College Basketball Bubble Watch
The ever-changing bubble continues to shift
This page will be continually updated until Selection Sunday.
Will your favorite team make the tournament? Should it?
Bubble Watch spends weeks taking these questions to their logical, obsessive conclusion. Now, with conference tournaments in full swing, we're dialing up the compulsion until the moment Selection Sunday makes things official.
Check back for live updates after every bubble team's games have finished, and as the landscape shifts, over the next five days. Be sure to send your feedback and jokes (mostly jokes, please) to @eamonnbrennan on Twitter.And to every team still sweating it out on the bubble: Godspeed.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Connecticut, Cincinnati|
Work left to do: Temple
Connecticut [23-10 (11-7), RPI: 37, SOS: 46] It's been an excellent weekend for the Huskies, and you can gauge the degree of excellence by the shifts of Joe Lunardi's bracket. Before Friday, the Huskies were among his first four teams out. Then came Jalen Adams' three-quarter-court third-OT buzzer-beater and a subsequent win over Cincinnati and the Huskies clambered up onto the last four in ledge. Today brought a win over Temple. Now Kevin Ollie's team is among Joe's first four byes, the product of knocking the Owls off their regular-season-champ/No. 1 seed perch. It also sets up a pretty interesting Sunday. Ironically enough, either UConn will win the American tournament automatic bid outright, or it will take a bad loss to either Memphis or Tulane. The only remaining question is whether that loss would damage their resume enough to tarnish the work of the past two days.
Cincinnati [22-10 (12-6), RPI: 44, SOS: 67] That one stings, sure. It stings bad. It stings to lose in four overtimes, and it would be bad enough had Cincy been robbed of a win by a conventional buzzer-beater -- a decent-if-well-defended shot 10 or 20 or even 30 feet from the rim. Losing as a result of a half-court leave with less than a second left? After you just buried what you thought was the game-winning 3? Unthinkably brutal. Fortunately, we have a bright side: The committee was surely locked in to every minute of the game, and even in defeat Cincinnati was so good, and so close to winning, that it's hard to imagine them falling even a half-notch on the S-Curve. A win might have made them a surefire lock; the loss shouldn't come close to keeping them out of the tourney.
Temple [21-11 (14-4), RPI: 63, SOS: 89] For weeks, thanks to its record (and eventual outright title) in the American regular season, Temple has been slotted into projected brackets in the guise of an automatic qualifier. Now the Owls must squeeze into an at-large spot in those same projected brackets. Where does their resume stand? It has its flaws, absolutely, namely in that just eight of its 21 wins have come against the RPI top 150. But it also has strengths. The Owls swept both Cincy and UConn in league play, including the requisite road wins over both. They also got SMU in their own building. And their bad losses -- at Memphis, at East Carolina -- shouldn't be a major problem. We're fairly bullish and happy to admit we have idea if the committee will agree.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: VCU|
Work left to do: St Bonaventure
George Washington entered Friday barely clinging to the at-large bubble and badly needing a win against Saint Joe's. They didn't get it. For months, the Colonials' Nov. 16 win over Virginia -- one of those early-season upsets that truly set the tone for what would become a wild, upset-filled year of college hoops -- was their primary claim to consideration. It was sturdy enough to keep them in the picture this long, even as their resume gradually drifted further and further toward mediocrity. Short of an unforeseen bubble collapse in the next 24 hours, GW won't get in.
VCU [24-9 (14-4), RPI: 33, SOS: 80] The Rams have a bit of business to attend to on Sunday: winning an Atlantic-10 conference tournament title. Sealing the automatic bid that accompanies such an accomplishment would (obviously) be nice; it would make the rest of VCU's afternoon stress free. Is it necessary? Probably not. The Rams are not a 100 percent guarantee in this generally volatile and unpredictable year, but the 22-point throttling Will Wade's team put on Davidson in Saturday's semifinal should be enough to keep it in the bracket even if the Rams fall to (also in) Saint Joe's. Their resume feels a half-step (if not) better, or at least less flawed, than most of the teams directly on the bubble.
St Bonaventure [22-8 (14-4), RPI: 30, SOS: 87] The Bonnies began the day a team or three above the last four in/first four out bubble fray. That is not exactly a safe position in which to find themselves in the second week of March, but hey: At least they're not Vanderbilt! Always look on the bright side, right? That approach applies to Friday night's loss to Davidson in the A-10 quarterfinals. If Mark Schmidt's team -- which stormed through the past six weeks of conference play and shot up the curve of bracket consideration -- had to go one and out in the Atlantic 10 postseason, at least it did so to a decent Davidson team and not, like, La Salle. The Bonnies will still be suffering all weekend, crowded around the locker room couch and nervously hoping other teams' bubbles burst. But if they were in the bracket on Friday morning, a close loss to Davidson shouldn't knock them out before Sunday afternoon. We'll see.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Pittsburgh, Syracuse|
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has had a (relatively) tough past few seasons. This has not been one of them. His team swept the ACC's regular-season and tournament titles with its win over (a very good) Virginia team on Saturday. Afterward, Williams wore his flat-billed commemorative hat to the side while he danced with his players. The Watch has never seen anything more endearingly goofy. Well-earned.
Pittsburgh [21-11 (9-9), RPI: 49, SOS: 32] The Panthers didn't do anything crazy on Thursday, which is to say they didn't knock off North Carolina in the ACC quarterfinals and didn't make their eventual NCAA tournament appearance a surefire lock. Instead, they remained in place, which is to say they've spent the weekend watching other bubble teams play -- and teams like San Diego State join the fray -- and crossing their fingers they have done enough to get in the field. The answer to this question is a resounding probably. That's the best we can do.
Syracuse [19-13 (9-9), RPI: 68, SOS: 38] On Wednesday morning, selection committee chairman Joe Castiglione had some minor encouragement for anxious Syracuse fans. "In Syracuse's case, we recognize you have a Hall of Fame coach who has assembled his team, knows his team,'' Castiglione said. "To pretend he's not a difference-maker would be a mistake.'' That has always been the greatest argument in the Orange's favor: Boeheim's return from a nine-game suspension in December and early January immediately led to a drastic uptick in Syracuse's play, including a Jan. 18 win at Duke. For weeks, the gulf between the Boeheim/no-Boeheim Cuse was remarkably wide. Wide enough to ignore those results entirely? Which brings us to Friday, when Castiglione joined a CBS broadcast and explained what he meant. "Sometimes, when you talk about 'taking it into consideration,' people make a leap that those are discounted or wiped out," he said. "No. It just allows a little context to the conversation." Less encouraging, that. Throw in the Orange's 1-5 record down the stretch and they will enter Selection Sunday either barely in the bracket or barely out of it, with the committee's interpretation accounting for the difference.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Work left to do: Michigan|
Michigan has work to do. There is no more work to do. (We realize we need another category for Champ Week Bubble Watch updates, something to distinguish teams in this rather unfortunate position. We hope the High Bubble Council will approve this measure in advance of the 2017 tournament. You have 11 months to send suggestions.)
Michigan [22-12 (10-8), RPI: 58, SOS: 44] Every season, there is at least one mediocre high-major bubble team that grabs a big win or two in its conference tournament and becomes a cause celbre in the hours before the selection show. When these arguments deign to designate another team that must, mathematically, accommodate this cause, a mid-major is typically sent to the slaughter. This philosophical movement has a name: "Packerism." In the past 24 hours, Michigan has been the primary recipient of Packerist-tinged support. Arguments like "but, the Big Ten!" and "but, the eye test!" have been used a lot to explain why the Wolverines -- who beat Big Ten champ Indiana (in Indianapolis) on Friday and lost 76-59 to Purdue on Saturday -- should be in the 2016 tournament. These are not particularly persuasive arguments. The Wolverines had two months to take advantage of playing in a league like the Big Ten. They beat three top-100 opponents (plus Texas in the nonconference) in that span. After Saturday, they are 4-11 against the top 50 and 4-12 against the top 100. At some point, you should take those chances. Eye test? This was the Big Ten's fifth-best offensive team and its ninth-best per-possession defense. A day before the Indiana win, Michigan barely survived Northwestern, and hardly looked good doing it. A day later, Purdue ran them off the floor. This is not a sleeping giant whose resume conceals its true nature. It's a mediocre team. Not bad, not good. Just mediocre. It deserves to be on the bubble with a 50-50 chance of getting in the field. That's how it should be. Just don't pretend otherwise.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: San Diego State|
San Diego State [25-9 (16-2), RPI: 42, SOS: 70] We like to assume one of sports' hoariest cliches -- "defense wins championships" -- is merely a victim of overzealous editing. What it should say is "defense wins championships, most of the time, provided you occasionally make a few shots." Or, perhaps, "defense: necessary but not sufficient." Less catchy? Sure. But way more accurate. Just ask San Diego State. All season, one of the nation's toughest, most punishing defensive teams was also one of the prospective field's most inept at scoring the basketball. Most of the time, stingy D was enough to get the Aztecs past the hollowed-out Mountain West. And Steve Fisher's team did win a regular-season title with no real competition. Yet it wasn't enough in November and December, when SDSU needed to win nonconference games to compensate for the MWC's sudden struggles. Nor was it sufficient on Saturday, when Fresno State held Winston Shepard and company to .92 points per possession in the Bulldogs 68-63 conference title win. Rodney Terry's team will head to its first NCAA tournament in 15 years. Whether the Aztecs will join them is an entirely open question. They do have a neutral win over Cal and a top-five nonconference schedule figure and a 16-2 regular-season title in their league. That's the good. The bad? The Mountain West was so bad -- so bad! -- that SDSU won those 16 regular-season games plus two in the tournament and still enters Selection Sunday with just 10 top-100 opponents on its overall resume. Worse: They won three of those games. What will the committee do with that? Your guess is as good as ours.
|Teams that should be in: Oregon State|
With chalk reigning in the Pac-12 tournament, the conference's extremely active bubble -- in early February, 10 of its 12 teams were featured in this space -- has essentially come to a close. The only remaining question is Oregon State, but after Thursday's loss to Cal, the Beavers can do nothing to change Sunday's outcome.
Oregon State [19-12 (9-9), RPI: 31, SOS: 12] Be suspicious of Oregon State's RPI all you want. You should be. Before Thursday night's matchup with Cal, the Beavers' RPI rank (29) was exactly half as large as its adjusted efficiency ranking (58), per KenPom.com. The latter number was tellingly consistent with OSU's spot in the Basketball Power Index (60). The metrics that gauge actual basketball performance -- as opposed to the RPI's binary win-or-not formula -- agree: Oregon State, which finished with a negative efficiency margin in league play, is nowhere near the 30th-best team in the country. Fortunately for Wayne Tinkle's team, the committee almost never uses those metrics. What does it use? The RPI. Even if some committee members are skeptical of the veracity of OSU's nitty-gritty sheet, it will be very difficult to snub a team with five top-50 wins, 12 wins against the top 100, zero losses below that threshold, and gaudy raw RPI and (especially) schedule figures. These are the same reasons the Beavers entered Thursday night in the should-be-in category, and a respectable loss to one of the hottest and most talented teams in the country is unlikely to alter that fact. No guarantees, but they should be fine.
|Work left to do: South Carolina, Vanderbilt|
With its season on the line Saturday, with a chance to move one step closer to an automatic bid, and with the possibility of a last-second mini-push onto the bubble with a marquee win, the 2015-16 LSU Tigers promptly scored 0.55 points per possession in a 71-38 loss. Yeah. That happened. At halftime, with his team trailing 35-13, LSU coach Johnny Jones said -- out loud, to another human being, with camera and a microphone in his face -- that he'd liked his team's energy. So, yeah. That happened. Perhaps Jones should have stuck around and watched Georgia play Kentucky. The Wildcats eventually put together the late burst they needed to close the game, but for the first 37 minutes or so Mark Fox's team went neck-and-neck with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. We're skeptical a win would have been enough to get Georgia in the at-large discussion, and the point is now moot anyway, but still. Georgia put forth a valiant, cohesive and, yes, actually energetic effort against a vastly more talented foe. They were, in other words, Bizzaro LSU.
South Carolina [24-8 (11-7), RPI: 56, SOS: 157] The SEC finishes with two teams still very much on the bubble. Wait, huh? Vanderbilt, sure. That's nothing new. But South Carolina? Weren't they on the "should be in" list on Saturday morning? And for most of the past month before that? Indeed. Yet the more we look at this resume, the more we worry. As we've noted in the past, South Carolina's nonconference schedule -- part of a 15-0 start that was the program's best since 1933-34 -- is the worst of any at-large team in the field. Time and again in recent seasons the committee has punished teams for soft nonleague slates. Sometimes, that punishment is a matter of seeding. Other times it's cost a team its bid. (The seminal example is SMU in 2013-14, whom almost everyone in the world was convinced would make the tournament ... except the committee itself. The Mustangs remain the only team the Watch has ever locked that failed to receive a bid. We still haven't washed off the shame.) You can understand, in other words, why we'd be bearish on South Carolina's situation. The Gamecocks' resume was never unassailable. They haven't played their best basketball in a month, and now the bubble is shifting around them. And if they're on the borderline -- and they very well could be -- that nonconference schedule could cost them. Stay tuned.
Vanderbilt [19-13 (11-7), RPI: 60, SOS: 43] Since last Saturday, we maintained that if Vanderbilt beat its first SEC tournament opponent, it would go to the NCAA tournament. On Thursday, as if on cue, the Commodores lost to Tennessee. It was as close as losses get -- the would-be game winner leaving Wade Baldwin's hand just a fraction of a second too late -- but the microscopic margin of defeat matters far less than the wide-angle view of the loss itself. It's the worst defeat the Commodores have suffered since at least Feb. 16, when they gave up a 17-point second-half lead in an eventual one-point loss at Mississippi State. Since then, Vanderbilt had turned it around. It beat Florida on the road and Kentucky at home, winning four of its last five, and the only loss came at Texas A&M. The Commodores moved from the thick of the bubble mess up to a No. 9 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology on Thursday morning. With a 19-13 overall record, three sub-100 losses, a 9-13 record against the RPI top 150, a totally worthless nonconference start, and just two noteworthy wins (both at home), they look destined to spend the next four days back on the bubble, something just last week they seemed to have left behind.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Saint Mary's, Arkansas-Little Rock, Valparaiso, Monmouth|
This is going to be a fascinating Sunday for mid-major resumes. The bubble is always some mix of above-average mid-majors and mediocre high majors, but those fault lines feel wider than ever this time around. Saint Mary's, Monmouth and Valparaiso all enter Sunday on the bubble with teams like Michigan, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. What mix will the committee settle on? And what will its logic for those decisions entail? The Others section isn't getting any sleep Saturday night, that's for sure.
Saint Mary's [27-5 (15-3), RPI: 41, SOS: 164] We remain more bullish on Saint Mary's chances of getting in the tournament than most. We are definitely more sold on the idea of Saint Mary's being a good basketball team that outperformed its internal expectations and ended up with a softer schedule than it could have tackled if it had the same number of top-50 opportunities as, say, Michigan. We have no idea whether the committee will agree or not.
Arkansas-Little Rock [28-4 (17-3), RPI: 45, SOS: 283] The Trojans won their first conference tournament game on Saturday, and that they didn't have to play a conference tournament game until Saturday should let you know how they handled the Sun Belt's regular season. (Answer: well.) Chris Beard's team thus went into Sunday one win away from an automatic bid. The Trojans will -- or least should -- get a look from the committee if they lose, particularly if that same committee already has San Diego State (whom Little Rock beat in a true road game) in the field. Our guess is that even with that look, the Trojans and their 20 sub-150 RPI wins won't rate with the rest of the bubble. But we've been wrong been before.
Valparaiso [26-6 (16-2), RPI: 50, SOS: 179] Valparaiso welcomed us to Champ Week, and to March, in proper fashion on Monday night, when Jubril Adekoya, inbounding from the baseline with his team down two points with 2.1 seconds left, threw a 90-foot rope to Alec Peters, who promptly laid the ball in. It was a magnificent, borderline miraculous play, and an absolute gut punch to an insurgent Green Bay. That felt like the crucial escape, and then Bryce Drew's team could mop things up in overtime and move on to the Horizon League title game on Tuesday night, right? Instead, it was the (watch this) Phoenix (yep) who rose (it's happening!) from the ashes (boom!) in OT, en route to a 99-92 win. What does the upset mean for the Crusaders? If we had to guess, their at-large chances are unlikely, if not totally cooked. They'll have an uphill battle in the committee room all week. But they will be -- or at least they should be -- discussed, time and again, as the committee begins to winnow the field. It could be worse.
Monmouth [27-7 (17-3), RPI: 55, SOS: 209] Monmouth lost three games to teams ranked outside the RPI top 200. Those were (road) games the Hawks could have won but didn't. Those outcomes were within their control. And that's it. That's the only real argument. What else can you say about this team, relative to the rest of the bubble, that is both (A) a genuine failing and (B) within its control? The Hawks play in the MAAC. This is not a team that can get fair nonconference arrangements with top-50 high majors. They prevailed in the opportunities they had against Notre Dame and USC, and they beat Georgetown and UCLA in guarantee games on the road. They ended the season with 10 wins against the top 150. This is not a lightweight record. All in all, Monmouth played 18 games -- 18 games! -- away from their home gym this season. They won 13 of them. The fifth loss in that category came Monday night, when the Hawks fell to Iona in the MAAC tourney final 79-76. Were this team in a league as good as even the American, it would have had chances to improve its resume throughout January and February. Instead, it had nowhere to go but down. If your response is to say, "Well, then don't lose to Army, Canisius and Manhattan," that's fine. That's mildly unrealistic, but it's a reasonable argument about a thing Monmouth could control. Citing its 20 games against the sub-150 is not. If you want to debate Monmouth's at-large case -- and there is a real debate to be had here -- at least understand the systemic causes for its flaws.