Bubble Watch: Crunch time for the bubble

Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Wednesday, March 13.

Thursday of Champ Week is always lively, and in 2019 the day and evening in question additionally hold the promise of bringing some long-needed clarity to the bubble picture.

There are 26 teams listed under “should be in” or “work to do” at Bubble Watch, and fully 17 of those tournament aspirants will be playing Thursday. Single-elimination conference tournaments being what they are, this is the last time this season we’ll see so many teams trying to play their way to a bid.

Let’s go straight to the focal point of bubble drama and look at teams that are right on or very close to the projected cut line. Many of these teams are playing Thursday, and the stakes, plainly, are do-or-die.

Bubble vs. bubble in the Big Ten

Depending on your mock bracket of choice, Ohio State was either bounced out of the field of 68 when Saint Mary’s won the West Coast Conference automatic bid, or Chris Holtmann’s team is in line to have that happen to it the next time there’s a bid thief. This thing could go either way for OSU depending, in part, on what happens on Thursday against a certain equally motivated opponent named Indiana. The Hoosiers are also right on the line between “in” and “out.”

Longhorns playing to stay alive

A loss to Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinals would leave Texas 16-16 for the season. Conversely, a win means a team with victories against North Carolina, Purdue, Iowa State and KU is still alive and possibly even dancing.

Last chance for the Gators?

Just two weeks ago, Florida was 17-11 and seemed to be in good shape for a bid. Since that time, however, Mike White’s team has dropped three straight and might need a win against Arkansas in Nashville, Tennessee, to keep this conversation going.

One turnaround is about to end in the Big East

Both Creighton and Xavier were thought to be also-rans in the at-large discussion just a few weeks ago, but both teams promptly played their way back into contention. Now the Bluejays and the Musketeers face each other in a Big East quarterfinal. Creighton, in particular, could conceivably cross the line from “out” to “in” with a win or, better still, two at Madison Square Garden.

In addition to all the drama of who’s in and who’s out, be sure to keep an eye on the Mid-American quarterfinals Thursday. An Akron win over NCAA tournament lock Buffalo would mean one more at-large bid would be taken off the board, and the bubble would shrink yet again.

Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble:

Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 19 teams
Locks: 33 teams
The bubble: 26 teams for 16 available spots
Should be in: 8 teams
Work to do: 18 teams


Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech
Should be in: Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson

Should be in

Syracuse Orange

Jim Boeheim’s program has a history of close shaves on Selection Sunday in recent years, but 2019 should be a somewhat more sedate affair. Syracuse is now sitting at 20-12 with the signature win at Duke headlining the team’s profile. The victory at home against Louisville also qualifies as Quad 1, and the win at Ohio State, though depreciating in value, goes in the books as a third such victory. If the selection were held today, Boeheim’s group would in all likelihood be looking at something in the neighborhood of a No. 9 seed. That number can potentially be revised upward, naturally, with a win against the Blue Devils in the ACC quarterfinals. (Updated: March 13)

Work to do

NC State Wolfpack

With a tense 59-58 win over fellow bubble denizen Clemson in the ACC tournament, NC State is 22-10 overall and occupying a spot in the 30s in the NET rankings. So why are the mock brackets ticketing this group for, at best, a No. 11 seed? First, Kevin Keatts’ team suffers from the same malady that afflicted Auburn before the Tigers took down Tennessee at home. The Wolfpack are accused of not having beaten “anyone,” meaning this group’s 3-8 record in Quad 1 games features a win at home over (hey, what do you know?) Auburn, one on a neutral floor over Penn State and, now, the victory in Charlotte against Brad Brownell’s team. (To be sure, the win over Auburn looks better now than it did at up to the beginning of March.) Second, NC State played a very soft non-conference schedule statistically speaking. Whether and to what extent the committee will care about that second bit is an open question. (Updated: March 13)

Clemson Tigers

After losing by a point to NC State in the ACC tournament, Clemson will be on a few “last four in” and perhaps more “first four out” lists. That’s preferable to “next four out,” certainly, but it’s still a precarious position to occupy in the middle of what is always a wild and tumultuous Championship Week. Even the slightest contraction of the bubble brought about by even a single bid thief, for example, could prove calamitous to the Tigers. Granted, at the end there could still be an at-large bid in the offing for Brad Brownell’s group, which finished its playing days showing up in the 30s in the NET rankings. Stranger things have transpired in the committee room, goodness knows. A more appropriate working assumption for Brad Brownell and his men, however, is that their 1-10 record in Quad 1 games will need to be either completely overlooked by or somehow ingeniously smuggled past the committee in order for this team to get an at-large. (Updated: March 13)

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor
Should be in: Oklahoma
Work to do: TCU, Texas

Should be in

Oklahoma Sooners

The profile is set in stone for the Sooners. Shown as a No. 8 seed heading into a 72-71 loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament, Lon Kruger’s group has beaten Wofford at home, taken care of Florida on a neutral floor and stands at 4-10 in Quad 1 games. (For the record, the Sooners are 15-3 in Quads 2 and 3, and 0-0 against Quad 4.) The early exit from the conference tournament could drop Oklahoma to a double-digit seed, but, at 7-11 in the Big 12, the Sooners will gladly become the first team in over 20 years to earn an at-large with fewer than eight wins in an 18-game conference season. TCU might join that club as well. (Updated: March 13)

Work to do

TCU Horned Frogs

Leave it to the Horned Frogs to flirt with disaster. One game after playing their way onto the No. 12 or even No. 11 line in mock brackets with a big win at Texas, Jamie Dixon’s team blew a 21-point second-half lead and nearly lost to Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. Fortunately for TCU fans, however, the Frogs escaped 73-70. The Frogs now advance to play Kansas State in the quarterfinals, but the last two wins have already increased this team’s chances for a bid significantly. At 20-12 with a season sweep of Iowa State and the road win in Austin to show in the Quad 1 trophy case, the Horned Frogs might (repeat, might) already have done enough. (Updated: March 13)

Texas Longhorns

This is what Bubble Watch is talking about with that whole “40 minutes away” thing. With a win at home against TCU in the season finale, Texas would be a world away from where the Longhorns find themselves now. But where Shaka Smart’s guys find themselves now is in the moral equivalent of a must-win situation in the first game against Kansas at the Big 12 tournament. A loss there would leave Texas at 16-16 for the season. Obviously, it would be unheard of for a .500 team with 16 losses to receive an at-large bid, even if said team does have the neutral-floor win over North Carolina and one at home over Purdue. “Unheard of” here doesn’t necessarily mean impossible, it just correctly flags the fact that we’ve never seen it before. Reasonable observers can differ on the merits of the Horns’ profile, but, speaking empirically, asking the committee to do something it’s never done before is not a promising course of action. (Updated: March 9)

Big East

Locks: Marquette, Villanova
Should be in: Seton Hall
Work to do: St. John’s, Creighton, Georgetown, Xavier

Should be in

Seton Hall Pirates

Kevin Willard’s team appears to have played its way into the field of 68, and if that is indeed the case, the really important basketball with this team took place more or less exclusively in December and March. Within the span of just 14 days in December, the Pirates beat Kentucky 84-83 in overtime at Madison Square Garden and then won a 78-74 road game at Maryland. Then things went quiet and even a bit dark for a bit, as SHU was 4-6 at one point in Big East play. But, in the end, March smiled on the Hall, as Myles Powell and his mates closed the season with back-to-back home wins over Marquette and Villanova. Assuming a noncatastrophic performance by the Pirates at the Big East tournament, Bubble Watch expects SHU to perhaps show up in the committee’s bracket as a No. 10 seed, give or take a line. (Updated: March 12)

Work to do

St. John’s Red Storm

We’ll never know, of course, but it might have been enormously important that St. John’s took care of DePaul 82-74 in the Big East tournament. Before that game, Chris Mullin’s guys closed the season by losing four of their last five games. The Storm’s NET ranking is still in the 60s, and the signature one-point win at Marquette has been dropping in value for the past two weeks. Strangest of all, perhaps, is the underwhelming record against Quads 2 and 3 (8-5) from a team that has held its own in Quad 1 games (5-5). Even though an at-large bid and a spot around the No. 11 line is perhaps the most likely outcome, a win against the Golden Eagles on Thursday wouldn’t be the worst idea, just to be safe. (Updated: March 13)

Creighton Bluejays

For the balance of the Big East season, Greg McDermott’s team was a pincushion for the cruelest of the hoops gods, as the Bluejays lost overtime games not only to Marquette but also to Villanova and Seton Hall. Then in March, finally, Creighton started to even those accounts. Creighton got back into this discussion by winning a close game on the road against the aforementioned Golden Eagles, and the Bluejays followed that up with a six-point victory at home, in overtime no less, over Providence. Lastly, McDermott’s men wrapped up the season with a 13-point win at home against DePaul, meaning they’re arriving at the Big East tournament at 18-13 overall and 9-9 in-conference. The Bluejays have a shot. (Updated: March 9)

Georgetown Hoyas

It’s not going to be easy for the Hoyas. The win at Marquette, naturally, kept this team in the discussion, and Georgetown will go to work in the Big East tournament as the proud owner of four Quad 1 wins at 19-12 overall and 9-9 in conference play. That’s all well and good, but the profile also includes a couple of less pleasing aspects. The Hoyas are just 8-6 this season against Quads 2 and 3, and the team’s NET ranking going into the game in Milwaukee was a shield-your-eyes No. 80. So, no, it still won’t be easy, but Bubble Watch can envision a path to making this an interesting question, a path that ends with beating either the Golden Eagles or Villanova at Madison Square Garden. Keep going, Hoyas. (Updated: March 9)

Xavier Musketeers

The Big East section of Bubble Watch is rather extensive, but it’s important to make distinctions even within the league’s spacious “work to do” section. Whereas a team like St. John’s is looking like it might play its way out of the bracket, Xavier has a long distance to travel before it can even be glimpsed in “first four out” territory. Still, the distance that remains to be traversed is nowhere near as vast as what the Musketeers already have navigated over the past month. This is a team that was 11-13 and 3-8 in the Big East. Entering the conference tournament, conversely, those numbers are 17-14 and 9-9. Travis Steele’s guys put a capper on the regular season by beating the aforementioned Johnnies 81-68 in Cincinnati despite not having Naji Marshall (who was out with an ankle injury). A trip to the Big East tournament semifinals (which Xavier has reached every year since it joined the league) would keep this conversation going. (Updated: March 9)

Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland
Should be in: Iowa, Minnesota
Work to do: Ohio State, Indiana

Should be in

Iowa Hawkeyes

After Joe Wieskamp hit a spectacular game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer on the road at Rutgers, the Hawkeyes were 20-5 and mock brackets had Fran McCaffery’s team pegged as a No. 6 seed. Since that time, however, McCaffery was slapped with a two-game suspension (stemming from a tirade directed at referee Steve McJunkins after a loss at Ohio State), Iowa has dropped to 21-10 and this team has seen its projected seed plunge to the No. 9 line or worse. The Hawkeyes have relied on offense all season long, but McCaffery’s men have shot just 30 percent on their 3s while losing five of their past six games. Iowa will arrive at the Big Ten tournament not merely looking to improve its seed but to rehabilitate it. (Updated: March 10)

Minnesota Golden Gophers

The regular season is in the books for the Golden Gophers, and in any normal year, you would say this is a team with great wins (at Wisconsin and home against Purdue) and a so-so record (19-12 and 9-11 in the Big Ten). Then again, bubble teams like Indiana are lapping the field in both categories in 2019, so we must look elsewhere for superlatives specific to Minnesota. Well, what about this: Richard Pitino’s team has just about the tidiest 12-loss profile you’ll see anywhere. The Gophers are 9-0 against Quads 3 and 4, and their “worst” losses came on the road to the major-conference likes of Boston College, Rutgers and Illinois. Something dramatic in the way of a disastrously fast exit from the Big Ten tournament or a severe bubble contraction or both might have to intervene for Minnesota not to get the No. 10 or 11 seed that mock brackets are envisioning for this team. (Updated: March 12)

Work to do

Ohio State Buckeyes

With losses in their past three games and six of the past eight, the Buckeyes have played themselves into jeopardy. The absence of Kaleb Wesson for those last three games due to a suspension certainly didn’t help matters. Now, with OSU having dropped all the way to the No. 12 line in the mock brackets, Wesson will return for the Big Ten tournament. That’s where Ohio State will face Indiana, and a loss for Chris Holtmann’s men would leave them 18-14 after an 8-12 run through the conference season. In theory, that could be good enough to sneak this team into the field, given that the “18” includes the win at Cincinnati on the first day of the season. Then again, a first-game conference tournament loss for a team being shown as a No. 12 seed is never a recommended strategy. (Updated: March 11)

Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana is 17-14 and 8-12 in the Big Ten with a season sweep of Michigan State to its credit. The Hoosiers, of course, also have home wins over Marquette and Louisville on their profile. As for IU’s 6-9 record in Quad 1 games, perhaps the main point to be made there is that Indiana has played a ton of Quad 1 games. What’s less frequently cited, however, is the Hoosiers’ 2-5 record in Quad 2 games. Will that data point play a significant role in the committee’s discussion? No one knows, and, anyway, this profile isn’t finished yet. IU is currently a “first four out” kind of team, but the Big Ten tournament looms as a veritable Quad 1 outlet mall. If Indiana plays the Spartans, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa or Penn State at the United Center, it will be a Quad 1 opportunity. (Updated: March 10)


Lock: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State

Work to do

Arizona State Sun Devils

Here’s a Bubble Watch fun fact: Arizona State is the only team in the “lock,” “should be in” or “work to do” categories that has lost games in all four quadrants. Yes, the losses at home to Princeton and Washington State qualify as Quad 4 defeats, and, indeed, the Sun Devils are a notably so-so 10-4 against Quads 3 and 4. See, this is the kind of thing we miss with our single-minded focus on just one of the quadrants. Now, let’s focus single-mindedly on Quad 1: ASU’s win in Tempe against Kansas, as well as ones on a neutral floor against Mississippi State and Utah State, might get this team a bid provided its NET ranking isn’t too controversially low. Going into Saturday’s 72-64 win at Arizona, that ranking was in the low 70s and Bobby Hurley’s group was on Lunardi’s “last four byes” list. It could work out as is, but if the Sun Devils want to feel safe, there’s work to do. (Updated: March 9)


Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn
Should be in: Ole Miss
Work to do: Florida, Alabama

Should be in

Ole Miss Rebels

The Rebels faltered down the stretch and lost four of their past six, but things could be worse in Oxford. Ole Miss uncorked a late 7-0 run to win the season finale at Missouri, and, anyway, this is a team that does own road wins at Auburn and Mississippi State. Not to mention that this program was picked in the preseason to finish last in the SEC and has made just two NCAA tournament appearances in the past 17 years. When those are the givens and you falter your way into a No. 9 or 10 seed with your new coach in his first season, the future looks pretty encouraging. (Updated: March 9)

Work to do

Florida Gators

In what is fast becoming a recurring Bubble Watch theme, let’s discuss a major-conference team with a bad record compiled in numerous Quad 1 games. Florida is 3-11 in Quad 1 contests, with the wins all coming on the road at LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. (Fun fact: UF was singularly unsuccessful at home against the best teams this season.) It is primarily the win against the Tigers, naturally, that has lifted the 17-14 Gators up to the No. 11 line in mock brackets. Speaking of single games that had a significant impact: Florida’s late-season loss at home to Georgia (part of an 0-3 finish to the regular season) has left this team in a position in which a quick exit from the SEC tournament would expose Mike White’s guys to a high degree of bracket peril. (Updated: March 9)

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama closed its regular season with an 82-70 loss at Arkansas, a game in which the Crimson Tide allowed Daniel Gafford to record a 29-16 double-double. The loss leaves Avery Johnson’s team at 17-14 and 8-10 in the SEC — in other words, classic bubble material. Speaking of peak bubble, Alabama entered the game in Fayetteville as a member in good standing of Lunardi’s “last four in” list. The Tide landed in this degree of peril despite having a home win over Kentucky on their profile, and, naturally, the SEC tournament will offer a wide array of quality opponents and plenty of chances to impress the committee. The larger concern with Alabama, however, is that this team hasn’t won a game against an NCAA tournament-caliber opponent since January. (Updated: March 9)


Locks: Houston, Cincinnati, UCF
Work to do: Temple

Work to do

Temple Owls

UCF’s late-season ascendance was good news for Temple. The Owls beat the Knights 67-62 in Philadelphia in the season finale, and it was very much a Quad 1 win. Paired with the home victory against Houston, Fran Dunphy’s team now has a couple of real profile boosters to flaunt as it fights for a bid. Right, about that fight: Temple entered the game against UCF perched right on the boundary line between “in” and “out.” Obviously, beating the Knights pushes you in the correct direction, but a single game can’t push you all the way to safety. So it’s good news for Owl fans that their team now has a chance to put even more distance between itself and jeopardy thanks to an American tournament populated by the Quad 1-opponent likes of UH, Cincinnati, UCF and Memphis. (Updated: March 9)


Locks: Gonzaga, Nevada, Buffalo, Wofford, Saint Mary’s, Murray State
Should be in: VCU, Utah State
Work to do: Belmont, UNC Greensboro, Furman, Lipscomb

Should be in

VCU Rams

Mike Rhoades’ men are riding a 12-game win streak thanks primarily to outstanding defense. Now, at 25-6 overall and carrying an outright Atlantic 10 regular-season title, VCU has a No. 8 or 9 seed waiting for it in a matter of days if mock brackets are to be trusted. There are no remaining Quad 1 opportunities for the Rams even in any potential A-10 tournament game, but the 54-53 win at Texas in December will continue to fill that need on the profile quite satisfactorily. (Updated: March 8)

Utah State Aggies

Utah State came really, really close to furnishing us with a very interesting conversation. After everyone had declared the coronation complete with the win at home against Nevada, the Aggies went on the road and needed overtime before escaping with a 100-96 win at Colorado State. Now Craig Smith’s team is indeed assured of at least a share of the regular-season Mountain West title. Projected as a No. 11 seed, USU really has only two remaining dangers. One is a shrinking bubble, and the other would be an ostentatiously early exit from the conference tournament in Las Vegas. But, assuming both of those disasters fail to materialize, Utah State does appear to be in good shape for its first bid since 2011. (Updated: March 12)

Work to do

Belmont Bruins

Now, the Bruins must wait. Ja Morant erupted for 36 points, and Murray State beat Belmont 77-65 in the Ohio Valley Conference title game. Rick Byrd’s team hopes the committee will put stock in the positives on this profile. There is, for starters, the NET ranking that was, at least when Belmont stopped playing, higher than those of Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana, TCU, Temple, Minnesota, Alabama, Arizona State and the entire Big East bubble (Creighton, St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown). The Bruins also were short-handed against the Racers and played without Nick Muszynski. Lastly, Belmont was 5-3 this season against Quads 1 and 2. Conversely, Byrd’s men won’t want the committee to linger on a negative like the 3-2 record against Quad 3. In any event, the Bruins profile is set, but the bubble will continue to shift in ways that will either help or hurt Belmont’s chances. (Updated: March 9)

UNC Greensboro Spartans

For 35 minutes in the Southern Conference title game, the Spartans were the superior team against Wofford. Then the Terriers closed the contest on a 20-3 run, and Mike Young’s team captured the automatic bid 70-58. As for at-large possibilities, UNCG actually shares some profile similarities with Wofford. Like the Terriers, Wes Miller’s team has an excellent record (28-6) built on a small number of “good” losses to LSU, Kentucky, Furman and, yes, Wofford (three times). The Spartans own two Quad 1 wins (at East Tennessee State and over Furman on the neutral floor in the SoCon semifinals), and Francis Alonso & Co. are an immaculate 24-0 in Quads 2, 3 and 4. Could all of the above plus the impressive showing against the Terrier juggernaut (21-0 against SoCon opponents this season) pry an at-large bid from the committee? In Bubble Watch’s estimation, it’s a long shot. (Updated: March 11)

Furman Paladins

The season is in the books for the Paladins after a 66-62 loss to UNC Greensboro in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals. Bob Richey’s team sits at 25-7 with the memorable win at Villanova to its credit. Alas, that win (plus a sweet NET ranking in the 40s) might form the sum total of the case for Furman on Selection Sunday. It’s not a bad case, but the Dins may have trouble standing out from the crowd. Saint Mary’s, to take one example, has a NET ranking that’s even sweeter than Furman’s. (Updated: March 10)

Lipscomb Bisons

The Bisons show two Quad 1 wins on their profile, at TCU and at Liberty, and their NET ranking is in the 40s. Those are the elements that kept Casey Alexander’s group in the at-large discussion for weeks, but Lipscomb let its safest chance slip away when it lost 74-68 on its home floor to Liberty in the Atlantic Sun conference title game. An at-large now appears to be a long shot. (Updated: March 10)

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