Which NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams Deserve a Chance to Make Field of 68?
With Selection Sunday just days away, the biggest question in college basketball is which teams will make it off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament. A host of programs from the storied (Kentucky) to the anonymous (Middle Tennessee) are in the mix for sneaking into the field of 68 or being left out, and a case can be made for or against any of them.
The defending champion Wildcats have spent much of the season looking like an NIT-bound squad, thanks to a severe lack of quality wins in spite of a pretty tough schedule.
However, Alex Poythress and his mates have rallied in the final weeks of the regular season to add just enough signature wins to merit a place near the head of the line for the last few spots in the Big Dance.
Read on for more on Big Blue and nine more teams in the bubble conversation, with an eye to who’s earned a chance to dance (even if not all of those who have will make it).
And, for a look at which of these teams are likeliest to find themselves on the outside looking in, check out our Bubble Watch.
USA TODAY Sports
La Salle will get a chance to sew up its NCAA berth on Friday in the Atlantic 10 tournament, provided it can beat an outstanding Butler team for the second time this year.
Even without that hypothetical victory, though, the Explorers have a great case for their first trip to the Big Dance since 1992.
An 11-5 record in this year’s brutal A-10 is an impressive performance in its own right, especially as it came with wins over both Butler and VCU.
La Salle also turned in a solid non-conference showing, beating NCAA-bound Iona and Villanova while suffering only one bad loss out of the league (Central Connecticut State).
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
A strong start to SEC play—a sweep of Tennessee, wins over MIzzou and Arkansas—vaulted the Rebels into the Top 25 earlier in the season.
Now, though, all that momentum is gone after losses to woeful Texas A&M and South Carolina helped drop Ole Miss to 12-6 in conference.
With absolutely no quality wins outside of the SEC, the Rebels are going to need some help.
They can provide a lot of it themselves if they beat the Tigers for a second time or (even better) top Kentucky in the conference tourney, but right now, they’re just too short on good wins.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
The biggest surprise of the conference tournament season thus far has come from the Sun Belt semifinals. Rick Pitino’s son Richard coached an anonymous Florida International squad to a road win at prohibitively favored Middle Tennessee.
The loss cost the Blue Raiders a chance at an automatic bid and created some very interesting questions about what matters most for a team on the bubble.
Middle Tennessee has fewer bad losses than many Top 25 teams, as three of its five defeats came at Florida, at Akron and at Belmont. But, its closest thing to a signature win was a home victory over Ole Miss.
Being ranked 29th in the country in RPI certainly makes the Blue Raiders look Big Dance-bound, but ultimately, the number that really counts may be 28: a victory total that puts Middle Tennessee a full seven wins ahead of many of its bubble competitors.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlantic 10 is enjoying a historic season, and one major beneficiary could be UMass. The Minutemen posted a 9-7 record in a conference that’s not far behind the Mountain West when it comes to the nation’s premier mid-majors.
UMass has largely avoided bad losses (absent a home defeat by George Washington), but one road win over another bubble squad from La Salle is the best victory in its portfolio.
Unless the Minutemen can surprise Temple and (probably) VCU in their next two A-10 tournament games, it’s going to be tough to find enough strengths on their schedule to put them in the Big Dance.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
It’s kind of amazing that the difference between 36 and 38 points could cost the Volunteers a spot in the Big Dance. If they’d scored 38 on a November night at Georgetown, the magnitude of that win would now be a free pass to the field of 68.
Instead, Tennessee lost that game by a 37-36 margin, though their impressive non-conference schedule still provided one high-quality win (over Wichita State).
Added to conference victories over Missouri, Kentucky and (especially) Florida, that tough schedule gives Jarnell Stokes and company a solid position among the SEC’s many bubble teams.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Baylor’s non-conference performance was such a disappointment that it’s impressive even to find the Bears still in the March Madness conversation.
Terrible losses to the College of Charleston and Northwestern (both at home) weren’t offset much by one respectable win at fellow bubble contender Kentucky.
Big 12 play brought only modest improvement, as the Bears' 9-9 finish (even in a strong conference) featured a lot of soft wins.
Even so, signature victories over Oklahoma State and Kansas kept the Bears in the tournament picture until Thursday's heartbreaking Big 12 tourney loss to the same Cowboy team sealed their fate.
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports
The Broncos could have put themselves in a much stronger position on Wednesday night, when they had a chance to earn another quality win by beating San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament.
Instead, the Aztecs took their second game in three tries against Boise, leaving Derrick Marks and his mates in a very uneasy position for Selection Sunday.
Bad losses at Nevada and Utah hurt the Broncos’ portfolio, as does a middling 9-7 conference record (albeit in a very tough Mountain West).
However, those league wins do include victories over three tournament-bound teams (Colorado State and UNLV in addition to the Aztecs), and an early-season road win at Creighton tips the balance in Boise’s favor in the end.
USA TODAY Sports
Yet another SEC team with a strong conference record and little else, Alabama scored wins over Tennessee and Kentucky in going 12-6 in the league.
Without some added punch from the conference tournament, though, the Tide have lost too many games to the wrong teams.
‘Bama does have respectable out-of-conference wins over Villanova and South Dakota State, but losses to Mercer and Tulane are killers.
Some bad SEC defeats (Auburn, LSU), plus a late head-to-head loss at Ole Miss, leave Trevor Releford and company short on firepower for the selection committee.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Unsurprisingly, the Kentucky Wildcats are not the same team without injured star Nerlens Noel. Improbably, John Calipari’s squad may actually be playing better since its defensive dynamo tore his ACL on February 12.
The two biggest wins on the Cats’ ledger—over Missouri and Florida—came after Noel’s injury, a striking demonstration of how far this freshman-heavy squad has come since November.
Assuming UK can avoid a bad loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tourney, Archie Goodwin and company have done just enough to earn a spot in March Madness.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
If it weren’t for one agonizing road trip, Virginia’s place in March Madness would likely be secure already.
Back-to-back bad losses at Boston College and Florida State (by a grand total of three points) torpedoed the Cavaliers’ ACC record and undercut any momentum they might have built up by stunning then-No. 3 Duke.
Still, that big win over the Blue Devils has plenty of company, with victories over UNC, N.C. State and Wisconsin (in Madison) also on Virginia’s resume.
Another win over the Wolfpack in Friday’s ACC tournament action will almost certainly wrap up an NCAA trip for Joe Harris and his mates, but even a loss in that game shouldn't overshadow the impressive heights this squad has reached at its best.