Bauer’s Bubble Watch 6.0
We’re in the homestretch. Selection Sunday is now less than a week away, and soon, televisions and computer monitors across the nation will be filled with the spectacle that is March Madness, as thousands of fans will watch in awe to see whether or not their bracket has already been busted.
Before the madness can ensue, there’s still a week of conference tournament zaniness to be had, as teams on the bubble will be making their final pushes to show the selection committee why they deserve an invitation to the big dance.
A handful of teams have already secured their spots in March via the automatic bid, earned by winning the conference tournament championship game. Others don’t have that security blanket and will be hoping to hear their name called via at-large invite.
As we do every week with Bauer’s Bubble Watch, we’ll assess each of these at-large contenders by evaluating their tournament résumés, composed of predictive and performance metrics, quadrant wins and losses, various selection committee statistics and other useful numbers. Those numbers will tell us whether a team merits the designation of “lock,” “safe for now” or “bubble”: our three categories, listed in descending order of safety.
This week, there are two more locks and six more bubbles popped, but there’s no more time for introductions. This is March, and this is 2020’s sixth edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch.
Locks: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Virginia
Safe for now:
Bubble: NC State
No doubt about it now: the defending champs will be returning to the postseason. Saturday’s victory over Louisville secures Virginia into the bracket and officially dispels all worry of the ACC being a three-bid league.
The only question for the ACC is whether or not it can get a fifth representative in March. The answer lies in how NC State finishes the year. While the Wolfpack ended the regular season on a positive note by knocking off Wake Forest, they still have work to do. Their metric rankings of No. 54 in NET, No. 51 in KenPom and No. 54 in SOR present a very much borderline case for inclusion in the field. An early exit in the ACC tournament would almost certainly send NC State to the NIT for the second-straight year. The Wolfpack will need to win one, maybe two games to show the selection committee that they merit serious discussion for an at-large bid.
Notre Dame’s bubble finally pops after blowing a late 13-point lead to Florida State last Wednesday. The Fighting Irish will be joined in the NIT by Syracuse and Clemson, the latter of which was making an interesting bubble case a week ago. Then the Tigers dropped their final two regular-season games to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. That’s college basketball for you.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Wichita State, Cincinnati, Memphis
It’s the same three AAC teams on the bubble that have been there most of the past month. Like usual, the conference’s best case for a second representative is Wichita State, as the Shockers have the metrics of a team that merits inclusion (No. 41 in NET, No. 39 in KenPom, No. 31 in KPI, No. 33 in SOR, etc.). But the lack of quality wins is really killing them. Their only Q1 victories are over teams ranked 59th and 61st in NET. Is that going to cut it? Maybe not. The Shockers will need a deep run in the conference tournament to feel any veil of safety.
A quick glance at the numbers shows that Cincinnati (No. 45 in KenPom, No. 28 in KPI, No. 47 in SOR) is in nearly the same boat as Wichita State; that is, until one sees the Bearcats’ four Quadrant 3 losses. Those losses aren’t going away any time soon. The saving grace is that the Bearcats own a head-to-head sweep of Wichita State and a season split with Houston, but that may not be enough for the selection committee to give them the go-ahead. It is worth noting that the Bearcats have won the AAC tournament each of the past two years. You better believe that they’re eyeing up a third-straight championship.
It’s looking like it’s a case of too little, too late for Memphis. The Tigers have won four of the last six, but their skids in late January and mid-February appear to have sunk their metrics to a point beyond recovery. Even a strong showing in the conference tournament would probably be too little. Auto-bid and NIT could be the Tigers’ only options at this point.
It’s worth pointing out that Tulsa will share the AAC regular season title despite not being on the bubble. What a bizarre conference.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Richmond, Rhode Island
What was once an unlikely dream is starting to look like it could be a reality. Richmond is looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011, and the Spiders are playing their way there. They’ve won nine of their last 10, most recently avoiding traps set by Davidson and Duquesne by defeating both foes by double-digit margins. Now sitting at 24-7 with the No. 37 NET and a modest 3-4 Q1 record, Richmond is right in the mix for an at-large bid. The only path for Richmond to feel completely safe is to win the A-10 tournament outright, but a respectable run in the postseason capped off with a loss to Dayton in the title game would probably have the Spiders on the right side of the bubble.
On the flip side, the tournament dream is quickly fading to black for Rhode Island. The Rams have won just three times in the past month, and two of those victories were over Q4 opponents. The metrics are quickly sinking, as now only KPI ranks above No. 45. Add those marks to a Q3 loss at Brown and just one Q1 victory over VCU in January, and it’s not looking pretty for Rhode Island. It’s possible that the Rams’ only path to March Madness is through the conference auto-bid.
Saint Louis is such a long shot that it probably doesn’t deserve to be mentioned as “on the bubble,” but the Billikens are making a compelling argument to get back there. Since being declared out of the running in mid-February, the Billikens have rattled off five straight wins heading into conference tournament play, one of those being Q1. While the at-large dream is likely still dead, a run to the A-10 championship game could have some experts thinking otherwise. Let’s put a pin in Saint Louis for now and check back in a few days.
Locks: Villanova, Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler, Marquette
Safe for now: Providence
What else can be said about Providence? Six straight victories have capped off the regular season and one of the most unbelievable ascents in reason history, so much so that the Friars are now safely in the field just a month after being completely out of the conversation. Those four Q3/Q4 losses might prevent Providence from ever becoming a lock, but with seven Q1 wins and a plethora of top-45 metrics on the Friars’ résumé, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world in which they are excluded from the tournament.
The only reason that Xavier doesn’t quite have the same safety as Providence is because of the Q1 record disparity (7-8 vs. 3-11), but it appears that the Musketeers are on the right side of the bubble. No major metric ranks worse than their BPI of No. 49, and their worst loss is a Q2 defeat at Wake Forest back in December. A first-round exit from the Big East tournament via loss to DePaul is probably the only way that Xavier could earn consideration for being left out of the field. Better win that game to remove any doubt.
It’s time to put Georgetown to bed. The Hoyas’ once-promising season has turned to ash with six consecutive losses to close out the year, putting Patrick Ewing’s squad at 15-16 overall and 5-13 in conference. Even an appearance in the NIT is not a lock. Should the committee abide by its old standards of “must be .500 to participate,” the Hoyas could be postseason-less in March.
Locks: Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Penn State, Illinois
Safe for now:
Bubble: Indiana, Rutgers, Purdue
That’ll do, Illini. Illinois’ victory over Iowa on Sunday removes any inch of doubt. The Fighting Illini will be back in March Madness for the first time since 2013.
A big missed opportunity keeps Indiana on the bubble. The Hoosiers had the chance to put a Q1 win over Wisconsin on the team sheet, but a 16-5 run by the Badgers to close the game ended any talk of that. While most metrics point to the Hoosiers as a tournament team, one has to wonder if their low NET (No. 60) and 4-8 record down the stretch will cause the selection committee to have second thoughts. It would be in the Hoosiers’ best interest to defeat Nebraska in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament to preserve the résumé from any further damage.
Rutgers might be dancing for the first time in three decades. The Scarlet Knights took down Maryland at home on Tuesday then clawed out a monumental road victory over Purdue in overtime on Saturday. That win puts the Scarlet Knights at 19-11 overall and gives them their second win away from the RAC this season. Still, a 2-10 record outside of Piscataway is nothing to feel comfortable about. A win over Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tournament would go a long way.
Is it time to close the book on Purdue? Perhaps. The Boilermakers are 16-15, and a loss of any kind in the conference tournament would bring the second column’s count up to 16. No at-large team has ever had 16 losses entering the tourney. Then again, no 16-loss tournament contender has ever had all three main predictive measures in the top 25. But when you reel in the big picture, it’s easy to see that the Boilermakers’ postseason hopes are on thin ice. Like a handful of teams mentioned above, it might be auto-bid-or-bust time for Purdue.
Any talk of the Big Ten being a 12-bid league is officially dead with Minnesota being removed from the watch. At 14-16, the best that the Golden Gophers can finish without winning the automatic bid is 18-17. Needless to say, that’s not going to cut it.
Locks: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia
Safe for now:
Bubble: Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas
Oklahoma may have just saved its season. Following two résumé-boosting wins over West Virginia and Texas Tech, the Sooners appeared to be back on a downswing after being beat by Texas at the buzzer. What seemed like a surefire loss at TCU was ready to sink them even lower, but, incredibly, Oklahoma came back from 19 down in the second half to win in Fort Worth: a victory commanded by Austin Reaves’ 41 points. Some aspects of the team sheet still leave questions unanswered for the Sooners, but they definitely seem to be a lot safer than many other bubble teams right now.
It’s time for Texas Tech to panic. What once seemed like a guaranteed invite to the big dance has vanished in thin air thanks to a four-game slide to end the regular season. The No. 22 NET may save the Red Raiders from being on the outside looking in, but other numbers (No. 64 in KPI, No. 56 in SOR, 3-10 Q1 record) are doing their best to drag them to the NIT. Texas Tech needs to stop the bleeding with a win in the Big 12 tournament before it’s too late to recover.
Three weeks’ work of climbing out of bubble hell, vaporized in an instant. This is the story of the Texas Longhorns, which were deemed toast by many experts after a blowout loss at Iowa State on Feb. 15. While Shaka Smart’s crew has done a fine job digging itself out of a sizable hole, all that effort could be for naught following the Longhorns’ stunning 22-point defeat to Oklahoma State on senior night. Thursday brings the Big 12 quarterfinal matchup between Texas and Texas Tech. There may be no bigger remaining bubble game in any conference.
Like Saint Louis, another team not on the bubble but one to keep an eye on is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys probably can’t earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament without taking home the Big 12’s auto-bid, but you should take a look at their résumé anyway. You may be surprised.
Locks: Oregon, Colorado, Colorado
Safe for now: USC
Bubble: Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA
The predictive metrics may not like USC, but the bubble watch does. The Trojans have flipped a concerning 2-5 spell in February into a 3-0 regular-season finish, taking down Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA in the process. The Trojans now enter the conference tournament with a 22-9 record, rising NET and performance metric scores, and four Q1 wins. Even a loss in the quarterfinals should keep the Trojans in the field of 68.
A concerning slide for Arizona State finally stopped with a win over Washington State on Saturday, but that victory isn’t enough to keep the Sun Devils from falling back into bubble territory. Yes, the Sun Devils possess five Q1 wins and no loss worse than Q2, but the numbers are so unkind to the Sun Devils that they merit a good bit of worry (No. 52 in NET, No. 64 in KenPom, No. 68 in BPI, No. 65 in Sagarin, No. 43 in SOR). A premature loss in the Pac-12 tournament could send the Sun Devils to Dayton for the third-straight year.
An 0-2 road trip in Oregon ends Stanford’s season on a sour note, but the Cardinal’s bubble hopes are far from dead. Four Q1 wins and the No. 30 NET are the standout pieces of their résumé, and a KenPom ranking of No. 38 isn’t bad either. But the Cardinal are likely eyeing a trip to Dayton or a No. 1 seed in the NIT at the present moment. They’ll need one more win at minimum before Selection Sunday arrives.
The climb couldn’t last forever. UCLA’s seven-game winning streak and hopes of winning the Pac-12 regular season were dashed by USC in the Galen Center on Saturday. That result is not the nail in the coffin for the Bruins’ tournament aspirations, but the résumé numbers (No. 76 in NET, No. 77 in KenPom, No. 93 in BPI, No. 59 in SOR) are very hard to ignore. Mick Cronin’s group likely needs to whip up another run: this time in the Pac-12 tournament.
Locks: Kentucky, Auburn, LSU
Safe for now: Florida
Bubble: Arkansas, Mississippi State
A lock appeared to be in Florida’s future with a big home win over Kentucky, but the Gators blew an 18-point second-half lead, and they’ll stay in “safe for now” territory as a result. A first-round SEC tournament exit is the only conceivable way that Florida could be left out of the big dance, and even that seems dubious. The elusive lock may come not with victory but with time.
The one thing that Arkansas couldn’t do down the stretch was lose to a team that it wasn’t supposed to, and it did just that. Wednesday’s win over LSU immediately goes out the window with Saturday’s loss at Texas A&M. The Razorbacks now enter the SEC tournament with metrics right on the borderline and a subpar 7-11 conference record. It’s hard to imagine Arkansas finding a spot in March without at least two wins in Nashville this week.
Mississippi State found a way to hang on to the bubble with Saturday’s stomping of Ole Miss, but the Bulldogs sure would have liked to flip Tuesday’s defeat to South Carolina into a win. The week’s split means no upward or downward movement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but remember, the Bulldogs are on the outside looking in right now. It’s time to get to work in the conference tournament.
It was a brutal week in the SEC elsewhere, as the bubble has burst for three tournament hopefuls. The most obvious choice is Alabama, as the Crimson Tide finished their season with a whimper, falling to Vanderbilt and Missouri by a combined 27 points. South Carolina is now eliminated too following a similarly bad loss to the Commodores.
Tennessee would have become a very interesting bubble case following the comeback victory at Rupp Arena on Tuesday, but last week’s watch explicitly stated that a 2-0 regular-season finish was required to remain on the page, and the Volunteers got smacked by Auburn at home in the season finale. That should put the lid on Tennessee’s season.
Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State, BYU, Utah State
Safe for now: Saint Mary’s
Bubble: East Tennessee State, Northern Iowa
For mid-major programs, the auto-bid is a heavenly gift, and Utah State became the weekend’s first recipient by downing San Diego State in the Mountain West conference tournament title game. That means that the Aggies become a lock via technicality, and they won’t have to sweat out an at-large invitation on Selection Sunday. For what it’s worth, former bubble watch candidate Liberty did the same thing too on Sunday afternoon.
Last week, we asked Saint Mary’s to win a game in the WCC tournament in order to jump ranks, and this week, the Gaels delivered, defeating Pepperdine in the quarterfinals. At this point, the only marks on the résumé that could keep Saint Mary’s out are a low Q1 win total and two Q3 losses, but the remaining numbers (No. 31 in NET, No. 37 in KenPom, No. 31 in SOR, etc.) should easily overshadow those results. A Gaels victory over BYU on Monday night would warrant an official lock.
East Tennessee State remains the most likely mid-major candidate to earn an at-large invite should it fail to win its conference tournament, but that idea has now been put into question. Previously, it was assumed that this hypothetical loss would be to either Furman or UNC Greensboro, resulting in an OK Q2 loss. But those teams were upset in the conference tournament, leaving a Q3 contest against 17-15 Wofford as the Buccaneers’ one remaining roadblock. Would a loss to the Terriers leave ETSU feeling as secure? Probably not. It’s likely for the best to just go the Utah State route and win the whole thing outright.
Northern Iowa now plays the excruciating waiting game. The Panthers failed to win the Missouri Valley conference tournament, falling to Drake in the quarterfinals. That’s a Q3 loss, which wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that it came by 21 points. The at-large option is UNI’s only way into the tournament now, and at the present moment, it appears rather unlikely. The Panthers may be 23-6 overall, but with just one Q1 win, three Q3 losses, the No. 48 NET and other unfavorable metrics, the tournament could be out of reach. All that UNI can do now is sit, watch and hope.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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