They more than likely won’t win a national title, but these programs are playing for their tournament lives. Who will get invited to the Big Dance?
As we draw nearer and nearer to Selection Sunday, many teams in the country are wondering where exactly they will be seeded in this year’s NCAA tournament. Villanova, Virginia, Michigan State, Duke, etc. all know they will be included in the Big Dance and are just playing the rest of the regular season and conference tournaments for position. But there are plenty of teams playing for their tournament lives down the stretch.
With three or fewer regular season games remaining on every team’s schedule, there are not many opportunities left for teams to bolster their resumes. That makes every game between now and March 11th that much more important.
This season features a new format by which the NCAA Selection Committee will review teams’ resumes: team sheets featuring quadrants. It’s not clear yet how exactly these new quadrant-based team sheets, which give more prominence to wins away from home than in years past, will impact the committee’s decision-making process. One thing is clear, though: advanced metrics are at least receiving some consideration now!
There will come a day – a glorious, glorious day – when the selection committee no longer takes the RPI into account at all because the RPI is stupid and doesn’t actually tell you how good teams are like so many other available metrics do. That’s a discussion for another column, though. For now, we know that the committee is starting to realize that although math is hard, it is useful.
With that in mind, let’s analyze the bubble status of 11 potential tournament teams taking into account the new team sheets, RPI, advanced metrics, and how the committee may process it all to select its field of 68 teams.
**RPI, KenPom, BPI, and Sagarin numbers are all through Thursday night’s games**
Baylor (17-11, 7-8)
(RPI: 58; KenPom: 36; BPI: 37; Sagarin: 22)
Remaining Schedule: at TCU, vs. Oklahoma, at Kansas State, Big 12 Tournament
Good Wins: vs. Kansas, vs. Texas Tech, vs. Creighton
Bad Losses: None
How They Get In: Baylor was one of the most underrated teams in the country all year. The Bears started out conference play 2-7 and looked well on their way to missing their first tournament since 2013. But a five-game win streak that included wins against Kansas and Texas Tech has launched Baylor right back into the bubble conversation. Scott Drew’s squad has three legitimately good wins on its resume; its only questionable loss came at Iowa State but there are no real “bad” losses, and all the advanced numbers show this team to be a top-40 team in the country at a minimum.
Because they play in the Big 12, the Bears have several opportunities to pad their resume before Selection Sunday. If Baylor can win two of its last three games and at least one game in the Big 12 tournament, it will get into the NCAA Tournament comfortably.
How They Miss Out: The non-conference schedule isn’t much to write home about. Baylor went 9-3 overall in non-conference play, but six of those wins came against teams outside the RPI top-200 and only one came against a team inside the RPI top-125. So the Bears don’t have that to fall back on if these final few games go poorly. And although their advanced numbers are very good for a bubble team, their RPI is not (it’s okay, but not great). If they drop two or three of their final three regular season games and go one-and-done in the Big 12 Tournament, the Bears could find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble.
Final Verdict: Seniors Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Aciul Jr. are starting to really get into a rhythm and that’s good news for Baylor. The defense is strong enough to carry the team when the offense is lacking, but the offense is starting to come together. Baylor put itself in a good spot with its late surge and will continue to do enough down the stretch. Baylor will get in and even avoid a play-in game.
Louisville (18-10, 8-7)
(RPI: 49; KenPom: 38; BPI: 36; Sagarin: 23)
Remaining Schedule: at Virginia Tech, vs. Virginia, at N.C. State, ACC Tournament
Good Wins: at Florida State
Bad Losses: None
How They Get In: Louisville is a good team. It has a solid RPI. It has even better advanced metrics. That all bodes well for the Cardinals. What benefits them the most is the fact that they play in the ACC, and their final three regular season games are all prime opportunities to pad their resume and put them comfortably on the right side of the bubble. With Deng Adel, Quentin Snider, and Ray Spalding, Louisville has the talent to win games against good teams, and it is absolutely essential that Louisville wins at least one of its final three games and a game or two in the ACC tournament. If the Cardinals do that, they will get in. But if they don’t…
How They Miss Out: Louisville is in real trouble, not just with the FBI, but in terms of reaching this year’s tournament. At the moment, the Cardinals don’t have any bad losses, but they also don’t have any great wins. They’ve had opportunities, they just haven’t sealed the deal. And their final three games, although they provide three more opportunities for a signature win, are, of course, not cakewalks. It is a distinct possibility that Louisville finishes out the regular season without another win and leaves Brooklyn without a quality win to post to the resume. That would be problematic.
Final Verdict: The Cardinals are trending down at the wrong time. They haven’t beaten a tournament-eligible team since January 13. Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing. Virginia Tech and N.C. State are two of the hottest teams in the ACC, and Virginia is one of, if not the best team in the nation, and I think Louisville will lose all three of those matchups. The Cardinals are good, but this stretch is going to kill them, and they will unfortunately miss the tournament.
Nebraska (21-9, 12-5)
(RPI: 60; KenPom: 55; BPI: 61; Sagarin: 61)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Penn State, Big Ten Tournament
Good Wins: vs. Michigan
Bad Losses: at Illinois
How They Get In: The only feasible way for Nebraska to sneak into the Big Dance would be to first beat Penn State and then win multiple games in the Big Ten tournament against quality competition. The resume is not good enough as it currently stands. The Cornhuskers are so mediocre even every metric, advanced or otherwise, agrees on where they should fall: right about 60th. They need to beat their fellow bubble competitor and then add a win or two against some combination of Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Purdue in New York next week. If they pull that off, they’ll get in.
How They Miss Out: Any loss at all really knocks out Nebraska. If they lose to Penn State, the Cornhuskers are going to need to reach the Big Ten Final at a minimum to reach the tournament, and probably would need to steal an automatic bid. If Nebraska beats the Nittany Lions but drops its first game against a quality opponent in the Big Ten Tournament, that likely won’t be enough either. The Huskers need to be nearly flawless down the stretch to compensate for the fact that their resume is the epitome of mediocre.
Final Verdict: Nebraska will miss out. This team simply is not good enough on paper to get in without securing another major win, nor is it strong enough on the basketball court to actually get the win(s) that it needs. The Huskers aren’t particularly good on offense (79th in offensive efficiency) or defense (45th), and their 12-5 conference record is a testament to how weak the Big Ten is this season. At least Nebraska fans can go watch the Midwest regionals over in Omaha.
Penn State (19-11, 9-8)
(RPI: 86; KenPom: 27; BPI: 27; Sagarin: 41)
Remaining Schedule: at Nebraska, Big Ten Tournament
Good Wins: at Ohio State, vs. Ohio State
Bad Losses: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Minnesota, at Northwestern
How They Get In: First, the committee needs to do something it rarely does and overlook the RPI. Historically, teams with RPIs of 70 or worse rarely receive at-large bids to the tournament. Penn State’s is 86. That is less than ideal. They also need the committee to forgive their bad losses because two came during a time when guard Josh Reaves, a key component of this team, was out with an injury. None of that is in Penn State’s control, though. What is in the Nittany Lions control is their game against the Huskers and the Big Ten Tournament. Beat Nebraska and at least one of the four tournament-bound teams in the tournament, and Penn State may not need the help of the committee’s forgiveness and progressiveness.
How They Miss Out: That 86 just looks so bad on the resume. It’s not deserving, but it’s there. Right now, Penn State is 2-6 in Quadrant 1 games, and both of those wins came against Ohio State. That is the extent of the Nittany Lions great wins. If they lose to Nebraska, they are likely done. If they don’t beat at least one of Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, and Ohio State in the tournament, they are also likely done. The advanced numbers show they are a good enough team to compete in the tournament, but Penn State needs to put more wins on the resume.
Final Verdict: Penn State is this year’s greatest example of the injustice and futility of the RPI and why it infuriates me that the committee still uses it to evaluate teams. Penn State’s RPI is currently the same as Stanford and is worse than Tulsa, Utah Valley, Charleston, Georgia, Northeastern, and a plethora of other lesser teams. If you can look me in the eye and tell me that any one of those teams I just mentioned is better than Penn State, you’re insane.
The advanced metrics paint a far more accurate picture of how strong of a team the Nittany Lions are. Tony Carr is one of the best players in the country, the team ranks top-20 in defensive efficiency, and a composite of the three major advanced metrics puts them roughly the 32nd best team in the country. In reality, Penn State probably needs to beat Nebraska and win two or more games in the Big Ten Tournament to get in. They can do that. But they shouldn’t have to make a huge conference tourney run to even hope for a bid. They are better than every Pac-12 team outside of Arizona. They are better than several ACC teams. The Nittany Lions should get into the tournament, and I beseech the selection committee (who I am sure will read this) to do the right thing and invite them.
Providence (17-11, 8-7)
(RPI: 47; KenPom: 76; BPI: 78; Sagarin: 64)
Remaining Schedule: at Georgetown, at Xavier, vs. St. John’s, Big East Tournament
Good Wins: vs. Villanova, vs. Xavier
Bad Losses: vs. DePaul, at UMass, vs. Minnesota
How They Get In: Providence has one of the weirdest resumes in the country. The Friars have two of the best wins of any team in the nation (Villanova, Xavier), but have also lost to DePaul (KenPom: 102), UMass (203), and Minnesota (104). Those great wins have helped boost their RPI into the top-50, but all of the advanced metrics say that this isn’t a great team. Fortunately for Providence, having big wins is one of, if not the most important factor when selecting bubble teams because it proves you can beat elite tournament teams on any given night. Which means as long as Ed Cooley’s team doesn’t implode down the stretch it will get into the tournament.
How They Miss Out: So about that implosion. A loss to Georgetown really would not help the cause; the Xavier game can only help; and it’s unclear what a loss to St. John’s, who have beaten Duke and Villanova, would do to the resume. I believe that those two marquee wins will help a great deal when it comes to comparing this team against others on the bubble, so to miss out on an at-large bid, it would probably take losses to Georgetown, St. John’s, and a one-and-done performance in the Big East tourney.
Final Verdict: Providence will get enough done down the stretch, and will get into the tournament. The weight those two wins carry is enormous and would take an improbable fall to supersede those wins. Even if they split against Georgetown and St. John’s, the Friars should still be fine. They might be forced to participate in a play-in game again, but in is in.
St. Bonaventure (21-6, 11-4)
(RPI: 26; KenPom: 68; BPI: 58; Sagarin: 59)
Remaining Schedule: at VCU, vs. Davidson, at Saint Louis, A-10 Tournament
Good Wins: vs. Rhode Island, at Buffalo, at Syracuse
Bad Losses: vs. Niagara, at Saint Joseph’s
How They Get In: For what it’s worth, the Bonnies have done well in Quadrant 1 games (3-2) and Q1+2 games (7-4). That’s nice, but it’s the win against Rhode Island that really put them in at-large contention because they had to account for two really bad losses. The win against the Rams probably gives them some cushion because it ramped their RPI so high even though the advanced numbers say this team is fine but not exceptional like its RPI suggests. If they can take two of their final three regular season games and a game or two in the A-10 Tournament, they’ll ride the wave to an at-large bid. But also we shouldn’t discount the Bonnies make a conference tourney run and grabbing an automatic bid. They’ve proven themselves capable of that.
How They Miss Out: On the other side of the coin, though, can we really trust the Bonnies not to blow this? The same team that beat Rhode Island last Friday almost fell to Duquesne Wednesday and lost to (catches vomit in mouth) Niagara back in November. Perhaps that version of St. Bonaventure no longer exists, but there aren’t many bubble teams with a Quadrant 4 loss sitting so glaringly on the team sheet. Which means the Bonnies’ grasp on an at-large bid is precarious. If the sloppy, poor-shooting version of the Bonnies shows up during the final two weeks before Selection Sunday and they drop two or three games, this bubble will burst.
Final Verdict: We will see the Bonnies in the tournament one way or another. Serious consideration should be given to their bid for an automatic berth, but even if they fall just short of that goal, I believe they will do enough down the stretch to keep a firm hold on an at-large invitation.
Syracuse (18-10, 7-8)
(RPI: 45; KenPom: 51; BPI: 50; Sagarin: 47)
Remaining Schedule: at Duke, at Boston College, vs. Clemson, ACC Tournament
Good Wins: at Miami, at Louisville, vs. Virginia Tech
Bad Losses: at Georgia Tech
How They Get In: Syracuse was so close to securing a win against North Carolina earlier this week that would have really, really helped what is ultimately a very bland resume. There’s only one kind of bad loss sticking out, and there are a few “good” wins, but there is no marquee victory, and the Orange’s numbers – all of them – are just, well, fine. They could potentially still get in without picking up a really great win to hang their hat on, but it would really, really, really (really) help. Fortunately, Syracuse plays in the ACC and will receive opportunities to pick up such a win (see: Duke and Clemson). If they beat the teams they are supposed to beat and add a win against a team they are not supposed to beat, the Orange should be good to go.
How They Miss Out: Because they don’t have a big win to cover for them, the Orange can’t afford anything resembling a bad loss. A loss to BC would likely oust them. A one-and-done appearance in the ACC tourney would likely do the same. Sophomore guard Tyus Battle is a great scorer (20.1 ppg), and Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett are both averaging double digits in points per game, but outside of those three, there’s not much there. In other words, the offense does not runneth over with talent. If Battle goes into a slump down the stretch, Syracuse is in trouble.
Final Verdict: Duke is one of the hottest teams in the country right now and Cameron remains one of the toughest places to play, so I don’t think the big win comes against the Blue Devils. However, Clemson is ripe for the taking. Syracuse will beat the Eagles and the Tigers to close out the regular season then claim at least one victory in the ACC Tournament, and the Orange will sneak back into the Big Dance.
Texas (16-12, 6-9)
(RPI: 53; KenPom: 41; BPI: 41; Sagarin: 38)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Oklahoma State, at Kansas, vs. West Virginia, Big 12 Tournament
Good Wins: vs. Texas Tech, vs. TCU, at Alabama, vs. Butler, at Oklahoma
Bad Losses: None
How They Get In: Texas has some really good wins on its resume and no glaring losses. That’s a great place to start when being compared to other bubble teams. The Longhorns also get the opportunity for two more great wins to add to the resume even before the Big 12 Tournament. If Texas can hold serve against the Cowboys at home and get the upset against either Kansas, who is surprisingly vulnerable at the Phog this season, or West Virginia, which has been up-and-down in league play, the Longhorns will be in good shape heading into the postseason.
How They Miss Out: The big problem with the Longhorns’ resume is that, although they have no glaring losses, they do have a whole bunch of losses, more than any other team on this list. In fact, at the moment, they have almost as many losses as wins and three more conference losses than they do conference wins. That is what we in the business call ”not ideal.” Another loss against less than stellar competition – say, just hypothetically, at home to a feisty but objectively not fearsome team that is sort of near the bubble itself – would put the Longhorns in serious jeopardy of missing out.
Final Verdict: I’m not entirely sure why, but I trust this Texas team. Even though the Longhorns have barely won more than they’ve lost, they have beaten some legitimately good teams, and I think they’ll be able to pull off one more big win to solidify the resume. They play great defense (fourth in defensive efficiency), have a stud in Mo Bamba patrolling the interior, and have a purpose: playing for Andrew Jones, their teammate who was diagnosed with leukemia midseason. Texas wins the requisite games and gets into the tournament.
UCLA (19-9, 10-6)
(RPI: 50; KenPom: 54; BPI: 62; Sagarin: 46)
Remaining Schedule: at Colorado, at USC, Pac-12 Tournament
Good Wins: at Arizona, vs. Kentucky
Bad Losses: at Oregon State, vs. Colorado
How They Get In: With just two games left on their regular season schedule – both on the road, one against a fellow bubble team from Los Angeles, one against a below-average team from Boulder – it is essential that the Bruins do not drop another game. Really, if UCLA wishes to participate in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, it should not lose again until at least the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, and preferably not until the final. There is not much wiggle room left for a team with one great win, one solid win, 17 wins against poor competition, and two, arguably three, losses against subpar teams.
How They Miss Out: If UCLA loses to Colorado or USC, the Bruins will have to rely on an automatic bid to avoid the NIT. If they win both of those games but lose early in the Pac-12 Tournament, they will be in the NIT. It’s really that simple, which I suppose is kind of nice. The win against Arizona is good, but it’s not enough to overcome more losses on a mediocre resume.
Final Verdict: With apologies to the Bruins, they will not be in this iteration of the NCAA Tournament. Aaron Holiday (19.5 ppg, 5.8 apg, 42.6 percent from beyond the arc) is having a wonderful season, but he is not enough. In beating Arizona, UCLA showed it can beat good teams on a given night, but it will have to pull off a solid run of wins to get on the right side of the bubble. I don’t see that happening.
USC (20-9, 11-5)
(RPI: 37; KenPom: 52; BPI: 51; Sagarin: 44)
Remaining Schedule: at Utah, vs. UCLA, Pac-12 Tournament
Good Wins: vs. Middle Tennessee, vs. New Mexico State
Bad Losses: vs. Princeton
How They Get In: USC needs to collect wins to pad a resume bereft of anything stellar. If the Trojans beat Utah, they will knock out a surging bubble opponent. The same is true for their game against UCLA. Win those two, and for a team with a 37 RPI and reasonable advanced metrics, that might be enough to ensure that they end up in the right tournament come March.
How They Miss Out: Right now, USC is 1-5 in Quadrant 1 games and 6-8 in Q1+2 games. The Trojans also lost (at home) to a bad Princeton team. Their best wins are against Middle Tennessee and New Mexico State, two good mid-majors but that’s nothing to write home about. USC has yet to beat a power conference opponent that anyone has projected on the right side of the bubble. That means, like their Pac-12 bubble compatriots, the Trojans cannot afford another loss before at least the conference tournament semifinals. Any loss before that point would likely doom them.
Final Verdict: USC will be the third Pac-12 team in the tournament. Their defense may be lacking (114th in defensive efficiency), but the Trojans offense (21st in offensive efficiency) has shown the capacity to get the job done. Knocking off both Utah and UCLA will go a long way toward making this prediction come true.
Utah (18-9, 10-6)
(RPI: 40; KenPom: 59; BPI: 69; Sagarin: 53)
Remaining Schedule: vs. USC, vs. Colorado, Pac-12 Tournament
Good Wins: at Arizona State
Bad Losses: vs. UNLV
How They Get In: Three weeks ago, Utah in the NCAA Tournament was an afterthought, but its recent five-game win streak has forced it back into the bubble conversation. The RPI is good, not great. The advanced numbers are fine, but nothing special. The Utes have just one win on the resume that borders on “good,” and with each passing game it seems like Arizona State is determined to make itself a mediocre win. Any loss the rest of the way will derail their season, so to actually pull this off, Utah needs to win out and make a deep run in the Pac-12 Tournament.
How They Miss Out: This is being repeated ad nauseam so I will keep it short. If you are a Pac-12 team located outside of the state of Arizona and you lose a game at any point from now until the conference tournament semifinals, you more than likely will participate in the NIT this season.
Final Verdict: I think only three Pac-12 teams will reach the Big Dance, and I think that with the way it is playing right now, Utah is the second-most likely team to grab that third spot. However, I don’t think they will complete this magical run, and I don’t think they will reach the NCAA Tournament. They struggle to score at times and aren’t particularly apt at defending (72nd defensive efficiency), so I don’t think this win streak will extend long enough to earn a bid.
Washington (18-10, 8-7)
(RPI: 52; KenPom: 98; BPI: 115; Sagarin: 94)
Remaining Schedule: at Cal, vs. Oregon State, vs. Oregon, Pac-12 Tournament
Good Wins: at Kansas, vs. Arizona, vs. Arizona State, at USC
Bad Losses: at Oregon State, vs. Stanford
How They Get In: I see three paths for Washington to get into the tournament. Option 1: It turns out that the wizarding world of Harry Potter is real, and one sympathetic wizard or witch sneaks into the final selection meeting and uses a powerful Confundus charm to trick all of the committee members into picking Washington because “that Kansas win just looks too good to pass up.” Option 2: I heard about a guy who lived roughly 2,000 years ago that was particularly adept at performing miracles. I don’t know if this type of thing is in his wheelhouse, but maybe if Mike Hopkins found him, Hopkins could convince him to help out. This seems similar to trying to walk on water or turn water into wine. Option 3: Win the Pac-12 Tournament and get the automatic bid because an at-large bid is no longer in play.
How They Miss Out: If Washington does not win the Pac-12 Tournament, it will be in the NIT this season. After losing to Stanford for the second time this year, while already in a precarious bubble situation and with no opportunities for elite wins left on the schedule, an automatic bid is the Huskies only hope. Some may say their RPI and good wins are enough for a possible at-large bid. It won’t be.
Final Verdict: Wave goodbye to the Huskies. Washington will not be in the NCAA tournament this season. Yes, Washington has some good wins – its win against Kansas is particularly strong – but there just isn’t enough going on elsewhere to justify a bid. The Huskies also have now been swept by Stanford and have a loss at Oregon State; their RPI is okay but their advanced numbers are atrocious for a bubble team; and there aren’t enough top-tier games left on the schedule to do anything but injure their resume more. They could make a nice run in the NIT, though.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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