College Basketball Bubble Watch
It's time to separate the wannabe bubble contenders from the sure things
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Monday, March 3.
Think of everything we'll see in the next 26 days: Two weeks of conference tournaments and their requisite flurry of automatic bids. Selection Sunday insanity. The "first" round in Dayton. The unhinged madness of the NCAA tournament's first proper weekend. The raw-fingernail rush of the regionals. The narratives of destiny, the temporary darlings, the bad calls and buzzer-beating shots.
Yes, Bubble Watchers, the most glorious month on the Gregorian calendar has arrived. By March's end -- the final day of NCAA tournament regional play is Sunday, March 30 -- we will whittle 351 Division I college basketball teams to four.
Which means it's time, in the immortal words of Bunim/Murray Productions, for the Watch to stop being polite and start being real.
In more precise terms, it's time to fully sever the actual bubble from the potential bubble.
For most of February, we take things slow. We plan ahead. We allow for contingencies. We don't lock a team in until we're absolutely sure they could lose out and still make the tournament. We're judicious. This creates the "potential" bubble. It's a larger set of teams. It comprises schools that are likely to get in the tournament but could still miss out with a bad schedule and a late-season collapse, as well as those who genuinely need to improve their lot to earn a call on Selection Sunday.
Now that we're in March, and there's just one more regular-season week left on the calendar, we have a better idea of where teams currently stand. But even more helpful is how much less volatility we have to account for. At this point, teams with solid resumes don't have time to fall apart. The worst-case "what if they lose out?" test looks less drastic when applied to just two or three games.
The inverse is also true, of course. If your team is scraping by on the actual bubble -- or still hoping for a late thrust into the conversation -- time is running short. At-large bids aren't made in March; they're earned in increments all season. It's harder to collapse out of the tournament field now in early March, and just as hard to play your way into it, too.
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through March 3.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: George Washington, Saint Joseph's|
Work left to do: Dayton
Plenty of noteworthy movement in the Atlantic 10 this week, led by the newly locked-in Virginia Commonwealth Rams. Its victory over Saint Louis on Saturday gave VCU a second top-20 RPI win of the season. The first came back on Nov. 12 at Virginia, a victory that has improved in stature to the point that few teams in the country can boast a road result as good. Between those two wins, the Rams have compiled a solid all-around resume with excellent RPI and SOS numbers, and a 4-4 road record against the RPI top 100. Had they played a bit better in Puerto Rico in November, they would have earned their lock much sooner. Saturday's win sealed it anyway. Meanwhile, Richmond entered last week barely hanging on to the actual bubble, and then proceeded to lose back-to-back road games to George Mason and Rhode Island. There wasn't much on the Spiders' profile to begin with. It will take a win at VCU on Thursday for them to get a second look.
George Washington [21-7 (9-5), RPI: 31, SOS: 85] A loss at Saint Louis and a home win over George Mason left the Colonials' situation largely unchanged. Wednesday's home game against Saint Joe's isn't make-or-break either, necessarily, but a season-ending trip to Fordham could be tricky.
Saint Joseph's [21-7 (11-3), RPI: 34, SOS: 76] Saturday's win at St. Bonaventure was the Hawks' sixth in a row, a stretch that has put them at 11-3 in the Atlantic 10. A portion of this much-needed, late-season streak has come against the dregs of the A-10, but Saint Joe's did sneak in wins over VCU and Dayton (in a rout, too) into the mix. Now, the Hawks have a chance to really solidify their position on Wednesday night at George Washington, and tidy things up on Sunday at home against La Salle.
Dayton [20-9 (8-6), RPI: 49, SOS: 57] After being handled at Saint Joe's early in the week, the Flyers rebounded with an 86-79 win over UMass. That's a big win in a vacuum, but given the rest of Dayton's profile -- which still includes just-OK computer numbers and losses to Illinois State, Rhode Island and USC (the last one at home) -- it doesn't come close to guaranteeing them a bid. It's hard to call Wednesday's trip to Saint Louis a must-win, because Saint Louis is a nightmare on its own floor. But it's close.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Pittsburgh, Florida State|
Virginia's 75-56 win over Syracuse on Saturday was about as impressive a win as we've seen all season, and fittingly so: It sealed UVa's first outright ACC title in 33 years. The pack-line, man-to-man defense Virginia uses to throttle its opponents was originated by Tony Bennett's father, Dick Bennett, at Green Bay in the early 1990s, and it is also the backbone of Arizona's defense under Sean Miller. The Wildcats allow the fewest points per trip of any team in the country this season. Virginia allows the third-fewest. There might be something to that whole pack-line idea, eh? Meanwhile, NC State's win at Pitt was a good one on Monday night, for whatever it's worth. Actually, that's the point -- a win at Pitt simply isn't worth as much as it once was. It definitely isn't enough to erase the stench of the Wolfpack's Saturday's loss at Miami. Keep an eye on NC State in the ACC tournament, but it needs to do a lot more to get back in the mix.
Pittsburgh [22-8 (10-7), RPI: 50, SOS: 90] This Pittsburgh season defies reason. For most of November, December and January, the Panthers played really good basketball that slipped under the radar because of a bad schedule and close losses in their only noteworthy games (Cincinnati, Syracuse). A few months later, the losses have gone beyond the "brutally close and to good teams" variety and extended outward into the realm of "at home against bubble teams." Last Sunday it was Florida State; Monday it was NC State. And so a team that lost to Cincinnati by one, Virginia by three and Syracuse on a last-second 35-footer finds itself on the bubble with one regular-season game (at Clemson on Saturday) left to play. Huh?
Florida State [17-11 (8-8), RPI: 56, SOS: 44] The Seminoles' win at Pitt last Sunday put them back into the bubble picture, and they followed it up with home win over Georgia Tech on Sunday. Now they're on the cut line again, thanks largely to some solid nonconference wins against VCU and UMass. Now, it's Tuesday night's trip to Boston College and Saturday's home date against Syracuse. That's as big a bad-loss/good-win two-game gulf as you'll ever see.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Oklahoma State|
Work left to do: Baylor
Well, well, well -- who knew all it took for Oklahoma State to get back on track was for Marcus Smart to shove an obnoxious Texas Tech fan and miss three games due to suspension? The blueprint was there all along! Oh, and yes, we're locking up Kansas State. Sure, the Wildcats lost by 16 in Stillwater, Okla., on Monday night, but even so, their worst-case scenario is two more losses -- one at home to Baylor on Saturday, and one in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. Do we really think that would keep them out of the Dance? (Hint: no.)
Oklahoma State [20-10 (8-9), RPI: 40, SOS: 31] If only we'd known! Travis Ford could have sent Marcus Smart into the crowd at, say, Oklahoma on Jan. 27, and Smart could have served his suspension then, and when he returned, Oklahoma State could have skipped the four-game losing streak that preceded his suspension altogether! The Cowboys might be a lock! All (bad) jokes aside, Smart has played excellent, composed basketball since his return from suspension two weeks ago, culminating in two huge home wins this week. On Monday night, Oklahoma State handled Kansas State, just two days after Smart's late surge helped the Cowboys upend RPI No. 2 Kansas. All of a sudden, Oklahoma State's resume looks a lot more like the one we expected it to have this season, and there's still another opportunity for rehabilitation at Iowa State on Saturday.
Baylor [19-10 (7-9), RPI: 43, SOS: 11] The Bears' immense schedule numbers kept them in the mix during the uglier portions of their Big 12 run. Now they'll enter Tuesday night's home game against Iowa State on the bubble, but on the right side of it, and with a huge opportunity to move up a couple spots on the S-Curve. The committee loves strong schedules; it has been its most consistent criteria over the past five years. Baylor has always had that part covered. It just needed the wins. Now it has to finish the job.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Xavier|
Work left to do: Providence, Georgetown, St. John's
Had Xavier not lost at Seton Hall on Monday night, the Musketeers may have been a lock. But they did, and so they're not, though they shouldn't feel too worried, which is more than we can say for the rest of the Big East bubble.
Xavier [20-10 (10-7), RPI: 46, SOS: 82] On Friday, Xavier was a good example of one type of work-to-do teams. There were teams who desperately needed to improve their standing (such as Georgetown, Providence and St. John's), and there were teams who merely needed to hold the line. The Musketeers did that this week. Sure, they lost at Seton Hall on Monday, and being swept in the regular season by the .500 Pirates is not exactly the most ringing endorsement of a team's quality. But that loss came two days after Xavier beat Creighton at home. At worst, the two games cancel each other out, and with only a home date against Villanova left, the Musketeers are probably safe.
Providence [19-10 (9-7), RPI: 58, SOS: 80] The rest of the Big East is in various states of bubble duress, Providence included. Fortunately, Ed Cooley's team avoided possibly bid-killing setbacks at Butler and Seton Hall in the past 10 days, and it has a chance to sweep Creighton in the return game in Omaha this Saturday. But first there's Marquette at home, and really, how likely are Doug McDermott and Grant Gibbs to lose on Senior Day? That double-overtime loss to Villanova on Feb. 18 looms ever larger as the Friars clutch tenuously to the cut line.
Georgetown [16-12 (7-9), RPI: 61, SOS: 19] Providence might have a slightly better top-to-bottom resume than Georgetown -- "slightly" being the operative word -- but the Hoyas have better wins and much better opportunities this week. Tuesday night's home game against Creighton is the better of the two, but if Georgetown loses in the Verizon Center, it can still take a crack at Villanova on Saturday. Either top-10 RPI win would help, obviously. Both would be a triumph.
St. John's [19-11 (9-8), RPI: 62, SOS: 42] Bubble-wise, the Red Storm have the worst final week setup of the regular season. After Sunday's win over DePaul, Saturday's trip to Marquette is all Steve Lavin's team has left ahead of the Big East tournament next week. There's no Villanova or Creighton (or both, in Georgetown's case), only a chance to lose to a hard-charging Golden Eagles team in their brutal home gym.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Work left to do: Minnesota, Nebraska|
Sometimes, the inexorable march of time really is a college basketball team's best friend. Relative to its skill and general performance on the floor, Iowa's resume -- marked as it was by a bad nonconference schedule and a whole host of close losses against top-25 RPI teams -- has always been worse than it could be. Since Feb. 8's blowout win over Michigan, Iowa beat Penn State and Purdue and lost to Wisconsin (at home), Indiana and Minnesota. All of the above may end up costing Fran McCaffery's team a much higher single-digit seed than it now seems likely to get, but it won't cost it a bid entirely. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Hoosiers followed up last week's win over Iowa with Sunday's home win over Ohio State (without injured forward Noah Vonleh to boot). That has IU fans suddenly optimistic about a tournament berth, but they shouldn't be: Indiana's still just 17-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big Ten with more wins against teams ranked outside the RPI top 150 (9-0) than within it (8-12). Indiana needs to beat Nebraska and win at Michigan and then get some help in the Big Ten tournament, and even then, it's a long shot.
Minnesota [18-12 (7-10), RPI: 45, SOS: 3] In Monday's Bracketology update, our own Joe Lunardi listed Minnesota as his final team in the NCAA tournament field. That should give you some idea of where the Gophers stand with just one regular-season game to play -- at home on Sunday vs. Penn State. There's nothing to gain there, obviously, save a damaging loss. Minnesota will have to do a bit of work in the Big Ten tournament and hope that (a) other bubble teams lose and/or (b) the selection committee really loves its top-five overall strength of schedule. It's going to be close.
Nebraska [17-11 (9-7), RPI: 54, SOS: 37] Nebraska doesn't have the benefit of Minnesota's computer-bait schedule, but it has OK computer numbers in its own right, a win at Michigan State and, best of all, at least one chance to do some real bubble damage on Sunday when Wisconsin comes to town. Two wins (including at Indiana on Wednesday) wouldn't guarantee anything. But at that point, relative to the rest of the bubble, the Cornhuskers would have a serious case.
|Teams that should be in: Arizona State, Colorado|
Work left to do: Oregon, Stanford, California
Remember when Arizona seemed staggered by Brandon Ashley's injury? Right. In the past four games, the Wildcats eeked out a narrow overtime win at Utah and then just straight stomped Colorado, Cal and Stanford in three consecutive games. They're still playing the best defense in the country despite Ashley's injury, and rank No. 1 in KenPom adjusted efficiency overall, and if you lost preemptive confidence in your early Arizona national title pick, you might need to (re)revise.
Arizona State [21-8 (10-6), RPI: 28, SOS: 47] The Sun Devils completed their regular-season sweep of Cal -- and finished a nice little 2-0 home stand against the Bay Area schools -- on Saturday. This is hardly a perfect resume, of course. The nonconference schedule number is still high, and the quality road wins are minimal, but Arizona State could solve that issue by winning at Oregon on Tuesday night. Even if the Devils don't, they'll probably be OK.
Colorado [20-9 (9-7), RPI: 29, SOS: 12] For weeks, the Watch's stance on the Buffaloes has been consistent. Because the committee judges teams before and after injuries, there was a chance CU could have fallen victim to a bad back half of the season and be seen as unworthy without injured guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who tore his ACL in mid-January. Tad Boyle's team has admirably resisted that easy classification, matching solid win totals with high-end RPI and SOS numbers. A big chunk of those wins came against the bottom half of the Pac-12, but even so, Colorado managed to stay out ahead of the pack. Saturday's loss at Utah spurs more pressing questions. The Buffs are 9-7 in the Pac-12 with road games at Cal and Stanford left this week. Since Dinwiddie's injury, they are 6-6, with the only semi-noteworthy win coming at home against Arizona State. What happens if they go 0-2 this week?
Oregon [20-8 (8-8), RPI: 33, SOS: 50] Oregon avoided RPI disaster at USC on Friday, and various shuffling along the bubble left them among the last four teams in the field in Joe Lunardi's Monday bracket update. The big question is how the committee will consider last week's win at UCLA. It came with Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams -- UCLA's two best players, and among the top 20 or so in the country -- sidelined with one-game suspensions for team rules violations. Will the committee award Oregon full credit for that win? It seems unlikely, even if the Ducks have received a nice little RPI boost in the exchange. The good news is no Pac-12 team has a better chance to come away with season-changing victories in its final week: home games with Arizona State and Arizona on Tuesday and Saturday, respectively.
Stanford [18-10 (9-7), RPI: 41, SOS: 26] Back-to-back losses at Arizona and Arizona State make it hard to do much with Stanford this week. They're still safer than most on the bubble -- including Oregon and Cal -- but would do well to avoid an 0-2 finish against Colorado and Utah at home this week.
California [18-11 (9-7), RPI: 51, SOS: 42] Like Stanford, Cal also lost both legs of last week's Arizona swing. Like Stanford, it is hard to move Cal in any chosen direction because of those performances. The Bears might be a smidge closer to the cut line thanks to the loss at USC and some other minor nitpicks, but they're not far off, and they too swap Utah and Colorado at home this week ahead of the Pac-12 tourney.
|Work left to do: Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas|
Every time it seems like this Kentucky team is finally turning that proverbial corner, the Wildcats find a way to take a step back. On Saturday, John Calipari got in on the dysfunctional fun, getting himself kicked out (after untucking his shirt, which was how you knew he was really mad) at South Carolina before failing to show up for media availability after the game. The Wildcats lost, by the way. At South Carolina. It was the worst loss of Calipari's career, and it inspired the usual batch of player pledges -- they "still believe," they want to "fix it," and so on, which to Kentucky fans will sound disconcertingly similar to the noises emanating from the 2012-13 team that lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Don't worry: UK is still going to the tournament. But what a weird season, huh?
Tennessee [18-11 (9-7), RPI: 47, SOS: 13] With one week left in the season, the Vols find themselves in the exact same position as their Tigers brethren, with almost the exact same schedule calculus ahead. On Wednesday, Tennessee travels to Auburn. On Saturday, it gets Missouri at home. Both games feel like must-wins. The only real difference separating the Vols' profile from Missouri's is their top-15 overall strength of schedule. Everything else remains close.
Missouri [20-9 (8-8), RPI: 48, SOS: 87] Missouri won at home against Mississippi State on Saturday, which did absolutely nothing to help the Tigers hang on to a tournament spot after two straight losses (at Alabama and Georgia) last week. If anything, the win over the Bulldogs hurts, because MSU's RPI (228) is so bad, it drags on the Tigers' number anyway. Next up is Wednesday's home date with Texas A&M and then Saturday's road trip to Tennessee. No losses allowed.
Arkansas [20-9 (9-7), RPI: 53, SOS: 79] The Watch is always quick to warn against reductive bubble watching. It always happens this time of year: Suddenly, teams are either in or out with one win or one loss. Suddenly, people start ignoring the relative strength of a resume built over a four-month sample size in favor of dramatic do-or-die scenarios. Most of the time, the bubble isn't that dramatic. It's almost never that simple. But there are exceptions, and Arkansas is one of them. In one fell swoop -- last week's win at Kentucky -- the previously discarded Razorbacks managed to vault over Tennessee and Missouri and a host of other teams back onto the right side of the at-large cut line. Of course, some decent all-around work (especially in nonconference play) put them in the position first. But a sweep over Kentucky, even a Kentucky team that just lost at South Carolina, is something most of the teams with Arkansas-level resumes don't have. And so here the Razorbacks are, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, only if instead of a bird, the animal in question was a feral bush pig. Majestic, isn't it?
|Other at-large contenders|
|Teams that should be in: Gonzaga|
Work left to do: Brigham Young, Southern Miss, Green Bay, Louisiana Tech
Gonzaga [25-6 (15-3), RPI: 27, SOS: 100] We were planning on locking up Gonzaga after the Bulldogs' destruction of Saint Mary's in the regular-season finale last week. But we're deterred just enough by their lack of quality wins -- BYU at home and Arkansas on a neutral floor are the top two victories here -- which has caused us to hold off until Mark Few's team inevitably destroys either No. 8 seed Pacific or No. 9 seed Santa Clara in the WCC tournament quarterfinals this weekend.
Brigham Young [21-10 (13-5), RPI: 35, SOS: 29] BYU has a better collection of overall wins than does Gonzaga -- the Cougars won at Stanford and beat Texas on a neutral court back in November -- but their string of sub-150 losses has kept them firmly affixed to the bubble. They need to make a run to the WCC conference tournament final. That will presumably guarantee another game against Gonzaga, but first and foremost will keep another bad loss off the Cougars' resume in the meantime.
Southern Miss [25-5 (12-3), RPI: 36, SOS: 163] Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech are Conference USA's only hopes of at-large tournament bids, and those hopes are exceedingly slim. The merits of the Golden Eagles' profile may be limited to their top-40 RPI rank, but let's give credit where it's due: They've had to avoid bad losses left and right just to stay in the conversation, and they've mostly done so for the past couple of weeks.
Green Bay [24-5 (14-2), RPI: 52, SOS: 166] The Phoenix might have an outside shot at an at-large berth were it not for the Horizon League's uncharacteristic struggles. Because of the down Horizon, 19 of Green Bay's 26 games have come against opponents ranked outside the RPI top 150. Most mid-majors don't have a win as good as Green Bay's Dec. 7 home victory over Virginia, or a secondary consideration as worthwhile as a three-point loss at Wisconsin (Nov. 16). Sadly, this week's Horizon League tournament is likely the only path forward.
Louisiana Tech [24-6 (12-3), RPI: 64, SOS: 213] Southern Miss has the shiny RPI figure; Louisiana Tech has their 102-98 win at Oklahoma on Dec. 30. That's a huge marker -- plenty of bubble teams with much deeper resumes don't have a road win nearly as good -- and it makes Louisiana Tech worth keeping in mind as we cast about for any and all mid-major, at-large candidates. But the Bulldogs' odds remain long.