NCAA Tournament 2019: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Midseason
The 2019 NCAA tournament is a little over two months away, but the bubble is already starting to take shape.
And movement along said bubble is like an interstate highway with teams zooming in both directions.
Teams like Maryland and Mississippi are in much better shape than they were a few weeks ago. But for the likes of Butler and Kansas State, things have been trending in a much different direction.
Teams considered for this list are those that appear in at least six projected brackets in the Jan. 9 update of the Bracket Matrix but are ranked no higher than a No. 8 seed. We can argue about the appropriate size of the official bubble at this point in the season, but those are the 26 teams in the pool of candidates.
From there, we looked at how those teams have fared in their five most recent games. Some are red-hot. Others are ice-cold. But most are just kind of lukewarm and haven't much moved the needle during that time—or they moved it both up and down so much that the net result was a wash.
We're only interested in the hot ones and cold ones.
Teams are listed in no particular order, other than an oscillation between Stock Up and Stock Down.
Records and results are current through the start of play on Jan. 11. Statistics are current through the start of play on Jan. 10.
Stock Up: LSU Tigers
Resume: 11-3, KenPom No. 43, NET No. 20, Bracket Matrix No. 9 seed
Last Five Games: W vs. Alabama, W vs. Louisiana-Monroe, W vs. Furman, W vs. Saint Mary's (neutral court), L at Houston
Until mid-December, LSU's resume primarily consisted of blown opportunities.
In the semifinals of the AdvoCare Invitational, the Tigers blew a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining against Florida State and lost in overtime. As a result, they played Oklahoma State instead of Villanova two days later, and they lost that game, too. And on Dec. 12 at Houston, LSU led by 15 points in the second half before losing that one.
At that point, LSU was 7-3 with nothing better than home wins over UNC Greensboro and Memphis.
They have rallied with four consecutive wins, including shooting 10-of-15 from three-point range in Tuesday night's victory over Alabama. They still don't have any Quadrant 1 wins, but they now have six Quadrant 2 wins and would almost certainly be in the tournament if it started today.
Just as noteworthy as the three-point shooting against Alabama was LSU's aggressive defense. The Tigers had eight blocks and eight steals against the Crimson Tide, which is par for the course for a team ranked second nationally in steal percentage and 18th in block percentage. Led by Tremont Waters on the perimeter and Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams in the paint, LSU has averaged 9.9 steals and 5.2 blocks per game this season.
If they keep making momentum-changing plays like that on defense, the Tigers should finish in the top half of the SEC standings, which would be more than enough to go to the Big Dance this year.
Stock Down: Arizona State Sun Devils
Resume: 11-4, KenPom No. 49, NET No. 68, Bracket Matrix No. 10 seed
Last Five Games: W at California, W vs. Colorado, L vs. Utah, L vs. Princeton, W vs. Kansas
*Clears throat for terrible Jerry Seinfeld impression*
What's the deal with Arizona State and Christmas?
Last year, the Sun Devils were 12-0 on Dec. 22 and looked like a No. 1 seed. But they went 8-12 the rest of the way and darn near didn't get invited to the NCAA tournament.
This year, they started 9-2 with quality wins over Kansas, Mississippi State and Utah State. But in their first game after Christmas, the Sun Devils lost a home game to a Princeton team that had not even come within single digits of beating a KenPom.com top-200 team in four tries to that point in the season.
A few days after that, they lost a home game to a Utah team that was 0-5 against KenPom top-100 teams with an average margin of defeat of 17.6 points.
That's a long-winded way to say those were terrible losses.
Since the colossal win over Kansas that temporarily seemed to save the Pac-12's hopes of getting multiple bids, Arizona State is 2-2 despite not facing a Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 opponent.
Bobby Hurley and Co. better hope those neutral-court wins over Mississippi State and Utah State hold up as Q1 wins for another two months, because opportunities for quality victories will be few and far between in this historically bad major conference. Even if those wins do retain their current value, the Sun Devils probably need to go 11-4—maybe even 12-3—the rest of the way to feel safe about getting into the tournament.
Stock Up: Maryland Terrapins
Resume: 13-3, KenPom No. 21, NET No. 26, Bracket Matrix No. 8 seed
Last Five Games: W at Minnesota, W at Rutgers, W vs. Nebraska, W vs. Radford, L vs. Seton Hall
Maryland is one of the youngest teams in the country with only one junior and no seniors in its eight-man rotation. But that inexperience has not kept the Terrapins from putting together a solid tournament resume.
That wasn't the case until about a week ago, though.
Their nonconference schedule left much to be desired. Maryland lost close home games against Virginia and Seton Hall, so its best win was either at home against Hofstra or on a neutral-court against Loyola-Chicago—neither of which is in the running for an at-large bid.
But the Terps have made up for it with a 4-1 start in Big Ten play that includes quality wins over Nebraska and Minnesota.
In both of those games, Maryland was at least plus-10 in rebound margin, which is no big surprise with Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith patrolling the paint. The former had a double-double in each contest, while the latter averaged 18 points. The real star of both games, though, was veteran Anthony Cowan. The junior point guard had 19 points and four assists against the Cornhuskers and kicked it up a notch with 27 and five at Minnesota.
With that three-headed attack, Maryland might be the third-best team in the Big Ten behind Michigan and Michigan State. At any rate, that's where the Terrapins reside in the conference standings.
And they can prove that they belong with their upcoming four-game stretch: vs. Indiana, vs. Wisconsin, at Ohio State and at Michigan State. If they can go 3-1 against that slate, they should enter February looking like a No. 3 seed.
Stock Down: Kansas State Wildcats
Resume: 11-4, KenPom No. 48, NET No. 50, Bracket Matrix No. 11 seed
Last Five Games: W vs. West Virginia, L at Texas Tech, L vs. Texas, W vs. George Mason, W vs. Vanderbilt
Kansas State was supposed to be one of the fringe contenders to win the national championship. With every noteworthy player returning from a team that upset Kentucky en route to the Elite Eight, the Wildcats were No. 12 in the preseason AP Top 25 and a No. 2 seed in my preseason projection of the 2019 NCAA tournament.
To put it lightly, things have not gone according to plan.
This team is outstanding on defense, holding eight consecutive opponents to 69 points or fewer. In particular, the Wildcats thrive at preventing second-chance opportunities with the second-best defensive rebounding percentage in the nation.
But some good it's doing them, as they have lost three of those eight games and just barely won two of the others. In one of those losses, they limited Tulsa to 47 points in a 65-possession game. Not having Dean Wade for the past few weeks has decimated an already-anemic offense, but he was healthy for that loss to Tulsa. Their offensive woes go much deeper than just one injury.
As far as recent results are concerned, the road loss to Texas Tech is of no concern. Heck, coming back from a 14-0 deficit to only lose that game by six might have actually been Kansas State's most impressive performance of the entire season. But the 20-point home loss to Texas was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Taken by itself, a home loss to Texas isn't that bad. North Carolina lost a neutral-site game to the Longhorns, and the Tar Heels are doing just fine. But it's not a good look to lose by 20 when you've already got an ugly loss to Tulsa and nothing to brag about better than a neutral-court win over Missouri.
Forget about being a fringe championship contender. Kansas State is on the fringe of missing the tournament altogether.
Stock Up: UCF Knights
Resume: 12-2, KenPom No. 36, NET No. 33, Bracket Matrix No. 10 seed
Last Five Games: W at Connecticut, W vs. Temple, W vs. Illinois State, W vs. Stetson, W vs. Georgia Southern
UCF has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2005, and the Knights have never won a tournament game in program history.
There's no way to know if they'll end the 48-year drought, but they're in good shape to go dancing for the first time in over a decade thanks to the modified advice of Dory from Finding Nemo: Just keep winning; just keep winning.
UCF does not yet have a win over a KenPom top-50 team. Home wins over Alabama (No. 63) and Temple (No. 66) are the Knights' only top-100 victories. But they do have a ton of decent wins and have only lost once in their last 12 games—an overtime game at Missouri. That's about all we can ask for at the moment.
It's going to be a while before this team gets the chance to add a quality win to its resume. It will play four games against Cincinnati and Houston between Feb. 7 and March 7, so those opportunities are looming in the distance.
Until then, though, just keep winning.
Even if the Knights go 0-4 against the Bearcats and Cougars, there's still a reasonable chance they would get an at-large bid by winning every other game and entering the AAC tournament with a 24-6 record—considering we need to get to 68 teams and the Pac-12 isn't much helping to fill that quota.
Stock Down: Creighton Bluejays
Resume: 10-6, KenPom No. 37, NET No. 48, Bracket Matrix No. 10 seed
Last Five Games: L vs. Marquette, L at Butler, W at Providence, W vs. UMKC, W vs. Coe
On Wednesday, Creighton was finally in the position to get the quality win it so desperately needed.
After scoring the opening basket, the Bluejays led Marquette for the entire game. They were up by five with one second remaining when Marquette's Joseph Chartouny made a layup. All Creighton had to do was throw the ball inbounds and touch it, and then the game would be over. Instead, the ball went the length of the floor untouched, Marquette got it back with 0.8 seconds to go, and Sam Hauser sent the game to overtime with a miracle three at the buzzer.
In the extra session, Markus Howard scored 11 straight points and finished with a career-high 53 in a 106-104 Marquette win.
Just like that, Creighton fell to 0-6 in Quadrant 1 games.
The good news is the Bluejays have no bad losses and have played one of the toughest schedules in the country. At some point, they need to start actually winning meaningful games, though. Creighton's best win of the season came against Clemson, which is ironic because the Tigers missed the tournament two years ago with a similar no-great-wins, no-bad-losses resume.
The other good news—should the Bluejays choose to capitalize on it—is that there is a smorgasbord of opportunities before them. They'll play home games against Butler, Villanova and St. John's and road games against Georgetown and St. John's in the next three weeks. As NET rankings currently stand, that's four Quadrant 1 games and one strong Quadrant 2 game. A 3-2 run during that stretch would be enough for Creighton to enter February as a projected tournament team.
Stock Up: Ole Miss Rebels
Resume: 12-2, KenPom No. 34, NET No. 34, Bracket Matrix No. 11 seed
Last Five Games: W vs. Auburn, W at Vanderbilt, W vs. Florida Gulf Coast, W at Middle Tennessee, W vs. Chattanooga
Ole Miss finished in dead last in the SEC last season and was expected to do so again this year.
But new head coach Kermit Davis had other plans.
The Rebels have already matched their win total from last season, punctuated by an 82-67 win over No. 11 Auburn on Wednesday night.
Even more impressive than the outcome itself is that they did it while getting an absolute dud from star player Breein Tyree (1-of-10 FG, five points, six turnovers). In his stead, Terence Davis led the way with 27 points and 12 rebounds, and freshman KJ Buffen stepped up in a big way with a career-high 16 points.
It was the ninth consecutive win for Ole Miss, and it was by far the most noteworthy of the bunch. Prior to that one, the Rebels had a road win over bubble-y Vanderbilt, a neutral-site win over not-even-bubble-y Baylor and that's it. They primarily puffed up their win total with Quadrant 4 blowouts, blowing chances for quality nonconference wins against Butler and Cincinnati.
Comfortably taking care of business against Auburn could be a major confidence builder, though. Ole Miss is now 2-0 in SEC play and does not face Auburn, Kentucky or Tennessee for at least another month. Some home wins over the likes of LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas and/or Iowa State in the next few weeks would be huge.
Stock Down: Utah State Aggies
Resume: 11-5, KenPom No. 47, NET No. 38, Bracket Matrix Next Four Out
Last Five Games: L vs. Fresno State, W vs. Air Force, L at Nevada, W vs. Eastern Oregon, L at Houston
Just like Creighton, Utah State let a big opportunity slip through its grasp on Wednesday night.
Hosting Fresno State—the only other team legitimately jockeying with Utah State for the title of top challenger to Nevada in the Mountain West Conference—the Aggies took a 5-2 lead less than a minute into the game and held onto that lead for almost the entire night.
There was only one lead change in the game, and it came when Braxton Huggins drained a three-pointer—his eighth of the evening—with six seconds remaining to give Fresno State a 78-77 win.
The loss dropped Utah State to 2-5 against Quadrants 1 and 2, with victories over Saint Mary's and UC Irvine serving as bragging points which aren't much worth bragging about.
Utah State never had a chance in last week's 23-point loss to Nevada, but the Aggies were up by 13 in the first half of their loss to Houston and hung right with Arizona State for 40 minutes before losing that neutral-site game by five points. That makes this their third heartbreaking loss of the season.
Unlike Creighton, though, Utah State won't get much of a chance to right these wrongs.
Outside of the rematch with Fresno State on Feb. 5 and with Nevada on March 2, the Aggies probably won't play another Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 game all season. No other MWC team is currently in the NET top 150, and it's likely that Colorado State, San Jose State, Air Force and Wyoming are going to drag the league down more so than Nevada will prop it up.
Long story short, Utah State probably needs to win 14 of its remaining 15 regular-season games to have a realistic argument for an at-large bid. Should this team sneak in, it could be dangerous. But it has just blown too many chances.
Stock Up: Seton Hall Pirates
Resume: 12-4, KenPom No. 46, NET No. 45, Bracket Matrix No. 9 seed
Last Five Games: W vs. Butler, L at DePaul, W at Xavier, W vs. St. John's, W at Maryland
Mark your calendars, because this is pretty much unprecedented: Seton Hall lost a game to DePaul less than a week ago, but its stock is on the rise.
This was possible because the DePaul game was the negative outlier on what was otherwise a sensational five-game stretch for the Pirates—a portion of the calendar that doesn't even include their best win of the season over Kentucky.
It has been Nail-Biter City for the past several weeks, starting with the road win over Maryland.
They made a late comeback against the Terrapins and held on for dear life to a 78-74 victory by draining their final seven free-throw attempts. As he has been for most of the season, Myles Powell was brilliant, scoring 27 points on just 14 field-goal attempts.
Against St. John's, it was another late rally. The Red Storm led by 10 with less than seven minutes remaining, but the Pirates came all the way back and won on a Shavar Reynolds three-pointer—while being fouled—at the buzzer. It was Reynolds' first triple since the season opener, so he was quite the unlikely hero.
At Xavier, the Pirates again needed a comeback. The Musketeers led by 10 midway through the second half, only for the Hall to outscore them 34-14 the rest of the way. Powell had 25 points and eight assists, leading all players in both categories.
And now the Pirates have added a nice win over Butler. Except in this one, they had to hold off the rally. Seton Hall was up by 10 with less than six minutes remaining, but Butler refused to go away. Similar to the win over Maryland, the Pirates made nine of their final 10 free-throw attempts to hang on for a one-point victory.
That's a heck of a run for a team that entered this stretch with an 8-3 record and little more than the win over Kentucky to boast about. Seton Hall now has three Quadrant 1 wins and a 6-4 record against Quadrants 1 and 2. It isn't yet reflected in the Bracket Matrix, but Seton Hall has surged from the wrong side of the bubble to a single-digit seed with room to spare.
Stock Down: Butler Bulldogs
Resume: 10-6, KenPom No. 40, NET No. 53, Bracket Matrix No. 11 seed
Last Five Games: L at Seton Hall, W vs. Creighton, L vs. Georgetown, L at Florida, W vs. UC Irvine
On the flip side of Seton Hall's latest quality win is a Butler team that has lost three of its last four and is fading fast.
The Bulldogs are now 1-4 in Quadrant 1 games, and the lone win (vs. Florida in the Battle 4 Atlantis) was sort of undone one month later when Butler went to Florida and lost by 34 points.
And that wasn't even their most damaging loss during this five-game span. That unwanted tag belongs to the home loss to Georgetown, which is a borderline NET top-100 team and a Quadrant 3 loss.
When you're likely in a position of needing to go 10-8 in conference play to make the NCAA tournament, you simply cannot afford to lose home games to teams in the bottom half of the league standings. Coupled with the narrow loss to Seton Hall, Butler is now 1-2 in Big East play without yet facing Villanova, Marquette or St. John's.
Whether Butler can right the ship and go dancing for a fifth straight year appears to depend entirely on Kamar Baldwin.
He was spectacular in the win over Creighton last weekend, but in Butler's six losses, he has averaged 13.7 points on 18.3 field-goal attempts with 3.8 turnovers. When he has a KenPom O-rating of 100 or better, Butler is 10-0. But when he struggles, the whole team goes down with him.
Joey Brunk has become a solid second fiddle as of late, scoring a career-high 20 in the loss to Seton Hall. He might be able to keep this from becoming a "Baldwin or Bust" campaign for the next two months. But something needs to change in a hurry, because losses to Xavier and/or DePaul in the next week would be tough to come back from.
Stock Up: Syracuse Orange
Resume: 11-4, KenPom No. 31, NET No. 49, Bracket Matrix No. 11 seed
Last Five Games: W vs. Clemson, W at Notre Dame, W vs. St. Bonaventure, W vs. Arkansas State, L vs. Buffalo
Over its past few years of near-permanent bubble status, I've never been shy about kicking Syracuse when it's down. So I've got to balance the scales a bit by noting that the Orange have bounced back nicely from a bit of a rough start to the season.
Syracuse got embarrassed at the 2K Classic, losing to both Connecticut and Oregon at Madison Square Garden. The defense was an abject disaster, allowing at least 80 points in back-to-back games. (The Orange only allowed 80 points in regulation once in the 2017-18 season.)
One month later, Syracuse lost consecutive home games to Old Dominion and Buffalo, blowing a second-half lead against both of those mid-major teams.
But the Orange have flipped the script to open ACC play with two straight victories.
Against Notre Dame, they had a rare good game from three-point range while shutting down the Irish in the paint. Defense was also the key to victory over Clemson, as the Tigers became the fourth consecutive team to shoot worse than 36 percent from the field against the Orange.
If that defense continues to show up, maybe we'll finally have a March without Syracuse on the bubble—in a good way for the Orange. They are 10-1 when limiting an opponent to 40 percent shooting or worse, but 1-3 otherwise.
They should be able to win six of the next nine games, as they'll play both Pittsburgh and Boston College twice and host both Georgia Tech and Miami. Peppered in between those games are likely road losses to Duke and Virginia Tech and a toss-up game at home against Florida State. A 7-2 stretch is possible, and it might be necessary given how difficult their schedule gets for the final four weeks.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.