NCAA Tournament 2018: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Beginning of March
March has finally arrived, making it feel like every men's college basketball game involving a team on the NCAA tournament bubble is much more important.
Several teams are rising to the occasion, such as Miami and Virginia Tech capitalizing on opportunities for big wins in ACC play.
Others appear to be doing everything in their power to not make the tournament, like Arizona State and UCLA both getting swept on road trips against Pac-12 teams that aren't projected to make the field.
Normally with the bubble stock watch reports, we look back at the last five games each team has played in order to gauge whether it is trending up or down. Now that we're into crunch time, though, the "Recent Results" on the following slides are just the games that have taken place in the past week, including games on Feb. 21.
This isn't intended to cover all of the teams on the bubble. That would practically be a novel, given how large the bubble is at this point in time. Rather, we're keying in on the five teams that have made the biggest strides in the right direction and the five teams that can't seem to get out of their own way.
Stock Down: Bubble Teams Who Played on Wednesday
By my count, there were nine* bubble teams who played Wednesday night: Butler, Providence, Seton Hall, LSU, Syracuse, Florida State, Temple, Texas A&M and Georgia, with the latter two facing each other.
And as it turns out, it was a great night for bubble teams who weren't playing on Wednesday, because those nine teams went a combined 1-8.
Some of the losses weren't bad at all. Providence desperately could've used a big win, but coming up short in a road game against Xavier didn't do anything to hurt the Friars. Same goes for Florida State losing at Clemson, although the Seminoles started the night in much better shape than Providence. And Seton Hall will be kicking itself for letting this one get away, but losing a home game against Villanova in OT isn't the end of the world.
The other five losses, though, were quite troublesome.
Georgia lost by one at home to Texas A&M, LSU fell in overtime at South Carolina and Syracuse got smoked at Boston College. All three of those teams were already on the wrong side of the bubble and can likely now kiss their at-large dreams goodbye. Perhaps the Orange could still get in with a win over Clemson on Saturday, but things were already not looking great for Jim Boeheim's boys.
And those weren't even the worst results.
Temple lost to sub-.500 Connecticut, which was the Owls' sixth loss this season to a team outside the KenPom top 100. They did have three excellent wins (Auburn, Clemson and Wichita State), but they went from "unlikely" to "extreme long shot" with this loss.
Worst of all, Butler lost in double overtime to St. John's, even though the Red Storm were playing without Shamorie Ponds. The Bulldogs now have two Quadrant 2 losses (at St. John's, vs. Texas) and a Quadrant 4 loss (vs. Georgetown) on a resume that boasts a great home win over Villanova, a strong neutral-court win over Ohio State and not much else.
Butler is still OK for now, but if it doesn't win at Seton Hall on Saturday, things are going to be dicey heading into the Big East tournament.
*If you think Notre Dame belongs on that list, that's cool. However, I don't think the Fighting Irish are anywhere close to even being talked about unless they win at Virginia on Saturday. Moreover, they didn't appear in a single projected field in the latest bracket matrix update, so they're not quite on the bubble.
Stock Up: Virginia Tech Hokies
W 65-58 vs. Clemson
L 68-75 vs. Louisville
W 64-63 vs. Duke
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 8 seed
A little over a month ago, the idea of Virginia Tech making the NCAA tournament was absurd.
On the morning of Jan. 22, the Hokies were 13-6 with a not-great home loss to Florida State, a bad neutral-court loss to Saint Louis, a decent neutral-court win over Washington and not much else. Their dismal nonconference strength of schedule was also doing them no favors.
Coincidentally, I had a bracket publish that morning. Not only was Virginia Tech not in that projection, but it wasn't even in my first five out or the next seven out.
To reiterate, there was nothing to suggest this team would make the Big Dance.
That night, the Hokies upset North Carolina. That weekend, they won at Notre Dame. Two weeks later, they knocked off Virginia on the road. And in the past week, they won home games against Clemson and Duke.
Just like that, VT went from no chance of making the tournament to a lock for a single-digit seed. Even if the Hokies lose at Miami on Saturday before an immediate loss in the ACC tournament, four RPI top-10 wins and another nice win on the road in the span of 11 games means they should do no worse than a No. 8 or No. 9 seed—where they would become a nightmare second-round opponent for a No. 1 seed.
Stock Down: Texas Longhorns
L 48-58 at Kansas State
W 65-64 vs. Oklahoma State
L 70-80 at Kansas
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: Last Four In
Following losses in two of the last three games, Texas now has an overall record of 17-13.
Normally, 13 losses before the end of February is a death sentence for a bubble team, and the Longhorns are unarguably trending in the wrong direction because of it. Moreover, they look nothing like a tournament team right now.
But based on the general criteria for selection, there's still a better-than-you-might-think chance this team makes the tournament.
Of the 13 losses, the only one against a team not currently projected to make the tournament was a 65-64 letdown in a late collapse on the road against Oklahoma State, which isn't a bad team by any means. (No, I didn't mistype the outcome against Oklahoma State in the "Recent Results" section. They just so happened to play identical 65-64 games this season.) Eight of the losses were against teams now slated for a No. 6 seed or better.
On the plus side of the equation, Texas swept Oklahoma, won home games against Texas Tech and TCU and beat Alabama and Butler away from familiar surroundings.
Sum it all up and Texas is 6-12 against tournament teams. That's a good-not-great record, but it does explain why it's still in the conversation in spite of all the losses.
The problem is going to be if that record drops to 6-14 with a loss to West Virginia in the season finale and a subsequent loss to Kansas in the quarterfinal of the Big 12 tournament. At that point, the Longhorns would probably be toast.
Stock Up: USC Trojans
W 75-64 at Colorado
W 74-58 at Utah
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 10 seed
Even though neither the Utes nor the Buffaloes is currently projected to make the tournament, going 2-0 on that journey is never as easy as USC made it look. Both Arizona and Arizona State lost at Colorado earlier this season. And as we'll discuss later, UCLA got swept during this same road trip.
It was a pair of wins the Trojans desperately needed.
Despite an impressive record in Pac-12 play, they had been hovering on the wrong side of the bubble for some time. The three consecutive road losses against UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona at the beginning of February meant USC was destined to enter the Pac-12 tournament without a single win over a definite NCAA tournament team.
Prior to this past week, USC's best wins of the season were neutral-court games against Middle Tennessee and New Mexico State, and a road win over Oregon. Coupled with bad losses to Princeton, Stanford, Washington and SMU, anything short of a five-game winning streak to end the regular season likely would've put USC in "Auto Bid or Bust" territory.
The Trojans are now a home win over UCLA on Saturday away from completing said five-game winning streak and entering the Pac-12 tournament with a tiny bit of breathing room.
If they can beat UCLA and then reach the conference championship before losing to Arizona, they should be alright. If they beat UCLA and then lose in the quarterfinal to a team like Colorado or Oregon State, they'll be in trouble. Lose to the Bruins on Saturday and they'll really have a mess on their hands.
In other words, USC is still very much on the bubble. The good news for Trojans fans is that they're on the correct side of it for the first time in a while.
Stock Down: Penn State Nittany Lions
L 63-72 vs. Michigan
L 64-76 at Nebraska
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: Out
Well, it was fun while it lasted.
After an uninspiring first 21 games, Penn State stormed into the at-large conversation with a season sweep of Ohio State, a road win over Maryland and a pair of impressive, close road losses to Michigan State and Purdue.
But because of the 13-8 start to the year—devoid of quality wins—the Nittany Lions needed to win at least one of their final two games to have any chance of reaching the NCAA tournament. Most likely, they needed to win both of them and avoid a terrible loss in the Big Ten tournament in order to get a ticket to the Big Dance.
Instead, they lost both games and now need a miraculous run to a B1G championship to earn a bid.
At full strength, maybe Penn State wins both of those contests. Unfortunately, star big man Mike Watkins suffered a leg injury early in the game against Michigan, playing just five minutes in that one before sitting out the Nebraska game. Without him, the Nittany Lions struggled to score in the paint against the Wolverines and were out-rebounded by the Cornhuskers by a 45-28 margin.
Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens did what they could to carry the offense, but it wasn't the same with just two parts of the spectacular sophomore trio.
Penn State is now outside the top 80 in RPI with two Quadrant 1 wins and three Quadrant 3 losses. And with only a couple of quality teams in the Big Ten, anything short of a conference championship simply won't be enough to get an at-large bid.
Stock Up: Florida Gators
L 57-62 at Tennessee
W 72-66 vs. Auburn
W 73-52 at Alabama
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 8 seed
One week, Florida looks like a threat to win the national championship. The next week, the Gators look like they either don't belong in the NCAA tournament or they're going to get destroyed in the first round of it.
Recently, they have been in the former of the two camps.
They defended admirably in all three games listed above, giving up just 180 points in 196 possessions. Unfortunately, in the loss to Tennessee, the Gators just could not buy a bucket, shooting 41.7 percent inside the arc and 25.0 percent beyond it.
They were much crisper in the other two games, draining 13 triples against Auburn and shooting 62.5 percent from two-point range against the Crimson Tide. They also did a much better job with turnovers, committing a combined total of 12 in the two wins.
As a result, Florida now has nine Quadrant 1 wins as well as three Quadrant 2 wins.
Even with 11 total losses, it is impossible to envision a scenario in which the Gators fail to make the NCAA tournament. Their only remaining regular-season game is against Kentucky, which wouldn't be a bad loss by any stretch of the imagination. And even if they happened to lose to an Ole Miss or a Vanderbilt in their first game of the SEC tournament, they should get in with room to spare.
That wasn't a sure thing prior to the wins over Auburn and Alabama.
Stock Down: Arizona State Sun Devils
L 68-75 at Oregon
L 75-79 at Oregon State
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 9 seed
It's hard to believe for a team that started 12-0 with wins over Kansas, Xavier, Kansas State, St. John's, San Diego State and Vanderbilt, but is it possible Arizona State could miss the NCAA tournament?
Conference record doesn't matter to the selection committee as a standalone data point, but it bears mentioning that a 7-9 record in this year's Pac-12 is no good. The two losses to Arizona are no big deal, but Arizona State has now suffered seven losses to teams not projected to make the NCAA tournament.
Among teams that have earned an at-large bid, I have no clue what the record is for losses to non-tournament teams. Seven may well be it, because it's hard to lose that many games against lackluster opponents and still have a legitimate case as one of the 36 best non-automatic qualifiers for the Big Dance.
Perhaps just as bad, Arizona State hasn't added much to its resume as far as quality wins go. Since Christmas, its three best wins have been home games against USC and UCLA and a road game against sUtah. Yes, that's one Quadrant 1 win and a pair of Quadrant 2 wins, but they aren't needle-moving victories. Or, at any rate, they aren't impressive enough to counterbalance all the bad losses in the past two months.
The Sun Devils are still in good shape. (Two wins away from home against projected No. 1 seeds tend to help resumes stay afloat.) But they need to avoid disaster the rest of the way. A home loss to Stanford wouldn't be great. A home loss to California would be awful. And an 0-2 finish would be catastrophic.
Stock Up: Miami Hurricanes
W 79-78 vs. Boston College
W 91-88 at North Carolina
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 8 seed
Seven points in nine days.
That's the difference between Miami's current spot as a lock for the NCAA tournament and what would have been a spot on the wrong side of the cut line with little hope for a return.
It started with a three-point win over Notre Dame last Monday. The Hurricanes trailed the Fighting Irish by multiple possessions with under eight minutes remaining, but they fought back for a 77-74 road win.
This past weekend, Miami trailed Boston College by 14 points with just over six minutes left in the second half while Jerome Robinson looked like a future NBA All-Star. But Miami finished on a 24-9 run, punctuated by a Lonnie Walker IV three-pointer with three seconds remaining for a 79-78 win.
Those wins kept Miami alive, as a loss in either one would have been devastating to its bubbly resume.
It was the third win that punched the Hurricanes' ticket to the Big Dance.
This time, it was Miami who held a big second-half lead only to give it all away. The 'Canes were up 76-65 late in the second half on the road against North Carolina, but the Tar Heels clawed all the way back, tying the game on a Joel Berry II three-pointer with four seconds left. That's when Ja'Quan Newton drained a buzzer-beating shot from just a few feet inside half-court for the 91-88 win.
With the exception of a 12-point win over Pittsburgh, every game Miami has played since January 4 has been decided by a single-digit margin. This team is going to make the NCAA tournament, and it's going to make you sweat in the first round, regardless of whether you pick it to win or lose.
Stock Down: UCLA Bruins
L 78-84 at Utah
L 76-80 at Colorado
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: First Four Out
Since the back-to-back wins over USC and Arizona that appeared to have saved UCLA's season, the Bruins have given it all away.
The immediate response was a loss to Arizona State two days after the huge road win over Arizona. They then went home and won two games against the Oregon schools but didn't look convincing in either one, needing a late comeback and an overtime period to put away the Ducks.
That led to this week, where a pair of wins would all but lock UCLA into a bid, a split would put them in OK shape heading into the season finale at USC and a pair of losses would leave them in dire straits.
They chose Door No. 3, getting swept by the Pac-12 schools from the mountain states.
UCLA put up a valiant fight in both road games, but as has been the theme outside of the shocking win at Arizona, it didn't have enough in the tank to eke out a win in the end. UCLA is 2-7 in true road games this season. All seven losses were by a single-digit margin, including a pair of overtime letdowns.
The double whammy there is that the committee professes to be paying even more attention to road records/results than usual.
And now it all comes down to a trip across town to face USC in a bubble bonanza. Should the Bruins lose that one, they might need to make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game to sneak into the NCAA tournament.
Stock Up: Creighton Bluejays
W 89-83 vs. Villanova
W 82-57 vs. DePaul
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 7 seed
For about five weeks there, Creighton was sprinting toward the bubble almost as fast as Oklahoma and Arizona State.
Once 15-4 with no bad losses and a few quality wins over UCLA, Butler, Seton Hall and Providence, the Bluejays went 4-5 in their next nine games without any wins coming over anything close to a tournament-bound team.
Meanwhile, those quality wins stopped looking so good, as all four of those teams were also rapidly approaching the bubble in a negative way. By the time they took the court against Villanova, the Bluejays were 1-7 in Quadrant 1 games and had a pair of Quadrant 2 losses to boot. If they hadn't beaten the Wildcats, they would've likely entered the Big East tournament as either one of the last five in or first five out of the NCAA tournament picture.
Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas made sure that didn't happen, combining for 52 points in the overtime victory over Jalen Brunson and Co.
That duo was also instrumental in making sure Creighton didn't flirt with a hangover loss against DePaul a few days later. They had 36 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds and nine steals in the comfortable victory.
Even if Creighton loses at Marquette on Saturday and follows it up with a loss to a team like Butler, Seton Hall or Providence in the Big East quarterfinals, it's going to make the tournament at this point. It's just a question of what seed the Bluejays end up with on Selection Sunday.
Stock Down: Alabama Crimson Tide
L 71-90 at Auburn
L 73-76 vs. Arkansas
L 52-73 vs. Florida
Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 9 seed
A lot of bubble teams have been struggling lately, but three losses in seven days, including a pair of home losses against other teams on the bubble?
Sorry, Alabama, but your stock has plummeted more than that of any other team.
The loss at Auburn is no big surprise. Maybe the 19-point margin is a bit unappealing, but that's just a missed opportunity rather than a bad loss.
But how do you make 11 three-pointers and still manage to lose a home game against Arkansas—a program that has been notorious for its inability to win any big games outside of Bud Walton Arena over the past few years? And how do you then grab 20 offensive rebounds and still only score 52 points in a must-win home game?
Well, that's just Alabama's season in a nutshell. This team stomped Texas A&M by a 22-point margin and then lost to Vanderbilt three days later. It surrounded a bad loss to Mississippi State with blowout wins over Florida and Tennessee. This is the most unpredictable team in the country, and it appears to have hit the coldest point of its season.
Not only has the Crimson Tide been struggling, but its best wins from earlier in the season have been losing value in a hurry.
Remember that marquee home win over Oklahoma in the SEC-B12 Challenge? Well, now it's a Quadrant 2 victory. So is the road win over LSU. The home win over Texas A&M is getting close to losing its Q1 status, as well. And while the home wins over Auburn and Rhode Island aren't in danger of suffering the same fate, they don't feel anywhere near as strong after Rhode Island got stomped at home by Saint Joseph's and Auburn suffered its fourth loss in seven games.
Alabama finishes the regular season with a road game against Texas A&M. If it doesn't win that game, it's going to need to beat at least two NCAA tournament teams in the SEC tournament to make up for it. And even that might not be enough.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.