Bauer’s Bubble Watch 5.0
This is March. And with conference tournament play beginning on Tuesday, this is officially do-or-die time for teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble hoping to find themselves a spot in March Madness.
While most conference tournament champions won’t be crowned until just before Selection Sunday, a handful of conferences will have named victors a week from now, including the Missouri Valley, Atlantic Sun and Mountain West, all of which currently have teams near the bubble. Perhaps these teams will find their home in the bracket worry-free via the automatic bid. Or maybe they’ll trip up and will have to sweat it out until the big day arrives alongside a handful of other bubble contenders from the power conferences.
Regardless, there’s still plenty more basketball to be played and plenty more time for bubble teams to make their cases for a tournament invite. With this week’s edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch, we’ll continue to assess every at-large contender’s current state with the assignments of “lock,” “safe for now” and “bubble,” with strong focus on the latter two statuses. These designations will be evaluated through a number of tournament résumé factors, including predictive and performance metrics, quadrant results, strength of schedule and a number of other meaningful measures.
We have two new locks and a couple bubbles popped to explain. The bubble is heating up, so let’s jump in before it bursts. 2020’s fifth edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch is officially underway.
Locks: Florida State, Duke, Louisville
Safe for now: Virginia
Bubble: NC State, Notre Dame
We finally have movement in the ACC. With Saturday’s home win over Duke under their belt, the Virginia Cavaliers appear to be tournament-bound. The status of the defending champs’ postseason hopes were up in the air for months, especially after Virginia’s three-game skid in early January, but the answer now seems clear. Unless something unexpected happens, the Cavaliers will be playing in March Madness for the seventh straight season.
NC State is playing with fire at the wrong time. The Wolfpack lost at conference rival North Carolina on Tuesday, then trailed Pittsburgh for 32 minutes before eking out a win on Saturday. That victory keeps the Wolfpack squarely in “last four in/first four out” territory, but time is ticking, and they can’t afford to stay there much longer. If the Wolfpack could somehow upset Duke for the second time this season on Monday, that would help their tournament outlook astronomically.
Notre Dame’s bubble hasn’t popped yet, but the pin is poking and prodding. The Fighting Irish had their momentum squashed by a morale-sinking loss at Wake Forest on Saturday, and their tournament aspirations are hanging by a thread because of it. As it was stated last week, the Fighting Irish must pull off an upset of Florida State on Wednesday to remain afloat. A second-straight defeat this close to conference tournament play would almost certainly mean curtains.
We bid adieu to Syracuse after Saturday’s 13-point home loss to North Carolina. The Orange were already on thin ice to begin with, and the loss to the Tar Heels is what cracks the ice open. A run to the ACC tournament championship before a title-game loss would place Syracuse at 21-14, and with how the metrics are shaping up, that is unlikely to cut it. It appears as if the Orange are locked into the NIT.
Clemson might be worth keeping an eye on, as the Tigers have won four of the last five with wins over Louisville and Florida State in that time span, but their profile still has them pretty far out of the field. Give it a week and we’ll talk.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Wichita State, Cincinnati, Memphis
A loss-free week capped off by a convincing win over Cincinnati on Sunday is finally the result that Houston needed to move into lock territory. The Cougars rank in the top 30 across the board, and most bracket projections of a No. 7 or No. 8 seed reflect that. Whether or not the Cougars actually finish there has yet to be decided, but we do know for sure that they will be playing in March.
Just when it looked like Wichita State’s postseason aspirations were about to take an enormous hit, the Shockers rebounded from 24 down against SMU to pull out a miraculous résumé-saving victory in Dallas. The metrics may point to Wichita State as a tournament team, but the Shockers still have just two Q1 victories, and with other bubble teams like Providence and USC rising to the occasion as of late, the Shockers can’t afford to fall behind with a quality win total that low. It’s probably best to win at Memphis on Thursday to tack on another Q1 win to the team sheet.
Cincinnati is a strange beast. Much like Wichita State, the Bearcats have solid numbers that mostly reflect a tournament résumé, as well as a worrisome Q1 output of 2-6. Of course, the reason that Cincinnati is so much closer to the cut line is because of their four Q3 losses. Sunday’s defeat at Houston marked the Bearcats’ final opportunity before conference tournament play to cover up those bad losses with another Q1 win, and they couldn’t capitalize. It seems like they’re in for another week of bubble limbo.
Had Memphis lost at Tulane on Saturday, it would have been time to pull the plug. But the Tigers found a way to sneak out an overtime victory, so their slim tournament hopes remain on life support for another week. But in all likelihood, the Tigers will need to sweep the week by taking down Wichita State and Houston. That might be the only way to salvage the Tigers’ sinking résumé.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Rhode Island, Richmond
One has to wonder how far a résumé with only one Quadrant 1 win can carry a team. That’s the case with Rhode Island, which may be 20-8 overall with a 12-4 conference record, but the Rams have just one top-tier victory on their team sheet. Throw in a Q4 loss, some so-so predictive metrics and Sunday’s surprising loss to Saint Louis, and you can see that the Rams should be a bit more concerned about their postseason hopes than they were a few weeks ago. Picking up a home win over powerhouse Dayton on Wednesday could remedy the problem at hand, but that’s far easier said than done.
Richmond doesn’t have the same brick wall remaining on its schedule like Rhode Island has with Dayton, but the Spiders do have a pair of trap games vs. Davidson and at Duquesne before conference tournament play begins. They shouldn’t take either of those opponents lightly if they want to remain in the heart of the bubble conversation a week from now. The Spiders may have two more Q1 wins than the Rams, but their metrics are far less kind. These are going to be two fascinating bubble cases to observe in the closing weeks.
It’s time to stick a fork in VCU. A month ago, the Rams seemed to be right in the middle of the bubble conversation. Now, they might not even make the NIT. The Rams have zero Q1 wins, two Q3 losses, an SOR of No. 82 and no major metric higher than No. 56, all thanks to a recent five-game losing streak. We can safely call them dead.
Locks: Creighton, Seton Hall, Villanova, Butler, Marquette
Safe for now:
Bubble: Xavier, Providence, Georgetown
Nearly every one of the 119 projections on bracketmatrix.com has Xavier in the field, but that doesn’t mean the Musketeers are out of the woods yet. They may own a trio of Q1 wins, no bad losses and some favorable résumé numbers, but the road ahead is a treacherous one. A bubbly battle in Providence followed by a home contest with Butler lies ahead before the Big East tournament, which itself will undoubtedly be a grind. Xavier needs a strong finish before it can feel sure about a spot in the bracket.
Providence’s historic rise has been unbelievable to see unfold. 2020’s first edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch regarded the Friars as the Big East’s only easy “no,” and they’re making that assessment looking downright foolish. That’s six Q1 wins for the Friars out of eight opportunities in the month of February, counting their Saturday win at Villanova. One would think that the committee would be willing to overlook four early Q3/Q4 losses and a so-so overall record for a godly Q1 output and consistent top-50 metrics. Providence is digging its way to safety in wildly impressive fashion.
Georgetown is technically still alive, but it’s becoming difficult to make a real tournament case for the Hoyas. They haven’t won in over two weeks, and the metrics are beginning to slip into surefire NIT territory. The Hoyas now face the laborious task of toppling Creighton and Villanova in the final week before conference tournament play initiates. The prospects are not good.
Locks: Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Safe for now: Illinois
Bubble: Indiana, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota
Welcome to the lock club, Wisconsin! The Badgers are on an absolute tear right now, winners of their last six over Big Ten competition by an average of nine points. This winning streak has brought each of the Badgers’ major metrics up to No. 30 or higher, signaling that it’s time to put a lock on Wisconsin.
Illinois isn’t quite there yet, but a four-game winning streak has the Fighting Illini darn close. Winning one of two in the final week of regular season play should be the green light to indicate that Illinois will be playing in the big dance.
Indiana’s recent upswing hit a snag with a poor performance at Purdue last Thursday, but most signs still indicate that an NCAA Tournament invitation is in the Hoosiers’ future, even with a less-than-great NET ranking of No. 54. If they can finish strong and take a game or two in the Big Ten tournament, the Hoosiers should be feeling safe about their chances to appear in the field of 68.
Last week, Rutgers was thinking about hitting the panic button. Now the Scarlet Knights have pushed every alarm they can find. A three-game slide’s latest addition came via an epic comeback in Happy Valley falling just short thanks to a game-winning three-pointer off the hands of Penn State’s Myles Dread. The Scarlet Knights are left searching for answers, as a 3-9 Q1 record and a 1-8 showing away from Piscataway have this team dangerously close to the tournament cut line. It doesn’t get any easier, as Maryland and Purdue remain on the schedule. Neither of those games is impossible to win, but taking at least one of them remains a necessary task.
Despite a 15-14 overall record, Purdue is hanging around. Very few experts have the Boilermakers in the field at the moment, but the point remains that their predictive metrics are keeping them above water. The Boilermakers have triggered the start of a highly necessary late-season turnaround by taking out Indiana on Thursday, but clashes with Iowa and Rutgers remain. It won’t matter how good the Boilermakers’ metrics are if they can’t tack on a few more wins to improve that overall number.
Is it time to put the nail in Minnesota’s coffin? Perhaps. It’s a rarity at all for a team with a losing record to be considered “on the bubble,” but the Golden Gophers’ résumé merits at least some discussion. Still, no at-large has ever received an invite with more than 15 losses. Do the math and you’ll find that this stat means that the Golden Gophers cannot lose another game; AKA: they must win the conference tournament, which would mean an auto-bid and would defeat the purpose of appearing on the bubble watch. But then again, crazier things have happened. All we can say for now is that another loss in the regular season means bedtime for Minnesota. On the plus side, the NIT no longer poses the requirement of being .500 to appear in its field, so at least the Golden Gophers can bank on appearing in one meaningful postseason tournament, even if it’s not the one they’d prefer to be in.
Locks: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia
Safe for now: Texas Tech
Bubble: Oklahoma, Texas
Is it time for Texas Tech to sweat? Maybe not yet, but an 0-2 week against Oklahoma and Texas should raise a little bit of concern. The Red Raiders appear to be firmly in the field with the No. 23 KenPom and NET, but who’s to say that the committee will favor those numbers over their No. 50 SOR and 3-8 Q1 record? If the Red Raiders can’t upset either Baylor or Kansas in the final week of regular season play, there’s reason to believe that they could fall back into the bubble.
While Texas Tech is trending down, Oklahoma is doing just the opposite. The Sooners posted double-digit wins over both Texas Tech and West Virginia last week, the latter coming on the road. Now boasting a 5-9 Q1 record, no bad losses, the No. 29 SOR and all top-50 predictive metrics, Oklahoma is feeling a lot safer than it did a week ago. It needs to take care of business down the line to stay that way, but recent trends are pointing to a Sooners team that may soon jump in status.
Just like that, Texas is back in the heart of the bubble. The Longhorns are currently riding a four-game winning streak, and just like Oklahoma, the two most recent victories have come against West Virginia and Texas Tech. Four Q1 wins, zero Q3/Q4 losses and the No. 39 SOR present a compelling case for Texas’ inclusion in March Madness, but with other most metrics still hanging below No. 50, the Longhorns have work to do. Tuesday’s battle in Norman between two Big 12 bubble teams is sure to be an important one.
Locks: Oregon, Colorado, Arizona
Safe for now: Arizona State
Bubble: USC, Stanford, UCLA
Sure, Arizona State’s seven-game winning streak was snapped via back-to-back losses to UCLA and USC, but a re-evaluation of the Sun Devils’ résumé has them pretty squarely in the field. A 5-8 Q1 record, zero Q3/Q4 losses, a KPI of No. 25 and an SOR of No. 38 are enough to offset some of Arizona State’s less favorable predictive metrics. The Sun Devils will need to get back to winning to ensure a spot in the tournament, but that seems all the likely.
The USC redemption arc is on. Following a worrisome slide into NIT territory, the Trojans have responded by sweeping the Arizona teams at home over the weekend. Like Arizona State, the predictive numbers aren’t very pretty, but the majority of the other metrics point to a team that should probably be in the field. If the Trojans can finish the regular season with a victory over crosstown rival UCLA, they should be in good shape.
Stanford is, more or less, in the same boat as USC. After a troublesome stretch in late January and early February, the Cardinal have rebounded by winning four in a row to climb back into the meat of the bubble. But the bubble is a crowded place, and the inclusions of Arizona State and USC may fill the Pac-12’s tournament quota. The Cardinal are a small pace behind, so they’ll need to keep up in the race by finishing the season in the right way. They did already beat Oregon once back on Feb. 1, and they’ll have a rematch against the Ducks on March 7. A head-to-head sweep would mean wonders for Stanford’s résumé.
UCLA’s mad dash to the bubble has been largely unprecedented, and the Bruins now find themselves in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a guarantee for March. Far from it. The Bruins have seen their NET rank climb 107 spots since a Dec. 28 loss to Cal State Fullerton, but the No. 76 NET is on the low end for a bubble team, and the other numbers aren’t much better (No. 80 in KenPom, No. 94 in BPI, No. 60 in Sagarin, No. 55 in SOR). Six Q1 wins keep the Bruins in the conversation, but it seems like there’s more climbing to be done.
Locks: Kentucky, Auburn, LSU
Safe for now: Florida
Bubble: Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee
Saturday’s loss to Tennessee wasn’t the prettiest L for Florida to take, but there’s no real reason to be concerned about the Gators right now, especially factoring in Wednesday’s 15-point victory over LSU. Looking at the remaining road ahead, Florida seems much more likely to become a lock than return to the bubble.
Arkansas, on the other hand, could be in real trouble. A 10-point loss to Georgia on Saturday snapped the Razorbacks’ mini winning streak, and that result puts them at 6-10 in the SEC. Conference record is not one of the official criteria used by the selection committee, but it could be used against Arkansas if the decision is too close to call otherwise. Because of this, the Razorbacks will likely need to win at least one (if not both) of their final two in order to present a somewhat respectable conference showing for Selection Sunday.
Mississippi State took care of business last week by defeating fellow bubble team Alabama and Missouri on Tuesday and Saturday, respectively, and yet, the Bulldogs appear in just nine of 119 projections on bracketmatrix.com. That might be due to their lack of eye-catching résumé numbers or top-of-the-line victories. If Mississippi State wants to leave an impression, it should plan on closing out the regular season on a four-game winning streak by defeating South Carolina and Ole Miss this week. That should get the experts’ attention.
Mark down Alabama as another team in dire straits. Despite possessing the No. 42 NET ranking, the Crimson Tide appear to be staunchly in “next four out” territory due to a middling 16-13 overall record, two Q3 losses, the No. 71 SOR and just one Q1 win. There aren’t many opportunities left to move the needle back in their favor, as the remaining regular season schedule consists of Vanderbilt and Missouri. Those are must-win games, and it seems like Alabama’s first two or three contests in the SEC conference tournament will be too—if it even gets that far.
South Carolina and Tennessee are just about finished, but they’re worth leaving on the page for one more week for different reasons. In the Gamecocks’ case, it’s because of their four Q1 wins. Those don’t seem like they’ll be enough to mask a so-so overall record, two bad losses and relatively poor metrics, but we can’t quite tell for sure yet. As for the Volunteers, their résumé is arguably indistinguishable from recent eliminee Syracuse, but the difference between those two lies in what’s ahead. While the Orange have only scraps to play with, the Vols have two prime opportunities remaining in Kentucky and Auburn. That being said, going 2-0 in those games is a requirement, and that’s not very likely to happen. For each of these teams, one more regular season loss will be the official dagger.
Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State, BYU
Safe for now:
Bubble: Saint Mary’s, East Tennessee State, Utah State, Northern Iowa
A win over Gonzaga would have allowed Saint Mary’s the possibility of moving up to a lock all the way from the bubble, but the Gaels couldn’t quite pull off the upset, as they fell to the Bulldogs in Spokane by 10. Saint Mary’s is likely still in good shape, especially considering what the bubble competition looks like right now, but the Gaels should probably win a game or two in the conference tournament in order to truly feel safe. If that happens, they’ll be on the upward move.
The possibility of a two-bid Southern Conference is looking more and more like a reality. Although Furman and UNC Greensboro have fallen to the wayside in the at-large conversation, East Tennessee State is still going strong, as the Buccaneers pulled out a wild comeback victory over Western Carolina on Saturday to secure a 24-4 record and the conference’s top seed heading into the postseason. The Buccaneers are far from locks to appear in March Madness, but a loss to one of the conference’s better teams would be far from the end of their tournament hopes. Should this result happen, we’d likely see two teams from the SoCon in the field for the first time ever. Of course, the Buccaneers will have other plans, as they’ll be trying their best to win the auto-bid outright and avoid all the stress that Selection Sunday brings.
Utah State just shot itself in the foot really, really badly. A six-game winning streak came to a grinding halt with Saturday’s Q3 loss at New Mexico. That defeat places the Aggies at 21-8 with just two Q1 wins, two Q3 losses, and metrics that are all over the place. At this point, the only path to an at-large bid might be a conference tournament championship loss to San Diego State. Any other result probably sends the Aggies to the NIT.
Northern Iowa is in a similar position as East Tennessee State but with much less room for error. While the Buccaneers have quality opponents like Furman and UNCG to fall back upon should they lose, the Panthers don’t have the same luxury, as only Loyola Chicago and Indiana State count as Q2 opportunities, both by a hair (No. 98 and No. 99 in NET, respectively). Should the Panthers fall in the conference tournament, their March Madness hopes would be a lot less likely than ETSU’s in a similar position.
Via executive decision, Liberty, Yale and Stephen F. Austin are all new removals from the watch. Liberty’s exclusion makes the most sense, as the Flames were extinguished by Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun regular-season finale, but what about Yale and Stephen F. Austin? The unfortunate truth is that neither team has what constitutes a tournament résumé, and there aren’t enough opportunities remaining to build one up in time. Perhaps Yale or Stephen F. Austin will receive some discussion in the selection committee meeting if either one falters in their respective conference tournaments, but those prospects seem highly unlikely. For these two and Liberty, it’s all in on auto-bid or bust.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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