Bubble Watch: Evaluating the final teams fighting for a tourney spot

1:25 | College Basketball
The Unexpected Perk of Winning March Madness
Thursday March 9th, 2017

With the selection show on the horizon, the bubble is all but settled. Erstwhile bubble teams like Xavier, Vanderbilt and Kansas State almost certainly got the wins they needed to secure at-large bids. The way we see it, there are three teams competing for the final spot in the field of 68. Two of those teams, Syracuse and Illinois State, are already in the clubhouse. The third, Rhode Island, can win an automatic bid by beating VCU in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game on Sunday. In the eyes of the SI.com Bubble Watch, that game will determine the identity of the 68th team in the field.

Syracuse struggled away from home this season, going 2-11 in games played outside the Carrier Dome. Still, it will be hard for the committee to ignore the Orange’s six top-50 wins, with three of those coming against Duke, Florida State and Virginia. The Orange left the door to the NIT open, however, by losing to Connecticut, St. John’s and Boston College.

Rhode Island’s at-large résumé does not measure up to Syracuse’s. The Rams' best wins were against Cincinnati on a neutral floor and VCU at home. Those don’t stand out quite as much as they would when you add home losses to La Salle and Fordham. In our estimation, Rhode Island is in the at-large discussion, but it is stuck behind the Orange. Luckily, it has a chance to get out of the at-large picture by winning the A-10’s automatic bid.

Illinois State is in the discussion, as well, and its possible the Redbirds have already proved the SI.com Bubble Watch wrong. If the Redbirds are indeed in the NCAA tournament, then the selection committee placed them in long ago. With losses to Tulsa, San Francisco and Murray State on their résumé, it’s hard to believe they earned an at-large bid. Remember, their only top-50 win was over Wichita State at home. The Redbirds may have a gaudy record, but that typically hasn’t been the sort of résumé that garners an at-large bid from the committee.

So, the way we see the backend of the field, it all comes down to the A-10 championship game. If Rhode Island wins, it is in. If it loses, Syracuse squeaks into the big dance.

Locks (62)

American: Cincinnati, SMU

Atlantic 10: Dayton, VCU

ACC: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech

Big 12: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, West Virginia

Big East: Butler, Creighton, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova, Xavier

Big Ten: Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin

Pac-12: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA

SEC: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt

Others: Bucknell, California-Davis, East Tennessee State, Florida Gulf Coast, Gonzaga, Iona, Jacksonville State, Kent State, Middle Tennessee State, Mount St. Mary’s, Nevada, New Mexico State, New Orleans, North Carolina-Central, North Dakota, Northern Kentucky, Saint Mary’s, South Dakota State, Texas Southern, UNC-Wilmington, Vermont, Wichita State, Winthrop

College Basketball
2017 NCAA tournament auto-bids

The Bubble (six spots left)

Bubble teams listed in current seed order in SI.com Bracket Watch

Vanderbilt (lock): Just beat Florida for a third time this season. That’s all Vanderbilt had to do to all but seal up a tournament bid. That’s exactly what it did, though in five more minutes than it would have liked. The Commodores led for most of the second half of their quarterfinal matchup with Florida on Friday, watched that lead slip away, and then came up with a huge stop on the final possession of regulation. They took command immediately in overtime, likely punching a dance card in the process. The Commodores were run out of the gym by Arkansas on Saturday, but that shouldn’t matter. They now own three top-25 wins and six top-50 wins, with all of those victories coming against tournament locks. We’re betting it will be the first team to earn an at-large bid with 15 losses.

VCU (lock): The Rams played with fire again on Saturday, going to overtime with Richmond. They ultimately pulled it out to move onto the Atlantic-10 championship game, where they will meet Rhode Island. No matter what happens in that game, VCU will be in the NCAA tournament. The Rams likely have a No. 9 seed ceiling, but we’re projecting them to come in lower than that. They are 2–3 against the RPI top 50 and kenpom.com top 50 with a terrible loss to Fordham on their résumé.

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Last Four In

Kansas State: The Wildcats were part of the group of teams that got the wins they seemingly needed to punch a tournament ticket on Thursday. For them, it was a neutral-floor win against Baylor, the second time they have taken down the Bears this season. They now have four great wins, with individual victories against West Virginia at home and Oklahoma State on the road joining the Baylor triumphs. The Wildcats are 6–10 against, with two losses to sub-100 teams, so it isn’t an overwhelming résumé. It likely is one, however, that is worthy of an at-large bid.

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Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons finished the regular season in grand fashion. They kicked it off by beating Louisville, and capped it with a win at Virginia Tech. Wake had proved for most of the season that it belonged in the tournament, but it just couldn’t get over the hump with any regularity against tournament-quality competition. The wins the Demon Deacons notched in the final week of the regular season finally put it on the inside track to an at-large bid. It likely doesn’t matter that they lost to Virginia Tech in the ACC second round, though a win in that game would have removed any doubt. Selection Sunday won’t be a carefree day for the Demon Deacons, but the bet here is they will hear their name called.

USC: This is the Pac 12’s best chance to get a fourth team in the dance. The Trojans put up a great fight against UCLA in the Pac-12 quarterfinals on Thursday, rallying back from a 14-point deficit to have a couple of chances to tie the game with less than a minute left. They came up short, and will now have to wait out a nervous few days. Still, we have USC as one of the last teams to make the field, and that is unlikely to change. The Trojans have two great wins over UCLA and SMU, and just one loss outside the RPI top 100. They’re a bubble team in the truest sense of the term, but we like their chances.

Syracuse: It’s wait-and-see time for the Orange. They lost to Miami in the ACC tournament opener, sending them into the weekend firmly on the bubble. Syracuse finished the season 3–4 against the RPI top 25, 6–8 against the top 50, and 8–10 against the top 100. While the three top-25 wins and six top-50 wins stand out, the Orange also suffered three terrible losses to Boston College, Connecticut and St. John’s. What’s more, Syracuse did all of its damage at home, going 2–11 away from the Carrier Dome. Its best win of the two was at Clemson. If the Orange are left out, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

First Four Out

Rhode Island: The Rams took care of business again on Saturday, cruising to a 84-60 win over Davidson. The Rams may have done enough already to earn an at-large bid. They’re 2-3 against the RPI top 50, with a neutral-floor win over Cincinnati and a home win against VCU. That, however, might not be enough with a couple of bad losses, which came against LaSalle and Fordham, and a 5-7 record against the top 100 leaves. For my money, they’re in the running with Syracuse and Illinois State for the final spot in the field of 68, but they have an avenue available that neither the Orange or Redbirds do. If the Rams win the Atlantic-10 tournament on Sunday, they won’t have to worry about a thing. If they lose, it’ll be a tense few hours before the bracket is revealed. In that scenario, our bet would be that Syracuse’s six top-50 wins would keep them in front of the Rams.

Illinois State: Can the Redbirds get an at-large bid? The bet here is they will be left just out of the dance. They dropped games to San Francisco, Tulsa and Murray State, all three of which are comfortably off the at-large radar, and their only win over a tournament team came when they beat Wichita State at home. After that, Illinois State's next best win was at Loyola-Chicago, kenpom.com’s 97th-ranked team. The selection committee simply hasn’t shown much appetite for taking a team with that sort of résumé. It’s certainly possible things have changed, and this year’s bubble could hasten such change, but history suggests the Redbirds will head to the NIT.

Iowa: Well, that wasn’t ideal. The Hawkeyes surged back onto the at-large radar with road wins against Maryland and Wisconsin over the last two weeks of the regular season to go with earlier victories against Purdue, Michigan and Iowa State. They entered the Big Ten tournament with some work to do, however, so a 22-point loss to Indiana wasn’t what the selection committee ordered. The backend of the field is still in striking distance, but those losses to Memphis and Nebraska-Omaha stick out like a sore thumb. The Hawkeyes made a valiant charge, but they will likely come up short.

Indiana: Friday’s loss to Wisconsin put an end to any realistic at-large hopes for the Hoosiers. It was an uneven season from start to finish, but even wins over Kansas and North Carolina won’t help the Hoosiers into the Big Dance. They’ll have to settle for the NIT.

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Next Four Out

California: For the second time in three weeks, the Golden Bears came up just short of upsetting Oregon. Had they won both of those games, they’d likely be tournament bound. Had they won one of them, they’d at least have reason for hope on Selection Sunday. As it stands, they’re on the outside looking in at the tournament field. They’re just 6–11 against the RPI top 100, and only one of those wins came against a top-50 team (at USC). Add in a kenpom.com ranking and RPI that are both outside the top 50, and it’s easy to see where the Golden Bears are heading in the postseason. They’ll be one of the more dangerous teams in the NIT.

Illinois: After dropping their regular season finale at Rutgers, the resurgent Illini entered the Big Ten tournament with work to do. Yes, two wins over Northwestern, and another over Michigan State, improbably put them on the bubble, but the loss to the Big Ten’s worst team had them on the wrong side of it. Their loss to Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten tournament all but assured that the Illini will remain there. They deserve some credit for making the end of their season interesting, but they cannot measure up to the backend at-large teams. The Illini are NIT bound.

TCU: The Horned Frogs kept their season, and their slim at-large hopes, alive for a day with a stunning win over Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinals. Friday’s loss to Iowa State, however, put an end to their brief run. TCU was better and more competitive than anyone expected this season, but it will not break its NCAA tournament drought, which will move to 19 years.

Georgia: The Bulldogs came up agonizingly short time and again when it faced Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina this season. They came up short for a third time against the Wildcats in the SEC quarterfinals, but at least this time they won’t have to think about what could have been. Kentucky controlled the game throughout, cruising into the SEC semifinals. Our belief is that Georgia is good enough to win a game in the tournament, but that likely describes a lot of teams that just miss out on the Big Dance. The bottom line is the Bulldogs didn’t do enough to earn an at-large bid.

The Rest

Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders are in our field as the automatic qualifier from Conference USA. If they lose at some point in their conference tournament, they will instantly have one of the most interesting bubble cases. The own wins over Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Belmont and UNC-Wilmington, and are beloved by the metrics. It is instructive, however, to remember the case of 2015–16 Monmouth. Last year’s Hawks had better non-conference wins than this year’s Middle Tennessee State, but were shut out after losing in the MAAC tournament.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide remained on the fringes of the at-large picture by advancing to the SEC semifinals, a run that included a win over South Carolina. Still, they needed to do more to have a realistic chance for an at-large bid, specifically by beating Kentucky on Saturday. They kept it close but faltered down the stretch, falling 79–74 to the Wildcats. They finish the season 6–13 against the RPI top 100, with their best wins over the Gamecocks and Vanderbilt. The Crimson Tide will not be going to the NCAA tournament. 

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets went into the ACC tournament on the bubble on the strength of wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame at home, and VCU on the road. On the down side, they already had 14 losses, two of which were to sub-100 teams (Ohio and NC State). Not only did Georgia Tech need to beat Pitt in its first tournament game to have a realistic chance for an at-large bid, it likely had to follow that with an upset of Virginia on Wednesday. That the Yellow Jackets came up two steps short should remove any doubt about where they’ll stand on Selection Sunday. There were some legitimate highs in Georgia Tech’s season, but it will not end with a trip to the NCAA tournament.

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