College Basketball Bubble Watch
As the tourney draws near, a look at where we stand after a busy night on the bubble
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Wednesday, March 6. RPI and SOS numbers will update in the morning.
For the past three years, since the NCAA tournament expanded the field to 68 teams, there has been a recurring theme in the Bubble Watch. I bet you already know where this is going.
When the tourney expanded by three extra at-large teams, a weird thing happened: The field not only got more inviting, it did so disproportionately. All of a sudden, teams that seemed like total long shots a year prior possessed enticing profiles; teams that screamed NIT at least had to be considered. Because everything about the bubble is relative, because we need to cull tournament teams from somewhere, we all had to recalibrate our expectations. Our gut feel for what a tournament team is had changed. We lowered the bar.
Three years on, it's become a cliché. "The bubble is soft" is a phrase so obvious it barely needs repeating. It's an accepted fact. Death, taxes, Thin Mints being delicious, soft bubble.
And yet even with all that said, even acknowledging the fact that we are participating in cliché here, let's just come right out and say it: This bubble is soft. Like, cottony soft. Feathery. Silken. It is Google-synonyms-for-"soft" soft. It is softer than Drake's favorite pajamas.
How do I know? In this week's edition of the Bubble Watch, despite the fact that we are within a week and a half of Selection Sunday and running out of regular-season games by which things could drastically change one way or the other, we actually added a handful of total fringe teams: Iowa, Providence, Xavier, Southern Miss. Southern Miss! If you look at any of those résumés, you are apt to scream. What? How?! No! And yet, there they are, hanging back in the pack, just one or two noteworthy wins away from serious at-large contention.
It's not like the usual suspects are much better. Arizona State, Arkansas, Alabama, Maryland, Baylor, Ole Miss -- I mean, Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State on Saturday. Mississippi State. That loss should disqualify you from the NCAA tournament for, like, three years. That's how bad that loss is. And yet, when you really dig in, the Rebels and their total lack of wins are still very much in the picture. It's crazy, but it's true.
Which is why what Villanova and Iowa State did Wednesday night can't possibly be underestimated. Nova toppled No. 5 Georgetown; Iowa State got a great win over a very good Oklahoma State team. The Wildcats' victory gave them four top-15 RPI victories, a figure that might just guarantee their tournament place, while the Cyclones totally improved their stock as well. Iowa State might not be 100 percent in the tournament, but when you consider the value of a win over Oklahoma State in the charred, Fallout 3-esque hellscape that is the current bubble picture, it's hard to picture the Clones finding a way to miss the tournament.
The bubble is sure to tighten up a bit next week as the conference tournaments hit full stride and we start to see the inevitable smattering of mid-major bid thieves. But until then, this thing is as forgiving as its ever been in the 68-team era. Iowa fans, your dream is alive! Friars faithful, keep thy faith! You never know what could happen in Bubbleland. And that has never been more true than in 2013.
(Note: Bubble Watch will begin more regular updates following this weekend's games and on a daily basis throughout next week's conference tournaments.)
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Virginia, Maryland|
Roundball fans in the great state of North Carolina -- which, based on my experience, is just about everyone -- can breathe deep: North Carolina and NC State have joined the Duke Blue Devils on the lock line. (Sorry, Wake.) North Carolina was the first to earn our lock-worthy respect after its Wednesday night win at Maryland. That left just this weekend's rivalry game with Duke to play, and come on -- it's not like a loss to Duke is going to keep the Tar Heels out. Then we dove in further and noticed that even though NC State has a trickier matchup (bubble-wise, anyway) at Florida State this weekend, a loss could hardly drop it below the rest of the bubble. In fact, NC State's CV is nearly identical to North Carolina's; if one goes in, it's hard to discount the other. Which leaves just Maryland and Virginia.
Virginia [20-9 (10-6), RPI: 62, SOS: 132] The Cavaliers have one of the greatest -- and by "greatest," I mean "most bemusing" -- NCAA tournament profiles of all time. The past seven days are a perfect example why. Last Thursday, UVa got the win of its season, an impressive wire-to-wire 73-68 performance against Duke. And three days later -- of course -- the Cavaliers lost at Boston College. That dynamic is why UVa's nitty-gritty page is so lopsided. There's a series of great wins over Duke, UNC, NC State and at Wisconsin; there are also losses to Georgia Tech, BC, Wake Forest, Clemson, Delaware, George Mason and Old Dominion. It was easier to write some of the bad losses off as injury-riddled, early-season slip-ups, but it's harder to do so after BC. And that whole truckload of ugly makes wins in Virginia's final two games -- at Florida State and against Maryland -- musts.
Maryland [20-10 (8-9), RPI: 68, SOS: 129] As soon as Maryland fell to UNC at home Wednesday, the pronouncements started coming far and wide (OK, maybe just on Twitter): Maryland's done! They're going to the NIT! Loud noises! I wouldn't discount them so fast. Sure, the Terps' profile isn't great and they were already on the wrong side of the bubble before Wednesday's loss. But I'm not sure how much a loss to UNC hurts you at this point, and the bubble doesn't really operate on opportunity cost. Is Maryland really in worse shape now? Either way, the Terps weren't in a great spot before the night started, and now they almost certainly need to win at Virginia this weekend in what could end up being a do-or-die bubble showdown. It's a race to the finish.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Villanova|
Work left to do: Cincinnati, Providence
Two new additions to Big East lockdom this week. Of the two, Notre Dame might be the most debatable at first glance (Pitt's solid-if-unspectacular slate probably makes it about a 6-seed at this point). How does a team with a 43 RPI, 95 SOS and 273rd-ranked noncon schedule totally seal up a tournament bid? The answer has mostly to do with remaining schedule. The Irish play their final regular-season game at Louisville, which is a no-lose scenario; a defeat to a potential No. 1 seed on the road doesn't hurt your tournament chances, obviously. And even if Notre Dame loses at Louisville and in its first Big East tournament game, is it really going to slide off the bubble below the 20 or so teams with worse resumes and lower current seeds? The answer is no, it is not. Lock 'em up. Meanwhile, after three straight losses and a couple of key player suspensions, St. John's chances of getting in the tournament are essentially kaput. The Red Storm are off the page, but keep at least one eye out, because the bubble is soft enough that an unlikely home win over Marquette on Saturday could at least give Steve Lavin's team a shot with a couple of wins at the Big East tourney.
Villanova [19-12 (10-8), RPI: 55, SOS: 29] Now that's how you get business done on the bubble. After a Saturday in which basically every bubble team of note lost important games, and after a week in which the Wildcats themselves fell to Seton Hall and Pitt on the road, Villanova came up with the win of its season Wednesday night -- a 67-57 home victory over No. 5 Georgetown. The bubble is rarely as simple as "win and you're in," but in this case it just might be: The Hoyas were the hottest team in the country, winners of 11 in a row, and Nova already has wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Marquette. Wednesday not only gives the Wildcats a win over a potential 1-seed, it gives them a fourth top-15 RPI win -- something no other bubble team can boast. It looks very much like Jay Wright's team is going to pull this thing off after all.
Cincinnati [20-10 (8-9), RPI: 47, SOS: 15] As you read just above, losing at Louisville is not a damnable offense. Losing by 16, as the Bearcats did Monday night, probably isn't ideal, nor are four losses in your past five games or six losses in your past eight. But with the possible exception of Providence (whose RPI is 77 as of this writing), none of those losses was particularly bad. This leaves the Bearcats in something of a holding pattern, bubble-wise: They're not in immediate danger of slipping below the likes of Tennessee, say, but they're also close enough that a season-ending home loss to South Florida and a flameout in Madison Square Garden could spell trouble.
Providence [17-12 (9-8), RPI: 77, SOS: 59] How soft is this bubble? Soft enough that if you stare really hard at it, you come to the at-first baffling conclusion that you must at least consider Providence at the very tail end of at-large tournament contention. To be honest, like fellow fringer Iowa, Ed Cooley's team has been a lot better than you think this season (albeit not as good as the Hawkeyes -- just similarly underrated). Their resume, on the other hand? Other than two home wins over Cincinnati and Notre Dame, a suddenly impressive sweep over Villanova and seven wins in their past eight, there's still not much there. But would a win at UConn on Saturday get them close? Closer, at least. Worth keeping an eye on.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Minnesota, Illinois|
Work left to do: Iowa
Minnesota [20-10 (8-9), RPI: 17, SOS: 2] Is Minnesota one basketball team? Can we be totally sure? Are we sure there aren't two different Minnesotas -- one that shows up for big wins over Indiana and Wisconsin, and another that played the lion's share of the past few months, the same team that scored 51 points in a loss at Nebraska Wednesday night? How do you spend the past 10 games playing terrible basketball, and then thump your chest at home against Indiana, and then fall apart in Lincoln six days later? How does that even work? The two-team theory is my only guess. But if the Gophers are just one team, are we sure they even really want to be in the NCAA tournament? The IU win should have locked them up for good, but here they remain, languishing. It's just ... strange.
Illinois [21-10 (8-9), RPI: 35, SOS: 8] Are Illinois fans worried after Tuesday night's 63-55 loss at Iowa? They shouldn't be. First of all, Iowa is good -- the Hawkeyes play the third-best per-possession defense in a Big Ten filled with good defensive teams -- and they're especially tough in their own building. Plus, Illinois' final Big Ten game is a no-lose deal, a road trip to Ohio State, a game that really can't hurt the Illini. We'll reserve lock status for at least a few days, but the bottom line is this team still has a top-10 schedule and wins over Indiana, Ohio State, Butler and Gonzaga, the last of which came in Spokane, Wash. Illinois is going to get in.
Iowa [19-11 (8-9), RPI: 76, SOS: 115] The Hawkeyes are back! Actually, the Hawkeyes were never truly here, because they've spent all season being just far enough outside the bubble picture that including them would have been nothing more than fan service. It just wasn't very realistic. And when Iowa lost that road game at Nebraska, the dream appeared to be dead. But two factors have the Hawkeyes at least within spitting distance of the back end of the bubble: Tuesday's win over Illinois, which got them near .500 in the best league in the country (which isn't among the stated tourney criteria but certainly can't hurt); and the collapse of nearly every fringe bubble team ostensibly ahead of them in the considerations. From an analytic standpoint, I'm actually in favor of the Hawks; they are one of the nation's 35 or so best teams, and much, much better than their horrendous computer numbers (thanks in large part to a 313 nonconference SOS) say they are. They're the classic underrated-by-RPI team. With a 4-9 record away from Carver-Hawkeye, and just a home game against Nebraska left in the regular season, they have to make something happen at the Big Ten tournament next week to make this a more realistic proposition. But the dream isn't dead.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Oklahoma|
Work left to do: Iowa State, Baylor
Oklahoma [20-9 (11-6), RPI: 24, SOS: 6] We've been complimenting the under-the-radar Sooners for the better of a month, to the point where it's starting to feel unnecessary. You should know about this team by now, or at least about the stellar RPI/SOS numbers that make them something close to -- if not quite -- a lock in this final week of the season. West Virginia didn't present much of a challenge Wednesday night, and so now the only thing to look out for is a road trip to TCU this weekend. Barring some sort of abject disaster, Oklahoma's in.
Iowa State [20-10 (10-7), RPI: 53, SOS: 66] Villanova wasn't the only team that handled its bubble business in a huge home game Wednesday night. The Cyclones needed a big win, too, and they had the perfect opportunity: A very good but beatable Oklahoma State team would come to Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State came through, winning 87-76 against one of their league's best defensive teams. (In case you hadn't noticed, the Cyclones can just flat score.) So, where does Iowa State stand? Some Cyclones die-hards were already tweeting me Wednesday night calling for a bump up to "should be in," but it's probably just a little bit too early for that. It's worth noting, for one, that Iowa State is still in that treacherous 12-seed range, and that while a home win over the No. 27-ranked RPI team is a huge boost, it's not exactly a road win at Kansas, you know? Iowa State still has to stay out of trouble at West Virginia on Saturday afternoon and avoid any disasters in the Big 12 tournament. But there's no question Fred Hoiberg's team is in much better shape than it was when it started the week and is looking more like dancing now than ever before.
Baylor [17-13 (8-9), RPI: 67, SOS: 31] The Bears are heading in the wrong direction, and that's putting it mildly. Indeed, while the Bears have never been in a prospectively safe bubble position, they were better off before their disastrous last month, which included five losses out of six games, the most recent of which was Monday's loss at Texas. All told, Baylor has won just four of its past 12. Its only top-50 win came at home over Oklahoma State. (The win at Kentucky hovers around that top-50 mark, but it's hardly a persuasive data point.) Really, the only things that might get you even remotely excited about the Bears' resume are their schedule strength numbers (SOS: 31, noncon: 42) and the fact that they still have a chance to redeem themselves with a home win against Kansas on Saturday night. It's not hard to feel for the Bears -- that last-second home loss to Kansas State was devastating in every conceivable way -- but the fact is there's simply not much here.
|Teams that should be in: Colorado, California, Oregon|
Work left to do: Arizona State
Let's give it up for the UCLA Bruins, which, in the humble opinion of this Bubble Watcher, sealed their spot in the tournament with Saturday's win over Arizona -- no matter how bad they looked in Wednesday's loss at Washington State. Say what you want about the Wildcats -- and you can start with the fact that a team with Final Four aspirations has played league-average Pac-12 defense -- but two wins over this Arizona team is still nonetheless impressive. At 22-8 (12-5 Pac-12) with improving computer numbers, a 5-4 mark against the RPI top 50 and a tidy 11-6 record against the top 100, UCLA is fine.
Colorado [19-9 (9-7), RPI: 30, SOS: 19] Colorado isn't held to as high a standard as UCLA, and there are some crucial distinctions (one is 12-4 in league play, the other is 9-7, for starters). But the similarities are there, too: The computer numbers are all pretty close, and it's not an exaggeration to say Colorado would have also swept Arizona were it not for Sabatino Chen's incredibly close late 3 being waved off at the buzzer in Tucson. And yet, the Buffaloes are hovering around a No. 10 seed in most projections, while UCLA is typically slotted several seeds higher. I'm not sure the gap should be so wide.
California [20-10 (12-6), RPI: 45, SOS: 44] You really can't say enough about what Cal's done since the second week of February. In that time, a nondescript, mostly forgotten Bears team won at Arizona and Oregon, beat UCLA and Colorado at home and, all told, rattled off six straight wins that saved their season and made them an almost surefire NCAA tournament outfit. Indeed, we were all ready to plan Mike Montgomery's team's air and hotel travel when the Stanford Cardinal -- not an NCAA tournament team, despite their lack of bad losses -- smoked the Bears in Berkeley. That's a really strange result, but in the end it doesn't change much. Cal's late-season streak included five top-50 wins, and, coupled with the rest of this résumé, should be enough to go dancing.
Oregon [23-6 (12-4), RPI: 48, SOS: 123] Since we last convened the Bubble Watch, Oregon handled business at home against Oregon State, and thus there isn't a ton of new information to share about the Ducks. The only factors keeping this even remotely a matter of uncertainty are (arguably) the Ducks' ugly schedule numbers -- they have the 123rd-ranked overall schedule and rank No. 257 in the nonconference portion -- and they do have some tricky business to attend to on the road at Colorado on Thursday and at Utah on Sunday. But really, it's just about avoiding that bad loss at Utah. If the Ducks pull that off -- and maybe even if they don't -- they're in.
Arizona State [20-10 (9-8), RPI: 93, SOS: 133] The Sun Devils are about as fringy as a fringe bubble team can be while still garnering at least some consideration. Not only are their RPI and schedule numbers well out of range for a typical tournament team, but their four top-50 wins lack a little bite (a sweep of Colorado is nice, and beating UCLA and Cal at home is solid, but all together the quality can be a teensy bit deceptive) and, oh yeah, the Sun Devils are collapsing down the stretch, their latest loss a one-point defeat at USC (which is playing good basketball, but still) on Saturday. The real reasons they're still here are that (A) the bubble is really soft and (B) they have a crack at Arizona in Tucson on Saturday. It's going to take a major effort to get back on the right side of the bubble, but that'd be an awfully good place to start.
|Teams that should be in: Missouri|
Work left to do: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas
Missouri [22-8 (11-6), RPI: 31, SOS: 49] All things considered, Missouri has a decent at-large profile. The win over Florida was nice, obviously, and wins over VCU and Illinois have only improved optics-wise in the past few weeks. The Tigers could have faced some issues from a hungry Arkansas team Tuesday night; instead, they utterly destroyed the Hogs in Columbia. All that said, it will be interesting to see how the committee treats Missouri's road splits. The Tigers are just 2-7 in true road games and they play a lot worse on the road (see Ole Miss, LSU, Kentucky, A&M, Arkansas, etc.) than they do at home. It's actually kind of strange. The good news is that 3-1 record in neutral-site games, which will help. But if this committee places a major emphasis on road performance, it could hurt Missouri's seeding a little bit more than the rest of its profile probably deserves.
Kentucky [20-9 (11-5), RPI: 51, SOS: 70] The one main advantage the Wildcats have over the rest of the ugly bubble ducklings is their lack of bad losses. Sure, sure -- a home loss to Texas A&M isn't great, but compared to some of the horrors you'll encounter on some of the other bubble resumes out there, Kentucky's sheet is mostly clean. What has the Wildcats in such shaky position is a criterion more important than bad losses or a lack thereof: Other than a road-averse Missouri team, they simply haven't beaten anyone. Meanwhile, that home loss to Baylor just looks worse and worse, Maryland is itself very much on the outside of the bubble and all the RPI/SOS numbers are predictably mediocre. There is good news, however: UK's final regular-season game brings the Florida Gators -- the SEC's lone marquee-win opportunity -- to Rupp Arena. Provided they don't slip up at Georgia first, that could be a win-and-in proposition for the Wildcats.
Tennessee [18-11 (10-7), RPI: 56, SOS: 28] There are no guarantees with this Tennessee team. In the matter of a week we saw the Vols topple Florida and get back into the bubble picture, and we saw them look really ugly in a road loss to Georgia. That's why Wednesday night's win at Auburn, even if it might not seem like much, is huge: That was the type of late-season road conference game that can torpedo a team's bubble chances faster than anyone can realize what's happening. (Ask Ole Miss.) For all intents and purposes, not much has changed: The Vols are still on the bubble, still have very little margin for error and have a really nice chance to firm things up when Missouri comes to town Saturday afternoon.
Ole Miss [22-8 (11-6), RPI: 57, SOS: 158] Tuesday gave us a lot of SEC bubble action, with three of the league's bubbliest (Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas) all playing. The Rebels drew the Crimson Tide at home and held on for an 87-83 win. That's the good news. The bad news is that Ole Miss is probably just on the wrong side of the bubble right now, thanks in large part to a profile that looks really similar to Kentucky's at the top -- with just one top-50 win, Missouri, on the docket -- and even worse around the margins, with much worse computer numbers and a couple of really bad road losses at Mississippi State and South Carolina. The only regular-season item of business remaining is Saturday's trip to LSU, which could be very tricky indeed. That Mississippi State loss was a killer.
Alabama [19-11 (11-6), RPI: 59, SOS: 85] I'll be honest: I find it very difficult to have much of an opinion at all about Alabama. It's just a totally nondescript team this season, with no real analytical identity, and that goes for its NCAA tournament resume, too. For example: A 7-7 record against the RPI top 100 is nice, but it doesn't get you very far when none of those wins came on the road (and only one, over Villanova, came at a neutral-court site) and none of them were against a team ranked higher than Kentucky in the RPI or better than ... well, I don't know -- Tennessee? South Dakota State? Point is, there are no real wins here, but there are bad losses (Dayton, Mercer, Tulane, Auburn) and absolutely nothing to get you excited about the Crimson Tide's prospects in the bracket. It's not a bad team, but it's hardly a good one. The overall effect is: meh.
Arkansas [18-12 (9-8), RPI: 79, SOS: 63] If you thought Arkansas belonged in the NCAA tournament bracket at the start of the week, I suppose you could have found some data to justify your belief. For example: Of the SEC's bubble teams, only Arkansas can boast wins over Florida, Oklahoma and Missouri (as opposed to one win that good, or none). But after Tuesday night's trip to Columbia, where the Razorbacks lost 93-63 -- and it really wasn't even that close -- it's really hard to see Arkansas as anything other than a fringe bubble squad, with too many issues on the road and too many bad losses to outweigh its occasionally strong performances. Committee mileage might vary, but count me less than impressed.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: Boise State|
Locks on locks on locks -- after a month of caution, it's high time we lock the vast majority of the Mountain West's tournament teams up. Simple tournament proximity is probably the best overriding reason: Colorado State, UNLV and San Diego State have all played out their Februaries and early Marches in fine fashion, none of them doing anything that could keep their very deserving résumés out of the eventual tournament calculation, no matter where they all end up seeded. Meanwhile, Air Force's dream, even on this soft bubble, appears to be over.
Boise State [20-9 (8-7), RPI: 44, SOS: 75] The Broncos are still very much in the hunt here -- in fact, they were just on the right side of Joe Lunardi's bubble cutline after Wednesday's games, and not only do I trust the Bracketologist implicitly, but that looks exactly right to me -- and might be as well-positioned as any bubble team to firm things up on the final weekend of the season. On Saturday, San Diego State will come to Boise, and while Jamaal Franklin is never a particularly welcome sight in an opposing gym, it's not like SDSU is totally unbeatable when they go on the road. That game might hit that impressive-but-winnable sweet spot, and Boise State would look awfully strong if they can get it.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: La Salle, Temple, Xavier|
The Rams are the latest to join the Atlantic-10 lock line, a privilege bestowed after their hard-fought 93-82 win over city rival Richmond Wednesday night. The Spiders are having a tough, injury-plagued season, but they've shown up in a big way for VCU this season, even upsetting the Rams on their own floor back in January. But VCU survived, and with their demolition of Butler last week in hand, and just a road game at Temple left to play, HAVOC's return to a third-straight NCAA tournament is a done deal. (Oh, and if you're looking for UMass, let's see if the Minutemen can knock off Butler Thursday night. We'll assess accordingly.)
La Salle [21-7 (11-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 96] Studious bracket-watchers will notice that our own Joe Lunardi moved La Salle down the bubble line -- from safely in the tournament to one of his last four teams in, and thus a projected participant in the First Four in Dayton -- despite the fact that the Explorers won by 14 at home over George Washington Wednesday night. What gives? Well, the answer is simple: Villanova and Iowa State both won the kind of games that cause leapfrog action along the cutline, and beating GW at home is not enough to keep pace with wins over Georgetown or even Oklahoma State. That said, La Salle's final regular-season contest comes on the road at Saint Louis, which is basically a no-lose situation, and, provided nothing horrible happens in the first round of the A-10 tournament, they should be fine. Emphasis on 'should.'
Temple [22-8 (10-5), RPI: 41, SOS: 50] Despite the lack of a move up to Should Be In, you have to like Temple's chances. Sure, things were dicey for a while there -- I still haven't gotten over the fact that this team played five one-point games in a row (going 3-2), it's just insane -- but the Owls righted the ship, tore off a nice six-game winning streak, boosted their RPI/SOS numbers and get to finish the regular season at home against VCU. That's a big opportunity. With that neutral-court nonconference win over Syracuse in hand, Temple has a few tricks up its bubble sleeve. Not even close to a guarantee, but things are looking up.
Xavier [17-12 (9-6), RPI: 92, SOS: 83] A few weeks ago, it wasn't totally crazy to see Xavier as a potential late-season bubble-rusher, if only because the schedule was so favorable: They got VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis at home in succession, followed by a season-ending road game at Butler. Xavier split those home games -- it toppled Memphis and Saint Louis, lost to VCU and UMass -- and while that might not be enough just yet (there are still losses to Pacific, Vanderbilt, Dayton, Wofford and Wake Forest on this ledger) would a win at Butler Saturday night at least get them a bubble look? It'd have to, right? Stay tuned.