Bauer’s Bubble Watch 1.0
With the Super Bowl now in the rear-view mirror, the sports spotlight shifts its focus onto hoops. College basketball season continues to creep toward the spectacle that is March Madness.
Though Selection Sunday is still more than a month away, teams are already making or breaking their cases for an invitation to the big dance. With the selection committee ready to preview March Madness by revealing their current top 16 teams on Saturday, let’s beat them to the punch with this season’s first edition of the Bubble Watch.
The Bubble Watch will place teams competing for a tournament bid into three different categories: locks, safe for now and the bubble.
Teams in the “lock” category are surefire bets to play in the tournament. Teams listed as “safe for now” can’t be quite as comfortable, but barring a collapse they should be in the field as well. The bubble teams will have work to do before they can ensure that their names will be called on selection day.
This prediction will analyze the contenders in each of the seven major conferences: ACC, American, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC, as well those vying for an at-large bid in the mid-major conferences.
Locks: Virginia, Duke
Safe for Now: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Florida State
Bubble: Syracuse, North Carolina State, Clemson
Virginia and Duke are so dominant that even if either does the unthinkable and drops every remaining game on the schedule, their current tournament résumés would still be enough to put them in.
North Carolina is almost there, too. A few more wins and the Tar Heels will be locked up. Virginia Tech and Louisville have also looked like contenders for top four seeds, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them become locks soon as well.
The line between “safe” and “bubble” previously split at Florida State, as the Seminoles got off to a rocky start in ACC play, but a key win at Syracuse last Tuesday has them feeling a lot more comfortable. As for Syracuse, the Orange have been hot and cold with their best win coming at Duke and their worst loss coming at home versus Old Dominion. There’s work to do before the committee considers Syracuse to have a quality résumé.
North Carolina State’s tourney hopes took a massive hit with an ugly 47-24 loss to Virginia Tech, but a nice win over Auburn and a quality overtime loss versus Virginia keeps the Wolf Pack on the right side of the bubble for now. The same cannot be said for Clemson, which has yet to earn a Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 win. The Tigers’ one saving grace is that they have yet to earn a bad loss, but there’s ground to be made up before Clemson has a serious case for a tournament bid.
Safe for Now: Houston, Cincinnati
Bubble: University of Central Florida, Temple
With only losing by four points to Temple, Houston lost the chance at a perfect record. It would take a collapse of epic proportions to keep the Cougars from finding their way into the tournament. Cincinnati is a bit more precarious, landing on the low end of the “safe for now” category due to only two quality wins (at Temple and versus Ole Miss on a neutral court).
That disastrous Quadrant 4 loss to East Carolina almost pushes the Bearcats to the bubble. Still, Cincinnati’s favorable NET ranking and predictive metrics place the Bearcats far above UCF and Temple, which only rank No.51 and No.77 in KenPom, and No. 43 and No. 54 in NET, respectively.
Though UCF has only four losses, the Knights will need a strong outing in conference play to keep their tournament hopes afloat. Temple is even further back, as the Owls have missed opportunities to grab Q1 victories against the likes of VCU, Villanova and Cincinnati. With very few opportunities for quality wins remaining on the schedule, all Temple can do is win and hope for some help.
Safe for Now: Villanova
Bubble: St. John’s, Seton Hall, Butler, Creighton, Georgetown
Marquette might be the most precarious lock, as predictive metrics are strangely unkind to the Golden Eagles, but with an 8-2 conference record and a slew of Q1 and Q2 wins over Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo, Marquette should have no trouble earning a tournament bid.
Villanova, meanwhile, is kicking itself for losing to Furman and Penn. If not for those flaws on an otherwise excellent résumé, the Wildcats would join Marquette as the Big East’s second lock. Saturday’s clash of these two titans should be one for the books.
A fine line separates Marquette and Villanova from the rest of the Big East, with St. John’s looking like the strongest contender for a third bid. The Red Storm are responsible for both of Marquette’s conference losses, but not much else pops out on the résumé, especially after being throttled by Duke. They’ll need to enhance that 5-5 conference record to stay on the right side of the bubble.
Seton Hall, Butler and Creighton are all grouped in the same cluster without one really standing out from the rest. There’s a very good case to be made that if one can’t stick out from this group, then none should be included in the field. It should be a goal for each of these teams to try to outshine the other two over the next month.
Recently adding its name into the conversation is Georgetown, which, although a long shot, is making some noise. Still, being ranked No.79 in both NET and KenPom won’t be enough for an invite.
Safe for Now: Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa, Maryland
Bubble: Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska
Michigan is the Big Ten’s only lock. It looked likely that the rival Spartans would join the Wolverines, but three straight losses have Michigan State starting to sweat. Still, it’s hard to imagine this stutter continuing for the rest of the season. Purdue is on the verge of lock status too, but at only 16 wins, a little more work needs to be done before the Boilermakers get there.
Wisconsin has been on a tear lately after a so-so start to conference play. If they can maintain this momentum in the coming weeks, the Badgers will soon find themselves as a lock.
Iowa has been one of the season’s pleasant surprises, though the Hawkeyes have been inconsistent.
Maryland has also had its fair share of on days and off days, with the latter appearing more recently, as the Terrapins have lost three of their last five. It doesn’t get any easier, as Purdue, Michigan and Iowa headline the next part of the schedule.
Minnesota is a fascinating case, as solid wins over Washington and Wisconsin point to a tournament team, while blowout losses to Ohio State and Illinois say just the opposite. That NET ranking of No.52 is not especially impressive, so it may be an uphill battle going forward.
Ohio State, Indiana and Nebraska have all been plagued with losing streaks of at least five games. Ohio State and Indiana were able to stop the bleeding, but Nebraska is still falling, and with sky-high preseason expectations, it would be upsetting to see this collapse result in missing out on March Madness. Nebraska needs a turnaround, and fast.
Safe for Now: Kansas, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Kansas State
Bubble: TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas
The argument could definitely be made that Kansas is a lock, but the schedule says otherwise. At 6-4 in conference, the Jayhawks are off to their worst start since 1994. The Big 12 is as deep as ever, and with plenty of roadblocks remaining, not even Kansas is a lock yet.
Texas Tech and Iowa State are right at the top, and considering all three teams are within five spots of each other in both NET and KenPom, they’ll be grouped together as “almost locks.” Kansas State is just behind the curve due to some ugly non-conference losses, but at 7-2 in the Big 12 with wins against all three aforementioned teams, the Wildcats don’t have much catching up to do.
Baylor has come out of nowhere in the past month to put together a solid tournament case. The Bears will still need to make up for those disastrous non-conference losses, but they’re certainly in the mix.
Texas Christian University and Oklahoma have been in the conversation for a while, but those conference records (4-5 and 3-7, respectively) are not going to cut it. Considering the Horned Frogs lost to Texas Tech and Baylor by a combined 45 points, and the Sooners haven’t had a quality conference win since mid-January, these are two teams that need to get their acts together quickly.
Then there’s Texas, which always seems to be on the bubble. That 13-10 record doesn’t look all too impressive, but four Q1 wins has the Longhorns staying alive. All things considered, there’s a very real possibility that the Big 12 gets 80 percent of its teams into the big dance.
Safe for Now: Washington
Bubble: Arizona State, Arizona
The last time a power conference was this weak may have been the Pac-12 in 2012. That year, only Colorado, which won the conference tournament, and California, which was sent to a play-in game, made the tournament. The conference’s regular season champion, Washington, was left out entirely. The Pac-12 is similarly fragile this season, as preseason favorites like Oregon and UCLA have fallen to the wayside.
At this moment in time, only three Pac-12 teams have a serious shot at receiving a tournament invite, and Washington is the clear-cut favorite. At 18-4 overall and 9-0 in conference, the Huskies have pieced together an impressive season.
Arizona State and Arizona are the only other teams with a pulse, and each are squarely on the bubble. Arizona State boasts some impressive wins over Kansas and Mississippi State, but losses to Vanderbilt, Utah and Princeton have kept the Sun Devils on the teetering point. Arizona is on the low end of the bubble and in danger of falling out after hideous back-to-back losses at USC and UCLA. Neither predictive metrics nor the NET rankings help the Wildcats’ case, so a strong finish in conference play is required to keep them in the conversation.
Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky
Safe for Now: Louisiana State University, Mississippi State, Auburn
Bubble: Ole Miss, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas
Much like Virginia and Duke in the ACC, Tennessee and Kentucky seem to stand head and shoulders above the competition. Both are surefire selections come tournament time.
LSU is looking like a solid pick as well, but last week’s upset loss versus Arkansas proves that the Tigers are not quite on the same level as Tennessee and Kentucky. Mississippi State and Auburn join LSU in the “safe for now” category, though with a little less certainty due to slightly weaker résumés.
The bubble begins with the Rebels, who have been in a bit of a slump since mid-January. Quality wins over Auburn, Mississippi State and Baylor keep Ole Miss in the field for now.
Alabama has been all the over the place too, with wins over Kentucky and Mississippi State alongside losses to Northeastern and Georgia State. The Crimson Tide must tread carefully for the next month.
Florida and Arkansas are currently on the outside looking in, and with challenging schedules ahead, it may be difficult for either team to sneak in the tournament. But this is college basketball, anything is possible.
Safe for Now: Gonzaga, Nevada, Buffalo
Bubble: Virginia Commonwealth University, Wofford, Lipscomb, Utah State, San Francisco
Though Gonzaga, Nevada and Buffalo have been the top mid-major teams all season long, their schedules make it difficult for any of them to become a lock so quickly. If Gonzaga were to lose to the rest of its games, would the Bulldogs make the tournament? Probably not. Of course, that’s just a hypothetical, and these three teams should be feeling comfortable with their current status. Give it time, and it’s likely all three will become locks.
The Atlantic 10 is having a down year, and it seems like VCU could be the only team to earn an at-large bid should worse come to worst. The Rams have been sitting on the edge of the bubble all season long, and they may stay there all the way through.
Utah State and San Francisco would make for interesting at-large selections, and predictive metrics favor these teams, but one would have to wonder if the committee would feel comfortable including two Mountain West or West Coast Conference teams.
As for mid-major conference leaders that could make a splash should they falter in their conference tournaments, look no further than Wofford and Lipscomb. Wofford has yet to lose to a non-tournament team, Lipscomb has a great road win at TCU on its résumé, and both teams are 19-4 with flawless conference records. If the Terriers and Bisons keep up this trend, the committee will have to put these teams in at-large consideration.
DJ Bauer is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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