Basketball

Bubble Watch: Under .500 might be no problem in 2019

Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through games of Sunday, Feb. 24.

If there’s one question we here at Bubble Watch receive more than any other, it is this:

“Why isn’t my team in Bubble Watch instead of Team X?” Here, Team X always, without fail, refers to a team that has a sub-.500 record in major-conference play.

Let’s be even more specific. As of the moment, the following teams would all be in the tournament if the selection were held today, according to Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket:

  • Oklahoma

  • TCU

  • Ohio State

  • Seton Hall

  • Butler

All of these teams are carrying sub-.500 records in conference play, and Bubble Watch mainstays Minnesota and Clemson, perched right on Lunardi’s cut line, are similarly underwater in their league games. How is this happening?

By “this,” Bubble Watch of course refers to a robust consensus among the bracket-making-and-tracking hive mind, a consensus that says the bracket prominence attained by sub-.500 teams is indeed a thing in 2019. Naturally, for all we know, the actual men’s basketball committee might do something different entirely.

Duly noted.

But if the consensus does end up having some grounding in reality, again, how is this happening?

Whatever you do, don’t say it’s because of the NCAA’s new rating system, the NET. Pinning this on the NET doesn’t fit the history.

There was no NET last year when Arizona State went 8-10 in a statistically weak Pac-12, lost by double digits in the first round of the conference tournament to a 16-14 Colorado team and still got an at-large bid. There was no NET last year when the committee smashed the record for sub.-500 at-large bids by giving out five such invitations — to the Sun Devils, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Syracuse.

Now, it appears, the tournament at-large field might again be populated by five or more teams that lost more games than they won in their league seasons. From 1985 to 2017, we never saw an at-large pool with more than three such teams. If we do see five or more for the second tournament in a row, this will officially be a trend.

Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble right now:

Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 23 teams
Locks: 23 teams
The bubble: 32 teams for 22 available spots
Should be in: 11 teams
Work to do: 21 teams

ACC

Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech
Should be in: Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson

Should be in

Syracuse Orange

On an emotional night in Syracuse, the last thing on anyone’s mind, surely, was a tournament profile. The actual game that nevertheless did take place will go down in the books as a loss to Duke on an evening when Zion Williamson sat out with a sprained knee. Oshae Brissett, Tyus Battle and their teammates are now faced with a short turnaround and another big opportunity, the kind the ACC offers in abundance in 2019. The Orange will play at North Carolina just 72 hours after the game against the Blue Devils. A Syracuse team shown as a No. 8 or 9 seed could change its position in the bracket with a win in Chapel Hill and/or with one in the Carrier Dome against Virginia on March 4. (Updated: Feb. 23)

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 Duke just in the past few weeks, they’re getting a well-deserved respite of sorts. The game coming up this weekend at Florida State will be no picnic, certainly, but other than that, NC State has games against Boston College and Georgia Tech left to play. The prospective No. 10 seed is looking solid at 20-8 overall and 8-7 in the ACC. (Updated: Feb. 24)

Clemson Tigers

Late February is all about risk management for Clemson. The Tigers won’t nail down an at-large bid by beating Boston College at home (as Brad Brownell’s team did Saturday) or by winning their next game at Pittsburgh. Then again, a team variously seen as either a No. 12 seed or as “first four out” material can definitely drive its bid probability down with a loss or, especially, two in a stretch like that. Currently 16-11 and 6-8 in the ACC, Clemson needs to bump up its win total against the likes of the Eagles and Panthers in preparation for the main selection event: North Carolina comes to Littlejohn Coliseum in March. Beating the Tar Heels would give the Tigers a second Quad 1 win to place alongside their 59-51 win at home over Virginia Tech. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State
Work to do: Baylor, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma

Work to do

Baylor Bears

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 has now played in wins at Iowa State and at home against West Virginia. The victory in Ames gave Baylor a 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 anticipated for this group was a bit low. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Texas Longhorns

One day before Texas took the floor against Oklahoma in Norman, the university announced that Kerwin Roach II had been suspended indefinitely due to an unspecified violation of team rules. Roach traveled with the team, however, and watched glumly from the bench as the Longhorns looked completely out of sorts in the first half of what became a 69-67 loss to the Sooners. Shaka Smart’s group is showing up in mock brackets as a No. 9 seed. The team did make a spirited second-half comeback before falling short at OU, and the Horns of course have some beautiful entries on their profile, including the neutral-floor win over North Carolina and home victories over Purdue and Kansas. That said, the no-Roach version of Texas had a rocky first 20 minutes, and the picture in Austin is less clear than it was when this roster was at full strength. (Updated: Feb. 23)

TCU Horned Frogs

Both of TCU’s Quad 1 wins this season have come against Iowa State, the latest being the Horned Frogs’ 75-72 victory over the Cyclones in Fort Worth. Jamie Dixon’s team is regarded as a probable No. 10 seed even though, in most years, a 6-8 record in conference play in late February would be an object of at least modest concern. After all, no team that’s finished more than two games under .500 in major-conference play has earned an at-large bid since 1998. Then again, the Big 12 is doling out ugly conference records to more than one at-large hopeful in 2019, and TCU’s NET ranking was a thoroughly respectable No. 41 at tip-off against ISU. The final conference record might not be pretty for the Frogs, but this team and its two Quad 1 wins are looking increasingly at home in the bracket. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Oklahoma Sooners

Don’t be fooled by the 5-9 record in Big 12 play: Oklahoma might have the most solid path to an at-large bid of any 5-9 team in history. Start with the fact the Sooners are projected as a No. 10 seed, a couple lines above real danger and suspense. Part of this is good fortune: OU’s wins over Wofford (at home) and Florida (on a neutral floor) have served Lon Kruger’s team well as the season has progressed. Speaking of good fortune, Kerwin Roach II missed the game in which Texas lost by two points to Oklahoma in Norman, and that game counts as a “we’ll take that” Quad 2 win for the Sooners. Lastly, OU took the floor on Saturday flashing a higher NET ranking than a safe tournament bet like Syracuse. Mark Twain said Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. Oklahoma’s at-large cred is kind of like that. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Big East

Lock: Marquette
Should be in: Villanova, St. John’s
Work to do: Seton Hall, Butler

Should be in

Villanova Wildcats

Villanova has been one win away from being a lock for the better part of two weeks, and barring only the most extraordinary of circumstances, yes, the Wildcats are still going to make the NCAA tournament. Still, having now lost three in a row and four of its past five, Jay Wright’s team is no longer that strutting 4-seed-in-the-making we were looking at just a couple of weeks ago. Instead, Nova is a No. 6 seed, at best, and quite possibly something lower. In their past five games, the historically perimeter-oriented Wildcats have shot just 30 percent on their 3s. (Updated: Feb. 24)

St. John’s Red Storm

In winning 78-70 against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden, Chris Mullin’s men faced their last at-large-quality opponent of the regular season. The Johnnies will now close with two games against Xavier and one against DePaul. If you’ve followed St. John’s this season through its highs (a 3-1 record against Marquette and Villanova) and lows (being swept by Providence), you’re prepared for this team to lose one of those last three games. That wouldn’t be a disaster (well, the home game against the Musketeers is Quad 3 and the other two are Quad 2), and more specifically, it wouldn’t by itself be enough to alter what is increasingly looking like SJU’s destiny. This team appears to be heading toward something in the area of a No. 8 seed. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Work to do

Seton Hall Pirates

Despite losing at St. John’s, 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 seed. Rest easy, optimists! … But for you pessimists out there, here’s the thing: Seton Hall’s remaining games are at Georgetown and at home against Marquette and Villanova. Is it really so unthinkable that the Pirates (currently 16-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big East) could lose two or, dare Bubble Watch say it, all three of those? This glass might be half-empty after all. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Butler Bulldogs

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 in which 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)

Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland
Should be in: Iowa
Work to do: Ohio State, Minnesota

Should be in

Iowa Hawkeyes

In what very well might turn out to be a last entry devoted to the Hawkeyes before they move on up to lock status, allow Bubble Watch to extend an exhilarated spectating thank-you to Fran McCaffery’s men. The overtime win at home over Indiana marks a rather incredible fourth straight game that has come down to the final possession of the 40th minute. Iowa’s entertainment value in February has been second to none, and Bubble Watch is a fervent believer in entertainment value. It is probable that all of the above will result in a No. 6 or 7 seed for the Hawkeyes. (Updated: Feb. 22)

Work to do

Ohio State Buckeyes

In its final four games, Ohio State will get three chances to snap what’s now become a rather noticeable streak. The Buckeyes haven’t won a game against an at-large-caliber opponent in close to three months. The committee doesn’t care when you beat teams, of course, so the November win at Cincinnati in particular is still doing good work on OSU’s profile. Throw in the fact that the team sheet is more impressed with road wins at Creighton, Nebraska and Indiana (all Quad 1 victories) than the layperson might be, and Chris Holtmann’s team is still showing up in brackets as a No. 9 seed. Locking in that spot could require as little as one win in games still to be played at home against Iowa and Wisconsin and on the road against Purdue. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota was a member in good standing of Lunardi’s “last four in” club when the Gophers went and lost 68-64 at Rutgers. We’ve seen worse losses from “work to do” members (ask Arizona State about the home game against Washington State sometime), but, no, suffering a Quad 2 defeat at the end of February when you have no margin for error is not the best look. The setback drops Richard Pitino’s team to 17-11 overall and 7-10 in the Big Ten. Yes, the profile-defining win at Wisconsin is still there, but it is now sagging a bit under the weight of six losses just this month. The good news? Pitino’s guys can likely still play their way into the tournament. They close with road dates at Northwestern and Maryland and a home game against Purdue. (Updated: Feb. 24)

Pac-12

Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State

Should be in

Washington Huskies

Mike Hopkins’ men likely will reach Selection Sunday showing a road victory at Oregon as their best win. That might 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 currently are 13-1). All of the above might 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. 23)

Work to do

Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils likely would earn a No. 11 seed 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. (Barely.) 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. 24)

SEC

Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU
Should be in: Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss
Work to do: Florida, Alabama

Should be in

Mississippi State Bulldogs

The Bulldogs are now playing to improve what’s expected to be a No. 6 or 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 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 Tigers with the Bulldogs’ offense in peak form. During this current four-game win streak, Ben Howland’s team has scored 1.13 points per possession. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Auburn Tigers

The knock on the Tigers is that that they’re an efficient bunch beloved of the NET (having entered the game at Kentucky ranked a lofty No. 20) but that, oh by the way, Auburn doesn’t actually beat any good teams. Needless to say, losing to the Wildcats at Rupp Arena by 27 points did zero to refute that school of thought. Bruce Pearl’s men are now just 2-6 against SEC opponents listed as locks, should-be in’s or work-to-do’s by Bubble Watch, and the wins came at home against Alabama and Florida. AU is shown as a No. 8 seed, and, with three Quad 1 opportunities remaining on the schedule, there’s still a chance for this team to both improve its position in the bracket and, yes, to shake its “all stats, no statements” reputation. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Ole Miss Rebels

Georgia’s Tyree Crump missed a 3 at the buzzer, and Ole Miss escaped with a 72-71 win at home. Coming on the heels of a 79-64 loss at South Carolina, the surprisingly close call marked the second game in a row where the Rebels have looked less than formidable. Now Kermit Davis and his men are being shown as a potential No. 8 seed in mock brackets as they prepare to host Tennessee. Watch the paint in this first of two huge upcoming Quad 1 opportunities for Ole Miss. The Rebels play the best interior D of any SEC team not named Kentucky, while the Volunteers are 2-point-scoring masters. Speaking of UK, the Wildcats will also be coming to Oxford in this closing stretch of games. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Work to do

Florida Gators

Especially after a far less impressive showing in a four-point home win over Missouri, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Florida’s previous 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). Still, UF’s projected seed is up to a No. 10, and the picture in Gainesville is far brighter than it was in early February. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Alabama Crimson Tide

Before taking care of Vanderbilt 68-61 at home, Alabama was listed by Lunardi as one of the last four teams in the field. The Crimson Tide, of course, possess the massive and transcendently important win at home over Kentucky, as well as an additional Quad 1 victory over Mississippi State (also in Tuscaloosa). When you’re shown as one of the last four teams in the field and you have four games remaining in the regular season, there’s no need to overthink things. Avery Johnson’s men close with a road game at South Carolina, home dates against LSU and Auburn and a final away game at Arkansas. Except for the game against the Gamecocks, all of those are all Quad 1 opportunities. (The visit to Fayetteville barely makes the cut.) Win even one of the two games against LSU and Auburn and it could be enough for a bid. (Updated: Feb. 23)

American

Locks: Houston, Cincinnati
Work to do: UCF, Temple

Should be in

Cincinnati Bearcats

Here’s a stat that suggests we might 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

UCF Knights

UCF presents us with what might be the bubble’s cleanest and most compelling “win and you’re in scenario.” Here are the givens. The Knights are, presumably, just barely in the field as a No. 11 or possibly even a No. 12 seed despite the fact that Johnny Dawkins’ team is still searching for its first Quad 1 win of the season. Now, however, UCF is about to close the season with nothing but Quad 1 opportunities. The Knights finish up with games at South Florida (barely Quad 1), at Houston, at home against Cincinnati and at Temple. Dawkins and his team will have the chance to make their case to the committee in persuasive on-floor terms. (Updated: Feb. 24)

Temple Owls

Temple entered its home game against Tulsa listed by Lunardi as one of the last four teams in the field, and the Owls emerged with an 84-73 win. Being the team that gave Houston its only loss of the season will continue to pay big dividends for Fran Dunphy’s men, who can further enhance their prospects with a win against Memphis in their next game. Playing the Tigers on the road constitutes Temple’s last Quad 1 opportunity of the regular season. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Others

Lock: Gonzaga, Nevada
Should be in: Buffalo, Wofford
Work to do: VCU, Utah State, Belmont, Davidson, Furman, Lipscomb

Should be in

Buffalo Bulls

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. 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)

Wofford Terriers

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 24-4, with the losses coming to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Mike Young’s team additionally owns Quad 1 wins at Furman, 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. 23)

Work to do

VCU Rams

At 21-6 overall and in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10, Mike Rhoades’ team has a No. 11 seed waiting for it next month if mock brackets are to be trusted. Of course, mock brackets in February can’t necessarily be trusted. Nonetheless, if VCU has a plausible method at hand for turning those projections into reality, it is defense. In the Rams’ 85-57 win at home over GW, Marcus Evans and company uncorked a 21-0 second-half run as they held the Colonials scoreless for more than 10 minutes. That’s the kind of performance that can earn an at-large, even in the absence of Quad 1 opportunities. Keep winning, Rams. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Utah State Aggies

Utah State might have seen its at-large life flash before its eyes, but Sam Merrill hit five 3s and scored 32 points as the Aggies won 78-71 in overtime at Boise State. A loss there would have gone in the books as a Quad 3 defeat — not fatal in and of itself, perhaps, but far from ideal at the end of February for a team trying to play its way into the bracket. Craig Smith’s men now have a home game against San Diego State before they welcome Nevada to Logan for a potentially profile-transforming evening of basketball. Despite a Quad 1 win on a neutral floor against Saint Mary’s already in the books, USU is commonly being labeled as “first four out” material in mock brackets. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Belmont Bruins

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 nonconference 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 is variously shown as one of the last teams in or as lurking just outside the field in most projections, but, at 22-4, Byrd’s guys have won 11 straight and are looking to run the table. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Davidson Wildcats

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 Davidson 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).

Furman Paladins
It’s a mark of how strong the Southern Conference is in 2019 that Furman can lose at home 72-64 to Wofford and still be very much alive for an at-large bid. No, the Paladins aren’t “should be in” material just yet, but Bob Richey’s group does have that memorable Quad 1 win at Villanova, and the Dins could be helped along by the mighty SoCon in still another way. The loss to the Terriers drops Furman in the conference-title race to such an extent that it’s conceivable Richey’s guys could see Wofford in the league tournament prior to the title game. A third game against the Terriers on a neutral floor in Asheville, North Carolina, would be a Quad 1 opportunity. (Updated: Feb. 23)

Lipscomb Bisons
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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