Bauer’s Bubble Watch: Feb. 22
There’s no doubt that college basketball is a wild, wild sport. The nature of the game is more conducive to dramatic finishes and unbelieve upsets than any other athletic competition. Momentum, mentality, and the ebb and flow of on and off nights are key in figuring out the formula to the madness, and even when you think you’ve got it all understood, sometimes college basketball still surprises.
It didn’t seem like we were headed down that direction going into this week’s Bubble Watch. Monday through Friday produced relatively quiet results regarding our tournament hopefuls with just the occasional surprise—Florida State beating Virginia by 21, Saint Louis falling to Dayton for the second time, Minnesota losing on the road (wait, that’s not a surprise)—sprinkled in for flavor. All in all, just a tame week with only a handful of meaningful outcomes for this week’s bubble update.
And then Saturday happened. Oh, college basketball Saturday. You never disappoint.
Let me give you an allegory with a band I’ve been listening to way too much recently. You know that little groovy, jammy bit at the beginning of the “Stop Making Sense” version of “Crosseyed and Painless”? That was Monday through Friday. You know the rest of “Crosseyed and Painless”? That was Saturday.
Sorry if that metaphor went over your head (or should I say “talking” head?), but here’s the gist: Monday through Friday grooved right along—no tension, no drama, just vibes—with the occasional out-of-character guitar lick or keyboard riff hinting at what might come later on. Then comes Saturday. And the floodgates open. Blazing tempo, frantic instrumentation running rampant all over the place, and an overall feel of insanity: the perfect analogy for Saturday. An upset here. Another upset there. And one there. One right after another, all in one big, continuous line. In total, five ranked teams lost, and nine—count’ em—nine of our bubbly buddies were taken down. All in one day.
And that’s what's so great about college basketball. You can never truly tell what’s going to happen.
But you can try your best, and that’s what Bauer’s Bubble Watch is all about. Selection Sunday is a mere 20 days away, and conference tournaments are set to begin this week on Thursday. The postseason is quickly approaching! It’s our job to figure out who’s fit for a bid and who’s got work to do. This week’s Bubble Watch adds five more locks to our total (now up to 15), waves sayonara to two popped bubbles, and welcomes one new face to the page.
Oh, March Madness. You can’t come soon enough. “Still waiting… still waiting…”
Locks: Virginia, Florida State
Safe for now: Virginia Tech, Clemson
Bubble: Louisville, North Carolina, Syracuse, Duke, Georgia Tech
Florida State: A lock was never very far out of reach for Florida State, even when the Seminoles were on a 13-day-long COVID pause. They certainly scared us in their return, needing overtime to beat Wake Forest, but the jitters didn’t last long; Leonard Hamilton’s crew cleaned up the competition last week, knocking off Virginia 81-60 on Monday then defeating Pitt 79-72 on Saturday (not as glamorous as the originally scheduled Virginia Tech game, but a win’s a win). Are those results enough to earn the Seminoles the ACC’s second lock? You betcha.
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech has now missed four straight games due to COVID problems (sometimes within VT, sometimes within the scheduled opponent) dating back to Feb. 6. That’s arguably a good thing, as the Hokies’ clearly-in-the-field résumé hasn’t taken any hits in that time span. But their legs won’t be fresh by the time this hiatus ends, and a plethora of remaining trap games (Georgia Tech, Louisville, NC State) could cause some damage if they aren’t 100% coming out of the break. The plan is to get back on the court Tuesday—let’s hope it happens.
Clemson: Man, this COVID stuff really stinks. I know, understatement of the decade. But Clemson is now on its second such pause, and that could be bad news for the Tigers. Their first suspension of play took place back in early January, and their first three results in their return were, well, less than great: absolute drubbings to Virginia, Georgia Tech and Florida State. Clemson seemed to be returning to its early-season form as of late and looked to be pretty securely in the field résumé-wise. Will that steam come to a sputter once again with this second stoppage? Let’s hope not.
Louisville: Louisville drops to the bubble in brutal fashion. The Cardinals, coming out of a 15-day pause, were supposed to play Syracuse at home on Wednesday—a good game against a solid opponent in the warmth of their own stadium. You know, something to ease them back in. But that game got called off hours before tipoff because of a positive COVID test. Instead, the Cardinals’ return to play came in Chapel Hill on Saturday against a North Carolina team hungry to remove itself from the bubble brink. So, yeah, the results weren’t pretty: 99-54 Tar Heels. That’s four of the Cardinals’ last six resulting in L’s. All of a sudden, the situation isn’t looking so peachy in Derby City.
North Carolina: What a week for UNC basketball. With Tuesday’s game against Virginia Tech being called off, the Tar Heels (hilariously) took to Twitter to find a replacement opponent. They found one in Northeastern: not a team that can move the meter much with a win, just an opportunity to keep the legs fresh. It’s Saturday’s 45-point win over Louisville that really pushes Carolina in the right direction. Back in the NET top 35 and KenPom top 30 with six wins in the second quadrant, North Carolina has created some much-needed distance between itself and the tournament cut line—not enough to get off the bubble, but enough that Carolina would be far more likely to hear its named called than not if Selection Sunday were today.
Syracuse: Can Syracuse actually do this? The Orange’s at-large hopes looked downright dismal on Feb. 6 following a 17-point loss to Clemson, so much so that I even contemplated dropping them from contention. Now Jim Boeheim’s squad has won three straight, including Saturday’s wild come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame. The Orange still don’t have a Quad 1 win on their résumé—a noticeable gap that will undoubtedly be assessed should it remain on judgment day—but they’re up to a respectable three wins in Quad 2 now, and the metrics aren’t looking too shabby either. Syracuse has a shot. An outside shot, maybe, but a shot.
Duke: Sometimes, one win is all it takes to get right back into the thick of it. Of course, it depends on the magnitude of the win—and Duke’s Saturday night win over Virginia is absolutely enormous—but evidence of the Blue Devils’ return to tournament contention was already blossoming in prior results, namely a 16-point win at NC State on Feb. 13 and a 14-point win at Wake Forest on Feb. 17. Duke and its problematic 10-8 record are still on the wrong side of the cut line—you can’t just jump from “off the bubble entirely” to “in the field”—but the numbers don’t lie: the Blue Devils are very much alive. And this is all right after five-star freshman Jalen Johnson opted out of the season on Feb. 15. Who’d’ve thunk?
Georgia Tech: Staying alive is the name of the game for Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets have done just that. After edging out Pitt in a de facto bubble elimination game last Sunday, the Jackets absolutely hammered Miami on Saturday, taking a 48-18 lead into halftime before ultimately leaving Dade County with an 87-60 final. Tech’s now up to No. 40 in KenPom, and NET’s not all that far behind at No. 51. Tougher challenges lie ahead—starting with a trip to Blacksburg on Tuesday—but the door to an at-large bid remains open in Atlanta.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Wichita State, SMU, Memphis
Wichita State: Aside from perhaps Duke, no bubble team bettered its tournament stock this past weekend more than Wichita State. Direly needing a “wow” victory on the team sheet, the Shockers got just that, downing AAC frontrunner Houston 68-63 on Thursday. That’s a big deal for a team still struggling to overcome its gruesome efficiency metrics. Of course, Wichita State has been a member of Bauer’s Bubble Watch since the start, while other more “expensive” watches are just now picking up on the fact that the Shockers are indeed a good team with viable at-large odds. A rare instance in which I can gleefully (and rightfully) say, “I told you so.”
SMU: A second-straight week of idleness is bad news for SMU, a team with a résumé that deserves to be in tournament consideration but really fails to catch the eye in any major category. It’s all been stated before: no Quad 1 wins, solid but not exciting metrics ranging from No. 45 to No. 56, and a so-so strength of schedule. The Mustangs need to make a splash, and badly. They’ll have an opportunity to do so; a Sunday, Feb. 28 matchup against Wichita State is pretty much guaranteed to be Quad 1. SMU absolutely needs to be healthy for that game.
Memphis: Like SMU, Memphis hasn’t played since early February, and like SMU, Memphis is on the outside looking in due to a relatively tame résumé. The numbers may like the Tigers, which now rank top 50 in KenPom and KPI, but the selection committee probably isn’t too fond of their 0-2 Quad 1 record and lack of a road victory better than NET No. 147. The good news is that this pause should be over, as the Tigers finally got back to practice on Saturday, but that inaction period wiped out quality opportunities against the likes of Houston and Wichita State. The remaining chances for a standout victory are few.
Safe for now:
Bubble: VCU, St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis, Richmond
VCU: How could you, VCU? The Rams were oh-so close to taking a 17-4 record and sole possession of first place in the A-10 into Monday, likely earning a jump to “safe for now” in the process. But they undid their Wednesday win over Richmond with a sloppy overtime loss to George Mason on Saturday, and so they remain on the bubble another week. The Rams are still the Atlantic 10’s top team and most likely candidate for a bid, but they now possess two Quad 3 losses—a stark contrast with their goose egg in the Quad 1 wins column. An insurance victory over Saint Louis on Tuesday would go a long way.
St. Bonaventure: A second bid from the A-10 most likely rests on the shoulders of St. Bonaventure. Like VCU, the Bonnies don’t have anything especially flashy on their team sheet—a Quad 1 victory over Richmond and that confoundingly high strength of schedule is about it—but the brawn of St. Bonaventure’s résumé comes in the things you don’t immediately notice: no losses beyond the NET top 100, a 4-3 Quad 1/2 record, and a spot in the KPI top 25. It’s difficult to tell whether or not those numbers are sufficient for an at-large invite, especially for a team that has played as few games as St. Bonaventure, but it’s not difficult to tell how much talent this team has. More results like Sunday’s good win over Davidson should indicate a favorable future.
Saint Louis: Darlings of the eye test and mortal enemies of the résumé, Saint Louis stumbled hard once again on Friday with its second loss of the season to Dayton. The Billikens’ 15-game sample size remains among the smallest for bubble teams, meaning a singular Quad 2 loss was enough to drop Saint Louis 15 spots in the NET rankings. It’s not enough to pop the Billikens’ bubble, but it does put immense pressure on Travis Ford’s team to perform down the stretch. VCU and Richmond are on tap this week; a 1-1 outing seems necessary for Saint Louis to remain a viable at-large choice.
Richmond: The clock is ticking in Richmond. Each and every quality opportunity for the Spiders since the turn of the new year has gone down in the record books as an L, including Wednesday’s 68-56 loss at crosstown rival VCU. Chris Mooney’s squad has recorded a singular victory above Quad 3 since Dec. 30; needless to say, that’s not good. The Spiders are struggling to stay afloat, and a seemingly permanent Quad 4 loss to La Salle on Jan. 23 is only helping to drag them down. Something needs to change, and fast, or it’s NIT time for the arachnids.
Dayton remains an intriguing option to bring into the bubble conversation, but we’re opting to leave the Flyers out for one week more, just for the simple reason that every step forward always seems to come with a step back. Friday’s win over Saint Louis and resulting season sweep of the Billikens is huge, but it only serves to offset a Tuesday double-overtime loss to Rhode Island. Had the Flyers put away the Rams when they were up 18 midway through the second half, they’d be looking OK with a 6-4 record across the first two quadrants. But 5-5 is much less appetizing when paired with metrics in the 70s and two Quad 4 losses that don’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. The NIT remains possible; the NCAAT seems a bridge too far.
Locks: Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas
Safe for now: Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma State
Kansas: Lock city: familiar territory for the Kansas Jayhawks. Remember that little slide at the end of January? A distant memory. Bill Self and company have now won five straight with Saturday’s W over Texas Tech proving the most crucial. The Jayhawks’ two remaining games—at Texas and vs. Baylor—can both result in losses, and Kansas would be just fine. Other blue bloods may be struggling to reach the tournament this year, but Kansas ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Texas Tech: Texas Tech stays in “safe for now” another week merely out of principle; the Red Raiders really should win another game before we cement them into the field for good. They’ve lost each of their last two—albeit against great opponents in West Virginia and Kansas—and have had matches against Baylor and TCU postponed, the former for the Bears’ COVID issues and the latter for… inclement weather? It’s bad enough that this darn pandemic keeps getting in the way of our basketball. Now we need to worry about Mother Nature too? These are trying times, people. Anyway, win another game, Red Raiders, and you’re in.
Texas: Texas isn’t exactly playing its best basketball right now. The Longhorns fell victim to the rare “inclement weather” postponement too; Thursday’s date with Oklahoma now resides in to-be-rescheduled limbo. But that postponement didn’t stop Texas from playing West Virginia on Saturday and promptly blowing a 19-point lead in the second half with a 4-of-10 performance at the free-throw line and a single bucket in the final three minutes to lose by two. That’s four losses in the past six games: a highly disappointing look for a team that appeared to have turned the corner on its early-February rough patch. Shaka Smart and his Horns will have to go back to the drawing board before Kansas and Texas Tech show up on this week’s slate.
Oklahoma State: We’re three weeks out from Selection Sunday, and the NCAA still has yet to return a verdict on Oklahoma State’s postseason ban appeal—an excellent sign for the Cowboys! Five Quad 1 wins paired with solid but not flashy metrics likely have Oklahoma State sitting around the No. 7 or No. 8 seed line, and with freshman phenom Cade Cunningham continuing his excellence (no performances of worse than 15 points since Jan. 9), the Cowboys seem like a prime giant-killer choice for a second-round upset of an unaware No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Let’s just make sure that they do indeed get into the tournament.
Safe for now: Creighton
Bubble: Seton Hall, Xavier, UConn, St. John’s
Villanova: Is it finally time to lock in Villanova? It appears that way. We were hesitant to do so last week after an off night in Omaha, but the Wildcats didn’t let that loss get to their heads, and they managed UConn on Saturday, never trailing by more than two in the 68-60 victory. It also helps the Wildcats’ cause that some of their biggest competitors for a No. 2 seed—namely Houston and Virginia—lost once or twice in the last week, leaving the door open for 14-3 Villanova to climb back onto the No. 2 line. That high of a projected seed this late in the season signals that we’re OK to grant Nova a lock.
Creighton: We’d like to see Creighton win once more before handing the Bluejays a lock as well. A hypothetical 0-4 stretch to end the season would entail losses to DePaul and Butler; both of those would be Quad 3, bringing that total up to the completely undesirable number of six—no bueno. Even then, those losses would likely be offset by the Bluejays’ 10 victories across the first two quadrants, impressive road record and top-15 metrics in every category but KPI. A win on Wednesday over DePaul or on Saturday at Xavier should be enough to give Creighton the go-ahead.
Seton Hall: Is it possible that the Big East gets just two teams into the tournament? Not very likely—there’s a lot of bubble teams, and the Big East is probably bound to get one or two into the field—but each of the conference’s four bubble candidates fell flat on their face last week in their efforts to boost their postseason odds. Seton Hall is probably in the best shape of any of the four, as the Pirates own the edge in Quad 1 wins (three) and NET ranking (No. 49), but the latter category has dropped eight spots since Feb. 16, no doubt aided by the Pirates’ loss to Georgetown on Saturday. Damage control against the remaining stretch (at Butler, vs. UConn, at St. John’s) would go a long way for a Seton Hall team just four games above .500.
Xavier: A Sunday victory over Butler is certainly a positive thing, but it’s hard not to focus on Xavier’s 93-84 loss to St. John’s earlier in the week. Yes, it was only the Musketeers’ fourth, but it was still enough to drop them nine spots in NET and seven spots in KenPom. Those rankings—No. 50 for the former and No. 58 for the latter—aren’t all that stellar, and the absence of a road victory inside the NET top 100 is also troublesome. The good news: three of X’s four remaining regular-season contests are on the road, and—would you look at that—all three are NET top-100 opportunities. All the Musketeers need to do is capitalize.
UConn: It’s hard to fault UConn for coming up short on the road against conference-leading Villanova, but, boy, would the Huskies have liked to have that one. A statement win like that probably pushes UConn to the high edge of the bubble and likely ahead of Seton Hall and Xavier in the Big East pecking order. But the loss instead keeps the Huskies beyond the NET top 50 and squarely on the heart of the bubble, wielding a solid but unspectacular résumé of a 3-6 record in the first two quadrants and fickle metrics reaching as high as No. 31 as and as low as No. 67. At Seton Hall on March 3 is the only remaining Quad 1 opportunity—that seems like a must-win, doesn’t it?
St. John’s: It’s been a true roller coaster of a week for St. John’s, which took its dreadful Feb. 9 loss to Butler on the chin by rebounding with a downright massive win over Xavier on Tuesday. But all good roller coasters need a precipitous drop, and the Red Storm experienced just that: a Quad 3 home loss to NET No. 159 DePaul. Yikes with a capital Y. The Johnnies are now one shy of matching Creighton’s Quad 3 loss total of four but are without the Bluejays’ shimmering metrics and healthy Quad 1 and 2 output. The Red Storm already beat Villanova once this season; they may need to do it again on Tuesday to remain in the conversation.
Locks: Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa
Safe for now: Purdue, Wisconsin, Rutgers
Bubble: Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota
Iowa: Iowa’s dreaded yearly February slump is no more. Since a Feb. 7 loss at Indiana, the Hawkeyes have been smoking the opposition, downing Rutgers, Michigan State and Wisconsin by 13, 30 and 15, respectively, the latter two coming on the road. Not even a nail-biter of a win over Penn State on Sunday is enough cause to hesitate on this decision. Back atop their roost as the nation’s most efficient team not named Gonzaga, Baylor or Michigan, the Hawkeyes now become a certified cast-iron lock.
Purdue: The gap between the Big Ten’s fourth- and fifth-best teams has widened with Iowa’s recent surge, but Purdue is still on its merry way toward making its sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The Boilermakers’ momentary stumble at The Barn on Feb. 11 has quickly been erased with back-to-back victories over Michigan State and Nebraska—enough to get Purdue back into the KenPom top 20 and just outside the NET top 25. A win Friday at Penn State would be the Boilermakers’ fifth in Quad 1 and 10th across the first two quadrants. That would probably be enough for a lock, even with their eight losses.
Wisconsin: Good news, Badgers fans! That win-loss-win-loss-win-loss dance that Wisconsin has been doing since Jan. 20 is finally over. Instead, the Badgers shook it up last week, going loss-win instead. Progress! In all seriousness, Wisconsin’s steep decline over the past month has been hard to witness, especially when you consider what’s left on their schedule. Most of those losses have come to programs like Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State: i.e. teams ahead of the Badgers on the tournament seed list. So who’s left? Illinois, Purdue and Iowa: teams ahead of the Badgers on the tournament seed list. Not good!
Rutgers: Have hard times befallen Piscataway once again? It’s very possible. The Scarlet Knights, previously winners of four in a row, are 1-3 since Feb. 10. Sure, that record is a microcosm of the daunting opposition that Rutgers has had to face recently (at Iowa, at Michigan, and vs. red-hot Maryland in that span), but the point stands that the Scarlet Knights are now 12-9. That’s not a very pretty record for a team considered safely in. They’ll stay safely in for another week, but it’s best not to tempt fate. Rutgers ought to take care of Indiana on Wednesday to eradicate any creeping doubt.
Maryland: The more the season develops, the more it looks like Maryland is going to make the tournament. The Terrapins have won four in a row and three in the last week, the most recent being an extremely helpful win at the RAC—Maryland’s fifth in Quad 1. The Terps were previously in hot water for carrying an overall record at or below .500, but those days are gone; Maryland is now 13-10 in Division I play. That, paired with five Quad 1 wins, zero losses below NET No. 52, and a top-10 strength of schedule, is excellent news for the residents of College Park. Safety once seemed like a daydream; now it’s well within reach.
Indiana: Indiana just can’t escape bubble purgatory no matter how hard it tries. Wednesday’s 82-72 victory over Minnesota was a good one—not a life-changing victory but enough to net the Hoosiers’ an eight-spot jump in the NET rankings. That, of course, was immediately followed by a 10-spot drop, incurred via Saturday’s 78-71 home loss to Michigan State. That’s a loss that Indiana really couldn’t afford; just look at the remaining schedule: at Rutgers, vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, at Purdue. An 0-4 finish is very much possible against that final stretch. Would the selection committee send an invite to a .500 or below .500 team that ranks worse than 50th in NET and has just three Quad 1 wins in 10 tries? When you put it that way, probably not.
Minnesota: Oh, dear. What has happened to Minnesota? How is it even remotely possible that a team that bested two likely No. 1 seeds by a combined 35 points is in extreme danger of missing the postseason? Now NET No. 60 and KenPom No. 49 following a Saturday thumping to Illinois in Minneapolis—no Barn voodoo this time—the Golden Gophers sit squarely on the bubble’s edge, losers of six of the last eight and eight of the last eight on the road. Again, how is that latter feat even remotely possible in a season without fans? Fortunately for Minnesota, the end-of-season slate is manageable—vs. Northwestern, at Nebraska, at Penn State, vs. Rutgers—but one of those two road games absolutely positively has to be a victory. If the Gophers show that they can’t win a single game away from home, why would the selection committee send them to Indianapolis?
On Thursday, Penn State played a good game against one of the top teams in the nation, even possessing a respectable lead at one point, before crumbling in the second half and losing by a couple buckets. On Sunday, Penn State did it again. The exact same thing. It’s like clockwork. Painful, agonizing clockwork. And now, the Nittany Lions are off the bubble with their completely unacceptable record of 7-12. The metrics just aren’t enough to excuse their ineptitude at closing out games. No, Penn State is not totally dead—a 4-0 finish is entirely possible for a team that will keep it close no matter the opponent—but for the time being, there’s no point in continuing to write about a team five games below .500 in an article of this nature. Au revoir.
What to do with Michigan State… The Spartans certainly got back in the win column in a big way on Saturday, knocking off Indiana on the road. But is that enough to join the bubble? It’s tough to tell with their résumé: 11-9 with no bad losses and a handful of helpful metrics (No. 43 Sagarin, No. 56 SOR) but lacking in NET (No. 81) and SOS (No. 194) and revealing a middling output of 5-9 across Quadrants 1 and 2. In the end, it’s probably just short of being bubble-worthy. Michigan State isn’t favored anyway in any of its final six games—an absolutely daunting stretch that features Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan twice—but a surprise win here or there could put the Spartans back in tournament talks. As is always the case with these “just below the bubble” teams, we’ll keep a watchful eye on the fighting Tom Izzos.
Safe for now: San Diego State
Bubble: Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State
San Diego State: No locks in the Mountain West yet, and there may not be any until the conference tournament finishes up, but San Diego State is in good shape. The single flaw on the Aztecs’ résumé is the absence of a Quad 1 win: an admittedly salient flaw, but one that is easily made up for via the Aztecs’ No. 24 NET rank, 16-4 record against Division I opponents, wins over UCLA and Colorado State, singular loss below Quad 1, and great KenPom, BPI and KPI marks. That’s the résumé of a tournament team. San Diego State should probably take at least one of two in its final regular-season series against Boise State just to be on the safe side, but the Aztecs don’t appear to be in any real danger of missing the tournament at this point.
Boise State: It goes without saying that Boise State’s weekend sweep of Utah State is simply massive. Back-to-back wins over a Quad 2 opponent is no small deal for a team sheet that previously displayed 0-2 in that category. The Broncos aren’t out of the woods just yet—a road sweep at the hands of San Diego State in the final regular-season series would be reason for concern—but they do appear to be among the bubble’s upper echelon, greatly aided by total avoidance of Quad 3 and Quad 4 losses as well as the No. 1 non-conference strength of schedule. One win in Viejas Arena this week likely puts Boise State in safe territory.
Colorado State: Colorado State entered last week having not played a game since Feb. 6, and it enters this week the same way. The Rams’ bubble situation actually improved despite their vacant schedule, thanks in large part to Saturday’s bubble massacre, but the point remains: if the Rams don’t schedule anything between now and Saturday, it’ll have been a 20-day period without any games played heading into the weekend series against Air Force. Both matches should end up as victories for the Rams, but any rust accumulated during the three-week recess could potentially come out on the court and spell disaster for CSU.
Utah State: Good, but not good enough: five little words to describe Utah State’s road trip to Boise last week. The Aggies gave it their all both nights, especially Mountain West Player of the Year frontrunner Neemias Queta, who posted 30 points and 10 rebounds in each game, but it just wasn’t enough; Utah State got swept. That’s agonizing—coming that close to not one but two résumé-defining wins and falling short both times. As it stands, the Aggies’ at-large hopes are dwindling. Craig Smith’s squad now falls out of the NET and KenPom top 50 with only a home sweep of San Diego State and a split with Colorado State to present the committee as quality wins. That probably isn’t enough.
Safe for now: Colorado
Bubble: UCLA, Oregon, Stanford
USC: The Pac-12 may be the weakest of the power conferences, but there’s nothing weak about USC: our fifth and final new lock. Even with Sunday’s surprising, seven-game-win-streak- snapping home loss to Arizona, the Trojans are feeling just fine, eclipsing the 18-win mark with Wednesday’s dub over Arizona State. Just four regular-season matches remain, and each is against a quality opponent (yes, Utah on Feb. 27 counts as Q2). Even a disastrous slide in the final two weeks—one that seems incredibly unlikely—wouldn’t be enough to put USC in danger. Indeed, the Trojans will return to March Madness for the first time since 2017.
Colorado: We return to our favorite confounding team. Colorado’s results last week were a bit more “expected” than usual—an OK road loss to Oregon followed by a solid win at Oregon State—but the Buffaloes’ goofy résumé remains as unique (and difficult to parse) as ever. All things considered, Colorado’s three Quad 3 losses and middle-of-the-pack performance metrics are something to beware, but they shouldn’t supersede the Buffaloes’ high marks in NET (No. 21) and efficiency (KenPom No. 18) as well as their hugely important road wins over USC and Stanford. The Buffs are still safe.
UCLA: UCLA is back. Well, maybe not back back—the Bruins did just narrowly escape 7-11 Arizona State at home on Saturday—but they have won three straight after a difficult spell that straddled the end of January and beginning of February. UCLA’s metrics haven’t quite returned to their previous highs, but they’re getting there, and so is the Bruins’ NET ranking: up six spots from a week ago. Up next: an arduous road trip—Utah on Thursday and Colorado on Saturday. Tough stuff, but a Rocky Mountains split should meet the minimum for re-entering the domain of “safe for now.”
Oregon: With USC’s loss to Arizona, the Oregon Ducks are now the owners of the Pac-12’s longest winning streak at five games. Less than a month ago, we were seriously questioning the at-large odds of a résumé featuring the No. 59 NET, consecutive Quad 3 losses, and a singular marquee win over Seton Hall from Dec. 4. That same résumé looks a lot healthier now, home to the No. 42 NET, a 6-2 record across Quadrants 1 and 2, and largely favorable metrics. Give the Ducks credit; they’re getting hot at the right time. If that steam can somehow coalesce into an upset of USC in the Galen Center on Monday night, then Oregon would be due for a leap in status. It’s undoubtedly a tall task, but the Ducks have shown their capability as of recent. Don’t be shocked if it happens.
Stanford: The bubble poster child does it again. Stanford took care of Washington on Thursday, avoiding a costly Quad 3 loss. Nice! The Cardinal then fell in triple overtime on Saturday to Washington State. Not so nice. That loss is only Quad 2, so it’s not devastating, but it is representative of a Stanford team stuck in second gear—two steps forward, one step back. Literally. The Cardinal have gone win-win-loss-win-win-loss over the last six. Probably not the best strategy for a team that finds itself on the edge of the field day after day...
Safe for now: Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, LSU, Florida
Bubble: Ole Miss
Tennessee: When it’s all said and done, Alabama could end up as the SEC’s only top-four seed, only because Tennessee and Missouri keep shooting themselves in the foot. The Volunteers in particular have been hard to figure out, one day handling the likes of South Carolina with ease and the next struggling mightily against the worst Kentucky team of John Calipari’s tenure. It just seems so uncharacteristic for a program that has thrived under Rick Barnes’ leadership. Certainly Tennessee is in no danger of missing the tournament—just see its five Quad 1 wins and No. 17 NET for proof—but these waves of inconsistency have got to stop sometime.
Missouri: Who is the real Missouri? Is it the team that ranks ninth in KPI and owns six Quad 1 wins against the likes of Illinois, Alabama and Oregon? Or is it the team that ranks 39th in NET and falls 10 spots below Penn State in adjusted efficiency margin? Unfortunately, recent data indicates that the latter is the true identity of the Tigers (see three straight losses to Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia in mid-February), though a 15-point win over South Carolina on Saturday does help to polish some of the nicks. Even then, the No. 4 seed that Missouri received during the selection committee’s top-16 preview show now appears to be out of reach.
Arkansas: Considering the Volunteers and Tigers’ newfound strife, it’s not a stretch at all to think that Arkansas might end up being the silver to Alabama’s gold. The Razorbacks are on a roll—winners of the last four and seven of the last eight—taking a 17-5 record, the No. 26 NET ranking and eight Quad 1/2 wins into Monday. Good stuff, and it only gets better, as Wednesday presents a delectable opportunity for Arkansas: a home-court rematch with the Crimson Tide. This is one of those rare instances where a win equals an immediate lock, no questions asked. It should be a fun one in Fayetteville on Wednesday night.
LSU: Boy, that LSU offense sure is fun to watch, huh? The Tigers dropped 104 on their striped rivals from Auburn en route to their third straight victory, marking the 18th time in 20 total games that the offense has posted at least 75 points. That’s no small feat inside a conference with defensive juggernauts like Alabama and Tennessee. Defense itself remains an issue for LSU, which ranks 140th efficiency-wise in that category, but it doesn’t do any damage to the Tigers’ résumé, which appears deserving of a seed in the upper half of the bracket.
Florida: Florida’s return from a 12-day pause was fairly unspectacular; the Gators lost a close one at Arkansas on Tuesday then followed it up with a good win over a scrappy Georgia team on Saturday. Nothing eye-catching, but nothing harmful either. What could be harmful is Florida’s surprisingly difficult remaining schedule. The homestretch kicks off this week with visits to Auburn and Kentucky—a dastardly duo of trap games—before closing with a match against Missouri in Gainesville on March 3. Tread carefully, Gators.
Ole Miss: What a gut punch for Ole Miss. Immediately following an impressive four-game win streak and formal entrance to the bubble, the Rebels got stuffed at home by in-state rival Mississippi State. That’s another Quad 3 loss and possibly a dealbreaker for their at-large profile. It’s not the nail in the coffin just yet—the Rebs still have time for a turnaround with Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining—but the margin for error is razor thin. Ole Miss simply can’t afford to suffer another result like Saturday’s.
Safe for now: BYU, Loyola Chicago
Bubble: Drake, Western Kentucky, Belmont, Winthrop
BYU: Mission accomplished. All BYU had to do to avoid remaining on the bubble was quell the week’s upset bids of Pacific and Loyola Marymount. The Cougars passed with flying colors, trouncing the Tigers and Lions by 28 and 17, respectively. Now ranked No. 22 in the NET and No. 20 in KenPom, BYU is on the cusp of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015. Another weekend of bad-loss avoidance and a win or two in the ensuing conference tournament should guarantee the Cougars a spot in March Madness.
Loyola Chicago: For BYU, it was mission accomplished. For Loyola Chicago it was crisis averted. The Ramblers, 16-4 in Division I and owners of the No. 11 overall NET ranking and No. 9 overall adjusted efficiency, waltzed into Wednesday’s home game as 19-point favorites over Valparaiso—the same team that handed Drake its first loss of the season. Sure enough, Valpo came to wreak havoc again, leading for the majority of the contest. But Loyola eked out the 54-52 win, avoiding a potentially lethal Quadrant 4 loss. The win kept the Ramblers’ numbers intact—numbers that are strong enough to deserve a jump to “safe for now,” even with the Valpo scare.
Drake: Drake doesn’t have the same metrics freedom as Missouri Valley counterpart Loyola, so the Bulldogs’ overall wiggle room is a lot more constraining. But they’ve moseyed on their merry way since that season-saving victory over the Ramblers on Valentine’s Day, knocking off Northern Iowa and Evansville with relative ease. A rematch with Evansville occurs Monday night, but the Bulldogs’ true threat to security is the final regular-season showdown against Bradley. The Braves, winners of each of the last two MVC tournaments, have been known to raise some hell every once in a while. And both contests against the Braves are on the road; Drake really can’t afford to overlook its opponent.
Western Kentucky: Look at Western Kentucky getting crafty. This past weekend was supposed to provide the Hilltoppers with a pair of Quad 1 opportunities at North Texas: much-needed additions to a résumé that has been stuck in neutral since mid-January. But rotten luck befell WKU, and inclement weather ended up postponing the series with the Mean Green. Phooey. But, hey! That didn’t keep the Toppers down. In a stroke of genius, WKU pulled off a scheduling miracle, adding a bout with the Houston Cougars to its Thursday evening. This can only be good for the Toppers, so long as they aren’t run out of the gymnasium. A loss to the NET No. 6 team on the road can’t possibly hurt the résumé, and an upset win—as unlikely as it is—would be a total game-changer. And in either scenario, WKU’s SOS and NCSOS would receive a push in the right direction. That’s how you schedule!
Belmont & Winthrop: Once again, we put Belmont and Winthrop together, as their situations are identical. Both team sheets are overflowing with wins—Belmont has the most of any team in Division I with 23—but both are almost completely devoid of quality. Winthrop does own a pair of Quad 2 victories over Furman and UNC Greensboro, but both are teetering right along the edge of Q3 and could vanish in a snap. No, if the committee could only choose one of the two, it would opt for the Bruins, which possess the edge in NET and each of the five major metrics. But until either of these two conference powerhouses loses another game, we’ll have the same question rattling around our heads: Would the committee leave out a two-loss, non-conference tournament champion because of a poor schedule? It’s kind of a moral dilemma. Again, best wishes to the Eagles and Bruins—we’d highly prefer not to see this disaster scenario unfold.
It’s with great sadness that I announce the departure of Toledo from the Bubble Watch. The Rockets are a fun team and are clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest of the MAC résumé-wise. But a close inspection of their team sheet reveals a sad truth: they have no chance. Quadrant 3 losses can be made up for if you’re in a major conference, as Quad 1 and 2 opportunities are typically bountiful. But as a member of the MAC, Toledo doesn’t have that same liberty. A lone Quad 1 victory and super iffy metrics aren’t going to make up for their three sub-NET 100 missteps. We can put the Rockets in the same category as teams like Marshall, UC Santa Barbara, Louisiana Tech, Wright State and Colgate—fun mid-majors that are worth keeping an eye on if they can get into the bracket—but as an at-large candidate, Toledo is just too much of a longshot.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Senior / Broadcast Journalism