What does ‘on the bubble’ mean in the NCAA tournament?

What does ‘on the bubble’ mean in the NCAA tournament? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The most exciting month for any college basketball fan is March.

That’s when NCAA Division I men's and women’s basketball teams play in a single-elimination tournament that comprises 68 teams. Those teams go on to compete in seven rounds for the National Championship. 

For basketball fans worldwide, March is a time when they begin buzzing about brackets, buzzer beaters and bubble teams. What are we talking about? March Madness, of course! 

The term “March Madness” captures the heightened excitement that builds up as the tournament time approaches and continues in the weeks leading up to the “Big Dance.” While teams are gearing up to prepare for Selection Sunday, where they will begin their journey to the National Championship, a few teams aren't sure if they'll be able to participate in all the madness. Those teams are considered to be “on the bubble.” 

The bubble teams for the NCAA tournament are on the cusp of making the field of 68, but an invitation isn’t guaranteed.

So, before we get ready to see which 68 teams take the floor, let's look at what a bubble team is and some college teams vying for a spot in the tournament.

What does “on the bubble” mean in college basketball?

A bubble team is a team that is on the verge of making the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament, but an invitation isn’t guaranteed. At the end of the season, a number of teams are “on the bubble” of getting into the NCAA tournament.

Who is “on the bubble” for the NCAA tournament?

Here’s a look at some of the teams that are “on the bubble” for the Men’s and Women’s teams as March inches closer:


  • Duke (20-8)

  • Kentucky (18-9)

  • North Carolina (16-11)

  • Mississippi State (18-9)

  • New Mexico (20-7)

  • Clemson (19-8)

  • Wake Forest (17-10)

  • Syracuse (16-11)

NCAA Women

  • Mississippi State (19-8)

  • Princeton (19-5)

  • Kansas (16-9)

  • West Virginia (16-9)

  • Syracuse (17-11)

Has a bubble team ever made it to the National Championship?

In March Madness, there’s always an underdog team that creates a major upset in the tournament. 

In the Men’s NCAA Tournament, Syracuse made it to the Final Four in 2016 but their run ended with an 83-66 loss to North Carolina after entering the tournament as a 10-seed. 

Virginia Commonwealth University also was a bubble team that made it to the Final Four in the 2011 NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed. VCU’s incredible ride from the “First Four” to the Final Four ended with a 70-62 loss to Butler.

Does the NBA have bubble teams?

The NBA Champion is determined when the Eastern and Western Conference teams play a series of best-of-seven matches and the first team to win four matches wins the NBA Title.

The only time the NBA has used the term “bubble” was during the end of the 2019-20 regular season. The NBA created a bio-secure bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida to protect its players from the COVID-19 pandemic during the final eight games of the 2019–20 regular season and throughout the 2020 NBA playoffs. The teams played a series of scheduled games while remaining in a “bubble.”

“The bubble was a $190 million investment by the NBA to protect its 2019–20 season, which was initially suspended by the pandemic on March 11, 2020.” The bubble went on to recoup an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue.

When do the men's and women's NCAA Tournaments begin?

The Men’s NCAA Tournament will kick off with the First Four games on March 14. Here’s a look at the complete schedule:

  • Selection Sunday: Sunday, March 12 (6 p.m. ET on CBS)

  • First Four: March 14-15

  • First round: March 16-17

  • Second round: March 18-19

  • Sweet 16: March 23-24

  • Elite Eight: March 25-26

  • Final Four: April 1

  • NCAA championship game: April 3 

The Women’s NCAA Tournament will kick off with the First Four games on March 15. Here’s a look at the complete schedule below:

  • Selections are Sunday, March 12, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN

  • The First Four games are Wednesday and Thursday, March 15-16

  • The first round is Friday and Saturday, March 17-18

  • The second round is Sunday and Monday, March 19-20

  • The Sweet 16 is Friday and Saturday, March 24-25

  • The Elite 8 is Sunday and Monday, March 26-27

  • The Final Four is at 7 and 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday, March 31 on ESPN.

  • The national championship game is at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 2 on ABC.