Can a Southern Conference team win an at-large bid? We will soon find out.
Projected as a No. 10 seed by Joe Lunardi, Wofford is putting together one compelling case for the NCAA men’s basketball committee. Welcome to Bubble Watch, Terriers.
Mike Young’s team has won 11 straight games thanks to excellent shooting and a low turnover rate that, granted, went temporarily missing in the Terriers’ 78-76 overtime win at East Tennessee State. Nevertheless, Fletcher Magee scored 32 points and sealed the win in the final seconds with a heady and very well-executed intentional miss on a free throw.
You know Magee as the perimeter scoring machine who, in 2017-18, chased Stephen Curry‘s Division I record for made 3-pointers in a season. The Wofford guard came up just short in that pursuit, but this season he’s again averaging around four made 3-pointers per game.
With Magee, Nathan Hoover and Storm Murphy hitting 3s and Cameron Jackson ruling the paint, the Terriers have lit up opposing SoCon defenses to the tune of 1.23 points per possession. Make due allowance for opponent strength, but that’s about what we’re seeing Tennessee do to the SEC.
Anyway, opponent strength in the SoCon is excellent. The reason Wofford’s at-large chances are of more than purely speculative interest is that it’s far from a foregone conclusion that the Terriers will win the automatic bid. UNC Greensboro, ETSU and Furman could all have something to say about that.
With the addition of the Terriers to the Watch, here’s how we’re projecting the bubble right now:
Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 23 teams
Locks: 11 teams
The bubble: 40 teams for 34 available spots
Should be in: 20 teams
Work to do: 20 teams
Should be in
A fleeting appearance under “should be in” is just a pro forma last box to be checked for the Cardinals on their way to full lock status. Absent a total Oklahoma-in-2018 collapse (and even the Sooners got in!), nothing will keep Jordan Nwora and his mates from an elite seed.
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.
FSU now owns wins over Purdue (at home), LSU (on a neutral floor) and Syracuse (at the Carrier Dome). The last game in that group was the most impressive one, as Terance Mann led the Seminoles to an 18-point win on the road. Florida State’s defense has shut down the last two opponents it has faced (Georgia Tech and the Orange), and, if this becomes a trend, Leonard Hamilton’s men could earn themselves a higher seed.
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
NC State is trending in a dangerous direction. Even before the Wolfpack hosted Virginia Tech, they had already lost four of their previous seven games. Now, after two wild losses marked by scoring extremes (the 47-24 defeat at home at the hands of the Hokies, and a 113-96 drubbing at North Carolina), the Pack is 4-6 in ACC play. The home win against Auburn in December looks pretty good on their profile, but NC State needs wins in February. For that to happen, this defense will have to find a second wind.
Should be in: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma
Work to do: Baylor, Texas, TCU
Should be in
One more top-20-NET team moving toward lock territory, so let’s observe something notable in the meantime. The NCAA’s move this season to reformat team sheets and further refine game results within each of the four quadrants is particularly revealing with respect to the Red Raiders. Against the top of Quad 1, for example, Texas Tech is 0-5. Conversely, when playing the remainder of Quad 1, Jarrett Culver & Co. are undefeated, with victories over Nebraska (neutral floor), at home against Kansas State and at Texas.
Like Texas Tech, ISU is a prime candidate to be marked as a lock in the very near future. Unlike the Red Raiders, however, the Cyclones came away with the win when these two teams met in Lubbock in January. That, along with beating Kansas in Ames and this week’s victory at Oklahoma, constitute the leading bullet points on the résumé for Marial Shayok, Tyrese Haliburton and their fellow Clones.
With a road win over Iowa State and victories at home against both Texas Tech and Kansas to their credit, the Wildcats are looking like a real threat to end KU’s streak of 14 consecutive Big 12 titles. On the other hand, even if that doesn’t pan out, this still appears to be a team on its way to a seed just outside the top four lines. In any event, K-State will want to keep the momentum going. Back-to-back road games at Baylor and Texas are up next.
Lon Kruger’s team swept its season series with Oklahoma State and also beat TCU in Norman. Past that, however, OU has posted seven Big 12 losses. The mock brackets are unconcerned so far, and certainly the Big 12 will send plenty of “good win” opportunities the Sooners’ way, up to and including a home game against Kansas in the final week of the season. That being said, Oklahoma will have to win some of these games at some point.
Work to do
The Bears are coming off their worst margin of defeat of the conference season, a 12-point loss at Texas. Even so, Scott Drew’s team is still lurking right behind Kansas State in the conference race. If BU stays this close to the top of the league, its seed could rise significantly from its present 9-10 range. In short, Baylor has come a long way since suffering Quad 4 losses to Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin. (updated: 2/7)
If there’s a 5-5 team in major-conference play that’s being overlooked, it might be Texas. The perimeter-oriented Longhorns are riding Kerwin Roach and the rim defense of Jaxson Hayes. That’s a good combination on paper — one that will presumably translate into more wins and a more solid bracket status than Texas’ current “in, but don’t mess it up” perch. (updated: 2/7)
The Horned Frogs needed a buzzer-beater from JD Miller to beat Oklahoma State in Fort Worth. That stopped a bad loss in its tracks, but TCU is still under .500 (4-5) in Big 12 play. True, this is a team that’s showing up as a solid middle seed in the brackets, with wins over Baylor, Texas and Florida to its credit. On the other hand, Jamie Dixon’s group is allowing conference opponents to hit 54 percent of their 2s. Either the Frogs will start playing better, or the “solid middle seed” bit will be a memory. (updated: 2/7)
Should be in: Marquette, Villanova
Work to do: St. John’s, Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler
Should be in
The one-point loss to St. John’s at home was a heartbreaker, but the men from Milwaukee still appear headed for the program’s best seed in years. In particular, Marquette’s wins in 2018-19 have shown an uncanny tendency to look better with age, as vanquished foes like Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo have charted upward trajectories as the season has progressed.
Before they started once again treating the Big East as their personal plaything, Phil Booth, Eric Paschall and their colleagues were perhaps better known to you for losing to Furman and to Penn. Those defeats aren’t as bad in NET terms as you might assume (they fall under Quad 2, where they appear alongside seven Villanova wins), but they do hold the potential to cost the Wildcats in seeding. Put it this way, the higher Nova rises in the rankings, the stronger the qualitative contrast in the “loss” department will be with peer teams.
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.
Bracket positions don’t get more precarious than the one currently inhabited by SHU. The Pirates are variously projected to be one of the last teams in or one of the first teams out, depending on your preference in mock brackets. You might look at the Hall and see a 4-6 Big East team that’s lost six of its past eight. A whole-season connoisseur, on the other hand, sees a group that also beat Kentucky on a neutral floor and Maryland in College Park.
Bubble, thy name is Big East. If Seton Hall could go either way, well, Creighton’s right there, too. It turns out the Bluejays really could have used a win in at least one of the two overtime games they played against Marquette (last month in Omaha) and Villanova (Wednesday in Philadelphia). Instead, it came up short both times. Now Creighton’s down to just two remaining regular-season Quad 1 opportunities, at Seton Hall and at Marquette.(updated: 2/7)
The Bulldogs are lurking on the fringes of the bubble discussion, and a two-point nail-biter at home against Seton Hall did at least put a capper on what had been a three-game losing streak. That being said, BU’s already lost home games to both Marquette and Villanova. At 4-6 in the Big East and with road games at Georgetown and St. John’s coming next, LaVall Jordan’s team could really use a win — or better still, two.
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: 2/7)
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 Gophers would be around a No. 10 seed if the field were bracketed today, and that road win at Wisconsin is an excellent chip to have in your pocket. Also, who knew the neutral-floor win over Washington would look this good? Now Richard Pitino’s team travels to Michigan State, where the Gophers will face an opponent that seems to have lost its way. (updated: 2/7)
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: 2/7)
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: 2/7)
Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State
Should be in
A win at Arizona State in Washington’s next game would lift defensive artist Matisse Thybulle and his cohorts to 11-0 in league play. The game against the Sun Devils probably also will mark the Huskies’ last Quad 1 contest of 2018-19. The question would then become what kind of seed a team earns if it runs the table in the 2019 Pac-12. On the season as a whole, UW’s best wins in terms of the NCAA’s quadrants are all road games, at Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona. (updated: 2/7)
Work to do
The Sun Devils are holding on to their position in Bubble Watch for now, but losing at home to Washington State by 21 points is beyond a bad loss. It is the profile equivalent of not showing up for the job interview. Playing the Cougars at home qualified as a Quad 4 game, meaning this is now a Quad 4 loss on Arizona State’s résumé. Bubble Watch is pledged to never overreact to a single game, but Bobby Hurley’s team now needs a win at home against Washington more than ever. (updated: 2/7)
Should be in
Take one step forward if you predicted in the preseason that LSU would be in a second-place tie with tournament lock Kentucky, just a game in back of tournament lock Tennessee. Led by the ball-hawking of Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays, this defense has recorded a big year-to-year improvement, one that’s pointing toward a top-6 seed. The Tigers are about to host Auburn before playing at Kentucky. Those are some choice opportunities. (updated: 2/7)
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.
With the exception of a lopsided loss at Ole Miss in the conference season opener, the Tigers have shown an uncanny knack for winning blowouts and losing nail-biters. This tendency most definitely includes AU’s 82-80 loss at home to Kentucky in January. Make no mistake, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper can score points in a hurry. Meaning, while this team is currently projected as a middle seed, Bruce Pearl’s men have the potential to play their way onto a higher line. (updated 2/6)
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 and company 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.
Speaking of could go either way, the Gators are right there with the Tide. Florida’s win at Arkansas stands alone as its only Quad 1 victory. Then again, the SEC this season offers many chances to improve one’s profile. For UF, those chances will take the form of games against Tennessee and Kentucky — both on the road — as well as two shots at LSU. (updated 2/6)
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: 2/7)
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: 2/7)
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, Utah State, 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.
It’s a mark of what UB head coach Nate Oats hath wrought that we’re here talking about a MAC team with road losses at Bowling Green and Northern Illinois in “should be in” terms. Rightly so. Life on the road in the MAC is tough in 2019, and, anyway, there’s the small matter of the Bulls’ 19-3 overall record with their road wins at West Virginia and Syracuse.
Work to do
The Rams won at Texas by one point at the beginning of December, and there are no Quad 1 opportunities remaining on the Atlantic 10 schedule for Mike Rhoades’ team. Who knows, an outright regular-season A-10 title could be enough for an at-large bid (in the event of a loss in the conference tournament). Anyway, if VCU does play its way into the tournament, spectators and, especially, opponents will be confronted with one fearsome defense.
Sam Merrill and his teammates spent the better part of January beating up on the Mountain West’s lower division before winning a tough road game against a good team (at Fresno State, 82-81). That outing could be the Aggies’ best preparation leading up to next month’s potentially profile-defining home game against Nevada. (updated 2/6)
The SoCon has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament, but there’s a first time for everything. Wofford’s in this discussion because the Terriers are 20-4 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.