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Bubble Bedlam: Will Any Team Win Its Way into 2021 NCAA Men's Tournament?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 3, 2021

Duke's Jordan Goldwire
Duke's Jordan GoldwireMarta Lavandier/Associated Press

Without fail, fans of men's college basketball make some sort of "This is the weakest bubble ever!" complaint in late February or early March of every year.

In most seasons, it's just recency bias; we forget how nauseating it was to wade through the previous year's resumes in search of teams worthy of the final few spots in the field.

However, this year's bubble is openly inviting such proclamations by losing critical games over and over again.

Let's be sure to note off the bat that this was already destined to be the weakest bubble on record.

With the Ivy League opting out of the 2020-21 season, there's one more at-large spot available (37) than usual. Not only do more at-large spots need to be awarded, but there are also fewer major-conference candidates than usual with both Arizona and Auburn ineligible for the postseason. On top of that, the combination of the late start to the regular season and teams losing games to COVID-19 pauses means there are going to be teams who enter Selection Sunday with 20 or fewer games played, compared to 31 to 34 in a normal year.

Fewer games means fewer quality wins. Two years ago, several teams racked up at least a dozen Quadrant 1 wins. Texas and Indiana were both left out of the 2019 field in spite of a combined 11 Quadrant 1 victories. But as of Tuesday morning, no one in the country has more than eight Quadrant 1 wins this year, and there are several teams either in the projected field or darn close to it who have either zero or one top-tier victories all season.

Even with those caveats established, the past week of bubble flops has left us to wonder if some of these teams even want to play in the NCAA tournament.

In my bracket projection on the morning of February 23, the last seven teams in the field (in order from safest to least safe) were Drake, Minnesota, Colorado State, VCU, Indiana, St. Bonaventure and Seton Hall.

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In the subsequent seven days, those teams went a combined 6-8 with three Quadrant 3 losses. The only one to pick up a Quadrant 1 win was St. Bonaventure, but in addition to it barely counting as Q1 (at NET No. 71 Davidson), the Bonnies also suffered one of the three bad losses.

Of the seven teams, the only one that didn't suffer at least one loss was Colorado State, which played a pair of Quadrant 4 home games against 5-19 Air Force.

Normally, a week that terrible from the teams on the good side of the projected cut line would be great news for the teams on the bad side of the projected cut line.

Except those teams didn't do much to help their case, either.

My first five out last Tuesday were Duke, Saint Louis, Wichita State, Michigan State and Syracuse. Four of those five suffered a loss, and the lone exception was Wichita State, which hasn't played since Feb. 18. (Michigan State actually did a lot to help its case with home wins over Illinois and Ohio State, but the Spartans also left a sour taste in our mouths with that 18-point loss to Maryland on Sunday.)

Michigan State's Aaron Henry
Michigan State's Aaron HenryJulio Cortez/Associated Press

Even most of the "still under consideration" teams shot themselves in the foot. We had 12 teams in that group last week, and seven of them suffered a loss (or losses, in several cases) bad enough to effectively extinguish what little hope they had of making the tournament.

As a result of all that carnage, the limited few who didn't take a bad L benefited in a big way.

By simply not losing to Air Forcewhich is now 0-8 against the Mountain West Conference's top four teams with each loss by at least 11 points—the Colorado State Rams climbed up from a "play-in game" to a solid No. 11 seed. And Georgia Tech vaulted from somewhere around "10th Team Out" all the way up to "Fifth-to-Last Team In" with its wins over Virginia Tech (road) and Syracuse (home).

The Yellow Jackets are also now the third-highest rated ACC team on KenPom.com, which is rather remarkable when you consider the usual strength of that league and the fact that Georgia Tech opened the season with consecutive home losses to Georgia State and Mercer.

But Georgia Tech's rapid ascension from its woeful beginning speaks volumes to how the blue-blood programs keep hanging around the bubble in spite of their atypically bad seasons.

The conspiracy theorists in the crowd love to spew nonsense about the NCAA and/or selection committee wanting teams like Duke, North Carolina and Michigan State to get in for ratings and dollars, but that isn't what's happening. The bar for inclusion is just so low this year thatwhile some other team on the bubble is suffering a Quadrant 3 loss seemingly every nightall it takes is one home win over Virginia, Florida State or Illinois to drastically improve a team's resume.

Where this is ultimately headed is perhaps the most important conference tournament season ever.

Boise State's Derrick Alston
Boise State's Derrick AlstonGregory Bull/Associated Press

In most years, if you put together a competent bracket projection five days before Selection Sunday and don't change anything within the major conferences throughout the week, it would still look fine. You should probably at least account for the couple of teams who surprisingly win several games to reach their conference championships, as well as the ones who immediately suffer a bad loss. However, there usually aren't drastic swings in projected seeding this late in the season.

This year, though, so much is still up in the air, as these final data points are going to carry more weight on the slimmed-down resumes.

That's most pertinent in the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, otherwise known as the epicenter of the 2021 NCAA tournament bubble.

Each of those mid-major leagues has had four teams in the at-large conversation throughout the seasonVCU, St. Bonaventure, Richmond and Saint Louis in the A-10; San Diego State, Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State in the MWC. Of the bunch, though, the only one safely in the field is San Diego State.

Richmond is the No. 8 seed in the A-10 tournament, meaning it will face No. 9 seed Duquesne first. If the Dukes happen to catch fire and knock off both Richmond and No. 1 seed St. Bonaventure while Saint Louis fails to even reach a conference championship game that VCU wins, hello one-bid A-10.

(Before you say there's no way Duquesne could pull that off, be sure to note that the No. 1 seed was eliminated by either the No. 8 or No. 9 seed in five of the last nine A-10 tournaments. That tournament almost always goes off the rails.)

And while the most likely scenario in the MWC is those four teams squaring off in the semifinals, it isn't exactly beyond the realm of possibility for Nevada, UNLV and Fresno State to knock off Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State in the quarterfinals of a tournament that San Diego State wins, possibly making that a one-bid league, too.

Throw in the ACC and Big Ten tournaments featuring a combined nine or 10 bubble teams, and things could get wild.

Just get ready to hear this refrain on repeat for what little time remains before the final bracket is revealed: We have to get to 68 teams somehow. And don't be surprised if and when the blue-blood programs benefit from that dilemma.

Well, most of the blue bloods. Barring a miraculous run to an SEC tournament title, even this year's bubble doesn't have enough room for 8-14 Kentucky.

               

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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