NCAA Basketball 2018: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Start of Championship Week

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2018

NCAA Basketball 2018: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Start of Championship Week

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    Every season it seems like the NCAA tournament bubble gets a little bigger. Even with the expansion to 68 teams a few years back, more and more teams end up heading into the final week before Selection Sunday with uncertain futures due to uneven regular seasons.

    Championship Week is the best time to make a statement. Of course, a hot run can lead to an automatic bid, but even if a bubble team falls short of winning its conference tournament, any tourney wins will serve as resume boosters.

    The bubble outlook is a little different this time around because of the Big Ten's decision to hold its conference tournament a week early. That means a team like Nebraska finds itself in the unenviable position of no longer being able to help its cause and thus is at the mercy of other bubble teams' play.

    The Cornhuskers are among the 12 most bubblicious teams as Championship Week begins. Below is a look at which direction these teams' NCAA tournament stocks are trending.

Stock Down: Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Computer Resume: Record: 17-14; RPI: 59; KenPom.com: 53; Strength of Schedule: 5

    Recent Games: Lost 68-66 at Texas A&M; Lost 73-52 vs. Florida

    Alabama takes a five-game losing streak into the SEC tournament, where it will be the No. 9 seed. Five weeks ago, the Crimson Tide were 14-7 and had recently beaten Auburn and Oklahoma, and it was only three weeks ago they knocked off SEC co-champion Tennessee. But if the NCAA selection committee were picking today, it's hard to see a spot for Alabama in the field.

    What's keeping it in the discussion is the large number of Group 1 wins it has, five to be exact, and five more against Group 2 teams. The Crimson Tide have played one of the toughest schedules in the country, but just playing difficult teams stops having value when you don't beat any.

    The Tide have become abysmal offensively of late, shooting 33.6 percent in their past two games. That includes just 37.5 percent against Texas A&M, their first-round SEC tourney opponent.

Stock Down: Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Computer Resume: Record: 21-10; RPI: 58; KenPom.com: 38; Strength of Schedule: 69

    Recent Games: Lost 84-83 vs. Stanford; Won 84-51 vs. California

    Remember when Arizona State was No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and was the last unbeaten team in Division I? Yeah, those were some good times.

    Maybe the Sun Devils have spent the past two months reminiscing about that hot start, which included wins over Xavier and at Kansas, because in Pac-12 play they've been below average. An 8-10 record leaves them in ninth place in a conference that will be lucky to get more than three teams in the NCAA tournament.

    ASU rallied from down 17 at home to Stanford on Saturday only to lose by one thanks to three missed free throws in the final minute. A win probably would have locked up a berth, but now the Sun Devils will need to beat Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 tourney to avoid an epic second-half collapse to the season.

Stock Down: Baylor Bears

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    Computer Resume: Record: 18-13; RPI: 61; KenPom.com: 33; Strength of Schedule: 18

    Recent Games: Lost 77-67 at Kansas State; Won 87-64 vs. Oklahoma

    Baylor won five in a row in February to go from the Big 12 basement to the middle of the pack, but a 1-3 finish to the regular season has the Bears in a four-way tie for sixth place. Tiebreakers gave them the No. 6 seed for the conference tournament, but with that comes a first-round matchup with West Virginia.

    West Virginia swept Baylor this season, one of three teams it didn't beat in the Big 12. And the Bears need wins to get off the bubble and into the field, probably at least two. If not, they'll miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.

    Beating West Virginia would be Baylor's fifth win against Group 1 opponents against 10 losses. That's not a great ratio, but so it goes for most Big 12 schools.

Stock Up: Kansas State Wildcats

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    Computer Resume: Record: 21-10; RPI: 62; KenPom.com: 44; Strength of Schedule: 77

    Recent Games: Won 77-67 vs. Baylor; Lost 66-59 vs. TCU

    Beating Baylor at home to end the regular season sends Kansas State into the Big 12 tournament on a high note after losing at TCU and Oklahoma. Before that, the Wildcats had won three straight and four of five, and its fourth-place finish is their best since it shared the league title in 2013.

    Though only 3-7 against Group 1 opponents, Kansas State has something many bubble teams don't: no bad losses. It is 12-0 against Group 3 and 4 teams, with their "worst" result a seven-point neutral-site loss to Tulsa in early December.

    Just to be safe, K-State should win its Big 12 tourney opener against TCU in case the other bubble teams in the conference decide to make a run in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Stock Down: Louisville Cardinals

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    Computer Resume: Record: 19-12; RPI: 46; KenPom.com: 34; Strength of Schedule: 21

    Recent Games: Lost 76-69 at North Carolina State; Lost 67-66 vs. Virginia

    Saturday's loss at North Carolina State wasn't an elimination game for Louisville, but winning it sure would have helped. Especially after the heartbreaking way the Cardinals lost two days earlier, giving up five points to Virginia in the final 0.9 seconds.

    The NC State result gives Louisville four losses in its last five games, seven in the last 10 and eight in the last 12. Only one of the victories in that stretch is of merit, Feb. 24 at Virginia Tech, while the others were to ACC doormats Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.

    The Cardinals are just 4-12 against teams from Groups 1 and 2, but the overabundance of quality competition in the ACC tournament means there's no shortage of chances this week to up that mark. They have to beat Florida State on Wednesday, though, or they're done.

Stock Up: Marquette Golden Eagles

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    Computer Resume: Record: 18-12; RPI: 57; KenPom.com: 50; Strength of Schedule: 26

    Recent Games: Won 85-81 vs. Creighton; Won 90-86 at Georgetown

    If Marquette doesn't make it into the NCAA tournament, it has no one to blame but itself, losing to DePaul and St. John's in February. If the Golden Eagles go dancing, they should thank Creighton, who they ended up sweeping Saturday after winning in Omaha two weeks earlier.

    The Golden Eagles, who also swept Seton Hall, finished .500 in the strong Big East, good enough for a tie for sixth place. They'll be the No. 7 seed and get DePaul on Wednesday in the conference tournament, a game they cannot afford to lose.

    After that, it will be Villanova. A win over the Wildcats would give their resume a big boost but isn't necessary for NCAA tournament inclusion.

Stock Down: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Computer Resume: Record: 22-10; RPI: 64; KenPom.com: 56; Strength of Schedule: 96

    Recent Games: Lost 77-58 vs. Michigan; Won 76-64 vs. Penn State

    Winning the regular-season tiebreaker over Michigan may end up being Nebraska's undoing, since it meant getting the No. 4 seed and a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament rather than getting an extra game under its belt before the quarterfinals. The Cornhuskers lost to Michigan on Friday, and now they are in the process of a nine-day wait to find out if they'll make the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2014.

    Beating Michigan would have been huge for Nebraska's resume, which frankly isn't solid. Only one win over a Group 1 opponent—Jan. 18 at home against Michigan—and a combined 2-9 mark against Group 1 and 2 competition won't give the Huskers an edge against most bubble teams.

    The best hope for Nebraska is that everyone else falls early in conference tourney play and the selection committee decides it wants five Big Ten teams in the field.

Stock Up: North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Computer Resume: Record: 21-10; RPI: 55; KenPom.com: 41; Strength of Schedule: 62

    Recent Games: Won 76-69 vs. Louisville; Lost 78-75 at Georgia Tech.

    With some of the best wins of any team in the ACC but also a few of the worst loss among NCAA contenders, North Carolina State will provide the selection committee with a case study for how to best evaluate a bubble team's resume.

    Beating Louisville on Saturday (their fifth win in six games) helped right the ship for the Wolfpack after their damaging loss at Georgia Tech on Thursday, their second loss this season to a team with a losing record and third to a Group 3 opponent. One of those was to Southern Conference regular-season champ UNC-Greensboro, but it was at home.

    Thankfully, NC State also has five Group 1 victories, including ACC powers Duke and North Carolina as well as Arizona in the Battle 4 Atlantis. If the Wolfpack beat the Boston College/Georgia Tech winner on Wednesday, all will be well in Raleigh.

Stock Up: Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Computer Resume: Record: 18-13; RPI: 88; KenPom.com: 57; Strength of Schedule: 57

    Recent Games: Won 82-64 vs. Kansas; Won 80-71 at Iowa State

    Let's make this clear: The Big 12 is not going to get nine teams into the NCAA tournament, regardless of how competitive the league has been top to bottom. But entering Championship Week, all but Iowa State is in the hunt for an at-large bid, with Oklahoma State unwilling to fall off the bubble.

    And with a season sweep of Kansas—the first against Bill Self during his 15-year run with the Jayhawks—we're forced to keep the Cowboys under consideration, at least for now. Losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 tourney's 8/9 game would eliminate them, but a win over the Sooners would set up a third game against Kansas.

    None of Oklahoma State's losses are against teams outside the top 70 of the RPI, and five Group 1 victories help offset a mostly weak nonconference schedule.

Stock Up: Syracuse Orange

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    Computer Resume: Record: 19-12; RPI: 40; KenPom.com: 51; Strength of Schedule: 12

    Recent Games: Won 55-52 vs. Clemson; Lost 85-70 at Boston College

    At this point, why has Syracuse not changed its mascot from the Orange to the Bubble? Lord knows it sure spends enough time on it each February and March, making this almost an annual thing, and the Orange usually sneak in by getting just enough good wins late in the year to make the cut.

    Syracuse followed its own script Saturday by knocking off Clemson, but that came after a three-game skid in which the first two setbacks (North Carolina, at Duke) were understandable but the last one (at Boston College) was nearly unforgivable for a bubble team. 

    That was the Orange's second such bad loss this year, the other at Wake Forest in January. To get a bid, though, they need a few more of the good ones, and beating Wake Forest in Tuesday's ACC first round doesn't count.

Stock Up: Texas Longhorns

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    Computer Resume: Record: 18-13; RPI: 48; KenPom.com: 40; Strength of Schedule: 16

    Recent Games: Won 87-79 (in OT) vs. West Virginia; Lost 80-70 at Kansas

    No Bamba, no problem for Texas. While that's not a great long-term strategy, the Longhorns were able to overcome not having freshman star Mohamed Bamba against West Virginia on Saturday and thus increased the chances the 6'11" forward will get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.

    The way it played against the Mountaineers, shooting 56.9 percent and winning the rebounding battle, Texas may be able to afford to rest Bamba again Wednesday against last-place Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament. And that additional victory may be all it needs to lock up an NCAA bid, though knocking off No. 2 Texas Tech in the quarterfinals wouldn't be so bad, either.

    The 13 losses look bad on paper, but a mid-January loss at fellow bubble team Oklahoma State is the Longhorns' worst setback, and it doesn't look so bad right now.

Stock Up: UCLA Bruins

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    Computer Resume: Record: 20-10; RPI: 38; KenPom.com: 49; Strength of Schedule: 54

    Recent Games: Won 84-73 at USC; Lost 80-76 at Colorado

    A three-game road trip to end the regular season is just asking for trouble, and UCLA found it by losing at Utah and Colorado. But by winning at rival USC on Saturday night, completing a sweep of the Trojans, the Bruins head to the Pac-12 tournament in a much better position than a few days ago.

    UCLA wouldn't have been out of contention for an at-large bid had it lost, but the victory not only gave it a much-needed third Group 1 triumph but also the No. 4 seed in the conference tourney. Losing would have dropped the Bruins to No. 5 and put them in a first-round game with last-place California, with nothing to gain but plenty to lose from such a matchup.

    Instead UCLA has a bye and, assuming Stanford beats Cal on Wednesday, a much greater resume-boosting tourney foe on Thursday.

       

    Statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com. RPI information via WarrenNolan.com and are through games on Saturday, March 3. Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.