Bubble Watch — Let’s Go Back to 64 Teams

Posted: 03/05/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

A week from now, we’ll know the identities of the 68 NCAA tournament teams. As I write this tonight, there are probably five or six spots up for grabs and about twice that many teams who have a shot at those spots. It’ll come down to how those teams perform in their conference tournaments. Of course, the bubble, which seems super soft (more on that later), could shrink if a team that wouldn’t otherwise make the tournament wins its conference tournament, taking the bid of another deserving team, who would then be left with an at-large bid, “stealing” the bid of a bubble team. This year, bid-stealers would include: bottom-feeders in the six major conferences (ACC, Big-12, Big-10, Pac-12, Big East, SEC); someone other than VCU and Dayton in the A-10; someone other than Cincinnati and SMU in the AAC; someone other than Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in the WCC (seems least likely); someone other than Middle Tennessee in CUSA.

Let’s take a look at the teams who are on the bubble, including, for argument’s sake, Middle Tennessee, which would have a very interesting case if they were to lose in their conference tournament. First, here are the teams I’m assuming are probably in already:

Syracuse, because although their RPI (a stupid stat, by the way) is lacking, they have wins over Florida State, Duke, and Virginia, far more than most bubble teams can boast. They’re just 18-13, but again, it’s a soft bubble.
Michigan, because they have no terrible losses and have an important win over SMU on a neutral court to go along with home victories over Purdue and Wisconsin.
Seton Hall, because they have seven wins in their last nine games, just won at Butler, and are 5-7 against likely tournament teams.
Marquette, because they’re 8-6 against the RPI top-50, beat Villanova at home, and swept both Xavier and Creighton. They also have a resounding neutral court win over Vanderbilt, which is currently on the bubble.
Providence, because they’ve won six games in a row, swept Marquette, and beat Creighton in Omaha. Don’t mind their horrendous losses at DePaul and Boston College, because the bubble is soft.


Alright, onto the bubble teams:

Almost everyone has already penciled Michigan State into the tournament, but I just don’t get it. Yes, Tom Izzo is their coach, and he’s a darn good one at that. And yes, MSU swept Minnesota and beat Wichita State on a neutral court. But this is an 18-13 team whose biggest claim to fame is that they had a tough schedule. Sure, they played Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, and Baylor. That’s a murderous non-conference schedule. But guess what? They lost all four games! They’re 2-7 against the RPI top-25, and just 13-13 against the top-150. I just don’t see why this team — which ranks 50th in Kenpom, a reliable advanced stats site that measures efficiency — should make the tournament. Sorry, but “we played good teams” just shouldn’t cut it. They’re probably already in, but to convince me they need to at worst avoid a bad loss in the first round of the Big-10 tournament and at best get an upset win over one of the top teams in the (admittedly weak) tournament.

USC came out of nowhere to win all 13 of their non-conference games. Of course, that’s because their non-conference strength of schedule ranked 258th (per Kenpom). This is a thoroughly mediocre team. They have slim home wins over SMU and UCLA, but they were 0-5 in their other games against the Pac-12’s elite. Their third best win was a neutral court victory over BYU. But they’re still in a better spot than most bubble teams because they got that win over UCLA and only have one terrible loss (at Arizona State). They play Washington in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. If they lose, I think they miss out. If they win, they’re right on the bubble and would be subject to a shrinking bubble or a hot streak from a few other bubble teams. Beating UCLA again in round two would lock them up.

Xavier was supposed to be a top-15 team this year. They were coming off of a successful season and had a lot of talent returning. But they disappointed slightly for most of the year and then lost point guard Edmond Sumner and have subsequently fallen apart, losing six in a row. The committee will absolutely keep in mind that they struggled after losing Sumner, which probably means that they’re a bit worse off than they otherwise would be. Working in their favor is that they really have no bad losses. But they finished just 9-9 in the conference, and their two best wins are at Creighton and home against fellow bubble team Wake Forest. Not great. They should beat DePaul in the first round, but I think they may still miss out unless they beat Butler in the next round. So they’re in about the same position as USC.

Wake Forest was on the outside looking in for most of the year as they lost close game after close game. They lost to Duke twice by seven combined points, fell to UNC by six, and lost to Notre Dame by seven. That left them 16-12 heading into last week with a home win over Miami serving as their only top-50 win. Then, they beat Louisville at home and Virginia Tech on the road. That pushed them to 9-9 in the ACC and gave them their two best wins of the season. This is a good team, ranking 29th in Kenpom. I hope they make the tournament. I think they will, because they played a tough schedule (1oth in Kenpom) and have no bad losses. I’d put them a rung above Xavier and USC. If they beat Boston College and then play respectably against Virginia Tech, they should be safe.

Vanderbilt may just have gotten hot at the right time. They’ve won five of their last six, with the lone loss being a six point defeat at Kentucky. They now boast a sweep of Florida (the #5 RPI and #6 Kenpom team), a win over Iowa State that keeps looking better, and a victory at tourney-bound Arkansas. All is well, right? Well, they’re just 17-14, which is never a good thing. A 15-loss team has never won an at-large bid. In the end, it might just be too many losses to overcome. But again, it’s a soft bubble. As long as they beat Texas A&M, they’ll have a chance. A third win over Florida, of course, would put them in.

Illinois State was demolished by Wichita State today, ending their season without an automatic bid. They’re 26-5, but I’d be surprised if they made the tournament. They beat Wichita State once, but they also lost to the Shockers twice, and their second best win was a home victory over New Mexico. Not great. It may not be fair, but Illinois State didn’t have the chance to win games against, say, Louisville or Florida. If they were 29-2 with just the two losses against the Shockers, they’d likely be in, but those three other losses give the committee a darn good excuse to leave them out. It would probably take a collapse from a bunch of other bubble teams to put them in.

Middle Tennessee likely won’t need an at-large bid, since they’re 17-1 in Conference USA play and should cruise to the auto bid. But if they do lose a fifth game, they’ll have an interesting case. Remember, this is the team that beat #2 seed Michigan State in last year’s tournament. They still have a lot of talent, and they banked huge wins over Vanderbilt and CAA powerhouse UNC-Wilmington. They also lost by only three points at VCU and are 4-1 against the RPI top-100. That might not be enough to put them in over a 15-loss Vanderbilt team, but it would at least give them a better shot than Illinois State, especially if they make their conference championship game. I want to see them in the tournament, though, so hopefully they just win their conference tournament.

Rhode Island is your run-of-the-mill Atlantic-10 bubble team. They’re 21-9 and 13-5 in conference play, with a 1-2 record against VCU and Dayton. They lost at home to both Fordham and La Salle, which really hurts. They’ve boosted their record with 10 wins against teams with RPIs of 180 or lower. This is a solid team, but they probably need to make the A-10 final to make the field. That would give them a second win over the class of the conference, which, when added to a nice neutral court win over Cincinnati, would give them three wins to stake their bid on and a much better record than power conference bubble teams.

Illinois’ resume lost a lot of luster when they lost to Rutgers yesterday. That brings their record to 17-13 and crucially gives them their first bad loss. Now, it seems a lot less likely that a team that went 8-10 in the Big-10 and 12-12 against the RPI top-150 will make the field. I think they need to beat Michigan and then Purdue to have a real chance.

Iowa is 18-13 and wasn’t in the mix for an at-large bid before they won at Maryland and Wisconsin in consecutive games. That helps, but it’s hard to get excited about a team that’s 8-13 (!) against the RPI top-150 and is ranked 71st in RPI and 65th in Kenpom. If they make the Big-10 final (which would require wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, and likely Maryland or Northwestern), they would probably get an at-large bid.

Kansas State is another mediocre power conference team. Their main argument is that they have a win at Baylor, which is one of the most impressive in the country. They also beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater and West Virginia at home. Those are three pretty impressive wins. But they also lost twice to rival Kansas, twice to Iowa State, and once each to the three teams they beat. And they were just 5-3 against the four lesser Big-12 teams, which is why they’re just 19-12. They’re likely in better shape than Illinois, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Illinois State. In fact, right now they’re probably smack dab on the bubble, because those three wins were very impressive. And to be fair, their two losses to Kansas were by a combined five points. But it’s hard to erase the memory of the 30-point drubbing doled out by Oklahoma. They play Baylor first, and the Bears have looked vulnerable of late. If K-State can win that game, they’ll likely be in the field. If they can follow it up with a win over West Virginia, they’ll be a tournament team.

California is all of 1-7 against the RPI top-50. They’ve lost five of six. Their best wins were at USC by a single point and over Princeton. They blew five chances to beat the class of the Pac-12, not to mention a home loss to Virginia and a neutral court loss against Seton Hall. They don’t belong in the tournament. And yet… they have a chance, because they’re 19-11 and because the bubble is soft. They’re certainly a long shot at this point, but if they beat Oregon State, Utah, and Oregon before losing in the finals… who knows? I’m not betting on it, though.

As of now, six of those 12 would make the tournament. And while it may end up only being four or five because of bid-stealers, it just as easily could be six out of 11 when Middle Tennessee wins its championship. Wouldn’t it be better if, say, the 11 (excluding Middle Tennessee for now) teams were fighting for two spots? That would be a novel idea: having 64 teams in the tournament. I’m kidding, of course. Until a few years ago, there were only 64 teams. But now there are 68, with the last four in playing in “First Four” games in Dayton and the two winners becoming part of the field of 64. I understand why the NCAA expanded to 68 — the same reason the NCAA does anything: money. But it really dilutes the quality of the bubble, to the point that a soon-to-be-15-loss Vanderbilt team looks more appealing as a bubble team than half the teams on the bubble. That’s not to say that the teams above are incapable of making noise in the postseason. On the contrary, I’ll probably pick one or two of them to upset or team or two, because that’s what happens in the NCAA tournament. But when that inevitably happens, it shouldn’t be taken as validation for the NCAA’s expansion to 68 teams. 64 teams makes way more sense bracket-wise, and it’s a better way to ensure improved quality in the tournament. Sorry, but I don’t care that Michigan State could possible make the Sweet 16. They’re a mediocre team with a mediocre resume, and they can make all the noise they want in the NIT. Adding four teams has made it feasible for teams like Cal, Iowa, Illinois… heck, maybe even teams like Clemson and Georgia Tech… to make the tournament despite playing thoroughly average basketball all season long. And if the NCAA insists on keeping it at 68 teams, why not let the four extra spots go to teams that have been consistently excellent all year, only to slip up once or twice? I’m talking about Monmouth, who was upset today in their conference tournament, and Illinois State, and the regular season conference champions who will inevitably lose in their conference tournaments this week. Michigan State and Kansas State have gotten all the chances in the world to play their way into the tournament. Why not give the smaller-conference teams that shot in the “First Four”?


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