This Year's NCAA Tournament Bubble Isn't Unusually Weak, but It Is Shallow

How safe is your team's NCAA tournament spot? As time winds down on the regular season, there's plenty still up in the air.
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Contrary to what you might have heard, this is not the softest bubble ever. How do I know? Well, first of all, there’s no way to really quantify it. How would you? If I were trying to, I’d probably start with the collective records and average RPI, kenpom and Sagarin rankings of the last few teams in the field. Bart Torvik keeps track over at his site of a metric he calls bid rate, and that, too, would be helpful in determining how soft this bubble is relative to other years. Still, the shifting ground that is the bubble landscape contains too many variables from year to year for which there isn’t a control element, and that makes an apples-to-apples comparison almost impossible.

Second, the bubble is always soft. You know why? Bubble teams, by their nature, are always mediocre. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be bubble teams. Not everyone can be Duke or Virginia. Forget that, not everyone can be Maryland or Nevada, Iowa State or Cincinnati either. The bubble always has been, and always will be, soft.

Referring to this bubble as the softest ever may be a misnomer, but there is something unique about it. The current Bubble Watch Committee has been on the job since the 2013–14 season, and it cannot recall as shallow a bubble as we’re seeing this year. Consider the first eight teams out of our field of 68 in our most recent Bracket Watch: Clemson, Georgetown, Butler, Furman, Belmont, Saint Mary’s, Dayton and Nebraska. The first three might be—might be—one win away from getting on the right side of the bubble, and even then would likely need some help from someone already in the field. Every other one is two-plus wins away, plus help.

Then there’s our next eight out—Xavier, Indiana, UNC-Greensboro, Creighton, Memphis, Liberty, South Carolina and Davidson. How many of those teams can realistically earn an at-large bid? In our estimation, it’s Xavier, Indiana and Creighton, and that’s largely because of what they can still do with the opportunities afforded them in a power conference.

We don’t claim to have a monopoly on bubble wisdom. We may be underestimating the chances of one of these teams, or could be overlooking another one entirely. Still, the point should be clear that less than three weeks out from Selection Sunday, the bubble teams have even more work to do than usual. And that’s where this season’s bubble is unique.


Florida State: Near-Lock to Lock
Kansas State: Near-Lock to Lock
Maryland: Near-Lock to Lock
Virginia Tech: Near-Lock to Lock
Washington: On the Bubble to Near-Lock
Xavier: Out to Others in the Mix
Indiana: On the Bubble to Others in the Mix

All records, NET and SOS are accurate as of Wednesday morning. We assume that one of our locks or near-locks will win their conference’s automatic bid.

Spots Remaining: 16 (68 Spots — 23 Locks — 6 Near-Locks — 23 Unaccounted For Automatic Bids = 16)

Locks (23): Duke, Florida State, Gonzaga, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Marquette, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Nevada, North Carolina, Purdue, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Villanova, Virginia, Wisconsin

Near-Locks (6): Buffalo, Cincinnati, Iowa, Mississippi State, St. John’s, Washington

Wofford (21-4, NET: 20, SOS: 115, Q1: 3-4, Q2: 4-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)

We were plenty tempted to slide Wofford up to a near-lock. The belief here is that the only way the Terriers miss out on the Big Dance is if they suffer an ugly loss at some point and do not win the Southern Conference tournament. Realistically, they’ve done nothing to this point of the year to suggest that will happen. Still, with two regular season games left, we decided that discretion is the better part of valor. If the Terriers take care of business against Chattanooga and Samford this week, we will move them into near-lock territory.

Auburn (17-9, NET: 24, SOS: 21, Q1: 2-7, Q2: 7-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)

It’s just a matter of time before Auburn is considered a tournament lock. Given where we already are in the season, the Tigers could jump straight from on the bubble to lock status with a win over Mississippi State on Saturday. We’ve covered their issue in depth already this month. The Tigers’ best wins of the season are against Florida, Washington and Murray State, while they’ve gone 0–8 against Kentucky, LSU, Duke, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and NC State. The lack of a signature win is what’s keeping them from being a lock for the time being, but the rest of the résumé is strong.

Baylor (18-9, NET: 35, SOS: 36, Q1: 4-6, Q2: 7-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)

Baylor is coming off a great week in which it won at Iowa State and protected its home floor against West Virginia. Like Wofford and Auburn, the Bears are awfully close to jumping up to at least near-lock status. A split this week with Texas and Kansas State would likely be enough to get them there. Short of an unlikely paroxysm of losses, the Bears will be safely in the field even before playing their first Big 12 tournament game.

Ole Miss (19-8, NET: 38, SOS: 93, Q1: 4-7, Q2: 3-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)

Ole Miss still gets matchups with Tennessee and Kentucky in the regular season, with the first coming on Wednesday against the Volunteers at home. A win in either of those games would be the silver bullet that gets this team into the dance. Even without a win over those powerhouses, Mississippi is on the right trajectory to be entirely safe on Selection Sunday. So long as it beats the teams it should the rest of the season, it will be in the dance. A road trip to Arkansas this weekend could be tricky.

NC State (20-8, NET: 30, SOS: 216, Q1: 1-7, Q2: 6-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

The Wolfpack can score a major coup by going into Tallahassee this weekend and knocking off Florida State. A win in that game would all but assure them of an at-large bid to the dance. No matter what happens in that contest, they should wrap up the regular season strongly against Georgia Tech and Boston College next week. A 2–1 finish would likely have them seeded eighth in the ACC tournament, and that would pit them against the No. 9 seed, likely to be Clemson, in their first game. It’s almost impossible to see them missing out on the dance without an ugly loss to Georgia Tech or Boston College next week.

Oklahoma (17-11, NET: 41, SOS: 11, Q1: 3-9, Q2: 7-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)

The Sooners are going to be one of the more interesting teams to watch the rest of the season. Monday’s loss to Iowa State dropped them to 5–10 in the Big 12, a conference record that hardly inspires confidence. Yet, they have wins over Wofford, Florida, TCU (two) and Texas, and no losses that will count against them significantly in the committee’s deliberations. Still, they go into the stretch run feeling like they need to win at least one of their two games next week against the Big 12’s Kansas teams. Losses to the Jayhawks and Wildcats will have the Sooners in need of a run in the Big 12 tournament to wake up on Selection Sunday feeling good about their chances.

Syracuse (18-10, NET: 44, SOS: 13, Q1: 3-6, Q2: 5-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

Syracuse stuck with North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, a loss after which it can hold its head high. The Orange still have a regular season meeting with Virginia on tap next week, and their other two games before the ACC tournament are both on the road against Wake Forest and Clemson. We’ll assume a win against the Demon Deacons, which are 10-16 overall and 3-11 in conference, but the Orange will likely be underdogs in the other two. If they lose both, they’ll go into the ACC tournament at 19-12 overall and 3-8 against Q1 teams. The shallowness of the bubble should keep them on the right side of the divide, but they cannot afford a bad loss without a meaningful win. That means they must beat Wake Forest and avoid a loss to a team off the at-large radar in the ACC tournament.

VCU (22-6, NET: 36, SOS: 37, Q1: 2-4, Q2: 3-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)

VCU is in a similar, though weaker, position to Wofford. The Rams have three games remaining in the regular season, all against teams comfortably off the at-large radar. Win all three, and it likely won’t matter what they do in the Atlantic-10 tournament. Their two losses outside the top-two quadrants give them less margin for error, and one more bad loss could take them entirely off the at-large radar. Still, nothing the Rams have showed us this season suggests they will slip up against Richmond, George Mason or Saint Joseph’s, the four teams it plays over the next two weeks.

Texas (15-12, NET: 37, SOS: 10, Q1: 4-7, Q2: 4-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)

The next two weeks could very well determine Texas’s tournament fate. The Longhorns wrap up the regular season with games against Baylor, Iowa State, Texas Tech and TCU, alternating between road and home, and beginning on Wednesday in Waco. The first three are all Q1 games, while a home matchup with TCU will be Q2. Let’s say they win that one and one of the Q1 games. That should be enough to get them into the field. If they go 3–1 or better, they’ll be guaranteed a bid. If they only beat TCU, they’re going to need to do some damage in the Big 12 tournament. If they lose all four, they may need to win the Big 12 tournament to get into the field. Consider the next two weeks a proving ground for the Longhorns.

Florida (16-11, NET: 31, SOS: 35, Q1: 2-10, Q2: 5-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

The Gators have reeled off four straight wins, including a huge one last week at LSU. Any team that has 11 losses with two weeks remaining in the regular season doesn’t have much wiggle room, but the Gators have played their way into the field for the time being. It is imperative that they take care of business against SEC also-rans Vanderbilt and Georgia next week. Assuming they do that, they can lock up a bid next week by splitting their matchups with SEC powerhouses LSU and Kentucky.

Ohio State (18-10, NET: 40, SOS: 39, Q1: 4-7, Q2: 4-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

The Buckeyes got a huge win on Tuesday, cruising to a 90–70 win over Iowa, which is a near-lock for the tournament. If Selection Sunday were this weekend, the Buckeyes likely wouldn’t have anything to worry about, but there’s still plenty of time for them to get into trouble. They visit Purdue this weekend and host Wisconsin next weekend, with a trip to Evanston to take on Northwestern sandwiched in between. If they can split their games with the Boilermakers and Badgers, they’ll be in good shape going into the Big Ten tournament.

Minnesota (17-11, NET: 60, SOS: 48, Q1: 3-8, Q2: 5-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)

At the end of January, Minnesota was 16–5 overall and 6–4 in the Big Ten, with wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and a healthy Nebraska to its name. It has gone 1–6 since, with its only win in that stretch against a fading Indiana team. The Gophers have three games left in the regular season, starting Thursday at Northwestern. Next week, they host Purdue and visit Maryland, two games in which they will be underdogs. They need at least one of those games to feel good about their at-large chances going into the Big Ten tournament. Beating Northwestern won’t do anything for their résumé, but a loss would be even more damaging if they fail to upset Purdue or Maryland next week. The lack of Q3 and Q4 losses is helpful, but they aren’t going to get a boost from their metrics. This team likely needs at least one more meaningful win to get into the dance.

TCU (18-10, NET: 42, SOS: 40, Q1: 2-6, Q2: 5-4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)

The Horned Frogs suffered a damaging loss on Tuesday, falling to West Virginia in triple overtime. Now they embark on a brutal stretch to wrap up the year with games against Texas Tech, Kansas State and Texas, the last of which is on the road. If they can split their home games with Texas Tech and Kansas State, they should be in decent position going into the Big 12 tournament. If they win two of the remaining three, it would be almost impossible for them to fall out of the field. An 0-3 finish to the year would have them in some real jeopardy, but wouldn’t be a death sentence. They’d still be 18-13 overall with seven combined Q1 and Q2 wins, including five total against Iowa State, Baylor, Texas and Florida, plus, the opportunity afforded them in the Big 12 tournament.

Arizona State (19-8, NET: 63, SOS: 84, Q1: 4-1, Q2: 4-4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 3)

The Sun Devils’ at-large hopes rest, as they have all season, on those four Q1 wins. Few teams so firmly on the bubble have four Q1 victories. Fewer still have wins over teams like Kansas and Mississippi State. The Sun Devils have a sneaky-tough stretch to end the regular season, with three straight road games against Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona, none of which are pushovers. A 2–1 finish will have them in strong position going into the Pac-12 tournament. Anything worse is going to have them hoping that none of the next 11 teams we discuss distinguishes itself over the next two weeks.

Temple (20-8, NET: 56, SOS: 65, Q1: 2-6, Q2: 5-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

Temple lost at Memphis Tuesday, and while there’s no shame in that loss—it was a Q1 game, after all—it was one the Owls really couldn’t afford. Remember, their only meaningful win this season came against Houston. They’ve played five other games against at-large contenders, and have lost all five of them. On top of that, they have losses to Penn and Tulsa, both of which are nowhere near the at-large radar. Temple is already teetering on the edge of the field and is one loss away from being in serious danger.

UCF (20-6, NET: 34, SOS: 78, Q1: 0-3, Q2: 6-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

UCF is currently one of our last four teams in the field, but it’s looking at a make-or-break stretch over the next two weeks. It starts with a challenging trip to South Florida on Wednesday. After that, the Knights will play all three AAC teams currently in our field of 68. They visit Houston Saturday, host Cincinnati next Tuesday, and wrap up the regular season with a trip to Philadelphia to take on Temple in two weekends. They need at least one of those three games, and if the one ends up being Temple, that may not be enough, especially if they lose to South Florida. A win over Houston or Cincinnati, notably the former, could be the differentiator they need to get into the dance and avoid being flotsam scooped up by the NIT.

Alabama (17-11, NET: 49, SOS: 32, Q1: 2-7, Q2: 8-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

Here we find yet another firm bubble team that could make or break its season over the next two weeks. Tuesday’s win over South Carolina didn’t improve the résumé much, but it was a necessary step considering the remaining schedule. The Crimson Tide return home for games against LSU and Auburn, then go out on the road to put a bow on its regular season at Arkansas. The first two will be Q1 games, and the third one could, as well, depending on what Arkansas does between now and then. A 2-1 record in those three games would be huge for the Crimson Tide’s at-large chances, no matter where the wins come. If they happen to be against LSU and Auburn, it’s going to be hard to keep the Crimson Tide out of the field of 68. That would give them at least four Q1 wins, with Kentucky, LSU and Mississippi State all included.

Seton Hall (16-11, NET: 64, SOS: 49, Q1: 3-6, Q2: 7-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 3)

How far can wins over Kentucky and Maryland take the Pirates? I’d say right to this point: just barely on the right side of the bubble despite three losses against teams outside the top-two quadrants, and ugly computer rankings. They get a tough road test at Georgetown on Saturday, a team that is also playing for an at-large berth. Next week, however, will go a long way toward determining the tournament in which Seton Hall plays its postseason basketball this season. The Pirates spend the entire week at home, hosting Marquette on Wednesday and Villanova on Saturday. They’ll need to take at least one of those games to be on solid at-large footing going into the Big East tournament

Utah State (22-6, NET: 33, SOS: 124, Q1: 1-2, Q2: 2-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

The Aggies have been waiting for this week for two months. Back on Jan. 2, they got trounced by Nevada in Reno. They get a chance for revenge on Saturday, and if they win that game, they will have an excellent chance of earning an at-large bid. The bet here is that the Aggies will be in if they beat Nevada on Saturday and advance to the Mountain West tournament championship game. That should be enough to get the job done.

Clemson (16-11, NET: 43, SOS: 31, Q1: 1-8, Q2: 3-3, Q3+Q4 Losses: 0)

Since beating Virginia Tech on February 9, a win that nearly wasn’t as good in reality as it appears on paper because the Hokies didn’t have Justin Robinson, Clemson has gone 1-3. The win was over lowly Boston College, while the losses were to Miami—which is off the at-large radar—Louisville and Florida State. I don’t care how many eye tests this team passes (and, for the record, it hasn’t been many), eventually you need to beat someone that matters. Outside of the win over a short-handed Virginia Tech, Clemson’s best win of the season was against Lipscomb at home. They need to either beat North Carolina on Saturday or do some serious damage in the ACC tournament to get into the field.

Georgetown (16-11, NET: 73, SOS: 85, Q1: 3-5, Q2: 4-4, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)

The Hoyas got a huge win over Villanova last week, but gave away some of that capital by losing at Creighton over the weekend. Two of their four remaining games are against DePaul, and while wins are nice, neither of those would move the needle. Their other two are against Seton Hall in D.C. and at Marquette, and those two could help push them over the hump. Seton Hall is also on the bubble, while Marquette is not only a tournament lock, but likely to be one of the top-16 teams in the field. If the Hoyas can win out, they’ll go into the Big East tournament with a real shot at playing their way into the big dance.

Butler (15-13, NET: 52, SOS: 18, Q1: 2-7, Q2: 5-5, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

Butler’s loss to Providence at home on Tuesday may have been the death knell for its at-large hopes. Its three best wins of the season have come at the expense of Florida, Ole Miss and Seton Hall. We have all those teams in the field, but none qualifies as a signature victory. Until Tuesday, the Bulldogs’ résumé did not include any losses outside the first two quadrants, something else that was working in their favor. That is no longer the case. They do play Villanova in Philadelphia this weekend, but even a win there wouldn’t be a silver bullet with the Wildcats’ star sliding over the last few weeks. The Bulldogs likely need at least five more wins, including the Big East tournament, to get into the dance.

Furman (19-6, NET: 47, SOS: 205, Q1: 1-5, Q2: 3-0, Q3+Q4 Losses: 1)

Furman is a longshot for an at-large bid after losing to Wofford at home last week. A win there may have made the Southern Conference a one-bid league, but it also would’ve given the Paladins a much more realistic shot for an at-large. Now they’re going to have to live on the strength of their computer metrics, which really aren’t that special, notably when you compare them against power conference teams with multiple wins over at-large quality competition.

Belmont (22-4, NET: 50, SOS: 223, Q1: 2-1, Q2: 3-1, Q3+Q4 Losses: 2)

Belmont appears to be in a stronger spot than Furman because it’s 5-2 in Q1 and Q2 games, something the Paladins won’t be able to match. Both of its Q1 wins are over Lipscomb, and three of its four losses came to teams ranked outside the kenpom top 100. In other words, Belmont may be already out of the at-large discussion, and it certainly will be with one more loss to any team not named Murray State.

Saint Mary’s: (19-10, NET: 39, SOS: 42, Q1: 1-5, Q2: 2-2, Q3+Q4 Losses: 3)

We’re keeping the Gaels on here because they wrap up the regular season with Gonzaga at home on Saturday. Win that game, and they could be positioned to bully their way into the back end of the tournament field. A loss, however, would take them out of at-large contention.

Others in the Mix: Lipscomb (in our field as an automatic qualifier), Murray State (in our field as an automatic qualifier), Xavier, Indiana, Memphis, Nebraska, UNC-Greensboro, Creighton, Liberty, South Carolina, Davidson