Updated: March 7, 2014, 10:26 AM ET
Breaking down the soft bubble
By Eamonn Brennan
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Thursday, March 6.
Every year since 2010-11 -- and earlier, too, though never as loudly -- we've complained about the NCAA tournament's soft bubble. It's an annual rite of passage: We get into late January and early February, we get our first real sense of the kinds of teams on the bubble, and we squeal. Wait, that team might get in the tournament? Really?! Soft bubble!
At this point, even writing the phrase makes the Watch wince. It's banal, cliché, the kind of thing our high school journalism adviser told us to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately, it's also true. The bubble is soft.
Even worse? Champ Week won't change that fact.
The second-to-last week before Selection Sunday is usually when the bubble starts to shrink. When mid-major teams with quality at-large résumés in seemingly one-bid leagues get upset in their conference tournaments, the at-large pool loses a spot, and teams hoping to back their way into the bracket are forced to sweat even more than they already were. This year, though, there are no real mid-major at-larges. Thanks to a handful of factors -- from conference realignment and upward mid-major drift to sheer coincidence -- there are few leagues in which the favorite doesn't also need to win the automatic bid to get into the NCAA tournament. The Missouri Valley Conference is one, though Wichita State doesn't look likely to lose to anyone in the MVC. The West Coast Conference is another, but odds of a non-Gonzaga and non-BYU final are slim.
Opinion seems split on Green Bay. Some bracket geeks have the Phoenix as an at-large selection over a handful of bubble teams (thanks to a win over Virginia and close loss to Wisconsin); others believe they have to win the Horizon League tournament to get in (because of the 17-2 record against the RPI sub-150). Either way, Green Bay is better off winning the tournament in the league it has dominated all season, because its margin for error is so slim.
This is always true of mid-majors. Because their conference opponents are typically relatively weak, they can't afford stumbles the same way a Big Ten team could. But it's especially true of the long-shot mid-major teams you'll see in this edition of the Watch. There just aren't good résumés in that area of the file this year.
Which means less bubble shrinkage. Which means more spots for bubble at-large bids. Which means the outlook will remain forgiving for mediocre high-major teams. Which means we kind of have to at least occasionally mention between now and Selection Sunday that the bubble is, in fact, soft.
On the bright side, the tournament begins in exactly two weeks. So, you know, there's that.
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through March 6.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
George Washington [22-7 (10-5), RPI: 24, SOS: 82]
The Colonials held off Saint Joseph's Wednesday night, 76-71, staying in strong position relative to the rest of the A-10 bubble and, for that matter, almost everyone else still on this page. But we'll hold off on a lock until Mike Lonergan's team handles business in its final regular-season game at RPI-land mine Fordham (221) on Saturday afternoon.
Saint Joseph's [21-8 (11-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 65]
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli was so displeased with the officiating in his team's loss at George Washington on Wednesday, he went so far as to call out the offending official by name. "We are the third-fewest fouling team in America and they shot 24 foul shots in the second half," Martelli told reporters. "He will want his name in the paper. His name is Jamie Luckie. He was the referee. Shame on us, we fouled. We gave up 24 foul shots in the second half and I am not sure why we would change in our 29th game, but we did." Needless to say, Martelli realized the importance of that game against George Washington. It wasn't a bid-breaker, but it would have moved Saint Joe's to a much safer place. As is, the Hawks have to take care of La Salle at home this weekend and avoid anything disastrous in the early A-10 tourney goings.
Dayton [21-9 (9-6), RPI: 45, SOS: 43]
Road games against top teams are the biggest low-risk, high-reward proposition in bubbledom: You don't lose much for losing at, say, Saint Louis, but boy does it help if you can win. Dayton did exactly that on Wednesday night, upending the unusually porous 17th-ranked Billikens 72-67, and the Flyers' bubble stock rose from next-four-outish all the way up to the cut or better. Just a huge win. And if the committee looks closer -- and it should now -- they'll see that a number of Dayton's losses came during a January injury swoon, and see that the Flyers have been much better otherwise. Meanwhile, winning Saturday's home game against Richmond remains a must.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
Pittsburgh [22-8 (10-7), RPI: 49, SOS: 92]
It's one thing to lose close games to good teams. You can lose to Virginia on a last-second shot, or Syracuse on a 35-foot buzzer beater, and discerning basketball minds can still recognize your team's inherent quality. But when you fail to win any of the big close opportunities you have, and you have a bad nonconference schedule, and you start mixing in bad home losses to bubble teams, well, why would anyone stand a chance to defend Pitt's tournament honor? We're now at the point where Pittsburgh, a putative ACC title contender in the first half of the season, is at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament. The Panthers were a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's Thursday bracket projections, which is dangerously close to last-four-byes territory. A loss at Clemson on Saturday would be cause for alarm. An early loss in next week's ACC tournament could put them at genuine risk of missing the tournament. If that happens, Pitt will have no one to blame but itself.
Florida State [18-11 (9-8), RPI: 59, SOS: 61]
In their final regular-season game, the Seminoles have a chance most bubble teams would kill for: a home date against Syracuse. Any home game against a marquee foe like the Orange is a plus, of course. But FSU's timing couldn't be better: Syracuse will carry with it the resume and RPI it earned all season, but no one would confuse this Jerami Grant-less edition of the Orange -- which has lost four of its past five, including home games to Boston College and Georgia Tech -- with the charmed group that began the season 25-0. Must-win for the Noles.
|Big 12 Conference|
Oklahoma State [20-10 (8-9), RPI: 38, SOS: 42]
The Cowboys' "get Marcus Smart suspended to save our season!" strategy is working perfectly. Since returning from the three-game suspension he served for shoving Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr -- all three of which games Oklahoma State lost -- the star point guard has played some of his best basketball of the season. On Monday night, Oklahoma State handled Kansas State just two days after Smart's late surge helped the Cowboys upend RPI No. 2 Kansas. All of a sudden, OSU's resume looks a lot more like the one we expected it to have this season, and the Cowboys have steadily risen up the bracket projection boards since. A win at Iowa State this weekend would make them a lock, but there's little downside to a loss. Is Jeff Orr a coach of the year candidate yet?
Baylor [20-10 (8-9), RPI: 43, SOS: 9]
The Bears' move to should-be-in territory comes on the heels of Tuesday's home win over Iowa State, and looking at Baylor's profile now -- with its seven top-50 wins (including three on neutral courts) and top-10 strength of schedule -- it's hard to imagine the Bears were on the wrong side of the bubble just a few weeks ago.
|Big East Conference|
Teams that should be in: Xavier Xavier [20-11 (10-8), RPI: 46, SOS: 30]
Now that the Musketeers have finished their regular-season output -- Thursday night's home loss to Villanova was their final game before next week's Big East tournament -- where do they stand? They have two truly notable wins: a Dec. 14 neutral-court victory over Cincinnati and Saturday's home victory over Creighton. They were also swept by Seton Hall. They have a decent string of top-100 wins, and a split with Tennessee, and they played only five sub-150 RPI teams. Unfortunately, they lost to one of them (USC). They're 4-8 on the road. They're still in better shape than the rest of the Big East, but "better shape than Providence" hardly equals "tournament lock."
Providence [20-10 (10-7), RPI: 52, SOS: 85]
So here's a crazy stat: On Tuesday night, Providence senior Bryce Cotton played all 50 minutes of the Friars' 81-80 double-OT win over Marquette. (Cotton made the winning free throws in the second overtime.) That number brought his minutes tally up to 40.2 per game. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the last player to average more than 40 minutes/game for a season with at least 22 games played was Vonteego Cummings for Pitt in '97-98 (40.1). Cotton's bonkers reliability -- he's literally averaging overtime minutes! -- has powered Providence all season. Will it be enough to get the Friars into the Dance? Providence is hovering around the cut line, and the Marquette win kept it from falling off the pace. Now, the Friars have a huge chance to spoil Creighton's senior night on Saturday. As daunting as that sounds, at least Friars fans know they have a robot on their side.
Georgetown [17-12 (8-9), RPI: 57, SOS: 14]
The Watch is a big believer in using one's eyes to watch basketball but not at all a big believer in the "eye test" as a selection committee criteria. Too fuzzy. Too subjective. Too reliant on the false premise that NCAA tournament selection committee members could possibly watch enough basketball -- let alone process it -- to reach definitive conclusions on teams. And yet, the eye test lives on. Maybe it will benefit Georgetown? On Tuesday night, the Hoyas played perhaps their best game of the season in a 75-63 win over Creighton. The Watch made its two-Metro-stop ride to the Verizon Center, and the Hoyas looked better than they have all season -- confident, cohesive, sharp. They may need the committee to recognize them as such.
St. John's [19-11 (9-8), RPI: 62, SOS: 50]
Bubble-wise, the Red Storm have the worst final week setup of the regular-season. After Sunday's win over DePaul, Saturday's trip to Marquette is all Steve Lavin's team has left ahead of the Big East tournament next week. There's no Villanova or Creighton, only a chance to lose to a hard-charging Golden Eagles team in their brutal (read: difficult) home gym.
|Big Ten Conference|
Nebraska [18-11 (10-7), RPI: 41, SOS: 45]
Sunday is officially one of the biggest days in the history of Nebraska basketball. That's when Wisconsin, a potential No. 1 seed, travels to Lincoln, Neb., to face a Cornhuskers team on the cusp of their first NCAA tournament bid since 1998. It's not a do-or-die situation; a loss to Wisconsin doesn't knock you off the bubble, and there is still hope in the Big Ten tournament. But a win would be huge. Whatever happens, the fact that we're even writing phrases like "their first NCAA tournament bid since ..." about Nebraska basketball is a testament to just how quickly, and how well, second-year coach Tim Miles has done his job.
Minnesota [18-12 (7-10), RPI: 50, SOS: 3]
Minnesota has hovered around the cut line for as long as we've been tracking the bubble in earnest this season, and nothing has changed in the final week of the season. The Gophers' loss at Michigan on Saturday moved them to 7-10 in the Big Ten, and worse yet, it was their last real opportunity to add a marquee road victory to a ledger that's best road wins are at Richmond, Penn State and Northwestern. Minnesota will have to handle Penn State at home on Sunday, do a bit of work in the conference tournament, and hope that (A) other bubble teams lose and/or (B) the selection committee really loves its top-five overall strength of schedule. It's going to be close.
|Mountain West Conference|
Colorado [21-9 (10-7), RPI: 25, SOS: 13]
Huge win at Stanford on Wednesday night. We've talked a lot about the committee's task in evaluating the Buffs without Spencer Dinwiddie, whose season ended thanks to an ACL tear at Washington on Jan. 12. If Colorado had lost to Stanford on Wednesday, it would have been their third loss in three games and put them at 6-8 without Dinwiddie (counting that Washington game). Just one of those six wins (vs. Arizona State) would have come over a tournament team. Marks like that are how post-injury teams have their early-season successes wiped off the board. It's not a good place to be. The win at Stanford put a halt to that narrative, and Colorado looks much safer for it.
Arizona State [21-9 (10-7), RPI: 39, SOS: 48]
As we wrote Tuesday, Arizona State will be OK. Tuesday night's loss at Oregon doesn't change that. So why aren't we ready to lock in the Sun Devils? Because the committee values who, and how, you play on the road. Herb Sendek's team owns an ugly nonconference strength of schedule figure and its only top-100 RPI road win came at Cal. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils have to avoid anything ugly at Oregon State on Saturday. ASU is in solid standing here, but it's not a lock just yet.
Oregon [21-8 (9-8), RPI: 32, SOS: 44]
After a 3-8 start to conference play, Oregon's resume read like that of an NIT team. Now, after six straight wins -- including a road win at UCLA (without Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, but still) and Tuesday's home victory over Arizona State -- the Ducks suddenly have the requisite bubble chops you'd expect from a team that played a good nonconference schedule and went 12-0 doing so. Dana Altman's team isn't out of the woods yet, of course. But with just one game left to play, against new No. 1 RPI Arizona at home on Saturday, the prospectus is all upside. Finally.
Stanford [18-11 (9-8), RPI: 48, SOS: 16]
There's no shame in losing to Colorado, Arizona or Arizona State, but stacking all three in a late-February/early-March stretch is not exactly the ideal trajectory for a team hovering around a No. 10 seed at this point. A fourth straight at home to Utah this weekend would make things more interesting than they should be, given Stanford's workmanlike effort throughout most of the season.
California [18-12 (9-8), RPI: 54, SOS: 40]
Oregon's six-game winning streak has moved the Ducks into the tournament if it was seeded today, according to Joe Lunardi's Thursday bracket. Cal, meanwhile, is the first team out of the field. To avoid that ignominious end, the Bears would do well to handle Colorado on Saturday, and parlay that with a couple of wins in the Pac-12 tournament.
Arkansas [21-9 (10-7), RPI: 47, SOS: 79]
The Razorbacks followed up last week's road win at Kentucky with back-to-back home wins over Georgia and Ole Miss (the latter a 110-80 romp), which basically means they just didn't give any of their hard-earned Rupp Arena gains back. Because Arkansas started further down the totem pole before the win at UK, it is still not a safe bet to make the tournament, especially if it were to lose at Alabama this weekend.
Tennessee [19-11 (10-7), RPI: 51, SOS: 15]
Saturday's visit from Missouri isn't exactly a one-for-one bracket showdown, because right now the Volunteers are in a slightly better bubble position. Emphasis on "slightly." Tennessee still has much to lose Saturday. You can't give up a home game at this point in the season to another bubble team. It's too easy a nit for the committee to pick. The SEC tournament may end up mattering much more anyway, but a loss on Saturday could be crushing.
Missouri [21-9 (9-8), RPI: 55, SOS: 93]
So maybe a win at Tennessee doesn't do all that much for the Tigers, but what about a loss? Would that move the needle? Would it disqualify Missouri altogether? Would it make the SEC tournament do-or-die? It's all unclear. What is clear is that Missouri needs some serious help to lift itself back up onto the right side of the bubble, and merely not losing on the road against a fellow bubble team would certainly qualify.
|Other at-large contenders|