Bauer’s Bubble Watch 3.0
Selection Sunday is officially less than a month away, meaning it’s do-or-die time for many teams trying to clinch a spot in March Madness. Some have risen to the occasion, but others have stumbled over obstacles along the way. With today’s version of Bauer’s Bubble Watch, we’ll break down which teams can already pack their bags for the tournament and which teams will have work to do before they can join the party.
As always, we’ll assess every team in contention for the NCAA Tournament by analyzing their tournament résumés (which include predictive metrics, quadrant victories and losses, strength factors and other helpful stats) in order to sort them into the appropriate categories of “lock,” “safe for now” and “bubble.”
The newest version of Bauer’s Bubble Watch sees two more locks entering the picture as well as a handful of teams falling off the bubble after failing to keep pace in the tournament race.
Let’s see who’s in and who’s out with 2020’s third edition of Bauer’s Bubble Watch.
Locks: Duke, Louisville, Florida State
Safe for now:
Bubble: Virginia, NC State, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech
Another week in the ACC, another week of no movement. Duke, Louisville and Florida State have long since wrapped up bids, but we’re still waiting to see whether or not a fourth team will join them in March. As has been the case up to this point, Virginia is the most likely choice, and the Cavaliers helped their cause last week by avoiding a home upset from Notre Dame and knocking off North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The numbers still point to a bubble team, but things are trending in the right direction for UVA.
NC State earned a massive Quadrant 1 victory in Syracuse last Tuesday, but an ugly loss at Boston College on Sunday means that the Wolfpack gained no ground in the tournament chase. Still, opportunities lie ahead to improve their outlook, as both Duke and Florida State will take a trip to Raleigh this week.
Syracuse, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech are all on life support. Winless weeks have the Orange and Fighting Irish clinging to the bubble, and the Hokies only remain here because of their win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. With only six games left to go in regular season play, there aren’t many opportunities left to build up true standout tournament résumés, meaning this trio may find itself removed from the page sooner rather than later.
As for Pitt, an 0-2 outing versus Clemson and Virginia Tech last week officially pops the Panthers’ bubble. Alongside the suddenly surging Tigers, the goal from here on out should be to play well enough to find a way to sneak into the NIT.
Safe for now: Houston
Bubble: Wichita State, Cincinnati, Memphis, SMU, Tulsa
A surprising overtime loss at SMU ceases any talk of Houston becoming a lock this week, but with a 20-6 record and most metrics landing in the 20s, the Cougars should still be feeling fine about their odds to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
After a near fatal collapse, Wichita State finally got back on track by piecing together much-needed wins over UCF and Tulane. There are still a lot of traps to overcome before the Shockers can feel safe about their tournament outlook, but it may be comforting to know that most experts have them currently in the field of 68.
Cincinnati’s big win over Memphis on Thursday helps deblur the line between the two in terms of bubble status, but that doesn’t mean the Bearcats can rest on their laurels, and Sunday’s close call against East Carolina proves it. Most projections have them as either the last team in or the first team out. There’s plenty more work to be done before Cincinnati can take it easy.
Memphis remains in free fall, and there may be no stopping it. The Tigers’ NET high of No. 12 has sunk all the way down to No. 60, and other important metrics have plummeted as well. There’s still a glimmer of hope with multiple Q1 opportunities remaining on the schedule, including two late-season clashes with conference-leading Houston, but the outlook appears bleak for Memphis.
SMU is starting to play its way into serious bubble contention. While the numbers aren’t quite up to snuff yet, a monumental Q1 win over Houston on Saturday adds a gold star to a résumé that seriously needed it. The Mustangs still have their work cut out for them in the upcoming weeks, but they’re a team on the rise, and they’re worth keeping an eye on.
Tulsa stays on the page with a 2-0 week, but the Golden Hurricane will need more than semi-inspiring wins over inferior competition to have a real fighting chance. A trip to Houston on Wednesday presents a golden opportunity. Can the Golden Hurricane capitalize?
Safe for now:
Bubble: Rhode Island, Richmond, VCU, Saint Louis
Rhode Island couldn’t grab the win over Dayton necessary to move up a category, but a nice 18-point home win over Saint Joseph’s puts the Rams at 19-6 overall with five regular season games left to play. The only question mark on their résumé is their lone Q1 win. Everything else seems to pass the test, but it remains to be seen whether or not the committee will hold the lack of quality wins against Rhode Island when judgment day arrives.
Richmond’s walloping of VCU on Saturday shows that the Spiders demand to be taken seriously. Their metrics may be on the weaker side for teams in the heart of the bubble, but the Spiders are 19-6 and have one more Q1 win than fellow A-10 contender Rhode Island. A strong finish might end up being enough to get the job done.
VCU is trending down very, very quickly. A gross home loss to George Mason on Wednesday was followed up with a trampling via crosstown rival Richmond. With everything starting to spin down the drain, what exactly can save the Rams’ season? Perhaps a Q1 win over Dayton at home on Tuesday? At this point, it seems like their only option.
A win over La Salle allows Saint Louis to stay on the page, but it’s getting difficult to take the Billikens’ tournament hopes seriously. Unless something unbelievable happens over the next few weeks, you can bank on Saint Louis playing in the wrong postseason tournament a month from now.
Locks: Seton Hall, Villanova, Butler, Creighton, Marquette
Safe for now:
Bubble: Xavier, Georgetown, Providence
The top and bottom remain divided, as no bubble team is even close to moving into “safe for now” territory. Xavier is the top of the pack, but the Musketeers failed to snatch a Q1 win from Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse last Wednesday, meaning they’ll have to look elsewhere to improve their tournament résumé. On the plus side, most experts are feeling hopeful about the Musketeers’ postseason odds at the moment.
No Big East bubble team improved its stock more this week than Georgetown. Down Mac McClung and Omer Yurtseven, Patrick Ewing’s squad marched into Butler on Saturday and left with a crucial victory. Following some recent struggles, the Hoyas are seeing their metrics go back on the incline. If they play their cards right, the Hoyas have a chance to play themselves into the field.
Providence is the bubble’s most fascinating case, and last week didn’t change that fact. Wednesday’s loss at St. John’s may technically be Q1, but it’s still not a good look for a Friars team that is clinging to life. Fortunately, oddball Saturday happened, and Providence posted an early 25-point lead over Seton Hall to cash in on a much-needed top-tier victory (despite the Friars’ best efforts to blow it). It’s going to be difficult to cover up those dreaded Q3/Q4 losses, but the road ahead is paved with gold: that is, Q1 and Q2 opportunities. The time to strike is now.
With a 1-11 conference record and an overall ready to dip below .500, we bid a sad farewell to DePaul. A season that was once filled with immense promise has once again turned into a wash due to the ridiculous depth of the Big East.
A different Big East team not on the page, St. John’s, makes a somewhat compelling case to return to the bubble, as the Red Storm’s metrics outmatch Virginia Tech and other teams listed here, but a 3-9 conference record quickly closes that door. Finish strong and maybe you’ll make it back here, Johnnies.
Locks: Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa
Safe for now: Ohio State, Michigan, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Illinois
Bubble: Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota
Our first new lock of the week comes via the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa’s bid to become a lock on Thursday was foiled by Indiana, but the Hawkeyes rebounded on Sunday to pull out a gritty victory in Minneapolis. That win secures them into the field for good.
Ohio State is pretty darn close to being a lock too, as the Buckeyes have shiny metrics across the board and a plethora of quality wins. Perhaps they’ll follow the footsteps of newest Big Ten lock Iowa by defeating the Hawkeyes on Thursday, ensuring themselves a spot in March Madness in the process.
The season rebound is in full swing for Michigan, which now ranks in the top 30 in every major metric except KPI. Throw in a boatload of Q1 victories and the Wolverines are starting to feel safe about their tournament prospects. A lot of arduous road tests remain before the Big Ten tournament begins, but the Wolverines’ current level of play should have them feeling confident heading into the final few weeks.
Rutgers was quickly approaching bubble territory before the Scarlet Knights righted the ship with a 15-point win over Illinois on Saturday, maintaining their spotless record at the RAC in the process. Each of the remaining five regular season games is Q1. Win two of them at minimum and Rutgers is likely in good shape.
Wisconsin’s double-digit loss total might be difficult to overlook for a team designated “safe for now,” but it’s equally hard to discount the Badgers’ seven Q1 wins, three of which came on the road. After weeks of inconsistency, Wisconsin is finally starting to play like a true tournament team.
Illinois direly needs to watch its step. The Fighting Illini are crashing and burning right now, and the recent injury to Ayo Dosunmu is only fuel to the fire. Four straight losses have sent Illinois from enjoying the cool upper regions of “safe for now” to feeling the heat of the bubble just inches below. The monstrous task of knocking off red-hot Penn State in State College looms on Tuesday. Failure to do so would mean Illinois’ fifth loss in a row and further pressure from the lurking bubble. The Fighting Illini better give it their all.
Just when things started looking up for Purdue, back-to-back losses to Penn State and Ohio State have dropped the 14-12 Boilermakers back into the heart of the bubble. Quality wins and top-25 metrics can only go so far when your record is just two games above .500. Plenty of opportunities remain for Purdue to establish firmer footing in the tournament field, but the Boilermakers need to win to do that.
Indiana’s Thursday night victory over Iowa was a huge confidence-booster for the Hoosiers, which had lost the four games prior. A 24-point loss at Michigan on Sunday isn’t as much of a help, but at least Indiana has its head above water again. Still, the Hoosiers possess metrics ranking in the bubbly 40s, meaning that they have some swimming to do before they can feel safe at all. With the shark-infested waters of the Big Ten still ahead before the sunny shore of safety, the Hoosiers have to do all that they can to keep from being eaten.
In terms of overall record, Minnesota is in the same boat as Purdue. The difference is that the Golden Gophers don’t have the same life jacket of excellent predictive metrics that the Boilermakers have. They may be getting battle-tested in the stacked Big Ten, but it won’t mean much if they can’t end up in the W column enough times. As we learned from last year’s 16-16 Texas squad, a .500 record is not going to be enough for a postseason bid, no matter how good the raw numbers are.
Locks: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia
Safe for now: Texas Tech
Bubble: Oklahoma, Texas
Despite a close loss at Oklahoma State on Saturday, Texas Tech has done enough recently to deserve moving up into the “safe for now” category. Outside of KPI and SOR, the major metrics all have the Red Raiders in the top 20. That’s enough to make Texas Tech a team to put confidence in.
Oklahoma doesn’t quite have the same pretty predictive numbers as the Red Raiders, but the Sooners do have the edge in SOR and SOS, and that’s enough to put them into the field of 68. Oklahoma is no sure thing, but considering how replete with mediocre résumés the bubble seems to be this year, the Sooners’ solid profile has to have them well on the north side of the tournament cut line at the moment.
A week ago, it was stated that Texas was “not in any real danger of falling off the bubble.” Things can change in an instant, you know. An 0-2 week that featured a disappointing home performance against Baylor and a downright dismal outing at Iowa State has the Longhorns hanging on by a thread. Their remaining schedule is easier than other Big 12 contenders, but the fact that the Longhorns haven’t been able to capitalize on their opportunities at all makes a strong finish seem improbable. Give it a week or two and Texas may be out of here.
Locks: Oregon, Colorado, Arizona
Safe for now:
Bubble: USC, Arizona State, Stanford, Oregon State
It’s time to lock in Arizona. The Wildcats passed last week’s traps with flying colors, knocking off California and Stanford on the road. They now own an 18-7 record, the No. 8 NET and other highly ranked résumé factors such as SOS, KenPom and BPI. With only six regular season games remaining, we can finally feel complete confidence about Arizona’s postseason chances.
USC remains one of the bubble’s more interesting cases. The Trojans are 19-7 and own a pair of Q1 wins, but the metrics remain unkind to them for some reason, as only SOR and KPI rank above No. 40. Most experts have the Trojans in the field, but they should probably pick up some more late-season victories just to be safe.
The Arizona State late-season tournament push is in full swing once again. Bobby Hurley’s squad has won five in a row entering the week and has climbed 21 spots in the NET rankings since early January. The Sun Devils remain a bubble team through and through, but the momentum cannot be ignored. A little more pushing and they could find themselves in March Madness for the third straight year. Now if they could just find a way to avoid playing in the First Four games in Dayton…
Arizona State must have somehow sapped its energy from Stanford, as the Cardinal have tumbled and tumbled with no signs of stopping. Losers of seven of the last eight, Stanford has slipped from No. 9 in the NET to No. 37 in a little over a month’s time. At the moment, the Cardinal are looking at a visit to the all-too-familiar NIT. A robust finish is required to avoid that result.
Utah’s appearance on the watch came and went quickly, but at least one newbie from last week’s edition gets to hang around for another week: Oregon State. Though the Beavers are still a longshot, analytics actually like them to be one of the first few teams out. Both Haslametrics and T-Ranketology have them within the top 15 teams outside the field. The 4-3 Q1 record and slowly climbing NET are probably the cause for this. Oregon State shouldn’t be holding its breath for a tournament bid, but it should know that at least one bubble watch is keeping an eye on Corvallis.
Locks: Auburn, Kentucky
Safe for now: LSU
Bubble: Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee
Upon further review, the ruling stands that LSU is not yet a lock. The Tigers have been playing some ugly basketball lately, narrowly defeating Missouri at home on Tuesday before losing at Alabama on Saturday. This prospect wouldn’t be too much reason for concern if not for LSU’s remaining schedule. The Tigers have four Q1 games remaining, three of which are on the road. If LSU doesn’t get back to its winning ways, it could spell trouble. This is probably just a precaution, though, as a 1-1 week with a win over either Kentucky or South Carolina should put the Tigers in for good, but you can never be totally sure with college hoops.
Florida built a lot of confidence over the past week, taking care of business against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, but much like LSU, the path ahead is treacherous. The Gators have dates with LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky twice before the SEC tournament rolls around. They’re on the ball both momentum-wise and metrics-wise—they just need to stay there.
Things aren’t looking too keen for Arkansas right now. Just two weeks ago, the Razorbacks were approaching “safe for now” territory with a 16-5 record. Now they’ve lost four in a row, three of those losses coming by a combined eight points. They have been competitive, but what the selection committee cares about is if they won or lost, and the Razorbacks haven’t been doing much of the former lately. They better shift into second gear before it’s too late to recover.
Mississippi State has ricocheted all over the bubble these past few weeks. The one constant is that the Bulldogs have remained on the bubble the entire time, and they may be rewarded for their patience. A relatively light workload is ahead, as a trip to South Carolina on March 3 is the only Q1 foe remaining in the regular season. Then again, that blessing could end up being a curse, as the Bulldogs only have two Q1 wins in total.
South Carolina may very well be the Providence of the SEC. The Gamecocks own a pair of nasty losses (Boston University, Stetson), but the rest of the numbers point to South Carolina being a low-end bubble team. Having won six of the last seven and boasting an 8-4 record in SEC play, the Gamecocks certainly deserve to have an at-large look right now.
Tennessee is a lot harder to sell with its one Q1 win and mediocre metrics. But the Volunteers have oodles of opportunity ahead. After a rematch with Vanderbilt, Tennessee closes the regular season with Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn again. It goes without saying that the Vols will need to win most of those games to remain in tournament contention.
Alabama is probably the most fickle bubble team, as NET and SOS point to a deserving tournament entrant but most everything else says NIT. A huge home win over LSU last Saturday helps the Crimson Tide’s cause, but the crowded bubble is going to shrink soon, and Alabama can’t afford to get popped. There’s only one Q1 opportunity remaining before the conference tournament starts, so the Crimson Tide must tread carefully.
Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State
Safe for now: BYU
Bubble: Saint Mary’s, Northern Iowa, Utah State, East Tennessee State, Liberty, UNC Greensboro, Furman, Yale
The BYU Cougars are safe for now, and make no mistake: they deserve it. The Cougars have played lights-out basketball for the past few weeks, and it seems likely that they’ll soon be rewarded for their efforts. Just avoid the traps against Santa Clara and Pepperdine and they’re golden. An upset win at home over Gonzaga on Saturday would just be the icing on the cake.
Saint Mary’s is almost in the same boat as conference counterpart BYU, but the Cougars’ vastly superior NCSOS has them a few paces ahead of the Gaels. Like BYU, Saint Mary’s will get another crack at Gonzaga, but considering the 90-60 stomping that happened in Moraga just a week ago, there’s not too much reason to get excited for an upset. Just focus on winning on the games that you’re supposed to win, Gaels.
Northern Iowa’s brutal overtime loss at Loyola Chicago on Saturday does not kill the Panthers’ at-large hopes, but it does put a damper on things. As is the case with any at-large team with scarce quality wins to point at, UNI doesn’t have much space to work with. It’s possible that a loss in the conference tournament title game is the only one that the Panthers can afford to take and still reach the tournament without an autobid.
Just a month after Utah State’s at-large chances took a hefty hit with a three-game skid, the Aggies are right back in it with seven wins in the last eight games. The problem is that they have work to do and not much left to do it with. Only three regular season games remain, then the Mountain West conference tournament starts in early March. Utah State probably needs to win at least four more in total to stay in the conversation on Selection Sunday.
The SoCon presents a trio of intriguing at-large options, the most popular choice being East Tennessee State with its 20-4 record, metrics in the 40s and 50s and pair of Q1 wins. But UNC Greensboro is not that far back, as the Spartans possess numbers that are just a frame or two behind the Buccaneers. Furman is the furthest out of the group and will, in all likelihood, need to win the conference tournament to play in March Madness, but the Paladins will have Q1 opportunities at ETSU and UNCG before the postseason begins. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not the SoCon can finally sneak a second team into the dance.
Despite Liberty’s 22-3 record, the Flames’ résumé is starting to flame out in comparison with other bubble teams. They won’t get to record a Q1 win by the time Selection Sunday comes, and that Q4 loss to Stetson is going to stay forever. Just as it is with 19-3 Stephen F. Austin of the Southland, Liberty is probably going down the road of conference tournament champion or bust.
Yale took its second loss of conference play last week, and it might be the one to do the Bulldogs in. They’re 16-6, and if they win out until the conference championship game, they’ll be 23-6. Would the committee put a 23-7 Ivy League team into the bracket? History says it’s unlikely. The Bulldogs will stay here for one more week, but another loss in league play means lights out.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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