Editor's note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Wednesday's games.
Bubble Watch extends a hearty welcome to Auburn as the 12th team to achieve lock status in our venerable three-tier hierarchy of tournament hopefuls. Congratulations, Tigers.
Our discussion at Bubble Watch HQ regarding this momentous decision was brief and harmonious. The calendar says it's mid-February. Auburn is a major-conference team with a 22-2 record. Bruce Pearl's men could suffer a total collapse at this point and still make the field of 68 teams.
The Tigers like to shoot 3s and, despite their run-and-gun image during the Pearl era, they're surprisingly excellent on the defensive glass. Devan Cambridge is a seldom-glimpsed freshman who's 5-of-17 from the line this season, yet once a month or so he explodes with devastating consequences for the opponent. Ask LSU sometime about the seven 3s Cambridge drained in Auburn's overtime win against the Bayou Bengals.
What's especially intriguing about Pearl's team, however, is the degree to which its record (outstanding) has exceeded how well it plays both offense (pretty good) and defense (average). Laptops tend to look at this kind of per-possession performance and proclaim a .917 winning percentage "unsustainable."
In fact, four of the Tigers' past five games have gone to overtime, and Pearl's team has won all four contests. Nevertheless, Auburn really is 22-2 with a nine-point win over Kentucky to its credit.
Happily, for our purposes here at Bubble Watch, this contretemps between laptops and scoreboards is a moot point. Auburn is going to the tournament, and the Tigers are likely to earn a really nice seed. Lock that in.
Here's our current projection of the bubble:
Bids from traditional "one-bid" leagues: 21 teams
Locks: 12 teams
The bubble: 46 teams for 35 available spots
Should be in: 19 teams
Work to do: 27 teams
Work to do
One year after winning it all, Virginia continues to straddle the boundary line between an NCAA bid and the NIT. While the overtime win at home against bubble hopeful Notre Dame merely continues the suspense, the Cavaliers will get home dates against both Duke and Louisville (sandwiched around a game at Miami) to close out the season. The Hoos have already defeated Florida State in Charlottesville, and a home sweep against the ACC's top three teams would make a pretty persuasive case. Put it this way: Virginia can still play its way in for a chance to defend its title.
NC State is clinging doggedly to its spot on the far outer fringes of Bubble Watch's domain. Emphasis on far outer fringes: Kevin Keatts' group is 7-6 in a weak ACC, its NET ranking is sticking around No. 60 and the best wins on the profile -- road victories versus Virginia, UNC Greensboro and Syracuse -- collectively form a résumé currency of fluctuating value. This is the part where the Watch qualifies all of the above by noting that the Wolfpack still get two games against Duke and one (at home) against Florida State. That is indeed the case, and one win in those three contests will likely be the minimum required to continue this conversation.
Should be in
With four wins in its past five outings (and the only loss coming by three points at Kansas), Texas Tech is showing up in mock brackets as a No. 8 seed. The Red Raiders' 3-point accuracy in Big 12 play has been the best in the league by a wide margin, and freshman Jahmi'us Ramsey is fulfilling the expectations that the "highest-ranked recruit in Texas Tech history" label brings. Now the schedule gives Chis Beard's group a fair chance of reaching 19-8 overall and 10-4 in conference play before meeting Oklahoma in semi-neutral Oklahoma City later this month.
Work to do
When the Watch most recently discussed the Sooners, our diligent researchers turned up the shocking fact that "Oklahoma hasn't won two consecutive games since early January." Lon Kruger must have nailed that statement to the bulletin board, because OU promptly went out and pummeled Iowa State 90-61 in Norman. Paired with the impressive 10-point victory at home over West Virginia, the game against the Cyclones gave Oklahoma its second consecutive win. The Sooners are projected as a No. 9 or 10 seed, and extending this current win streak will take some doing. OU's next two games are at Kansas and at home against Baylor.
Lock: Seton Hall
Should be in
Their recent 3-5 stretch notwithstanding, the Bulldogs are rapidly approaching lock status. LaVall Jordan's team is 19-6 with a NET ranking in the top 15 and with wins over Creighton, Villanova and Marquette to its credit. The mock brackets see Butler as a No. 4 seed, and BU's interior defense is excellent. While the Bulldogs will want to address the turnover imbalance they've displayed during Big East play in order to make a deep tournament run, the material point for Bubble Watch purposes is that BU's on track for one of the best seeds in program history.
The losing streak is over, and Villanova held off a late Marquette rally to win by one point at home. Like, seemingly, half the Big East, the Wildcats are showing up around the Nos. 4 and 5 lines in terms of projected seed, and Jay Wright's team has already split two-game sets with Butler, Creighton and the aforementioned Golden Eagles. That leaves Seton Hall. Villanova lost at home to the Pirates by six earlier this month. A win in the return match in New Jersey (where, surprisingly, Kevin Willard's team has already lost to Xavier and the Bluejays) could nudge the Wildcats up a seed line.
Before their five-point win at Seton Hall, the Bluejays seemed to be headed for a No. 5 seed. Now? A top-four seed could be within reach if Creighton finishes strong, but, as the Pirates themselves can attest, long win streaks are difficult to sustain in the Big East. The Bluejays will seek to buck that trend in upcoming games at home against DePaul and on the road at Marquette. Say this for Creighton: An offense this balanced is hard to guard. Marcus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander, Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney each scored 18 in the victory in Newark, New Jersey.
Markus Howard is now the Big East's all-time leading scorer, and it appears that Marquette will receive its second consecutive seed somewhere in the Nos. 5 to 8 area. These are good times for the Golden Eagles basketball program. One facet of MU's performance that could prove problematic, however, is the microscopic turnover rate being recorded by Big East opponents. Opposing offenses have given the ball away on just 12.8% of their possessions in conference play. With a turnover rate that low, opponents can and do score even when they're not hitting shots.
Work to do
Xavier's February win streak came to an end in a 66-61 loss at Butler, and now the Musketeers are 5-7 in the Big East with a NET ranking in the low 40s. On paper, that's likely good enough to get the job done when your wins include a victory over Seton Hall in Newark. Sure enough, Travis Steele's men were more or less universally regarded as being in the hypothetical field, either as a No. 10 or 11 seed, before the Butler loss. In short, there appears to be a clear path for Xavier to secure a bid. Note for example that the upcoming game against St. John's at Madison Square Garden could potentially qualify as Quad 1, depending on how Mike Anderson's team fares between now and Selection Sunday.
The Hoyas are still lurking in the bubble picture (albeit outside the projected field), but the schedule is running out of patience with this bunch. Patrick Ewing's men have hosted Marquette, Butler and Seton Hall over the past month and come away with an 0-3 record. Now Georgetown is 4-7 in conference play and trying to make a push with what on paper is the worst defense in the Big East. The next game is at Butler, and a win there would breathe life into a profile that's in danger of becoming an afterthought. Perhaps Jahvon Blair, he of the 30 points against Providence, can help provide the necessary resuscitation.
Should be in
The Nittany Lions are on the verge of earning the best NCAA tournament seed in program history. PSU secured a spot on the No. 5 line in the 1996 tournament, and this season Lamar Stevens & Co. are projected as a No. 4 seed. Pat Chambers' men hit their 3s and take very good care of the ball. It's simple. It works. If this group can work around its iffy rebounding and frequent (by Big Ten standards) fouling, we might see Penn State in the Sweet 16 again after an absence of 19 years.
After ending their three-game losing streak with a 70-69 win at Illinois, the Spartans find themselves outside of the AP Top 25 yet still projected as a No. 5 seed in the tournament field. Moreover, MSU's tumultuous season of ups and downs has resulted in at least one outcome we were expecting in the preseason: Michigan State can still claim the Big Ten's best defense in conference play. If the offense is turnover-prone and perhaps a bit too reliant on Cassius Winston, it also possesses one of the more accurate 3-point shooting rotations in the league. MSU would not be an ordinary No. 5 seed.
The story so far: Iowa's offense is amazing, yet its defense is amazingly benevolent to opponents. The Big Ten is converting 54% of its 2-point attempts against the Hawkeyes, and even with Luka Garza having a season for the ages, Iowa had barely managed to outscore its conference opponents until an easy win at home over Nebraska furnished some degree of statistical cushion. This team is on track for a high seed, perhaps on the No. 5 line, and with better defense, the Hawkeyes could make the second weekend for the first time since 1999.
In the course of losing three games in a row, Illinois has seen its projected seed fall to the No. 7 line. The Illini's one-point loss at home to Michigan State ended with Ayo Dosunmu being helped off the floor after he slipped awkwardly on the game's final play. It goes without saying that the sophomore's continued health is vital to his team's postseason chances. Note additionally that Illinois has a decent shot at achieving a rare feat. If present trends continue, the Illini will make the NCAA tournament as an at-large while also finishing the regular season as their conference's least accurate team from the field in league play.
Ohio State is holding steady as a projected No. 7 or 8 seed after a six-point win at home over Rutgers. The Buckeyes have battled the best conference in the country to a scoring draw (OSU 887 points, opponents 884) despite the fact that opposing offenses have hit an exceptionally high share of their 3-point attempts against this defense. The hot shooting by opponents is likely to cool off eventually, so maybe those laptops were onto something when they insisted on rating Chris Holtmann's team very high. A win at home against Purdue on Saturday would bring the Buckeyes to .500 in Big Ten play at 7-7.
If the mock brackets are correct and Rutgers does end up with a No. 8 seed, this would not necessarily be an easy opponent for a top seed to face in the round of 32. The Scarlet Knights are just different. They don't shoot many 3s, they force turnovers, they rebound well at both ends of the floor and they force misses in the paint. The Watch is also struck by the fact that any No. 8 seed given to Steve Pikiell's group will have been earned the hard way. Rutgers is closing the regular season against the following opponents: Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Maryland and Purdue. All of those teams are currently projected to make the tournament.
Wisconsin has now recorded seven Quad 1 wins (against the same number of losses), including a season sweep of Ohio State and the only victory recorded by a visiting team so far this season at Penn State. The nine-point loss on a neutral floor to New Mexico will continue to look odd on the team sheet, but the Badgers still possess one of the more robust profiles you'll see from a team that's 14-10 overall. Currently pegged as a likely No. 7 or 8 seed, Greg Gard's men have a more favorable closing schedule than some of their Big Ten rivals and could end the regular season with some momentum
It's been a good 80 minutes for the Wolverines. After beating Michigan State by nine in Ann Arbor, Juwan Howard's team blew Northwestern away 79-54 in Evanston, Illinois. The latter game represented the first victory by greater than 11 points for U-M in weeks. Now you're looking at a projected No. 8 seed that's 6-7 in the league and ranked in the top 35 in the NET. Michigan's been the most accurate 2-point shooting team in Big Ten play by a wide margin, while the Wolverines' past two opponents have connected just 37% of the time inside the arc. Again, a good 80 minutes.
Work to do
It has been a good February for the Boilermakers, even when factoring an 88-76 loss at home to Penn State into the equation. By the time Matt Painter's men had lost that game, they had risen to a No. 10 seed or even a 9-seed in mock brackets. Purdue's defense forces an exceptionally high number of turnovers; and to this point in the conference season, the Boilers have outscored the league by the same per-possession margin as the Nittany Lions. One consequence of the depth of the Big Ten this season is that a team can be 14-10 overall and 7-7 in conference and still be dangerous in March.
Supplying perhaps an apt synecdoche for Indiana basketball since 2002, Bob Knight finally made his emotional and much anticipated return to Assembly Hall on a day when the Hoosiers materially damaged their tournament hopes by losing at home to Purdue. The memories surrounding and achievements recorded by the IU program in the previous century are unfailingly compelling. Basketball performance in the recent past, conversely, has tended to be rather more prosaic. Indiana is now projected as a No. 10 seed.
Say for the sake of discussion that Minnesota would not make the tournament if the selection occurred today. After all, that seems to be the consensus mock-bracket opinion regarding a team that's 12-11 overall and 6-7 in its conference. Now, how do the Golden Gophers pry an at-large bid out of the committee? Win the next three games. With Iowa and Indiana coming to Minneapolis and then a road game taking place at Northwestern, Richard Pitino's group has the motive and the opportunity to get this done. Plus, with Daniel Oturu, Minnesota has the means.
Should be in
In back-to-back road losses at Stanford and Oregon State, the Ducks shot percentages of 40 and 30 on their 2s and 3s, respectively. Payton Pritchard was 12-of-42 from the field over those two games, and while the Watch has been lavish in its praise of the senior, an Oregon offense predicated so exclusively on Pritchard hero ball does not look like a viable strategy for what could still be a nascent No. 4 seed. UO, you are on notice. Any more of this "losing basketball games" nonsense and you will (gasp!) fall below Colorado in "Should be in."
Having wins over Dayton and Oregon is a good place to start your profile, and the Buffaloes additionally blew USC off its home floor by 21. If Tad Boyle's team earns its projected No. 6 seed, that will represent the best bracket position occupied by the program since seeds became a 64-team thing in 1985. Although defense has been CU's leading characteristic on the season as a whole, that script has been flipped dramatically in conference play: Tyler Bey, McKinley Wright IV and the rest of the Buffs have been scoring points at a rate higher than that of any other Pac-12 offense.
"Pencil this group in for a potential No. 6 seed," the Watch said with customary bravado when last we discussed Arizona. "All bets are off with this sporadically hapless group," the Watch now says with newfound concern regarding the Wildcats. Sean Miller's group went out and lost 65-52 at home to UCLA, adding to a growing body of work under the heading of weirdly troubling defeats. With losses to the non-tournament likes of St. John's, Oregon State and now the Bruins, the men from Tucson are looking more and more like a middle seed that will be feared by few.
Work to do
Three straight losses have dropped USC from the sunlit uplands of the projected single-digit seeds into a more perilous crevasse inhabited by anxious double-digit types. Basketball is cruel. Two of those defeats -- road games at Arizona and Arizona State -- were decided by five points or fewer. Now the Trojans face that most uncharitable of bubble dilemmas in the form of home games against Washington and Washington State. Wins there won't improve USC's profile to any notable degree. A loss (to say nothing of losses, plural) will harm it. Again, basketball is cruel.
Let's not overthink this: Stanford has lost five of its past six games, though the one victory was a 10-point win at home over Oregon. Jerod Haase's team has dropped to a No. 10 seed in mock brackets and now will host Arizona and Arizona State in Palo Alto, California. Two wins there are advisable for a 5-5 Pac-12 team that has been clinging to its enduringly lofty top-30ish NET ranking like a life raft.
Bobby Hurley's men have insinuated themselves into the bubble discussion with three consecutive wins (at Washington and at home against UCLA and USC) and a NET ranking in the 50s. We won't have to wait long to see whether the Sun Devils are a legitimate object of bubble suspense for a third consecutive year or whether this is merely a passing February fancy. ASU hits the road this week for games at Stanford and Cal.
Should be in
The Wildcats will be burdened with the Evansville and Utah losses when the committee seeds this team, and, well, that's how this sausage gets made. Nevertheless, it appears increasingly likely that Kentucky really will turn out to be the best team in the SEC, just like the pollsters expected back in the preseason. The offense has looked quite good in UK's past three wins (recording a combined 1.17 points per trip at home against Mississippi State and on the road against Tennessee and Vanderbilt). When reliable scoring is mixed with a defense that forces missed shots, you have the makings of a dangerous No. 4 or 5 seed.
Join the Watch in celebrating the statistical excess provided to us by projected No. 6 seed LSU. The Tigers score efficiently, and so do their opponents. Will Wade's men record a strikingly high volume of shot attempts, and, well, opposing offenses show much the same behavior. The Tigers take excellent care of the ball, and ... you see how this works. Off-court uncertainty persists, of course, and on the court, LSU's incredible run of close-game success evaporated with losses at Vanderbilt and Auburn, before returning long enough for a four-point win at home over Missouri. Just the same, this is the best two-season run the program has posted since the days of Tyrus Thomas and Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
Work to do
After losing two games in a row in overtime, Arkansas turned over a new leaf of sorts by getting blown off the floor 82-61 at Tennessee. The Razorbacks have now tasted defeat in six of their past seven conference games. In the mock brackets, Eric Musselman's team has fallen down to the No. 10 line. Even that might be a bit lofty for a 4-7 SEC team that has recorded a worse per-possession scoring margin in conference play than Ole Miss, South Carolina or Tennessee. Wins at Alabama and Indiana might have to do some heavy lifting in the committee room on the Hogs' behalf.
The Gators are hanging on to the very edge of the field as a projected No. 11 seed. A 17-point win at Texas A&M won't change that state of affairs one way or the other, though two upcoming games against Kentucky and one meeting with LSU (in Gainesville) very likely will. In fact, one rough rule of thumb for Florida's tournament chances would be that, other things being equal, anything more than three subsequent losses could turn out to be bad news. In SEC play, Florida's offense has been very good (thanks to accurate shooting, particularly from beyond the arc) and its defense has been average.
The Bulldogs were winning all the right games and even losing the one that's not the end of the world (an 80-72 setback at Kentucky). Then Ben Howland's team went out and lost at Ole Miss 83-58. Prior to that contest, Mississippi State had played itself to the very edge of the tournament field. Now, MSU is already close to "needs a run in the conference tournament" territory. This weekend's game at Arkansas is the only remaining Quad 1 opportunity on the Bulldogs' schedule.
Should be in
The Cougars took command of the American regular-season race with their 33-point win at home over Wichita State last weekend. Then Houston held onto that commanding position, barely, with a four-point win at South Florida. Mock brackets show Kelvin Sampson's team as a No. 7 seed, and Caleb Mills, Marcus Sasser and Nate Hinton keep opposing defenses honest on the perimeter. While UH is just average in terms of accuracy from the field, this team does just about everything else well on both sides of the ball. The Cougars are capable of giving a No. 2 seed a game in the round of 32.
Work to do
Would it be hyperbolic to say the Shockers are in free fall? Gregg Marshall's team has lost three in a row and five of its past seven. South Florida and Tulane are the only teams that have scored fewer points per possession in American play, and the WSU offense is making less than 43% of its 2s against conference opponents. Wichita State carried a top-50 NET ranking and a projected No. 9 seed into its most recent loss, a 76-43 drubbing at Houston. That seed expectation feels too high 40 minutes later.
Suspense can be the best-case scenario for a team in UC's position. After losing by one point in overtime at Connecticut, the Bearcats are 1-5 in Quad 1 contests. The schedule gives Cincinnati just one more regular-season shot at improving that record in the form of a game at Houston on the first day of March. Basically, it would be easier for Cincinnati to lose its way off the bubble than it will be to clearly establish itself in the field of 68 with the amount of runway the regular season supplies. For what it's worth, per-possession numbers suggest the Bearcats aren't likely to lose often enough to rule themselves out of contention. The safe bet is suspense.
Right, so that part where the Watch was saying we should give credit to Memphis for "winning the games it's supposed to win"? That's a dead letter. The Tigers lost at home to South Florida 75-74, Penny Hardaway's team is on a trajectory that will yield an American record not much better than .500, and it's not at all clear that such a mark will suffice for an at-large bid. Mock brackets have responded accordingly, and Memphis is now shown as a borderline case that will be sweating out Selection Sunday if present trends continue.
Work to do
Speaking in terms of league play only, the Cougars are one of the most accurate teams from the field that we've seen in recent years. BYU's effective FG percentage thus far in West Coast Conference play (62.0) compares favorably with what we saw from Villanova in its heyday (60.3 in 2018). Different strengths of schedule and, most of all, different numbers of games: Mark Pope's team has taken the floor in conference play 11 times. Nevertheless, consider this an early tip for filling out your bracket if BYU does end up with something around a No. 8 seed. These guys don't miss.
Notching the season sweep over VCU will help URI's tournament prospects. Naturally, sweeping Dayton would have helped even more, but the Rams lost the first leg of that two-game set when they fell on the road to the Flyers 81-67. Rhode Island now holds the distinction of recording the least accurate game of shooting from the field of any UD opponent in more than four years. (URI players not named Fatts Russell were 12-of-48 from the floor.) More to the point, the Rams also hold a projected No. 9 seed. A loss on the home floor of a projected No. 2 seed represents a blown opportunity, but it won't harm Rhode Island's profile.
This is not the first time in program history that Saint Mary's profile has been driven in large part by its performance against Gonzaga, and the Gaels just lost by 30 at home to the Bulldogs. Randy Bennett's team has already split its season series with BYU, and there's one trip remaining to Spokane, Washington, to face the Zags. SMC also has the two-point neutral-floor win over Wisconsin in its back pocket. Does this résumé add up to a No. 9 or 10 seed? So far, the consensus seems to be yes.
VCU entered Wednesday night's home game against George Mason with a top-35 ranking in the NET, so the Rams arguably had a little more wiggle room than one might suppose in terms of the bracket. Just the same, losing to the Patriots 72-67 on one's home floor is not the recommended course of action for a projected No. 12 seed. GMU took the floor with a NET ranking in the 170s, making this a Quad 4 loss for VCU. Were the Rams looking ahead toward their next two games, at Richmond and at home against Dayton? Those games are even more important for Mike Rhoades' team now.
The Panthers are one of the most accurate teams in the nation (take a bow, Austin Phyfe), and their chances of emerging from the Missouri Valley Conference with the league's automatic bid are good. Then again, upsets do happen at conference tournaments, as seen last year when Bradley grabbed a No. 15 seed in the field of 68 by beating UNI in the Arch Madness title game in St. Louis. Should Ben Jacobson's team need to throw its hat in the at-large ring, a NET ranking in the top 40 and a true road win at Colorado should give the men from Cedar Falls a fighting chance in the committee room.
With wins on neutral floors over LSU and Florida, the Aggies have some meat on their résumé, even after going 0-for-2 against San Diego State during the Mountain West regular season. The challenge for Craig Smith's team now will be staying viable as an at-large candidate facing a series of tough but not Quad 1 MWC road games with a NET ranking in the high 40s. If USU does take care of business, a win against the Aztecs in the Mountain West tournament could be just what the committee needs to see. Alternately, such a win might take place in the MWC tournament title game and thus render the question moot.
Steve Forbes' team accomplished what no SEC team has been able to do. ETSU beat LSU, and in Baton Rouge, no less. That will brighten a résumé, and either way, the Buccaneers are more than one-game wonders. ETSU is 22-4 overall and locked in a battle with Furman for supremacy in the Southern Conference. Can the Buccaneers earn an at-large bid if they don't prevail at the SoCon tournament? Doing so will take a large number of wins, given the nature of this schedule. ETSU not only doesn't have any Quad 1 opportunities remaining, the Buccaneers also have only one Quad 2 game left on the schedule (at Wofford, later this month).
The dream of an Ivy at-large endures, "dream" meaning we've never seen it before. Perhaps this is the year, or possibly Yale will win the automatic bid and won't need the help. In either event, this is potentially the strongest Bulldogs team James Jones has had in his 21-year tenure in New Haven, Connecticut. Running the table seemed like a real possibility until Harvard won 78-77 at Lee Amphitheater. The number of Ivy losses that Yale can afford to incur while still entertaining realistic hopes of an at-large bid may be greater than one, but not by much. Meantime, Paul Atkinson is piling up the points in the paint, and Yale's NET ranking is hovering in top-50 territory.
You might remember the Flames as the team that, in a 2019 NCAA tournament first weekend remarkably devoid of upsets, scored an upset. Ritchie McKay's No. 12-seeded team knocked out Mississippi State 80-76. One year later, Liberty is again hoping to make waves in the bracket. With a punishing defense and the voluminous interior scoring of Scottie James, the Flames will be heavily favored to win the automatic bid from the Atlantic Sun. If they should not do so, McKay's men will have to fall back on a really impressive-looking record (currently 23-3) and, ideally, a better NET ranking than the 60-ish one they show now.
If you're a Richmond fan, this was a bad season for the Atlantic 10 league office to hand you just one shot at Dayton. The Spiders lost that game 87-79 in Virginia, and the regular-season series is now finished. Perhaps the two teams will meet in the A-10 tournament, but, first, Chris Mooney's men will play local rival VCU for a second time. The Spiders lost the first meeting, and a victory at home would provide a needed boost for Richmond even though (barely) it's not a Quad 1 contest. In other words, a win over the Rams would at least keep UR in the discussion, however tenuously.