College Basketball Bubble Watch
Not all bubble teams are created equal
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Thursday, Feb. 27.
Every team with work to do is equal, but some are more equal than others.
We're closing in on the end of the regular season -- and we're 16 days away from Selection Sunday, if you can believe it -- and with that proximity comes a more tightly wound bubble dynamic. Big wins and losses feel like do-or-die affairs. Narrow résumé differences receive close scrutiny. Nits are more readily picked.
So here's what happens: A loyal reader navigates to the Bubble Watch page to get a feel for the scene. (And the Watch thanks you for your support.) Oh, but what's this? Their favorite team is listed as having "work to do"? But their team would be in the bracket if it was built today! Joe Lunardi says their team is a No. 9 seed! Why are they on equal footing with the "next four out" -- teams barely even on the bubble in the first place?! This is how angry emails are born.
Thing is, there are different types of "work to do" teams, because there are different types of work to be done. Two, to be exact.
The first is maintenance: Teams who would be in the tournament if it were selected and seeded right now, but who have to avoid bad losses in their remaining handful of games to feel safe on Selection Sunday. The second is advancement: Teams who wouldn't be in the tournament, or risk leaving themselves at the subjective whims of the committee, if they don't move the needle in a positive direction before Selection Sunday.
Pittsburgh is a good example of the former. The Panthers have a decent résumé lacking in big wins, with a lot of narrow misses against good teams, games the committee will likely have seen. They'll probably get in the tournament. But if they lost their last three games (at Notre Dame, versus NC State, and at Clemson) and suffered a bad loss in the ACC tournament, they might be in serious trouble.
Arkansas is a good example of the latter. The Razorbacks began Thursday outside our bubble radar, but their huge OT win at Kentucky put their résumé on a par with much of the bubble, leapfrogging a handful of fringe teams in the process. Now they have to maintain that upward trajectory -- and hope for the best.
The key thing to remember -- and hopefully this helps avoid some of the confusion going forward -- is that there is nuance within each Bubble Watch category. Some locks are No. 1 seeds and some are No. 4s (or lower). Some "work to dos" merely need to avoid collapse, and some need to make a move.
The good news is that each task, though different in its particulars, can be boiled down to one simple act: Win.
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through Feb. 27.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Connecticut, SMU, Memphis|
A big part of the American's top-half stratification this season -- and seriously, when was the last time a league was so drastically split between its top and bottom halves? -- has to do with the uncharacteristic down season happening at Temple. On Thursday night, the Owls were drilled at Louisville, their 20th loss this season, the first time Temple has ever lost 20 games. Oof.
Connecticut [22-6 (10-5), RPI: 29, SOS: 81] Thanks to an all-court performance from Shabazz Napier and an 18-0 second-half run, Connecticut avoided a sketchy loss at USF, 61-56, Wednesday night. They're not far from lockdom, but their profile isn't exactly the most lights-out you'll see among possible lock candidates, either, especially considering two of its three best wins came against Memphis. We're going to wait until this weekend -- when Cincinnati comes to town -- before we make a lock official.
SMU [22-6 (11-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 154] The Mustangs leapt to a No. 7 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology update, which, with all due respect, feels a tad bit high. Their schedule numbers are a little bit scary; the fact that they've played 17 of their 28 games against sub-150 competition is a testament to a horrible nonconference slate and the American's bottom half. But the Watch moved them up to "should be in" Tuesday for good reason: If they dust off UCF at home Saturday, they have a chance to forget about the bubble and think about how much a home win over Louisville on March 5 might improve their seed.
Memphis [21-7 (10-5), RPI: 39, SOS: 87] On Tuesday, we called Memphis' three-game run against Rutgers, Temple and Houston a "do-no-harm" barnstorm. On Thursday night, it did some harm. The Tigers' 77-68 loss at Houston is hardly going to put them out of the tournament field -- UConn lost at Houston too, after all -- but it does make us hold off on a lock in advance of all-upside games against Louisville (Saturday), Cincinnati (March 6) and SMU (March 8).
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington|
Work left to do: Saint Joseph's, Richmond, Dayton
Now that UMass has managed to handle Rhode Island -- barely, but still -- we can officially welcome the Minutemen to lockdom. To some extent, we've taken coach Derek Kellogg's team for granted this season, mostly because UMass has maintained a steady, impressive, but understated equilibrium throughout the season. The resume is a little bit like that, too. The Minutemen don't have that one huge win that makes you sit up and take notice. But they have a solid collection of six top-50 victories (and just one top-50 loss), they've played just seven sub-150 opponents in 27 games, they have a top-15 RPI and a top-35 nonconference schedule, and on and on. They're a lock. And when you consider where UMass was just a couple of years ago, you realize how shortsighted it would be to take that achievement for granted.
Virginia Commonwealth [21-7 (9-4), RPI: 22, SOS: 55] On Thursday, Saint Louis' school-record run of 19 straight wins came to an end in the most unlikely fashion: at home, having allowed 1.08 points per possession to ... wait for it ... Duquesne! Sub-200 RPI, three-A-10-wins Duquesne? True story. How this affects Saturday's Saint Louis-VCU game remains unclear -- there will probably be narrative grist (bounce-back! late-season slide!) either way -- but it doesn't change the fact that VCU has a chance to lock up an already relatively safe spot with a win.
George Washington [20-7 (8-5), RPI: 27, SOS: 73] George Washington joins the Rams in "should be in" territory this week, and for good reason: The teams' profiles are eerily similar. They have similar records, and each has a high-quality nonconference win (VCU at Virginia, GW over Creighton on a neutral court). They've split their head-to-head meetings. Yes, VCU has slightly better schedule numbers on its side, but the difference is at least partially negated by the Rams' loss at Northern Iowa. Barring major turns, both teams will be seeded similarly come March 16.
Saint Joseph's [20-7 (10-3), RPI: 34, SOS: 66] Saint Joe's pounded Dayton by 26 on Tuesday. It was the Hawks' fifth straight win in the past three weeks; they haven't lost since Saint Louis ground them into 49-point dust at home on Feb. 5. Unfortunately, a couple of those wins came against Fordham and Rhode Island (and even La Salle isn't much help), but even so, the end result is a team that at the very least is on the right side of the bubble for now, if tenuously so.
Richmond [18-10 (8-5), RPI: 53, SOS: 59] On Tuesday, somewhere in our fond reflections of flawed action-adventure game "L.A. Noire," we reminded our fellow Watchers how adamant the selection committee seems to be about the eye test. Perhaps Richmond can benefit: Any cursory corneal glance will show that George Mason -- which beat the Spiders 69-60 in Fairfax, Va., on Wednesday night -- has played just about every conference opponent close in wins and losses (usually losses). George Mason went to overtime against SLU <i>twice</i>. That might be the most encouraging thing we can think of to say about Richmond's week, ahead of a possibly resume-killing trip to Rhode Island on Saturday.
Dayton [19-9 (7-6), RPI: 55, SOS: 62] On Tuesday, we wrote that Dayton's visit to Saint Joseph's was bigger for the Flyers than for the home team. They didn't play like it. This is the definition of a stretch bubble team, one that desperately has to make something of Saturday's visit to UMass, and maybe even next week's trip to Saint Louis, to make a move.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Pittsburgh, Florida St|
From a totally neutral standpoint, the Watch thinks it speaks for most of America when it says it would love to see T.J. Warren in the NCAA tournament. Warren is a thrilling scorer -- versatile, efficient, high-volume, relentless. He could light up March in a way few in the country could. The problem, of course, is that his team's resume is bad, and the Pack keeps losing games it needs to win. Last week, it was the one-point loss at Syracuse. On Wednesday night, it was every NC State fan's cold-sweat nightmare, a one-point OT home loss to North Carolina. Warren had 36 points on 25 shots and NC State still ended the night 0-8 against the RPI top 50. Brutal.
Pittsburgh [21-7 (9-6), RPI: 45, SOS: 79] It's a strange feeling, watching a good Pittsburgh team desperately try to avoid slipping into genuinely threatened bubble territory (which they did at Boston College in a 66-59 win on Wednesday). To some extent, it makes sense: The Panthers have had copious opportunities to win marquee games, but they've come up just short time and again. Losses are losses as far as the committee is concerned. The reason it's weird, though, is because Pitt might not be in this dilemma if it had given itself more opportunities during nonconference play. Or, at the very least, if it hadn't scheduled quite so many RPI-draining guarantee teams, including Savannah State (299) and Howard (341). For years, Jamie Dixon has been one of the nation's savviest nonconference schedulers, deftly gaming the RPI in his team's favor. Not so this season.
Florida St [16-11 (7-8), RPI: 54, SOS: 33] FSU's win at Pitt on Sunday gave it a second chance at the bubble, and if anything, the Seminoles' stock has improved this week despite not playing a game. How? Bubble teams around them -- Missouri, Nebraska, Richmond, Tennessee -- keep losing. Hey, whatever it takes. Next up is Georgia Tech (a good defensive rebounding team, and thus a tough matchup for FSU), a road trip to Boston College, and a season-closer at home against Syracuse. This one will be close.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Kansas St|
Work left to do: Baylor, Oklahoma St
On Saturday, the Red River Shootout (basketball edition!) will commence in Norman, Okla. Fortunately, rivalry games between UT and OU need no added stakes, because win or lose, Texas and Oklahoma are both going to the NCAA tournament. There was some temptation to wait, but why? Both team's profiles are characterized by strong computer numbers and a plethora of top-50 wins; both are in the No. 6/No.7 seed range right now. Texas has a win at UNC and no sub-50 losses; Oklahoma has a better nonconference (and overall) schedule numbers and only one sub-100 loss, to Texas Tech. Both teams still have to play TCU before the end of the season, and both will probably crush TCU, but in the unlikely event that either team loses, come on: they're still going to the tournament. Lock 'em.
Kansas St [19-9 (9-6), RPI: 37, SOS: 50] K-State narrowly avoided a loss at Texas Tech on Tuesday night, which is good, because the Wildcats aren't quite as much of a guarantee as the Sooners and Longhorns. Early nonconference losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte are the primary causes for concern here. If K-State were to by some fluke go 0-3 the rest of the way -- against Iowa State, Oklahoma State (away), and Baylor -- it would finish the regular season 19-12 and 9-9 in the Big 12 with good-but-not-great computer numbers and a home win over Kansas. The Wildcats are relatively safe, but we'll hold off on a lock for a few more days.
Baylor [18-10 (6-9), RPI: 40, SOS: 9] The Bears' loss at Texas on Wednesday doesn't hurt their bid as much as a win might have helped. At this point, the toughest section of their resume to swallow is their 6-9 conference record. The tournament selection committee insists that conference record isn't a deciding factor, but let's be honest: It's never good to be three games under, either. Even so, as Joe Lunardi explained in his Insider Bracketology supplement this week, a 10-team league with five ostensible bids is bound to have some record wonkiness somewhere along the line, and the rest of the Bears' sheet would seem to place them above the St. John's, Richmonds and Missouris of the world, right?
Oklahoma St [18-10 (6-9), RPI: 46, SOS: 48] Marcus Smart's first two games back from the shove-related suspension went exactly like he and the Cowboys needed them to, which is to say smoothly, which is to say OSU came nowhere close to losing to either Texas Tech or lowly TCU. That not-insignificant task out of the way, Smart and Co. can now turn their attention toward Saturday's titanic host date against Kansas. Once upon a time, Oklahoma State nearly knocked off Kansas in its own building. If it can figure out a way to win on Saturday, it will remind the committee exactly why everybody thought the Cowboys were so good in the first place -- with opportunities against Kansas State and Iowa State still available in the season's final week.
|Big East Conference|
|Work left to do: Xavier, Providence, St. John's, Georgetown|
The Big East has proved one of the most static conferences in all of Bubble-land: After quick locks for Villanova and Creighton, the rest of the league has remained stuck on the bubble, making minor shifts and tweaks, none able to break away. So it is today, even as Xavier searches for separation.
Xavier [19-9 (9-6), RPI: 48, SOS: 90] Xavier may end up being the only team among the Big East work-to-dos to feel even remote confidence come Selection Sunday. The Musketeers' win at St. John's Tuesday certainly helps on that front. Even so, Xavier isn't totally safe, and the Musketeers could do a lot by picking off either Creighton (Saturday) or Villanova (Thursday).
Providence [18-10 (8-7), RPI: 61, SOS: 75] Providence is, like St. John's, as bubbly as one team can be; it has spent the past two weeks being shifted between last four out and first four in, which is a fate you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. The Friars also have a tricky-tough homestretch beginning Friday night at Seton Hall.
St. John's [18-11 (8-8), RPI: 62, SOS: 30] Back-to-back losses -- a close one at Villanova and a 12-point home loss to Xavier -- have left St. John's no better off than it was a week ago coming off its sixth straight win. That stretch included a home win over Creighton, one that put the Red Storm back in the mix. With just DePaul and Marquette as their final two regular-season games, they look unlikely to get out of this muddled mix, and decidedly into the field, anytime soon.
Georgetown [16-12 (7-9), RPI: 65, SOS: 26] Georgetown's loss at Marquette on Thursday night wasn't a killer, but it is a setback for a team on the underside of the bubble. The Hoyas still have the most impressive wins among their Big East counterparts, but the committee might look askance at Feb. 1's neutral-court win over Michigan State thanks to the Spartans' injury woes at that point. This is just a weird resume from top to bottom, and not in a good way. Creighton is in town on Tuesday, and boy, is that big.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Iowa|
Work left to do: Minnesota, Nebraska
The Watch has a confession to make: It should have moved Ohio State to lockdom in Tuesday's update. How does it know? Because on Thursday night, the Buckeyes lost 65-63 at Penn State, but when it came time to decide their fate Friday morning, the Watch still couldn't find a good reason OSU wouldn't make the tournament. With top-20 RPI and schedule numbers and just two sub-100 losses (both to Penn State, in fact), it is impossible that Thad Matta's team could lose at Indiana and at home against Michigan State in the next nine days and not be a No. 8 seed at minimum entering the Big Ten tournament. It feels weird to lock up a team after a loss to Penn State, but hey, live and learn.
Iowa [19-9 (8-7), RPI: 41, SOS: 53] Iowa, on the other hand, continues to stubbornly refuse lockdom, mostly because it is playing awful defense: After spending most of the season among the nation's best per-possession defensive teams, the Hawkeyes have dropped to eighth in the Big Ten in points-per-trip allowed. Three straight losses tell the tale. Last week, we were lamenting how underseeded Iowa might end up if it didn't beat Wisconsin at home. Now we're worried that the Hawkeyes could go 0-3 the rest of the way and end up 19-12 overall, 8-10 in the Big Ten, with merely OK RPI and schedule numbers and an albatross of a nonconference schedule. Suddenly, things don't feel so safe.
Minnesota [18-11 (7-9), RPI: 44, SOS: 6] Minnesota's win over Iowa didn't make it a totally safe bet, and it doesn't help that the Hawkeyes' resume undersells how impressive a win over them really is. But the Gophers needed a bounce-back after two straight losses to Illinois and Ohio State, and they got it this week. Next up is Saturday's trip to Michigan, where a road win would genuinely tilt the balance in their favor.
Nebraska [16-11 (8-7), RPI: 50, SOS: 21] On Thursday, an Omaha radio host told the Watch that folks in Nebraska were having a collective "Chicken Little" moment over the Cornhuskers' 11-point road loss at Illinois on Wednesday. It wasn't great, of course, but as most bracket projections held on Thursday, Nebraska was still in roughly the same place it was before: on the bubble, in the game, but still in desperate need of a forward leap. Here's the game plan: First, thank Missouri, Tennessee, St. John's, Georgetown and everyone else for being such forgiving bubble competitors. Next, don't lose at home to Northwestern. In that order.
|Teams that should be in: Colorado|
Work left to do: Arizona St, Oregon, Stanford, California
On Thursday afternoon, UCLA coach Steve Alford announced that his top two players, guards Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, would miss Thursday's game as punishment for violating team rules. Despite that massive and sudden lack of production, Oregon needed two overtimes to beat UCLA 87-83 in a strange, interminable affair. How much does that win help Oregon? Your guess is as good as ours.
Colorado [20-8 (9-6), RPI: 26, SOS: 15] Colorado would have been a done deal had it managed to beat Arizona on Saturday. Before the game, its odds looked good: The Wildcats had been struggling through their post-Brandon Ashley adjustment period, after all, and CU hadn't lost a home game (to UCLA, Jan. 16) since just after Spencer Dinwiddie's season-ending ACL tear. Instead, the Wildcats were commanding in a 27-point win, and so the Buffaloes will have to wait for lockdom. The bad news? Their last three Pac-12 games are a brutal stretch: at Utah, at Stanford, at Cal. There is also some concern that the selection committee could devalue the big Dec. 7 Kansas win, which came in large part thanks to Dinwiddie's brilliance. But if CU can handle business on the road at Utah, it is hard to imagine a team with its RPI and SOS numbers not getting into this field in three weeks' time.
Arizona St [20-8 (9-6), RPI: 31, SOS: 43] Wednesday's home win over Stanford was exactly what the Sun Devils needed to shore things up. Right now, most projections have ASU as a No. 9 seed, which is about where Stanford falls as well; let's hold off on any major shifts until we see what happens Saturday at home vs. Cal.
Oregon [19-8 (7-8), RPI: 32, SOS: 35] Under any normal circumstances, beating this year's UCLA team in Pauley Pavilion would go down as a crucial bubble win on a par with Arkansas' victory at Rupp Arena. (Except, you know, with people cheering and stuff.) But with the Bruins' two leading scorers, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, both missing, will the committee really see it that way? Isn't it more likely to note that, despite playing against a team lacking its two best and most important players, it still took Dana Altman's team two overtimes to get the job done? The bright side is that Oregon's four straight wins have slowly moved it closer to .500 in Pac-12 play, which would at least earn the Ducks a longer and more considered look come Selection Sunday. But they have to win at USC first.
Stanford [18-9 (9-6), RPI: 43, SOS: 45] Stanford doesn't have much to lose on Sunday at Arizona, save, you know, a basketball game, but before the Wildcats rediscovered their dominant form this week, this rare chance to knock off a marquee opponent on the road probably looked much more doable. Either way, the Cardinal have solid-enough RPI and schedule numbers and solid-enough wins that, barring disaster, they should be fine.
California [18-10 (9-6), RPI: 49, SOS: 49] The Bears were the first team to upend Arizona back on Feb. 1 and the bystanders to Brandon Ashley's season-ending injury. On Wednesday, the Wildcats got their revenge. Arizona's 87-59 win was the second in two resounding offensive performances for Sean Miller's team, but it didn't change Cal's prospectus much. Saturday's trip to Arizona State is far likelier to make an impact.
|Work left to do: Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas|
Missouri [19-9 (7-8), RPI: 47, SOS: 77] As you can probably tell from the blurb above, it's become a bit of a running Bubble Watch joke just how much the SEC's bubble teams seem to not want to go to the NCAA tournament, to the point that we're worried our material is starting to get stale. And then Missouri goes and loses two straight games on the road. On Saturday, it was a defensively absent road loss at Alabama. On Tuesday, it was a shockingly cold 56-points-in-65-possessions stinker at Georgia. The Bulldogs aren't terrible, sure, but that is about as bad a bubble week as you can have. The only way it can get worse is if the Tigers somehow find a way to lose to Mississippi State (RPI: 218!) at home on Saturday. Don't put it past them.
Tennessee [17-11 (8-7), RPI: 51, SOS: 14] The Volunteers left Starkville, Miss., with a seven-point win on Wednesday, so they live to fight another maddening day. The biggest problem, as we've written all month, is not just that Tennessee's resume is mediocre -- though, save their top-15 strength of schedule, it is certainly that. The problem is also that, like Missouri, the back half of their schedule has been filled with the dregs of the SEC. There just haven't been any opportunities to move the needle. If anything, it has been all downside. This week is a perfect example: UT will play Vanderbilt at home on Saturday (the same Vanderbilt team that played Florida to a three-point loss on Tuesday), followed by a trip to Auburn on Wednesday.
Arkansas [19-9 (8-7), RPI: 57, SOS: 74] Hey, look who made it back on the page! A warm and full-throated Woo Pig Sooie to the Arkansas Razorbacks, whose 71-67 overtime win at Kentucky on Thursday got them back into the bubble discussion in a major way. The win -- besides just being a huge victory in and of itself, and a regular-season sweep of the Wildcats -- will also provide a nice boost to the Razorbacks' flagging computer numbers. Or, at the very least, a counterpoint to them. With other quality wins: Home against SMU and a neutral-court victory over fellow bubbler Minnesota, Mike Anderson's team has officially made a solid case. Now they need to handle business in their last three vs. Georgia, Ole Miss, and at Alabama.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Gonzaga, Southern Miss, BYU, Green Bay|
Are you of the mind that Wichita State shouldn't be a No. 1 seed, and that Kansas -- with its No. 1-across-the-board RPI and schedule numbers -- should receive that spot instead? For one thing, know that it's not that simple; there are other No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to consider. For another, know that Kansas coach Bill Self himself (sorry) disagrees with you. "They've had an unbelievable year, and I personally believe they deserve a 1-seed if they run the table," Self said Thursday. "Pundits say, 'Well, their schedule' and this and that. Hey, it's hard to win on the road, especially when you're everybody's Super Bowl game. I respect that." That guy just won his 10th straight Big 12 title. Do you really want to argue with him? Meanwhile, the Watch remains ever vigilant in its search for mid-majors to include in this field. That the best and most frequent reader suggestion we received this week was 26-2 Stephen F. Austin -- which has a schedule ranked No. 320, exactly four games played against the RPI top 150, and no win better than against Towson -- should tell you all you need to know about how that search is going.
Gonzaga [24-6 (14-3), RPI: 30, SOS: 108] We can officially halt the Gonzaga Panic Wagon. (Gon-Pangon? Panzagon? Let's workshop this.) On Thursday night, the Zags won at Pacific 70-53, halting the two-game road slide that had thrown their decent-but-not-great resume into sudden peril. A loss in Saturday's rivalry finale at Saint Mary's still could make things shaky, because Gonzaga doesn't have a win better than the Jan. 25 home victory over BYU. But at least it doesn't have that Pacific loss. Phew.
Southern Miss [24-5 (11-3), RPI: 33, SOS: 145] Whether a home loss to UTEP would have spelled doom for Southern Miss' long-shot at-large chances is now officially beside the point: The Golden Eagles handled business against the Miners on Feb. 22. It's still hard to figure out how a team whose best (and lone top 50) win came at North Dakota State -- and whose next-best victories are Georgia State, Louisiana Tech, the aforementioned Miners and at DePaul -- can manage to impress the committee before Selection Sunday. After Thursday's ho-hum win over Florida International, Southern Miss' last two regular-season games are at Florida Atlantic and Tulane. But hey, you never know.
BYU [20-10 (12-5), RPI: 35, SOS: 20] The Cougars' win against Gonzaga on Feb. 20 helped right their bubble ship in a serious way, and they followed up two days later with a comfortable win over Portland. With just one WCC game left -- Saturday at San Diego -- the Cougars remain very much on the bubble. But BYU's case will be helped by a pair of wins (at Stanford, vs. Texas on a neutral court) that distinguish it from much of the crowd.
Green Bay [23-5 (13-2), RPI: 56, SOS: 165] The Phoenix's best chance is still winning the Horizon League tournament and its automatic bid. Why? Because while a home win over Virginia is nice, Tennessee has one of those, too, and a much better schedule to boot. (It's not a direct comparison that really matters, but you get the idea.) Thursday's win at Oakland was all about bad-loss avoidance, and so it will be Saturday at Detroit, and there are still no good opportunities to come in the conference tournament, so yeah, it looks bleak.