Bubble Watch: Evaluating the final teams fighting for a tourney spot

Consider SI.com your one-stop shop for all things bracket and bubble during championship week. We will be updating our field of 68 and Bubble Watch every day from now through Selection Sunday. The Bracket Watch will focus on games with major seeding implications for teams assured of a trip to the dance, while the Bubble Watch will look at all the games that day with implications at the backend of the field. It’s the most wonderful time of the year for a college basketball fan. Celebrate right here with us.

Locks

American: Cincinnati, SMU

Atlantic 10: Dayton

ACC: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech

Big 12: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, West Virginia

Big East: Butler, Creighton, Marquette, Providence, Villanova

Big Ten: Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin

Pac-12: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA

SEC: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina

Others: Bucknell, East Tennessee State, Florida Gulf Coast, Gonzaga, Iona, Jacksonville State, Mount St. Mary’s, Northern Kentucky, Saint Mary’s, South Dakota State, UNC-Wilmington, Wichita State, Winthrop

The Bubble

Bubble teams listed in current seed order in SI.com Bracket Watch

VCU: It would be a stretch to say that VCU’s at-large candidacy is in jeopardy, but the Rams do not have much room for error. After losing to Rhode Island and Dayton over the last two weeks of the regular season, they are 2–3 against the RPI top 50 and kenpom.com top 50. That would be fine if VCU’s résumé were devoid of bad losses, but the Rams dropped games to a bad Davidson team and terrible Fordham team. We still have the Rams in the field, but there is absolutely no margin for error the rest of the way. No matter what they do the rest of the season, short of getting the conference’s automatic bid, Selection Sunday is going to be tense. A bad loss in the A-10 tourney will leave them in trouble.

Last Four Byes

Michigan State: The Spartans remain a step ahead of the “last four in” group after cruising past Penn State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. They’re 6–7 against the RPI top 50, with a win at Minnesota and home victories over Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota again and a neutral-floor triumph over Wichita State. Michigan State won’t be a high seed in the big dance without a deep run this week, but it will be in the field for the 20th straight year. The Spartans will meet Minnesota for a third time this season in the Big Ten quarterfinals Friday.

Seton Hall: The Pirates played their way safely into the field with a win at Butler in their regular season finale. They then took care of business in their Big East tournament opener, adding another résumé-building win over Marquette. Seton Hall has four standout wins against teams that are all inside the top 40 in both RPI and on kenpom.com (Butler, South Carolina, Creighton, Xavier), and is 10–9 against the RPI top 100. The Pirates have one sub-100 loss to St. John’s, but that’s not going to matter any longer. They will go dancing.

Xavier: The Musketeers tempted fate through the first half of their first-round game with DePaul on Wednesday, but they came out firing in the second half, led by Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. Once they took control, they never looked back. While Xavier avoided a bad loss that could have knocked it out of the field of 68, it's still on shaky ground heading into Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup with Butler. Xavier lost six straight games at the end of the regular season and hasn't beat a team not named DePaul since the day before the Super Bowl. The Musketeers have three top-50 wins, including one at Creighton, an 8–11 record against the top 100 and just one loss to a team outside the top 70 in RPI. The committee will take note that they’re 5–6 since losing Edmond Sumner for the season, but it will also consider that three of those losses came with Bluiett nursing an ankle injury. A win over Butler would lock Xavier into an at-large bid. A loss would make the Musketeers a nervous bunch on Selection Sunday.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons finished the regular season in grand fashion. They kicked it off by beating Louisville and capped it with a win at Virginia Tech. Wake had proved for most of the season that it belonged in the tournament, but it just couldn’t get over the hump with any regularity against tournament-quality competition. Those late-season wins finally put the Demon Deacons on the inside track to an at-large bid. Selection Sunday won’t be a carefree day, but the bet here is they will hear their name called.

Last Four In

Vanderbilt: The Commodores' win over Florida in their regular season finale turned them into a fascinating bubble team. No matter what happens this week, we are going to get to test history. If Vanderbilt is part of the at-large discussion on Selection Sunday, that necessarily means they will have suffered their 15th loss of the season at some point during the SEC tournament. The most losses for an at-large team in NCAA history is 14, which has happened 14 times. For the sake of conversation, let’s assume that Vanderbilt’s 15th loss isn’t a bad one and comes against one of South Carolina, Florida or Kentucky. In that scenario, the Commodores would be the most interesting team before the committee this week. They’ll have at least five top-50 wins, with all of those coming against at-large teams. Vanderbilt has what it takes to be the first 15-loss at-large team in NCAA history.

USC: This is the Pac-12’s best chance to get a fourth team in the dance. The Trojans played a surprisingly close game against a Washington team that was missing Markelle Fultz but pulled away in the second half to move on to the Pac-12 quarterfinals. Despite a lackluster résumé, dodging what would have been a terrible loss should be enough to keep the Trojans in the field of 68. They have two great wins over UCLA and SMU and just one loss outside the RPI top 100. A second win over the Bruins on Thursday will have the Trojans breathing easy on Selection Sunday, but it likely isn’t necessary to get them into the dance for the second straight season.

Syracuse: It’s wait-and-see time for the Orange. They lost to Miami in the ACC tournament opener, sending them into the weekend firmly on the bubble. Syracuse finished the season 3–4 against the RPI top 25, 6–8 against the top 50, and 8–10 against the top 100. While the three top-25 wins and six top-50 wins stand out, the Orange also suffered three terrible losses to Boston College, Connecticut and St. John’s. What’s more, Syracuse did all of its damage at home, going 2–11 away from the Carrier Dome. Its best win of the two was at Clemson. If the Orange are left out, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Kansas State: The Wildcats are the only Big 12 team remaining on the bubble, and they have serious work to do in the conference tournament. They still have a strong foundation thanks to wins over West Virginia at home and Baylor on the road. Still, they need at least one meaningful win in the Big 12 tournament to feel good on Selection Sunday. They’ll get their opportunity for that win against Baylor in the Big 12 quarters.

First Four Out

Illinois State: Can the Redbirds get an at-large bid? The bet here is they will be left just out of the dance. They dropped games to San Francisco, Tulsa and Murray State, all three of which are comfortably off the at-large radar, and their only win over a tournament team came when they beat Wichita State at home. After that, Illinois State's next best win was at Loyola-Chicago, kenpom.com’s 97th-ranked team. The selection committee simply hasn’t shown much appetite for taking a team with that sort of résumé. It’s certainly possible things have changed, and this year’s bubble could hasten such change, but history suggests the Redbirds will head to the NIT.

Rhode Island: The Rams got the win they needed to stay in the at-large discussion when they took down VCU a couple weekends ago. They played with fire, however, last weekend, beating Davidson in overtime at home. Rhode Island is now 2–3 against the RPI top 50, with a neutral-floor win over Cincinnati to go with the VCU triumph. The Rams are also working against a couple of bad losses, which came against La Salle and Fordham, and their 5–7 record against the top 100 leaves little wiggle room. They’ll have to advance to the A-10 championship game to have a real shot at an at-large bid.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes surged back onto the at-large radar with road wins against Maryland and Wisconsin over the last two weeks of the regular season. Iowa now owns five top-50 wins, including victories against Purdue, Michigan and Iowa State. That puts the backend of the field in striking distance, but there’s still a lot of work to do in the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes need at least one résumé-building win this week to have hope on Selection Sunday.

Illinois: After dropping their regular season finale at Rutgers, the resurgent Illini entered the Big Ten tournament with work to do. Yes, two wins over Northwestern and another over Michigan State improbably put them on the bubble, but the loss to the Big Ten’s worst team had them on the wrong side of it. Their loss to Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten tournament all but assured that they will remain on the wrong side. Illinois deserves some credit for making the end of its season interesting, but it cannot measure up to the backend at-large teams. The Illini are NIT bound.

Next Four Out

Georgia: The Bulldogs came up agonizingly short time and again when they faced Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina this season. They’ll get one more shot to get over the hump against the best of those teams, with their tourney lives on the line. Georgia squeaked past Tennessee, 59–57, in the SEC second round Thursday. The Bulldogs now get a third shot against Kentucky, and a win could get them one of the last at-large bids to the big dance. They played Kentucky as well as any SEC team did this season, losing in overtime in Lexington and by five at home in a game they led with less than a minute remaining. If Georgia can finally get over the hump Friday, it will be one of the most interesting teams before the selection committee. The Bulldogs remain in our Next Four Out based on current résumés but have a more realistic shot to make the dance than Illinois.

Cal: The Golden Bears kept their fledgling at-large hopes alive with a 67–62 win over hapless Oregon State. Cal has a ton of work to do, and an at-large bid may be out of the question. It owns exactly one top-50 win, and that came against USC. That’s the Bears' only victory against a team that could get an at-large bid, with their next best win coming over Princeton on a neutral floor. They’re 4–9 against the top 100, and 4–11 in kenpom.com A- and B-tier games. Cal cannot build its résumé when it takes on Utah in the Pac-12 quarterfinals Thursday. If it moves on from that game, it will likely play Oregon, but even a win there won’t guarantee the Bears a thing. One more win, of course, and they will have made a semi-miraculous run to the conference’s automatic bid. In short, Cal has no hope for an at-large bid unless it beats Utah and Oregon over the next two days, and even that might not be enough.

TCU: The Horned Frogs kept their season and their slim at-large hopes alive with a stunning win over Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinals. While they have life, they must beat Iowa State on Friday. A win over the Cyclones, and things suddenly get interesting for a team that already beat Iowa State in the regular season. A loss, however, will send TCU to the NIT.

Mississippi: The Rebels are largely in the discussion thanks to a favorable schedule that only included one matchup apiece with Kentucky and Florida, helping them to a 19–12 overall record and 10–8 mark in conference. With that said, Ole Miss deserves credit for a win over South Carolina in its regular season finale. That has the Rebels in the at-large discussion heading into the SEC tournament. If they can add a win over one of the conference’s tourney-bound teams, they’ll have reason for hope on Selection Sunday.

The Rest

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets went into the ACC tournament on the bubble on the strength of wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame at home, and VCU on the road. On the down side, they already had 14 losses, two of which were to sub-100 teams (Ohio and NC State). Not only did Georgia Tech need to beat Pitt in its first tournament game to have a realistic chance for an at-large bid, it likely had to follow that with an upset of Virginia on Wednesday. That the Yellow Jackets came up two steps short should remove any doubt about where they’ll stand on Selection Sunday. There were some legitimate highs in Georgia Tech’s season, but it will not end with a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Houston: The Cougars have three top-100 wins, with their best victory of the year coming at home against Rhode Island, a team that could be left out of the tournament field. They also own losses to Harvard, Memphis and LSU. They’re on the fringes of the bubble picture, but they’ll have to win the AAC tournament to get into the dance.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide remain on the fringes of the at-large picture, where they’ve been for most of the season. They advanced to the SEC quarterfinals with a win over lowly Mississippi State on Thursday, a win that does nothing for their résumé by itself but does give them an opportunity to strengthen it with a matchup against South Carolina on Friday. The Crimson Tide are 5–12 against the RPI top 100, with their best wins over the Gamecocks and Vanderbilt. They can see the tournament field from where they sit, but the path to an at-large bid is treacherous. A win Friday will not get Alabama in, but two wins could do the trick, depending on how other bubble teams perform.

Indiana: Against all odds, the Hoosiers are still in the at-large picture. They’re here thanks to the softness of this year’s bubble, as well as non-conference wins against Kansas and North Carolina. If Indiana can pick up a couple of résumé-buidling wins in the Big Ten tournament and get some help from fellow bubblers across the country, the Hoosiers could be one of the last teams in the dance. Understand, however, that they have somewhere around a 1-in-20 chance of getting into the field.

Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders are in our field as the automatic qualifier from Conference USA. If they lose at some point in their conference tournament, they will instantly have one of the most interesting bubble cases. Middle Tennessee owns wins over Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Belmont and UNC-Wilmington and is beloved by the metrics. It is instructive, however, to remember the case of 2015–16 Monmouth. Last year’s Hawks had better non-conference wins than this year’s Blue Raiders but were shut out after losing in the MAAC tournament.

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