The boundaries of the bubble

Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through games of Wednesday.

It has long been the stated position of the NCAA men’s basketball committee that teams are not evaluated directly on metrics like straight wins and losses, conference records or their ranking on various rating systems.

Strictly speaking, that is indeed correct. Bubble Watch has spoken to enough people who have been “in the room” to know that no argument on behalf of this or that team was ever won by citing wins and losses or a straight ranking.

Nevertheless, tournament teams do, of course, tend to cluster within certain numerical boundaries … with a caveat. Simply being within those boundaries is itself no guarantee of a bid.

Still, knowing the location of these limits can help flag just how worried certain teams should be, and for which reasons, as we move closer to Selection Sunday.

Here’s how the boundaries of the 2019 bubble are looking at the moment:

Wins and losses:

Guess which team Bubble Watch is going to start with here? Indiana is earning serious consideration from the mock brackets despite an overall record of 15-14. That’s a lower number for wins than any other team in the “lock,” “should be in” or “work to do” categories, and it’s also a larger number of losses than any peer in that population except Texas (which also carries 14 losses).

Naturally, the Hoosiers can point to extenuating circumstances to explain this anomaly. IU swept Michigan State and also won home games against Marquette and Louisville. No team in memory with so many losses has nevertheless had wins this good.

NET ranking:

One of the most interesting questions raised by the NCAA adopting a new rating system is where, exactly, “the line” will fall in terms of teams that earn at-large bids vs. those that do not. Obviously, the committee isn’t just going to go down the NET rankings from Nos. 1 to 36 to populate the at-large field, but they didn’t do that with the RPI, either, and a line still emerged. It will take two or three selections, but we’ll eventually get a sense of that cut-off for the NET as well.

The lowest ranked team found in Bubble Watch is currently Georgetown, which clocks in at No. 72 on the NET. The Hoyas do have competition for this distinction, however. Xavier (No. 70) and Arizona State (68) are both lurking in this same numerical vicinity.

Then again, ranking extremities are a two-edged sword. The highest-ranked team that’s not showing up in mock brackets is Penn State at No. 48. (Why are the Nittany Lions getting no love? See the previous category, “wins and losses.” Penn State is 13-17.)

Conference record:

On the one hand, talking about conference records in terms of tournament selection is, according to some observers, completely irrelevant. On the other hand, a new rule should be enacted, according to other observers, so that tournament teams are required to have a conference record of .500 or better.

This contradiction appears to be coming to a head in 2019 thanks to teams like Indiana and TCU. The Hoosiers are 6-12 in Big Ten play, the Horned Frogs are 6-11 in the Big 12 and in any “normal” year we’d also be talking about Oklahoma being 7-10 in league play.

For 20 years up to and including the 2018 tournament, no team that won fewer than eight games in an 18-game conference schedule earned an at-large bid. However, it appears that this unwritten rule could be adjusted downward in 2019. We may be witnessing the redrawing of at least one bubble boundary.

Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble right now….

Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 25 teams
Locks: 29 teams
The bubble: 30 teams for 14 available spots
Should be in: 7 teams
Work to do: 23 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

Syracuse Orange

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

NC State Wolfpack

Not only did NC State lose 63-61 at home to Georgia Tech, NC State lost at home to a shorthanded version of Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were playing without Curtis Haywood, who’s been sidelined with an ankle injury. Nevertheless, Josh Pastner’s team got the win. Conversely, Kevin Keatts’ men got the Quad 3 loss. Now the Wolfpack finish the season with a road game at Boston College that suddenly appears fraught with peril. NC State is 20-10 and seemed to be ticketed for a No. 10 seed, but this same team is just 2-8 in Quad 1 games. The Wolfpack’s non-conference schedule was rather famously soft, and, if the committee still wishes to flex those particular schedule-preferring muscles, NC State clearly gives them the best opportunity to do so. The March outlook has become far more uncertain in Raleigh. (Updated: March 7)

Clemson Tigers

After watching Clemson barely escape with a 64-62 win at Notre Dame, Bubble Watch is less certain than ever that the Tigers 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. Yes, winning at home against Syracuse in the season finale would be great. But that’s not going to be a Quad 1 game, and even a win leaves Clemson 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 7)

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor
Work to do: Texas, Oklahoma, TCU

Work to do

Texas Longhorns

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)

Oklahoma Sooners

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)

TCU Horned Frogs

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)

Big East

Locks: Marquette, Villanova
Work to do: St. John’s, Seton Hall, Creighton, Xavier, Georgetown

Work to do

St. John’s Red Storm

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)

Seton Hall Pirates

Things did not look especially promising for Seton Hall’s tournament chances when the Pirates trailed Marquette 64-55 at home with 4:40 left in the game. After all, Kevin Willard’s men tipped off their game against the Golden Eagles knowing they were on a good many “last four in” lists, and that their NET ranking was one of the lowest in the bubble field. But then SHU closed on an 18-0 run and recorded a badly needed 73-64 Quad 1 win. Myles Powell scored 34 points, and now he and his mates have a worthy “quality win” companion for the victories at Maryland and against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden. Seton Hall is not in the field yet, but, with Villanova coming to the Prudential Center for the season finale, the Pirates have an excellent shot at getting there. (Updated: March 7)

Creighton Bluejays

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 to Seton Hall. Now, however, CU is starting to even those accounts. Creighton got back into this discussion by winning a close game at Marquette, and the Bluejays followed that up with a six-point victory at home, in overtime no less, over Providence. If McDermott’s men wrap up the season with a win at home against DePaul, they’ll arrive at the Big East tournament at 18-13 overall and 9-9 in-conference. The Bluejays have a shot. (Updated: March 7)

Xavier Musketeers

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)

Georgetown Hoyas

It’s not going to be easy for the Hoyas. Sitting at 18-12 overall and 8-9 in the Big East may look bubbly enough, as do the three Quad 1 wins. But after a notably lopsided 101-69 loss at DePaul, Georgetown is just 8-6 this season against Quads 2 and 3. Moreover, the team’s NET ranking going into that game 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 to making this an interesting question, one that starts with winning at Marquette and ends with beating either the Golden Eagles or Villanova in the Big East tournament semifinals. Go to it, Hoyas. (Updated: March 7)

Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland
Should be in: Iowa
Work to do: Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana

Should be in

Iowa Hawkeyes

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

Ohio State Buckeyes

Without Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State is in free fall. The 6-foot-9 sophomore was suspended indefinitely and has now missed two games, the second of which was a 68-50 loss at Northwestern. Chris Holtmann’s team had already seen its projected bracket position slip from the No. 9 line to a No. 10 seed, but now OSU has larger concerns than mere seeding. The Buckeyes close their season at home against Wisconsin, and a loss there would leave Ohio State 18-13 overall and 8-12 in-conference. True, all season long this team has clung to its road win at Cincinnati in the first game of the season. That is indeed a great win, it’s just that OSU hasn’t been able to give that victory much in the way of company. The Buckeyes’ other Quad 1 wins were at Creighton, at Nebraska and at Indiana. That body of work may not be enough in the event of a loss to the Badgers and a quick Wesson-less exit from the Big Ten tournament. (Updated: March 7)

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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)

Indiana Hoosiers

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)


Lock: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State

Work to do

Arizona State Sun Devils

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

Ole Miss Rebels

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

Florida Gators

The final minute has not been kind to Florida over the past two games. First, the Gators lost by six points at home to Georgia. Then, with mock brackets showing them as a No. 9 or No. 10 seed, Mike White’s men took LSU to overtime in Gainesville before falling 79-78. The loss drops UF to 17-13, and the danger here is that this record could quickly flip to 17-14 with a loss at Kentucky in the season finale. Florida still has its road win at LSU as the heart and soul of its profile, of course, but that’s not preventing the Gators from sliding ever so gradually toward the precipice. Moreover, the fact that other teams are even closer to the present edge than UF doesn’t mean the ground itself can’t suddenly give way in the form of a bid thief or two. Florida could have work to do at the SEC tournament. (Updated: March 7)

Alabama Crimson Tide

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
Should be in: UCF
Work to do: Temple

Should be in

UCF Knights

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)

Work to do

Temple Owls

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

Wofford Terriers

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)

VCU Rams

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 Aggies

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 Bruins

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)

Murray State Racers

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.

Saint Mary’s Gaels

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)

Furman Paladins
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)

Lipscomb Bisons
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)

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