NCAA tournament Bubble Watch: Updated look at the wildest bubble in years

ByJohn Gasaway ESPN logo
Sunday, March 1, 2020

Editor's note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Saturday's games.

Clemson has made a habit this season out of winning a big game, going off the radar for a bit and then winning the next big game. The thing is, when you record enough "signature" wins, your profile can lift you onto the bubble.

That is exactly where Brad Brownell's team finds itself now: 15-13 and appearing, for the first time this season, here at Bubble Watch. Clemson made it this far thanks to wins at home over Duke, Louisville and, now, Florida State.

Even with this illustrious list of vanquished opponents, the Tigers don't present a standard profile for a bubble team. Clemson's NET ranking was No. 77 before the win over the Seminoles. In an ordinary season, that ranking would feel prohibitively low.

The question is whether this is an ordinary season. UCLA's NET ranking has also been trending in the 70s, Joe Lunardi and Bubble Watch are listing the Bruins as legitimate bubble contenders and no one's batting an eye.

So, why not the Tigers? They're a long shot to make the tournament, but it's conceivable.

Winning out would help, for starters, and that won't be easy. Clemson will play at Virginia Tech and then bring the season to a close at home against Georgia Tech.

A tournament bid is going to be a reach for the Tigers, but it's a far less outlandish notion than it was 40 basketball minutes ago. Stranger things have happened in March than Clemson playing in the 2020 NCAA tournament.

Here's our current projection of the bubble:

Bids from traditional "one-bid" leagues: 21 teams

Locks: 26 teams

The bubble:38 teams for 21 available spots

Should be in: 11 teams

Work to do: 27 teams

ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others


Locks: Duke, Florida State, Louisville

Should be in

Virginia Cavaliers

Jay Huffcame to play. Virginia's 7-foot-1 junior blocked 10 shots against Duke, includingVernon Carey Jr.'s potential game-winner in the final seconds. The result was a 52-50 win for the Cavaliers and, for Huff, the first game with 10 or more blocks by a major-conference player in three years. The Hoos were being shown as a No. 9 seed prior to game time, but, with nine wins in their past 10 outings, Tony Bennett's team might continue its climb upward within the seed lines. Virginia has now played games that were decided by three points or fewer five of the past six times it has taken the floor, and the Cavaliers have emerged victorious all five times.

Work to do

NC State Wolfpack

If Selection Sunday were held today, the Wolfpack would be perhaps the closest thing Division I has to a true 50-50 bid probability. Maybe we'd hear NC State's name called, or maybe we would not. It's that close for an 18-11 ACC team with a NET ranking in the high 50s. This singular preeminence in bubble suspense may prove fleeting (the bubble's a wild place with plenty of churn), but, barring a win at Duke on Monday, the safe bet is Kevin Keatts' men will continue to live in uncertainty at least until the ACC tournament and possibly beyond.

Clemson Tigers

A NET ranking that was in the high 70s prior to the Florida State game? A 15-13 record? Scoff if you wish, but, with wins over Duke, Louisville and, now, the Seminoles, Clemson merits mention. For the sake of discussion, say the Tigers win at Virginia Tech and at home against Georgia Tech. (Laptops would rate that probability at less than 50%, but, again, we're speculating freely here). You would then be looking at a 17-13 team that had just wrapped up an 11-9 season in the ACC. Such a team might not receive an at-large bid. Such a team might even be facing long odds. But 17-13 and 11-9 with those wins is a bubble profile. Welcome to the fun, Tigers, and keep winning.

Big 12

Locks:Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia

Should be in

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Suddenly Texas Tech has lost two straight, and this formerly formidable offense is no longer scoring points. The Red Raiders' projected seed has dropped to a spot on the No. 8 line as Chris Beard's men have put just 109 points on the board over 130 possessions in losses at Oklahoma and at home against Texas. In those 80 minutes, Texas Tech converted less than 38% of its 2-point attempts, and Red Raider second chances became vanishingly rare. A visit to Baylor is next on the agenda, and that doesn't seem likely to cure what ails a struggling offense.

Work to do

Oklahoma Sooners

Lon Kruger's team has effectively turned its profile around over the past two games. With wins at home over Texas Tech and on the road at West Virginia, the Sooners have gone from a team that was trending its way out of the tournament field to one that, at 18-11, looks to be in good shape. Oklahoma was projected as a No. 11 seed in advance of its game against the Mountaineers, and the team's top-50 NET ranking will now climb a bit higher. The Sooners will host Texas and then close the season at TCU, and OU is entering that closing stretch in far better shape than the Watch could have imagined just a week ago.

Texas Longhorns

Texas is not in the projected field yet, but no team -- not UCLA, not Providence, not Arizona State, no team -- has recorded a more dramatic and, yes, surprising rise to bubble status than the Longhorns. Shaka Smart is down to a handful of healthy players, and starters Jericho Sims and Jase Febres are still sidelined with injuries, none of which has prevented UT from winning four in a row and capping off that run with a profile-altering 68-58 victory at Texas Tech. The win in Lubbock, which will improve a NET ranking that was in the 60s, takes its place alongside ones at Purdue and at home against West Virginia as the highlights of an 18-11 season so far. With games at Oklahoma and at home against Oklahoma State remaining, Texas is on the cusp of playing its way into the field.

Big East

Locks: Seton Hall, Villanova, Creighton, Butler

Should be in

Marquette Golden Eagles

Marquette stays unlocked just one admonitory moment longer. The combination of no more home games (the Golden Eagles close the season with road contests at DePaul and St. John's) and a 1-4 record over the past five games is a tad too shaky for the honor in question, even with what was, before a nine-point loss at home to Seton Hall, a projected No. 7 seed. The Watch has already alluded to the recent struggles of players not namedMarkus Howardon offense. Well, time to allude again. In the loss to the Pirates, Howard scored 37, but his teammates shot a combined 17-for-47 from the field.

Work to do

Xavier Musketeers

Thanks to 23 points from Naji Marshall in a 78-67 win over DePaul, Xavier is 18-10 and 7-8 in the Big East. That did not look likely in mid-January when this team was 1-4 in conference play, and the Musketeers are appearing on the No. 10 line in the projected field. Alas, the .500 record in conference might be difficult to achieve. Travis Steele's team closes the season by playing two of their last three on the road, and all three opponents are either going to the tournament or still fighting to do so. Xavier will travel to Georgetown and Providence before closing the season at home against Butler.

Providence Friars

Either Providence held Villanova to its worst shooting in over three months or that is simply what the Wildcats did to themselves, including 5-of-30 from beyond the arc. Possibly a little of both. The result in any case was a 58-54 road win for the Friars powered by 27 points from Luwane Pipkins, a result that, at the risk of being overly dramatic, could push this 17-12 team into the field for good. Providence entered the contest projected as a No. 12 seed, and the win against Jay Wright's team fits in nicely alongside ones at home against Creighton and Seton Hall and ones on the road at Marquette and Butler.

Georgetown Hoyas

Apparently, Georgetown was not content to simply trust the Watch maxim that it's better for a bubble team to lose to a good opponent in a blowout than to lose to a bad one in a nail-biter. No, the Hoyas had to experiment with the outer limits of said assumption. Patrick Ewing's team lost to Marquette by 21 in Milwaukee. Prior to that drubbing, Georgetown was commonly regarded as one of the first few teams outside the bracket. Now the Hoyas are 15-13 with a NET ranking threatening to dip below 60. Ewing's men really do have work to do.

Big Ten

Locks: Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State,Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Should be in

Illinois Fighting Illini

For the balance of bubble season, the Watch has been depicting Illinois as something of a stylistic oddity, a team that, magically, is going to the tournament despite having the least accurate offense from the field in its league. That was very interesting and unusual, but, alas, the Fighting Illini are now in danger of becoming just another normal very good team. Brad Underwood has this player he brings off the bench, Alan Griffin. The 6-foot-5 sophomore has been making shots all season, and, in the Illini's win at Northwestern, he scored 24 points in just 21 minutes. Illinois is being shown as a No. 8 seed, and, who knows, a version of the Illini that converts shot attempts may yet be able to move up a line or two.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Rutgers trailed by 21 at Penn State in the first half, came all the way back and then lost on a Myles Dread 3 with 28 seconds remaining. The effort was heroic, but the Scarlet Knights have now lost six of eight. Steve Pikiell's men started the game variously shown as a No. 9 or 10 seed in mock brackets, and there's no need for undue panic regarding this team's chances for a bid. Yet. Rutgers carries a beautiful 30-something NET ranking, and the victories at home over Seton Hall, the Nittany Lions and Wisconsin still look great. On the other hand, the Knights are yet to win a game this season anywhere except Piscataway, New Jersey, or Lincoln, Nebraska. If it comes to this, losses at home against Maryland and at Purdue would drop Pikiell's team to 18-13. By that point, undue panic would not necessarily be undue.

Work to do

Indiana Hoosiers

It's the body of work that matters, not one bad game. Anyway, Indiana hopes so. The Hoosiers recorded their worst shooting performance in over six years in their 57-49 loss at Purdue. Before its unsightly 40 minutes, IU had risen to a No. 9 seed in some mock brackets, and Archie Miller's team had triumphed in impressive fashion over Penn State in Bloomington. Now, Indiana is 18-10 and facing a visit to Illinois. The Hoosiers then close the season with home games against Minnesota and Wisconsin, and, with the Badgers' offense suddenly resembling that of the Dallas Mavericks, securing the win against the Golden Gophers in Bloomington has suddenly become significantly more important.

Purdue Boilermakers

Every game involving a bubble team is called "must win" this time of year, but, seriously, Purdue needed that win at home against Indiana. The Boilermakers went into the night with a 14-14 record, and, despite a spiffy top-40 NET ranking, Matt Painter's team was difficult to find even in the "others receiving votes" portion of mock brackets. The win against the Hoosiers now allows the Boilers to try to put a sufficient number of victories behind that competitive NET ranking. Purdue wraps up the season with a visit to Iowa and a home game against Rutgers. Then comes the Quad 1 trough known as the Big Ten tournament. Between now and Selection Sunday, the Boilermakers are likely going to need wins, plural, against this league's at-large-level teams.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

The bubble can be cruel. In fact, it just is that way by design. Minnesota played 31 tremendous minutes against Maryland at Williams Arena and led by as much as 17. But have you ever noticed how "led by as much as" is always followed by that team losing? The Terrapins ended the night on a 10-1 run, and Darryl Morsell's long-even-by-NBA-standards 3 with 1.9 seconds left won it for the visitors. The Golden Gophers are 13-14 and looking for a miracle. More specifically, looking for one that will work in their favor this time.


Locks: Oregon, Colorado, Arizona

Should be in

Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils went 0-for-L.A., losing at both UCLA and USC. The losses drop Bobby Hurley's group to 19-10, and if Arizona State dips a bit below its previously projected No. 9 seed in the coming days, it is likely the Sun Devils can still finish the regular season 21-10 after home games against Washington and Washington State. Remy Martin has scored 52 points over the past two games with much of his production coming from inside the arc.

Work to do

USC Trojans

That should just about do it. USC's 71-61 win at home over Arizona State runs the projected No. 11 seed's record to 21-9 and increases the likelihood that we will see this team in the field of 68. Andy Enfield has the luxury of playing 6-foot-11 Nick Rakocevic and 6-foot-9 Onyeka Okongwu only to see a different player entirely (Daniel Utomi) record 10 defensive rebounds against the Sun Devils. With only the home game against fellow bubble denizen UCLA remaining, the window of opportunity for bad things to happen is closing rapidly.

Stanford Cardinal

The stage is now set for what could be an entertaining and consequential showdown between tournament lock Colorado and "First Four Out" icon Stanford in Palo Alto, California, this weekend. Jerod Haase's men have built this game into a big deal by winning three straight and by playing with a surprising degree of success on offense while doing so. This is a new look for a Cardinal team that had previously been shutting teams down with its (excellent) defense. Over the past three games, Stanford has connected on 44% of its 3s and 53% of its 2s. (See for example Tyrell Terry's 27 points against Utah on Wednesday.) If the Cardinal can play defense and make shots, look out.

UCLA Bruins

The Bruins' magical run will continue until further notice. UCLA took its first lead of the second half against Arizona with less than a minute remaining, and Mick Cronin's team posted a 69-64 win. With seven straight victories (and a season sweep of the Wildcats) under their belts, the Bruins are one win at USC away from at least a share of the regular season Pac-12 title. Not bad for a team still showing a NET ranking all the way down in the 70s. Mock brackets are still mostly befuddled by the juxtaposition posed by the previous two sentences, and the safe guess is that UCLA does indeed belong in a section titled "work to do." At the rate the Bruins are working, however, a promotion to "should be in" could be in this team's future.


Locks: Auburn,Kentucky

Should be in

LSU Tigers

After a seed-dropping 2-5 stretch in February, LSU found the help it needed in the form of a home game against Texas A&M. The result was a 14-point win for the Tigers and, for now, Will Wade's team has come to a rest in the mock brackets as a No. 8 seed. Skylar Mays drained four 3s and scored 24 for LSU, which will wrap up the season at Arkansas and at home against Georgia. The Tigers continue to generate more scoring chances than their opponents through the combination a low turnover rate (LSU gave the ball away just four times against the Aggies) and a high offensive rebound percentage.

Florida Gators

A five-point loss at Tennessee is unlikely to move the needle too far in a bad direction for Florida. The game goes into the books as a Quad 1 defeat, and the Volunteers recorded their best shooting in nearly eight weeks. The Gators began the game projected as a No. 8 seed, and Mike White's team will still get an opportunity to boost its seed when it hosts Kentucky in Gainesville for the season finale. In between now and then, UF travels to Georgia for a game the Gators would be wise not to overlook. Florida's excellent perimeter shooting will receive a test from a Bulldogs defense that does a good job denying looks from beyond the arc.

Work to do

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State's wins against the likes of Alabama and Missouri aren't landing the Bulldogs in the projected field, but they are at least keeping Ben Howland's team on various "First four out" and "Next four out" lists. MSU closes its season at South Carolina and at home against Ole Miss, and if the Bulldogs were to win out and finish the season 21-10 (and an impressive 12-6 in the SEC) they probably would need to beat an at-large-quality opponent or two at the SEC tournament to truly feel secure. When Mississippi State takes the floor at the conference tournament, Howland won't worry about the impact of his team going cold on the perimeter. In SEC play, the Bulldogs have launched an even smaller share of their attempts from beyond the arc than Kentucky.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Arkansas fans will want to study up on Iowa State in 1992. That was the year the Cyclones, behind a star player named Fred Hoiberg, earned an at-large bid after posting a 5-9 record in what was then called the Big 8. The Razorbacks, at 6-10 in the SEC, are trending toward ISU 1992 territory. That, of course, is good news for fans of the Hogs. The Cyclones did in fact get an at-large bid, and Arkansas is on plenty of "Next four out" lists even with a .375 win percentage in conference play. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the committee doesn't particularly care about conference records, and, from that perspective, Arkansas is 18-11 with a NET ranking that has been lurking in the 40s. Eric Musselman's team will finish its season at home against LSU and on the road at Texas A&M.

Alabama Crimson Tide

John Petty sat out the South Carolina game due to an elbow injury, but Alabama was able to pull through and win 90-86. At 16-13, Nate Oats' team continues to lurk outside the projected field of 68 thanks in part to a surprisingly good (top-40) NET ranking. If the Crimson Tide can take care of business and win at home against Vanderbilt, the game that really looms large is the season-ending visit to Missouri. A victory there would leave the Tide at 18-13 and in position to play their way into the bracket with a big win or two at the SEC tournament.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Mock brackets do not believe in South Carolina. The Gamecocks are nowhere to be found, not even in "Next four out," and the Watch doesn't say that's erroneous. What the Watch does say is that if Frank Martin's men win at home against Mississippi State and on the road against Vanderbilt, they will finish the season 19-12 and, probably, with a NET ranking in the 50s. That is a bubbly profile, and a team with a clear path to a bubbly profile and a win over Kentucky (plus one over Clemson that's looking better) merits a portion of our "work to do" notice.


Locks: None

Should be in

Houston Cougars

For the second time in three outings, Houston lost by one point on the road. After losing in overtime at SMU, the Cougars fell 60-59 in regulation at Memphis when a would-be game winner by Caleb Mills missed the target as time expired. Kelvin Sampson's men are 21-7 and still slated to be a No. 7 seed by the mock brackets, but UH will have to work to keep that position. With games remaining against Cincinnati and UConn, as well as a rematch against the Tigers in the season finale, it's conceivable Houston could finish with at least three losses in its final six contests.

Work to do

Wichita State Shockers

The Shockers saw their bubble lives flash before their eyes late in their home game against Temple. It might be even better to say that Gregg Marshall's team avoided its first Quad 3 loss of the season. The Owls were up 65-58 and seemed to have the momentum, but Wichita State closed the evening on a 14-4 run and got the win. As it stands, the Shockers are holding on to their spot somewhere around the No. 10 or 11 line. Road games at SMU and Memphis and the season finale at home against Tulsa remain for WSU.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Cincinnati was a bubble team before its three-point win at home over Wichita State, and it's a bubble team now. A victory is far better than the alternative, naturally, but defeating the Shockers on one's home court is a Quad 2 win. The real profile-boosting opportunity for the Bearcats and their 50-something NET ranking is still to come, in the form of a road game at Houston. A second win against the Cougars would give John Brannen's team one sweet sound bite: "swept both Houston and Wichita State in the regular season." Until then, UC will continue to sweat it out as one of the last teams in the projected field.

Memphis Tigers

Facing what would have been a damaging Quad 3 loss at Tulane, the Tigers buckled down, forced four turnovers in overtime and emerged with a 74-67 victory over the Green Wave. Now Memphis has a chance to show what it can do against two of the best teams in the league. Penny Hardaway's team will close its season at home against Wichita State and on the road at Houston. Two wins would be helpful for a group that is likely five to eight places outside of the tournament field, and a victory in Houston would give the Tigers the season sweep over the Cougars. Job one for Memphis in the two-game stretch will be holding onto the ball. In American play, the Tigers have turned the ball over on 23% of their possessions.


Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State, Dayton, BYU

Should be in

Saint Mary's Gaels

The Gaels went 0-2 against Gonzaga in the regular season, but that was true last year as well and Randy Bennett's team went on to shock the Bulldogs in the West Coast Conference tournament. Maybe Saint Mary's can make that part of history repeat itself, but one thing is clear. Unlike last year, it looks like SMC won't be required to win the WCC's automatic bid in order to make the field of 68. The Gaels have a beautiful NET ranking in the top 35, and they're being projected as a No. 9 seed. Jordan Ford is masterful with the ball, though this defense allowed conference opponents to convert fully 54% of their 2-point attempts this season.

Rhode Island Rams

This season, Fordham has lost at home to James Madison, Tennessee State, Manhattan and Bryant. Now, Jeff Neubauer's team has also lost at home to Rhode Island. Not by much, however: URI escaped from Rose Hill Gym in the Bronx, New York, with a 76-75 victory. After reeling off 10 consecutive Atlantic 10 victories, David Cox has seen his offense drop off significantly during this current 2-2 stretch (with the wins coming against Saint Joseph's and Fordham). Rhode Island has converted less than 42% of its tries inside the arc over the past four games. In the mock brackets, URI is shown as either a No. 9 or a No. 10 seed.

Work to do

East Tennessee State Buccaneers

ETSU might have earned an at-large even if the team had lost at home in the season finale to Western Carolina, but, thanks to Patrick Good, the Buccaneers will never have to find out. Good sank a 3 with seven seconds remaining that gave Steve Forbes' team a 68-67 victory. With the win, East Tennessee State earned the outright regular-season Southern Conference title, and the 27-4 Bucs will be the top seed in a loaded SoCon tournament. Rivals like UNC Greensboro and Furman, to name two, are quite capable of knocking off ETSU on a neutral floor in Asheville, North Carolina, which is why it's a good omen for the Bucs that they're listed as high as a No. 10 seed in some mock brackets. Even if it doesn't get the automatic bid, East Tennessee State might well make the field.

Utah State Aggies

Is the Aggies' position looking rather precarious now? Craig Smith's team lost at New Mexico 66-64, Utah State's second Quad 3 defeat of the season. USU was sporting a top-40 NET ranking and was being seen as a No. 11 or even as a No. 10 seed, but the loss to the Lobos marked the fourth time the Aggies have been defeated by Mountain West teams besides San Diego State. While Utah State does own neutral-floor victories over Florida and LSU, at 23-8, Smith and his men will feel better about Selection Sunday if they win a couple of games at the Mountain West tournament.

Richmond Spiders

Chris Mooney's team has won seven of its past eight during a stretch of the schedule where the Spiders haven't seen an at-large-level opponent. No Dayton, no Rhode Island. That theme will continue as Richmond brings the curtain down on the season with a home game against Davidson and then a visit to Duquesne. Wins there, should they occur (the Wildcats can shoot, and the Dukes will be ready) feel insufficient to the task of getting UR off the "First four out" roster at last and solidly into the field of 68. For that to happen, the Spiders might have to defeat either URI or, yes, the Flyers at the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

The mock brackets have had a week to digest the case for Stephen F. Austin, and those brackets have responded with a resounding yawn. The Lumberjacks are being shown as a No. 13 seed, making SFA the first projected No. 13 in the history of Bubble Watch to earn inclusion in these august precincts. Moreover, if there's anything even more aberrant than that projected seed, it's a NET ranking in the 80s. The Jacks are staying here, however, because there's a chance, quite small no doubt, that the committee could pull a surprise much the way it did with Belmont last year and get behind an SFA team that's currently 26-3 and ranked in the top 50 in strength of record.

Northern Iowa Panthers

After losing consecutive games on the road at Loyola Chicago and Indiana State, the Panthers closed their season by winning three in a row and earning an outright regular-season Missouri Valley title. Now, can Northern Iowa still win an at-large bid at 25-5 and with a NET ranking in the 40s? Mock brackets will be of little help with this question unless and until UNI loses a game at the MVC tournament. If and when that occurs, any projected seed shown for Ben Jacobson's team will reflect the team's at-large chances. Conversely, the No. 12 seed showing up next to Northern Iowa's name right now assumes at least in part that the Panthers will win the automatic bid. In the meantime, the Watch suspects the Panthers' at-large chances might be slimmer than that projected No. 12 seed is suggesting.

Liberty Flames

Losing at Lipscomb in the regular-season finale is a damaging and potentially fatal blow for Liberty's at-large hopes. The Bisons entered the contest 13-15 and sporting a No. 274 ranking in the NET. It's a Quad 4 loss for the Flames, and, for a team whose best NET win came on a neutral floor against Akron, it's a significant setback. Liberty's NET ranking will fall (it was No. 47 at tipoff), and for now it appears unlikely that getting to and losing in the Atlantic Sun tournament title game and the resulting 29-5 record will be sufficient for an at-large bid. The good news for Ritchie McKay is that the Flames are projected as a No. 12 seed on the assumption that they'll earn the A-Sun's automatic bid.

Yale Bulldogs

Yale is 22-6 and, at 10-2 in Ivy play, still battling Harvard for the top seed at Ivy Madness. The Bulldogs' nine-point win at Clemson looks better every time the Tigers knock off another top ACC team, but two Ivy losses might prove to be one or two too many for an at-large bid. James Jones' team has seen its NET ranking fall into the 60s, for example, and the Quad 3 loss at Penn was especially damaging. Looking ahead, the Bulldogs finish the season at Dartmouth and at Harvard. Yale already has lost to Harvard once (in a 78-77 thriller), and a season sweep for Tommy Amaker's team probably would put this at-large question to rest for the Bulldogs.

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