Editor's note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through games played Friday, Feb. 22.
Join all of us here at Bubble Watch in extending a hearty welcome to Furman, the newest member of the always suspenseful and boisterously overpopulated "Work to do" section. Welcome, Paladins!
Two points perhaps merit further clarification at a momentous epoch such as this ...
First, Bubble Watch isn't going out on a limb, much less breaking new ground. Throw a stick at a flock of mock brackets and you'll hit several in which Bob Richey's men can be found lurking in "next four out" territory.
Second, what a strange and wondrous world this is in 2019, no? Furman's rival in the Southern Conference, Wofford, is a single-digit seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket, and the Paladins, at this writing, clock in higher on the NCAA's NET rankings than St. John's, Minnesota and Seton Hall.
Speaking of the new rating system, its willingness to assess basketball performance in addition to wins and strength of schedule (the NCAA's previous metric had the second and third parts well covered) has the potential to work a quiet revolution in selection and seeding. Not that we'll really know, of course, until Selection Sunday has come and gone. Still, look at Furman.
The fact that two SoCon teams are even in the same ZIP code as the at-large conversation in late February is itself a backhanded tribute to the NET. The Paladins rank about 15 or 20 spots lower on the NCAA's previous metric than they do on the NET.
That's actually not that large a difference as these things go. (If old vs. new rating system disparities are your thing, Bubble Watch strongly recommends Saint Francis (Pa.) and Princeton.) Nevertheless, 15 or 20 spots would, in this case, very likely be dispositive, even when factoring in wins and losses as viewed through the quadrant system.
If Furman is any indication, we may be on the brink of a new era in selection, one in which the powers that be say in effect: No matter what your schedule looks like, we'll figure out how good you are at basketball.
Naturally, there may not turn out to be a two-bid SoCon in 2019, and, when all is said and done, the SoCon may not deserve two bids. But, if these really are the new rules in play, there will be an equally telling two-bid breakthrough by some mid-major conference when the performance time is ripe. That would be a good thing.
Here's how we're projecting the bubble right now:
Bids from traditional "one-bid" leagues: 23 teams
Locks: 22 teams
The bubble: 33 teams for 23 available spots
Should be in: 11 teams
Work to do: 22 teams
Should be in
When Bubble Watch last checked in on Jim Boeheim's men, they were coming off a dismal 15-point loss at the end of a three-game stretch of very low scoring. Then the Orange caught a true rarity, an in-season week off with no weekend game. Boeheim apparently put the time off to good use: Syracuse dismantled Louisville 69-49 at the Carrier Dome. The Orange held the Cardinals to just 14 made shots from the field, and now Boeheim's guys get a shot at Duke at home. Mock brackets envision Syracuse on the No. 8 or 9 lines, but a team with at least one and potentially even two wins over Mike Krzyzewski still has the potential to improve its seed significantly. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Work to do
Kevin Keatts' team drew one severely front-loaded conference schedule, and now that his guys have played Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Syracuse and the Blue Devils just in the past few weeks, they're getting a well-deserved respite of sorts. The game at Florida State the first Saturday in March will be no picnic, certainly, but other than that, NC State has games against Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech left to play. The prospective No. 9 or 10 seed is looking solid at 19-8 overall and 7-7 in the ACC. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Late February is all about risk management for Clemson. The Tigers won't nail down an at-large bid by beating Boston College at home (as Brad Brownell's team did Saturday) or by winning their next game at Pittsburgh. Then again, a team variously seen as either a No. 12 seed or as "first four out" material can definitely drive its bid probability down with a loss or, especially, two in a stretch like that. Currently 16-11 and 6-8 in the ACC, Clemson needs to bump up its win total against the likes of the Eagles and Panthers in preparation for the main selection event: North Carolina comes to Littlejohn Coliseum in March. Beating the Tar Heels would give the Tigers a second Quad 1 win to place alongside their 59-51 win at home over Virginia Tech. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Work to do
Baylor refuses to be typecast. First came the Bears' fast 6-2 start to Big 12 play, one that, granted, few observers or top 25 pollsters seemed to notice. Then there was the hobbled and short-handed stretch, one in which King McClure and Makai Mason both missed games and Baylor fell to 7-5 in the conference. Now add yet another swerve in this road. McClure still hasn't returned from his knee issues, but Mason has now played in wins at Iowa State and at home against West Virginia. The victory in Ames gave Baylor a season sweep over ISU and, more importantly, the best win on the profile for Scott Drew's team. Maybe the No. 8 seed the mock brackets previously anticipated for this group was a bit low. (Updated: Feb. 23)
One day before Texas took the floor against Oklahoma in Norman, the university announced that Kerwin Roach II had been suspended indefinitely due to an unspecified violation of team rules. Roach traveled with the team, however, and watched glumly from the bench as the Longhorns looked completely out of sorts in the first half of what became a 69-67 loss to the Sooners. Shaka Smart's group is showing up in mock brackets as a No. 9 seed. The team did make a spirited second-half comeback before falling short at OU, and the Horns of course have some beautiful entries on their profile, including the neutral-floor win over North Carolina and home victories over Purdue and Kansas. That said, the no-Roach version of Texas had a rocky first 20 minutes, and the picture in Austin is less clear than it was when this roster was at full strength. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Both of TCU's Quad 1 wins this season have come against Iowa State, the latest being the Horned Frogs' 75-72 victory over the Cyclones in Fort Worth. Jamie Dixon's team is regarded as a probable No. 10 seed even though, in most years, a 6-8 record in conference play in late February would be an object of at least modest concern. After all, no team that's finished more than two games under .500 in major-conference play has earned an at-large bid since 1998. Then again, the Big 12 is doling out ugly conference records to more than one at-large hopeful in 2019, and TCU's NET ranking was a thoroughly respectable No. 41 at tip-off against ISU. The final conference record may not be pretty for the Frogs, but this team and its two Quad 1 wins are looking increasingly at home in the bracket. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Don't be fooled by the 5-9 record in Big 12 play: Oklahoma might have the most solid path to an at-large bid of any 5-9 team in history. Start with the fact the Sooners are projected as a No. 10 seed, a couple lines above real danger and suspense. Part of this is good fortune: OU's wins over Wofford (at home) and Florida (on a neutral floor) have served Lon Kruger's team well as the season has progressed. Speaking of good fortune, Kerwin Roach II missed the game in which Texas lost by two points to Oklahoma in Norman, and that game counts as a "we'll take that" Quad 2 win for the Sooners. Lastly, OU took the floor on Saturday flashing a higher NET ranking than a safe tournament bet like Syracuse. Mark Twain said Wagner's music is better than it sounds. Oklahoma's at-large cred is kind of like that. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Should be in: Villanova
Work to do: St. John's, Seton Hall, Butler
Should be in
Six of Villanova's seven losses this season have been as tidily arranged as one of Jay Wright's pocket squares. These six Wildcat setbacks have come in three sets of back-to-back defeats, most recently in the form of losses on the road at St. John's and Georgetown. This team's projected seed is dropping accordingly and is now down to an expected spot on the No. 5 line, at best. One problem for the most perimeter-oriented team we've ever seen in major-conference play is that the 3s aren't falling. In the last two games, Nova has shot 27 percent from beyond the arc and Phil Booth has gone 3-of-16 on his 3s over that same span. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Work to do
Chris Mullin's men really want to make this more interesting than it needs to be. Not content with going 3-1 against Marquette and Villanova, the Storm are back to .500 in Big East play after being swept in the season series by Providence. Make that swept rather emphatically: Ed Cooley's team put a 78-59 beating on St. John's in Providence. Still, even with the loss, Shamorie Ponds and his teammates likely will be fine. They started their game against the Friars being projected as a No. 9 or even No. 8 seed. With a rather forgiving schedule of games yet to be played (two against Xavier, one at home against Seton Hall and one at DePaul), the Johnnies could indeed end up landing in the middle of the bracket. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Despite losing at Xavier, the Pirates should be fine -- on paper. There's still the Hall's neutral-floor victory over Kentucky, of course, just as there's still the road win at Maryland. So, yes, Kevin Willard's team should be in good shape as a likely No. 11 or even No. 10 seed that just suffered its third Quad 2 loss of the season. Rest easy, optimists! But for you pessimists out there, here's the thing: Seton Hall's remaining games are at St. John's and Georgetown and at home against Marquette and Villanova. Is it really so unthinkable that the Pirates (16-10 overall and 7-7 in the Big East) could lose three or, dare Bubble Watch say it, all four of those? This glass may be half-empty after all. (Updated: Feb. 20)
The good news for the Bulldogs is their marquee win on a neutral floor against Florida is looking much better these days. The bad news, of course, is that Butler has to play itself into a situation where beating the Gators will actually count for something. LaVall Jordan's team is being shown in "first four out" territory, and, though 6-8 in Big East play, a finish close to .500 in the conference seems feasible given the remaining schedule (two games against Providence, at Villanova and at home against Xavier). Let's say that, in something close to a best case, Butler finishes 9-9 in the Big East with a win over faltering Villanova and 18-13 overall. Will that be enough? It's possible the Bulldogs will be one of those teams going to their conference tournaments with work to do. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Should be in
In what very well may turn out to be a last entry devoted to the Hawkeyes before they move on up to lock status, allow Bubble Watch to extend an exhilarated spectating thank-you to Fran McCaffery's men. The overtime win at home over Indiana marks a rather incredible fourth straight game that has come down to the final possession of the 40th minute. Iowa's entertainment value in February has been second to none, and Bubble Watch is a fervent believer in entertainment value. It is probable that all of the above will result in a No. 6 or 7 seed for the Hawkeyes. (Updated: Feb. 22)
Work to do
In its final four games, Ohio State will get three chances to snap what's now become a rather noticeable streak. The Buckeyes haven't won a game against an at-large-caliber opponent in close to three months. The committee doesn't care when you beat teams, of course, so the November win at Cincinnati in particular is still doing good work on OSU's profile. Throw in the fact that the team sheet is more impressed with road wins at Creighton, Nebraska and Indiana (all Quad 1 victories) than the layperson might be, and Chris Holtmann's team is still showing up in brackets as a No. 9 seed. Locking in that spot could require as little as one win in games still to be played at home against Iowa and Wisconsin and on the road against Purdue. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Since the day in late January when Minnesota recorded a comfortable 11-point win at home over Illinois, the Gophers have proceeded to lose five of six games. True, that spell was lifted long enough for Richard Pitino's men to blow out Indiana at Williams Arena, a game in which Minnesota drained 12 3s. In the team's five losses bracketing that win, however, Minnesota has made just 15 treys total. Shots aren't falling, opponents are packing the paint and the Gophers' projected seed is dropping. Pitino's team is now verging on "last four in" territory, and the profile-defining win at Wisconsin is sagging a bit under the weight of all the missed 3s. At 7-9 in Big Ten play, Minnesota wraps up with road dates at Rutgers, Northwestern and Maryland and a home game against Purdue. (Updated: Feb. 21)
Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State
Should be in
Mike Hopkins' men will likely reach Selection Sunday showing a road victory at Oregon as their best win. That may not sound particularly impressive, but this is in fact the Pac-12's best per-possession team by a healthy margin, one that's likely to post a gaudy W-L record in conference play (the Huskies are currently 12-1). All of the above may well result in a seed in the middle of the bracket and, consequently, a game against a very high seed in the round of 32. (Updated: Feb. 21)
Work to do
The Sun Devils likely would be in the field of 68, barely, if the selection were held today. Absent the most extreme string of either wins or losses in the arid Quad 1-scarce savanna known as the Pac-12, ASU could remain in this state of bubbly uncertainty for the foreseeable future. True, the upcoming road game at Oregon would in fact qualify as Quad 1 at this writing. Nevertheless, Arizona State already has done its best work under this heading, having won at home against Kansas and Washington and in Las Vegas against Mississippi State and Utah State. (Updated: Feb. 20)
Should be in
The Bulldogs are now playing to improve what's expected to be a No. 7 seed, and the remainder of the season can be divided neatly in two. On the one hand, there will be "taking care of business" games in Starkville against South Carolina, Missouri and Texas A&M. On the other hand, there will be "raise our seed" contests on the road against Auburn and Tennessee. Taking care of business comes first, and MSU enters its home game against the Gamecocks with Quinndary Weatherspoon in peak form. Over his past three games, the 6-foot-4 senior has scored 73 points while hitting 8-of-13 3s and shooting 61 percent on his 2s. (Updated: Feb. 20)
The knock on the Tigers is that that they're an efficient bunch beloved of the NET (having entered the game at Kentucky ranked a lofty No. 20) but that, oh by the way, Auburn doesn't actually beat any good teams. Needless to say, losing to the Wildcats at Rupp Arena by 27 points did zero to refute that school of thought. Bruce Pearl's men are now just 2-6 against SEC opponents listed as locks, should-be in's or work-to-do's by Bubble Watch, and the wins came at home against Alabama and Florida. AU is shown as a No. 8 seed, and, with three Quad 1 opportunities remaining on the schedule, there's still a chance for this team to both improve its position in the bracket and, yes, to shake its "all stats, no statements" reputation. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Georgia's Tyree Crump missed a 3 at the buzzer, and Ole Miss escaped with a 72-71 win at home. Coming on the heels of a 79-64 loss at South Carolina, the surprisingly close call marked the second game in a row where the Rebels have looked less than formidable. Now Kermit Davis and his men are being shown as a potential No. 8 seed in mock brackets as they prepare to host Tennessee. Watch the paint in this first of two huge upcoming Quad 1 opportunities for Ole Miss. The Rebels play the best interior D of any SEC team not named Kentucky, while the Volunteers are 2-point-scoring masters. Speaking of UK, the Wildcats will also be coming to Oxford in this closing stretch of games. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Work to do
Especially after a far less impressive showing in a four-point home win over Missouri, it's difficult to overstate the importance of Florida's previous 82-77 overtime win at LSU. The Gators entered that game as a likely No. 12 seed, and their best wins to that point were road victories against Arkansas and Alabama. Now they have an emblematic win to put in front of the committee. No, that single game won't solve all profile problems (ask increasingly shaky Alabama about its emblematic win over Kentucky sometime). Still, UF's projected seed is up to a No. 10, and the picture in Gainesville is far brighter than it was in early February. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Alabama is in trouble. Avery Johnson's team lost at home to Florida 71-53, then went on the road and lost at Texas A&M 65-56. Mock brackets were showing the Crimson Tide as a No. 10 seed before the game against the Gators and as a No. 11 or even a 12-seed before the trip to College Station. Well, there aren't many more numbers left for Alabama to go through, if you catch Bubble Watch's drift. What was once a solid profile headlined by a win at home over Kentucky is now, at 15-11 and 6-7 in the SEC, looking very shaky. Put it this way: This stretch makes an upcoming home game against Vanderbilt a must-win. (Updated: Feb. 19)
Should be in: Cincinnati
Work to do: UCF, Temple
Should be in
Here's a stat that suggests we may be selling Cincinnati a bit short and, specifically, that a No. 7 line-type team like the Bearcats could make some snooty No. 2 seed very uncomfortable in the round of 32. American opponents have been lighting it up against UC from beyond the arc, to the tune of 38 percent shooting on their 3s (a high number to still be carrying in late February in what's actually one of the worst 3-point shooting leagues in Division I). Still, the bottom-line results for the Cincinnati defense have been quite good, thanks in large part to this team's ability to force misses inside the arc. It's possible we'll see an even better version of this defense when the hoops gods at last cut it some slack. (Updated: Feb. 21)
Work to do
Give UCF credit. The Knights have shown an unmistakable ability to cling tenaciously to what's supposed to be a precarious spot, the very bottom of the at-large field on the No. 11 line. That status, however, is growing slightly more tenuous after a 60-55 loss to Cincinnati. Certainly, falling short on the road to the Bearcats does no damage to the profile, but the problem UCF now faces is that it's running out of time and chances to record its first Quad 1 win of the season. The Knights have two such opportunities remaining, one at Houston and the other in the form of a rematch with UC, this time in Orlando. (Updated: Feb. 21)
Temple entered its home game against Tulsa listed by Lunardi as one of the last four teams in the field, and the Owls emerged with an 84-73 win. Being the team that gave Houston its only loss of the season will continue to pay big dividends for Fran Dunphy's men, who can further enhance their prospects with a win against Memphis in their next game. Playing the Tigers on the road constitutes Temple's last Quad 1 opportunity of the regular season. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Should be in
Congratulations, Bulls. You navigated what on paper looked to be a challenging two-game road swing and came away passing with flying colors. The wins at Akron and at Toledo mean Nate Oats' team has a realistic shot at winning out the rest of the way. Running the table would give Buffalo a 16-2 record in the MAC, but even dropping a game along the way, as UB already did at Northern Illinois and at Bowling Green, wouldn't wreck a profile that includes a win at Syracuse. UB appears to be heading for something in the neighborhood of a No. 7 seed. (Updated: Feb. 19)
The Southern Conference has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament, but there's a first time for everything. Wofford is in this discussion because the Terriers are 24-4, with the losses coming to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Mike Young's team additionally owns Quad 1 wins at Furman, UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State. Finally, it's worth noting Wofford won at South Carolina by 20, even though that shows up on the profile as a Quad 2 victory. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Work to do
At 21-6 overall and in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10, Mike Rhoades' team has a No. 11 seed waiting for it next month if mock brackets are to be trusted. Of course, mock brackets in February can't necessarily be trusted. Nonetheless, if VCU has a plausible method at hand for turning those projections into reality, it is defense. In the Rams' 85-57 win at home over GW, Marcus Evans and company uncorked a 21-0 second-half run as they held the Colonials scoreless for more than 10 minutes. That's the kind of performance that can earn an at-large, even in the absence of Quad 1 opportunities. Keep winning, Rams. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Utah State may have seen its at-large life flash before its eyes, but Sam Merrill hit five 3s and scored 32 points as the Aggies won 78-71 in overtime at Boise State. A loss there would have gone in the books as a Quad 3 defeat -- not fatal in and of itself, perhaps, but far from ideal at the end of February for a team trying to play its way into the bracket. Craig Smith's men now have a home game against San Diego State before they welcome Nevada to Logan for a potentially profile-transforming evening of basketball. Despite a Quad 1 win on a neutral floor against Saint Mary's already in the books, USU is commonly being labeled as "first four out" material in mock brackets. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Belmont won a game in Pauley Pavilion against UCLA in December, but (fans in Westwood will want to stop reading right here) it's the fact that Rick Byrd's team swept a nonconference home-and-away series with local rival Lipscomb that really brightens a team sheet in 2019. Now the Bruins of Nashville are competing with Ja Morant and Murray State for Ohio Valley Conference supremacy. Morant likely has OVC Player of the Year locked up (Bubble Watch is out on a limb here), but in any other season voters would be taking a very long look at Dylan Windler and his prolific yet highly efficient scoring as a stretch-4. Belmont lurks just outside the field in most projections, but, at 22-4, Byrd's guys have won 10 straight and are looking to run the table. (Updated: Feb. 21)
No sooner had Davidson been welcomed to the august precincts of Bubble Watch than the Wildcats promptly went out and lost their next game. Bob McKillop's men trailed Dayton at home by 19 points in the second half and came all the way back to tie the game in the final minute, only to fall short 74-73. The loss leaves Davidson at 19-7 overall and 10-3 in the Atlantic 10. Beating VCU at home in January will continue to look good on the profile, but, in any event, we likely won't have to wait long to know whether an at-large bid is still within reach for the Wildcats. Their next game is at Rhode Island, and winning there is, on paper, going to be a taller task than winning at home against the Flyers would have been. (Updated: Feb. 19).
It's a mark of how strong the Southern Conference is in 2019 that Furman can lose at home 72-64 to Wofford and still be very much alive for an at-large bid. No, the Paladins aren't "should be in" material just yet, but Bob Richey's group does have that memorable Quad 1 win at Villanova, and the Dins could be helped along by the mighty SoCon in still another way. The loss to the Terriers drops Furman in the conference-title race to such an extent that it's conceivable Richey's guys could see Wofford in the league tournament prior to the title game. A third game against the Terriers on a neutral floor in Asheville, North Carolina, would be a Quad 1 opportunity. (Updated: Feb. 23)
Before this week, the Bisons' worst loss was at home to fellow Bubble Watch denizen Belmont, meaning it wasn't that bad a loss at all. Unfortunately for Casey Alexander's team, however, this is no longer the case. Lipscomb went on the road and lost 67-61 at Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles entered that contest ranked No. 244, making this a Quad 4 defeat for the Bisons. It's a huge blow to Lipscomb's at-large hopes. (Updated: Feb. 20)