Bubble watch: UCLA, Texas enter conversation

Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 03/02/2020

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Welcome to conference tournament week.

Bubble talk is heating up, which means it’s a good time to check out where teams are at in terms of tournament bids.

Here’s a handy guide that shows where teams are designated:

  • Locks: Can lose every remaining game and still comfortably make the field
  • Work to do: Likely needs at least one more win to feel comfortable
  • Outside looking in: Needs several victories or an autobid to make the field

HEAT CHECK: Latest bracketology

ACC

LOCKS: Florida State, Duke, Louisville, Virginia
WORK TO DO: NC State
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

With Virginia securing a much-needed signature win over the weekend by defeating Duke, the Cavaliers’ chances of returning to the dance have entered “lock” territory. Virginia has an 11-6 record against Quad-1/2 opponents, which will prevent the reigning champs from slipping out of the bubble conversation regardless of how Tony Bennett’s team finishes the season.

NC State isn’t nearly a lock yet, largely due to a sub-par NET ranking and three Quad-3 losses. The Wolfpack own wins over Duke, Wisconsin and Virginia, though, so Kevin Keatts’ group should be just fine when it’s said and done.

Big East

LOCKS: Seton Hall, Creighton, Villanova, Butler, Marquette
WORK TO DO: Providence, Xavier
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

Providence continued its feverish push for an NCAA Tournament berth with a road win at Villanova over the weekend, which is the team’s seventh Quad-1 victory. The Friars probably can’t afford to lose out because of their awful losses to start the year, but no bubble team can match Providence’s quality and quantity of resume-boosting wins.

Xavier is inching closer to locking up a tournament bid as well, though its work isn’t quite done yet. The Musketeers still only have one top-40 NET win (at Seton Hall) and a 3-9 Quad-1 record. Unless Xavier completely collapses, it will be in the 2020 field, though.

Big Ten

LOCKS: Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois
WORK TO DO: Indiana, Rutgers
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

The Big Ten has eight teams all but locked into the March Madness conversation with Indiana and Rutgers still fighting for Selection Sunday comfort. Indiana and Rutgers’ inability to win on the road (combined 3-16 in away games) is what’s keeping these teams from securing at-large spots. A road win would do wonders, but the Hoosiers and Scarlet Knights should be fine regardless.

Big XII

LOCKS: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Texas Tech
WORK TO DO: Oklahoma
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Texas

Is Texas back? Well, Shaka Smart’s team has certainly entered the conversation. The Longhorns picked up a massive win Saturday at Texas Tech for the team’s fourth Quad-1 victory. A road matchup at Oklahoma on Tuesday provides Texas with another signature win opportunity. The Longhorns probably need one more regular season win and another in the Big XII tournament to feel safe.

Oklahoma has moved off the First Four and into the field of 64 with a road win over West Virginia. The Sooners swept the Mountaineers and also have a home win against Texas Tech. With 10 total Quad-1/2 wins and a top-40 strength of schedule and NET, this at-large bid is just about wrapped up.

Pac-12

LOCKS: Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State
WORK TO DO: USC, Stanford, UCLA
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

Even if Arizona State loses out (vs. Washington, vs. Washington State and Pac-12 tournament), I’m comfortable with putting the Sun Devils in as a “lock” given their wins over Arizona, Oregon and at Stanford.

The Pac-12 bubble trio of USC, Stanford and now UCLA is not nearly as set in stone. USC could certainly benefit from another win and Stanford is in good shape with its recent win over Colorado and No. 28 NET ranking.

UCLA might be the most interesting bubble team in the country. The Bruins looked dead in the water as recent as about a month ago, and have now surged into first place in the Pac-12 with a sweep of Arizona and Colorado. Though it is labeled as just a “sorting tool” by the committee, including a team with a NET ranking as low as No. 76 with a sub-200 nonconference strength of schedule and two Quad-3/4 losses might still be a bit of a stretch. UCLA closes with a potential win-and-in game at USC on Saturday and the Pac-12 tournament, where it could be the No. 1 seed.

SEC

LOCKS: Kentucky, Auburn, LSU, Florida
WORK TO DO: —
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Mississippi State, Arkansas, Alabama

You’re either a “lock” or trying to get back in the conversation if you’re in the SEC. Mississippi State, Arkansas and Alabama have less-than-great resumes to this point. None of the three rank in the NET top 40, they’re a combined 5-19 in Quad-1 games with zero top-25 wins, each have at least one sub-100 NET loss and they aren’t loved by the advanced metrics. Arkansas might wind up with the best case as the Razorbacks lost six consecutive games with Isaiah Joe sidelined. This conference could easily wind up as a four-bid league, though.

American

LOCKS: Houston
WORK TO DO: Wichita State, Cincinnati
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Memphis

A one-bid American? It wouldn’t be the craziest thing. Wichita State saved its at-large hopes by completing a 24-point comeback at SMU on Sunday while Cincinnati failed to log a signature win at Houston.

Wichita State’s team sheet is still lacking with only one top-50 NET victory. Meanwhile, Cincinnati has a sweep of Wichita State and a victory over Houston, but four Quad-3 losses and a sub-50 NET ranking. Both of these teams could be nervous without an autobid.

Memphis is hanging on to consideration by a thread. The Tigers also have a home win against Houston and three Quad-3 losses with a poor NET ranking. With huge opportunities ahead against Wichita State and at Houston, Penny Hardaway’s team still has a shot.

Atlantic 10

LOCKS: Dayton
WORK TO DO: —
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Richmond, Rhode Island

It’s Dayton and two bubbly teams in the A-10. Rhode Island fell out of the field with an untimely home loss to Saint Louis while Richmond continues to lurk.

Rhode Island’s resume seriously lacks a quality win as the Rams own a 1-5 Quad-1 record and they have yet to record a top-40 victory. A Quad-4 loss to Brown and dicey advanced metric rankings make things even more challenging. Hosting Dayton on Wednesday could be URI’s final shot at a signature win.

Richmond needs another quality win to boost its chances but won’t have another shot at Dayton unless the two meet in the Atlantic 10 tournament. By the time Selection Sunday rolls around, there might not be enough meat on the team sheet for the Spiders to have a compelling case against power-conference teams with several quality wins.

Missouri Valley

LOCKS: —
WORK TO DO: Northern Iowa
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

Northern Iowa continues to navigate Missouri Valley play largely unscathed, setting up a more comfortable trip at Arch Madness. With No. 2 seed Loyola Chicago and No. 3 Indiana State hanging around No. 100 in NET, UNI probably won’t get another chance at a Quad-1 or Quad-2 win before Selection Sunday. A Missouri Valley tournament loss would hurt but might not derail UNI’s at-large hopes.

Mountain West

LOCKS: San Diego State
WORK TO DO: Utah State
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

Utah State picked the wrong time for its second Quad-3 loss of the year. The Aggies dropped Saturday’s contest at New Mexico to wrap up Mountain West play, placing Utah State in a dire situation in the MW tournament in Vegas this week.

The Aggies’ only remaining Quad-1 opportunity would be against San Diego State in the MW title game, and they still need to take care of business against either New Mexico or San Jose State in the quarterfinals before likely playing either Nevada or Colorado State. It could take at least a run to the title game to secure a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

WCC

LOCKS: Gonzaga, BYU
WORK TO DO: Saint Mary’s
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

We’ve seen Saint Mary’s end up on the wrong side of the bubble in these scenarios before, so I’m not sure this at-large spot is wrapped up quite yet. The Gaels own wins over BYU, Wisconsin, Arizona State and Utah State and have Quad-3 losses to Santa Clara and Winthrop.

Saint Mary’s will play either Pepperdine, Santa Clara or Portland in the WCC quarterfinals with the winner facing BYU. As long as SMC doesn’t fall in the quarters, it should be fine on Selection Sunday.

SoCon

LOCKS: —
WORK TO DO: East Tennessee State
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: —

ETSU’s at-large hopes almost went up in smoke over the weekend, needing a double-digit comeback at home against Western Carolina. Next up for Steve Forbes’ team is the SoCon tournament, where the Buccaneers are the top seed. A loss in the title game — so long as it isn’t a blowout to a team not named Furman or UNCG — should still be enough to place ETSU in a First Four game.

HEAT CHECK: Why North Florida should be your favorite March mid-major

Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member.