A lot has been written about who’s on the bubble, and a lot more will be written as we approach the NCAA tournament. One of the things that gets lost in the hurricane of RPI, SOS, good wins, and bad losses is the surprise that we are talking about some schools as being tournament teams at all. Today we are going to step back to look at the larger story and celebrate — and decry — the teams that have put themselves in the bubble discussion.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
The Hurricane were picked fifth in the AAC, the Owls sixth. Tulsa has made its NCAA tournament case after a pretty rocky start. The Hurricane were just 5-5 after the first 10 games of the season, with ugly losses to Oral Roberts and Southeast Oklahoma State. While the SE Oklahoma State loss doesn’t go on the resume, anyone who saw that result probably wrote off Tulsa. For nearly two months following, Tulsa didn’t lose a game. That included a 10-0 start in the AAC. Things have cooled off with a two-game losing streak, both by double digits, but few had to have seen this team even being in consideration after its slow start.
Temple also started its season in a very unimpressive manner. The Owls droppped early-season games to UNLV and St. Joe’s, as well as getting blown out by Duke and Villanova. The Owls got a major Christmas present with a blowout win over Kansas that has fueled their resume. While Temple has dropped games to Tulsa, SMU and Cincinnati, the Owls did get a big return victory over the Bearcats. The Owls sport the best defense in the AAC, which has helped turn their season into a success.
Rhode Island Rams
Picked sixth in the A-10, Rhode Island has gone 17-6 behind one of the best defenses in the country. The Rams are 13th in defensive efficiency on Ken Pom. Since being dropped 76-60 by Kansas, Rhode Island’s biggest loss has been by eight points to fellow Ocean State team Providence. That was in December. URI has gone 12-3 since. While they don’t have a signature victory, the Rams have earned a place on the bubble through great defense.
The Wildcats were picked a distant 12th in the A-10 preseason poll. No one expected them to have the sixth most efficient offense in the nation. Davidson has avoided very bad losses, while plucking a couple of big A-10 wins against Dayton and UMass. The Wildcats are currently fifth in the league. This has been a major, major surprise team that could give someone fits if it can first break through the bubble.
The ACC team we are highlighting is Clemson. The Tigers did look better before they dropped a road game at Georgia Tech Monday night, but they are a team that’s still within sight of the cut line, which is an achievement in itself. The Tigers were picked 11th in the 15-team ACC, with a clear drop-off between them and Miami. There are a couple of bad November losses on the portfolio, but this team has come together. Clemson sports wins over should-be NCAA tournament SEC teams Arkansas and LSU. They have wins over fellow ACC bubble squads Pittsburgh and North Carolina State. Clemson has lost six games by five points or fewer, three of those by one possession. This is a team that can hang with formidable opponents much better than many originally expected. While the road to the tournament is extremely narrow, the fact people are even talking about Clemson has to be encouraging for the program.
Kansas State Wildcats
Through the first two months of the season, Kansas State was one of the biggest disappointments in the nation. Picked to finish fourth in the Big 12, the Wildcats scuffled to a 7-7 start. The losses came to teams such as Long Beach State, Tennessee, and most disappointingly, Texas Southern. While the Wildcats are 6-7 in the Big 12, they have swept Oklahoma. They also own wins against Baylor and Oklahoma State. The 5 wins in the RPI top 50 make them stand out, the .500 record shows what a disappointment this season has been. This is a case of a team too talented to be in the position it occupies right now.
St. John’s Red Storm
This Big East duo was picked to finish third and fourth. Both teams have sputtered to sixth and fifth, respectively. The main reason why is the same for both: They cannot win in their road jerseys. While both have played some strong competition, each team lost at DePaul and has lost to Creighton as well. Each team has three wins in the top 50. The catch is that two of them have come as a result of sweeping a conference foe. That deserves credit, but at the same time, there isn’t a ton of meat on the bone. The final thing the Johnnies and Musketeers have in common is that they both have very difficult schedules to close the regular season. One of these teams, if not both, could be taking a disappointing turn to the NIT.
Matt Painter’s squad was picked to finish 11th in the 14-team Big Ten. No one had them higher than seventh in the preseason poll. Currently the Boilermakers are third at 9-4. Purdue had a good showing early in the season in Maui and against North Carolina State. Home losses to North Florida and Gardner Webb, sandwiched around losses away from home to Vanderbilt and Notre Dame, tempered expectations. Once 8-5, Purdue has gone 9-4 since then, winning seven of its last nine. Wins have come against likely NCAA teams Indiana and Ohio State, as well as bubblers Iowa and Minnesota.
Michigan State Spartans
Injuries and disappointing play have knocked the Spartans down to the bubble realm. Before their win against Ohio State on Saturday, MSU had one top-50 victory. Both top-50 wins have come at home. The Spartans’ best non-conference win is Rider. Still, the Ohio State win and an 8-4 mark in the Big Ten have them in the field, on the very good side of the bubble. However, one bad loss in their final six games — with four on the road — could make Tom Izzo and company sweat.
Boise State Broncos
Picked second in the Mountain West, Boise State was off to a decent start with only two losses — to Wisconsin and N.C. State — in November. The Broncos’ biggest loss was a player, not a game: Anthony Drmic, a projected first-round pick, had ankle surgery. Battling other injuries, Boise State got off to a horrific 0-3 start in the MWC, sporting a 10-6 overall mark. Then, however, the season turned around. All that followed was an eight-game winning streak, which saw the Broncos pick up wins against Colorado State and San Diego State. A loss at Fresno State this past Saturday took some wind out of the Broncos’ sails, but this is a team that has come back from the brink.
Stanford was 13-4 going into its first meeting with Arizona last month. Since losing a tough game, 89-82, the Cardinal have not been the same squad. Their only wins since have come against Arizona State, reeling Washington, and basement-dwelling USC. Stanford lost a rematch against UCLA to get swept by the Bruins. They lost at Washington State and Colorado, while also getting pounded by Utah. This was a team that looked golden a few weeks ago, but it has seen the bottom fall out. Luckily for the Cardinal, there is still time to regroup. Future games against Oregon and Arizona will have a lot to say about this team’s fate.
The opposite side of the California team coin is where UCLA resides. The Bruins dropped five straight games from mid-December through January. With their record at 8-7, the Bruins were a major disappointment. However, starting with a dramatic comeback and double overtime win against Stanford, the Bruins have gone 8-3 in subsequent weeks. All three of the team’s losses in that stretch came away from Pauley Pavilion… to bad teams. The negative value of those losses has been balanced out by sweeping Stanford, splitting with Oregon, and pounding Utah. The Bruins can solidify their status this weekend when they play Arizona for the only time during the regular season. A relatively soft closing schedule — minus the Arizona game — means that UCLA should be able to avoid landmines down the stretch. The only complication is that if UCLA does somehow lose one of those games, it will move dangerously close to the cut line.
Dana Altman’s team goes eight deep. The Ducks have one senior on the team, Jalil Abdul-Bassit, who plays the fewest minutes of anyone in their rotation. They don’t have any bad losses. Their best wins are UCLA and Illinois, which isn’t great, but there is a solid 4-1 mark against teams 51-100 in the RPI. The Ducks have five Pac-12 losses, two to Arizona. There is a loss to Washington State and a loss to pre-crisis Washington that don’t look good at all. The other loss is at UCLA. Oregon was picked eighth in the league, with a depleated roster due to this ugly offseason development. Here they are, in the middle of February, in fourth place.
Texas A&M Aggies
Billy Kennedy’s team is solid and unspectacular at both ends of the floor. As you might expect, the Aggies have no really bad losses or particularly good wins. Their best win is LSU, which is 52nd in the RPI. The best non-con win is Arizona State. A&M has had five cracks at the top 50. While going 0-5, the Aggies have lost by six to Kentucky and two to Dayton. Only Baylor blew them out. Tuesday night, A&M goes for a sweep against LSU. That would be big.
The final team that’s unexpectedly on the bubble is LSU. They’ve been written about on this site before, so I’ll keep this brief. In terms of talent, this is absolutely a tournament team. LSU is 4-2 against the top 50, with the two losses by a combined five points. Three of the wins are by a combined eight points if you want to get picky. While that’s the good side, the bad side comes with losses to Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri. There is no bigger trick-or-treat team in the SEC, maybe even the country.