Bubble Watch: The bubble is still wide open

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Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through games played Thursday, March 14.

Thursday dawned with cheery can-do talk from Bubble Watch about how surely all of this upcoming basketball would bring some much-needed clarity to the bubble picture.

Indeed it did! We can now see clearly that if every bubble team loses the committee will still have to get to 68 teams somehow.

Fine, not every bubble team lost. But let’s quickly run down the results.

Of the 16 teams Joe Lunardi had listed under last four byes, last four in, first four out and next four out going into the day, here is what transpired:

A hearty Bubble Watch salute is therefore in order for Florida, Ohio State, Arizona State and Alabama. Those teams mastered their moment and won games at a crucial time. The Crimson Tide in particular needed the win over Ole Miss to keep even a discussion going for an at-large bid.

Conversely, NC State, TCU, St. John’s, Texas, Indiana, Creighton and Georgetown all lost. The conventions of sportswriting and social media alike dictate that when a team loses in its conference tournament we must proclaim that its at-large-bid hopes have been dashed.

That custom isn’t going to work so well this season. (It doesn’t actually work too well in any season. Every team but one from any conference enters the NCAA tournament having lost its previous game. It’s uncanny.)

With several bubble teams losing relatively early in their conference tournaments, our habit of writing off every losing team just can’t work mathematically. The committee is working with a fixed number of at-large bids, and a team here and there will almost surely end up looking like it backed its way into the tournament.

Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble:

Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 19 teams
Locks: 36 teams
The bubble: 23 teams for 13 available spots
Should be in: 5 teams
Work to do: 18 teams

ACC | Big 12| Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others


ACC

Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson


Work to do

NC State Wolfpack

A nail-biter of a win against Clemson was followed by a 20-point loss to Virginia, and so NC State’s run in the ACC tournament is finished. Did the Wolfpack do enough between November and March for an at-large bid? When Kevin Keatts’ men tipped off against the Cavaliers, they were ranked in the 30s on the NET and projected as a No. 11 seed that had possibly six teams beneath them in the field of 68. In other words, there could be room here for a safe landing, and, anyway, how much of a penalty is the committee going to impose for losing to the 29-2 Hoos? On the flip side, at 22-11, did NC State really beat the proverbial anyone this season? The best win on the profile is undoubtedly the 78-71 victory at home over Auburn in December. Past that, you’re looking at neutral-floor wins over Penn State and Clemson, and those are your three Quad 1 victories. Last, this team played an exceptionally soft nonconference schedule, statistically speaking. That fact’s already reflected in the NET ranking and in the quadrant records, but, who knows, maybe the committee will want to voice displeasure there. If not, however, the 19-2 record outside Quad 1 and particularly the NET ranking could be sufficient. (Updated: March 14)

Clemson Tigers

After losing by a point to NC State in the ACC tournament, Clemson will be on a few “last four in” and perhaps more “first four out” lists. That’s preferable to “next four out,” certainly, but it’s still a precarious position to occupy in the middle of what is always a wild and tumultuous Championship Week. Even the slightest contraction of the bubble brought about by even a single bid thief, for example, could prove calamitous to the Tigers. Granted, at the end there could still be an at-large bid in the offing for Brad Brownell’s group, which finished its playing days showing up in the 30s in the NET rankings. Stranger things have transpired in the committee room, goodness knows. A more appropriate working assumption for Brownell and his men, however, is that their 1-10 record in Quad 1 games will need to be either completely overlooked by or somehow ingeniously smuggled past the committee in order for this team to get an at-large. (Updated: March 13)


Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor
Should be in: Oklahoma
Work to do: TCU, Texas


Should be in

Oklahoma Sooners

The profile is set in stone for the Sooners. Shown as a No. 8 seed heading into a 72-71 loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament, Lon Kruger’s group has beaten Wofford at home, taken care of Florida on a neutral floor and stands at 4-10 in Quad 1 games. (For the record, the Sooners are 15-3 in Quads 2 and 3, and 0-0 against Quad 4.) The early exit from the conference tournament could drop Oklahoma to a double-digit seed, but, at 7-11 in the Big 12, the Sooners will gladly become the first team in over 20 years to earn an at-large with fewer than eight wins in an 18-game conference season. TCU might join that club as well. (Updated: March 13)


Work to do

TCU Horned Frogs

The Horned Frogs closed out their profile with a bit of a three-game roller coaster. One game after playing their way onto the No. 12 or even 11 line in mock brackets with a big win at Texas, Jamie Dixon’s team blew a 21-point lead in the second half and nearly lost to Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. Fortunately for TCU fans, however, the Frogs escaped 73-70, only to bow out 70-61 to top-seeded Kansas State in the quarterfinals. At 20-13 with a season sweep of Iowa State and a road win in Austin to show in the Quad 1 trophy case, the Horned Frogs may have done enough for a bid. But it’s going to be close. (Updated: March 14)

Texas Longhorns

Bubble Watch has waxed eloquent (naturally) on the subject of not writing off “work to do” teams just because we saw them lose their last game. In the specific case of the Longhorns, however, we’re confronted with a different question entirely. Is the committee going to give a bid to a team with a 16-16 record? That answer has never been “yes” before, whether with respect to the 16 losses or the .500 record. Words like “never” do not sound promising for UT’s tournament hopes. (Updated: March 14)


Big East

Locks: Marquette, Villanova
Should be in: Seton Hall
Work to do: St. John’s, Creighton, Georgetown, Xavier


Should be in

Seton Hall Pirates

Myles Powell exploded for 29 points in the first half, and Seton Hall breezed past Georgetown 73-57. The Pirates will be in the tournament; the only questions are their seed and degree of second-weekend potential. The seed is creeping up into single-digit territory and that trend would accelerate with a win over Marquette in the Big East semifinals. As for the Hall’s potential, this team can most certainly give some No. 1 or 2 seed a game in the round of 32 if Powell keeps playing like this. (Updated: March 14)


Work to do

St. John’s Red Storm

St. John’s was projected as a No. 11 seed going into the Marquette game, and Bubble Watch supposes, if a few more bubble teams had won a few more games this week, there could be a discussion on whether this team is now in real trouble. Chris Mullin’s men were blown out 86-54 by Marquette, and the NET ranking attached to the Red Storm even going into a lopsided loss already was in the mid-60s. Now factor in that, in the eyes of the rating system, the Johnnies actually were playing a “home” game at Madison Square Garden when they were hammered by 32 points. Meaning this NET ranking could get ugly. Still, there also are two things going in this team’s favor. First, even after the debacle against the Golden Eagles in the Big East tournament, St. John’s is still 3-2 against Marquette and Villanova for the season. Second, well, the committee does have to get to 68 somehow. (Updated: March 14)

Creighton Bluejays

A two-point loss to Xavier in the Big East tournament probably leaves Creighton just short of the tournament field. The Bluejays covered a good deal of ground to make it that far, and a win against the Musketeers would have changed this picture considerably. Instead, CU has stopped playing at 18-14, leaving it difficult to point to any one facet of the profile that recommends Greg McDermott’s team at the expense of other at-large candidates. Creighton’s NET ranking is in the 50s, which is fine but not great, a description that also might apply to the 3-10 Quad 1 record and the 13-3 mark in Quads 2, 3 and 4. It was a spirited turnaround from 13-13, but it doesn’t appear to be quite enough. (Updated: March 14)

Georgetown Hoyas

Georgetown gave this thing a run for its money when pretty much no one in mid-February saw the run coming, but it appears the Hoyas have come up short. Losing by 16 in your conference tournament quarterfinals (to Seton Hall) when you’re being shown as “next four out” material does not customarily presage receiving an at-large bid. The all-freshman backcourt of James Akinjo and Mac McClung gives the Hoyas all kinds of hope for the future, and who knew before the season that this would be the fastest-paced team in Big East play? Alas, it just wasn’t enough, apparently, to get into the field this time. (Updated: March 14)

Xavier Musketeers

The Big East section of Bubble Watch is rather extensive, but it’s important to make distinctions even within the league’s spacious “work to do” section. Whereas a team like St. John’s is playing to (it is assumed) stay in the bracket, Xavier has a long distance to travel before it can even be glimpsed in “first four out” territory. Still, the distance that remains to be traversed is nowhere near as vast as what the Musketeers already have navigated over the past month. This is a team that was 11-13 and 3-8 in the Big East. Entering the Big East semifinals, conversely, that overall record is now 18-14. A win against Villanova at Madison Square Garden would give Travis Steele’s group not only its fifth Quad 1 victory of the season but also the best entry on its profile. Such a win also would provide a needed boost to a NET ranking that, even at this late date, is a bit on the low side, straddling the 60s and 70s. (Updated: March 14)


Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa
Should be in: Minnesota
Work to do: Ohio State, Indiana


Should be in

Minnesota Golden Gophers

It wasn’t pretty and the Golden Gophers trailed for virtually the entire contest before taking the game into overtime. But Minnesota did beat Penn State 77-72, and Richard Pitino’s team has reached the Big Ten quarterfinals. That right there is in all probability enough to get this team a bid, particularly after a number of teams just below Minnesota in the mock brackets went out and lost early in their respective tournaments. Of course, a win against Purdue could only enhance the Gophers’ seed. (Updated: March 14)


Work to do

Ohio State Buckeyes

If we take the term “elimination game” seriously, then all that’s changed since we last discussed Ohio State is that the Buckeyes, after beating Indiana 79-75, still haven’t been eliminated. Kaleb Wesson returned from suspension, and OSU won a game for the first time this month. That’s preferable to losing, but, to be clear, there’s nothing particularly profile-enhancing about defeating the Hoosiers on a neutral floor (it was a Quad 2 win), and this is an Ohio State team that was right on the cut line to begin with. Chris Holtmann’s group is still alive, and, now, this team can begin playing its way back into the field. Michigan State is up next for the Buckeyes. (Updated: March 14)

Indiana Hoosiers

It would be very much in keeping with an Indiana team that’s confounded every succeeding expectation, both good and bad, throughout the entirety of 2019 if the Hoosiers now not only got a bid but earned a high seed. Alas, it appears instead that this wild and always unpredictable IU roller coaster has finally reached its final turn. With the four-point loss to Ohio State, Archie Miller’s team sits at 17-15. The point of that season sweep of Michigan State, after all, was never that those two games alone would propel Indiana into the field of 68. Rather, the expectation was that two wins against the Spartans would give the Hoosiers the platform to show what they could really do. But a first-game exit from the Big Ten tournament might have brought this conversation to a close at last. (Updated: March 14)


Pac-12

Lock: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State


Work to do

Arizona State Sun Devils

That fashionable “one-bid Pac-12” talk from a few weeks ago isn’t looking so good at the moment, in part because Arizona State is looking more solid. The Sun Devils are shown as a No. 11 or even a 10-seed in most mock brackets, and Bobby Hurley’s team beat UCLA 83-72 to reach the conference tournament semifinals. A catastrophic blowout loss in the next game is not recommended and bid thieves still lurk nationally, but a second consecutive bid for ASU may turn out to be less of a close call than was the previous invite. (Updated: March 14)


SEC

Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss
Work to do: Florida, Alabama


Work to do

Florida Gators

If it’s possible for a projected No. 11 seed to beat a decent opponent (Arkansas) by 16 points and still not be entirely safe, Florida is that team. UF likely played the game against the Razorbacks already in the hypothetical real-time field of 68, but not by much. A Quad 2 win against Mike Anderson’s group doesn’t put much if any distance between the Gators and danger and, in fact, a bid thief or two could eliminate that breathing space entirely. The NET ranking in the 30s is going to serve this team well, but, at 18-14, Mike White’s men will definitely want to keep going, starting with the quarterfinal against LSU. (Updated: March 14)

Alabama Crimson Tide

Congratulations to Alabama for picking up its third Quad 1 win of the year, a 62-57 victory over Ole Miss. Avery Johnson’s team is now 18-14, but far more importantly, Avery Johnson’s team is still playing. The Crimson Tide began the game four or five teams on the wrong side of the bubble. Then again, many of the teams above Alabama in the mocks lost on the same day the Tide won. No one is (or should be) using the words “ticket punched” in Tuscaloosa just yet, but heading into Alabama’s quarterfinal against Kentucky, things look far better than they did just 40 basketball minutes ago. (Updated: March 14)


American

Locks: Houston, Cincinnati, UCF
Work to do: Temple


Work to do

Temple Owls

UCF’s late-season ascendance was good news for Temple. The Owls beat the Knights 67-62 in Philadelphia in the season finale, and it was very much a Quad 1 win. Paired with the home victory against Houston, Fran Dunphy’s team now has a couple of real profile boosters to flaunt as it fights for a bid. Right, about that fight: Temple entered the game against UCF perched right on the boundary line between “in” and “out.” Obviously, beating the Knights pushes you in the correct direction, but a single game can’t push you all the way to safety. So it’s good news for Owls fans that their team now has a chance to put even more distance between itself and jeopardy thanks to an American tournament populated by the Quad 1-opponent likes of UH, Cincinnati, UCF and Memphis. (Updated: March 9)


Others

Locks: Gonzaga, Nevada, Buffalo, Wofford, Saint Mary’s, Murray State
Should be in: VCU, Utah State
Work to do: Belmont, UNC Greensboro, Furman, Lipscomb


Should be in

VCU Rams

Mike Rhoades’ men are riding a 12-game win streak thanks primarily to outstanding defense. Now, at 25-6 overall and carrying an outright Atlantic 10 regular-season title, VCU has a No. 8 or 9 seed waiting for it in a matter of days if mock brackets are to be trusted. There are no remaining Quad 1 opportunities for the Rams even in any potential A-10 tournament game, but the 54-53 win at Texas in December will continue to fill that need on the profile quite satisfactorily. (Updated: March 8)

Utah State Aggies

The Aggies are in all probability playing to improve their seed at this point, but you can’t look like you’re just playing to improve your seed. In the Mountain West quarterfinals, New Mexico gave USU a game before falling 91-83. Let’s have no more of that, Utah State. Now, back to that tournament seed: Craig Smith’s team is being projected for a spot on the No. 9 or 10 line. A bid would mark the Aggies’ first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2011. (Updated: March 14)


Work to do

Belmont Bruins

Now, the Bruins must wait. Ja Morant erupted for 36 points, and Murray State beat Belmont 77-65 in the Ohio Valley Conference title game. Rick Byrd’s team hopes the committee will put stock in the positives on this profile. There is, for starters, the NET ranking that was, at least when Belmont stopped playing, higher than those of Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana, TCU, Temple, Minnesota, Alabama, Arizona State and the entire Big East bubble (Creighton, St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown). The Bruins also were short-handed against the Racers and played without Nick Muszynski. Lastly, Belmont was 5-3 this season against Quads 1 and 2. Conversely, Byrd’s men won’t want the committee to linger on a negative like the 3-2 record against Quad 3. In any event, the Bruins profile is set, but the bubble will continue to shift in ways that will either help or hurt Belmont’s chances. (Updated: March 9)

UNC Greensboro Spartans

For 35 minutes in the Southern Conference title game, the Spartans were the superior team against Wofford. Then the Terriers closed the contest on a 20-3 run, and Mike Young’s team captured the automatic bid 70-58. As for at-large possibilities, UNCG actually shares some profile similarities with Wofford. Like the Terriers, Wes Miller’s team has an excellent record (28-6) built on a small number of “good” losses, to LSU, Kentucky, Furman and, yes, Wofford (three times). The Spartans own two Quad 1 wins (at East Tennessee State and over Furman on the neutral floor in the SoCon semifinals), and Francis Alonso & Co. are an immaculate 24-0 in Quads 2, 3 and 4. Could all of the above plus the impressive showing against the Terrier juggernaut (21-0 against SoCon opponents this season) pry an at-large bid from the committee? In Bubble Watch’s estimation, it’s a long shot. (Updated: March 11)

Furman Paladins

The season is in the books for the Paladins after a 66-62 loss to UNC Greensboro in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals. Bob Richey’s team sits at 25-7 with the memorable win at Villanova to its credit. Alas, that win (plus a sweet NET ranking in the 40s) might form the sum total of the case for Furman on Selection Sunday. It’s not a bad case, but the Dins might have trouble standing out from the crowd. Saint Mary’s, to take one example, has a NET ranking that’s even sweeter than Furman’s. (Updated: March 10)

Lipscomb Bisons

The Bisons show two Quad 1 wins on their profile, at TCU and at Liberty, and their NET ranking is in the 40s. Those are the elements that kept Casey Alexander’s group in the at-large discussion for weeks, but Lipscomb let its safest chance slip away when it lost 74-68 on its home floor to Liberty in the Atlantic Sun conference title game. An at-large now appears to be a long shot. (Updated: March 10)

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