Women’s basketball Bubble Watch: Auburn’s heating up, UNC’s teetering – The Athletic

By Mark SchindlerMar 1, 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 past week in basketball has brought an ungodly amount of upsets, including the upheaval of the top 10 this past weekend. The Pac-12 is doing everything in its power to fight, claw and scrap and make the final season of play as memorable as possible. The ACC is about as predictable as a random number generator.

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With the reveal of the latest Top 16 from the selection committee on Thursday, we continue to gain more clarity for the top tournament seeds, while simultaneously dropping the floor as we lower the ceiling.

The number of games to make a splash on your resume dwindles; some teams are done playing and awaiting their conference tournament. So much of this time of year is a waiting game, hoping the chips fall your way as another team runs into a 2-3 matchup zone it wasn’t ready for.

What teams stand out throughout our Bubble Watch, causing eyebrows to raise for their current exploits or questions that arise due to late-season lulls?

ACC

Locks: Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina State, Notre Dame Projected in: North Carolina, Florida State, Duke On the bubble: Georgia Tech, Miami

Team Record NET SOS
Duke 19-9 20 16
Florida State 20-9 42 39
Georgia Tech 15-14 73 58
Miami 18-10 48 48
North Carolina 18-11 30 15

Spotlight On: North Carolina

The Tar Heels are the barometer of the ACC in some ways, indicative of how competitive the league is from top to bottom as well as how matchups define the differences across programs. UNC has lost by double digits just twice this season, playing against UConn and Virginia Tech the second time around.

Conversely, the Heels can go from beating NC State to dropping a game to Boston College exactly a week apart.

This team is good, spurred on by a veteran core, but finding offensive consistency has been the question for much of this season. The Tar Heels’ defense and attentiveness on the glass always have them in games, but that lack of offensive polish has really bitten them, especially late-game in ACC play.

The Heels have played a strong schedule — 15th overall in the country — and rank 30th in the NET. Their final regular-season game against Duke could provide some oomph, but they seem locked into a No. 8 or No. 9 seed based on how the season has shaken out. Can they find a new groove headed into the ACC tournament and make a run? They’ve shown the capability for stretches, but finding it for the entirety during the next few weeks could elevate them into better positioning for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Big Ten

Locks: Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana Projected in: Michigan State, Nebraska, Maryland On the bubble: Penn State, Michigan, Illinois

Team Record NET SOS
Illinois 13-14 46 41
Maryland 17-11 32 7
Michigan 17-12 52 29
Michigan State 19-7 22 45
Nebraska 18-9 28 28
Penn State 17-11 31 33

Movement

Michigan State moved itself into a firm lock this week, winning its fourth straight game and taking care of Illinois handily in the Breslin Center. 

Spotlight On: Michigan State

The Spartans have played steady basketball from start to finish, dropping only one game in Big Ten play to a team outside the top four in the standings. Though Michigan State doesn’t necessarily have a marquee win over the very top, the Spartans have racked up wins over quality teams from start to finish, punctuated by three games when they finished within two possessions of the top three teams in the league.

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Can the Spartans put together a magical Big Ten tournament run in coach Robyn Fralick’s first season in East Lansing?

This squad is locked into the field, a likely No. 6 or 7 seed, but adding a marquee win or two would take Michigan State to a different stratosphere that the committee could view in a different light.

Big 12

Locks: Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State Projected in: West Virginia, Iowa State, Kansas On the bubble: TCU

Team Record NET SOS
Baylor 20-6 18 38
Iowa State 15-10 34 22
Kansas 17-11 40 6
TCU 18-9 45 71
West Virginia 22-4 21 68

Movement

Baylor likely has been a lock for some time, but it fully moved into that territory for me after righting the ship, taking down West Virginia for the second time this season. Kansas is now projected as fully in the field after its big win over Kansas State. TCU finds its way onto the bubble for the first time after picking up its fourth straight win as the Horned Frogs have started to get healthy after a devastating run of injuries at the start of conference play.

Spotlight On: Baylor

The Bears were one of the early season surprises, racing out to a 14-0 start, including wins over Utah and Miami, and beating Texas at Moody Center in Austin. Baylor then oscillated between wins and losses, not creating a streak in either direction from mid-January to mid-February, going 5-5.

The defense wasn’t quite as tight in games against more sizable frontcourts. The offense predicated on ball movement and good decision-making struggled through stretches when defenses heavily zoned Baylor.

Yet, Baylor has started to find its form again, picking up two important wins over West Virginia in February, narrowly losing to Oklahoma in Norman, and going on a four-game winning streak heading into its final regular-season game. The Bears showed promise, handling Kansas and avenging their first loss of the season.

Senior guard Jana Van Gytenbeek has been significant as the Bears coalesce their offensive flow, stepping in as a key reserve over the past month and averaging 11.6 points and 4 assists per game over her last 5 games. She’s shooting 42.9 percent from 3 on over five attempts per game. She fights and scraps defensively and has a great nose for rebounds. Van Gytenbeek has exemplified the “sometimes you, sometimes me, always us” moniker that the Bears adopted at the height of nonconference.

Don’t sleep on the Bears making a run in the Big 12 tournament and pushing for higher seeding in March Madness.

Big East

Locks: UConn, Creighton Projected in: Marquette On the bubble: Villanova

Team Record NET SOS
Marquette 21-7 37 77
Villanova 17-11 51 69

Spotlight On: Marquette

The Golden Eagles started the season with a bang, winning 12 straight including a significant win over Big East power Creighton. Since then, Marquette is 9-7, including an 0-7 record against the top four in the Big East standings.

Marquette is most likely solidly into the field, given its strong standing in the NET and some decent nonconference wins against Illinois and Arkansas. However, I’m interested to see how the committee considers the Golden Eagles’ slide. The Big East has not been as strong this season, relative to its peers, as it has in previous years; beating up on the middle of the Big East will likely not match up with teams doing the same elsewhere in the Power 6.

An early exit in the Big East tournament could spell some trouble for Marquette’s March Madness dreams, considering how late-season play tends to be viewed.

Pac-12

Locks: Stanford, Colorado, UCLA, Oregon State, USC Projected in: Arizona, Utah On the bubble: California, Washington, Washington State

Team Record NET SOS
Arizona 16-13 33 9
California 17-12 63 10
Utah 19-8 7 3
Washington 15-13 49 23
Washington State 17-13 25 13

Movement

Arizona moves into being projected in after picking up four straight wins, punctuated by a statement win over Stanford. Washington State is now on the bubble after splitting its road trip with the Oregon schools, and multiple teams in the bubble performing well.

Spotlight On: Arizona

Despite this week’s loss to USC, a double overtime affair at McKale Arena, Arizona has no reason to hang its head. Picking up a win at home over the Trojans could’ve gone a long way in adding some extra firepower to the Wildcats’ March resume, but they remain one of the hottest teams in the country.

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Coach Adia Barnes’ squad has weathered injuries and an overall lack of availability to culminate in a four-game winning streak headed into Thursday night’s game.

The defense has been frenetic and precise, paving the way with ball pressure that belies the dearth of depth in Tucson. Fifth-year senior Esmery Martinez is the skeleton-key forward who makes Arizona work, bringing a well-rounded offensive game; she can post up, drive the ball, create for others and spread the floor. She’s capable of guarding just about anyone with her length, quickness and understanding of angles.

Freshman guard Jada Williams has brought another punch, playing her best games during this stretch, including a 23-point outing in Arizona’s upset win over Stanford at Maples Pavilion. Helena Pueyo is one of the best defensive guards in Division I.

Currently 33rd in the NET and with the ninth toughest strength of schedule, Arizona should be in the field, but picking up one of these games against the L.A. schools as they come to Tucson seems crucial, barring a Pac-12 tourney run.

SEC

Locks: South Carolina, LSU Projected in: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss On the bubble: Vanderbilt, Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M

Team Record NET SOS
Alabama 22-8 27 73
Arkansas 18-12 65 72
Auburn 18-10 47 64
Florida 14-13 61 56
Mississippi State 20-10 41 76
Ole Miss 21-7 43 51
Tennessee 17-10 38 19
Texas A&M 18-10 39 67
Vanderbilt 21-8 56 65

Movement

Texas A&M winds up in the bubble this week, as that promising win over Arkansas was met with a crushing defeat the following game at the hands of Auburn. Florida is technically still on the bubble, but its loss to Georgia moved it out of the first eight out.

Spotlight On: Auburn

Johnnie Harris has the Tigers playing strong, putting together their best season as a program since 2019 by registering their 18th win after ousting Mississippi State.

The Tigers are just nasty to play against, as they appear fully bought into Harris’ schemes and style. They get up into you on defense, often picking up full-court and swarming. They attack the basket non-stop with a plethora of guards who can all create and get to the rim. If you can’t handle ball pressure or dish it out yourself, good luck against Auburn.

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Honesty Scott-Grayson has absolutely dazzled as the primary scorer, averaging nearly 20 per game in SEC play as a dynamic two-guard who can rise and fire with ease on her pull-up or get downhill with force. Two of her best games have come against LSU, which is crucial as Auburn is one of just four teams to take down the reigning champs.

Don’t overlook Taylen Collins, who is a huge part of Auburn’s execution during her first season with the Tigers. She’s versatile defensively and adept at switching across all positions on the court. She can face up, is a strong rebounder, and routinely plays with an impact the box score can’t capture.

It’ll be tight for the Tigers, just inside the Top 50 of the NET with a lot of good wins and close losses. However, that win over LSU along with consecutive victories over the middle of the SEC, jostling for similar tournament positioning, could be crucial.

Others

Locks: Gonzaga, Princeton Projected in: UNLV, Richmond, Toledo, Middle Tennessee, Green Bay, Columbia, Drake, Marshall, FGCU, Fairfield, South Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Tulsa, Cleveland State, Grand Canyon, Jackson State, Chattanooga, Stony Brook, Lamar, Albany, Norfolk State, Hawaii, Holy Cross, High Point, Sacred Heart, Eastern Illinois On the bubble: Ball State, Belmont, Saint Joseph’s, George Mason, North Texas, Rhode Island, VCU

Team Record NET SOS
Belmont 20-7 69 95
Columbia 19-5 59 120
Davidson 18-8 82 122
Eastern Washington 22-5 74 249
George Mason 22-5 64 205
Green Bay 23-5 50 153
Rhode Island 17-13 85 130
Richmond 25-5 53 102
Saint Joseph’s 25-4 58 160
Toledo 21-4 67 137
VCU 24-4 70 213

Movement

With a massive win over Princeton, Columbia is projected in the field outright for the first time in bubble watch! Toledo beat Ball State, the conference rival and former leader in the standings, to avenge its lone MAC loss and take over the top spot in the standings, earning the AQ that projects it into the tournament.

Spotlight On: Jackson State

I currently have Jackson State projected into the field, the automatic qualifier out of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Tigers have gone undefeated thus far through conference play, appearing as the clear-cut favorite to win the conference tournament. They’re currently up three games on Grambling State for first in the standings with four regular-season games remaining.

The Tigers have largely gone under the radar since the beginning of SWAC play, and I’d like to kindly remind you of Jackson State as we inch closer to the tournament.

Coach Tomeika Reed battle-tested her squad in nonconference, playing the third hardest non-con strength of schedule. For reference, the Tigers didn’t play a home game from Nov. 16 until the first week of January, enduring a gauntlet of a cross-country schedule. They played at Kansas State, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Miami and Texas.

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Though the Tigers didn’t win, they grew throughout the process, taking both Mississippi State and Miami wire-to-wire in close games. They beat St. John’s in a game that’s only looked better on paper since St. John’s has found its groove in the Big East.

Angel Jackson, a 6-foot-6 center, anchors one of the best defenses in the country, ranking in the 87th percentile of defensive efficiency per CBB Analytics. They rank 11th in the country in offensive rebound rate, attacking the glass with gumption and have a handful of dynamic guards that can create shots and attack the basket.

Look out for the Tigers in March, somewhere Reed has taken the Tigers multiple times in her tenure already, including a narrow first-round loss to LSU when Jackson State was a No. 14 seed.

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.

 

(Photos of Auburn’s Honesty Scott-Grayson,  North Carolina’s Deja Kelly:Matthew Hinton / USA TODAY Sports,  Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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Mark Schindler is a 2021 graduate of the University of Toledo and has been working in basketball in a scouting and writing capacity since 2019. Alongside his current Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch series at The Athletic, you can find his work with Seven Star Digital covering all things basketball.

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