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Life on the Bubble: Championship Week Preview

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The Spartans’ place in the NCAA tournament isn’t completely safe yet. Here’s a look at all of the teams near the cut line.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

With less than a week to go before Selection Sunday, MSU is in an unfamiliar place, potentially playing for a spot in the NCAA tournament rather than merely seeding. The current consensus has the Spartans in the tournament with a bit of room to spare, as a 10 seed just ahead of the last four byes, but during Championship Week many of the teams behind us will have a chance to make their case if we stumble. I’ve used data from Crashing the Dance, along with ESPN’s Bubble Watch and SOS/NCSOS data from Warren Nolan in compiling this list.

Locks

31 teams from 9 conferences have done enough to be safely in the tournament without any worries, even if they lose their next game. Those teams are:

Big Ten (5): Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan
ACC (7): UNC, Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Virginia, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech
Big XII (4): Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State, West Virginia
Pac-12 (3): Oregon, Arizona, UCLA
SEC (4): Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas
Big East (3): Villanova, Butler, Creighton
American (2): Cincinnati, SMU
Atlantic 10 (1): Dayton
West Coast (2): Gonzaga, St. Mary’s

Those teams will account for at least 22 at-large bids, leaving up to 14 available for the bubble. Wichita State won the Missouri Valley tournament, so they’re out of the at-large competition (although they were probably going to get one if they needed it).

The Bubble

28 teams are listed here in competition for those 14 spots. Of them, five are currently projected as automatic qualifiers in conferences other than the nine above with at-large locks but have potential at-large hopes if they do not win their conference tournament; nine of the others will miss the tournament. Within each conference, teams are listed in rough order of likelihood of making the tournament. Times given are Eastern.

Big Ten

Northwestern

Record: 21-10 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 54/62/149
Positives: No sub-100 losses (only one sub-60); 10 top 100 wins
Negatives: Nine sub-140 non-conference games
Current projection (as of Monday night): at-large bid #25 according to the Bracket Matrix; at-large bid #27 according to Crashing the Dance
The path ahead: #6 seed in Big Ten tournament; will face #11 OSU or #14 Rutgers (Thursday, 9:00, ESPN2); winner of that game plays #3 Maryland (Friday, 9:00, BTN)

Compared to the rest of the bubble, Northwestern’s resume is quite respectable, but not enough so that an opening-round loss to Rutgers wouldn’t have me a bit worried. Reaching Friday’s quarterfinal should be enough, but a loss Thursday doesn’t mean they’re completely out of it.

Michigan State

Record: 18-13 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 48/9/20
Positives: Very high SOS; sweep of RPI #20 Minnesota; 5 top 50 wins and 11 top 100
Negatives: home loss to #138 Northeastern; 13 regular-season losses would tie record for most by an at-large team; poor road/neutral record (4-11)
Current projection: at-large #28 (Matrix) / #24 (CtD)
The path ahead: #5 seed in Big Ten tournament; will face #12 Nebraska or #13 Penn State (Thursday, 2:30, BTN); winner of that game plays #4 Minnesota (Friday, 2:30, ESPN)

One unfortunate quirk of Nebraska and Penn State playing each other is that, because they’re #97 and 99 in the RPI, the loser is likely to fall out of the top 100, either adding a second bad loss (if Penn State) or removing two top 100 wins (if Nebraska). Even so, the strong schedule is a nice tiebreaker given the number of teams around the bubble with a similarly large number of losses. Win Thursday and MSU is very probably in; doing it again on Friday would erase all doubt. A Thursday loss would leave MSU perilously close to the cut line.

Illinois

Record: 17-13 (8-10)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 57/23/38
Positives: Good SOS; neutral-site win over #23 VCU; 11 top 100 wins
Negatives: loss to #170 Rutgers, swept by #99 Penn State; 13 regular-season losses
Current projection: third team out (Matrix) / at-large #33; First Four (CtD)
The path ahead: #9 seed in Big Ten tournament; will face #8 Michigan (Thursday, noon, BTN); winner plays #1 Purdue (Friday, noon, ESPN)

Oh, Illinois. All you had to do was beat Rutgers and you were probably on the good side of the bubble. And you blew it. Beating Michigan is a must now, and I wouldn’t feel confident at all without beating Purdue as well.

Iowa

Record: 18-13 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 72/47/140
Positives: road win at #24 Maryland one of two top 25 wins and five top 50 wins
Negatives: two sub-100 losses; 4-9 road/neutral record; 13 losses; poor RPI in part due to five sub-250 non-conference games
Current projection: fourth team out (Matrix) / third team out (CtD)
The path ahead: #7 seed in Big Ten tournament; will face #10 Indiana (Thursday, 6:30, ESPN2); winner plays #2 Wisconsin (Friday, 6:30, BTN)

That RPI number is a bit scary; Iowa probably has to win at least two to have a realistic chance. That would give them a sixth top 50 win (assuming Michigan doesn’t drop below that line).

ACC

Miami

Record: 20-10 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 41/37/243
Positives: three top 25 wins (including road win at #16 Virginia); only one loss outside top 50 (none outside top 80)
Negatives: terrible NCSOS
Current projection: at-large #21 (Matrix) / #25 (CtD)
The path ahead: #9 seed in ACC tournament; will face #8 Syracuse (Wednesday, noon, ESPN); winner plays #1 UNC (Thursday, noon, ESPN)

The only reason I wouldn’t list the Hurricanes as a lock is that ugly non-conference strength of schedule. That sort of thing is frequently the kiss of death for at-large bids, but Miami’s record is good enough that they should be able to overcome it. A similar argument could be made for Virginia Tech (listed as a lock, with a slightly better record but worse NCSOS). Beating Syracuse should be enough, but losing probably doesn’t eliminate them.

Wake Forest

Record: 18-12 (9-9)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 32/11/16
Positives: great RPI and SOS; no losses outside top 80
Negatives: 3-8 vs. top 50
Current projection: at-large #32; last bye (Matrix) / at-large #29; last 4 byes (CtD)
The path ahead: #10 seed in ACC tournament; will face #15 Boston College (Tuesday, 2:30, ESPN2); winner plays #7 Virginia Tech (Wednesday, 7:00, ESPN2)

Wake Forest is in pretty good shape, but they have a potential land-mine to worry about Tuesday, as Boston College would be a disastrous loss (currently outside the top 200). Beating Virginia Tech isn’t mandatory, but getting to that game probably is.

Syracuse

Record: 18-13 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 80/56/196
Positives: three top 25 wins, six top 50
Negatives: very poor RPI, bad NCSOS; 13 losses; three sub-100 losses (including to #211 Boston College); awful rod/neutral record (2-10)
Current projection: at-large #34; First Four (Matrix) / first team out (CtD)
The path ahead: #8 seed in ACC tournament; will face #9 Miami (Wednesday, noon, ESPN); winner plays #1 UNC (Thursday, noon, ESPN)

It’s a cliche to say the bubble is weak every year, but if a team with this profile is straddling the cut line, it’s also true. Unless the committee decides that good wins are all that matter, it baffles me that the Orange are anywhere near the bracket. Beating Miami seems mandatory, and I would be surprised if they make it without also beating UNC.

Clemson

Record: 16-14 (6-12)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 69/26/118
Positives: ... I don’t really see any.
Negatives: 0-7 vs. top 25; would be most losses and worst conference record ever to earn an at-large; loss to #151 Oklahoma
Current projection: out, no votes (Matrix) / fifth team out (CtD)
The path ahead: #12 seed in ACC tournament; will face #13 NC State (Tuesday, noon, ESPN2); winner plays #5 Duke (Wednesday, 2:30, ESPN)

If Syracuse’s profile seems well below where the cut line should be, Clemson’s is much lower still. I would have left them off the list entirely if not for Crashing the Dance’s algorithm having them within five spots of the bracket. If they beat NC State, Duke, and Louisville, I’ll re-evaluate, but until then I don’t think they even merit discussion.

Big XII

Oklahoma State

Record: 19-11 (9-9)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 35/17/47
Positives: excellent RPI; 9-6 road/neutral record (including win at #22 West Virginia); only one loss outside top 60 (and two outside top 30)
Negatives: 3-9 vs. top 50; loss to #169 Texas
Current projection: at-large #19 (Matrix) / at-large #28 (CtD)
The path ahead: #5 seed in Big XII tournament; will face #4 Iowa State (Thursday, 12:30, ESPN2)

Oklahoma State is in pretty good shape, and with their opener against Iowa State it’s hard to see them doing enough damage to their profile to be in real danger. Still, Crashing the Dance has them just above the last 4 byes, so maybe there’s something I (and the Bracket Matrix consensus) am missing. Realistically, I think they’re in.

Kansas State

Record: 19-12 (8-10)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 58/53/221
Positives: win at #6 Baylor one of two top 25 wins; 8-7 road/neutral record
Negatives: poor NCSOS; 3-8 vs. top 50 and 5-10 vs. top 100; two sub-100 losses
Current projection: second team out (Matrix) / second team out (CtD)
The path ahead: #6 seed in Big XII tournament; will face #3 Baylor (Thursday, 9:30, ESPNU)

KSU’s rotten non-conference schedule (only three top 100 opponents and six below #200) is pretty damaging to their profile. The Wildcats probably have to knock off Baylor a second time to have a realistic chance, and I’m not even convinced that’s enough given the committee’s tendency to punish poor non-conference schedules.

Pac-12

USC

Record: 23-8 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 39/73/145
Positives: only three losses outside top 15; two top 25 wins; 9-5 road/neutral record
Negatives: only 5 top 100 wins (5-7); loss to #137 Arizona State
Current projection: at-large #33; First Four (Matrix) / at-large #34; First Four (CtD)
The path ahead: #6 seed in Pac-12 tournament; will face #11 Washington (Wednesday, 11:30, Pac-12 Network); winner plays #3 UCLA (Thursday, 11:30, ESPN)

It surprises me that USC is as close to the cut line as they are. Compared to the rest of the major-conference bubble, their record is gold and RPI is well within the “usually safe for major-conference teams” range; the SOS is a little lower but 8 losses compared to 12 or 13 seems like it should overcome that, even in a conference as top-heavy as the Pac-12 with two teams outside the top 200. Losing to Washington (who is one of those two) would be a very bad idea, but I don’t think USC should have to beat UCLA to get in; given where the consensus is right now, though, maybe they do.

California

Record: 19-11 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 56/40/37
Positives: good non-conference schedule
Negatives: 1-7 vs. top 50, 4-9 vs. top 100; two sub-100 losses
Current projection: fifth team out (Matrix) / eighth team out (CtD)
The path ahead: #5 seed in Pac-12 tournament; will face #12 Oregon State (Wednesday, 5:30, Pac-12 Network); winner plays #4 Utah (Thursday, 5:30, Pac-12 Network)

Cal has a major lack of quality wins which is likely to do them in. It’s unfortunate for them, in a way, that they managed to move up to the 5 seed instead of the 6; instead of getting a shot at a quality win in the quarterfinals they draw a team that’s #73 in the RPI. That means that Cal probably has to reach the Pac-12 final to have a realistic chance.

SEC

Vanderbilt

Record: 17-14 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 44/2/1
Positives: top-ranked schedule; sweep of #5 Florida; five top 50 wins and 10 top 100
Negatives: would be a record for most losses by an at-large team; loss to #262 Missouri
Current projection: at-large #35; First Four (Matrix) / at-large #35; First Four (CtD)
The path ahead: #7 seed in SEC tournament; will face #10 Texas A&M (Thursday, 7:00, SEC Network); winner plays #2 Florida (Friday, 7:00, SEC Network)

If not for the atrocious loss to Missouri, I’d already figure Vanderbilt is in good shape, as 14 losses with a top-ranked schedule seems likely to be good enough this year. But that disaster means that a conference tournament loss would be Vandy’s 15th. If anyone has the schedule to overcome that, they do, but if they must put that to the test, they’ll feel a lot better with another win or two under their belt before that loss. Losing to A&M probably isn’t survivable; losing to Florida may be.

Georgia

Record: 17-13 (9-9)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 53/16/21
Positives: excellent SOS
Negatives: 1-8 vs. top 50 (no top 40 wins); loss to #117 Oakland; 13 regular-season losses
Current projection: sixth team out (Matrix) / fourth team out (CtD)
The path ahead: #8 seed in SEC tournament; will face #9 Tennessee (Thursday, 1:00, SEC Network); winner plays #1 Kentucky (Friday, 1:00, SEC Network)

Georgia’s played a tough schedule, but at some point you have to win at least a few of the tough games you schedule. Beating Tennessee isn’t enough; beating Kentucky might be.

Big East

Xavier

Record: 19-12 (9-9)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 34/10/17
Positives: strong RPI/SOS numbers; only one loss outside top 60
Negatives: slumping late (1-6 in last 7, with only win over #230 DePaul); 0-6 vs. top 25, 3-8 vs. top 50; loss to #105 Colorado

Current projection: at-large #31; last 4 byes (Matrix) / at-large #30; last 4 byes (CtD)
The path ahead: #7 seed in Big East tournament; will face #10 DePaul (Wednesday, 9:30, FS1); winner plays #2 Butler (Thursday, 7:00, FS1)

For Xavier, a lot will depend on how the committee weighs their recent games after Edmond Sumner’s injury, which occurred just before their tailspin began. Their full-season resume looks deserving, but how much of it would be discounted? Losing to DePaul would be a very bad idea, and beating Butler is probably enough; it’s hard to be sure where a loss to Butler would leave them.

Marquette

Record: 19-11 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 55/45/201
Positives: 7-6 vs. top 50, including win over #1 Villanova; 10 top 100 wins
Negatives: bad non-conference schedule; loss to #139 St. John’s
Current projection: at-large #27 (Matrix) / at-large #23 (CtD)
The path ahead: #4 seed in Big East tournament; will face #5 Seton Hall (Thursday, 2:30, FS1)

The only reason I don’t consider Marquette a lock yet is that glaring NCSOS number. Beat Seton Hall and it’s hard to believe that will matter, but if they don’t, it might.

Seton Hall

Record: 20-10 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 43/50/198
Positives: 10 top 100 wins, including at #12 Butler
Negatives: bad non-conference schedule; loss to #139 St. John’s
Current projection: at-large #29; last 4 byes (Matrix) / at-large #31; last 4 byes (CtD)
The path ahead: #5 seed in Big East tournament; will face #4 Marquette (Thursday, 2:30, FS1)

Seton Hall’s resume looks eerily similar to Marquette’s, although without quite as many good wins. Conveniently, they play each other Thursday. The winner should feel very good about their chances, while the loser will be a bit nervous but not completely out of it.

Providence

Record: 20-11 (10-8)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 52/46/178
Positives: 6 top 50 wins, including #12 Butler; 10 top 100 wins
Negatives: mediocre non-conference schedule; three awful losses (#230 DePaul, #211 Boston College, home vs. #139 St. John’s)
Current projection: at-large #30; last 4 byes (Matrix) / at-large #32; last bye (CtD)
The path ahead: #3 seed in Big East tournament; will face #6 Creighton (Thursday, 9:30, FS1)

Another Big East team with similar top-line numbers on the resume. The extra bad losses bring them a notch below Marquette and Seton Hall for now, and they also have a difficult draw for their opener. Beat Creighton and they should feel fairly confident, but without that win it’s going to be very close.

American

Houston

Record: 21-9 (12-6)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 50/75/99
Positives: 9-5 road/neutral record; solid overall record
Negatives: no top 40 wins; 2-5 top 50; 3-6 top 100; three sub-100 losses (#174 LSU; home vs #131 Harvard and #109 Memphis)
Current projection: seventh team out (Matrix) / seventh team out (CtD)
The path ahead: #3 seed in American tournament; will face #6 UConn or #11 South Florida (Friday, 9:30, ESPNU)

The Cougars are desperately lacking quality wins, and the only chances to get them will be in the semis and final. If they take down Cincinnati in the semifinals, they have an outside chance at an at-large bid; if Cincinnati loses to Tulsa or Tulane first, Houston would probably have to win the whole tournament to get a bid.

Atlantic 10

Virginia Commonwealth

Record: 24-7 (14-4)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 23/65/80
Positives: solid record; 7-5 vs. top 100; 9-6 road/neutral record; good overall record
Negatives: only two top 50 wins (2-3); two sub-100 losses (including #212 Fordham)
Current projection: at-large #26 (Matrix) / at-large #26 (CtD)
The path ahead: #2 seed in Atlantic 10 tournament; will face #7 George Mason or #10 Fordham (Friday, 6:30, NBCSN)

VCU is in very good shape, though a little lacking in high-end wins. There’s a bit of danger in losing to Fordham a second time (George Mason would be at least semi-understandable and might move into the top 100 if they win that game), but getting past the quarterfinals should be good enough.

Rhode Island

Record: 21-9 (13-5)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 42/64/25
Positives: good non-conference schedule; two top 25 wins (including #13 Cincinnati)
Negatives: 4-7 record vs. top 100 plus home losses to #212 Fordham and #124 La Salle
Current projection: first team out (Matrix) / at-large #36; last team in (CtD)
The path ahead: #4 seed in Atlantic 10 tournament; will face #5 St. Bonaventure, #12 UMass, or #13 St. Joseph’s (Friday, 2:30, NBCSN)

Hovering right around the cut line, it’s likely that beating St. Bonaventure would be enough, though that will depend on how other teams near the cut line do. Should the Bonnies get upset on Thursday, though, beating a team hovering just above #200 won’t do much good.

Missouri Valley

Illinois State

Record: 26-6 (17-1)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 30/124/146
Positives: solid RPI and excellent overall record; 12-6 road/neutral
Negatives: no top 25 opponents; 2-4 vs. top 100; loss to #232 Murray State
Current projection: at-large #36; last team in (Matrix) / sixth team out (CtD)
The path ahead: Lost in MVC final to Wichita State

A very down Missouri Valley provided little or no help for the Redbirds’ resume. I would much rather see them in the tournament than some of the mediocre teams being considered from the SEC and ACC, but given the committee’s history, it would not be at all surprising to see them left out. Disappointing, but not surprising.

Metro Atlantic

Monmouth

Record: 27-6 (18-2)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 46/175/124
Positives: good overall record; 3-3 vs. top 100; 14 road/neutral wins
Negatives: no top 50 wins (although Princeton is #51); home loss to #198 Rider
Current projection: out, no votes (Matrix) / 14th team out (CtD)
The path ahead: Lost in MAAC semifinal to Siena

If Monmouth didn’t make the tournament last year (which remains a travesty), they’re not going to this year with a substantially worse resume. But they should.

Potential Auto-Bids

Nevada (Mountain West)

Record: 25-6 (14-4)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 36/118/143
Positives: good record and RPI; 7-4 vs. top 100; 12-5 road/neutral
Negatives: no top 60 wins (and only one top 50 game); loss to #191 Utah State
Current projection: below last at-large (Matrix) / would be at-large #35 (First Four) if needed (CtD)
The path ahead: #1 seed in Mountain West tournament; will face #8 Utah State or #9 San Jose State (Thursday, 3:00, CBS Sports Network)

That the Mountain West has no other viable at-large candidates is surprising given their history, but that’s how it looks this year. Nevada is close to the cut line and won’t get much help from beating any of their conference-mates, but they might survive a loss in the MWC final to Colorado State or Boise State. Anything earlier and they’re probably NIT-bound.

Middle Tennessee State (Conference USA)

Record: 26-4 (17-1)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 37/149/19
Positives: excellent record and non-conference schedule; 4-1 vs. top 100; 14-2 road/neutral
Negatives: losses to #242 UTEP and at home to #164 Tennessee State
Current projection: would be at-large #34 (First Four) if needed (Matrix) / would be at-large #35 (First Four) if needed (CtD)
The path ahead: #1 seed in Conference USA tournament; will face #8 Western Kentucky or #9 UT-San Antonio (Thursday, 12:30, ASN)

Can Middle Tennessee survive another bad loss, as any loss in their conference would be? Maybe. Given their high-end wins, I would think they have a strong case if they slip up in the final (or even semifinal if it’s against Rice; maybe not if it’s UTEP), but the committee has left out teams with profiles like this before. It would be appalling if they do it this time.

UT-Arlington (Sun Belt)

Record: 22-7 (14-4)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 40/140/46
Positives: solid record and non-conference schedule; win at #19 St. Mary’s
Negatives: that’s their only top 100 win (in four tries); three losses to teams below #180
Current projection: below last at-large (Matrix) / 12th team out if at-large needed (CtD)
The path ahead: #1 seed in Sun Belt; will face #8 Coastal Carolina or #9 South Alabama (Friday, 12:30, ESPN3)

The win over St. Mary’s is a huge one for a potential at-large from a mid-major conference, but those three awful losses are likely to keep them out if they don’t finish the job in the Sun Belt tournament.

Vermont (America East)

Record: 27-5 (16-0)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 49/178/107
Positives: excellent record; 13-4 road/neutral
Negatives: 0-4 vs. top 100 plus a home loss to #138 Northeastern
Current projection: below last at-large (Matrix) / 14th team out if at-large needed (CtD)
The path ahead: America East final vs. Albany (Saturday, 11 am, ESPN2)

Without winning any of their top 100 games in non-conference play, it’s hard to imagine Vermont getting serious at-large consideration should they lose to Albany, but it’s not completely impossible.

Princeton (Ivy League)

Record: 20-6 (14-0)
RPI/SOS/NCSOS: 51/151/72
Positives: unbeaten in conference; 11-5 road/neutral
Negatives: 1-4 vs. top 100 (no top 50 wins); home loss to #182 St. Joseph’s
Current projection: below last at-large (Matrix) / 16th team out if at-large needed (CtD)
The path ahead: #1 seed in Ivy League tournament; will face #4 Penn (Saturday, 1:30, ESPNU)

The inaugural Ivy tournament might screw up a perfect conference season for the Tigers, and given that all three of the other participants are outside the RPI top 100, it’s unlikely that Princeton can survive a loss.


I’ll be posting regular updates on the bubble situation throughout the week, or at least until it becomes clear that MSU won’t have to worry about it. For now, root for:

  • the auto-bid teams above to win their conference tournaments and make certain their conferences are one-bid leagues
  • in the ACC, Miami over Syracuse, Boston College over Wake Forest, and NC State over Clemson
  • in the Big XII, Baylor and Iowa State
  • in the Pac-12, Washington and Oregon State
  • in the SEC, Texas A&M and Tennessee
  • Creighton in the Big East
  • a Cincinnati-SMU final in the American
  • whoever faces Rhode Island in the A-10