NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch

Story posted March 1, 2018 in CommRadio, Sports by DJ Bauer

It’s time for another round of Bubble Watch. As we enter conference tournament play in these final two weeks, many teams will be locking up bids and many others will be dropping out of the tournament talks. This week, three teams have achieved lock status (Wichita State, West Virginia and Michigan), one has been eliminated (UCF), one has been brought into the at-large conversation (Loyola-Chicago), and a handful of teams have jumped up from the bubble to the “safe for now” category or have done the opposite. Here’s what we’re looking at right now:

Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson
Safe for Now: Virginia Tech, Miami, NC State, Florida State
Bubble: Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame

Virginia Tech, Miami and NC State all move up into the “safe for now” category thanks to huge resume-boosting wins over the past week (Duke, North Carolina and Florida State, respectively). Florida State is a little less safe due to two straight losses, but a strong finish should put the Seminoles in the tournament. That leaves Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame as the ACC’s bubble teams. Louisville looks all right with a road win at Virginia Tech last Saturday, but there’s still work to do before securing a bid. Syracuse is starting slip after three losses in a row; the first two to North Carolina and Duke are forgivable, but the third to Boston College is much less so. The Orange need to pick up the pace to avoid heading to the NIT. Notre Dame stays in the conversation with a 2-0 week, and the return of Bonzie Colson is a huge plus. Still, an upset win at Virginia may be necessary for the Fighting Irish to have a real fighting chance.

Locks: Cincinnati, Wichita State
Safe for Now: Houston
Bubble: Temple

Temple remains as the AAC’s only bubble team, and even their case is dwindling. A loss at Connecticut Wednesday is not quite the nail in the coffin, thanks to a plethora of Q1 and Q2 wins as well as the No. 11 SOS, but Temple is running out of time. A deep conference tournament run is what the Owls need to stay afloat.

Big East
Locks: Villanova, Xavier
Safe for Now: Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler
Bubble: Providence, Marquette

Providence can’t be faulted too much for a 10-point loss at Xavier, but it’s clear this team has its issues, as inconsistency has been plaguing the Friars recently. Strong traditional metrics have Providence staunchly in the bubble conversation, but they can’t keep playing this way if they want to secure a tournament bid. Marquette’s dancing chances took a real blow after a tough loss at DePaul, and they barely survived at Georgetown two days later. Saturday sees Creighton, a worthy test for the Golden Eagles to prove if they’re really a tournament contender. Just like many teams mentioned above, Marquette will need a strong showing in the conference tournament to improve their resume.

Big Ten
Locks: Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan
Safe for Now: None
Bubble: Nebraska, Penn State, Maryland

With the Big Ten Tournament starting a week earlier than usual, the conference’s three bubble teams will all have to do their best this week and wait for seven agonizing days, hoping that other bubble teams will falter along the way. Nebraska has the best case for a tournament bid out of the three, thanks to an impressive 13-5 conference record and a near perfect 16-1 home record. Still, their No. 57 RPI and No. 99 SOS are not impressive in the eyes of the committee, so the Cornhuskers likely need another big win or two in the Big Ten Tournament to have a real shot. Penn State’s resume is even weaker, and a three-game losing streak heading into the conference tournament doesn’t bode well. The good news for the Nittany Lions is a win over Northwestern would mean another chance for a victory against Ohio State (a team they’ve already beaten twice this year), but that still may not be enough. Maryland is probably the most dubious bubble team, especially after a 24-point home loss to Michigan, but with opportunities ahead, the Terrapins cling to life. Even then, it will be difficult for Maryland to grab a bid without winning the Big Ten Tournament outright.

Big 12
Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia
Safe for Now: TCU, Oklahoma
Bubble: Kansas State, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State

Wins over bubble teams Baylor and Kansas State almost assuredly put TCU in the tournament. Oklahoma is still on the decline after splitting with the same opponents, but a strong RPI and excellent SOS keeps them alive for now. Two straight losses certainly hurt Kansas State’s case, especially with somewhat pedestrian traditional metrics, but nine Q1 & Q2 wins is certainly a plus. Texas is a bit more precarious with a 17-13 record, but five Q1 wins and the No. 17 SOS save the Longhorns at the moment. Baylor has a very similar resume to Texas, but two head-to-head wins there mean the Bears are a tad closer to the dance. Finally, there’s Oklahoma State, who’s still just barely hanging around. A mad run in the Big 12 Tournament is what the Cowboys need to remain in the at-large conversation.

Locks: Arizona
Safe for Now: None
Bubble: Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Utah, Washington, Oregon

Arizona State falls to the bubble with a three-game losing streak, the most recent being an embarrassing loss to Oregon State. A few underhand pitches at the end of the regular season is just what the Sun Devils need to end their free fall. USC inches closer and closer to the dance, as a 12-5 conference record and relatively strong RPI of 31 have the Trojans sweating slightly less than before. Where USC has been succeeding, UCLA has been failing, as the Bruins have lost their last two. Saturday’s head-to-head between these two teams will have major implications in deciding what the tournament field will look like. Utah’s most recent loss to USC puts a damper on the situation, but there’s still hope, especially with the Pac-12 Tournament coming soon. The same is true for Washington, who continues to be wildly inconsistent with a 16-point loss last week followed by a 17-point victory. Oregon continues to rise in the bubble talks, thanks to key home victories over Arizona State and Arizona last week, but weak traditional metrics mean the Ducks need to stay hot to keep their tournament hopes alive.

Locks: Auburn, Tennessee
Safe for Now: Kentucky, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Florida
Bubble: Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi State, Georgia, LSU

Arkansas and Florida both snagged big wins against Auburn and Alabama last week, so they should both be feeling fine at the moment. Missouri avoided disaster by winning at Vanderbilt on Tuesday. A home win against Arkansas next Saturday would be huge for the Tigers. Alabama’s free fall has been unrivaled, as the Crimson Tide finds itself in serious danger of completely missing the tournament. Four straight losses have put Alabama on the bubble, and a tough game at Texas A&M on Saturday is no help. Mississippi State still hangs around despite a home stomping to Tennessee, but an average RPI and a woeful SOS mean the Bulldogs will be looking to the SEC tournament for key victories. They’ll face LSU on Saturday, who’s resume took a huge hit last week after losses at Georgia and at South Carolina. Six Q1 wins keep the Tigers alive for now, but time is running short. Georgia’s in slightly better shape, purely due to two head-to-head wins over the Tigers, but making a tournament case for Georgia at the moment is tough to do.

Other Contenders
Locks: Gonzaga
Safe for Now: Nevada, Rhode Island, Saint Mary’s
Bubble: Middle Tennessee, St. Bonaventure, Western Kentucky, Boise State, Loyola Chicago, New Mexico State

Middle Tennessee remains in good position to grab an at-large bid should they fail when the C-USA Tournament, but it’s best not to test that. St. Bonaventure’s big 3OT win over Davidson expanded the Bonnies’ win streak to eleven; a strong finish should put them in the tournament. Boise State’s at-large hopes took a serious hit with Tuesday’s loss at San Diego State, but they hang around for now. Western Kentucky is looking slightly better than the Broncos at the moment, but their tournament chances are still looking somewhat slim. A Thursday victory at Middle Tennessee would be just what the Hilltoppers need to remain alive. Loyola Chicago has worked its way into the at-large conversation thanks to a 25-5 overall record, 15-3 conference record and No. 32 RPI, but it would be in the Ramblers’ best interest to win the Missouri Valley Tournament and avoid any bubble confusion. The same can be said for New Mexico State, who’s slightly weaker resume has them a bit farther out. Winning the WAC Tournament will relieve any tournament worries.



DJ Bauer is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email

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DJ Bauer

Senior / Broadcast Journalism

David “DJ” M. Bauer Jr. is a senior from Valencia, Pennsylvania majoring in broadcast journalism at Penn State. He is an editor, writer, producer, and play-by-play announcer for the CommRadio sports department. His writings include the Weekly NFL Game Picks series, Bauertology, and the NCAA Bubble Watch series. He is the co-host of the CommRadio talk show 4th & Long alongside Jeremy Ganes. Alongside Andrew Destin, Andrew Field and Zach Donaldson, he is one of CommRadio’s Penn State football insiders, a group of elite writers who cover Penn State football in depth during the 2020 season. He was also a production intern for the Frontier League’s Washington Wild Things baseball club. If you’d like to contact him, email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).