Bauer’s Bubble Watch 1.0
The Super Bowl is now behind us, and the heart of the college basketball season is here. In just over a month’s time, the NCAA selection committee will announce which 68 teams will be playing in March Madness for a chance at the national championship. But before we can fill out our brackets, we have to figure out which teams will receive an invite to the madness and which ones will be watching the tournament from home.
That’s what Bauer’s Bubble Watch is for. With the bubble watch, we’ll assess each team’s tournament odds using a number of measures, including quadrant wins and losses, strength of record, strength of schedule, overall body of work, and predictive metrics like KenPom and Sagarin, to separate them into the categories of “lock,” “safe for now” and “bubble.” What exactly do those designations entail? Before we begin, let’s explain the terminology.
Any team that is a “lock” has a 99% chance or greater to make the NCAA Tournament. Only a collapse of monumental proportions could keep a lock outside of the field of 68. Once a team earns lock status, it cannot lose it. It’s a lock for good.
Any team that is “safe for now” is not quite a sure thing for March Madness, but considering its current tournament résumé, it’s very unlikely that it’ll be left out of the field.
The teams on the bubble are the ones that we’re most concerned about. Any team with the “bubble” designation is straddling the border between being included and being excluded. Some bubble teams are safer than others, but no bubble team can feel comfortable with its position. All bubble teams have work to do, either to reach “safe” status or to draw closer to the tournament cut line and avoid falling off the bubble.
As a side note, we’ll be analyzing our bubble teams in a conference-by-conference breakdown, featuring the ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, as well as other at-large contenders from mid-major conferences.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dig into 2020’s first edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch.
Locks: Duke, Louisville, Florida State
Safe for now:
Bubble: Virginia, NC State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pittsburgh
You may not find a conference that separates the top from the rest of the pack more so than the ACC. Duke, Louisville and Florida State all appear as locks, while the rest of the conference’s contenders find themselves on the bubble. That’s largely due to the aforementioned trio’s combined record of 55-9 and consistent top-20 metrics and résumé factors. No other team in the ACC can match those numbers.
While a down year for the ACC sees only three locks for this conference as of now, there very well could be a fourth tournament entrant, and the most likely candidate is Virginia. The defending champions got off to a rough start in ACC play but have since earned some résumé-boosting wins, including one at home over Florida State last week. Though the Cavaliers’ current NET of No. 58 is a bit low for a bubble team, the stats are all trending in the right direction, and Virginia has plenty of opportunities ahead to better solidify itself in the bracket.
The numbers are even uglier for NC State and Virginia Tech, both of which are on three-game skids. The Wolfpack were expected to be a tournament contender in the preseason; the Hokies were not. Call it a disappointment for NC State and a pleasant surprise for VT, but both teams are sitting on the outside looking in right now. The first order of business for either team is to stop the losing streak. The next goal is to increase both predictive metrics and raw numbers in order to remain in tournament discussion. The remedy to this issue? Winning.
Other ACC contenders seem like longshots at this point. The best case belongs to Syracuse, which was on a good trajectory until back-to-back losses to Clemson and Duke killed the Orange’s momentum. Three Quadrant 1 wins definitely help their case, but a low SOR of No. 70 and middling predictive metrics certainly don’t. Still, as volatile as the Orange tend to be, they’re worth keeping an eye on.
Pittsburgh is an ever bigger stretch with metrics in the 80s, though the Panthers do own a couple of weighty wins. Still, of any ACC team listed, it’s clear that Pitt has the most work to do.
Notre Dame isn’t mentioned above, as it’s hard to imagine that the committee will consider a team with a major metric in the triple digits (No. 100 in KPI), but the Fighting Irish have been competitive in every ACC game they’ve played. Another week or so of standout basketball and they could find themselves on this page.
Safe for now: Houston, Wichita State
Bubble: Memphis, Cincinnati, Tulsa, SMU
There are no locks this early for the American, which is typical for a borderline mid-major conference. Houston and Wichita State are as close as we get, as both land in “safe for now” territory with their respective 17-5 and 17-4 records, but neither team’s résumé stacks up with any of the locks, especially Wichita State, which still hasn’t recorded a Quad 1 win.
Memphis presents an interesting bubble case, as one has to wonder how well the Tigers would have performed had James Wiseman not been ruled ineligible. They are 16-5, but the lack of quality wins, the middling résumé and the poor predictive numbers certainly aren’t helping their case. All Memphis can do is continue to win, which it has done the last two times out.
Cincinnati is currently going under the radar, so much so that you might not see the Bearcats’ name appear on other bubble watches. But they deserve to be listed with their semi-strong NET (No. 46) and other supportive numbers (No. 34 in Sagarin, No. 38 in KPI). They’ve also won four in a row, so their chances to continue climbing the bubble ranks seem high.
Perhaps even hotter than Cincinnati right now is the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Tulsa has won six straight and sits atop the American standings with a 7-1 conference record. Those numbers may point to a tournament team, but zero Q1 wins, a Q4 loss, and metrics ranging from Nos. 54-80 don’t. There’s still plenty of work to do for the red-hot Hurricane.
SMU makes an appearance on the bubble as well, but only one bracket out of 78 featured on BracketMatrix.com has the Mustangs in the field. With just one Q1 win and no metric ranked higher than No. 66, SMU has a lofty climb ahead.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Rhode Island, VCU, Richmond, Saint Louis
It’s always risky to give lock status to a team from a mid-major conference, but it just doesn’t seem possible that Dayton could fall out of the picture. The Flyers are 20-2 with a flawless conference record and metrics all north of No. 15, so we can say with good confidence that they are a lock.
In terms of a second representative from the A-10, Rhode Island seems like the most likely choice. URI checks many of the boxes, boasting the No. 29 SOR, a strong SOS, predictive metrics in the 40s, and a signature win at VCU in early January. With eight straight wins under their belt, the Rams are trending in the right direction at the right time.
The other Rams (VCU, that is) almost match up whim-for-whim with URI in terms of numbers, but Rhode Island owns a pair of victories over VCU. Head-to-head isn’t one of the official criteria used by the selection committee, but if the final slot comes down to VCU and Rhode Island, the committee will surely have those results in mind.
Two A-10 teams on the outside looking in worth keeping an eye on are Richmond and Saint Louis. While the predictive numbers aren’t kind to either team, both the Spiders and Billikens are in or are near the top 50 in SOR and have at least one signature win. It’s difficult to make a case that either one belongs in the field right now, but they’re worth keeping on the radar for the future.
Some may be asking why Duquesne isn’t on the watch. The answer? Looks can be deceiving. The Dukes may have started 10-0 and currently own a 16-5 record, but not a single major metric has them higher than No. 78. Throw in a poor SOS and an 0-2 Q1 record and you have a team that is nowhere close to the bubble. Sorry, Dukes.
Locks: Villanova, Seton Hall, Butler
Safe for now: Creighton, Marquette
Bubble: Xavier, Georgetown, DePaul, St. John’s
Like the ACC, the Big East owns a trio of locks in Villanova, Seton Hall and Butler. Unlike the ACC, the Big East is pretty well stacked from top to bottom and looks to have anywhere from five to eight teams playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Creighton is inches away from joining the lock club as well. Avoid a pair upsets against Providence and St. John’s this week and the Bluejays should be there. Marquette is a pace behind with inferior metrics, but every single remaining game is a Q1 or Q2 opportunity. There seems to be no reason why the Golden Eagles shouldn’t be a lock a few weeks from now.
After starting Big East play 2-6, Xavier earned a much-needed résumé-boosting win at Seton Hall last Saturday. That gave the Musketeers their second Q1 win and a 14-spot jump in the NET rankings. Depending on who you ask, Xavier is just inside or just outside the field right now. Like Marquette, only Q1 and Q2 opportunities remain. It’s make-or-break time for Xavier.
In terms of the bubble, Georgetown is right on Xavier’s tail with only slightly worse numbers across the board. The Hoyas have also suffered from a poor start in Big East play, but just as mentioned before, there are still plenty of opportunities to rectify those mistakes.
What looked like a dream season for DePaul has quickly come crashing down due to an atrocious 1-8 start to conference play. The Blue Demons need wins and fast, as their metrics have plunged in the past month, most notably their NET, which has fallen 24 spots from its peak. The one saving grace? The Blue Demons own four Q1 wins.
St. John’s is clinging to the bubble discussion by a thread with only a head-to-head sweep of DePaul keeping the Red Storm from being winless in Big East play. Three Q1 wins help the cause, but failing to have a major metric higher than No. 71 doesn’t. St. John’s seems to be in need of a long winning streak to keep the tournament dream alive.
Do the math and you’ll find that nine out of 10 Big East teams have postseason aspirations. The only easy “no” is Providence, due to the Friars’ downright awful 7-4 record in Quad 3 and Quad 4 games. But even then, their three Q1 wins and SOS of No. 18 may be enough for some bubble watches to rethink that notion. It just goes to show how deep the Big East is this year.
Locks: Maryland, Michigan State
Safe for now: Iowa, Penn State, Illinois, Rutgers
Bubble: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota
With as many as 12 teams vying for a spot in March, the Big Ten is easily the deepest conference of them all this year. With that notion comes the fact that there are very few, if any, dominant teams in the Big Ten. As such, only 17-4 Maryland and 16-6 Michigan State are locks, due to their résumés that rank in the top 15 across the board.
Iowa is likely the closest “safe for now” Big Ten team to reaching lock status with an astounding seven Q1 wins, but Penn State and its rather shiny résumé are not far behind. Illinois and Rutgers are also safe for now with their impressive marks thus far. It’s hard to see either the Fighting Illini or the Scarlet Knights leapfrogging Iowa or Penn State as the next Big Ten team to become a lock, but, hey, this is college basketball we’re talking about. Anything can happen.
That leaves a massive six Big Ten teams on the bubble, and some estimations have all six in the field. The most common pick is Ohio State, which started the season 11-1 before dropping to 2-5 in conference play. Despite this, the Buckeyes have since picked up the pace and own a plethora of metrics that scream tournament team, including the No. 12 ranking in KenPom. A few more strides in the right direction and Ohio State should be jumping categories soon.
Wisconsin presents an interesting case with a record of 13-9, but a deep dive into the numbers shows that the Badgers probably should be in the field. They own six Q1 wins and the No. 3 SOS in the nation on top of multiple top-30 résumé factors. The only thing keeping Wisconsin back is a troubling overall record, and it’s enough to have them on the high end of the bubble.
Similar to Wisconsin, Michigan is just 13-8 with a 4-6 conference record, but the résumé numbers are all there. A great non-conference showing that includes wins over Gonzaga and Creighton also helps matters for the Wolverines.
Indiana lags behind the Badgers and Wolverines in most résumé categories, but the Hoosiers make up for it with a superior 15-7 record. Even then, Indiana has lost its last three in a row, and it doesn’t get any easier from here on out, being the Big Ten and all. The Hoosiers need wins to prevent themselves from descending any further.
Now we get to Purdue, which provides perhaps the most fascinating case of any team vying for a spot in the tournament. At first glance, the Boilermakers are a clear “no,” boasting a 12-10 overall record and a 3-8 record outside of West Lafayette. And yet, nearly every single predictive and traditional metric points to Purdue as a tournament team. Should the Boilermakers remain on this same track throughout the rest of the season, they’ll make for the most interesting discussion come Selection Sunday.
Then there’s Minnesota, which bears similar resemblance to Purdue with an 11-10 record. The Golden Gophers’ résumé numbers aren’t as strong across the board as Purdue’s are, but it’s worth noting that Minnesota does have a superior SOS and more Q1 wins. The Golden Gophers deserve to be listed here as well.
That just leaves Nebraska and Northwestern from the Big Ten, both of which must win the conference tournament auto-bid to have a spot in March Madness. What a wacky conference the Big Ten is.
Locks: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia
Safe for now:
Bubble: Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas, TCU
It should be no surprise to see that the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the nation are locks. Some might argue that Kansas should own the top overall spot over Baylor due to a slightly superior résumé, but it’s hard to ignore the Bears’ 12-point victory over the Jayhawks in Lawrence last month.
West Virginia is a lock too with a 17-4 record and nearly every metric ranking the Mountaineers in the top 10. They’re going to be a tough out for any team that they play in March.
Similar to the ACC, there’s a clear cut line between the top teams and the bubble teams in the Big 12. Four teams sit on the bubble, most notably Texas Tech, which was last year’s tournament runner-up. The Red Raiders are in fairly good standing with semi-strong metrics and wins over the likes of West Virginia and Louisville, but a 13-8 record and an inability to show consistency are what keep them on the bubble for now.
Oklahoma’s team sheet is fairly similar to Texas Tech’s, the only major differences being the Sooners’ lower traditional metrics and stronger SOR. These two teams meet next on Tuesday, Feb. 4, in a match that is likely to have a lasting impact on the shape of the Big 12 bubble.
Outside of SOR, Texas doesn’t have a single metric higher than No. 50, which hurts the Longhorns’ tournament odds greatly. But a plethora of résumé-boosting opportunities lie ahead, meaning the Longhorns likely control their own destiny as to whether or not they will hear their name called in March.
The Big 12’s final bubble team is TCU, which doesn’t seem to have much of a case at all right now. Just one Q1 win and a NET ranking of No. 67 (which happens to be TCU’s highest metric) has the Horned Frogs on the very low end of the bubble. They better start winning or they’ll find themselves removed from this page rather quickly.
Safe for now: Colorado, Arizona
Bubble: USC, Stanford, Arizona State
A year removed from being the worst power conference, the Pac-12 has a serious case to include five or six teams in the tournament, a marked improvement from last season.
At the moment, Oregon is the conference’s only lock with a 4-3 Q1 record and numerous top-20 metrics, but Colorado and Arizona are making strong cases to join the Ducks in surefire territory. The Buffaloes own a 4-2 Q1 record and a home win over Oregon. If not for slightly inferior résumé numbers, the Buffaloes would also be locked in. Arizona is a bit further removed with a somewhat puzzlingly low SOR of No. 40, but a NET of No. 8, an SOS of No. 5 and three Q1 wins more than make up for that.
USC lands on the very high end of the bubble. One would think that a 17-5 record and a 3-4 outing in Q1 games should have the Trojans approaching lock status, but other numbers (No. 45 in NET, No. 58 in KenPom, No. 61 in Sagarin) say differently. Still, wins are wins, and the Trojans have plenty of those. They could jump categories very soon.
Stanford is very much in the same boat as USC with a 16-5 record and middle-of-the-line résumé numbers. The peak of the Cardinal’s team sheet is their No. 23 NET ranking, and the valley may be their back-to-back Q3 losses to California and Oregon State. A couple tough road games are up next, so the Cardinal have opportunities to amend these gaffes.
Arizona State seems to make its home on the bubble every year, and 2020 is no different. The Sun Devils are lagging behind other Pac-12 bubble contenders quite a bit, as their KPI margin of No. 43 and SOR mark of No. 49 are the only metrics that rank in the top 50, but the Sun Devils are never an easy team to pin down. Those numbers could rise or fall very quickly, so it’s worth keeping an eye on Arizona State.
A trio of teams just below the bubble in Utah, Oregon State and Washington could make for interesting arguments down the road, but there’s not much basis to those arguments right now. Utah’s predictive metrics are nowhere close to being up to snuff, Oregon State’s dreadful No. 118 SOR pairs up with a mediocre No. 162 SOS for an ugly duo, and Washington’s 12-11 overall record, 2-8 conference record and No. 114 SOR are too much for that Q1 win over Baylor in November to cover up. The Huskies do hold the distinction of being the highest-ranked team in NET (No. 53) to not be in consideration, but that’s unlikely to be much of a factor when everything else is just so bad.
Safe for now: Kentucky, LSU
Bubble: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee
In determining which teams are a lock and which ones are not quite there, the SEC is a bit of a mess. The only sure thing appears to be Auburn, which has added some quality numbers to its once-lackluster résumé, leaving Kentucky and LSU just outside lock territory. One more Q1 win should do the trick for the Wildcats, and they’ll get that chance on Saturday at Tennessee. LSU is in a similar situation, and a win at Auburn on Saturday should almost certainly lock the Tigers in.
Arkansas is definitely in the upper echelon of bubble teams with a 16-5 record, but both the predictive metrics and raw numbers are just a little too close to the cut line to put the Razorbacks securely in the field just yet. A win at home over Auburn on Tuesday would probably be enough to move them up a rank.
A tier lower than the Razorbacks are Florida and Mississippi State, both of which are teams most experts predict to be just inside the field. In terms of which one of these two has the edge, it’s probably the Gators with a slightly superior SOS and two more Q1 wins, but let’s not forget that the Bulldogs won in Gainesville in late January. With Mississippi State currently trending in the right direction and Florida going the opposite, expect the two to switch spots on the bubble sometime in the near future.
NET really seems to like Alabama’s tournament hopes, ranking the Crimson Tide at No. 41 in the latest edition, but not much else points to a tournament team. KenPom isn’t especially bullish on the Crimson Tide, ranking them at No. 46, and neither SOR (No. 69) nor Quad 1 record (1-5) stand out. Following back-to-back losses to LSU and Arkansas, Alabama has work to do to get back on the right track.
South Carolina has burst very suddenly onto the bubble scene. Virtually nobody would have thought the Gamecocks would be here a month ago, but here we are. They’ve won five of their last six to boost their mid-January NET ranking of No. 136 all the way up to No. 74. If the Gamecocks are able to keep up this meteoric climb, look out for them to merit serious bubble discussion in the future.
Tennessee is the last SEC team on the bubble, and the Volunteers’ appearance on this list might be generous. They’re 12-9 with no major metric ranked higher than No. 65, and a recent home loss to bottom-feeder Texas A&M is about as bad as it gets. Two tough challenges appear this week against Alabama and Kentucky. Tennessee will likely need to win at least one of those games to avoid falling off the page and joining Georgia in “just below the bubble” land.
Locks: San Diego State, Gonzaga
Safe for now:
Bubble: BYU, Saint Mary’s, Northern Iowa, Utah State, East Tennessee State, Yale, Liberty
As it was with Dayton, naming Gonzaga and San Diego State as locks this early is a risky exercise, but considering the Bulldogs have yet to lose a conference game and the Aztecs have yet to lose a single game, we can put them both in lock territory without much worry.
The WCC has always been one of the stronger mid-major conferences, and it has the potential to enter three teams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. On top of Gonzaga, the WCC has BYU and Saint Mary’s, both of which currently possess the numbers that point to a tournament team. What’s keeping them both from appearing in the “safe for now” category is the lack of quality wins and the stigma against mid-major teams that don’t have gaudy win totals. The best course of action for the Cougars and Gaels is to keep on winning and hope for the best.
Perhaps the best argument for a non-WCC mid-major at-large bid belongs to Northern Iowa. The Panthers are 17-3 with a win at Colorado on the résumé as well as a quality five-point loss to West Virginia on a neutral site. Throw in a NET ranking of No. 43 and an SOR of No. 27 and you have a compelling at-large case for the Panthers should they fail to win the Missouri Valley conference tournament. The best piece of advice for UNI is the same as every other mid-major contender: keep winning.
If the Mountain West wants another representative in March, the best chance appears to be for Utah State. The Aggies do have a couple fairly nasty conference losses on their résumé, but the predictive and raw metrics place them right in the heart of bubble territory. If the Aggies want to remain there, they really can’t trip over any of the major obstacles that remain.
Three more mid-majors with at-large aspirations are East Tennessee State, Yale and Liberty. ETSU is probably the most compelling case with its 2-1 Q1 record and No. 34 SOR, but the Buccaneers have taken two major blows to the résumé with losses at North Dakota State and vs. Mercer at home. Yale, on other hand, doesn’t have a Q1 win, but the Bulldogs don’t have any bad losses either. Their four L’s have been by a combined 17 points. Pair that with the No. 41 SOR and Yale does have a legitimate at-large argument. Finally, there’s Liberty, which is 19-3 but has no quality wins and suffered back-to-back bad losses to Stetson and North Florida. The Flames likely can’t lose again until the conference tournament championship if they want to be in the at-large discussion. Ultimately, there’s very little room for error for any of these three teams.
A few other solid mid-major teams, such as UNC Greensboro, Furman, Louisiana Tech or Stephen F. Austin, could make serious at-large cases with more time and more winning. Regardless, it’s probably best if these teams focus on winning their respective conference tournaments to ensure an auto-bid into March Madness.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
About the Contributors
Junior / Broadcast Journalism