NCAA Tournament 2023: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams with February Approaching

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 25, 2023

NCAA Tournament 2023: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams with February Approaching

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    Kentucky Wildcats
    Kentucky WildcatsJeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    In losing at home to NET No. 277 South Carolina just four days before winning on the road against NET No. 2 Tennessee, the Kentucky Wildcats succinctly summed up what it's like to be on the bubble for the 2023 men's NCAA tournament.

    Obviously, not every team fighting for an at-large bid to the dance is going through two-game swings that extreme. But take a holistic look at the past couple of weeks for every team in bubble territory, and there is no shortage of those flying high and others in free-fall.

    Based on each team's five most recent games, we've highlighted the ones that have moved the most in each direction over the past couple of weeks.

    Not every squad currently on the bubble will appear here. For example, teams like Nevada, Northwestern and Penn State are each smack dab on the projected cut line right now, but none of them has moved much recently.

    Much different story for other Big Ten teams like Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.

    Teams are presented in no particular order, outside of oscillating between Stock Up and Stock Down.

    NET and RES/QUAL metrics are current through the start of play on Tuesday, Jan. 24, and are courtesy of BartTorvik.

Stock Up: Kentucky Wildcats

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    Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe
    Kentucky's Oscar TshiebweDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Current Resume: 14-6, NET: 38, RES: 46.0, QUAL: 27.7, No. 11 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L vs. South Carolina, W at Tennessee, W vs. Georgia, W vs. Texas A&M, W at Vanderbilt

    Here's a fun hypothetical: Would we feel any differently about Kentucky if it had just done what it was "supposed" to do instead of losing the home game against South Carolina and winning the road game at Tennessee?

    Flip the results of those games, and Kentucky is sitting at 0-6 vs. Quadrant 1, but with a 14-0 record in all other games, plus a top-50 ranking across the board in the six team-sheet metrics.

    Sure, we'd still be wildly disappointed in how far the Wildcats have fallen from their preseason perch in the AP Top Five, but those "no great wins, no terrible losses" resumes tend to make the cut provided we're not talking about 13 or more defeats.

    Instead, the 'Cats have a "one great win, one terrible loss" resume, but at least they have won four in a row since that reprehensible misstep against the Gamecocks.

    For all of coach John Calipari's talk about tweaking the lineup, it was an injury to Sahvir Wheeler's shoulder that jump-started this hot streak.

    The veteran who had started at point guard for most of the regular season missed the game against Tennessee and was limited to a combined 19 minutes with no points against Georgia and Texas A&M. And, notably, the offense has been running much smoother with CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves featuring prominently along the perimeter and Cason Wallace running the offense.

    It will be interesting to see what Calipari does with Wheeler moving forward, but we've probably seen the last of him playing 35-plus minutes on a nightly basis while Kentucky can't figure out how to score.

Stock Down: West Virginia Mountaineers

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    West Virginia's Erik Stevenson
    West Virginia's Erik StevensonMichael Hickey/Getty Images

    Current Resume: 11-8, NET: 30, RES: 57.5, QUAL: 31.7, No. 12 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L vs. Kansas, L vs. Baylor, L at Oklahoma, W vs. TCU, L vs. Texas

    Winning in the Big 12 is tough. No doubt about that.

    But this was a four-out-of-five-games-at-home stretch in which West Virginia needed to take advantage of the schedule, and it decidedly did not do so.

    At least the losses to Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas were close games, which helps out in the NET and in the QUAL metrics, where WVU remains a top-40 team across the board. And at least the team did get one quality win over TCU.

    The problem is the 'Eers need more wins to improve a bizarre "no middle ground" tournament resume.

    They're 3-8 against Quadrant 1, which wouldn't be the end of the world if they had some Quadrant 2 and Quadrant 3 victories to help prop them up a bit. However, they have played zero Q2 games, and their lone Q3 contest was a home win over UAB—which looked much more noteworthy before the Blazers lost five of their last six games.

    Ignore the seven Quadrant 4 wins, and West Virginia is 4-8 overall, which is major cause for concern. Because, usually, anything worse than .500 against the top three quadrants means darn near an immediate removal from consideration.

    One exception to the rule was 2018-19 Florida, which went 2-10 against the top half of Quadrant 1 en route to a 14-15 record against the top three quadrants. Even those Gators needed a couple of wins in the SEC tournament to sneak in as a No. 10 seed, and West Virginia would need to go 7-5 the rest of the way (against a brutal remaining slate) just to enter the Big 12 tournament at 11-13 against the top three quadrants.

    Can't write them off just yet, but their tournament outlook went from "fine and dandy" to "on life support" in a hurry.

Stock Up: Florida Atlantic Owls and Charleston Cougars

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    Charleston's Dalton Bolon
    Charleston's Dalton BolonErica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    FAU's Current Resume: 19-1, NET: 18, RES: 20.0, QUAL: 46.7, No. 9 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: W at FIU, W vs. North Texas, W at Western Kentucky, W at UTSA, W at UTEP

    Charleston's Current Resume: 21-1, NET: 43, RES: 28.5, QUAL: 71.7, No. 11 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: W at UNC-Wilmington, W vs. Elon, W vs. William & Mary, W at Monmouth, W at Northeastern

    It has been 75 days since either of these mid-majors last suffered a loss.

    Florida Atlantic lost at Ole Miss on Nov. 11. Charleston lost at then-AP No. 1 North Carolina on the same day.

    They have gone a combined 38-0 since then.

    Granted, the competition hasn't been great, and the margins of victory against the handful of noteworthy opponents haven't been large. FAU's three wins against the top two quadrants (at Florida, at North Texas, vs. North Texas) were by a combined total of 10 points, while each of Charleston's three wins against the top two quadrants (vs. Kent State, vs. Virginia Tech, at UNC-Wilmington) was by exactly two points.

    Wins are wins, though, and they're both 8-1 against the top three quadrants as they make their climb up the projected seed list.

    The big question now becomes: Can they afford another regular-season loss or two, plus a loss in their respective conference tournaments?

    Florida Atlantic likely could. The Owls have the better resume and the tougher remaining schedule. A loss at UAB, Charlotte or Middle Tennessee wouldn't be the end of the world, nor would a loss to North Texas in the Conference USA tournament. However, anything worse than a 9-2 record for the rest of the regular season and it becomes "auto bid or bust."

    Charleston probably needs to run the table, though, if it plans to lose in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and still receive a bid. Based on current NET rankings, the Cougars have five Q3 and four Q4 games remaining. Any loss would be a bad one—as would any defeat in the CAA tourney—and they are 0-1 vs. Q1.

    But if Charleston goes 8-1 the rest of the way before slipping up in its conference tournament, it would at least remain in the at-large conversation until the bitter end.

Stock Down: Pittsburgh Panthers

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    Pittsburgh's Blake Hinson
    Pittsburgh's Blake HinsonBryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

    Current Resume: 13-7, NET: 64, RES: 55.5, QUAL: 65.0, No. 11 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L vs. Clemson, L at Duke, W at Georgia Tech, W at Louisville, L vs. Florida State

    During an 11-4 start to the year, Pittsburgh won road games against NC State, Northwestern and Syracuse and home games against North Carolina and Virginia. The Panthers also didn't suffer any devastating losses, though they'd surely love a do-over on the 75-74 defeat at Vanderbilt in which the Commodores made the tying and winning free throws with one second left on the clock.

    After two months, Pittsburgh looked to be in great shape for a tournament bid, which hadn't been the case since before Jamie Dixon relocated to coach TCU in 2016-17.

    But then the Panthers lost the heartbreaker at home against Clemson, blowing a seven-point lead in the final four minutes.

    They subsequently blew a 12-point second-half lead, turning what should have been a huge road win over Duke into yet another blown opportunity.

    Fast forward through the largely meaningless "at least they didn't lose" wins over Georgia Tech and Louisville, and you get to the real dagger: losing at home to Florida State.

    In a normal year, that's not a major misstep. But this year, it's a Quadrant 4 loss against what has been the worst FSU team in decades.

    Pitt is still hanging around the bubble thanks to the aforementioned quintet of victories. But the Panthers also now have a quintet of losses to teams outside of the NET top 50. They may need to win two of the next three games against Wake Forest (home), Miami (home) and North Carolina (road).

Stock Up: Florida Gators

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    Florida's Colin Castleton
    Florida's Colin CastletonJames Gilbert/Getty Images

    Current Resume: 11-8, NET: 44, RES: 59.0, QUAL: 38.0, Appears in one projection in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: W vs. Georgia, W at LSU, W vs. Missouri, L at Texas A&M, W at Mississippi State

    Florida doesn't belong in the field yet, but the Gators are at least trending in the right direction for the first time this season.

    Prior to this strong five-game stretch, they were 7-7 overall with their best win being a road game against Florida State. And as we just discussed in regard to Pittsburgh, FSU isn't any good this year.

    But now that they've added a Quadrant 1 win and a pair of Quadrant 2 victories to a resume that was previously devoid of them, we can at least start to include the Gators in the at-large conversation.

    Resume-wise, the best win was Saturday at Mississippi State, even though the Bulldogs have crashed and burned since their hot start. (More on that shortly.) Florida jumped out to a 16-point first-half lead in that one before giving it away, but they managed to outlast Mississippi State despite scoring just one point in the final four minutes.

    Winning by 11 at LSU also looked solid, up until the Tigers proceeded to lose their next three games by a combined 79 points. It's still a Quadrant 2 result, though.

    And now that the Gators are in the hunt, can they capitalize on the rugged road ahead?

    After hosting South Carolina in a must-win game Wednesday night, Florida has to go through a four-game gauntlet: at Kansas State, vs. Tennessee, at Kentucky, at Alabama. Find a way to win two of those four games, and it'll be in good shape for a bid.

Stock Down: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Mississippi State's Tolu Smith
    Mississippi State's Tolu SmithChris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Current Resume: 12-7, NET: 63, RES: 68.0, QUAL: 59.3, Appears in one projection in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: W vs. Ole Miss, L at Georgia, L at Auburn, L vs. Tennessee, L vs. Florida

    Hey, remember when Mississippi State was 11-0 and had climbed all the way up to No. 15 in the AP poll?

    It has been rough sledding since then.

    The Bulldogs have lost seven of their last eight games. And while four of them (at Auburn, vs. Alabama, two against Tennessee) were understandable, the home loss to Florida, the road loss to Georgia and the neutral-site loss to Drake have completely undone all the good they accomplished in the first six weeks.

    The neutral-site win over Marquette looks considerably better now than it did at the time, but the resume as a whole is lacking. The Bulldogs are now 2-7 against the top two quadrants and have fallen to outside of the top 50 in all the metrics.

    The good news is the opportunity to make amends is at their doorstep. Mississippi State plays at projected No. 1 seed Alabama on Wednesday night and hosts projected No. 5 seed TCU on Saturday.

    Win either of those games and the Bulldogs would at least climb back onto the radar.

    Win them both and you're talking about a team skyrocketing from "nowhere close to the field" to "probably a single-digit seed" in a matter of four days.

    Lose them both, though, and they'll be 12-9 overall with only two remotely good wins and only a couple of chances left to add to that list.

Stock Up: Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Iowa's Payton Sandfort
    Iowa's Payton SandfortMatthew Holst/Getty Images

    Current Resume: 12-7, NET: 39, RES: 44.5, QUAL: 30.0, No. 8 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: W vs. Indiana, W at Rutgers, W vs. Michigan, W vs. Maryland, L at Ohio State

    Iowa whiffed big time in trying to extend its winning streak to five games, allowing a season-worst 93 points in a 16-point loss at Ohio State over the weekend.

    But that Quadrant 1A loss to the Buckeyes doesn't even begin to undo all the good that Iowa did in the two-plus weeks leading up to that game, adding two Quadrant 1 wins, a Quadrant 2 win and a borderline Q2/Q3 victory to a resume that desperately needed help.

    Heading into that stretch, Iowa was 8-6 overall and was on a three-game losing streak at Penn State (no big deal), at Nebraska (not good) and at home against Eastern Illinois (about as bad as a loss gets). At the time, the Hawkeyes were nowhere close to the projected field.

    The win at Rutgers was the big one. The Scarlet Knights haven't lost often at home over the past four seasons, but Iowa never trailed en route to a 76-65 victory over what is possibly the second-best team in the Big Ten.

    Sophomore Payton Sandfort came off the bench for 22 points in that one and then doubled down with 26 in the subsequent win over Michigan. In fact, he scored in double figures in all four of the wins listed above, stepping up to the plate when Patrick McCaffery stepped away from the team to address anxiety.

    The Hawkeyes still aren't in particularly great shape for a bid, but they almost certainly would be in the field if today were Selection Sunday. We'll see if they can maintain that status through the Big Ten gauntlet. Might need to go at least 7-5 the rest of the way.

Stock Down: Wisconsin Badgers

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    Wisconsin's Tyler Wahl
    Wisconsin's Tyler WahlJohn Fisher/Getty Images

    Current Resume: 12-6, NET: 66, RES: 35.0, QUAL: 57.3, No. 9 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L at Illinois, L vs. Michigan State, L at Indiana, W vs. Penn State, L at Northwestern

    Well, we did it with Mississippi State, so it's only fair to do it here too: Hey, remember when Wisconsin was ranked in the AP Top 15?

    The Badgers started out 11-2 with road wins over Marquette and Iowa and had made it all the way up to No. 14 in the Jan. 2 poll.

    They have fallen off a cliff since then.

    In fairness, they didn't have Tyler Wahl (ankle) for the three consecutive losses to Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana. (Indiana was also without a key player, Race Thompson, in that 18-point blowout, though.) That's a rough stretch for a team to attempt to navigate without arguably its best player, and his absence is surely something the selection committee will be aware of when it convenes seven weeks from now.

    However, those defeats still happened.

    And it's not like Wisconsin has looked much better since getting Wahl back. The Badgers eked out a three-point home win over Penn State before losing by three at fresh-off-a-COVID-19-pause Northwestern in a pair of bubble-vs.-bubble showdowns.

    Those quality wins over Marquette and Iowa aren't going anywhere, but Wisconsin is now just 7-6 against the top three quadrants with some ugly-looking NET and QUAL metrics. The RES rankings would be enough to get the Badgers in if today were Selection Sunday, but they have fallen onto the bubble with a tough slate still ahead.

    Per, Wisconsin is projected to go 5-7 the rest of the way. If that happens, it will be in serious bubble trouble heading into the Big Ten tournament.

Stock Up: USC Trojans

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    USC's Drew Peterson
    USC's Drew PetersonBrian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Current Resume: 14-6, NET: 62, RES: 40.0, QUAL: 49.7, 4th Team Out in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L at UCLA, W vs. Colorado, W vs. Utah, L at Arizona, W at Arizona State

    On the one hand, USC missed out on two massive opportunities on the road against the two best teams in the Pac-12.

    The game at Arizona was never close, but the Trojans really let one slip away at UCLA. They went on a 24-6 run in the second half, turning a 16-point deficit into a two-point lead in the final minute before Jaylen Clark hit a dagger triple and Boogie Ellis got called for a charge to hand the game back to the Bruins.

    On the other hand, those aren't remotely bad losses, and the Trojans otherwise picked up three wins against the Pac-12's second tier along the way.

    Winning at Arizona State over the weekend was the big one. USC led by as many as 24 points in the second half of that 77-69 Quadrant 1 victory. 7'1" freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu provided a real spark with 12 points and five rebounds off the bench in that one, while Drew Peterson seemingly couldn't miss.

    The home wins over Colorado and Utah both fall into the Quadrant 2 bucket, but those were key outcomes for a team that is now 7-6 against the top three quadrants.

    It's a shame the Trojans opened the season with that bad home loss to Florida Gulf Coast. They are smack dab on the bubble as things stand, but they'd probably be more in the Nos. 8-9 seed range were it not for that immediate blunder.

Stock Down: A Pair of O(S)U Losers on Tuesday Night

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    Oklahoma's Grant Sherfield
    Oklahoma's Grant SherfieldJohn E. Moore III/Getty Images

    Ohio State's Current Resume: 11-9, NET: 24, RES: 70.5, QUAL: 18.0, No. 11 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L vs. Minnesota, L at Rutgers, L at Nebraska, W vs. Iowa, L at Illinois

    Oklahoma's Current Resume: 11-9, NET: 57, RES: 56.0, QUAL: 42.0, No. 11 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L at Kansas, W vs. West Virginia, L at Oklahoma State, L vs. Baylor, L at TCU

    We held off on writing this one to see if either Ohio State or Oklahoma could pull off a road upset Tuesday night, as a win at Illinois or at TCU would have at least temporarily stopped the bleeding for both of these bubble teams.

    Instead, neither game was all that close.

    Ohio State at least trimmed the final margin to single digits by going on a late 8-0 run after it was down by 17 points, but the outcome was never really in doubt in Champaign. And things got much uglier in Fort Worth, as TCU jumped out to an immediate 11-0 lead and was up 62-31 midway through the second half of a 27-point shellacking of Oklahoma.

    Both the Buckeyes and Sooners now sit at 11-9 overall with a 1-4 record in their last five games—the lone win coming at home against a team that is also on the bubble.

    At least the predictive metrics are still buying what Ohio State is selling, thanks to the fact that nine of its 11 wins have come by at least 16 points. Even after the loss to Illinois, the Buckeyes are still top 25 on KenPom and figure to remain top 30 in the NET when that data refreshes Wednesday morning.

    But Oklahoma was already teetering toward the wrong side of the bubble and is now fully in the danger zone, darn near needing to win the home game against Alabama this coming Saturday to avoid being written off for good.

Stock Down Then Up: Indiana Hoosiers

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    Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis
    Indiana's Trayce Jackson-DavisBrian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Current Resume: 13-6, NET: 19, RES: 32.0, QUAL: 16.7, No. 8 seed in Bracket Matrix

    Five Most Recent Games: L vs. Northwestern, L at Penn State, W vs. Wisconsin, W at Illinois, W vs. Michigan State

    For a hot minute there, Indiana was flirting with disaster.

    After the back-to-back not-great losses to Northwestern and Penn State, the Hoosiers were 10-6 overall and just 2-6 against the top two quadrants. The road win over Xavier was great, and the home win over North Carolina was swell. But the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten was at or near the wrong side of the bubble at that juncture.

    But they have bounced back in a colossal way, not only defeating each of Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State but also doing so by a combined margin of 46 points. (Margin wouldn't have mattered half a decade ago, but that's a big deal in the NET era of bracketology.)

    As a result, the Hoosiers have surged back into the top 20 of the NET and the predictive metrics.

    Per usual, Trayce Jackson-Davis led the charge. The big man had a line of 84 points, 36 rebounds, 13 blocks and 13 assists during the three-game winning streak.

    But even more important was the team defense. TJD always blocks shots and grabs rebounds, but Indiana allowed 86.7 points per contest during its three-game losing streak to open January. Conversely, it held those last three opponents to 59.7 points.

    Keep defending like that and the Hoosiers can forget about the bubble and start thinking about trying to reach the Elite Eight for what would be the first time since 2002.