Every NCAA Tournament has its controversy of which teams deserve to get in. For these borderline teams that are clenching their teeth on the committee’s decision, 68 just isn’t enough sometimes. The borderline teams are, majority of the time, Power 5 conference teams or conferences in the mix for good basketball conferences, such as the Big East and the American Athletic Conference. This year, there are some surprises, both strange in terms of being that close (e.g.: Penn State) as well as strange that they are down that far (e.g.: Notre Dame). However, larger scale conference tournaments will make a difference for these teams in order to boost their criteria of getting into the big dance. With the Big 10 tournament completed, teams like the Penn State Nittany Lions will just have to await their fate. As for others, here is what I believe they will need to accomplish, sorted by conference.
The best conference in college basketball will always go deeper down the list than the other conferences, giving teams such as Florida State, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Louisville, and possibly even Boston College chances to get in. Notre Dame, normally seeded 3-6 in previous tournaments (were 5 last year) has had a down year due to injuries to Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell throughout the year. Florida State, similarly to Arizona State, started off as one of the last undefeated teams but has tailed off in the second half of the season. Similarly, Louisville has struggled in the second half of the season, and is arguably only at this point as a result of an easier second half schedule keeping them afloat, as they have not beaten a ranked team all year. Boston College (17-14) and Syracuse (19-12) have struggled similarly against ranked teams, but those two teams have at least been slightly better against higher quality opponents, with BC having 4 wins against Top 50 teams and Syracuse having 5. With that being said, I believe Florida State has the best chance of this bubble group in the ACC, followed by Notre Dame, Syracuse, then Louisville, and then Boston College. However, I think all these teams can fall in or out.
Starting with Boston College and Syracuse, I believe both those teams would have to go to at least the semifinals to have any shot. That means beating one of the Top 4 teams in the ACC (Virginia, Duke, Miami or Clemson) along the way. Odds are, even if they don’t win their semifinal matchup, they could also get more recognition if they put up a fight against one of those top teams. Obviously, they would have to also go significantly further than those other bubble teams, and probably hope they get pounded, especially Notre Dame, who is not guaranteed to be playing head-to-head (FSU and Louisville will). Boston College would have to win more convincingly to have a shot, as their record is only 17-14 and their conference record is 8-10. Their chances are very slim even if they do make the semifinals, and impossible if they don’t reach there. As for Syracuse, I believe if they make the semifinals, they would get in if they are the only bubble team there, as they would have to upset UNC and Miami in the process. And then they would have to hang around with Duke, unless they get upset along the way too. If they play a middle seed such as Virginia Tech, a loss may not convince the committee at all, as they are not too far ahead of Syracuse overall. If Syracuse can accomplish this (and obviously get enough help) or even go further than I mentioned, I believe they should sneak into the tournament as a 11 or 12 seed, possibly in one of the Round of 68 play-in games. But hey, being in that game is better than not being there at all.
Then, there are the simpler cases of Florida State and Louisville. I say that because these two teams play head-to-head in the second round of the ACC tournament. Florida State, with a better record and more quality wins, has a little more leeway to sneak in if they lose to the Cardinals. Louisville, on the other hand, will have to wait out bubble teams in other conferences, because they don’t have a quality second half criteria. Regardless, the winner of this game should get in, unless other bubble teams make great runs. If Notre Dame or one of the teams I mentioned above get further, the fate may come down to how they play against 1-seeded Virginia. Like I said above with Syracuse and BC, if they play close with Virginia, that will be considered in the committee. If they beat Virginia, it is a definite lock for the tournament, no matter what happens to every other team, being that, as much as I think they are overrated, Virginia is the #1 overall seed. So basically, win and you’re in that matchup, lose and await your fate. And if Louisville does lose to Florida State, which I personally believe they will, I’d be especially concerned with a healthier and far better coached Notre Dame team on the rise.
And Notre Dame is where I will end, with I think the best team of these bubble teams. I mentioned above how, criteria wise, I don’t believe they have the best chance, as Florida State has a better conference and overall record than them. But with Colson and Farrell fully healthy, and a great coach in Mike Brey, this Irish team is one that I think will benefit with a nice tournament run. Granted, they still have work to do. But I believe their task is simpler than that of Louisville, Syracuse, and Boston College. They do have to definitely reach the quarterfinals at least to stand a chance, and then it will be determined by the combination of their fate against Duke as well as the other teams’ fates previously in the tournament. If everybody else, maybe besides Florida State or Louisville, doesn’t go anywhere and Notre Dame reaches Duke and plays them well, I think they get in. Personally, I think they can definitely make it there, as they have a more talented team than Pitt or Virginia Tech. And like I said with Florida State or Louisville, if you beat a top dog team like Duke, you are guaranteed to get in. And Notre Dame, when healthy, have played some very tight contests with Duke. So why not this rising Irish team that many people, including myself, thought were done when Bonzie Colson got injured in January? It will take a lot to do it still, but this is a team I have confidence in to get it done.
This group probably has the most borderline teams to get in, with the conference being much deeper that usual. Iowa State, normally a mainstay in this tournament currently stands in last place, at 13-17. So basically, no team has been awful in this conference this year. However, none of these middle-tier teams have been overly spectacular either, leading to a lot of different scenarios that can shake up in the Big 12 tournament to get teams in. Being that there are a lot of quality teams that have often split season series with each other, this conference’s borderline teams are more about fighting for 3 or 4 spots than just 1 or 2.
Already in is Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia, and TCU. For reference, TCU will get in for a harder strength of schedule (9th) in the RPI poll and several other advanced statistics, despite having similar records to a lot of these borderline teams fighting for 10 seeds, including the same overall record. So the teams fighting for these spots include Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Texas. Odds are 3 spots will be filled of this group, and odds are the Kansas State Wildcats will have the best chance of sealing a spot, with a 21-10 overall record. The knock on them is playing one of the easier schedules, according to the RPI polls. However, they will still have a better chance than the other 18-win teams I listed. That being said, they will have to play TCU right away. If they make a statement in that game against a team that is a projected 6 seed, I think you can definitely seal Kansas State in. If they lose, they will have to hope the top seeds will come through against some or most of those other bubble teams. They will likely fall from a 10 to maybe a 12 if other teams do better than them, but will still get into the tournament. The only way I don’t see Kansas State getting in is if 3 of those teams make the semifinals (Baylor, Texas, and one of the Oklahoma teams), or if even two make it and they get blown out by TCU in their conference tournament game. Otherwise, I believe this Kansas State team should be fine getting in. If they win the tournament, I believe their stock can rise from a 10 seed maybe to something like a 7 or 8.
Moving on to the two Oklahoma teams, being that they are 8 and 9 seeds in a 10-team tournament, odds are the loser of that game will be out of the tournament with the way this conference has been deep. Yes, a Trae Young-led Oklahoma team may miss the NCAA tournament, you are reading this right. Oklahoma has the better chance according to RPI percentage, as well as them playing and beating a lot of dominant teams at the start of the season, including Kansas. Also, their losses have been tougher, having been featured in the Big 12-SEC challenge games often as well. That may give them a little leeway if Texas or Baylor gets demolished completely and they beat Oklahoma State, but again they will still have to put up a fight or even beat Kansas to have a shot. As for Oklahoma State, they certainly spawned momentum with a big win against Kansas 2 days ago, but will still have to carry that into this tournament. For them, being that their wins weren’t as dominant and their team as a whole isn’t as talented, they will have to win by more significant margins and/or go further in this tournament to sneak in. If they were to get into the tournament, Texas would have to lose in the first round for sure and they’d have to likely beat Kansas and hope West Virginia can beat Baylor. And if the margin of victories are dominant for Oklahoma State and not so dominant the other way for the two Texas teams, Oklahoma State may have a tournament case. Being their circumstances, I don’t see them higher than the 12-seed play-in game. But if they win the tournament, they could enhance their seeding further.
Finally with the two Texas teams, I think Baylor has the best chance of emerging in this tournament and making a statement. As the 6 seed in the tournament, they get a pass to the quarterfinals, and get to play West Virginia right away rather than having to play a team like Kansas, which gives them a better chance to win. I’ve also mentioned in my stock watch articles how this is the best and most well-rounded offense they have had probably since 2012 when they were a decent 3 seed and lost in the Elite 8 to the Anthony Davis-led Kentucky Wildcats. They have the best RPI scoring margins among these five teams (9.8), and have 4 wins against the Top 50 and 2 against the Top 25, which is tied with Texas, but overall by better margin of victory. Moving on to the situation, I believe Baylor will lock up a spot with a win against West Virginia, unless one of the Oklahoma teams or Texas goes to the finals. Otherwise, they may have to push further to seal a spot. And being that they are more well-rested than those other teams besides Kansas State, that may give them an edge. As for the Longhorns, they aren’t too far behind Baylor. They actually have one edge on Baylor that could get them in in a tiebreaker scenario, which is 5-6 (in comparison to 2-9 for Baylor) for record against AP ranked teams throughout the season. Beyond that, between their RPI marks not being as good and their wins being closer, they will have to edge out Baylor for the tournament in order to seal a spot. Unlike Baylor, they have to play in the first round. Granted, they play against the lowest seed in Iowa State. However, if they lose that game, they are likely gone, maybe unless Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma and then gets steamrolled by Kansas. However, they also may consider putting in stronger conference tournament performers from other conferences that may be on the borderline too, as going out in the first round is never a good look for a team on the bubble. Obviously, if they beat Texas Tech in the quarterfinals and Baylor loses, than Texas should seal their ticket in and take that second borderline spot, which would likely be an 11 seed. However, the road is a little tougher for them as it is for Baylor or Oklahoma in my opinion. At the same time, I do believe this conference has been deep and talented enough all year long where I think three of these bubble teams will get in. And one bad loss, whether in margin of victory or timing in the tournament, can be the dagger in this Big 12 tournament. However, when it comes to tiebreaker scenarios, I expect Kansas State, Baylor, and Oklahoma to benefit a little more from the committee than Texas or Oklahoma State.
What has been the weakest conference among Power 5 conferences as it was for football, the Pac-12 has one runaway favorite that has their head coach sweating amidst the wiretapping investigation and several other teams that have had down years trying to scrap their way into the tournament. I only expect three teams to make it into the NCAA tournament, which is why is the simplest scenario among the conferences listed. The simple scenario is to make the finals and you’re in, whether as the 2nd seed to Arizona or 2 and 3 that will still make it in. This obviously wouldn’t apply to any of the teams below 20 wins, as 16 wins or less is not going to make the tournament anyway. However, making the finals will definitely seal a spot.
However, nothing else is a given, and it is because the way the teams are seeded. Arizona State, who has been the second best team in the conference all year despite falling off, is a 9 seed due to an 8-10 conference record. Meanwhile, a 17-11 Stanford Cardinal team, with three losses less than Arizona State, is a 5 seed due to an 11-7 conference record. It also may be the only conference where a team where less than 20 wins, the 19-10 Utah Utes, is getting a bye to the quarterfinals. Basically, it is a strange conference tournament that will come down less to conference record than any other conference when picking these bubble teams in, regardless of how they do in the tournament.
Moving on to the situations of the tournament, making the semifinals will seal you absolutely nothing. Making a statement in previous games will determine that, especially if you’re an oddly seeded team like Utah or Stanford that needs a little boost to show they’re a better team than their overall record. One advantage Utah has is they are 4th in the conference in RPI (ratings percentage index), and the only other one is that they are playing better down the stretch (9-3 in last 12 games). Stanford, if they were going to obtain any advantage, would be they have the hardest strength of schedule in the entire conference (#27 overall in RPI index). However, I believe both those teams would still have to dominate games and likely make it to the finals to have any tournament shot. However, with the way they are seeded, they may have a small chance still.
Then, there are two teams with better overall records, but not as good conference records, in Washington and Oregon. Both teams finished the season 20-11 overall and 10-8 in conference. Oregon strengthened their case last-second with an 8-4 finish and 72-64 victory over the Huskies. However, if they advance to the semi-finals and play each other, the winner of that game should lock up a spot, due to their overall record being good. And if they get help with other borderline teams falling, in the case of this conference a lot of the top teams such as UCLA and USC, they may be able to get some leeway if the committee puts a 3rd Pac-12 team in. However, if those two teams are the teams besides Arizona that put up the best case, then it’s still not a guarantee both will get in over teams from other conferences.
Finally, there are the three bubble teams with the best tournament chances, in Arizona State, UCLA, and USC. Arizona State is only being downgraded due to conference record, but their statistics according to the RPI are stronger than the other teams in the conference besides Arizona. This is mostly due to their strong start, where they were one of the five last undefeated teams remaining before falling to Arizona on December 30, making them 12-1. Therefore, I believe they have the best chance to make it to the tournament even if they don’t reach the finals. However, USC’s case is better as well. Despite falling 83-72 to UCLA in their regular season finale, USC still has some good advantages, having the second highest RPI scoring index in the conference and the third highest scoring margin. They also will get to avoid Arizona on the path to the conference tournament finals, which may give them an easier road and slightly more leeway where they don’t have to dominate. And then there’s UCLA, who is the third team that could get in if they perform well in this tournament. The Bruins have one advantage on USC, where they are 2-2 against Top 25 teams and 3-2 against Top 50, which is ahead of USC’s 0-2 and 4-3, and only one back of Arizona State. They also have a higher RPI than Arizona State, which means if they advance further in the tournament, the committee may take that into account. Arizona State is at a major disadvantage having to play Arizona earlier in the tournament, but that may also lead to an advantage if they play well against them and those aforementioned California teams go the same distance. Right now, situationally, they are at a disadvantage, but one of the best offensive teams in the nation and Arizona playing under pressure due to the scandal could give them an edge in terms of sneaking into a 3rd spot even if they do lose, I personally believe more than USC and UCLA. However, as I mentioned above, don’t be surprised if only 2 Pac-12 teams make the tournament, if other conferences’ representing bubble teams have stronger performances.
Like the Big 12, the SEC has been more than just top heavy this season. It has been deep, and features a lot of bubble teams as well as top teams that are surprisingly good this year. The SEC will get 4 teams in guaranteed (Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida), and I believe will spawn three more into this tournament. However, that fight will come down to a lot of surprise borderline teams, including Alabama, Missouri, Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas, and Mississippi State. Like the Big 12, there are more complicated cases with teams being stronger in different ways.
I’ll start with the two 17-win teams, LSU and Alabama. The strength with both those teams has been the quality wins. LSU is 4-3 against RPI Top 25 teams and 7-4 against Top 50. Alabama is 4-4 against RPI Top 25 teams and 6-8 against Top 50. So in terms of strength of victory, they have a big boost. However, Alabama boosts over LSU due to a better strength of schedule ranking in the RPI statistics. However, because of their weaker overall records, their tournament fate will lie in the conference tournament. If either one of these teams make the semi-finals, I would see them getting a spot. If both make it, it would depend on the conference tournament resumes of the other borderline teams (Missouri, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State). If LSU or Alabama destroys one of those teams and the others don’t make it nearly as far or get dominated by one of those teams, I can see both getting in. Otherwise, it is next to impossible for two 17-win teams to get in. Both have strong chances due to their quality wins and strength of schedule if they succeed, but it will be tough considering they had a lot of bad losses, especially on the road, that could’ve boosted them to 19 or 20 wins. Then there’s the opposite case in Mississippi State, who has 21 wins on the season but little quality wins. They are 1-4 against Top 25 teams and 3-6 against Top 50, and had the easiest strength of schedule in the conference according to the RPI index, including one win against the Division II North Georgia Saints. Their case will likely be the same as that of LSU’s and Alabama’s, where they will have to dominate some games and probably reach the semifinals. Mississippi State plays LSU head-to-head and then Tennessee if they win. Alabama plays Texas A&M, one of the stronger bubble teams in this tournament, and then Auburn if they were to defeat the Aggies. Overall, the cases are not strong for either of these three teams if they don’t make it as far as I mentioned. However, being that the conference is very strong, the committee may still consider putting a 4th bubble team in, which could benefit one of these teams if they one-up the other. However, in a tiebreaker scenario, I would give it to Alabama due to the strength of schedule and quality wins.
As for the other three teams, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Arkansas, their cases are a little safer. Personally, I believe Texas A&M has the strongest case among these three teams, followed by Arkansas and Missouri. Like I mentioned above with Alabama, Texas A&M has also played one of the more difficult schedules in the conference and in the nation, ranked 8th in comparison to 34th for Missouri and 45th for Arkansas. They also have the higher of the average scoring margin at 9.3. Obviously, for the sake of the tournament, they still will have to go the same or further than those other teams, as well as the teams above. And again, margin of victory can be very key. I believe if they at least make it to the quarterfinals and don’t get destroyed by Auburn, that their case is safe in terms of controlling their own destiny. The only downside for them is they have to play Alabama in their first SEC title game, whereas Missouri and Arkansas will get one of the non-contending teams, giving them a better chance to lose to another hungry bubble team. The case is similar for Arkansas, who has a better overall record than A&M and overall more quality wins (3-5 vs. 2-4) against Top 25 teams. Arkansas has a better ranking in the RPI index over Missouri and even over Florida as well. They also finished the strongest among the bubble teams at 8-4, which the committee will take into small consideration. Again, a trip to the semifinals would seal a spot for Arkansas like it would for Texas A&M, but I believe they have slightly less leeway than the Aggies if they take an early round exit, especially if they fall to a sub-.500 team that isn’t making the tournament. Finally, there is Missouri, who like LSU and Alabama have a good amount of quality wins (3-3 vs. Top 25, 4-7 vs. Top 50). But like Mississippi State, they also have a win against a Division II school, which could hurt them in tiebreaker scenarios if they are the 4th team in. If a school like Alabama or LSU leapfrogs them in the conference tournament, don’t be surprised if they steal the spot if they make the semifinals. Even so, Missouri may also lose the spot to a team from another conference if they fall. If they make the semifinals, they are most definitely safe, being that the conference is strong and they will have to beat a talented Kentucky team to get there. However, don’t just lock this team in just yet.
This group of bubble teams deals with the three teams that were just short of 20 wins this season in Butler, Marquette, and Providence. Of these three teams, I think two could make it, but if they disappoint, I can only see one more Big East team in addition to the ones that are already going to make it (Xavier, Villanova, Creighton, Seton Hall). In terms of RPI statistics, these three teams are very close (Providence is decimals ahead) and are very similar in terms of strength of schedule. Where Butler stands out the most though is they have a significantly higher average scoring margin (10.3) in comparison to Marquette’s 6.9 and Providence’s 5.3. They also have more quality wins (2-4 vs. Top 25, 5-9 vs. Top 50) than the other two teams. Butler is set to play Seton Hall in the second round of the Big East Tournament after a first round bye. However, Providence is not far behind either. They also are 2-4 against Top 25 teams and not far behind Butler(4-8) in terms of Top 50 wins. They are also 2-4 against AP ranked teams this year, where Butler and Marquette are only 1-6, so that could give them an edge in a tiebreaker scenario. Obviously, the fates of these two teams will come in terms of doing better than each other. Being that both are talented teams in a talented conference, they don’t necessarily have to climb the ranks to get anywhere. They would seal a spot if one team wins their second round matchup (Butler vs. Seton Hall, Providence vs. Creighton) and the other doesn’t. However, if they both lose, it could risk their tournament chances if Marquette goes further or if somebody from another conference gets in. As for Marquette, their chances are slimmer. They will have to guarantee going further than Butler or Providence and likely would have to have a significant win to get there, and if not they will have to make the finals. The reason I say that is that Marquette, like Louisville, didn’t beat a ranked team all year (0-6), which will make it more difficult for the committee to get them in. If they were to have any chance, they would have to get some quality wins in this tournament. However, playing against Villanova is easier said than done, and that path is far more difficult than the path the other two teams have. However, if they can pull off the upset, then their case can be considered stronger, either as the first or second Big East bubble consideration. However, to guarantee a spot, they may have to go all the way to the Finals, especially if either Butler or Providence wins one of their second round matchups, just because their tournament resume isn’t overall as strong. I do believe two teams will get in and this one is easy to decipher because they can directly get in just by doing better than the other. However, the decisions will come if one or two of the teams struggle, and that second bubble team may not get in.
Various other conferences:
There are various other conferences that have bubble teams sitting and waiting that have simpler conference tournament scenarios. Obviously, conference tournament strong play is key, and obviously a win secures that team an auto-bid. I will start with the scenario of Conference USA, which lies under the scenario, “what happens if Middle Tennessee doesn’t win the conference tournament?” As I mentioned in my January Power 8 articles, C-USA has several other good teams, including Old Dominion (24-6), Western Kentucky (22-9), and Marshall (21-10). However, two questions lie. Would Middle Tennessee still get in if they don’t win the conference tournament? They are currently #24 in the nation overall, but a projected 11 seed in the tournament. And secondly, would they dare put another team in there anyway. I think, personally, it could happen to Old Dominion if they dominate through the tournament and maybe only lose by a small margin to whoever is the conference champion. However, for this to happen, a lot of other conferences’ bubble teams would have to struggle too, likely three of the four I mentioned above, or the two Big 10 teams (Penn State and Nebraska). However, I still see it possible, being that this conference is more well-rounded than some of the other lower-level conferences. And would the committee seriously consider yanking Middle Tennessee if they don’t win the conference tournament? Maybe if they don’t make it to the finals, sure. But if they do and lose, would they be the deserving team to fall over other bubble teams without a strong tournament criteria?
Now I will look at the A-10, featuring two teams that can make it in URI and St. Bonaventure. I do believe URI is going to be fine regardless, with the exception of if they get upset early in the A-10 tournament. If they make it to at least the semifinals, I think they are fine, being that the conference isn’t overly deep. They also have advantages in strength of schedule and average scoring margin over St. Bonaventure. However, St. Bonaventure isn’t far behind either. They have the same amount of Top 25 and Top 50 wins as URI, and are only slightly lower on the RPI scale. Therefore, I believe they are just as safe as long as they reach the semifinals. If there is an upset and a lower seeded team wins this conference, I think URI would have a slight tiebreaker if both teams still go decently far. If both teams get upset, I think their spots can be at risk, however, to teams in other conferences. This top-heavy Atlantic 10 is not a lock to spawn all these teams like it did last year, where URI, Dayton, and VCU all made it. However, if both teams at least reach the semifinals, they should be fine, being that they are 23 and 24 win teams.
Lastly, there is the already completed Big 10 tournament. The two bubble teams here are Penn State and Nebraska. Penn State upset Ohio State 69-68 to advance to the semifinals before losing a tight one against #8 Purdue. Nebraska, however, really hurt their chances getting blown out by eventual champion Michigan. Starting with Nebraska, I believe that they will have to hope for lots of other conferences, particularly the Big 12 and SEC, to see their bubble teams get smashed similarly. They have advantages over several of the Pac-12 teams in terms of overall record, but still don’t have the quality wins (1-5 vs. Top 25) and that will make it extremely difficult to even sneak by those teams, unless 3 or 4 of those teams underperform. In reality, Nebraska really only has a small chance to make this tournament, being they stumbled late in the season and their overall criteria isn’t strong. And as I’ve mentioned above, getting smashed that badly in the conference tournaments are never a good thing to keep a bubble floating. As for Penn State, they enhanced their bubble a lot by making it to the semi-finals. That being said, I don’t think they’re a definite lock either. Due to strength of schedule rankings being stronger with most of the ACC and SEC bubble teams, I do believe they will need a combination of them to struggle, as well as maybe one Big 12 as well. Hypothetically, a scenario like Louisville, Syracuse, Alabama, and Baylor all struggling in their conference tournaments would put Penn State in, and for the non-Power 5 conference tournaments to just go as planned. I do believe they have a very good chance though, being that the Big 10 was strong all year and being that the other conferences just have too many bubble teams. Plus all these bubble teams can’t make the semifinals, and are you really going to leave out a team that swept Ohio State for the season? It’s not a guarantee, but I think Penn State has likely a 3/4 chance to get in with the strong performance making it all the way to the semifinals and hanging around with Purdue.