against one of these tournament-quality teams it plays with regularity, thanks to the strength of the ACC. After losing to Duke 99–94 in Durham last week, the Deacs are 1–9 against the RPI top 50,and 5–12 against the top 100. They don’t have any bad losses, but they have a lot of losses overall. As we’ve mentioned a few times this year, only six teams have earned an at-large bid with more than 13 losses since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Demon Deacons already have 12, and still have a home date with Louisville and trip to Virginia Tech on their schedule in the regular season. They may need to win out in the regular season and add a strong win or two in the ACC tournament to feel confident on Selection Sunday.

As for the Tigers, time has just about run out on them. After splitting games with Wake Forest and Miami last week, they’re 14–12 overall and 4–10 in the conference. They do have four top-50 wins, but none is a true signature victory. Like the Demon Deacons, they’re just about to cross what seems to be the point-of-no-return for at-large teams with 12 losses already to their name and a tough week ahead with Virginia Tech and Florida State on the schedule. Right now, Clemson looks more like an NIT favorite than an NCAA darling.

Big 12

Locks: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia

We’re getting closer and closer to putting Iowa State (18–9, 10–5) alongside the other locks in the Big 12. The Cyclones took down Kansas State and TCU with relative ease last week, and then followed that up with a win at Texas Tech on Monday. Three of their wins are over top-50 RPI teams, including the stunner at Kansas. Throw in five more top-100 wins, all of which could be over at-large teams, and you get a formula that makes it easy to look past the Cyclones’ two losses to teams outside the top 100. They aren’t there yet, but they can start at least thinking about getting fitted for dancing shoes.

Oklahoma State (18–9, 7–7) is also headed in the right direction: The Cowboys have won three straight games, taking care of business against TCU and Oklahoma last week. They have three top-50 wins, including road victories at Wichita State and West Virginia, and just two losses outside the top 50. Add in an RPI of 29 and kenpom.com ranking of 20, and you have a formula that almost always results in an at-large berth. They visit Kansas State and host Texas Tech this week, both of which will be big games on the bubble.

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Kansas State (17–10, 6–8) dropped a home game to Iowa State last week, before beating Texas over the weekend. The Wildcats are in essentially the exact same position as the Cowboys. They don’t quite measure up in the ratings systems, with an RPI of 55 and kenpom.com ranking of 28, but they have a pair of eye-popping wins over West Virginia and Baylor, the latter of which was on the road. Eight of their 10 losses were to top-50 RPI teams, and all were to teams that are either tournament locks or on the bubble. If the Wildcats simply handle their business by winning the games they’re supposed to for the next few weeks, they’ll dance.

TCU (17–10, 6–8) is in serious trouble after losing to Oklahoma State and Iowa State last week. While the Horned Frogs’ résumé comes close to measuring up to that of Oklahoma State and Kansas State, they lack the signature wins those two schools have. TCU has two top-50 wins, and one of those was against an Illinois State team that will be on the bubble if it doesn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. With teams in its own conference distinguishing themselves with high-value wins, and schools like Syracuse and Marquette, for example, doing the same elsewhere, TCU likely needs at least one big win the rest of the way to make a compelling at-large case. That makes this the Horned Frogs biggest week of the season. They visit Kansas on Wednesday and host West Virginia on Saturday.

Finally, Texas Tech (17–11, 5–10) got itself back in the bubble discussion by beating Baylor last week. Had they held on for a win against West Virginia over the weekend, they may have bullied their way into the Last Four In the field in this week’s Bracket Watch. They fell in double overtime, though, and outside the field of 68. Monday’s home loss to Iowa State certainly didn’t help matters. That’s the sort of game a bubble team absolutely has to have, and the Red Raiders have let too many of those ones get away from them.

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Big East

Locks: Butler, Creighton, Villanova

Xavier’s (18–9, 8–6) up-and-down season continued apace last week, with road losses to Providence and Marquette. The Musketeers were without junior guard Trevon Bluiett for both of those games, a factor the selection committee will consider when seeding the Musketeers. We’re still not ready to call them a lock, but they remain on sound footing with three top-50 wins, an RPI of 20, a kenpom.com ranking of 37 and one loss outside the top 100. Another win or two over tournament-quality competition, though, would quell some fears heading into March, and keep the Musketeers from a free fall. They visit Seton Hall on Wednesday and host Butler on Sunday. Bluiett remains day to day with his ankle injury.

Marquette (16–10, 7–7) got the win it needed when it took down Xavier on Saturday. That was the Golden Eagles’ only game of the week, and it ended a two-game losing skid. They now have five top-50 wins, but it’s the twin victories at Creighton and over Villanova that will really sing to the committee. Their volume of losses—the Golden Eagles have lost 10 times this year—combined with an RPI of 72 could put a lid on how high up the bracket they can climb, but they should be in, barring some sort of disaster, such as losing at home to St. John’s on Tuesday.

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Seton Hall (16–10, 6–8) and Providence (16–11, 6–8) enter the final two weeks of the regular season in similar positions. The Pirates are 46th in the RPI and 59th on kenpom.com; the Friars, meanwhile, are 67th in the RPI and 58th on kenpom.com. Seton Hall is 3–6 against the top 50 and 6–9 against the top 100, while Providence is 3–7 and 8–8, respectively, against those two classes of opponents. Seton Hall has lost one game outside the top 100, but Providence has dropped three, including two outside the top 200. They both have two wins over likely or guaranteed tournament teams, and the possibility for more the rest of the season. When you add it up, Seton Hall is just barely ahead of Providence, which is why they are one of our last four teams in this week’s field of 68, and Providence is one of the First Four Out. The Pirates get Xavier and DePaul this week, while the Friars visit Creighton and host Marquette.

Finally, with its 13th loss of the season, Georgetown (14–13, 5–9) officially fell off the at-large radar. They can’t do anything to help their cause this week with games against DePaul and St. John’s. If they manage to beat Villanova in their regular season finale, we’ll reconsider their stock heading into the Big East tournament.

Big Ten

Locks: Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin

A loss at home to Maryland, while disappointing, was also understandable for Northwestern (20–7, 9–5). A loss at home to Rutgers would have been a disaster. The Wildcats pulled out the win, however, despite trailing for most of the second half. They were down by four with just more than two minutes left in the game, but closed on a 10–2 scoring burst to skirt what would have been their worst loss of the season. What’s more, they got Scottie Lindsey back in that game, and while the junior guard clearly had some rust to shake off—he scored six points on 2-for-8 shooting from the floor in 24 minutes—he should be rounded back into from by the Big Ten tournament. Northwestern is 3–6 against the RPI top 50 and 8–7 against the top 100, with zero losses to teams ranked lower than 63rd. With each passing day, we get closer and closer to the first NCAA tournament appearance in the program’s history. Northwestern will spend this week on the road, with trips to Illinois and Indiana.

Minnesota (20–7, 8–6) has now answered its five-game losing streak in January by winning five games in a row in February. The Gophers can’t simply dismiss their midseason struggles, which included losses to Penn State and Ohio State, but they aren’t going to be worrying about anything other than seeding on Selection Sunday. They should get to 10 wins in the conference with home games still remaining against Penn State and Nebraska, a total that will stand out to the selection committee. They’re beloved by the ratings systems, with an RPI of 22 and kenpom.com ranking of 39. The Gophers are 5–5 against the RPI top 50 and don’t have any losses outside the top 80. They look to be headed toward something like a No. 7 seed.

Michigan (17–10, 7–7) and Michigan State (16–11, 8–6) comprise the next tier in the conference. They aren’t quite as secure in the at-large chances as Northwestern or Minnesota, but they’re easily a step or two ahead of Indiana, and well clear of the rest of the conference. Michigan’s three-game winning streak came to an end when they lost at Minnesota in overtime on Sunday, but the Wolverines likely made their season over the last two weeks. Those three straight wins included impressive showings against fellow bubble teams Michigan State and Indiana, and a headline-grabbing triumph over Wisconsin. They won’t get a ton of help from their RPI, which is just outside the top 50 for now, but they’re 27th on kenpom.com. The Wolverines have two wins against tournament locks, Wisconsin and SMU, and one loss outside the top 100. They’ve put themselves in a position to get an invite simply by staying the course. So long as they win the games they’re supposed to, they should go dancing. The Wolverines visit Rutgers Wednesday and host Purdue Saturday.

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The Spartans’ résumé is quite similar, with four top-50 wins, an RPI of 41, and kenpom.com ranking of 54. You know it’s an unconventional season in the Big Ten when Michigan State points to wins over Northwestern and Minnesota as evidence of its at-large fitness, and not vice versa, but that’s where we stand. Three of the Spartans’ top-50 wins were against those two teams, with the other coming at the expense of Wichita State. While they’ve lost to all five of the best teams they’ve played to this point—Baylor, Duke, Arizona, Kentucky and Purdue—there’s still more good than bad on their résumé. The Spartans have three losses to teams that aren’t in the at-large picture, an acceptable number considering what they have on the positive side of the ledger. They spend this week at home, with Nebraska visiting Thursday and Wisconsin arriving on Sunday. Getting a win over the Badgers could be a silver-bullet result.

Indiana’s (15–12, 5–9) nightmare 2017 continued with losses to Michigan and Minnesota last week. The Hoosiers were never really in a 12-point home loss to the Wolverines, and then they let what would have been a résumé-building victory in the Twin Cities slip away. The Hoosiers led Minnesota by five points with 2:26 remaining, then watched as the Gophers outscored them 11–5 the rest of the way. When conference play started, Indiana looked like a possible No. 1 seed, thanks in large part to wins over Kansas and North Carolina. The Hoosiers’ tailspin has them on the outside of the field of 68 in this week’s Bracket Watch. If they’re going to turn their season around, they must win their last four regular season games, starting with Iowa and Northwestern this week. If they win both of those games, next week’s trip to West Lafayette for a return matchup with Purdue could define their season.

We have to circle back to the bottom of the conference since we’ve looked at it every week, but this will be the last time we consider the candidacies of Ohio State (15–13, 5–10), Iowa (14–13, 6–8), Nebraska (12–14, 6–8) or Penn State (14–13, 6–8). Barring a dramatic series of wins, those four won’t even be discussed in the room on Selection Sunday.

Pac-12

Locks: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA

USC (21–6, 8–6) and California (18–8, 9–5), the Pac-12’s two prime bubble teams, both played just once last week. USC took an understandable loss at UCLA. Sure, the 32-point shellacking wasn’t exactly confidence boosting, but the Trojans were significant underdogs in that game, and they already took one from the Bruins earlier in the season. It was a disappointing, but not damaging, result. With a pair of top-50 wins, a 5–6 record against the top 100, zero losses outside the top 100 and an RPI of 31, USC is on track for a relatively worry-free Selection Sunday.

California, on the other hand, did do some damage to its at-large candidacy. The Golden Bears lost at Stanford last Friday, their second reversal to a team that is not on the at-large radar. Cal has just one top-50 win, which came at the expense of USC in Los Angeles. Its at-large case rests mostly on its avoidance of bad losses and a solid RPI of 39. The Stanford loss won’t hold the Golden Bears out of the Dance, but it did knock them down to one of the last four teams in our field in this week’s Bracket Watch. That might seem like a steep drop, but when you have one win over an at-large quality team, you have little margin for error. The Golden Bears host the state of Oregon this week, with the Ducks visiting on Wednesday, and the Beavers heading in on Friday.

Finally, Utah (17–10, 8–7) likely saw its at-large hopes slip away entirely with a one-point loss at Oregon State on Sunday. The Beavers are one of the worst teams in the country, and had previously been winless in the Pac-12. A loss to a team ranked 286th in RPI is going to look bad for any team, particularly one with a single victory in the RPI top 100. We can talk about the Utes as a potential at-large team again if they win their final three games of the regular season, which would include a victory over Cal. If that happens, we can assess what they’d need to do in the Pac-12 tournament to get into the field of 68. If they don’t, it’ll be Pac-12 tourney title or bust for the Utes.

Wesley Hitt/Getty

SEC

Locks: Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina

Arkansas (20–7, 9–5) has been in solid position for an at-large bid all season, but until last week, lacked one strong win it could point to as evidence that they can play with tournament-quality competition. The Razorbacks finally got that win last week, knocking off South Carolina in Columbia. The win was their fourth inside the RPI top 50, but their first against a team that absolutely will be dancing. Such a win became even more important after their surprise loss at Missouri earlier this month, which they likely counterbalanced by beating the Gamecocks. Arkansas is 4–5 against the RPI top 50 and 9–5 against the top 100, with one loss outside the top 100. Their strong RPI of 33 will help, while a kenpom.com ranking of 50 suggests they are a classic bubble team. So long as they don’t do any more damage to their résumé the rest of the season, though, they should get into the field in front of the First Four. They have a pair of games they should win this week, with Texas A&M visiting on Wednesday before the Razorbacks make a trip to Auburn on Saturday.

Alabama (16–10, 9-5) and Georgia (15–12, 6–8) are in the next tier of SEC bubble teams, which means both are on the outside looking in right now. The Crimson Tide are 69th in RPI and 61st on kenpom.com, but likely just in front of the Bulldogs in the eyes of the selection committee. Georgia is 52nd in RPI and 51st on kenpom.com, but the Bulldogs have lost 12 games, and their best win of the season was at a Tennessee team that is also struggling for its at-large life. If the Bulldogs miss out on the dance, it will be a story of narrowly missed opportunity. They lost five games to Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina by a combined 26 points, with two of those, including the one with the biggest margin (nine to Kentucky) coming in overtime. If they win two of those games, they’re likely in the field right now. If they win four, they’re easily in the field, possibly as high as a No. 6 or 7 seed. As it stands, they have work to do to have a realistic chance at an at-large bid. Thursday’s game between the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide is Tuscaloosa could serve as a de facto elimination game.

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Tennessee (15–12, 7–7) is next up in the SEC bubble team pecking order, but the momentum the Volunteers built with wins over Kentucky and Kansas State at the end of last month has faded. They’re just 3–3 since then, and none of their wins in that time moved the at-large needle. A loss to Mississippi State, however, moved it in the wrong direction. The Kentucky and Kansas State victories can serve as a foundation for a tournament berth if the Volunteers can add another résumé-building win or two, without suffering a bad loss. That means they must take care of business against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, and then pull off an upset in South Carolina on Saturday.

Vanderbilt (14–13, 7–7) deserves mention after its win over South Carolina last weekend. The Commodores have no room for error, but they’ve put themselves in a position to make a dream run over the next two weeks that nets them an at-large bid. The Commodores have four top-50 wins, all of which are over guaranteed or likely tournament teams (Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Iowa State). They do have a terrible loss to Missouri, but that was their only reversal against a team ranked worse than 85th in RPI. The final piece of the puzzle? The Commodores still have opportunity ahead in the regular season. They visit Tennessee this week, and finish the season with games against Kentucky and Florida. If they beat Tennessee and split those games with the top two teams in the conference, they’ll certainly be in the at-large discussion heading into the SEC tournament.

Mississippi (16–11, 7–7), Texas A&M (14–12, 6–8) and Auburn (16–11, 5–9) round out the teams that can at least tell themselves their still part of the potential at-large picture, but all would need to pile up at least three true résumé-building wins the rest of the season. We’ll consider any or all of their candidacies if they get a bit closer to the right side of the bubble.

Other Conferences

Locks: Gonzaga

It was more of the same last week for our four bubble teams from smaller conferences. Saint Mary’s (24–3, 14–2 WCC) handled Loyola Marymount and BYU with ease. Had the Gaels split with Gonzaga (the team responsible for both of their conference losses), we could call them a lock. Since they didn’t, they have just one win against an at-large quality team in Dayton, and two in the RPI top 50. The Gaels would likely need to suffer two bad, uncharacteristic losses to really be in any jeopardy on Selection Sunday, but we can’t quite count them as a lock. Still, it’s nearly impossible for a team with a top-20 RPI at this stage of the season to have to sweat out Selection Sunday.

Wichita State (25–4, 15–1) and Illinois State (23–5, 15–1) continued their twin domination of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers cruised to wins over Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa, while the Redbirds squeaked out victories against Missouri State and Loyola-Chicago by a combined three points. These two are likely to share the MVC regular season championship and are on a collision course for the conference tournament title, with the winner taking the season series and the coveted automatic bid from the conference. The loser, no matter which team it is, will have an uncomfortable Selection Sunday.

Finally, Middle Tennessee State (24–4, 14–1) will be on the at-large radar, if necessary. The Blue Raiders, which have dominated Conference USA this season, have two top-50 wins, a 4–1 record against the top 100, an RPI of 32, and a kenpom.com ranking of 44, better than the likes of Syracuse, Virginia Tech, California and Arkansas. On the other hand, they have three losses outside the RPI top 130, including one to 261st-ranked UTEP. What’s more, if they need an at-large bid to get in, it will mean they add at least one more loss against a Conference USA foe, all of which are outside the RPI top 100. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but if last year’s Monmouth team couldn’t get an at-large bid, any mid-major is going to struggle to get one this season.

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