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Bracket Watch: Bubble Questions Loom as March Nears

The cases for Florida and Dayton aren’t clear cut. Plus, who could be a bid-stealer this year?

It may be hard to believe, but this is Sports Illustrated’s last men’s NCAA tournament bracket update until the month of March is officially upon us! There hasn’t been a ton of movement in the last few days—Texas Tech jumping Duke for the last No. 2 seed is the only notable shift. Around the bubble, Rutgers falls out of the field … at least for now. The Scarlet Knights have enough time to get back in, but BYU jumps back among the 68 for the time being.


No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Texas Southern/New Orleans

No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 16 Norfolk St/UNC-W

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 16 Cleveland St

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Long Beach St

No. 8 Colorado St vs. No. 9 TCU

No. 8 Murray State vs. No. 9 Creighton

No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 9 Wyoming

No. 8 Boise St vs. No. 9 Seton Hall

No. 5 Houston vs. No. 12 North Texas

No. 5 UConn vs. No. 12 Memphis/BYU

No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Iona

No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 SMU/Indiana

No. 4 Texas vs. No. 13 Chattanooga

No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 13 South Dakota St

No. 4 Providence vs. No. 13 Vermont

No. 4 Illinois vs. No. 13 New Mexico St

No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Loyola Chicago

No. 6 LSU vs. No. 11 Wake Forest

No. 6 Saint Mary’s vs. No. 11 Notre Dame

No. 6 Alabama vs. No. 11 San Diego St

No. 3 Villanova vs. No. 14 Wagner

No. 3 Duke vs. No. 14 Yale

No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Texas St

No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 14 Toledo

No. 7 Michigan St vs. No. 10 San Francisco

No. 7 Iowa St vs. No. 10 Michigan

No. 7 Marquette vs. No. 10 Davidson

No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Miami

No. 2 Texas Tech vs. No. 15 Longwood

No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 15 Montana St

No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 15 Jacksonville St

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Colgate

Florida coach Mike White

Florida coach Mike White.

Bracket Talk

Coach asks: Gators in with a 2–1 finish and [winning] two in the SEC tournament?

I must say, a deep dive into Florida’s résumé left me less optimistic than I already was about Florida’s chances of dancing.

The relevant details:

  • UF is 2–8 in Quad 1 games and just 5–10 overall against Q1 and Q2.
  • KenPom and NET both outside the top 50.
  • Résumé metrics (KPI and Strength of Record) have Florida at No. 60.
  • A disastrous Q4 home loss to Texas Southern, perhaps the worst loss of any bubble team.

With the exception of just saying “we beat Auburn,” there really are no selling points to this résumé right now. Could that change with the type of strong finish alluded to in the question? Potentially. But beating Vanderbilt and Georgia in the Gators’ next two games won’t exactly move the needle, and neither would winning the team’s first SEC tournament game regardless of who they face.

What Florida needs right now is one and maybe two more big wins—clear Q1 games. Beating Kentucky to close the regular season would close the gap a lot … but I’m not even totally sure that’s enough without one more win against a top-five team in the league in the conference tournament.

J asks: From Thanksgiving on, Dayton has performed like a top-15 team in the country. What else does it need to do to secure an at-large bid?

Dayton’s bubble status is a great reminder of why every game matters. If the season had started on Nov. 23 instead of Nov. 9, it would be the No. 15 team in the country per T-Rank and there’d be no doubt the Flyers would be dancing in a few weeks. But with three Q4 losses in the season’s first two weeks, Dayton is currently sweating in a major way as the regular season wraps up.

What’s particularly challenging about this question is that there’s really no parallel to what Dayton has done from a résumé perspective. The Flyers lost three games to teams ranked No. 250 or worse in KenPom, all while fully healthy! It’s not like the committee can just forget those games. The only thing Dayton can really do is continue to not just win but dominate and in the process make it abundantly clear that, while the players may be the same, this is a completely different team. The Flyers will get a pair of Q2 opportunities to wrap up the regular season at Richmond and at home against Davidson, and they could conceivably add another Q2 in the A-10 tournament without winning the A-10 tournament.

Dayton has already done pretty much all it can do, though. It’s up to the committee to decide whether it can see past the disastrous start.

Jim asks: Which A-10 bubble team (Dayton, VCU, Bonnies—heck throw Saint Louis in there if you want) would you say has the best shot at a run out of the First Four if they land there?

If they can get there, I love Dayton. As mentioned earlier, quality metrics buy the Flyers as a top-tier team since the horrible start, and they certainly have the top-end athleticism and talent to compete with high-majors. Plus, they’d be playing their First Four game on their home court, which could be quite the adrenaline booster. If the Flyers get in the tournament, no one will want to play them.

That said, pretty much all the A-10 bubble teams should scare people if they get in. VCU has been outstanding since getting Ace Baldwin Jr. back and is elite defensively. St. Bonaventure has turned a corner and is about as old as anyone in the country. Even Saint Louis nearly knocked off Auburn earlier this season and has a stud point guard in Yuri Collins. That’s why this year’s A-10 tournament is going to be such a blast—no team is an NCAA tournament lock, but there are legitimately five teams that could win a game if they can find their way into the Big Dance.

Cooper asks: Who is the most likely bid stealer this season? Or what league has the best potential for a bid steal?

Last year, we had two legitimate bid stealers—high-major teams with no chance otherwise of dancing that win their conference tournament and get into the field. I doubt we see a repeat of that this year, but it’s certainly a storyline to watch heading into Championship Week.

There are a number of mid-major tournaments worth watching for bid-stealing situations. Particularly if Loyola Chicago beats Northern Iowa this weekend, anyone beating the Ramblers in the MVC tournament would potentially be creating a bid-stealer situation with Loyola getting an at-large. Same goes for North Texas in C-USA and Murray State in the OVC (though Belmont is a legitimate bubble team as well from that league).

At the high-major level, there are a few to monitor. One is Virginia, a team that has played much better basketball of late and probably needs to win the ACC tournament to get in. The Hoos have played Duke competitively twice and beaten the Blue Devils once, so there’s no one in this conference they can’t beat. Another good candidate is Oregon—the Ducks are talented and desperate, which is a dangerous combination. Dana Altman’s team nearly beat Arizona in Tucson last weekend and might have more luck on a neutral court in Las Vegas.

Jim asks: Any chance for South Carolina even if it wins at Bama Saturday?

There’s no doubt the Gamecocks are playing better basketball lately and have the potential to be a dangerous team in the SEC tournament should they continue to play well. That said, South Carolina isn’t currently being seriously considered for our field.

Now, if the Gamecocks were to win at Alabama AND at Auburn down the stretch, could they catapult themselves into the conversation? Yes. That would still likely require getting something done during the conference tournament, but with four Q1 wins including a road win at Auburn, they’d be in the mix. 

SI’s full field of 68 (as of Feb. 25):

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