Editor's note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through the games of Saturday.
We know that Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU are the three best teams in the SEC, we just don't know in what order. The Wildcats have muddied the picture by losing at home to the Tigers in the last second of the game but then beating the Volunteers by 17 at Rupp just four nights later.
The one thing we do know, however, is that collectively Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU form one of the strongest trios the league has seen in a long time. In fact, these are the best of times for SEC hoops.
For starters, the conference is poised to make its biggest splash on the top four seed lines of the NCAA tournament bracket in 17 years. Consider Joe Lunardi's projected bracket.
Lunardi has Tennessee as a No. 1 seed, Kentucky as a No. 2 and LSU on the No. 4 line. If those seeds hold on Selection Sunday, it will mark the SEC's best showing at the top of the bracket since 2002.
The actual bracket is still a month away from being released, of course, but current projections reveal the extent to which the SEC may be rising while other major conferences are in danger of taking a step back.
True, the ACC and Big Ten look about the same as last season in terms of throwing their top-four-seed weight around. But what appears likely is that the SEC's rise in this category is being fueled by significant year-to-year declines recorded by both the Big 12 and the Big East.
Here's how we're projecting the bubble right now:
Bids from traditional "one-bid" leagues: 23 teams
Locks: 17 teams
The bubble: 34 teams for 28 available spots
Should be in: 13 teams
Work to do: 21 teams
Should be in
Virginia Tech's conference opponents are attempting a truly historic number of 3s. Meaning in the history of major-conference play dating back over the last decade and beyond, we've never seen a defense allow this many 3-point attempts. To be sure, this hasn't prevented the Hokies' D from clocking in right at the league average for points allowed per possession. Still, if this potential No. 5 seed is paired with a perimeter-oriented opponent in a March bracket (Villanova?), be aware that the potential exists for opponent-induced 3-point mayhem.
(Updated: Feb. 14)
With wins over not only Purdue and LSU but also Louisville, those mid-January losses at Boston College and at Pittsburgh actually loom a bit larger. Indeed, at the time, it seemed like the whole season might go sideways for Leonard Hamilton's men. Instead, those losses are now looking more and more like underachievement from a team whose other defeats came at the hands of Villanova, Virginia and Duke. Florida State's now won seven straight and is cruising toward a No. 6 seed (if not better) with the league's best 2-point FG defense in ACC play. (Updated: Feb. 16)
It's not easy winning road games in the ACC, certainly, but the concern for Syracuse goes beyond a 15-point loss at NC State. The concern is that Jim Boeheim's group, never presumed to be a high-powered offense, is scoring at a rate that's low by even the most modest expectations. In the past three outings, Oshae Brissett, Tyus Battle and their teammates have produced just 0.89 points per possession. Scoring from beyond the arc has been in particularly short supply, and Syracuse has given the ball away on 21 percent of its possessions in those games. To recap, this is a team nominally in line for a No. 8 or 9 seed but one that's also in a scoring slump as it prepares to host Louisville and Duke at the Carrier Dome. There's a lot on the line for the Orange in the coming days. (Updated: Feb. 13)
Work to do
Bubble Watch is on the record as hyping the importance of NC State's current two-game swing. Well, halfway into said swing, Kevin Keatts' men are taking care of business. The Wolfpack beat Syracuse 73-58 in Raleigh, giving this group what could (depending what Clemson does) turn out to be its first win over an eventual NCAA tournament team since it defeated Auburn back in December. Now comes the mother of all ACC opportunities: Duke in Cameron Indoor. Torin Dorn and his teammates are being projected as a No. 9 or 10 seed, but needless to say, a win in Durham this weekend could alter that expectation. (Updated: Feb. 13)
Brad Brownell's team has announced its arrival in Bubble Watch -- with back-to-back, one-point losses. That can happen. Bubble Watch, like the committee itself, takes the long, whole-season view, and losing consecutive nail-biters at Miami and at Louisville is not in itself a deal-breaker. At 5-7 in ACC play but with an eight-point win over Virginia Tech at Littlejohn Coliseum serving as this team's headline statement, the Tigers are projected as a No. 10 or 11 seed. Then again, the loss at the hand of the Hurricanes was Clemson's third Quad 2 defeat of the season. In sum, a 5-7 conference record in mid-February does raise the stakes for looming home dates against Florida State and North Carolina, not to mention upcoming road games against the Quad 2 likes of Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.(Updated: Feb. 16)
Should be in
The loss at home to TCU was not only surprising, it reduced Iowa State's chances of winning a share of the Big 12 title. In terms of NCAA seeding impact, however, a single defeat at the hands of (one presumes) another at-large team, even at home, isn't going to move the needle all that much. Falling to the Horned Frogs represented the Cyclones' second Quad 2 loss of the season, but Wisconsin also made its way to the No. 4 line in the bracket preview and the Badgers had already lost two Quad 2 games. This isn't a deal-breaker for ISU, just as long as the Clones don't get it into their heads to keep doing this kind of thing. (Updated: Feb. 9)
It is time to ponder whether the team that might (repeat, might) end the incredible 14-year streak of Kansas conference titles might not also be a threat for a really nice seed. One thing we know already is that Kansas State is making opponents uncomfortable. For a second consecutive season, the Wildcats lead the Big 12 in opponent turnover percentage in conference play. That might sound like the mark of a team that's pressing full court and trying to speed up the tempo, but Bruce Weber's guys actually play at the slowest pace in the league. Most importantly, that strategy is working. Kansas State is a projected No. 6 seed right now, but that might not be the end of the story. (Updated: Feb. 12)
Work to do
Scott Drew's team is still struggling to get healthy and whole. King McClure has now missed three straight games due to an ailing knee, and Makai Mason has been in and out of action while struggling with a toe issue. Both players missed the Bears' 86-61 loss at Texas Tech. Devonte Bandoo has done some heroic work in February trying to fill the absence of two starters with 3-pointers, but a 25-point defeat in Lubbock suggests Drew needs McClure and Mason back sooner rather than later. The population of teams in a strong Big 12 that can beat a shorthanded version of a projected No. 8 seed such as Baylor is fairly large. (Updated: Feb. 16)
In a Big 12 that's hardly lacking for good defense, TCU is trending toward being the exception to that rule. Indeed, among the league's eight teams that are playing for NCAA tournament position, the Horned Frogs are the outlier on D, allowing 1.08 points per possession in conference play. That's not an outlandish figure, but TCU's interior defense in particular is looking shaky. The Big 12 has converted 54 percent of its 2-pointers against the Frogs, and in Oklahoma's nine-point win in Fort Worth, Kristian Doolittle lit up Jamie Dixon's guys to the tune of 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting inside the arc. If TCU does land around the No. 8 line as expected, a top seed could find the paint to its liking on offense in the round of 32. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Call it luck, karma or toughness in crunch time, but Texas looks stronger statistically than your ordinary 7-6 Big 12 team. Those six losses, by the way, have come by a combined 27 points. The Longhorns are expected to draw something in the neighborhood of a No. 9 seed, and this group could definitely give a top seed a game in the round of 32. With a neutral-floor win over North Carolina to their credit (not to mention wins at home over Purdue and Kansas), Shaka Smart's men make up possibly the most dangerous 15-11 team you've ever seen. Yes, that's a non sequitur. Sometimes those are true. (Updated: Feb. 16)
To this point in 2019 calendar year, OU has defeated one at-large-quality opponent, and now the Sooners have done so twice this season. In earning the season sweep over TCU, Lon Kruger's men looked more impressive than they have at any point in the conference season. Oklahoma threw a stingy zone defense at the Horned Frogs in Schollmaier Arena, and the visitors cruised to a 71-62 win. OU is still very much in double-digit seed territory (this is, after all, a team that's 4-9 in the Big 12 and 16-10 overall), but for the first time in a long time, the Sooners look capable of playing in a manner that will keep them in the bracket. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Should be in: Villanova
Work to do: St. John's, Seton Hall, Butler
Should be in
Few coaches talk a better woe-are-we game than Jay Wright. By that, of course, Bubble Watch refers to the art of talking like you or your team isn't very good even though you or your team is in fact very good. The coach who has won two of the past three national titles has been at it again this month ("We're not a great team. We're just trying to keep getting better"), and it's true that this group of Wildcats is no match for what we saw a year ago. Nevertheless, presumptive 2019 No. 5 seed Villanova is doing highly impressive and indeed game-changing work in the area of shot volume. In particular, the Wildcat program can boast a ridiculously low, league-leading turnover percentage in Big East play for a second consecutive season. Listen to what Wright says but also watch what his team does. (Updated: Feb. 13)
Work to do
"Welcome back to another episode of 'We swept Marquette.' We're your hosts, the St. John's Red Storm. We just won a home game against Butler, 77-73 in overtime. John Gasaway would probably say that's not that big a deal, but losing certainly would have been. Now we're up to .500 in Big East play, showing up in the mock brackets as a No. 9 seed and getting ready to host Villanova at the Garden this weekend. Sounds like we could be moving up to 'should be in' very soon. Join us again next time, and remember: We swept Marquette." (Updated: Feb. 12)
Myles Powell was apparently tired of Markus Howard getting all the attention for high-volume scoring in the Big East. The junior went off for 30 points, punctuated by 10-of-10 shooting at the line, as Seton Hall cruised past Georgetown 90-75 in Newark. Just two weeks removed from a four-game losing streak, the Pirates are back to .500 in conference play, thanks to victories at home over Creighton and the Hoyas. That said, no team projected as a No. 12 seed can feel too comfortable, and this weekend's game against the Bluejays in Omaha could be tougher than it looks. Greg McDermott's team carries a 4-8 record in the Big East, but three of those losses came in overtime. (Updated: Feb. 13)
At 6-7 in Big East play and with its marquee win being a neutral-floor victory over Florida, Butler badly needs to upgrade its profile. The Bulldogs have road games remaining at Marquette and Villanova, and a win in at least one of those contests is now looking more or less essential for a team listed as "first four out" by Lunardi. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Should be in
Life is brutal at the top of the Big Ten. Ethan Happ has scored 38 points and pulled down 23 rebounds in the past two games, and all that got Wisconsin was losses to Michigan and Michigan State. Nick Ward was particularly effective on Happ for the Spartans, forcing the Badgers senior into six turnovers and making him take 20 shots to get his 20 points. Now Greg Gard's team, which is 0-2 since it was tapped as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA's bracket preview, gets a welcome six days of rest before returning to the court at home against Illinois. (Updated: Feb. 12)
If you've watched Maryland this season, you've likely been told this is one of the youngest teams in the country. That is indeed correct, and it helps explain both how good this team is and how great it could become. As one would expect from a youthful group, the Terrapins have suffered from an exceedingly large turnover disparity in Big Ten play. Take turnovers out of that equation, however, and Bruno Fernando, Anthony Cowan and company can play with, literally, anyone. In the Terps' 13-point loss at Michigan, for example, this young team that's a presumed No. 6 seed actually came close (1.08 points per no-turnover possession) to matching the Wolverines (1.10) on turnover-neutral scoring. The fact that Maryland committed 16 turnovers and U-M had just six, however, translated into a double-digit margin of defeat. (Updated Feb. 16)
If you're not watching Iowa, you're missing hands-down the most entertaining team in the nation, world, you name it. Not content to merely beat Northwestern with a last-second 3 by Jordan Bohannon in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes took their cardiac-kids routine to Rutgers. This time it was Joe Wieskamp who hit the last second game-winner off of a deflected full-court baseball pass, with the added kicker that it was a corner 3 that actually grazed the backboard. (Are you not entertained?) It's two wins, regardless of how Iowa happened to get it done. Fran McCaffery's men are 20-5 and heading toward a potential No. 6 seed. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Work to do
A 63-56 loss at home to Illinois constitutes a Quad 3 defeat for Ohio State, the team's first such setback. In other words, the game is literally the Buckeyes' worst loss of the season in profile terms. Then again, Baylor's walking around whistling a happy tune in the brackets as a projected No. 8 seed even though the Bears have suffered two Quad 4 losses. Meaning the worry for OSU isn't necessarily the loss itself, one that this team's profile can well absorb. (Yet another reason why that win at Cincinnati is so valuable.) Rather, the concern is whether the outcome marks a new turn for the worse in performance. (Updated: Feb. 15)
When last we checked in on the Gophers, Bubble Watch had this to say: "Minnesota is a 6-8 Big Ten team being shown as a No. 11 seed in mid-February. Everything in that sentence fairly screams, 'Win some games.'" The good news for Richard Pitino's men is that they are now a 7-8 Big Ten team being shown as a No. 11 seed after they thrashed Indiana 84-63 at Williams Arena. Now the table is set for the big one: Michigan is coming to the Twin Cities, and a win there, paired with the road victory the Gophers already recorded at Wisconsin, would push this team a long way toward "should be in" status. (Updated: Feb. 16)
You're wondering why an Indiana team that's 4-10 in the Big Ten and has lost 10 of its past 11 is still here after losing by 21 on the road to a Minnesota team that is itself kind of bubbly. That's easy. The Hoosiers are here because they started that game as proud members of a number of reputable mock brackets. IU was able to attain that status, of course, because that 11th game in the recent stretch was, incredibly, a win at Michigan State. Pair that with victories against Marquette and Louisville and you have a profile that could get you in the field of 68 if Indiana decides to start winning games. But, right now, the Hoosiers really don't look like they're going to decide to start winning games.(Updated: Feb. 16)
Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State
Should be in
Mike Hopkins' men will likely reach Selection Sunday showing a road victory at Oregon as their best win. That may not sound particularly impressive, but this is in fact the Pac-12's best per-possession team by a healthy margin, one that's likely to post a gaudy W-L record in conference play. All of the above may well result in a seed in the middle of the bracket and, consequently, a game against a high seed in the round of 32.. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Work to do
The Sun Devils would likely be in the field of 68, barely, if the selection were held today. Absent the most extreme string of either wins or losses in the arid Quad-1-scarce savannah known as the Pac-12, ASU could remain in this state of bubbly uncertainty for the foreseeable future. True, the upcoming road game at Oregon would in fact qualify as Quad 1 at this writing. Nevertheless, Arizona State has already done its best work under this heading, having won at home against Kansas and Washington and in Las Vegas against Mississippi State and Utah State. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Should be in
Just hours before MSU tipped off its game at Arkansas, the athletic department in Starkville announced that 6-foot-2 sophomore Nick Weatherspoon had been suspended indefinitely due to an unspecified violation of team rules. That was no issue against the Razorbacks, as Ben Howland's team won 77-67. Indeed, Howland can put Tyson Carter in Weatherspoon's starting spot, as the coach did in Fayetteville, and see a similar level of performance. Losing depth is never a positive, of course, but it's not clear the suspension will have a significant impact in the near term on a team that's being envisioned as a No. 7 seed. (Updated: Feb. 16)
The knock on the Tigers is that that they're an efficient bunch beloved of laptops but that, oh by the way, Auburn doesn't actually beat any good teams. Bruce Pearl's men are just 2-5 against SEC opponents listed as locks, should-be in's or work-to-do's by Bubble Watch, and the wins came at home against Alabama and Florida. AU won't get a chance to change its "all stats, no statements" reputation until it plays at Kentucky next weekend. In the meantime, a team that's being shown as anything from a No. 7 to a No. 9 seed would be well advised to take care of business mid-week at home against Arkansas.(Updated: Feb. 13)
Ole Miss has what might be the cleanest profile an 18-7 team could construct for itself. Every one of those seven losses, for example, falls under the heading of Quad 1. Plus, the Rebels now own road wins not only against Auburn, but also at Mississippi State. If Kermit Davis and his men emerge at 20-7 after this current take-care-of-business interlude (Ole Miss won at home against Missouri and will now visit South Carolina before returning to Oxford to play Georgia), we might be envisioning the Rebels as a step up from a No. 8 seed. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Work to do
As a genre that has proliferated over the past decade or so, the bubble watch typically exists to overreact to the most recent game played. Naturally, we here capital-B-and-W Bubble Watch would never stoop to such hackery, so you can trust us when we say Alabama's most recent game was aberrantly damaging to the Crimson Tide's bracket position. Avery Johnson's team entered its home game against Florida as a projected No. 10 seed, but losing 71-53 in Tuscaloosa to an opponent that started the contest 13-11 and ranked No. 40 in the NET does you no seeding favors. Alabama would still likely make the tournament if the selection were held today, but something as low-profile as the upcoming road game at Texas A&M now takes on added importance. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Look who's still hanging around in "first four out" territory. The Gators are now 14-11 and 6-6 in SEC play, not numbers that necessarily translate seamlessly into "at-large." Then again, this is also a group with two Quad 1 wins (at Arkansas and at Alabama) and a NET ranking that has been hovering in the 30s and 40s. The 18-point victory at Tuscaloosa was, easily, the Gators' most complete performance of the conference season and could not have come at a better time. LSU is up next, in Baton Rouge. (Updated: Feb. 16)
Should be in: Cincinnati
Work to do: UCF, Temple
Should be in
Mick Cronin's team went scoreless over the final 6:11 of the game and lost 65-58 at Houston. Jarron Cumberland scored 27 points for UC (albeit on 25 shots), but it was not to be. The outcome represents a lost chance to earn a higher seed, far and away the best single opportunity the Bearcats will get before Selection Sunday. Then again, there's no shortage of teams in the American or, indeed, nationally, that would gladly switch places with a group cruising toward something in the neighborhood of a No. 7 seed. (Updated: Feb. 10)
Work to do
Give UCF credit. The Knights have shown an unmistakable ability to cling tenaciously to what's supposed to be a precarious spot: the very bottom of the at-large field. According to Joe Lunardi, Johnny Dawkins' team would be one of the last teams in the field not sent to Dayton if the season ended today. That status is holding steady after UCF took care of South Florida at home 78-65. The Knights will get the opportunity to strengthen their hold on an at-large bid thanks to two remaining games against Cincinnati and one at Houston. First up, however, is a home date against Memphis. (Updated: Feb. 13)
Speaking of the very bottom of the at-large field, Temple is moving in somewhat the same bubble circles as UCF. The Knights have the superior NET ranking (in the 40s, versus the 50-something rank carried by the Owls), but of course, it's Fran Dunphy's men who have the win to end all American wins: Houston's only loss of the season came against Temple on Jan. 9 in the Liacouras Center. One potential worry for the Owls, however, is that barring an encounter in the conference tournament, their games against the Cougars and the Bearcats are already in the books. There'll be no more regular-season chances at the biggest wins in the conference. Then again, Temple and UCF meet head-to-head in the last game of the season in Philadelphia. That showdown could have a bubble implication or three. (Updated: Feb. 13)
Should be in
Congratulations, Bulls. You navigated what on paper looked to be a challenging two-game road swing and came away passing with flying colors. Wins at Akron and at Toledo mean Nate Oats' team now has a realistic shot at winning out the rest of the way. Running the table would give Buffalo a 16-2 record in the MAC, but even dropping a game along the way, as UB already did at Northern Illinois and at Bowling Green, wouldn't wreck a profile that includes a win at Syracuse. UB appears to be heading for something in the neighborhood of a No. 7 seed.
(Updated: Feb. 16)
Work to do
The Southern Conference has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament, but there's a first time for everything. Wofford is in this discussion because the Terriers are 23-4, with the losses coming to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Mike Young's team additionally own Quad 1 wins at UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State. Finally, it's worth noting Wofford won at South Carolina by 20, even though that shows up on the profile as a Quad 2 victory.(Updated: Feb. 16)
If Bubble Watch is correct to be bullish on how well a somewhat underrated Texas team might perform the rest of the way, the correctness will be good news for VCU. Any impressive exploits yet to be recorded by the Longhorns can only add luster to the tournament profile of a Rams team that went to Austin on Dec. 5 and came away with a 54-53 win. (Feast your eyes, the score itself says "hard-fought.") Will that profile be enough to get Mike Rhoades' team an at-large bid? Quite possibly, but make no mistake, recent selection history doesn't furnish too many feel-good precedents. It's likely to be a close call. (Updated: Feb. 13)
Welcome to the fun, Bisons. We here at Bubble Watch Mission Control have been watching you for a while now. You can be justly proud of Rob Marberry's Ethan Happ-like post mastery (with better foul shooting), the team-wide attention to detail and total mastery on the defensive glass and, yes, your road win at TCU in November. Historically speaking, the at-large-bid production of the Atlantic Sun has not been what one would term voluminous, but your combination of the marquee win with a 30-ish ranking in the NCAA Evaluation Tool promises to make this an interesting next few weeks. Congratulations, and one last thing. You can thank your ranked-60-something-in-the-RPI lucky stars that the old metric is gone. Bubble Watch rejoices with you there.