Another season of Bubble Watch is back. In keeping with the spirit of the times, it promises to be a wild ride, with teams' stocks rising and falling with every previously unimaginable upset and each I-can't-believe-this shocker. Well, except for Villanova and Virginia, of course, because they always win.
(Just kidding. Who knows, even the Wildcats and the Cavaliers might find a surprise or two along the way, although their No. 1 seeds look awfully safe for now.)
If you seek bubble drama in 2018, the ACC and the SEC are custom-built to give you some rollicking good suspense. Not surprisingly, the top two-thirds or so of the ACC is more or less habitually in the running for an NCAA tournament berth. With 10 teams represented in the first Bubble Watch, this is indeed the state of play again this season.
The SEC, on the other hand, is relatively new to this kind of thing. We could see as many as eight teams from the league in the NCAA tournament next month. Not only would that represent a record showing from the SEC, but it would also clear that bar with ease. Keep in mind that this is happening as traditional league powers Kentucky and Florida are being overrun by claimants to their throne. These are wild times in the SEC, to be sure.
Making these in/out decisions, as always, will be the hardworking members of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee. They are operating from a slightly revised set of guidelines and data sets this season, a revision in method that is intended to give greater weight to those elusive and therefore highly valuable wins recorded away from home.
We'll have occasion during bubble season to peer into these changes in greater detail with respect to individual teams. For now, just know that, yes, the RPI still exists (barely?), and, no, that doesn't mean the committee can't or won't put together a highly commendable bracket anyway.
A reminder on Bubble Watch classifications: Once you're a lock, you can never be "un"-locked. So, yeah, it's a decision we don't take lightly.
"Should be in" are the teams that aspire to be the next locks, of course, but they aren't quite there yet.
Lastly, we have the teams grouped under the vast umbrella known as "work to do." The math here is heartless, and, no, there won't be enough bids for all of these teams. That's what the next month is for: to sort out these teams and see which ones will go dancing.
Included for each bubble team is its ranking for four metrics: RPI, ESPN's strength of schedule (SOS), Basketball Power Index (BPI), which is a predictor of a team's performance going forward, and strength of record (SOR), which is a measure of a team's accomplishment based on how difficult its win-loss record is to achieve.
Enough housekeeping, it's time to break down the field for the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Should be in
(19-4, 8-3 ACC)
The Tigers are cruising toward their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. Good 3-point shooting in ACC play from Gabe DeVoe, Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed has been a key catalyst there. Losing Donte Grantham for the year with a torn ACL was a bitter pill, no doubt, but Clemson is carrying on admirably in the senior's absence and appears well positioned to be one of the top 16 teams in the bracket.
(17-7, 6-5 ACC)
In any normal season, a team that goes 17-7 overall and claims wins over Tennessee, Ohio State and Michigan would be a well-respected group. Alas, this is the defending national champion we're speaking of, and the new generation of Tar Heels is, well, 17-7 overall. That could still net out to a No. 4 seed, the same seed line where seniors Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson landed as freshmen in the 2015 tournament. Not a bad floor for your program to have.
Work to do
(17-5, 6-4 ACC)
The Hurricanes missed a chance to beat Duke in Coral Gables on Jan. 15, but they possess ACC home wins over Florida State and Louisville. Now, Jim Larranaga's team is getting ready for crunch time. If Miami can win at home against Wake Forest and on the road at Boston College this week, the stage will be set for a rather momentous meeting with Virginia at home on Feb. 13.
(16-8, 6-5 ACC)
Suddenly, Louisville is trending in the wrong direction, having lost four of its past five games, including a 78-73 loss at home to Syracuse on Monday. Louisville's defense has been markedly more permissive during this stretch. Then again, part of that (repeat, part) has likely been bad breaks. The Cardinals' past five opponents have hit 40 percent of their 3s.
(17-6, 6-5 ACC)
If there's any venue where what you can't control can hurt you, it's NCAA tournament selection and seeding. Which brings us to the Seminoles, who keep beating high-profile opponents only to see those teams go on themselves to slip one notch in the rankings. Florida State has seen that happen thus far with vanquished foes such as Florida, North Carolina and now, apparently, Louisville. Be that as it may, FSU is hitting on all cylinders on offense thanks to a low turnover rate and the proven ability of guys such as Terance Mann and Braian Angola to get to the line.
(16-8, 5-6 ACC)
Monday's win at Louisville was a highly significant development for a team whose best true road win prior to that came at Georgetown (in overtime). True, Syracuse still has some distance to make up on the field, thanks in part to an 0-4 record in the Orange's highest-profile opportunities to date (Kansas on a neutral floor, at Florida State, and home and road games against Virginia). Nevertheless, Syracuse is still in this thing.
(16-7, 6-4 ACC)
Kevin Keatts is leading a team that's potentially one of the good-news stories of 2017-18. That being said, even with wins over Arizona, Duke, Clemson and North Carolina, the Wolfpack still have work to do to put some distance between themselves and the cut line. Specifically, NC State's profile is saddled with a home loss to UNC Greensboro, as well as a neutral-floor defeat at the hands of Northern Iowa. Upcoming games at Virginia Tech and at home against the Tar Heels, for starters, give the Wolfpack an opportunity to start salting this bid away.
(16-7, 5-5 ACC)
If the season ended today, the Hokies would likely be right on the knife-edge between in and out. One good thing about membership in the ACC, however, is that opportunity does keep knocking. Virginia Tech will play its next two road games at Virginia and Duke. Tall order, sure. Still, win one of those and watch this entire conversation shift. Better still, the Blue Devils come to Blacksburg at the end of the month, not long after a visit from Clemson. Virginia Tech will have its opportunities.
Should be in
(19-4, 7-3 Big 12)
It seems like kind of a big deal that the Red Raiders are tied with Kansas in the Big 12 and they've already won at Allen Fieldhouse, no? Maybe we've become too blasé, and we know that the Jayhawks will win at least a share of the conference title anyway. (Or so we say.) Still, you have to be impressed with what Texas Tech has done. The Raiders are on track for a high NCAA tournament seed, thanks to superb defense.
(16-7, 6-5 Big 12)
The Sooners' 3s have stopped falling. In their past six Big 12 games, they've connected on less than 33 percent of their tries from beyond the arc. That is not entirely on Trae Young, who has shot a so-so but still better 35 percent on his 3s (at, needless to say, a very high volume) over that span. Now OU will have to cure what ails it away from home, with road games upcoming at Iowa State and at Texas Tech.
(18-6, 7-4 Big 12)
Does this mean the one-week "West Virginia is exhausted!" panic is over? Since the Mountaineers caused observers to question the season-long viability of a pressing defense by dropping three straight, Bob Huggins' team has rebounded nicely with wins at home against Kansas State (decisively) and on the road at Oklahoma (by two). On paper, this is still a defense the equal of Texas Tech's, which is saying something. Add a fair measure of offensive rebounding and, oh yeah, Jevon Carter, and you have what could be one tough out in March.
Work to do
(16-7, 4-6 Big 12)
It's not like Northwestern or anything, but the Horned Frogs appear to be on their way to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998. Jamie Dixon, I salute you. TCU has its outstanding offense to thank. Not even the loss of point guard Jaylen Fisher to a knee injury has been able to slow down a Horned Frogs attack that takes care of the ball and hits its (relatively infrequent) 3s.
(15-8, 5-5 Big 12)
Texas has recorded a series of one-game losing streaks followed by one-game win streaks for the entirety of the Big 12 season. That might not sound like a team you want in your bracket come March, but maybe Mo Bamba and the Longhorns can break out of this pattern yet. Better shooting would help. For a second consecutive season, UT's offense is suffering due to an inability to hit 3s against conference opponents.
(16-7, 5-5 Big 12)
The Wildcats looked a whole lot better performance-wise eight or so days ago. There's no shame, of course, in losing at home to Kansas or on the road to West Virginia. Then again, the two losses came by a combined margin of 52 points, thanks in large part to abysmal shooting from the previously red-hot K-State. Bruce Weber will want to right this ship quickly.
Should be in
(17-6, 6-4 Big East)
Seton Hall is in mere seed-improvement mode. Don't be fooled by the Pirates' 6-4 record in Big East play. A neutral-floor win over Texas Tech plus a true road victory at Louisville should serve them in good stead come bracket time. This offense hasn't fared especially well in conference play, but this deficiency has been offset in part by strong offensive rebounding from Angel Delgado & Co.
Work to do
(17-6, 7-4 Big East)
The Bluejays are recording the latest in a series of excellent shooting seasons from the field, and Greg McDermott has another solid defense. That being said, losing Martin Krampelj for the season was a blow, and, at 7-4 in the Big East, Creighton will want to keep winning in order to avoid dropping down to the Nos. 8 or 9 lines in the bracket and setting up a potential collision with a No. 1 seed in the round of 32.
(17-7, 7-4 Big East)
The Bulldogs handed Villanova its only loss of the season on Dec. 30 in Indianapolis, and a Nov. 26 win over Ohio State has gained in cachet. A bit like the Creighton, Butler has taken care of business in the games it is supposed to win. The Bulldogs have a golden opportunity to record another marquee win with Xavier set to visit Hinkle Fieldhouse tonight.
(15-8, 6-4 Big East)
With the Friars, we begin to edge gingerly on to true bubble territory. True, Providence would almost certainly be in the field of 68 if the season ended today, but the intervening month does introduce uncertainty. The Friars face unglamorous but necessary-win situations against Georgetown and DePaul before getting the biggest Big East game of them all: Villanova, in Providence, next week.
(13-10, 4-7 Big East)
No Big East team better exemplifies the "work to do" label than Marquette, which has a long way to go before it will be considered solidly in the field. Still, a win at home against Seton Hall at least gives Marquette a cornerstone, of sorts. Now Marquette must build the edifice around it with, say, a win or two in upcoming road games at Seton Hall, St. John's and Creighton.
Locks: Michigan State, Purdue
Should be in
(20-5, 11-1 Big Ten)
First-year coach Chris Holtmann has Ohio State on its way to a seed only Dan Dakich himself could have forecast, and that seed could get even better, goodness knows, with a win in the Buckeyes' huge showdown against Purdue on Wednesday in West Lafayette.
Work to do
(19-6, 8-4 Big Ten)
The Wolverines are in very good shape in terms of their tournament profile, due largely, though not entirely, to their win at Michigan State on Jan. 13. (That win at Texas on Dec. 12 also is aging fairly well.) Nevertheless, there's room for improvement on the seed line and, in fact, if the season ended today, Michigan might face a top seed in the round of 32. Next up, however, is a tough and rather thankless stretch on the road, with visits to Northwestern and Wisconsin.
(16-9, 5-7 Big Ten)
Dream large, Terrapins. Yes, you're 5-7 in the Big Ten, but that came against just about the toughest possible sequence of opponents the schedule maker could throw at you. With your road games at Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State all a thing of the past (and all losses), a .500 finish in the league is not out of the question. And even that still might not be enough. But again, keep dreaming.
(17-8, 8-4 Big Ten)
The Cornhuskers have swung and missed on their five highest-profile chances (at home against Kansas, and in road games at Creighton, Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State). Nevertheless, Nebraska thoroughly dominated Michigan, in Lincoln, by the score of 72-52, and now has a very good chance to finish Big Ten play well above .500. We'll put Nebraska here, for now.
Should be in
(19-5, 9-2 Pac-12)
Deandre Ayton is everything everyone said he would be, Allonzo Trier is having a season worthy of Pac-12 Player of the Year consideration and the Wildcats are "merely' 19-5 overall and 9-2 in the Pac-12. In theory, this is a dangerous and talented team, but after the 0-3 performance at the Battle for Atlantis in November, tributes have been few and far between. Partly that's persistence of memory, but it is true that Sean Miller's defense has been surprisingly non-Miller-like this season. (That being said, do not underrate this offense.)
Work to do
(17-6, 7-3 Pac-12)
The zone travels. Mike Hopkins' 2-3 zone defense, transplanted from Syracuse, where Hopkins was a longtime assistant, is holding Pac-12 opponents to 0.98 points per possession. The Huskies will want to continue that level of outstanding defense and solidify a bid that right now appears likely but not necessarily a slam dunk. The upcoming two-game road swing to face Oregon and Oregon State gives Washington a good opportunity to lift itself even further up the seed line.
(17-6, 5-6 Pac-12)
The Sun Devils might test once and for all just how valuable a win at Kansas really is. Since that game (which, to be clear, constituted an amazing display of offense), Arizona State has gone 8-6. Now it is 5-6 in Pac-12 play and facing an unexpectedly important home stand against USC and UCLA.
(17-7, 8-3 Pac-12)
As a league, the Pac-12 hasn't particularly favored ball pressure and forcing turnovers over the past few seasons. USC might be changing that. The Trojans, albeit quietly, have taken the ball away on better than 23 percent of their conference opponents' possessions this season. That plus voluminous and/or efficient contributions on offense from the big four of Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart and (when healthy) Bennie Boatwright could give the Trojans what they need to move up from double-digit seed territory.
(16-7, 7-4 Pac-12)
On paper, the Bruins have been absolutely on fire on offense against the Pac-12 this season. Is that because Steve Alford's team has played an unusually forgiving schedule to this point? Or can the Bruins keep doing what they've been doing? Road games at Arizona and Arizona State might show whether this near-Lonzo Ball-level offense without the Ball-level circus is an aberration or something more substantive. If it turns out to be the latter, you'll suddenly hear a lot more than you have been about UCLA and its tournament chances.
Should be in
(17-5, 7-3 SEC)
I don't want to imply that the Volunteers could be a lock soon, but there has been learned speculation regarding the possibility that Rick Barnes' team could yet earn a No. 1 seed. Tennessee is playing the game with healthy portions of outside shooting, the occasional forced turnover and Grant Williams. That should translate into this program's highest seed since Bruce Pearl landed the Vols on the No. 2 line in 2008.
(17-6, 6-4 SEC)
After 10 SEC games, Kentucky has outscored its conference opponents by a grand total of one point: 706-705. That is not what the faithful in Lexington have grown accustomed to seeing, of course, and who knows, the numbers could improve. Nevertheless, it's possible that UK is still seeking an identity in an SEC that is one increment deeper and stronger than it has been in past seasons.
Work to do
(15-8, 4-6 SEC)
The Aggies' tournament viability cannot be vanquished. (Well, not yet, anyway.) Yes, Texas A&M is just 4-6 in the SEC. Still, a season-opening, 23-point win in Germany over West Virginia, as well as a true road victory at USC, will keep the Aggies in this discussion. Now is the time for Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, Duane Wilson or all of the above to provide the scoring punch this team has sorely missed. No time like the present: Texas A&M visits Auburn on Wednesday before coming home to host Kentucky.
(15-8, 5-5 SEC)
Cuonzo Martin has one of the most turnover-prone teams you will see that is still in the running for an at-large bid. Maybe the turnover bug can be fixed, but in the meantime, you might have noticed that the Tigers are holding their own in a tough SEC. Missouri is forcing misses, and Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson are hitting 3s. That has propelled the Tigers to a projected spot in the field of 68.
(15-8, 4-6 SEC)
Speaking of a spot in the field, that's where you'll find the Razorbacks -- for now. Arkansas could well get a lot of (justified) mileage out of its neutral-floor win over Oklahoma and its victory at home over Tennessee. That said, the Hogs are 4-6 in SEC play, and a few more wins will be necessary for them to go dancing. Conveniently enough, both Auburn and Kentucky will pay visits to Bud Walton Arena in the coming weeks.
(15-8, 6-4 SEC)
It might not fit very well with the narrative about the flashy freshman named Collin Sexton who will probably be a lottery pick, but Alabama has been excellent on defense in SEC play. The Crimson Tide excel in forcing misses in the paint (ask Oklahoma about Donta Hall), and if this offense could hold on to the ball just a bit better, the news about this D might get out. For the time being, Alabama is lingering around the No. 8 line, and this defense would make any top-seeded coach's stomach churn.
(15-8, 6-4 SEC)
Current trends say the Gators will indeed make the 2018 NCAA tournament with ease, and then they'll quite possibly be the single most mystifying team in the field of 68. Florida was hailed as a potential Final Four team in some quarters after it beat Gonzaga in double-overtime and took Duke to the wire in back-to-back neutral-court games in November. However, the Gators are just 10-8 since their win over the Bulldogs. In SEC play, Florida has paid dearly for an inability to convert opportunities inside the arc.
(17-6, 5-5 SEC)
Now we are thinking large. Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament? Despite the eminently respectable win-loss record, MSU is 1-5 in its six toughest tests to date (road games at Cincinnati, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina, plus a home game against Auburn). The Bulldogs will want to change that trend, starting with upcoming games at home against Alabama and at Missouri.
(13-9, 4-6 SEC)
The Bulldogs look like a tournament long shot, but a win at home over Florida and a win on a neutral floor against Saint Mary's constitute sufficient grounds for inclusion under "work to do." If nothing else, the Bulldogs have the interior defense to keep themselves in the hunt.
Should be in
(21-2, 10-0 AAC)
Listen closely, and you will hear the Bearcats closing in very fast on removing this whole "should be in" business and replacing it with lock status. That is, one could suggest, entirely fitting for a group that's 21-2 and hasn't lost a game since early December. UC is playing possibly the best defense in the country by a team not named Virginia, and Gary Clark is making a strong case for American player of the year honors. A perfect run through the American will be a challenge but it's still a real possibility for Mick Cronin's team.
Work to do
(17-5, 7-3 AAC)
The Shockers have surprised a good many observers by taking a step back this season even though (almost) everyone was back from 2016-17. This is commonly being chalked up to the American being tougher than the Missouri Valley. Well, it is tougher than the MVC, and, even allowing for that, WSU has still lost a step, particularly on defense. Absent a win (or two) upcoming against Cincinnati, the Shockers could present a seeding challenge to the committee. Gregg Marshall's guys have come up oh-fer in their three toughest tests, at home against Oklahoma, and on the road against Houston and Temple.
(17-5, 7-3 AAC)
The Cougars have gone 12-6 in the American now for two consecutive seasons without getting an NCAA bid out of that deal. This year ... could be yet another close call. Houston would likely be in the field if the season ended today, and home wins over Arkansas and Wichita State should stand Kelvin Sampson's team in good stead. That being said, a win at home over Cincinnati next week would spin the entire season on its axis for the Cougars.
(15-8, 5-5 AAC)
The Mustangs face an uphill path to a bid, which seems strange to say about a team with a neutral-floor victory over Arizona and a true road win at Wichita State. That might be plenty right there if SMU were battling with Cincinnati for the American title. Instead, Tim Jankovich's team is 5-5 in the league, coming off an 11-point loss at Connecticut and a nine-point loss at Tulsa sandwiched around a win at home against East Carolina. The Ponies' next two games are at Houston, and at home against the Bearcats. Carpe diem.
(13-10, 5-6 AAC)
Temple is 13-10, but two of those 13 wins came on a neutral floor against Auburn and Clemson. Little did anyone think in mid-November that would be a huge deal, but, well, it is. Even so and making note additionally of the win at home over Wichita State, the Owls have a ways to go.
Should be in
(19-3, 11-0 A-10)
Dan Hurley keeps churning out great defenses in Kingston, and Jared Terrell & Co. keep extending their win streak. The Rams have now won 14 straight games since dropping a four-point decision at Alabama in December. URI's 19-3 record (with a neutral-floor win over Seton Hall and one at home over Providence) is putting the team in some pretty heady company in the projected brackets.
(23-2, 12-0 WCC)
Few teams nationally crash the glass like the Gaels, who excel at both the offensive and defensive ends. Jock Landale has a little something to do with that, and the 6-foot-11 senior is putting up Okafor-like numbers for 2-point volume and accuracy as well. The one worrisome aspect of an otherwise solid SMC defense, however, may be the fact that the WCC has made just 30 percent of its 3s against Randy Bennett's team. Feels like a reckoning is due there at some point.
(21-4, 11-1 WCC)
The Bulldogs have lost an unusual number of games this season where a win might have made observers stand up and pay attention to Mark Few's guys. The Zags lost to Florida in double overtime, lost to Villanova at Madison Square Garden, lost at San Diego State and then lost at home to Saint Mary's. That being said, the easy win on a neutral floor against Ohio State and the one on the road at Washington are looking better every day.
Work to do
(20-4, 9-1 MWC)
These are happy times for the Mountain West, which, in Nevada, has what would appear to be the league's first no-stress at-large bid candidate since the halcyon days of Winston Shepard-era San Diego State. (Fine, that was just three years ago. Still, it's a big deal.) While Jordan Caroline wears out opponents on the boards, Caleb Martin and Kendall Stephens treasure the rock and hit their 3s. Who says transfers are an epidemic that hurt teams outside the major conferences? Martin and Stephens started at NC State and Purdue, respectively, and everything's working fine in Reno.
(19-4, 9-2 MWC)
Chandler Hutchison is getting no shortage of deserved praise for his senior season as a do-it-all 6-foot-7 featured scorer (with his team's highest assist rate), but where the Broncos really excel as a team is on defense. Leon Rice's guys refuse to allow opponents to record second shots, and that may be enough, barely, to get this team into the brackets along with Nevada from the MWC.
(18-5, 10-1 C-USA)
MTSU has won 10 of its past 11, including a 66-62 road test at rival Western Kentucky. Kermit Davis Jr. has his team playing tough defense, and no doubt the Blue Raiders have benefited from conference opponents connecting on just 26 percent of their 3s. Still, we know from past history what Giddy Potts & Co. are capable of doing, especially now that they've been joined by Memphis and Alabama transfer Nick King.
(16-7, 8-2 C-USA)
The Hilltoppers beat Purdue. They beat SMU too, but basically this comes down to the fact that Rick Stansbury's team beat Matt Painter's group 77-73 one fine November day in the Bahamas. Will that be enough for 16-7 WKU if it doesn't survive the Conference USA tournament? That will be the question going forward with this team.
(16-6, 6-4 A-10)
There's an argument waiting to be made here on behalf of the Bonnies (wins over Maryland and Syracuse), but first Mark Schmidt's team is going to have to show well in an A-10 where Rhode Island is running the table and Davidson, so far, has laid claim to second place. Note however that the Bonnies do get URI at home next week.