College Basketball Bubble Watch
Bubble Watch: Who can use Champ Week to secure a bid?
Editor's note: This file will be updated continually during Champ Week. Also, the "work left to do" category encompasses all teams who are truly on the bubble, regardless of whether they are still alive in their respective conference tournament.
No sane human being would argue Champ Week is better than the week it precedes.
Of course it isn't. The NCAA tournament is the NCAA tournament, and the first week of the NCAA tournament is the NCAA tournament on horse steroids. It is the grandaddy of sports weeks. Of all weeks, period. The best possible comparison is a really well-planned honeymoon in an exotic, fascinating locale, but the difference is you get to do the first week of the NCAA tournament every single year.
It is not to be messed with, challenged, or disrespected by comparison. It is to be treated with reverence and awe. Every now and then, you might hear a friend or a colleague casually say, "You know what, I think I might like Champ Week better than the first weekend of the tournament," and dude, just, no. Stop.
Having said that ... Champ Week isn't that far off.
Champ Week is March Madness on training wheels. There are games in the middle of the day, allowing you to optimize and risk-assess various viewing strategies in your office/classroom/surgery unit/cockpit. There are single-elimination stakes, entire seasons and careers on the line, allowing you to gird yourself for the vaguely bittersweet feels to come. Does Champ Week engender the same unrestrained childlike glee as riding a bike without training wheels for the first time? No. But it's still pretty cool to be a kid with a bike.
Nowhere is the charm and drama of Champ Week felt more acutely than in Bubbleville. For a month, we've been obsessively tracking the state of the 2017 NCAA tournament bracket, and thus the state of the sport in general, while spending an amount of time we try not to think about tracking the desperate teams on the razor's edge of the field.
Champ Week is when this quirky, wordy little feature reaches its crescendo. So, as is tradition, the Bubble Watch page has transformed into a living document. From now until the field is revealed on Selection Sunday, around the clock, every meaningful college hoops result will be followed by a live update in this space. (And probably also a dumb metaphor, a bad joke, or a typo. Or all three.)
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
To send along your own bubble thoughts, or just thoughts about life in general, tweet @eamonnbrennan. Try to be cool. But not, like, too cool. Just be yourself, you know?
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Wake Forest, Syracuse|
Notre Dame, five. Virginia, four. Virginia Tech, one. Florida State, two. Duke, two. Miami, six. Virginia Tech, one, again. North Carolina, three, overtime. As any Clemson fan already knows, the above is a list of the 2016-17 Tigers' losses, the opponents and the margins therein. It is by no means exhaustive. It is, however, exhausting. All year, Clemson has played good teams to near draws; all year, it has failed to secure results. As coach Brad Brownell pointed out to reporters this week, his team is ranked dead last in Division I (!) in opponents' free throw percentage, a fluky stat completely out of any team's control. It's a bummer. Yet Wednesday also showcased a team with really questionable late shot selection, one that, had it been a little tighter down the stretch, might have seized the moment against a Duke team doing its best to give the game away. The Tigers ended the regular season getting outscored per-trip against league opposition by a fair margin. So don't feel too bad. Wake and Syracuse also lost in Brooklyn Wednesday, drawing the 2016-17 ACC bubble saga to an unofficial close. Why unofficial? Because Wake Forest and Syracuse are still on the bubble, and could move in the coming days based on what happens elsewhere in the country -- a process they will observe from the couch. Ouch.
Wake Forest [19-13 (9-9), RPI: 38, SOS: 21] Wake Forest's year-long dilemma was yet again in evidence in Wednesday's loss to Virginia Tech: The Demon Deacons can sure score it, but man do they struggle on the other end. Typically, when you put up 90 points in 73 possessions on a neutral floor, you have every reason to expect a win. Wake managed to do just that ... and still lose by nine. The Hokies averaged 1.36 (!!) per possession Wednesday night. They scored 62 points in the second half alone. Yeesh. The point is, Wake would be a fun team to have in the tournament, because teams that play fast, score a bunch of points, and don't guard anyone are almost always fun, even in a random First Four game. Will Wake get there? It's up in the air. Our guess would be yes. There's still plenty of basketball to be played before Sunday, and the Deacs won't have much of a say in what happens next.
Syracuse [18-14 (10-8), RPI: 84, SOS: 63] Syracuse went one-and-done in the ACC tournament, losing Wednesday's No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup with Miami. That leaves the Orange -- or at least Orange fans -- in an unenviable position. There are few forms of hoops torture so exquisite as the anxiety of being on the bubble but out of action during Champ Week, helpless to decide your own fate. As of now, we still think the Cuse are more likely than not to get in, having done enough down the back half of their season, in a loaded ACC, to counteract early struggles against UConn, St. John's and Boston College. An 18-14 record and ugly RPI and nonconference schedule numbers remain a concern, but the biggest worry now is what will happen elsewhere on the bubble -- whether (and how many) teams will show up in the coming days and earn wins that propel up the bubble and past Jim Boeheim's team. All there is to do now is wait, and hope.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Work left to do: Kansas State|
It was fun while it lasted, TCU. The Horned Frogs' win over Kansas on Thursday breathed new life into an at-large case that had been suffocated by a seven-game losing streak to end the regular season. To keep breathing, though, TCU needed another upset over Iowa State on Friday. It got routed by 21 points instead. Oh well. This program was a nonentity under former coach Trent Johnson. In less than a year, Jamie Dixon got it to the cusp of the NCAA tournament -- and got one of the best wins in school history in the process. It's hard to see that as anything but a success. Kansas State, meanwhile, marked the close of Big 12 bubble business with Friday's 51-50 near miss to West Virginia. Will this league get 70 percent of its teams in the field? We'll find out soon enough.
Kansas State [20-13 (8-10), RPI: 55, SOS: 43] Did Kansas State do enough to get in? We'd guess yes. The Wildcats' win over Baylor on Thursday is the biggest point in favor of this inclination, giving the Wildcats their second triumph over the Bears (the first of which came in Waco) and either their third or fourth marquee win, depending on how you classify Oklahoma State. (Just a reminder: Oklahoma State is really good.) Of course, coach Bruce Weber very much would have preferred that the Wildcats seized the opportunity they created Friday, when they led West Virginia for much of the game before falling 51-50. Had the result gone the other way, it might have punched their ticket. But, hey, at least they played well. One night after knocking off a potential No. 2 seed, K-State looked more than capable against a likely No. 4. Of course, as easy as it is to forget, there's more to tourney selection than how you're playing right now. K-State's entire resume -- 13 losses, 8-10 Big 12 regular-season record, a nonconference schedule in the 230s and just six top-100 wins in 17 tries, and so on -- is why the Wildcats are so close to the bubble in the first place. The point is, if the committee liked them Friday morning, they should still like them on Sunday. We'll see.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Xavier, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette|
On Thursday, we celebrated the return of the prodigal Musketeers; on Friday, we lamented the end of Big East bubble action. Seton Hall's narrow loss to Villanova and Xavier's somehow-even-narrower loss at the hands of Creighton took the Big East's last two hopefuls out of the mix. This farewell is fond: With the possible exception of the ACC, no league in the past month has offered as much night-to-night at-large jockeying as this one. There's a not-insignificant chance all four of these teams will share the same seed in the NCAA tournament. That never happens! From Seton Hall and Providence's furious runs toward the bracket to Marquette's incredible offensive bursts to Xavier's disastrous slide and last-minute redemption, the 2016-17 Big East bubble has been exciting, unpredictable and tons of fun.
Xavier [21-13 (9-9), RPI: 36, SOS: 17] Xavier's postseason reclamation project, defined by Thursday's win over Butler, very nearly took it to the Big East title game. Then Creighton guard Marcus Foster buried a well-defended 3 on the wing to break a 72-all tie with 6.9 seconds left; J.P. Macura's deep desperation heave fell short; and that was that. Tough loss? Sure. A problem? We doubt it. This is where the committee's eye test should play a role, combining Thursday's successful result with the human ability to acknowledge the first 39 minutes and 54 seconds of Friday's almost equally impressive performance. Xavier's resume is tournament-worthy and has been for a while. Its main issue is the comparative implications of the post-Edmond Sumner-injury form it displayed in recent weeks and how far that descent would go. On two straight nights, the Musketeers acquitted themselves well. One of those outings just so happened to end with a loss. Oh well.
Seton Hall [21-11 (10-8), RPI: 45, SOS: 51] Villanova coach Jay Wright said, more or less, that he thought his team had been outplayed in its 55-53 win over Seton Hall. The Pirates should take it as a compliment because very few teams have been able to stymie Villanova's relentless four-out attack; they held the Wildcats to just 55 points in 59 trips. The performance was yet another reminder, one the selection committee no doubt absorbed, of why Seton Hall has played itself into good shape in the final stretch of the season.
Providence [20-12 (10-8), RPI: 54, SOS: 50] With less than a minute to play against Creighton Thursday night, with his team trailing by eight, Providence guard Rodney Bullock airballed a 3 from the wing. It was desperation mode at that point, sure, but mostly the Friars just looked tired. Understandably so: Few teams spent February changing their postseason fate more decisively than this one. On Feb. 8, Ed Cooley's team dropped a two-point decision at Seton Hall. They were 14-11 overall and 4-8 in the Big East and miles away from the bubble. Their next three games were wins over Butler, Xavier, and Creighton (at Creighton), followed by three more over Marquette, DePaul and St. John's (at St. John's). The swing was so drastic that by the time Bullock threw up that contested prayer Thursday night, it almost didn't matter; the work had already been done. A win might have sealed this thing, sure, and we'll see how the rest of the bubble shakes out, but it's hard to imagine Providence missing out -- which was itself hard to imagine a month ago.
Marquette [19-12 (10-8), RPI: 59, SOS: 57] The Golden Eagles will enter Selection Sunday feeling a little bit more nervous than Seton Hall, their Thursday conquerors, but only a little bit. A swatch of top-50 wins and a positive conference record are rarities on this bubble; Marquette has both. A double-digit seed seems likely, but so does a spot in the tournament. There are worse fates.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Michigan State|
Indiana didn't start Friday on the bubble in any concrete way, even after its blowout win over Iowa on Thursday. The Hoosiers needed a win over Wisconsin to improve their resume and extend their season and maybe get back into the conversation. Instead, this season's most disappointing team hung around against the Badgers just long enough to remind everyone why a team that beat Kansas and North Carolina in November had fallen so far away from the tournament in the first place. And with that, the Big Ten's direct potential influence on the bubble ended. Barring a crazy surprise (re: Illinois), this is a seven-bid league. (Update: Illinois fired its coach, John Groce, on Saturday. We probably should have taken them off the page earlier anyway ... but this makes it official.)
Michigan State [19-14 (10-8), RPI: 49, SOS: 10] With 78 points in Thursday's win over Penn State, the Spartans looked more like the team that blitzed Nebraska and Wisconsin in late February than the one that struggled at Illinois and Maryland in the first week of March. There were still turnovers, but to paraphrase El Presidente from the "Tropico" games, there will always be turnovers. If the Spartans are moving well and getting efficient, balanced scoring efforts, they can overcome the flaws (turnovers, offensive rebounding) that have kept them from being much more than mediocre for so much of the season. The stylistic details and what they mean in March are probably the most interesting thing about MSU moving forward. Tom Izzo's team is just close enough to the bubble that a lock feels like a reach, but the matter of an at-large bid doesn't offer much intrigue at the moment.
|Work left to do: USC|
Friday night's loss to Oregon will just about do it for Cal. The Bears' sixth loss in their final nine games marks the end of a slide that saw them go from somewhere around a 10- or 11-seed -- hardly safe, but at the very least in the bracket -- to the fringe of the bubble and beyond. The fulcrum of this fall came on Feb. 22, when the Bears led the Ducks by 13 points with nine minutes to play in Berkeley. They squandered that lead, lost on a ruthless Dillon Brooks buzzer-beater, and were never that close to a resume-defining win again. Friday night's reprise wasn't nearly as dramatic -- Oregon led for most of the game, after all -- but Cal hung in just long enough for the Ducks' 73-65 win to feel like yet another unrealized opportunity. The Bears are out of the picture now; only USC, still on the bubble but finished on the floor, remains.
USC [24-9 (10-8), RPI: 42, SOS: 78] At the very least, USC looked good Thursday night. That's a difficult thing to quantify, of course, as any "eye test" must be. That's why the "eye test" is such a frustrating concept, even when it makes intuitive sense. It did for the Trojans in the Pac-12 quarters, when Andy Enfield's team erased a double-digit second half deficit and had a chance to cut the lead to one on a crucial possession in the closing seconds, a bunny putback that forward Elijah Stewart just plum missed. For a team with few quality wins, none away from home, and advanced metrics measurements (like BPI and adjusted efficiency) far more skeptical than the RPI, playing well against a potential No. 2 seed is the next-best outcome to a win. Southern Cal entered the day on Joe Lunardi's last four in; now that they're done playing, they're left to the mercy of the rest of the bubble, a significant portion of which remains active on Friday. It'll be a tense few days, to say the least.
|Teams that should be in: Vanderbilt|
By Friday night, the back end of the bubble was largely vacant. Cal, Indiana, TCU and Houston -- all long shots needing wins to stay on the fringe -- went home. Alabama, a team that spent some time on the bubble in February, had a genuine chance to get into that range with a win over Kentucky on Saturday afternoon. It didn't happen. This remains Vanderbilt's show, and the Commodores might be in already.
Vanderbilt [19-15 (10-8), RPI: 40, SOS: 1] It's official: 15 losses. It's a fact: No team with 15 losses has ever received an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Yet Vanderbilt seems, well, safe. How did we get here? On Jan. 17, the Commodores were 8-10. On Jan 21, they won at Florida. In the next six weeks, they would win nine of their last 13 in the regular season, add two more in the SEC tournament and beat Florida two more times in the process. It's been a stunning turnaround, to be sure, but that narrative -- the midseason revelation and sudden redemptive run -- is a little too simple. Of the 10 losses Vanderbilt carried into late January, none were too bad. Indeed, the only bona fide bad loss of this season came in February (at Missouri). Truth is, Vandy played a really tough nonconference schedule. They took losses along the way. They've also gotten better. And the bubble around them -- with its dearth of teams from outside the mid-major leagues, and shallow efforts from the Mountain West, American, and A-10 -- has made a team with good wins, good schedule strength and a historic number of losses look reasonable. What will be the losingest at-large team in tournament history can go to bed Saturday night feeling comfortable about its chances. It's crazy, but here we are.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Illinois State|
The Watch has a soft spot for the others. We don't hide it. It isn't easy to be a mid-major bubble team, besieged by bad losses and "who have they beaten?" criticism at every turn, clinging for dear life while mediocre high-major teams get crack after crack against future top-four seeds. Saturday afternoon, UT Arlington -- the only team not named Gonzaga to beat Saint Mary's this season -- went off the board with a 21-point loss to Texas State. That one hurt. Saturday night, thankfully, Middle Tennessee had our back. The Blue Raiders may have ended up in the NCAA tournament even with a loss to Marshall in the C-USA final; they would have been 29-5 with wins over two (likely) tournament teams (UNC Wilmington and Vanderbilt), with road wins at Ole Miss and Belmont also in the top 100. It would have been reasonable. It also would have been close. Instead, Middle resisted the distraction offered by Marshall coach Dan D'Antoni's tremendous aging-rocker swag (Saturday's sideline look: dark brown blazer, black Marshall T-shirt) long enough to secure the automatic bid -- and save the rest of the bubble from the prospect of bid thievery. Good on 'em.
Illinois State [27-6 (17-1), RPI: 35, SOS: 158] Illinois State was Arch Madness's top seed thanks to a 17-1 record in conference play (and a tiebreak over fellow 17-1 Wichita State); combined the Shockers and Redbirds were 36-0 against the rest of the Valley this season. Going 1-2 against the Shockers is hardly a crime. On the surface, it might be tempting to argue as vociferously for ISU as we would have for Wichita State. Sunday's result was Wichita's third top-100 win; ISU has two; the RPI and schedule numbers are a comparative wash; and so on. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as easy to make ISU's case. One key difference is bad losses. Wichita State has nothing outside the top 50; Illinois State lost on a neutral floor to San Fransisco and at Tulsa and Murray State in the nonconference. The BPI ranks the Redbirds in the high 50s (with a mid-40s strength of record rank), KenPom.com in high 50s. The committee probably doesn't care about that stuff, but the point is that -- even if you think Dan Muller's team is tourney-worth, and we do -- there's no overwhelming analytics-based argument we can marshall to ISU's defense. Illinois State is still sitting at home hoping bubble teams lose and (or?) the committee grants them its mercy. That's the best it can do right now.