Our first in-depth look at the NCAA tournament bubble this season breaks down which teams have work to do to be in position for an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.
The NFL season is over, and we’re less than six weeks from Selection Sunday. That can only mean, well, many things depending on context, but, for our purposes here, it most notably means one thing: NCAA tournament bubble season is upon us. What better way to mark the occasion than with the return of the SI.com Bubble Watch?
Before we get going, let’s lay down some ground rules.
A “lock” is exactly what it sounds like. Any team listed as a lock has already guaranteed itself a bid to the tournament. Even if their realistic worst-case scenario plays out, they’d still be in the dance. Realistic is the key word in the previous sentence. Yes, pretty much anything can happen in the topsy-turvy world of college basketball, but Duke isn’t losing out. Gonzaga isn’t suddenly going to turn into the dregs of the West Coast Conference and lose games to Loyola Marymount and Pacific. We won’t waste your time here.
At this still-early stage of the process, we’re going to resist the temptation of calling too many teams locks. Yet, it’s hard to imagine teams like, say, Kansas or Villanova falling out of the field. For now, we’ll call them near-locks, but we still won’t cover them in any depth. It’s likely that a few more expected wins that can only come with the passage of time will move such teams into the lock category.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, few teams are definitively eliminated at this point of the season. At the same time, plenty of those teams would need something bordering on a minor miracle to earn at at-large bid. For example, can we say Oklahoma State doesn’t have any shot at making the dance? No, we can’t. Can we say that the Cowboys would likely need to win out, or come close to doing so, which would mean eight or nine combined wins over Kansas, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, Kansas State and Texas. Yes, we can. Let’s see Oklahoma State, and teams like them, win a few more games before we put them on Bubble Watch.
Our focus here will be on the teams likely to remain on the bubble through February and into March. We know the new NET ratings aren’t perfect, but they are a critical metric for the Selection Committee. As such, we will weigh them heavily here. Overall records are accurate as of Wednesday morning, while Quadrant records, NETs and strength of schedule are accurate as of Tuesday morning.
We’ll present each bubble team in order of its seed in the current SI.com Bracket Watch. At its core, the Bubble Watch is about handicapping the race for the final X number of spots left for Y number of teams. As such, we’ll keep a running total in this column of how many spots remain up for grabs. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume that one of the locks from the major conferences will win the conference tournament. This means that if Gonzaga should lose in the WCC tournament, or if Buffalo should lose in the MAC tournament, or if Illinois should make a dramatic run and win the Big Ten tournament, a bubble spot would vanish.
With that, let’s get to the first SI.com Bubble Watch of the season.
Spots Remaining: 18 (68 Spots—8 Locks—18 Near-Locks—24 Unaccounted For Automatic Bids = 18)
Locks (8): Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia
Near-Locks (18): Buffalo, Cincinnati, Florida State, Houston, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Louisville, LSU, Marquette, Maryland, Mississippi State, Nevada, Purdue, Texas Tech, Villanova, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin
Teams on the Bubble
Baylor (15-6, NET: 31, SOS: 69, Q1 record: 4-3, Q2: 5-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The Bears have been one of the brightest surprises in the country since conference play began, ripping off five straight league wins (six straight overall) to move to 6–2 in the Big 12, a half game behin Kansas State for first place. They’re slowly but surely playing themselves off the bubble in a good way, and could move into at least Near-Lock status over the next few weeks. They’re in the middle of a daunting stretch that will see them play Texas (away), Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech (away) and Iowa State (away) over their next five games. Even a 2–3 result in those five would have to be considered a net gain from a bubble standpoint. Scott Drew has remade his team on the fly this season, with significant contributions from transfers Makai Mason and Mario Kegler, freshman Jared Butler, and King McClure and Mark Vital, both of whom had no more than supporting roles in their previous seasons in the program.
Kansas State (17-5, NET: 30, SOS: 40, Q1: 4-2, Q2: 4-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Kansas State has undergone a similar second-semester transformation to conference foe Baylor, though for a different reason. The Wildcats struggled in the non-conference portion of their schedule, due largely to Dean Wade’s foot injury. Since getting their star senior center back on Jan. 12, the Wildcats have gone 6–1, with wins over Iowa State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, TCU and, most recently, Kansas on Tuesday. Wade has averaged 14.9 points per game since returning, which includes a two-point effort in his first game back, and the Wildcats have held their opponents to 58.1 points per game with him back on the floor.
Ohio State (14-7, NET: 36, SOS: 35 Q1: 3-5, Q2: 3-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Buckeyes only win to date against a likely at-large team came against Cincinnati way back in their season-opener. Yes, they beat Nebraska late last month, but the Cornhuskers are trending in the wrong direction since losing Isaac Copeland for the season. The Buckeyes are 0–5 against Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa and Maryland, and have yet to play Wisconsin. They still have five games left with the conference’s likely tournament teams, which gives them plenty of opportunity to win their way into the dance. A 1–4 or 0–5 showing in those games, however, could spell doom. The Buckeyes must take care of business against Penn State at home on Thursday before a big road game at Indiana on Sunday.
Washington (18-4, NET: 27, SOS: 50, Q1: 2-3, Q2: 2-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Washington is in our Bracket Watch as the automatic qualifier from the Pac-12, but each passing week seemingly strengthens its at-large case. The Huskies have won 11 straight games, and while none of those came against likely at-large teams, they’ve clearly established themselves as the class of the Pac-12. This is a big week for the Huskies, with a swing through Arizona to take on the Wildcats and Sun Devils. They can burnish their at-large case by merely splitting those games, and a sweep would have them in great position heading into the final five weeks of conference play. Assuming they hold steady, they’ll be an at-large lock before the calendar turns to March.
Auburn (15-6, NET: 20, SOS: 34, Q1: 1-5, Q2: 6-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Auburn has one of the more interesting at-large cases at this point of the season. The Tigers clearly pass the eye test, with a high-powered offense led by Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. Despite that, their best win of the season came against Washington, one of just two wins they have over teams in our updated version of the Bracket Watch. The other came against Alabama, which is far from a sure thing for inclusion in the dance. We’d be surprised if Auburn is ultimately left out of the tournament, but they must start building a case on wins rather than reputation. They have a great chance to add to their résumé with a trip to LSU on Saturday.
Oklahoma (15-8, NET: 38, SOS: 10, Q1: 3-7, Q2: 5-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Sooners have lost three straight games after falling to Iowa State at home on Monday, and haven’t won a game against a potential at-large team in nearly a month. They grade out well enough in the metrics, but they do not own a victory over a likely at-large team all season, with arguably their best win coming against Southern Conference powerhouse Wofford back in November. In other words, this team is desperate for some résumé-building wins. They good news is their schedule is chock full of opportunity for the rest of February. Oklahoma’s next five games are against Texas Tech, Baylor (away), TCU (away), Texas and Iowa State (away).
TCU (15-6, NET: 37, SOS: 22, Q1: 1-5, Q2: 4-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
TCU is in decent shape for a true bubble team, with wins over Texas and Baylor in Big 12 play. It also doesn’t have a bad loss to its name, and that will come in handy should it add another meaningful win or two over the next few weeks. After hosting Oklahoma State on Wednesday, the Horned Frogs play Iowa State (away), Kansas and Oklahoma in succession. If the Horned Frogs stay on their current trajectory, they’ll be a safe tournament team headed for the Nos. 7 through 10 seed lines.
NC State (16-7, NET: 35, SOS: 261, Q1: 1-5, Q2: 4-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
The Wolfpack have yet to get a big win in conference, a point that was driven home in a 113–96 loss to North Carolina on Tuesday. They could ultimately come to regret their weak non-conference schedule, which did not afford them many résumé-building opportunities. They did beat Auburn before conference play began, but that’s their only win over a likely or potential at-large team to date. They’re going to need to pick up some wins over tournament-quality competition over the rest of the season if they’re going to feel good on Selection Sunday.
Syracuse (16-7, NET: 47, SOS: 33, Q1: 2-2, Q2: 3-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
This is shaping up to be another standard Syracuse season of recent vintage. The Orange entered the year with high expectations, suffered a few head-scratching losses (Connecticut, Old Dominion), then turned things around in ACC play, racing out to a 7–3 record in conference, including a win at Duke. They fell at home to Florida State on Tuesday, though, and are about to embark on a stretch during which they will play Louisville, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia over the course of 12 days. Before then, they’ll host Boston College on Saturday.
Ole Miss (14-7, NET: 39, SOS: 53, Q1: 3-7, Q2: 2-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Rebels got out to a hot start in SEC play, winning four of their first five with victories over Auburn and Mississippi State, but they’ve now lost four straight games to land firmly on the bubble in the first week of February. They have three legitimate résumé-building opportunities the rest of the season: at Auburn on Feb. 13, home against Tennessee on Feb. 27 and home against Kentucky on March 5. They’ll need at least one of those, plus most of the rest of their seven other games, to be in strong position on Selection Sunday.
Texas (12-10, NET: 41, SOS: 3, Q1: 4-5, Q2: 2-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
A 12–10 record certainly doesn’t jump off the page, and losses to Radford, Oklahoma State and Georgia have Texas with little margin for error. The best way to counteract that, however, is by racking up big wins, and the Longhorns have done just that by beating North Carolina, Purdue, and Kansas. There will be legitimate bubble teams that don’t have one win of that caliber, let alone three. Every bubble team every season has proved it can lose. Texas has proved it can win against high-quality tournament competition, and that will serve it well over the next six weeks.
Minnesota (16-6, NET: 52, SOS: 88, Q1: 3-4, Q2: 3-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Minnesota’s metrics don’t jump off the page, but the Gophers have wins at Wisconsin, at home against Iowa and Nebraska (before Isaac Copeland’s injury), and on a neutral floor over Washington. At present, those wins outweigh Minnesota’s decent-at-best metrics. They have a brutal stretch starting Wednesday, with consecutive games against Wisconsin, Michigan (away), Nebraska (away), Indiana and Michigan State. The Gophers wrap up their season with back-to-back games against Purdue and Maryland. They’ll likely need at least three wins in those seven games.
Indiana (13-9, NET: 44, SOS: 51, Q1: 4-7, Q2: 2-2. Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Try to forget for a second about Indiana’s ugly seven-game losing streak that it finally snapped with a win over Michigan State last weekend. The Hoosiers not only have that win over the Spartans, but victories against Louisville and Marquette this season. Losses to Northwestern and Rutgers certainly didn’t help matters, but the committee will smile on the fact that the Hoosiers have yet to lose a game outside the top-two quadrants. Indiana has a brutal remaining schedule with six games left against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa and Ohio State, but it's still headed in the right direction at this stage of the season.
Arizona State (15-6, NET: 60, SOS: 62, Q1: 3-1, Q2: 5-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The Sun Devils are at the top of the second tier of the Pac-12, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot in a season where the conference could feasibly send one team to the Big Dance. They’re still dining out on their win over Kansas, and they do have another win over a likely at-large team in Mississippi State. On the flip side, they’ve lost games to Stanford, Utah, Vanderbilt and Princeton, all of which are ranked 127th or worse on kenpom.com heading into action Wednesday. The Sun Devils get Washington at home on Saturday, and a win there would go a long way to strengthening their at-large résumé.
Alabama (13-8, NET: 45, SOS: 15, Q1: 3-5, Q2: 5-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Alabama has done an impressive job to play its way into at-large consideration with wins over Kentucky, Mississippi State and Mississippi. The two losses outside the top-two quadrants won’t help, but if they can avoid any additional unsightly losses, they should be in at least decent shape when Selection Sunday draws nearer. This is a classic take-care-of-business week for the Crimson Tide, with games against also-rans Georgia and Vanderbilt.
St. John’s (16-6, NET: 40, SOS: 65, Q1: 3-4, Q2: 4-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
St. John’s got a huge win on Tuesday, securing a season sweep of Marquette with a 70–69 win in Milwaukee. That was a major coup for the Red Storm, who got fat on a terrible non-conference schedule ranked 193rd in the country. Five of the Red Storm’s six losses have come in the Big East, including two teams with slim at-large hopes—DePaul and Georgetown. The two wins over Marquette have St. John’s in solid tournament position with eight games remaining in the regular season.
VCU (15-6, NET: 49, SOS: 17, Q1: 1-3, Q2: 2-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
VCU can schedule better than most mid-majors, with a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks second in the country. The Rams won games against Texas, Temple and CAA favorite Hofstra, but lost to Old Dominion and Charleston. They’ve already lost twice in the Atlantic 10, which is unquestionably down this season and more likely than not a one-bid league. One of their losses came to league co-favorite Davidson, and that’s the only time the two teams will play one another in the regular season. With few, if any, résumé-building opportunities remaining before the conference tournament, the Rams need a gaudy record to overcome what’s going to be a case devoid of signature victories. They spend this week on the road with games against George Washington and St. Bonaventure.
Seton Hall (13-9, NET: 67, SOS: 27, Q1: 2-5, Q2: 4-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The Pirates did well for themselves in the non-conference, getting wins over Kentucky and Maryland, both of which came away from home. That gave them some goodwill going into conference play, though they’ve burned up most of that by losing six of their first 10 Big East games, with their best wins coming against St. John’s and Butler. They don’t play Marquette or Villanova again until March, which makes the next four weeks all about winning the games they should win. That starts on Saturday with a home game against Creighton.
Temple (16-6, NET: 53, SOS: 44, Q1: 1-5, Q2: 5-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Temple has a big win over Houston, but that’s it’s only win against a team with strong hopes for an at-large bid. The American is down this season, and the Owls are done with Houston and Cincinnati. In other words, they have little margin for error the rest of the season. A few slipups against the lesser teams in the conference will have them on the outside looking in at the at-large picture. Temple hosts Connecticut on Wednesday and visits Tulsa on Saturday.
Florida (12-10, NET: 42, SOS: 57, Q1: 1-7, Q2: 4-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Florida is on a dangerous path that generally leads to the NIT. The Gators’ best wins of the season came against Mississippi and Arkansas, both of which could go dancing, but neither of which qualifies as a signature victory. The Gators’ eight Q1 losses show that, despite numerous opportunities, they simply cannot win with any consistency against high-quality competition. They have four games left with Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU, starting on Saturday with a trip to Knoxville, so they can still win their way into the dance. The bet here is that without a win over Tennessee or Kentucky, the Gators will be NIT-bound.
Nebraska (12-9, NET: 33, SOS: 106, Q1: 2-6, Q2: 4-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Cornhuskers have lost five straight games, the last two of which have come since Isaac Copeland suffered a season-ending torn ACL. The Selection Committee evaluates teams as they are after a major injury, not as what they were before it. Everything Nebraska did with Copeland will count for something, but they’re going to have to win some big games without him if they are going to earn an at-large bid. They get two shots this week, hosting Maryland on Wednesday and taking a trip to Purdue on Saturday.
UCF (16-4, NET: 43, SOS: 111, Q1: 1-1, Q2: 3-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Don’t be fooled by UCF’s gaudy record. Their only wins of the season against teams with legitimate at-large hopes came against Alabama and Temple, both of which could ultimately be NIT-bound. The good news for the Knights is that they’ve yet to play Houston or Cincinnati this season. That gives them four bites at the apple over the rest of the regular season, plus a return date with Temple on March 9. If they end up getting an at-large bid, it will be because of their performance in those five games.
Arizona (14-8, NET: 62, SOS: 68, Q1: 2-5, Q2: 2-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Arizona has a lot of work to do to get into the field of 68. The Wildcats did beat Iowa State way back before Thanksgiving, but they haven’t come close to beating an at-large quality team since. They don’t have any terrible losses working against them, but their overall résumé is bland and uninspiring, and the Pac-12 isn’t going to afford them many opportunities to strengthen their case. Their best chance to do so is Thursday when they host Washington.
Clemson (13-8, NET: 50, SOS: 25, Q1: 0-6, Q2: 3-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Clemson has been one of the most disappointing teams in the country this season, failing to come through in all of the eight games it has played against likely or potential at-large teams. Its best win of the season came against Atlantic Sun favorite Lipscomb, but that win combined with an absence of bad losses won’t get the Tigers into the dance. They’re going to have to start picking off good teams soon, and there’d be no better time to get their first meaningful win than Saturday, when they host Virginia Tech.
Butler (13-10, NET: 55, SOS: 24, Q1: 1-6, Q2: 5-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Butler is tantalizingly close to building a résumé worthy of an at-large bid. It has just one bad loss up against wins over Mississippi State, Florida, Creighton, St. John’s and Seton Hall. It’s likely an impossibility that all of those teams will go dancing, but it’s just as likely that at least a handful of them will. For sake of conversation, let’s say Butler already has three wins over teams that will get at-large bids. If they add, say, three more without suffering any ugly losses, they’ll have a compelling case on Selection Sunday. They play just once this week, visiting Georgetown on Saturday.
Arkansas (13-8, NET: 59, SOS: 36, Q1: 1-5, Q2: 2-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Arkansas is in an interesting spot heading into the second half of the SEC season. The Razorbacks have meaningful wins over LSU and Indiana this year, counterbalanced by ugly losses to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech. The fact that they’ve generally taken care of business against the teams they should beat bodes well for their immediate future, which includes games against South Carolina and Missouri. However, they’ll likely need at least another win or two against at-large quality teams to get into the dance. Their next such game comes on Feb. 16, when they host Mississippi State.
Utah State (17-5, NET: 34, SOS: 144, Q1: 1-2, Q2: 1-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
The Aggies did well to challenge themselves as much as was realistically possible in the non-conference portion of their schedule, with games against Saint Mary’s, Arizona State and Houston. They won the first one but lost the last two, which forces them to do serious damage in Mountain West play to earn an at-large bid. They only way to do serious damage in this conference is by winning at least one game against Nevada, and holding serve against Fresno State. The Aggies won at Fresno on Tuesday, giving them a season split with the Bulldogs. Realistically, they’ll need to win out in the regular season, including a win over Nevada at home on March 2, to have a shot at an at-large bid.
Davidson (15-5, NET: 61, SOS: 114, Q1: 0-2, Q2: 4-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Davidson should be considered co-favorites in the Atlantic 10 with VCU, but the conference is looking more and more like a one-bid league with each passing week. If the Wildcats are going to get an at-large bid, they’re likely going to have to run the table, or come awfully close to doing so, and advance deep into the conference tournament. They didn’t win any meaningful games out of conference, but they did beat VCU at home on Jan. 12, the only time the two will meet in the regular season.
UNC-Greensboro (20-3, NET: 51, SOS: 184, Q1: 1-3, Q2: 0-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Spartans could push 30 wins this season, including the Southern Conference tournament, and no matter the level of competition, that will attract the attention of the Selection Committee. Still, they don’t have a win over a team with any hope of an at-large bid, meaning they have a very narrow path to earning one themselves. It almost certainly includes them winning out, and definitely requires a win over Wofford in their one meeting left in the regular season. The Terriers beat them in Greensboro last month.
Creighton (12-9, NET: 58, SOS: 11, Q1: 0-7, Q2: 5-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Creighton’s case for an at-large bid at this stage of the season is similar to Butler’s, though not quite as strong. There’s enough of a foundation for the Bluejays to earn an at-large bid over the next six weeks, but they need to start winning meaningful games as soon as possible. A win at Villanova on Wednesday, for example, could completely change Creighton’s outlook for the rest of the season. Six of its remaining nine regular season games are against likely or potential tournament teams, including one meeting apiece with Villanova and Marquette. It’s a long road, but still one Creighton can realistically navigate.
Others in the mix: Wofford (in our current field as Southern Conference automatic qualifier), Lipscomb (in our current field as Atlantic Sun automatic qualifier), Murray State (in our current field as Ohio Valley automatic qualifier), Belmont, Northwestern, San Francisco, Oregon, Georgetown, Fresno State, Dayton, Oregon State, Saint Mary’s, Providence, UCLA