2024 NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Did the Big 12 game the system?


Saturday afternoon was a tone-setter for the Big 12. Houston, the scrappy conference newcomer, had a chance to waltz into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and knock off perennial league power Kansas, giving the Cougars a narrative grip on the best conference in men’s hoops.

Not so fast. The Jayhawks sparkled in a 78-65 home victory, shooting 69 percent from the floor and 46 percent from beyond the 3-point arc against the best defensive team in the country. The big dog is still in Lawrence.

Meanwhile, there was another narrative at play involving the Big 12: that the sport’s “best conference” is overrated. Terrence Oglesby from the Field of 68 was one of the loudest voices driving this argument, which he rooted in the overall weakness of the league’s nonconference strength of schedule (NC SOS). Oglesby contends that several Big 12 teams that are either projected to make the NCAA Tournament or on the bubble juiced their efficiency rankings by clobbering tomato cans to start the season and avoiding tough out-of-league games, which in turn stacks the conference slate with quality matchups.

There is credence to these claims. Kansas, Houston and Baylor played perfectly respectable nonconference schedules. But if you take BYU, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and TCU — all of which ranked in the top 36 of the NET and top 32 of KenPom as of Monday morning — the average NET nonconference strength of schedule is 292. (There are 362 Division I teams this season.) Those seven teams have combined to go 57-0 against Quad 4 opponents, each playing at least seven, and only a collective 1-10 in non-league Quad 1 games.

BUBBLE WATCH CHART PICTURE 1


Source: Bracketologists.com

It makes for a fun February debate, albeit one lacking in other data points. The Big 12 has the best winning percentage against the other top six conferences. Metrics such as the NET and KenPom factor things like strength of opposition into their formulas. It also tends to require “good” teams to beat up on “bad” ones to the degree the Big 12 has, which has been backed up by the depth and competitiveness of Big 12 league play. No doubt Iowa State benefited from its nonconference schedule from a win/loss perspective, but the Cyclones beat Houston and Kansas and were a tenth-of-a-second from taking down Baylor on Saturday. Iowa State’s nonconference strategy worked, and the Cyclones are good. Those aren’t mutually exclusive.

In the spirit of Bubble Watch, however, it’s more relevant to examine this argument in the context of potential at-large bids. The NCAA selection committee, after all, is made up of humans, who can make critical judgments about what metrics they value most when seeding the bracket. As we approach March, it’s worth keeping an eye on Big 12 bubble teams like Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU — all with sub-275 NC SOS — and how they fair on Selection Sunday compared to other bubble teams with better NC SOS, like Texas A&M (22), Utah (25), Boise State (31) and Virginia Tech (38). What aspects of the team sheet will be deemed most important to earning a tourney berth?

BUBBLE WATCH CHART PICTURE 2


Source: Bracketologists.com

Is the Big 12 truly “the best conference?” Probably. But the better question is how much that will matter in the eyes of the committee come Selection Sunday.


Some quick housekeeping before we jump in. We’ve added six new locks to the six from last week: Duke, Wisconsin, Kansas, Baylor, Marquette and Alabama.

Again, for this column, “locks” are teams we feel are sure to make the NCAA Tournament and won’t move off that line, save for extraordinary circumstances, which is why we err on the side of caution with those calls. “Projected to be in” is for teams that aren’t locked but are safely in the field for the time being. They could elevate to lock status after a good week or two or drop to “on the bubble” after a rough stretch. (Auburn or BYU, for example.)

“On the bubble” is much broader, encompassing some 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 some help elsewhere) to get on the right side of the cut line. (Anyone from TCU to Colorado to Virginia Tech.) The closer we get to Selection Sunday, the smaller the “projected in” group will get, as teams separate into “locks” and “on the bubble.” This far out, it’s still more art than science.

This week we’re also unveiling the “movement” section for each conference to give a sense of how teams have shifted since the last Bubble Watch edition. To further illustrate that, and per some reader requests, we’ve listed teams in each category in order of strength, meaning the first “projected in” or “on the bubble” team listed for each conference is our best of that bunch and so on.

ACC

Locks:

North Carolina,

Duke

Projected to be in:

Clemson

On the bubble:

Virginia,

Wake Forest,

Virginia Tech

Movement: Despite a road loss to UNC, Duke elevates to a lock after a road win at Virginia Tech and with a 4-2 Q1 record, including neutral-site nonconference wins over Baylor and Michigan State. Syracuse and Florida State drop off the bubble after losses to Boston College and Louisville, respectively. Miami, after scoring just 38 points on Monday against Virginia, also falls out. 

Spotlight On: Virginia Tech

Resume at a glance: 13-9, 5-6 ACC; NET: 53; KenPom: 58; SOS: 21; Quad 1: 2-7

With the ACC still waiting for a fourth team to emerge, Virginia Tech suffered back-to-back Q1 losses to Duke and Miami that could have changed the tenor of its resume. The Hokies have a decent squad (No. 62 offense and No. 61, per KenPom) that has played a tough schedule with no bad losses, but right now, it doesn’t have enough good wins, either. It feels like a microcosm of the ACC at large. VT is 2-7 in Q1, and with only two Q1 opportunities remaining, a Feb. 17 trip to Chapel Hill becomes a must-win if Tech and coach Mike Young want any chance to avoid missing a third straight NCAA Tournament. 

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It was a tough week for Wisconsin, but the Badgers are still going to the NCAA Tournament. (Kayla Wolf / USA Today)

Big Ten

Locks:

Purdue,

Wisconsin

Projected to be in:

Illinois

On the bubble:

Michigan State,

Nebraska,

Northwestern

Movement: It’s admittedly strange to make Wisconsin a lock after back-to-back losses, but the Nebraska game went to overtime on the road, and the Badgers played Purdue tough on Sunday. Even on a losing streak, we can’t see Wisconsin missing the field. Illinois is on the cusp of a lock. Michigan State remains on the bubble, but Brian Bennett did a good job in last week’s Bracket Watch of laying out why the Spartans, whose resume isn’t all that impressive, are projected to be in by so many. Ohio State and Maryland drop off the bubble line.

Spotlight On: Northwestern

Resume at a glance: 15-7, 6-5 Big Ten; NET: 58; KenPom: 49; SOS: 25; Quad 1: 4-5

Overtime giveth, and overtime taketh away. Entering last week, Northwestern’s two biggest wins on the season were OT home victories against Purdue and Illinois. Then? Back-to-back OT road losses to Purdue and Minnesota. It’s keeping the Wildcats on a razor’s edge, with what feels like an important home tilt against Nebraska on Wednesday and a can’t-lose game versus Penn State on Sunday. Northwestern already has four Q1 wins — more than Bama, BYU, Illinois and Creighton and as many as Tennessee, Duke and Texas — but it also has a Q4 loss to Chicago State and Big 12-esque nonconference strength of schedule. The margin for error is slim, and just one Q1 game remains: at Michigan State early next month.

Big 12

Locks:

Baylor,

Houston,

Kansas

Projected to be in:

Iowa State,

BYU

On the bubble:

Texas Tech,

Oklahoma,

TCU,

Texas,

Cincinnati,

Kansas State

Movement: Kansas and Baylor become locks after big-time home victories over Houston and Iowa State, respectively. Iowa State is knocking on the door and likely would have flipped with Baylor had a last-second 3-pointer been released a moment sooner, while Texas Tech and Oklahoma slip to the bubble after some tough losses. UCF loses bubble status, but Kansas State hangs on, ending a four-game skid with an overtime win against Kansas on Monday.

Spotlight On: TCU

Resume at a glance: 16-6, 5-4 Big 12; NET: 36; KenPom: 29; SOS: 56; Quad 1: 2-4

The Horned Frogs are in a good spot, on the upper end of the bubble and projected better than that by plenty in the bracketology community. Though I have a hard time separating any of those first five Big 12 teams on the bubble (everyone but K-State) when all of the resumes are so similar, and TCU just slipped behind the first four in the NET after Saturday’s home loss to Texas. There’s a good chance most of the teams listed above reach the tournament, TCU among them, but the Frogs will have to earn it by claiming some of the Q1 opportunities that await. They’ve been very good at home, with league wins over Oklahoma, Houston and Texas Tech, but aside from a critical 3OT road win over Baylor, they’ve struggled to secure marquee wins outside of Schollmaier Arena. TCU gets a chance at one Saturday with a Q1 game at Iowa State before a quick Monday night turnaround against West Virginia at home.

Big East

Locks:

Marquette,

UConn

Projected to be in:

Creighton

On the bubble:

St. John’s,

Seton Hall,

Providence,

Butler,

Villanova

Movement: Marquette makes the leap to lock while riding a six-game winning streak, with wins over St. John’s and Seton Hall and two against Villanova in the process. It’s a tough schedule the rest of the way, with five games that currently rank as Q1 opportunities, but the Golden Eagles already have five of those wins, a good record away from home and strong SOS metrics. And for what it’s worth, Creighton isn’t far behind. Butler should have been on the bubble last week, as a few of you pointed out, and especially now after a massive road win over Creighton. Xavier falls out.

Spotlight on: Butler

Resume at a glance: 15-7, 6-5 Big East; NET: 49; KenPom: 47; SOS: 13; Quad 1: 3-6

Credit to the Bulldogs, who bounced back from a 2-5 start to Big East play with a four-game winning streak, including an overtime victory over Villanova and that Q1 roadie over Creighton. Led by guards Pierre Brooks (16.5 points per game), Jahmyl Telfort (14.4 ppg) and D.J. Davis (14 ppg), Butler has vaulted back into the NCAA Tournament field by taking care of the ball on offense and defending without fouling. But the next seven are relentless: at UConn, vs. Providence, vs. Marquette, vs. Creighton, at Villanova, at Seton Hall, vs. St. John’s. If Butler is still above the cut line entering March, it will have done it the hard way.

Pac-12

Lock:

Arizona

Projected to be in:

Utah

On the bubble:

Colorado,

Washington State,

Oregon

Movement: None. Utah remains in after a home win over Colorado and buoyed by some solid nonconference wins, but it is hovering just above the bubble.

Spotlight On: Utah

Resume at a glance: 15-7, 6-5 Pac-12; NET: 34; KenPom: 40; SOS: 20; Quad 1: 4-5

There’s no way the Pac-12 is a one-bid league … right? Arizona is a lock, and Utah remains the next most likely option. The Utes can thank a strong nonconference performance, including a top-25 NC SOS and Q1 wins over BYU, Saint Mary’s and Wake Forest. They have four Q1 wins overall and zero bad losses, which has been enough thus far, led by 7-footer Branden Carlson (16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and sharpshooter Gabe Madsen (13 ppg, 42 percent 3FG). Saturday’s win over Colorado was significant, as will be Thursday night’s home game against league-leading Arizona. Win and the Utes can breathe a little easier. Lose and the bubble beckons.

jace scaled


Jace Carter and Texas A&M are reaching for some more quality wins. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)

SEC

Locks:

Alabama,

Tennessee

Projected to be in:

Kentucky,

Auburn,

South Carolina

On the bubble:

Mississippi State,

Ole Miss,

Florida,

Texas A&M

Movement: The Crimson Tide are now a lock with four straight victories dating back to the win over Auburn and some of the best SOS metrics in the country. South Carolina moves from on the bubble to projected in with a 19-3 overall record and Q1 wins over Kentucky and at Tennessee. Georgia drops the other way off the bubble after three straight defeats.

Spotlight On: Texas A&M

Resume at a glance: 13-8, 4-4 SEC; NET: 50; KenPom: 48; SOS: 19; Quad 1: 4-4

The Aggies have a fascinating resume, with four Q1 wins, including against Iowa State and Kentucky. They’re also 1-2 in Q3 games and got thumped by LSU at home. Saturday’s win over Florida was much-needed after blowing one to Ole Miss a week prior, but A&M still needs to stack some wins during the next six weeks to feel any semblance of confidence come Selection Sunday. With Tennessee (twice), Alabama and South Carolina still ahead, Wade Taylor IV (19.8 ppg) and company will have opportunities to make some noise. The stretch against Mississippi State and Ole Miss to end the regular season should have notable implications on the SEC tournament seeding and at-large chances.

Mountain West

Projected to be in:

Utah State,

San Diego State,

Colorado State

On the bubble:

New Mexico,

Boise State,

Nevada

Movement: New Mexico drops to on the bubble.

Spotlight On: New Mexico

Resume at a glance: 18-4, 6-3 MWC; NET: 18; KenPom: 19; SOS: 107; Quad 1: 2-2

It’s a thin line between in and the bubble for the Lobos, who get dinged for last week’s home loss to fellow bubble-watcher Boise State. But as Brian Hamilton detailed in his excellent feature on Richard Pitino and America’s most eclectic team, New Mexico has the profile of an NCAA Tournament squad, in an underappreciated conference that could have five or six teams dancing. The Lobos have the metrics and overall record, and they knocked off San Diego State, Utah State and Nevada as part of a five-game winning streak in January. But two Q1 wins and a combined 5-4 record in Q1 and Q2 games are a notch behind SDSU, Utah State, CSU and Boise State, with a lackluster nonconference resume on top of it. If they truly belong, we’ll know it: New Mexico faces Nevada, San Diego State and Colorado State in eight days this month, then finishes with Boise State and Utah State, both on the road.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Six days on the bubble with America’s most eclectic team

tgf scaled


Can Tyon Grant-Foster and Grand Canyon soar to at-large status? (Christopher Hook / AP)

Others

Projected to be in:

Dayton,

Florida Atlantic,

Saint Mary’s

On the bubble:

Gonzaga,

Indiana State,

Memphis,

Drake,

Richmond,

Grand Canyon,

UAB

Movement: Saint Mary’s moved from on the bubble to projected in with a chaotic road win over Gonzaga. Richmond and UAB join the bubble, replacing Princeton and McNeese State.

Spotlight On: Memphis and Grand Canyon

Memphis resume at a glance: 16-6, 5-4 AAC; NET: 80; KenPom: 77; SOS: 122; Quad 1: 1-2

The Tigers saved their NCAA Tournament hopes with a last-second win over Wichita State on Saturday, ending a four-game skid that included a Q3 and Q4 loss. Still, Memphis should be on the outside looking in from a resume perspective. It has quality nonconference wins over Texas A&M, Clemson and Virginia and two games against Florida Atlantic left on the schedule, but one more bad loss, and Penny Hardaway’s crew will need an AAC tournament title to make a third straight March Madness appearance.

Grand Canyon resume at a glance: 21-2, 11-1 WAC; NET: 46; KenPom: 59; SOS: 244; Quad 1: 1-1

Total respect for what Bryce Drew and the Antelopes have accomplished this season. But with zero Q1 or Q2 games currently left on the schedule, and a 13-9, sub-100-NET Seattle the next-best team in the conference, GCU probably will have to run the table to the WAC title game to even have a shot at an at-large bid.

(Top photo of Northwestern’s Ty Berry and Butler mascot Blue IV: David Berding / Getty Images and Zach Bolinger / AP)





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