- Checking in on the NCAA tournament bubble, where mid-major conferences like the Southern and Atlantic Sun are threatening to send more teams dancing than the Pac-12.
Forget about the talk of this being the worst bubble ever* and the usual middling power conference teams we find on the bubble every season, and pay attention to the most intriguing story percolating at the back end of the tournament field. The Southern, Atlantic Sun, and Ohio Valley conferences all have an opportunity to put more teams into the field than the Pac-12.
*Quick aside for just a second. We hear this talk every season around this time about the bubble being soft and this being the worst bubble ever, and it’s always hyperbolic. The bubble is inherently bad because all teams all the bubble are significantly flawed. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be bubble teams.
We won’t take too much away from the meat of the column, but Wofford out of the SoCon and Lipscomb out of the Atlantic Sun are both firmly on the at-large radar. Wofford is a top-30 team in NET and on kenpom with two Q1 wins and a 6–4 record in Q1+Q2 games. Lipscomb is a top-40 team in NET and on kenpom, won at TCU, lost at Louisville by just two points, also has two Q1 wins, and is 4–5 in Q1+Q2 games.
At the same time, they both have serious contenders in their conferences who could knock them off come tournament time. For Wofford, it’s Furman, which is also on the at-large radar, and UNC-Greensboro. For Lipscomb, it’s Liberty, which just won at Lipscomb last week, and is ranked 54th in NET and 66th on kenpom. If Wofford and Lipscomb win out in the regular season, but lose in their conference championship games, the SoCon and Atlantic Sun would likely send two teams apiece to the dance. It’s a tougher sell in the Ohio Valley, but Murray State and Belmont are both still alive for at-large bids.
Over in the Pac-12, only Washington is a good bet for an at-large bid. Arizona State could certainly play its way into the field without winning the Pac-12 tournament, but losses to Vanderbilt, Princeton, Utah, USC and Washington State have removed any room for error the Sun Devils once had after wins over Kansas and Mississippi State. If Washington wins the Pac-12 tournament and Arizona State loses another game or two to any team other than Washington, who it doesn’t play again in the regular season, the Pac-12 is going to be a one-bid conference. That, and not some overwrought concern about this being a particularly weak bubble, is the biggest story bubble watchers should be paying attention to over the next four weeks.
Buffalo: On the Bubble to Near-Lock
St. John’s: On the Bubble to Near-Lock
UNC-Greensboro: On the Bubble to Others in the Mix
Furman: Others in the Mix to On the Bubble
Records and NET are accurate through Tuesday. SOS is accurate through Monday. We assume that one of our locks or near-locks will win their conference’s automatic bid.
Spots Remaining: 17 (68 Spots — 19 Locks — 9 Near-Locks — 23 Unaccounted For Automatic Bids = 17)
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 (9): Buffalo, Cincinnati, Florida State, Iowa, Kansas State, Maryland, Mississippi State, St. John’s, Virginia Tech
Teams On the Bubble
Washington (20-5, NET: 30, SOS: 64, Q1: 2-4, Q2: 4-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Huskies have put themselves in position to lock up an at-large bid before long. It may be the worst season in the history of the Pac-12 in any iteration, but it’s hard to imagine the Huskies missing out on the dance if they go 25–6 overall and 16–2 in the conference in the regular season. That accounts for one more loss among their six remaining games, which are against Utah, Colorado, Cal (away), Stanford (away), Oregon and Oregon State. Frankly, if they lose more than one game against those six teams, they deserve to be in trouble.
Texas (15-11, NET: 36, SOS: 11, Q1: 4-6, Q2: 4-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
We’ve already gone over the Longhorns’ big wins (North Carolina, Purdue, Kansas) multiple times this season. While those wins have them better positioned than your typical 15–11 team at this point of the season, there’s still plenty of time for them to fall out of the field of 68. All five of their remaining games are against guaranteed, likely or potential tournament teams: Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa State, Texas Tech and TCU. The games with Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas Tech are on the road, and the Longhorns may be slight underdogs to Iowa State at home. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see them go 1–4 or 0–5, and that would have them in need of a deep run in the Big 12 tournament. If they can merely pick off two wins, though, they should be safe.
Ole Miss (18-8, NET: 35, SOS: 79, Q1: 4-7, Q2: 3-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Rebels four-game winning streak came to an end Tuesday with a loss at South Carolina. They remain in solid shape for the tournament, but we can’t slide them off the bubble just yet. They still play Tennessee and Kentucky in the regular season, but they don’t need either of those games to earn an at-large bid. If they simply win the remaining games that they should—vs. Georgia, at Arkansas and at Missouri—they’ll hear their names called on Selection Sunday. And if they do upset Tennessee or Kentucky, they’ll be thinking more about moving up the seed list rather than falling out of the tournament picture.
Wofford (20-4, NET: 25, SOS: 153, Q1: 2-4, Q2: 4-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Wofford moved to 15–0 in the Southern Conference, and simultaneously dashed any at-large hopes UNC-Greensboro had, but thrashing the Spartans by 30 points last weekend. Wofford’s four losses this season are to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Had they won one of those games, their at-large case would be a lot stronger, but there’s still plenty to like about the Terriers. They play at Furman, another Q1 game, on Saturday. Should they win out, they’d likely go into the SoCon tournament with three Q1 wins and top-25 status in the NET and on kenpom. That could be enough to get them into the dance, so long as they don’t suffer an embarrassing loss in the conference tourney.
Baylor (17-9, NET: 32, SOS: 45, Q1: 3-6, Q2: 7-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Baylor all but moved to near-lock status after Tuesday’s win over Iowa State, but we didn’t want to let this week’s Bubble Watch go without highlighting how big that win was. The Bears now have four Q1 victories, including a sweep of Iowa State and a win over Texas Tech. They can’t afford to lose out and make the tournament, but we have no reason to think that will happen, given the way they’ve played in the Big 12. After playing West Virginia on Saturday, they end the season with games against Texas, Kansas State (away), Oklahoma State and Kansas (away).
Auburn (16-8, NET: 24, SOS: 34, Q1: 0-7, Q2: 8-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
We took a deeper look at Auburn’s dissonant résumé in the latest Bracket Watch. If the Tigers simply stay the course, they won’t have anything to worry about on Selection Sunday. Still, it’s fair to wonder about this team’s ceiling, no matter how much it’s respected by the computers. They do still have two opportunities to get a signature win in the regular season, with the first coming this Saturday at Kentucky. Should they falter in remaining games against Arkansas, Georgia or Alabama, they could be in more trouble than they ever should have been in this season, given their high level of talent.
NC State (18-8, NET: 31, SOS: 213, Q1: 1-7, Q2: 6-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
NC State’s résumé is awfully similar to Auburn’s in that it doesn’t have any wins that jump out at you, but it's likely done enough to be safely in the field of 68, barring a disastrous finish to the season. The Wolfpack’s computer numbers aren’t as strong as Auburn’s but they have better wins and more victories over at-large contenders, including a win against Auburn back in December. They have about as easy a remaining schedule as possible in the ACC, with four of their five final regular season games against Boston College (two), Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. So long as they don’t slip up in any of those games, they’re going to go into the ACC tournament as, at worst, a near-lock for the big dance.
Oklahoma (16-10, NET: 39, SOS: 17, Q1: 3-8, Q2: 6-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
No team can “good loss” its way into the tournament, so last weekend’s win at TCU was huge for the Sooners after they had lost their previous five games. Still, their fall was likely a little overstated, considering that they still had strong computer numbers and wins over Wofford, Florida and TCU before that game. That wouldn’t have been enough to ultimately get them into the dance, but it still gave them a strong foundation with a month left in the regular season. The rest of their schedule is brutal, starting with a home game against Texas on Saturday. They’ll also make trips to Iowa State and Kansas State, and host Kansas and West Virginia to end the season. For the sake of conversation, let’s assume a win over West Virginia. If they then go 2–2 in their other four games, they should have nothing to worry about on Selection Sunday.
Syracuse (17-8, NET: 48, SOS: 30, Q1: 2-4, Q2: 4-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Syracuse is 5–3 since beating Duke back on Jan. 14, with all of their wins against teams outside the at-large picture, and all of their losses to teams likely to be in the tournament field. That opens the door to the Orange, one of two teams to beat the likely top overall seed, falling out of the tournament. What’s more, they have arguably the most challenging remaining schedule in the country. Their next three games are against Louisville and Duke at home, and at North Carolina. After a brief respite against Wake Forest, they host Virginia and visit Clemson to end the regular season. They’re going to need at least one win against the five teams not named Wake Forest, and if that win comes against Clemson they’ll likely need to do some damage in the ACC tournament. This will be one of the most interesting teams to watch over the next three weeks.
TCU (17-9, NET: 41, SOS: 36, Q1: 1-6, Q2: 5-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
TCU had a chance to play itself off the bubble after beating Iowa State in Ames two weekends ago. It has lost three straight games since then, punctuated by Monday’s loss at lowly Oklahoma State. Now, the Horned Frogs have to turn around and host Iowa State on Saturday, and their final three games of the regular season come against Texas Tech, Kansas State and Texas, the last of which is on the road. They’ve done enough to this point of the season for us to trust they can win one or two of these meaningful remaining games at home, but nothing is out of the question. If they don’t beat any of the likely tournament teams still in their way, they’ll go into the Big 12 tournament at 18–13 overall and 6–12 in conference. In other words, they still have some work to do.
Ohio State (16-9, NET: 45, SOS: 47, Q1: 4-6, Q2: 3-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Ohio State will be one of the more interesting teams to watch the rest of the season. The Buckeyes have been in the field in every edition of the Bracket Watch this year, and if you check out any other bracket projection on the internet—which would be weird of you, just for the record—you’ll almost certainly find the Buckeyes somewhere in there. They are a No. 10 seed on Bracket Matrix, which creates a composite bracket from all the individual projections on the web. While almost everyone has them in for now, that No. 10 composite seed indicates they are far from safe, and they have a brutal remaining schedule in the regular season. They play Northwestern twice, with the first game coming Wednesday in Columbus. Their four other games are against Maryland (away), Iowa, Purdue (away) and Wisconsin. They’ll be underdogs against Maryland and Purdue, and could be against Iowa and Wisconsin depending on what happens between now and when those games take place. If they lose all four, or even go just 1–3, they’ll likely be on the outside of the field looking in at the start of the Big Ten tourney.
Seton Hall (16-9, NET: 60, SOS: 39, Q1: 3-5, Q2: 6-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The Pirates have won three straight games, knocking off fringe bubble teams Creighton (twice) and Georgetown. To get into the dance, they’re going to have to either do some strong work away from home, or take down one of the top teams in the Big East. After hosting Xavier on Wednesday, the Pirates wrap up the regular season with road trips to St. John’s and Georgetown, and home games against Marquette and Villanova. If they win both road games, they’re likely in. If they beat one of the conference’s powerhouses, they’re likely in, even if they lose the other three. They can’t afford any bad losses, but they do have multiple paths to an at-large bid. Remember, this team beat Kentucky on a neutral floor and won at Maryland. Few bubble teams are going to be able to point to wins of that caliber.
Minnesota (17-9, NET: 50, SOS: 61, Q1: 3-7, Q2: 5-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
The Gophers cruised to a 21-point win over Indiana last weekend to snap a four-game losing streak. There’s still plenty of work left to do, though they have two big chances at home with games against Michigan and Purdue. A win in either of those could get the Gophers officially over the hump. Like so many teams we’ve discussed, it’s hard to imagine Minnesota falling out of the tournament if it stays on its current trajectory. Even if they lose to Michigan and Purdue, and fall at Maryland in their regular season finale, wins over Wisconsin (in Madison), Iowa, a full-strength Nebraska team and Washington have the Gophers well-positioned, so long as they avoid ugly losses the rest of the season.
VCU (19-6, NET: 37, SOS: 31, Q1: 1-3, Q2: 3-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
VCU won a thriller at Dayton last weekend to move to 10–2 in the A-10. Its final six games of the regular season are all against teams ranked 118th or worse in NET and 130th or worse on kenpom. In other words, the Rams have no business losing another game in the regular season. Should they win out, they’d end the regular season at 25–6 overall and 16–2 in their conference, with wins over Texas and Temple, as well as a sweep of Dayton. That would likely be enough for an at-large bid, should they fall in the A-10 tournament. If they drop one of these remaining six games, however, the bet here is they’d need the conference’s automatic bid to get in.
Alabama (15-10, NET: 53, SOS: 20, Q1: 3-6, Q2: 5-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Alabama is coming off a bad week, during which it lost at Mississippi State and at home to Florida. The Crimson Tide are still in good shape, but the door to the NIT is at least ajar. Their upcoming schedule includes games with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, both of which are off the at-large radar, and South Carolina, which is still showing up on the radar, but just as a blip. They’re likely in a situation where they just need to win the games they should to get into the field of 68, but they have a couple of résumé-building opportunities before the SEC tournament with games against LSU and Auburn, both of which are at home.
Florida (14-11, NET: 33, SOS: 42, Q1: 3-10, Q2: 3-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
It’s hard to overstate just how important Florida’s win at Alabama was last weekend. Before that, the Gators had just three wins against at-large contenders, and two of them, Butler and Arkansas, are on the outside of our current field of 68. By adding a road victory over a team that’s in position to get an at-large bid, Florida added a much-needed Q1 and further proved it could play with tournament-quality competition. It visits LSU on Wednesday, and a win there would really change its fortunes. The Gators get a rematch with the Tigers in March, as well, before ending their regular season at Kentucky. Florida’s surest, most realistic path to an at-large bid is to win one of those three games while cleaning up in its three remaining games against teams off the at-large radar—Missouri, Vanderbilt and Georgia.
Clemson (15-11, NET: 43, SOS: 43, Q1: 1-7, Q2: 3-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Clemson did not look the part of a tournament team on Tuesday, getting waxed by Florida State at home. Those are the games Clemson must win if it’s going to prove to the committee it deserves an at-large bid. It’ll have one more opportunity at such a win when it hosts North Carolina on March 2. If the Tigers do not win that game, they’re going to have to do some major damage in the ACC tournament to have a confident Selection Sunday.
UCF (19-5, NET: 40, SOS: 85, Q1: 0-2, Q2: 6-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Home wins over South Florida and Memphis don’t jump off the page, but last week was a big one for the Knights. Memphis is still on the at-large radar, and South Florida may get an invite to the NIT. This would be an even bigger week if they go into Cincinnati and come out with a win over the Bearcats. The Knights are still looking for that one big win to get them over the hump, and this is one of three chances they have remaining in the regular season. They also visit Houston on March 2 and host Cincinnati on March 7. Realistically, they’re going to need one of those three to get into the field of 68.
Temple (19-7, NET: 52, SOS: 59, Q1: 1-6, Q2: 5-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Temple’s résumé is awfully similar to UCF’s, though the Owls already have their big win, knocking off Houston back in January. Their next four games are against Tulsa, Memphis, Tulane and UConn, and then they wrap up the regular season by hosting UCF. The Owls could easily win out, and that would have them comfortably on the safe side of the bubble going into the AAC tournament. At the same time, a loss to any team not named Memphis or UCF would be quite damaging to their at-large hopes.
Utah State (19-6, NET: 34, SOS: 119, Q1: 1-3, Q2: 2-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
If NET matters, then Utah State has to be considered a better at-large team than the seven we are about to discuss. The Aggies are the final team in our field of 68, based largely on the Selection Committee’s new sorting tool. We have no choice but to take the committee’s word on its projected use of NET, and that is enough of a tiebreaker to get the Aggies into the field. Those two losses outside the top-two quadrants, however, mean that they have little room for error. A loss in any of their four remaining games that aren’t against Nevada would all but eliminate them from at-large contention. Even if they win those, they’ll need to beat Nevada at home on March 2 to feel good about getting an at-large invite. This week, they must take care of business against New Mexico and Boise State.
Nebraska (14-12, NET: 46, SOS: 77, Q1: 2-8, Q2: 5-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Nebraska’s season continues to slip away in the wake of Isaac Copeland’s torn ACL. The Cornhuskers got thrashed by Penn State on Tuesday, losing by 24 points to a team that is not on the at-large radar. Nebraska’s only wins since losing Copeland were both at home over fellow bubble team Minnesota and Northwestern, which is not in the at-large picture. The Huskers do have plenty of chances with their final four regular season games coming against Purdue, Michigan (away), Michigan State (away) and Iowa, but there’s no reason to expect them to win any of those games.
Indiana (13-13, NET: 55, SOS: 35, Q1: 5-8, Q2: 0-4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
It doesn’t really matter who you beat—even if it’s Michigan State, Marquette and Louisville—if you lose 11 out of 12 games and go into your conference tournament at or below .500 overall. You’re probably not going to get an at-large bid. Indiana had a huge chance to get another signature win on Tuesday, leading Purdue with less than a minute to go. A tip-in by Matt Haarms, however, dashed the Hoosiers’ hopes, and may prove to be fatal to their at-large chances. Without a dramatic close to the season that would likely need to include multiple wins against the at-large quality teams they still face—Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State—Indiana will have to settle for, at best, an NIT bid.
Butler (15-11, NET: 49, SOS: 27, Q1: 2-6, Q2: 5-4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
Butler’s loss at St. John’s in overtime was a huge missed opportunity. There’s no shame in the loss, but a win in that spot would’ve significantly burnished the Bulldogs’ at-large résumé. As it stands, their case is stronger than the numbers above would indicate. They may have no better than a decent NET and just two Q1 wins, but they have four victories over teams inside the current field of 68 on Bracket Matrix—Mississippi, Florida, St. John’s and Seton Hall. That won’t get them in, but it does have them in position to play their way into the field with one big one. They have two more shots at that in the regular season, starting Wednesday at Marquette. They also visit Villanova on March 2.
Arizona State (17-8, NET: 68, SOS: 67, Q1: 3-2, Q2: 6-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 3)
The big question for the Sun Devils isn’t how the committee balances its big wins against its ugly losses. That will factor into the equation, but there’s a better than average chance it’s moot by Selection Sunday. The big question, then, is can they get in without beating Washington again? The bottom line in this year’s Pac-12 is you aren’t burnishing your résumé without a win over the Huskies. The Sun Devils won’t see them again in the regular season, and if they do meet them over the next month, it will almost certainly be in the Pac-12 tournament championship. Win that game, and it doesn’t matter what the committee thinks of the Sun Devils. If they win every game up until the Pac-12 championship, they’d end the year at 24–9 with likely four Q1 wins. Would that be enough for an at-large bid? The bet here would be yes.
Georgetown (15-10, NET: 81, SOS: 87, Q1: 2-4, Q2: 4-4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
The Hoyas have done enough to this point of the season to remain in the at-large discussion, but they aren’t going to get an invite without beating one of the big boys in the Big East. That means getting a win against Villanova at home on Wednesday, or at Marquette in their regular season finale. If they lose both of those games, they’ll likely be off the at-large radar.
Lipscomb (19-5, NET: 38, SOS: 223, Q1: 2-3, Q2: 2-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
Lipscomb is in our field as the presumed winner of the Atlantic Sun tournament, but could earn an at-large bid if it needs one to get into the dance. The Bisons beat TCU and America East powerhouse Vermont in the non-conference, and have the sort of computer metrics and Q1+Q2 performance a team from a small conference needs to get an invite from the Selection Committee. If they win out but lose in the Atlantic Sun tournament to Liberty, which is also on the fringes of the at-large picture, it would be hard for the committee to keep them out of the field. In that scenario, they’d be 26–6 overall with at least four, and possibly five, Q1+Q2 wins, and would likely still be in the top 40 in NET.
Murray State (19-4, NET: 61, SOS: 268, Q1: 0-2, Q2: 1-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)
We have Murray State in the field as the automatic qualifier from the Ohio Valley Conference, but they’d be in some serious trouble with a loss at any point the rest of the season. A loss to any OVC team would be in Q3 or Q4, and a second loss to Belmont would rightly call into question the Racers’ at-large bona fides. As exciting as Ja Morant is, the OVC looks like a one-bid conference.
Belmont (20-4, NET: 58, SOS: 210, Q1: 2-1, Q2: 3-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)
Belmont continues taking care of its business, adding wins over Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech last week to extend its winning streak to nine games. The Bruins are not going to get any more Q1 wins short of beating Murray State again, and it’s likely that they won’t meet until a potential showdown in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship, rendering the win moot for at-large purposes. It’s still unlikely both teams get into the field without major help from some of the power conference teams on the bubble.
Furman (19-5, NET: 42, SOS: 237, Q1: 1-4, Q2: 3-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)
That one Q1 win that Furman has? You may not remember it, but it was against Villanova way back on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The Paladins haven’t won a meaningful game since then, but they have won a lot of games and have an opportunity for another Q1 win with Wofford in town on Saturday. If they win that game, we’re going to have to start taking their at-large case a lot more seriously.
Others in the mix: UNC-Greensboro, Liberty, Saint Mary’s, San Francisco, Fresno State, Davidson, Arkansas, Oregon, Memphis, Providence, Creighton, South Carolina