NCAA Tournament 2018: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Week 16
With Selection Sunday set for March 11, bubble teams like Houston, UCLA and Baylor are playing their way comfortably into the projected NCAA tournament field. And there's an equal but opposite reaction for squads like Oklahoma, Saint Mary's and Seton Hall that are taking on losses at alarming rates.
Every March, bracketologists declare the bubble is uglier than ever. That's not the case this year, but it does feel bigger than ever, in large part because we are not entirely sure how the selection committee is going to utilize these new quadrants on the team sheets.
There are a ton of teams with five or more Quadrant 1 wins and 10 or more total losses. There are also a bunch of teams with only a couple of quality wins and only a handful of losses.
As a result, the gap between being a projected No. 10 seed and the projected 10th team out of the field is razor thin and can change with just one big win or bad loss.
These are the teams that have made the most significant strides (or backpedals) in their past five games. Expect to see a lot more movement like this ahead of Selection Sunday.
Stock Up: Houston Cougars
Past 5 Games
W 69-65 at UCF
W 67-58 vs. SMU
W 73-42 vs. Tulane
W 67-62 vs. Cincinnati
W 80-59 at Temple
Resume: 21-5, RPI: 19, KP: 19, SOS: 85
It feels like every team in the country has suffered at least one loss since Feb. 8, but Houston is an impressive exception to that rule.
Not only have the Cougars avoided the loss column, but they also picked up two of their best wins of the season along the way, knocking off Cincinnati before throttling Temple on the road.
Rob Gray Jr. is usually the star for this team, but he struggled in both of those games. Rather, it was Corey Davis and Devin Davis leading the way, each scoring at least 16 points in each game. Corey shot a combined 10-of-13 from three-point range, while Devin had a pair of double-doubles down low.
The Cougars have an ugly neutral-court loss to Drexel and a not-great road loss to Tulane on their resume. That's why they are still in the bubble conversation despite a great record and a total of four wins over teams in the projected field: Cincinnati, Arkansas, Providence and Wichita State.
As long as they don't shoot themselves in the foot down the stretch, though, they will make the tournament with plenty of room to spare.
Houston is in the projected No. 6/7 seed range with games remaining against Memphis, East Carolina, SMU and Connecticut. The Cougars won't be able to gain much ground by winning those contests, but they need to avoid taking on bad losses. A 2-2 finish or better should be enough for a bid.
Stock Down: Oklahoma Sooners
Past 5 Games
L 73-75 vs. West Virginia
L 80-88 at Iowa State
L 78-88 at Texas Tech
L 66-77 vs. Texas
L 74-104 at Kansas
Resume: 16-11, RPI: 34, KP: 43, SOS: 12
Houston's polar opposite, Oklahoma has lost six consecutive games and nine of its past 11. In the process, the Sooners have become the primary team everyone is arguing about for tournament selection and seeding.
This makes sense since Trae Young has become one of the biggest lightning rods in the history of the sport. Everyone has an opinion on the freshman superstar, and it seems like most are rooting for him to fail solely because they are tired of ESPN focusing so much of its energy on promoting him during every game—even the ones Oklahoma isn't playing.
As a result, people have become quite passionate about whether the Sooners belong in the tournament.
Make no mistake about it: This team is trending in the wrong direction. Conference record doesn't matter to the selection committee, but it's still a fact Oklahoma is 6-9 in Big 12 play. It's also a fact teams finishing four or more games below .500 in conference play almost never make the tournament. The most recent one to do so was Florida State in 1998, which somehow sneaked in as a No. 12 seed with an 18-14 overall record and a 6-10 ACC record.
But looking at Oklahoma's resume as a whole, it is still in good shape. The Sooners have six quality wins and no awful losses—unless you foolishly think road games against Oklahoma State and Iowa State count as such.
They haven't much looked like a tournament team lately, but compare Oklahoma's resume to that of a team smack dab on the bubble, and they aren't that close. Syracuse, for example, has just two Quadrant 1 wins—road games against the also-bubbly Louisville and Miami—and it has a few bad losses to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. If the Orange are one of your last teams in and you have the Sooners out, you are doing it wrong.
That said, Oklahoma is quickly approaching critical mass with its losses. The Sooners have three games remaining, against Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State. If they lose two of those contests—in particular, if they lose the home game against Iowa State—they will be squarely on the bubble at the start of the Big 12 tournament.
Regardless of where it lands, it's hard to believe this is the same team that was a projected No. 1 seed on Jan. 15.
Stock Up: UCLA Bruins
Past 5 Games
W 82-79 vs. USC
W 82-74 at Arizona
L 79-88 at Arizona State
W 75-68 vs. Oregon State
W 86-78 vs. Oregon
Resume: 19-8, RPI: 47, KP: 52, SOS: 66
UCLA stubbed its toe repeatedly in January. Given the schedule—two games each against Cal and Stanford, home games against Utah and Colorado and road games against Oregon and Oregon State—the Bruins reasonably could have gone 8-0. At worst, they should have won six of those games. Instead, they went 4-4 and dropped out of the bubble conversation.
February has been a different story.
UCLA opened the month with a crucial home win over USC. Veterans Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh combined for 44 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in the do-or-die game. And the Bruins followed it up a few days later with a massive road win over Arizona thanks to great contributions throughout the primary seven-man rotation.
Along with the neutral-court victory over Kentucky in late December, those were UCLA's best wins of the entire season, and they brought the Bruins back on to the bubble.
Can they stay there through this tough closing stretch?
UCLA plays at Utah, at Colorado and at USC by March 3, needing to go at least 2-1 to be in good shape heading into the Pac-12 tournament. Given where it was at the start of February, though, UCLA has to be pleased with its situation.
Stock Down: Creighton Bluejays
Past 5 Games
W 76-75 at DePaul
L 71-72 vs. Xavier
W 94-46 vs. Bemidji State
L 86-90 vs. Marquette
L 70-93 at Butler
Resume: 18-9, RPI: 37, KP: 35, SOS: 46
For the second consecutive year, Creighton randomly scheduled a home game against a non-D-I opponent in the middle of conference play. It's a savvy move by head coach Greg McDermott. It gives his team an opportunity to correct some errors against an opponent it can defeat in its sleep, but it's not an opponent that counts against Creighton's RPI, KP or SOS metrics.
Aside from that blowout of Bemidji State, though, it has been a rough February for the Bluejays, who have repeatedly proved they are not to be trusted outside of Omaha. In eight Big East road games, they are 3-5 with four losses by at least a 14-point margin, a one-point win over DePaul and a five-point win over St. John's. Their only win away from home against a team in the at-large conversation came in a neutral-court game against UCLA back in November.
Worse yet, they have started losing home games. Creighton began the season 13-0 at home before the losses to Xavier and Marquette listed above. There was a controversial ending against the Musketeers, and they led by 16 in the first half against the Golden Eagles, but they still go down as two losses for a team trending in the wrong direction.
Creighton has a huge home game against Villanova Saturday. A win there would probably be enough to seal the deal, even though all three of Creighton's Quadrant 1 wins barely qualify as such and could fall into the Quadrant 2 category at a moment's notice.
But if the Jays were to lose to the Wildcats and follow it up with a loss to DePaul, they would be in a world of trouble.
Stock Up: Baylor Bears
Past 5 Games
W 67-56 at Oklahoma State
W 80-64 vs. Kansas
W 74-73 at Texas
W 59-57 vs. Texas Tech
L 60-71 vs. West Virginia
Resume: 16-11, RPI: 56, KP: 37, SOS: 23
It always feels weird to give a "Stock Up" grade to a team that suffered a loss as recently as Tuesday, but that minor misstep at home against West Virginia doesn't change the fact Baylor has been improving its NCAA tournament odds at an incredible rate over the past few weeks.
Heading into February, the Bears were a disaster not even worth considering. They were 11-10 in D-I games with a neutral-court win over Creighton, a home win over Texas and nothing else. The other wins were of the Quadrant 3 or 4 variety. And their one last chance to make a positive statement in nonconference play turned into a 21-point loss to Florida on Jan. 27.
But they won five consecutive games to begin the calendar's shortest month and got their three best wins of the season in the process.
Both Kansas and Texas Tech are in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but their recent losses to Baylor could be one of the main reasons they fall short of that goal. And between those huge home wins, Baylor went on the road and knocked off Texas in double overtime.
In all three games, the Bears were led by a player who didn't even start. Nuni Omot came off the bench for 17 points and six rebounds against Kansas. And in the wins over Texas and Texas Tech, T.J. Maston had a combined total of 50 points. Granted, it doesn't make much sense Tristan Clark is starting ahead of those guys, but it's a testament to Baylor's depth and how dangerous it might be if it does make the tournament.
The work isn't finished yet, though. Baylor needs to win at least one (probably two) of its final three games—at TCU, vs. Oklahoma and at Kansas State—in order to get in. But if you had told anyone at the beginning of February that we would be talking about the Bears as a possible NCAA tournament team by the end of the month, they wouldn't have believed you.
Stock Down: Saint Mary's Gaels
Past 5 Games
W 65-62 at San Diego
W 83-62 at Loyola Marymount
L 65-78 vs. Gonzaga
L 63-70 at San Francisco
W 73-61 at Portland
Resume: 25-4, RPI: 29, KP: 21, SOS: 133
On Feb. 8, Saint Mary's was a strong candidate for a No. 5 seed. Now, the Gaels might not even belong in the projected field.
Such is life when you suffer back-to-back losses during the final month of a laughably weak schedule.
Saint Mary's has a great road win over Gonzaga. It also has a solid home win over New Mexico State and a road win over BYU. But neither of those teams is remotely close to the at-large bid conversation, and those wins only look nice because the rest of this resume is so horrendous.
The Gaels are 22-2 against Quadrants 3 and 4, and it's hard to be sure whether the 22 or the two is the most damning part of that. In addition to the recent loss to San Francisco, they lost a neutral-court game to Washington State in November. And there aren't anywhere near enough quality wins on this schedule to disregard those poor outcomes.
Let's assume Saint Mary's wins its remaining home games, against Pepperdine and Santa Clara, to finish the season at 27-4. It would likely face a team like San Diego in the WCC quarterfinals before a neutral-court game against BYU.
If the Gaels lost to BYU, they almost certainly would not make the NCAA tournament. If they beat BYU and go on to win the WCC tournament, we no longer need to worry about their at-large potential. But if they were to beat BYU and lose to Gonzaga in the championship game, they are going to be sweating bullets on the bubble while watching other conference tournaments play out.
Stock Up: Michigan Wolverines
Past 5 Games
L 52-61 at Northwestern
W 83-72 at Wisconsin
W 74-59 vs. Iowa
W 74-62 vs. Ohio State
W 72-63 at Penn State
Resume: 22-7, RPI: 30, KP: 24, SOS: 77
Michigan isn't on the bubble anymore. The Wolverines only play one more game before the Big Ten tournament, and if they were to lose that road game against Maryland, it wouldn't be the end of the world (it would be a Quadrant 1 loss). Even if they followed that up with a bad loss right away in the Big Ten tournament, they would be fine.
But four games ago, this team was in some trouble. The loss to Northwestern was easily Michigan's worst of the season, and if it had proceeded to lose to Wisconsin or Iowa, that would have been a problem. The Wolverines did have a few nice wins in the first three months—most notably the road win over Michigan State—but they weren't exactly swimming in Q1 victories.
They didn't lose to the Badgers or Hawkeyes, though, and they doubled down with nice victories over the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.
Now they are effectively locked into the tournament, how high could they climb if their stock continues to improve?
Assuming they win against Maryland and Purdue wins over Illinois and Minnesota, Michigan would be the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament. That means a likely path of Nebraska, Michigan State and either Ohio State or Purdue, which would be two more good wins and two great ones.
Barring an utter calamity elsewhere, it's hard to see Michigan climbing up to a No. 2 seed, but a high No. 4 or even a low No. 3 seed might be possible if it keeps winning.
Stock Down: Seton Hall Pirates
Past 5 Games
L 76-92 at Villanova
L 85-88 vs. Marquette
L 80-83 at Georgetown
L 90-102 at Xavier
W 82-77 vs. DePaul
Resume: 18-9, RPI: 24, KP: 38, SOS: 27
In mid-January, the idea of Seton Hall finding itself on the bubble would have been preposterous. The Pirates did have a disappointing loss to Rutgers on their resume at the time, but they were 14-2 with quality wins over Texas Tech, Louisville, Creighton and Butler. Even before the road win over Butler, Seton Hall was a No. 4 seed in our new year bracket projection.
Seven losses in 10 games later, and Seton Hall is staring straight at the bubble.
The Pirates' only wins since the first week of January have come against DePaul, Georgetown and Providence. Seton Hall went 1-1 against the Hoyas during this time and were swept by Marquette.
This team is falling apart at the same rate as Oklahoma, only people aren't paying as much attention because Seton Hall doesn't have Trae Young.
Seton Hall is still in the projected field, but it's not looking promising. Its four remaining games are at Providence, at St. John's and at home against Villanova and Butler. A 2-2 record seems to be the most likely outcome, which might be enough for the Pirates to get in. But following it up with an immediate loss in the Big East tournament would leave them in a perilous spot.
5 Others on the Rise
St. Bonaventure Bonnies
In the first projected bracket after St. Bonaventure lost to Dayton on Jan. 19, the following was said: "The Bonnies might need to win every remaining regular-season game to get back into position for an at-large bid." Since then, they are 9-0 with a huge home win over Rhode Island, and they are back in the projected field.
But it's still a dangerous tightrope walk ahead, with games remaining against VCU, Davidson and Saint Louis. If the Bonnies win those three games, lock them in for their first at-large bid since 2000. If they go 2-1, though, a trip to the A-10 semifinals might be enough for them to sneak into the dance.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech got the best win possible recently, going on the road and knocking off RPI No. 1 Virginia. One win doesn't make a resume, but it does pair beautifully with home wins over North Carolina and NC State, as well as wins away from home against Washington and Notre Dame.
The Hokies also got a huge home win over Clemson Wednesday night. As long as they don't lose each of their remaining three games, they will be dancing for a second straight season.
For the past few years, one of the biggest complaints about Syracuse in the bubble debates has been a lack of quality wins away from home. In each of the past three seasons, the Orange had just one true road win over a KenPom top-85 team. But they have won games at Louisville (KP No. 32) and Miami (KP No. 37) since the start of February to jump back into the projected field.
Can they seal the deal at Duke (KP No. 3) or Boston College (KP No. 83) ahead of Selection Sunday?
The Hogs didn't look great toward the end of their 87-72 home loss to Kentucky Tuesday night, but things are still looking up for a team that entered that contest on a four-game winning streak, including a quality win over Texas A&M. Can they bounce back and get a couple of statement wins to end the regular season? Their final three games are at Alabama, at home to Auburn and at Missouri, each of which is a strong Quadrant 1 opportunity.
St. John's Red Storm
In its past five games, St. John's has wins over Duke, Villanova and Marquette. Thus, the Johnnies are definitely trending in the right direction. But they still have so much work left to do to legitimately be in the conversation for a bid—they probably need to win out and pick up at least a game or two in the Big East tournament—that they aren't worth discussing in a full slide. They are on the radar, though.
5 Others on the Decline
After 27 games, the big question for Miami is, who have you beaten? The Canes have four Quadrant 1 wins, but have you looked at them? They are road wins over NC State and Virginia Tech (bubble teams), a home win over Florida State (bubble team) and a neutral-court win over Middle Tennessee (bubble team).
That was fine before they added losses to Boston College and Syracuse (home) to a resume that already included a loss to Georgia Tech. This is a paper-thin resume that could fall apart with a home loss to Boston College or Virginia Tech on either of the upcoming Saturdays.
Boise State Broncos
At the start of Mountain West Conference play, the mandate for Boise State was a 16-2 league record. Whether that meant going 0-2 against Nevada and beating everyone else or winning one game against the Wolfpack to make up for a letdown elsewhere was up to the Broncos, but it was going to be tough for them to get an at-large bid with anything less. However, they lost four of their first 14 MWC games, including back-to-back losses to Utah State and Nevada earlier in February. They are pretty much toast.
Florida has such a bizarre resume. Wins away from home over Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Kentucky and Texas A&M look great. But losses since January to Georgia (twice), Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and South Carolina don't. Given the difficulty of the remaining schedule, the Gators may well enter the SEC tournament with 13 losses. An early exit would leave them in dire straits.
The Cardinals' downward slide goes back more than just the past five games. They are 3-6 in their past nine games, and those wins came against the three worst teams in the ACC (Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest). There's no shame in the three losses to Duke, North Carolina and Virginia, but the recent home losses to Florida State and Syracuse put Louisville in hot water. Saturday's game at Virginia Tech is a must-win affair.
Texas A&M Aggies
If you think you have figured out Texas A&M, you are only fooling yourself. The Aggies started 11-1 with wins away from home against West Virginia, USC, Penn State and Oklahoma State. Then they lost seven of nine games. They subsequently rallied with four straight wins, including against Auburn and Kentucky. And now they have lost three straight, including a home game against Mississippi State. There are enough quality wins that A&M is still in good shape at 17-11, but who knows where this team will go from here?
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.