Bauer’s Bubble Watch 2.0
With another week of exciting college basketball action in the rearview mirror, it’s time for another edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch. Just like last week, we’ll be breaking down each team in contention for an at-large tournament bid by grouping them into the categories of “lock,” “safe for now” and “bubble,” each distinction being made by analyzing these teams’ tournament résumés via predictive metrics, quadrant victories and losses, strength of record, strength of schedule and a variety of other factors.
This week’s version of Bauer’s Bubble Watch comes days after the NCAA Tournament selection committee announced which 16 teams would make up the top four seeds should the postseason have begun on Saturday. Though the reveal had a few interesting seeding decisions and questionable exclusions, it did line up fairly well with what most bracketologists have been projecting, giving us a good idea of what to expect when Selection Sunday rolls around.
In a rather interesting coincidence, the committee’s current top 16 lined up exactly with the 16 teams that were given lock status in last week’s bubble watch. Those won’t be the only teams on the lock line this week though, as five teams have performed well enough over the past week to ensure receiving a tournament invite.
Without further ado, let’s dive into 2020’s second edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch.
Locks: Duke, Louisville, Florida State
Safe for now:
Bubble: Virginia, NC State, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh
With such massive separation between the ACC’s elite and the rest of the pack, it makes sense that there would be no new locks this week. In fact, no team moved up from “bubble” to “safe for now” either. The most compelling case to do so was Virginia, but all hope of that went out the window when the Cavaliers came up shy of pulling off the upset in Louisville on Saturday. Even then, let’s not forget that Virginia still possesses very middling metrics, such as the No. 52 NET, No. 51 KenPom and No. 41 SOR, meaning a win over the Cardinals was probably unlikely to get the job done anyway. The Cavaliers are the ACC’s top hope at bringing a fourth representative to March, but right now, that is far from a sure thing.
NC State finally stopped some recent bleeding by earning a much-needed win over Miami on Wednesday, but that victory is likely not enough to put the Wolfpack into the field of 68. Their single highest major metric lies in their BPI ranking. Nothing else cracks the top 50. There’s still plenty of work to do for NC State.
Syracuse’s bubble hopes depended on a home win over Wake Forest on Saturday, and despite a scare, the Orange got the job done. Much like NC State, nothing about Syracuse’s metrics pops out. But the Orange have been in this position in the past, finding a way to sneak into the tournament on multiple occasions. Can they do it again? Tuesday’s upcoming battle between the Orange and Wolfpack may help answer that question.
Notre Dame makes an appearance on the watch after narrowly missing out last week. The Fighting Irish are hot, winning their last four in a row over ACC opposition. They’ve continued to climb the metrics steadily, but there’s still a long climb ahead, as the Fighting Irish have recorded just one Quadrant 1 win. The opportunities are coming up soon with trips to Duke and Virginia next on the schedule. Notre Dame just needs to capitalize.
On the flip side, Virginia Tech has come to a dead halt. The Hokies have lost five straight and are staring down the barrel of a trip to the NIT, or potentially even worse. Mike Young’s squad needs to turn it around and fast. They’ll have the opportunity to do so in hosting fellow low-end bubble team Pittsburgh on Saturday.
The Panthers, meanwhile, recorded a win over Georgia Tech on Saturday but couldn’t pull off a much-needed upset of Notre Dame in South Bend. With metrics ranging from No. 63 to No. 81, Pitt’s tournament hopes are pretty much on life support. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the loser of Saturday’s bout was kicked off the page entirely.
Safe for now: Houston
Bubble: Wichita State, Cincinnati, Memphis, Tulsa, SMU
No AAC team is close to a lock, though Houston is certainly the safest bet right now with the Cougars’ top-30 metrics and head-to-head sweep of fellow conference contender Wichita State. Another week or two of standout play and Houston could be well on its way to lock land.
Wichita State, meanwhile, is playing a dangerous game. The Shockers have now lost five of their last seven and have dropped from “safe for now” territory into the bubble. The bright side here is that Wichita State finally has a pair of Q1 victories to its name, but UConn and Oklahoma State are both straddling the Q1/Q2 border. Those wins are no certainty to stay Q1 for the Shockers.
Cincinnati was on a rather impressive upswing, winning four in a row and entering the heart of bubble contention before taking a less-than-great overtime loss to UConn. Still, outside of SOR, each of the Bearcats’ major metrics all rank No. 46 or higher. Another good string of wins to close out the season could mean Cincinnati’s 10th straight tournament berth.
Memphis’ winning ways took a wrong turn when the Tigers fell at home to South Florida on Saturday, tacking on another Q3 loss to their team sheet. The metrics aren’t helping their case, as only KPI ranks above No. 50. With fairly even tournament résumés between Cincinnati and Memphis, it’s hard to tell which one deserves to be ahead of the other in the bubble talks. Perhaps Thursday night’s meeting in Cincinnati will sort that out nicely.
The once-red-hot Tulsa Golden Hurricane finally came to a grinding halt Thursday with a 16-point home loss to UConn. Last week, Tulsa was a trendy pick to sneak into the field as one of the final teams in, but the ugly truth is that the metrics just aren’t there. Another disappointing performance could mean curtains for the Golden Hurricane’s at-large hopes.
SMU is in the same boat as Tulsa. The Mustangs’ tournament aspirations took a massive blow Saturday with a 97-90 loss to Temple in a game that SMU once led by 17. Though Tulsa is the more popular team right now, the Mustangs actually have superior metrics in most categories, meaning that they definitely deserve to be listed here if Tulsa is getting the same treatment. That said, there’s a pretty strong chance that neither team will be on the watch a week or two from now.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Rhode Island, VCU, Richmond, Saint Louis
It’s fairly difficult to make a case for any A-10 team other than Dayton to be in “safe for now” territory or better, but Rhode Island has a very compelling argument. Ten straight conference wins have the Rams at 18-5 with most major metrics ranking inside the top 40. The true litmus test will take place Tuesday when Rhode Island takes on the Flyers in Dayton. An upset victory would likely result in the Rams jumping categories.
VCU handled its lone test last week with relative ease, landing the Rams near the mid-upper end of the bubble. All they can do at this point is avoid setting off the landmines and find one or two places along the line to snag a major win. Saturday presents an opportunity with crosstown rival Richmond in the Spiders’ home arena. That might do the trick.
Richmond, meanwhile, is quite a few paces behind VCU with inferior metrics across the board and fewer opportunities to grab top-tier wins. A victory over the Rams on Saturday would be Q2, but the Spiders will likely have to do better than that with how crowded the bubble is this year.
The final A-10 contender, Saint Louis, is inches from falling off after dropping two straight: one being a brutal home loss to Duquesne and the other being a huge missed opportunity via a six-point defeat in Dayton. The Billikens need something seriously impressive down the stretch to present the selection committee with, or a trip to the NIT seems imminent.
Duquesne appeared to be making a serious case to be included here after knocking off the Billikens on the road, but a home loss to St. Bonaventure quickly ended that talk. One Q1 win and every metric ranking at No. 75 or lower means the Dukes still have a long way to go before being considered a bubble team.
Locks: Seton Hall, Villanova, Butler, Creighton, Marquette
Safe for now:
Bubble: Xavier, Georgetown, DePaul, Providence
Although Creighton initially stumbled on its quest to reach lock status by losing at Providence on Wednesday, the Bluejays cleaned up their act and rebounded with a home win against St. John’s over the weekend. As promised last week, that win is enough to move Creighton into lock territory.
Marquette also makes the same leap. Lock status wasn’t solidified until Sunday, but the Golden Eagles more than earned it by outperforming Butler from tip to finish in Milwaukee. That makes the Big East the first conference to have five guaranteed entrants into March Madness.
The Big East bubble starts with Xavier, which picked the right time to be playing its best basketball. The Musketeers have wiped away a 2-6 start to conference play with three straight Q1/Q2 wins over Seton Hall, DePaul and Providence. Most bracket projections have Xavier hovering around the No. 10 seed line.
Georgetown hasn’t been able to rebound from its slow start in Big East play quite the same way that Xavier has, but the Hoyas have won two of their last three to, at the very least, stay afloat. But it’s likely going to take more than that to have a shot at sneaking into the tournament. Georgetown needs to put another staple win or two onto its résumé. Knowing the Big East, there are plenty of opportunities remaining to do just that.
It’s just about time to close the book on DePaul. Four Q1 wins can’t save the Blue Demons from the fact that they’re 1-10 in conference play. As the metrics continue to slide, so do their tournament hopes. Only an unbelievable turnaround could rescue DePaul, and that seems highly unlikely. Unless the Blue Demons are somehow able to upset Creighton in Omaha on Saturday, you can expect to see them absent from the next edition of the watch.
St. John’s finally slides off the page after dropping its third straight contest. Having worse metrics and fewer Q1 wins than sagging DePaul is what does the Red Storm in. They could re-enter the watch with a similarly massive turnaround, but don’t count on it.
A week after Providence was declared dead in the water, the Friars are suddenly making people rethink that idea. They’ve won seven of their last 12 and now own four Q1 wins and metrics ranging mostly in the mid-50s. Still, it’s hard to see the committee overlooking four Q3/Q4 losses for a power conference team. The Friars need to keep surging if they want to be considered a true bubble contender.
Locks: Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State
Safe for now: Iowa, Illinois, Ohio State, Rutgers
Bubble: Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota
Penn State fans have been waiting a decade to hear these words: The Nittany Lions are now a lock. After going 2-0 last week by defeating Michigan State in East Lansing and Minnesota at home, Penn State is now a sure thing.
Michigan State is starting to look a bit more precarious as a lock, now having dropped three in a row, but with the Spartans being named as a current No. 4 seed in Saturday’s top 16 reveal, it’s difficult to see any world in which they’re left out of the tournament.
Iowa is approaching lock status too, but a 36-point loss at Purdue last Wednesday keeps the Hawkeyes from jumping categories for another week. Taking care of business against Indiana and Minnesota this week should get the job done.
Illinois has now dropped its last two in a row, and it doesn’t get any easier, as a home bout with Michigan State is next, followed by trips to Piscataway and State College. The Fighting Illini aren’t that close to the bubble right now, possessing five Q1 wins and the No. 22 SOR, but they could eventually end up there if they continue to slide.
While Sunday’s performance against Wisconsin left a lot to be desired, Ohio State deserves to be in “safe for now” territory when one looks at the bigger picture. The Buckeyes are No. 21 in NET and No. 26 in SOR, own four Q1 wins, and own predictive metrics as high as No. 11. “Safe for now” designation seems to be appropriate.
Rutgers also stays safe for now, even though that status looked to be up in the air after dropping two in a row against Michigan and Maryland. Rutgers probably would have dropped to the bubble with a home loss to Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern, but an impressive comeback win over the Wildcats allows the Scarlet Knights to stay put.
After digging themselves an early hole in conference play, the Michigan Wolverines have started to climb out of it by winning three of the last four. That includes Saturday’s victory over in-state rival Michigan State. There’s still some work to do, as the metrics across the board aren’t as strong as some of the “safe for now” teams, but the Wolverines do own a whopping six Q1 wins, meaning a 2-0 week against Northwestern and Indiana should seal the deal for a category jump.
Wisconsin may very well be the most confusing team in college basketball. Alternating between looking completely vulnerable and totally unbeatable, the Badgers are now 14-10 after smacking Ohio State on Sunday and getting smacked by Minnesota on Wednesday. Like Michigan, Wisconsin has six Q1 wins, but the overall metrics are weaker, meaning it falls just below the Wolverines on the bubble. The Badgers may be in the field right now, but they have to show some more consistency before they can be considered safe.
Not far below Wisconsin on the confusion tier list is Purdue. One thing is for sure: Purdue is hard to beat at home, and Wednesday’s stomping of Iowa proves it. The Boilermakers have also been notoriously bad away from Mackey Arena, but they’re starting to dispel that notion with back-to-back road wins over Northwestern and Indiana. For the most part, the metrics all seem to support Purdue as well. The Boilermakers need to clean up their act before they can be ruled safe, but things are definitely trending in the right direction.
Indiana, meanwhile, is in free-fall, and so are its postseason hopes. Four straight losses have the Hoosiers bordering the tournament cut line. Indiana may have a prettier record than other Big Ten bubble adversaries, but the Hoosiers don’t have the metrics to match, as SOR is the only one that ranks greater than No. 45. They have to find a way to stop the bleeding. With six grueling Q1 tests up next, that may prove easier said than done.
Minnesota is in a constant flux of taking a step forward followed by taking a step backward. The Golden Gophers have their fair share of good wins, but they also have 11 losses. That’s a lot for a bubble team at this point in the season. Semi-solid metrics likely keep the Gophers on the outside looking in right now, so they better find a way to string together some sort of winning streak.
Locks: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia
Safe for now:
Bubble: Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas
Much like the ACC, there’s so much separation between the Big 12’s top teams and the rest that it makes sense that there would be no new locks.
There are also no new “safe for now” teams, though the closest appears to be Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have been playing solid basketball lately, and Saturday’s Q1 win at Texas is the latest cherry on top. A relatively quiet week is up next, featuring a home test against TCU and a visit to Stillwater against Oklahoma State. Come out of that unscathed and Texas Tech has a strong argument to rise in status.
Oklahoma needed a good pick-me-up after falling out of most experts’ tournament projections, and Saturday’s massive home victory over West Virginia proved to be just that. With the win, the Sooners are back in the field, but the Big 12 schedule has so many pitfalls remaining. Oklahoma can’t afford to nap for a minute.
Texas is fading quickly simply because the Longhorns have been unable to take advantage of their opportunities. They now have seven Q1 losses to just two Q1 wins, and the metrics are steadily declining because of it. The opportunities will keep on coming, none bigger than Baylor, which visits Austin on Monday. The Longhorns desperately need a win of that caliber. They’re not in any real danger of falling off the bubble right now, but they are well outside of the tournament field.
With a 12-10 record, five straight losses, one Q1 win and no major metric greater than No. 79, there’s no point in keeping TCU here anymore. They still have the potential to get back on the page with a plethora of Q1 opportunities ahead, but it seems like a task too tall.
Locks: Oregon, Colorado
Safe for now: Arizona
Bubble: USC, Stanford, Arizona State, Utah, Oregon State
A 2-0 week that featured a Q1 home win over Stanford means that Colorado now joins Oregon as the Pac-12’s only two locks.
Arizona, meanwhile, is stuck in “safe for now” limbo. Saturday’s head-scratching home loss to UCLA further highlights very bubble-like numbers, like the No. 42 SOR and a 2-5 Q1 record. But then there’s NET, KenPom and BPI, all of which place Arizona in the top 15, as well as the No. 6 SOS in the nation. Arizona seems to be a very difficult team to figure out, and with a team that is as talented yet inexperienced as the Wildcats are, one might expect that. As such, they get put in “safe for now” land until further details develop.
It’s hard to punish USC too much for back-to-back losses in Arizona by a combined score of seven points, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Now USC has fallen from 17-4 to 17-7 in a little over a week, and the holes in the Trojans’ résumé (No. 50 in NET, No. 58 in KenPom) are starting to peek through. Most experts still have USC in the field, but that might not last if the losing continues.
Likewise, previously 15-2 (now 16-7) Stanford has fallen from grace. A brutal 0-2 week in the Rockies means that the Cardinal have won just one of their last six. With only two Q1 wins, an SOR of No. 65 and most predictive metrics landing in the 40s and 50s, Stanford might be in even bigger trouble right now than USC.
Arizona State is on the complete flipside of Stanford, having won five of the last six to enter true heart-of-the-bubble territory. It seems like there’s still work to do, as metrics are not very kind to the Sun Devils, but with how they’ve been playing lately, they should be on every bubble watch’s radar.
It’s tough to say whether Utah and Oregon State are officially on the bubble yet, but it is quite clear that both are making strides. The Utes still have work to do to get their predictive metrics up to standards, but three Q1 wins and an SOR of No. 64 mean that they are in borderline bubble territory.
Oregon State’s SOR is finally back above No. 100, but the Beavers are still pretty far out of the tournament conversation when examining the big picture. What has them on the radar at all is that 4-3 Q1 record, which includes Saturday’s home victory over Oregon. The Beavers and Utes will meet on Thursday in Corvallis. Perhaps the winner will solidify a spot on the bubble watch, while the loser will find a home off the page.
Locks: Auburn, Kentucky
Safe for now: LSU
Bubble: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina
Kentucky joins Auburn as the SEC’s only locks by virtue of its Q1 victory at Tennessee last Saturday. Nothing can keep the Wildcats out now.
LSU couldn’t quite get there, as the Tigers lost their first conference game of the year on Wednesday at previously winless Vanderbilt, then followed up by allowing Auburn to come back from 15 down for an overtime victory. Maybe next week, LSU.
Every SEC team on the bubble is sweating bullets right now, Arkansas included. The Razorbacks looked cool a week ago with their 16-5 record, but a tight home loss to Auburn and a backbreaking loss at Missouri suddenly have Arkansas approaching “last four byes” territory.
Florida is a bit of a mess right now too, and a 17-point Q2 loss at Ole Miss last Saturday doesn’t help matters. What was once believed to be a Final Four contender is now fighting for its tournament life. The metrics all point in a positive direction, as only SOR ranks below No. 50, but the Gators can’t afford to step on many more of the remaining landmines.
Mississippi State is right in the heart of bubble matters, but the Bulldogs need to start winning high-profile games away from Starkville. They do have a victory at Gainesville on the résumé, but not much else (certainly not the SOR or Q1 record) sticks out. They’ll have prime opportunities to do just that this week, as they travel to Oxford and Fayetteville for matches with Ole Miss and Arkansas, respectively. A 2-0 week would almost certainly put Mississippi State in the projected field of 68… for the time being.
Well, Tennessee did what it needed to do to stay on the page by winning in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday, but there’s still more work to be done. A 13-10 record and metrics scoring in the 50s and 60s aren’t going to cut it. At this point, a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament is looking unlikely.
Alabama narrowly avoided the always-disastrous 0-2 week by clutching out an overtime win in Georgia on Saturday, but the Crimson Tide will need to do a lot better than that to have a fighting chance at March Madness. For some reason, NET still loves Alabama, rewarding the Crimson Tide with the No. 42 ranking, but that’s truly the only metric that would project them into the field. They have only one Q1 win, and only three Q1 opportunities remain on the schedule. It’s time for Alabama to start winning some tough games or face the consequences.
South Carolina is in the same realm of bubble teams like Pittsburgh and DePaul: just hanging on by a thread. The reasons for the Gamecocks appearing here are the three Q1 wins and the semi-impressive 6-4 SEC record, but everything else is pointing to an NIT team, especially those two Q4 losses. A strong finish in the SEC is a requirement for South Carolina to stay here.
Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State, Dayton
Safe for now:
Bubble: BYU, Saint Mary’s, Northern Iowa, Utah State, East Tennessee State, Yale, Liberty, UNC Greensboro, Furman
There are no new locks this week, but we do know now of a very important distinction. On Saturday, the selection committee ranked one-loss Gonzaga ahead of undefeated San Diego State in the battle for becoming the West Region’s top overall seed. This means that the Aztecs, in all likelihood, will need the Bulldogs to falter somewhere along the line. Considering Gonzaga’s recent annihilation of Saint Mary’s in Moraga, that seems somewhat unlikely.
BYU is making impressive strides as of late and honestly deserves to be considered a “safe for now” team. The Cougars’ 18-7 record isn’t quite ideal for a mid-major, but a deeper look at the numbers reveals two Q1 victories, a very strong non-conference SOS and metrics ranking as high as No. 16. Only five games remain in conference play, and it looks like clear skies are ahead for BYU.
The tournament outlook for Saint Mary’s is not quite as jolly. The Gaels wasted their best opportunity to pick up another Q1 win via losing by 30 to conference foe Gonzaga, meaning a trip to Spokane is the only remaining top-tier opportunity in the regular season. At least the metrics are all bunched together for Saint Mary’s, ranging from No. 37 to No. 40, meaning the Gaels are currently looking at a No. 10 or 11 seed in the tournament. That’s nowhere close to being “safe for now,” but they are a lot safer than many of the other bubble teams here.
Should Northern Iowa fail to win the Missouri Valley conference tournament, an at-large invite seems within the realm of possibilities. The Panthers just need to keep avoiding the traps along the way, and they’ve done a pretty good job of that, now sitting at No. 25 in SOR and No. 37 in NET with a 19-3 record. The main problem is that there are no Q1 opportunities left on the schedule, and the Panthers have only one such win, meaning there’s very little room for error.
Since falling from grace in early January, Utah State has been in steady ascent, keeping every major metric except KPI above No. 50. As one might expect for a 17-7 mid-major team with two Q1 wins, Utah State is right on the tipping point with some projections putting the Aggies in and some keeping them out. The best Utah State can do is keep winning and hope that bubble teams from major conferences falter from more difficult schedules.
East Tennessee State, Yale and Liberty are all in the same situations that they were before. Only Yale slipped up last week, losing its first Ivy League contest to Harvard. It’s not the nail in the coffin for the Bulldogs’ at-large hopes, but it definitely stings. The missions for these three teams remain the same: just keep winning.
UNC Greensboro and Furman join the page, mostly for the sake of conversation. Do these teams boasting 17-6 and 17-5 records truly have the numbers to back up belonging on the bubble? While they’re both a bit of a stretch, they do have very similar marks to other teams in the same category, especially the Spartans with their two Q1 wins. But the dream of having a multi-bid SoCon or, in the case of Stephen F. Austin, multi-bid Southland relies on major conference bubble teams falling out of the picture. These teams need to be patient and keep on winning. If enough of those two things happen, there may be hope just yet.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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