The drama on Selection Sunday this season will come from the bubble.
A glut of bubble teams with eclectic, unusual resumes will force the NCAA tournament selection committee to make some tough choices.
Will the Bonzie Colson factor save Notre Dame? Will a bloated RPI sink Oklahoma State? Can Arizona State and Oklahoma really make the field despite second-half collapses?
Each of their situations became a little more grim on Sunday afternoon when Davidson shrunk the bubble by one spot with its upset victory over Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 title game. Some unlucky bubble team will be squeezed out of the field as a result of that outcome because now both Rhode Island and Davidson will make the NCAA tournament instead of just the Rams.
Which team is out? And which will be among the last to sneak into the field? Below is an attempt to answer those questions and project how the committee will assess the bubble teams.
LAST FOUR BYES
• Florida State (20-11, 9-9, RPI: 53, KenPom: 35, Q1 record: 6-7, Q2 record 1-3, Sub-100 losses: 1):
A one-sided ACC tournament loss to Louisville wasn’t the final impression that Florida State wanted to leave the selection committee, but the Seminoles should still feel safe heading into heading into Sunday. They have only one sub-100 loss on their resume and they have beaten seven different NCAA tournament contenders, North Carolina, Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida, Syracuse and Louisville. The bigger concern for Florida State is that they’re not playing very well down the stretch. The Seminoles look like an excellent candidate for an early NCAA tournament exit after losses in six of their final nine games.
• Oklahoma (18-13, 8-10, RPI: 48, KenPom: 47, Q1 record: 6-9, Q2 record: 3-3, Sub-100 losses: 1):
Get ready for Oklahoma to secure a bid with room to spare and people to be outraged. The Sooners may have lost 11 of their last 15 games, but they still have an NCAA tournament-caliber resume despite collapsing down the stretch. The reason Oklahoma is still in surprisingly good position relative to other bubble teams is that the Sooners have twice as many quadrant 1 wins as some other fellow bubble teams. Not only do they boast marquee wins over Kansas, Wichita State, Texas Tech, USC and TCU, they also have only lost one game against a non-NCAA tournament contender. Selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen has frequently said during interviews that he and his colleagues will weigh early-season results just as heavily as those from March. If Rasmussen sticks up to that promise, expect Oklahoma to be a 9 or 10 seed. And expect whatever team draws the Sooners in the opening round to be ecstatic.
• Kansas State (21-10, 10-8, RPI: 53, KenPom: 44, Q1 record: 4-9, Q2 record: 5-1, Sub-100 losses: 0)
There are two reasons why Kansas State is this close to the cutline despite a 10-8 record in the nation’s deepest conference. One is that Kansas State is 0-7 against Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech, the top three teams in the Big 12 standings. The other is the Wildcats played a tissue-soft non-conference schedule that is ranked 336th in the nation and included only one true road game. Kansas State will surely hear its name called on Sunday in spite of those flaws — It has two wins apiece against Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU after all — but the Wildcats may not get as favorable a seeding as they’re expecting because of that. Look for Kansas State to wind up on either the No. 9 or 10 line.
• UCLA (21-11, 11-7, RPI: 36, KenPom: 49, Q1 record: 3-7, Q2 record: 5-3, Sub-100 losses: 1)
Had UCLA managed to upset top-seeded Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinals, the Bruins would have almost certainly secured an NCAA tournament bid. They instead ran out of gas in overtime and guaranteed themselves a couple of sleepless nights before Selection Sunday. Bolstering UCLA’s case are four big wins, a road win at Arizona, a neutral-court win over Kentucky and a sweep of crosstown rival USC. Hampering UCLA’s case are a trio of bad losses, two against Colorado and one at Oregon State. UCLA certainly looked like an NCAA tournament team over the past week in winning at USC, outclassing Stanford and pushing Arizona to the brink, but the Bruins could not finish the deal. As a result, they leave Las Vegas optimistic but far from certain of what Selection Sunday will bring.
LAST FOUR IN
• Texas (19-14, 8-10, RPI: 46, KenPom: 39, Q1 record: 6-11, Q2 record: 2-3, Sub-100 losses: 0)
If you’re among the people who can’t fathom how Oklahoma belongs in the NCAA tournament, check out Texas’ resume. They’re nearly identical except that the Sooners have a stronger collection of high-end wins (Kansas, Wichita State and Texas Tech vs. West Virginia, Texas Tech and Butler). Texas likely earned itself an NCAA tournament trip with a massive victory over West Virginia in its regular season finale and a disaster-averting win over Iowa State in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. The Longhorns don’t have a bad loss all season. Their six quadrant 1 victories compare favorably with many other bubble teams, though they did have 17 opportunities in such games. Will Texas make it? It will be close, but the Longhorns have an excellent chance. Just know that if the Longhorns are in, the Sooners should be too.
• USC (23-11, 12-6, RPI: 35, KenPom: 40, Q1 record: 4-5, Q2 record: 6-4, Sub-100 losses: 1)
The stakes were high for USC when it lost to Arizona in Saturday night’s Pac-12 title game. Instead of a no-stress Selection Sunday, the Trojans will have to wait and worry if they’ve done enough to get into the field. USC’s profile is a study of contrasts. On the one hand, they finished second in the Pac-12 and reached the conference title game. On the other hand, they did not beat Arizona, Arizona State or UCLA once along the way. On the one hand, they have a total of 10 quadrant 1 or 2 wins, which is more than most bubble teams. On the other hand, New Mexico State could be the only NCAA tournament team they’ve beaten. There’s also a bad loss to Princeton weighing down their profile. USC will probably sneak into the field, but it will be close. A lot closer than the Trojans expected when they were in the preseason top 15 anyway.
• St. Bonaventure (25-7, 14-4, RPI: 22, KenPom: 65, Q1 record: 3-3, Q2 record: 6-0, Sub-100 losses: 3)
With third-leading scorer Courtney Stockard unavailable due to a hamstring injury, St. Bonaventure was no match for surging Davidson on Saturday in the A-10 semifinals. As a result, the Bonnies will have to pin their NCAA tournament hopes on an at-large bid. The good news is St. Bonaventure is in fairly good shape thanks to an impressive 9-3 record against the top two quadrants. They beat Syracuse, Maryland, Buffalo and Vermont in non-league play and they split with fellow A-10 powers Rhode Island and Davidson in the A-10 regular season. Their worst outcome of the season, a season-opening home loss to Niagara, came without star guard Jaylen Adams in the lineup. The primary concern about St. Bonaventure’s profile is that the Bonnies have two wins over potential NCAA tournament teams, and one of those is Syracuse, which appears to be on the outside looking in. Given that, St. Bonaventure can’t be certain it’s safe heading into Sunday.
• Saint Mary’s (28-5, 16-2, RPI: 41, KenPom: 28, Q1 record: 2-1, Q2 record: 2-2, Sub-100 losses: 2)
If Saint Mary’s misses the NCAA tournament despite 28 victories, Randy Bennett will only have himself to blame. The Gaels coach knew he had a formidable team coming back yet he once again failed to assemble a strong enough non-conference schedule to provide sufficient margin for error. Saint Mary’s has a marquee win at Gonzaga, a gaudy overall record and favorable predictive metrics, but the Gaels don’t have much else on their resume. They did sweep the regular season series against BYU and thump New Mexico State back in November, but they also have bad losses to Washington State and San Francisco. All Saint Mary’s had to do at the WCC tournament to feel pretty safe was just not lose to anyone besides Gonzaga. By falling instead in the semifinals against BYU, the Gaels ensured themselves an angst-ridden wait until Sunday.
FIRST FOUR OUT
• Arizona State (20-11, 8-10, RPI: 65, KenPom: 45, Q1 record: 3-4, Q2 record: 5-6, Sub-100 losses: 1)
Arizona State started the season 12-0, rose as high as No. 3 in the AP poll and collected non-league wins over projected No. 1 seeds Kansas and Xavier and NCAA tournament-bound Kansas State and San Diego State. Somehow, someway, the Sun Devils still find themselves on the bubble after rocketing back to earth in Pac-12 play. Not only did Arizona State finish 8-10 in what was easily the weakest power conference, the Sun Devils also crashed out of the Pac-12 tournament with an opening-round loss to Colorado. Arizona State may yet sneak into the NCAA tournament by virtue of a respectable 8-10 record in quadrant 1 and 2 games, but there’s no reason to believe the Sun Devils could win a game even if they do. They’ve dropped five of six, all but one of which came at the hands of teams unlikely to reach the NCAA tournament.
• Oklahoma State (19-14, 8-10, RPI: 87, KenPom: 54, Q1 record: 5-12, Q2 record: 3-2, Sub-100 losses: 0)
Oklahoma State’s NCAA tournament hopes rest on the quality of their wins. The Cowboys have a better collection of marquee wins than most other bubble teams. They’ve beaten Kansas twice, split with Texas Tech and West Virginia, swept Oklahoma and taken games from Texas and Florida State. That’s eight victories against potential NCAA tournament teams. What could keep Oklahoma State out is its 14 losses, its dreadful non-conference strength of schedule and its bloated RPI. The committee often says that it doesn’t make decisions based purely on RPI rankings, but no team has ever made the field with an RPI in the 80s. Which way will the committee lean? It will be close. The Cowboys will probably be among the last teams in or first out.
• Baylor (18-14, 8-10, RPI: 65, KenPom: 34, Q1 record: 4-12, Q2 record: 3-1, Sub-100 losses: 1)
Baylor’s February momentum ground to a halt in March as the Bears finished the season with four losses in their last five games. Their Big 12 quarterfinal loss to West Virginia ensures them an anxiety-ridden Selection Sunday. Baylor’s hopes rest on a shaky profile that screams last four in or first four out. On the plus side, the Bears boast marquee victories over Kansas and Texas and a 5-1 total record against the Big 12’s other bubble teams, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. On the negative side, the Bears are just 4-12 against quadrant 1 competition and their collection of quality wins is weaker than the Big 12’s other bubble teams. Squint hard enough and you can find reason for optimism looking at Baylor’s profile, but the best-case scenario for the Bears figures to be the First Four.
• Louisville (20-12, 9-9, RPI: 39, KenPom: 33, Q1 record: 3-10, Q2 record: 2-3, Sub-100 losses: 0):
Congrats to Louisville for assembling one of the most boring bubble resumes of all time. The Cardinals have lost to everyone they’re supposed to lose to, beaten everyone they’re supposed to beat and split a few games with some similarly competent teams. Louisville is 5-13 against the top two quadrants and one of those victories came in double overtime against a shorthanded Notre Dame team. The Cardinals don’t have any losses to non-NCAA tournament contenders on their resume, but they also have yet to beat a single RPI top 50 team either. If Louisville narrowly misses the field, the Cardinals can point to their heartbreaking regular season loss to Virginia 10 days ago as a major reason. The Cardinals blew a four-point lead in less than a second and lost on a banked-in 3-pointer at the buzzer.
NEXT FOUR OUT
• Notre Dame (20-14, 8-10, RPI: 67, KenPom: 31, Q1 record: 2-9, Q2 record: 5-2, Sub-100 losses: 3)
For Notre Dame to have realistic hope, the Irish need the committee to take into account the rash of midseason injuries they endured. Standout point guard Matt Farrell and preseason All-American forward Bonzie Colson sat out a combined 20 games, but both returned to the lineup in February. Notre Dame can point to going 14-5 with both players available, 6-9 without Colson and 1-4 when neither played, but the Irish endured some ups and downs even at full strength. They suffered their two worst losses of the season against Ball State and Indiana before Colson and Farrell got hurt. They also didn’t do anything to show they’re a dramatically different team since Colson’s return two weeks ago, going 3-2 with losses to Duke and Virginia, an unfathomably close win over last-place Pittsburgh and a come-from-behind victory over Virginia Tech.
Syracuse (20-13, 8-10, RPI: 44, KenPom: 54, Q1 record: 4-8, Q2 record: 3-3, Sub-100 losses: 2)
For a rebuilding team with only three scorers and minimal depth, Syracuse did well just to contend for an NCAA tournament bid. It appears the Orange will fall just short though after they were no match for North Carolina on Wednesday night in an ACC second-round game. Syracuse boasts a pair of good road wins over Miami and Louisville, but the Orange have only a total of seven quadrant 1 and 2 wins all season, a number that doesn’t compare favorably to most other bubble teams. They also finished below .500 in the ACC thanks in part to a couple of bad losses against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
• Marquette (19-13, 9-9, RPI: 58, KenPom: 53, Q1 record: 3-8, Q2 record: 5-3, Sub-100 losses: 1)
What’s preventing Marquette from ascending higher on this list is its lack of notable wins. Not only do the Golden Eagles only have three quadrant 1 victories, they have not beaten a single RPI top 25 team all season. They went 0-for-7 in matchups against Villanova, Xavier, Purdue and Wichita State, the last loss coming against the Wildcats in the Big East quarterfinals. Marquette did ride its sublime offense to a pair of wins apiece against Seton Hall and Creighton, a split with Providence and two not entirely meaningless non-conference victories against Vermont and LSU. Those are all solid achievements, but there’s just not enough here that stands out.
• Middle Tennessee (24-7, 16-2, RPI: 34, KenPom: 52, Q1 record: 2-3, Q2 record: 3-1, Sub-100 losses: 1):
A dominating regular season in ended in heartbreak for Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders suffered a stunning loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA quarterfinals, removing them from contention for the league’s automatic bid and throwing them into the at-large pool. Middle Tennessee owns a pair of quadrant one wins at Western Kentucky and Murray State, but the only power-conference teams they’ve beaten are the SEC’s bottom two programs, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. They also were swept in the regular season by Marshall in addition to the Southern Mississippi loss. You can argue that the system is rigged against mid-majors and that Middle Tennessee deserves better given its recent history of upsets, but the Blue Raiders don’t have an at-large worthy profile this season. Mid-majors with stronger profiles than this have often been left out.
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