Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through games played Thursday, Feb. 21.
Join all of us here at Bubble Watch in extending a hearty welcome to Furman, the newest member of the always suspenseful and boisterously overpopulated “Work to do” section. Welcome, Paladins!
Two points perhaps merit further clarification at a momentous epoch such as this….
First, Bubble Watch isn’t going out on a limb, much less breaking new ground. Throw a stick at a flock of mock brackets and you’ll hit several where Bob Richey’s men can be found lurking in “next four out” territory.
Second, what a strange and wondrous world this is in 2019, no? Furman’s rival in the Southern Conference, Wofford, is being shown as a single-digit seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, and the Paladins, at this writing, clock in higher on the NCAA’s NET rankings than St. John’s, Minnesota and Seton Hall.
Speaking of the new rating system, its willingness to assess basketball performance in addition to wins and strength of schedule (the NCAA’s previous metric had the second and third parts well covered) has the potential to work a quiet revolution in selection and seeding. Not that we’ll really know, of course, until Selection Sunday has come and gone. Still, look at Furman.
The fact that two SoCon teams are even in the same zip code as the at-large conversation in late February is itself a backhanded tribute to the NET. The Paladins rank about 15 or 20 spots lower on the NCAA’s previous metric than they do on the NET.
That’s actually not that large a difference as these things go. (If old vs. new rating system disparities are your thing, Bubble Watch strongly recommends Saint Francis PA and Princeton.) Nevertheless, 15 or 20 spots would, in this case, very likely be dispositive, even when factoring in wins and losses as viewed through the quadrant system.
If Furman’s any indication, we may be on the brink of a new era in selection, one where the powers that be say in effect: No matter what your schedule looks like, we’ll figure out how good you are at basketball.
Naturally, it may not turn out to be a two-bid SoCon in 2019, and, when all is said and done, the SoCon may not deserve two bids. But, if these really are the new rules in play, there will be an equally telling two-bid breakthrough by some mid-major conference when the performance time is ripe. That would be a good thing.
Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble right now:
Bids from traditional ‘one-bid’ leagues: 23 teams
Locks: 20 teams
The bubble: 35 teams for 25 available spots
Should be in: 12 teams
Work to do: 23 teams
Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State
Should be in: Virginia Tech, Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson
Should be in
Virginia Tech Hokies
Since Justin Robinson was sidelined by a foot injury six games ago, two things have happened with Virginia Tech. First, the Hokies’ schedule has been a little tougher than what they had faced previously in ACC play. Second, both Tech and its slightly stronger opponents are scoring less efficiently in these Robinson-less games. It may be good news, of sorts, that coach Buzz Williams has a defense that’s held opponents to 0.98 points per possession over the past six games. Then again, the Hokies have scored just 1.02. With Robinson sitting, the margin for error with this projected No. 6 seed has been smaller than it was in January. (Updated: Feb. 19)
When Bubble Watch last checked in on Jim Boeheim’s men, they were coming off a dismal 15-point loss at the end of a three-game stretch of very low scoring. Then the Orange caught a true rarity, an in-season week off with no weekend game. Boeheim apparently put the time off to good use: Syracuse dismantled Louisville 69-49 at the Carrier Dome. The Orange held the Cardinals to just 14 made shots from the field, and now Boeheim’s guys get a shot at Duke at home. Mock brackets envision Syracuse on the No. 8 or 9 lines, but a team with at least one and potentially even two wins over Mike Krzyzewski still has the potential to improve its seed significantly. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Work to do
NC State Wolfpack
Kevin Keatts’ team drew one severely front-loaded conference schedule, and now that his guys have played Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Syracuse and the Blue Devils just in the past few weeks, they’re getting a well-deserved respite of sorts. The game at Florida State the first Saturday in March will be no picnic, certainly, but other than that, NC State has games against Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech left to play. The prospective No. 9 or 10 seed is looking solid at 19-8 overall and 7-7 in the ACC. (Updated: Feb. 20)
The Tigers have lost three straight and are now down to 5-8 in the ACC. No, that’s not the best look for a projected 11- or 12-seed, but there are hints of good news in the schedule. Boston College is coming to Littlejohn Coliseum, and after that, Brad Brownell’s men will play at Pittsburgh. Plus, three of Clemson’s last five games will be at home (against BC, North Carolina and Syracuse). Finishing at .500 in the ACC is still realistic. But make no mistake, it will take much more offense from a group that has scored just 0.90 points per possession during this 0-3 stretch. (Updated: Feb. 19)
Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State
Work to do: Baylor, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma
Work to do
Baylor refuses to be typecast. First came the Bears’ fast 6-2 start to Big 12 play, one that, granted, few observers or top 25 pollsters seemed to notice. Then there was the hobbled and short-handed stretch, one in which King McClure and Makai Mason both missed games and Baylor fell to 7-5 in the conference. Now add yet another swerve in this road. McClure still hasn’t returned from his knee issues, but Mason played at Iowa State as BU came away with a 73-69 win. Coming after the 25-point drubbing the Bears suffered at Texas Tech, the result is, to say the least, a surprise. The victory in Ames gives Baylor the season sweep over ISU and, more importantly, the best win on the profile for Scott Drew’s team. Maybe the No. 8 seed the mock brackets previously showed for this group was a bit low. (Updated: Feb. 19)
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)
TCU Horned Frogs
After a 68-61 loss at Oklahoma State, TCU is 5-8 in Big 12 play. The Horned Frogs entered the game against the Cowboys projected as a No. 10 seed, and one bad outcome won’t determine a team’s bracket fate. The issue, however, is that a win in Stillwater was there for the taking for a bubble team that really could have used the lift. Instead, Jamie Dixon’s team will now have to get that job done in more challenging settings. Of course, that’s exactly what this team did when it won at Iowa State. Time to do more of the same — at home against the Cyclones, Texas Tech and Kansas State and/or on the road against West Virginia and Texas. Somewhere in those five games, TCU likely needs to find at least three wins. (Updated: Feb. 19)
To this point in the 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
Six of Villanova’s seven losses this season have been as tidily arranged as one of Jay Wright’s pocket squares. These six Wildcat setbacks have come in three sets of back-to-back defeats, most recently in the form of losses on the road at St. John’s and Georgetown. This team’s projected seed is dropping accordingly and is now down to an expected spot on the No. 5 line, at best. One problem for the most perimeter-oriented team we’ve ever seen in major-conference play is that the 3s aren’t falling. In the last two games, Nova has shot 27 percent from beyond the arc and Phil Booth has gone 3-of-16 on his 3s over that same span. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Work to do
St. John’s Red Storm
Chris Mullin’s men really want to make this more interesting than it needs to be. Not content with going 3-1 against Marquette and Villanova, the Storm are back to .500 in Big East play after being swept in the season series by Providence. Make that swept rather emphatically: Ed Cooley’s team put a 78-59 beating on St. John’s in Providence. Still, even with the loss, Shamorie Ponds and his teammates likely will be fine. They started their game against the Friars being projected as a No. 9 or even No. 8 seed. With a rather forgiving schedule of games yet to be played (two against Xavier, one at home against Seton Hall and one at DePaul), the Johnnies could indeed end up landing in the middle of the bracket. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Seton Hall Pirates
Despite losing at Xavier, the Pirates should be fine — on paper. There’s still the Hall’s neutral-floor victory over Kentucky, of course, just as there’s still the road win at Maryland. So, yes, Kevin Willard’s team should be in good shape as a likely No. 11 or even No. 10 seed that just suffered its third Quad 2 loss of the season. Rest easy, optimists! But for you pessimists out there, here’s the thing: Seton Hall’s remaining games are at St. John’s and Georgetown and at home against Marquette and Villanova. Is it really so unthinkable that the Pirates (16-10 overall and 7-7 in the Big East) could lose three or, dare Bubble Watch say it, all four of those? This glass may be half-empty after all. (Updated: Feb. 20)
The good news for the Bulldogs is their marquee win on a neutral floor against Florida is looking much better these days. The bad news, of course, is that Butler has to play itself into a situation where beating the Gators will actually count for something. LaVall Jordan’s team is being shown in “first four out” territory, and, though 6-8 in Big East play, a finish close to .500 in the conference seems feasible given the remaining schedule (two games against Providence, at Villanova and at home against Xavier). Let’s say that, in something close to a best case, Butler finishes 9-9 in the Big East with a win over faltering Villanova and 18-13 overall. Will that be enough? It’s possible the Bulldogs will be one of those teams going to their conference tournaments with work to do. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin
Should be in: Maryland, Iowa
Work to do: Ohio State, Minnesota
Should be in
With its one-point win at Iowa now safely tucked away, Maryland might be forgiven for entertaining thoughts of winning out the rest of the way. The Terrapins are 11-5 in the Big Ten and they wrap up the regular season with home games against Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota and a single road game at Penn State. Obviously, a 4-0 run through that stretch would be no small feat, but there are certainly tougher closing schedules out there. It won’t be a shock if the Terps move up to a lock sooner rather than later. (Updated Feb. 19)
Fran McCaffery’s team has now played three consecutive games that have come down to the last second. The Hawkeyes won with game-winning shots by Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp at home against Northwestern and on the road against Rutgers, respectively. Then, against Maryland in Iowa City, it was Bohannon’s turn again. Alas, his 3-pointer was off, an attempted putback by Isaiah Moss also rimmed out, and Iowa lost to the Terrapins 66-65. The Hawkeyes are now 20-6, seen widely as No. 6 seed material and carrying a well-earned reputation for outstanding achievement in the field of basketball entertainment. (Updated: Feb. 19)
Work to do
Ohio State Buckeyes
Nothing like a home game against a 3-11 conference opponent to steady your bubble nerves. After losing its previous two games, Ohio State beat Northwestern 63-49 in Columbus. The Buckeyes had dropped down a line to a No. 10 seed in several projections, and this is still a team that’s under .500 (7-8) in Big Ten play. That second part matters in its own right: Chris Holtmann’s team needs to post a sufficiently decorous record in conference play to result in Quad 1 good news and a hearing from the committee. With games still to play at Maryland, Purdue and Northwestern, as well as at home against Iowa and Wisconsin, Ohio State’s still a fit member for the “work to do” category. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Since the day in late January when Minnesota recorded a comfortable 11-point win at home over Illinois, the Gophers have proceeded to lose five of six games. True, that spell was lifted long enough for Richard Pitino’s men to blow out Indiana at Williams Arena, a game in which Minnesota drained 12 3s. In the team’s five losses bracketing that win, however, Minnesota has made just 15 treys total. Shots aren’t falling, opponents are packing the paint and the Gophers’ projected seed is dropping. Pitino’s team is now verging on “last four in” territory, and the profile-defining win at Wisconsin is sagging a bit under the weight of all the missed 3s. At 7-9 in Big Ten play, Minnesota wraps up with road dates at Rutgers, Northwestern and Maryland and a home game against Purdue. (Updated: Feb. 21)
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 (the Huskies are currently 12-1). All of the above may well result in a seed in the middle of the bracket and, consequently, a game against a very high seed in the round of 32. (Updated: Feb. 21)
Work to do
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils likely would 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 savanna 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 already has 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. 20)
Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU
Should be in: Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss
Work to do: Alabama, Florida
Should be in
Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs are now playing to improve what’s expected to be a No. 7 seed, and the remainder of the season can be divided neatly in two. On the one hand, there will be “taking care of business” games in Starkville against South Carolina, Missouri and Texas A&M. On the other hand, there will be “raise our seed” contests on the road against Auburn and Tennessee. Taking care of business comes first, and MSU enters its home game against the Gamecocks with Quinndary Weatherspoon in peak form. Over his past three games, the 6-foot-4 senior has scored 73 points while hitting 8-of-13 3s and shooting 61 percent on his 2s. (Updated: Feb. 20)
The knock on the Tigers is that they’re an efficient bunch but — oh, by the way — they don’t actually beat any good teams. Bruce Pearl’s men are just 2-5 against SEC opponents listed as locks, should-be-ins or work-to-dos by Bubble Watch, and the wins came at home against Alabama and Florida. Auburn won’t get a chance to change its “all stats, no statements” reputation until it plays at Kentucky this weekend. In the meantime, a team that’s being shown as a No. 8 seed did what was necessary and took care of business at home against Arkansas.(Updated: Feb. 20)
Ole Miss Rebels
Just when they seemed to be putting together a nice stretch of games, highlighted by a win at Auburn, the Rebels gave up an 18-3 scoring run to close the game and lost 79-64 at South Carolina. The defeat marks the worst showing by Ole Miss on offense in nearly a month, and it comes at a time when Kermit Davis and his men are preparing for a two-game homestand against Georgia and Tennessee. One Quad 2 loss on the road to the Gamecocks won’t do too much harm to the profile of a projected No. 8 seed like the Rebels, but this team looks a bit less steady than it did before. (Updated: Feb. 19)
Work to do
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama is in trouble. Avery Johnson’s team lost at home to Florida 71-53, then went on the road and lost at Texas A&M 65-56. Mock brackets were showing the Crimson Tide as a No. 10 seed before the game against the Gators and as a No. 11 or even a 12-seed before the trip to College Station. Well, there aren’t many more numbers left for Alabama to go through, if you catch Bubble Watch’s drift. What was once a solid profile headlined by a win at home over Kentucky is now, at 15-11 and 6-7 in the SEC, looking very shaky. Put it this way: This stretch makes an upcoming home game against Vanderbilt a must-win. (Updated: Feb. 19)
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Florida’s 82-77 overtime win at LSU. The Gators entered that game as a likely No. 12 seed, and their best wins to that point were road victories against Arkansas and Alabama. Now, they have an emblematic win to put in front of the committee. No, that single game won’t solve all profile problems (ask increasingly shaky Alabama about its emblematic win over Kentucky sometime), and, yes, UF is still just 15-11 overall and 7-6 in the SEC. Still, the picture in Gainesville is far brighter than it was in early February. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Should be in: Cincinnati
Work to do: UCF, Temple
Should be in
Here’s a stat that suggests we may be selling Cincinnati a bit short and, specifically, that a No. 7 line-type team like the Bearcats could make some snooty No. 2 seed very uncomfortable in the round of 32. American opponents have been lighting it up against UC from beyond the arc, to the tune of 38 percent shooting on their 3s (a high number to still be carrying in late February in what’s actually one of the worst 3-point shooting leagues in Division I). Still, the bottom-line results for the Cincinnati defense have been quite good, thanks in large part to this team’s ability to force misses inside the arc. It’s possible we’ll see an even better version of this defense when the hoops gods at last cut it some slack. (Updated: Feb. 21)
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 on the No. 11 line. That status, however, is growing slightly more tenuous after a 60-55 loss to Cincinnati. Certainly, falling short on the road to the Bearcats does no damage to the profile, but the problem UCF now faces is that it’s running out of time and chances to record its first Quad 1 win of the season. The Knights have two such opportunities remaining, one at Houston and the other in the form of a rematch with UC, this time in Orlando. (Updated: Feb. 21)
It’s not as if a loss at South Florida would have been excessively damaging to Temple’s bracket position. The Bulls entered the game ranked No. 76 on the NET, and thus the contest was a Quad 2 entry on the Owls’ profile. Still, when you’re a projected No. 12 seed, as Fran Dunphy’s team is, you grab every single win you can get. And Temple won, barely. David Collins went to the line for USF in the final second but missed both shots, and the visiting team escaped 70-69. The Owls are very much alive. (Updated: Feb. 17)
Lock: Gonzaga, Nevada
Should be in: Buffalo
Work to do: Wofford, VCU, Utah State, Belmont, Davidson, Furman, Lipscomb
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. The wins at Akron and at Toledo mean Nate Oats’ team has a realistic shot at winning out the rest of the way, and the 114-67 blowout win at home over Ohio is certainly a nice start. 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. 19)
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)
Mike Rhoades’ team won a one-point game at Dayton and a blowout at home against Rhode Island in close succession. The Rams now stand at 20-6 overall and in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10, with a No. 11 seed waiting next month if mock brackets are to be trusted. The bad news, of course, is that mock brackets in February can’t necessarily be trusted. The win at Texas will continue to serve VCU well, but it would have been nice if Dayton had been (or still rises to) six or seven spots higher in the NET rankings, thus affording Marcus Evans and company a second Quad 1 victory. Alas, it was not to be. Keep winning, Rams. (Updated: Feb. 19)
Utah State Aggies
The best offense in Mountain West play thus far has belonged not to Nevada but rather to Utah State. Sam Merrill is shooting 39 percent on his 3s in conference play and Quinn Taylor and Neemias Queta have shown they can do great things on the offensive glass in the rare event of a miss. Utah State has two games yet to play before Craig Smith’s men welcome Nevada to Logan for a potentially profile-transforming evening of basketball. With a Quad 1 win on a neutral floor against Saint Mary’s and another at Fresno State, the Aggies are commonly being labeled as “first four out” material in mock brackets.
Belmont won a game in Pauley Pavilion against UCLA in December, but (fans in Westwood will want to stop reading right here) it’s the fact that Rick Byrd’s team swept a non-conference home-and-away series with local rival Lipscomb that really brightens a team sheet in 2019. Now the Bruins of Nashville are competing with Ja Morant and Murray State for Ohio Valley Conference supremacy. Morant likely has OVC player of the year locked up (Bubble Watch is out on a limb here), but in any other season voters would be taking a very long look at Dylan Windler and his prolific yet highly efficient scoring as a stretch-4. Belmont lurks just outside the field in most projections, but, at 21-4, Byrd’s guys have won 10 straight and are looking to run the table. (Updated: Feb. 21)
No sooner had Davidson been welcomed to the august precincts of Bubble Watch than the Wildcats promptly went out and lost their next game. Bob McKillop’s men trailed Dayton at home by 19 points in the second half and came all the way back to tie the game in the final minute, only to fall short 74-73. The loss leaves Dayton at 19-7 overall and 10-3 in the Atlantic 10. Beating VCU at home in January will continue to look good on the profile, but, in any event, we likely won’t have to wait long to know whether an at-large bid is still within reach for the Wildcats. Their next game is at Rhode Island, and winning there is, on paper, going to be a taller task than winning at home against the Flyers would have been. (Updated: Feb. 19).
The Paladins made their initial splash as the pesky underdogs who shocked defending national champion Villanova on its home floor in November. Since that time, Bob Richey’s men have battled in the top tier of an uncommonly strong Southern Conference that includes not only Wofford but also the NET top-75 likes of UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State. Matt Rafferty’s putting up big numbers across the board as a 6-foot-8 senior who functions as Richey’s best source for made 2s, assists, blocks and offensive and defensive boards. Still, if you seek your profile-worthy Paladin, feature writers, look around you. It is the Furman defense that’s a profile in resistance, forcing SoCon opponents to miss their shots and forget about trips to the line. At 22-5, the Paladins have won six straight heading into this weekend’s showdown (and Quad 1 opportunity) at home against Wofford,
Before this week, the Bisons’ worst loss was at home to fellow Bubble Watch denizen Belmont, meaning it wasn’t that bad a loss at all. Unfortunately for Casey Alexander’s team, however, this is no longer the case. Lipscomb went on the road and lost 67-61 at Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles entered that contest ranked No. 244, making this a Quad 4 defeat for the Bisons. It’s a huge blow to Lipscomb’s at-large hopes. (Updated: Feb. 20)
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