College Basketball Bubble Watch
The annual rite of March: widespread bubble misunderstanding
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Thursday. RPI and SOS numbers will update in the morning.
CHICAGO -- It is the season for a lot of things -- the gross wet cross between winter and spring, taxes, calling in "sick" to watch college basketball -- but it's hard to type my favorite annual rite of March: widespread bubble misunderstanding.
It never fails. We spend six weeks trying to understand this stuff, to cull some reasonable order from the chaos that is the NCAA tournament selection process, and as soon as conference tournament weekend starts, all of a sudden it's like our predictable, staid rules no longer apply. All bets are off.
Which brings us, of course, to Minnesota.
After the Golden Gophers' buzzer-beating loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday afternoon -- a game they began with an utterly horrific first half -- one didn't have to search hard for analysts suddenly proclaiming Minnesota was done. You may have heard this or read it. Even at the Big Ten tournament, the media room was abuzz with bubble intrigue: Were the Gophers out? They were 8-10 in Big Ten, 5-7 in their last 12 and 5-10 since a 15-1 start vaulted them inside the top 10. Hadn't this team misspent its chance?
No! Look: The Gophers are no one's idea of a fearsome team. They turn the ball over far too much. They don't defend particularly well. Even the most ardent Minnesota fan (heck, even Tubby Smith) would admit this group has squandered its talent and experience and a totally promising start to the season with six weeks of mediocrity, and there are no easy answers for why.
But despite all that, the Gophers are still likely to get in the NCAA tournament because they're still OK based on the metrics that really matter. They played the second-ranked schedule in the country and the 12th-ranked nonconference slate. They have a top-25 RPI, which is historically a near-guarantee of NCAA tournament selection. They have some variously impressive wins on their ledger (Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Memphis and at Illinois).
Those formal criteria more often correlate to tournament selection, and the criteria you often hear bandied about are typically outdated emphases. So, no, conference record isn't a deciding factor. Neither is recency. The final 12 games don't matter more than the first 12, and no, there are no bonus points awarded (or subtracted) for conference tournament wins. Advanced efficiency numbers -- including ESPN's own BPI -- might be considered in the committee room, but they are far less important than the NCAA's own RPI, which underpins the entire organization of its infamous nitty-gritty team sheets.
Because it always eventually becomes a subjective exercise, the NCAA's selection criteria can be hard to pin down. This is the root cause of the confusion. But the confusion is also self-imposed: Our brains are wired to suffer from the recency effect, and besides that, we want single-elimination March games to mean more than just 1/30th of a season. We want clear, black and white implications. We crave narrative. Win and you're in. Lose and you're out.
It is rarely this simple, and so the misinformation spreads.
Fortunately, Bubble Watch is here, ready to help guide you through the next three-plus days, which promise to be intense. And remember, kids: Only you can fight the spread of bubble misinformation.
Now back to your regularly scheduled program.