With less than three weeks until Selection Sunday, the top of the NCAA tournament field remains uncertain and the bubble is one of the strongest in recent years.

By Michael Beller
February 20, 2018

With less than three weeks until Selection Sunday, the top of the tournament field at this time of the season is as uncertain as it has been in recent memory. It’s also as soft as it has been in a while, all the way through the No. 5 and 6 lines, where it has been more difficult than expected to find worthy teams in the Bracket Watch.

Conversely, this is as strong a bubble as I remember in my five years at the head of SI.com’s Bubble Watch committee. We project teams such as Texas, Arkansas and Butler as No. 9 and 10 seeds, which would make them prototypical bubble teams in an ordinary year. However, they are closer to taking themselves off the bubble in a good way than they are to falling out of the field, as are many of their neighbors in the seed list. The teams at the top of the seed list may be more flawed than usual, but those at the bottom of the at-large picture are creating the most competitive Bubble Watch in years.

Locks (19)

Arizona, Auburn, Cincinnati, Clemson, Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Villanova, Virginia, West Virginia, Wichita State, Xavier

Spots remaining: 27

68 total spots — 19 locks — 22 single-bid conference automatic qualifiers = 27

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Solid Selections

Teams that are all but guaranteed to secure a spot in the field of 68.

Rhode Island (21-4, RPI: 8, SOS: 37, Q1 record: 2-4)

I detailed my trouble with seeding the Rams in this week’s Bracket Watch. They’re worthy of a No. 5 seed right now, but that may not be the case when Selection Sunday gets here. Teams like Florida, Alabama and Houston have as many Q1 wins as the Rams have in Q1 and Q2 combined. The bet here is that they’re ultimately a No. 6 or 7 in the actual bracket.

Texas A&M (17-10, RPI: 21, SOS: 9, Q1 record: 7-8)

Sure, the Aggies have had good fortune to play 15 Q1 games, but they deserve credit for winning seven of them. They were just shy of earning lock status this week, but so long as they take care of business against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, they’ll be in the lock section next week.

Kentucky (18-9, RPI: 18, SOS: 3, Q1 record: 3-7)

The Wildcats earned an important win over Alabama at home last Saturday, ending a four-game slide. All four of those losses were to certain or likely tournament teams, with three coming on the road. A split in games against Arkansas and Missouri this week would likely be enough to consider the Wildcats locks.

Arizona State (19-7, RPI: 28, SOS: 65, Q1 record: 3-3)

The Sun Devils lost the only game they played last week, a 77-70 reversal at home against Arizona. They may not have the ceiling they once hinted at, but it would take utter disaster for them to fall out of the tournament picture. What kind of disaster? For starters, they’d have to go 1-3 or 0-4 in their final regular season games, which are against Oregon, Oregon State, Cal and Stanford. That’s not going to happen.

Creighton (18-8, RPI: 36, SOS: 52, Q1 record: 3-7)

The Bluejays lost at home to Marquette over the weekend, but their resumé is resilient enough to handle that loss. Like Arizona State, it would take a highly unlikely disaster to push them onto the bubble, let alone out of the field. If they can win at Butler or protect their home floor against Villanova this week, we’ll consider them a lock for the dance.

Safer Than Most

Teams that are standing on solid ground and looking strong heading into March.

Florida (17-10, RPI: 64, SOS: 56, Q1 record: 6-3)

There’s no question that the RPI is going to be a problem for the Gators. For better or worse, the Selection Committee considers it an important metric. It won’t hurt the Gators too much if they win a couple more games the rest of the season, but losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt last week were truly damaging. The Gators remaining games are against Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky. An 0-4 finish is absolutely a possibility and then the RPI could conspire to keep them out of the field of 68.

Alabama (17-10, RPI: 33, SOS: 14, Q1 record: 6-5)

Alabama’s remaining schedule is just as tough as Florida’s. They visit Auburn and host Arkansas this week, before finishing with the Gators and Texas A&M next week. The Tide could also be in trouble with an 0-4 finish, though they have more breathing room than Florida. On the other hand, a 2-2 run to end the season would likely leave them without worry on Selection Sunday, no matter how they fare in the SEC tournament. They’ve done enough this season to give the Bubble Watch committee confidence that they’ll be able to win two of the next four, which is why they’re in this section and not the one for true bubble teams.

Missouri (17-9, RPI: 24, SOS: 22, Q1 record: 5-7)

Last week, the Tigers extended their winning streak to five games with a win over Texas A&M before having it snapped with a loss at LSU over the weekend. Still, that’s a net positive week for a team that continues to surge as Selection Sunday draws near. Two more wins in the regular season should be enough to leave them with a tension-free Selection Sunday. A win at Kentucky on Saturday could vault them all the way up to lock status.

Houston (21-5, RPI: 19, SOS: 93, Q1 record: 6-3)

The Cougars just recorded the best week of their season with wins over Cincinnati and Temple. Their six Q1 victories give them more than Duke, Clemson, Cincinnati and Kentucky, and as many as Purdue and Oklahoma. They have it pretty easy the rest of the regular season, with games against Memphis, East Carolina, SMU and Connecticut. Barring disaster, they’ll be dancing.

Michigan (21-7, RPI: 30, SOS: 78, Q1 record: 3-5)

The Wolverines notched their third Q1 win of the season with a 74-62 victory over Ohio State at home last Sunday. They spend this entire week on the road, with sneaky-tough games against Penn State and Maryland. If they lose both, they’ll go into the Big Ten tournament needing at least one decent win to feel good about themselves on Selection Sunday. A split should leave them all but locked in, while a couple of wins would have them guaranteed to be worry-free as the Selection Committee builds the bracket.

Seton Hall (18-9, RPI: 25, SOS: 25, Q1 record: 3-6)

The Pirates have a tough week ahead with road games at Providence and St. John’s. The Red Storm have proved to not be a pushover of late and Shamorie Ponds is capable of carrying them to victories against nearly any team in the country, evidenced by victories over Duke and Villanova. If the Pirates lose both, they’ll be desperate for wins over Villanova or Butler in the final week of the regular season. This is going to be a tricky few weeks for them to navigate, but they still have far more good than bad on their resumé.

Florida State (19-8, RPI: 45, SOS: 76, Q1 record: 5-4)

The Seminoles enjoyed a strong week, thanks primarily to their overtime win against Clemson. That was their second of the year against a tournament lock, which has them headed in the right direction with two weeks left in the regular season. They play just once this week, visiting North Carolina State on Sunday. They aren’t quite on solid ground, but so long as they avoid multiple bad losses the rest of the way, they should be a comfortable bunch when the bracket is being revealed.

Providence (17-10, RPI: 37, SOS: 19, Q1 record: 5-6)

A loss at Butler would be forgivable in any circumstances. When it comes days after beating Villanova, it’s almost as though it didn’t even happen. The Friars’ win over Villanova made them the lone team in the Big East to beat the Wildcats and Xavier thus far this season. Assuming they can keep things clean the rest of the way, they should have more than enough for the committee to easily forgive their losses to Minnesota, Massachusetts and DePaul. The Friars host Seton Hall on Wednesday and visit Georgetown on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s (25-4, RPI: 31, SOS: 144, Q1 record: 1-0)

I continue to believe the Gaels face a restrictive seed ceiling. Their win at Gonzaga was unquestionably impressive, but it’s their only win this season against a team worthy of an at-large bid. They also beat likely tournament team New Mexico State, but that team isn’t getting an at-large bid after losses to Utah Valley and Seattle. The Gaels aren’t going to have anything to worry about, even if they lose another game, but there’s no way their resumé is worthy of anything more than a No. 7 seed, and even that would require that they win the WCC tournament.

Nevada (23-5, RPI: 9, SOS: 28, Q1 record: 2-2)

Nevada is in a similar spot to Saint Mary’s. They may have two Q1 wins, but those came against Rhode Island and Boise State. We discussed earlier the deficiencies of Rhode Island’s resumé, and Boise State is unlikely to earn an at-large bid now that it is guaranteed to end the regular season with zero Q1 victories. Nevada also has two losses to teams with sub-100 RPIs, which the committee does not like to see. One more bad loss could put their tournament lives in jeopardy, so it is critical that they take care of business against San Jose State and Colorado State this week.

Virginia Tech (19-8, RPI: 55, SOS: 106, Q1 record: 4-5)

This could be higher than you see Virginia Tech in most places, but there aren’t very many teams in the country with two wins that stack up to the Hokies wins over North Carolina and Virginia, the latter of which was on the road. They do have one ugly loss to Saint Louis, but all of their other losses came to teams in the at-large discussion. They have a brutal remaining schedule, starting with home games against Clemson and Louisville this week. Next week, they host Duke before ending the regular season at Miami. That brand of slate definitely brings the possibility of disaster, but a 2-2 record will be good enough to lock them into the field of 68.

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True Bubble Teams

Teams that are without a doubt part of the bubble picture.

Texas (16-11, RPI: 53, SOS: 20, Q1 record: 5-8, Q2 record: 3-3, sub-100 losses: 1)

The Longhorns got a big win over Oklahoma last weekend, their first win against a certain or likely tournament team since the first weekend of February when they beat…Oklahoma. Their season took a bit of a nosedive when they lost four times in five games, but they’ve still done enough to be on relatively sound footing with two weeks left in the regular season. The Selection Committee will certainly like the five Q1 wins. They could do themselves a favor with a win at Kansas State on Wednesday. They wrap up the week by hosting fringe at-large contender Oklahoma State on Saturday.

Butler (18-10, RPI: 39, SOS: 26, Q1 record: 3-8, Q2 record: 5-1, sub-100 losses: 1)

Butler’s loss to Georgetown last week removed the no-bad-losses sticker from its resumé. The Bulldogs bounced back with a nice win over Providence at home, but it still may have been a net negative week. The win over the Friars, however, was their first against a likely tournament team since they beat Villanova way back on December 30, so to call it a much-needed win is an understatement. The Bulldogs have just one game this week, playing host to Creighton on Tuesday.

TCU (18-9, RPI: 22, SOS: 13, Q1 record: 3-7, Q2 record: 3-2, sub-100 losses: 1)

The Horned Frogs have about as light a two-week stretch to end the regular season as is realistically possible in the Big 12. They visit Iowa State and host Baylor this week, with a home game against Kansas State and road trip to Texas Tech on tap next week. That’s welcome news for a team that has enough strong wins on its resumé to get into the dance, but would likely be exposed if it still had to go through a gauntlet the rest of the way. Kenpom.com favors them to win their next three games before losing at Texas Tech to end the season. If that comes to fruition, they’ll likely have nothing to worry about on Selection Sunday.

NC State (18-9, RPI: 61, SOS: 68, Q1 record: 5-6, Q2 record: 2-1, sub-100 losses: 1)

Like Virginia Tech, the Wolfpack are likely to have too many good wins for the committee to ignore despite a few obvious blemishes on their resumé. Put simply, it’s awfully hard to see the committee leaving out a team that has wins over Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Arizona. The Wolfpack would really have to stumble down the stretch and that’s equally hard to imagine with games remaining against the likes of Boston College and Georgia Tech. They may not be able to climb too far up the seed list without a deep run in the ACC tournament, but they have almost certainly proved that they are one of the 36 best at-large candidates in the country.

Arkansas (19-8, RPI: 26, SOS: 62, Q1 record: 5-7, Q2 record: 1-1, sub-100 losses: 0)

The Razorbacks have won four straight games, but only the last one (over Texas A&M) came against a likely tournament team. They end their season with a harrowing four game stretch, starting with Kentucky and Alabama, the latter on the road, this week. After that, they host Auburn and visit Missouri next week. This could be make-or-break team for the Razorbacks. Like so many teams that we’ve already discussed with similar stretches to end the season, 2-2 will likely be good enough. Remember, if Selection Sunday were this past weekend, Arkansas would have been relatively safe. That means they don’t need to overwhelm the committee the rest of the season to get into the dance. They just can’t afford to give the committee reasons to keep them out.

Miami (19-8, RPI: 36, SOS: 61, Q1 record: 4-5, Q2 record: 2-2, sub-100 losses: 1)

If the new quadrants truly matter, then Miami has some serious work to do. Not only does it have just four Q1 victories, those wins came against Middle Tennessee State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and NC State. They also have wins over Florida State and Syracuse, which is to say their best victories have been over a who’s who of ACC bubble teams. I do not think they’d be in serious jeopardy if Selection Sunday were last weekend, but there are still two weeks of the regular season plus conference tournaments left on the board. A team that I believe is comfortably behind them in the pecking order right now, such as USC or Marquette, has plenty of time and opportunity to leapfrog the Hurricanes.

Kansas State (19-8, RPI: 56, SOS: 97, Q1 record: 3-6, Q2 record: 5-1, sub-100 losses: 0)

The Wildcats took care of business last week, picking up wins at Oklahoma State and at home over Iowa State. The next two weeks will be huge for them as they embark on a four-game run against teams that are all in the at-large picture. It starts this week with Texas and Oklahoma, and wraps next week with TCU and Baylor. The major coups would be the middle two games, especially since they are on the road. The Wildcats do have road victories over Baylor and Texas on the year, but adding one against Oklahoma or TCU would be enormous for their at-large hopes. They join the non-exclusive club of teams that can likely make the committee’s job easy by going 2-2 the rest of the way.

Washington (18-9, RPI: 49, SOS: 32, Q1 record: 4-3, Q2 record: 1-4, sub-100 losses: 1)

The Huskies were the talk of the Bubble Watch a few weeks ago after they knocked off Arizona State and Arizona in succession. They promptly turned around and dropped three straight games to Oregon, Oregon State and Utah. That has them squarely on the bubble with four games left in the regular season. They visit Stanford and Cal this week, and host Oregon State and Oregon next week. Frankly, they need to go 4-0 in those games. Not because they’re desperate for wins, but because at-large quality teams should not lose to those four, especially when they’ve already lost to three of them earlier in the year. Any loss the rest of the way could have the Huskies needing a big win in the Pac-12 tournament to get into the dance.

Baylor (16-10, RPI: 47, SOS: 23, Q1 record: 4-8, Q2 record: 2-2, sub-100 losses: 0)

What a run for the Bears. They’ve won five straight games, with Kansas and Texas Tech among their victims. Before the streak, they were 12-10 overall, 2-7 in the Big 12, and seemingly without any tournament hopes. Now, they’re a win or two away from feeling great about themselves on Selection Sunday. Their schedule doesn’t get much easier the rest of the regular season, with West Virginia and TCU on tap this week.

Louisville (18-9, RPI: 52, SOS: 45, Q1 record: 2-7, Q2 record: 1-2, sub-100 losses: 0)

Louisville’s final four games of the regular season are against Duke, Virginia Tech, Virginia and NC  State, with all but the Virginia game on the road. That is excellent news for a team desperate for big wins. The Cardinals are the only team realistically in the at-large discussion with fewer than four combined Q1 and Q2 wins. They’re the only major conference team inside the field of 68 in our latest Bracket Watch with no more than two Q1 victories. All four of their remaining games will likely be in Q1, which gives them the opportunity to prove they belong in the dance. The Cardinals will make or break their season the next two weeks.

St. Bonaventure (20-6, RPI: 27, SOS: 87, Q1 record: 3-2, Q2 record: 4-2, sub-100 losses: 3)

The Bonnies got the big win they needed by beating Rhode Island at home last Friday. That put them in the field in our latest Bracket Watch, but it might not be enough to keep them in without a deep run in the Atlantic 10 tournament. They aren’t going to strengthen their resumé with any signature victories the rest of the way, and they won’t meet Rhode Island again unless both of them advance to the A-10 championship. That means the Bonnies might need some help from the next few teams in the Bubble Watch. If teams like Syracuse, UCLA, USC, LSU or Marquette pile up victories the rest of the season, they could vault St. Bonaventure, even if the latter doesn’t lose until the A-10 championship.

Syracuse (18-9, RPI: 38, SOS: 29, Q1 record: 3-5, Q2 record: 4-3, sub-100 losses: 2)

The Orange picked up a monster win at Miami on Saturday, knocking off a fellow bubble team and doing it on the road. They have about as challenging a schedule as possible the rest of the way, starting with games against North Carolina and Duke this week. After a brief respite in the form of Boston College, they’ll wrap up their season with a home game against Clemson. Thanks to their remaining schedule, there may not be a ton of intrigue surrounding the Orange on Selection Sunday. If they lose to North Carolina, Duke and Clemson, they’ll need to do some serious damage in the ACC tournament. If they can beat one of them, they’ll set themselves up to make a compelling case to the committee by skirting any bad losses. If they manage to beat two of them, they may not need to do anything of note in the conference tourney.

UCLA (19-8, RPI: 48, SOS: 70, Q1 record: 2-4, Q2 record: 3-2, sub-100 losses: 1)

UCLA took care of business last week, beating Oregon State and Oregon. They’re on the road for the rest of the regular season, with possible resumé-builders against Utah this week and USC next week. Neither of those games are gimmies, but the Bruins are in a position where they need at least one of them heading into the Pac-12 tournament. Wins over Arizona, Kentucky, Washington and USC give them the foundation for an at-large bid, but they aren’t quite there just yet. There wouldn’t be any shame in losing at Utah and USC, but doing so would likely confirm that the Bruins are not among the 36 best at-large teams in the country.

USC (19-9, RPI: 42, SOS: 55, Q1 record: 2-5, Q2 record: 3-3, sub-100 losses: 1)

Like their Los Angeles neighbors, USC beat Oregon and Oregon State last week. They have the same remaining schedule, too, with the obvious difference being that they’ll be home for the rematch with UCLA. It’s hard to picture both Los Angeles Pac-12 teams getting into the dance. There just likely aren’t enough wins to go around at this point, unless both somehow make it to the Pac-12 championship. I’d hesitate to call their meeting next week a de facto elimination game, especially since both have to get through Utah first, but it could come down to that, depending on what they do this week and in the Pac-12 tournament, as well as what their fellow bubble teams do the next three weeks.

LSU (15-11, RPI: 75, SOS: 42, Q1 record: 7-5, Q2 record: 1-5, sub-100 losses: 2)

Depending on what happens the next three weeks, there may be no more interesting team on Selection Sunday than LSU. At the very least, they have the most vexing bubble case at this stage of the season. On the one hand, LSU owns seven Q1 victories after sweeping Texas A&M and Arkansas, beating Houston and Missouri at home, and Michigan on a neutral floor. On the other hand, the Tigers have 11 losses, including reversals against Stephen F. Austin and Vanderbilt. They are done with certain or likely tournament teams in the regular season, with their last four games coming against Vanderbilt, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Despite the seven Q1 wins, they likely need at least three of these to put themselves for an at-large bid with one good win the SEC tournament.

Marquette (15-11, RPI: 57, SOS: 18, Q1 record: 4-8, Q2 record: 3-3, sub-100 losses: 0)

The Golden Eagles got what they needed with an impressive win at Creighton over the weekend. They’ve added two Q1 road victories to their resumé in the last two weeks, previously winning at Seton Hall. Those two wins have pulled them out of the tailspin they were in after losing four straight games and six of eight. What’s more, they have a soft remaining schedule, with their next three games against St. John’s, DePaul and Georgetown, before hosting Creighton to end the regular season. They’ll almost certainly need one more big win to get into the field of 68, but they’ve put themselves in a position where that could be all it will take. That almost certainly wasn’t the case two weeks ago.

Temple (15-12, RPI: 44, SOS: 8, Q1 record: 3-8, Q2 record: 4-0, sub-100 losses: 4)

The Owls had a great opportunity to strengthen their case for an at-large bid, which is built entirely on wins over Auburn, Clemson and Wichita State, with their second meetings of the season with the Shockers and Houston. A win in either one would’ve solidified their case that they can play with any team in the country, while victories in both would have given them five top-20 victories. Instead, they lost both and now face a ton of trouble in counterbalancing their four terrible losses. They can’t make up any ground the rest of the regular season, with their final three games against UCF, Connecticut and Tulsa.

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On the Fringe

Teams that are still alive but are in immediate danger of falling out of at-large contention.

Nebraska (20-9, RPI: 60, SOS: 119, Q1 record: 1-6, Q2 record: 3-2, sub-100 losses: 1)

I know most other bubble watchers and bracket folks think Nebraska is closer to the field than this, but I just don’t see how their resumé is any better than that of Marquette, LSU, USC, UCLA or Syracuse. You could talk me into placing the Cornhuskers over Temple, but that doesn’t exactly place them on the cusp of the NCAA tournament. A win over Penn State in their regular season finale will do them some good, but they need to make some real noise in the Big Ten tournament to get an at-large invite.

Boise State (20-6, RPI: 51, SOS: 132, Q1 record: 0-2, Q2 record: 5-3, sub-100 losses: 1)

Boise State was in the Bubble Watch last week, which means it has to be in this week, but this will be its last appearance. The Broncos lost to Nevada last week, which was their last chance for a win against an at-large quality team in the regular season. They will end the season with their best win coming at home against Loyola-Chicago, which is the favorite in the Missouri Valley but isn’t going to get an at-large bid. The committee rightly has shown no appetite for granting at-large bids to teams with zero at-large quality wins. If Boise State meets Nevada again, it will be in the Mountain West championship game, and a win there would eliminate its need for an at-large bid.

Mississippi State (18-8, RPI: 71, SOS: 128, Q1 record: 2-6, Q2 record: 3-2, sub-100 losses: 2)

A one-point loss at Vanderbilt on the heels of an overtime loss at Missouri significantly damaged the Bulldogs tournament hopes. The Bulldogs do have some opportunity with games remaining against Texas A&M and Tennessee, but chances are they need to win both of those to get into the dance.

Georgia (15-11, RPI: 66, SOS: 54, Q1 record: 5-7, Q2 record: 4-1, sub-100 losses: 3)

The Bulldogs got themselves back in the at-large discussion with an excellent week that  included wins over Florida and Tennessee. It will be challenging for them to offset their three sub-100 losses, but they’ve at least given themselves a chance to do so. They, too, have Texas A&M and Tennessee remaining on their schedule, with both of those games coming next week. If they beat South Carolina and LSU this week, and split those games next week, they could make things interesting in the SEC tournament.

Notre Dame (15-12, RPI: 68, SOS: 27, Q1 record: 2-6, Q2 record: 4-3, sub-100 losses: 2)

We can’t yet write off the Irish with a game remaining against Virginia. If they can find a way to win that one and do some damage in the ACC tournament, they can still sneak into the dance. Bonzie Colson is out of his walking boot, a big step toward getting him back on the court. Indeed, he dressed and warmed up with his teammates before Monday’s loss to Miami, but did not play. The Irish expected to get D.J. Harvey back for last Saturday’s game at Boston College, but he suffered a setback with his knee at Friday’s practice. Still, there’s hope he can return this season. The Irish remain a longshot, but stranger things have happened.

Penn State (19-10, RPI: 76, SOS: 99, Q1 record: 2-5, Q2 record: 2-3, sub-100 losses: 2)

The Nittany Lions barely have an at-large pulse left, but it does still register after they completed a season sweep of Ohio State last week. They host Michigan and visit Nebraska this week, and both games would improve their profile should the come away with victories. Lose either one, though, and they’ll likely need to do some major damage in the Big Ten tournament.

Oklahoma State (15-12, RPI: 105, SOS: 73, Q1 record: 3-9, Q2 record: 2-3, sub-100 losses: 0)

The Cowboys play Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas in three of their four remaining games. That, combined with what they’ve done, still has them showing up as a blip on the at-large radar. If they lose to Texas Tech and Texas this week, they will fade away.

Utah (17-9, RPI: 50, SOS: 67, Q1 record: 3-6, Q2 record: 2-2, sub-100 losses: 1)

Utah has a real chance to make up some ground with home games against UCLA and USC this week. If they win both games they could vault the Los Angeles teams in the Pac-12, which would put them near the field of 68. The Utes likely need to win out—which also includes a game against Colorado next week—to have a realistic shot at an at-large bid.

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