- ESPN Insider college basketball contributor
- First began covering college hoops in 2004
- Has written for Basketball Prospectus and the Wall Street Journal
Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Monday’s games.
At first glance, the projected 2020 tournament field looks like a significant departure from the recent past.
North Carolina is nowhere to be found. San Diego State and Gonzaga could both get No. 1 seeds. Dayton might end up with a bid on the No. 2 line.
These are the aspects of the 2020 field that do indeed promise to be new and different. But while our eyes are attracted to novelty, they can miss what will, apparently, stay pretty much the same for a sixth tournament in a row.
Every year since 2015, the NCAA tournament field has included between 35 and 38 teams from the six legacy major conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC). In Joe Lunardi’s latest update to Bracketology, he projects that major conferences will earn 37 bids in the 2020 field.
It wasn’t always this way. In four out of five years from 2010 to 2014, it was teams from outside the major conferences that accounted for 36 bids in the tournament field. Only in the past five years have major conference teams become a dependable majority.
What happened? Some programs, of course, joined the major conference club. Butler, Creighton, TCU, Utah and Xavier all started the 2010s outside of the six majors and ended the decade inside that charmed circle.
Those five programs in isolation, however, can hardly explain the recent shift in tournament bids. A larger factor has been the decline in bids awarded to two conferences in particular, the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West.
In the early 2010s, these two leagues were relative bid juggernauts. Between 2012 and 2014, the A-10 and the MWC combined to average eight bids per tournament bracket, as many as the Pac-12 and the SEC put together over that same time span.
For reasons that are open to debate, that era ended in 2015. Ever since that time, the traditional six major conferences have reliably churned out somewhere between 35 and 38 bids. It appears that streak will continue in 2020.
Here’s our current projection of the bubble:
Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 21 teams
Locks: 11 teams
The bubble: 48 teams for 36 available spots
Should be in: 19 teams
Work to do: 29 teams
Locks: Duke, Florida State, Louisville
Work to do
Maybe Virginia would make the tournament if the season ended today, or maybe the Cavaliers would be left high and dry. This is a close call, and Tony Bennett’s team was neither helped nor hurt by a seven-point loss at Louisville. The Hoos’ NET ranking is in the high 50s, and that’s a bit outside the sweet spot for at-large teams. Then again, the five-point win at home over Florida State was both recent and impressive. The main takeaway from Virginia’s profile is that it’s a work in progress. Put it this way: The Cavaliers can still play their way in for a chance to defend their title.
NC State Wolfpack
This is where we came in, literally. The last Bubble Watch of 2019 featured a learned disquisition on the tournament prospects of the Wolfpack. Well, not much has changed in 11 months. This season’s learned disquisition says Kevin Keatts’ guys are not there yet. Everything about NC State, from its NET ranking and Quad 1 record (2-4) to its projected ACC record (.500-ish) and in-conference performance (league average on both sides of the ball), says borderline. The Wolfpack get two cracks at Duke and one at Florida State (at home), so perhaps Markell Johnson and his teammates can still move this needle.
Locks: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia
Should be in
Texas Tech Red Raiders
With four wins in its past five outings (and the only loss coming by three points at Kansas), Texas Tech is showing up in mock brackets as a No. 8 seed. The Red Raiders’ 3-point accuracy in Big 12 play has been the best in the league by a wide margin, and freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey is fulfilling the expectations that the “highest-ranked recruit in Texas Tech history” label brings. Now the schedule gives Chis Beard’s group a fair chance of reaching 19-8 overall and 10-4 in conference play before meeting Oklahoma in semi-neutral Oklahoma City later this month.
Work to do
At first glance, Oklahoma’s 10-point win at home over West Virginia looks important for a projected double-digit seed trying to stay in the tournament field. In reality, the game was even more significant than it might appear on the surface. The Sooners entered that contest with a NET ranking that was dipping perilously close to the 60s. Now Lon Kruger’s team has a shiny new Quad 1 win to tout, a .500 record in the Big 12 and a viable path to sticking in the field of 68. The first goal is mere consistency: Oklahoma hasn’t won two consecutive games since early January.
Lock: Seton Hall
Should be in
The Bulldogs started the season 15-1 and have gone 3-5 since that point. Few teams have reaped more meager rewards from limiting opponents to 42% 2-point shooting over an eight-game stretch. Despite poor shooting inside the arc, Butler opponents still have rung up 1.12 points per possession over that span. Part of the problem has been 40% 3-point shooting by the opponents in those eight games, but the larger defensive issue is shot volume. Opposing offenses rarely commit turnovers against BU, and that performance wrinkle is putting what was a projected No. 4 seed at risk.
Things are somewhat dispiriting and disorienting in Philadelphia. Villanova is losing games (three in a row), and the Wildcats are trending toward a second consecutive placement in the area of the No. 5 or 6 line in the tournament bracket. For the balance of the Big East, such a fate would be a cause for rejoicing. When you’re Jay Wright, however, that represents your worst two-tournament run of seeding in seven years. Villanova’s shooting accuracy in conference play clocks in at almost exactly the league average, and a Wildcats team that misses a normal share of its attempts is both a visual and historical aberration.
Greg McDermott’s team shoots the lights out and allows opponents to score a healthy number of points in their own right. Are you not entertained? Now Creighton will put this two-way-scoring model to the test in the most important outing the Big East schedule has to offer in 2020: a road game at Seton Hall. A victory there and a “take care of business” attitude in its aftermath could elevate what is currently anticipated to be something in the vicinity of a No. 5 seed for the Bluejays.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Marquette would appear to be headed for its second consecutive seed in the No. 5 to No. 8 vicinity. Markus Howard is Markus Howard, of course, and Steve Wojciechowski’s group does a commendable job limiting opponents to one shot on offense. Big double-digit victories at home against Villanova and Butler and on a neutral floor against USC have the potential to look better and better in the event that those opponents win some games in February and beyond. Note additionally that Marquette has joined Villanova in the Big East’s highly perimeter-oriented club. Sacar Anim and Brendan Bailey have proved to be valuable supporting shooters alongside Howard.
Work to do
Xavier is 3-0 in February, with the profile-boosting road win at Seton Hall having tipped off this month of upward mobility. In fact, the Musketeers have now played themselves into the tournament field according to most projections. To stay there, Travis Steele’s team will need to call upon its road-warrior spirit. Games at Butler and St. John’s are up next, and even at this late date, this is still a team that could well finish under .500 in conference play. Will the committee focus on the win in Newark at the expense of, say, an 8-10 record in a good but not especially mighty Big East? It might be better not to test the question.
The Hoyas are still lurking in the bubble picture (albeit outside the projected field), but the schedule is running out of patience with this bunch. Patrick Ewing’s men have hosted Marquette, Butler and Seton Hall over the past month and come away with an 0-3 record. Now Georgetown is 4-7 in conference play and trying to make a push with what on paper is the worst defense in the Big East. The next game’s at Butler, and a win there would breathe life into a profile that’s in danger of becoming an afterthought. Perhaps Jahvon Blair, he of the 30 points against Providence, can help provide the necessary resuscitation.
Should be in
Michigan State Spartans
Did the Watch once say that surely the Spartans would soon be a lock? Did the Watch even receive surly missives on social media (it’s true!) to the effect of “How can MSU not be a lock”? Yes and yes, and that all seems like a long time ago. Since Bubble Watch made its 2020 debut on Super Bowl Sunday, these artfully crafted paragraphs of epigrammatic omniscience and modesty are yet to behold the sight of Michigan State, you know, winning a basketball game. Maybe someday. Meanwhile, Tom Izzo’s men have fallen to a projected No. 4 seed.
The story so far: Iowa’s offense is amazing, yet its defense is amazingly benevolent to opponents. The Big Ten is converting 54% of its 2-point attempts against the Hawkeyes, and even with Luka Garza having a season for the ages, Iowa had barely managed to outscore its conference opponents until an easy win at home over Nebraska furnished some degree of statistical cushion. This team is on track for a high seed, perhaps on the No. 5 line, and with better defense, the Hawkeyes could make the second weekend for the first time since 1999.
Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions have an excellent shot at earning their best NCAA tournament seed in program history. PSU secured a spot on the No. 5 line in the 1996 tournament, and this season Lamar Stevens & Co. could land an even higher seed. Pat Chambers’ men take very good care of the ball and then prevent opponents from doing the same thing. It’s simple. It works. If this group can work around its iffy rebounding and frequent (by Big Ten standards) fouling, we might see Penn State in the Sweet 16 again after an absence of 19 years.
Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini have recorded two straight losses, and the No. 6 seed that Brad Underwood’s men were carrying previously in mock brackets may slip down a line or two. In the two defeats, Illinois shot just 40% inside the arc and Kofi Cockburn made a total of three shots from the field (though he was 7-of-10 at the line in the Illini’s 75-66 loss at home to Maryland). This isn’t the best look we’ve seen from Illinois, and the Big Ten schedule affords zero opportunity for a team to figure things out against friendly competition. The Illini’s next three games are at home against Michigan State and on the road at Rutgers and Penn State.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Steve Pikiell’s men are holding steady as a projected No. 7 or 8 seed. While this offense is not especially potent, the defense is outstanding and, in particular, it specializes in both interior D and in denying opponents the opportunity to score. Rutgers is the rare D that takes care of business on the defensive glass while also forcing a higher than average number of turnovers. Opponents record a low shot volume against this defense.
Wisconsin has now recorded seven Quad 1 wins (against the same number of losses), including a season sweep of Ohio State and the only victory recorded by a visiting team so far this season at Penn State. The nine-point loss on a neutral floor to New Mexico will continue to look odd on the team sheet, but the Badgers still possess one of the more robust profiles you’ll see from a team that’s 14-10 overall. Currently pegged as a likely No. 7 or 8 seed, Greg Gard’s men have a more favorable closing schedule than some of their Big Ten rivals and could end the regular season with some momentum
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Watch hesitates to deploy hackneyed terms like “pivotal stretch” or “crucial two-game homestand,” but there’s a significant difference between 5-9 and 7-7. The former will be Ohio State’s Big Ten record should the Buckeyes lose upcoming home games to Rutgers and Purdue. Chris Holtmann’s team is being seen as a likely No. 7 seed, so, certainly, OSU has abundant margin for error. Still, for a team that has lost seven of its past 11 games and has been outscored to this point in Big Ten play, Ohio State has enjoyed a notable degree of indulgence from laptops and purveyors of mock brackets alike. Chalk at least a portion of this state of affairs up to a top-20 NET ranking.
Work to do
You won’t see many tournament profiles more solid than Michigan’s for a team that’s 5-7 in its conference. With the 18-point win on a neutral floor over Gonzaga and, now, the nine-point victory at home over Michigan State, the Wolverines are translating a so-so record in the nation’s top conference into a No. 9 seed in current mock brackets. The shoddy UM interior defense that constituted a crisis in January has quietly faded away as an issue in February, whether due to improvement, luck or some combination of both.
Supplying perhaps an apt synecdoche for Indiana basketball since 2002, Bob Knight finally made his emotional and much anticipated return to Assembly Hall on a day when the Hoosiers materially damaged their tournament hopes by losing at home to Purdue. The memories surrounding and achievements recorded by the IU program in the previous century are unfailingly compelling. Basketball performance in the recent past, conversely, has tended to be rather more prosaic. Indiana is now projected as a No. 10 seed.
When the Watch last considered the Boilermakers, there was a question raised as to whether this group could “sustain the momentum” of a 36-point drubbing of Iowa in West Lafayette. The answer turned out to be emphatic in the affirmative: Purdue won by 12 at Indiana. The last 80 minutes of basketball have transformed Matt Painter’s team from borderline to, well, less borderline. The Boilers aren’t a tournament shoo-in by any means, but at least now there are four or five at-large teams shown in the mocks beneath this particular potential No. 11 seed.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Say for the sake of discussion that Minnesota would not make the tournament if the selection occurred today. After all, that seems to be the consensus mock-bracket opinion regarding a team that’s 12-11 overall and 6-7 in its conference. Now, how do the Golden Gophers pry an at-large bid out of the committee? Win the next three games. With Iowa and Indiana coming to Minneapolis and then a road game taking place at Northwestern, Richard Pitino’s group has the motive and the opportunity to get this done. Plus, with Daniel Oturu, Minnesota has the means.
Should be in
In back-to-back road losses at Stanford and Oregon State, the Ducks shot percentages of 40 and 30 on their 2s and 3s, respectively. Payton Pritchard was 12-of-42 from the field over those two games, and while the Watch has been lavish in its praise of the senior, an Oregon offense predicated so exclusively on Pritchard hero ball does not look like a viable strategy for what could still be a nascent No. 4 seed. UO, you are on notice. Any more of this “losing basketball games” nonsense and you will (gasp!) fall below Colorado in “Should be in.”
Having wins over Dayton and Oregon is a good place to start your profile, and the Buffaloes additionally blew USC off its home floor by 21. If Tad Boyle’s team earns its projected No. 6 seed, that will represent the best bracket position occupied by the program since seeds became a 64-team thing in 1985. Although defense has been CU’s leading characteristic on the season as a whole, that script has been flipped dramatically in conference play: Tyler Bey, McKinley Wright IV and the rest of the Buffs have been scoring points at a rate higher than that of any other Pac-12 offense.
“Pencil this group in for a potential No. 6 seed,” the Watch said with customary bravado when last we discussed Arizona. “All bets are off with this sporadically hapless group,” the Watch now says with newfound concern regarding the Wildcats. Sean Miller’s group went out and lost 65-52 at home to UCLA, adding to a growing body of work under the heading of weirdly troubling defeats. With losses to the non-tournament likes of St. John’s, Oregon State and now the Bruins, the men from Tucson are looking more and more like a middle seed that will be feared by few.
Work to do
Three straight losses have dropped USC from the sunlit uplands of the projected single-digit seeds into a more perilous crevasse inhabited by anxious double-digit types. Basketball is cruel. Two of those defeats — road games at Arizona and Arizona State — were decided by five points or fewer. Now the Trojans face that most uncharitable of bubble dilemmas in the form of home games against Washington and Washington State. Wins there won’t improve USC’s profile to any notable degree. A loss (to say nothing of losses, plural) will harm it. Again, basketball is cruel.
Let’s not overthink this: Stanford has lost five of its past six games, though the one victory was a 10-point win at home over Oregon. Jerod Haase’s team has dropped to a No. 10 seed in mock brackets and now will host Arizona and Arizona State in Palo Alto. Two wins there are advisable for a 5-5 Pac-12 team that has been clinging to its enduringly lofty top-30ish NET ranking like a life raft.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Bobby Hurley’s men have insinuated themselves into the bubble discussion with three straight wins (at Washington and at home against UCLA and USC) and a NET ranking in the 50s. We won’t have to wait long to see whether the Sun Devils are a legitimate object of bubble suspense for a third consecutive year or whether this is merely a passing February fancy. ASU hits the road this week for games at Stanford and Cal.
Should be in
In a showdown to determine which SEC team is truly the most clutch of all, Auburn triumphed 91-90 in overtime on its home floor over LSU. J’Von McCormick drained a floater from the lane with 0.1 seconds left on the clock to give the Tigers a 4-0 record in overtime contests this season. Perfection in such close games placed alongside two blowout road losses (at Alabama and Florida last month) gives Bruce Pearl’s group one of the stranger per-possession looks you’ll see from a highly ranked team. Auburn is outscoring opponents by a mere 0.03 points per trip in league games (akin to what one sees from Mississippi State), a fact that is not preventing and should not prevent a 21-2 team from being slotted as a No. 4 seed.
The Wildcats will be burdened with the Evansville and Utah losses when the committee seeds this team, and, well, that’s how this sausage gets made. Nevertheless, it appears increasingly likely that Kentucky really will turn out to be the best team in the SEC just like the pollsters expected back in the preseason. The offense has looked quite good in UK’s past two wins (recording a combined 1.17 points per trip at home against Mississippi State and on the road at Tennessee). When reliable scoring is combined with a defense that forces missed shots, you have the makings of a dangerous No. 5 seed.
Join the Watch in celebrating the statistical excess provided to us by projected No. 5 seed LSU. The Tigers score efficiently, and so do their opponents. Will Wade’s men record a strikingly high volume of shot attempts, and, well, opposing offenses show much the same behavior. The Tigers take excellent care of the ball, and … you see how this works. Off-court uncertainty persists, of course, and on the court, LSU’s incredible run of close-game success evaporated with losses at Vanderbilt and Auburn. Just the same, this is the best two-season run the program has posted since the days of Tyrus Thomas and Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
Work to do
Surely, by this point, there’s a serious “by default” vibe coming from Arkansas, no? The Razorbacks have lost five of their last seven games, and the mock brackets have responded with a resounding: “Looks good, take this No. 8 or possible No. 9 seed, please!” The Watch exaggerates, slightly, and to be fair, the past two defeats came in overtime periods. Nevertheless, Eric Musselman’s group is really getting its money’s worth from near-zero-turnover basketball and road wins at Alabama and Indiana, in that order.
The Gators were hammered 68-51 at Ole Miss, Mike White’s team is 14-9 and it is officially time to go back to that No. 6 ranking in the preseason to ask with polite incredulity: What happened? White brought in two successive excellent recruiting classes, and Kerry Blackshear Jr. was tapped preseason SEC player of the year. But UF’s defense has taken a step back since last season, and the double-digit seed now earmarked for this team represents, for now, a surprising twist of fate.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Although the Bulldogs’ 1-5 record in Quad 1 is not stellar, this is one of the SEC’s better offenses. Reggie Perry is an accomplished, high-volume 2-point scorer (who continues to try 3s as well), Robert Woodard II is a potential 2020 first-round draft pick, and Mississippi State as a team excels at crashing the glass on offense and generating second chances. All in all, there’s enough here to potentially move MSU from its current status on the No. 11 line in several mock brackets to a more secure spot in the field of 68.
Should be in
The Cougars have taken command of the American regular-season race with their 33-point win at home over Wichita State. Mock brackets show Kelvin Sampson’s team as a No. 7 seed, and both of Houston’s Quad 1 wins this season have come at the expense of the Shockers. UH is just average in terms of accuracy from the field, but this team does just about everything else on both sides of the ball. The Cougars are capable of giving a No. 2 seed a game in the round of 32.
Work to do
Right, so that part where the Watch was saying we should give credit to Memphis for “winning the games it’s supposed to win”? That’s a dead letter. The Tigers lost at home to South Florida 75-74, Penny Hardaway’s team is on a trajectory that will yield an American record not much better than .500, and it’s not at all clear that such a mark will suffice for an at-large bid. Mock brackets have responded accordingly, and Memphis is now shown as a borderline case that will be sweating out Selection Sunday if present trends continue.
Wichita State Shockers
Would it be hyperbolic to say the Shockers are in free fall? Gregg Marshall’s team has lost three in a row and five of its past seven. South Florida and Tulane are the only teams that have scored fewer points per possession in American play, and the WSU offense is making less than 43% of its 2s against conference opponents. Wichita State carried a top-50 NET ranking and a projected No. 9 seed into its most recent loss, a 76-43 drubbing at Houston. That seed expectation feels too high 40 minutes later.
Suspense can be the best-case scenario for a team in UC’s position. After losing by one point in overtime at Connecticut, the Bearcats are 1-5 in Quad 1 contests. The schedule gives Cincinnati just one more regular-season shot at improving that record in the form of a game at Houston on the first day of March. Basically, it would be easier for Cincinnati to lose its way off the bubble than it will be to clearly establish itself in the field of 68 with the amount of runway the regular season supplies. For what it’s worth, per-possession numbers suggest the Bearcats aren’t likely to lose often enough to rule themselves out of contention. The safe bet is suspense.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
While an eight-point loss at UCF is by no means an optimal outcome for a bubble team, Tulsa at least has a schedule that can ameliorate any such missteps. Specifically, Frank Haith’s team is yet to play its road games at Houston and Wichita State. In theory, a team like the Golden Hurricane that is outscoring the American by a healthy margin could have a fighting chance in such road tests. Wins in both contests would boost a NET ranking that badly needs boosting and in fact is stuck all the way down in the 70s.
Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State, Dayton
Work to do
Speaking in terms of league play only, the Cougars are one of the most accurate teams from the field that we’ve seen in recent years. BYU’s effective FG percentage thus far in West Coast Conference play (62.0) compares favorably with what we saw from Villanova in its heyday (60.3 in 2018). Different strengths of schedule and, most of all, different numbers of games: Mark Pope’s team has taken the floor in conference play 11 times. Nevertheless, consider this an early tip for filling out your bracket if BYU does end up with something around a No. 8 seed. These guys don’t miss.
Saint Mary’s Gaels
This is not the first time in program history that Saint Mary’s profile has been driven in large part by its performance against Gonzaga, and the Gaels just lost by 30 at home to the Bulldogs. Randy Bennett’s team has already split its season series with BYU, and there’s one trip remaining to Spokane to face the Zags. SMC also has the two-point neutral-floor win over Wisconsin in its back pocket. Does this résumé add up to a No. 9 or 10 seed? So far, the consensus seems to be yes.
Rhode Island Rams
Notching the season sweep over VCU will help Rhode Island’s tournament prospects. So would sweeping Dayton, and the Rams will still play the Flyers twice. The question is how sustainable this team’s excellent defense will prove to be over the long haul. The Atlantic 10 has connected on just 24% of its 3s against David Cox’s team thus far. Then again, if Fatts Russell continues to play the way he did at George Washington (24 points on 6-of-10 shooting beyond the arc), URI is going to be one tough team to beat.
In a season in which Dayton has already secured lock status, VCU will still get a shot at the Flyers when Anthony Grant’s team pays a visit to Wade Arena later this month. Speaking of the upcoming contest against UD, Mike Rhoades’ team will rise or fall in large part based on what it does during a six-day window in February. The home date against Dayton as well as road games at Richmond and Saint Louis are VCU’s only remaining scheduled Quad 1 opportunities, and playing against the Billikens may or may not qualify when the time comes (depending on whether SLU is above or below No. 75).
Northern Iowa Panthers
The Panthers are one of the most accurate teams in the nation (take a bow, Austin Phyfe), and their chances of emerging from the Missouri Valley Conference with the league’s automatic bid are good. Then again, upsets do happen at conference tournaments, as seen last year when Bradley grabbed a No. 15 seed in the field of 68 by beating UNI in the Arch Madness title game in St. Louis. Should Ben Jacobson’s team need to throw its hat in the at-large ring, a NET ranking in the top 40 and a true road win at Colorado should give the men from Cedar Falls a fighting chance in the committee room.
Utah State Aggies
With wins on neutral floors over both LSU and Florida, the Aggies have some meat on their résumé even after going 0-for-2 against San Diego State during the Mountain West regular season. The challenge for Craig Smith’s team now will be staying viable as an at-large candidate facing a series of tough but not Quad 1 MWC road games with a NET ranking in the 50s. If USU does take care of business, a win against the Aztecs in the Mountain West tournament could be just what the committee needs to see. Alternately, such a win may take place in the MWC tournament title game and thus render the question moot.
East Tennessee State Buccaneers
Steve Forbes’ team accomplished what no SEC team has been able to do. ETSU beat LSU, and in Baton Rouge, no less. That will brighten a résumé, and either way, the Buccaneers are more than one-game wonders. ETSU is 21-4 overall and locked in a battle with Furman for supremacy in the Southern Conference. Can the Buccaneers earn an at-large bid if they don’t prevail at the SoCon tournament? Doing so will take a large number of wins, given the nature of this schedule. ETSU not only doesn’t have any Quad 1 opportunities remaining, the Buccaneers also have only one Quad 2 game left on the schedule (at Wofford, later this month).
The dream of an Ivy at-large endures, “dream” meaning we’ve never seen it before. Perhaps this is the year, or possibly Yale will win the automatic bid and won’t need the help. In either event, this is potentially the strongest Bulldogs team James Jones has had in his 21-year tenure in New Haven. Running the table seemed like a real possibility until Harvard won 78-77 at Lee Amphitheater. The number of Ivy losses that Yale can afford to incur while still entertaining realistic hopes of an at-large bid may be greater than one, but not by much. Meantime, Paul Atkinson is piling up the points in the paint, and Yale’s NET ranking is hovering in top-50 territory.
You might remember the Flames as the team that, in a 2019 NCAA tournament first weekend remarkably devoid of upsets, scored an upset. Ritchie McKay’s No. 12-seeded team knocked out Mississippi State 80-76. One year later, Liberty is again hoping to make waves in the bracket. With a punishing defense and the voluminous interior scoring of Scottie James, the Flames will be heavily favored to win the automatic bid from the Atlantic Sun. If they should not do so, McKay’s men will have to fall back on a really impressive-looking record (currently 23-3) and, ideally, a better NET ranking than the 60-ish one they show now.
Behold, the far outer fringes of the bubble. Beyond this point, there are only high hopes and long odds. The Spiders did themselves no favors by following a competitive loss at home to mighty Dayton with a not-so-competitive defeat at the hands of local rival VCU on the Rams’ home floor. Nor does the schedule necessarily benefit Chris Mooney’s team. An upcoming road game at Duquesne qualifies as Quad 1, but it appears that Richmond will have to bump into the likes of the Flyers, VCU or Rhode Island at the Atlantic 10 tournament in order to truly complement the 10-point neutral-floor win over Wisconsin.
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