Bauer’s Bubble Watch: March 1
This is March.
What—you were expecting anything else for an introduction? What more do you need?
OK, this is March: the month home to the NCAA Tournament, a yearly phenomenon in which 68 teams are selected to a single-elimination bracket with the title of national champion on the line. Only one team can win it; the other 67 go home empty-handed.
This is March: the month home to more storied finishes and unbelievable upsets than any other, home to VCU’s and George Mason’s Cinderella runs to the Final Four, home to Dan Bonner’s iconic “You can’t be serious with that shot!” after Ali Farokhmanesh’s late 3-pointer to stun Kansas, home to UMBC’s historic defeat of Virginia, the first 16-over-1 result in NCAA Tournament history.
Yeah, that March.
And with March comes math. (Don’t worry, it’s the good kind of math.)
As mentioned before, there are 68 bids up for grabs. Of these 68, 20 are projected to be awarded to auto-bids from the mid-major/minor conferences (a few of these projected auto-bids, namely Western Kentucky and Winthrop, are in the conversation for an at-large bid, too). That leaves 48 spots for teams with at-large-worthy résumés. Some of these teams will eventually earn their conference’s auto-bid, but that’s irrelevant for the time being.
With these numbers in mind, let’s take a glance at each of Bauer’s Bubble Watch’s three categories—lock, safe for now, bubble—and see where the dominos fall.
Locks: 26 teams
Safe for now: 12 teams
Bubble: 22 teams (for 10 available spots)
Our lock category grows immensely today, tacking on 11 new additions. We also see three bubbles pop and the introduction of one new team to the Watch.
Let’s get a move on. We’ve got some serious unpacking to do over the next two weeks.
Locks: Florida State, Virginia, Clemson
Safe for now: Virginia Tech, Louisville, North Carolina
Bubble: Georgia Tech, Duke
Clemson: Guess those mid-January post-COVID struggles were really a thing of the past, huh? Clemson fared much better in its second return from pause than its first, annihilating Wake Forest 60-39 in the return game before outlasting Miami 66-58 on Saturday. Only Syracuse and Pittsburgh remain on the schedule; neither would leave an especially pretty mark if the Tigers were to lose, but neither could do enough damage to a résumé that features nine Quad 1-2 wins and no loss worse than NET No. 59 to consider leaving Clemson out of the field. And for that, the Tigers are a lock.
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech’s situation suddenly looked rather precarious after Tuesday’s loss to Georgia Tech, as that 69-53 defeat dropped the Hokies all the way down to 50th in NET and 55th in KenPom. But Mike Young’s squad quickly righted the ship, going the Clemson route by embarrassing Wake Forest 84-46 on Saturday. One more victory for a team sheet with zero losses below Quad 2 and wins over Villanova and Virginia should seal the deal for lock-hood.
Louisville: The elusive Quad 1 win has been just that—elusive—all season long for Louisville, the Cardinals owning one over Pittsburgh for a brief spell before the Panthers took a tumble. But with Saturday’s overtime win at Duke, they finally have a Q1 victory that should stay nailed in place until season’s end. A second one wouldn’t hurt (each of Louisville’s remaining games—at Virginia Tech, vs. Virginia—fall in the upper echelon), but the Cardinals seem to be back in safe territory for the time being.
North Carolina: A hard palm to the face directly followed by an excited tilt of the head: this scenario accurately describes North Carolina’s week. The Tar Heels took a mind-numbing home loss on Wednesday to Marquette—a Quad 3 opponent that probably never should have been scheduled in the first place—but rebounded in dynamic fashion with a come-from-behind victory on Saturday over conference-leading Florida State: UNC’s second in Q1. Such a transformative result momentarily puts North Carolina in “safe for now”; a 2-0 finish against Syracuse and Duke should cement its status there.
Georgia Tech: This season’s Bubble Watch has seen a few historic late-season ascents, and Georgia Tech’s has to be near the top of that list. The Yellow Jackets have been on the Watch since the start but were previously tabbed as a total long shot following back-to-back losses to Virginia and Clemson in early February. Now 13-8 overall and up to No. 40 in NET and No. 32 in KenPom after last week’s wins over Virginia Tech and Syracuse, Georgia Tech is right in the heart of the conversation. The danger’s not clear yet—a greatly consequential Tuesday home bout with Duke and a Friday trap game at Wake Forest remain—but the Yellow Jackets’ tournament odds have never been as good as they are right now.
Duke: Duke’s sudden climb hit a snag on Saturday with an overtime home loss to Louisville, though that’s hardly a terrible thing; Duke stays firmly in the at-large conversation with the L. Still, that would have been a nice Quad 2 win to have had it gone the Blue Devils’ way, as their 11-9 overall record and three Quadrant 3 losses aren’t exactly selling points. As mentioned in the blurb before, Tuesday’s colorful meeting between the Blue Devils and Yellow Jackets in McCamish Pavilion is pivotal for the ACC bubble’s future.
Let’s go ahead and pop Syracuse. The Orange’s minor ascent over the past month quickly came crashing down with a pair of losses to fellow ACC bubble candidates Duke and Georgia Tech last week. Still without a Quad 1 win just 13 days removed from Selection Sunday and flashing below-average metrics, Syracuse is just about toast. A 2-0 week against North Carolina and Clemson to finish the regular season could have us rethinking that notion, but let’s see that actually happen before we talk about the Orange again.
Safe for now:
Bubble: Wichita State, SMU
Wichita State: It’s time to start wondering whether or not one big win is enough to get Wichita State into March. Once again, a huge bubble matchup with SMU was called off due to COVID issues within the Mustangs’ program. That’s bad news for SMU, but it’s also bad news for the Shockers, who really could have used another Q1 or Q2 tally on their résumé. As it stands, Wichita State has a behemoth victory over Houston, no bad losses, and… that’s about it. Is it enough?
SMU: It would be in SMU’s best interest to reschedule those games with Wichita State before the conference tournament starts. The Mustangs STILL haven’t played a game since Feb. 8, and their at-large profile (no Quad 1 wins, No. 55 in NET, No. 49 in KenPom) is losing relevance. You have to play at some point! And even if SMU can pull off its final scheduled regular season game against Tulsa, a win is not likely to move the meter enough to put the Mustangs into the field. The tournament dream is on life support.
What? Why are we removing Memphis from the Watch this week? The Tigers beat Tulane on Wednesday and Cincinnati on Sunday—what’s all this about? Well, to answer that question, just look at Memphis’ résumé. And then promptly look at Syracuse’s. Nearly identical, right? Two teams without a Quad 1 win, each with a Quad 3 loss, a NET ranking around 60, an SOS bubbling below 100, and scattered metrics generally falling under bubble territory. Neither résumé spells “tournament team,” and with the Orange leaving the page, it only seems fit to kick the Tigers as well. But, like Syracuse, Memphis will have a chance to get back into the mix; a daunting Sunday clash with Houston is a must-win.
Safe for now:
Bubble: St. Bonaventure, VCU, Saint Louis, Richmond
St. Bonaventure: VCU’s surprising loss to Davidson shut the door on the Rams’ hopes of clinching the A-10 regular season title. Instead, 11-3 St. Bonaventure (13-3 overall) will wear the crown with one game to go: Dayton on Monday. Those Flyers can be pesky (just ask Saint Louis), but a win should have Mark Schmidt and company feeling OK about their tournament chances. Now ranking 28th in NET, 31st in KenPom and 17th in that forever-bizarre NCSOS, St. Bonaventure controls its own destiny, and that destiny, more likely than not, will be March.
VCU: Two weeks in a row, VCU had a chance to move into “safe for now” territory. Two weeks in a row, the Rams blew it. An upward move seemed likely after VCU edged out Saint Louis on Tuesday for a staggering seventh Quadrant 2 victory. But without Bones Hyland on the floor on Saturday (foot sprain), VCU fell victim to the classic Davidson trap game. No, that loss isn’t enough to kick the Rams out of the field, but it does put a flame under their projected No. 10 or 11 seed. With the A-10 regular season now concluded, VCU will need to win one, possibly two games in the conference tournament to feel safe.
Saint Louis: Well, Saint Louis did go 1-1 last week, which, according to last Monday’s Watch, was required to keep the Billikens in the conversation. But a 2-0 week is really what Travis Ford’s team needed to make a splash. A home win over Richmond is good (Quad 2), and a very close road loss to VCU isn’t bad (Quad 1A). But a victory over the Rams would have been life-changing for a team that is lacking in quality wins—just three in the first two quadrants—and has struggled on the road. The Billikens will have to make a statement in the A-10 tournament to remain a viable at-large candidate.
Richmond: New week, same old mistakes. Richmond let yet another key opportunity for a résumé-boosting victory slip away in the form of Friday’s loss at Saint Louis. The Spiders desperately need those kinds of victories to go their way in order to cover up their early Q3 and Q4 mistakes. There is a silver lining; Davidson’s upset of VCU on Saturday flipped the Spiders’ Dec. 30 victory over the Wildcats to Quad 1—their third. But Richmond’s recent inability to defeat quality opponents could prove very problematic for their postseason hopes.
Locks: Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State
Safe for now:
Texas: Let’s lock in the Longhorns. After a messy loss to West Virginia on Feb. 20, Texas eradicated all doubt of a season collapse with a win over Kansas on Tuesday. Of course, things are never easy in the Lone Star State, and Texas landed back in the L column on Saturday in Lubbock. But the victory over the Jayhawks is still enough to cement the Longhorns into March. It is worth noting that the rest of schedule is on the treacherous side—all three remaining contests are on the road, and two come against Big 12 bottom-feeders Iowa State and TCU—but it’s hard to imagine a world where enough damage can be to done to leave Texas’ seven Quad 1-2 wins, No. 2 SOS and top-25 metrics out of the tournament.
Texas Tech: Ditto for Texas Tech, which ended a slightly terrifying three-game slide with its Saturday triumph over Texas. The Red Raiders face a similar final stretch to the Longhorns—TCU and Iowa State with a road game against an elite Big 12 team (Baylor) thrown in for good measure—but just like Texas, TTU should be secure enough résumé-wise (No. 15 in NET, No. 23 in KenPom, No. 24 SOS, five Quad 1 wins) to withstand the blow should disaster strike.
Oklahoma State: And now a moral dilemma. Oklahoma State’s body of work clearly depicts a lock: No. 33 NET, No. 36 KenPom, No. 15 SOR, a 7-3 road record, and, most prominently, SEVEN Quadrant 1 wins—the most of any team in the Big 12. That’s a lock, right? Well, what about that pending postseason ban appeal? Can we really lock in the Cowboys with that whole thing still up in the air? We’ll reply with a very uneasy “yes.” Now just 13 days removed from Selection Sunday, the chances of the NCAA returning a verdict on the appeal before then are extremely slim. We’ll keep a watchful eye on the situation, and we’ll adjust if necessary. But from a purely evaluative standpoint, Oklahoma State is a guarantee.
And that’s it for the Big 12. Assuming no NCAA nonsense and no auto-bid thievery from the league’s bottom three, there will be exactly seven Big 12 teams playing in March Madness. The Big Ten may get top billing as college basketball’s best conference, but the Big 12 isn’t far behind.
Locks: Villanova, Creighton
Safe for now:
Bubble: UConn, Xavier, Seton Hall
Creighton: Creighton is now a lock. All the Bluejays had to do to earn total certainty was avoid another Quad 3 disaster, and they did just that, handling DePaul with ease on Wednesday. Creighton did cede a victory to Xavier on Saturday, but that result is far more meaningful to the Musketeers than it is to the Bluejays. With only two games to go, we can safely drop Creighton into the bracket.
UConn: Having James Bouknight back sure makes a difference. The star sophomore has scored at least 18 points in each game since his mid-February return, and the Huskies have gone 3-1 in that span with the lone loss being a forgivable one to Villanova. Now up to No. 36 in NET and No. 29 in KenPom with five Quad 1-2 wins and no bad losses, UConn is starting to feel better about its bubble situation. The Huskies still need to beat Seton Hall on Wednesday if they want to feel a true semblance of safety, but it’s clear that the odds of the Big East being just a two-bid conference are dissipating.
Xavier: In hindsight, Saturday’s win over Creighton was absolutely necessary. Xavier entered the matchup losers in three of the last four with a single win in the NET top 50, a NET ranking of No. 57, a KenPom ranking of No. 62 and no road wins better than NET No. 118. That final category didn’t improve—the game was in Cincinnati, after all—but the first three sure did; the victory over the Bluejays boosted the Musketeers nine spots in NET and eight spots in KenPom, giving them their second Quad 1 win of the season in the process. There’s still more work to be done, but a result like that is huge for the Musketeers’ confidence going forward.
Seton Hall: You’re playing with fire, Seton Hall. The Pirates, previously believed to be on an upswing toward receiving a tournament bid, have lost two in a row to Georgetown and Butler—yuck. And the remaining room for error is slim, as the Pirates have two tough tasks this week: a Wednesday bubble affair with UConn and a Saturday showdown with St. John’s. A 2-0 outing should put them in the field, while an 0-2 week would probably be the death knell. The most likely outcome, a 1-1 split, would keep Seton Hall where it is right now: squarely on the bubble.
Today, we bid St. John’s adieu. The Red Storm’s late-January/early-February surge has come to a screeching halt, as Mike Anderson and company have lost three of the last four. The numbers—No. 73 in NET and KenPom, No. 241 NCSOS, as many Quad 3-4 losses (two) as Quad 1 wins—just aren’t going to cut it. Like previous bubble eliminees Syracuse and Memphis, St. John’s can recapture our attention with wins over Providence and Seton Hall in the final week of the season, but anything less than that is sure to equal a tournament absence.
And, as per usual, we’ll keep one eye open for Providence, which has a surprisingly decent résumé despite being 12-11 and ranking 79th in NET. Any chance for a bid seems incredibly unlikely without a deep Big East tournament run, but the Friars have pulled off the incredibly unlikely before.
Locks: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin
Safe for now: Rutgers, Maryland
Bubble: Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota
Purdue: Alright, buckle in. The Big Ten—as always—has a lot to unload. Let’s start with Purdue, which is now a lock. The Boilermakers’ Friday victory at Penn State netted them their 10th win within the first two Quadrants and pushed them up to 21st in the NET rankings. At this point, the Boilermakers are only playing for seeding. They’re locked in for the sixth NCAA Tournament in a row… We can just ignore that 2020 cancellation, right?
Wisconsin: Let’s go ahead and give the same treatment to Wisconsin. The Badgers may have come up short in their efforts to topple Ayo Dosunmu-less Illinois on Saturday, but they—or more accurately, D’Mitrik Trice—gave the Illini one hell of a fight. The slide in potential seed remains a concern, especially with a tricky final week on tap (at Purdue, at Iowa), but there’s not enough damage that can be done to make the selection committee think twice about Wisconsin’s nine Quad 1-2 wins and consistent top-20 efficiency numbers. The Badgers are safe.
Rutgers: You almost had us worried there, Rutgers. For a second, it looked as if the Scarlet Knights’ two-game losing streak might stretch into three, as they trailed Indiana on Wednesday 23-8 about 10 minutes in. But the Hoosiers regressed to the mean, Geo Baker did Geo Baker things, and the Scarlet Knights left with a comfortable 11-point victory. At the moment, Rutgers’ résumé looks pretty similar to Wisconsin’s—eight victories in the first two Quadrants and no bad losses—but a slightly less sightly overall record and metrics that rank about 10 spots lower on average keep Rutgers “safe for now.” Cleaning up against Nebraska and Minnesota this week should put the lock on Piscataway.
Maryland: Hey, remember when we were discussing whether or not the selection committee would let a Maryland team with a .500 record into the tournament? That discussion took place, get this, two weeks ago. Feels like two years ago at this point. The Terrapins have been scorching hot over the past 15 days, winning five straight and reaching 14-10 against Division I competition. Any concern of a .500 finish is completely out the window. Now the owner of five Quad 1 victories and reputable numbers in NET and the various metrics, Maryland is, in all likelihood, going back to the tournament.
Michigan State: Yes, Michigan State is finally here. After weeks and weeks of debating whether or not the Spartans should be on the page, they made the answer obvious with back-to-back victories over Illinois and Ohio State just two days apart. Unfortunately for the Spartans, their hasty upward climb was stymied by an 18-point loss at Maryland on Sunday. That defeat is only Q1—a category in which Sparty has four victories—but an unflattering NET rank (No. 77), KenPom (No. 62) and road record (3-7) indicate that there’s more work to be done. Still, the fact that Michigan State has gotten to this point at all after being dead in the water for over a month is nothing short of remarkable.
Indiana: It’s not looking too good for Indiana. The Hoosiers’ brutal final stretch opened with two losses—Rutgers on Wednesday and Michigan on Saturday—leaving Archie Miller’s squad 12-12 overall and ranked 57th in NET. The predictive metrics are starting to sour, too; Indiana is down nine spots in KenPom over the last nine days. All the Hoosiers’ have to cling to is their head-to-head sweep of Iowa: a helpful stat, but probably not helpful enough to overcome the rest of this floundering résumé. We could be popping IU’s bubble as soon as a week from today.
Minnesota: When you lose back-to-back games to the conference’s bottom two teams, the latter proving to be your ninth loss on the road in as many tries, you know you’ve hit rock bottom. There was a time in mid-January when Minnesota looked to be a sure thing for March, perhaps as high as a No. 5 seed directly following the Golden Gophers’ 75-57 domination of Michigan. A 2-8 record since has completely scrubbed that notion, so much so that the Gophers’ appearance on this page could be considered a stretch. Winning out the regular season is mandatory; winning a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament probably is as well.
Safe for now: San Diego State
Bubble: Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State
San Diego State: That should just about do it. A weekend sweep of Boise State firmly plants San Diego State’s feet in “safe for now” and arguably in lock territory. The Aztecs seem extremely likely to enter Selection Sunday without a Quad 1 win—hence the hesitation to lock them in this week—but their superb work elsewhere (NET No. 18, KenPom No. 20, six Quad 2 wins) should be more than enough to put them safely in the field.
Boise State: You know that thing that Utah State did against Boise State two weeks ago? That thing where the Aggies played really well in back-to-back road games but just couldn’t do enough to beat the Broncos either time? Boise State just got a taste of its own medicine. The Broncos nearly knocked off San Diego State twice in Viejas Arena, once taking the Aztecs to OT, but neither result ended up in the W column. Tough luck—both opportunities were clearly Quad 1 and would have given Boise State’s résumé some more punch. These losses don’t kill the Broncos, though. As it stands, Boise State is probably floating around the No. 10 or 11 line, a la VCU—not out of the field, but not out of the woods either.
Colorado State: The good news: Colorado State finally played a game for the first time in nearly a month, and it won! The bad news: the win was over NET No. 317 Air Force, which does absolutely zip for the Rams’ at-large hopes. But let’s look on the bright side: Colorado State didn’t fall victim to a classic trap game coming out of an extended pause, and with other bubble teams like Seton Hall and Stanford tanking their stock, the Rams are in a better position to earn entry to March Madness. They’ll just have to avoid taking another loss before the conference tournament. Easier said than done; rescheduled clashes with New Mexico and Nevada loom.
Utah State: Sweeping Nevada is certainly a good thing for Utah State after last week’s disappointments in Boise, but the Aggies still seem like an outside shot. Their metrics are pretty resemblant of Syracuse and Memphis—it’s the two Quad 1 wins that have Utah State ahead of the Orange and Tigers—and there’s barely any room to increase those marks with NET No. 186 Wyoming and NET No. 203 Fresno State making up the tail end of the schedule. The Mountain West tournament is just nine days away, and we all know how Utah State tends to fare in these things. Have the Aggies got another run in them? They’re probably going to need it.
Locks: USC, Colorado
Safe for now: Oregon, UCLA
Colorado: The Pac-12 now owns a pair of locks, as Colorado jumps categories today. The Buffaloes appeared to be on schedule for their yearly end-of-season slide, dropping back-to-back contests to California and Oregon earlier in the month. But the Buffs, fueled by their Rocky Mountain roots (now 10-1 in Boulder), swept fellow tournament contenders USC and UCLA over the weekend. As the proud owner of 10 wins across the first two quadrants and the No. 13 NET, Colorado is a lock for March.
Oregon: Call it a productive week for Oregon, which lost by 14 at USC on Monday but picked up the last two legs of its three-game trip to the Golden Coast with key victories at Stanford and Cal. The Ducks don’t have the same efficiency measures or high NET ranking of the Buffaloes, so calling them a “lock” would be a bridge too far, but they are in a great position to reach the tournament for the seventh time in Dana Altman’s 11-year tenure at the helm.
UCLA: I wrote last Monday that a Rocky Mountain split would be enough to move UCLA back into “safe for now” territory. The Bruins did just that, topping Utah on Thursday before dropping a close one to Colorado on Saturday. A promise is a promise, so the Bruins slide up a rank. On top of that, the Pac-12 regular season title isn’t far out of reach for UCLA. With the Bruins back on top of the standings by a half-game, all signs point to Saturday’s matchup with crosstown rival USC being for all the marbles. Should be a doozy. A win would net the Bruins not only the conference crown but a guaranteed home in the bracket as well.
Stanford: You picked a real bad time to lose three in a row, Stanford. Not that there’s ever a good time to lose three in a row, but the Cardinal have been sitting smack dab in the center of the bubble for much of the past month, and now that Selection Sunday is just around the corner, Stanford has taken itself out of most projections with back-to-back-to-back losses to Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State. Four Quad 1 wins are good, but they may not be enough to save a 14-11 team that ranks 64th in NET and 70th in KenPom. Gotta upset USC on Wednesday to stay alive, it would seem.
Locks: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee
Safe for now: Missouri, Florida, LSU
Bubble: Ole Miss
Arkansas: Last week, we posited that perhaps neither Tennessee nor Missouri would wind up finishing second in the SEC to Alabama in terms of seeding but rather Arkansas would claim the silver. A week later, that proposition is looking like reality. The Razorbacks have won their last six straight and their last nine in conference play, affixing wins over Alabama on Wednesday and LSU on Saturday to their team sheet—undoubtedly impressive, and deserving of a lock. Welcome to March, Hogs!
Tennessee: Tennessee also becomes a lock in perhaps the least convincing fashion ever: the Volunteers can lose their one remaining matchup against Florida and still remain safely in. A Wednesday win over Vanderbilt allows this scenario to unfold, but it fails to express the Vols’ ineptitude over the past month. Double-digit losses to LSU and Kentucky are bad enough; a road loss against a reeling Auburn team without Sharife Cooper is the rotten cherry on top of this barf sundae. That No. 3 seed that the Vols received during the selection committee’s top 16 preview is long gone.
Missouri: Missouri is very much in the same boat as Tennessee in terms of its recent shoddy play, but Cuonzo Martin’s team is without the same total safety. Why? Simple. The Tigers rank far worse than the Vols in NET and efficiency, AND they have two games to play before the start of the SEC tournament as opposed to Tennessee’s one. Considering those games are against Florida and LSU, it seems very possible—likely, even—that Mizzou drops its final two to end the regular season on a 1-6 tumble. Yeesh. Thank goodness for those six Quad 1 wins.
Florida: Not every team can survive losing its best player at the start of the season or play quality basketball right out of the gate after a two-week-long COVID pause. Florida has done both of these things. Without Keyontae Johnson, the Gators have pieced together a very respectable résumé, home to four Quad 1 wins, the No. 26 NET, metrics in the 20s and 30s, and just one slip-up below Quad 2. They’re honestly pretty close to a lock, and a win over Missouri or Tennessee in the final week of the regular season should get them there.
LSU: LSU might be slipping into hot water. The Tigers, looking mighty cool among the “safe for now” crowd last week with three straight wins over Mississippi State, Tennessee and Auburn in their pocket, find themselves at the bottom of the second tier today after back-to-back losses to Georgia and Arkansas. Defense remains an issue; both the Bulldogs and Razorbacks put at least 83 points on the board. Six Quad 1-2 wins, good metrics, no bad losses, and the No. 7 SOS keep LSU “safe for now,” but the Tigers shouldn’t let this funk carry into Tuesday’s battle with Vanderbilt. THAT would be disastrous.
Ole Miss: Speaking of Vanderbilt… What to do with Ole Miss? Last week, we asked Kermit Davis’ crew to complete the season sweep of Missouri in order to stay on the bubble. They did. Nice job. We assumed that a victory over last-place Vanderbilt would follow. Guess we shouldn’t have assumed. A great win is pretty much always more impactful than a bad loss, and that’s the case here—the Missouri win is Q1, and the loss to Vandy is only Q2. But the Rebels play the Commodores again on Saturday, this time at home. Needless to say, that can’t be a loss.
Locks: Gonzaga, BYU
Safe for now: Loyola Chicago
Bubble: Drake, Western Kentucky, Winthrop
BYU: No ands, ifs or buts about it: BYU is in. Now 18-5 entering conference tournament play and protected by the famed triple bye, the Cougars are totally secure. It’s true that they have only one win over a likely tournament team (San Diego State on Dec. 18), but the Utah State and Saint Mary’s wins also count as Quad 1, and the Cougars are now up to No. 20 in NET and No. 22 in KenPom with excellent strength-of-schedule measures to boot. Simply put, BYU is guaranteed to return to the Madness for the first time since 2015.
Loyola Chicago: We won’t hand the same unabashed claim of certainty to Loyola Chicago just yet, simply for caution’s sake. Both NET and the predictive metrics have noticed the Ramblers’ recent struggles to put away much lesser teams—Loyola needed overtime to beat Southern Illinois and escaped Valparaiso by the skin of its teeth—as the Fighting Sister Jeans have fallen to No. 16 in NET and out of the KenPom top 10. Obviously those numbers would be just dandy for any major conference team, but we have to be more careful for a group with a single Quad 1 win and SOS marks well below average. Just don’t lose to, say, NET No. 216 Southern Illinois, and you should be OK, Ramblers.
Drake: So close. Drake was so close to making it out of the regular season with just two total losses—an alright number for the Bulldogs’ so-so résumé—without Roman Penn or Shanquan Hemphill (arguably their best two players) on the floor. But they just couldn’t finish the road sweep of Bradley, dropping the final game of the regular season to a Quad 3 opponent. That’s far from the nail in the coffin for the Bulldogs’ at-large hopes—it’s probably not even enough to kick them out of the projected field—but it does put a vice grip on their wiggle room. Drake could lose to Loyola in the Arch Madness finale and live to see another day. But another loss to Valpo? Or a loss to Illinois State? That could mean the end. Our weekly “tread carefully” comment goes to Drake this time around.
Western Kentucky: Well, you can’t win ‘em all. In theory, Western Kentucky’s idea to schedule a late-season non-con game with Houston was brilliant; a win would be monstrous, and a loss wouldn’t be harmful at all. And for a moment, it seemed like the Hilltoppers were going to pull it off, leading by one just after halftime. Then the Cougars blasted into orbit, leaving WKU in the dust for a 24-point margin of victory. Oh, well. You’ll get ‘em next time. Western Kentucky then went back to its usual business, thrashing FIU 91-58 on Sunday. That win doesn’t move the chains like an upset of Houston would have, but it keeps WKU put in the bubble discussion.
Winthrop: It hurts. It physically hurts to remove Belmont from the Bubble Watch. The Bruins are the best team in the Ohio Valley and it’s not close. But even the best teams have off nights, and the Bruins had one on Thursday in their 81-67 loss to Eastern Kentucky. Then lightning struck twice; Belmont lost its second in a row, this time to Morehead State on Saturday. Precedent is no longer in Belmont’s favor, as there have been three-loss and four-loss at-large candidates excluded from the tournament in modern history. Sadly, it’s auto-bid-or-bust time for the OVC powerhouse. That leaves Winthrop as our lone one-loss mid-major with history on its side, the Eagles entering Monday’s conference tournament matchup with High Point at 20-1 overall. So, I guess that’s mission accomplished; the Eagles cannot possibly finish with more than two losses before Selection Sunday. But take it from Belmont: Don’t test the theory! Just win, win, win.
DJ Bauer is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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