College Basketball Bubble Watch

Updated: February 23, 2017, 9:34 PM ET
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com


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.