NCAA Basketball 2017: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Start of Championship Week
At most points in life, bubbles can be a source of entertainment or relaxation. They make any kid's birthday party a little more fun, while for adults, a bath filled with them can help melt away life's stresses.
But in college basketball, the bubble is something to avoid. Teams hate to be associated with it and do whatever they can to get off it. Every season, the bubble tends to be where the most attention is paid in the weeks leading up to the tourney field's announcement, and this year is no different.
As we head into the meat of the conference tournament schedule, the bubble is particularly bloated, with the following 10 schools being the polarizing in projected brackets tracked by Bracket Matrix. This final week before Selection Sunday will be huge for their NCAA tourney hopes.
This is especially the case for Illinois State and Monmouth, who, despite each winning 27 games and at least a share of their respective conferences' regular-season titles, are in bad shape to make the NCAA tournament after getting knocked off in their league tourneys. The Redbirds and Hawks will spend the next few days rooting for other bubble teams to lose early while also hoping automatic bids don't get stolen by teams that weren't expected to make the 68-team field.
Stock Down: California Golden Bears
Computer Resume: Record: 19-11; RPI: 56; KenPom.com: 55; strength of schedule: 41
Recent Games: Lost 74-44 at Utah; Lost 54-46 at Colorado
Any shot of the Pac-12 being more than a four-bid league might have died in the mountains over the weekend ,since that's where California ended the regular season by having two of its worst performances of 2016-17. Getting swept on the road by Colorado and Utah means the Golden Bears head into their conference tournament having lost five of six, with the only win in that span being over league doormat Oregon State.
Winning one or both of those games wouldn't have provided much of a boost to Cal's resume since neither was in the top 50, against whom it is 1-7, but losing both struck a major blow to the Bears' at-large hopes. Now their path to the NCAA tournament is either by winning the Pac-12 tourney or at least getting to the final, which would mean getting past Utah in the quarterfinals and then Oregon in the semifinals.
Cal is 1-3 against those teams, with the only victory coming against Utah in double overtime on Feb. 2 amid a five-game win streak.
Stock Down: Illinois Fighting Illini
Computer Resume: Record: 18-13; RPI: 57; KP: 68; SOS: 23
Recent Games: Won 73-70 vs. Michigan State; Lost 62-59 at Rutgers
All good things come to an end when you lose to Rutgers. Just ask Illinois, which saw any good fortune it got from beating Michigan State on Wednesday go out the window by losing to the Big Ten's resident cupcake.
Never mind that Rutgers is vastly improved from a season ago; that doesn't change the fact the Scarlet Knights were 2-15 in the league prior to that. And it wasn't like the Knights had a performance for the ages, either; rather the Fighting Illini laid an egg in the form of 35.6 percent shooting.
The Rutgers loss was technically Illinois' first bad result of the season in that it's the only one that's come against a sub-100 RPI opponent. A previous home loss to Winthrop doesn't look so damaging now that the Eagles are into the NCAA tournament after winning the Big South tourney.
But the good wins are scarce, with a December neutral-site victory over VCU being the best of the lot. Illinois can pick up a few more this week in the Big Ten tourney as the No. 9 seed, starting with Michigan on Thursday and with a potential shot at regular-season champ Purdue in the quarterfinals.
Stock Down: Illinois State Redbirds
Computer Resume: Record: 27-6; RPI: 30; KP: 49; SOS: 123
Recent Games: Won 80-69 vs. Evansville; Won 63-50 vs. Southern Illinois; Lost 71-51 vs. Wichita State
Illinois State hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, so what's another week to wait before finding out if it's going to get in as an at-large for the first time since 1985?
The Redbirds could have erased all doubt by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament as the top seed but instead got blown out by co-regular-season champ Wichita State for the second time. Illinois State lost to Wichita by 41 on Feb. 4 for its only loss in conference play and only other setback since late December.
Now Illinois State must avoid the fate that most accomplished mid-major teams deal with when getting bumped off in their conference tourney. Though its RPI is strong, that won't be the only metric the selection committee uses, meaning that its mere six games against top-100 opponents (three of which are Wichita State) will come into play. Being 2-4 in such games doesn't hold up well against power-league bubble teams who have had far more chances to build their resumes.
When an early-December home win over the fifth-place team in the Mountain West (New Mexico) is your second-best win, it's time to panic.
Stock Up: Iowa Hawkeyes
Computer Resume: Record: 18-13; RPI: 74; KP: 65; SOS: 47
Recent Games: Won 59-57 at Wisconsin; Won 90-79 vs. Penn State
After chronicling the doom and gloom of three other bubble teams, it's time for some good news: We might get to see Fran McCaffrey go nuclear in the NCAA tournament!
McCaffrey's Iowa team was left for dead two weeks ago and understandably so. A three-game skid that included a home loss to Illinois had the Hawkeyes at 14-13 overall with a paltry 6-8 record in the Big Ten. Then they scored 21 points in overtime to beat Indiana at home, which set the stage for a late surge with some impressive results.
Beating Wisconsin on Thursday was the second straight road win Iowa posted against a ranked opponent following a 14-point victory at Maryland. That gave the Hawkeyes five top-50 victories, one more than Maryland and Wisconsin each have.
But Iowa isn't out of the woods—far from it. It must win the Big Ten opener Thursday against Indiana just to remain in the conversation, while knocking off Wisconsin in the quarterfinals might still not be enough to avoid being in the First Four again like in 2014.
Stock Up: Marquette Golden Eagles
Computer Resume: Record: 19-11; RPI: 55; KP: 28; SOS: 46
Recent Games: Won 95-84 at Xavier; Won 91-83 vs. Creighton
An impressive win at Xavier, in which Marquette shot 61.1 percent and scored the most points ever by an opponent at the Cintas Center, moved it out of the First Four and into a regular first-round game on Bleacher Report bracketologist Kerry Miller's latest projection. Wrapping up the regular season with its ninth 90-point effort solidified that spot.
The Golden Eagles finished in a four-way tie for third in the Big East, getting the No. 4 seed via tiebreakers. That sets up a quarterfinal clash Thursday with Seton Hall, against whom they split this season but haven't faced since Jan. 11.
A loss to Seton Hall could slide Marquette back into First Four consideration and possibly out of the field, depending on what else happens this week, while a win not only locks the Eagles into the field, but makes them a candidate to rise up another seed line. And beating the Pirates would likely set up another game with defending national champion Villanova, whom Marquette beat at home in late January.
Stock Down: Monmouth Hawks
Computer Resume: Record: 27-6; RPI: 46; KP: 78; SOS: 175
Recent Games: Won 84-59 vs. Niagara; Lost 89-85 vs. Siena
Start planning for that NIT home game, Monmouth.
As the MAAC's regular-season champion, it is guaranteed a spot in that tournament and likely will be a high seed, as was the case last season when the Hawks lost in their conference tourney final and ended up a No. 1 seed (losing in the second round to eventual champ George Washington). And that team had a better NCAA tourney resume, thanks to wins over Notre Dame, UCLA and USC, so any thought the Hawks could still squeak into the field as an at-large selection is frivolous.
Monmouth went 0-2 against top-50 RPI teams this season, losing by one at South Carolina and 28 at North Carolina, though if Princeton wins the Ivy League tournament, that could bump it into the top 50 and give the Hawks a better quality victory. But they'd need several other teams they beat to soar in the ratings.
Was it fair that Monmouth had to play on Siena's home court in the semifinals? Probably not, but the selection committee won't care about that. They'll pay more attention to the fact the MAAC has been a one-bid league every year but twice, getting a second team in 1995 and 2012.
Stock Up: Northwestern Wildcats
Computer Resume: Record: 21-10; RPI: 54; KP: 35; SOS: 62
Recent Games: Won 67-65 vs. Michigan; Lost 69-65 vs. Purdue
Don't let Sunday's home loss to Purdue distract you from the fact Northwestern gave us March's first Madness-level moment on Wednesday when Dererk Pardon and Nathan Taphorn connected on a full-court pass for a game-winning layup at the buzzer. That victory ensured the Wildcats of their first 10-win season ever in Big Ten play and all but guaranteed they'd be making the program's first NCAA tournament appearance.
Search the Twitter timelines of the many Northwestern alums in sports media, and you'd think that win clinched an automatic bid. Not exactly, but pretty close.
Northwestern is as much a lock as any team that's come so close on numerous occasions in the past can be, and while beating Purdue would have furthered that likelihood, the loss didn't hurt. All 109 brackets tracked by Bracket Matrix have the Wildcats in the field, who average out as a No. 8 seed with only one projection lower than 10th.
Just to be safe, though, it probably should lose Thursday to either Ohio State or Rutgers and tempt fate.
Stock Up: Rhode Island Rams
Computer Resume: Record: 21-9; RPI: 42; KP: 51; SOS: 64
Recent Games: Won 68-49 at Saint Joseph's; Won 73-70 (in OT) vs. Davidson
Dayton and VCU are safely in the field, regardless of how either fares in this week's Atlantic 10 tournament. The same can't be said for every other team in the league, for which winning that tourney is probably the only way to make the NCAA tournament.
The exception would be Rhode Island, which is good enough to take the A-10 tourney, but just getting to the final might be enough to earn a spot. The Rams' resume isn't stellar, but it's better than many other bubble teams'.
Rhode Island beat VCU at home in late February and owns a win over Cincinnati, the latter coming on a neutral court. It also has one very bad loss, falling at home to 13-18 Fordham a few weeks ago, but since then, it has won five in a row to stay in the conversation.
The Rams tied for third but earned the No. 4 seed because they lost the tiebreaker with Richmond. That means having to go through regular-season champ Dayton, whom they lost to twice this season, to get to the final. While difficult, taking down the Flyers in the semifinals could sew up the Rams' first NCAA bid since 1999.
Stock Down: Syracuse Orange
Computer Resume: Record: 18-13; RPI: 81; KP: 44; SOS: 56
Recent Games: Won 90-61 vs. Georgia Tech
Syracuse made NCAA tournament history last season by being the first No. 10 seed to make the Final Four, doing so despite having a resume and RPI that seemed more befitting of an NIT team. The Orange's NCAA prospects this season are equally as questionable, with a win in its lone game this past week not doing much to help.
Thankfully, the ACC tournament provides a great avenue toward getting more quality victories, of which Syracuse has six against top-50 teams. Those all came at home, though, while Syracuse was 1-6 against top-50 opponents outside of the Carrier Dome and 2-10 overall in road/neutral games.
Last we checked, the ACC tourney is being played in Brooklyn—not upstate New York. That means the Orange will have to get over their non-home issues and win at least once if not two or more games this week. That would mean having to take down top seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals.
Stock Up: Vanderbilt Commodores
Computer Resume: Record: 17-14; RPI: 44; KP: 40; SOS: 2
Recent Games: Lost 73-67 at Kentucky; Won 73-71 vs. Florida
Vanderbilt earned a split against the SEC's top two teams during the final week, a result that has the Commodores in the picture despite more losses than any other serious at-large contender. So it goes when you've played 23 top-100 teams, which is tied with Florida, Michigan State and Virginia for the most in the country among potential NCAA tournament teams.
They've won 10 of those, with the victory over Florida being their fifth in 12 tries against top-50 teams and all of them coming since Jan. 21. Two of those were against the Gators, whom Vandy will play in the quarterfinals if it gets past Texas A&M on Thursday.
As much as the SEC tends to get downplayed for not being that strong of a league, Vandy took care of business against most of the teams it was supposed to beat. Of course, there was that Feb. 11 loss at abysmal Missouri that's hard to ignore, a setback could seal the Commodores' fate if they're sitting at 18-15 in a few days.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.