2024 NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: What the bracket reveal tells us about the bubble – The Athletic

By Justin WilliamsFeb 20, 2024Supported 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.)

The men’s NCAA Tournament selection committee released its preview of the top 16 seeds on Saturday, a month out from Selection Sunday. There’s still quite a bit of hoops to be played until then, and therefore plenty that can change, but since the committee started releasing this preview in 2017, it has been a solid predictor: 83 percent of teams included in the top-16 preview have remained among the top four seeds for the official bracket, including 15 of the top 16 in each of the past two years. Also, unlike the College Football Playoff rankings — which get released in full for six weeks and exploited for every possible storyline and TV rating — this is all we get in college basketball ahead of the real deal. We have to mine what we can.

Here were the committee’s top 16 and their records and metrics, as of 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Top 16 preview

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOR Quad 1
1. Purdue (23-2) 2/2 1 9-2
2. UConn (23-2) 4/3 2 8-2
3. Houston (21-3) 1/1 3 8-3
4. Arizona (19-5) 3/5 7 7-3
5. North Carolina (19-6) 11/10 8 6-4
6. Tennessee (18-6) 7/6 9 4-5
7. Marquette (19-5) 10/11 5 6-4
8. Kansas (18-6) 16/20 4 5-4
9. Alabama (17-7) 5/7 11 3-6
10. Baylor (17-6) 12/13 10 6-4
11. Iowa State (19-5) 8/9 6 5-4
12. Duke (19-5) 17/12 14 5-2
13. Auburn (20-5) 6/4 16 2-4
14. San Diego State (18-6) 15/19 19 5-6
15. Illinois (18-6) 13/8 13 3-5
16. Wisconsin (17-8) 20/17 18 6-5

Bubble Watch also happened to have 16 locks (in no particular order) as of Thursday, with 15 of them matching the committee’s picks. I had Creighton; the committee had San Diego State.

Just as important as which teams are in the top 16 is how those teams were seeded and why. Aside from committee chair Charles McClelland going in front of the cameras for some light questioning, we aren’t privy to the actual details of the committee’s decisions. But we can draw our own conclusions based on those decisions.

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One thing that jumps out: Don’t get too caught up in the predictive metrics such as NET and KenPom. Granted, they remain good indicators — all of the top 16 teams are highly ranked in those categories, and all are locks to make the tournament, even if they drop below a No. 4 seed. But it’s not as if the committee leans on the exact order of those rankings while doing its own. Houston has been No. 1 in NET and KenPom for weeks before UConn waxed Marquette on Saturday and Purdue lost to Ohio State on Sunday. Yet the Boilermakers and UConn were both ahead of the Cougars in the top 16.

What the committee does seem to value are Quad 1 records and results-based metrics, notably ESPN’s Strength Of Record (SOR). Entering Saturday, Purdue led the sport with a 9-2 Q1 record and ranked No. 1 in SOR, with UConn at 8-2 in Q1 and No. 2 in SOR. Houston, at 8-3 in Q1 and No. 3 in SOR, ranked just behind them. This helps explain why North Carolina and Kansas were ranked ahead of Alabama and why Duke and Iowa State were ahead of Auburn.

Those aren’t the only factors. Strength of schedule probably played a role in Kansas and Baylor being ahead of fellow Big 12 foe Iowa State (which has as many Q4 victories as those two combined) and why San Diego State, which reached the national title game last season and has really strong SOS numbers in and out of conference, was bumped ahead of Illinois. Eye test matters, too, subjective as it might be. These are humans on the committee.

It’s admittedly splitting hairs, but that’s the point of Selection Sunday, including the last four in and first four out. So let’s expand this outlook to the bubble. There’s no guarantee the committee will apply the same precedent to the bubble teams as it did for the top 16 — we’ve often seen the CFP selection committee flip-flop on things like head-to-head, style points or common opponents between the top and bottom of the top 25. But again, this is what we have to go on.

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Saturday’s preview should put bubble teams such as Gonzaga, Indiana State, Wake Forest and Colorado on notice. All were top 45 in NET and top 50 in KenPom as of Monday, yet each only has one Q1 win. (Add the ever-enigmatic SMU to this list as well, which was 34th in NET and 39th in KenPom on Monday, yet still has zero Q1 wins.)

On the other hand, teams such as Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Cincinnati, Nebraska, Northwestern, Seton Hall and Nevada might be encouraged considering they have more Q1 wins and better or comparable SOR than those listed above. The Big East, in particular, continues to be a fascinating experiment, with teams such as Villanova, St. John’s and Xavier ahead in the predictive metrics but behind Butler, Providence and Seton Hall in Q1 wins and SOR.

We’ll have to wait a few weeks to see if this form holds and how the committee arbitrates. In the meantime, it’s clear the committee values those Q1 wins, particularly on the road. A few bubble-ish teams squandered those opportunities this weekend, including Texas losing at Houston, Oklahoma losing to Kansas, A&M losing at Bama, Butler losing to Creighton, Virginia Tech losing at UNC and Wake losing at Virginia.

There’s more ahead: Washington State at Arizona on Thursday and Wake vs. Duke, Ole Miss vs. South Carolina, Texas at Kansas, Cincinnati at TCU, Villanova at UConn and A&M at Tennessee this weekend. Based on what we saw from the committee on Saturday, those outcomes could be the difference between the last four in and the first four out.

Weekly housekeeping: I’ve added three locks in San Diego State, Dayton and Clemson. SDSU was in the top-16 preview, and Dayton was mentioned as just outside; both are top 20 in NET and SOR, have zero losses outside of Q1, and with wins on Saturday, they were on our list to get bumped to a lock anyway.

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Clemson was mentioned by the committee as being just outside the top 16, and despite a one-point home loss to NC State later on Saturday, the Tigers have a top-30 SOR and four Q1 wins, including at Alabama and at North Carolina, and they are 12th in KPI, another results-based metric. The team is 8-4 away from home and has played only four Q4 games. Honestly, the committee seems to like Clemson more than I do, but the other potential locks I wrestled with were BYU and Kentucky, and the Tigers are just ahead of both in terms of Q1 wins and SOR. I’m admittedly stingy with our locks here, but on this one, the committee has (sort of) spoken.

A reminder that all records and rankings are current as of Monday morning.

Lynn Kidd (15) and Virginia Tech made a strong statement against Virginia on Monday. (Robert Simmons / AP)

ACC

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

Movement: We just detailed how and why Clemson snuck into the land of locks. Virginia held off Wake Forest 49-47 on Saturday but got run out of the building Monday night at Virginia Tech as the Hokies kept their tournament hopes alive.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Virginia (20-6) 41/53 90/26 2-3
Wake Forest (16-9) 40/26 71/57 1-6
Pitt (17-8) 47/51 89/65 3-4
Virginia Tech (14-11) 62/64 31/75 4-6

Spotlight On: Pitt

The Panthers have wedged their way onto the bubble by winning five in a row and seven of their last eight, including victories at Duke and Virginia. Pitt’s resume isn’t helped by a middling, 10-7 start to the season that included two Q3 losses, or its dreadful nonconference slate, but it takes care of the ball and shoots it well from beyond the arc, led by senior Blake Hinson (19.2 ppg, 42.9 percent 3FG). There’s a path to the tournament if Pitt can keep winning against a relatively manageable schedule: no UNC, Duke or Virginia left, but there is a trip to Clemson next week. Get four or five of the last six, and the Panthers will be right there.

Big Ten

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

Movement: The Badgers are a lock and made the top 16, but the milk has gone bad for Wisconsin. Sitting at 16-4 with six Q1 wins through January, the team has dropped five of its last six, including an overtime loss to Iowa on Saturday. Wisconsin isn’t in any danger of missing the tournament — at least not yet! — but it’s plummeting in the wrong direction. Elsewhere, the Spartans followed a big win over Illinois with back-to-back road victories over Penn State and Michigan to move up to the “projected in” line.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Michigan State (17-9) 20/15 14/20 3-7
Northwestern (18-8) 56/47 33/25 4-5
Nebraska (18-8) 49/40 61/35 3-6

Spotlight On: Northwestern

The Wildcats suffered a tough blow losing guard Ty Berry for the rest of the season with a knee injury. But they still have leading scorer Boo Buie (19 ppg), and fellow guards Brooks Barnhizer (14.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Ryan Langborg (12.2 ppg) can help pick up the slack. Northwestern has four Q1 wins, and its performance metrics outpace the predicative ones, which the committee seems to favor, although it also has a Q4 loss and a 5-7 record away from home. It should be in as things currently stand, but the key will be weathering the final stretch without Berry, highlighted by a midweek trip to East Lansing on March 6.

How safe are Milos Uzan (12) and the Oklahoma Sooners? (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

Big 12

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

Movement: I was ready to make BYU a lock until its 10-point road loss to last-place Oklahoma State on Saturday. The Cougars are still top 10 in the NET, but SOR is lagging and the team is sitting on three Q1 wins, with a road win against UCF the only one coming away from home. Mark Pope’s squad will be in the field barring an epic collapse, but considering the gauntlet left on the schedule, I’m not prepared to rule it out: vs. Baylor, at Kansas State, at Kansas, vs. TCU, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State.

TCU moves up to “projected in” with two straight wins, and Cincinnati continues to tightrope-walk the cut line with a much-needed road victory over UCF.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
BYU (18-7) 10/16 63/33 3-5
Texas Tech (18-7) 26/23 36/22 4-6
TCU (18-7) 36/32 47/23 3-6
Oklahoma (18-8) 39/37 48/31 3-7
Texas (16-9) 33/29 16/40 4-7
Cincinnati (16-9) 37/36 35/44 3-6

Spotlight On: Oklahoma

With 18 wins and a SOR of 31 in the rough-and-tumble Big 12, the Sooners should be in. But back-to-back losses to Baylor and Kansas were squandered opportunities to strengthen that foothold. Oklahoma has only three Q1 wins, and its two best — against Iowa State and BYU — were at home. Its best nonconference win was either against Iowa on a neutral court or Providence at home, so it needs to bank a few more quality wins to feel comfortable entering the conference tourney. After an in-state trip to Oklahoma State this weekend, the Sooners go to Iowa State, come home for Houston and Cincinnati, then go to Texas.

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Big East

Locks: Marquette, UConn, Creighton On the bubble: Butler, Providence, Villanova, Seton Hall

Movement: We witnessed lock-on-lock crime with UConn’s 28-point win over Marquette on Saturday. But the only change here is St. John’s falling off the bubble after dropping its third straight in a 68-62 home loss to Seton Hall. The Johnnies are just 2-9 in Q1 and 14-12 overall, and head coach Rick Pitino is not having a good time.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Butler (15-10) 57/55 7/43 4-9
Providence (17-9) 59/56 57/47 4-6
Villanova (14-11) 35/31 28/66 3-6
Seton Hall (17-9) 63/59 43/41 5-5

Spotlight On: Seton Hall

The Pirates broke Pitino, and it was mentioned up top why their five Q1 wins and top-45 SOR could have Shaheen Holloway’s crew in better shape than most think. Home wins over UConn and Marquette look great, but the nonconference was all empty calories and included two Q3 losses. With five left in the regular season, Seton Hall needs home wins over Butler, Villanova and DePaul just to stay in the conversation entering the postseason. Nab one on the road over UConn or Creighton, too? Then we’re really talking.

Branden Carlson and Utah kept their tournament hopes alive with a win over UCLA. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Pac-12

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

Movement: No change from last week, although the Buffaloes are slipping farther down the bubble. Is it possible Arizona is readying an under-the-radar title run in a boring Pac-12? At least Washington State, which has won seven straight, continues to climb. The Cougars head to Tuscon on Thursday, and a win would elevate them safely off the bubble.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Washington State (20-6) 31/33 82/32 4-3
Utah (16-10) 50/46 23/50 3-5
Colorado (17-9) 42/38 73/60 1-5

Spotlight On: Utah

The Utes may have saved their at-large chances with a one-point win over UCLA on Sunday, ending a three-game skid that started with a triple-OT gut-punch loss to Arizona. Non-league wins over BYU, Saint Mary’s and Wake Forest still look good, but in a disappointing Pac-12, there’s very little that inspires on the resume: three Q1 wins (all nonconference), a Q3 loss, 50th in SOR, 4-8 away from home and a 16-10 overall. Utah likely can’t withstand another bad loss, and Saturday’s trip to Colorado might determine which of the two is still on the bubble line next week.

SEC

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

Movement: How quickly fortunes have changed for Kentucky. After losing four of six and three in a row at home, the Wildcats defeated Ole Miss and won at Auburn last week, the latter a third and critical Q1 victory. It was almost enough for us to make UK a lock, but with road trips to LSU and Mississippi State and a home game against Alabama looming, I’ll keep the Wildcats just outside the velvet ropes alongside BYU. The vibes, however, are much better. The Gators, now winners of three straight, have joined Kentucky and South Carolina as “projected in.” With a roadie against Alabama on Wednesday, Florida could be eyeing lock status.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Kentucky (18-7) 22/21 66/28 3-6
South Carolina (21-5) 58/54 83/15 3-3
Florida (18-7) 28/27 32/17 3-7
Texas A&M (15-10) 45/43 11/48 6-5
Mississippi State (17-8) 38/35 42/38 3-6
Ole Miss (19-6) 65/68 76/21 3-5

Spotlight On: Ole Miss

The Rebels are this week’s “help me understand these metrics” winner. Ole Miss has 19 wins, is 21st in SOR and has zero bad losses, yet the NET and KenPom ranks are in the 60s. In fact, at 65th in NET and 68th in KenPom as of Monday, Ole Miss ranks the lowest in both among any team in this week’s Bubble Watch. And I don’t fully understand it. I’m not saying the Rebs are a no-doubt tourney team — they have three Q1 wins, none of which are complete bangers, the nonconference SOS is very poor, and the defense leaves a lot to be desired. But I have a hard time seeing how some of the metrics are so far removed from other bubble teams — and based on the top-16 preview, perhaps the committee feels the same way. Regardless, with Mississippi State, South Carolina and Alabama up next, the Rebels can quell some of those metric-based doubts.

Jaedon LeDee and San Diego State are going back to the NCAA Tournament. (Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

Mountain West

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

Movement: The Aztecs cement lock status with consecutive Q1 wins over Colorado State and New Mexico, making them 5-6 in that quadrant. The rest of the top six in the conference continue to beat up on each other in what currently feels like a round-robin of pain. Slight edge to Nevada over Boise State on the bubble line.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Colorado State (18-6) 25/28 51/36 4-5
New Mexico (19-6) 24/25 85/49 3-3
Utah State (19-5) 30/41 79/29 2-4
Nevada (19-6) 44/45 81/46 5-4
Boise State (15-8) 43/50 25/53 5-5

Spotlight on: Utah State

The Aggies could be an interesting test case come Selection Sunday. Good predictive and performance metrics, 19-5 record, 10-4 away from home … but only two Q1 wins at the moment (and two more over non-D1 opponents). It’s enough to have Utah State in the field for now, but they’re a heartbeat from the bubble and need more Q1 wins to bolster the resume. Tuesday’s home tilt against SDSU is a prime chance, and with a few Q3s and home Q1 against New Mexico on the other side, Utah State probably needs four of the next five to provide some cushion entering the Mountain West tournament.

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Others

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

Movement: Even with only two Q1 wins, the Flyers are a lock, taking down Fordham on Saturday in the last remaining Q4 game on the schedule. Saint Mary’s is basically the extreme version of BYU, 15th in the NET but 55th in SOR. It has four Q1 victories and has won 13 in a row, but with 10 of those 13 against Q3 and Q4 opponents, the Gaels are close, but not quite a lock. Meanwhile, Indiana State has lost two in a row to stay on the bubble line, and Memphis finally dropped out after back-to-back losses to North Texas and SMU. Princeton and James Madison have rejoined the bubble fray. Allow us to explain.

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1
Saint Mary’s (20-6) 15/22 111/55 4-2
FAU (20-6) 29/34 105/37 2-1
Gonzaga (19-6) 23/20 98/45 1-5
Indiana State (21-5) 32/49 122/39 1-3
Drake (21-5) 46/48 161/54 2-1
Grand Canyon (23-2) 48/58 270/24 1-0
SMU (18-7) 34/39 140/73 0-2
Princeton (17-3) 53/66 179/34 0-0
James Madison (23-3) 55/65 304/42 1-0

Spotlight On: Princeton and James Madison

How much does the selection committee value those Q1 wins and quality opponents? These two teams could give us an answer. Princeton — which currently has 17 wins, is 9-3 away from home and 34th in SOR — will finish the regular season with zero Q1 games, let alone victories. If the Tigers run the table and lose in the finals of the two-game Ivy League tournament, is that enough to send last year’s Sweet 16 Cinderella back to the dance? What about JMU, which has 23 wins and is 42nd in SOR, but just 1-0 in Q1, 4-2 in Q3 and 17-0 in Q4 (with another non-D1 win to boot)? That Q1 win also came in the season opener against Michigan State, way back on Nov. 6. Is playing more than half of your games against Q4 opponents a formula for March Madness? I don’t see either Princeton or James Madison earning an at-large bid, but I’m curious to find out what the committee thinks.

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

The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Top photos of Pitt’s Blake Hinson, Seton Hall’s Al-Amir Dawes and St. John’s Chris Ledlum: Barry Reeger / AP and Wendell Cruz / USA Today) 

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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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