Top Men's College Basketball Programs in Danger of Missing 2020 NCAA Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 16, 2020

Top Men's College Basketball Programs in Danger of Missing 2020 NCAA Tournament

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    Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Virginia's Tony Bennett.
    Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Virginia's Tony Bennett.Associated Press

    The Virginia Cavaliers won the 2019 NCAA men's basketball tournament, and the North Carolina Tar Heels were a No. 1 seed in that bracket. But both of those ACC squads feature prominently on our list of top teams most likely to miss this year's Big Dance.

    By "top teams" we mean programs who fit within the two following pools of candidates:

    • Preseason AP Top 25 teams, or
    • Teams who have competed in at least eight of the last 10 NCAA tournaments.

    The first pool allows us to consider teams like Saint Mary's, Utah State and Virginia, who missed at least three tournaments in the past decade but were certainly expected to get there this March.

    The second pool factors in Cincinnati, Kansas State and Syracuse, who weren't expected to be great this year but who we're used to hearing about on Selection Sunday.

    Either way, all 10 of these teams were supposed to be better than this. Some are still in the mix for a bid, but most of them wouldn't even sniff the field if the tournament started today.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order. Statistics and NET data are current through the start of play Wednesday. Records are current through start of play on Thursday.

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Jarron Cumberland
    Jarron CumberlandJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 10-6, NET: 63, KenPom: 43, SOS: 17

    Three Best Wins: Tennessee, at UCF, Connecticut

    Three Worst Losses: Colgate, Bowling Green, at Tulane

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: Out (Appears in 4 of 87 projections)

    Cincinnati is tied with North Carolina for the fifth-longest active NCAA tournament streak, dancing in each of the past nine years. Neither one is likely to extend that streak to double digits, though.

    The big surprise for the Bearcats has been the relative ineffectiveness of Jarron Cumberland. He battled a foot injury throughout the summer, missed two games in November and only had an O-rating of 100 or better in one of his first 10 games.

    He has been playing much better thus far in Januaryincluding 22 points (on 13 field-goal attempts), eight assists and seven rebounds in a win over Tulsa—but is it too little, too late?

    Cincinnati already has two Quadrant 3 losses, and neither of those missteps against Colgate and Bowling Green is anywhere close to getting bumped up to a Quadrant 2 result. Worse, the Bearcats have no Quadrant 1 wins, and both of their Quadrant 2 victories (vs. Tennessee, at UCF) are teetering on the Q2/Q3 border.

    At least they have a good strength of schedule, and at least all six of their losses were by eight points or fewer. Because of those two factors, they're still hanging around somewhere on the outer fringe of the bubble picture.

    But at some point they need quality wins, and that might need to start Thursday night at Memphis because there are only a handful of Q1 opportunities in the AAC this year. If they're unable to get that one, they'll almost need to be perfect the rest of the way.

Florida Gators

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    Kerry Blackshear Jr.
    Kerry Blackshear Jr.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 11-5, NET: 46, KenPom: 32, SOS: 44

    Three Best Wins: Xavier, Alabama, Miami (FL)

    Three Worst Losses: Utah State, at Connecticut, at Missouri

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 11 seed

    Aside from the four teams that compete in the annual Champions Classic, Florida opened the season as one of the top candidates to win the national championship.

    The Gators were No. 6 in the preseason AP Top 25, and why not? They had three returning starters who were expected to blossom as sophomores, signed three top-50 freshmentwo of whom were given 5-star grades, per 247Sports' composite rankingsand added arguably the best transfer in the nation in Kerry Blackshear Jr. There's no one right way to build a contender these days, but that sounds like as good a formula as any.

    But it hasn't worked out as hoped.

    The freshmen, particularly Tre Mann, have fallen well shy of expectations. Everyone other than Blackshear has had a few colossal duds. And when those poor performances have overlapped, the Gators have struggled mightily.

    They are 0-3 in Quadrant 1 games, and all three losses came by double digits. In one of the other two losses, Blackshear had 22 points and 14 rebounds against Utah State, but no one bothered to help him out. A similar story unfolded against Connecticut, except he only got to 15 and eight before fouling out. He was still the only Gator to post an O-rating of 100 or better.

    If he's a one-man show again for the next 10 days, Florida's bubble might pop. The Gators host one-loss Auburn on Saturday, play at LSU on Tuesday and then host projected No. 1 seed Baylor the following Saturday. If they blow all three of those chances and fall to 11-8 with no great wins, they might not be able to come back.

Kansas State Wildcats

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    Xavier Sneed
    Xavier SneedOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 7-9, NET: 102, KenPom: 101, SOS: 63

    Three Best Wins: Tulsa, at UNLV, North Dakota State

    Three Worst Losses: Bradley, Mississippi State, Pittsburgh

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: Out (Appears in zero projections)

    Most of the teams on this list still have a reasonable shot at making the tournament. Kansas State, on the other hand, is as good as dead and buried.

    This can hardly be considered a surprise. The Wildcats lost the three best players from last year's teamBarry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wadeand it has been a decade since they have been able to sign anything close to a one-and-done recruit. Heck, they haven't even signed a 4-star recruit since Malek Harris in 2014, and he was a gigantic bust who left after one bad year.

    In lieu of being able to hit the reset button with quality first-year players, Bruce Weber usually develops guys gradually until they're ready to lead as upperclassmen. But this roster just doesn't have it.

    In fact, Kansas State is 0-2 vs. Quadrant 1 and 0-7 vs. Quadrant 2. As of Tuesday night, the only other major-conference teams without a single win against the top two quadrants were Washington State and Vanderbilt. But even those teams were merely winless in three tries as opposed to Kansas State's nine.

    It's about to get even uglier, too. Within the next six games, the Wildcats will play West Virginia twice, travel to Kansas and host Baylor.

    A glass-half-full person might look at that and say, "Well alright, we can turn this season around in the span of three weeks by catching fire!" But if you've watched this team and you're still able to think that way, your glass must be full of something a little more fermented than optimism.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Roy Williams
    Roy WilliamsGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 8-8, NET: 115, KenPom: 85, SOS: 55

    Three Best Wins: Oregon, Alabama, Yale

    Three Worst Losses: Wofford, Clemson, Georgia Tech

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: Out (Appears in zero projections)

    If there has ever been a case for a guy being worthy of National Player of the Year consideration because of how poorly the team played after he suffered an injury, it has got to be Cole Anthony, right?

    The Tar Heels had significant question marks long before losing Anthony to a knee injury, but at least they were relatively competent. They scored a great neutral-site victory over Oregon in the consolation game of the Battle 4 Atlantis and entered December with a 6-1 record.

    However, since losing Anthonyand subsequently losing his replacement, Anthony Harris, to a torn ACLUNC has dropped five of seven games, including three straight at home against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Clemson. And when you can't win those ACC games, which ones can you win?

    The original timeline on Anthony's knee injury put him back on the court in mid-to-late January. But even if he were to return this weekend, this mess is almost unsalvageable. (If he instead decides to not risk further injury for a team going nowhere fast, UNC legitimately might not win again.)

    Sure, if North Carolina were to win every remaining regular-season game, it would make the NCAA tournament with plenty of room to spare. But even if the Heels go 12-3 with the losses coming at Duke, at Florida State and at Louisville, they would be questionable for a bid, at best.

    It's just a brutal season for a program that has gone to 42 of the last 45 tournaments.

Saint Mary's Gaels

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    Jordan Ford
    Jordan FordD. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 15-4, NET: 43, KenPom: 38, SOS: 77

    Three Best Wins: Wisconsin, BYU, Arizona State

    Three Worst Losses: Winthrop, Santa Clara, at Pacific

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 10 seed

    Saint Mary's is no stranger to bubble life.

    Barring a complete meltdown, this is going to be the 13th consecutive year in which the Gaels win at least 21 games and finish in the top 70 on KenPom. But thus far, that has only resulted in six trips to the NCAA tournament, four of them as a double-digit seed.

    Two weeks ago, they were a mortal lock for a bid. They were 14-2 with wins over Utah State, Nevada, California and San Francisco, in addition to two of the three best ones listed above. That opening-week misstep against Winthrop felt like a lifetime ago—a relatively insignificant smudge on an otherwise impressive resume.

    But then the Gaels lost to Pacific in four overtimes. One week later came the one-point home loss to Santa Clara. In both contests, Saint Mary's led by at least seven points in the final five minutes before acquiring a difficult-to-swallow loss.

    The Gaels are still in decent shape for a bid. At any rate, they would presumably sneak in if the tournament started today. But with those two losses, they are now in their annual "What if they go winless against Gonzaga?" predicament.

    Those two regular-season tests and the road games against BYU and Santa Clara are the only remaining ones that would fall into either of the top two Quadrants if played today. So, if Saint Mary's loses both games against the WCC juggernauts and subsequently falls to 0-3 against Gonzaga in the conference championship, it probably needs to win every other game in order to reach the dance.

Syracuse Orange

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    Elijah Hughes
    Elijah HughesSteve Helber/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 10-7, NET: 84, KenPpm: 61, SOS: 74

    Three Best Wins: at Virginia, at Georgia Tech, Colgate

    Three Worst Losses: Notre Dame, Virginia, Oklahoma State

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: Out (Appears in zero projections)

    Much like Saint Mary's, languishing on the bubble in mid-January has become the norm for Syracuse.

    In three of the last four years, the Orange got in as a No. 8, No. 10 or No. 11 seed. In the year they didn't, they were a No. 1 seed in the NIT. And prior to self-imposing a one-year postseason ban in February 2015, they were 13-4 and my fifth-to-last team in the field in mid-January.

    Really, the last time this wasn't one of the most bubble-y teams at this point in the season was when it started out 25-0 six years ago.

    However, the Orange have more work to do this year than they have in the past.

    The good news is that none of the losses have been terrible. All seven of those opponents are currently in the KenPom top 65, as well as in the NET Top 90. Even though the one-point home loss to Notre Dame is a Quadrant 3 result, it's hard to imagine the selection committee having a major issue with that one.

    The bad news is there are a few too many of those not-bad losses and not nearly enough quality wins to make up for them. As Purdue is currently demonstrating, it's not the end of the world to have seven losses right now, so long as you also picked up a few statement victories along the way. But aside from an overtime win in an ugly game against falling-apart-at-the-seams Virginia, Syracuse hasn't done anything good.

    There are four big opportunities remaining prior to the ACC tournament: at Virginia Tech this Saturday, vs. Duke on Feb. 1, at Florida State on Feb. 15 and at Louisville on Feb. 19. Even if Syracuse wins each of the other 11 games left on the docket, an 0-4 record in those contests would likely keep this team out of the tourney.

Utah State Aggies

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    Sam Merrill
    Sam MerrillEli Lucero/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 14-5, NET: 80, KenPom: 70, SOS: 147

    Three Best Wins: LSU, Florida, Nevada

    Three Worst Losses: at Air Force, at UNLV, BYU

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: Out (Appears in 2 of 87 projections)

    The Aggies definitely aren't a tournament regularat least not recently. Last year's bid snapped a seven-season drought. But they fit the bill for this list because they opened the season at No. 17 in the AP Top 25 and were supposed to be one of the best mid-majors this year.

    At times, they have been.

    Neutral-site victories over LSU and Floridastar big man Neemias Queta didn't play in the former and logged an ineffective 10 minutes in the latter—seemed to serve as early proof that the Aggies had the chops to win a game or two in the NCAA tournament. And at the start of 2020, they had a resume plenty good enough for an at-large bid.

    It only took one week in January for that to go up in smoke, though.

    Not only did Utah State lose to Air Force and UNLV, but it also wasn't even competitive in either game. Senior leader Sam Merrill, who has been battling an ankle injury for more than a month, wasn't himself, scoring just 10 points and barely contributing elsewhere in the box score during each of those losses. With him struggling, those games got out of hand in a hurry. Utah State was outscored by a combined margin of 36 points.

    Unless the Aggies can win at San Diego State on Feb. 1, it's going to be next to impossible to bounce back from those results. The Aztecs are the only Mountain West Conference team currently in the NET Top 75, so that's USU's only opportunity to significantly improve a resume that consists of one Quadrant 1 win, one Quadrant 2 win and a pair of Quadrant 3 losses.

VCU Rams

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    Marcus Evans
    Marcus EvansRyan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    Tournament Resume: 12-5, NET: 44, KenPom: 50, SOS: 69

    Three Best Wins: LSU, at Charleston, at George Mason

    Three Worst Losses: Rhode Island, Tennessee, Purdue

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 11 seed (second-to-last in)

    VCU has one quality win over LSU, one not-so-great home loss to Rhode Island and not much else worth mentioning.

    If the Rams played in a major conference, we wouldn't be that worried about this resume yet because there would be plenty of opportunities forthcoming. It's almost exactly the situation Texas Tech is in right now, except the Red Raiders have 10 Quadrant 1 games still on the horizon.

    VCU? Not so much. After losing by 14 to Dayton on Tuesday night, the rematch against the Flyers on Feb. 18 is the only particularly noteworthy game left on the Rams' docket.

    The road game against Saint Louis (NET: 48) should be a Q1 game, and road games against Richmond (NET: 61) and Rhode Island (NET: 66) might be if those teams can maintain their spots in the NET Top 75. But whether they are low Q1 or high Q2, they aren't needle-movers.

    At this point, those are simply games VCU has to win.

    Let's say the Rams lose the rematch against Dayton before bowing out at some point in the A10 tournament. Even if they win every other game, they're on the bubble as a seven-loss team with a two-point home win over LSU and a road win over Saint Louis as its top bragging points.

    As uninspiring as the resume is, though, this could be a dangerous team if it does make the tournament. VCU is forcing turnovers as often as it used to under Shaka Smart, and it is also a better shot-blocking team than we're used to seeing. Throw in the fact that the starting lineup consists of four seniors and a junior, and you've got a sleeping giant no one wants to draw on Selection Sunday.

Virginia Cavaliers

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    Jay Huff (30) and Mamadi Diakite (25)
    Jay Huff (30) and Mamadi Diakite (25)Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 11-5, NET: 74, KenPom: 42, SOS: 102

    Three Best Wins: Virginia Tech, Arizona State, at Syracuse

    Three Worst Losses: South Carolina, at Boston College, Syracuse

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 10 seed

    Virginia has always been a snail-paced team under Tony Bennett, which led a lot of people to assume the offense wasn't good. During the 2015-16 season, the Cavaliers only averaged 71.0 points per game, good for 232nd place in the nation. But they ranked eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency that season and had ranked in the top 50 in that category during each of the previous six years.

    This year, though, they rank well outside the top 200 with an offense that is both slow as molasses and just plain bad.

    Virginia's defense has actually been more efficient than ever. Opponents are shooting 34.6 percent from the field and averaging 48.7 points per game. As was to be expected, the extended three-point line has made it even more difficult to score against this pack-line defense. Having a 7'1" shot-blocking presence in the paint (Jay Huff) only adds to Virginia's impenetrability.

    Some good it's doing the Cavaliers, though, as they have scored 65 points or fewer in each of their 15 games. In the loss to Syracuse on Saturday, they went on a 13-0 run in the second half, and that rock fight was still tied at 35 with a little over five minutes remaining.

    Last year's offense would've won that game by 30. This year's offense lost in overtime. Virginia is atrocious from three-point range (26.8 percent) and is committing turnovers significantly more often than in any other season under Bennett.

    As far as the resume is concerned, Virginia is 0-2 in Quadrant 1 games and already has three Quadrant 3 losses. The only reason this team is still showing up in any projected brackets is that some people are clinging to what the Cavaliers have done in recent years. The selection committee won't do that, so the reigning national champions have a lot of work to do if they want a chance to defend that title.

Xavier Musketeers

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    Paul Scruggs
    Paul ScruggsGary Landers/Associated Press

    Tournament Resume: 12-6, NET: 57, KenPom: 48, SOS: 21

    Three Best Wins: at TCU, Missouri, Cincinnati

    Three Worst Losses: at Wake Forest, Florida, Creighton

    Current Bracket Matrix Projection: No. 11 seed

    From 2001-18, Xavier went to the NCAA tournament 16 out of 18 possible times. Considering 13 of those seasons were spent in the Atlantic 10, where quality wins were much tougher to come by than they are in the Big East, it was a remarkable run. And it peaked with a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament.

    But after losing five of the seven leading scorers and the head coach from that team, the Musketeers sputtered to a 19-16 season that ended with a trip to the NIT. They are now hoping to avoid that fate for a second consecutive year.

    The odds looked good when they wrapped up nonconference play with an 11-2 record, including all three of the best wins listed above. That loss to Wake Forest wasn't great, but whatever. You're allowed a mulligan on the road in December when the rest of the resume is solid.

    The Musketeers have since gone 1-4 in Big East play, including home losses to Seton Hall and Creighton.

    Neither of those results is unforgivable. Both the Pirates and the Bluejays are projected for single-digit seeds in this year's NCAA tournament. But in a conference with no freebies, Xavier has to do a better job protecting its home court.

    Given how they fared in nonconference play, a 9-9 Big East record likely would have been good enough for a bidmaybe 10-8 just to be on the safe side. But to get 10 league wins, they'll need to go 9-4 the rest of the way, which is quite the tall order with seven of those 13 games coming on the road.

    Xavier would arguably land just on the correct side of the bubble today, but that's probably going to be a different story by the time they're finishing slogging through this Big East gauntlet.