Wednesday night was a big night for bubble teams throughout the college basketball world. Some teams (South Florida and Colorado State in particular) got themselves significantly closer to earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Other teams (St. Joseph’s, Dayton, among others), however, lost games which moved them a bit further away from the in-out cutoff line.
NC State would certainly be part of the former group. The Wolfpack came through in must-win game, beating Miami in Raleigh, 77-73. With the victory, NC State’s at-large hopes are still alive going into its season finale at Virginia Tech.
Another team also won Wednesday, one that really hasn’t been on the bubble radar to this point. That team is Tennessee.
With a 74-69 overtime win at LSU, Tennessee won its third straight game, and seventh out of its last eight. That run has pushed the Vols into a fourth-place tie in the SEC with Alabama, at 9-6 in league play.
Perhaps it’s now time to give Tennessee a closer look in comparison to other bubble teams. In this case, I will look at how it compares with NC State.
Each team’s records and rankings listed below.
Latest RPI/SOS Rankings from realtimerpi.com.
NC State: 20-11, 9-7 SEC; RPI: 54, SOS: 29
Tennessee: 17-13, 10-6 SEC; RPI: 75, SOS: 33
Common notable opponents: Duke (both lost to), UNC-Asheville (both beat)
Recent NCAA Tournament Bubble Breakdowns
NC State’s win over Miami on Wednesday was its second over the Hurricanes—very much on the bubble themselves—this season. That should help push the Wolfpack above the Canes within the current group of bubble teams. The win at Miami earlier this season should be considered a quality road win, one over a borderline-Top 50 team.
The sweep could help NC State secure a No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament, because of the tiebreaker over Miami. That would likely give the Wolfpack an opportunity against Virginia in the quarterfinals, which would be an excellent opportunity to secure an at-large bid.
Top 25 SOS
NC State’s current strength of schedule rank is 25, which ranks behind only Duke, North Carolina and Florida State among ACC teams. All three of those teams are tourney locks, and will earn pretty high seeds when the brackets are released.
By playing teams like Syracuse, Indiana and Vanderbilt in its non-conference schedule, NC State did a great job of boosting its schedule strength outside of the usual run of quality teams in the ACC. For NC State, those kinds of games—even though it lost each—will be noticed by the selection committee.
Three Top 100 OOC Wins
While it came up short against the very best teams on its schedule, NC State did pick up a few solid wins against other teams in the RPI Top 100. The most notable of the three such wins for the Wolfpack came against Texas in Newark, NJ back in November. A neutral-court win over another bubble team should further help their case.
No Big ACC Wins
NC State has two wins over Miami, but has yet to beat any of the top-four teams in the ACC. Miami has two such wins (Duke and FSU). All of NC State’s other six ACC wins are against teams with losing records (and RPIs below 100) in the league.
In a year where the ACC is not quite as strong as prior years, a team who fails to show it is capable of beating any of the league’s top teams—at least once—will have a hard time justifying itself as an NCAA Tournament-worthy team.
No Top 50 Wins
Once again, NC State’s best wins—in terms of RPI—are against Miami (No. 51). That means the Wolfpack have no wins against the RPI Top 50, and have an overall record of 0-8 against such teams.
NC State has had opportunities—both in and out of conference—to earn the kind of high-quality wins in order to boost its tourney profile. It has failed to do so every time.
Prior to beating Miami this week NC State had lost four straight, capped off by an arguably questionable loss at Clemson (RPI of 142). While the other losses were to the ACC’s top-three teams, the Wolfpack needed to take more advantage of the chances it had.
The most notable of those missed chances was at Duke on Feb. 16. The Wolfpack had a 20-point lead in the second half, and managed to let the game (and a signature win) slip away. They followed that heart-breaking loss with back-to-back losses to FSU and UNC at home.
If it could have held on at Duke, or pulled out one of two at home, NC State would be in pretty good shape right now to earn a bid. Instead, it most likely will leave its fate in the hands of the committee.
Like NC State, one of the highlights of Tennessee’s profile is a sweep over a team from Florida. Its sweep of Florida, currently a Top 15 team in the polls and Top 20 in RPI, gives it two very strong wins with one of them of course coming on the road.
A road win over a Top 20 team is not something too many bubble teams can claim.
9-6 in SEC (East)
After this week’s win over LSU, Tennessee is now 9-6 in the SEC with a chance to earn a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. That is a particularly respectable league record when you consider that Tennessee plays a tougher schedule than a team like Alabama, including two games against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida.
If Tennessee beats Vanderbilt at home on Saturday, it will finish 10-6 in the league. With the league schedule it has played—not to mention what would be a 3-3 mark against the league’s top three teams—that mark could make it very tough for the committee to turns its nose up on the Vols.
After beating LSU, Tennessee has now won seven of its last eight games, and nine of the last 12. The 12-game run began with a win over defending-champ Connecticut back on Jan. 21. Since then, the Vols have played excellent basketball, with wins coming over Arkansas, Ole Miss, and at Florida during that time.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s only losses in that same period are at Kentucky, at Vandy and at Alabama. All three of those teams should be in the Field of 68. Basically, Tennessee has beaten everyone outside the top-third of the SEC, and has no remotely questionable losses during its recent run.
It’s pretty simple—Tennessee’s overall record of 16-13 against Division I teams is almost always an immediate dismissal for a team seeking an at-large bid. The most losses any at-large team has ever had is 14, which last year’s USC team had.
That means if Tennessee loses to Vanderbilt and then again in the SEC Tournament (which would have to happen in order to be at-large eligible), then it would have to make history in order to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Vols’ don’t have enough great wins to warrant a 15-loss team making the field this year.
A Bunch of Early Losses
At one point this year, Tennessee had a 2-6 record (excluding a win over D-II Chaminade). Despite a couple solid efforts in Maui, including a double-overtime loss to Memphis, the Vols had been thoroughly unimpressive in the early part of their schedule.
Tennessee lost four straight games to Oakland, Pittsburgh, Austin Peay and College of Charleston, respectively. Of those four teams, only Pitt has an RPI above 100. That stretch of suspect losses in November and December put Tennessee in a huge hole from which it may ultimately not surface from.
One Decent Win Outside SEC
The only win of note for Tennessee in non-conference play came against UConn, at home. Its second-best win, in terms of RPI, is against UNC-Asheville (No. 114). Overall, five of Tennessee’s seven wins outside the SEC are against teams with RPIs below 150, and three below 300.
Can Tennessee overcome the lack of multiple quality non-conference wins? It could be very difficult given the overall record. Remember, Alabama a year ago went 12-4 in the SEC, and had to settle for the NIT due to its lack of non-conference wins.
Right now, neither NC State nor Tennessee has done quite enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. NC State has a glaring lack of wins against teams who will be in the tourney, going 0-8 against the RPI Top 50. Tennessee, meanwhile, does not have a whole lot to show for itself outside of the two wins over Florida.
However, a good opportunity exists for one of these teams to still play its way in. With a home game in its regular-season finale against an in-state rival, Tennessee can earn another key victory to add to its wins over Florida and UConn. If the Vols win that one, their 10-6 SEC mark could sneak them in at the last minute.
NC State, conversely, wouldn’t benefit too much from winning at a 15-14 Virginia Tech team in its season finale. The Wolfpack would not only have to survive a first-round matchup, but would then still need to beat a team like Florida State or Virginia in the ACC Tournament, and even that may not be quite enough.
Tennessee—despite the numerous losses—could very well be this year’s USC.
Other NCAA Tournament Bubble Breakdowns