College Basketball Bubble Watch
Bubble Watch: Under .500 in league play? No problem!
Any remotely plugged-in college basketball fan has heard some version of this argument before. It's espoused as much by fans as by writers, radio hosts, former coaches and random, casual March interlopers. It's versatile, too. It can be drafted to benevolent ends -- on behalf of, say, a good mid-major team lacking the big-win opportunities of a mediocre high-major -- or wielded as a cudgel to make the case for one high-major team over another. It is clear and simple and direct.
If you are one of these people -- if you believe a .500 record against league opposition should be a baseline requirement of NCAA tournament at-large teams -- well, fair warning. You are not going to like this bubble.
The 2017 NCAA tournament bubble is loaded with mediocre teams from high-major conferences to a degree we haven't seen in years. As a result, teams with sub-.500 conference records abound: Seton Hall (7-8 in the Big East), Georgia Tech (7-8 in the ACC), TCU (6-9 in the Big 12), Kansas State (6-9 in the Big 12), Wake Forest (7-9 in the ACC), Providence (7-8 in the Big East) and Tennessee (7-8 in the SEC) are all legitimate bubble contenders at this late date.
So, for that matter, is Clemson, which is, after two road losses in the past six days, 4-11 in the ACC. Yes, you read right: four and 11. The Tigers need to win their last three regular-season games just to get back to 7-11 in ACC play. (Not to mention Indiana, say, or Pittsburgh or, if you really want to plumb the depths, Georgetown and Texas Tech.)
Historically speaking, being four games under .500 in your conference all but ensures a sad Selection Sunday. The last time a team managed otherwise was in 1998, when Florida State snuck into the field with a 6-10 record in the ACC. Before that, one had to go back to the 1992 Iowa State Cyclones, coached by Johnny Orr, who got in with a 5-9 mark in the Big Eight. And that's it: Those are far as we know the only two times teams with a regular-season record as bad as Clemson's best-case scenario got at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Twice.
The same is true, by the way, of teams with 14 losses overall -- a genuine concern for more than a few teams listed above. No 15-loss team has ever earned an at-large bid.
Officially, the NCAA selection committee doesn't pay all that much mind to conference record, or at least not any more than any other of its myriad considerations; practically, it is almost never given as an explanation for a team's inclusion or exclusion. More specifically, there is no conference record "cutoff." It's not like there's a glaring "your conference record must be this high to ride this ride" sign in its bracketing procedures and principles.
Still, you can understand why the sub.-500 conference record maxim exists: Teams like these simply don't get into the NCAA tournament that often. Whether via correlation or causation, the precedent seems clear.
Meanwhile, one way or the other, the 2017 NCAA tournament has 32 at-large spots to fill. Something is going to give. Stay tuned.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Teams that should be in: SMU|
Work left to do: Houston
We were just starting to get that loving feeling about UConn, perhaps this season's most disappointing (or incorrectly hyped) team. Seven wins in eight games down the stretch against lower-tier American competition wouldn't normally raise eyebrows, but UConn has an unusual knack for sneaking into the field and/or winning unlikely national titles. Wednesday's loss at Houston officially killed that vibe. Even wins over SMU (Saturday) and Cincinnati (March 14) wouldn't really get the Huskies in the discussion. They'll just have to win the American tournament. Which they probably will. Because it's UConn.
SMU [24-4 (14-1), RPI: 18, SOS: 101] Resumewise, SMU is Cincinnati-lite. The Mustangs suffer from an even more glaring lack of signature wins -- Feb. 12 vs. the Bearcats being the only one -- but have also avoided bad losses, if not quite as tidily as Cincinnati. They've been off this week ahead of Saturday's trip to UConn, after which they host Tulsa and Memphis to finish out the regular season. If they handle the Huskies on the road (and maybe even if they don't), we can go ahead and lock them in.
Houston [19-8 (10-5), RPI: 58, SOS: 81] Taking care of UConn on Wednesday was another step in the right direction for Kelvin Sampson's fringe bubble outfit, but it was a small one. It will probably take a 3-0 finish, including a March 2 road win at Cincinnati -- and then some in the American tournament -- for Houston to have a real shot.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: VCU, Dayton|
Work left to do: Rhode Island
With the exception of Rhode Island sneaking on or off the page, this section isn't going to change much in the next couple of weeks. VCU and Dayton are both good enough to deserve bids right now, but nowhere near earning locks, and unlikely to alter that calculus given the rest of the A-10. Every win is an incremental step; none will be a giant leap.
VCU [23-5 (13-2), RPI: 24, SOS: 84] VCU has gotten quite good at avoiding losses and staying clear of the cut line, which is a must in the A-10. The Rams haven't lost since Jan. 18, when they fell by a bucket at Fordham. Since then, they've won nine straight, good enough to head into Saturday's game at Rhode Island knowing their opponent has a lot more on the line.
Dayton [22-5 (13-2), RPI: 25, SOS: 80] Things are shaping up nicely for Dayton, whose resume is probably a half-step better than VCU's and is already tournament-worthy. The Flyers play Davidson on the road Friday, after which they get five days off in advance of a visit from VCU on March 1.
Rhode Island [18-9 (10-5), RPI: 49, SOS: 51] Rhode Island survived its past two games, on the road at George Mason and La Salle -- decent midtable A-10 teams with sub-100 RPIs -- but both wins were tricky. It's important not to oversell Saturday's home game against VCU. With all due respect to Will Wade's team, this isn't Kansas or Villanova we're talking about here; you aren't going to punch your ticket because you beat VCU on your home floor. But all Rhode Island can do now, considering its narrow bubble hopes, is take the opportunities it's presented, and this is the best one it'll have before the regular season is out.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Virginia Tech, Miami|
Work left to do: Wake Forest, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Georgia Tech
Wednesday was one of the wilder nights in recent bubble memory, and said wildness spanned a whole host of leagues. But for back-to-back weeknight drama -- from Georgia Tech's home loss to NC State and Virginia Tech's game winner in the final seconds against Clemson Tuesday, to Syracuse's buzzer-beater over Duke Wednesday -- the ACC bubble action was hard to beat.
Virginia Tech [19-8 (8-7), RPI: 36, SOS: 74] In addition to mercilessly sinking Clemson into entirely new depths of bubble desperation, Seth Allen's game-winning 3 with 3.8 seconds left Tuesday nicely bolstered Virginia Tech's situation. It's easy to feel a bit more confident now. The bubble is a mess. The Hokies' resume -- 11 top-100 wins, no sub-100 losses, top-40 RPI, etc. -- is better than the vast majority of bubble teams. The only real hole is a sub-300 nonconference SOS, the kind of data point that has broken ties between shaky bubble teams in the past (and which always makes us a bit nervous about our assessment, because it's hard to know how much the committee will care). As long as Tech keeps itself above that fray, it will be fine.
Miami [19-8 (9-6), RPI: 37, SOS: 63] If you think 48 points in 45 minutes of basketball is bad -- and, make no mistake, it is -- consider that Miami and Virginia traded 62 possessions in the Hurricanes' 54-48 win in OT in Charlottesville on Monday. The Cavaliers averaged 0.78 points per possession. Just sitting at a desk and finishing the broadcast took a significant toll on Bubble Watch HQ. Morale has never been so low. For Miami, though, the disaster was beautiful. The Hurricanes struck at an opportune moment -- Virginia appears to have stranded its offense somewhere deep in the Shenandoah -- and got a marquee road win that will look even better on Selection Sunday after the immediate context has faded. Plus, Miami's last three regular-season games come against Duke at home, then at Virginia Tech and Florida State. There are no bad losses to worry about and a couple of big chances to boot. The Hurricanes should get in.
Wake Forest [16-12 (7-9), RPI: 38, SOS: 20] Wake Forest joined the ACC bubble fun Wednesday with a 63-59 home win over Pittsburgh. Not impressed? That's probably the right response; as shaky as Wake's at-large hopes are, Pittsburgh's are even shakier. Still, the Demon Deacons managed to not take a step back against a team that has been playing pretty well of late, which is good enough to stay in the conversation for the time being. The one thing they need more than anything is a marquee win over a really good team. In a week, Louisville arrives in Winston-Salem to provide just that opportunity.
Clemson [14-13 (4-11), RPI: 60, SOS: 22] Oh, Clemson. Tuesday's 71-70 loss at Virginia Tech was the Tigers' ninth defeat in 12 games and fifth in their last sixth. Of those five losses, three (Syracuse, at Duke, at Tech) came by one or two points. A fourth, at Miami, came by six. We could have offered an average of those five losses, but Florida State beat Clemson 109-61 in Tallahassee on Feb. 5, and the math would have gotten all wacky. Anyway, you get the point: Clemson is just getting crushed by these tight defeats, to the point of straining historic credulity.
Pittsburgh [15-13 (4-11), RPI: 61, SOS: 7] Pitt missed an opportunity at Wake Forest Wednesday to take a minor chunk out of a team in its S-curve vicinity. The Panthers' entire resume revolves around the concept that it can combat the raw quantity of its losses with impressive wins, and they may well need to add at least one more (vs. North Carolina on Saturday?), and maybe two (at Virginia on March 4), to make that argument stick.
Syracuse [17-12 (9-7), RPI: 74, SOS: 56] Despite the excited proclamations heard in the wake of Wednesday's thrilling win over Duke, Syracuse is not exactly a lock just yet. The Orange are, however, moving closer to bubble safety, which is a pretty remarkable state of affairs given where they were a month or so ago. There are two simple reasons for this: (1) They're playing much better basketball. That much should be obvious to the committee on any number of fronts. (2) With wins over Florida State, Virginia and Duke (plus either two or three other top-50 victories, depending on how Monmouth's RPI waxes and wanes), Jim Boeheim's team will compare favorably to just about any other team on the bubble, even if all of those wins came at home. The Orange were hovering around a 12-seed before Wednesday; they don't get to be a lock just because John Gillon's shot was so exciting. But they are in much better position than at any point this season, and a win at Louisville on Sunday would (quite literally) seal the deal.
Georgia Tech [16-12 (7-8), RPI: 87, SOS: 53] It's hard to get too mad about much with this team. Yes, losing at home to NC State -- a team which had lost its previous seven games, usually by a lot, and which didn't even wait until March to can its coach, Mark Gottfried -- is, you know, bad. But the fact that we are talking about an unfortunate home loss for Georgia Tech in Josh Pastner's first season as a matter of grave import because of how it will affect the Yellow Jackets' situation on the cut line is already a preposterous success. Tech might make the tourney, it may not; it's probably going to be close. Either way, it's all gravy.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Oklahoma State, Iowa State|
Work left to do: TCU, Kansas State
Pour one out for our beloved Texas Tech. Just a few days ago, we wrote a soliloquy to the glorious incongruity of the Red Raiders' bubble hopes -- about how hard they were playing, how locked in they've been, and how comically goofy their final wasted possession against Iowa State was -- and now they find themselves off the page altogether. Why? They haven't played since Monday. That's true, but the answer is simple: The RPI cares about schedule. Like, a lot. The Red Raiders' 340-ish nonconference SOS made their overall RPI especially squishy. It wasn't until last week's win over Baylor that Tech's raw RPI number climbed down from the unseedable 90s into high-80s, "probably-not-but-let's-see" territory. In recent days, that number has climbed back into triple digits and teams with RPIs that high don't get at-large bids. It's a shame, too, because Tech is playing really good basketball these days. It just couldn't close extremely tight deals against Kansas, Baylor and ISU, and thus finds itself without the kind of wins needed to counteract those ugly numbers.
Oklahoma State [19-9 (8-7), RPI: 28, SOS: 23] Were we not so terrified of the committee doing something crazy, Oklahoma State would be a lock. The Cowboys are arguably the hottest team in the country and they are unarguably the hottest offensive team. (Were it not for a legendary UCLA offense, they might be the nation's best offense, period.) That said, we're holding out. In recent years, the committee has made it clear that the "entire body of work" is a thing that people say; wins late in the season don't necessarily outweigh losses early on. After an 0-6 start to conference play, OSU is just 8-7. The Pokes will get in, but they also feel like the kind of team the committee could throw a curveball at on Selection Sunday. So let's just hang tight for a few more days.
Iowa State [18-9 (10-5), RPI: 41, SOS: 55] Monday's win at Texas Tech didn't really change the Cyclones' situation one way or the other: They still have a really solid resume, highlighted by that glorious road win at Kansas. Despite winning four of their past five games, they still don't have quite enough meat on their nitty-gritty sheet -- particularly in terms of their RPI and SOS numbers -- to warrant the surety of a lock. Just remember: That's more procedural safety (again: see Oklahoma State) than any statement about whether or not the Cyclones will go to the tournament. Because they will.
TCU [17-11 (6-9), RPI: 53, SOS: 26] Given how Kansas spent most of its 13th-straight Big 12 title run -- by narrowly, and often improbably, finishing close games -- it was almost surprising to see the Jayhawks pull away from TCU so effortlessly Wednesday. Jamie Dixon's surprising cut-line contender now has West Virginia to worry about this weekend, which is probably more daunting than encouraging. Yes, in this kind of bubble shape, it's a boon to get a good team on your own floor, but in WVU's case, the challenge of actually beating the Mountaineers is undersold by their laughably deflated (low-30s-ish) RPI. West Virginia might be one of the five or six best teams in the country. Hopefully, if TCU pulls it off Saturday, the committee will give credit where it's due.
Kansas State [17-11 (6-9), RPI: 59, SOS: 46] Kansas State offers a helpful prism for gauging just how far Oklahoma State has come during Big 12 play. On Jan. 18, KSU won in Stillwater, 96-88. On Feb. 22, Oklahoma State went to Manhattan and won by 12. If the Wildcats had to pick between the two, they'd rather have the road win, but at this point Bruce Weber's team just needs wins, period -- and with a totally losable road trip to Oklahoma coming on Saturday, failure to acquire said road win could prove disproportionately punitive.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Xavier|
Work left to do: Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette
Georgetown is to the bubble as your awkward neighbor in college was to your house party: The Hoyas heard the festivities in progress, showed up uninvited, didn't bring their own beverages, didn't introduce themselves to anyone, hovered around the conversational fringe, made it weird, and then committed an inexplicable faux pas before promptly being asked to leave. For John Thompson III's team, the stumble-into-the-glass-table moment came Wednesday at home in a 67-65 loss to DePaul, their 14th of the season. Look, man, we didn't want to say anything -- but you should go.
Xavier [18-10 (8-7), RPI: 22, SOS: 10] One Xavier fan took to Twitter this week to accuse the Watch of "#poorreporting" (at least it's a slight upgrade from "#FAKENEWS," which we appreciate) for failing to mention that the Musketeers' losses at Providence and Marquette last week came without star guard Trevon Bluiett in the lineup. Fair enough. The only problem? Bluiett returned to the floor Wednesday and scored 14 points on 12 shots in a loss at Seton Hall, their fourth-straight defeat (Villanova started the losing streak). Injuries to Bluiett and, more seriously, guard Edmond Sumner have made that stretch especially brutal. Chris Mack's team has a chance to get one back when Butler -- fresh off its super-impressive road win at Nova this week -- visits Sunday. In the meantime, Xavier's seed may be slipping, but it's not in anything like genuine bubble danger yet.
Seton Hall [17-10 (7-8), RPI: 47, SOS: 40] On Feb. 11, Seton Hall lost at St. John's. All hope was not lost. Why? Because the Big East schedule gods saw fit to bestow upon the Pirates three home games in one week, all against variously established tournament teams. Seton Hall concluded that stretch Wednesday with a 2-1 record, sandwiching a loss to Villanova between wins against Creighton and Xavier. As a mini-capsule in the midst of a larger season, that's a clear success. Even so, it will be crucial not to pull a Georgetown this weekend (which, if the Watch had its druthers, will be the widely adopted term for the act of losing to DePaul). The Pirates are nowhere close to safety yet.
Providence [17-11 (7-8), RPI: 54, SOS: 34] Providence is officially making its push. Wednesday's bubble insanity knew no bounds, including and up to Omaha, Nebraska, where the Friars knocked off Creighton 68-66. Beating the Bluejays is big; beating them on the road is bigger. Throw it in the mix with the two wins the Friars grabbed prior to departure -- home victories over Butler and Xavier -- and all of a sudden they've gone from being excluded from this page altogether to being right in the thick of the at-large chase. Not too shabby.
Marquette [17-10 (8-7), RPI: 67, SOS: 70] Marquette handled St. John's at home Tuesday, a nice respite in the midst of a particularly challenging closing slate to the regular season. The Golden Eagles finish with trips to Providence and Xavier, followed by a visit from Creighton. Marquette has more quality wins than most of the bubble at this point, but its jagged RPI and strength-of-schedule numbers -- especially its sub-250 noncon-SOS mark -- could become a disproportionate drag on its resume.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Maryland, Northwestern|
Work left to do: Michigan State, Michigan
Minnesota, a team that won eight games last season, is a lock. The Golden Gophers beat Maryland in College Park on Wednesday, by far the most impressive of a six-game win streak that built out a team sheet that already had highlight wins at Purdue and Northwestern. They also boast top-15 RPI and SOS numbers. The committee may not be sold on the Big Ten by Selection Sunday (it certainly wasn't in its top-16 reveal a few weeks back), and thus Minnesota may not climb the S-Curve all that much higher than a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. But when you look at the actual bubble, it's impossible to imagine them missing the tournament. Meanwhile, at the other end of the Big Ten standings, Indiana is cooked. The Hoosiers made it seven losses in eight games at Iowa on Tuesday. Wins over Kansas and North Carolina aren't enough to make up for a high-90s RPI, 13 losses, a 5-10 league record, or the plain fact that they're playing bad basketball. Barring a three-game burst with a win at Purdue next week, it's oh-vah.
Maryland [22-6 (10-5), RPI: 21, SOS: 44] Maryland isn't far behind Minnesota in the "whoa, this team is a lock?!" discussion. The Terps have fewer top-50 wins, but two more against the top 100, and their RPI and SOS numbers aren't quite at Minnesota's level. We're holding off mostly because Maryland's next two involve Iowa and Rutgers, the only bona fide bad losses the Big Ten has to offer. But it will be fine.
Northwestern [20-8 (9-6), RPI: 42, SOS: 76] Tuesday's 66-50 loss at Illinois wasn't pretty. The Illini scored their 66 points in 65 possessions, which should tell you all you need to know about Northwestern's offense on the day. (Prefer the gory details? Fine. The Wildcats shot 14-of-38 from 2-point range and 4-of-18 from 3. There. Have your deviant needs been met? You're sick. Sick!) Oh well. Northwestern has already tied its school record for wins, and when you're on the cusp of breaking the most ignominious streak in college basketball history -- when you're this close to getting to your program's first-ever NCAA tournament bid -- you heed the immortal words of Craig Finn. You stay positive.
Michigan State [17-11 (9-6), RPI: 43, SOS: 19] Michigan State, in its first game after learning that senior guard Eron Harris had suffered a season-ending injury, suffered none of the ennui you might expect from a team coming off such devastating news. Instead, the Spartans thrashed Nebraska 88-72 in East Lansing, scoring 1.2 points per possession, one of their best offensive performances of the season. Meanwhile, the Spartans committed just nine turnovers in 74 possessions -- a far cry from the league-worst turnover rate (22 percent) they've averaged in Big Ten play. If a low-turnover version of Michigan State comes to the fore, then all of that "never count out Tom Izzo" stuff you'll hear in the next few weeks will have something behind it beyond Izzo's reputation. First, however, the Spartans have to actually get into the tournament, and a home win over Nebraska is no guarantee of such. A home win over Wisconsin on Sunday? Different story.
Michigan [18-10 (8-7), RPI: 52, SOS: 49] It was a close call for Michigan in a 68-64 win at Rutgers on Wednesday. The Wolverines have done a lot to get themselves into the bracket in the past few weeks, and a decent chunk of that work would have been undone with a loss. Now, all John Beilein's team has left is a crack at Purdue in Ann Arbor on Saturday and road games at Northwestern and Nebraska next week. They should be feeling pretty good.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: Nevada|
We're rapidly barreling toward that point where the Watch completely runs out of something new to say about the Mountain West, which actually, you know that thing we just said about "barreling toward"? Check that. We've already arrived.
Nevada [22-6 (11-4), RPI: 40, SOS: 149] Nevada claimed a regular-season sweep over Boise State with Wednesday's 85-77 win, which, if nothing else, makes whatever nascent claim Boise might have had to bubble consideration (and it didn't have much of one) vanish into the ether. Wolf Pack fans, meanwhile, get to enjoy the comforting sight of their team's name in bold letters on the Bracketology page, indicating their projected status (thanks to current conference record) as the Mountain West's lone, automatic bid. Whether an at-large bid will come if Nevada ends up dropping before the Mountain West title game (or even in said title game) remains up in the air.
|Work left to do: USC, California|
Let's resist the temptation to spend an entire paragraph making Chuck Norris jokes about Dillon Brooks and buzzer-beating 3s, and instead just get straight to the Pac-12 bubble. (Our restraint just then was admirable, if we do say so ourselves.)
USC [21-7 (8-7), RPI: 29, SOS: 58] OK. So. Faced with USC's past three games - home vs. Oregon, at UCLA, at Arizona -- the vast majority of college basketball teams, even those planning to go to the NCAA tournament, would expect to lose three in a row. No big deal, right? Fine. Except that USC, as we wrote earlier this week, is perhaps the lone obvious beneficiary of Pac-12 RPI inflation in the 2016-17 season. A year ago, everyone got in on the RPI-gaming act. This season, the Trojans are the only team whose other advanced metrics rankings -- KenPom and BPI, specifically, with USC in the low 60s in both -- make its RPI rank look like a laughable outlier. So you might expect a team with USC's resume, on its own floor (see: Cal), to give Oregon a run. But given the Trojans' per-possession stats in conference play -- they were getting outscored per trip before their 13-point loss in Tucson on Thursday night -- they should lose three straight to good teams. Point is, it's not clear that USC is actually that good. And with Arizona State, Washington State and Washington coming up, USC could find itself back in the bubble fray quickly. There's work to do here, quite literally.
California [18-9 (9-6), RPI: 44, SOS: 29] Losing to Oregon on a last-second, contested, cold-blooded Dillon Brooks 3 is nothing to be ashamed of. The Ducks are really good. Brooks is ruthless. Still, Cal should be devastated about what happened Wednesday night, less because of the result than because of the process that produced it. The Bears had Oregon on the ropes for 36 minutes. They held coach Dana Altman's Ducks to 16 first-half points, and yes, they missed some shots, but Cal's defense might be the league's best and played a significant role in a 14-point halftime lead. Cal led by 15 with 10 minutes to play and by 10 at the 4:15 mark. Seventy-five seconds later, after three straight 3s, Oregon had cut the lead to one. By that point, thanks to careless turnovers against the Ducks' press, Cal's home crowd had already become a nervous wreck. The fact that Cal didn't crumble at that point -- instead hanging in long enough for Golden Bears forward Ivan Rabb to tie it at 65 with 10 seconds to play -- was an impressive mini-turn in its own right.
|Teams that should be in: South Carolina|
Work left to do: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Tennessee
South Carolina [20-8 (10-5), RPI: 30, SOS: 37] South Carolina's trip to Florida on Tuesday was, ostensibly, a chance to bust out of the mini-funk that recently befouled what had been, for most of the season, the SEC's stingiest defense. South Carolina had uncharacteristically yielded more than a point per trip to mediocre competition during a three-game stretch against Mississippi State (win), Arkansas (loss), Vanderbilt (loss). Gainesville offered no such reprieve. The Gators' passing was as sharp as ever, they created one easy basket after another and finished with 81 points in 70 possessions. The issue for South Carolina isn't that it will miss the tournament; it arrived at February with a resume solid enough to withstand struggles like these. The issue is that if it doesn't guard to its early standards, its stay in the bracket won't last very long.
Arkansas [21-7 (10-5), RPI: 34, SOS: 71] Say what you want about the gap between the Razorbacks' RPI/NCAA tournament profile and their less-flattering rank in per performance-driven metrics like BPI, they have won four in a row after this week's solid home victory over Texas A&M. What's more, they're giving Kentucky a real run for the top per-trip offense in the conference. Mike Anderson's team needs to avoid anything crazy down the stretch, but its spot is starting to look a bit more secure.
Vanderbilt [15-13 (8-7), RPI: 46, SOS: 2] If nothing else, Vanderbilt's win in Knoxville on Wednesday helped dent Tennessee's resume, with the upshot that the Commodores -- who, as of today, sit one spot behind UT on Joe Lunardi's S-curve -- stand to benefit from a swap. Meanwhile, the Dores arguably have the better win of the two, a road win at Florida on Jan. 21. Throw in that schedule strength, and you can see the committee taking a really serious look at Vandy in a way that would have seemed silly even 10 days ago.
Tennessee [15-13 (7-8), RPI: 63, SOS: 8] A home loss to Vanderbilt? Not what the doctor ordered. The Commodores are already making their own little bubble push in their first year under Bryce Drew; you don't want to help them, least of all at your own expense. Meanwhile, the Vols' loss Wednesday moved them to 15-13 overall just before a road trip to South Carolina. The Gamecocks may not be the fearsome force they were a month or so ago, but they're still a better team than UT. Ending the weekend 15-14 is the most likely outcome. There are still two games left before the SEC tournament begins, and Tennessee's RPI number isn't nearly as flattering as its schedule, and its win over Kentucky (and, maybe, a January win at Vandy) is pretty much the Vols' entire pitch. It's getting dicey.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Middle Tennessee, UT Arlington, Illinois State, Wichita State|
After Saint Mary's 78-49 win at Pepperdine on Thursday -- delayed by a lighting outage, or by spirits expressing distaste with the sheer viciousness of Gonzaga's 96-38 win at San Diego -- the Gaels are a lock. Worst case, they lose to Santa Clara on Saturday and once more in the WCC tournament; they're still getting in. Instead of dwelling on that obvious move, let's toss a special Bubble Watch shout-out to Princeton, shall we? The Tigers are the class of the Ivy League: In advance of Friday night's visit to Columbia, the first of four remaining regular-season games, Princeton is 10-0 and two games in front of Harvard. Which would, in any other season in the Ivy League's long athletics history, give the College of New Jersey overwhelming odds of winning the regular-season title and, thus, the league's automatic bid. But! The 2016-17 season is different: This year, for the first time ever, the Ivy League will finish its season with a four-team conference tournament, which means the Tigers will be subject to the same fateful whims faced by every other mid-major regular-season conference champion in the sport. Princeton's resume is in the mid-50s, and they're the only top-100 Ivy League team in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings (in the high-60s, as of Tuesday night). They can clearly play. But just one top-100 win and just four top-150 wins mean they're unlikely to get much at-large notice from the committee if something goes awry in the next couple of weeks. The Watch has long been a proponent of awarding the automatic bid to regular-season champions, because sample size is kind of a thing. The Ivy League was the last holdout. Alas, all is lost.
Middle Tennessee [24-4 (14-1), RPI: 32, SOS: 125] Middle Tennessee moved to 14-1 in its league with a 97-86 win at Marshall on Saturday. No one is cheering harder for the nascent bubble push Vanderbilt may or may not be making in SEC play; the Commodores represent one of this team's best wins of the season. If the Blue Raiders win out in the regular season, we'll feel fairly confident the committee won't leave them out if they can't cement their C-USA dominance in the conference tournament in March. (Then again, you never know.)
UT Arlington [21-6 (11-3), RPI: 33, SOS: 135] The Mavericks held on for dear life in a 68-67 win at Georgia State on Saturday, then responded with a more resounding display in Monday's 10-point win at Georgia Southern. Both of those teams -- RPI-wise, anyway -- represent the best of the Sun Belt, outside of Arkansas State and UT Arlington itself, and getting out of the trip 2-0 is a tidy little feat. Meanwhile, that win at Saint Mary's keeps looking better and better.
Illinois State [24-5 (16-1), RPI: 35, SOS: 160] While Wichita State continues its recent trend of obliterating everything the Valley tosses before its gaping maw, Illinois State is nipping and tucking its way into win after win. Wednesday's four-point home win over Southern Illinois was the third narrow victory ISU nabbed in the past week. With the possible exception of schedule strength and RPI, there's nothing about Illinois State's resume that isn't present in Wichita -- and being backed up by much more convincing performances on the floor.
Wichita State [26-4 (16-1), RPI: 45, SOS: 210] The selection committee's gradual, reluctant, but ultimately growing familiarity with statistical systems not named the RPI might be the Shockers' saving grace. There were hints that was the case last year -- which was hilarious, because Wichita State was still laughably underseeded as a First-Four-relegated 11 -- and the Shockers' continuing late-season dominance, and corresponding analytical climb, could make them much more difficult to ignore than a team with two top-100 wins otherwise would be. We're honestly not sure. If it was up to us, they'd be in without much issue. But last year's team was probably better, and the committee barely snuck them in the field at all. Who knows.