NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Counting Through The Field Of 68

Chris Dobbertean, SB Nation's resident bracketologist, introduces a new Friday feature, which reviews who is in good shape for an NCAA bid and who needs to work a bit harder.

February has arrived, which means it's finally time for the college basketball season to take center stage ... well, at least after Sunday's festivities in Indianapolis, home of the NCAA and the Final Four every five years or so. Selection Sunday is now just five weeks and two days away, which means that almost exactly 840 hours after the Super Bowl finally moves past the pregame show and national anthem and kicks off, we will know which 68 teams will set off on the road to this year's Final Four site, the Superdome in New Orleans.

Since we are a little more than a month from when the bracket is revealed, I figured today would be a good time to roll out a new Friday feature to accompany Monday's Bracketology series. It's time for the first edition of Bid Watch.

Now before I get into the selection picture, I need to share with you a few disclaimers. For starters, I've titled this series Bid Watch because it's a slightly different type of feature than the Bubble Watch posts I used to post sporadically at Blogging The Bracket, and you can still find on other sites (but why would you want to do that?). There's one simple reason for that, my non-sports-related full-time job is considerably more demanding than it was at this time last year, meaning I simply don't have the 10 to 12 hours necessary to do a complete Bubble Watch right each week. Well, I could, but then you all would probably yell at me for not actually watching games, or I'd get fired from my job for falling asleep at my desk.

So, this post serves as a bit of a compromise. In Bid Watch, I'll count through the field, starting with the locks and working my way down to the teams on the outside looking in, providing some high-level explanation along the way. I'll close the post with rundown of some of the weekend's key matchups, which will include even more nuggets.

But don't worry if you're interested in more detail on a specific team. I'm more than willing to answer questions about teams' profiles via the Comments feature below or Twitter. I may not respond immediately (see the reference to my job above), but if you're nice, I likely will.

Finally, you'll notice that I'll refer to the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in this post, and not other rankings systems that are more basketball-specific and based on advanced statistics, like Ken Pomeroy's and Jeff Sagarin's ratings, to name just two. That's simply because there's no evidence to indicate the Selection Committee uses anything other than the RPI when deliberating, even if many of us fans think it's not the most accurate measure. However, since the official RPI is only updated on Mondays, I use BBState.com's replication and selection sheets for all of my projections.

Got it? Good. Now that the administrative stuff is out of the way, let's move on to how I see the field stacking up on the first Friday in February.

There are 68 spots in the NCAA Tournament, 20 of those will go to the conference champions of likely one-bid conferences. That leaves 48 available bids--the 11 conference champions from the multi-bid leagues and 37 at-larges.

Of the 48 available bids, I have 22 at-large teams as Locks and nine as Near Locks, which equals a total of 31 that are currently accounted for. Note that Murray State currently among the Locks right now. If they fail to win the Ohio Valley auto bid, the number of available at-larges will drop by one.

That leaves 17 spots still up for grabs. In other words, the bubble is quite crowded, and at this point of the season, there isn't a lot of differentiation among the teams. (But isn't that how it feels most seasons on February 3rd?)

For this exercise, I'm going to take you through my most recent S-curve. This leads to the primary rule of Bid Watch's structure: the teams that are closer to the top have done more to make their case than those toward the bottom. With that in mind, we begin with the locks.

LOCKS (22 + Murray State)

Note: In all tables, conference leaders are denoted with asterisks (*).

1 seeds 1. Syracuse*
2. Kentucky*
3. Baylor
4. Ohio State*
2 seeds 8. North Carolina
7. Missouri
6. Kansas*
5. Duke*
3 seeds 9. Michigan State
10. UNLV*
11. Georgetown
12. Marquette
4 seeds 16. Murray State*
15. Florida
14. Wisconsin
13. Creighton*
5 seeds 17. Michigan
18. San Diego State
19. Virginia
20. St. Mary's*
6 seeds
23. Vanderbilt
22. Florida State
21. Mississippi State

I'm going to be far more generous with handing out positions in the "Lock" group this season, simply because the bottom of the at-large pool is that muddy. That means a few teams with questionable to outright ugly losses find themselves here, when in most seasons they would be down a peg. (I'm looking at you Florida, Florida State, Temple, and Vanderbilt.) Yet keep in mind that I won't be afraid to drop a team down if it struggles in the coming weeks; however, it will likely take a collapse of epic proportions for any of these teams to fall completely out of the bracket at this stage.

The teams on lines 1 through 5 are the protected seeds meaning that the Selection Committee treats them differently when placing them in the bracket.

To recognize the demonstrated quality of such teams, the committee shall not place teams seeded on the first five lines at a potential "home-crowd disadvantage" in the second round.

However, there are three teams among the protected seeds that could potentially slide out, through no fault of their own--the three mid-majors: Creighton, Murray State, and St. Mary's. Currently, I have them in good position, and that's due in part to their excellent records and in part to the holes found in the profiles of the teams on lines five and six. If some of those major conference teams get hot late, it will be interesting to see if they get the edge for the last few protected seeds over the Bluejays, Racers, and Gaels, particularly if the mid-major powers slip up in BracketBusters or their respective conference tournaments.

The Locks are primarily jockeying for a higher position among those protected seeds. Winning consistently has its benefits, as in many cases, earning a higher seed will see a team rewarded with a first weekend--and potentially second weekend--site that's closer to campus. For a select group of seven teams, a place on the top line is at stake. Currently, Syracuse and Kentucky appear to have the top two spots overall on lockdown, with three Big 12 teams, a pair of ACC squads (who have yet to meet), and the Big Ten's Ohio State battling for the other two. In other words, expect those battles to come right down to those three conferences' championship games late in Selection Weekend.

NEARLY THERE (9)

6 seeds 24. Temple


7 seeds 25. Indiana
26. West Virginia
27. Illinois
28. Connecticut
8 seeds 32. Kansas State
31. Southern Miss.*
30. Gonzaga 29. Louisville


These nine teams are close to booking a bid, but haven't quite sealed the deal yet. This group is split into three categories:

Rising: Illinois, Louisville, Southern Mississippi, Temple

It's another Big Ten season that's not the 2004-05. That means Illinois is probably going to give its alumni and fans fits between now and March 11th. This week, the Fighting Illini picked up an ugly 42-41 win over Michigan State, which is their fifth over a team that's in the top 50. If Bruce Weber's team can avoid picking up any more bad losses (like the one at Penn State), the Illinois fan base's collective stress level may drop, but don't bet on it.

Louisville seems to be out of its late December/early January funk, winning three games in a row after dropping five of seven between December 28th and January 16th. With a schedule that features a good mix of winnable games and quality win opportunities, the Cardinals will have their chances to move up further in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Southern Mississippi's profile continues to improve, as they now own eight RPI top 100 wins, with three coming against teams in the top 50. However, the Golden Eagles need to keep winning in Conference USA, as a bad loss in that league would be a blemish on an otherwise respectable profile. (USM has four C-USA games remaining against teams that are 150+ in the RPI, the traditional benchmark for a very bad loss.)

Temple has excellent computer numbers and a win over Duke, a potential No. 1 seed, but they need to avoid a getting sucked into the mess that is the Atlantic 10 race. Currently, the Owls are a half-game behind La Salle for the conference lead.

Neutral: Gonzaga

Gonzaga isn't in a real trouble, thanks its 17-4 record. However, after Thursday's loss at BYU, the Bulldogs really need a win or two against one of the WCC's NCAA contenders--they also own a 21-point loss at St. Mary's--to end all doubt. Luckily for Mark Few's team, both the Cougars and Gaels have to visit Spokane during the month of February. Currently, the Bulldogs' two best wins out of conference are at Xavier, a victory that's lost some luster, and against Notre Dame in Spokane, which is looking better and better.

Falling: West Virginia, Indiana, Connecticut, Kansas State

This quartet has struggled since conference play began and their positioning is suffering as a result. West Virginia has lost three in a row, with all of those defeats disappointing for one reason or another. Big East rival UConn has looked completely and utterly lost in dropping four in a row and six of eight, and Ryan Boatright's return has not yet helped the team's struggling offense.

Kansas State, who the Mountaineers defeated in Wichita back on December 8th, has only won four of its first nine in Big 12 play, which does include a significant win over Missouri. However, you can bet Frank Martin is happy the Wildcats don't have to see Oklahoma again until a potential meeting in the conference tournament. Keep this in mind about K-State, its best non-conference win could end up being over Long Beach State if Alabama continues to struggle in the SEC. A team without such an issue is Indiana. The Hoosiers' case is helped by two of the best wins anyone can possess this season--over Kentucky and Ohio State. Nonetheless, their seeding is hurt by recent struggles. Indiana has only defeated Iowa and Penn State in its last seven outings.

BUBBLE IN (FOR NOW) (17)

Note: The seed numbers will jump around a bit for the remainder of these tables as I move between at-large teams and auto bids.

9 seeds 33. Wichita State
34. Memphis
35. Purdue
36. Seton Hall
10 seeds 40. New Mexico 39. Harvard*
38. Iowa State 37. Washington*
11 seeds 41. Minnesota



Last 4 Byes
(avoiding Dayton)
46. Cincinnati
44. Saint Louis
43. Notre Dame
42. Xavier
Last 4 In
(First Four)
47. Alabama
48. Dayton
50. Arkansas
51. California

This is where things get really interesting, as these 18 teams truly cannot feel safe, given there is another group of teams on the outside of this projection who will have their own opportunities to break through. The at-larges in this group find themselves squarely on the bubble for a variety of reasons:

  • Own a low number of quality wins: Alabama, Memphis, New Mexico, Saint Louis, Wichita State
  • Own some truly bad losses: Cincinnati, Dayton
  • Struggled during the early season: Iowa State, Notre Dame
  • Struggled since a hot start: Purdue, Seton Hall, Xavier
  • Lack road/neutral wins: Arkansas
  • A combination of the above: California.

While I have Harvard in this group, the Crimson's at-large chances will likely disappear if they lose between now and the end of the season. Remember there is no Ivy League tournament as a fallback if they do drop a game or two. Of course, if there is a tie at the top of the Ivy standings at the end of the 14-game conference slate, there would be a one-game playoff, but I'm sure Harvard fans would like to avoid that after last year's loss to Princeton.

I have a pair of Pac-12 teams in this list, with California as the final at-large, and don't expect that number to rise. There simply aren't enough quality wins available in the conference this season, thanks to a bunch of mediocre teams beating each other up. (Similarly, a similar situation has cost Conference USA bids over the past couple of weeks and will likely cost the Atlantic 10 bids between now and Selection Sunday.) In fact, if a clear favorite doesn't emerge in the Pac-12, it's possible the conference earns only one bid, the tournament winner. For now, I'm sticking with the projection of two teams, Washington as the conference leader and Cal as the second-place team, making it in.

BUBBLE OUT (FOR NOW)

Last 4 Out 69. BYU 70. Texas
71. Northwestern
72. Mississippi
Next 4 Out 73. Colorado State 74. N.C. State
75. UCF
76. Stanford

On the other side of the bubble are the teams that still have work to do to earn a bid. BYU's best non-conference wins are over Oregon and Nevada, and they did defeat Gonzaga at home on Thursday night, but those factors don't undo the damage created by a sweep at the hands of St. Mary's. In the cases of Texas (3-6 in the Big 12) and Northwestern (3-6 in the Big Ten), simply getting closer to .500 in conference play will help. Both teams have a pair of top 50 wins and no bad losses (though the Longhorns' loss to Oregon State in the Legends Classic is questionable). Mississippi needs to take advantage of the quality win opportunities available in the SEC. Ole Miss has two top 50 wins, against Mississippi State and Arkansas, but both came in Oxford. The Rebels' away from home came against Drake in the Paradise Jam pre-Thanksgiving. In the meantime, they've been blown out at LSU and lost at Auburn.

Among the Next Four Out, the holes are even bigger. Colorado State's computer numbers are still good, but mostly driven my good losses, not good wins. The Rams did a good job in defeating San Diego State on Saturday, but getting completely blown out at UNLV on Wednesday was not a way to keep the momentum going. N.C. State has a win over Texas, but they have yet to earn a win against the RPI top 50. Plus, the Wolfpack fell at Stanford, which is bad only because the Cardinal are on the bubble too, and to Georgia Tech in Raleigh, which is a truly bad loss. UCF's best win, a victory over UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals, may not mean much if the Huskies continue to play badly. Plus, the Knights' relatively weak non-conference schedule (which included a loss at Louisiana-Lafayette) is a trouble spot. On the other side of the country, Stanford has been unable to take advantage of a weak Pac-12. Wins over Colorado State and N.C. State would be nice bubble tiebreakers, but if they can't stay in the title hunt (they're currently two games back), those victories won't mean much.

Massachusetts
Marshall
Miami
Oregon
St. Joseph's
Oklahoma
Pittsburgh
Wyoming
USF
Colorado
Arizona

These 11 teams have even less margin for error. In most cases, a lack of quality wins, particularly out of conference, is to blame. Seriously, St. Joseph's wins the race for best win among this group, as they beat Creighton at home. Honorable mentions go to Marshall (at Cincinnati), Oklahoma (Arkansas in Norman), and Wyoming (Colorado).

Of this group, keep an eye on Pitt, even if they failed to win for over a month. The Panthers look much better with Tray Woodall back in the linuep, as they've won three straight, highlighted by victories over Georgetown and West Virginia. If they can get to .500 in the Big East and win a game or two at Madison Square Garden, they could sneak in. With the weakness of the teams at the bottom of the current at-large pool, I wouldn't dismiss Pitt's chances.

POTENTIAL ONE-BID CONFERENCE AT-LARGES

10-12 seeds 39. Harvard*
43. Middle Tenn.* 49. Long Beach State*

13 seeds 54. Cleveland State* 53. Davidson*
52. La Salle*

14 seeds 55. Iona*
56. Oral Roberts*
57. Akron*
58. Nevada*
15 seeds 59. Drexel*


Ten conference leaders join Harvard in owning a slim chance at earning an at-large. Of this group, Akron, Long Beach State, Middle Tennessee, Davidson, and Cleveland State have an advantage over the other five teams since they've grabbed something that resembles a quality win along the way.

The 49ers won at Pittsburgh--which may mean something once again--and defeated Xavier in Hawai'i en route to a second-place finish in the Diamond Head Classic as part of the most grueling non-conference schedule in the country. Davidson defeated Kansas in Kansas City, in what was a virtual home game for the Jayhawks. Meanwhile, Akron and Cleveland State defeated SEC foes early on. The Zips took care of Mississippi State in Starkville, while the Vikings took out Vanderbilt, who was without Festus Ezeli at the time, in Nashville. Middle Tennessee also owns a quality SEC win, over Mississippi in Southaven, along with a sweep of (EDIT: win and close loss against) Belmont and win at UCLA.

All five will need to keep winning in their conferences to stay in the at-large conversation, and each (except for the Blue Raiders) will also need to win their respective BracketBusters in two weeks' time. Long Beach State can grab a quality, potential profile-making road win at Creighton; Davidson hosts Wichita State, a team currently on the good side of the bubble; Cleveland State hosts Drexel, a team that has caught fire (no pun intended) since the start of CAA play; and Akron gets Summit leader Oral Roberts. Keep an eye on Nevada's trip to Iona as well, as both of those teams currently reside in the RPI top 60.

La Salle also sits in this group as the current Atlantic 10 leader. The Explorers are a fringe at-large candidate, thanks to a 5-4 record against the top 100, highlighted by a home win over Xavier, who was really struggling on January 4th, but blemished by a December 19th loss at Delaware, who currently sits at 191 in the RPI.

AUTO BID ONLY

15 seeds 60. Weber State*
61. Belmont*
62. Norfolk State*

16 seeds (Main Draw) 63. Bucknell*
64. Long Island U.*


16 seeds (First Four) 65. Stony Brook*
66. UT Arlington*
67. UNC Asheville*
68. Miss. Valley St.*

These nine teams are only getting in if they win their respective conference tournaments. Given the unpredictability of those events, don't expect them to necessarily hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

Thankfully, that's still a few weeks away, and there are plenty of games to enjoy in the meantime. So, to close this Bid Watch entry, here's a list of just a few of the contests that have bracket and bubble impact this weekend.

Friday, February 3rd
Belmont at Lipscomb, 7 p.m. ET (CSS/CST/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Bruins aren't getting an at-large if they fail to win the Atlantic Sun, nor will they receive a high seed if they do, unlike what many, including myself thought earlier in the season. However, they truly cannot afford to be swept by their archrivals in the final Battle of the Boulevard before Belmont's departure for the Ohio Valley.

Saturday, February 4th
Seton Hall at Connecticut, 12 p.m. ET (Big East Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Pirates have dropped five in a row, while the Huskies have lost four straight. One streak will end this afternoon. The loser, however, will be one step closer to the NIT.

Marquette at Notre Dame, 1 p.m. ET (CBS Regional)
The Fighting Irish could use another quality win to solidify their position. Meanwhile, a road win would help boost the Golden Eagles' case for a protected seed.

Vanderbilt at Florida, 1 p.m. ET (CBS Regional)
The Commodores need to bounce back from an ugly loss at Arkansas on Tuesday night, but they may have trouble doing so against a Gator team that seems to be hitting its stride at the right time.

Xavier at Memphis, 1 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
Both of these teams currently sit on the good side of the bubble, but the loser may not be so lucky on Selection Sunday.

Virginia at Florida State, 1 p.m. ET (ACC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
A victory would keep the Seminoles in the lead pack of the ACC, while the Cavaliers would like to make it a four-team race at the top.

Ohio State at Wisconsin, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Since starting the conference season 1-3, the Badgers have won six in a row. On Saturday, they'll look to beat the Buckeyes in Madison for the fourth season in a row.

Arizona at Stanford, 3 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
Given the state of the Pac-12, this is a virtual bubble elimination game for both teams. Note that the Wildcats won at Cal without Kevin Parrom, a good sign for the rest of their season.

Middle Tennessee at Denver, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Blue Raiders face what is likely their most difficult Sun Belt game, a trip West to face the Pioneers, who have defeated St. Mary's and Wyoming at Magness Arena, but dropped three of their last four in conference play.

UNLV at Wyoming, 4 p.m. ET (The Mtn.)
The Cowboys have 17 wins, with 15 of those coming against Division I opposition, but no marquee victories. They can change that on Saturday afternoon.

Dayton at Saint Louis, 5 p.m. ET (FS Ohio/FS Midwest+)
Even with six top 50 wins, the Flyers, badly need a win to stay in the bid race, thanks to a three-game losing streak. Meanwhile, the Billikens, another A-10 team that's just hanging on, need to avoid a sweep at the hands of UD.

Iowa State at Oklahoma, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Sooners have Kansas State's number. Can they also create issues for a resurgent Cyclone team?

Indiana at Purdue, 7 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
After Saturday night, the Hoosiers will play five of their final seven at Assembly Hall. The problem is they need to survive a trip to Mackey Arena, where a Boilermaker team in need of another quality win awaits.

Mississippi at Alabama, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
This is a big opportunity for the Rebels, who need a road win over a quality SEC opponent. On the other hand, a Crimson Tide loss could further diminish Anthony Grant's team's chances.

Kansas at Missouri, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The archrivals meet for the first of two (and possibly three) meetings before the Tigers head off to the SEC, perhaps the last ones ever. This one should be intense, especially with a spot on the top seed line in play.

Sunday, February 5th
Michigan at Michigan State, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Wolverines will look to complete their second straight sweep of the Spartans. If they can pull that off, they'll solidify their chances for earning a protected seed.

Northwestern at Illinois, 3 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
The Illini broke Wildcat hearts in Evanston on January 4th, but given Illinois' offensive struggles, Bill Carmody's side has to like its chances at getting a bit of revenge on Sunday afternoon.

My next full bracket projection will be out on Monday morning. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter for my thoughts as the weekend unfolds.

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