2024 NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: The cut line is coming into focus – The Athletic

By Justin Williams2h 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.)

With conference tournaments already underway, the term “bid thieves” has made its seasonal return to the college basketball vernacular as inconspicuous programs get set to spoil March for NCAA Tournament bubble teams.

So as we approach Selection Sunday, which leagues are most likely to pilfer at-large spots? There’s no way of knowing for sure — it’s madness, after all — but a little back-of-the-envelope tournament math can quickly narrow down the most likely suspects. There are 32 automatic qualifying bids via conference tournament winners and 36 at-large spots.

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Of the 32 conferences, 19 can safely be considered one-bid leagues with no threat of any thieves. It’s exceedingly likely that eight high- to mid-tier conferences will be won by teams that we here at Bubble Watch have already locked for the tournament or project to get in as things currently stand: ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, SEC, Mountain West and WCC. Again, we can’t say for sure. It’s possible that St. John’s could work its way off the bubble on a run to the Big East title, or Ohio State could make a late surge to win the Big Ten, or San Francisco could rip off a miracle run to win the WCC. But presumably, whoever wins those eight leagues would be in line for an at-large spot otherwise.

That makes for five potential wild-card conferences: Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, American Athletic, the Ivy League and the Sun Belt.

The first three are more realistic bid-thief options than the last two. It’s not quite outside the realm of possibility that Princeton and/or James Madison would be in the bubble conversation if the Tigers or Dukes win out until losing a tight one in their respective conference championship games, but 13 days from now, the Ivy and Sun Belt probably end up as one-bid leagues.

That leaves three conferences with some legit thieving vibes: the A-10, MVC and AAC. In the A-10, Dayton is a lock regardless, but I can’t see any other teams sneaking in without the auto-bid. So if the Flyers — who are the favorites to win but currently third in the standings behind Richmond and Loyola Chicago — get upset in Brooklyn, that’s one less bubble spot available elsewhere.

In the AAC, Florida Atlantic is on the bubble but the likeliest at-large representative; maybe Memphis can make a late push. Anyone else — including league-leading South Florida, a winner of 14 straight — would nudge someone off the line, possibly even FAU or Memphis.

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And in the MVC, Indiana State is the favorite and a high-NET bubble team, and I still have Drake on the bubble. Do both get in if they square off in the finals? Are the Sycamores safe if Drake or another dark horse pulls it out?

In any event, we’re talking about razor-thin margins on the bubble. This edition of Bubble Watch has 36 teams classified as locks and projected to be in. If current conventional wisdom holds, let’s say there are nine automatic qualifiers and 27 at-large bids in that 36, which would leave only nine at-large slots up for grabs, give or take a couple as the margin of error in either direction.

Meaning the bubble may already be at capacity.

There are six new locks this week — Washington State, South Carolina, Florida, Utah State, Boise State and Gonzaga — for a total of 28. There are a few others, particularly in the Big 12 and Mountain West, who are right on the verge. But I’m not quite ready to doll out lock status, for reasons I’ll explain.

As usual, all records and metrics are current as of Monday morning.

ACC

Locks: North Carolina, Duke, Clemson On the bubble: Wake Forest, Virginia, Pittsburgh

Movement: The ACC is losing steam. Wake Forest, despite a NET of 31 that historically has been enough for an at-large bid, slips back to the bubble line after consecutive road losses to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. With just one Quad 1 victory, the regular-season finale against Clemson will be an important one for the Demon Deacons. Pitt, with just two Q1 wins, hangs on the bubble thanks to its top-45 NET, but Virginia Tech’s win over Wake on Saturday isn’t enough to keep the Hokies around after a midweek loss to Syracuse. And no, the Orange aren’t on the bubble yet, either, although perhaps I’ll reconsider with a win at Clemson on Tuesday.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Wake Forest (18-11) 31/21 68/58 1-6
Virginia (21-9) 49/69 74/34 2-6
Pitt (19-10) 44/44 79/55 2-6

Spotlight On: Virginia

It has been a rough couple of weeks for the Cavaliers, losing three of their last four — all Q1 opportunities — including a 25-point blowout at Duke. Virginia has just two Q1 victories (at Clemson, Florida neutral) and a home win over Wake Forest that is right on the edge. With performance metrics still in the mid-30s, no bad losses and a solid record away from home, Virginia remains in decent bubble standing, but it can’t afford a Q3 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday or an early exit from the conference tournament.

GO DEEPER

Warning: This Virginia season may cause whiplash

Big Ten

Locks: Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois Projected to be in: Michigan State, Northwestern On the bubble: Nebraska, Iowa

Movement: Michigan State continues to hold the NET hostage, holding steady at No. 22 and even jumping ahead of Wisconsin in the face of three straight losses. There’s no shame in a six-point road loss at Purdue, but at 8-12 in Quads 1 and 2, the Spartans’ season-long Houdini act continues. This team tends to drive opposing fans crazy, and understandably so, although at this point, there is no precedent for having the Spartans on the bubble. Northwestern lost to Iowa on Saturday but moves up to the “projected in” line after a midweek Q1 win against Maryland. Nebraska stays on the bubble but is in good shape (more below), and Iowa continues to linger. It’s still a long shot, but a win over Illinois entering the Big Ten tournament would boost the Hawkeyes’ resume.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Michigan State (17-12) 22/20 12/47 4-8
Northwestern (20-9) 53/46 50/29 5-5
Nebraska (21-9) 43/43 71/31 4-7
Iowa (18-12) 57/49 16/43 3-8

That sound you hear is Nebraska and Keisei Tominaga approaching lock status. (Dylan Widger / USA Today)

Spotlight On: Nebraska

For what it’s worth, Nebraska is probably the top bubble team on this week’s list and easily could be argued as “projected to be in.” A loss at Ohio State on Thursday keeps the Huskers tethered to the bubble, but at 21 wins, 7-9 in Q1 and Q2 and no bad losses, they are probably still in with a loss at Michigan on Sunday and then on Thursday or Friday in the conference tournament. But I wouldn’t suggest that route, just in case.

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Big 12

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

Movement: The conventional wisdom in the Big 12 seems to be that Texas Tech and TCU are locks or close to it, while Texas and Oklahoma are in that “safely in the field” purgatory but with some work left to be done. Yet the Longhorns have suddenly risen to the highest NET of those four (27) and the best Q1 record of the bunch (5-7) with a big game at Baylor on Monday night. The Red Raiders, meanwhile, have slipped to No. 42 in the NET and lost to Texas at home last week by double digits, but they have the best strength of record of this group. For what it’s worth, I think all four of those teams are (and will be) in the tournament … but it feels wrong to lock one or two and not all four. And because of the depth of the conference, an expected at-large team is probably losing on Wednesday of the conference tournament. So let’s say Texas Tech loses to Oklahoma State and Baylor and then in its first Big 12 tourney matchup, or TCU loses to West Virginia and UCF and then exits early. Are we sure they would be a lock on Selection Sunday at that point? For now, I’m keeping all four as “projected to be in” and comfortably at that, but the locks will have to wait.

Cincinnati clings to the bubble after a two-point home win over Kansas State on Saturday and with a still-solid top-45 NET, but the Bearcats need to win out against Oklahoma and West Virginia and add a couple more in the conference tourney to stay alive. We dive deeper into Kansas State below.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Texas Tech (20-9) 42/33 42/21 4-8
TCU (19-10) 38/32 25/33 3-10
Texas (19-10) 27/26 17/26 5-7
Oklahoma (19-10) 41/37 24/30 4-9
Cincinnati (17-12) 45/47 31/64 3-9
Kansas State (17-12) 73/68 32/56 4-6

Spotlight on: Kansas State

This team just won’t go away. Every time their bubble chances look dead, the Wildcats beat Kansas or BYU to stay alive. Had they pulled off that comeback at Cincinnati on Saturday, I would have bumped the Bearcats altogether. The Wildcats are our lowest-rated bubble team as far as the NET is concerned, but with a 4-6 Q1 record in the Big 12 and Q1s against Kansas and Iowa State left on the regular-season docket, there’s a glimmer of hope. K-State probably needs to win those next two and another in the conference tourney to keep an at-large pulse.

Big East

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

Movement: The Great Big East Bubble Battle continues. Butler, which appeared to find some high ground just a couple of weeks ago, has fallen after a five-game skid that only DePaul could stymie. The remaining four all appear to be in decent shape as it relates to the bubble cut line, including the resurgent Johnnies, assuming they can avoid a Q4 misstep against DePaul and Georgetown to close out the regular season. Nova at Seton Hall on Wednesday will be a critical one for the at-large fates of both teams.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Seton Hall (18-11) 68/60 21/41 5-7
Villanova (17-12) 26/24 23/48 4-8
Providence (18-11) 62/59 39/45 5-8
St. John’s (17-12) 39/28 15/46 5-9

Spotlight on: Villanova

Nova looked to be in trouble after five straight losses in January, but the Wildcats bounced back to win six of eight, including two wins over Providence and another over Seton Hall. The mid-20s NET and 10-9 combined record in Quads 1 and 2 should be enough to have Villanova on the celebratory side of the cut line, but with Seton Hall and Creighton left to finish the regular season and so much jockeying on the bubble in that conference, there is very little room for error. Two losses before the conference tournament could very well be curtains for the Wildcats’ at-large hopes, especially if one of those benefits the Pirates. At the very least, it would only heap more of that mounting pressure on Nova entering the Big East tournament.

Myles Rice and Washington State are going to the NCAA Tournament. (James Snook / USA Today)

Pac-12

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

Movement: The Cougars finally give Arizona some company among the locks, having won 10 of 11 and at 6-3 in Q1 games. Colorado remains an anomaly with a top-30 NET yet just one Q1 win and is neck-and-neck with Utah on the bubble. Oregon remains just beyond the bubble, but home wins against Colorado and Utah this week could change that calculus entering the Pac-12 tournament.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Colorado (20-9) 30/29 83/50 1-5
Utah (18-11) 46/48 37/53 4-7

Spotlight on: Utah

The Utes are straddling that “last four in/first four out” line. They need to win the last two on the road at Oregon State and Oregon and hope the Ducks take down Colorado on Thursday, in addition to scoreboard-watching the rest of the bubble teams around the country. If Utah remains in fifth place in the Pac-12 standings entering next week, it likely needs to get two more in the conference tournament. Otherwise, its NCAA Tournament fate will be determined by games outside its control.

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SEC

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

Movement: South Carolina and Florida earn lock status. The Gamecocks have had three straight solid wins, including a six-point home victory over the Gators on Saturday, and Florida sneaks just inside the closing doors with a top-35 NET, top-25 SOR, solid strength-of-schedule metrics and a 7-8 record away from home. Mississippi State remains just short of a lock, and A&M has two crucial ones against Mississippi State and Ole Miss. A win at Missouri isn’t enough to get the Rebels back on the bubble.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Mississippi State (19-10) 32/30 33/36 3-7
Texas A&M (16-13) 54/54 13/65 5-6

Spotlight on: Mississippi State

The Bulldogs narrowly missed the lock line. Mississippi State is fifth in the SEC in NET but seventh in the standings and trailing South Carolina and Florida in SOR, riding a two-game losing streak with tough ones remaining at A&M and home against the Gamecocks. This team is much, much closer to lock status than the bubble, but again, these cutoffs have to happen somewhere. On the heels of a two-point home loss to Kentucky and a humbling road loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs will have to wait one more week.

Roddie Anderson III and Boise State move into lock status. (Brian Losness / USA Today)

Mountain West

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

Movement: There were some shifting sands in the Mountain West last week. Boise State is a lock with a Q1 win over New Mexico on Saturday, making the Broncos 5-4 in the top quadrant and top-25 in the NET with a pair of quality matchups left against Nevada and SDSU. Utah State, with its top-20 SOR, has avoided enough of its remaining potholes to earn lock status. Nevada and Colorado State are both on the verge of lock status; the Wolf Pack probably need to split their two remaining regular-season matchups, and the Rams need to avoid a Q4 road loss to Air Force on Saturday. The Lobos, however, have stumbled onto the bubble.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Colorado State (19-9) 34/36 48/51 5-6
Nevada (23-6) 40/41 91/37 5-5
New Mexico (20-8) 28/38 88/69 2-5

Spotlight on: New Mexico

While those around it ascend, New Mexico is nursing back-to-back losses to Q4 Air Force at home and Boise State on the road. The NET is somehow holding steady in the top 30, which again, has historically been enough to guarantee an at-large spot, but the Lobos have just two Q1 wins and the SOR has plummeted to 69 with that Q4 defeat. A home win over Q4 Fresno State is likely enough to stave off catastrophe, but New Mexico went from one of the safest Mountain West bets to the shakiest as far as at-large status is concerned, and it needs to finish strong to cleanse that palate.

Others

Lock: Dayton, Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga On the bubble: Florida Atlantic, Indiana State, Drake, Princeton, James Madison

Movement: The Zags stifled the haters with back-to-back Q1 road wins over San Francisco and Saint Mary’s to close out the regular season, securing a lock and that ever-important bye to the WCC tournament semifinals. Princeton and James Madison stick — see below — but we bid adieu to Grand Canyon and McNeese State, both of which hung tough and are clear favorites to win an auto bid but can no longer justify remaining on that fast-shrinking bubble. Memphis could earn consideration with a Q1 road win at FAU on Saturday.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
FAU (22-7) 35/40 98/42 1-2
Indiana State (25-5) 29/45 141/38 1-3
Drake (24-6) 48/55 151/59 3-1
Princeton (21-3) 51/64 194/32 0-0
James Madison (27-3) 52/62 312/39 1-1

Spotlight on: Princeton and James Madison

As we detailed in the intro, Princeton and JMU’s bubble status is very, very tenuous at best, but the near-50 NET and top-40 SOR are enough to stay until a loss. The question is, if that loss comes in the conference championship, will there be enough on the resume to validate an at-large for one of them? Princeton will have zero Quad 1 games, two less than the number of non-Division I opponents it played, and is currently just 3-3 in Q2, although nine Q4 games isn’t unreasonable. That’s the biggest mark against the Dukes, who have earned 20 of their 27 wins against Q4 opponents while going just 1-1 in Q1 and 0-1 in Q2. I still have a tough time seeing a path for either, even under the most charitable of circumstances. But if we arrive at that scenario on Selection Sunday, I’d be curious to see how the committee handles it.

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE

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(Top photo of Mississippi State’s Dashawn Davis and Villanova’s Eric Dixon: Chris McDill and M. Anthony Nesmith / 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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