We’re a month out from the NCAA Tournament, and some bubble teams are beginning to separate themselves from the pack. There’s still time for some shuffling, particularly among the major conference teams, as the stretch run of conference season and conference tournaments heat up, but we’re starting to get a better idea of who is safe, and who is on the outside, in need of help.
We’ve broken the projected NCAA field into two groups: teams that are locks and teams that still have work to do. So far, there are 27 locks, plus 23 likely one-bid leagues, meaning there are 50 total locks. Two conferences — the AAC, West Coast Conference and Atlantic 10 — don’t have anyone included in those locks, because their likely champions are part of the potential at-large field, and will likely get in even without a conference title.
That leaves 18 spots available, with a total of 29 bubble teams under consideration.
Here’s how things played out among those teams, with our own resume rankings included:
[table id=Bubble21916 /]
How did we come up with those rankings? Explanations below.
Locks: North Carolina, Virginia, Duke, Miami, Notre Dame
Work to do: Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Clemson, Florida State
After a shaky start to the season, Syracuse appears to be nearly safe, thanks to a nine-game mid-conference streak with eight wins, including at Duke and at home against Notre Dame. The Orange are also boosted by their win at the Battle 4 Atlantis way back in November, which netted them victories against UConn and Texas A&M.
Pitt is the other ACC bubble team that’s relatively safe. The Panthers don’t have a super exciting resume, but they have a good record, a solid RPI at 45, wins over Syracuse and Notre Dame and no bad losses. That should be enough.
The big questions are Florida State and Clemson. Both have some big wins and some awful losses. Clemson is the most entertaining. The Tigers have wins over Miami (!), Louisville (!!) and Duke (!!!), but they’ve lost to Virginia Tech (lol), Minnesota (lolol) and UMass (lololol). Clemson’s RPI of 94 is awful, and the Tigers will have to hope the committee prioritizes good wins over bad losses.
Florida State is Clemson lite. The Seminoles have wins over Virginia, Florida and VCU, but they lost to Hofstra. Their RPI of 65 is just okay. This team is right on the bubble.
Locks: Villanova, Xavier
Work to do: Providence, Butler, Seton Hall
Providence has been among the biggest disappointments in the country this season. The Friars looked like near-NCAA Tournament locks early in the year, thanks to star talent Kris Dunn and a resume that included a win over Arizona, a win at Villanova and a sweep of Butler. But since then, Providence has lost to DePaul and Marquette, and now the Friars find themselves on the bubble.
While Providence had more ground to give in the first place, Butler and Seton Hall have even less room to spare. Besides beating Purdue, Butler is really short on quality wins, with its best conference win coming over … Seton Hall? The Pirates are in a similar boat. They beat Wichita State in non-conference season but still need more quality wins.
Locks: Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue
Work to do: Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State
Michigan looked like it was really close to being a lock, but the Wolverines have been up and down all year, and that’s shown up again in the past few weeks. There are the very nice wins over Texas, Maryland and Purdue, but also the blowout losses in consecutive games against Michigan State and Indiana, plus a recent loss at Ohio State, has the Wolverines at 2-3 in their last five conference games.
Unlike Michigan, Wisconsin has been on a roll. After losing games by 20 points and losing to the likes of Western Illinois and UW-Milwaukee early in the season, Wisconsin has won seven of its last eight games, including wins at home against Michigan State and Indiana, and at Maryland. Those great wins should be enough to get the Badgers in, as long as they finish the conference strong. The loss on Thursday to Michigan State, 69-57, isn’t a death knell for Wisconsin, but it does stymie a lot of that Big Ten momentum.
The other Big Ten bubble team is on the outside, looking in. After a disastrous non-conference season, which included losses to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech, Ohio State hasn’t made a great case for itself in conference play. The Buckeyes’ best win is at home against Michigan. However, they close the season with Michigan State twice and Iowa. That leaves opportunities for big wins.
Locks: Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Iowa State, Baylor, Texas
Work to do: Texas Tech, Kansas State
Let’s take a moment and appreciate what Texas Tech has done this year. It’s not easy to win with the Red Raiders, who haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2007, but it looks like coach Tubby Smith is going to be delivering another tournament in Lubbock, despite the Big 12 being so strong.
Texas Tech has all but solidified its spot in the tournament, with consecutive wins vs. Iowa State, at Baylor and vs. No. 3 Oklahoma on Wednesday. You want to know how to get your team off the bubble, or close to it? Tell them to beat three tournament locks in a row.
Kansas State is in the opposite boat. The Wildcats have a nice win over Oklahoma, but they’ve mostly faltered down the stretch, losing to Baylor and Oklahoma State within the past week-and-a-half. That has K-State on the outside, looking in.
Locks: Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Cal, USC
Work to do: Colorado, Oregon State, Washington
I’m a bit more bullish on Oregon State than most people, because if you look at the resume, and not the name, the Beavers deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. They have a top 40 RPI, plus wins over Oregon, Cal and others, and no super-bad losses.
Colorado is in a pretty similar boat. The Buffaloes own wins over Oregon, Oregon State, Cal and Washington. That should be enough.
Washington will likely be sweating out Selection Sunday. The Huskies are currently our last team in, and they’ve done themselves no favors recently, losing four straight. Lorenzo Romar’s team has some nice wins (Texas, USC and Colorado) but they need more good wins. They missed out on a chance against Cal on Thursday, but will have chances coming up against Oregon and Oregon State.
Locks: Texas A&M, Kentucky, South Carolina
Work to do: LSU, Florida, Alabama, Vanderbilt
Let’s talk about LSU. The Tigers have the best freshman in the country in Ben Simmons, and they have another highly-ranked freshman in Antonio Blakeney. However, the Tigers have somehow found themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble. They have some nice wins (Kentucky, Texas A&M), an impressive near-win (Oklahoma) and some truly perplexing losses (College of Charleston, Wake Forest). You never know what you’re going to get from this team, and that will make its run toward the postseason even more fascinating.
Florida is the opposite of LSU. The Gators are pretty predictable, winning most of the games they should and losing most of the games they shouldn’t. They lost to Tennessee, but countered that with a nice win over West Virginia. The WVU win should help propel the Gators into the tournament.
But as much of a big-name as Florida is, and as exciting as LSU is, Alabama is probably the team you should be paying the most attention to. The Crimson Tide are peaking at the right time, and they’re nearing lock status, having won five in a row — the last three against Texas A&M, at Florida and at LSU.
Alabama and Florida should feel good about their chances, while LSU should feel okay if it stabilizes a bit. The biggest question mark is Vanderbilt. The Commodores have wins over Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M, but they have bad losses to the Mississippi schools, and they’ve underachieved. Can they get in with an RPI in the mid-60s? I’m guessing no, but they’re in the hunt.
Locks: Dayton, 23 autobid teams (including Wichita State and Monmouth)
Work to do: UConn, Cincinnati, Tulsa, Gonzaga, George Washington, St. Mary’s, VCU, Temple, St. Joseph’s, St. Bonaventure
Remember, we’re assuming there are no upsets in the other conferences. Theoretically, an awful team could win the AAC tournament, with UConn and Cincinnati still making it as an at-large. That would take an at-large bid away from another team.
The Atlantic-10, Missouri Valley, MAAC, AAC and West Coast Conference all have potential bid thieves. If you’re a fan of a bubble team, your rooting interest is clear: You want the favorite to win every game.
But let’s say there are no bid thieves: What will the selection committee make of the non big-conference schools? UConn and Gonzaga should be fine, but the rest are very much on the bubble.
Two years ago, the committee was seemingly partial to smaller schools, choosing them over power conference teams because of their high win totals, despite the fact that they played weaker competition. That’s how the Atlantic-10 ended up with six teams in the tournament … and had five of them lose in the first round.
Last year, power conference teams seemingly got the benefit of the doubt, with UCLA sneaking in, despite a 20-13 record and a fairly weak resume.
Teams like St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s will have very legitimate tournament chances if the committee selects teams like it did two years ago, but if it follows last year’s pattern, the bigger schools will benefit instead.