Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Saturday’s games.
If there was a winner coming out of the NCAA’s third annual bracket preview, it might have been the Atlantic Coast Conference.
With two No. 1 seeds in Duke and Virginia, a No. 2 seed in North Carolina and a No. 4 seed in Louisville, the ACC equaled the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin) in placing four teams on the top four lines.
In terms of the seeds within those four lines, however, it was the ACC that performed best. That has indeed been the league’s habit in recent years.
Bubble Watch likes to use a points scheme to evaluate how well conferences perform in terms of earning these precious top-four seeds. In this scheme, a No. 1 seed is worth four points, a No. 4 seed is worth one, and the two seeds in between are each worth exactly what you’d expect on such a fiendishly complex sliding scale.
By this measure, the ACC earned 12 seed points in the preview bracket. It was just a preview, of course, but if those seeds were to hold, it would equal the best performance the ACC has turned in during the tournament’s modern era.
In 2017, the ACC also earned 12 seed points thanks to a No. 1 seed for (eventual national champion) North Carolina, No. 2 seeds for Louisville and Duke and a No. 3 seed for Florida State.
This kind of showing at the top of the bracket is getting to be a habit for the ACC. In each of the past five tournaments, the league has led Division I in seed points earned on Selection Sunday. You have to go back to 2013 (when the Big Ten and the old-format Big East shared the honor) to find a bracket in which the ACC did not come out on top in terms of top-four seeds.
Of course, the all-time champion in terms of seed points is still the 2009 Big East. That was the year Louisville, Pittsburgh and Connecticut all earned No. 1 seeds, while Villanova and Syracuse both received No. 3 seeds.
Even though the Big East didn’t get a team to that year’s national title game (won by UNC over Michigan State), the mark of 16 seed points is going to be pretty tough to beat. Still, if any conference is built to make a run at the record, it could well be the ACC.
Here’s how we’re projecting the bubble right now …
Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 23 teams
Locks: 12 teams
The bubble: 38 teams for 33 available spots
Should be in: 18 teams
Work to do: 20 teams
Should be in
No sooner does the NCAA host its big fancy bracket preview than three of the four teams named as No. 4 seeds promptly go out and lose. Louisville, Iowa State and Wisconsin say, Hey, thanks a lot, NCAA. Don’t do us any more “favors.” Yes, the Cardinals came up short in overtime at Florida State, but when you’ve won on the road at North Carolina and at home against Michigan State, you’re still in line for a really nice seed. Not bad for a team that was picked to finish 11th in the ACC preseason media poll. (Updated: Feb. 9)
In Virginia Tech, we’re looking at a group with wins over Purdue, Washington and Syracuse, not to mention the truly historic 47-24 beating the Hokies put on NC State in Raleigh. We are also in the presence of a team, however, that lost at Penn State and, most recently, suffered an eight-point defeat at Clemson. The factors in the previous sentence do no favors to Virginia Tech’s seed. Buzz Williams’ men need to take care of business at home against Georgia Tech and on the road against Pittsburgh before prepping to host Virginia.
Now that FSU has wins over not only Purdue and LSU but also Louisville, those mid-January losses at Boston College and at Pittsburgh actually loom a bit larger. Neither game was particularly close, and at the time, it seemed like the whole season might go sideways for Leonard Hamilton’s men. Instead, those losses are now looking more and more like underachievement from a team whose other defeats came at the hands of Villanova, Virginia and Duke. (Updated: Feb. 9)
The official motto of Syracuse in 2019 is “We won at Duke.” That’s an excellent motto (yes, yes, the Blue Devils were short-handed, duly noted), one that will balance some demerits — such as four Orange losses in Quads 2 and 3 and, yes, a somewhat listless performance at home in an 18-point loss to Florida State. Not to mention few Bubble Watch teams are blessed with as many upcoming opportunities: Louisville, Duke and Virginia are all coming to the Carrier Dome in the next few weeks.
Work to do
The Wolfpack did what was necessary and won by three at Pittsburgh. The stage is now set for a potentially profile-transforming two-game stretch: NC State will host Syracuse and then pay a visit to Duke. With two wins there, Kevin Keatts’ team is a “should be in” no-brainer. On the other hand, two losses, while entirely understandable in basketball terms, would spell bracket peril. Coming up short against both the Orange and the Blue Devils would leave NC State at just 5-8 in ACC play and, effectively, with just one remaining regular-season chance to impress the committee in the form of a road game at Florida State. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Should be in: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State
Work to do: Baylor, TCU, Texas, Oklahoma
Should be in
For proof that the NCAA didn’t translate the NET rankings directly into the top four seed lines for the bracket preview, look no further than Virginia Tech and Texas Tech. The Hokies and the Red Raiders ranked Nos. 10 and 16, respectively, at the time of the reveal, yet neither was anywhere to be seen in the preview bracket. If you’re Texas Tech, this tells you you’re perched right outside the top four seed lines, and you can perhaps move up with wins in the next few days at Oklahoma State and at home against Baylor and Kansas. (Updated: Feb. 9)
The loss at home to TCU was not only surprising, it reduced Iowa State’s chances of winning a share of the Big 12 title. In terms of NCAA seeding impact, however, a single defeat at the hands of (one presumes) another at-large team, even at home, isn’t going to move the needle all that much. Falling to the Horned Frogs represented the Cyclones’ second Quad 2 loss of the season, but Wisconsin also made its way to the No. 4 line in the bracket preview and the Badgers had already lost two Quad 2 games. This isn’t a deal-breaker for ISU, just as long as the Clones don’t get it into their heads to keep doing this kind of thing. (Updated: Feb. 9)
With Kansas State two games ahead of the nearest competitor in the loss column in the Big 12 race, the temptation is to speculate about Kansas and the fate of its 14-year streak of titles. There will be plenty of time for that, but let us observe in the meantime that the Wildcats are very quickly playing their way up the bracket in the field of 68. K-State’s currently projected as a No. 6 seed, and with games up next at Texas and at home against Iowa State, Bruce Weber’s men have a chance to climb even higher. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Work to do
In the wake of Kansas State’s 70-63 win over the Bears in Waco, we’ve learned one important lesson: Baylor isn’t as good without Makai Mason and King McClure as it is with them on the floor. Mason and McClure missed the game against the Wildcats because of “day-to-day” toe and knee issues, respectively. If the Bears are healthy, they’ve shown they can play their way into a higher seed than the spot on the No. 8 line that they’re currently projected to receive. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Beating Iowa State in Ames counts as TCU’s best win of the season, by far. The Horned Frogs got 17 points apiece from Alex Robinson, Kouat Noi and Desmond Bane and a career-high 22 from freshman reserve Kendric Davis. Now Jamie Dixon’s team has a golden opportunity to improve its profile further and boost that projected No. 9 seed. Kansas is heading to Fort Worth along with ESPN as part of Big Monday for a game with serious implications for both the bracket and for KU’s streak of conference titles. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Just two short weeks ago, Texas was 3-4 in conference play and coming off a 10-point SEC/Big 12 Challenge loss at Georgia. Since that time, however, the Longhorns have won three of four, and Shaka Smart’s team has done so by scoring points at a Tennessee-high rate. (Heck, even in the loss to the Bulldogs, Kerwin Roach II and his teammates rung up 88 points.) This sudden emergence on offense has set the stage for a jewel of a showdown, as conference leader Kansas State is set to pay a visit to Austin. A Texas win would not only be a very good résumé entry, it would also be welcomed by Kansas and every other Big 12 contender. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Lon Kruger’s team swept its season series against Oklahoma State and also beat TCU in Norman. Other than that, however, OU has posted eight Big 12 losses. The Sooners did have the good fortune to schedule Wofford in the nonconference season, and Oklahoma did win that game in Norman. (It is, at this point, OU’s best NET win.) That being said, a 3-8 record in major-conference play doesn’t customarily translate into an at-large bid. Time’s running out for the Sooners. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Should be in: Villanova
Work to do: St. John’s, Seton Hall, Butler, Creighton
Should be in
The last-second loss at Marquette was a heartbreaker, and the Wildcats’ last possession in particular brought “ugly” together in the same sentence with “Villanova offense” for one of the few times in the past six years. That being said, Jay Wright’s team is still atop the Big East. Bubble Watch has suggested previously that Nova’s losses to Furman and Penn could lead to a lower seed than what predictive metrics would suggest this team might receive, and the Wildcats’ absence from the NCAA bracket preview did nothing to disprove that notion. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Work to do
Apparently, we’re about to find out just how valuable season sweeps of Marquette and Creighton really are. St. John’s seems bound and determined to isolate those four wins as the key variable. On Saturday, the Storm lost 70-56 to Providence at Madison Square Garden — that’s a Quad 3 defeat on the profile and drops SJU to 5-7 in Big East play. Chris Mullin’s team is currently being projected for a seed in the high single digits, but that’s unlikely to remain the case if St. John’s insists on remaining under .500 in conference play.
Wins over Kentucky on a neutral floor and at Maryland are going to keep the Pirates in bubble suspense until one of two things happen: Either Seton Hall will play its way solidly into the field with a sufficient number of wins in upcoming games at Creighton, at St. John’s and at home against Marquette and Villanova, or Kevin Willard’s team (currently 5-6 in conference) will fall too far under .500 in Big East play to merit further consideration. Anything in between those two paths will just mean more suspense. (Updated: Feb. 9)
At the time it occurred, the Bulldogs’ win at Georgetown qualified, barely, as a Quadrant 1 victory. If the Hoyas are able to stay in the top 75 of the NET rankings, it would mean Butler carries a 2-6 record in Quad 1 games. Will the win in Washington, D.C., and a neutral-floor victory over Florida be enough to get Butler into the field of 68? Stranger things have happened, but the Bulldogs would be well advised to seize the opportunities presented by upcoming road games against St. John’s (in Queens, not at Madison Square Garden), Marquette and Villanova. Those games will still be Quad 1 material when the committee makes its selection. (Updated: Feb. 9)
The next time you’re tempted to dismiss “every possession counts” as empty coach-speak, think of the Bluejays. This team took both Marquette and Villanova to overtime only to lose both games. In addition, it’s possible no team Creighton has beaten this season will earn an at-large bid. (Butler could go either way. Who knows, maybe Clemson will work some miracle.) When that’s the case, and you’re 13-11 overall and 4-7 in conference, you need two things: (A) a respectable Big East record at the finish line; and (B) a win at Marquette on March 3. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Should be in
Greg Gard’s team checked in as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA’s bracket preview, and that sounds about right. Wisconsin beat Michigan in Madison, the Badgers’ road victory at Iowa keeps improving with age and Ethan Happ and his eager minions are now 7-5 in Quad 1 games. All of which is to say, no, you likely won’t be seeing Wisconsin in non-lock territory for much longer.
Close students of the bubble are about to get some needed seeding clarity with regard to the Terps. Certainly, no one will begrudge a young team losing on the road to Michigan State and Wisconsin. The 11-point loss to Illinois at Madison Square Garden, however, was a surprise. So where in the bracket should Bruno Fernando and Anthony Cowan Jr. be slotted? The next three games will speak volumes, with tests upcoming not only at home against Purdue but also on the road at Michigan and Iowa. (Updated: Feb. 7)
Locks that haven’t lost many games of any kind notwithstanding, Iowa has one of the sweetest no-bad-loss profiles you’ll see anywhere. This team’s “worst” loss is a road defeat at Minnesota. Otherwise, you’re looking at setbacks against Michigan State (twice), Purdue and Wisconsin. That’s it. Never mind the questionable defense, if Luka Garza keeps blowing up into the next tall Big Ten non-Happ happening, Iowa can earn a really nice seed.
Work to do
The Golden Gophers suffered from bad timing and caught Michigan State when the Spartans decided to once again be good at basketball. The result was a 24-point loss at East Lansing, but Richard Pitino’s team is still in an unusually good position for a projected No. 10 seed. Minnesota’s worst losses both came on the road to major-conference opponents (Boston College and Illinois). Not to mention the Gophers will get at least four and possibly five more chances at Quad 1 wins in the regular season, including home games against Michigan and Purdue. (Updated: Feb. 9)
That true road win OSU recorded at Cincinnati in its very first game of the season continues to pay dividends. Still, if the Buckeyes are to stay “in” the field (quotation marks indicate no one is in the field, it’s February), the team will presumably have to go from 5-6 in the Big Ten to a near-.500 finish. That’s no sure thing with a closing schedule that includes road tests at Indiana, Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue, not to mention home games against Iowa and Wisconsin. (Updated: Feb. 7)
History and custom suggest that Indiana needs to get to nine wins in the new 20-game-schedule Big Ten to be considered for an at-large bid. The Hoosiers winning five of their last eight is certainly possible, but it won’t be easy. For the sake of discussion, count the season finale at home against Rutgers as a win, and go ahead and imagine victory in the next game against Ohio State (also in Bloomington). Beyond that, however, every game is either on the road or at home against Purdue, Wisconsin or Michigan State. (Updated: Feb. 7)
Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State
Should be in
Now we know that Washington won’t run the table in the Pac-12. The loss at Arizona State means Mike Hopkins’ men will likely reach Selection Sunday showing road victories at Arizona and Oregon as their best wins. This is still the Pac-12’s best per-possession team by a healthy margin, one that’s likely to post a gaudy record in conference play. All of that 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. 9)
Work to do
Arizona State is still alive after beating Washington 75-63 in Tempe, and Bobby Hurley’s team could get more Quad 1 opportunities thanks to road games at Oregon and Arizona. Plus, ASU’s profile also includes, of course, the nonconference wins over Kansas (at home) and Mississippi State (neutral floor). Will that be enough to offset losing by 21 to Washington State at home (a Quad 4 loss)? That’s entirely out of the Sun Devils’ hands. All they can do is win games, starting with their road trip to Colorado and Utah. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Should be in
In just his second season in Baton Rouge, Will Wade is already spending February playing for the best seed possible. Back-to-back wins against the likes of Mississippi State (on the road) and Auburn (at home) from a group that was already showing up on the No. 5 line in mock brackets means LSU’s now competing with teams featured in the NCAA bracket preview for optimal position. Winning that upcoming road game at Kentucky would certainly be one way to crash the top four seed lines in style. (Updated: Feb. 9)
The Bulldogs are coming off back-to-back losses at home that, had they gone the other way, would have made this a much different discussion. After losing in overtime to LSU, Ben Howland’s team came up just short against Kentucky. Naturally, this is still a good-news story in Starkville: MSU’s on track to play in the tournament for the first time in 10 years. Still, a win or, better yet, two from those meetings with the Tigers and the Wildcats would have been big for projected No. 7 seed that’s 4-6 in the SEC and still has to play road games at Auburn and Tennessee.
The Tigers are a very good team that, one early-season blowout at home against Washington notwithstanding, hasn’t had much success in its biggest games. In fact, after the five-point loss at LSU, Bruce Pearl’s men now stand at 1-6 in Quad 1 contests. Auburn will have opportunities to improve that mark, however, thanks to yet-to-be-played home games against Mississippi State and Tennessee and upcoming road trips to Kentucky and Alabama. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Work to do
The Rebels are demonstrating how persistence of vision manifests itself in tournament selection. Ole Miss has lost five of its last eight, but good work done in November (neutral-floor win over Baylor) and especially in early January (beating Auburn in Oxford and Mississippi State in Starkville) is, for now, keeping Terence Davis & Co. in projected single-seed territory. Barely.
Welcome to the precarious far reaches of the tournament field. Indeed, if Selection Sunday were held today, Alabama would be one of those “could go either way” teams. Beating Kentucky in Tuscaloosa is a fine start to any résumé, surely, but that’s kind of the point. Avery Johnson’s men don’t have much more to show aside from a home victory over Mississippi State. If they did, the Crimson Tide’s position wouldn’t be quite so tenuous.
Here’s a question Bubble Watch fields from time to time: “How in the world is Florida still in Bubble Watch? All the Gators do is lose.” Now, wait just a second there, questioner. Bubble Watch will have you know that UF is [checks notes], well, 12-11 overall. But in SEC play, Mike White’s guys happen to be, well, 4-6. So, how is Florida still in Bubble Watch? The Gators ranked No. 42 in the NET heading into the loss at Tennessee and, like other teams barely clinging to bubble life, they’ve played a ton of Quad 1 games and lost all but one (at Arkansas). If that opportunities-to-results ratio doesn’t improve, and fast, UF won’t be sticking around these parts. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Should be in: Cincinnati
Work to do: UCF, Temple
Should be in
For a team projected to land in the middle of the bracket, Cincinnati’s seed shows significant potential for volatility. Start with the fact that the Bearcats have played only three Quad 1 games all season (they’re 2-1), throw in one of those unsightly Quad 4 losses (at East Carolina) and then add the coup de grâce of variability. UC gets five Quad 1 chances in its final eight games, including two shots at Houston. This projected No. 7 seed could jump or fall significantly. Stay tuned. (Updated: Feb. 7)
Work to do
UCF had Houston on its home floor, but the result was a swing and a miss. The Cougars left Orlando with a 77-68 win, and the implications for the Knights are stark: Johnny Dawkins’ team probably would be right on the in/out borderline if the selection were held today. On the other hand, UCF does have no fewer than five upcoming Quad 1 opportunities (two games against Cincinnati and road games at Houston, Temple and South Florida). The Knights have work to do, but they also will get chances. (Updated: Feb. 7)
Things are starting to look a bit more ominous for the Owls. The January win against Houston in Philadelphia is, of course, keeping Temple in the discussion, but this is also a team that’s now lost four of its last seven. Losing by 18 on the road to a Tulsa team that entered the game 3-7 in American play is particularly worrisome. The Owls are variously shown as barely in or barely out, but more games like the one against the Golden Hurricane will take any remaining uncertainty out of this question.
Should be in: Nevada, Buffalo
Work to do: VCU, Wofford
Should be in
Eric Musselman went after Pac-12 opponents in making his 2018-19 schedule, and, well, that league isn’t having its best season. The dip in what was supposed to be major-conference opponent strength explains how Nevada is currently being projected as a No. 4 seed with a 21-1 record. It also accounts for the fact that Musselman’s team is still yet to play a Quad 1 game this season. That will change, at last, when the Wolf Pack visit Utah State at the beginning of next month.
The Bulls saw a demotion to “work to do” flash before their eyes as they stumbled early at home against Central Michigan and trailed in the first half by 18. Buffalo outscored the Chippewas 74-44 the rest of the way, however, and won easily. Now Nate Oats’ men face what promises to be their most important week of the conference season: UB will play back-to-back road games at Akron and Toledo. Those are tough tests on paper, and indeed the game against the Rockets is likely to be the Bulls’ last shot at a Quad 1 win. (Updated: Feb. 9)
Work to do
The Rams are now in a first-place tie atop the Atlantic 10 with Davidson. The road win at Texas is a nice feather in the profile cap, and depending on what Temple can get done with respect to its own tournament hopes, a neutral-floor win over the Owls could also become a useful talking point. If VCU has a built-in challenge on its path to an at-large bid, however, it’s opportunities. The A-10 isn’t giving Mike Rhoades’ team any Quad 1 chances the rest of the way, and barring a jump by the Wildcats in the NET rankings, that statement will apply to the conference tournament at the Barclays Center as well. (Updated: Feb. 9)
The SoCon 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 21-4, with losses to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Mike Young’s men additionally own Quad 1 wins at UNC Greensboro and at 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. 9)