NCAA Tournament 2020: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams with February Approaching
It's hard to believe it's already almost February, but the bubble for the 2020 men's NCAA tournament is—for better or worse—starting to come together.
Movement along said bubble is like an interstate highway with teams zooming in both directions.
Teams like Illinois and USC are in much better shape than they were a few weeks ago. But for the likes of DePaul and Liberty, things have been trending in a much different direction.
Squads considered for this list are those that appear in at least five projected brackets in the Jan. 27 update of the Bracket Matrix but are ranked no higher than a No. 6 seed. We can argue about the appropriate size of the official bubble at this point in the season, but those are the 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 up and down so much that the net result was a wash.
We're only interested in highlighting the hot ones and cold ones. And let me tell you, there were significantly more cold candidates than hot ones. In putting together a projected bracket these days, it's hard to even find teams worthy of a No. 10 seed, let alone those last few spots in the field.
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 Jan. 29. Statistics are current through the start of play Jan. 28.
Stock Down: Washington Huskies
Last Five Games: L at California, W vs. Oregon State, L vs. Oregon, L at Utah, L at Colorado
In the season opener against Baylor, Washington stormed back from a 13-point deficit late in the second half to eke out a three-point win.
Evidently, the Huskies sold their souls to the devil to make that happen, because it has been nothing but bad luck since then. They've gone 0-7 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
Three of those came in the past three weeks, and each one was more agonizing than the last.
Against California, Washington lost in overtime on a banked-in three with less than 10 seconds remaining. Against Oregon, the Huskies blew a 16-point second-half lead and lost in overtime when Payton Pritchard canned a fadeaway three with less than five seconds to go. And in the 67-66 loss to Utah, they were up 56-45 with less than six minutes left on the clock, only to have the Utes come back while making a dozen free throws in the final three minutes.
So many nail-biters, none of them going Washington's way. And now this resume is a joke.
Not only do the Huskies have nine losses, but they also have an equal number of wins (two) against the top two Quadrants as they do Quadrant 3 defeats.
If they decide to wake up and sweep the home games against Arizona and Arizona State this week, the Huskies could get right back in the mix for a tournament bid. Given the way things have gone in the past month, though, they'll probably go 0-2 by a combined margin of three points.
Stock Up: Illinois Fighting Illini
Resume: 15-5, KenPom No. 22, NET No. 32, Bracket Matrix No. 6 seed
Last Five Games: W at Wisconsin, W vs. Rutgers, W vs. Northwestern, W at Purdue, W at Michigan
While most of the Big Ten has had a nightmarish time trying to win road games in league play, Illinois has reeled off three straight road victories and six consecutive wins overall.
The Fighting Illini have been able to buck that trend because their defense travels well.
It's not a turnover-forcing defense, though, which had been the modus operandi for head coach Brad Underwood's teams over the past six seasons. In fact, Illinois has recorded two or fewer steals in each of its last five games. Aside from 7'0" freshman Kofi Cockburn, it's not a shot-blocking party either. It's just a royal pain in the butt trying to get an open look against this D.
And on the other end of the floor, the duo of Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu has been almost impossible to slow down. The former has averaged 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds over his last 11 games, while the latter has put up at least 14 points in 10 of those contests, including a career-high 27 he polished off with the game-winning bucket against Michigan on Saturday.
Of the five wins listed above, four were of the Quadrant 1 variety, which would make the Illini a mortal lock for the NCAA tournament if it started today. No one has been hotter as of late.
However, this six-game winning streak could easily be followed by a six-game losing streak if they aren't careful. In the next three weeks, they'll host Minnesota, Maryland and Michigan State and travel to Iowa, Rutgers and Penn State. But they've put themselves into a position where even a 2-4 record against that gauntlet would be more than enough to remain in great shape for a bid.
Stock Down: Liberty Flames
Resume: 19-3, KenPom No. 71, NET No. 73, Bracket Matrix No. 12 seed
Last Five Games: W vs. North Alabama, W vs. Jacksonville, W vs. Lipscomb, L at North Florida, L at Stetson
In order to be taken seriously as an at-large candidate, Liberty needed to be almost perfect in conference play.
The Flames only have themselves to blame for that. They started out 14-0, but they did so against one of the weakest schedules imaginable. A road game against SEC bottom-feeder Vanderbilt and a neutral-site game against Akron were the only things even close to a legitimate test, and those would rank among the worst nonconference games for most at-large teams.
It wasn't until the Dec. 29 road game against LSU that Liberty's strength of schedule was somewhat salvaged. However, the Flames lost that game by 17, so it's not like it helped their cause.
Given the general awfulness of the Atlantic Sun Conference—even a road game against the second-best team, North Florida, falls squarely in the middle of Quadrant 3—Liberty was never going to be able to improve its resume. Even if it won every game prior to the A-Sun championship and finished 32-2, there was going to be a fierce "Yeah, but who did the Flames actually beat?" debate as we made the case to exclude this mid-major in favor of a 15-loss team from the Big Ten.
We'll never know how that debate would have ended, though, because Liberty lost back-to-back games to North Florida and Stetson last week. And let me tell you, the NET noticed. The Flames were No. 24 in the NET while I was working on my projected bracket that published on Jan. 21. Five days later, they had plummeted all the way to No. 73.
Liberty should still make the Big Dance by winning the Atlantic Sun tournament, but it's safe to say we no longer need to entertain the possibility of a two-bid A-Sun. If the Flames lose in the conference tournament, they'll be headed to the NIT.
Stock Up: USC Trojans
Resume: 16-4, KenPom No. 50, NET No. 40, Bracket Matrix No. 9 seed
Last Five Games: W at UCLA, W vs. California, W vs. Stanford, L at Oregon, W at Oregon State
USC has one of the strangest resumes on this year's bubble.
At a quick glance, it looks great. The Trojans are 16-4 with three Quadrant 1 wins, five Quadrant 2 victories and only one loss outside of Quadrant 1—a home game against Temple, which isn't that bad.
But what's the signature win here? The home victory in overtime against bubble-y Stanford? The two-point victory over LSU on a "neutral" court in Los Angeles? And why did the Trojans get destroyed in the losses to Marquette and Washington?
At the time of our Jan. 14 bracket projection, USC was 68th in the NET and 73rd on KenPom. I had the Trojans as the last team in the field, and I was in the minority as far as Bracket Matrix was concerned. Almost everyone else had the Trojans out, no doubt because those computer metrics left much to be desired.
They helped their cause immensely with blowout wins over California and Oregon State, a quality win over Stanford and a "quality loss" in double overtime against Oregon. During this five-game stretch, USC has ascended approximately 30 spots in both NET and KenPom, and now it is almost unanimously in the projected field.
Because of the lack of marquee wins and the still-mediocre NET and KenPom rankings, though, USC could be a brief slump away from dropping right back out. The Trojans still have two games each against Arizona and Colorado. If they're unable to claim victory in any of those four contests, they may well need to win every other regular-season game remaining.
Stock Down: Xavier Musketeers
Resume: 13-7, KenPom No. 59, NET No. 63, Bracket Matrix Next Four Out
Last Five Games: L vs. Seton Hall, L vs. Creighton, L at Marquette, W vs. Georgetown, L at Creighton
At the beginning of conference play, it felt like the Big East was the best league from top to bottom. DePaul was 12-1. Both Xavier and St. John's were 11-2 with several quality wins. Georgetown was on a six-game winning streak and had climbed into the top 40 in KenPom. Providence (7-6) felt like the lone dud in a conference with nine serious tournament contenders.
But there has since been a line drawn in the sand between the top half and the bottom half of the Big East, and Xavier's recent schedule is the clearest example of it.
It's not just that the Musketeers lost the above four games against the upper echelon. It's that they weren't anywhere close, losing each by at least 11 points. They desperately needed to win that road game against Creighton on Sunday, but they instead dug themselves a 10-point hole almost immediately and only briefly threatened to climb out of it.
Even though they were all Quadrant 1 losses, that collection of beatings has taken a toll on this resume. Xavier ranked just outside of the KenPom top 30 five games ago. Now it sits just inside of the top 60.
The schedule doesn't lighten up either. The Musketeers host Marquette on Wednesday night, followed by a road game against Seton Hall on Saturday. They still have a home game against Villanova in late February, as well as two games against Butler.
On the one hand, those are huge opportunities. But unless they win at least one of those five games—plus all six of the remaining games against the Big East's bottom half—there's no hope for a bid.
Stock Up: Alabama Crimson Tide
Resume: 12-7, KenPom No. 42, NET No. 41, First Team Out
Last Five Games: L at Kentucky, W vs. Auburn, W vs. Missouri, W at Vanderbilt, W vs. Kansas State
Four games ago, Alabama wasn't even on the tournament radar. The Crimson Tide were 8-7 with a few decent home wins over Mississippi State, Furman, Richmond and Stephen F. Austin. However, those relative goods were undone by four losses to teams not in the projected field—Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Iowa State and North Carolina.
But they played well in road losses to Penn State, Florida and Kentucky, looking like a team that could turn a corner and put together a solid run through a largely lackluster SEC.
Beginning with the 83-64 pummeling of then-undefeated Auburn, Alabama has done just that thus far. It followed up that marquee win with convincing victories over Missouri and Vanderbilt and a close call against Kansas State in the SEC-B12 Challenge.
The Tide still have November warts on their resume, but games against LSU and Arkansas this week could help cover those up. They have won 10 of their last 13 games, and two more wins would put them into the mix for the title of best team in the SEC.
If you haven't been paying attention to this squad, this would be a good week to start. It is a lot of fun to watch, playing at a breakneck speed and firing up threes about as often as Auburn did en route to last year's Final Four. Both games this week should be entertaining track meets and critical ones for the Crimson Tide.
Stock Down: Michigan Wolverines
Resume: 12-8, KenPom No. 30, NET No. 35, No. 9 Seed
Last Five Games: L at Minnesota, L at Iowa, L vs. Penn State, L vs. Illinois, W at Nebraska
In college basketball, you never want to be the "Remember When?" team.
For example, remember when Michigan put the finishing touches on its Battle 4 Atlantis title with an 18-point win over Gonzaga, subsequently skyrocketing from unranked to No. 4 in the AP poll with multiple first-place votes?
Folks were bringing up the fact that the past two national champions began their title journey by winning the Battle 4 Atlantis. At that point, the Wolverines were 7-0 and looked like the best team in the country.
Since then, they're 5-8. Three of those wins (Presbyterian, Mass.-Lowell and Nebraska) aren't exactly worth bragging about. In one of the others, they needed double overtime to win at home against Purdue. In another, they gave up 91 points to Iowa.
And, again, those were the positive results from the past two months.
They also lost back-to-back home games last week, taking what should have been a bounce-back period and turning it into a trip further along the downward spiral. They already have six losses in Big Ten play, and they still have six games remaining away from home—not to mention a pair of home games against Michigan State and Ohio State that won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Michigan is still somewhat comfortably in the projected field. Blowing out Gonzaga on a neutral court gives you more of a cushion to play with, and it's not like any of the eight losses was particularly bad. But what a brutal journey this has been since the beginning of December. The Wolverines need to reharness some of that Thanksgiving magic—and fast.
Stock Up: Rhode Island Rams
Resume: 15-5, KenPom No. 52, NET No. 47, Second Team Out
Last Five Games: W at Saint Joseph's, W vs. La Salle, W vs. Duquesne, W at St. Bonaventure, W at George Mason
In addition to the five games listed above, Rhode Island started its seven-game winning streak with victories over Davidson and VCU.
That win at VCU is the one that first put URI on the map. Prior to that, the Rams were 9-5 with a couple of Quadrant 2 wins over Alabama and North Texas, a reprehensible loss to Brown and little else worth mentioning. Given the minimal supply of Quadrant 1 opportunities in Atlantic 10 play this year, Rhode Island desperately needed that one to enter the at-large conversation.
Not only did the Rams win that game (and the next five), but they've gotten a lot of help from Alabama surging into the tournament fray. That home win in November didn't look like much until the Crimson Tide suddenly became one of the teams to beat in the SEC. Now, that 93-79 victory is a nice boost to Rhode Island's resume.
While URI's stock is undeniably up, there's still much work to be done. That loss to Brown isn't going anywhere, and a pair of wins over two other teams on the bubble isn't enough to cover it up.
The Rams have 10 regular-season games remaining: two huge opportunities against Dayton, a home game against VCU and a road game against Davidson, both of which could be strong Quadrant 2 wins, and six other games they simply cannot afford to lose. The current 7-1 record in A-10 play looks nice, but they probably need to go at least 8-2 the rest of the way to enter the A-10 tournament in good shape for a bid.
Stock Down: DePaul Blue Demons
Resume: 13-7, KenPom No. 73, NET No. 66, Bracket Matrix Next Four Out
Last Five Games: L at St. John's, L at Villanova, W vs. Butler, L vs. Creighton, L vs. St. John's
One of the best narratives from the first seven weeks of the regular season was the sudden relevance of DePaul.
The Blue Demons started out 9-0 with road wins over Iowa, Minnesota and Boston College. They also won a home game against Texas Tech and almost certainly would have appeared in the AP Top 25 the following Monday were it not for the subsequent home loss to Buffalo. It would have been their first time being ranked since November 2000.
Still, they entered league play with a 12-1 record and five wins over major-conference opponents. DePaul hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2004, but it looked like that drought was coming to an end.
Since then, the Blue Demons are 1-6. They've been swept by St. John's, and they lost a home game to Providence. Even though their lone conference win was a 79-66 game against AP Top 20 Butler, they've done a lot more harm than good since Christmas and need a miracle to salvage this mess for a trip to the Big Dance.
In five of their last seven games, they shot below 24 percent from three-point range, including a combined 7-of-40 (17.5 percent) in the two losses to St. John's. Suffice it to say, it's not easy to win that way.
Even if they can start shooting at a respectable clip, things don't figure to take a turn for the better anytime soon. Four of DePaul's next five games are on the road against Seton Hall, Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton. And once the Blue Demons get back to Chicago after that grind, they have to deal with a home game against Villanova.
Odds are they'll lose at least four of those games and fall out of the at-large conversation just as quickly as they surged into it.