Bauer’s Bubble Watch: Feb. 8
Bauer’s Bubble Watch is back. And that can mean only one thing: it’s the best time of year. The homestretch. The final month before Selection Sunday.
As you may remember, last year’s bubble watch ended rather unceremoniously because of—ahem—a certain cancellation. But as this is being written, the 2021 NCAA Tournament is a go—and thanks goodness for it. The coronavirus pandemic hit at the worst possible time for college hoops fans, depriving us of what would have surely been a wild and wonderful March Madness after one of the craziest seasons in recent memory.
The 2020-21 season has been equally crazy—though not in the same way. Sure, there have been plenty of upsets, and a surprising number of blue bloods are in serious danger of missing the postseason. But the ongoing pandemic has made for all kinds of wacky scheduling with programs going on pause every week because of COVID concerns. It’s a miracle that we’ve made it this far; let’s hope that miracle continues through the end of March.
Though the scene may be different, the circumstances remain the same: 68 teams will be selected on Sunday, March 14, to compete in the NCAA Tournament for a shot at the national championship. Many of these teams will hail from minor conferences, earning a low seed via the automatic bid, granted by winning their respective conference tournaments (if those do end up happening, that is). But the top 45-50 spots in the bracket are up for grabs for the best teams from the power conferences (and perhaps a couple exemplary standouts from the mid-majors). A handful of these teams will end up earning an autobid, but the rest will need to earn entry into March Madness via their at-large résumé. This is where the bubble watch comes in.
Bauer’s Bubble Watch will separate the contenders from the pretenders, the best from the rest, the wheat from the chaff. We’ll assess each team’s body of work over the course of the 2020-21 season, and by analyzing key résumé components such as strength of schedule, NET ranking, predictive- and performance-metric rankings, quadrant wins, and a number of other factors, we’ll find out which teams are deserving of a place in the bracket and which teams should be watching the tournament from the couch.
Not all tournament résumés are created equal though; this is why we separate our competitors with the designations of “lock,” “safe for now” and “on the bubble.”
Any team granted “lock” status is a near-guarantee to be playing in March. Only a collapse of monumental proportions could keep a lock out of the bracket. And once a team becomes a lock, it’s a lock for good.
The next category is “safe for now”; any team given this label is not quite a guarantee to appear in the bracket, but if the season were to end today, it would be hard to imagine any scenario in which it would be left out.
Finally, there’s the bubble. These are the teams we care about the most. Either just on the inside of the bracket looking out or on the outside looking in, bubble teams cannot feel safe about their status. They’ve got work to do; they either need to win games to reach a higher designation or win games just to get into the projected field of 68 in the first place. Long story short: no one wants to be on the bubble, but it’s better than not being considered at all.
We’ll break down the tournament odds of each at-large competitor conference-by-conference, with focus on the majors (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) and mid-majors with three or more teams in the conversation (American, Atlantic 10, Mountain West), with a bonus section for the top contenders from the rest of Division I.
Alright, lengthy introduction over. Let’s roll.
Safe for now: Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Clemson
Bubble: North Carolina, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech
We’re a little over a month out from Selection Sunday, and the ACC has no locks. This, however, is for the sake of caution. In such a different season where no scheduled game is guaranteed to be played, we must tread carefully with the eternally bounding “lock” status. You’ll see this same carefulness applied to the other major conferences as well.
Despite the lack of a lock, the ACC still has its fair share of good teams, and Virginia is once again at the top of that list. The Cavaliers have overcome their slow start—underscored by a loss to San Francisco and a lengthy COVID pause—to win nine of their last 10 and separate themselves from the rest of the pack atop the conference standings. Assuming the train continues to roll against Georgia Tech and North Carolina this week, Virginia should be sailing into certainty sooner rather than later.
Florida State isn’t far behind. The Seminoles, now 10-3 with a number of great wins both in (Clemson, Louisville) and out (Indiana, Florida) of conference, appear ready to participate in their fourth straight NCAA Tournament. They’ve had a couple bumps here and there (see losses to UCF and Georgia Tech), but their mix of talent and experience under the supervision of coach Leonard Hamilton typically makes for exemplary basketball. Florida State’s lock may come a little later than Virginia’s, as a positive COVID test last Sunday has put the program on hold for the moment. But it should happen in due time.
Virginia Tech is a difficult team to figure out. The Hokies own some of the best wins of any team in the country, including Villanova back in November and Virginia (the Cavaliers’ only in-conference loss) at the end of January, but they’ve also dropped games to bubble teams Penn State, Pittsburgh and Syracuse: each by double digits. The wins have the Hokies securely in the field, but they should probably try to avoid playing overtime games against conference bottom-feeders like Miami if they want to reach absolute safety.
Louisville previously owned one of the most fun stats in all of college basketball. Heading into the weekend, the Cardinals possessed a whopping seven Quadrant 2 wins, the most of any team in Division I. And yet, they didn’t have a single Quadrant 1 victory to their name. Unfortunately, that fun stat has disappeared, as the win over Pittsburgh is now good enough to count as Quad 1, though Louisville probably doesn’t see that change as unfortunate. Regardless, their sheer number of second-tier victories and favorable performance and predictive metrics should meet the quota for inclusion.
There was a time this season when Clemson looked like the best team in the ACC. There was also a time this season when it looked like the worst. Now it seems that the Tigers have settled somewhere in the middle, winning each of the last two over North Carolina and Syracuse by fairly secure margins. Clemson’s early work has its quadrant numbers in good shape (8-5 across Q1 and Q2), but lower rankings in NET (No. 46) and KenPom (No. 46) could be cause for concern. The Tigers are in for now, but there’s still work to be done.
Last year’s cancellation of the NCAA Tournament saved North Carolina from its first March Madness miss since 2010. Now the Tar Heels are in danger of missing again. This year’s team is considerably better than last’s (a loaded frontcourt and more experience does that), but a tournament invite is no sure thing, as the Tar Heels entered Saturday ranked No. 56 in the NET and without a Quad 1 win. They finally picked up that top-tier victory by beating Duke (and like Louisville, the earlier Pitt win has flipped to Q1), but it isn’t enough to definitively say that the Tar Heels would be in the field of 68 if it were revealed today. They remain a bubble team for now.
Syracuse on the bubble? Now why does that sound familiar? The Orange have made their home along the cut line in four of the past five seasons, and this year appears to be no different, as rankings in NET, KenPom and Sagarin all in the No. 50-54 range just scream bubble. The issue? A lack of good wins. Saturday’s loss to Clemson is a hard one to take, as a victory over the Tigers would have been the Orange’s first in Quad 1: a noticeable absence on their résumé. Most projections have the Orange on the outside looking in, so a hot stretch in the final month seems necessary for a tournament invite.
Pittsburgh hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016, Jamie Dixon’s final year as head coach. For a moment, it looked like that drought had a real chance of ending, as Pitt entered the weekend of Jan. 23 with an 8-2 record fresh off a win over Duke. Then the Panthers proceeded to drop the next three, capping it off with a 26-point home drubbing to Notre Dame. Not pretty. The only reason the Panthers are on the page at all is because of Wednesday’s surprise win over Virginia Tech. They’ve clearly got a lot of work to do.
Georgia Tech, 9-6 with all metric rankings (including NET) landing between No. 55-67, is very much in the same boat as Pitt: one Quad 1 win, a pair of sub-NET 100 losses, and troublesome strength-of-schedule and non-conference-strength-of-schedule numbers (No. 153 and No. 313, respectively). The path to an at-large bid is difficult, but the Yellow Jackets have shown moments of brilliance, including a huge home win over Florida State and a 17-point comeback win over Notre Dame on Saturday. They’re not out of the picture quite yet.
It’s odd to see a bubble watch without Duke included, but the Blue Devils’ loss to North Carolina on Saturday sent them to 7-7 on the year, and their NET ranking (No. 71) and lone Quad 1 win (at 7-10 Notre Dame) aren’t doing them any favors. Duke isn’t completely dead yet, but time is running out for a turnaround.
Safe for now: Houston
Bubble: Wichita State, SMU, Memphis
Oh-so close. Houston, a common pick as a No. 1 seed entering Wednesday, lost in stunning fashion to NET No. 139 East Carolina. It was the Cougars’ first loss since December and just their second of the season. A win could have given Houston an early lock. But a loss teetering on the edge of Q2 and Q3? That’s bad news for a non-power conference team, even one as excellent as Houston. Still, as it was for Virginia, the lack of a lock for Houston is merely a precautionary measure. The Cougars should have nothing to worry about.
The chances of the AAC being a one-bid league are looking increasingly likely. Houston is far and away the conference’s best; no other team even ranks in the NET top 50. The most likely candidate for a second bid is probably Wichita State, as the Shockers possess a very strong strength of schedule and non-conference strength of schedule to go with three Q1/Q2 wins and no losses worse than NET No. 61. But their own NET ranking of No. 76 is low for a bubble team, and the predictive metrics (No. 83 in KenPom, No. 113 in BPI, No. 69 in Sagarin) aren’t exactly favorable either. The only thing the Shockers can do to help their cause? Win.
SMU scores a little bit better than Wichita State in the rankings department (NET No. 59, KenPom No. 58), but the Mustangs’ SOS numbers are much worse, and the absence of a Quad 1 win is backbreaking. They’ve already blown both of their chances at upsetting Houston, so a win in Wichita on Feb. 28—which isn’t even guaranteed to be Q1—is crucial. Before that, the Mustangs will get a crack at the Shockers at home on Sunday; that could end up being a “winner stays, loser goes” game for the bubble watch.
The last AAC contender worth mentioning is Memphis, a team that entered the season with postseason aspirations only to fall flat on its face with a 6-5 record through the first two months of play. But the Tigers have made up a lot of ground recently, going 6-1 over the last 18 days to re-enter the conversation. They’re probably going to have to steal a game from Houston to remain in consideration, but, hey, we saw what happened to the Cougars against East Carolina. Anything is possible.
Safe for now:
Bubble: St. Bonaventure, VCU, Richmond, Saint Louis
What a weird, fun mess the Atlantic 10 is. Four teams are in the discussion for an at-large bid (six if you think Dayton and Davidson have a chance), but none are projected to earn anything higher than a No. 10 seed in the field of 68. That means the bubble is just filled with A-10 teams looking to one-up each other in the hunt for a tournament spot. Keep an eye out for some entertaining basketball from this mid-major conference over the final month of play.
St. Bonaventure has done the best work so far, notching a big Quad 1 win at Richmond en route to a solid NET ranking (No. 40), highly favorable performance metrics (No. 16 in KPI, No. 33 in SOR), and strangely favorable strength-of-schedule margins, despite the Bonnies’ only two non-con games being against Akron and Hofstra. They did stumble on Saturday afternoon in an 11-point loss to Saint Louis, so the Bonnies are far from a sure thing, but they still lead the Atlantic 10, both résumé-wise and standings-wise.
2021 was supposed to be a down year for VCU, as the Rams lost five seniors to graduation and standout forward Marcus Santos-Silva to transfer. But Mike Rhoades’ squad has made it work, entering Monday with a 13-4 record and a tournament résumé worth considering. It’s true that the Rams lack a truly eye-catching win, but three of their 13 count as Quad 1 and 2, and with Dayton, Saint Louis, Richmond and Davidson twice still on the schedule, there’s opportunity aplenty for good wins down the road.
Meanwhile, there’s aforementioned crosstown rival Richmond, though the Spiders are in a bit of a sticky situation (pun fully intended). Many signs point to Richmond as a borderline tournament team: metrics ranging from No. 43-53, a surprisingly helpful neutral-court win over Loyola Chicago in December, and a trio of Quad 1 and 2 wins. But a Quad 3 loss to Hofstra and a Quad 4 loss to La Salle? Both at home? Not so much. Those kinds of losses are brutal for any team to incur, let alone a mid-major trying to stand out in a crowded conference. The Spiders have got to keep their foot on the gas and power through the rest of their league schedule—that is, once they return from their COVID pause.
Perhaps no tournament contender has been hit harder by COVID than Saint Louis. The Billikens, who started the season promisingly with a 7-1 record and wins over LSU and NC State, didn’t play a single game between Christmas and mid-January. Unsurprisingly, Saint Louis was rusty in its return, dropping a tight one at home to Dayton then falling to La Salle on the road. It looked like curtains, but then the Billikens got momentum back in their favor with a massive win over St. Bonaventure on Saturday. Their résumé is still pretty far removed from being tournament-acceptable, but the team talent and potential are evident. Saint Louis still has time to turn it around—let’s just hope it can stay healthy.
Safe for now: Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma State
This bubble watch has been using extreme caution with the lock designation due to the unpredictable nature of this season. Throw that caution out for Baylor. The 2020-21 season has created a two-team monarchy at the top, and Baylor is one of those teams. Great coaching from Scott Drew, All-American-level guard play from the likes of Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, and one of Division I’s most suffocating defenses have led the Bears to a 17-0 start and arguably the best tournament résumé in the land. No. 1 in NET, No. 1 in KenPom, No. 1 in Sagarin, six Quadrant 1 wins… need we continue? Baylor is a lock, no doubt about it.
Answering the question of which team in the Big 12 is the second best after Baylor is not an easy one. Initially, it appeared to be Kansas, but the Jayhawks have taken a massive tumble as of late, so they’re out of the question. Even after losing its last three in a row and four of the last five, the answer is probably Texas. Each of those four losses have a good excuse behind them—two-point loss, one-point loss, Baylor, double-overtime loss—and the Longhorns are still top 20 in NET and every predictive and performance metric, not to mention their SOS of No. 3 and NCSOS of No. 12 are among the strongest of any team. This is Shaka Smart’s best Texas team by a country mile, and it should shake its sudden issues sooner rather than later.
Texas Tech also has an argument for being the Big 12’s second best team. The Red Raiders’ play as of late has certainly been favorable, as they’ve responded to two close losses to Baylor and West Virginia with three straight victories, two on the road and two over tournament hopefuls. They’re sitting pretty with a 14-5 record, a NET rank of No. 12 and top-15 predictive metrics across the board. If the Red Raiders can do the impossible and pull out a 2-0 week in their rematches of West Virginia and Baylor, they would almost certainly earn a lock.
Speaking of getting hot at the right time, no team in the Big 12 has been more on fire than Oklahoma. The Sooners are 6-1 since Jan. 12 with wins over Texas, Kansas and SEC favorite Alabama, reaching the top 25 in NET and every major metric in the process. Once a bubble team in early January, Oklahoma now appears to be eyeing a possible top-four seed. Like Texas and Texas Tech, it shouldn’t be long until the Sooners are locked in for good.
Then there’s West Virginia, the final contender for the conference’s silver. The Mountaineers land a couple spots behind Texas and Texas Tech in NET and KenPom, but they make up for it with seven Q1/Q2 wins and the No. 6 NCSOS—tops in the Big 12. The problem? The upcoming stretch is absolutely brutal: at Texas Tech, vs. Oklahoma, vs. Baylor, at Baylor, at Texas. That’s five games against five ranked teams in 12 days, three of which are on the road. The Mountaineers would be lucky to go 3-2 in that span. The Big Ten may be the best conference from top to bottom, the Big 12 isn’t all that far behind.
It hasn’t been a pretty month for Kansas. After starting 10-2 and being in the discussion for a possible top-two seed, the Jayhawks have fallen apart, going 2-5 since Jan. 12 with the five losses coming by an average of 10 points. The starting lineup has done a nice job to replace last season’s production from Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike, but you need depth to compete in this stacked Big 12, and this year’s Kansas simply isn’t as deep as last year’s No. 1 overall team. The Jayhawks still have all the résumé marks of a tournament team—six wins across Quadrants 1 and 2, top-30 metrics, and their always-excellent strength of schedule—but a lot of those numbers won’t hold if this slump continues.
Oklahoma State is in a weird limbo. Initially ruled postseason ineligible for recruiting violations, the Cowboys filed for appeal, and the NCAA—notorious for taking its sweet time to complete investigations—has yet to come back with a ruling. So while the appeal is being processed, Oklahoma State is technically eligible to compete in this year’s tournament… we think. It’s a smart move by the Cowboys, as this is likely to be the only year that they’ll get to have 2020 No. 1 overall recruit Cade Cunningham (most likely headed to the NBA at season’s end). Oklahoma State’s odd designation may prevent it from ever being a lock, but the résumé—No. 37 NET and No. 34 KenPom with four Quad 1 wins—points to a team that should be well into the field. We’ll just have to play the NCAA’s waiting game to see if it stays that way.
In regards to the bubble, the Big 12 is kind of boring. It’s got arguably the best team in the nation with Baylor, six other teams that appear to be pretty safe bets for March, and two teams—Iowa State and Kansas State—that own a combined 7-26 record and are nowhere near at-large consideration. That just leaves 10-7 TCU in no man’s land—a step below the bubble but a step above the teams well out of it. At the moment, the Horned Frogs’ NET and predictive-metric rankings are well below what is considered tournament-acceptable, and they own just a single Quad 1 win, so calling them a bubble team would be a reach. But it is worth noting that TCU has more than enough opportunity ahead to right its wrongs, as Texas, West Virginia and Texas Tech twice remain on the schedule: all Q1. We’ll keep an eye on them.
Safe for now: Villanova, Creighton, Xavier
Bubble: Seton Hall, UConn, St. John’s
Here’s that abundance of caution again: Villanova is not quite a lock… yet. To say that the Wildcats under Jay Wright have had tournament experience would be an understatement. The same program that won the national title in 2016 and 2018 looks ready to give it another go with the veteran leadership and unbridled talent of players like Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl driving the cause. But the Wildcats have had their unexpected bumps along the way. The most notable is their 26-day long COVID pause between Dec. 23 and Jan. 19, and of course, there’s that stunning loss at St. John’s last Wednesday. These valleys are almost certainly deviations from the norm, but with the Wildcats having a smaller sample size than expected this far into the season, we’ll hedge our bets, at least for one week.
Creighton seems to have a fondness for living on the edge. Each of the Bluejays’ seven contests since Jan. 16 have been decided by single digits, most of them being against non-tournament teams like Butler and Georgetown. Not exactly the best strategy for cementing a tournament résumé, and the Bluejays have been burned a couple times for it, taking an unsettling three Quad 3 losses into Monday. But they match that total in their Quad 1 wins, and the predictive metrics (No. 20 in KenPom, No. 14 in BPI, No. 17 in Sagarin) haven’t given up on them yet, so there doesn’t appear to be much reason to worry about missing the postseason.
Villanova may have had its COVID issues, but Xavier has been ravaged by them; the Musketeers are in the midst of their third pause this season. Despite the difficulties to get out on the floor frequently, Xavier has still pieced together a nice-looking tournament résumé, highlighted by an 11-2 record and performance metrics of No. 15 (KPI) and No. 16 (SOR). The KenPom is a little on the low end (No. 45), and it would be in Xavier’s best interest to add to its singular Quad 1 win (recorded all the way back in early December), but the primary goal should be getting—and staying—back on the hardwood.
With cancellations and postponements taking place nearly every day, the bubble seems destined to be filled with teams wielding tournament-level résumés hidden behind unimpressive records. Seton Hall is one of those teams. 11-8 isn’t exactly a record to get excited about, but the Pirates have padded those 11 wins with quality; six of them land in Quadrants 1 and 2. Saturday’s win over UConn was especially huge and arguably knocked the Huskies behind the Pirates in the Big East bubble pecking order. But with limited quality opportunities remaining (Mar. 6 at St. John’s is the only Q1 game left), Seton Hall just needs W’s to make that overall total more appealing.
UConn may be giving Xavier a run for its money in terms of which Big East team has had it worst regarding COVID. The Huskies aren’t on pause right now, but they’ve only played 12 games through two months and two weeks. Despite this, the Big East newbies are in the heart of the discussion for an at-large bid, though the recent results have been less than encouraging. Since earning a ranking on Monday, Jan. 11—their first since 2016—the Huskies are 1-3 with the lone win being a not especially helpful one over Butler. With Xavier, Villanova and Seton Hall still on the slate in the final month, the chances are there for UConn to beef up its middling résumé. The Huskies just have to perform.
St. John’s, from the grave! At 7-7 and 2-6 in the Big East on Jan. 16, about zero people had the Red Storm in contention for an at-large bid. Now Mike Anderson’s squad has rattled off six straight victories, knocking off UConn, Villanova and former bubble teams Marquette and Providence in that span. Sophomore Julian Champagnie has been simply incredible, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds over the last three outings. The Johnnies are still lacking in the numbers department—No. 63 in NET, No. 68 in KenPom, No. 50 in SOR—but if their recent ascent is any indication, the sky’s the limit for St. John’s.
Safe for now: Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue, Rutgers
Bubble: Minnesota, Indiana, Maryland, Penn State
Yup, we’re being cautious again. Michigan, at 13-1, tops in the Big Ten at 8-1, widely considered the third-best team in college basketball, is not a lock yet. Why? Simple. Caution. Like many teams, the Wolverines have had COVID problems. They haven’t played since Jan. 22, and they’re not expected to play for at least another week. Who’s to say that Michigan will return with the same firepower that it had before going on break? We’ve seen what these COVID pauses can do to teams. Saint Louis was decimated by it. So was UConn. It’s not easy to come out of an extended hiatus and pick up where you left off—especially against a league as enormous as the Big Ten. These concerns are probably unfounded, and Michigan should end up being a lock in no time. But we’ll choose to err on the side of caution this time around.
...And since Michigan is not a lock, no team in the Big Ten is. Unfair? Perhaps. Ohio State probably has the best case to complain about this decision. The Buckeyes have been fortunate to avoid the sickness bug, earning an incredible eight Quad 1 wins—the most of any team—en route to a 15-4 record and top-15 metrics across the board. That seems like a lock, no? Let’s cut a deal Buckeyes; you take care of Maryland and Indiana this week, and you’re locked in next Monday, no questions asked. Sound good? Thought so.
There are Quad 1 wins aplenty in the Big Ten. Ohio State has eight, the most of any team, and Illinois has seven, the second most of any team. These kinds of things tend to happen when the entire conference is an uber-talented slugfest. Illinois is right near the top of that list, and it’s easy to see why. When you have a multidimensional player like Ayo Dosunmu who can shoot and assist as fluidly as anybody on the court AND an under-the-hoop behemoth like Kofi Cockburn, you’re probably going to win a couple games. We’ll offer the same proposition we did Ohio State: win the next two, and you’re in, Illini. Unfortunately, because of Michigan’s COVID problems, Illinois doesn’t play again until Feb. 16… life is tough for everyone on the bubble watch—not just the bubble teams.
More evidence that the Big Ten is just stacked: Wisconsin, arguably the most battle-tested team in all of college basketball with six seniors returning from the 2019-20 squad, is only 8-5 in conference and 2-3 since Jan. 23. That kind of experience should be dominating. But no, the Big Ten says otherwise. Of course, the Badgers are no slouches; their four Quad 1 wins and top-20 metrics have them securely in the field. But they may have the most difficult remaining schedule of any Big Ten team; Michigan, Illinois, Purdue and Iowa twice are all ahead. They’ll need to do better than their recent results to earn a top seed.
Wisconsin hasn’t been too hot lately, but at least it hasn’t been freezing cold like Iowa. The Hawkeyes were once in contention for a No. 1 seed, but now a top-three seed is looking like a tall task. They’ve lost four of the last five, giving up an average of 79 points in those games. Luka Garza can only take you so far when you have the KenPom No. 121-ranked defense. There are other gaps in Iowa’s résumé, too: No. 42 KPI and No. 206 NCSOS just to name a few. But the Hawkeyes are probably more concerned about an early tournament exit than missing the tournament completely—and rightfully so.
Give credit to Purdue. In a year when nearly every team has had to cancel or postpone a couple games for COVID, the Boilermakers have just been churning them out. Their 20 games played is tied with Wisconsin, St. John’s and Mississippi State for the most of any power-conference team. A side effect of this is that Purdue boasts an unexceptional record of 13-7, but that number doesn’t do justice to all the great work that the Boilermakers have done. Their nine wins across Quadrants 1 and 2 ranks among the best in Division I, and their head-to-head sweep of Ohio State is just as massive. Purdue isn’t a lock yet, but it is in excellent shape to head to its sixth straight NCAA Tournament.
Purdue looks good to continue a tournament streak; Rutgers looks good to end a tournament drought. The Scarlet Knights haven’t participated in March Madness since 1991, though they almost certainly would have been selected for last year’s tournament had it been played. This year’s team looks even better, as Rutgers has erased a worrisome five-game losing streak in January with four straight W’s. There are still plenty of challenges ahead—namely Iowa on Wednesday and Michigan next Thursday—but Steve Pikiell and company have the numbers (No. 25 NET, No. 24 KenPom) to take a few hits and remain safely in.
Minnesota, on the other hand, doesn’t have that same cushion. The Golden Gophers own three of the best wins possible—dominations of Michigan and Ohio State and a high-scoring overtime victory over Iowa—but those all came at home. An 0-6 road record is an unsightly blemish for the NET No. 55 team, and predictive and performance metrics ranging from No. 32-61 are pretty uninspiring. The Golden Gophers have also been cold, losing five of the last six with that home win over Michigan breaking up the monotony. Richard Pitino needs to get his Gophers back on track quickly, or what was once a standout season in Minneapolis could turn sour.
Now we get into the teams where record plays a factor. Résumé-wise, the following three all probably deserve a spot in the bracket. But would the selection committee really take a .500 or slightly-above-.500 team over an 18-6 mid-major that didn’t win its conference tournament? Tough to say in this season unlike any other. The frontrunner of this trio is Indiana, as the Hoosiers have the best record of the three (10-8) and own the No. 25 KenPom rank to go alongside three Quad 1 wins, two of which come from their head-to-head sweep of Iowa. But is 10-8 enough?
If it’s not, then Maryland is really in hot water. The Terrapins are tournament regulars, but their postseason hopes took a monstrous hit after their 1-5 start to conference play. Record-wise, they really haven’t been able to climb out of this crater, as they’ve alternated wins and losses since Jan. 15, now sitting at 10-9 (9-9 for résumé purposes; a win over DII Wingate doesn’t count). But Maryland just has so much going for it outside of record: four Quadrant 1 wins, the No. 39 NET, top-40 marks in KPI and Sagarin, and, most importantly, the second-best strength of schedule in the nation. Only the WCC’s Pacific ranks higher. The Terps’ résumé says tournament team; the overall record doesn’t. It’s a fascinating conundrum.
Finally, there’s Penn State, the only team on the bubble watch with a losing record. It seems an impossible thought that the selection committee would even consider a team that couldn’t win half of its games, and that may end up being true. But Penn State could also be an exception. The Nittany Lions are right there with the Terrapins in terms of strength of schedule, ranking fourth overall and 20th out-of-conference. They’ve also got three Quad 1 wins of their own, no losses worse than NET No. 48, and a top-30 NET ranking in spite of their sub-.500 record. No other such team ranks in the top 70. All things considered, it’s very possible that a Penn State team floating around .500 ends up with an at-large invite. But it would be in the Nittany Lions’ best interest not to test that theory. Some winning here and there could go a long, long way.
And that’s it for the Big Ten. A whopping 11 teams are currently in consideration for a tournament invite. And Michigan State is not one of them. The Spartans are close to the bubble, but there’s just too much holding them down right now: the No. 91 NET, downright dreadful SOS and NCSOS marks, and a singular win above NET No. 70. Tom Izzo’s teams are notorious for getting red-hot in March; this year’s team is going to have to do that a month early to even get that far.
Safe for now:
Bubble: San Diego State, Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State
Could this be a renaissance year for the Mountain West? The conference hasn’t had three representatives in March Madness since 2015, but four teams this season are making a good case for inclusion. The frontrunner of this group, as is typical, is San Diego State. The Aztecs may not have a Quadrant 1 win, but they’ve got four in Quad 2, as well as the No. 21 NET and no metric other than SOR ranking outside the top 25. On top of that, each of their four losses have come against fellow tournament hopefuls. If the Aztecs can just steer clear of trouble through their next few games, they should be in for a jump in designation.
Heading into Friday night, Boise State was actually the top contender for the Mountain West’s most likely at-large representative. Then the Broncos were swept over the weekend by Nevada. That’s ugly with a capital U. Most of Boise State’s metrics actually remained relatively intact, with KPI and Sagarin remaining in the 40s. But the ever-important KenPom just doesn’t like the Broncos, who have fallen all the way down to No. 63 in adjusted efficiency margin. That road trip to San Diego at the end of February could end up being very, very telling about the shape of the Mountain West.
It’s odd to think that a mid-major team that scored 33 points in a game in December is right in the heart of the bubble, but that’s where Colorado State is. The Rams have put that bad memory behind them, going 12-3 since then, earning key splits against each of the other three Mountain West tournament hopefuls. All that’s been good enough for three Q1/Q2 wins and the No. 47 NET: numbers worthy of an at-large look. The problem? Same as Boise State: KenPom. The Rams rank 70th in adjusted efficiency, and the other predictive measures (No. 73 BPI, No. 66 Sagarin) are equally unkind. Considering everything remaining on the schedule but the weekend series at Nevada counts as Quad 4, Colorado State must tread carefully.
Utah State may be Sam Merrill-less for the first time in five seasons, but the Aggies are right back in the tournament conversation for the third year in a row. Led by Neemias Queta this time around, Utah State has pieced solid, albeit not flashy résumé. The Aggies have two Quad 1 wins thanks to their home sweep of San Diego State, but a pair of Quad 3 losses to South Dakota State and UNLV is much less sightly. At the moment, their body of work is likely in first-four-out/next-four-out territory, so stealing at least one game in the Boise State series next week would go a long way. If Aggies can do that and take care of business elsewhere, they’ll be in a lot better shape.
Safe for now: USC, UCLA, Colorado
Bubble: Stanford, Oregon
Don’t look now, but USC is quickly approaching elite status. The Pac-12—often considered the weakest of the major conferences—often flies under the radar, partially due to its West Coast locale and partially due to the aforementioned fragility. But nobody should be sleeping on the Trojans, who have won 10 of the last 11 and are on the cusp of being a top-10 team in NET and KenPom. Led by freshman phenom Evan Mobley, the Trojans play smart interior basketball, ranking top 10 in the nation in offensive rebounding and two-point defense. That combination has allowed them to soar to the peak of the Pac-12 standings, most recently culminating in the emphatic usurping of crosstown rival UCLA. If you could only pick one sleeper team that most people are heavily underrating and could cause some serious damage come March, USC would be as good a pick as any.
UCLA may no longer own the top spot of the Pac-12 standings, but Mick Cronin’s Bruins are a long ways away from their final say. Last year’s incredible late-season turnaround has snowballed into momentum for the 2020-21 team, which just powered through straight eight conference victories before a Jan. 23 loss to Stanford ended the Bruins’ fun. They’ve had a tendency to play close games—only two of their nine conference victories have come by more than six points—and the predictive metrics have been rightfully wary (just Sagarin ranks above No. 35), but their pair of Quad 1 wins and avoidance of bad losses should have the Bruins feeling alright.
The word “erratic” often gets tossed around when describing teams that are hard to pin down because of the variance of their night-to-night results. Colorado wears that word well. One look at the Buffaloes’ résumé should leave you scratching your head. They’ve only got one Quad 1 win, and they’ve twice lost in Quadrant 3. But they’re good enough to be NET No. 17? And the metrics—all the way up to No. 12 in BPI, but all the way down at No. 34 in SOR? It only makes sense for a team that topped the league’s best team on its home floor by 10 then went on to lose to NET No. 202 Washington. The postseason projections reflect that zaniness, as Colorado ranks as high as a No. 4 seed in some brackets and as low as a No. 10 in others. That averages out to a No. 7 seed, which is considered “safe” territory, so that’s where the Buffs reside for now.
Stanford is another strange beast. The Cardinal have one more Quad 1 win than the Buffs, no Quad 3 losses and a better strength of schedule, yet they rank 31 spots lower in KenPom and 40 spots lower in NET. Their other predictive and performance metrics aren’t all that outstanding either, but the Cardinal do have one massive saving grace: a neutral-court win over Alabama back in November, long before we knew the Crimson Tide would become one of college basketball’s best teams. Is one win enough to put them in? Probably not. According to BracketMatrix.com, Stanford appears in the majority of tournament projections but only as a No. 12 seed on average: AKA, right on the bubble. More work is needed.
It’s a post-Payton Pritchard world for Oregon, and as the Ducks have found out, it can be tough. Oregon’s résumé is well below its usual standards, featuring a singular Quad 1 win, a pair of Quad 3 losses, a NET rank of No. 58, and predictive/performance metrics that crack the top-40 in just one category (BPI). A lot of the Ducks’ struggles have been due to COVID disruptions, but when all is said and done, it’s going to be hard to justify home losses to Oregon State and Washington State, no matter the circumstances. The Ducks will need to find a way to consistently land in the win column, a place they haven’t been on back-to-back occasions since the turn of the new year.
There’s a pretty clear gap between Oregon and the rest of the Pac-12, so let’s take a moment to address Arizona. The Wildcats oddly chose to self-impose a postseason ban in hopes of receiving less of a punishment from the NCAA regarding recruiting infractions. But why do this now when your team has the résumé of a tournament contender? It’s like the Wildcats saw what Oklahoma State did and did the opposite. We’ll see who it turns out better for in the long run.
Safe for now: Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Florida
Bubble: Arkansas, LSU
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve been through this whole “caution” thing already. There’s no reason to believe Alabama will ever be in danger of being excluded from March Madness, what with its five Quad 1 wins, five Quad 2 wins, NET rank of No. 8, KenPom rank of No. 7 and top-tier SOS. But the Crimson Tide have lost on back-to-back Saturdays, and there are still seven SEC games to be played at minimum. Let’s see them win one more weekend matinee before we lock them in for good.
Missouri’s NET rank of No. 24 seems oddly low. The Tigers have been exceptional in 2020-21, notching four Quad 1 wins—including a huge one over Alabama on Saturday—against the eighth most difficult schedule in Division I. But the predictive metrics are strangely bearish on Mizzou, ranking 29th, 34th and 32nd in KenPom, BPI and Sagarin, respectively. Despite this discrepancy, the Tigers are in great shape, and just like Alabama, it shouldn’t be long until the lock label comes their way.
We revisit the word “erratic” for Tennessee. At 10-1 on Jan. 16, the Volunteers appeared to be on their way to another season on the SEC throne, thanks to their absolutely crushing defense. But on numerous instances since then, the Tennessee offense has just failed to show up, scoring 49 and 50 points in respective losses to Florida and Ole Miss. The Volunteers are like a foil of Iowa: a defense that can dominate even the best offensive teams, an offense that frequently flounders. The Vols are still well in the conversation for a top-four seed, but a bad night offensively in March could mean an early offseason. Better work on making those buckets.
Florida deserves a lot of praise for what it’s done. Even without SEC Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson on the floor since Dec. 12, the Gators have found a way to rally and piece together an intriguing at-large file. Sure, there are a couple Quad 3 losses in there, but those came to Kentucky and South Carolina and are hardly the type to drag Florida down. The selection committee is more likely to respect the Gators’ resilience to win Quad 1 contests against Tennessee and West Virginia with top-35 metrics across the board to boot. They’re still a couple weeks removed from total safety, but they’re certainly in at the moment.
You’d think that a 14-5 record for a power-conference team would signal a résumé securely in the field, but that just isn’t the case for Arkansas. Every chance that the Razorbacks have had for a résumé-transforming win, they’ve lost: 0-5 against Missouri, Tennessee, LSU, Alabama and Oklahoma State. They don’t have a single win against another team projected to be in the field, as their lone Quad 1 win came against NET No. 66 Auburn. Fortunately for Arkansas, the predictive metrics are a lot kinder, all ranging from No. 23-26. But the absence of any true top-tier wins stings a lot, and if the Razorbacks’ résumé remains borderline by Selection Sunday, it could be their downfall.
No SEC at-large contender has been more worrisome as of late than LSU. The Tigers, losers of four of their last five, have simply sunk, falling from their NET peak of No. 19 on Jan. 6 all the way down to No. 42 as of Monday. A recent inability to find offensive production from anyone not named Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford or Javonte Smart is partially to blame, but stagnant 3-point shooting and poor defensive rebounding haven’t helped either. The Tigers are still clinging to two Quad 1 wins and a solid SOS, but who knows how long those will keep LSU afloat. A hasty turnaround seems a must.
As for the rest of the SEC, the tournament seems a tall task. Georgia and Ole Miss probably have the best chance to get back on the bubble, but their current résumés just aren’t cutting it. And Kentucky? Well, let’s just say a 5-12 record doesn’t give much reason to be hopeful.
Safe for now:
Bubble: BYU, Drake, Loyola Chicago, Western Kentucky, Toledo, Winthrop, Belmont
As you may have noticed by now, there aren’t very many locks in this first edition of the bubble watch. The reason—as stated many times before—is just to be on the safe side. In total, there are two; Baylor is the first, and Gonzaga is the second. The Bulldogs haven’t just beaten every opponent they’ve played, they’ve flattened them. On a schedule that includes Virginia, Iowa, Kansas and BYU, only West Virginia was able to get within single digits of the Zags. That kind of domination deserves an early lock.
Unless Saint Mary’s can pull off an upset of Gonzaga in Spokane, the WCC is looking like a two-bid conference at max, with BYU serving as the Zags’ counterpart. The Cougars’ four losses are admittedly a lot for a mid-major at-large hopeful at this point in the season, but you have to put aside mid-major biases and just look at BYU’s numbers: No. 27 in NET, No. 37 in KenPom, three Quad 1 wins (including one at San Diego State), and no losses worse than Quad 2. BYU is in excellent shape, and like the Aztecs team it beat back in December, it shouldn’t be long before the Cougars are moving up categories. You know what would seal the deal? How about a win over Gonzaga on Monday night? Yeah, that should do it.
Life is cruel, especially for a mid-major basketball program. The Drake Bulldogs were sitting pretty with their 18-0 record going into Sunday, ranked No. 13 in the NET despite a couple close calls against teams like Illinois State and Valparaiso, the latter of which Drake defeated on Saturday. But the Crusaders got their revenge the following day, knocking Drake from the ranks of the unbeaten. The Bulldogs didn’t just drop in the NET rankings, they tumbled. From No. 13 to No. 32 in the blink of an eye. One loss did that. One. Drake’s perfect record and corresponding NET were the crown jewels of its résumé. The predictive metrics had never really turned a corner on the Bulldogs, and a weak SOS reveals no Quadrant 1 games even played. It’s very sad to think, but one loss, one singular slip-up, has put Drake right on the bubble.
Drake may have been grabbing the headlines among Missouri Valley teams, but Loyola Chicago may secretly be the better of the two. You wouldn’t guess it from their record—17-3—but the Ramblers have been one of the best mid-major programs, period. No, they don’t have a Quadrant 1 win, and their SOS and NCSOS numbers leave a lot to be desired. But the rest of the résumé shows their true colors: No. 14 in NET, No. 14 in KenPom, No. 16 in BPI. This is a very dangerous team—one that has the potential to bust some brackets in March like the 2018 squad did. All they need to do is get into the tournament, though they may not be able to do that without a Quad 1 win. Fortunately, Loyola Chicago and—guess who—Drake play a critical two-game series in Des Moines this weekend, both offering Quad 1 opportunities for the opponent. It’s must-watch basketball in the Missouri Valley.
UAB may be the name atop the Conference USA standings, but Western Kentucky is the league’s only viable at-large contender. It’s true that the Hilltoppers’ résumé doesn’t do much to stand out from the crowd in most regards—No. 77 NET, No. 85 KenPom and two Quad 3 losses are all below average—but there’s a real diamond in the rough here, and that’s the Dec. 19 win in Tuscaloosa. Very few Division I teams have a victory of that magnitude. The Hilltoppers are likely going to need to avoid taking another loss before the C-USA conference tournament to remain in the at-large conversation, but if they do get there unscathed? The committee is going to have to consider them.
Western Kentucky’s résumé is surprisingly good; Toledo’s may be even better. No, the Rockets don’t have an Alabama-type win, but they’re in a lot better shape elsewhere—No. 60 NET, No. 60 KenPom, No. 52 KPI and a Quad 1 win. Unfortunately, the Rockets did suffer a backbreaking loss on Saturday to NET No. 155 Ball State—the kind of loss that can sink your at-large profile like a stone. Like WKU, Toledo may need to reach the end of the MAC regular season without taking another hit in order to remain in the discussion.
Does a team that ranks 81st in NET, 119th in Sagarin and 122nd in KenPom really have an at-large case? Probably not, but the 16-1 Winthrop Eagles are worth examining anyway. Like Drake, the Big South frontrunner’s only slip-up came late into the season in a 57-55 loss to UNC Asheville on Jan. 29. That’s a Q4 loss, and it may be too much for the Eagles to recover from. But what if they finish the rest of the regular season undefeated and don’t win the Big South autobid? Can the selection committee justify leaving out a team with a record as stellar as 28-2?
Belmont, now 20-1, is in a similar situation as the Eagles, though the fact that the Bruins haven’t even played a game above Quadrant 3 is—needless to say—concerning. And unless Morehead State can reach the NET top 135 before Belmont’s visit on Feb. 27, the Bruins won’t play in a single Quad 2 game or better this season. We present the same conundrum as Winthrop; can the committee leave out a team with two losses and close to 30 wins, even if that team’s schedule is awful? If this pandemic and unique college basketball season has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is certain.
DJ Bauer is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Contributors
Senior / Broadcast Journalism