College Basketball Bubble Watch
Don't look away, because the bubble will not rest
Editor's note: This file will be updated regularly.
The Thursday before Selection Sunday is usually the most exciting day of the year, and not just because it marks the one-week countdown to the first (real) day of the NCAA tournament. No, pre-Selection Thursday is all bubble, all the time, and this year's edition didn't disappoint. From noon to 1:30 a.m. ET, at least one bubble team was always on the floor, often playing for its postseason life. It was exhausting in the best possible sense. Friday was no different, and gloriously so.
Per custom, we tracked each result in real time Friday -- not just marking down the wins and losses but helping you understand what each result means and why. Here's where things stand as of Friday night, and keep two things in mind:
1. Don't fall prey to recency bias. Wins in the conference tournament are great, but they don't automatically mean your team is getting in (or getting left out because of a loss). In some cases, well, sure. More often than not, though, a conference tournament win is just one more data point for the committee to consider. It is not the be-all.
2. Work to do means different things for different teams. If a team has work to do but no games left to play before Sunday -- see, for example, BYU -- that "work to do" should be read as "on the bubble." Maybe they'll get in, maybe they won't, let's see what the committee decides, etc. It's not a comfortable place to be no matter what we call it, but at least we'll all understand each other.
Last but not least, the Watch thanks you for reading and refreshing (and angrily commenting!) with us for the past month and change and wishes you nothing but joy in the frantic two days to come. Onward:
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through March 14.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Dayton, Saint Joseph's|
Alongside Providence-St. John's and La. Tech-Southern Miss, Friday's Saint Joseph's-Dayton clash in the A-10 quarterfinals was the best example of two bubble teams, both in need of wins, clashing in the conference tournament. The result was a thriller. Thanks to a Langston Galloway 3-pointer, St. Joe's escaped victorious, and now the question is: What does it all mean?
Dayton [23-10 (10-6), RPI: 38, SOS: 58] On Friday morning, before broadcasting St. Joe's-Dayton -- he is a man of many talents, after all -- ESPN's own Joe Lunardi offered up his latest last four in update: St. Joe's, Dayton, BYU, Providence. That squared with our own reckoning starting the day, and it's not clear Dayton should be downgraded much along the cut line after the loss. The next four teams on Joe's S-Curve are Minnesota, Florida State, Southern Miss and Arkansas, followed by Cal, Missouri, St. John's and Green Bay. Both in the short-term movement and overall resume sense -- FSU, Arkansas, Cal and St. John's all have lost in the past 24 hours -- Dayton rates well against most of those teams. And again: what happens if St. Joe's loses to the Bonnies? Don't tear up your season programs just yet, Flyers fans. If anything, a #daytonindayton play-in game looks more likely than ever.
Saint Joseph's [22-9 (11-5), RPI: 44, SOS: 71] Notching a win over a fellow bubble team on a neutral floor is the kind of thing that just might make the difference -- a tiny difference, but a difference -- between getting in the tournament and getting snubbed on Selection Sunday. The Hawks got what they needed Friday, thanks to Galloway's 31 points and a clutch 3 with 20 seconds to play in Friday's 70-67 win over the Flyers. It was the Hawks' third win over Dayton, which helps, because it looks like both teams are in a dead heat on the cut line. The question is what might happen Saturday when the Hawks play St. Bonaventure. What should have been a crack at Saint Louis has suddenly turned into a bad-loss opportunity. Will St. Joe's take a hit if it loses? We're honestly not sure. But Friday's win was major, regardless.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Florida State, North Carolina State|
At this point, any team with a cat-related mascot and a couple of close games in their rearview gets slapped with the "Cardiac Cats" nickname. Pittsburgh actually earned it. All season, the Panthers have played close games; their losses to good teams have been close, their wins over bad teams closer. And then there's the slow-burn bubble drama: On a per-possession basis, Pittsburgh should have wrapped up its NCAA tournament bid months ago. Instead, its lack of quality wins and a couple of home slugs down the stretch (to Florida State and NC State) put Pitt and its questionable nonconference schedule into legitimate bubble jeopardy. Friday was another exercise in self-induced anxiety. Pitt should have put North Carolina away with room to spare in the second half. It led 50-31 with 11:43 left to play. Of course, the Panthers gradually let UNC close the lead, and when Talib Zanna -- who put together a brilliant 19-point, 21-rebound game -- fouled out with 1:03 left, and Marcus Paige's free throws cut the lead to four, things looked grim. But Pitt regrouped and survived, thanks to free throws and careful ballhandling down the stretch (and maybe one or two missed calls, which were legion in this game), and as such we can officially lock them up. Adding another noteworthy top-50 win was really all this team needed to do to make sure the committee didn't look askance at its unspectacular profile. Mission accomplished. Oh, and then NC State beat Syracuse. So that happened. Are the Wolfpack back?
Florida State [19-13 (9-9), RPI: 52, SOS: 44] Metaphorically speaking, Florida State's quarterfinal matchup with top ACC seed Virginia was always going to be an uphill battle -- but few teams can make that metaphor feel as tangible as the Cavaliers. UVa's 64-51 win wasn't a blowout, but it also wasn't as close as the score; the Cavaliers gradually and methodically ground FSU out of the game. Where does that leave the Seminoles? Smack-dab on the bubble. In the next few days, FSU is likely to be the subject of countless resume comparisons with Saint Joseph's, Dayton, Minnesota, and so on. The margins between all of these resumes are tight, and in some cases indistinguishable, and so Florida State's at-large odds feel like a toss-up. The Seminoles may get in, and they may not, depending entirely on the committee's preferences. Stay tuned.
North Carolina State [21-12 (9-9), RPI: 59, SOS: 41] Are the Wolfpack back in the tournament field? Friday's neutral-court win over Syracuse highlighted what NC State has done well this season, which mostly boils down to "having T.J. Warren on the team." Warren finished with 28 points and eight rebounds (not far off his season averages) in 61 possessions Friday, and the Orange's late-season slide continued. So can the Fighting Warrens get in? It's still not super-likely. As resumes go, it's not a great one. But does the Syracuse win puts NC State in the compare-contrast conversation with, oh, Cal? Maybe? Perhaps its biggest implication is a shot at Duke on Saturday -- which nearly fell to Clemson in a one-point win late on Friday night.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Xavier|
Work left to do: Providence
You never know what weirdness the conference tournaments will bring. How's this: Providence has managed to progress to the Big East final without playing a team better than St. John's. OK, so maybe that's not that weird; it basically just boils down to Seton Hall's upset of Villanova on Thursday. Whatever the path, though, the point is that Providence now has a refreshingly simple situation ahead: Beat Creighton on Saturday, win the Big East auto bid. Lose and spend the next 48 hours on the bubble.
Xavier [21-12 (10-8), RPI: 47, SOS: 46] Doug McDermott is locked in. You can see it. He's never not active, of course -- you don't score 3,000 points in your career without being engaged -- but the way he's running things in Madison Square Garden this week is a sight to behold. He owns the building. The Musketeers deserve credit just for slowing him down (he still finished with 32) after a scorching start, a defensive performance that kept them in the game before McDermott & Co. iced it from the free-throw line in the closing moments. We figured the Musketeers would be in slightly safer shape by now; we figured we'd lock them in eventually. They were trending that way, and then they weren't. As-is, we think they'll get in and avoid the First Four ... provided the committee doesn't get greedy and put Dayton and Xavier on the same line in the "opening" rounds. Actually, who are we kidding?! We totally want that to happen! Get greedy, selection committee!
Providence [22-11 (10-8), RPI: 51, SOS: 76] Had Providence advanced to a Big East title matchup with Creighton by beating Villanova, we would be feeling a lot safer about the Friars' at-large chances. Unseating a possible No. 1 seed tends to do wonders for your resume. But because Seton Hall's Sterling Gibbs sent the Wildcats home with a slick buzzer beater on Thursday, Providence's path to the final included a win over fellow bubbler St. John's and NIT bubbler Seton Hall, which doesn't help the at-large resume much. Providence has been on the right side of the cut for a few days now, per Lunardi, but only barely. We assume the committee is going to think highly of Bryce Cotton, and that might help, too. But the path forward is elegant in its simplicity: A win takes the bubble out of the equation.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Work left to do: Nebraska, Minnesota|
Illinois needed at the very least a win over Michigan on Friday (and then probably a win against Ohio State on Saturday) to get anywhere near the bubble conversation, and the Illini gave it a real run. (And inspired the Watch's Illinois-based friends to send a flurry of second-half texts. Hey guys!) But Michigan held on to a 64-63 lead down the stretch, and the Illini's sudden long-shot hopes vanished just as quickly. In the second game of the afternoon session, Nebraska gave one away against Ohio State. The Cornhuskers led by 18 at one point in the second half. They were better than Ohio State for all but the first five and final 10 minutes of the game. Where do the Cornhuskers stand? That answer could be affected slightly by the egg Minnesota laid against Wisconsin on Friday night. Both teams will spend the rest of the weekend uncertain of where -- or whether -- they'll end up in the bracket come Sunday.
Nebraska [19-12 (11-7), RPI: 41, SOS: 26] By our admittedly dim lights, the Cornhuskers entered the day with a little space between themselves and the cut line -- one of the last four byes, maybe higher. After the loss? It's hard to say. Resume-wise, Nebraska has a solid-enough RPI (41) and an even better overall schedule (26), plus an 11-7 record in the Big Ten, which may count for something. The committee should see a good, hot team that knocked off Wisconsin five days ago, that outplayed Ohio State for much of Friday's game, that won at Michigan State in mid-February, and that finished the Big Ten season 8-2 in the final 10 games. But if the committee pays as much attention to the loss at Illinois, or the neutral-court loss to UAB -- and if it doesn't like the sight of a good team crumbling under the postseason glare -- maybe Nebraska's case won't be cut and dry. We think the Cornhuskers will get in, but we're not positive about it.
Minnesota [20-13 (8-10), RPI: 46, SOS: 7] On the one hand, losing to Wisconsin on a neutral court is not a bad thing. Wisconsin is really good; odds are they'll beat plenty of good teams on neutral courts in the next three weeks. But losing the way Minnesota lost on Friday night, in a game they desperately needed, is hardly the kind of final impression you want to leave with the committee. The Gophers got trucked by 26 in Indianapolis, a loss that made them 20-13 overall. Minnesota finished 8-10 in the Big Ten in the regular season and just 2-7 against the RPI top 50, with those only two wins (Ohio State, Wisconsin) coming on their own floor. The lone redeeming data point here is the Gophers' schedule, which is top-10 overall and includes a top-30 nonconference mark. That has kept Minnesota clinging to the cut line for weeks. The committee typically prefers to reward teams with good schedules. But Friday's letdown may override that preference after all.
|Work left to do: California|
Save the official purging of Utah, the big bubble drama at the new and improved Pac-12 tournament Thursday -- new and improved because the conference, after a couple ugly seasons, is enjoying a watchability renaissance -- revolved around the 11:30 p.m. ET tip between Stanford and Arizona State. The Sun Devils entered the game with almost-locked-in status; Stanford would reduce its own stress with a victory. The result, a 21-point Stanford rout, ends up being good news for both teams. Despite the poor showing, the Sun Devils are safe thanks in part to their own resume and in part to the number of bubble teams that failed to gain any ground on Thursday. Stanford, meanwhile, submitted a truly impressive performance against a fellow tournament team, and would be in the mix for a 9-seed right now. The Cardinal might boost that number a touch higher with a win over UCLA on Friday. In any case, they're in.
California [19-13 (10-8), RPI: 58, SOS: 25] Cal's heartbreaking loss to Colorado on Thursday -- a 59-56 near-miss that wasn't over until Justin Cobbs' last-second 3-pointer came up short -- turns them into just one more example of a team (discussed in the intro) with "work to do" and no games left with which to do it. The Bears are on the bubble, big-time, with wins over Arizona and at Stanford and Oregon to buttress their case and a whole mess of top-50 losses (10 total) to weaken it. There's also a loss to USC, but the Bears' top-30 strength of schedule might help them out. It's going to come down to the rest of the bubble and, to some extent, the committee's preferences. We'll find out Sunday.
|Teams that should be in: Tennessee|
Work left to do: Missouri, Arkansas
Missouri played Florida to a draw in the first half and completely crumbled in the second. That's what happens when you let Texas A&M take your nonexistent defense to double-overtime a day before playing the No. 1 team in the country. Barring a major surprise, the Tigers' punishment will take the form of a Selection Sunday snub. Arkansas isn't in much better shape after Thursday's loss to South Carolina. In the end, it looks like the SEC is going to be a three-bid league. Tennessee finally has emerged as a willing third wheel.
Tennessee [21-11 (11-7), RPI: 42, SOS: 13] No team in the country experienced a wider gap all season between what advanced metrics said about it -- that it was one of the best 15 or 20 teams in the country -- and what its wins and losses, and the resulting RPI, indicated. A lot of that had to do with an uncharacteristic-for-all-parties 30-point blowout of Virginia in late December, but Tennessee has been one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams, with the returning SEC player of the year (Jordan McRae) roaming the perimeter. But losses to Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M in February put Cuonzo Martin's team on the bubble and kept it there since. However, after Friday's bad-loss avoidance against South Carolina, the Vols are 20-11 overall, with a top-15 strength of schedule number by their name and an all-upside matchup against Florida on deck for Saturday.
Missouri [22-11 (9-9), RPI: 48, SOS: 83] Frequent watchers will know we're not big fans of the eye test 'round these parts. Too often, the term is used as a rhetorical catch-all; a vague way of hammering home any point, positive or negative. For Missouri, though, we'll make an exception. On paper, Missouri's win over Texas A&M and loss to Florida looks like a relatively unremarkable trip to the SEC tourney. On the court, the Tigers needed two overtimes to get past A&M and then got drilled by the Gators 72-49, just a few days after Saturday's absolute demolition at Tennessee. Of course, the committee probably doesn't need the eye test to keep Missouri out; the Tigers' resume looks weak enough to do the trick. But a cursory tape review of this team's abysmal recent outings should seal their NIT fate.
Arkansas [21-11 (10-8), RPI: 69, SOS: 93] Arkansas played itself onto the bubble when it completed a sweep of Kentucky in Lexington in late February. In the last game of its season, and the first of the SEC tournament, it may have played itself off. On Saturday, Arkansas lost at Alabama. On Thursday, it fell in Atlanta to South Carolina, a 14-19 team with an RPI hovering around the 150s. The loss may end up being one (or two) too many for Arkansas, which is now just 12-10 against the RPI top 150 and still just 8-8 against the top 100, with thoroughly uninspiring RPI and SOS numbers to boot. It's hard to see a way back.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Brigham Young, Green Bay, Louisiana Tech|
Opinions have differed on Southern Miss-as-at-large for weeks now. Some thought the Golden Eagles were worthy of an at-large look. Some thought they needed the auto bid to have any chance. As debates go, that's a pretty mild one, but it was a matter of some confusion. Consensus should be easier to reach now. The Golden Eagles were thoroughly mediocre in their 88-70 C-USA semifinal loss to Louisiana Tech, giving up 1.30 points per possession and looking athletically outmatched in just about every regard. La. Tech should go ahead and win the C-USA tournament just to be safe. But if the committee does reach for a C-USA at-large, it won't be Southern Miss.
Brigham Young [23-11 (13-5), RPI: 35, SOS: 18] The Cougars have some sweating to do this week, but we think they'll probably end up OK. Sure, the WCC finale was not BYU's finest showing. Dave Rose's team was blown out in the first half and in too deep a hole in the second to truly make the title game close, and that came a night after barely surviving San Francisco in the semis. But BYU still has its top-35 RPI, it's top-20 overall schedule, and a top-two nonconference schedule (as of Tuesday night), as well as wins at Stanford and over Texas on a neutral court (and a regular-season split with Gonzaga). The bad losses to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Portland are the only thing that really calls this resume into question. The committee loves great nonconference schedules and should be willing to overlook the Cougars' stumbles, and reward them in kind on Selection Sunday.
Green Bay [24-6 (14-2), RPI: 56, SOS: 161] A warm Bubble Watch welcome back for the Green Bay Phoenix, who have become something of a mid-major cause celebre since their semifinal loss to Milwaukee in the Horizon League tournament last week. That's not why they're back, of course; it's merely worth noting as the committee gets down to business in Indianapolis this weekend. No, Green Bay is back on the page because it's not clear there are that many bubble teams with better resumes. Yeah, the Horizon League was rough, and yeah, Green Bay's major claim to fame -- its win over Virginia -- came at home, in December, back when UVa wasn't playing nearly as well as in the two months since. But they do have a reasonable RPI (high-50s) and a reasonable nonconference SOS number (also high-50s). And if the committee takes a long look and thinks the Phoenix are worthy, some of the usual considerations and comparisons could fall away. We can only predict so much.
Louisiana Tech [27-6 (13-3), RPI: 64, SOS: 247] As we wrote in the intro, the chances for La. Tech to earn an at-large bid are probably small. They were small for Southern Miss, too. But if the committee is going to take one or the other, we know who that one will be. Besides, pending the rest of the weekend, perhaps the committee will feel better about taking a team whose best win came at Oklahoma as opposed to North Dakota State. And Southern Miss's top-30-ish RPI is a decent top-50 win addition for the Bulldogs, too. We'll see.