Welcome to the first edition of College Pride Press Bubble Watch! With 16 days until Selection Sunday, the bubble is starting to become more clear, as more teams have enhanced their chances or seen their bubble burst.
At least, that’s in theory. The reality is that lots of mediocre teams still have a fighting chance to make the tournament in spite of some really ugly numbers. Lots has been made of this weak bubble, and all criticisms are valid. However, here are a few reasons why the bubble is weak this year:
- The 3 extra at-large bids: When the NCAA tournament expanded from 65 to 68 teams in 2011, that meant three extra teams got those bids. This meant the competition wasn’t as intense and allowed more room for mediocrity to get in. Now a team that has participated in the First Four has won a first round game every year since its inception in 2011. But it has softened things considerably on the bubble.
- No more mid-majors: There was a time where conferences like the Sun Belt and the Horizon League could actually send two teams to the NCAA Tournament. However, conference realignment resulted in a lot of these talented mid-majors joining larger conferences, such as Butler and Xavier in the Big East, VCU in the Atlantic 10, and SMU in the AAC. There are very few true mid-majors left, such as Wichita State and Gonzaga, and as a result, more mediocre teams from power conferences get in.
- The bubble is always weak: for reasons 1 and 2 above, the bubble has always been weak this decade. Every year has people declaring it the weakest bubble ever, and this year is no exception. Is it really? Nah. College basketball is up as a whole this year, and the bubble has improved slightly upon last year. But there are still many meh teams looking to get in, which will be a constant year to year.
With that being said, let’s see who’s on the bubble this year. The conferences that will receive individual breakdowns are the Power 5, the AAC, the A-10, and the Big East. The rest will be put in the mid-majors category.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Locks: North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame
Should be in: Miami, Virginia Tech
Work left to do: Syracuse, Wake Forest
Hanging on for dear life: Clemson, Georgia Tech
This week was nuts for the ACC bubble. Some teams solidified their bubble hopes (Syracuse) while others watched them almost slip away (Georgia Tech). This league is going to be a 9-10 bid league. It’s just a question of what teams will survive the fray.
Miami (19-8, 9-6) RPI: 37 SOS: 63 KP: 28
For a team that was expected to tumble after losing four seniors from last year’s 27-8 team, Miami has been remarkable. A road win over Virginia on Monday wasn’t pretty basketball, but it looks gorgeous on a resume. Three top 50 wins, including a home win over North Carolina, and no bad losses has put Miami in an excellent position. Their remaining games are a home game against a Duke team they had on the ropes in January, followed by road trips to Virginia Tech and Florida State. Not a bad loss in sight. A win over one of those three will lock the Canes in.
Virginia Tech (19-8, 8-7) RPI: 36 SOS: 74 KP: 49
Virginia Tech almost fell off their comfortable perch on Tuesday against Clemson. Instead, Seth Allen hit a three with four seconds left to allow the Hokies to escape and deliver another heartbreaker to Clemson. The Hokies have beaten a lot of decent teams (11 Top 100 RPI wins) but not good teams (only 2 Top 50 wins). Their sub-300 nonconference schedule won’t do them any favors, but unlike the Seth Greenburg days, this team shouldn’t be close enough to the bubble to sweat it. Beating Boston College on Saturday and splitting their last two games against Miami and Wake Forest should get the Hokies in.
Syracuse (17-12, 9-7) RPI: 74 SOS: 56 KP: 46
Now that’s how you fortify your bubble standing. Syracuse’s stunning win over Duke on Wednesday gave the Orange their sixth win over a Top 50 team this season. Considering where they were before conference play, that’s amazing. They aren’t safe yet because those losses to Boston College and St. John’s don’t disappear. But this current Syracuse team clearly belongs in the tournament, and their top notch wins would put them over the top in any tiebreaker.
Wake Forest (16-12, 7-9) RPI: 38 SOS: 20 KP: 33
Every metric wants to love Wake Forest. Both RPI and KenPom think this is a solid team, with good metrics and tremendous schedule numbers. There’s only one thing this resume is lacking: wins. Wake Forest is 0-8 against RPI Top 25 teams, and their only Top 50 win was a January home win over Miami. They almost got a resume defining with over Duke twice, but the Blue Devils escaped both times. A March 1 home game vs Louisville presents a tremendous opportunity to get the resume defining win. But losses in their last two games will probably do the Deacons in.
Clemson (14-13, 4-11) RPI: 60 SOS: 22 KP: 36
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Clemson lost a close game. Again. A 71-70 loss on the road to Virginia Tech looks fine in a vacuum, but it’s an addition to 8 losses to Top 50 teams that have come by 6 points or less. Eventually a team has to win those games. After a visit from Florida State on Saturday, their last two games are against NC State and Boston College. So Clemson has very few resume opportunities. A team has never gotten an at large bid with 15 losses, and I don’t think Clemson will win the ACC tournament. A loss in their last three games, and they’re done.
Georgia Tech (16-12, 7-8) RPI: 87 SOS: 53 KP: 80
Not many things can knock a team almost off the bubble. A home loss to NC State is one of those things. This has still been a tremendous season for Josh Pastner and the Yellow Jackets, and they have exceeded everyone’s expectations. But very few teams with RPIs in the 80s get at-large bids, and there are not many chances to bump up the resume (a road trip to Notre Dame is their only remaining Top 50 game). Georgia Tech is also likely one loss away from dropping from the bubble.
Big Ten Conference
Locks: Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota
Should be in: Maryland
Work left to do: Northwestern, Michigan State, Minnesota
Alas, Indiana is essentially done. A fifth straight loss, this one to an Iowa team with a triple digit RPI, gives Indiana their own triple digit RPI. It’s a shame, because this team still owns two amazing wins over Kansas and North Carolina, and at its peak it can compete with anyone. But the loss of OG Anunoby and the slowing down of James Blackmon proved to be too much. They can still play their way back on the bubble. But at this point, it’s Big 10 tournament or bust.
Maryland (22-6, 10-5) RPI: 21 SOS: 44 KP: 37
The loss on Wednesday to Minnesota isn’t fun, but by no means hurts their resume. Maryland has put themselves comfortably in the Top 3 of the Big 10 standings, and their win over Oklahoma State continues to look better every day. The one reason they’re not a lock is games remaining against Iowa and Rutgers, both whom are sub-100 landmines. But they should be good, and as long as they don’t lose to both of them, they’re in.
Northwestern (20-8, 9-6) RPI: 42 SOS: 76 KP: 39
So much for a grudge match. Northwestern was shocked by Illinois on Tuesday in a game that was not pretty. While being swept by Illinois is ugly, those are their only two sub Top 50 losses, and not by much, as Illinois has a 56 RPI. But it does reduce their margin of error, and a loss on Saturday at Indiana would really shake things up in a bad way. For a team looking for their first NCAA berth ever, this has been a tremendous season, as Northwestern has never been this close to the field before. But they need to finish the job.
Michigan State (17-11, 9-6) RPI: 43 SOS: 18 KP: 52
Michigan State isn’t supposed to be in this position. But thanks to a combination of injuries and youth, they are fighting it out on the bubble. A 5-2 record in their last seven has kept them afloat, and their remaining games feature only one potential bad loss (Illinois). I don’t expect Michigan State to miss the tournament, and if they get hot, they still could get a 7 seed and duplicate their 2015 run to the Final Four. But the margin of error is small, and two losses in their last three will put them right on the edge.
Michigan (18-10, 8-7) RPI: 52 SOS: 49 KP: 27
Wednesday’s trip to Rutgers was much closer than expected, but the Wolverines survived and stayed firmly on the bubble. Their offense is tremendous, and the win over SMU in November still looks great. But this team still owns only three wins against Top 50 teams, and the loss to Iowa doesn’t go away. A win on Saturday against Purdue would go a long way in helping the Wolverines.
Big 12 Conference
Locks: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia
Should be in: Oklahoma State, Iowa State
Work left to do: Kansas State, TCU
In spite of the sudden regressions of Texas and Oklahoma, this conference is still formidable, and could put 70% of its membership in. There are no easy nights in the Big 12, and this week saw bubble matches a plenty. Here is the result.
Oklahoma State (19-9, 8-7) RPI: 28 SOS: 23 KP: 20
There might not be a hotter team than Oklahoma State right now. They have won 8 of their last 9 after dropping their first 6 games, and with the exception of UCLA there might not be a better offensive team. While the committee says they look at the full body of work, but it’s impossible to ignore the sudden surge. If they win against Texas Tech tomorrow, they’re a lock.
Iowa State (18-9, 10-5) RPI: 41 SOS: 55 KP: 24
The most important aspect of a bubble team is making their opportunities count. And for Iowa State, they own the single most impressive win of any team on the bubble: a road win over Kansas. While the rest of their numbers don’t look as pretty, a four game win streak has them comfortably in fourth place in the Big 12. And with three games remaining, all against Top 50 opponents, if they win one of those three they’re in. A win over Baylor tomorrow would be a lock.
Kansas State (17-11, 6-9) RPI: 59 SOS: 46 KP: 30
A win against Texas last week stopped the bleeding, but Wednesday’s loss to Oklahoma State gives them a 2-7 record in their last 9 games. Their 4-11 record against the Top 100 doesn’t inspire much confidence in a team that probably has already peaked, but the road win over Baylor sure helps out. With games against Oklahoma, TCU, and Texas Tech remaining, a 3-0 finish is very possible. But if they lose two of those three, they’ll need to do some damage in the Big 12 tournament to feel safe.
TCU (17-11, 6-9) RPI: 52 SOS: 26 KP: 43
Major props to Jamie Dixon for turning his alma mater around so quickly. For a team that hasn’t made the tournament since 1998, this is a remarkable achievement. But unfortunately, TCU does not have the top notch wins, with their best wins coming against Illinois State and Iowa State, to be safe over the bubble. A win over West Virginia would help TCU considerably, and getting at least an 8-10 record in conference play might be enough to get them in.
Locks: Oregon, Arizona, UCLA
Should be in: None
Work left to do: USC, California
The Pac 12 is slightly top heavy. The top three teams combined have as many conference losses as the fourth place team. There might not be a more entertaining team than UCLA, and Arizona and Oregon have done tremendous in difficult circumstances. The rest of the conference is more difficult to figure out.
USC (21-7, 8-7) RPI: 29 SOS: 58 KP: 62
Here is your luckiest team in the country according to KenPom. A 13-0 non-conference record has helped USC considerably, as they took blow after blow against the Top 3 the past two weeks. Losing all three games by double digits hurts, and puts USC on shaky ground for the last week. With all three games remaining against sub-Top 100 teams, a loss to any of them would make life difficult for the Trojans. Two losses would probably do them in.
California (18-9, 9-6) RPI: 44 SOS: 29 KP: 50
Ouch. California played their best game of the season, only to watch Oregon rally from a 16-point halftime deficit to win on a three by Dillion Brooks in the last second. Almost victories don’t count unfortunately, and it drops Cal to 0-5 against the top three teams in the Pac-12. Unlike USC, they have a game against a Top 100 team they could drop (vs Utah) and be ok, but to feel really good about their chances a 3-0 finish is likely needed.
Locks: Kentucky, Florida
Should be in: South Carolina
Work left to do: Arkansas
Hanging on for dear life: Vanderbilt
Not much has changed in the SEC, another top heavy league. Kentucky and Florida continue to strike down other teams, while South Carolina is struggling a bit more. Tennessee can play its way onto the page if it wins against South Carolina on Saturday, but until then a win over Kentucky won’t be enough for them.
South Carolina (20-8, 10-5) RPI: 30 SOS: 37 KP: 29
If South Carolina could stop handing out quality wins to SEC teams like candy, they would be in much better shape. They have lost four of their last five, and gave Alabama, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt big wins to look to (although Alabama didn’t do much with it). Nonetheless, this team still has good numbers and a tremendous defense that should ultimately lead them through. However, their offense has regressed so much that a once promising season will probably not end pretty for the Gamecocks.
Arkansas (21-7, 10-5) RPI: 34 SOS: 71 KP: 48
It was only a matter of time before Arkansas returned to the tournament. Vanderbilt’s resurgence has aided their numbers greatly, and the supposed gift win over Texas-Arlington has been their premier non-conference win. The bad losses to Mississippi State (yuck) and Missouri (ouch) still linger though, and it keeps Arkansas from being safe. A win next week at Florida would go a long way, as well as avoiding losses to Auburn and Georgia.
Vanderbilt (15-13, 8-7) RPI: 46 SOS: 2 KP: 51
This is where strength of schedule is everything. Vanderbilt normally shouldn’t even be considered, but that #2 SOS gives them a case to be in. The road win over Florida still looks great. But they also own a loss to Missouri, and that hurts things quite a bit. They have games remaining against both Kentucky and Florida, and with historical precedent showing 15 losses=no NCAA tournament, a loss to both teams will probably end Vanderbilt’s journey to the tourney.
Big East Conference
Locks: Villanova, Butler, Creighton
Should be in: Xavier
Work left to do: Seton Hall, Marquette
Hanging on for dear life: Providence
Not many things will knock a team off the bubble. A home loss to DePaul is one of those things. As a result, we say goodbye to 14-14 Georgetown. The fact it took this long to do that is just a sign of the weakness of the bubble and how far a win over Oregon will take you.
Xavier (18-10, 8-7) RPI: 22 SOS: 10 KP: 38
Xavier is the South Carolina equivalent of the Big East. They should’ve been a lock a while ago, but they keep giving bubble teams big wins. Four straight losses, including losses to Providence, Seton Hall, and Marquette, have put Xavier on shakier ground than expected. The loss of Edmund Sumner definitely hurts, and the return of Trevon Blueitt should go a long way to fixing the problems the team has had. Home games against Butler and Marquette give time to right the ship. If they lose both, then they might fall square on the edge of the bubble.
Seton Hall (17-10, 7-8) RPI: 47 SOS: 40 KP: 57
Two weeks ago, a loss to St. John’s had left Seton Hall on the outside looking in. Then their schedule gifted them three straight home games against really good Big East teams. Wins over Creighton and Xavier sandwiching an understandable loss to Villanova have put Seton Hall on the right side for now, and wins in non-conference over California and South Carolina still continue to help. But a loss on Saturday to DePaul will nullify all progress.
Marquette (17-10, 8-7) RPI: 67 SOS: 70 KP: 31
This team is like many in college basketball: a really good offensive team that can’t guard anyone to save their lives. As a result, they can pull off jaw dropping wins, like a January 24 stunner over Villanova, and drop some baffling games, like losing to St. John’s by 14. The Villanova win and 6-5 record against the Top 50 gives the Golden Eagles a boost, and remaining games against Providence, Creighton, and Xavier give them even more opportunities. Two wins probably gets them in, and one win keeps them on the bubble going into conference tournament play.
Providence (17-11, 7-8) RPI: 54 SOS: 34 KP: 56
Three games ago, Providence was on no one’s radar thanks to losses to Boston College, DePaul, and St. John’s. Three wins over Butler, Creighton, and Xavier later, Providence has 5 Top 50 wins and is firmly in the bubble conversation. The Creighton win was the only one that was under 5 points, and their schedule numbers give them better footing than most bubble teams. They finish up with games against Marquette, St, John’s, and DePaul. Losing to Marquette would be forgivable. Being swept by one of the other two will knock them off the bubble.
American Athletic Conference
Should be in: SMU
Work left to do: None
Hanging on for dear life: Houston
Three years ago, it looked like the AAC was going to be a perennial high-major, sending 4-5 teams a year. Now, the conference just looks ugly, with Connecticut’s devolution sending the conference into a tailspin. It’s a bummer.
SMU (24-4, 14-1) RPI: 18 SOS: 101 KP: 16
No team has been affected more than SMU by the weakness of the AAC. I want to lock the Mustangs up, but three games against sub-100 teams for a team with only 1 Top 50 win (Cincinnati) leaves a possibility of the Mustangs missing it. Thanks to good metrics, however, the possibility is small. A win over UConn on Saturday will lock them in.
Houston (19-8, 10-5) RPI: 58 SOS: 81 KP: 40
Major props to Kelvin Sampson for taking a program that had no future and turning it into a regular bubble team. Losses to LSU and Harvard keep them from being a serious bubble team, but a 3-0 finish, including a win over Cincinnati, and a win in the conference tournament might get them in. A loss to a team not Cincinnati in their last three games will knock them off.
Should be in: Dayton
Work left to do: None
Hanging on for dear life: Rhode Island
VCU is in. Winning 9 in a row, and with games against Rhode Island and Dayton remaining, the only potential bad loss is George Mason. They may have won some in some insane ways, but with good schedule and RPI numbers, the Rams will be good.
Dayton (22-5, 13-2) RPI: 25 SOS: 80 KP: 34
Dayton is right behind VCU in lock status. With a win over Vanderbilt that keeps looking better and better, and better metric numbers than VCU, Dayton is sitting pretty. The only thing keeping them from a lock is a loss to Massachusetts that still looks bad, and potential pitfalls against Davidson and George Washington remaining. Win against Davidson on Friday, and they’re a lock.
Rhode Island (18-9, 10-5) RPI: 49 SOS: 51 KP: 55
This has not been an easy season for the Rams. Considered the favorites to win the conference, the Rams instead have stumbled, with an ugly home loss to Fordham being the main eyesore. This team still has a tremendous win over Cincinnati, and a 3-0 finish would include a win over VCU. But one more loss to a sub-100 opponent will do it for the Rams.
Locks: Gonzaga, St. Mary’s
Should be in: Wichita State
Work left to do: Middle Tennessee, Illinois State
Hanging on for dear life: Texas-Arlington, Nevada
As I said before, it’s a shame the mid-majors no longer are as prevalent on the bubble. But St Mary’s is officially a lock. The win over Dayton continues to look good, and with Santa Clara the lone opponent left before the conference tournament, it’s time to show the Gaels some love, particularly after they got gyped last year.
Wichita State (25-4, 16-1) RPI: 45 SOS: 210 KP: 12
This is when metrics really come in handy. Wichita State has an awful schedule, with only 5 Top 150 wins. But the metrics show that they have dominated everyone, and there is not a single bad loss on the resume. A win against Missouri State and making it at least to the conference tournament semifinals should get the Shockers in.
Middle Tennessee (24-4, 14-1) RPI: 32 SOS: 125 KP: 42
The win over Vanderbilt looks nice, but there is no margin of error for the Raiders. There is no other team in Conference USA that has an RPI above 100, and each game is a landmine. It will probably have to take a sweep to the conference championship game for the Raiders to be safe, thanks to losses to Georgia State, Tennessee State, and UTEP (ugh). At this point it’s all about loss prevention, and judging by their 14-1 conference record, Middle Tennessee has done well.
Illinois State (24-5, 16-1) RPI: 35 SOS: 160 KP: 54
Illinois State has done a similar job to Wichita State avoiding losses like the plague. But they haven’t done that resoundingly, with their past three wins being by a combined seven points. The ugly losses to Tulsa and Murray State considerably reduce the margin of error for the Redbirds. A trip to the Missouri Valley Championship game will probably have to happen for the Redbirds’ at-large hopes.
Texas-Arlington (21-6, 11-3) RPI: 33 SOS: 135 KP: 67
The difficult part of being a mid-major is not losing to your conference opponents. The three losses for UTA include losses to Texas State and Troy, both hovering around the 200 mark. The only reason the Mavericks have at-large hopes is a nice road win over St. Mary’s. But one loss will knock them off the bubble.
Nevada (22-6, 11-4) RPI: 40 SOS: 149 KP: 70
Unlike other conferences, the Mountain West can’t blame conference realignment too much for their downfall. All the programs have kind of fallen off the cliff. As a result, Nevada is their only at-large contender, and barely. Wins over Boise State (x2) are the best ones on their resume. It would take a miraculous bubble burst for Nevada to sneak in to the at-large field.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I am amazed at your reading skills and patience. I’ll be doing this article every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until Selection Sunday.