- With just over a month until Selection Sunday, even some of this year's more solid NCAA tournament résumés can take critical hits.
One year ago at this time, the wheels were starting to come off the Conestoga wagon.
Oklahoma took the country by storm in the first half of last year. Behind the inimitable Trae Young, the Sooners won 10 of their first 11 games and started the Big 12 season at 6–3, with four wins over eventual NCAA tournament teams Kansas, Texas Tech and TCU. Two straight losses to start February didn’t dampen spirits in Norman or hurt the Oklahoma’s case in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee. When it revealed its top 16 teams in February last year, the Sooners received a No. 4 seed. It seemed they were a lock for the NCAA tournament.
What first seemed like a blip on the radar eventually took over Oklahoma’s season. The two-game mini-skid became a six-game losing streak, landing the Sooners on the bubble. A late-season win over Kansas State, which ultimately advanced to the Elite Eight, likely saved their tournament lives, and they ended up a No. 10 seed in the big dance. Still, Selection Sunday was a tense day for a team that, one month earlier, had been deemed one of the top-16 teams in the country by the Selection Committee.
Why the brief lesson in recent history? Well, the committee’s annual faux selection show was last weekend, unveiling the 16 teams that should be feeling the best about themselves with a little more than one month until Selection Sunday. In the two previous seasons in which the committee has given us a glimpse at the field of 68 in February, no team has fallen out of the tournament, and 28 of the 32 teams remained among the top 16 seeds in the actual bracket. Still, Oklahoma proved last year that there’s plenty of time for the bubble to creep up on almost anyone. With that in mind, we’re going to be conservative with lock status in this edition of the Bubble Watch.
Spots Remaining: 18 (68 Spots — 19 Locks — 7 Near-Locks — 24 Unaccounted For Automatic Bids = 18)
Locks (19): Duke, Gonzaga, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Marquette, Michigan, Michigan State, Nevada, North Carolina, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Villanova, Virginia, Wisconsin
Near-Locks (7): Cincinnati, Florida State, Iowa, Kansas State, Maryland, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech
Teams on the Bubble
Buffalo (20–3, NET: 24, SOS: 96, Q1: 1–1, Q2: 4–1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Don’t discount the idea of Buffalo falling into an uncomfortable position over the final month of the season. After losing to Bowling Green, the Bulls trailed Central Michigan at halftime before righting the ship. They still have a regular-season game with Toledo, the second-best team in the MAC, and their best win of the season came against Syracuse. This is not a team that can withstand more than a loss or two before its tournament life is in danger, no matter how safe it might seem.
Texas (14–11, NET: 34, SOS: 5, Q1: 4–6, Q2: 4–4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
We here at SI.com are higher than most on Texas, and that isn’t going to change short of a losing streak along the lines of 2018 Oklahoma. Sure, Texas’s résumé has some pockmarks with losses to Radford, Oklahoma State and Georgia. The Longhorns also have wins over North Carolina, Purdue and Kansas, all three of which were among the committee’s top-12 teams last weekend, as well as Kansas State and Baylor, both of which are likely headed to the dance. Kansas State evened the score with them on Tuesday, but that’s not a troubling loss, even at home. So long as Texas doesn’t fall apart, they’re going to play their way off the bubble in a positive direction.
Ohio State (16–7, NET: 36, SOS: 56, Q1: 4–5, Q2: 3–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Buckeyes have won three straight games, most notably getting a road win over Indiana on Sunday. That gives them three impressive true road victories, joining early-season wins against Cincinnati and Creighton. One complicating factor for the Buckeyes is the strength of their remaining schedule. They’ll play Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin in five of their eight games left in the regular season. They could feasibly lose all those games and be sitting at 19–12 overall and 9–11 in the Big Ten going into the conference tournament. Even that would likely be good enough to get them an at-large bid, and just one win over any of those guaranteed or likely tournament teams would assuage any doubt.
Baylor (15–8, NET: 32, SOS: 59, Q1: 3–5, Q2: 6–1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Baylor has gone 1–2 since the previous edition of Bubble Watch, losing to Texas and Kansas State, and beating Oklahoma. We’ll consider that a wash, especially since they played the Kansas State game without Makai Mason and King McClure. Mason returned for the win over Oklahoma, but McClure remains out with a knee injury. He’s expected to be back on the floor soon, as early as Saturday when the Bears visit Texas Tech. They follow that up with a game at Iowa State and still have trips remaining to Kansas State and Kansas. The Bears may need to pick off one of those games to be comfortable on Selection Sunday, but it’s too early to say if that will be a necessity.
Washington (19–5, NET: 31, SOS: 55, Q1: 1–4, Q2: 5–1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Washington split its games in Arizona last week, beating the Wildcats but losing to the Sun Devils. With those two games in the rearview mirror, the Huskies, if they are who they believe themselves to be, should cruise the rest of the regular season. Their only game left with a team that is realistically in the at-large picture is against Oregon, and even the Ducks are an extreme long shot to make the dance. Should Washington win out in the regular season, it likely won’t matter how it performs in the Pac-12 tournament. Bet on the Huskies being in the dance one way or another.
Auburn (15–7, NET: 20, SOS: 33, Q1: 0–6, Q2: 6–1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Auburn still exists in this odd space where they’re clearly a tournament team by the eye test and most metrics, but have yet to beat anyone of note. Take a look at their kenpom.com page. Who’s the best win on there? Washington? Alabama? Florida? Murray State? The Bubble and Bracket Watch Committees would say it’s Washington, but it’s not as though that’s a signature win. We have the Crimson Tide barely inside the field of 68, and Murray State is only in by virtue of being our favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference. If Auburn holds steady the rest of the season, it will get an at-large bid, but it won’t be in position to do much damage in the tournament.
Ole Miss (16–7, NET: 35, SOS: 80, Q1: 3–7, Q2: 3–0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
As you can see above, Ole Miss has yet to lose a game outside of Q1. Six of their seven losses are to teams in our current field of 68, while Florida, the lone team outside the field, is one of our first eight out. That bodes well for a team with wins over Auburn, Baylor and Mississippi State. The Rebels visit Auburn on Sunday, then go on a three-game stretch against non-tournament contenders in Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia.
Wofford (18–4, NET: 27, SOS: 158, Q1: 2–4, Q2: 3–0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Wofford is in our field of 68 as the presumptive champion in the Southern Conference. If the Terriers fall short, they will be an interesting test case of the new NET rankings. If this is truly the sorting tool that the NCAA claims it is, then Wofford should be able to withstand a loss in the SoCon tourney, especially if it wins out in the regular season. After all, Wofford is ahead of Iowa, Baylor, TCU, Texas and NC State in the NET, just to name five teams. There’s a good chance none of them will be sweating on Selection Sunday, and their conferences all afforded them plenty of opportunities to build their respective résumés—opportunities that Wofford didn’t have in the same abundance. Saturday’s game against UNC-Greensboro will be a huge boost for the winner but could also scuttle the conference’s hopes of getting two teams into the dance.
Alabama (15–9, NET: 44, SOS: 23, Q1: 2–6, Q2: 6–0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 3)
Alabama is the first team we’ve covered in this edition of the Bubble Watch with three Q3+Q4 losses, yet it still rates quite highly, slotting as a No. 9 seed in our most recent Bracket Watch. The Crimson Tide have overwhelmed those losses with wins over Kentucky and Mississippi State. They’ll also get some credit for two of those wins taking place before the middle of December. The committee may not specifically weigh how a team is playing over its final 10 games, but it’s clear that the Crimson Tide turned a corner somewhere just before conference play began. They fell at Mississippi State on Tuesday, but they will now get a chance to rack up some wins with their next four games against Florida, Texas A&M (away), Vanderbilt and South Carolina (away).
TCU (17–6, NET: 33, SOS: 55, Q1: 1–6, Q2: 5–0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
TCU got the huge win it was desperate for last weekend, going into Ames and coming out with a 92–83 victory over Iowa State. The Horned Frogs previously had wins over Baylor and Texas, but beating the Cyclones on their floor is a true signature victory. That has them positioned to get into the dance. At this point, there are two realistic paths that could keep them from earning an at-large bid. The first would be losses to Oklahoma State and West Virginia, the two teams left on their schedule that have no chance for an at-large bid. The other would be a losing spree to end the season. If the Horned Frogs lost, say, five of their seven remaining games, and then fell in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, they could have a nervous Selection Sunday. Both of those are unlikely to happen.
Clemson (15–8, NET: 39, SOS: 25, Q1: 2–6, Q2: 2–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Does Clemson’s résumé sound familiar? There are a lot of similarities between its case and TCU’s, right down to when the two teams earned their best wins of the season. Clemson knocked off Virginia Tech at home last week, and while the Hokies were playing without Justin Robinson, that still qualifies as a signature win for the Tigers. Six of their eight losses are to teams in our current field of 68. The other two were to Creighton and Nebraska, both of which are among our first eight out. At the time Clemson lost to Nebraska, the Cornhuskers looked like an easy tournament team and likely still would had they not lost Isaac Copeland to a season-ending ACL tear. After visiting Miami Wednesday, Clemson travels to Louisville over the weekend, then returns home for a game with Florida State next week. If they can split the Louisville and Florida State games, they’ll be in great position with five games left in the regular season.
St. John’s (18–7, NET: 48, SOS: 63, Q1: 4–4, Q2: 4-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The closer we get to Selection Sunday, the more St. John’s looks like one of this year’s ultimate Jekyll and Hyde teams. The Red Storm started last week by beating Marquette in Milwaukee, earning a season sweep of the Golden Eagles. They followed that up by losing to Providence at home. They’ve also dropped games to DePaul and Georgetown at home, and while all three of those teams remain on the at-large radar, it’s more likely than not that none get an invite to the dance. They got a big win on Tuesday, protecting their home floor with an overtime win over fellow bubble team Butler. They get a real chance to pad the résumé with a home game against Villanova on Sunday.
Syracuse (17–7, NET: 47, SOS: 28, Q1: 2–3, Q2: 3–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The Orange are about to begin a stretch that will—not could, but will—make or break their season. Their next four games, starting Wednesday, are against NC State (away), Louisville, Duke and North Carolina (away). After a brief respite in the form of a road trip to Wake Forest, they end the regular season by hosting Virginia and visiting Clemson. In the space of 24 days, the Orange will play four games against tournament locks, two of which are currently No. 1 seeds, and two more against likely or potential tournament teams. If they win three of those games, that necessarily means that one of the victories came against Duke, Virginia, Louisville or North Carolina. That should be enough to get the job done. A 4–2 mark in those six games would all but guarantee a tournament berth.
NC State (17–7, NET: 37, SOS: 249, Q1: 1–6, Q2: 5–0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
NC State’s remaining schedule is as realistically close as possible to Syracuse’s polar opposite. The two teams play one another on Wednesday. After that, the Wolfpack visit Duke. From there, four of their five remaining games are against Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, with one more possible résumé-builder against Florida State. The Wolfpack’s best wins this season came against Auburn and Clemson. Both of those rate as solid, but not spectacular, victories. They may need to beat Duke or Florida State, or make a run in the ACC tournament, to be in a good position on Selection Sunday. One thing is for certain: They cannot afford a loss in any of those four games against the dregs of the ACC.
Minnesota (16–8, NET: 58, SOS: 64, Q1: 3–6, Q2: 4–1. Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Minnesota has lost three straight games, all against the conference’s elite. Losses to Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State may not hurt the Golden Gophers’ résumé, but they do represent missed opportunities for a team firmly on the bubble. The Gophers have three games left against guaranteed or likely tournament teams—one apiece with Michigan, Purdue and Maryland, with the first two coming at home. They spend this week facing off with fellow bubble teams in Nebraska and Indiana, beginning in Lincoln on Wednesday. If they can split those, pick off one of the big teams they still have in the regular season, and take care of business against Rutgers and Northwestern, they’ll be in a good spot going into the Big Ten Tournament.
Oklahoma (15–9, NET: 41, SOS: 11, Q1: 3–7, Q2: 5–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Oklahoma’s 2018–19 season is eerily similar to its 2017–18 season, only without Trae Young so it’s a lot less fun. The Sooners went into conference play this year at 11–1. They went into the Big 12 portion of their schedule at 10–1 last season. They didn’t race out to as hot a start in the Big 12 this year as they did last year, but they have been sent reeling by a five-game losing streak that threatens to knock them out of the dance. Last year’s six-game slide nearly did the same. Five of their six remaining games are with guaranteed, likely or potential tournament teams, starting Saturday when they visit TCU. They get a week off before playing Texas, Iowa State (away), Kansas and Kansas State (away) in four of their final five games of the regular season.
Seton Hall (14–9, NET: 69, SOS: 39, Q1: 2–6, Q2: 7–1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Seton Hall is still trading on non-conference wins over Kentucky and Maryland, both of which came away from home. Last weekend’s win over Creighton gave them seven Q2 victories on the season and moved them to 8–7 in Q1 and Q2 games combined. The résumé isn’t overwhelming, but it’s certainly that of a tournament team at this stage of the season. They’ll spend most of the rest of the season playing bubble teams before ending the regular season with games against the Big East powerhouses, Marquette and Villanova. A win in either of those games could be all the Pirates need to lock up an at-large bid, assuming they don’t fall apart over the next couple weeks.
VCU (17–6, NET: 43, SOS: 34, Q1: 1–3, Q2: 2–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
The Atlantic 10 will likely be a one-bid league this year, with Davidson and Dayton mere blips on the at-large radar. The only way the conference gets multiple bids to the dance is if VCU dominates the rest of the way and then loses in the A-10 tournament. In that scenario, though, the Rams would be in trouble. They beat Texas back in the first week of December, but that’s their only win against a likely tournament team all season. Their only other victory against a potential tournament team came against a Temple squad that is firmly on the bubble. VCU hosts Richmond and visits Dayton this week. The Flyers should be their final real hurdle in the regular season, with their final six games coming against teams all ranked 132nd or worse on kenpom.com.
Indiana (13–11, NET: 49, SOS: 31, Q1: 4–8, Q2: 2–3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The SI.com Bubble Watch Committee understands that it’s hard to get behind an at-large bid for a team that’s barely over .500. Try to forget for a second Indiana’s flaws, which all bubble teams have, and pay attention to its strengths. Specifically, consider the high points of its résumé. The Hoosiers own wins over Marquette, Louisville and Michigan State, all of which have already realistically earned bids to the dance. All three were among the top-16 teams in the Selection Committee’s peek behind the curtain last weekend, and the bet here is that they’ll all still be there on Selection Sunday. We can’t ignore the bad on Indiana’s résumé, but seven of their 11 losses are to teams that will be dancing next month, one more was to a full-strength Nebraska team, and another was to an Arkansas squad on the bubble. This team has done enough to date to be on the right side of the bubble. They’ve got a huge game on Saturday at fellow bubbler Minnesota.
Butler (14–11, NET: 53, SOS: 30. Q1: 1–7, Q2: 6–3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Butler is quietly putting together a solid résumé, with wins over Florida, Mississippi, St. John’s, Creighton, Seton Hall and Georgetown. None of those teams are a sure thing for the tournament, but three—Ole Miss, St. John’s and Seton Hall—are in our current field of 68, and all count as quality victories for a bubble team. The Bulldogs still have one game apiece with Marquette and Villanova, though both of those are on the road. A win in either could make their season, but if they lose both they’ll need to do serious work in their remaining games against potential tournament teams.
Temple (17–7, NET: 55, SOS: 57, Q1: 1–5, Q2: 5–1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
After losing at Tulsa last weekend, Temple is in serious danger of falling out of the field of 68. The Bracket Watch Committee assumed it would be dropping Temple after that game, but further examination of the résumés resulted in Temple remaining just ahead of Arizona State, Florida, Nebraska and UCF. Still, one more loss will completely zero out the capital Temple built up by beating Houston last month. The Owls must take care of business against SMU and South Florida this week, even with the latter registering a pulse on the at-large radar.
UNC-Greensboro (20–3, NET: 46, SOS: 187, Q1: 1–3, Q2: 1–0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
UNC-Greensboro is the last team in our current field, which is sure to be a controversial decision. Here’s our thinking. The Spartans are never going to get the volume of chances that teams like Arizona State, Florida, Nebraska, UCF, Arkansas, Creighton and Georgetown get to build its résumé. It’s nearly impossible to compare their résumés on an apples to apples basis, which is why metrics like the NET exist. If the NET is to be taken at face value, then the fact that UNC-Greensboro is ahead of Arizona State, Indiana, Syracuse, St. John’s, Butler, Temple, Creighton, Minnesota, Arkansas, Seton Hall and Arizona should matter. It’s just behind UCF, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and VCU, which suggests it could do as well as those teams have against at-large quality competition if it got as many chances to prove itself. If Selection Sunday were last weekend and UNC-Greensboro couldn’t get in with its résumé, then no team like it could ever hope to get an at-large bid, and that violates not only the spirit of competition, but the existence of metrics like the NET. Everything could change for the Spartans with games this week against Furman and Wofford, but for now they have one of the 36 best at-large résumés in the country.
Arizona State (16–7, NET: 72, SOS: 73, Q1: 3–1, Q2: 4–3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 3)
When you’re a bubble team that already has lost to teams like Princeton, Utah and Stanford, you can’t go out and drop a home game to a team ranked 177th in NET and on kenpom.com. That’s exactly what the Sun Devils did last week, losing to lowly Washington State. To their credit, they recovered with a win against Washington over the weekend and are one of the only teams you’ll find in this neighborhood of the bubble with three Q1 wins. Those victories against Kansas, Mississippi State and Washington aren’t going anywhere, and form a great foundation for any bubble team. They don’t have any real résumé-builders on their schedule the rest of the regular season, but let’s say they win out before the Pac-12 tournament. They’d go into it at 23–7 overall, and likely 4–1 in Q1 games and 8–3 in Q2 games. There’s the path to an at-large bid for Arizona State.
Florida (12–11, NET: 42, SOS: 28, Q1: 1–9, Q2: 4–1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
No matter who you beat or your metrics, the Selection Committee has never shown much appetite for granting at-large bids to teams right around .500. That means the Gators are going to have to rack up wins over the next month, no matter the quality of opponent. It would help, though, if at least a few of those came against at-large-worthy teams, considering that Florida’s best wins to date were over Ole Miss, Butler and Arkansas. If we’re being realistic about the Gators’ chances, they’ll have to take care of business in their four remaining regular-season games with also-rans (two against Vanderbilt, one apiece with Missouri and Georgia) and then pick off a win or two against Alabama, LSU (whom they play twice) and Kentucky. They can start that quest in earnest by winning at Alabama on Saturday.
Nebraska (14–11, NET: 40, SOS: 79, Q1: 2–8, Q2: 4–3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Nebraska’s season has completely unraveled over the last month, exacerbated by Isaac Copeland’s torn ACL. The Cornhuskers have lost seven straight games, the first three of which came with Copeland on the floor, to fall to 3–10 in the Big Ten. Their best conference win is over Indiana, and all of their meaningful victories won’t mean much to the committee considering they came with a healthy Copeland. After games with Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State (away) over the next week, Nebraska ends its season by playing Purdue, Michigan (away), Michigan State (away) and Iowa. It’s impossible to see the Huskers getting an at-large bid unless they pick off a couple of the big boys.
UCF (17–5, NET: 45, SOS: 101, Q1: 0–2, Q2: 4–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
UCF had a chance to make a statement last week, and it got run out of its own gym by Houston. The Cougars led for the final 37 minutes and 29 seconds of gameplay, running up a lead of 20 points with seven minutes left in the game. The Knights still have another game with Houston, as well as both of their regular-season meetings with Cincinnati, and they need at least one of those games to be in the at-large discussion at the start of the AAC tournament. This is a take-care-of-business week for them, with home games against South Florida and Memphis.
Utah State (17–6, NET: 38, SOS: 117, Q1: 1–2, Q2: 2–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The at-large case for Utah State is similar to that for UNC-Greensboro. The Aggies, too, have a strong NET rating that suggests they are on equal footing with bubble teams from power conferences. The big difference between the two, especially for the committee’s purposes, is that Utah State has lost two games outside of the top two quadrants, and two more in Q2. All three of Greensboro’s losses are in Q1. Greensboro also held a lead on Kentucky in the second half and lost by six at LSU. Utah State got crushed when it stepped up in weight class, losing to Arizona State, BYU by 15 and Houston by 10. The Aggies need to keep things clean against Wyoming and Air Force this week.
Arkansas (14–10, NET: 63, SOS: 43, Q1: 1–5, Q2: 2–3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Arkansas is fighting an uphill battle to get an at-large bid, despite its win over LSU from two weekends ago. That’s not enough to counteract losses to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech, especially when its only other win over a potential at-large team to date came against Indiana. The Razorbacks still have five potential résumé-builders in the regular season, including games against guaranteed or likely tournament teams in Kentucky, Auburn and Mississippi State. The first of those is this Saturday at home against the Bulldogs. That is the Razorbacks’ biggest game to this point of the season. Win there, and we can start to take their at-large case a bit more seriously.
Creighton (12–11, NET: 57, SOS: 10, Q1: 2–9, Q2: 3–2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Creighton is done with Villanova in the regular season—it lost both games to the Wildcats—and has also already played both of its games with Butler and Georgetown. That makes its second game against Marquette on March 3 precious. The Bluejays don’t have a signature win this season, and it’s unlikely that they counteract that deficiency by racking up decent wins over fellow bubble teams the way Butler has. They almost certainly need that game against Marquette to remain on the at-large radar.
Georgetown (15–9, NET: 78, SOS: 83, Q1: 3–3, Q2: 4–4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
On balance, Georgetown’s position is similar to Creighton’s. It has more overall wins and one more victory in each of the first two quadrants, but it has also suffered bad losses at the hands of Loyola Marymount and SMU, and does not have a victory over a tournament lock. The Hoyas play Villanova next week and Marquette in their season finale. It’s possible they could lose both those games and get an at-large bid, but that would likely require that they win the rest of their remaining regular-season games (two with Seton Hall, two with DePaul, one with Creighton) and do a little damage in the Big East tournament.
Arizona (14–10, NET: 85, SOS: 69, Q1: 1–4, Q2: 2–5, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
We were just going to put Arizona in the “others in the mix” section and call it a day, but we felt that would be too jarring for Wildcats loyalists checking out the column. After getting swept by the state of Washington last week, though, it’s likely Pac-12 tournament championship or bust for the Wildcats. Their non-conference win over Iowa State has taken them as far as it possibly can, and it isn’t possible for them to build their résumé in a meaningful way considering their remaining schedule in the regular season. The Wildcats are done with Washington and have a home game remaining with Arizona State, but a win there wouldn’t move the needle very much.
Others in the mix: Lipscomb (in our current field as Atlantic Sun automatic qualifier), Murray State (in our current field as Ohio Valley automatic qualifier), Belmont, Providence, Saint Mary’s, San Francisco, Oregon, Furman, DePaul, Fresno State, Davidson, Memphis, South Florida, Dayton, Oregon State.