Bubble Watch 2020: Beware the bid thieves who burst bubbles

  • ESPN Insider college basketball contributor
  • First began covering college hoops in 2004
  • Has written for Basketball Prospectus and the Wall Street Journal

Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Wednesday’s games.

Conference tournaments begin this week, which means we’ll soon be hearing and speculating about bid thieves. We might even see a few.

Bubble teams hate bid thieves. After an entire season of carefully building your profile as a bubble team, you watch a thief come in at the last minute in March and take a bid off the board. Possibly your bid.

Last year was practically a golden age for bid thieves. Oregon took a bid off the board when the Ducks surprised everyone by winning the Pac-12 tournament after going just 19-12 in the regular season. Saint Mary’s and Saint Louis also popped some bubbles by capturing the automatic bids in the West Coast Conference and Atlantic 10, respectively.

We can’t know in advance where bid thieves will materialize, of course, but some conferences do seem more likely to host them than others. Start with simple math.

The Big 12 and the Big East are both 10-member conferences with plenty of at-large hopefuls. Typically, that’s not a promising environment for a bid thief. Providence might have been something of a thief when it won the 2014 Big East tournament, but examples like this one from these two leagues are suggestively rare.

Contrast that picture with what we’ll see when the 14-team Atlantic 10 hosts its postseason tournament. Dayton, of course, has locked a bid up tight whether it happens to be automatic or at-large. Past the Flyers, however, you have no fewer than 13 other teams that can’t just assume they’ll hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

These are the conditions from which bid thieves tend to arise. Keep an eye on leagues with just one or two tournament locks, conferences such as the A-10, the American and, possibly, the Mountain West. As thieves arise, the Watch will adjust the forecasts for bubble teams accordingly.

Speaking of which, here’s our current projection of the bubble:

Bids from traditional ‘one-bid’ leagues: 21 teams
Locks: 29 teams
The bubble: 34 teams for 18 available spots
Should be in: 7 teams
Work to do: 27 teams


Locks: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Virginia

Work to do

NC State Wolfpack

This question of NC State’s tournament fate looks like it’s going to go down to the wire for a second consecutive year. The Wolfpack could have removed some uncertainty from the equation by sweeping the season series with Duke, but the Blue Devils had other ideas for the back half of the two-game series. Mike Krzyzewski’s men scored 50 after halftime, and Duke ran away with the 88-69 win at home. The loss leaves the Wolfpack in a familiar spot. It’s rare for a team to maintain a long residency at “First Four Out,” but NC State has somehow managed to do just that. With a NET ranking in the 50s, an 18-12 record and just one game remaining (at home against Wake Forest), Kevin Keatts’ men are going to arrive at the ACC tournament with work to do.

Clemson Tigers

Clemson will always have the home wins against Duke, Louisville and Florida State, but after a 12-point loss at Virginia Tech, the Tigers now have to do the impossible. Brad Brownell’s team is 15-14, perfectly invisible in mock brackets and weighed down by a NET ranking in the 70s. (Those three things are all interrelated, by the way. How Hegelian.) All of the above can change if Clemson wins out, which, more specifically, would mean beating Georgia Tech at home and then recording no fewer than three wins at the ACC tournament on the way to a title-game loss. Beat the Yellow Jackets, and then win on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at Greensboro Coliseum. Then we can talk.

Big 12

Locks: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia

Should be in

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Chris Beard’s team nearly came up with the upset at Baylor as the Bears played without Mark Vital, but BU managed to hang on for a 71-68 win. That’s three straight losses for the Red Raiders, but a top-25 NET ranking should keep this team’s projected seed around the No. 8 or 9 line for the time being. Not to mention Texas Tech closes the season at home against Kansas, furnishing the Raiders the best NET opponent you could hope to have on your home floor. A win against the Jayhawks would give Beard’s men their fourth Quad 1 win of the season.

Work to do

Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners can afford to lose in a heartbreaking and shocking way and still make the tournament. After Brady Manek made one of two free throws to put Oklahoma up two points over Texas in the final 30 seconds, Kristian Doolittle went 0-for-2 at the line with 6 seconds left. It cost OU. (See “Texas,” below.) The loss drops Oklahoma to 18-12 and imperils the No. 9 seed that seemed to be awaiting Lon Kruger’s men. Instead, the Sooners will travel to TCU needing a win to avoid a second consecutive sub-.500 finish in Big 12 play. (Granted, the sub-.500 finish last season still resulted in an at-large bid.) Note additionally that OU is in the midst of a severe perimeter drought. Oklahoma was 2-of-20 from beyond the arc against the Longhorns and has connected on just 26% of its 3s over the past six games.

Texas Longhorns

Matt Coleman’s incredible banked-in 3 in the final second of the game at Oklahoma won it for the Longhorns. Texas has now recorded five consecutive victories, the past three coming against the estimable likes of West Virginia, Texas Tech and the Sooners. Shaka Smart’s group was already making the “First Four Out” cut in some mock brackets before the Quad 1 win at OU, and UT’s ascent from tournament afterthought to now has been remarkable. The NET ranking just keeps getting better, and it was already in the bubbly high 50s before tipoff against Oklahoma. With a victory at home against Oklahoma State, the Longhorns can finish the season 20-11. It has been a stunning U-turn.

Big East

Locks: Seton Hall, Villanova, Creighton, Butler

Should be in

Marquette Golden Eagles

Marquette has now lost five of its past six, and Steve Wojciechowski’s men will try to snap that streak at St. John’s in the final game of the regular season. The Golden Eagles do have plenty of cushion underneath them in the bracket as a projected No. 7 seed. That seed might continue to edge downward, naturally, after the one-point loss at DePaul, but the larger concern is whether Marquette can fix what’s ailing this team in time to make a run in the NCAA tournament. When the Golden Eagles defend, as they did in losses to Villanova, Creighton and, now, the Blue Demons, they don’t score. When they score, as they did in the loss to Seton Hall, they don’t defend.

Work to do

Providence Friars

In a season in which Texas and UCLA get most of the attention for their dramatic turnarounds, be sure to nominate Providence if anyone’s handing out awards for miraculous transformations. Keep in mind this same team lost consecutive games to Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston in November. What a difference three months can make. After defeating bubble doppelganger Xavier 80-74 at home, Ed Cooley’s men are 18-12 with a top-50 NET ranking. A win at home against DePaul would figure to keep PC on track for a spot somewhere in the neighborhood of a No. 9 seed. Luwane Pipkins has put 97 points on the board in his past four outings.

Xavier Musketeers

The Musketeers lost by six at Providence in a meeting of near-identical tournament profiles. Both teams sported NET rankings in the low 40s at tipoff and both were being projected as No. 9 or 10 seeds in the mock brackets. The difference between Xavier and the Friars now comes down to remaining games. Travis Steele’s team will host Butler in the season finale, and a Quad 1 win against the Bulldogs could potentially (there are many moving parts) send Xavier straight through to the Big East tournament quarterfinals. Say the Musketeers beat BU and then face a Villanova or a Creighton in the Big East quarters. Nothing bad can happen, really, in that scenario. Conversely, if you lose to Butler, you’re increasing your chances of playing a Wednesday game at Madison Square Garden against DePaul or St. John’s. Bad things could happen there.

Big Ten

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

Should be in

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

The Scarlet Knights earned the Quad 1 win they so badly needed, defeating Maryland 78-67 at home. Yes, at home is where all of the Rutgers victories occur (well, plus one at Nebraska), and it appears this is going to be a winning strategy. Steve Pikiell’s men are now assured of a regular-season finish no worse than 19-12 to go along with a .500 record (or better) in Big Ten play. To put that in perspective, Rutgers hasn’t finished .500 or above in conference play since Gary Waters led the program to an 8-8 finish in the 2002 Big East. Making school history plus a persistently eye-catching NET ranking in the 30s look like they will get the job done for the Knights in the committee room.

Work to do

Indiana Hoosiers

On the eve of Indiana’s home game against Minnesota, mock brackets couldn’t really agree whether the Hoosiers were barely in the projected field or if they were in with some room to spare (say, as a No. 10 seed). The key word, however, was “in,” and after defeating the Golden Gophers by five, Archie Miller’s team is breathing a bit easier. The upcoming Quad 1 opportunity at home against Wisconsin, for example, offers more potential reward (not least in terms of seeding at the Big Ten tournament) than peril. Call it the benefits of membership in the statistically robust Big Ten. At 19-11, IU is feeling better about its postseason chances than the Hoosiers could have imagined a month ago when they were coming off four straight losses.

Purdue Boilermakers

Now things are getting interesting. Purdue appeared bound and determined to squander that excellent top-40 NET ranking and miss out on all the bubble speculation. Indeed, the Boilermakers had fallen all the way down to “Next Four Out” status in most bracket forecasts. Then Matt Painter’s team won 77-68 at Iowa, and suddenly this is a 16-14 team with the aforementioned NET approbation and victories over Virginia, Michigan State and Wisconsin as well as the season sweep over the Hawkeyes. Historically, the committee has not favored at-large candidates with overall records this close to .500, but Purdue can improve that win percentage with a victory at home over Rutgers.


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

Give the Cardinal credit. Jerod Haase’s men have played their way back, if not into the projected field, then into enough projected fields on enough mock brackets to have a clear shot at making the real field as an at-large member. Stanford’s latest feat of resuscitation was its Quad 1 home victory over Colorado. You’re now looking at a 20-9 team with wins over Oklahoma, UCLA, Oregon and the Buffaloes and with a top-35 NET ranking. What will all of the above look like after the Cardinal finish the season at Oregon State and Oregon? At a minimum, the NET ranking likely still will stand out even in the event of two losses. Said ranking, after all, stood by Stanford during its four-game losing streak in early February. Then again, as well as Haase’s men are playing, a 1-1 or even 2-0 finish might be in the cards.

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

Since starting SEC play 8-0, projected No. 8 seed LSU has gone 3-6 in what might be termed highly entertaining fashion — as long as you’re not a fan of the Tigers. Remarkably, the offense for Will Wade’s team has actually improved, slightly, over these past nine contests. The problem, as you may have surmised, is that opponents’ offenses have ramped up their scoring even more. The past nine SEC teams the Tigers have faced have rung up a Dallas Mavericks-like 1.17 points per possession. The 99-90 loss at Arkansas was thus a fairly representative outpouring of late-season LSU basketball.

Florida Gators

Is Florida rounding into form as something more closely resembling the team voted No. 6 in the nation in the preseason? The Georgia Bulldogs might answer that question in the affirmative. In their 68-54 win at UGA, the Gators did a lot of the things that have been expected of them all along. Namely, UF shot pretty well, took ostentatiously Mike White-level good care of the ball and generated second chances on the offensive glass by committee. This is now a Florida team that’s being penciled in for a No. 8 or 9 seed and that has an excellent chance to improve that position thanks to the upcoming home game against Kentucky.

Work to do

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Essentially, the situation facing Mississippi State hasn’t changed. The Bulldogs were already going to have to win some games at the SEC tournament, and, now that Ben Howland’s men have lost by 12 at South Carolina, they will still need to win some games in Nashville, Tennessee. Whether MSU was more “First Four Out” or “Next Four Out” before the loss varied depending on the mock bracket. The one thing that’s probable is that a 19-11 SEC team with a NET ranking in the 50s will have to beat Kentucky or Auburn or Florida or some combination of quality opponents to get into the field of 68. Meantime, allow the Watch to salute the 17-16 double-double recorded by Reggie Perry in a losing cause against the Gamecocks. Well done, sir.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Apparently before game time at Bud Walton Arena, coach Eric Musselman prepared his players to face LSU by pointing to one of the team’s performance goals on the white board: “Attempt more free throws than we have in any game in at least nine years.” It worked! The Razorbacks went to the line a whopping 54 times and needed just about all of their 99 points to beat the Tigers by nine. The Hogs had to get this win; however, in a further illustration of the NET giving and taking away, this was, technically, a Quad 2 victory. (LSU was No. 31 in the NET at tipoff. If the Tigers had been No. 30, this would have been a Quad 1 game.) At 19-11, Arkansas is aiming to rise to “next four out” status and facing a road test at Texas A&M.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Frank Martin’s team still has a pulse after an 83-71 victory at home over Mississippi State. A pulse isn’t the same thing as a lock or even as a cushy position in “Should Be In,” but it’s a start for a group that was barely clinging to the bubble. Maik Kotsar recorded a career high for attempts from the field against the Bulldogs because, hey, it was senior night. His 22 tries translated into 20 not-exactly-efficient points, as the Gamecocks nevertheless posted their most efficient game on offense in over a month. With the Quad 2 win over MSU added to the profile, South Carolina will finish its regular season at Vanderbilt. A win there will mean a 19-12 record and, very likely, a NET ranking that’s still in the 60s as the Gamecocks go to work at the SEC tournament.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Losing at home to Vanderbilt is a Quad 4 defeat on paper. That’s the way it will be treated in the committee room, and, as such, it dealt a serious blow to Alabama’s at-large hopes. Still, it seems a bit harsh, no? Your ordinary Quad 4-game opponent doesn’t have Saben Lee. The junior erupted for 38 points on 20 shots and, in the process, placed a series of roadblocks across the Crimson Tide’s at-large path. The once beautiful NET ranking will descend out of the low 40s, and Nate Oats’ team will be subjected to wrathful and punitive reclassifications in the mock brackets. Yes, a stellar series of wins reaching all the way to a loss in the SEC tournament title game could unwind all that damage. Go to it, Tide.


Locks: Houston

Work to do

Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State trailed SMU 50-26 in Dallas, but it ended the game on a 40-12 run to capture the four-point victory. Dexter Dennis drained five 3s in the second half alone as part of his 25-point effort to lead the Shockers. It was an important win for a team that started the game as a projected No. 11 seed with a NET ranking in the 40s. On the subject of important games, WSU’s next contest, at Memphis, qualifies on paper as a Quad 1 opportunity. A win against the Tigers would fit in seamlessly with ones the 22-7 Shockers recorded at UConn and at Oklahoma State. All of the above are games that might not leap off the page but that nevertheless do qualify as Quad 1 victories. Wichita State is looking relatively safe for now.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Purveyors of mock brackets tend toward the collective view that Cincinnati would be in the tournament as a No. 11 seed if the selection were made right now. The Quad 2 win John Brannen’s team recorded at South Florida isn’t going to change that picture much, nor will a Quad 2 victory or, perhaps, even a loss at home against Temple in the season finale. In either scenario, the Bearcats will arrive at the American tournament feeling that a bubbly team with a NET ranking in the 50s is going to need a win against a Wichita State or a Houston to put this question to rest once and for all. That’s not to say UC can’t make it into the field without such a victory, just that the Bearcats will have a more relaxing Selection Sunday, free from worries about bid thieves, if they’ve done some good profile-enhancing work at the conference tournament.

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 1 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 season 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 season, 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.

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 7 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.

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 30s? 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 its at-large chances. Conversely, the No. 12 seed showing up next to Northern Iowa’s name 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 could be slimmer than that projected No. 12 seed is suggesting.

Richmond Spiders

Chris Mooney’s team has methodically worked its way through the entirety of February and, now, the early stages of March winning Quad 2 and, mostly, Quad 3 games and biding its time. The Spiders have won eight of their past nine, and if they can repeat that pattern one more time at Duquesne, they’ll have a 24-7 record and, probably, a NET ranking in the 40s. Richmond is generally presumed to be perched just outside the field of 68, and, needless to say, the only game in town when it comes to improving profiles in the Atlantic 10 is a game against Dayton. If that materializes for UR before the A-10 tournament title game, the Spiders will have a tailor-made opportunity to earn an at-large bid. If it comes in the title game, well, an automatic bid’s just as good as an at-large.

Rhode Island Rams

The Rams took their shot at Dayton and, like 12 other Atlantic 10 teams (the Flyers have not yet faced George Washington) over the course of 17 games, came up short. That leaves Rhode Island in rather desperate straits. When mock brackets agree that you’re not in the projected field, you need quality wins. The A-10 doesn’t offer many of those unless you’re facing the aforementioned Dayton team. URI closes its season at UMass, and a Quad 3 road game is not exactly what a group in the Rams’ position would choose to confront at this point. It’s been a damaging 2-4 stretch for a team that had previously reeled off 10 straight A-10 wins.

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

The mock brackets might not be listening, but the Lumberjacks really want to keep this conversation alive. Kyle Keller’s group won a tough road test at Abilene Christian (the Wildcats entered the evening 14-4 in Southland play), and now SFA, with a win at home over Sam Houston State, can finish the season 28-3. The team’s NET ranking is down in the dismal 70s, which isn’t proving to be a deal-breaker for UCLA. The Jacks beat Duke at Duke. Worst of all, from the committee’s point of view, SFA’s number for strength of record (top 50) is at odds with its NET ranking. As they say at NASA, is this an instrument problem?

Furman Paladins
If you agree with the mock brackets that East Tennessee State has legitimate at-large credentials after the Buccaneers outscored the Southern Conference by 0.13 points per possession, allow the Watch to introduce you to Furman. As one of ETSU’s foremost rivals, the Paladins outscored the same league by 0.11 points per trip. Bob Richey’s men can additionally claim a NET ranking in the high 60s, which, compared to the 70-something or occasionally 80-something figures posted by Watch mainstays such as UCLA and Stephen F. Austin, is practically elite. The Dins’ top-50ish ranking for strength of record suggests a 50th percentile bubble team also would have outscored the SoCon by about 0.11 points per trip. Furman belongs in the conversation.

Liberty Flames

Top seed Liberty has begun its pursuit of the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid with a 55-49 win over NJIT in the A-Sun quarterfinals. Will the Flames need that automatic bid? It’s probable, yes. The at-large hopes of Ritchie McKay’s men were already regarded as slight before Liberty lost its final game of the regular season at Lipscomb. The Quad 4 defeat at one stroke dropped the Flames’ NET ranking from No. 47 to a markedly less attractive figure in the 60s. An auto-bid is looking like the more promising strategy here, and Stetson is up next in the A-Sun semifinals.

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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