NCAA Tournament 2021: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams with February Approaching
It has literally been decades since the last time Duke entered February on the NCAA tournament bubble, but Blue Devils stock has been plummeting at an alarming rate in recent weeks.
The 30 candidates for this list were the teams either projected for no better than a No. 8 seed in Monday's Bracket Matrix update, or listed among the first 10 "other at-larges."
From that list of 30 candidates, I compared their current KenPom ranking to the ranking they had at the time of their fifth-most recent game. (For some teams, that game was barely two weeks ago. For others, that game was well over a month ago. Welcome to the 2020-21 season.) Teams who moved at least a dozen spots in either direction—the equivalent of three seed lines—were deemed the true candidates.
Not every team who meets that description will appear on this list, but the most noteworthy ones do.
All KenPom data current through the start of play on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
Stock Up: BYU Cougars
Current Resume: 12-3, NET: 29, KenPom: 47, No. 8 seed in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: W vs. Pepperdine, W vs. Portland, W at San Francisco, W at Saint Mary's, L at Gonzaga
KenPom Change: +21 (68 to 47)
When Gonzaga jumped out to a 23-2 lead over BYU on Jan. 7, it felt like an early nail in the proverbial coffin.
At that point, BYU's road win over Utah State didn't look anywhere near as nice as it does today, so that impending loss was going to drop the Cougars to 9-3 overall with just one noteworthy victory (at San Diego State).
They entered that game at 68th in the KenPom rankings and were sitting roughly at 50th in the NET. (They debuted at No. 52 on Jan. 4.) Had Gonzaga continued that blazing hot start in a win by 40 or 50 points, it could have been a major hit to BYU's metrics.
Instead, after losing the first seven minutes by 21, the Cougars outscored the Zags by four the rest of the way. And there's no shame in a 17-point loss at Gonzaga. Heck, by the time the Cougars played their next game, they had actually moved up three spots to No. 65 on KenPom.
They proceeded to pull off come-from-behind victories at both Saint Mary's (Current NET: 66) and San Francisco (Current NET: 81), adding a Quadrant 1 and a solid Quadrant 2 win to their resume.
BYU is now 3-3 vs. Quadrant 1 without anything close to a bad loss. There are many potential landmines on its schedule for the next month, beginning with the Wednesday night game at Pepperdine. But if the Cougars can make it through without taking any major hits, they should be in the field with room to spare when they play their regular-season finale against Gonzaga.
Stock Down: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Current Resume: 8-6, NET: 48, KenPom: 40, No. 10 seed in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: W at Indiana, L at Penn State, L vs. Wisconsin, L vs. Ohio State, L at Michigan State
KenPom Change: -21 (19 to 40)
Barely a month ago, Rutgers was a projected No. 4 seed, Duke was a projected No. 5 seed and Kansas was a projected No. 1 seed. In a Dream Tournament Matchups article that ran on Dec. 29, I speculated on how much fun those second-round and Sweet 16 pairings could be.
These days, the dream scenario is more like Duke vs. Rutgers in a play-in game for a No. 12 seed with the winner immediately drawing No. 5 seed Kansas in the first round.
The Scarlet Knights did finally (at least temporarily) stop the bleeding with a 74-70 win at Indiana on Sunday. Prior to that game, they were 0-for-January in a skid that began with a fantastic back-and-forth battle with Iowa on Jan. 2. Rutgers let that one slip away, though, and went on to drop the next four, as well.
These things are liable to happen in the loaded Big Ten, though.
Four of Rutgers' six losses came against teams currently in the NET Top 20. A fifth (at NET No. 38 Penn State) is almost certain to remain a Quadrant 1 loss for the rest of the season. That means the Scarlet Knights' worst loss of the season (by NET standards, at any rate) was at Michigan State.
I know it has been a down year for the Spartans, but, come on, everyone knows that's not a bad loss.
All the same, at a certain point, the sheer quantity of losses—no matter how acceptable they may individually be—becomes a problem, and Rutgers hit that point when it lost to Penn State. Assuming all the remaining games on their schedule get played, the Scarlet Knights probably need to go at least 6-4 the rest of the way. And with road games against Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota still to come, that won't be easy.
Stock Up: St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Current Resume: 8-1 NET: 42, KenPom: 53, No. 12 seed in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: W at Duquesne, W vs. VCU, W vs. Duquesne, W at Fordham, W vs. Saint Joseph's
KenPom Change: +18 (71 to 53)
Thus far in January, I'm not sure anyone has done a better job of winning the "fourth quarter" than St. Bonaventure has.
The Bonnies' six-game winning streak started with a road victory over Richmond, in which Kyle Lofton canned a tie-breaking three-pointer with two seconds remaining. The other five victories featured less dramatic finishes, as the Bonnies simply ran away with the final 10 minutes.
They outscored Saint Joseph's 31-18 during that portion of the game, bested Fordham 12-5, finished ahead 39-25 between the two games against Duquesne and, the big one, smothered VCU 18-3 in the final 10 minutes. That's a cumulative score of 100-51.
In the key win over VCU, the rout actually started long before the 10-minute mark. St. Bonaventure outscored the Rams 41-11 in the final 19 minutes, turning a 14-point deficit into a 16-point victory. It was surprising that the win only elevated the Bonnies from No. 59 to No. 55 on KenPom, considering VCU has a decent case for an at-large bid in its own right.
Right now, the biggest thing holding St. Bonaventure back is simply the quantity of games played.
Six of its eight wins have come against the NET/KenPom Top 175, including the Quadrant 1 win over Richmond. But after a mid-December start to the season, eight mostly competitive wins have only made the Bonnies slightly more appealing in the metrics than where they started the season. Just give it a little more time, though. A win at Davidson this coming weekend could be huge.
Stock Down: Marquette Golden Eagles
Current Resume: 8-7, NET: 79, KenPom: 65, Seventh Team Out in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: L vs. DePaul, W at St. John's, W vs. Providence, L vs. Connecticut, W at Georgetown
KenPom Change: -12 (53 to 65)
Marquette pulled off two major upsets in the first month of the regular season—a buzzer-beating victory against Wisconsin and a rather stunning road win over Creighton to open Big East play. After that game, the Golden Eagles were 5-2, ranked No. 33 on KenPom and looked like a great candidate for an at-large bid.
Since then, however, it's been five losses in eight games, with the lowest point coming this past Saturday in the form of a home loss to DePaul.
For the Blue Demons (who weren't able to play their first game of the season until Dec. 23), it was their first win in six attempts against teams in the KenPom Top 200. Just four days prior to upsetting Marquette, DePaul was beaten by 14 at home by Butler, which isn't having a great season, either.
It wasn't a very good loss for Marquette is the point I'm trying to make, and not just because it dropped them to 4-5 in Big East play. That NET Quadrant 3 loss knocked the Golden Eagles backward 10 spots on KenPom and bumped their resume from "probably not quite worthy of a bid" to "barely even worth looking at."
They have a road trip to Providence on Wednesday night, which feels a bit like a must-win game. Marquette could theoretically go on a February tear and easily make the tournament even with a loss to the Friars. But 8-8 overall heading into February would be quite ominous.
Stock Up: Mountain West Conference
Boise State 13-1 (72 to 56 on KenPom): Wins over Fresno State, Wyoming (two) and Air Force (two)
Colorado State 11-3 (88 to 74 on KenPom): Wins over Utah State, UNLV and San Jose State (two); loss at Utah State
San Diego State 11-4 (34 to 33 on KenPom): Wins over Air Force (two) and Nevada; losses at Utah State (two)
Utah State 11-5 (61 to 55 on KenPom): Wins over Colorado State and San Diego State (two); losses vs. Colorado State and at UNLV
Collectively, the Mountain West's four tournament candidates have climbed 37 spots on KenPom since the January 7-9 timeframe.
Prior to Utah State's loss to UNLV on Monday night, these four teams were 25-0 against the rest of the conference, with an average scoring margin of plus-23.8 points in those 25 games.
For a mid-major to put three or four teams into the tournament during a year with minimal opportunity to prove anything in nonconference play, that's what it takes.
But the Mountain West also wouldn't be in this spot without SDSU's wins over UCLA, Arizona State and Saint Mary's, as well as Boise State's win at BYU. Those early results helped put the MWC in a good spot, and thus far, they've held serve quite well.
I would guess three bids is the most likely outcome here. Boise State still has not faced any of the MWC's other three contenders, and only one of these teams can actually win the MWC tournament (provided it gets played). That means at least nine more losses between now and Selection Sunday. You really couldn't ask for better than what the league has done to this point, though.
Stock Down: Michigan State Spartans
Current Resume: 8-4, NET: 85, KenPom: 44, Second Team Out in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: L vs. Purdue, W vs. Rutgers, W at Nebraska, L at Minnesota, L vs. Wisconsin
KenPom Change: -17 (27 to 44)
Michigan State hasn't played in nearly three weeks, so this is a stock that started falling on Christmas.
Well, actually it started falling a few days before Christmas when the Spartans lost by 14 to Northwestern. (Man, remember when the Wildcats won their first three Big Ten games? Good times.)
After going 6-0 in nonconference play, including a road win over Duke, Michigan State lost four of its first six Big Ten games before going on a COVID-19 pause.
The loss to Minnesota—though the most acceptable from a NET perspective—was the ugliest. The Spartans couldn't buy a bucket, trailing 31-11 late in the first half of what eventually became a 25-point loss. It was one of just four times in the past decade that they lost a game by at least 22 points, and it caused them to immediately drop 21 spots in the KenPom rankings.
It seemed like they were starting to turn things around after that, though. They bounced back with two straight wins, including a 23-point pummeling of Rutgers. Even in the home loss to Purdue, the Spartans led by 17 early in the second half before going ice cold.
Since then, they've been frozen in time, with a considerably worse resume than when they started conference play.
Michigan State is scheduled to play road games against Rutgers and Ohio State this week. Winning either one would be a decent week. Winning both would be huge.
Stock Up: Missouri Valley Conference
Current Resume: 12-0, NET: 11, KenPom: 64, No. 10 seed in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: W at Missouri State, W vs. Southern Illinois (two), W vs. Indiana State (two)
KenPom Change: +31 (95 to 64)
Current Resume: 11-3, NET: 28, KenPom: 21, Fourth Team Out in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: W at Bradley (two), W at Valparaiso, W vs. Northern Iowa (two)
KenPom Change: +27 (48 to 21)
I looked at a total of 30 bubble teams, and the two biggest KenPom risers of all were Missouri Valley Conference's Drake and Loyola-Chicago.
Drake's climb began quite a while ago, as Tuesday night's game against Missouri State was its first action in more than three weeks. Despite their undefeated record, the Bulldogs didn't make it into the KenPom Top 100 until their 33-point victory over North Dakota on Dec. 22. And they didn't really begin to surge until winning three of their next four games by at least 18 points each.
That slow climb was mostly a product of their weak schedule. (They still have not faced a single KenPom Top 100 or NET Top 100 opponent.) But when they went on pause, they were one of the hottest teams in the country—or at least one of the hottest-shooting teams. Drake's 43.5 three-point percentage ranked No. 1 in the nation when play began on Tuesday.
While Drake was away, Loyola-Chicago seized the opportunity to become the MVC's team to beat. Entering Monday, the Ramblers had won five straight games by double digits, including consecutive ruthless beatdowns of Northern Iowa and Valparaiso by a combined score of 163-85. Those two blowouts alone vaulted the Ramblers from No. 43 to No. 24 on KenPom.
Now, who's ready for a no-love-lost doubleheader over Valentine's Day weekend?
Drake will host Loyola-Chicago on Feb. 13 and 14 for a pair of games with substantial NCAA tournament implications. Neither of these teams has anything better than a road win over NET No. 119 Indiana State on its resume, and unless Loyola is able to sneak a marquee opponent into one of the gaps on its remaining schedule, those two games are the only chances for either team to do anything about that.
The best-case scenario for a two-bid Valley would be if Drake sweeps in mid-February, followed by Loyola winning the conference tournament and the automatic bid.
Stock Down: Duke Blue Devils
Current Resume: 6-5, NET: 89, KenPom: 34, Ninth Team Out in Bracket Matrix
Five Most Recent Games: W vs. Georgia Tech, L at Louisville, L at Pittsburgh, L at Virginia Tech, W vs. Wake Forest
KenPom Change: -18 (16 to 34)
Duke has not missed an NCAA tournament since 1995, but that streak is in all sorts of jeopardy with the Blue Devils sitting at 6-5 with nothing even close to a marquee win on their resume.
KenPom is bullishly holding onto its belief that Duke isn't all that bad. Mike Krzyzewski's guys are a far cry from where they started the season at No. 2 on that site, but No. 34 on KenPom is still pretty close to "lock to dance" range. I'm relatively certain the last time a team entered Selection Sunday at No. 27 or better on KenPom and still missed the tournament was Air Force (No. 23) in 2007.
And despite the poor record, the KenPom ranking kind of makes sense.
Similar to Rutgers, Duke's only "bad" loss in the NET was to Michigan State, and we all know/assume that isn't actually a bad loss. The Blue Devils put forth valiant efforts in Quadrant 1 road losses to Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville in the past two weeks and have actually gained some ground in the NET because of those close contests. (When I pulled data for my Jan. 12 bracket projection, the Blue Devils were 5-2 and sitting at No. 98 in the NET.)
Also similar to Rutgers, it's high time Duke actually wins some games instead of stacking up respectable losses.
And in this year's ACC, there aren't many quality wins to be found. Based on current NET rankings, the only Quadrant 1 opportunities remaining on Duke's schedule are the home game against Virginia on Feb. 20 and the road game against North Carolina on March 6. (If they're able to reschedule the previously postponed game against Florida State, that would be another one.)
To reiterate: Duke is in serious trouble. A win over Clemson on Saturday is highly recommended.