Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through games of Tuesday.
Bubble Watch is of the considered opinion that the way we customarily look at the bracket’s dividing line between “in” and “out” may no longer reflect 2019’s potentially unique realities.
Specifically, as first pointed out this week by Michigan State assistant athletic director Kevin Pauga, the bubble could turn out to be smaller than we think. Possibly much smaller.
A number of unrelated and indeed coincidental factors, ranging from an aberrantly weak Pac-12 to the solid-gold profiles built by mid-major programs such as Buffalo and Wofford, have created conditions that are unusually conducive to bid thieves.
That might not be what actually occurs, of course, and the hoops gods will have the last laugh, as always. But at a minimum, we’re already confronted with a perfect storm of exposure to bid thieves.
Start with the Pac-12. Washington is the only team in the conference that would definitely earn an at-large bid if the selection were held today, and Arizona State is, at this point, the only other team within feasible range of an at-large invite.
History suggests these conditions are extremely friendly to bid thieves. Over the past decade, only two major conferences have sent fewer than two at-large teams to the NCAA tournament. Those two leagues were (what was then called) the Pac-10 in 2010 and the Pac-12 in 2012. Both produced automatic qualifiers that can plausibly be classed as bid thieves: Washington in 2010, and Colorado in 2012.
Don’t be shocked if the Pac-12 tournament follows this same script in 2019. The Huskies are clearly the best team in the conference, but when no fewer than nine of the league’s other 11 members are bunched in between roughly Nos. 65 and 110 in the NET rankings, the smart bet here might be “rest of the field.”
Now consider Buffalo and Wofford and their potential impact on the bubble’s size. The fact that both the Bulls and the Terriers appear to be on such solid ground for securing at-large bids is good and even great news for the Mid-American Conference and the Southern Conference.
Conversely, it’s potentially very bad news for the “last four in” and the likes of St. John’s, Seton Hall and Arizona State. Think of it this way:
The MAC and the SoCon have combined to account for two spots in every NCAA tournament field since 2000. That’s precisely the way the overwhelming majority of mock brackets are portraying the 2019 field.
Of course, all that has to happen for the MAC and the SoCon to combine to get three bids is for either Wofford or Buffalo to fail to win their conference tournament. If they should both fall short of a conference tournament title, then we are, in all likelihood, looking at four bids going to just those two leagues.
The MAC and the SoCon aren’t the only leagues that could shrink the bubble. We saw the Atlantic 10 take a bid away from the field of 68 last year when Davidson earned automatic qualifier status.
There’s a chance the conference could do so again in 2019. Virginia Commonwealth looks relatively safe as an at-large, and if this is correct, an A-10 tournament title won by any team but the Rams would take away still another at-large bid.
The bottom line is that, to the extent that we think Buffalo, Wofford and VCU are safely in the NCAA tournament, the stakes riding on whether they all win their conference tournaments increase accordingly. Perhaps all three of those switches — along with ones in the Pac-12, Mountain West and every other such switch nationally — really will flip in the direction that does not shrink the bubble.
In that case, the bubble will conform in size to the way it’s most commonly being described right now. If not, however, teams that are shown at that time as “last four in” are going to be in a world of hurt.
Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble right now:
Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 25 teams
Locks: 28 teams
The bubble: 31 teams for 15 available spots
Should be in: 7 teams
Work to do: 24 teams
ACC | Big 12| Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others
Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech
Should be in: Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson
Should be in
You know it’s March when Bubble Watch no longer uses the hopeful future tense with regard to seed-improvement possibilities. Syracuse took its swings at Duke, North Carolina and Virginia in that order over a nine-day period, and came up 0-for-3. The upcoming visit to Clemson is, to be sure, a Quad 1 affair, but that outcome alone is not going to move the whole-season needle. No, short of a very big win or two at the ACC tournament, it appears the Orange really will get that No. 8 seed, or something close to it, that everyone has been talking about for a while now. In that capacity, Jim Boeheim’s men will be eminently well equipped to scare the wits out of some zone-phobic top seed in the round of 32. That should be fun to watch. (Updated: March 4)
Work to do
Bubble Watch wonders whether NC State’s position might be a little less solid than it appears. Granted, Selection Sunday’s almost here and the Wolfpack are appearing in mock brackets as a No. 10 seed, eight or even 10 teams away from true peril at the cut line. Plus, Kevin Keatts’ team is 20-9 overall and 8-8 in the ACC. That all looks and sounds like a tournament team, and a 2-0 finish at home against Georgia Tech and on the road at Boston College will, one presumes, finish the job. That said, NC State is just 2-8 in Quad 1 games, with the wins coming at home against Auburn and on a neutral floor against Penn State. What if a team with that profile loses at BC, and bows out early in the ACC tournament? Keep winning, Wolfpack. (Updated: March 2)
Bubble Watch is no longer certain Clemson can win an at-large bid based on regular-season exertions alone. It may instead require at least one neutral-floor victory against a big name in the ACC tournament. True, winning on the road at Notre Dame, at home against Syracuse or even both would be great. But neither of those games qualifies as Quad 1 and even winning both would leave the Tigers 19-12 overall, 9-9 in the ACC and 1-9 in Quad 1 games. Those numbers fairly scream “just missed.” It appears Brad Brownell’s group may have work to do in Charlotte later this month. (Updated: March 2)
Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor
Work to do: Texas, Oklahoma, TCU
Work to do
For a team that’s 16-14, Texas is arousing little notice or controversy with its projected No. 10 or even 9 seed. Possibly that’s a tribute to a profile that includes wins on a neutral floor over North Carolina and in Austin over Purdue. Perhaps the Longhorns are additionally getting bonus points for closing in on that kind of seed as Kerwin Roach II continues to sit because of a suspension. In any event, the relative quiet may reflect a healthy instinct. Even after a 19-point loss at increasingly formidable-looking Texas Tech, Shaka Smart’s team is still outscoring the Big 12 by a healthy margin on a per-possession basis. Moreover, prior to the laugher in Lubbock, the Horns were showing up in the top 35 nationally in the NET rankings. This is not your ordinary 16-14 team, and a No. 10 or even 9 seed may end up being just about right. (Updated: March 4)
Pay no mind to that 7-10 record in Big 12 play. For one thing, it was 5-10 just a few days ago, so the trend line for Oklahoma is positive. Besides, the Sooners are 19-11 for the season after beating Kansas 81-68 in Norman and putting the final nail in the coffin of the Jayhawks’ 14-year streak of Big 12 titles. Shown as a No. 9 or 10 seed heading into the game against KU, Lon Kruger’s group has beaten Wofford at home, taken care of Florida on a neutral floor and now stands at 4-9 in Quad 1 games. OU will finish the regular season at Kansas State, so going into the Big 12 tournament at 19-12 and 7-11 is a very real possibility. Nevertheless, there are plenty of teams below the Sooners on the correct side of the mock cut line. The committee will determine the real cut line, but, barring a major surprise, Oklahoma appears to be on solid ground. (Updated: March 5)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that major-conference records don’t matter in terms of selection, particularly not in 2019. But what if TCU finishes 6-12 in the Big 12? Is the committee really going to set that precedent? A team hasn’t won an at-large bid with fewer than eight wins in an 18-game conference schedule since 1998. The Horned Frogs were thought to be a No. 11 seed going into their 64-52 defeat at home to Kansas State. TCU has lost six of its past seven, is now 6-11 and closes with a road game at Texas. The profile ace in the hole for Jamie Dixon’s team is its season sweep of Iowa State. We may have the opportunity to see just how much weight that carries. (Updated: March 4)
Locks: Marquette, Villanova
Work to do: St. John’s, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Creighton, Xavier
Work to do
St. John’s has lost three of its past four, and it’s time to ask what the consequences might be if Chris Mullin’s group continues this tendency and comes up short on the road at Xavier in the last game of the season. In that case the Red Storm would finish the season at 20-11 overall and 8-10 in Big East play. The Johnnies of course posted a 3-1 record against Marquette and Villanova, but this same team was also swept in its season series against both Providence and DePaul. In fact, the Johnnies’ record against Quads 2 and 3 (6-6) is worse than their record against Quad 1 (6-4). It’s an odd profile that has caused no small degree of confusion. A vocal minority of mock brackets, for example, isn’t forecasting any particular bid jeopardy for St. John’s. Bubble Watch isn’t so sure about that in the event of a loss in Cincinnati. (Updated: March 3)
The Pirates are hanging on for dear life after losing 77-71 in double-overtime at Georgetown when Kevin Willard’s team entered the evening listed as one of the last four teams in the field. But here’s the thing with Seton Hall. Unlike many of their equally desperate peers, the Pirates, though 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big East, have the perfect opportunity to play their way into the field. SHU finishes with home games against Marquette and Villanova. Winning one or especially both of those would be a fine bookend to place alongside the victory at Maryland and, of course, the one at Madison Square Garden over Kentucky. (Updated: March 2)
It’s not going to be easy for the Hoyas. Sitting at 18-11 overall and 8-8 in the Big East looks eminently respectable, as do the three Quad 1 wins. But Georgetown is just 8-5 this season against Quads 2 and 3, and the team’s NET ranking going into the 77-71 double-overtime win at home over Seton Hall was in the 70s (which may, if the new metric turns out to be used a bit like the old one was, turn out to be prohibitively low). It won’t be easy, but Bubble Watch can at least envision a path that starts with winning at DePaul and at Marquette and ends with beating either the Golden Eagles or Villanova in the Big East tournament semifinals. Go to it, Hoyas.
Welcome back, Bluejays. This category is named “work to do,” and there is much work to be done to get you into the tournament field. Still, if you had to pick one promotional event with which to launch your assault on the bracket, picking up your third Quad 1 victory of the season in the form of a 66-60 road win at Marquette is definitely an excellent choice. For the balance of the Big East season, Greg McDermott’s team was a pin cushion for the cruelest of the hoops gods, as the Bluejays lost overtime games not only to the aforementioned Golden Eagles but also to Villanova and Seton Hall. Now, however, CU is starting to even those accounts. Creighton wraps up the season with home games against Providence and DePaul, and two wins there would send the men from Omaha into the Big East tournament at 18-13 overall and 9-9 in-conference. The Bluejays have a shot. (Updated: March 3)
Xavier played itself into this conversation by winning five in a row, capped off by a road victory over St. John’s in Queens. The Musketeers aren’t out of the running because they then lost one game at Butler, but it doesn’t help matters, either. The best-case scenario for Travis Steele’s men is now to win at home in the rematch against the Red Storm and thus wrap up the regular season with three Quad 1 wins at 17-14 overall and 9-9 in the Big East. That is a classic “work to do” look heading into the Big East tournament. (Updated: March 5)
Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland
Should be in: Iowa
Work to do: Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana
Should be in
At the risk of overreacting to events, Iowa isn’t doing its seed any favors. A team that Bubble Watch has been trying to move to a lock for over a week now has instead lost back-to-back games to Ohio State (on the road) and Rutgers (in Iowa City) by a combined margin of 34 points. Prior to the Quad 3 loss to the Scarlet Knights, the Hawkeyes were 17-0 against Quads 2, 3 and 4. Fran McCaffery missed the evening because of a two-game suspension stemming from a postgame tirade in Columbus directed at referee Steve McJunkins, and perhaps that had some connection to Iowa’s sleepy performance on senior night. In any event, something in the vicinity of the No. 7 seed the Hawkeyes were looking at might now require additional wins, starting with upcoming visits to Wisconsin and Nebraska. (Updated: March 2)
Work to do
Before Chris Holtmann’s team went on the road to play Purdue, Bubble Watch flung out the following reckless assertion: “Ohio State still has three challenging games yet to play (on the road against Purdue and Northwestern and at home against Wisconsin), but the worst-case scenario going into the Big Ten tournament is now 18-13 overall and 8-12 in-conference. With those 18 wins, including the one at Cincinnati, that should get the job done even in the worst case.” Now the Buckeyes appear intent on testing this very hypothesis. The short-handed OSU team that played without Kaleb Wesson (who was suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation) and lost 86-51 at West Lafayette is indeed a candidate to lose two more times. In any event, the No. 9 seed Ohio State was carrying in mock brackets before the blowout at Mackey Arena is looking a bit lofty. (Updated: March 2)
Amir Coffey is the first Golden Gopher to score 30 points or more in back-to-back games since Vincent Grier did it in 2004-05. The 6-foot-8 junior’s explosion has coincided with badly needed wins for Minnesota at Northwestern and, most critically, at home against Purdue. The temptation is to say a bid is now secure (the Boilermakers entered the game in Minneapolis at No. 11 in the NET rankings), but, at a minimum, Richard Pitino’s team will want to keep pushing. The game at Maryland will be no easy task, obviously, and a loss there leaves the Gophers at 19-12 and 9-11 in the Big Ten. The wins at home against Purdue and on the road at Wisconsin are beautiful, and Minnesota’s in much better shape than a week ago. That said, the bubble can shrink at any time and there’s still basketball to be played. (Updated: March 5)
With still another thrilling win over Michigan State and a season sweep against the Spartans, Indiana is back in the bubble discussion. The Hoosiers can claim six Quad 1 wins on the year, and while they also have suffered nine Quad 1 defeats, the high number of quality victories is sufficient for IU’s profile to at least get a hearing “in the room,” as they say. If (and it’s no small if) Archie Miller’s men win at Illinois and at home against Rutgers, they’ll finish the season at 17-14 overall and 8-12 in the Big Ten. That could get the job done. (Updated: March 2)
Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State
Should be in
After the disastrous loss at Cal, Mike Hopkins’ team returned to form with a 62-61 win at Stanford. Specifically, the Washington defense resurfaced after its borderline shocking disappearance in Berkeley, of all places. The Huskies will now wrap up their season with home games against Oregon and Oregon State, meaning UW’s final mark in a down Pac-12 is likely to be 15-3 or even 16-2. That conference record (headlined by Quad 1 wins at Oregon and at Colorado) plus a decent showing in the conference tournament could translate into a No. 8 seed, give or take a seed line. (Updated: March 3)
Work to do
Here’s a Bubble Watch fun fact: Arizona State is the only team in the “lock,” “should be in” or “work to do” categories that has lost games in all four quadrants. Yes, the losses at home to Princeton and to Washington State qualify as Quad 4 defeats, and indeed, the Sun Devils are a notably so-so 10-4 against Quads 3 and 4. See, this is the kind of thing we miss with our single-minded focus on just one of the quadrants. Now, let’s focus single-mindedly on Quad 1: ASU’s win in Tempe against Kansas as well as ones on a neutral floor against Mississippi State and Utah State might get this team a bid provided its NET ranking isn’t too controversially low. Going into Sunday night’s 74-71 win at Oregon State, that ranking was in the high 60s and Bobby Hurley’s group was on Joe Lunardi’s “last four in” list. It could work out as is, but if the Sun Devils want to feel safe, there’s work to do. (Updated: March 3)
Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn
Should be in: Ole Miss
Work to do: Florida, Alabama
Should be in
There needs to be a name for the paradox in which Ole Miss finds itself right now. The Rebels are in zero danger, but 40 more minutes could change that. Kermit Davis and his men played a tough game at home against Kentucky and came up just short, 80-76. Ole Miss went into that contest expecting a No. 9 or a 10 seed, which, again, conveys that there’s little or no danger lurking in the vicinity. All true enough, but what if the Rebels were to lose their final game of the season at Missouri? You would then be looking at a 19-12 team that had lost five of its past six. To be sure, wins on the road at Auburn and at Mississippi State are a great wind to have at your back, the kind that will land you in the field of 68. Still, Bubble Watch is open to the possibility that it could end up being a closer call than we think. (“The paradox of the unforeseen close call”? Too wordy. Bubble Watch will keep at it.) (Updated: March 5)
Work to do
Everyone knew Georgia was due. The Bulldogs had played LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Auburn into the 40th minute and lost every time in consecutive games leading into the road date at Florida. This time, however, the Bulldogs prevailed 61-55. It’s the worst loss on the Gators’ profile, and just their second Quad 3 defeat of the season. But Mike White’s guys can expunge the memory of this game with a win at home against LSU, or perhaps one at Kentucky. Besides, Florida has some room to spare, having gone into the game with UGA predicted to be a No. 9 seed. It’s a bad loss, but a season sweep against Will Wade’s Tigers would balance that quite nicely. (Updated: March 2)
Sometimes a win that everyone says is “huge” in real time actually turns out to be even more important. Alabama’s victory at home in January over Kentucky is looking that way in March. Take away those 40 minutes, and you’re left with a Crimson Tide profile where the best win and indeed only Quad 1 victory is the game where Avery Johnson’s guys prevailed at home against Mississippi State. That’s a pretty good notch to have on your belt, sure, but the UK win has lifted the Tide to a different part of the discussion entirely. Even so, at 17-13 overall and 8-9 in the SEC, Alabama now might be playing to stay in the field of 68. A final Quad 1 chance at Arkansas awaits before the Tide play in what will be a loaded conference tournament. No fewer than seven SEC teams are currently ensconced in the top 50 of the NET rankings. Quad 1 opportunities will abound in Nashville. (Updated: March 5)
Locks: Houston, Cincinnati
Work to do: UCF, Temple
Work to do
There was already a lot to like about a UCF team that had just one bad loss (Florida Atlantic in November) even if it didn’t have any really great wins. Now, that second need has been addressed. The Knights went on the road and did what no other team’s been able to do in 2018-19: Johnny Dawkins’ men won 69-64 at Houston. Collin Smith picked a nice moment to score a season-high 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting inside the arc. The victory marks, kind of, UCF’s first Quad 1 win of the season. (The win at South Florida was Quad 1 when it happened, but not for long.) The Knights will doubtless carry a higher seed than their previous spot on the No. 11 line when the next set of mock brackets is released. (Updated: March 2)
This situation is becoming clearer and clearer: Temple won a home game against Houston, period. That, it appears, might be more or less everything the Owls have to show on their profile. True, Fran Dunphy’s team will get one more Quad 1 chance when it hosts UCF in the last game of the season. In the meantime, however, the Owls have to hope their signature victory is enough to get it done, a wish that, to be clear, was done no favors by the Knights’ even more impressive win on the Cougars’ home floor. (Updated: March 3)
Locks: Gonzaga, Nevada, Buffalo
Should be in: Wofford, VCU
Work to do: Utah State, Belmont, Murray State, Saint Mary’s, Furman, Lipscomb
Should be in
The Southern Conference has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament, but there’s a first time for everything. Indeed, Wofford is fast becoming a foregone conclusion in this discussion because the Terriers are 26-4, with the losses coming to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Mike Young’s team additionally owns Quad 1 wins at Furman, UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State. Finally, it’s worth noting Wofford won at South Carolina by 20, even though that shows up on the profile as a Quad 2 victory. In fact, the Terriers are a perfect 20-0 against Quads 2, 3 and 4. (Updated: March 2)
Mike Rhoades’ men went on the road and made short work of George Mason, holding the Patriots to just 36 points in a 67-possession game. That is one extreme yet nevertheless telling display of the kind of defensive mastery the Rams have been exhibiting during this 11-game win streak. At 24-6 overall and in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10, VCU has a No. 9 seed waiting for it later this month if mock brackets are to be trusted. There are no remaining Quad 1 opportunities for the Rams even in any potential A-10 tournament game, but the 54-53 win at Texas in December will continue to fill that need on the profile quite satisfactorily. (Updated: March 5)
Work to do
Utah State came really, really close to furnishing us with a very interesting conversation. After everyone had declared the coronation complete with the win at home against Nevada, the Aggies went on the road and needed overtime before escaping with a 100-96 win at Colorado State. Now Craig Smith’s team is indeed assured of at least a share of the regular-season Mountain West title. Projected as a No. 11 seed, USU really has only two remaining dangers. One is a shrinking bubble, and the other would be an ostentatiously early exit from the conference tournament in Las Vegas. But, assuming both of those disasters fail to materialize, Utah State does appear to be in good shape for its first bid since 2011. (Updated: March 5)
Belmont won a game in Pauley Pavilion against UCLA in December, but (fans in Westwood will want to stop reading right here) it’s the fact that Rick Byrd’s team swept a nonconference home-and-away series with local rival Lipscomb that really brightens a team sheet in 2019. Now the Bruins of Nashville are competing with Ja Morant and Murray State for Ohio Valley Conference supremacy. Morant likely has OVC Player of the Year locked up (Bubble Watch is out on a limb here), but in any other season voters would be taking a very long look at Dylan Windler and his prolific yet highly efficient scoring as a stretch-4. Belmont is variously shown as one of the last teams in or as lurking just outside the field in most projections, but at 25-4, Byrd’s guys have won 13 straight and are looking to run the table. (Updated: March 2)
The fact that Murray State hasn’t lost a game since January is rightly landing the Racers on a number of “first four out” lists. Ja Morant and his mates are now 25-4, and it has been about three weeks since any opponent even came within a single-digit margin of defeat against MSU. Still, it’s likely that an at-large will require a trip to the Ohio Valley Conference championship game. Bubble Watch will even further stipulate that Belmont will have to be the other team waiting there for the Racers, and that, no, losing a close game to Austin Peay or Morehead State wouldn’t do the trick. Instead, it’s probable that a Murray State team that’s 1-4 against Quads 1 and 2 but an immaculate 22-0 against Quads 3 and 4 will require the closest and most impressive title-game loss to the Bruins to get an at-large. Or, alternately, Matt McMahon’s team could just win the game and earn the auto bid. That’s a smart plan, as well.
Oh, what might have been. No, Bubble Watch doesn’t mean the 69-55 loss to Gonzaga in Moraga. The Bulldogs are looking more and more like a team of destiny, and Mark Few’s guys running the table in the West Coast Conference was never going to be a huge upset. Instead, think about the four-point losses Saint Mary’s recorded against Mississippi State and LSU in November and December, respectively. Either one of those games moved under the win column would make this a much stronger profile for the Gaels. As it is, however, the single Quad 1 win coming on the road at New Mexico State might not be sufficient to get SMC into the field of 68. That said, Saint Mary’s stays in Bubble Watch due to its beautiful NET ranking and a collective and incorrigible ignorance in the world outside the committee room concerning what exactly that will mean in year one of the new metric’s reign. (Updated: March 2)
It’s a mark of how strong the Southern Conference is in 2019 that Furman can lose at home to Wofford and, at 24-6 overall, still be in the discussion for an at-large bid. No, the Paladins aren’t “should be in” material just yet, but Bob Richey’s group does have that memorable Quad 1 win at Villanova. Alas, that win (plus a sweet NET ranking in the 40s) may form the sum total of the case for Furman on Selection Sunday. The Dins were done no particular favors by the SoCon tournament pairings, which will offer up the “chock full of Quad 1 goodness” Terriers only in a title game. By that point, naturally, the at-large point is moot. (Updated: March 5)
After a costly Quad 3 loss at Florida Gulf Coast, Lipscomb finished its regular season with wins at home over NJIT and on the road over North Alabama. The Bisons show two Quad 1 wins on their profile, at TCU and at Liberty, and their NET ranking, even after the FGCU game, remained higher than those of teams like St. John’s, Seton Hall and Arizona State. Then again, that same ranking is also a few spots lower than the ones carried by fellow bubbly aspirant Saint Mary’s. Perhaps most daunting, however, is the fact that Lipscomb’s done with Quad 1 opportunities. Even another meeting with Liberty in the Atlantic Sun tournament will take place, if it occurs, on the home floor of the top-seeded Bisons and would thus qualify as Quad 2. Such a meeting, anyway, will take place in the title game, so securing an auto bid by winning three home games appears more likely on paper than does an at-large. Indeed, Lipscomb is already a third of the way there, having won its first-round A-Sun tournament game against Kennesaw State. (Updated: March 4)