Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Saturday’s games.
With a month to go before Selection Sunday, we here at Bubble Watch have elected to grant lock status to two more teams. Congratulations to Penn State and Kentucky for earning this honor.
To say this is uncharted territory for the Nittany Lions would be putting it mildly. This is a program that has appeared in only two NCAA tournaments this century. In the seeded era, Penn State has never earned a spot higher than the No. 5 line.
Yet here the Nittany Lions are, winners of eight straight games and projected as a No. 4 seed by Joe Lunardi. Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins have led PSU even as Myreon Jones has missed the past three games because of illness. A short-handed version of Penn State has been tough enough, even in the toughest conference in the nation.
Conversely, Kentucky fans will be forgiven wondering what took so long for this lock status. The Wildcats are usually in on the ground floor of Bubble Watch’s top tier. This season’s team got that job done eventually.
Nick Richards has continued to emerge as one of the nation’s top big men, and UK’s SEC opponents have converted less than 43% of their 2-point attempts. This is one projected No. 4 seed that could yet deliver on the expectations raised by a preseason No. 2 ranking in the AP poll.
Here’s our current projection of the bubble:
Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 21 teams
Locks: 14 teams
The bubble: 46 teams for 33 available spots
Should be in: 19 teams
Work to do: 27 teams
Work to do
Tomas Woldetensae hit the winning 3 with 0.8 seconds left and Virginia escaped North Carolina with a 64-62 road win. We’ve reached a strange historical moment when losing in Chapel Hill would have been at risk of being labeled a bad loss, but that’s now a moot point as far as the Cavaliers are concerned. Tony Bennett’s team, with a NET ranking in the mid 50s, will continue to roam the boundary line between a No. 12 seed and the NIT until further notice.
NC State is clinging doggedly to its spot on the far outer fringes of Bubble Watch’s domain. Emphasis on far outer fringes: Kevin Keatts’ group is 7-6 in a weak ACC, its NET ranking is sticking around No. 60 and the best wins on the profile — road victories versus Virginia, UNC Greensboro and Syracuse — collectively form a résumé currency of fluctuating value. This is the part where the Watch qualifies all of the above by noting that the Wolfpack still get two games against Duke and one (at home) against Florida State. That is indeed the case, and one win in those three contests will likely be the minimum required to continue this conversation.
Should be in
The Texas Tech defense is ranked No. 4 in Big 12 play, and it looks odd. The Red Raiders allowed Oklahoma State to rebound more than half of its missed shots, and the result was a three-point loss in Stillwater. For the season, Chris Beard’s defense has allowed conference opponents to score 0.93 points per possession, a great-looking number in any normal context but a far cry from what we’re seeing this season from the Kansas D (0.88). By itself, this latest defeat on the road won’t imperil an expected No. 6 seed, and the Raiders can still move up in the bracket with opportunities looming at the end of the season against Baylor (in Waco) and Kansas (at home).
Work to do
There’s no shame in losing at Kansas, not even in losing by 17 in Lawrence. Oklahoma will hold steady as a likely No. 9 seed, and the Sooners still have an aesthetically pleasing profile built around a win at home over West Virginia and one on a neutral floor against Minnesota. OU plays a low-turnover brand of ball, one that showcased Kristian Doolittle in a losing cause at KU. The senior’s 27 points hold the distinction of being the best game any opposing player has had against the Jayhawks this season.
Lock: Seton Hall
Should be in
Here’s a rare peek behind the curtain at Watch HQ: Butler would be a lock right now had the Bulldogs won their home game against Georgetown. Instead, LaVall Jordan’s men went out and lost by seven thanks to giving up a normal-looking 73 points in an exceptionally slow-paced (58-possession) game. Speaking of which, this defense has looked really iffy for the balance of the last month. BU will still be awarded lock status soon, naturally, but a team that’s given up 1.12 points per possession over its past 10 games may not be as potent as its projected No. 4 seed would suggest.
The losing streak is over, and Villanova held off a late Marquette rally to win by one point at home. Like seemingly half the Big East, the Wildcats are showing up around the Nos. 4 and 5 lines in terms of projected seed, and Jay Wright’s team has already split two-game sets with Butler, Creighton and the aforementioned Golden Eagles. That leaves Seton Hall. Villanova lost at home to the Pirates by six earlier this month. A win in the return match in New Jersey (where, surprisingly, Kevin Willard’s team has already lost to Xavier and the Bluejays) could nudge the Wildcats up a seed line.
Take what in all likelihood will be your last look at Creighton here in “Should be in” before the Bluejays become a lock. Greg McDermott’s team is outscoring the Big East by a larger per-possession margin than Seton Hall, and this offense seems to improve with each game it plays. Ty-Shon Alexander scored 24 against DePaul, but if it hadn’t been Alexander this time, it would have been Marcus Zegarowski or some other teammate. This has been the most accurate 3-point shooting team in Big East play by a wide margin.
Markus Howard is now the Big East’s all-time leading scorer, and it appears that Marquette will receive its second consecutive seed somewhere in the Nos. 5 to 8 area. These are good times for the Golden Eagles’ basketball program. One facet of MU’s performance that could prove problematic, however, is the microscopic turnover rate being recorded by Big East opponents. Opposing offenses have given the ball away on just 12.8% of their possessions in conference play. With a turnover rate that low, opponents can and do score even when they’re not hitting shots.
Work to do
Xavier’s February winning streak came to an end in a 66-61 loss at Butler, and now the Musketeers are 5-7 in the Big East with a NET ranking in the low 40s. On paper, that’s likely good enough to get the job done when your wins include a victory over Seton Hall in Newark. Sure enough, Travis Steele’s men were more or less universally regarded as being in the hypothetical field, either as a No. 10 or 11 seed, before the Butler loss. In short, there appears to be a clear path for Xavier to secure a bid. Note for example that the upcoming game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden could potentially qualify as Quad 1, depending on how Mike Anderson’s team fares between now and Selection Sunday.
At the risk of engaging in un-Watch-like hyperbole, the last 3:46 of the Butler game at Hinkle Fieldhouse may turn out to be the most important 226 seconds of Georgetown’s season. The Hoyas closed the game on a 12-5 run and came away with the 73-66 victory. Beating the Bulldogs in Indianapolis represents easily the best win of 2019-20 for Patrick Ewing’s team. At 15-10 and 5-7 in the Big East, Georgetown would still be outside the field if the selection were made today. The win against the Bulldogs, however, gives the Hoyas a chance to approach upcoming games at Marquette and at Creighton as well as senior night against Villanova with a renewed sense of possibility.
Should be in
No team in Bubble Watch — not Butler, not Villanova, no one — has been able to serially approach yet never secure lock status quite like Michigan State. Staff members here at Watch HQ have been waiting to drop confetti and throw a lock party for the Spartans now for all of February. Yet MSU is still here in “Should be in” after losing at home to Maryland 67-60. Tom Izzo’s team was ranked No. 1 in the preseason on the assumption that Cassius Winston plus great defense would be the best blend any team could claim. But Winston needs help, and Michigan State’s offense has scored at a rate only slightly above the league average in Big Ten play.
We’ve established that Iowa is not good at playing basketball within the boundaries of the state of Indiana. In losses at Purdue and at Indiana, the Hawkeyes were outscored by a total of 48 points. A 38-point effort from Luka Garza wasn’t enough to keep Iowa in Thursday’s game against IU, and now Fran McCaffery’s team will try to preserve or even improve its expected No. 6 seed in the next few days against Minnesota (in Minneapolis), Ohio State (Iowa City) and Michigan State (East Lansing). This is still the best offense in Big Ten play by a wide margin, but the defense is closing in on Northwestern’s for No. 14 status.
For the moment, Ohio State sports an impressive 5-6 record in Quad 1 contests. The fifth and most recent win for the projected No. 7 or 8 seed came by 16 over Purdue in Columbus, and the Boilermakers could drop below No. 30 in the NET rankings and thus relocate the contest retroactively to Quad 2. In any event, the Buckeyes appear to be rounding into form for the first time since December. Chris Holtmann’s team has won five of its last six to reach .500 (7-7) in the Big Ten, no mean feat, surely. The Wesson brothers, Kaleb and Andre, have connected on a combined 45% of their tries from beyond the arc in conference play, leading the charge for the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league.
After slipping and falling awkwardly on the final play against Michigan State, Ayo Dosunmu didn’t play in the Illini’s 15-point loss at Rutgers. Illinois has lost four in a row, and the challenge grows only more severe as Brad Underwood’s team next faces a road test at Penn State. The Illini were being pictured as a No. 7 seed prior to the loss in Piscataway, though that position will be subject to revision downward based on Dosunmu’s availability and on what the rest of the field is doing. Over its past three games, Illinois has converted just 37% of its 2-point attempts.
Rutgers hasn’t lost a home game since last March, a fact that will be of some interest to the opponents yet to play their scheduled games at the RAC: Michigan and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights have held steady for the past two weeks on the No. 8 line in mock brackets, and Ron Harper is coming off a 27-point performance in his team’s 72-57 win at home over Illinois. After a 29-year absence from the NCAA tournament, Rutgers is making the unthinkable an afterthought. Not only is Steve Pikiell’s team going to the tournament, it’s going to earn a good seed.
In two games against Nebraska, the Badgers hit 33 3s and scored a combined 1.17 points per possession. Greg Gard’s team is showing up in mock brackets as a No. 8 seed, and four of Wisconsin’s remaining six games will take place in Madison. Don’t be shocked if the Badgers improve their seed and save themselves the trouble of a round of 32 game against a No. 1 seed. (Not that such a game was an insuperable obstacle for Wisconsin in 2017. Duly noted.)
It has been a good 80 minutes for the Wolverines. After beating Michigan State by nine in Ann Arbor, Juwan Howard’s team blew Northwestern away 79-54 in Evanston, Illinois. The latter game represented the first victory by greater than 11 points for U-M in weeks. Now you’re looking at a projected No. 8 seed that’s 6-7 in the league and ranked in the top 35 in the NET. Michigan’s been the most accurate 2-point shooting team in Big Ten play by a wide margin, while the Wolverines’ past two opponents have connected just 37% of the time inside the arc. Again, a good 80 minutes.
Work to do
The Watch does not wish to wax apocalyptic and label an expected No. 9 or 10 seed like Purdue as being in trouble. Let us remark instead that Matt Painter’s team isn’t looking all that hot lately. The Boilermakers have lost their last two games, at home against Penn State and on the road at Ohio State, by a combined 28 points. Across those 80 minutes of basketball, opponents have outscored Purdue 69 to 24 from beyond the arc. Carsen Edwards isn’t walking through that door, of course, so this current crop of Boilers will seek to address the gaping imbalance starting with the team’s next game, at Wisconsin.
We’ll never know, but things might have been even more dire for Indiana than commonly realized in advance of the Hoosiers’ crucial 89-77 victory at home over Iowa. Before that game, IU was sporting a No. 64 NET ranking, a perilously low placement that put Archie Miller’s team below the nondiscussed likes of Tennessee, Providence and Washington. Now, you’re looking at a projected No. 11 seed with wins over Florida State, Michigan State and Ohio State in addition to the victory over the Hawkeyes. Peril still lurks in the remaining Big Ten schedule, and Indiana plays four of its next five on the road. Nevertheless, the Hoosiers are at least still in the game having notched a pivotal win.
Say for the sake of discussion that Minnesota would not make the tournament if the selection occurred today. After all, that seems to be the consensus mock-bracket opinion regarding a team that’s 12-11 overall and 6-7 in its conference. Now, how do the Golden Gophers pry an at-large bid out of the committee? Win the next three games. With Iowa and Indiana coming to Minneapolis and then a road game taking place at Northwestern, Richard Pitino’s group has the motive and the opportunity to get this done. Plus, with Daniel Oturu, Minnesota has the means.
Should be in
One shorthand for Oregon would be that the Ducks are the Auburn of the Pac-12. Like the Tigers, Dana Altman’s team sits atop its conference (albeit alongside Colorado) despite the fact that it is barely outscoring the opponents residing in said league. Like Bruce Pearl’s group, UO is unassailable (3-0) in conference overtime games. Moreover, this parallel is good news for Oregon fans: Auburn was just moved to “lock” status. The Ducks, as a projected No. 4 or 5 seed, will soon be joining the Tigers in that elite realm.
Little remains to be said of Colorado before the Buffaloes move on up to lock territory as a projected No. 5 seed. Tad Boyle has a team that can beat you with both offense and defense. It was the latter that came to play when Colorado beat host Oregon State 69-47 in a 63-possession game in Corvallis. The Buffs enjoy a significant advantage in free throw rate over their Pac-12 opponents, and Tyler Bey translated 13 tries from the line into a 21-15 double-double in the win over the Beavers. While Oregon and Arizona have tended to hold the spotlight, it bears repeating that Colorado could end up being the Pac-12’s best team.
Once again, projected No. 6 seed Arizona rode shot volume to a win on a night when the Wildcats’ shooting was sub-par. Sean Miller’s team went 3-for-21 from beyond the arc at Stanford, giving UA a low effective FG% of 39.5. Arizona still won by nine, however, thanks in part to 13 offensive rebounds (four by Zeke Nnaji). In Pac-12 play, the Wildcats give the ball away on just 16% of their possessions, and they rebound their misses at a rate about three percentage points higher than the league average.
Work to do
As a projected No. 9 seed, USC has recovered nicely from a three-game skid that tipped off with a 21-point loss at home to Colorado. The Trojans have now won three straight, and Andy Enfield’s group could well end the season with the league’s best defense in Pac-12 play. USC next travels to Colorado and Utah before returning home for games against Arizona and Arizona State. A .500 record in those four games could be enough to all but put this question to bed.
The Sun Devils continue to make their February push. In the space of a couple weeks, Bobby Hurley’s men have gone from tournament afterthought to a projected No. 12 seed. Now, with Thursday’s 74-69 win at Stanford, Arizona State is closing in on a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, having won four straight games and six of its past seven. Assuming they take care of business, the Sun Devils appear to have a viable path to reach 20 wins, a top-50 NET ranking and a final Pac-12 record three or four games above .500.
Stanford stays in Bubble Watch for now because the Cardinal can claim wins over Oregon and Oklahoma, and, not least, because this team’s still showing up as a close call in mock brackets. But, after Jerod Haase’s team recorded its seventh loss in the past eight games (to Arizona 69-60 in Palo Alto), it’s clear that the Cardinal’s impending trip to Washington and Washington State will be do-or-die in terms of continued bubble prospects. One piece of good news for Stanford: Oscar da Silva is back in action after missing the Arizona State game.
Should be in
After posting a 6-0 record in conference games decided by nine points or fewer, LSU has gone just 1-3 in its past four such contests. SEC opponents have shot more accurately from the field than LSU has, a fairly amazing state of affairs given that this is still the league’s No. 1 offense in conference play. (Two words: shot volume.) Will Wade has watched his team’s projected seed inch down to the No. 6 or No. 7 area, and LSU will now seek to regain its momentum at home against Kentucky and on the road against South Carolina and Florida.
Work to do
Over the past two weeks, Florida has faced a succession of SEC opponents that aren’t under consideration as at-large tournament teams. To their credit, the Gators have been able to maintain their position as a projected No. 10 seed during this portion of the schedule, going 4-1 against Georgia, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt (twice). Now the games become more challenging. Next up for Mike White’s team is Arkansas, in Gainesville, and after that Florida will pay a visit to Kentucky. With a 22-point win at home over Auburn on their profile and four Quad 1 games yet to be played, the Gators will have every opportunity to improve their seed.
Prior to the Razorbacks’ last-second loss at home to Mississippi State, mock brackets really did not know what to do with this team. Eric Musselman’s group was showing up everywhere from (relatively) safely in as a No. 10 seed to hanging on by its fingernails on the No. 12 line. Now, at 4-8 in the SEC with losses in seven of its past eight conference games, this same Arkansas team should prove less difficult to evaluate. The Hogs aren’t down for the count, by any means, but even a team with a top-50 NET ranking is going to need to win at Florida or at home against LSU or against an Auburn or a Kentucky at the SEC tournament or some combination of all of the above to earn a bid.
Abdul Ado‘s put-back with 0.6 seconds left at Arkansas gave the Bulldogs a 78-77 win, MSU’s second Quad 1 victory of the season. This is a team that was previously inhabiting that odd intermediate zone where you’re commonly recognized as a bubble team even though very few people are actually putting you in their mock bracket. That will change now. Mississippi State will appear in a few more brackets, and Ben Howland’s team will have the opportunity to win its way into the field. It’s conceivable that no remaining MSU opponent will make the tournament, but finishing the regular season at, say, 20-11 and 11-7 would command a respectful look from the committee.
Welcome back to Bubble Watch, Crimson Tide. Is getting to the tournament a long shot, even after your thrilling 88-82 win over LSU in Tuscaloosa? You bet! You’re 14-11, but you have a chance. That top-40 NET ranking prior to the win over the Tigers was a good omen, and your 19-point victory at home over Auburn will serve you well in the committee room. Now your challenge is to finish strong against a remaining schedule bereft of ranked opponents but brimming with tough road games at places like Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Frank Martin’s team has won eight of its past 10 and now sits at 8-4 in SEC play. The Watch has seen a bubble résumé or two in its day, but let the record show that South Carolina has one exceptionally strange profile. Yes, the Gamecocks’ NET ranking is low (mid-60s), but no lower than what Indiana was showing before the Hoosiers beat Iowa and no one was worked up over IU being invited to this bubble party. No, what’s really strange is not one but two Quad 4 losses at home, to Boston University and Stetson. Nevertheless, the Gamecocks are here, making a charge and touting their wins over Kentucky and Virginia.
Should be in
The Cougars came up short in overtime at SMU, dropping their fourth Quad 1 loss of the season against two wins (at South Carolina and at Wichita State). This profile has been interpreted as saying “No. 7 seed” for a while now, and a road loss to the Mustangs won’t change that picture appreciably. If you wish to doubt this defense, you’ll assert with smug confidence that the American won’t continue to shoot just 26% on its 3s against UH. If you wish to tout this offense, you’ll proclaim with awed exuberance that Chris Harris (he of the seven offensive boards in 19 minutes in Dallas) is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country.
Work to do
In profile terms, there’s no particular importance attached to winning a game at UCF. If you’re Wichita State, however, and you’ve lost five of your previous seven games, you’ll take a victory in Orlando, Florida, and breathe a sigh of relief. The Shockers got the 75-58 win thanks to 27 points in 30 minutes from Erik Stevenson. Gregg Marshall’s top-50 NET-ranked team has stabilized, for the moment, as a projected No. 10 seed, one that offsets occasionally inaccurate shooting with a high volume of attempts.
Purveyors of mock brackets agree that the Bearcats are perched right on the line between “in” and “out,” and winning a home game in overtime against Memphis won’t change that status. Cincinnati will still be either 1-5 or 2-5 in Quad 1 games, depending upon which side of No. 30 Houston inhabits in the NET rankings on any given day. John Brannen’s team will still clock in with a NET ranking in the high 40s. Most important, UC will still have upcoming games against Houston on the road and against Wichita State at home. In our most recent update, the Watch predicted suspense for the Bearcats right to the end. That still looks like an appropriate forecast.
On the one hand, Memphis blew an absolute jewel of an opportunity. The Tigers led Cincinnati by 10 on the road with six minutes left in regulation, only to lose 92-86 in overtime. A Quad 1 win against the Bearcats would have been just what Penny Hardaway’s team needed after entering the game projected as one of the first four to eight teams outside the tournament field. On the other hand, the schedule-makers last summer were extremely accommodating of the possibility that Memphis might arrive in mid-February still needing to play its way into the tournament. The Tigers still get two shots at Houston.
Should be in
After a one-point win at San Diego, the Cougars are being picked to be a No. 7 or 8 seed as they prepare for a pivotal week. Santa Clara comes to Provo on Thursday, followed by Gonzaga on Saturday. Yoeli Childs was in foul trouble for much of the game against the Toreros (yet still scored 17 points), and, if he plays heavy minutes against the Bulldogs, it could be the game that everyone has been waiting for.
For a Rhode Island team that is envisioned as a No. 9 seed, the remainder of the season has resolved itself tidily into two categories. There is taking care of business, and then there is the home game against Dayton next month. “Taking care of business” most certainly encompasses tough games, particularly the Rams’ next challenge, a road test at Davidson. URI can claim easily the best defense in Atlantic 10 play, David Cox’s group is especially good at denying 3-point looks to opponents and Fatts Russell is an excellent lead guard both in terms of scoring and distributing. The Rams appear to be on track for a third tournament bid in four years.
Work to do
With wins over Wisconsin, Arizona State (by 40, no less, on a neutral floor in Phoenix) and BYU, the Gaels are endeavoring to pull off the most difficult WCC trick of all and build an at-large case that does not involve Gonzaga. (SMC lost to the Bulldogs by 30 in Moraga.) So far, it’s working. Saint Mary’s is shown as a No. 9 seed in mock brackets and has risen to the very edge of “Should be in” status here at Bubble Watch. Randy Bennett’s team has a good chance of sporting a 24-6 record when it arrives in Spokane for the season finale with the Zags.
Halfway through a two-game road swing constituting the toughest portion of the remaining schedule, the Panthers are 0-1. UNI lost in overtime at Loyola Chicago, dropping Ben Jacobson’s team to 22-4 and 11-3 in the Missouri Valley. The strong points of Northern Iowa’s profile are still what the Panthers have been all along, namely, an outstanding NET ranking (in the 30s) and a three-point win over Colorado in Boulder. Those strong points would become somewhat less salient, however, in the event of a loss in Northern Iowa’s next game, at Indiana State.
Utah State continues to take care of business against a schedule that no longer includes San Diego State. The Aggies took two cracks at the Aztecs and lost both games. It is probable that Craig Smith’s team will finish the regular season more or less where it is now, right at the line between “in” and “out.” In that case, it would be helpful for USU to meet, and defeat, SDSU in the Mountain West tournament.
The Buccaneers are coming off a closer-than-expected five-point win at VMI. Steve Forbes’ team has been a mainstay within the top 50 of the NET rankings for a while now, and, at 23-4, ETSU is having possibly its best season since earning a No. 10 seed in 1991. The 11-point win at LSU still looks great on the profile as the Buccaneers continue to do battle with Furman in the Southern Conference regular season race.
It would be easy to overreact to VCU losing by 18 at Richmond. This contest represented the second half of a two-game set, after all, and the Rams did win the first meeting, at home, by 19. So, no, losing to the Spiders isn’t necessarily the final verdict for a team that entered the game right on the edge of the field of 68. Still, the previous win against Richmond was already priced into VCU’s status, and the Rams have now lost three of their past four. Put it this way, over the past two weeks it has become increasingly difficult to envision Mike Rhoades’ team earning an at-large without a win at home against Dayton in its next game.
Richmond’s schedule included only one regular-season game apiece against Dayton and Rhode Island, and the Spiders lost at home to the Flyers and beat the Rams in Kingston. By the same token, Chris Mooney’s team split its two-game series against VCU. Notwithstanding a setback against Saint Louis last month, Richmond has fairly breezed through the rest of the league while posting effectively the same per-possession scoring margin as consensus No. 9 seed URI in conference play. The Spiders close the season with six games varying from “close, but winnable” to “highly winnable.” A strong closing run could give UR the soap box it needs to return the conversation to that 10-point win on a neutral floor over Wisconsin.
The Flames haven’t lost in three weeks, keeping an intriguing at-large candidacy alive and running their record to 24-3. In NET terms, the best win on this profile is a neutral-floor victory over Akron. If that doesn’t sound sufficiently impressive, keep in mind the Zips really might be the second-best opponent this team has faced. (The best was LSU, and Liberty lost in Baton Rouge 74-57.) When a team has a great record against a so-so schedule, metrics like strength of record can be helpful. The Flames are in the mid-50s in SOR, just as they are in the NET. Classic bubble territory.
Yale’s dreams of an at-large are on the brink of becoming pure fantasy after losing at Penn. The defeat was the second loss in Ivy play for the Bulldogs, and it came at the hands of a Quakers team that entered the night 12-8. Put more simply, this is a Quad 4 loss, Yale’s first of the season. It’s going to be very difficult for James Jones’ men to put together one of the 36 best at-large profiles in the nation from this point forward. It will be much more difficult, one might venture to say, than winning the league’s automatic bid.