Bauer’s Bubble Watch 4.0
The big day is rapidly approaching. March 15 marks Selection Sunday, and when that day finally arrives, 68 teams will hear their names called for a chance to win the national championship. But some teams aren’t preoccupied with their chances of winning the title. They’re more worried about whether or not they’ll actually be in the tournament. These teams are on the bubble, and they’re what Bauer’s Bubble Watch is all about.
One thing that these teams have to be concerned with is the size of the bubble. As time passes, the bubble shrinks. This is due to one of two reasons. Either bubble teams finish their seasons well enough to move up into safe territory, or they play poorly enough to be removed from the conversation altogether. These teams fighting for their tournament lives will have to try their best to not fall victim to the latter category.
As per usual, Bauer’s Bubble Watch will take a look at every team in contention for an at-large bid by grouping them into the designations of “lock,” “safe for now” and “bubble.” These assignments will be made after evaluating tournament résumé factors like predictive metrics, strength of schedule, strength of record, quadrant victories and losses, and other useful numbers.
The shrinking bubble claims a few victims this week, but lock territory grows in size, as four teams are now guarantees for March Madness.
With introductions out of the way, 2020’s fourth edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch is a go.
Locks: Duke, Florida State, Louisville
Safe for now:
Bubble: Virginia, NC State, Notre Dame, Syracuse
For the fourth straight week, the general shape of the ACC remains unchanged. While we have seen a few teams enter or fall off the bubble, that’s the only movement that has occurred thus far.
The Virginia Cavaliers still aren’t “safe for now” yet, but they’re making their way there. The defending champions have now won four in a row and seven of the last eight, and the metrics have risen steadily over the past month thanks to it. NET and KenPom are still a bit on the low side for a team vying for a climb in status (No. 51 and No. 48, respectively), but a 2-0 week with a home win over Duke on Saturday would be enough to put UVA on the upward move.
NC State improved its tournament stock about as well as it could, defeating Duke by double digits on Wednesday and coming up six points short of toppling Florida State on Saturday. Most projections now have the Wolfpack just in the field or just outside of it, a huge improvement from where they were a week ago. Still, that position is no place to feel comfortable. NC State has to keep rolling.
Notre Dame is quietly hanging around. A 17-10 record and metrics landing in the 50s and 60s are so-so numbers for a bubble team, but the Fighting Irish have the opportunity to improve their stock. A relatively painless remaining schedule presents one major challenge in Florida State: a necessary victory for Notre Dame to stay alive. But a 4-0 finish is in the realm of possibility, and that would put the Fighting Irish at 21-10 entering conference play. Surely that would merit a little bit of conversation.
As for Syracuse, it’s just about time to pull the plug. Like Notre Dame, the Orange have an easy remaining schedule, but none of their opponents stand out as opportunities to boost a middling résumé. The bubble watch assumes that every at-large contender can afford at least one more loss (coming in the conference tournament, of course), and that loss could be one too many for the Orange. Anything but a 4-0 finish in the regular season should sink them for good.
Virginia Tech is officially dead after going 0-2 last week. The Hokies now join Pittsburgh, Clemson and Miami in the hunt for an NIT invite. They aren’t favored in any of their remaining games, so even that could be a task too tall.
Safe for now: Houston
Bubble: Wichita State, Cincinnati, Memphis
Lock status evades Houston once again, as the Cougars fell at Memphis on Saturday. Still, they’re No. 24 in NET, and each other of their predictive metrics ranks higher than that. There’s no real reason for Houston to worry right now.
Wichita State is less safe than Houston, but a 20-7 record that features metrics ranging in the 30s and no bad losses means that the Shockers are in a relatively good position compared to other bubble teams. They whiffed on an opportunity to tack on a much-needed Quadrant 1 win over Cincinnati on Sunday, but they’ll get one more chance to do so when they visit Memphis in early March.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, seems to be stuck in bubble limbo. It’s been one step forward and one step back for the Bearcats since February began, as wins over Wichita State, Memphis and Houston in that time frame have been counteracted by losses to UConn and UCF. If the Bearcats can pull off the season sweep of Houston by winning at the Fertitta Center on Sunday, it would mean a great deal for their postseason aspirations.
Memphis found a way to survive the week, avoiding disaster against East Carolina before knocking off Houston at home on Saturday. The Tigers still have a fairly large hole to climb out of, as they rank No. 61 in NET and No. 67 in KenPom, but with Q2 clashes against SMU and Wichita State and a Q1 rematch with Houston left on the schedule, Penny Hardaway’s squad is still very much alive.
SMU and Tulsa now find themselves off the bubble. The former is exceptionally disappointing, as the Mustangs were on a massive upswing following a huge home win over Houston, but losses at Tulane and Tulsa leave no other option but to ax SMU from the watch. Despite the win over the Mustangs, Tulsa has similarly subpar metrics, and there isn’t enough time or space left for the Golden Hurricane to amend those numbers and become a true at-large contender.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Rhode Island, Richmond, VCU
Saturday’s overtime loss to Davidson is an example of Rhode Island stumbling at the wrong time. Being from a mid-major conference and having only one Q1 win, the Rams have little room for error. If Selection Sunday were today, chances are that Rhode Island would be in the field, but there’s no way to certify that. For now, the Rams are still on the bubble.
Richmond took an even more disastrous hit this weekend. After building steam with five straight victories, the Spiders tripped and fell hard at St. Bonaventure on Saturday. As a team that has been straddling the line between in and out for the past two weeks, Richmond really couldn’t afford this kind of loss, as none of its major metrics rank higher than No. 43. Considering that only Q2 and Q3 opponents are left on the schedule, the Spiders probably can’t take another loss until the conference tournament.
VCU is torpedoing into the NIT and there may be no way to stop it. The Rams have lost four straight and have fallen from NET No. 32 to No. 58 in the span of two weeks. Sure, three of those four losses were to Q1 opponents, but they desperately needed to win some of those games, as they have just one Q1 win with three weeks remaining. If the Rams come up flat again this week, there’s a good chance that they won’t even be on the page next Monday.
Saint Louis can hang its hat on an impressive double-digit win over VCU last Friday, but it can’t do the same for any of its major metrics, with KPI ranking the highest at No. 58. For now, the Billikens are off the bubble.
Locks: Seton Hall, Creighton, Villanova, Butler, Marquette
Safe for now:
Bubble: Xavier, Georgetown, Providence
Xavier had the opportunity to move into “safe for now” territory (or at least closer to it) with a win over Villanova on Saturday, but the Musketeers came 12 points short of doing that. They seem to be well into the field right now, but the fact that some experts disagree means it’s another week on the bubble for the X-men.
Talk about a punch in the gut for Georgetown. After looking like a clear-cut tournament candidate with a massive win at Butler, the Hoyas went 0-for-2 last week, falling at home to Providence and dropping a tight one at previously 1-12 in-conference DePaul. In all likelihood, Georgetown is back on the outside looking in. A grueling end-of-season schedule remains with trips to Marquette and Creighton and home bouts with Xavier and Villanova on the queue. If the misfortune continues, it could get ugly for the Hoyas.
There was a time in late November when Providence looked like one of the absolute worst teams in the power conferences. Those days are long gone, as the Friars have won five of the last seven, each of those being Q1. They’re in the NET top 50 for the first time this season and have semi-solid metrics to boot. If not for those pesky Q3 and Q4 losses, Providence would probably be well into the field. Right now, the Friars sit squarely on the bubble, but if recent history is any indication of the future, they could be in for a pleasant finish to their season.
Locks: Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State
Safe for now: Wisconsin, Illinois
Bubble: Rutgers, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota
Another week brings another lock for the Big Ten. The Michigan Wolverines, winners of five straight, rank No. 22 in NET and No. 14 or higher in every predictive metric, own a 7-8 Q1 record, and don’t have a single loss worse than Q2A. They’ve sealed the deal for a tournament bid.
Ohio State also joins Michigan as a lock by virtue of taking down Maryland at home on Sunday. With résumé numbers as high as No. 11 and only four regular season games left to go, the Buckeyes are now cemented into March.
Wisconsin has flipped the switch at just the right time. The Badgers are now winners of four straight, leaving their previously questionable 13-10 record in the past. Now 17-10 with seven Q1 wins, Wisconsin is knocking on the door of becoming a lock. What keeps the Badgers from that status for now is a Q3 loss to New Mexico and metrics ranking in the low 20s, but it’s safe to say that they’d be in the field of 68 if the season ended today.
Illinois clawed out a direly needed win at Penn State on Tuesday, and the return of superstar Ayo Dosunmu clearly had something to do with it, as the sophomore put up 24 points in his first game back from injury. That result ends the Fighting Illini’s sudden late-season slide and keeps them from falling into bubble territory. There’s still a bit of work to do before they’re guaranteed to be in the field, but an appearance in March Madness for the first time since 2013 seems extremely likely.
It might be time for Rutgers to hit the panic button. The Scarlet Knights have looked like a team safely in the field for weeks now, but five losses in the last seven games have them on red alert and falling onto the bubble. To make matters worse, Rutgers closes the regular season with trips to State College and West Lafayette and a rematch in Piscataway with conference-leading Maryland. The selection committee may punish the Scarlet Knights for their 1-7 road record and having only three Q1 wins in the deepest conference in Division I, so winning at least one of those final three is imperative.
Indiana’s tournament hopes are certainly a lot cheerier following back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Penn State. The Hoosiers still have work to do to bring up their low NET rating of No. 52, but most signs (especially those six Q1 wins) are pointing to Indiana taking a jump into “safe for now” category in the near future.
At some point, a good résumé just isn’t enough. Purdue may be No. 36 in NET, No. 25 in KenPom, No. 21 in BPI and No. 32 in Sagarin, and it may own four Q1 wins, but the truth is that the Boilermakers aren’t in the field because they’re 14-14. No team has ever made the tournament as an at-large in the 68-team era with fewer than four wins above .500. Unless the Boilermakers are planning on becoming trend-breakers, they’ll need to win their next five in a row with two of those wins coming in the conference tournament. If there were any team to buck the trend, it would probably be Purdue, but it just seems unlikely right now.
The same exact argument can be applied to 13-13 Minnesota, which finally stopped its three-game skid by defeating Northwestern on Sunday. The Golden Gophers are even further removed from the field than Purdue due to worse predictive metrics and a lower NET (No. 42). It seems like their only hope is to piece together a lengthy winning streak.
Locks: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia
Safe for now: Texas Tech
Bubble: Oklahoma, Texas
With Texas Tech boasting the No. 16 NET ranking and numerous predictive metrics in the top 20, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which the Red Raiders are left out of the NCAA Tournament. It could happen, but it would require a pretty big late-season collapse. If Texas Tech can go 2-0 against Oklahoma and Texas before the final-week gauntlet of at Baylor and vs. Kansas begins, that should be good enough for a lock.
It’s odd that Oklahoma isn’t in more danger. The Sooners have lost three straight, including a less-than-stellar defeat at Oklahoma State on Saturday. Throw in some mediocre metrics and a 3-9 Q1 record and you have a pretty lackluster résumé. And yet, Oklahoma still appears in most experts’ projections, most likely due to a strong strength of schedule. The Sooners have four remaining opportunities to fix their errors before conference tournament play begins. Can they get back on the right path, or will they play themselves into the NIT?
Texas hangs on to the bubble by the skin of its teeth after posting a desperately needed 2-0 week against TCU and Kansas State, but the hill ahead might just be too steep to climb. None of the Longhorns’ metrics rank higher than their SOR of No. 51, and they have just two Q1 wins within the Big 12. To stay alive, Texas needs to keep winning and get a lot of help.
Locks: Oregon, Colorado, Arizona
Safe for now:
Bubble: Arizona State, USC, Stanford, UCLA
Arizona State is getting very, very close to becoming safe. The Sun Devils are on fire with seven straight victories, three of those being Q1. The only hesitation that the selection committee might have about the Sun Devils is their less-than-favorable numbers (No. 41 in NET, No. 55 in KenPom, No. 64 in BPI), but the five Q1 victories and lack of any Q3 or Q4 losses will most likely wipe aside those worries. One more week of excellence should have Arizona State moving up a rank.
USC has become a rather worrisome bubble prospect. A tournament bid seemed like a sure thing back when the Trojans were 17-4, but a 2-5 record since has them reeling. The lackluster Q1 record (2-7) and sagging predictive metrics certainly don’t help their case. Either a trip to Dayton in the First Four or a home game in the NIT seems to be in USC’s future. Neither result is great, but the former is a heck of a lot better.
Stanford finally ended a résumé-sinking dry spell with a 2-0 week in Washington, but it may be too little, too late. Only NET and KenPom place Stanford in the top 40. Everything else sits as No. 50 or worse. On the upside, the Cardinal will get a crack at Colorado and Oregon before the conference tournament begins. Winning one of those two and taking care of business elsewhere appears to be a requirement.
Oregon State falls off the bubble, but another Pac-12 team joins it: UCLA. The Bruins’ season turnaround is rivaled only by Providence, as UCLA has won five in a row and nine of the last 11 to reach 16-11 and 10-5 in conference play. The Bruins remain on the far outskirts of the bubble, as everything but KPI ranks No. 60 or worse, but their climb has been so unprecedented that it seems like the sky’s the limit right now. Should the Bruins fail to build up a tournament résumé in time for Selection Sunday, they could be a popular underdog pick to steal a bid via winning the Pac-12 conference tournament.
Locks: Auburn, Kentucky, LSU
Safe for now: Florida
Bubble: Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee
It seems like all worry can be put aside for LSU. The Tigers are now 19-8 with three Q1 wins, a NET of No. 30, favorable predictive metrics, and, most importantly, the No. 8 SOS and NCSOS in the nation. Put all those numbers together and you have a tournament lock.
Florida wasn’t quite able to pull off the upset at Rupp Arena on Saturday, but the rest of the Gators’ résumé points to a team that should be safely in the field. Of the major metrics, only SOR ranks below No. 34, and strong SOS and NCSOS numbers help Florida’s cause. A fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament appears to be in order.
A victory over Missouri on Saturday finally halts Arkansas’ losing streak at five. The win comes with good timing, as the Razorbacks are still in control of their own destiny for a tournament bid. Recency bias has kicked Arkansas well out of most experts’ projections, but in reality, the Razorbacks have numbers that very much read borderline tournament team. Clearly, they’ll need to improve that stock over the next three weeks to avoid the NIT, but the Razorbacks’ postseason hopes are far from dead.
Getting more than five SEC teams into the tournament seems like a pipe dream at this point. Still, a number of outside contenders remain hopeful at changing that prospect, and the most likely candidate was Mississippi State (and it still may be), but the Bulldogs’ double-digit loss to Texas A&M on Saturday knocks those hopes down a peg. There aren’t many quality opportunities remaining for Mississippi State to rectify its mistakes, so it really can’t afford to make many more. The Bulldogs just need to focus on winning the games that they’re supposed to.
Alabama falls into a similar camp as Purdue and Minnesota. While 15-12 isn’t as worrisome as being .500 this late into the season, that record is still a bit too close for comfort for a true bubble team. The good news is that NET, Sagarin, SOS and NCSOS all point to a team that should be playing in March. The bad news is that BPI, KPI, Q1 record and Q3 record don’t. Like Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide really need to focus on winning the games that they should be winning. Tuesday’s battle in Starkville is going to be monumental for deciding the shape of the SEC bubble.
South Carolina’s steady climb in the metrics has hit a snag with back-to-back losses to Mississippi State and LSU. Those aren’t bad losses to have, but the Gamecocks are 16-11 with two Q3/Q4 losses and metrics mostly in the 60s. They can’t afford many more losses of any kind.
Tennessee is still in the bubble conversation but only barely. Saturday was a huge missed opportunity, as the Volunteers blew a 17-point lead to kill what would have been an impressive road win over Auburn. Instead, Tennessee is now 15-12 with a NET of No. 64 and just one Q1 win. The rest of regular season play is only Q1 and Q2 opportunities, so the Vols will get their fair shake, but it remains to be seen whether or not they can capitalize.
Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State, BYU
Safe for now:
Bubble: Saint Mary’s, Utah State, East Tennessee State, Northern Iowa, UNC Greensboro, Liberty, Yale, Stephen F. Austin
For the first time since the original bubble watch article, we have another lock from a mid-major conference: enter BYU. The Cougars were already making a push with their consistent top-20 metrics and No. 9 overall NCSOS, but it’s Saturday’s victory over Gonzaga that seals the deal. With only a trip to Pepperdine and a likely triple bye in the WCC tournament remaining, the Cougars can lose out and still remain safely in the field. By virtue of that, they are a lock.
Saint Mary’s has a bit more work to do to join BYU as the WCC’s third representative. Like the Cougars, a win over conference leader Gonzaga would do the trick, but we all know what happened the last time the Gaels and Bulldogs met. A more realistic path to March would involve taking care of Santa Clara on Thursday and winning a game or two in the conference tournament.
Utah State is doing a great job of following the prescribed course of action by—you guessed it—winning. That’s eight in the last nine outings for the Aggies, and the top-40 metrics reflect it. At the moment, Utah State is appearing in most projections as a likely play-in game candidate, so there’s more winning that needs to be done, but as long as the Aggies can avoid disaster, the future appears to be bright.
With each passing victory, East Tennessee State appears more and more likely to be a part of March Madness. The Buccaneers haven’t slipped up since late January, and they’re being rewarded with favorable numbers in NET and SOR (No. 39 and No. 28, respectively). Still, it’s probably in their best interest to win the SoCon tournament outright and avoid the stress of waiting in agony to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Fellow SoCon contender UNC Greensboro also appears on the bubble, but with only SOR ranking higher than No. 50, an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament seems like a longshot. Still, the Spartans haven’t lost since Feb. 1, so they at least stay alive for now. The same can’t be said for Furman, which falls off the bubble after failing to earn its first Q1 win of the year at ETSU on Wednesday. It’s just impossible to imagine a SoCon team receiving an at-large invitation without a win of that caliber.
Northern Iowa’s at-large hopes are on thin ice. After falling to Loyola Chicago in overtime last Saturday, the Panthers tripped up again at Indiana State on Thursday. They nearly did it a third time against Southern Illinois on Sunday, but a 31-4 run in the second half saved what would have been the dagger in UNI’s season. It seems like the only loss that the Panthers can suffer at this point and still remain an at-large option is a Missouri Valley tournament championship loss to Loyola Chicago. Any other result probably sends the Panthers to the NIT. It seems like it would just be easier to win the conference tournament outright and avoid the anguish.
Yale narrowly avoided the at-large killer that would have been a loss to Cornell, but that overtime victory over the Big Red means that the Bulldogs are still alive, however slim their odds may be. Just as it was last week, only a loss to Harvard in the Ivy League championship game can keep Yale in the fight for an at-large invitation.
This week, Liberty is joined by fellow three-loss candidate Stephen F. Austin on the watch, as the two provide an interesting foil for each other. The most obvious similarity is that both the Flames and Lumberjacks have just three losses to 20-plus victories, but a deeper dive reveals that Liberty and Stephen F. Austin rank No. 50 and No. 46 in SOR, respectively (pretty good!) as well as No. 298 and No. 342 in SOS (not so good). The main difference between the two lies in predictive metrics and quality wins. Alongside NET, Liberty knocks the predictive metrics battle out of the park, but Stephen F. Austin has the upper hand in terms of quality wins. The Lumberjacks’ wild November upset of Duke is doing the heavy lifting on their résumé, and Liberty doesn’t have the same signature win to point to. Regardless, the unfortunate truth remains that both teams will probably need to win their conference tournaments in order to play in the big bracket. The life of a mid-major basketball school isn’t an easy one.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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