NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch

Story posted March 12, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Bradford Conners

Ever since the NCAA expanded the March Madness field to 68 teams two years ago, the bubble has been called “soft” each and every year.

Not too long ago, the 2014 NCAA Tournament bubble looked to be the softest one yet by a very wide margin. But over the past few weeks, many teams on the cusp of an at-large bid have found their stride at the right time, and though the bubble is still quite soft, the battle for the last few vacancies in March Madness has heated up considerably.

Two weekends ago, it was Oklahoma State who essentially punched its ticket to the tournament by upending then-No. 5 Kansas. This past weekend, Oregon and Nebraska got themselves off of the bubble with key home wins over No. 3 Arizona and No. 9 Wisconsin, respectively.

As teams such as these three earned signature wins to all-but wrap up a tournament berth, it shrinks the number of openings that bubble teams are fighting for and reduces their margin for error. With Conference Championship Week getting underway, there appear to be 15 teams slugging it out for the final six spots in the Big Dance.

Note: All RPI information reflects Rivals’ RPI rankings as of Monday, March 10th.

Arkansas: 21-10, 10-8 SEC (RPI: 62, SOS: 84)

When the Razorbacks suffered their second loss to Missouri about a month ago, they dropped to 4-7 in SEC play, and their at-large hopes seemed nonexistent. Then, Mike Anderson’s squad ripped off six straight wins---including a road win in Rupp Arena to complete a sweep of Kentucky---and suddenly, Arkansas found itself on the right side of the bubble.

However, in its regular season finale on Saturday, Arkansas suffered a very damaging defeat at the worst possible time---an 83-58 thrashing at the hands of Alabama (RPI: 115). The good news for the Hogs is that they boast a 3-3 record against the RPI Top 50 and an 8-8 record against the Top 100, and they also have a quality nonconference win over SMU and a victory over Minnesota, a fellow bubble team---although their loss to Cal hurts. The Razorbacks’ first SEC Tournament game against Auburn or South Carolina is a must-win, and a quarterfinal victory over Tennessee would seal a tournament berth, or else they will be sweating out Selection Sunday.

BYU: 23-11, 13-5 WCC (RPI: 31, SOS: 38)

The Cougars stayed alive for an at-large berth by squeaking past San Francisco in overtime in the WCC semifinals. However, a loss to Gonzaga in the conference title game puts BYU back on the bubble. BYU challenged itself  by scheduling six nonconference games against teams that will likely make the tournament, and only won two of them (at Stanford and neutral-site vs. Texas), thus don’t have a very impressive overall body of work.

BYU went just 4-5 on the road in conference games this season, including losses to Pacific (RPI: 137), Pepperdine (RPI: 162), Portland (RPI: 181), and Loyola Marymount (RPI: 183). Dave Rose’s squad does have a win over Gonzaga, but since the Cougars fell to the Bulldogs on Tuesday night, they’re just 1-2 against the Zags on the year, which isn’t much for the selection committee to get excited about. However, BYU is a solid 8-6 against the RPI Top 100, and would certainly have the best chance of any mid-major to get an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the conference title.

California: 19-12, 10-8 Pac-12 (RPI: 55, SOS: 30)

The Golden Bears sprinted out to a 5-0 record in conference play and looked like a surefire tournament team at the time, but Cal went just 5-8 the rest of the way and finds itself sitting squarely on the tournament bubble. The Bears really stumbled down the stretch, including a five-game span in which they went 1-4 and lost three of those four games by 18 points or more. They saved their season, though, by eking out a one-point win in overtime over Colorado on Saturday.

What’s keeping Mike Montgomery’s squad in the thick of the bubble race is a 60-58 upset of then-No. 1 Arizona back on February 1st. Cal also picked up noteworthy road wins against Oregon and Stanford, in addition to an important nonconference win over fellow bubble team Arkansas. The Bears have some major holes in their resume, though, including a 4-9 record against the RPI Top 50, an 8-11 mark against the Top 100, a nonconference loss to bubble team Dayton, and an ugly loss to USC (RPI: 172). A likely quarterfinal match-up against Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament will probably determine Cal’s bubble fate.

Dayton: 22-9, 10-6 A-10 (RPI: 39, SOS: 56)

The Flyers got off to a rough 1-5 start in a very competitive A-10, and at the time, even calling Dayton a longshot to make the NCAA Tournament would have been quite generous. However, Dayton’s schedule eased up a bit and the Flyers strung together six straight wins to get into the bubble conversation. A tournament bid still seemed unlikely after Dayton suffered a 26-point shellacking by bubble team St. Joe’s in its next game, but Archie Miller’s squad responded with a triumph over UMass, a gigantic road win against St. Louis, and a victory over Richmond to finish out the regular season by winning nine of 10.

Dayton picked up some quality nonconference wins against Gonzaga and Cal in the Maui Invitational and a victory at Ole Miss, but losses to bubble spoiler USC, Illinois State (RPI: 136), and Rhode Island (RPI: 151) could prove to be costly. If the Flyers get past either George Mason or Fordham in their first A-10 Tournament game, they will have a chance to avenge their season sweep at the hands of St. Joe’s in the quarterfinals. Sporting an impressive 9-6 record against the RPI Top 100, a win there may be enough, but a victory over St. Louis in the semifinals would wrap up a tournament berth.

Florida State: 18-12, 9-9 ACC (RPI: 59, SOS: 42)

Things couldn’t have been set up more perfectly for Florida State this past weekend. Winners of three straight and making a late push for a spot in March Madness, the Seminoles welcomed a reeling Syracuse team to town. A win in that game seemed like it wouldn’t be too much to ask for, yet it would’ve looked great on Florida State’s resume. However, Leonard Hamilton’s squad fell flat and suffered a 74-58 defeat, making its tournament hopes very slim.

The Seminoles do have a couple of nice nonconference wins against VCU and UMass, but they missed out on potential resume-changing victories in an 82-80 overtime loss to Michigan and a 67-66 loss at Florida. In conference play, Florida State came up empty in five tries against the ACC’s top four (Virginia, Duke, Syracuse, and UNC), with a road win against Pitt being the only noteworthy one. FSU needs an opening-round win over Maryland and a quarterfinal victory over Virginia in the ACC Tournament to have any chance of cracking the tournament field.

Georgetown: 17-13, 8-10 Big East (RPI: 53, SOS: 10)

The Hoyas possess what is undoubtedly the most intriguing resume of any bubble team. In the nonconference, Georgetown went out and beat Michigan State, Kansas State, and VCU---out-of-conference wins that far outshine those of any other bubble team. Then, in conference play, John Thompson III’s squad added another signature win against Creighton. However, Georgetown’s mighty wins are counteracted by its crippling losses. The Hoyas were swept by Seton Hall (RPI: 147) and have an inexplicable loss against Northeastern (RPI: 219).

Georgetown split its games against the Big East’s other bubble teams, but was swept by Marquette (RPI: 85), which certainly doesn’t help matters. The Hoyas are a pretty solid 5-6 against the RPI Top 50 but are just 9-12 against the Top 150. They have to beat DePaul in their first Big East Tournament game, and a second win against Creighton in the quarterfinals should be enough to put them in the Big Dance; otherwise, Georgetown still has a chance to be selected, but won’t be feeling overly confident on Selection Sunday.

Minnesota: 19-12, 8-10 Big Ten (RPI: 51, SOS: 7)

Much like Georgetown, Minnesota is a team with a so-so RPI, great strength of schedule numbers, and a below-.500 conference record, hoping that several resume-boosting wins can make up for some questionable losses in the eyes of the selection committee. Unlike the Hoyas, though, the Golden Gophers’ signature wins came in conference play, as they picked up home victories over Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa. Deficiencies on Minnesota’s resume include a one-point home loss to Northwestern (RPI: 133) and an overtime road loss to Purdue (RPI: 139). An ugly 62-49 home defeat against Illinois (RPI: 68) is one that the Gophers would like to have back as well.

All-in-all, Minnesota’s good wins aren’t quite as good as Georgetown’s, and its bad losses aren’t quite as bad. In other words, the Gophers’ resume is a slightly more moderate version of the Hoyas’. Minnesota is just 3-8 against the RPI Top 50 and 6-10 against the Top 100. In the Big Ten Tournament, Rich Pitino’s squad needs a first-round win against Penn State and probably a second win over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals to gain an at-large berth.

Missouri: 21-10, 9-9 SEC (RPI: 52, SOS: 76)

Unlike Georgetown and Minnesota, Missouri has gone about its business rather quietly this season---not earning any elite wins, but mostly avoiding head-scratching losses. In nonconference games, the Tigers best win was against UCLA, and its lone loss was to Illinois. Then, in SEC play, Missouri’s most noteworthy accomplishment was a sweep of bubble foe Arkansas, and its worst losses came on the road against Alabama and Vanderbilt (RPI: 109). A sweep at the hands of Georgia (RPI: 73) and an ugly 72-45 loss to Tennessee on Saturday are both damaging the Tigers’ bubble profile as well.

Overall, Missouri has been a mediocre team in a mediocre conference, and with just two RPI Top 50 wins and a 7-8 record against the Top 100, Frank Haith’s squad  probably doesn’t have enough substance on its resume at this point to make March Madness. Rarely is a potential match-up with the top-ranked team in the country considered a good thing, but if the Tigers can get past Texas A&M in their first SEC Tournament game, they’ll face Florida in the quarterfinals with an opportunity to earn the signature win that their resume is lacking and get onto the right side of the bubble.

Providence: 20-11, 10-8 Big East (RPI: 54, SOS: 63)

Similar to Missouri, Providence is a team that hasn’t made a lot of noise this season, generally winning the games that it should and avoiding bad losses. In nonconference play, the Friars didn’t beat any teams that have a legitimate chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and their only iffy loss was to Maryland (RPI: 65). In Big East games, Ed Cooley’s squad has a resume-boosting win over Creighton and earned a split with the other bubble teams in its conference. A home loss to Seton Hall in double overtime is Providence’s only sub-RPI Top 100 loss of the season.

The Friars’ computer profile isn’t overly impressive, as they are 2-6 against the RPI Top 50 and 6-10 against the Top 100. They really could’ve used a win over Villanova, but they fell just short in double overtime in the teams’ last meeting. However, if Providence can knock off fellow bubble team St. John’s in its first Big East tournament game, it’ll get another crack at the Wildcats in the semifinals. The Friars would have a shot at an at-large bid just by beating the Red Storm, but a victory over Villanova would probably wrap up a tournament berth.

Southern Mississippi: 26-5, 13-3 C-USA (RPI: 35, SOS: 152)

A year ago, the Golden Eagles earned the dubious honor of being the team with the highest RPI (27) to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, and they could potentially be headed on a similar path this season. Southern Miss has probably been the most unnoticed of the bubble teams this year, but has quietly compiled a 26-5 record and a very solid RPI.

However, a closer look at the Golden Eagles’ resume reveals a serious lack of tournament-worthy material. Their best wins are against Louisiana Tech (RPI: 70) and Georgia State (RPI: 75), and 18 of their 26 wins are against teams outside of the RPI Top 150. Despite its gaudy conference record, Southern Miss is just the fourth seed in the C-USA Tournament, and Donnie Tyndall’s squad would need a win over top-seeded Louisiana Tech in the semifinals and a close loss in the finals to have any chance at an at-large berth---but even then, it is very unlikely.

St. John’s: 20-11, 10-8 Big East (RPI: 57, SOS: 49)

The Red Storm not only have the same overall and conference record as Providence, but its resume is nearly identical as well. St. John’s didn’t come away with any quality wins in nonconference play, and it suffered a bad loss to Penn State (RPI: 111). In conference games, Steve Lavin’s squad has a quality win against Creighton, splits against Providence and Georgetown, and an unsightly loss to DePaul (RPI: 162).

St. John’s, however, was swept by bubble foe Xavier, which makes its resume slightly less attractive than that of Providence. The Red Storm are just 1-7 against the RPI Top 50 and 6-9 against the Top 100, but stayed in the at-large hunt by grinding out a 91-90 double-overtime win at Marquette on Saturday. St. John’s will need to beat the Friars in its Big East Tournament opener and then upset Villanova in the semifinals, or an NCAA Tournament berth is very unlikely.

St. Joseph’s: 21-9, 11-5 A-10 (RPI: 41, SOS: 66)

A week ago, the Hawks were sitting on the right side of the bubble---not because they had any earth-shattering wins, but because it seemed impossible that the team with the second-best record in a very good conference could be left out of March Madness. In the final week of the regular season, St. Joe’s suffered an excusable loss at George Washington, but followed that one up with an inexcusable home loss against La Salle. Just like that, the Hawks dropped down to the No. 4 seed in the A-10 Tournament, and suddenly, a team that appeared to be pretty safely in the Big Dance just two games ago is probably on the outside looking in for the time being.

Phil Martelli’s squad didn’t beat any NCAA Tournament-worthy teams in nonconference play and suffered an ugly loss to Temple (RPI: 163). The Hawks’ quality wins are home victories over VCU and UMass and a sweep over Dayton, a fellow bubble team. St. Joe’s will likely face the Flyers again in the A-10 quarterfinals. Can the select committee really choose Dayton over St. Joe’s if the Hawks go 3-0 against them this season? The answer is probably not, but it is also quite likely that both teams would be left out in that scenario unless St. Joe’s can knock off top-seeded St. Louis in the semifinals.

Stanford: 19-11, 10-8 Pac-12 (RPI: 43, SOS: 17)

The Cardinal don’t have a resume that will blow you away, but a very good nonconference win at Connecticut and a decent performance in a strong conference will probably be enough for Stanford to feel relatively safe about its chances come Selection Sunday. Johnny Dawkins’ squad didn’t get off to the greatest start in Pac-12 play with a home loss to Cal and a somewhat shaky road loss to Oregon State (RPI: 95), but the Cardinal would turn things around from there. Stanford won at Cal to earn a split with its rival, split its two games with UCLA and Arizona State, and beat Oregon on the road in its lone meeting with the Ducks.

Stanford’s 4-8 record against the RPI Top 50 and 7-11 mark against the Top 100 are nothing to write home about, but no sub-RPI Top 100 losses and strong strength of schedule numbers have the Cardinal sitting in pretty good shape. Stanford must avoid a first-round loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 Tournament, but a quarterfinal loss to Arizona State probably wouldn’t hurt all that much.

Utah: 20-10, 9-9 Pac-12 (RPI: 83, SOS: 100)

The worst RPI to ever get an large-bid was No. 74, which explains why Utah hasn’t really been mentioned in any bubble conversations. Poor scheduling in nonconference play, during which the Utes went 11-1 and cruised to wins of 13 points or more in 10 of those games, is deflating Utah’s RPI. One of those wins, though, was an 81-64 domination of in-state rival and fellow bubble team BYU, and in conference games, Utah has earned splits with UCLA, Colorado, and Arizona State, and it beat bubble foe Cal on the road in the teams’ lone meeting.

If you give any consideration to close losses, the Utes have an even stronger bubble profile, as they fell in overtime to Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, and they lost by one point at Stanford on Saturday. Utah is 7-9 against the RPI Top 100 but has a very bad loss on its resume to Washington State (RPI: 210). Overall, though, the Utes have been very competitive in a tough conference and certainly pass the eye test, and if they can manage to beat Washington and then take down top-seeded Arizona in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, Larry Krystkowiak’s squad would be very deserving of a trip to the Big Dance.

Xavier: 20-11, 10-8 Big East (RPI: 48, SOS: 26)

The Musketeers are atop the pecking order of Big East bubble teams for two main reasons: they are the only team of the group with an elite nonconference win (Cincinnati), and they completed a season sweep of St. John’s. Otherwise, Xavier’s resume has many similarities to its in-conference bubble foes, including a home win over Creighton and splits against the other bubble teams.

Chris Mack’s squad isn’t completely safe though because it was swept by Seton Hall and suffered a bad nonconference loss to USC. (As a side note, USC has now had more wins mentioned on this page than it had in its entire conference season---3 vs. 2). The Musketeers are 8-8 against the RPI Top 100, and 13 of their 20 wins came against teams in the Top 150. Xavier probably needs to beat Marquette in the Big East quarterfinals to secure an at-large berth.

Bradford Conners is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email btc5082@psu.edu.