The NFL season is over and we’re less than five weeks from Selection Sunday. In our world, that can only mean one thing: 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 Virginia isn’t losing out. Villanova isn’t suddenly going to turn into the dregs of the Big East and lose games to DePaul and Georgetown. We won’t waste your time here.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, few teams are definitively eliminated at this point of the season. But at the same time, many of those teams would need something bordering on a minor miracle to earn at at-large bid. For example, can we say Oregon doesn’t have any shot at making the dance? No, we can’t. Can we say that the Ducks would likely need to win out, or come close to doing so, which would mean two wins over Washington and individual victories against USC, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State? Yes, we can. Let’s see Oregon, and teams like them, win a few more games before we put them on Bubble Watch.
Everyone in that great, big middle is a bubble team. The bubble is large at the start of February, but it shrinks with each passing week. Teams that we can’t consider locks with this much time left in the season, such as Kentucky, turn into locks sooner rather than later with a few more expected wins that can only come with the passage of time. Teams that are truly on the bubble lose a few more games and fall out of realistic contention. Our focus here will be on the teams likely to remain on the bubble through February and into March.
We know RPI isn’t perfect, but it’s still the single most important metric used by the Selection Committee. As such, we will weigh it heavily here. Records, RPIs and strength of schedule are accurate as of Tuesday morning.
We’re going to make a change from previous seasons, and scrap the conference-by-conference approach. Instead, we’ll take each bubble team in order of its seed in the current SI.com Bracket Watch. Conference affiliation has nothing to do with whether a team makes the tournament, so it shouldn’t be an organizing principle of the Bubble Watch, either.
Finally, 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.
With that, let’s get to it!
Arizona, Auburn, Cincinnati, Clemson, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Villanova, Virginia, Xavier, West Virginia
Spots remaining: 31
68 total spots – 15 locks – 22 single-bid conference automatic qualifiers = 31
Teams that are all but guaranteed to secure a spot in the field of 68.
North Carolina (17-7, RPI: 10, SOS: 5)
The Tar Heels could take themselves out of the Bubble Watch as early as Thursday. If they beat Duke at home, they’ll be a lock. Even if they lose that game, they’ve done enough to this point where they merely need to avoid disaster to get in. This may not be a dominant Tar Heels team, but they own wins over certain or likely tournament teams in Tennessee, Ohio State and Clemson, as well as Michigan and Arkansas. With RPI and SOS numbers guaranteed to remain strong, the Tar Heels simply need a few more wins to lock up an at-large bid. Whether they’re a true Final Four contender is a story for another column.
Gonzaga (21-4, RPI: 49, SOS: 155)
Gonzaga is here largely thanks to its conference. The Bulldogs have checked nearly all of the necessary boxes. They have four top-50 RPI wins, three of which came away from home. They have just one bad loss, a forgivable sin when balanced against the wins over Ohio State, Texas, Creighton and Washington. And yet, another loss or two to a team not named Saint Mary’s or BYU could land the Bulldogs on the bubble. The chances of that happening are slim, but there are enough games left where we can’t totally dismiss it out of hand. Should the Bulldogs win at Saint Mary’s on Saturday, evening the score with their only true conference rival, they’ll become a lock.
Seton Hall (17-6, RPI: 17, SOS: 23)
The Pirates have a sneaky-strong resumé that includes wins over Texas Tech, Creighton, Butler and Louisville, the latter two of which came on the road. They have a manageable remaining schedule, with one game apiece against Villanova and Xavier and just one more game against a likely tournament team (Butler, at home). It would be a real let down if the Pirates didn’t win five or six more games in the regular season, and they could be one of the middle-tier seeds that surprises people in the second weekend of the tournament.
Ohio State (20-5, RPI: 20, SOS: 34)
The Buckeyes are one of the true surprise teams of the season, taking advantage of a down year in the Big Ten and a career year out of Keita Bates-Diop to make a run at a conference championship. An uncharacteristically weak Big Ten means that Ohio State doesn’t have the volume of great wins a team with 20 wins in the first week of February typically owns. The Buckeyes beat Michigan State at home, but their next best win came against a Michigan team, also in Columbus, that we have pegged as a No. 8 seed in this week’s Bracket Watch. Still, the Buckeyes challenged themselves in the non-conference and have placed themselves behind Purdue as the second-best team in the Big Ten. Another couple wins will have them among the tournament locks.
Safer Than Most
Teams that are standing on solid ground and looking strong heading into March.
Kentucky (17-6, RPI: 16, SOS: 11)
It’s almost impossible to know which version of the Wildcats will show up on a given night, and that’s a perfect encapsulation of what this team is. The Wildcats have all the athleticism and talent in the world, but it hasn’t regularly translated to actual on-court value, especially against top competition. It seems impossible that the Wildcats would miss the tournament, but the next two weeks could dramatically change their fortune. They face Tennessee and Texas A&M this week before getting Auburn and Alabama the week of Feb. 12. Against those opponents, a 0-4 or 1-3 showing is well within the realistic range of outcomes. But if either of those happen, the Wildcats would be desperate heading into games against Arkansas and Missouri, which just upended them in Columbia last weekend. The next few weeks could make or break Kentucky’s season.
Rhode Island (19-3, RPI: 6, SOS: 29)
The Rams are staring down a possible perfect season in the Atlantic 10. It’s a down year for the conference, but that doesn’t negate what Dan Hurley’s team has accomplished to this point. They also have wins over Seton Hall and Providence, and nearly won at Nevada and Alabama, so they’ve proven they can play with mostly everyone in the country. The Rams have rarely been challenged in the A-10, and while that may keep a cap on their seed possibilities, it won’t prevent them from waltzing into the field of 68.
Miami (17-5, RPI: 18, SOS: 44)
Miami played a terrible non-conference slate, during which its best win was over Conference USA favorite Middle Tennessee State. The Hurricanes have made up for that with wins over Florida State, North Carolina State, Louisville and Virginia Tech in ACC play, putting them on track to coast into the NCAA tournament. What’s more, they’re done with Duke and Clemson and have just single games remaining with Virginia and North Carolina. It would be a real surprise if the Hurricanes fell short of 22 wins in the regular season. If that were the case, they’d deserve to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Florida State (17-6, RPI: 41, SOS: 90)
The Seminoles have picked up steam over the last two weeks, adding wins over Virginia Tech, Miami and Louisville to their resumé. They previously took down North Carolina and Florida, giving them the sort of foundation that almost always leads to an at-large bid. Three of those wins came on the road, so they’ve done enough to prove they can win on any floor. The one major concern for the Seminoles is their bad losses. They’ve dropped games to three teams outside the top 75 in RPI—Boston College, Oklahoma State and Wake Forest. If they take a few more such hits, and don’t offset them with another signature win, Selection Sunday could be a tense day. Avoid those types of losses, however, and the Seminoles should be safely in the dance.
Saint Mary’s (23-2, RPI: 30, SOS: 156)
As is the case with Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s isn’t yet a lock because of its schedule. The Gaels won at Gonzaga last month and took down WAC powerhouse New Mexico State back in November. Those are their only two wins against likely tournament teams. They can likely afford one slip-up in conference play, but they wouldn’t want to tempt fate. The Gaels face Gonzaga at home on Saturday and a sweep of the Bulldogs would move them into lock status. Short of that, however, all they need to do is take care of business against the dregs of the West Coast Conference and they’ll be fine.
Butler (17-7, RPI: 27, SOS: 38)
The Villanova win is going to carry Butler a long way, but the Bulldogs are more than just their best victory. They’re one of 12 teams ranked in the top 35 of both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on kenpom.com. They have a huge week ahead with games against Xavier and Villanova, and if they managed to win both, they’d vault into the lock category. That’s unlikely, but it’s not like the Bulldogs need that silver bullet to get in the dance. Taking care of business against the likes of Georgetown, Providence, Creighton and St. John’s—their next four games after this week—should be enough.
Arizona State (17-6, RPI: 43, SOS: 100)
The Sun Devils got the in-depth treatment in this week’s Bracket Watch, in which I laid out why the team’s lackluster play in the Pac-12 cannot be given outsized importance compared with what it did in the non-conference. Yeah, a 5-6 record thus far in conference is bad, but only because of the expectations the Sun Devils created by beating Xavier and Kansas. They’re no sure thing to make the dance, especially with their next three games coming against USC, UCLA and Arizona. Still, they’re much more likely to make it than they are to settle for an NIT bid. All three of those upcoming games are at home, and if they can even the score with the Wildcats, they’ll be looking strong heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
Nevada (20-4, RPI: 15, SOS: 49)
The Wolfpack are showing the little margin for error that comes with being in a bad conference. The metrics love them. In addition to ranking 15th in RPI, the Wolfpack are 18th on kenpom.com. It’s impossible to imagine a team with those numbers missing the NCAA tournament. And yet, the Wolfpack have dropped games to San Francisco and Wyoming. Their best wins are over Rhode Island and Boise State, and the Mountain West isn’t going to afford them many opportunities to build their resumé. Let’s say they lose one more game in the regular season and they fall short of winning the conference tournament. That’s not a bulletproof at-large case, by any stretch of the imagination. Having said that, kenpom.com favors them to win out in the regular season, which should be more than enough to send them to the dance.
Florida (15-8, RPI: 46, SOS: 31)
The Gators have been one of the most up and down teams in the country. On the former side, they beat Gonzaga and Cincinnati in the non-conference portion of their schedule and own SEC wins at Missouri and Kentucky. On the down side, they’ve lost at home to Loyola-Chicago, South Carolina and Alabama. The good still comfortably outweighs the bad, but that could flip with a few more losses. The Gators have proved that their best measures up with some of the best teams in the country, but their worst seems to show up just as often. They have one of the most challenging remaining schedules, with two games against tournament locks, two more against likely tourney teams and three against bubble teams.
Michigan (19-6, RPI: 32, SOS: 62)
Michigan feels as though it’s better than a No. 8 seed, but the wins just aren’t there. They have a couple of strong road victories over Michigan State and Texas, but their next best win came at home against Maryland. The Wolverines are going to win a minimum of 22 or 23 games—three of their six remaining games are against teams with no at-large hopes (Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa) and two more are against fringe bubble teams (Penn State and Maryland). They’re a safer bet to make the tournament than some of the teams seeded ahead of them, but they don’t have the ceiling because of what will be an enduring lack of signature victories.
Texas (15-8, RPI: 39, SOS: 18)
It might not seem like it at first glance, but Texas has been one of the more consistently solid teams all season. They were 10-3 in non-conference games, with wins over Butler and Alabama and losses to Duke, Gonzaga and Michigan. They’ve gone 5-5 thus far in the Big 12, knocking off Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU. To put it simply, that’s the resumé of a tournament team. The possibility of a collapse exists, but we’d be shocked if the Longhorns didn’t go dancing for the second time in three years under Shaka Smart.
Creighton (17-6, RPI: 23, SOS: 65)
I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is yet another team that just needs to stay on track to be safely into the field of 68. Remember, there typically isn’t much, if any, “are they in or out?” intrigue surrounding teams that end up as single-digit seeds. Creighton has wins over likely tournament teams Seton Hall and Butler and bubble teams Providence, UCLA and Nebraska. The Bluejays have no bad losses offsetting those wins, and the opportunity to strengthen their resumé with games remaining against Xavier, Butler and Villanova. Unless they suffer multiple damaging losses, they’ll be a lock before the Big East tournament begins.
True Bubble Teams
Teams that are without a doubt part of the bubble picture and/or a member of the Bracket Watch’s Last Four In.
Louisville (16-8, RPI: 24, SOS: 20)
The metrics either like or love Louisville, depending on the measure in question, but that hasn’t exactly translated into meaningful wins. The Cardinals have one victory against a likely tournament team, at Florida State. Their next best win was at home against Virginia Tech. They did beat Notre Dame in South Bend, but that came well after Bonzie Colson’s injury. The Cardinals lost to Purdue, Seton Hall, Kentucky and Clemson, and their slide continued Monday when they fell to fellow bubbler Syracuse at home. I’ve been the resident Bracket and Bubble Watcher at SI.com since 2013, and I’ve never seen a team get into the dance on the strength of its best losses. At some point, Louisville is going to have to start racking up wins against teams that actually matter if they’re going to get an at-large bid.
NC State (16-7, RPI: 61, SOS: 84)
I am of the opinion that NC State can easily play its way off the bubble after the wins it has racked up this season. There aren’t many teams with a quartet of wins that can match the Wolfpack’s: Arizona (neutral floor), North Carolina (road), Duke and Clemson. It is not hyperbole to say that they’ve proved they can beat Final Four caliber teams with regularity. Yes, their non-conference strength of schedule, ranked 292nd, is a problem. Yes, losses to Northern Iowa and UNC Greensboro sting a bit. Still, you show me a team that can beat Arizona, North Carolina, Duke and Clemson and I’ll show you a team that belongs in the tournament. The poor metrics mean that the Wolfpack have less margin for error than the typical team with their quality wins, but they’d need to drop a few more embarrassing games to be in trouble on Selection Sunday.
Alabama (15-8, RPI: 36, SOS: 15)
Prior to last weekend, the Crimson Tide had done much of its heavy lifting at home. That’s not to say that wins over Auburn, Oklahoma and Rhode Island weren’t impressive, but we know the Selection Committee likes to see a team do some work on the road. That’s what made their win in Gainesville last weekend so huge. Add that to a win at LSU and neutral floor win over BYU and the Crimson Tide have established their non-home bona fides. The SEC is a gauntlet this year and Alabama still has games remaining with Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M. Still, they’re likely in position where going .500 the rest of the season will be plenty to get them into the dance for the first time since 2012.
Wichita State (17-5, RPI: 29, SOS: 64)
It’s hard to remember that the Shockers entered the season as a Final Four contender.
This team simply does not look like more than first-round fodder at this point. The Shockers have one top-50 win, and that came at home against a Houston team that is far from a tournament lock. Other than that, their best win was…at Baylor? Against Marquette on a neutral floor? It seems funny to say, but Wichita State is getting by on its brand name right now. The American won’t grant the Shockers too many more opportunities to build their resumé, but they do still have both their games with Cincinnati on the schedule as well as a trip to SMU. A win over Cincinnati would do wonders for the Shockers tournament hopes, but they don’t necessarily need one to get an at-large bid. At the same time, they could just as easily be in trouble should they falter against some of the conference’s lesser competition like Memphis, Connecticut and Tulane. Either way, this team doesn’t look like a threat to make much noise in March.
TCU (16-7, RPI: 26, SOS: 16)
When conference play began, TCU looked like it would eventually be a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament. The Horned Frogs were 12-0 at the time, with wins over Nevada and SMU. They’re now 4-6 in conference and one of their best players in Jaylen Fisher is out for the season with a knee injury. That SMU win doesn’t look nearly as good now as it did then and even the Nevada win has lost some of its luster. Remember, too, that the version of TCU that heads into March won’t get full credit for those wins, considering Fisher was healthy back then. This team could continue its slide all the way out of the field if it doesn’t pick up a signature win or two over the next month.
Washington (17-6, RPI: 35, SOS: 35)
The Huskies are coming off a monster week, during which they swept the state of Arizona. Adding wins over the Wildcats and Sun Devils to a previous win at Kansas gives the Huskies a great foundation for an at-large bid. A home loss to Stanford isn’t the best look, but the committee will give leeway to any team that beats Arizona and Kansas, or two other similar teams. The Huskies now have a chance to really pile up the wins, with all eight of their remaining regular season games coming against unlikely tournament teams. The toughest game left on their schedule is a home date with Utah. Even if they drop two of those, they’ll be heading into the Pac-12 tournament at 23-8 overall, with two glittering wins and strong metrics. This is a team trending in the right direction.
Missouri (15-8, RPI: 31, SOS: 12)
Like Washington, Missouri is headed higher up the seed list. The Tigers don’t have a win that matches up to Kansas, or possibly Arizona, but they did beat Tennessee at home last month. They’ve knocked off Alabama and Kentucky in their last two games, and also own victories over fellow bubble teams Georgia and South Carolina. Their non-conference schedule left a bit to be desired and the loss to Illinois is going to be a stain all season, but this is a team that should feel good about where it stands with a month left in the regular season. Also like Washington, the brunt of their schedule is already in the past. They do have games left with Texas A&M, Kentucky and Arkansas, but given the depth of the SEC this season, their remaining schedule is as soft as realistically possible. That isn’t bad news for a team that has already done enough to earn an at-large bid but could get exposed against high-level competition.
Arkansas (15-8, RPI: 34, SOS: 32)
The Razorbacks dropped a couple of road games last week, losing to Texas A&M and LSU. If they ultimately miss the dance, their performance on the road will largely be to blame. They did beat Oklahoma on a neutral floor, but that win, while strong, isn’t quite what it looked like two weeks ago. Their best true road victory to date was at Georgia. They have three road games—at Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri—left on the schedule. They’ll likely need at least one of those, preferably against Alabama or Missouri, to make a strong case to the Selection Committee.
Providence (15-8, RPI: 28, SOS: 13)
I’ll admit that I may have under-seeded Providence a bit in this week’s Bracket Watch. A team that has wins over Xavier, Butler and Creighton might deserve better than a No. 10 seed, even if all of those games were at home. What held me back were losses to Minnesota and Massachusetts, which seemed to undo a lot of the good built up by those victories. Even as a No. 10, however, Providence feels like it’s closer to securing a spot in the field than falling out. Having said that, this team does not have the luxury of a misstep against Georgetown or DePaul this week. Villanova and Butler loom next week, so the Friars must take care of business against two of the lesser teams in the conference.
Texas A&M (15-8, RPI: 25, SOS: 9)
The Aggies are seemingly back on track, picking up wins over Missouri, Arkansas and South Carolina in three of their last five games. They may never reach the heights of their season-opening win over West Virginia, but remember that their disastrous stretch at the start of SEC play came largely without at least two of Duane Wilson, D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder. That stretch definitely made them vulnerable and it won’t be easy with games against Auburn and Kentucky this week. Still, if they can handle their business against the lesser teams in the conference and pick up at least a few wins in the games they have remaining against fellow bubble teams, they can climb back to a single-digit seed.
Virginia Tech (16-7, RPI: 65, SOS: 124)
We have the Hokies as a No. 11 seed to start this week, but if they don’t add at least one more meaningful win, they will not be in the dance. Their lone victory against a certain or likely tournament team came late last month when they beat North Carolina at home. They also beat Washington on a neutral floor, but as much as we gushed over the Huskies earlier, they aren’t likely to be much better than a No. 8 or 9 seed in a realistic best-case scenario. The Hokies have a brutal remaining schedule, with two games against Duke and single matchups with Virginia, Clemson, Louisville and Miami. If they don’t manage to steal one from the Blue Devils or Cavaliers, they may need to sweep the rest to feel good on Selection Sunday.
USC (17-7, RPI: 44, SOS: 60)
USC does not own a win over a team worthy of an at-large bid. Its only two wins over likely tournament teams came against Middle Tennessee State and New Mexico State, heavy favorites in Conference USA and the WAC, respectively. That means the Trojans need to do some work, despite being one of our Last Four In to start this week. They’ll spend the week in Arizona, taking on the Sun Devils and Wildcats. A win in either game would go down as USC’s best win of the year to date. If they lose both, they’re going to head into the final three weeks of the regular season in dire straits, with just two of their final five opponents of resumé-building quality.
Kansas State (16-7, RPI: 66, SOS: 134)
Kansas State’s non-conference strength of schedule is ranked 343rd—there are 351 Division I basketball programs. If the Wildcats miss the dance, that will be a significant factor. They do have home wins over Oklahoma, TCU and Georgia, but that likely won’t be enough to get the job done. It’s not out of the question, especially if their fellow bubble teams falter over the next month, but Kansas State feels like a team that’s at least one win away from an optimistic Selection Sunday. Luckily for them, the Big 12 affords its teams plenty of opportunities for signature victories: Kansas State visits Texas on Wednesday and hosts Texas Tech on Saturday.
Houston (17-5, RPI: 42, SOS: 116)
Houston let a golden opportunity slip away last week at Cincinnati. The Cougars raced out to an early lead, building their advantage to 33-15 with 6:27 left in the first half. The Bearcats methodically chipped away at the lead, though, cutting it to three points by halftime. The game was tied with 10 minutes left and the Bearcats would go on to win by 10. A win there just might have been the silver bullet for Kelvin Sampson’s team. Next week they’ll get one more shot at Cincinnati, this time at home. In the meantime, they have home games with SMU and Tulane this week. A win over Tulane won’t mean a thing, but they could put some distance between themselves and the Mustangs, a fellow bubble team, by taking care of business at home on Thursday.
Boise State (19-4, RPI: 40, SOS: 119)
Boise State is going to be an interesting case for the committee. The Broncos will have a gaudy record, thanks largely to being one of the best teams in a bad Mountain West Conference. Their RPI figures to be strong as well, something we know the committee favors, for better or worse. If they don’t beat Nevada in their return matchup next week, however, their best win of the regular season will be over Missouri Valley favorite Loyola-Chicago. Will that be enough to offset losses to Iowa State and Wyoming? The bet here is no, and that assumes the Broncos go perfect in all the rest of their games. In other words: they better beat Nevada.
SMU (15-8, RPI: 68, SOS: 73)
SMU’s at-large hopes took a huge hit over the last two weeks with losses to Connecticut and Tulsa. The Mustangs now have four losses to teams with zero hopes of an at-large bid, plus a loss to Western Kentucky on the books as well. The Mustangs do have some strong victories, including a neutral floor win against Arizona and true road win at Wichita State, but it is awfully hard to ignore the bad losses. They can turn around their entire season this week, however, with games against Houston on the road and Cincinnati at home. Even a split would be a positive week. If they found a way to win both, they’d be back on the right side of the bubble in next week’s Bracket Watch.
UCLA (16-7, RPI: 56, SOS: 76)
To say this has been an odd year for the Bruins would be an understatement, but they’re firmly in play for an at-large bid with a month left in the regular season. Like USC, they have a great opportunity this week with games at Arizona and Arizona State. Unlike USC, they already own a few quality victories, most notably over Kentucky and Washington. An at-large bid once seemed impossible for this team, but it’s something we can start to take seriously if they split with the Arizona teams this week. If one of those wins happens to come against the Wildcats, the case is all the stronger.
Marquette (13-10, RPI: 60, SOS: 8)
The Golden Eagles have taken a nosedive of late, losing four straight games to fall to 4-7 in the Big East. There’s no shame in losing to Xavier, Villanova, Butler or Providence, but this was Marquette’s opportunity to prove it belonged in the field of 68, especially with the latter three of those games at home. It has just three games remaining in the regular season against likely tournament teams and two of those are on the road at Seton Hall and Creighton. They’ll need to win at least one of those—and possibly the home game with Creighton, as well—plus handle business in games with St. John’s, DePaul and Georgetown to have a realistic shot at an at-large bid. The chances of all of that happening are slim.
Syracuse (16-8, RPI: 45, SOS: 28)
Syracuse picked up its best win of the season on Monday, taking down the Cardinals in Louisville. That was their third win against a team in the mix for an at-large bid, though none of the three—Virginia Tech and Maryland, in addition to Louisville—is close to a sure thing. If Buffalo doesn’t win the MAC, Syracuse could go all season without beating a team that makes the tournament. In other words, the Orange still have plenty of work to do, though the win over Louisville was a start. I count four remaining games with certain or likely tournament teams—they’ll probably need at least two of those.
Georgia (13-9, RPI: 57, SOS: 57)
The Bulldogs have taken a serious hit the last few weeks, going 1-4 in their last five games. The lone win was against Florida, but it doesn’t much matter when it’s offset by all those losses. The Bulldogs can still hang their hat on a neutral floor win over Saint Mary’s but its impact fades with each loss to a fellow SEC bubble team. The best news for Georgia is that it has three games left with tournament locks—two against Tennessee and one against Auburn. If it can get one of those games and sprinkle in a few wins over the teams in its tier of the SEC, it’ll be live on Selection Sunday. If the Bulldogs win two of those games, they’d be in excellent shape.
LSU (13-9, RPI: 73, SOS: 61)
LSU is in the second tier of teams on the outside looking in, thanks, at least at this point, to losses to Stephen F. Austin and Vanderbilt, coupled with poor metrics. The Tigers swept their season series with Texas A&M and Arkansas, but those are their only wins in the SEC against possible tournament teams. They did knock off Michigan and Houston in the non-conference so there is still some hope, depending on how they play over the next month. With games remaining against Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina, there’s more than enough time for the Tigers to rally the types and volume of wins it will take to get them an at-large bid.
South Carolina (13-10, RPI: 63, SOS: 37)
Everything looked so good for the Gamecocks just two weeks ago when they won at Florida. That was their third big win in four games, with triumphs over Georgia and Kentucky in their recent history. They’re 0-3 since then, with losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M in the mix. The Gamecocks lost to Illinois State earlier this year, and dropped a game early in the SEC season to Mississippi. They’ve pretty much used up all the losses to at-large also-rans they can afford. Losses to the best the SEC has to offer won’t be fatal, but they’ll have to pick up some wins along the way. Given that they play Auburn twice and Tennessee and Florida once, those wins could be hard to come by.
On the fringe
Bottom tier teams that still have lots of work to do to secure a bid, or are one loss away from dropping out.
St. Bonaventure (16-6, RPI: 48, SOS: 104)
The Bonnies have put together a nice season that includes wins over Maryland and Syracuse, as well as Buffalo and Vermont, two favorites in likely one-bid leagues. Having said that, they have four losses to teams outside the top 100 in RPI, two of which that are outside the top 170. Their slim at-large hopes evaporate completely if they don’t beat Rhode Island at home next week, or if they drop another game to low-level A-10 competition. In short, the Bonnies need to win out in the regular season to have a shot at an at-large bid.
Maryland (16-9, RPI: 55, SOS: 36)
It’s hard to figure out if Maryland is a good bad team or a bad good team, but I lean toward the former. The Terrapins have had no shortage of opportunities to measure themselves against tournament-quality competition, with nine games against teams in the top 50 in RPI. They’ve won one of those games, beating Butler at home. If the Terrapins have proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s that they can and will lose to teams certain or likely to get at-large bids. At the same time, just one of their losses, at Indiana, came against a team with no hope of getting an at-large. Still, Maryland is but a blip on the at-large radar, and it has just one game remaining in the regular season against a team likely to get into the dance, on Feb. 24 vs. Michigan.
Nebraska (17-8, RPI: 59, SOS: 109)
I’ve seen enough arguments on behalf of Nebraska’s at-large case over the last few weeks to challenge my own notions about the team. Or, at least I did entertain that challenge for a few seconds before having my previous thoughts confirmed. Nebraska beat Michigan at home last month. That’s the Cornhuskers lone win over a team even near the at-large picture. They have just two more top-100 wins, and those were against Northwestern and Boston College. They may be 8-4 in the Big Ten but that doesn’t mean a thing this season. Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, they’re done with Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan in the regular season (a group against which they went 1-3, for the record). If Nebraska is going to get an at-large bid, they’re going to have to avoid bad losses the rest of the way and then do some damage in the Big Ten tournament.
Notre Dame (13-10, RPI: 79, SOS: 56)
Notre Dame, losers of seven straight games, is watching its season go to pieces. Here’s why I can’t completely write them off, though. When Bonzie Colson fractured a bone in his in early January, just after the team’s first ACC game, the Irish were 11-3 overall, with a win over Wichita State. At the time, Colson was second in kenpom.com’s Player of the Year rankings to Trae Young. There’s little doubt that if he were healthy, the Irish would be safely heading toward another at-large berth. There’s an outside chance he returns for the team’s final regular season game against Virginia. Let’s say he does that and they win that game. Let’s then stipulate that they win a few games in the ACC tournament. At that point, the Selection Committee would likely evaluate only the games for which Colson was healthy. They can’t lose out and hope Colson saves them, but if they can scratch together a few wins before he returns and then go on a run, they can still get in the field.
Temple (13-10, RPI: 37, SOS: 2)
What’s a team with four losses outside the top 100 and a kenpom.com rating of 88 doing in the Bubble Watch? Well, when you beat Auburn and Clemson on neutral floors, you get people’s attention. You get even more of it when you add to that a neutral floor win over South Carolina and a true road win at SMU. Yes, the Owls have more work to do to get into the dance. They have two possible resumé-builders remaining on the schedule, both next week, when they visit Wichita State and host Houston. They likely need both of those games to offset ugly losses to Tulane, Memphis, LaSalle and George Washington. If they get those wins, however, they will be right in the thick of the bubble picture.
It’s likely this will be another season without an at-large bid from a mid-major conference. The team with the best chance to pull it off is New Mexico State. The Aggies are 20-3, ranked 36th on kenpom.com and 47th in RPI. They beat Miami in non-conference play and have absolutely steamrolled through the WAC to this point of the season. The problem, however, is the WAC itself. If New Mexico State needs an at-large bid to get to the dance, that means they lost at least once in the conference. There’s just one other team with a top-100 RPI in the conference: Utah Valley. Let’s say New Mexico State wins out in the regular season, and loses to Utah Valley in the conference tournament championship. Is the WAC really going to get two bids to the dance? All because New Mexico State beat Miami and dominated the competition that comprised the 160th-hardest schedule in the country? It seems unlikely.
For a time, Western Kentucky looked like the mid-major with the best at-large case, thanks primarily to a win over Purdue. The Hilltoppers also beat SMU, which could have been the foundation for an at-large bid, provided they also dominated Conference USA. A loss to UT-San Antonio last weekend put that possibility to rest. The Hilltoppers also fell at Ohio in non-conference play. It’s tempting to think what this team could have been had Mitchell Robinson remained in school, but, in the real world, the Hilltoppers will have to get past Middle Tennessee State and earn the automatic bid in Conference USA to get into the field.
Speaking of Middle Tennessee State: while the Blue Raiders are the rightful favorite in CUSA, they simply do not have an at-large worthy resumé. Their best non-conference win was at Murray State, though they did also beat lowly SEC teams Vanderbilt and Mississippi, and they own an unsightly loss to Marshall.
Finally, Loyola-Chicago scored one of the surprise wins on the non-conference slate when it went into Gainesville and knocked off Florida, setting it up to take control of the Missouri Valley Conference in the first year with Wichita State in the AAC. The Ramblers, however, lost three of five after beating Florida to the likes of UW-Milwaukee, Missouri State and Indiana State. Add in a recent loss to Bradley and the Ramblers have no hope of an at-large bid. They could be a dangerous bracket buster, however, should they win the Missouri Valley tournament.