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Bracketology 2018: The bubble is a confusing mess

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What will the Selection Committee value the most this season: RPI? Road wins? Quality wins? Avoiding bad losses? Finishing well? The answer will determine which teams grab the final few spots in this year’s field.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia vs Louisville
Had Louisville knocked off Virginia yesterday, they probably would have earned a mere cameo in this post.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been SBNation.com’s resident bracketologist since 2009 and while I’ve never gone into a Selection Sunday thinking I would get all 36 at-large teams correct, I’ve never had as much doubt about the complete picture around the cut line as I do this year. Normally, in the final couple of days before the big reveal, we’re really only trying to determine the final one or two spots. But in 2018, it really feels like any team from line nine in Friday’s bracket (hey there, UCLA Bruins) to the cut line could be left out, replaced by any one of the top four to six teams currently projected as an NIT entrant.

With this conundrum in mind, here’s how I see the picture around the cut line heading into Friday’s action.

Last Four Byes: Providence, Texas, N.C. State, USC

The Friars, who face the Xavier Musketeers in tonight’s first Big East Tournament semifinal (6:30 p.m. Eastern, FS1), have the most to gain from this group, but keep an eye on USC. While the 22-10 Trojans have an RPI of 33 and four Group 1 wins, they don’t have a single victory over a likely at-large team. Making matters worse, their best win, over Middle Tennessee in the Diamond Head Classic semifinals back on December 23rd, took a serious hit when the Blue Raiders fell in the Conference USA quarterfinals last night. If Andy Enfield’s team loses to the Oregon Ducks in the second Pac-12 Tournament semifinal (approx. 11:30 p.m., FS1), it could find itself squeezed out.

Last Four In

44. Alabama Crimson Tide

18-14, 8-10 SEC; RPI: 46; KenPom: 51; “Super Average”: 47.8; SOS: 5

The Tide’s profile is very similar to Vanderbilt’s from last season, though Alabama has one fewer loss on its record than the Commodores did in setting the record for most defeats for an at-large at selection. If the Selection Committee values strong scheduling and quality wins, Avery Johnson’s team is a shoo-in, thanks to six Group 1 wins, seven RPI top 50 victories and a top five overall strength of schedule and top 30 non-conference strength of schedule. However, a trio of Group 3 losses and a lousy 2-8 record in true road games is troublesome. Alabama is 4-1 in neutral-site games, and picking up a fifth such win, and second victory over Auburn for the season (1 p.m., ESPN), is their best path to bid security.

46. Baylor Bears

17-14, 8-10 Big 12; RPI: 64; KenPom: 34; “Super Average”: 44.3; SOS: 18

Had the Bears defeated the West Virginia Mountaineers on Thursday night, they would probably still be on this list, but with a bit more security. As it stands now, Baylor has a very similar profile to Louisville’s with a couple of key exceptions. On the negative side, the Bears were even worse on the road than the Cardinals (2-9 vs. 4-7), but on the plus side, Baylor has two top 20 wins, including a marquee one over Kansas, something Louisville, whose five best wins all came over teams outside of the RPI top 50, can’t claim.

Baylor has won just once in its past five games, but that might not mean all that much considering how most of the teams on the bubble have struggled down the stretch.

47. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

23-7, 16-2 C-USA; RPI: 32; KenPom: 49; “Super Average”: 48.7; SOS: 87

Had the Blue Raiders won just one of the three neutral-site games they played against teams currently in (Auburn, Miami, USC), they’d probably be okay even after last night’s Conference USA quarterfinal loss to Southern Mississippi. With the Old Dominion advancing to today’s semifinals in Frisco, Texas, Middle picked up another Group 1 win, boosting their record in the top class of games to 3-3. And while the Blue Raiders don’t own a true name brand win, their three best victories, a sweep of No. 44 Western Kentucky and road win over 47th-ranked OVC champ Murray State, are better than anything Louisville has on its profile. (The Cardinals’ best wins by RPI are over 54th-ranked Florida State.)

As I wrote last night, Kermit Davis’ squad also played well on the road, winning 12 of its 13 true away games, though a 1-4 neutral-site mark, capped by last night’s loss isn’t helpful. A sweep at the hands of Marshall and picking up a late Group 4 loss might also create problems for the Committee. But if they value the whole body of work and building a quality non-conference schedule — Middle ranks eighth in this controversial metric — look for the Blue Raiders to sneak in.

48. Saint Mary’s Gaels

28-5, 16-2 WCC; RPI: 40; KenPom: 28; “Super Average”: 40.2; SOS: 168

Why have I been beating the “Middle Tennessee should be in” drums so loudly since last night? Well, if you’re considering Saint Mary’s, the Blue Raiders deserve a close look too, since their profile compares quite favorably to the Gaels’. Both played exceptionally well in true road games, with the Gaels going 10-1 (and 2-3 in neutral-site contests). And while Saint Mary’s defeated Gonzaga, they have fewer Group 1 wins (2-1 vs. 3-3) than Middle Tennessee and a similar Group 1 and 2 record (4-3 vs. 5-4).

And even though there’s a four-win difference between Middle Tennessee and Saint Mary’s, that difference looks to be due to the Gaels’ weaker schedule. Consider that while 20 of Middle’s 24 wins came against teams from outside top 100 (including a Division II one the Committee doesn’t consider), a whopping 24 of Saint Mary’s 28 victories came from that same group. Note also that Saint Mary’s non-conference schedule strength, 183rd, is nowhere close to Middle’s top 10 ranking.

First Four Out

69. Louisville Cardinals

20-13, 9-9 ACC; RPI: 38; KenPom: 33; “Super Average”: 36.8; SOS: 13

Other than pairs of wins over Florida State and Virginia Tech and a double OT victory over a Bonzie Colson-less Notre Dame, the best thing about the Cardinals’ profile might be the fact their worst loss came against 62nd-ranked N.C. State. While the predictive metrics the Committee is now using loves Louisville, as they rank between 22nd and 33rd in them, you have to wonder if the Cards’ inability to defeat top tier competition keeps them out. David Padgett’s squad went a staggering 3-11 in Group 1 games, and while that number is similar to Baylor’s mark of 4-12, Louisville went 0-10 in games against the top 30. On the flip side, the Bears went 2-9 in such contests. Neither percentage is pretty, but two is still greater than zero.

70. Marquette Golden Eagles

19-13, 9-9 Big East; RPI: 57; KenPom: 50; “Super Average”: 49; SOS: 24

Sweeps of Seton Hall and Creighton are the highlights of the Golden Eagles’ profile, but a late loss to DePaul and lack of quality non-conference wins (Marquette’s two best came over Vermont and LSU) don’t help. Neither did getting blown out by Villanova in the Big East quarters on Thursday night.

However, when compared to most of the teams featured here, Marquette played decently away from home, going 5-5 in true road games and 3-2 in neutral-site situations. Thus, those numbers should serve to give Steve Wojciechowski‘s squad some hope.

71. Arizona State Sun Devils

20-11, 8-10 Pac-12; RPI: 65; KenPom: 45; “Super Average”: 52; SOS: 71

Inconsistency might be the Sun Devils’ worst enemy, as they were unable to maintain the quality displayed in defeating Kansas State, Xavier and Kansas in the fall and USC and UCLA during a brief February resurgence. Five losses in six isn’t the way to reach the field, not when your profile is being compared to teams going through similar collapses (Alabama and Oklahoma) who have double your quality win total.

72. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

19-14, 8-10 ACC; RPI: 68; KenPom: 31; “Super Average”: 45.7; SOS: 42

It’s best to examine the Fighting Irish’s profile in sections, based on Bonzie Colson’s availability.

  • Pre-injury: 11-3 with a win over Wichita State to claim the Maui Jim Maui Invitational title but also an 18-point loss at Michigan State (no shame there) and Group 3 losses to Ball State at home and Indiana (after OT in Indianapolis).
  • Colson out: 6-9, including home wins over Syracuse and N.C. State and a home victory over Florida State, along with a loss to Georgia Tech on the road and a double OT setback against Louisville in South Bend. (Author’s note: Corrected to note the location of the win over FSU.)
  • Post-return: 3-2, but with only Wednesday’s win over Virginia Tech in Brooklyn coming against a team not named “Pitt.”

Note that while the Fighting Irish claimed their 20th victory on Wednesday night, the Committee won’t consider their Maui win over Division II Chaminade.

Even with very strong predictive metrics, I really think Notre Dame needed to defeat Duke, or at least not lose by 18, to earn selection.

Next Four Out: Oklahoma State, Oregon, Syracuse, Mississippi State

Oregon and Mississippi State have a lot to play for this evening. The Ducks can boost their case by topping USC in Las Vegas, while in St. Louis, the Bulldogs will aim to keep their hopes alive by denting Tennessee’s hopes for a two or three seed (7 p.m., SEC Network).

Other Games of Bubble Interest

American Athletic Tournament Quarterfinals

The two early session contests (12 p.m., ESPN2) only feature a single lock, the Cincinnati Bearcats, while the evening doubleheader (7 p.m., ESPNU) sees both the Wichita State Shockers and Houston Cougars take the floor. The remaining five teams are all potential bid thieves, with the seventh-seeded Temple Owls, who split with the second-seeded Shockers, and the Cougars’ opposition, the sixth-seeded UCF Knights, playing in their own backyard, among the most dangerous.

Atlantic 10 Tournament Quarterfinals

The top-seeded Rhode Island Rams will look to end a two-game skid when they face the VCU Rams in the afternoon’s first game (NBCSN, 12 p.m.). A third consecutive loss shouldn’t push Rhode Island out, but will likely damage the Rams’ seed. In the first game of the night session, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies will look to win for the 13th straight time, as they take on the Richmond Spiders (6 p.m., NBCSN). Given how the bubble has collapsed around them, I think the Bonnies should be safe even with a loss.

Mountain West Tournament Semifinals

On Saturday, the San Diego State Aztecs knocked off the top-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack, 79-74. They meet again tonight (9 p.m., CBSSN) and bubble teams will be rooting for the Wolf Pack to avenge that defeat. Meanwhile, a potential bid stealer lurks in the nightcap, which features the seventh-seeded Utah State Aggies and third-seeded New Mexico Lobos (approx. 11:30 p.m., CBSSN). The Aggies burst the Boise State Broncos’ bubble last night.

Pac-12 Tournament Semifinals

While I discussed the Oregon-USC nightcap above, UCLA has a lot to play for in the first game of the night, against the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats (9 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). If Steve Alford’s squad defeats the Cats for a second time, they should be safe. Arizona, meanwhile, likely needs to win out to secure a spot on the three seed line.

SEC Tournament Quarterfinals

Three of the four games in St. Louis today have bubble impact, with the nightcap between the Arkansas Razorbacks and Florida Gators (approx. 9:30 p.m., SEC Network) only impacting that pair’s seeding. I’ve already discussed two of these above. But the final game of the afternoon session is one bubble teams will be watching very closely, as the Kentucky Wildcats will aim to snuff out the Georgia Bulldogs’ slim hopes (approx. 3:30 p.m., ESPN). Mark Fox’s team likely needs the auto bid to reach the field, though they’ll be discussed if they reach Sunday’s final.

I’ll update the bubble picture during the day on Friday, if events warrant.