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NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Little Clarity In Early February

Who is in the NCAA Tournament field and who still has work to do? Notre Dame is one school that has improved its chances of a bid, but the Fighting Irish are the exception this season.

Notre Dame
Notre Dame

It's another February Friday, which means it's time for Bubble Watch, SB Nation's weekly look at the teams that appear to be solidly in the NCAA Tournament field and the ones aren't quite so lucky. Selection Sunday is now just a little more than a month away. If you're thinking this piece of information means the picture is suddenly becoming clearer, you would (sadly) be wrong. The bubble may have lost a few teams recently (So long, Marshall! See you at Arch Madness, Northern Iowa!), but it's still as messy as it was a week ago.

For more information on how this post is structured, please take a look at my lengthy explanation at the beginning of last week's post.

Here's how the bid picture breaks down on February 10, 2012.

There are 68 total bids available, 20 of which will be taken by the conference champions from likely one-bid leagues. That leaves 48 spots, 37 at-larges and 11 for the champions of probably multi-bid leagues.

For these 48 spots, 25 teams are considered locks (and remember I'm being fairly generous with the term because of the quality of the bubble) and a further six teams are nearly in. That leaves 17 places up for grabs. Remember that if Murray State fails to win the Ohio Valley tournament, the at-large pool shrinks by one. That remains the case even though the Racers lost for the first time on Thursday night to Tennessee State. However, Murray State's hopes may dwindle if they lose another OVC game or fall to St. Mary's in BracketBusters next weekend.

Locks (25+Murray State)

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

1 seeds 1. Syracuse*
2. Kentucky*
3. Missouri*
4. Ohio State*
2 seeds 8. North Carolina
7. Baylor
6. Duke
5. Kansas
3 seeds 9. Michigan State
10. Georgetown
11. UNLV
12. Marquette
4 seeds 16. San Diego State* 15. Florida 14. Wisconsin 13. Louisville
5 seeds 17. Indiana 18. Michigan 19. St. Mary's* 20. Temple*
6 seeds 24. Virginia
23. Creighton
22. Murray State*
21. Mississippi State
7 seeds 25. Vanderbilt
26. Gonzaga

The number of locks has increased only slightly, even though the pool of teams that are nearly in has shrunk. That's not a good sign for that already small group, but more on that in a few paragraphs.

At the top of the S-curve, Syracuse and Kentucky sit solidly in the top two spots, but the chasing pack looks a little clearer after this week's action. Missouri and Ohio State continue to hold the other two No. 1 seeds for the moment, but Duke and Kansas are quite close. The Blue Devils established themselves as the new ACC favorite after a rousing comeback win at North Carolina Wednesday, while earlier that evening, the Jayhawks handled Baylor for the second time this season.

As for the teams that sit third and fourth on the S-curve, both the Tigers and Buckeyes face significant tests on Saturday. Missouri holds the edge over its Big 12 rivals, thanks to owning wins against both. If the Tigers complete a season sweep of Baylor Saturday, they will be further entrenched on the top line, while the Bears could potentially be staring down a No. 3 seed. Meanwhile, Ohio State hosts Michigan State, a team that is looking the make its way to the group of second seeds--and potentially all the way up to the top line by the end of the season.

Gonzaga, Indiana, Louisville, and Temple join the Locks this week, with the Bulldogs a late addition, thanks to their 14-point home win over St. Mary's Thursday night. No teams dropped down, but Creighton is looking a bit shaky after consecutive losses to Northern Iowa (who couldn't build on that, falling at Wichita State Wednesday) and Evansville.

Nearly There (6)

7 seeds

27. Florida State*
28. Connecticut
8 seeds 32. Memphis
31. Kansas State
30. Wichita State*
29. Notre Dame

Florida State was all set to join the locks until an ill-fated trip to Boston College on Wednesday night. The Seminoles are still be in good shape, but to be safe they'll need to stop playing down to the level of their weaker opponents. That's going to be a significant challenge for a team that's lost to the Eagles, Clemson, and Princeton, particularly as FSU still has home games with Virginia Tech and Clemson in their final seven.

The hottest team in this group is Notre Dame, winners of five in a row, with all of those victories coming against teams currently in this projected field. The only thing keeping the Fighting Irish from moving up is the lack of a decent non-conference win, but if they keep winning--and their next two games are winnable home contests against DePaul and Rutgers--they'll be a lock in the very near future.

Bubble In (For Now)

9 seeds 33. Cincinnati
34. New Mexico 35. Harvard* 36. California*
10 seeds 40. West Virginia
39. Saint Louis
38. Alabama
37. Illinois
11 seeds 41. Southern Miss.*
42. Iowa State

There's very little change to this group from last week's post or Monday's bracket. The most significant is West Virginia's fall here from the Nearly There group after losing four of five (and needing overtime to claim their only win in that span, at Providence on Sunday).

I'm still looking for some of these teams to show to some initiative and break through. California, New Mexico, and Saint Louis look to be in the best position to do so over the next few weeks, thanks to the opportunities presented in their respective conferences. Most of the others will need to snap out of their consistent inconsistency, which is always a difficult thing to accomplish.

Last 4 Byes
(avoiding Dayton)
43. Purdue 44. BYU 45. Colorado State
46. Northwestern
Last 4 In
(First Four)
47. Miami 48. Seton Hall
50. Minnesota 51. Arizona

The last eight in group has a real Big Ten feel, as Purdue falls down to the Last Four Byes, thanks to a recent 3-6 slump. Three quality non-conference wins (Iona and Temple in Puerto Rico and Miami at home) help keep the Boilermakers in. Minnesota drops down to the First Four after Thursday's disappointing overtime loss to Wisconsin, the Golden Gophers' third setback in the last five. Meanwhile, Northwestern didn't get caught looking ahead to Sunday's potential elimination game at Purdue, as the Wildcats topped Iowa Thursday night, their third straight win.

BYU and Colorado stay in simply because both had the work week off, while Miami moved up slightly, as the Hurricanes followed up Sunday's huge win at Duke with an impressive home win over Virginia Tech. As for the status of the Pac-12, Cal now sits in the lead spot, thanks to the combination of its 75-49 win over USC and Washington's 82-57 demolition at the hands of Oregon. The combination of the Huskies' loss and Arizona's 71-57 victory over Colorado sees the Wildcats slip into the First Four.

Bubble Out (For Now)

Last 4 Out 69. Xavier
70. Wyoming 71. N.C. State 72. Texas
Next 4 Out 73. Dayton
74. UCF
75. Massachusetts 76. Mississippi

This list is similar to the last eight out that appeared in Monday's projection. With the exception of UCF knocking Marshall off the bubble, these teams were either off during the early part of this week (Dayton, Wyoming), won games with little positive impact (UMass, N.C. State, Texas, Xavier), or suffered a damaging loss (Mississippi). Keep an eye on N.C. State, as Mark Gottfried's team's opportunity to make a move is nearly here, thanks to three quality win opportunities in six days--a trip to Duke next Thursday night, followed by home contests with Florida State and North Carolina.

The list of teams remaining under consideration is shrinking. Note that the Pac-12's near complete unpredictability is the only reason four teams from that conference appear on the list.

Arkansas La Salle Cleveland State Pittsburgh
St. Joseph's USF Oregon Washington
Colorado Stanford

Arkansas and Pittsburgh both suffered critical road losses on Wednesday night. The Razorbacks lost by 22 at Georgia, a horrible defeat that ran their record away from Fayetteville to 0-8 (compared to 16-0 at Bud Walton Arena). Meanwhile, Pitt's four-game winning streak ended with a thud in Tampa. The Panthers are 4-8 in the Big East, meaning they sit three-and-a-half games behind USF, themselves a very questionable at-large candidate due to a lack of quality wins (Cleveland State, Seton Hall, and Pittsburgh are the highlights on the Bulls' profile), in the conference race. The Panthers also need to win five of their last six to get to 9-9 in the league. With trips to Seton Hall, Louisville, and UConn and home contests with West Virginia, USF, and St. John's on deck, that's not likely.

The Atlantic 10 and Pac-10 teams on the wrong side of the bubble need to keep on winning to stay in the hunt. On the East Coast, UMass and La Salle will have chances to grab quality wins between now and the end of the season. The two teams meet next Saturday, though the Explorers will need to get past Saint Louis tomorrow for that game to be truly meaningful. The Minutemen also host Xavier and visit Dayton and Temple during the final weeks of the regular season, while the Explorers close a tough three-game stretch with a visit from the Owls on February 22nd. Out West, the only ways Colorado, Oregon, and Washington (or any of the other teams hovering near .500 in the Pac-12) legitimately get in the field right now are through building an impressive late win streak (again, a hard thing to ask of teams that are inconsistent by nature) or via the conference's automatic bid.

Potential One-Bid Conference At-Larges

12 seeds 49. Long Beach State

13 seeds 54. Iona* 53. Davidson*
52. Middle Tenn.*

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

After Middle Tennessee, Nevada, and Oral Roberts lost last week, Long Beach State joins Harvard and Murray State as the three teams most likely to earn an at-large from a probable single-bid league, with Davidson sitting just behind. Cleveland State fell out of the bracket after Valparaiso grabbed an easy win on the Vikings' home floor to sweep the season series and grab first place in the Horizon.

Keep an eye on the race unfolding in the Colonial Athletic Association, where Drexel, George Mason, and VCU are all tied at the top at 12-2, and defending tournament champion Old Dominion sits a game back at 11-3. Might the conference, responsible for two Final Four teams in the past six seasons, earn a surprise second bid? It's certainly not likely given the struggles the leaders had before CAA play began, but if one of those teams gets on a hot streak and takes control of the race, you can't dismiss the possibility given the lack of quality on the bubble. Drexel should get some consideration in the Committee room should it win the regular season but fail to win in Richmond in March, thanks to the early games Chris Fouch missed with a knee injury (particularly a disappointing trip to the Paradise Jam). George Mason may receive a similar look, as the Patriots were without a suspended Andre Cornelius for 10 games. While the odds are very much against the CAA contenders, as we learned last season, you would be wrong to say "No chance."

BracketBusters will go a long way to determining the at-large fate for nearly all of these teams (except for non-participant Middle Tennessee). I'll have more on those games before they tip off in next week's post.

Auto Bid Only

15 seeds 60. Valparaiso*
60. Weber State* 61. Mercer* 62. Bucknell*
16 seeds (Main Draw) 64. Long Island U.*
63. Norfolk State*

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

As usual, the only way these nine teams qualify for the field is through a conference tournament title. Mercer replaces Belmont, who appeared in Monday's bracket, today as the Bears own a half-game lead in the Atlantic Sun. Note that the A-Sun Tournament, Belmont's final one, will take place at Mercer's University Center (and the two teams meet there to close the regular season on February 25).

To close, here's a look at some of the weekend's biggest bracket and bubble games. If you thought last Saturday was action-packed, February 11th has the potential to be even more exciting.

Friday, February 10
Iona at Loyola, Md., 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Even if Harvard's trip to Penn was televised, this matchup at the top of the Metro Atlantic would closely contend for the title of "Game to Watch" on an evening with a light TV schedule. The Greyhounds host the Gaels looking to split the season series (after losing in New Rochelle by 11 on January 15th) and break a tie at the top of the league.

Saturday, February 11
Louisville at West Virginia, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The scorching hot Cardinals, winners of five in a row, look to leave Morgantown with a victory for the first time since 2009. The struggling Mountaineers needed double OT to win in Providence on Sunday to snap a three-game skid, but Notre Dame sent them crashing back down on Wednesday night.

Connecticut at Syracuse, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Huskies have had all week to recover from the hammering Louisville gave them Monday night, but all the rest in the world may not make a difference against an Orange that has a little to prove after they struggled to get past Georgetown Wednesday night. UConn need to copy Georgetown's strategy of slowing Syracuse down to have any chance at grabbing a much needed-quality win.

Arkansas-Little Rock at Middle Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Blue Raiders welcome the Sun Belt West Division-leading (and defending conference tournament champion) Trojans to the Murphy Center with hope that this Saturday's national TV appearance goes a lot better than last week's trip to Denver.

Miami at Florida State, 1 p.m. ET (ACC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
A win in Tallahassee would give the Hurricanes another quality win for a still shaky profile. On the other hand, the Seminoles need to rebound from a very bad loss in Chestnut Hill on Wednesday.

Virginia at North Carolina, 1 p.m. ET (ACC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Cavaliers and Tar Heels meet on two of the next three Saturdays. Unless Virginia plays as well as they did at Duke back on January 12th, their best hope to grab a win in the series will come in Charlottesville in two weeks time, especially with Carolina likely to be angry after they blew a sizable lead on Wednesday night.

Baylor at Missouri, 1:30 p.m. ET (Big 12 Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
Somehow, this game isn't getting a full national audience. If you have to get to a bar for this one, do so. There's a good chance it will be just as thrilling as the Tigers' incredible 89-88 victory in Waco three weeks ago. The Bears are in desperate need of a win over a fellow Big 12 power. Otherwise, Scott Drew's team will be the clear third team in the conference.

Kansas State at Texas, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Wildcats travel to Austin looking for to earn a sweep that would knock the Longhorns further down the bubble. Nice, but not quite the stakes of Baylor-Missouri. Here's an idea, ESPN, switch the tip times and TV distribution for this one with the game above.

VCU at Old Dominion, 2 p.m. ET (Comcast Network Philly/CSS/CSN Mid-Atlantic/CSS New England)
The CAA's fiercest rivals meet in Norfolk with the hosts sitting a game outside of a three-way tie for first and the Rams chasing their 10th win in a row to stay both in the lead pack and on the fringe of the at-large picture.

Cincinnati at Marquette, 3 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The two meetings between the Bearcats and Golden Eagles this month may determine if either can secure a double-bye for the Big East Tournament. In terms of selection, the Bearcats could really use a quality road win.

Wyoming at New Mexico, 3:30 p.m. ET (The Mtn.)
The Cowboys put themselves in the at-large discussion with a home win over UNLV last Saturday. If they can win in Albuquerque tomorrow, they'll deserve even more consideration. The Lobos won by 10 in Laramie on January 14th.

San Diego State at UNLV, 4 p.m. ET (NBC Sports Network)
The neat thing about the Mountain West schedule is that it's setup like soccer's Serie A's. Namely, the lineup of games in the second half of the season is the same as the first, just the locations are reversed. That means we didn't have to wait until March for Aztecs-Runnin' Rebels II. We will be lucky if the sequel rivals San Diego State's 69-67 home win four Saturdays ago.

Wichita State at Creighton, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Bluejays are sliding and now sit a game behind the Shockers in the standings. As these two have separated themselves from the rest of the Missouri Valley, the winner will be in the best position to claim the regular season crown. Creighton can put itself back in the driver's seat by grabbing a series sweep of the Shockers, as they won in Wichita back on New Year's Eve.

Michigan State at Ohio State, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Spartans travel to Columbus with the chance to tie the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead, and to bolster their chances at a No. 1 or 2 seed in the process. The two meet in East Lansing to close the regular season.

Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
After blasting second-place Florida on Tuesday night, the Wildcats travel to Nashville, where they'll look to drop Vanderbilt further down the standings. While you should keep in mind that last season's Kentucky team lost at Memorial Gymnasium, Commodore fans should consider that this Wildcat team is a far stronger one than the 2010-11 edition.

Xavier at Temple, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Musketeers' profile could really use a victory in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, a loss would deprive the Owls of sole possession of first in the Atlantic 10.

Sunday, February 12
Pittsburgh at Seton Hall, 12 p.m. ET (Big East Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Panthers really need to win in Newark to keep their slim NCAA hopes alive, thanks to Wednesday's loss at USF. Meanwhile, the Pirates are very much on the bubble, as Wednesday's win at Rutgers snapped a six-game skid.

Illinois at Michigan, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Wolverines haven't lost consecutive games this season, but they have also failed to win two straight since January 8th and 11th. They'll look to break that string against an Illini team that's only won one of its last six.

Northwestern at Purdue, 6 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
The Boilermakers hung tough in Columbus on Tuesday night, but were unable to pull the upset. They'll need to top the Wildcats to get back to .500 in the stacked Big Ten. Of course, after beating Iowa on Thursday night, the Wildcats have the same goal.

My next full bracket will be out on Monday morning. For my weekend insights, follow me on Twitter.