The college basketball regular season has concluded. Some of the smaller conferences (and the Big Ten) have already had their conference tournaments. For the other 19 leagues, their teams have one last opportunity during Championship Week to state their cases for being in the NCAA Tournament. For teams in major conferences, this represents an opportunity to add signature Tier 1 wins to their resumes by pulling upsets over higher-seeded teams while for mid-majors it is a dangerous venture where any loss could burst their bubble hopes. If you are new to dabbling in the NCAA Tournament selection discussion, check out my Bracketology 101 post and Historical Analysis of the RPI.
You can keep track of the teams left in their respective tournament fields with our Conference Tournament Tracker and follow along with my most recent bracketology projections.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the resumes of the 22 teams currently “on the bubble” (I’m being generous with some of the lower bubble teams by keeping them in the conversation). These teams will be vying over the last 8-10 spots in the field, depending on how conference tournaments shake out. I’ll go through the list in RPI order, then discuss my ranking of them at the end. Team sheet images are courtesy of WarrenNolan.com.
The RPI formula underwent a major change in 2004. Since then, only one team was left out with an RPI in the Top 25 (Missouri St, 2006). That is good news for the Bonnies who have only 1 Top 30 win and 3 losses outside the Top 100. It will be interesting to see how the Committee handles St. Bonaventure as their worst loss of the season (to Niagara) came with leading scorer Jaylen Adams out of the lineup. The Bonnies resume is being dragged down by the predictive metrics, where their average is nearly 30 places lower than their results-based metrics, one of the widest discrepancies on the bubble.
The Blue Raiders lost to Marshall in their season finale, completing a season sweep by the Thundering Herd. With Marshall getting the 4-seed in the Conference USA Tournament, a third meeting looms on the horizon. Middle Tennessee played an excellent non-conference schedule but didn’t get many signature wins. Their best victory is over Ohio Valley champion Murray State (RPI 49). Their two losses to Marshall (RPI 101) are their worst of the season, and a loss in the Conference USA Tournament could make for an uncomfortable Selection Sunday as the Blue Raiders try to get to the Big Dance for the third straight year.
Like with St. Bonaventure, it would be an historic divergence from the RPI trends for the Committee to leave USC out of the field. The Trojans lack a “signature” win on their resume with their best victories coming on neutral courts over two mid-major regular season champions (Middle Tennessee St and New Mexico St). The only blemish on their resume is an overtime loss to Princeton, which should not keep the Trojans out of the field. They have enough decent wins in the top 2 tiers to get them in, though their seeding may take a hit because of their lack of good wins.
An RPI in the 30s is right in the danger zone for a mid-major. As I discussed a few weeks ago, St. Mary’s resume is very similar to 2016 when they were also left out of the field. Their overall record looks great, but 24 of their 28 wins came outside the Top 100 with 15 coming against Tier 4 opponents. Predictive metrics love St. Mary’s while the results-based metrics place them more in the bubble range. The Committee has not traditionally given as much weight to rankings like BPI and KenPom, and St. Mary’s will present an interesting case. Their non-conference schedule was nothing to write home about, and they are essentially relying on a road win over Gonzaga to carry their Tournament hopes. The Gaels are still alive in the West Coast Conference Tournament and could earn an automatic bid so they don’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Like with USC, if the Bruins are able to keep their RPI in the 30s they should feel fairly comfortable heading into Selection Sunday. They have only 1 loss outside the Top 100 (at Oregon St) and were swept by Colorado. They have enough good wins to offset that as the Bruins scored victories over Kentucky on a neutral court and at Arizona. As long as UCLA doesn’t lose to a Tier 2 or 3 opponent in the Pac-12 Tournament, their good wins should be enough to carry them into the field.
The Orange had an incredibly frustrating last week of the season that is unfortunately typical for bubble teams. They lost in Chestnut Hill to a mediocre Boston College team then turned around and got their best win of the season against Clemson. To their credit, Syracuse did play a very difficult non-conference schedule which the Committee always sites as a determining factor for bubble teams. Two road losses to teams in the 140s are dragging down their profile and the Orange will need to avoid a loss to Wake Forest on Tuesday in Brooklyn.
The Broncos are on the low end of the bubble picture. Much like St. Mary’s, they are relying on one signature win to carry their profile, in this case a home victory over Missouri Valley champs Loyola-Chicago. The difference between Boise and St Mary’s is that the Gaels got their best win on the road, which the Committee looks favorably upon. Boise St played an awful non-conference schedule and won’t get the opportunity to add a Tier 1 win until the Mountain West championship game if they face Nevada, at which point a win would get them in anyway.
Another year, another discussion of the Friars on the Bubble. Providence has the best wins of any team on the bubble with victories over Villanova and Xavier. Unfortunately, their next best wins after that were over Creighton (RPI 35), Butler (RPI 42) and at Marquette (RPI 57). The Friars have 3 awful Tier 3 losses that are an albatross on their resume. They also have a 24-spot divide between their results metrics and predictive metrics. The good news for the Friars is that every game they play in the Big East Tournament should be against a Tier 1 opponent, so they will have plenty of opportunities to add good wins.
Louisville had a massive opportunity for their best win of the season over the weekend but lost to Virginia in hilariously inept fashion. How do you treat a team with no good wins but no bad losses? The Cardinals best win is at Florida State (RPI 44), but their worst loss is at NC State (RPI 55). Louisville will get a third shot at Florida State in Brooklyn this week with the potential for a rematch with Virginia looming. On the whole, there is nothing to get excited about but also nothing to get upset about on their resume. The Cards haven’t taken a bad loss, but 15 of their 19 wins came outside the top two tiers.
The Utes are an interesting case for the new team sheets. Their two best wins (#33 Missouri and #38 UCLA) came at home, so they fall in the Tier 2 column while their best road wins (#58 Arizona St, #63 Washington, and #67 Oregon) all fall in the Tier 1 column. There isn’t much exciting about Utah’s resume as it lacks a signature win and has a non-conference strength of schedule in the 200s. The Utes have only one bad loss to speak of, which is keeping them afloat on the bubble, but will need to make some noise in the Pac-12 Tournament to overcome their bad non-conference slate.
From a volume standpoint, Marquette has some of the most Tier 1 and Tier 2 wins of any team on the bubble. Unfortunately the Eagles played a bad non-conference schedule and lack a “signature” Top 25 win to give the top of their profile some heft. Their best wins are a sweep of Seton Hall (RPI 27) and a sweep of Creighton (RPI 35). Couple the lack of an elite win with an awful loss at DePaul means trouble for Marquette. Fortunately, if they are able to get by DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament they will have an opportunity for that signature win against Villanova in the quarterfinals.
Surprised? The Sun Devils were ranked in the Top 5 in the nation earlier in the season after beating Xavier and Kansas, but stumbled through Pac-12 play and finished 9th in the conference. I should note that the Committee does not care about Conference Record or order of finish, but Arizona State piled up a number of questionable losses along the way. The Sun Devils were swept by Oregon (RPI 67), Stanford (RPI 72), and lost games at Colorado (RPI 86) and Oregon St (RPI 144). Their good wins are better than everyone on the bubble not named Providence, and the Sun Devils’ lack of bad losses (only 1 outside the Top 100) should keep them on the right side of the bubble.
Last year, Vanderbilt became the first team ever with 15 losses to receive an at-large bid. The Commodores had 6 “Tier 2” losses (50-100 last year) but had the top-ranked non-conference and overall strength of schedule. Will Alabama follow a similar path this season? The Tide enter tournament play with a 17-14 record and 6 Tier 2 losses. Alabama has been home court heroes this year with a 12-5 record and wins over Auburn, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and Texas A&M. On the flip side, they suffered road losses at Vanderbilt (RPI 116) and Ole Miss (RPI 125). It will be interesting to see how the Committee handles Bama’s loss to Minnesota. In that game the bench cleared in a scuffle and all but 4 Bama players were ejected and one was later injured. However, Alabama staged a nearly-miraculous comeback with only 3 players. The Tide trailed by 14 with 10 minutes to play and trimmed the lead to 3 in the closing minutes, only to lose by 5. Will the Committee discount this loss because it occurred with the Tide playing nearly 2 men down for the last 10 minutes? No team has ever received an at-large bid while being fewer than 4 games over .500, but Alabama did play a difficult non-conference schedule.
Baylor enters Conference Tournament play with a 17-13 record and may also test that “4 games over .500” trend of the Committee. The Bears have also been home court heroes with just a 2-9 record away from Waco. They did score solid victories over Kansas and Texas Tech and have only 1 loss to a team outside the Tournament conversation. Predictive metrics love Baylor by a 20-spot margin over the results-based metrics. Baylor’s good wins and lack of a loss in Tier 3 or 4 are keeping their bubble hopes alive despite marginal computer numbers.
Kansas St completed a season-sweep of Baylor over the weekend. An atrocious non-conference schedule could spell doom for the Wildcats whose resume only has 1 Top 30 win (over TCU). What Kansas State has going for them is that they have beaten the teams they should beat and have not lost a game outside the Top 70. Will a handful of wins against the middle of the Big XII pack be enough to overcome their awful non-conference slate in the eyes of the Committee?
The Huskies have two great wins at the top of their resume, but have suffered a number of curious defeats in the middle. They beat Kansas and Arizona, but were also swept by Utah, Oregon, and Stanford and lost at Oregon State. Washington did play a solid non-conference schedule and really only has 1 bad loss on their resume. The biggest red flag is their computer numbers, particularly the predictive metrics which have them no where close to being an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. The 40-spot disparity between their results-based metrics and predictive metrics results in an overall average number (82.17) that is dramatically lower than the rest of the bubble teams who are generally in the 40s or 50s.
The Cornhuskers went one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament in New York last week which likely spelled the end for their NCAA Tournament hopes. They have only one bad loss (at Illinois) but also only 1 win against a Tier 1 opponent (at home over Michigan). They did not beat a Top 100 team away from home. In a down year for the Big Ten, the Huskers played a bad non-conference schedule and just don’t have enough good wins to be in the conversation.
Mississippi St quietly had a good season in the SEC. The Bulldogs did not lose a game to a Tier 3 or Tier 4 opponent and scored victories over Texas A&M and Arkansas. On the whole this is a profile relatively light on good wins but their lack of bad losses keeps them hovering around the bubble. If the Bulldogs are able to put together some victories in St. Louis they could see their profile take a dramatic rise over the next week. Mississippi State played an atrocious non-conference schedule, which could be the kiss of death for a potential bubble team.
Notre Dame & Oregon
Both of these teams may simply have too many bad losses to get into the bubble conversation. The Irish have three bad losses outside the Top 100 to Ball State, Indiana, and Georgia Tech. Those 3, coupled with a bad non-conference schedule should be enough to disqualify them from bubble consideration. However, the rub here is how the Committee will handle the absence of Bonzie Colson. The Irish big man is back and if they make a big run in the ACC Tournament could warrant consideration on the bubble. Based on their current resume, Notre Dame would not be close so they need to show they are a different team with Colson in the lineup over the next week. Similarly, Oregon played a bad non-conference schedule and the computer numbers don’t do them many favors. That said, their late February win over Arizona gave them a signature victory atop their profile that keeps them on the fringe of the bubble conversation. Oregon lost 3 games to Tier 3 opponents, which will likely be too much for the Ducks to overcome without making a big run in the Pac 12 Tournament.
LSU & Oklahoma St
A team with an RPI lower than 75 has never received an at-large bid. That said, LSU’s 6 Tier 1 victories are more than any other team in the bubble discussion. The Tigers have only lost twice to Tier 3 opponents and have 2 losses outside the Top 100. LSU’s problems are in their computer numbers where no metric ranks them in the Top 50 and their non-conference schedule is in the 130s. The Tigers were just 3-7 on the road but did beat two Top 30 teams in Texas A&M and Arkansas away from home. In all likelihood this is an NIT team but the potential for a run in the SEC Tournament and their slew of good wins keeps them on the fringe of the conversation for now. Like LSU, Oklahoma State is hanging out in a territory where an at-large bid has never been awarded. The Cowboys swept Kansas this year, including an 18-point win to close out the season. Oklahoma St played a bad non-conference schedule and has a wide mix of computer numbers. They did not lose a game outside the Top 70 and in addition to their sweep of Kansas have wins over Texas Tech and West Virginia. Could the Pokes make Tournament history? It would likely take another win over Kansas in the Big XII Tournament to get their computer numbers at least into the 70s where the Committee has given bids before.
Who’s In and Who’s Out?
Of the 22 teams on the bubble, there are currently 10 available spots in the NCAA Tournament Field. Middle Tennessee is the top seed in the Conference USA Tournament so if the Blue Raiders do not win the automatic bid the potential exists for the available spots to shrink by one spot. Additionally, if St. Mary’s wins the West Coast Conference the available positions could shrink, leaving only 8 spots. For now, I am assuming the the top seeds (or highest remaining seeds) in each tournament will earn the automatic bids.
Starting at the bottom, Nebraska simply does not have enough good wins to stay in the bubble conversation. Their 22-10 record was a great season but 1 Tier 1 victory is the least of anyone on the bubble other than St. Mary’s. Furthermore, Oregon and Notre Dame at this point have too many bad losses to warrant further consideration. LSU and Oklahoma State have RPIs well below where the Committee has traditionally given bids. Washington‘s metric average is vastly different than the other bubble teams and Mississippi State, Boise St, and Utah played non-conference schedules that all rank in the 200s.
This leaves 13 teams vying over 10 spots. Of these, Arizona State, Baylor, and UCLA have the best wins without overwhelmingly bad losses. The Committee’s history in relation to RPI would tell us that USC, St. Bonaventure, and Syracuse should all be in. Looking deeper, the Bonnies worst loss was without their best player and the rest of their profile is comparable to other teams that are in. USC lacks a signature win but they have enough good wins (4 Tier 1 wins is tied for the most of any bubble team) to get in. Syracuse picking up their best win of the season against Clemson along with a road win over Miami is good enough to offset their two bad losses and get the Orange in. All three also have non-conference schedules ranked in the Top 60. If we assume Middle Tennessee wins the automatic bid from Conference USA and gets in, we are now down to 6 teams for the last 3 spots in the field.
Providence has the best wins of the group but also 3 Tier 4 losses. Kansas State and Louisville lack bad losses but don’t have great wins either. Alabama has a number of good wins but also a ton of bad losses. St. Mary’s and Marquette both have 2 losses in Tier 3 and don’t have signature wins. That fact, coupled with non-conference schedules in the 100s is enough for me to eliminate St. Mary’s and Marquette. At this point, Alabama simply has too many questionable losses (8 outside of Tier 1) when compared with the 3 other teams (whose max is 4). This puts Providence, Kansas State, and Louisville in with Alabama, St. Mary’s and Marquette just missing. These are the last few teams in the field in my latest bracket projection, which you can check out here. Obviously, there is still a lot of basketball left to be played and teams will move up or down based on their performances over the next week.