Bubble Watch: How Each Team on the Edge Can Secure a Spot in NCAA Tournament Field

Conference tournaments began last week, but Championship Week has arrived. In a few short days, we’ll know all 68 teams in the field and what each one will have to do to cut down the nets in San Antonio. Until then, we’ll be keeping track of the changes to the projected field daily in the Bubble Watch.

In addition to daily updates, we’ll start each day’s Bubble Watch with a look at the biggest bubble games of the day. Tuesday brings the start of the ACC tournament, as well as the West Coast Conference championship game. There’s action in other conferences as well, including the championship games in the Colonial, Horizon, Northeast and Summit, but those don’t carry any bubble implications.

ACC First Round: Pittsburgh vs. Notre Dame, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Notre Dame is still nursing a long-shot case for an at-large bid, aided by the return of Bonzie Colson. Still, the Irish likely need at least three wins this week to have a chance to get into the dance. It all starts Tuesday against Pittsburgh, which went 0-18 in the ACC this season.

ACC First Round: Wake Forest vs. Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU

The Orange are in the field of our latest Bracket Watch after being Clemson last weekend, but they’ll need to do some damage this week to better position themselves for an at-large bid. A loss to Wake Forest would almost certainly knock them out of contention.

WCC Championship: Gonzaga vs. BYU, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Every bubble team in the country will be watching this one intently, cheering for Gonzaga as though their tournament lives depend on it. For some, it might. BYU won’t get an at-large bid, but could steal a spot in the field of 68 by beating Gonzaga and claiming the WCC’s automatic invite. The Bulldogs had little problem with the Cougars in the regular season, beating them by eight at home and 14 on the road.

Locks (36)

Arizona, Arkansas, Auburn, Cincinnati, Clemson, Creighton, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Houston, Iona, Kansas, Kentucky, Lipscomb, Loyola-Chicago, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Murray State, North Carolina, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Purdue, Radford, Seton Hall, Tennessee, Texas AM, TCU, Texas Tech, UNC-Greensboro, Villanova, Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Wichita State, Xavier

Spots remaining

14 (68 total spots — 36 locks — 18 remaining single-bid conference automatic qualifiers = 14)

Solid Selections

Teams that are all but guaranteed to secure a spot in the field of 68.

NC State (21-10, RPI: 55, SOS: 69, Q1 record: 5-7)

NC State left the NIT door ajar by losing to a lowly Georgia Tech team last week. If the Wolfpack lose their first ACC tournament game, which will be on Wednesday against the Georgia Tech-Boston College winner, they could be in some trouble. So long as they win that one, they’ll move into the lock category.

Rhode Island (23-6, RPI, 16, SOS: 52, Q1 record: 2-4)

We’ve been trying to warn you for weeks about Rhode Island. The Rams have lost two straight and three of five, and their last win against a potential at-large team was nearly two months ago. Rhode Island is still in strong position for an at-large bid but it is not the dangerous with Sweet 16 potential it was billed as just a few weeks ago.

Missouri (19-11, RPI: 33, SOS: 36, Q1 record: 5-7)

The Tigers had the week they desperately needed to wrap up the regular season, knocking off Vanderbilt and Arkansas. They’ll play the Georgia-Vanderbilt winner in their first game in the SEC tournament on Thursday. Avoid what would be an ugly loss there and they’ll be locked into the dance.

Florida State (20-10, RPI: 44, SOS: 83, Q1 record: 6-6)

The Seminoles should be good with their six Q1 wins, which includes victories over North Carolina, Clemson, Miami and Florida. How would they get into trouble? Well, they’d first have to lose to Louisville in the second round of the ACC tournament. From there, multiple teams objectively behind them in the pecking order would need to go on deep runs this week. Possible? Yes. Probable? Not even close. Bet on seeing the Seminoles in the field of 68.

Safer Than Most

Teams that are standing on solid ground and looking strong heading into Selection Sunday.

Nevada (26-6, RPI: 14, SOS: 53, Q1 record: 2-2)

You could easily make an argument that Nevada belongs in the previous category and some of my very smart, well-respected fellow bubble watchers believe they are locked into the dance. I, however, cannot go that far. Nevada’s best win is Rhode Island. It’s other Q1 win was against Boise State. It has two losses outside the top 100, and cannot improve its at-large resumé in the Mountain West tournament. A loss in its quarterfinal matchup against the UNLV-Air Force winner on Thursday would have the Wolf Pack quite nervous on Selection Sunday. And lest you think that can’t happen, one of those sub-100 losses came at the hands of UNLV.

Texas (18-13, RPI: 48, SOS: 17, Q1 record: 5-10)

Texas got a huge win over the weekend, outlasting West Virginia in overtime at home. Believe it or not, that doesn’t qualify as a Q1 win, though it will if the Mountaineers improve their RPI by one slot by Selection Sunday. Still, it will be a big win in the collective eye of the Selection Committee, which Texas adds to previous triumphs over TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Butler. Texas is the No. 7 seed in the Big 12 tournament and will face Iowa State in the first round on Wednesday. The bet here is that Texas will be safe if it takes care of business against the Cyclones. It would remove any doubt by going on to beat Texas Tech in the quarterfinals. Still, a 19-14 record with a top-50 RPI, top-20 SOS and five or six Q1 victories should be enough for the Longhorns to earn an invite to the dance.

True Bubble Teams

Teams that are undoubtedly part of the bubble picture.

Arizona State (20-10, RPI: 58, SOS: 81, Q1 record: 3-5, Q2 record: 4-4, sub-100 losses: 1)

After the Sun Devils beat Kansas and Xavier by the middle of December, it seemed impossible that they could be on the bubble the final week of the season. Those wins were a long time ago, though, and that’s exactly where they find themselves. They lost four of their final five games of the season, at least two of which were to teams with no hope of earning an at-large bid (Oregon State and Stanford). They open the Pac-12 tournament with a losable game against Colorado on Wednesday. A loss there and the Sun Devils are likely NIT-bound. A win there could be enough to at least secure one of the final four spots in the field. The only way they’ll be assured of a spot is by beating Arizona in the quarterfinals.

Saint Mary’s (28-5, RPI: 36, SOS: 207, Q1 record: 1-1, Q2 record: 2-2, sub-100 losses: 2)

The Gaels are in some trouble after losing to BYU in the WCC semifinals early this week. They may have a gaudy overall record, but nothing else about their resumé jumps out in a good way. In fact, the only other elements that stand out are negative: a strength of schedule outside the top 200; one Q1 victory that doubles as their only win over an at-large quality team; two ugly losses to San Francisco and Washington State. If multiple bubble teams from the power conferences make runs in their tournaments, Saint Mary’s could be left out of the field.

Butler (19-12, RPI: 45, SOS: 29, Q1 record: 3-10, Q2 record: 4-1, sub-100 losses: 1)

Butler heads into the Big East tournament following a damaging week where it lost to St. John’s and Seton Hall. Had the Bulldogs won either of those games, they’d be in the previous section. Now they’re in a position where they’ll need to win a game in the Big East tourney to feel good on Selection Sunday. That game comes on Thursday against the same Seton Hall Pirates that beat them in their regular season finale. The Bulldogs’ at-large invite isn’t necessarily dependent on winning that game, but it will be a nervous few days in Indianapolis if they don’t get it. If they beat Seton Hall, they’ll have nothing to worry about on Selection Sunday.

Providence (19-12, RPI: 43, SOS: 23, Q1 record: 3-8, Q2 record: 5-1, sub-100 losses: 3)

Providence’s at-large case looks pretty open-and-shut until you get to that last part of the resumé. The Friars are one of two at-large teams in our current field with three sub-100 losses, and even that doesn’t tell the whole story. All three of those losses were to teams with RPIs of 171 or worse, including one sub-200 loss to Massachusetts. Now, to be fair, wins over Villanova and Xavier offset those losses. But Providence is still playing with fire and even though a loss to Creighton in their first game of the Big East tournament wouldn’t hurt their resumé, they can’t afford to give the committee any reason to leave them out. They’re in with a win, and sweating—but still likely in—with a loss.

St. Bonaventure (24-6, RPI: 21, SOS: 82, Q1 record: 3-2, Q2 record: 4-2, sub-100 losses: 3)

The Bonnies head into the Atlantic 10 tournament on a high, having won 12 straight games. They shouldn’t have any trouble with the Richmond-Duquesne winner in their quarterfinal game on Friday, but they could meet a frisky Davidson team on Saturday. There’s no guarantee that the Bonnies could afford a loss there. Despite all the good press they’ve received over the last two months, the bottom line is they have two wins against potential at-large teams, and one of those came against Syracuse, which is very much on the bubble. Pair that with three ugly losses and the Bonnies can’t take any chances. Should they advance to the conference championship game, they should be in good shape.

Baylor (17-13, RPI: 61, SOS: 14, Q1 record: 4-10, Q2 record: 3-3, sub-100 losses: 1)

After surging back by winning five straight, Baylor lost three of its final four games of the regular season. The Bears are still just inside our tournament field, but they could be in some trouble. They’ll take on West Virginia in the Big 12 quarterfinals on Thursday in a game they need to win to feel good about their at-large chances. They could still get an invite without it, but the committee hasn’t shown much love to previous 17-14 teams. Last year’s Vanderbilt team broke new ground by getting an at-large invite with 15 losses, but they were four games over .500 and had six wins over at-large teams. Baylor has five. Again, that could be enough for the Bears, but they would likely need a little bit of help from their fellow bubble teams. They could remove all the drama surrounding their case by beating West Virginia.

Kansas State (21-10, RPI: 62, SOS: 91, Q1 record: 3-7, Q2 record: 6-3, sub-100 losses: 0)

The particulars of Kansas State’s case differ from Baylor’s, but it is in essentially the same spot. If the Wildcats win their quarterfinal game in the Big 12 tournament, which is against TCU, they should be in good shape. If they don’t, they’re going to have an anxious 72 hours between the end of the game and the revealing of the bracket. Kansas State’s best wins aren’t nearly as strong as Baylor’s, but nine of its 10 losses were to certain, likely or potential tournament teams. Should the Wildcats fall to TCU on Thursday, their tournament hopes will likely depend on what the rest of the bubble teams do in their respective tournaments.

Syracuse (19-12, RPI: 40, SOS: 12, Q1 record: 3-7, Q2 record: 3-3, sub-100 losses: 2)

The Orange got a huge win by knocking off Clemson in their regular season finale. That was enough to get them into the field of 68 in our most recent Bracket Watch, but it might not keep them in the field if they don’t do anything more in the ACC tournament. First, they need to take care of business against Wake Forest on Tuesday. Lose that game and the Orange will be easy to leave out of the field. Assuming they advance, they’ll play North Carolina on Wednesday. A win there would almost certainly give the Orange what they need to lock up an at-large bid. A loss, however, would have them just on either side of the bubble. Whether it’s the good side would depend heavily on what the other bubble teams do­—most notably fellow ACC bubbler Louisville. For what it’s worth, Syracuse split its two games with Wake Forest this season and lost its only game against North Carolina.

UCLA (20-10, RPI: 38, SOS: 62, Q1 record: 3-7, Q2 record: 5-1, sub-100 losses: 1)

If nothing else, UCLA put itself comfortably ahead of USC on the seed list by beating the Trojans last weekend, earning a sweep over their cross-city rivals. There’s no way to look objectively at the resumés of these two teams and determine that USC is more worthy of an at-large bid. Given that the two are likely to be in contention for one of the few remaining bids come Selection Sunday, that status is huge for the Bruins. Now, they just have to figure out a way to stay there. It starts by beating the Stanford-Cal winner on Thursday. If they do that, they’ll likely score a second date with Arizona in the semifinals. UCLA won its only game with the Wildcats this season and a second win over the Pac-12’s best team would all but lock up an at-large bid.

Marquette (18-12, RPI: 57, SOS: 28, Q1 record: 4-7, Q2 record: 4-3, sub-100 losses: 1)

The Golden Eagles had just the week they needed to wrap up the regular season, beating Georgetown and Creighton. They head into the Big East tournament standing one big win away from becoming a likely tournament team, especially since that game would be against Villanova. They have to get through DePaul first, though, and the Blue Demons handed them their one and only sub-100 loss just two weeks ago. A win there and a loss to Villanova would have the Golden Eagles teetering on the edge of the field, likely needing teams such as USC, Louisville, Oklahoma State, Alabama, Washington, Notre Dame and LSU to not improve their resumés.

USC (21-10, RPI: 34, SOS: 47, Q1 record: 4-6, Q2 record: 5-3, sub-100 losses: 2)

How can I be so sure that UCLA is ahead of USC? After all, USC has the better RPI, SOS and Q1 record. First, the RPI difference is negligible. Second, USC may have the better Q1 record but UCLA’s Q1 performance is far superior. Two of the Bruins’ Q1 wins were against Kentucky and Arizona. USC, meanwhile, may not own a win over an at-large team. Its four Q1 wins came against Middle Tennessee State, New Mexico State, Utah and Oregon. For me, that would be enough to grade UCLA as the better team—the sweep is just icing on the cake. The problem for USC is that it won’t have a chance to build its resumé until the Pac-12 championship, and at that point, strengthening its at-large case is moot. The Trojans may be just barely on the wrong side of the bubble, but the bet of the SI.com Bubble Watch committee is that they need to win the Pac-12 tourney, or get a ton of help in the form of teams going out early in conference tournaments, such as Marquette, Syracuse, Louisville, Kansas State and Baylor.

Louisville (19-12, RPI: 46, SOS: 22, Q1 record: 3-10, Q2 record: 1-2, sub-100 losses: 0)

For all the ups and downs of Louisville’s season, they’ve actually become one of the more predictable teams in the country, at least when you take a look at their results. Their team sheet tells the story of team that wins the game it’s supposed to win and loses the games it’s supposed to lose. They don’t have a bad loss to speak of, with all but one of their losses to certain or likely tournament teams. The one remaining loss was to Syracuse, which also could be headed for an at-large bid. At the same time, their best wins are at Florida State and Virginia Tech—solid wins to be sure, but maybe not enough to warrant an at-large invite. If Louisville loses its first ACC tournament first round game to Florida State on Wednesday, it will likely be headed to the NIT. If it wins that and upsets Virginia, it will likely be headed to the big dance. A win over Florida State and loss to Virginia will have the Cardinals in limbo.

Oklahoma State (18-13, RPI: 88, SOS: 68, Q1 record: 5-10, Q2 record: 4-3, sub-100 losses: 0)

What is one of the best things a team can do to get back into the at-large picture after it’s been essentially disregarded? Ripping off four wins against teams likely to be seeded fourth or better in a month is certainly one way, and it’s even better if two of those are against a potential No. 1 seed that won its loaded conference for the 14th straight year. That’s exactly what Oklahoma State did, sweeping Kansas and picking up individual victories over West Virginia and Texas Tech. The Cowboys now have the same Q1 record as Texas, without any bad losses to counterbalance those big wins. That has them back on the edges of the field of 68 at the start of the Big 12 tournament. The Cowboys take on Oklahoma in the first round on Wednesday. If they win that game, they’ll get a third meeting with Kansas. Two wins, and they’re in the field, which seemed impossible one month ago. A win over Oklahoma will make them one of the most interesting teams on Selection Sunday.

Alabama (17-14, RPI: 59, SOS: 5, Q1 record: 5-6, Q2 record: 4-6, sub-100 losses: 3)

It isn’t fair to say the Crimson Tide fell apart over the last two weeks of the regular season. Yes, they lost their final five games, but all of them were to teams locked into the tournament field—Kentucky, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida and Texas AM. The Selection Committee now has reason to leave them out of the field, but the same time, Alabama has the benefit of a deep conference on its side. The Crimson Tide will play Texas AM in its opening game of the SEC tournament. Win that one and upset Auburn—a team they beat in the regular season—and they could be right back in the field. Unlike, say, USC and Washington, they have real resumé-building opportunities at their fingertips this week. That’s all a true bubble team can ask for this time of year.

Washington (20-11, RPI: 63, SOS: 45, Q1 record: 3-7, Q2 record: 2-3, sub-100 losses: 1)

One month ago, Washington was riding high after wins over Arizona and Arizona State. The Huskies have gone 3-5 since then, dropping games to Oregon (twice), Oregon State and Stanford. What’s more, the win over Arizona State has lost plenty of luster, with the Sun Devils dropping four of their last five games. Washington is now in a position where it likely needs three wins in the Pac-12 tournament to have a shot at an at-large bid. But just as we discussed with USC, the Huskies may not get a chance to build their resumé until the Pac-12 championship. They play Oregon State on Wednesday and would face USC should they beat the Beavers. A win there would give them a semifinal matchup with Utah, Oregon or Washington State. Even if it’s Utah and the Huskies make it to the championship, only to lose to Arizona, would they be worthy of an at-large bid? Not without a lot of help.

Notre Dame (17-13, RPI: 66, SOS: 43, Q1 record: 2-8, Q2 record: 4-2, sub-100 losses: 3)

The Irish need to pull off a mini-miracle in the ACC tournament to get into the dance. The reason why they’re in this section and not the next one is that if they do win a few games and impress the Selection Committee, that body will likely give much greater weight to their games with Bonzie Colson than the ones without him. At minimum, the Irish need to win three games, which means beating Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Virginia Tech on Wednesday and Duke on Thursday.

LSU (17-13, RPI: 87, SOS: 57, Q1 record: 6-5, Q2 record: 3-6, sub-100 losses: 2)

The Tigers still have one of the most fascinating resumés in the country, with wins over Michigan and Houston, as well as sweeps over Arkansas and Texas AM. Still, they need to win at least one game in the SEC tournament. A 17-14 team with an RPI likely outside the top 90 isn’t getting an at-large bid. That means Wednesday’s LSU-Mississippi State is an elimination game. The winner will go on to play Tennessee on Thursday and a win for either team there, especially LSU, could make Selection Sunday a bit more interesting. Both teams likely need at least three wins to get to lock status.

On the Fringe

Teams that are still alive, but are in immediate danger of falling out of at-large contention.

Mississippi State (20-10, RPI: 69, SOS: 116, Q1 record: 2-7, Q2 record: 3-3, sub-100 losses: 2)

We already outlined above what Mississippi State needs to do to play its way into the field. So why is it down here and LSU up there, even though the Bulldogs have the better RPI and are the No. 7 seed in the SEC tournament? It’s all about those Q1 wins. Six against two is a major difference at any part of the seed list, but even more on the fringes of the bubble picture. The Bulldogs need at least three wins this week to have hope for an at-large bid.

Oregon (20-11, RPI: 67, SOS: 76, Q1 record: 3-5, Q2 record: 4-3, sub-100 losses: 3)

The Ducks put themselves on the fringes of the at-large picture by beating Arizona and Arizona State and sweeping Washington, but they’re still fighting an uphill battle. They aren’t out of it yet, but they need to advance to the Pac-12 championship, at the very least.

Utah (19-10, RPI: 47, SOS: 66, Q1 record: 3-5, Q2 record: 4-4, sub-100 losses: 1)

Utah is in the same position as Oregon, only without the win over Arizona. Their at-large case disappears if they lose at any point before the Pac-12 championship game, and even that scenario requires them getting help in the form of bubble teams in the ACC, Big East, Big 12 and SEC going down early in their conference tournaments.

Penn State (21-13, RPI: 76, SOS: 70, Q1 record: 3-8, Q2 record: 2-2, sub-100 losses: 4)

The Nittany Lions made things interesting by beating Ohio State for a third time last week, but they also needed to beat Purdue to have any shot at an at-large bid. They’re likely ticketed for the NIT.

Nebraska (22-10, RPI: 64, SOS: 111, Q1 record: 1-6, Q2 record: 2-3, sub-100 losses: 1)

Nebraska’s at-large life was on the line in its Big Ten quarterfinal matchup with Michigan last week. The Wolverines ran them out of the gym, winning 77-58. The Huskers are NIT bound.

Middle Tennessee State (23-6, RPI: 28, SOS: 71, Q1 record: 3-3, Q2 record: 2-1, sub-100 losses: 2)

Now that Loyola-Chicago has earned its automatic bid by winning the Missouri Valley tournament, Middle Tennessee has the best chance of any team from a likely one-bid league to earn an at-large bid. The Blue Raiders, however, don’t have any wins over potential at-large teams, with their three Q1 victories coming against fellow mid-majors. Should they lose in the CUSA championship game, they’d likely get some discussion at the Selection Committee’s table, but would likely end up on the cutting-room floor. They begin their conference tournament on Thursday against the winner of Florida International and Southern Miss. Both of their conference losses came to Marshall, which they would meet in the semifinals if the tourney holds true to form.

New Mexico State (22-5, RPI: 41, SOS: 164, Q1 record: 1-3, Q2 record: 4-0, sub-100 losses: 2)

The Aggies would have a slim shot at an at-large bid should they lose in WAC championship game, thanks largely to a non-conference win over Miami. That would be highly unlikely, though, especially with the strength of this year’s bubble. They kick off the WAC tourney on Thursday against Chicago State.