Bracketology 2020: The bubble’s revolving door is back with a vengeance

The bubble is shrinking, slightly. Last week’s first look at the bubble for the 2019-20 season included a whopping 27 teams beyond the cut line. That total has been reduced to 25 for this week. If we drop two teams a week the rest of the way, we’ll reach a more manageable number of 13 by the time Selection Sunday arrives in six weeks.

Before we get to all that mess, it’s time to start handing out locks. Here’s a reminder of how this all works.

  • For the 2020 NCAA Tournament, it looks like just 23 conferences will earn a single bid.
  • That means that just 45 of the 68 places in the field are truly up for grabs — the 36 at-large spots and the nine that will go to the tournament winners of those nine multi-bid conferences.
  • In turn, those 45 spots will also largely disappear as teams move into the lock category. By the time Selection Weekend arrives, those of us in the bracketology-industrial complex will hope to be left making educated guesses about a handful of spots. With the way this season has played out so far, that could be asking a lot.

By definition, these four teams are also protected seeds. As another reminder, that term means that a team is protected against facing a potentially hostile environment in the First Round only.

Note: The first number following a team’s name is its NET ranking as of the morning of Friday, Jan. 31. Second, is the team’s overall record in games against Division I opposition only. The third is its record in both Quad 1 and 2 games, with the fourth indicating its record in Quad 1 games alone. Record information is courtesy WarrenNolan.com’s incredible database. Auto bid holders are denoted with an asterisk (*).

No. 1s: 1. Baylor* (2/18-1/11-1/7-1), 2. Kansas (4/16-3/12-3/8-3), 3. San Diego State* (1/21-0/8-0/4-0), 4. Gonzaga* (3/22-1/6-1/4-1)

The San Diego State Aztecs and Gonzaga Bulldogs are two of the three teams in the country to have already surpassed the 20-win mark. The third, the Liberty Flames, finds itself in a completely different position because of a poor strength of schedule, including a pair of non-Division I victories. Neither of the Pacific Coast powers have that issue, so they’re good to go as locks. As for the Baylor Bears and Kansas Jayhawks, the top two teams on the seed list aren’t going to be able to accumulate enough bad losses in a strong Big 12 to drop out of the field.

These 12 teams are nearing lock status, but need to pick up a minimum of one win.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Duke
Duke is about to enter the portion of its schedule that will determine its lock status.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2s: 5. Duke (6/17-3/6-3/4-1), 6. Seton Hall* (14/16-4/10-4/7-4), 7. Dayton* (5/19-2/7-2/3-2), 8. West Virginia (9/16-4/9-4/4-3)
No. 3s: 9. Villanova (13/17-3/9-3/5-3), 10. Oregon* (15/18-4/9-4/6-2), 11. Florida State (16/17-3/8-3/3-2), 12. Louisville* (10/18-3/5-3/2-3)
No. 4s: 13. Butler (8/17-4/11-4/6-4), 14. Michigan State* (7/16-5/8-5/4-4), 15. Kentucky (24/16-4/6-3/4-2), 16. Maryland (12/17-4/10-4/5-4)

While the Duke Blue Devils are the top No. 2 seed in today’s update, they’re not yet a lock because of what awaits them in a down ACC. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad hits the road for three straight — all against teams that are either climbing up the bubble (Syracuse on Saturday night) or far away from it (Boston College and archrival North Carolina). A loss in any of those games could, at a minimum, lead to seeding trouble or, in a worse case scenario, begin a downward spiral for Duke.

All three ACC teams in this projection — the Blue Devils, Florida State Seminoles and Louisville Cardinals — rank among the top 16.

Two weeks ago, I neglected to include the Villanova Wildcats in my list of teams that could earn a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. That was a major error on my part, as Jay Wright’s team has won seven straight to edge up to the top spot on seed line No. 3. A huge matchup in the Big East is set for one week from tomorrow, Saturday, February 8th, when the Wildcats host the Seton Hall Pirates, currently a No. 2 seed and owner of a 10-game win streak. But both teams have tricky weeks ahead of them. Nova hosts the Creighton Bluejays and visits the Butler Bulldogs, currently atop seed line No. 4. Meanwhile, the Hall meets a pair of bubble teams — welcoming the Xavier Musketeers to Newark and heading to the Nation’s Capital to meet the Georgetown Hoyas. But wouldn’t it be something if the two teams meet at Wells Fargo Center having combined for 21 straight wins?

South: 1/1. Baylor* (St. Louis 1), 2/7. Dayton* (Cleveland 1), 3/10. Florida State (Tampa 1), 4/16. Maryland (Sacramento 2) – Total of Top 4 Seeds = 34

East: 1/4. Gonzaga* (Spokane 1), 2/5. Duke* (Greensboro 1), 3/9. Villanova (Albany 2), 4/15. Kentucky (Tampa 2) – Total of Top 4 Seeds = 33

Midwest: 1/2. Kansas (Omaha 1), 2/6. Seton Hall* (Albany 1), 3/11. Louisville* (St. Louis 2), 4/14. Michigan State* (Omaha 2) – Total of Top 4 Seeds = 33

West: 1/3. San Diego State* (Sacramento 1), 2/8. West Virginia (Cleveland 2), 3/12. Oregon* (Spokane 2), 4/13. Butler (Greensboro 2) – Total of Top 4 Seeds = 36

Seed lines three and four required shuffling to get the regions into relative balance. This is why the Michigan State Spartans are the Midwest No. 4 seed over Butler, who should have earned that position by virtue of being one spot ahead of the Spartans on the seed line. Florida State is technically two miles closer to Indianapolis than Houston, but since the difference is so small, I made the switch with Louisville, again for balance purposes.

Beyond the top 16, there are a further 11 teams making steady progress toward a bid, including two Big Ten teams that own long NCAA droughts.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Louisiana State
LSU could have found itself in a seventh consecutive close contest when Alabama visited Baton Rouge on Wednesday, but the Tigers took care of business to stay undefeated in SEC play.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

No. 5s: 17. Iowa (21/15-6/9-5/5-4), 18. Creighton (25/15-5/7-5/5-5), 19. LSU* (19/16-4/10-4/3-2), 20. Penn State (23/15-5/9-4/5-3)
No. 6s: 21. Illinois (29/15-5/7-4/4-3), 22. Marquette (22/15-6/8-5/4-5), 23. Arizona (11/14-6/5-6/3-4), 24. Colorado (20/16-5/8-4/3-2)
No. 7s: 25. Auburn (26/18-2/7-2/1-2), 26. Rutgers (18/15-5/6-4/2-3), 27. Houston* (36/17-4/6-3/3-3)

With the Iowa Hawkeyes swapping places with the Maryland Terrapins following the pair’s Thursday meeting in College Park, Fran McCaffery’s squad is one of four Big Ten clubs in this group. The Penn State Nittany Lions have won three in a row against teams below them in the bid pecking order to solidify their spot, while the Illinois Fighting Illini have won seven straight, including three road games (a mean feat this home-friendly Big Ten season) edging both closer to lock status. As for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, they really need to record a road win over someone other than the Nebraska Cornhuskers, thanks to a pair of very close home wins over them and the Purdue Boilermakers. Their next chance comes on Tuesday at Maryland, though the Scarlet Knights will play an odd midseason neutral-site game on Saturday against the Michigan Wolverines — a team behind them on the seed list — as part of Big Ten Day in New York.

On Thursday night, the Arizona Wildcats won their first true road game of the season by holding off the Washington Huskies, while the Colorado Buffaloes saw their seeding take a hit with a bad away loss to the UCLA Bruins, a team Tad Boyle’s club had defeated at Pauley Pavilion in both 2018 and 2019.

We have fun and games (and anxiety).

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Southern California
USC has won five of its last six to establish itself as a serious threat for both the Pac-12 title and NCAA bid.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

No. 7s: 28. Ohio State (17/13-7/5-7/3-5)
No. 8s: 29. Wisconsin (31/12-9/6-8/5-7), 30. USC (38/17-4/9-3/3-3), 31. Michigan (35/12-8/6-8/3-8), 32. Wichita State (32/17-3/7-3/0-1)
No. 9s: 33. Texas Tech (30/13-7/4-7/2-7), 34. Stanford (27/15-5/3-3/0-3), 35. Saint Mary’s (34/18-4/6-2/2-1), 36. Indiana (46/15-6/5-6/3-5)
No. 10s: 37. Oklahoma (52/13-7/7-7/2-6), 38. Florida (41/12-8/6-8/2-4)
No. 10s (Last Four Byes): 39. Arkansas (39/15-5/5-5/1-3), 40. BYU (28/15-7/4-7/1-5)
No. 11s (Last Four Byes): 41. Rhode Island (44/15-5/4-4/1-3), 42. VCU (33/16-5/2-5/1-3)

Few teams ranked outside of the top 27 on the seed list managed to win their midweek games. Of the 15 teams above, just seven won between Tuesday and Thursday, with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Wichita State Shockers and Wisconsin Badgers lucky to be idle. Michigan did win at Nebraska to complete a season sweep, while both the Saint Mary’s Gaels and BYU Cougars (in the Last Four Byes group below) picked up Thursday night wins before their Saturday night showdown in Provo and two sets of Atlantic 10 Rams, VCU and Rhode Island, also took care of business before their rematch tonight in Kingston. VCU’s home victory over the Richmond Spiders was particularly noteworthy as the Rams significantly damaged their crosstown rivals’ bubble hopes.

However, the Texas Tech Red Raiders and USC Trojans were the biggest bubble winners of the week so far. The Red Raiders picked up a second top-10 win by handling West Virginia in Lubbock on Wednesday night. One evening later, the Trojans took down the Utah Utes to continue a six-game stretch that has seen them only lose at Oregon in double overtime.

Most of the losers, however, fell in games they really needed to win. Both of the SEC entrants in this group, the Florida Gators and Arkansas Razorbacks, lost to teams below them on the bubble. The Gators gave up a double-digit lead in a home loss to the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Conversely, the Razorbacks’ late rally against the South Carolina Gamecocks, also on their own floor, came up short. The Stanford Cardinal remain an enigma on par with Florida, as the NET’s 27th-ranked team has now dropped three in a row after Thursday’s road loss to the Oregon State Beavers. The Oklahoma Sooners, meanwhile, dropped a 61-53 decision on Wednesday to the Kansas State Wildcats. At least the Indiana Hoosiers’ midweek loss came on the road to a team well ahead of them in the Big Ten pecking order — Penn State.

If you thought the bid picture was a muddled mess before we got here, just wait!

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Virginia
Virginia took care of business in the first of three home games against this season’s ACC heavyweights.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last Four IN (No. 11s – First Four): 43. Virginia (55/14-6/6-5/2-2), 44. Utah State (54/15-6/3-5/2-3), 45. Alabama (40/12-8/3-7/1-5), 46. Mississippi State (42/13-7/3-5/1-5)

Of the four teams destined for Dayton in this exercise, three of them are here because of victories they picked up during a three-day span when most of their competition failed. Mississippi State sneaks into the field following its win at Florida, while the Virginia Cavaliers are back after they held off Florida State on Tuesday night and the Utah State Aggies also return, as three straight wins have pushed them closer to the NET Top 50. The Alabama Crimson Tide remain in the field despite their Wednesday loss at LSU because … well, I’m just going to gesture wildly at what’s to come.

First Four OUT: 69. Virginia Tech (53/14-7/5-6/2-4), 70. ETSU (68/15-4/2-2/2-1), 71. Memphis (50/15-5/5-4/1-3), 72. Minnesota (45/11-10/5-10/3-8)
Next Four OUT: 73. Purdue (37/11-10/5-9/2-8), 74. NC State (56/14-7/5-5/2-3), 75. Georgetown (49/12-9/6-9/2-7) 76. Syracuse (60/13-8/4-8/3-3)

Also Considered: 77. St. John’s (73/13-9/4-8/3-6), 78. DePaul (59/12-8/4-6/4-5), 79. Texas (64/13-7/3-7/2-5), 80. TCU (65/12-7/3-7/1-3), 81. Cincinnati (51/13-7/5-4/0-4), 82. Richmond (58/15-6/3-5/2-4), 83. Tennessee (62/12-8/4-7/2-4), 84. UNCG (67/15-5/3-4/1-1), 85. Arizona State (57/12-8/5-8/1-6), 86. Xavier (63/13-8/5-8/1-7), 87. Washington (47/12-10/2-8/1-7), 88. Utah (71/12-8/5-6/2-6), 89. Notre Dame (66/12-8/2-7/1-5), 90. Tulsa (69/14-6/3-4/0-2), 91. Saint Louis (73/13-9/4-8/3-6), 92. SMU (74/15-5/2-4/1-2), 93. South Carolina (75/12-8/5-6/3-4)

Of the first 25 teams left out of the field — a group that consists of the remainder of the NET Top 75 except for the Iowa State Cyclones, who aren’t included in my analysis since their record falls below .500 — a mere seven won their midweek games to continue a pattern of losing that began with the teams above them. Making matters worse, just two of these squads, the NC State Wolfpack and Tulsa Golden Hurricane, were idle. Purdue and Minnesota’s defeats were particularly costly, as both now sit at 11-10, and that winning percentage costs both teams their spots in the field. It’s a similar story for 12-10 Washington, which slips down the bubble after its loss to Arizona.

Other teams that hurt themselves badly this week include …

  • A Georgetown squad that dropped its third straight with a 69-64 home loss to Butler.
  • Virginia Tech, which is back on the wrong side of the cut line following consecutive road losses to Boston College and Miami.
  • Arizona State, victim of Washington State’s newfound home-court advantage.
  • The aforementioned Richmond squad that followed up a home loss to Dayton with a road defeat against VCU.
  • DePaul, now 1-7 in the Big East, following Wednesday’s loss at Seton Hall.
  • Syracuse, which saw its five-game win streak rudely snapped by Clemson.
  • Tennessee, which recorded perhaps the worst loss of the group — to Texas A&M at home.
  • Xavier, which couldn’t manage to defeat Marquette at home with Markus Howard out for most of the second half and two overtimes.
  • TCU, which dropped a heartbreaker at home to one of the few winners from this group, Texas.
  • East Tennessee State, which surrendered both its Southern Conference lead and possibly its at-large hopes with a loss to Mercer at home.
  • Utah, seen above falling at USC.
  • St. John’s, run out of Madison Square Garden by Villanova.
  • And finally, SMU, 22-point losers at Cincinnati, another team from this group that’s making a midseason push towards relevance.

Whew. Besides, Cincinnati and Texas, Notre Dame (over Wake Forest at home), Memphis (at UCF), UNC Greensboro (at Western Carolina), Saint Louis (by one at La Salle after overtime) and South Carolina (an actual good win at Arkansas) are the only other teams currently on the outside looking in that managed to taste victory over the past three days.

Not only do we have three new at-large teams in the field since Tuesday’s projection, we’ve had some casting changes on the bubble. Duquesne, Georgia, Iowa State and Pittsburgh are now off the board, with South Carolina and Utah filling the void in a bubble that shrunk by two spots. Plus, a trio of teams on the outside looking in last Friday are now back in the field as members of our final group of teams.

No. 12s: 47. Northern Iowa* (43/16-3/3-1/1-1), 48. Yale*, 49. Liberty*, 50. Furman*
No. 13s: 51. North Texas*, 52. Stephen F. Austin*, 53. Vermont*, 54. New Mexico State*
No. 14s: 55. UC Irvine*, 56. Bowling Green*, 57. Wright State*, 58. William & Mary*
No. 15s: 59. Colgate*, 60. Winthrop*, 61. South Dakota State*, 62. Murray State*
No. 16s (First Round): 63. Little Rock*, 64. Eastern Washington*
No. 16s (First Four): 65. Monmouth*, 66. Prairie View A&M*, 67. Robert Morris*, 68. Norfolk State*

Those would be the Yale Bulldogs, now 2-0 in the Ivy League, and the Liberty Flames, though their at-large hopes are now all but over after last week’s consecutive road losses. The same can’t be said for a Northern Iowa Panthers team that’s back in as the Missouri Valley leader, but still under consideration for an at-large thanks to a 16-3 record against Division I opposition, including a win at Colorado.

I’ll have a full bracket update on Tuesday.

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