Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Saturday’s games.
For the first time in years, the basketball played on Selection Sunday 2019 will have no impact on the number of available at-large bids. All of the bid thieves have already done their work, and the games yet to be played may change a seed or two but they won’t take away any bids from any bubble teams.
Afforded this unusual luxury, Bubble Watch can therefore go ahead right now and offer you everything you need to be an intelligent and prepared viewer as the actual bracket is revealed. Here is what we think we know in advance….
By far, the most important thing that Bubble Watch knows is that no one outside the committee room really knows anything. This cannot be emphasized strongly enough.
The actual men’s basketball committee will do just as it pleases, and anything offered by people outside the room is, by definition, speculation.
Fair enough, let us engage in some learned speculation: Bubble Watch is wrapping up this bubble season saying that, after Oregon stole a bid with its victory over Washington in the Pac-12 title game, there are 21 teams competing for eight available spots.
You will notice that, within the group of 21, there’s a contingent of four “should be in” teams: VCU, Oklahoma, Florida and Ohio State. Still another way of thinking about the heart of the bubble is therefore to envision 17 teams vying for just four spots.
What’s startling is that there’s such strong agreement among Joe Lunardi and other purveyors of mock brackets concerning which five teams are competing for four available bids. Those five teams are:
Which of these five will be left out? According to Lundardi, it’s NC State that will miss out because the Ducks took a bid off the board.
Now, could the larger mock-bracket consensus about the “group of five” be incorrect? Absolutely. Repeat, the committee will do whatever it wants.
Bubble Watch isn’t offering a reading of the committee’s minds. (That’s Lunardi’s job description, and he does it well.) Instead, what’s offered here is one read on how surprised to be if and when the bracket doesn’t follow this particular script.
Note that there are no mid-majors represented on this list of five candidates for the last four spots in the field. While of course Wofford and Buffalo launched themselves far beyond mere bubble considerations (and Gonzaga is always Gonzaga), a selection that really did play out this way at the expense of UNC Greensboro and/or Belmont would be much discussed. Don’t be surprised by that discussion, either.
Here’s our final projection of the bubble:
Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 20 teams
Locks: 39 teams
The bubble: 21 teams for 8 available spots
Should be in: 4 teams
Work to do: 17 teams
ACC | Big 12| Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others
Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson
Work to do
A nail-biter of a win against Clemson was followed by a 20-point loss to Virginia, and so NC State’s run in the ACC tournament is finished. Did the Wolfpack do enough between November and March for an at-large bid? When Kevin Keatts’ men tipped off against the Cavaliers, they were ranked in the 30s on the NET and projected as a No. 11 seed that had possibly six teams beneath them in the field of 68. In other words, there could be room here for a safe landing, and, anyway, how much of a penalty is the committee going to impose for losing to the 29-2 Hoos? On the flip side, at 22-11, did NC State really beat the proverbial anyone this season? The best win on the profile is undoubtedly the 78-71 victory at home over Auburn in December. Past that, you’re looking at neutral-floor wins over Penn State and Clemson, and those are your three Quad 1 victories. Last, this team played an exceptionally soft nonconference schedule, statistically speaking. That fact’s already reflected in the NET ranking and in the quadrant records, but, who knows, maybe the committee will want to voice displeasure there. If not, however, the 19-2 record outside Quad 1 and particularly the NET ranking could be sufficient. (Updated: March 14)
After losing by a point to NC State in the ACC tournament, Clemson will be on a few “last four in” and perhaps more “first four out” lists. That’s preferable to “next four out,” certainly, but it’s still a precarious position to occupy in the middle of what is always a wild and tumultuous Championship Week. Even the slightest contraction of the bubble brought about by even a single bid thief, for example, could prove calamitous to the Tigers. Granted, at the end there could still be an at-large bid in the offing for Brad Brownell’s group, which finished its playing days showing up in the 30s in the NET rankings. Stranger things have transpired in the committee room, goodness knows. A more appropriate working assumption for Brownell and his men, however, is that their 1-10 record in Quad 1 games will need to be either completely overlooked by or somehow ingeniously smuggled past the committee in order for this team to get an at-large. (Updated: March 13)
Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor
Should be in: Oklahoma
Work to do: TCU, Texas
Should be in
The profile is set in stone for the Sooners. Shown as a No. 8 seed heading into a 72-71 loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament, Lon Kruger’s group has beaten Wofford at home, taken care of Florida on a neutral floor and stands at 4-10 in Quad 1 games. (For the record, the Sooners are 15-3 in Quads 2 and 3, and 0-0 against Quad 4.) The early exit from the conference tournament could drop Oklahoma to a double-digit seed, but, at 7-11 in the Big 12, the Sooners will gladly become the first team in over 20 years to earn an at-large with fewer than eight wins in an 18-game conference season. TCU might join that club as well. (Updated: March 13)
Work to do
The Horned Frogs closed out their profile with a bit of a three-game roller coaster. One game after playing their way onto the No. 12 or even 11 line in mock brackets with a big win at Texas, Jamie Dixon’s team blew a 21-point lead in the second half and nearly lost to Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. Fortunately for TCU fans, however, the Frogs escaped 73-70, only to bow out 70-61 to top-seeded Kansas State in the quarterfinals. At 20-13 with a season sweep of Iowa State and a road win in Austin to show in the Quad 1 trophy case, the Horned Frogs may have done enough for a bid. But it’s going to be close. (Updated: March 14)
Bubble Watch has waxed eloquent (naturally) on the subject of not writing off “work to do” teams just because we saw them lose their last game. In the specific case of the Longhorns, however, we’re confronted with a different question entirely. Is the committee going to give a bid to a team with a 16-16 record? That answer has never been “yes” before, whether with respect to the 16 losses or the .500 record. Words like “never” do not sound promising for UT’s tournament hopes. (Updated: March 14)
Locks: Marquette, Villanova, Seton Hall
Work to do: St. John’s, Creighton, Georgetown, Xavier
Work to do
St. John’s was projected as a No. 11 seed going into the Marquette game, and Bubble Watch supposes, if a few more bubble teams had won a few more games this week, there could be a discussion on whether this team is now in real trouble. Chris Mullin’s men were blown out 86-54 by Marquette, and the NET ranking attached to the Red Storm even going into a lopsided loss already was in the mid-60s. Now factor in that, in the eyes of the rating system, the Johnnies actually were playing a “home” game at Madison Square Garden when they were hammered by 32 points. Meaning this NET ranking could get ugly. Still, there also are two things going in this team’s favor. First, even after the debacle against the Golden Eagles in the Big East tournament, St. John’s is still 3-2 against Marquette and Villanova for the season. Second, well, the committee does have to get to 68 somehow. (Updated: March 14)
A two-point loss to Xavier in the Big East tournament probably leaves Creighton just short of the tournament field. The Bluejays covered a good deal of ground to make it that far, and a win against the Musketeers would have changed this picture considerably. Instead, CU has stopped playing at 18-14, leaving it difficult to point to any one facet of the profile that recommends Greg McDermott’s team at the expense of other at-large candidates. Creighton’s NET ranking is in the 50s, which is fine but not great, a description that also might apply to the 3-10 Quad 1 record and the 13-3 mark in Quads 2, 3 and 4. It was a spirited turnaround from 13-13, but it doesn’t appear to be quite enough. (Updated: March 14)
Georgetown gave this thing a run for its money when pretty much no one in mid-February saw the run coming, but it appears the Hoyas have come up short. Losing by 16 in your conference tournament quarterfinals (to Seton Hall) when you’re being shown as “next four out” material does not customarily presage receiving an at-large bid. The all-freshman backcourt of James Akinjo and Mac McClung gives the Hoyas all kinds of hope for the future, and who knew before the season that this would be the fastest-paced team in Big East play? Alas, it just wasn’t enough, apparently, to get into the field this time. (Updated: March 14)
Xavier needed that game against Villanova, and the Musketeers led for roughly 28 minutes of regulation before the Wildcats took the proceedings to overtime. You know the rest: Travis Steele’s men came up short, and the same can almost certainly be said for XU’s shot at at-large bid. At 18-15, the Musketeers are a respectable 4-9 against Quad 1 but just 8-6 against Quads 2 and 3. That, plus a lackluster NET ranking meant this team had to have that win against Nova. It almost happened. (Updated: March 15)
Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa, Minnesota
Should be in: Ohio State
Work to do: Indiana
Should be in
At best, Ohio State ended its conference tournament run at a time when the committee was listing it as one of the last four byes in the field. At worst, the Buckeyes were something closer to the last team in the field, period. You’re not on the committee and neither is Bubble Watch, so we don’t know where in that range OSU was located when the team lost 77-70 to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. If the former is closer to correct, Ohio State has a good shot at staying in the field of 68. If, on the other hand, the latter scenario is closer to the truth, then Chris Holtmann’s team is in trouble. Being the last team in the field before VCU fell in the Atlantic 10 tournament (very likely taking an at-large bid off the table) means, effectively, you’re no longer in the field. The Buckeyes will wait until Sunday to find out which of these two assumptions is valid. (Updated: March 15)
Work to do
It would be very much in keeping with an Indiana team that’s confounded every succeeding expectation, both good and bad, throughout the entirety of 2019 if the Hoosiers now not only got a bid but earned a high seed. Alas, it appears instead that this wild and always unpredictable IU roller coaster has finally reached its final turn. With the four-point loss to Ohio State, Archie Miller’s team sits at 17-15. The point of that season sweep of Michigan State, after all, was never that those two games alone would propel Indiana into the field of 68. Rather, the expectation was that two wins against the Spartans would give the Hoosiers the platform to show what they could really do. But a first-game exit from the Big Ten tournament might have brought this conversation to a close at last. (Updated: March 14)
Work to do: Arizona State
Work to do
The Sun Devils, who were being projected as a No. 10 seed, fell to Oregon in overtime in the Pac-12 semifinals, leaving Bobby Hurley’s team 22-10. ASU has played six Quad 1 games all season and won three of them. In theory, a team claiming a victory on a neutral floor over Mississippi State as its best win and with a NET ranking lower than that of any at-large candidate save only St. John’s might feel a bit uneasy right now. In practice, Arizona State isn’t competing with what should be a good profile. This group is instead competing with other bubble teams, and on that basis (and absent any more bid thieves) ASU might well earn an at-large bid. (Updated: March 15)
Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss
Should be in: Florida
Work to do: Alabama
Should be in
Mike White’s team reached the SEC semifinals, and gave Auburn a game for the full 40 minutes before falling 65-62. So, to repeat a sentiment voiced by Bubble Watch when this same team beat LSU one day earlier: That should do the job. True, the committee’s pulled surprises out of its hat before with teams that look like they’re in (ask USC about its 2018 Selection Sunday sometime), but that’s kind of the point with regard to the Gators. We have to invoke committee wackiness to come up with the best scenario for UF not receiving an at-large bid. At 19-15 with two wins over LSU and a beautiful NET ranking in the low 30s to its credit, Florida appears to be in good position for at least a No. 11 seed. (Updated: March 16)
Work to do
After a tense five-point win over OIe Miss, reality set in for Alabama in the form of an 18-point loss to Kentucky. The Wildcats had Reid Travis back in the lineup for the first time since mid-February and, even though the senior came off the bench, UK played like a team at full strength. As for the Crimson Tide, an 18-14 record with a 3-10 mark in Quad 1 games and a NET ranking in the high 50s will have to be sufficient for an at-large bid. Is that going to be enough? Speaking normatively, it feels a little thin. In comparative terms, however, those numbers are more or less in line with plenty of other bubble candidates. There has been no ticket punched here, to say the least, but Bubble Watch isn’t sure this matter is closed, either. (Updated: March 15)
Locks: Houston, Cincinnati, UCF
Work to do: Temple, Memphis
Work to do
An 80-74 loss to Wichita State in the American quarterfinals greatly increases Temple’s risk, but might not be enough to knock the Owls out of the field. Fran Dunphy’s men entered the contest being shown as a No. 11 seed, and, to be sure, Temple is now in a position where it needs to count every bid thief carefully. That said, a 23-8 record that includes a win over Houston, even with a 2-6 mark in Quad 1 contests, looks pretty strong next to some of the competing bubble profiles. (Updated: March 15)
You were the James Dean of Bubble Watch, Memphis. You lived fast, and left us far too soon. That was a nice try against Houston, and you played down the stretch like you knew you needed the win to have absolutely any chance at an at-large bid. Bubble Watch particularly appreciated both your defense (the Cougars didn’t score from the field in the last 9:56 of the game) and specifically your free throw defense (UH missed four straight free throws in the last 71 seconds of the contest). Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough: Houston 61, Memphis 58. (Updated: March 16)
Locks: Gonzaga, Nevada, Buffalo, Wofford, Utah State, Saint Mary’s, Murray State
Should be in: VCU
Work to do: Belmont, UNC Greensboro, Furman, Lipscomb
Should be in
The loss to Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals came at a moment when VCU was seen as heading for a No. 8 seed. Instead, Mike Rhoades’ team may well be wearing the visiting uniforms in the round of 64. The Rams wrapped up their profile at 25-7, a record built in no small part on a 12-game win streak that extended from January to March. VCU’s marquee win was long thought to be the road victory at Texas, but, with the Longhorns finishing the season at 16-6, that game has lost some of its previous luster. Still, the Rams went 2-2 in Quad 1, and a NET ranking in the 30s will continue to serve this team well in the committee room. (Updated: March 16)
Work to do
Now, the Bruins must wait. Ja Morant erupted for 36 points, and Murray State beat Belmont 77-65 in the Ohio Valley Conference title game. Rick Byrd’s team hopes the committee will put stock in the positives on this profile. There is, for starters, the NET ranking that was, at least when Belmont stopped playing, higher than those of Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana, TCU, Temple, Minnesota, Alabama, Arizona State and the entire Big East bubble (Creighton, St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown). The Bruins also were short-handed against the Racers and played without Nick Muszynski. Lastly, Belmont was 5-3 this season against Quads 1 and 2. Conversely, Byrd’s men won’t want the committee to linger on a negative like the 3-2 record against Quad 3. In any event, the Bruins profile is set, but the bubble will continue to shift in ways that will either help or hurt Belmont’s chances. (Updated: March 9)
For 35 minutes in the Southern Conference title game, the Spartans were the superior team against Wofford. Then the Terriers closed the contest on a 20-3 run, and Mike Young’s team captured the automatic bid 70-58. As for at-large possibilities, UNCG actually shares some profile similarities with Wofford. Like the Terriers, Wes Miller’s team has an excellent record (28-6) built on a small number of “good” losses, to LSU, Kentucky, Furman and, yes, Wofford (three times). The Spartans own two Quad 1 wins (at East Tennessee State and over Furman on the neutral floor in the SoCon semifinals), and Francis Alonso & Co. are an immaculate 24-0 in Quads 2, 3 and 4. Could all of the above plus the impressive showing against the Terrier juggernaut (21-0 against SoCon opponents this season) pry an at-large bid from the committee? In Bubble Watch’s estimation, it’s a long shot. (Updated: March 11)
The season is in the books for the Paladins after a 66-62 loss to UNC Greensboro in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals. Bob Richey’s team sits at 25-7 with the memorable win at Villanova to its credit. Alas, that win (plus a sweet NET ranking in the 40s) might form the sum total of the case for Furman on Selection Sunday. It’s not a bad case, but the Dins might have trouble standing out from the crowd. Saint Mary’s, to take one example, has a NET ranking that’s even sweeter than Furman’s. (Updated: March 10)
The Bisons show two Quad 1 wins on their profile, at TCU and at Liberty, and their NET ranking is in the 40s. Those are the elements that kept Casey Alexander’s group in the at-large discussion for weeks, but Lipscomb let its safest chance slip away when it lost 74-68 on its home floor to Liberty in the Atlantic Sun conference title game. An at-large now appears to be a long shot. (Updated: March 10)