Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 02/18/2020
We’re now less than a month away until the 2020 March Madness bracket is revealed. Several teams have already solidified their position in the bracket, but the tournament bubble is as hectic as ever.
Check out which five non-power conference teams are looking to sneak into the field of 68.
Few would have guessed that Utah State would be in the thick of the bubble conversation with four weeks remaining in the regular season. After a rough January that featured four losses in five games, the preseason AP No. 17 team has pulled things together, winning seven of its last eight.
Utah State sits 41st in NET with neutral-site wins over LSU and Florida. However, a Quad-3 loss to Air Force, a lukewarm strength-of-schedule ranking and limited resume-boosting opportunities the rest of the way — besides a potential San Diego State matchup in the Mountain West tournament — provide a sizable obstacle.
As of Sunday, the Spiders appeared in 38 of the 94 updated brackets on Bracket Matrix. Quietly sneaking up on the tournament field, Richmond’s four strongest wins are Wisconsin (neutral), Rhode Island (away), VCU (home) and Davidson (away).
How much trust can you put in a non-power conference team that lacks a single win over a team seeded 7th or better on Bracket Matrix? Richmond had only one regular-season stab at Dayton, an 87-79 defeat last month. It closes the regular season in two weeks against a pair of top-100 NET opponents in Davidson and Duquesne.
The 22-4 Panthers (11-3 in Missouri Valley) are still in position for the top seed at Arch Madness but would much rather have the comfort of not needing three wins in three days to secure a tournament ticket.
Avoiding a damaging loss could be the key the rest of the way for a UNI team with a fine strength of schedule and solid advanced metrics. The Panthers still need to take care of business in their final four games, including Quad-3 Southern Illinois — the Panthers lost the first matchup in January — and Quad-3 Drake, which it held off in the final minutes a few games ago.
East Tennessee State/UNC Greensboro
Two-bid SoCon? Well, either of these teams will have an argument on Selection Sunday about receiving an at-large bid. After all, their resumes are fairly similar: Both teams have a pair of Quad-I and Quad-2 wins, a top-80 nonconference strength of schedule, three road losses, and a Quad-4 defeat.
After further research, though, the nod goes to ETSU. Steve Forbes’ Buccaneers have already swept UNCG and distanced themselves from the Spartans a bit in NET with a No. 42 vs. No. 56 advantage. If these teams win out and reach the SoCon title game, we could see a similar outcome as we did last year with Murray State grabbing the Ohio Valley autobid and Belmont sliding into a First Four game.
If the Rams are ever going to gain at-large momentum, now is the time. VCU has two Quad-1 opportunities this week, hosting NET No. 5 Dayton on Tuesday and taking on NET No. 74 Saint Louis on Saturday.
VCU’s team sheet could look considerably different on a nightly basis the rest of the way. The Rams could also gain a Quad-2 victory and bump a dreaded loss from Quad-3 up to Quad-2 if Davidson and George Mason are able to finish strong. A regular-season finale at Davidson is another fringe Quad-1 chance for a team desperately treading water.
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.