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Bracketology 2020: The bubble is getting increasingly crowded

With seven weeks to go until Selection Sunday, a seemingly impossible number of teams have a shot at sneaking into the field.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Indiana
On Thursday night, Indiana earned a bit more bubble breathing room by beating Michigan State.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Last February, I pondered whether 2019’s bubble was the worst ever. I concluded it wasn’t, simply because every bubble was by definition “bad” since the NCAA added three teams to the field in time for the 2011 tournament. A little less than a calendar year later, college basketball is confronted with a different problem: A bubble that’s seemingly without an end.

One year ago, in my first look at the bubble for the 2018-19 season, I included 20 teams from the wrong side of the cut line in my analysis. This year, thanks to the presence of so many flawed profiles, I’ve included 27 teams that could conceivably earn an at-large when all is said and done. And I could have made this group even larger, but elected to stop things with the 75th-ranked team in the NET. So, even if your favorite team isn’t mentioned in this post, all hope is not lost. It will just need to pick some quality wins up between now and Selection Sunday.

As usual with these posts, we will start at the the top of the field and work our way down to the cut line. Given the surprises and inconsistency that have been the hallmarks of this season, I’m holding off on anointing teams as locks for an indeterminate period of time.

You’ll see four sets of numbers in the parentheses following each team’s name. The first is its NET ranking as of the morning of Friday, Jan. 24. Next, is the team’s overall record in games against Division I opposition only. The third is its record in both Quad 1 and 2 games, with the fourth indicating its record in Quad 1 games alone. Record information is courtesy WarrenNolan.com’s incredible database.

Protected Seeds

No. 1s: 1. Baylor* (2/16-1/9-1/5-1), 2. Kansas (3/14-3/10-3/8-3), 3. San Diego State* (1/19-0/6-0/4-0), 4. Gonzaga* (4/20-1/4-1/4-1)
No. 2s: 5. Seton Hall* (12/15-4/9-4/6-4), 6. Duke (6/16-3/6-2/3-1), 7. Florida State* (13/16-2/7-2/3-2), 8. West Virginia (7/15-3/10-3/3-1)
No. 3s: 9. Dayton* (5/17-2/5-2/3-2), 10. Louisville (11/16-3/7-3/2-3), 11. Oregon (17/16-5/9-3/5-2), 12. Villanova (15/15-3/7-3/3-3)
No. 4s: 13. Michigan State* (10/14-5/7-5/3-5), 14. Butler (8/15-4/9-4/3-4), 15. Kentucky (24/14-4/6-3/4-1), 16. Iowa (21/14-5/8-4/5-3)

Friday’s four No. 1 seeds are the same as the quartet found in Tuesday’s full bracket. There are a pair of significant changes on the two line; however, as the Seton Hall Pirates, winner of nine straight, have jumped the Duke Blue Devils for the top spot, while the West Virginia Mountaineers and Dayton Flyers have swapped places between seed lines two and three. However, this results in a slightly better draw for the Atlantic 10 leaders, at least from a travel perspective. Both the Michigan State Spartans, who fell to the Indiana Hoosiers on Thursday, and the Butler Bulldogs, losers of three straight, drop to line four, while the Iowa Hawkeyes replace the Maryland Terrapins in the top 16.

Top four seeds by region and site

South (Houston): 1/1. Baylor* (St. Louis 1), 2/6. Duke (Greensboro 1), 3/12. Villanova (Albany 2), 4/16. Iowa (Sacramento 2) - Total of top four seeds = 35

Midwest (Indianapolis): 1/2. Kansas (Omaha 1), 2/7. Florida State* (Tampa 1), 3/9. Dayton* (Cleveland 2), 4/13. Michigan State* (St. Louis 2) - Total of top four seeds = 31

West (Los Angeles): 1/3. San Diego State* (Sacramento 1), 2/8. West Virginia (Cleveland 1), 3/11. Oregon (Spokane 2), 4/14. Butler (Omaha 2) - Total of top four seeds = 36

East (New York): 1/4. Gonzaga* (Spokane 1), 2/5. Seton Hall* (Albany 1), 3/10. Louisville (Greensboro 2), 4/15. Kentucky (Tampa 2) - Total of top four seeds = 34

Based on seed list order, Duke should be the No. 2 seed in the Midwest with Florida State filling that role in the South. However, I flipped the two to correct an imbalance that resulted when placing the quartet of No. 4 seeds in my original attempt at building the bracket.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Iowa
Iowa’s thrilling 85-80 victory over Rutgers on Wednesday night ended up as one of the week’s most important contests for bracket positioning.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Next in line

No. 5s: 17. Maryland (14/15-4/8-4/2-4), 18. Auburn (18/16-2/6-2/1-2), 19. Creighton (27/14-5/6-5/5-5), 20. Rutgers (19/13-5/5-4/3-4)
No. 6s: 21. LSU* (25/14-4/7-4/1-2), 22. Colorado (20/15-4/6-3/3-2), 23. Wisconsin (22/12-7/6-6/5-4), 24. Penn State (29/14-5/8-4/5-4)
No. 7s: 25. Illinois (32/13-5/5-4/3-3), 26. Marquette (26/14-5/7-4/3-4)

Had the Rutgers Scarlet Knights won in Iowa City Wednesday night, they would have found themselves as the final protected seed instead of the Hawkeyes. The Auburn Tigers also have a case to be among the top 16 based on their NET ranking, but a lack of true standout victories keep them on line five. It’s a similar case for the LSU Tigers despite their perfect SEC record. Unfortunately, neither will be able to grab a standout victory in Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge, as both face teams currently on the wrong side of the cut line. Auburn hosts the 9-9 Iowa State Cyclones, while LSU visits the Texas Longhorns.

The Illinois Fighting Illini, winners of five straight, including two on the road in Big Ten play, and Marquette Golden Eagles, who have taken care of business against a trio of Big East bubble teams over the past week and a half, have earned themselves a little breathing room.

NCAA Basketball: Colorado at Arizona
Arizona finally picked up its first Quad 1 win of the season by thumping visiting Colorado on Saturday.
Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

The bubble’s upper edge

No. 7s, 27. Arizona (9/13-5/3-5/1-3), 28. Wichita State (30/16-3/6-3/0-1)
No. 8s: 29. Ohio State (23/12-7/5-7/3-6), 30. Michigan (36/11-7/5-7/3-7), 31. Houston* (34/15-4/6-3/2-3), 32. Stanford* (16/15-3/3-3/1-3)

At this point, we start to encounter profiles that have real flaws. Sure, the Arizona Wildcats rank in the NET’s top 10, the Stanford Cardinal are in the top 20 and the Wichita State Shockers find themselves among the top 30, but the trio have combined for just two Quad 1 wins so far this season. Meanwhile, Big Ten play has been rough for both the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines. The pair entered January at 11-2 and 10-3, respectively. Each has managed one win since, which has them tumbling toward irrelevance.

The middle bubble

No. 9s: 33. Indiana (42/15-4/5-4/3-3), 34. USC (45/15-4/7-3/3-3), 35. Minnesota (39/11-8/5-8/3-6), 36. Florida (35/12-6/6-6/1-3)

Both the Indiana Hoosiers, thanks to that home win over Michigan State, and Minnesota Golden Gophers, victorious over Ohio State in Columbus, saw their fortunes improve slightly on Thursday night. The USC Trojans, on the other hand, saw a share of the Pac-12 lead slip from their grasp with an overtime loss to the Oregon Ducks. Similarly, the Florida Gators were hundredths of a second from forcing overtime at LSU on Tuesday night — a serious missed opportunity for a team that gets another when it hosts the top-ranked Baylor Bears on Saturday night.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Texas Christian
Texas Tech lost at TCU on Tuesday night, which means the pressure will be on the Red Raiders when Kentucky visits Lubbock on Saturday.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The right side of the cut line

No. 10s: 37. Texas Tech (31/12-6/3-6/1-6), 38. BYU (28/14-6/4-6/2-4)
No. 10s (Last Four Byes): 39. Arkansas (33/14-4/4-4/1-3), 40. Oklahoma (47/12-6/6-6/2-6)
No. 11s (Last Four Byes): 41. Saint Mary’s (38/16-4/6-2/2-1), 42. Memphis (41/14-4/3-4/2-3)

The Arkansas Razorbacks, whose profile features a win in Bloomington and little else, saw their stock fall after a midweek road setback to the Mississippi State Bulldogs, while the Texas Tech Red Raiders also need to make a meatier argument than a neutral-court win over the Louisville Cardinals. Luckily for Chris Beard’s club, the Kentucky Wildcats are their SEC Challenge opponent for Saturday. Arkansas and Texas Tech are two further teams whose results don’t quite match up to their NET rankings, much like those of Arizona, Stanford and Wichita State above.

On Wednesday night, the Memphis Tigers were doubled up by the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, 80-40. That’s a bad loss for any team, but it particularly stings for one whose best wins came over a trio of fellow bubble teams in the Cincinnati Bearcats, NC State Wolfpack and Tennessee Volunteers. In the WCC, the BYU Cougars and Saint Mary’s Gaels entered Thursday in a five-way tie for second, but the pair resolved the deadlock and now sit in a two-way tie behind the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

No. 11s (Last Four In): 43. Alabama (37/11-7/3-5/1-4), 44. Virginia Tech (44/14-5/5-5/2-4), 45. NC State (43/14-5/4-4/3-3), 46. VCU (40/14-5/2-5/1-3)

There are two new at-large entrants today, with the Alabama Crimson Tide, winners of three straight, and the VCU Rams, who have recorded two wins in succession, replacing the DePaul Blue Demons and Purdue Boilermakers. Even though conference record doesn’t technically play a role in tournament selection, the Blue Demons’ 1-5 Big East record isn’t going to cut it. And that’s especially true with how Dave Leitao’s team followed Saturday’s massive win over Butler with a home loss to the Creighton Bluejays. Purdue, meanwhile, has dropped two in a row and is 1-4 in its last five.

Given that Alabama and VCU both have a single Quad 1 win each; however, their places are far from secure.

Had the Virginia Tech Hokies not defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels after two overtimes on Wednesday night in Blacksburg, they would have dropped out.

NCAA Basketball: Richmond at Wisconsin
Richmond’s November win over Wisconsin could help push the Spiders into the field of 68.
Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

The wrong side of the cut line

First Four OUT: 69. DePaul (57/12-6/4-4/3-3), 70. Northern Iowa (51/14-3/4-1/1-1), 71. Richmond (54/15-4/3-3/2-2), 72. Rhode Island (52/13-5/4-4/1-3)
Next Four OUT: 73. Purdue (46/10-9/4-8/2-6), 74. Liberty (50/17-2/1-1/0-1), 75. Syracuse (66/12-7/4-6/2-3), 76. Washington (48/12-8/2-6/1-4)

This week didn’t play out well for the leaders of two likely one-bid leagues hoping to have an at-large chance should things go wrong in the early stages of the Championship Fortnight. First, the Northern Iowa Panthers surrendered their share of the Missouri Valley lead when their furious rally at Southern Illinois fell short, 68-66. While the Panthers’ win at Colorado Buffaloes remains impressive, it might not mean much in the end. Given the 2018 Loyola Chicago Ramblers’ spot on that March’s seed list, their win at Florida probably wouldn’t have earned them an at-large had they failed to win Arch Madness. (Oddly enough, the Ramblers replace UNI at the top of the Valley for today’s post.)

But the Liberty Flames suffered a potentially even more catastrophic loss in Jacksonville, Florida on Thursday night. Ritchie McKay’s team entered the night ranked 24th in the NET, but a 71-70 loss to the then-196th-ranked North Florida Ospreys, knocked the Flames down to 50th in the metric. Even though Liberty is 17-2 against Division I opposition, a poor non-conference schedule and incredibly weak ASUN (five of its nine members rank 299th or worse in the NET) mean that the Flames will almost assuredly need to win the conference auto bid to make a second consecutive NCAA tournament.

The news isn’t all gloomy for those outside of the power conferences, however, as the chances of multiple Atlantic 10 teams making the field are on the upswing. The Rhode Island Rams’ 77-55 home thumping of the Duquesne Dukes might have pushed the visitors (another team with a weak non-conference slate) down the bubble pecking order, but David Cox’s squad has now won five straight to get back into the conversation. Then there are the Richmond Spiders, best known for knocking off the Wisconsin Badgers in Brooklyn before Thanksgiving. They’ll have two shots at improving their profile in the next week. First, Richmond hosts Dayton on Saturday, then the Spiders make the short trip to VCU on Tuesday.

Also Considered

77. Tennessee (59/12-6/3-6/2-5), 78. Mississippi State (53/12-6/3-4/0-4), 79. Georgetown (55/12-8/5-8/2-6), 80. TCU (58/12-5/3-5/0-2), 81. Virginia (65/12-6/4-4/1-2), 82. Xavier (60/13-6/4-6/1-5), 83. Cincinnati (56/12-7/4-5/0-4), 84. Tulsa (64/13-6/3-5/0-2), 85. Utah State (73/13-6/3-4/2-3), 86. Pittsburgh (74/13-6/4-4/2-3), 87. Iowa State (71/9-9/3-8/2-7), 88. Texas (67/12-6/2-6/1-3), 89. Saint Louis (69/13-5/2-5/1-4), 90. UNCG (70/13-5/3-4/1-1), 91. Yale (61/11-4/1-4/0-1), 92. Arizona State (62/11-7/4-7/0-6), 93. Georgia (75/10-7/3-7/1-7), 94. SMU (68/14-4/0-3/0-2), 95. Duquesne (72/15-3/1-1/0-1)

And this group ensures that every team in the NET top 75 got a look. I’m most interested in seeing how the TCU Horned Frogs (at Arkansas), Mississippi State Bulldogs (at Oklahoma) and Tennessee Volunteers (at a Kansas Jayhawks team that will be shorthanded after Tuesday’s brawl with the Kansas State Wildcats) handle their Big 12/SEC Challenge matchups Saturday. The Virginia Cavaliers, meanwhile, can’t afford to slip up against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Saturday, as they welcome Florida State to Charlottesville on Tuesday. That will be the first of three home games Tony Bennett’s squad will play against the ACC’s leaders the rest of the way.

(Likely) One-Bid Conference Reps

No. 12s: 47. ETSU* (49/14-3/2-2/2-1), 48. Akron*, 49. North Texas*, 50. Stephen F. Austin*
No. 13s: 51. Loyola Chicago*, 52. New Mexico State*, 53. Vermont*, 54. UC Irvine*
No. 14s: 55. William & Mary *, 56. Colgate*, 57. Wright State*, 58. Montana*
No. 15s: 59. South Dakota State*, 60. Winthrop*, 61. Little Rock*, 62. Murray State*
No. 16s (First Round): 63. North Florida*, 64. Quinnipiac*
No. 16s (First Four): 65. Prairie View A&M*, 66. Princeton*, 67. Long Island*, 68. Norfolk State*

At this point, the East Tennessee State Buccaneers look like the best bet for a surprise mid-major at-large. While the Bucs rank just one spot higher in the NET than Liberty, they have two things working to their advantage compared to the Flames. First, Steve Forbes’ team has a Quad 1 non-conference win, over the same LSU team that Liberty couldn’t beat in Baton Rouge. Secondly, the SoCon is much stronger than the ASUN, as half of the conference ranks in the NET’s top half — with two teams joining ETSU in the top 100.

My next full bracket projection will arrive on Tuesday.