2024 NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Searching for ‘bubble sleepers’ and more locks – The Athletic

By Justin Williams56m agoSupported By

(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

A longtime former high-major assistant coach told me last week that if Northwestern can make the NCAA Tournament field, the Wildcats could be a Sweet 16 sleeper pick. Why? Experienced, high-level guard play, specifically from Boo Buie. The fifth-year senior point guard is averaging 18.8 points per game along with 3.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 40.3 percent from beyond the arc.

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Northwestern, currently a bubble team, still has to see its name called on Selection Sunday for it to even be a possibility, but it makes sense: Guard play often has translated to success in March Madness. Unfortunately, this discussion occurred before fellow starting guard Ty Berry was ruled out due to injury. But it got me thinking, along with Brendan Marks’ insightful feature from this week on the wide-open nature of this college basketball season, about other possible sleeper teams and whether there’s any way to predict which ones could make some noise in March.

Because this is Bubble Watch, I’m focusing specifically on possible “bubble sleeper teams.” Meaning, not the automatic-qualifying Cinderellas like Saint Peter’s in 2022 or Princeton in 2024, but rather teams that earn a lower at-large seed — typically underperforming high-majors or really solid mid-majors — and string together a couple of upsets. Think UCLA reaching the Final Four in 2021 as a play-in-round No. 11 seed, North Carolina reaching the title game as a No. 8 seed in 2022, Miami making the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed that same year or FAU reaching the Final Four in 2024 as a No. 9. (FAU did win the C-USA auto bid, so we’re cheating a bit, but it would have made it as an at-large otherwise.)

A look back at the metrics for those teams and other Sweet 16 runs from the previous three tournaments makes it clear there is no quantitative formula or blueprint. The numbers were all over the place in terms of NET, KenPom efficiency, pace and quadrant wins, and so much of it comes down to matchups and the countless variables of a single-elimination tournament.

But what did stand out is that just about every single sleeper run from the last few seasons had a bonafide game-changer (or two) who got hot at the right time. The 2021 Bruins had Johnny Juzang shooting fireballs for the month of March. The 2022 Tar Heels paired Armando Bacot with a suddenly white-hot Caleb Love. The 2022 Hurricanes had a first-team all-conference guard in Kameron McGusty, yet it was third-teamer Isaiah Wong who put up 43 points the first weekend. The 2024 Owls had a pair of first-team all-conference guards in Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin combine to average 30.6 points across five games. This wasn’t confined to the backcourt — bigs such as Evan Mobley at USC and Cameron Krutwig at Loyola Chicago sparked runs in 2021 — but guards were more common.

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With that in mind, there are a few star players on current bubble teams who could join that list this season: Buie at Northwestern, Max Abmas at Texas, Wade Taylor IV at Texas A&M, KJ Simpson at Colorado, Tucker DeVries at Drake and Devin Carter at Providence. (And for what it’s worth, it feels as if one of the tournament-caliber, guard-dominated teams from the Mountain West will wind up fitting this description as well.)

Potential Sleeper Standouts

Player (Year, School) 2023-24 Stats
Max Abmas (5th-year SR, Texas) 17.7 pts, 4.4 ast, 38.9% 3FG
Boo Buie (5th-year SR, Northwestern) 18.8 pts, 4.5 ast, 40.3% 3FG
Devin Carter (JR, Providence) 18.8 pts, 8.0 reb, 38.6% 3FG
Tucker DeVries (JR, Drake) 20.7 pts, 6.6 reb, 34.9% 3FG
KJ Simpson (JR, Colorado) 19.4 pts, 4.6 ast, 42.9% 3FG
Wade Taylor IV (JR, Texas A&M) 19.8 pts, 2.1 stl, 83.6% FT

That’s by no means an exhaustive list — we welcome additional suggestions in the comments — and there’s a lot of ball to be played between now and then. A couple of those teams won’t even make the dance. But considering all of the parity vibes this season, it won’t be a surprise if one of those players becomes the tournament’s breakout star next month while carrying his 10-seed bubble team to the second weekend.

Housekeeping: Bubble Watch returns to its regularly scheduled Tuesday programming next week, but there was a benefit to our Thursday slot this week. We’ve added four new locks, all of whom won on Tuesday or Wednesday: Illinois, Iowa State, Creighton and Auburn.

As a reminder, “locks” are teams we feel are sure to make the NCAA Tournament and won’t move off that line, regardless of what happens the rest of the way. “Projected to be in” is for teams that are safely in the field but not quite locked into it. “On the bubble” is much broader, encompassing teams that are projected in the field, even as high as a No. 8 or 9 seed, down to those who need quality wins and help to get on the right side of the cut line. The closer we get to Selection Sunday, the smaller the projected in group will get, as teams separate into locks and on the bubble.

Also, we’ve had some requests for metrics charts, so we’re trying those out this week. All records and rankings are current as of Wednesday morning. And cheers to the debut of our women’s tournament Bracket Watch, to be followed shortly by our brand-new women’s Bubble Watch.

Wake Forest missed out on an important opportunity at Duke this week. The Demon Deacons need big wins. (Rob Kinnan / USA Today)

ACC

Locks: North Carolina, Duke Projected to be in: Clemson, Virginia On the bubble: Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

Movement: Virginia moves up a line despite Tuesday’s home loss to Pittsburgh. The Hoos have earned a little grace after eight straight wins heading into that game and 19 overall. We also welcome Pitt to the bubble. The Panthers are riding a four-game winning streak with that victory over UVA, giving them a second Quad 1 win, although they still have work to do to crack the field.

ACC

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Clemson (16-7) 29/31 18/22 4-4
Virginia (19-6) 41/52 92/32 2-2
Wake Forest (16-8) 37/27 76/52 0-4
Pitt (16-8) 53/56 84/67 2-5
Virginia Tech (14-10) 60/61 43/71 3-7

Spotlight On: Wake Forest

The Demon Deacons missed a notable opportunity for a quality win at Duke on Monday, leaving them in a precarious bubble position. Wake is one of those curious teams with solid NET and KenPom numbers, yet zero Q1 wins (0-4) and KPI and strength-of-records metrics that lag. Despite the quality of teams around the Deacons in the predictive metrics, there is nothing about Wake’s resume that suggests it’s a tournament team at the moment. The good news for Steve Forbes’ squad is that opportunities remain, including Q1 matchups at Virginia and Virginia Tech and home against Duke and Clemson. But it will need to capitalize on just about all of them — while avoiding bad losses to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech — to earn an at-large.

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Big Ten

Locks: Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois On the bubble: Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska

Movement: Illinois is officially a lock, following the road loss to Michigan State with a 29-point smackdown of Michigan on Tuesday. The resume isn’t quite as stellar as the Illini propagandists would have you believe — you know who you are! — but they are a no-doubt tournament team, and to their credit, they haven’t had a four-game skid like the one Wisconsin mercifully snapped on Tuesday. Michigan State got that critical home win over Illinois but remains on the bubble for the time being.

Big Ten

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Michigan State (15-9) 22/15 16/41 3-7
Northwestern (17-7) 57/48 37/28 4-5
Nebraska (17-8) 54/50 55/37 3-5

Spotlight On: Michigan State

Finally, signs of life from the Spartans, who pulled out that must-win Q1 at home against Illinois over the weekend with only six turnovers and sinking 25 of 34 (!) from the charity stripe. Then they went on the road Wednesday to beat a Penn State squad that shot 12 of 23 from deep and despite just six points from leading scorer Tyson Walker. Michigan State’s overall wins and strength of record could still use some work, but notching a third Q1 victory felt important for a team that looked as if it had found a glitch in the NET system prior to those last two wins. Even if Sparty just splits its remaining six regular season games — five Q2s and a Q1 at Purdue on March 2 — it’s probably safe on Selection Sunday with those metrics.

Keshon Gilbert and Iowa State are going to the NCAA Tournament. (Katie Stratman / USA Today)

Big 12

Locks: Baylor, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas Projected to be in: BYU, Texas Tech On the bubble: Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Cincinnati

Movement: Iowa State is a no-doubt lock after wins at Texas, vs. TCU and at Cincinnati. We’re not quite ready to elevate BYU to a lock just yet, but the Cougars are lurking. Texas Tech moves off the bubble to projected in following a big win over Kansas, and Oklahoma stays put following a road loss to Baylor. Kansas State drops out after losing at BYU on Saturday.

Big 12

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
BYU (18-6) 9/14 56/20 3-5
Texas Tech (18-6) 25/22 51/18 4-5
Oklahoma (18-7) 32/30 48/24 3-6
Texas (16-8) 31/26 30/38 4-6
TCU (17-7) 40/34 49/31 3-6
Cincinnati (15-9) 36/36 35/55 2-6

Spotlight On: Cincinnati

The Bearcats are officially in bubble trouble. After a key road win over Texas Tech, Cincinnati suffered back-to-back home losses to Houston and Iowa State. Cincy got dominated on the boards by the Cougars and then stuffed in a locker against the Cyclones, turning the ball over 25 times and exposing a lack of experience at point guard. Those were both top-10 opponents, but the Bearcats looked out-gunned, particularly against Iowa State. They’re now just 2-6 in Q1 meetings and have yet to win consecutive games in conference play as the Big 12 grind appears to be wearing on them. The schedule lightens up a bit the rest of the way, with home games against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and West Virginia, but Cincinnati will have to take care of business in those and snag a Q1 road win or two over TCU, Houston and Oklahoma.

Big East

Locks: Marquette, UConn, Creighton On the bubble: Butler, Providence, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall

Movement: The Bluejays are a lock, bouncing back from consecutive losses with back-to-back wins. That’s three for the Big East, which also has a scrum of bubble teams, as last week’s Bracket Watch dove into. The league’s bubble power rankings have adjusted quite a bit compared to last week, but no one did enough to feel too comfortable.

Big East

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Butler (15-9) 50/49 7/35 4-8
Providence (16-9) 58/54 38/46 4-6
Villanova (13-11) 39/33 15/68 3-6
St. John’s (14-11) 48/41 9/60 2-9
Seton Hall (15-9) 75/70 45/54 4-5

Spotlight On: Providence

Huge win on Tuesday, 75-72 over St. John’s, in a game the Friars led by 13 early on and later trailed by seven. It bumped Providence above the Johnnies in the bubble pecking order, as forward Josh Oduro went for 28 points less than a week after splashing 32 in an overtime win against Creighton. The Friars are decently positioned from a resume perspective in a crowded Big East at 3-6 in Q1 games and 4-2 in Q2. Yet all of the Q1 wins are at home with tough road trips to Xavier and Marquette ahead. As we laid out in the intro, if they can sneak in, the combo of Carter and Oduro could bust some brackets alongside a top-10 defense according to KenPom.

Utah has found itself on the bubble all of a sudden. (Rob Gray / USA Today)

Pac-12

Lock: Arizona On the bubble: Washington State, Utah, Colorado

Movement: The Utes have been demoted to the bubble after consecutive losses to the Arizona teams, and even get jumped by Wazzu in terms of bubble positioning.

Pac-12

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Washington State (18-6) 38/39 78/33 4-3
Utah (15-9) 47/43 20/51 3-6
Colorado (16-8) 35/35 70/65 1-5

Spotlight On: Washington State

Perhaps we all emptied our emotional buckets during football season, but, interestingly, we haven’t gotten the same funereal response to the final basketball season of the Pac-12. It is the Conference of Champions, after all. So let’s give some flowers to Washington State, just as Brian Bennett did this week, detailing the program’s unexpected emergence and perseverance.

GO DEEPER

The most surprising power-conference team in America plays in the Pac-12

Amid a disappointing farewell from the league as a whole, the Cougars have a chance to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2008. Wazzu, which has won five straight, is 4-3 in Q1 games and 6-4 away from home. With Utah stumbling and Colorado claiming just one Q1 win, Washington State is now the favorite to earn that second bid in the Pac-12 and essentially could wrap it up with a road win over Arizona next week.

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SEC

Locks: Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn Projected to be in: South Carolina, Kentucky On the bubble: Florida, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Ole Miss

Movement: Auburn had elevated to lock status even before last night’s resounding victory over South Carolina, though we can’t take a shot at Illinois and not point out that the Tigers still only have two Q1 wins and rather meh strength of schedule numbers. But with 20 wins overall and sky-high metrics, Auburn is clearly in. We were prepared to bump the Gamecocks to locks as well if they pulled off the road victory, but they weren’t quite ready for it. 

SEC

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
South Carolina (21-3) 45/44 98/8 3-2
Kentucky (17-7) 24/25 74/40 2-5
Florida (17-7) 33/29 34/23 2-7
Texas A&M (15-9) 43/43 27/47 5-4
Mississippi State (16-8) 34/32 28/39 3-6
Ole Miss (18-6) 61/62 63/19 2-5

Spotlight On: Mississippi State

The Bulldogs are looking particularly bubblicious. The good? A trio of Q1 wins — featuring home victories over Tennessee and Auburn and one on a neutral floor over Washington State — 3-0 in Q2 games and solid predictive and performance metrics. The bad? A 2-6 record away from home, a Q4 home loss to Southern and a mediocre nonconference strength of schedule. The Q4 loss and one of those road losses did come without leading scorer and rebounder Tolu Smith (16.8 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game), who missed the first two months with a foot injury, although that doesn’t excuse either. But the upshot for Mississippi State is that by Selection Sunday, we should have a clearer sense of how deserving this team truly is, with home games against Kentucky and South Carolina and road trips to Auburn and A&M ahead. Will a top-10 defense according to KenPom be good enough to elevate the Bulldogs down the stretch?

K.J. Hymes and Nevada have elbowed their way back into the tournament picture. (Eric Draper / AP)

Mountain West

Projected to be in: San Diego State, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State On the bubble: Nevada, Boise State

Movement: San Diego State has submitted an offer for lock status and is already picking out new furniture. New Mexico moves back up to the projected projected in line after a Q1 road win over Nevada on Tuesday, but I also have some questions. We’ll get to those in our spotlight section.

Mountain West

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
San Diego State (17-6) 18/17 13/21 4-6
Colorado State (17-6) 30/37 50/36 3-5
New Mexico (19-5) 21/23 99/44 3-2
Utah State (18-4) 27/38 82/25 2-3
Nevada (18-6) 49/45 83/57 5-3
Boise State (14-8) 46/55 14/56 5-6

Spotlight On: Nevada

Help this one make sense. I can understand why the metrics have SDSU as the top-rated team of the Mountain West bunch, considering the rigorous strength of schedule (overall and out of conference), the four Q1 wins and zero losses in other quadrants. I also can squint and justify why Boise State is on the bubble with only 14 overall wins, despite similarly challenging SOS numbers to SDSU and five Q1 victories. But why, exactly, is there such a big gap in the NET between New Mexico (21) and Nevada (49)? As the chart above shows, New Mexico outpaces Nevada in both the predictive and performance metrics, yet Nevada has better SOS numbers and is 5-3 in Q1 compared to 3-2 for the Lobos. Yes, New Mexico has beaten Nevada twice, including a 34-point blowout last month, but the Wolf Pack also beat San Diego State and Colorado State at home, Washington on the road, TCU on a neutral floor and Utah State — also above them! — on the road. I’m not arguing that New Mexico should be lower. I just don’t get why Nevada isn’t higher.

Others

Projected to be in: Dayton, Florida Atlantic, Saint Mary’s On the bubble: Indiana State, Gonzaga, Memphis, Drake, Grand Canyon, SMU

Movement: We were fitting the Sycamores for a projected in upgrade just as they went and lost a Q4 home game to Illinois State, spoiling the first Top-25 ranking since Larry Bird was in Terre Haute. In the Missouri Valley, with just one Q1 win and no remaining opportunities on the schedule, it’s enough to keep them on the bubble, even at 21 wins. (One of those was the season opener over Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, a very real but non-D1 opponent.) I still have the Sycamores above the cutline as an at-large, but Tuesday’s loss doesn’t help. Also, we’re adding SMU to the bubble, for reasons explained below.

Others

TEAM (RECORD) NET/KENPOM SOS/SOR QUAD 1
Dayton (20-4) 19/21 80/12 3-4
FAU (19-5) 26/28 103/29 3-1
Saint Mary’s (19-6) 14/24 106/58 4-2
Indiana State (21-4) 28/47 132/30 1-3
Gonzaga (17-6) 23/20 90/49 1-5
Memphis (18-6) 76/78 118/48 3-2
Drake (20-5) 52/53 164/59 3-1
Grand Canyon (21-2) 44/51 250/26 1-1
SMU (16-7) 42/46 141/79 0-2

Spotlight On: Gonzaga and SMU

The Zags got a huge lift from the road win over Kentucky on Saturday, but considering it was just the team’s first Q1 victory of the season, it has yet to escape bubble territory. Add Gonzaga to that group with very strong NET and KenPom ratings yet a resume that leaves you wanting more. Some of that is a result of nonconference matchups that fell flatter than anticipated: Syracuse, UCLA and USC — all wins for Gonzaga — have underperformed. But so have the Bulldogs, failing to win any of the actual quality nonconference matchups and losing at home to rival Saint Mary’s. The Zags will get another crack at the Gaels and what is currently a Q1 road trip to San Francisco to finish out the regular season, but they likely need to at least split those, avoid any other bad losses and not flame out in the WCC tournament to feel confident in an at-large bid.

GO DEEPER

An NCAA Tournament constant is at a crossroads. Can Gonzaga reconjure its magic?

For all the metrics enigmas in college hoops, perhaps none is more mysterious than SMU, which remains in the top 50 in the NET and KenPom despite zero Q1 wins and just one in Q2. What sorcery is afoot to boost those predictive rankings? The Mustangs have the type of veteran unit and solid defense that can pull off some surprises come March, but it all remains hypothetical. For now. Currently riding a four-game winning streak, the toughest stretch of SMU’s schedule lies ahead, including Memphis at home and FAU on the road. We’ll see if those metrics know something the rest of us don’t.

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(Top photo of Providence’s Devin Carter and Michigan State’s Tyson Walker: Zach Bolinger / AP and Rey Del Rio / Getty Images)

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Justin Williams covers college football and basketball for The Athletic. He was previously a beat reporter covering the Cincinnati Bearcats, and prior to that he worked as a senior editor for Cincinnati Magazine. Follow Justin on Twitter/X @williams_justin Follow Justin on Twitter @williams_justin

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