College Basketball Bubble Watch

Updated: March 15, 2015, 12:46 PM ET
The bid thieves have arrived -- just in time for Selection Sunday

By Eamonn Brennan
ESPN.com

We tried to warn you. We even offered some likely candidates. Connecticut would play the American tournament in Hartford; there's suspect No. 1. And what about Wyoming, a good team with a bad resume -- couldn't the Cowboys upset the Mountain West?

And lo, on the very eve of Selection Sunday, the ancient prophecy was fulfilled, and a fearsome havoc was borne onto the bubble, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Yep. The bid thieves arrived.

Overwrought presentation aside, this was not a particularly bold prediction. It had to happen eventually. Each year, there is at least one team that wins its league's automatic bid and displaces one at-large hopeful from the final spot in the NCAA tournament. The average is closer to two. The first bid thief's emergence took a little longer than usual this season, mostly due to a lack of strong mid-majors in otherwise wide-open conference tournaments. But inevitably, a team that began the week without a chance of an at-large bid took home its conference's stamp. That it was Wyoming -- a talented team finally getting healthy again -- should come as little shock.

Not that that makes Indiana fans feel better. When Saturday began, the Hoosiers were clinging desperately to the last spot in Joe Lunardi's bracket. When Wyoming sealed its win, the bubble as a whole shifted downward -- and pushed Indiana just outside the bracket. If our Twitter replies are any indication, Hoosiers fans were not emotionally prepared to see their team outside the bracket for the first time all season. They rapidly cycled through the various stages of grief, lashing out at Ole Miss, Boise State, Temple and LSU. Of course, getting Poke'd was bad news for all of these teams too. If the committee sees things just slightly differently from Lunardi, that bid could have belonged to any of them. Meanwhile, teams just below the cut, such as Miami and UCLA, moved one spot further from the field.

There might be more bad news coming Sunday. As the prophecy foretold, Connecticut has made its way to the American conference tournament's title game. The Huskies will be playing for their postseason lives, with one of the best guards -- senior Ryan Boatright -- on a last-ditch mission to end his career in the NCAA tournament. On Sunday afternoon, one spot could turn into two.

(Side note: This is also bad news for the committee. The bracket is revealed at 6 p.m. ET on CBS. UConn and No. 20 SMU tip at 3:15 p.m. In less than two hours, the committee will have to employ any number of contingency plans, which, given various bracketing guidelines and restrictions, is a little bit like the reconstruction of a nearly completed puzzle.)

Then again, little sympathy is deserved. If it's the night before Selection Sunday. If you still haven't sealed up your bid, you can't complain when someone else seizes the day. All week, almost every bubble team that needed a win failed to get it. Many hurt themselves with bad losses. This was a forgiving landscape, one ripe for last-second improvement. Almost no one -- Indiana included -- got the job done.

Now, finally, the bubble has shrunk. The math has changed. The bid thieves have descended upon the land. Just don't say you weren't warned.

American Athletic Conference
Locks: SMU, Cincinnati
Work left to do: Temple

Tulsa is officially done. It's not all bad news: All five Tulsa starters are juniors, which could give Frank Haith the rare senior-starter-sweep in his second season at the helm. What's more, this team set a solid defensive foundation in 2014-15. Tulsa could spend its offseason getting its offense to speed and return in 2015-16 as one of the American conference's title favorites. For now, though, the dream is over. Saturday afternoon's semifinal loss to UConn not only kept the college basketball's Rasputin from shuffling off its mortal coil, but it also added another loss to a resume that, flimsy as it was, felt inflated by the RPI's math. Tulsa might well have needed the American's automatic bid to get in, but a showing in the title game would have kept them on the fringe. Instead, the NIT -- and a bright, short-term future -- awaits.

Temple [23-10 (13-5), RPI: 34, SOS: 60] Saturday afternoon's 69-56 loss to SMU provided a handy distillation of the overall makeup of the 2014-15 Temple Owls. Fran Dunphy presides over a lockdown defensive group, one of his best per-possession defensive teams ever. The Owls rarely turn the ball over. And they simply cannot put the ball in the basket. On Saturday, Temple committed just seven turnovers, held SMU to a reasonable-enough 69 points in 65 possessions, and shot 29 percent from the field -- including a 4-of-24 brickfest from beyond the arc. Against most teams, Temple's combination of careful ballhandling and stifling D is enough. Against good teams like SMU -- which went 3-0 against Temple this season -- it has frequently come up short. The pertinent question now is whether it will be enough to earn an NCAA tournament bid. Without Dec. 22's outlier explosion against No. 2 RPI Kansas, this team would be 1-9 against the RPI top 50; as it stands, the Owls are 2-8, with one of the best wins any bubble team can boast. The Owls' solid RPI and schedule numbers -- including a top-50 nonconference mark -- also mitigate the the resume's various weaknesses. Temple entered the day somewhere in the last four in/last four byes range, which bodes well for Sunday's odds. But sleep won't come easy in Philly tonight.
Atlantic 10 Conference

It is never easy to beat one team three times in a college basketball season; when that team shares a metropolitan area and a quasi-sociopolitical rivalry, it's somewhere close to impossible. Richmond learned as much Friday, when VCU bounced back from two regular-season defeats to strike the Spiders out of the A-10 tournament, and in doing so, prevent its own resume from further bubble scrutiny. Where does that loss leave Richmond? On the cutting-room floor. The Spiders deserve plenty of credit for sweeping VCU in the regular season (even if 1.5 of those wins came in the Rams' diminished post-Briante Weber era), and for knocking off Davidson on Jan. 17, before the Wildcats turned their offensive dials up to 11. Richmond coach Chris Mooney's team also deserves a more general type of praise. The Spiders hung in. They were rightly written off after a Valentine's Day loss to George Mason, but they won their final six regular-season games, beat VCU for the second time, held on at St. Joe's and UMass, and at least gave themselves a chance to capitalize on strong nonconference and overall SOS figures. They gave themselves hope. They also had a ton more work to do. And so, even on this forgiving, loss-happy bubble, Richmond's 10-12 top-150 record makes them a non-starter. Valiant effort. Just not quite enough.

Atlantic Coast Conference
Work left to do: Miami (FL)

You know who hates the bid thieves? Miami. Sure, it's bad enough when you're already in the bracket and your bid suddenly goes missing because San Diego State can't make a shot. But those downgrades also apply to teams just outside the cut line, which is where Miami has spent the vast majority of its season.

Miami (FL) [21-12 (10-8), RPI: 63, SOS: 77] With just one day until Selection Sunday, "work to do" often becomes a misnomer. It's more like "fingers crossed." Miami's resume-building opportunities officially expired in Thursday night's 70-63 loss to Notre Dame. To their credit, the Hurricanes showed well. The Irish were on point early, shredding Miami's defense with great spacing, passing and lights-out perimeter shooting, but the Hurricanes gradually and resolutely battled back in the second half, cutting the lead to three with just under a minute to play. It was a vast improvement over Wednesday's dour win over Virginia Tech, that's for sure. But does it help? Doubtful. Miami's resume is basically the same as it's been all February: one massive road win (at Duke), four ugly losses (including a still-inexplicable 72-44 home drilling at the hands of Eastern Kentucky), a good road record (which coach Jim Larranaga has been touting as much as possible), a bad nonconference schedule (in the low 200s) and a shaky RPI (in the low 60s). Miami has been among the first teams outside Joe's bracket for weeks; it has never gotten over the hump. It may yet on Selection Sunday. We'd be surprised, but far stranger things have happened. Like we said: fingers crossed.
Big 12 Conference
Teams that should be in: Oklahoma State
Work left to do: Texas

For the second straight season, Iowa State is your Big 12 tournament champion. The Big 12 might not have figured out how to dislodge Kansas from the regular-season throne, but it does a fair enough job of spicing up the postseason. Now all the Cyclones have to do is avoid a first-round matchup with Hampton (sorry -- still too soon?). Meanwhile, Oklahoma State enters Selection Sunday looking like a pretty sure thing, and Texas might just be OK. Barely.

Oklahoma State [18-13 (8-10), RPI: 46, SOS: 17] On Feb. 7, Oklahoma State knocked off Kansas at home. Two days later, it won at Baylor. That three-day stretch was the obvious triumph of an unexpected, under-the-radar season -- a post-Marcus Smart (and Markel Brown) campaign that few saw coming in October. Another win or two, and the Cowboys would surely be a lock. So why are they still here? Because since Feb. 9, Travis Ford's team has lost six of its past seven games, including major missed chances versus Iowa State, West Virginia and Oklahoma, and worst of all, damaging road losses at TCU and Texas Tech. Thursday's loss was far more forgivable, because, you know, Oklahoma is really good. But that overall finish introduced enough doubt to keep OSU from ever really locking up its bid, despite sweeps of Baylor and Texas and the aforementioned win over the Jayhawks. It's a weird resume that way. We think Ford's team will get in, especially if the rest of the bubble continues to cooperate. But things didn't need to be quite so suspenseful.
Texas [20-13 (8-10), RPI: 42, SOS: 15] Ah, Texas. Never change. On Thursday night, the Longhorns pulled off their most impressive feat to date -- that is, assuming you are impressed by a team's ability to incisively summarize its entire season in the matter of 40 minutes. We certainly are. Texas started hot against Iowa State, played solid basketball throughout, led by double digits throughout the first half, repelled one ISU run after another deep into the second, and then saw the whole thing painfully unravel. ISU point guard Monte Morris' brilliant buzzer-beater was the play of the game, but Iowa State got a massive assist from Javan Felix, who surely doesn't need us -- or the rest of the world -- to tell him how dumb it is to shoot a 3 with 10 seconds to play in a tie game. Can you imagine being a Texas fan? The existential frustration of it? To see that your team is talented, and capable of beating the Big 12's best when it plays well, and yet knowing it will eventually find a way to fall short? Brutal. Anyway ... enough griping. UT might have blown an opportunity to secure its bid, sure, but does a last-second loss to Iowa State actually put it on the wrong side of the bubble? We don't think so. There will be plenty of overreactions in the next 24 to 48 hours, and if Texas does miss out on a bid, it will have only itself to blame. But we still think this resume -- even with all those missed chances against the top half of the Big 12 -- is a hair better than much of the bubble. The lack of bad losses really does help. Still. The Longhorns were always way too talented to be in this position this deep into March. Somehow, after Thursday, the story remains the same.
Big East Conference

Life is good in the Big East. Villanova's unconscious, six-week run ended with another ho-hum blowout win in Saturday's Big East tourney title game. The Wildcats have emerged with the look of a sure No. 1 seed, and everyone else is safely ensconced in lockdom. A relaxed Selection Sunday -- a little brunch, maybe a glance at the Sunday classified ads ("Seeking coach for up-and-coming, Midwest-urban college basketball program ..") -- awaits.

Big Ten Conference
Work left to do: Indiana

For the first 20 minutes of Saturday's first Big Ten semifinal, Purdue looked like it might just slide a wrench into Wisconsin's immaculately tuned works. And then the Badgers returned from the United Center locker room, and that was pretty much that. A 35-30 PU halftime lead gave way to a 41-16 second-half clinic, as Bo Ryan's team moved to 30-3 and added yet another exhibit to their case for a No. 1 seed. Fortunately for Purdue, it's work was done already. You know the story by now: After an awful nonconference start that pegged Purdue as a likely Big Ten bottom-feeder, the Boilermakers -- led by center A.J. Hammons, who morphed from a tantalizing but frustrating prospect into one of the more dominant centers in college basketball -- transformed themselves in conference play. A 12-6 league run more than made up for losses to Gardner-Webb, North Florida and Vanderbilt, pushing Purdue onto the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble at the start of this week. As their bubble peers -- teams like Oklahoma State, Texas, LSU, Boise State, and Ole Miss -- failed to improve their position on Thursday and Friday, Purdue got past Penn State and into the semifinals with Wisconsin. The Boilers' bad losses and weak noncon schedule always kept them close to the bubble; November and December matters, even if you're obviously playing better in March. But Purdue has played so much better, and so consistently so, that the committee will judge them as they currently are. Throw all of these factors together, and Purdue now has more than enough separation from the cut line to feel safe heading into Sunday. They're a lock. Indiana, on the other hand ...

Indiana [20-13 (9-9), RPI: 56, SOS: 22] And now Indiana waits. After cruising to Thursday's stress management mechanism of a win, Yogi Ferrell & Co. moved on to Friday's Big Ten quarterfinal. What awaited them -- Maryland -- comprised the best of all possible marquee-win worlds. The Terps' combination of a pristine resume, occasionally unflattering per-possession numbers in Big Ten play, and probably slightly lucky 10-0 record in close games means the Terps might not be quite as good as their resume. (Which still leaves plenty of room for them to be good. And they are.) Even if you disagree with that, there's no disagreeing that the first two games between these two -- an 89-70 IU blowout in Bloomington and a 68-66 IU loss (wherein Ferrell missed an open, last-second 3) at College Park -- should have given the Hoosiers' staff a fair amount of confidence. Indiana certainly played like it, but it wasn't quite enough. The Terps held on for a 75-69 win. The question, of course, is what now? For committee members fond of the eye test, there was little to dislike in Indiana's performance. Visually, Friday night showcased the same IU team that surprised the Big Ten in January: high-energy, up-tempo, constantly attacking, undersized and horribly flawed on the defensive end. On paper, the Hoosiers moved to 4-9 against the RPI top 50, 9-12 against the top 100, and 12-13 against the top 150. Their impressive early wins over Butler and SMU feel long ago. By recapturing the form that had them soundly in bracket projections a month ago, maybe the Hoosiers did enough to convince the committee they deserve an extended chance of redemption. Maybe losses elsewhere on the bubble will clear the way. Maybe Hanner Mosquera-Perea's injury will factor in. Maybe the resume will just be too weak, a matter of opinion in a tight committee discussion. It's all on the table. Until the committee puts "Indiana Hoosiers" on the board Sunday afternoon, the only thing to do is wait.
Mountain West Conference
Teams that should be in: Colorado State
Work left to do: Boise State

Wyoming, welcome to the NCAA tournament. As we wrote this week, the Cowboys were on pace for at-large contention in January, before their star, Larry Nance, was struck with a debilitating case of mononucleosis, at which point the Pokes' hopes faded. Nance returned just in time. Saturday's Mountain West title slug fest against defensively pristine, offensively inept San Diego State punched Wyoming's ticket. It also robbed at least one bubble team -- Indiana? Ole Miss? Boise State? -- of a spot in the NCAA tournament. We assume Larry Shyatt won't exactly be wracked with guilt.

Colorado State [27-6 (13-5), RPI: 29, SOS: 118] The Rams failed to pick up that one last win that would have cemented their position in the bracket. A victory over San Diego State may not be equivalent to beating, say, Arizona, but it would have been more than enough to help Larry Eustachy's team sleep soundly no matter what ensued in the Mountain West finale. Instead, the Rams lost, 56-43, another victim of the Aztecs' typically unmovable defense. Normally, this is the part where we sum up Colorado State's resume and explain their chances of landing in the bracket come Selection Sunday. There is a crucial caveat here: CSU star center J.J. Avila didn't play Friday night. Avila left in the first half of Thursday's quarterfinal win over Fresno State with an ankle injury. Before the game, CSU said that, after "continuous treatment," Avila was available for the semifinal, but was not expected to play. The team also stressed that "results of an X-ray early Friday afternoon came back negative, and the Rams expect Avila to be at full strength should the team be selected for any postseason play next week." A-ha. You don't have to be Cersei Lannister to see the unsubtle politicking at work here: The Rams went out of their way to inform the committee that it need not downgrade its current understanding of the team to account for any potential Avila absence. The Rams totally promise that Avila will be back and at full strength next week. The situation does harken back to Syracuse in 2009-10, when center Arinze Onuaku's apparently clean bill of health on Friday night allowed Syracuse to land a No. 1 seed ... after which Onuaku was promptly ruled out for the first round, and never took the court again. Let's be clear: We have no reason to believe Colorado State is up to anything sketchy here. This kind of consideration does make an already tricky evaluation even more difficult for the committee. We think CSU is on the right side of the bubble, and likely to stay there. But a new wrinkle has been added.
Boise State [25-8 (14-4), RPI: 44, SOS: 132] Boise State, come on down. Thursday and Friday was a 48-hour bubble crucible we'll remember primarily for its steady procession of bubble losses -- from missed chances against top teams to damaging upsets to plain old letdowns. Boise's 71-66 loss to Wyoming late Friday night fit into the third category. It's not a bad loss, per se: Until Cowboys star Larry Nance Jr. was hit with a nasty case of mononucleosis, the Cowboys were neck and neck with San Diego State in the Mountain West title chase. That was long before the Broncos emerged, as if shot from a cannon, to win 14 of their last 15 regular-season games. These feel like the pertinent facts: Wyoming is not as bad as its RPI number (high 90s) would imply, and Friday was Boise's second loss since Jan. 10. Then again, it is also a fact that Wyoming's MWC tourney title shrank the bubble by one spot. How many spots above the cut line is Boise? One? Two? Three? The Broncos should hope for the latter. And they should also be pooling their funds to fly SMU fans to the XL Center -- anything to keep UConn from stealing another bid.
Pac-12 Conference
Work left to do: UCLA

And so the Pac-12's bubble odyssey draws to a close. It was a fun one: Oregon began its February completely off the tourney grid, before blitzing its way into complete safety. Stanford began the bubble season in relatively solid shape, with a Wooden Watch-list point guard (Chasson Randle) and a seemingly obvious choke hold on the league's No. 3 spot, only to watch its previous accomplishments (a road win at Texas) and its own performances fade. And then there was UCLA. If the bubble was your apartment, the Bruins were your lazy roommate: Harmless, sure, but come on, man. Leave the house once in a while, you know?

UCLA [20-13 (11-7), RPI: 49, SOS: 29] UCLA's constant bubble habitation wasn't by choice. At some point, the Bruins simply reached the outer limits of their potential, and those limits -- while far better than they showed in five straight losses from Dec. 13 to Jan. 4 -- weren't all that high. Steve Alford's short-benched team got better in time to knock off Utah in its own building on Jan. 29, won at Stanford on Feb. 5 (which seemed like a bigger deal at the time), and handle Oregon on Valentine's Day, and that's all of their noteworthy wins, summed up in one sentence. They lost a trio of not-terrible-but-not-great road games along the way (at Colorado, Oregon State and Arizona State). They played Arizona to a respectable 10-point loss in Tucson. And, on Friday night, they did much more than that, going blow-for-blow with the Wildcats in a 70-64 game that required one of the nation's best teams to muster all it had to escape with a win. If there is a reason to be hopeful about UCLA's chances of getting a bid, it is in the margins of that loss -- in the idea that the committee might have seen something it liked. Compared with the rest of the bubble, notwithstanding some decent schedule numbers, this resume simply doesn't stack up.
Southeastern Conference
Teams that should be in: Georgia
Work left to do: LSU, Ole Miss

The SEC bubble had a disastrous conference tournament run. Auburn -- which knocked Texas A&M off our page a night before it exploited LSU's hilarious mental mistakes -- is the chief culprit. But South Carolina also dealt Ole Miss a significant body blow on Thursday, and now the Rebels are stuck praying the window doesn't close any further on Sunday.

Georgia [21-11 (11-7), RPI: 36, SOS: 31] We've had Georgia locked in for a couple of weeks, but a longer, slightly frantic Selection Sunday look at the Bulldogs' resume has us worried. What used to be a noteworthy sweep of Ole Miss has since robbed Georgia of its only two top-50 wins, and suddenly the Bulldogs are 0-5 against the top 50. Fortunately, they are still 9-9 against the top 100. But if the committee prioritizes big wins over shiny RPI and schedule numbers, Georgia might yet be in trouble.
LSU [22-10 (11-7), RPI: 53, SOS: 97] Anyone who watched LSU Friday night and wonders how in tarnation this team managed to spend most of the past two months on the right side of the bubble -- well, you're not alone. Credit Auburn. Johnny Jones surely will. Bruce Pearl's Tigers are playing loose, unrestrained, pressure-free basketball, and are riding guard K.T. Harrell -- the former Virginia transfer, currently the hottest shooter south of the Mason-Dixon Line not named Kyle Korver -- to a raucous little SEC tourney run. But still -- come on, LSU. You really don't know how much time is left on the shot clock? With 22 seconds left in regulation, up by one, with a tight clock on a sideline out-of-bounds, you're just going to casually reset your offense? You're really that oblivious? That faux pas was only LSU's most glaring. There were plenty more. It was the kind of performance -- against a team that won just four SEC games all season, and whose RPI just broke the 150 mark -- that should at least put what seemed like a relatively secure bid into question. Thing is, LSU is probably OK. For as bad as Jones' team (and let's be real, Jones himself) was Friday night, it also entered the SEC tournament having won at Arkansas. LSU is still carrying a big nonconference road win at West Virginia, and it's still boasting a 13-5 record against the RPI top 100. That's a lot more than most bubble teams have to offer, bad losses notwithstanding. And considering how many of those bubble teams (including Ole Miss) have melted during conference tournament play this week, Friday night's eye-test fiasco almost certainly won't be enough to cost LSU its ticket. (But still, LSU. Really?)
Ole Miss [20-12 (11-7), RPI: 55, SOS: 46] A month ago, the Rebels looked like the second-best team in the SEC. A couple of weeks ago, Andy Kennedy's team had a reasonable claim on a No. 7 seed. We even locked the Rebels in. Now they're in serious trouble. No one likes taking the lock away, but we can admit when we're wrong, and honestly -- after Thursday night's 60-58 SEC tourney loss to South Carolina -- we're just relieved we didn't wait. The loss was the Rebels' fourth in their last five games. Alongside a March 7 home loss to Vanderbilt, it paints a discouraging portrait of a team that seems to be playing its worst basketball at the worst possible time. The Rebels are now right on top of the cut line. Their road wins at Oregon and Arkansas remain impressive, and a neutral-court win over Cincinnati doesn't hurt. But this late slide has only magnified the bad losses on the other side of the nitty-gritty sheet, and ceded some uncertainty on what used to be very solid ground.
Other at-large contenders

Last season, right around March, every quasi-fan of a high-major team with a shot at a No. 1 bid sat up and made the least interesting argument ever: that Gonzaga wasn't good enough to be a No. 1 seed (they were) because their schedule was bad (it wasn't), and they'd probably lose in the tournament (they did). Brave stuff. Guess who they lost to? And guess who -- despite not losing since last April's Final Four -- is the target of all the exact same big-conference whines about schedule strength? Of course, if Wichita State earns a rightful No. 1 seed and doesn't get to the Final Four, all of these people will obviously admit that the tournament is just crazy like that, but hey, what a great season! Ha, just kidding! These people will all say, "I told you so!" like they were proven right. Because they're the worst. Please don't be these people. The Watch begs of you.

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