2024 NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Providence and Pitt win big


(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.)

Conference tournaments are here, and Selection Sunday is nigh, which means Bubble Watch is in full swing.

I’ll be making regular, daily updates to Bubble Watch from now until the bracket is revealed, so be sure to bookmark this page and check in all week as conference tourneys heat up and the NCAA Tournament field comes into focus. As soon as relevant games in each conference wrap up, I’ll have fresh thoughts on what it means for those teams and any other bubble watchers impacted by the results.

I’m in Kansas City covering the Big 12 tournament, but I’ll do my best to update things in real-time, and I’ll try to hop into the comments and answer questions as well. Even the mean ones.

An important note: An expanded “Movement” section for each conference will be refreshed as often as necessary, while the corresponding team charts will be updated each morning with accurate records, NET rankings and other metrics.

We’ll keep track of the number of auto-qualifiers as they roll in, whether or not there are any “bid thieves” among them, and how the math is shaping up for the rest of the field.

As a reminder for our team designations, “locks” are for teams we believe have wrapped up an at-large bid if they don’t win the AQ. Those schools can’t move off that line (a precedent Wisconsin has seemed intent on breaking for the past six weeks). “Projected to be in” is for teams that aren’t quite locks but aren’t on the bubble, either; that list should shrink rapidly as the week plays out. Same for “on the bubble,” which specifically applies to those bubble teams that are still alive in their conference tournaments. This week, we’re adding the “waiting game” category for teams that are on the bubble but have been bounced and can no longer impact their own resume. The closer we get to Sunday, the more teams will get divided into the “locks” and “waiting game” categories. And we promise it will all make sense.

ALERT: Even on a day with no conference title games on the schedule, we have a legit bid thief pending after Dayton’s loss to Duquesne on Thursday. Scroll down to the Others section for details.

The at-large spots are dwindling quickly.

Mississippi State is officially a lock with Friday’s win over Tennessee, advancing the Bulldogs to the SEC semifinals. Michigan State should be in as well after Friday’s loss to Purdue, but we’ll err on the side of caution for now and move the Spartans to the “waiting game” with so many matchups still left on the docket.

Allowing for the still lingering possibility of bubble AQs or outright bid thieves in the ACC, AAC, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC, there are probably only four to six at-large spots that are legitimately up for grabs, which is why still being alive in the conference tournament is such a valuable commodity at this stage. Conventional wisdom has the likes of Michigan State, Oklahoma and Seton Hall above the cut line, but those teams can’t do anything to improve their fate. Whereas the likes of Virginia, Pitt, Ohio State, Colorado and a few others can still pull a Mississippi State — or better yet, earn an automatic bid.

That explains the knot that is currently in the stomachs of Wake Forest, Villanova and — gulp — Indiana State, as those faint hopes of sneaking into an at-large spot are slipping further and further from their grasp.

I’ll keep updating where things stand for teams and conferences throughout the day, and be sure to check out Bracket Watch for those “last four in/first four out” specifics and keep up with everything that’s on in our live tracker. But in the fight for those final bubble spots, Mississippi State just reiterated that the most important thing one can have on the resume is a game still left to be played.

Automatic qualifiers (out of 32): 14 (1 possible bid thief – Drake)
Locks: 35
Projected to be in: 2
On the bubble: 6
Waiting game: 8

blake scaled


It’s time for Blake Hinson and Pitt to put up or shut up. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

ACC

Locks:

North Carolina,

Duke,

Clemson

On the bubble:

Virginia,

Pittsburgh

Waiting game:

Wake Forest

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

Virginia (23-9)

50/63

78/25

2-6

Pitt (22-10)

40/40

83/42

4-5

Wake Forest (20-13)

44/28

67/62

1-7

Movement: Wake Forest is in trouble. The Demon Deacons were already just below the cut line in a lot of bracket predictions, making Thursday afternoon’s loss to Pitt feel like a knockout punch for Steve Forbes and his crew. I’m putting Wake in the “waiting game” category for now, at least until the metrics update on Friday morning. Those have been Wake’s saving grace thus far, but it’s tough to see a path for a team that, as of Thursday morning, was 1-7 in Quad 1 games and will now watch the rest of the ACC tournament from home.

The win doesn’t lift Pitt off the bubble, but it gives the Panthers another Q1 victory — for a 4-5 record at the moment — and boosts their metrics ahead of Friday’s matchup with No. 1 seed North Carolina.

Virginia avoided a nervy few days of the waiting game with a dramatic overtime win against Boston College on Thursday. The Hoos are probably still in that “last four in” cluster but should benefit from a bubble field that thinned out significantly during the past 24 hours. They face No. 10-seed NC State on Friday, which upset Duke.

Big Ten

Locks:

Purdue,

Wisconsin,

Illinois,

Northwestern,

Nebraska

On the bubble:

Ohio State

Waiting game:

Michigan State

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

Michigan State (19-13)

24/19

22/46

3-8

Ohio State (20-12)

53/49

65/53

3-6

Movement: Michigan State, one of the most divisive teams all season in terms of its metrics, is almost certainly in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large after Friday’s loss to Purdue. Considering they were projected as a 10-seed by many entering the day, in that “last four byes” grouping, I’m going to move the Spartans to the “waiting game” for now, just to be safe until the rest of the day plays out and the metrics update on Saturday. But it would be an historic snub from metrics standpoint if they are somehow left out. MSU’s resume still won’t blow anyone away, and I join so many others confounded by how good the predictive metrics continue to look, but with a bubble this soft, it will take significant chaos for the Spartans to drop.

We’ve seen enough elsewhere to officially move Northwestern and Nebraska to the lock line, where they’ve been trending for the past couple weeks. Even if both were to lose on Friday after a double-bye, nothing has happened thus far that suggests they would be in any danger of dropping to the bubble.

Is there an at-large path for the Buckeyes? Ohio State ascended to the bubble when it won six of seven after firing Chris Holtmann, including wins over Purdue, Nebraska and at Michigan State to add to Alabama on a neutral floor. But a three-point loss to Illinois on Friday more than likely leaves the Buckeyes on the outside looking in. A team sheet with a NET and strength of record in the 50s, nonconference strength of schedule in the 240s and three Q1 wins is unlikely to be enough. Heck of a surge by Ohio State, and interim Jake Diebler probably coached his way into a job, whether in Columbus or elsewhere. But too little too late as far as the bracket is concerned.

Big 12

Locks:

Baylor,

Houston,

Iowa State,

Kansas,

BYU,

Texas Tech,

Texas,

TCU

Waiting game:

Oklahoma,

Kansas State

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

Oklahoma (20-12)

45/45

18/32

4-12

Kansas State (19-14)

70/69

13/45

5-8

Movement: TCU nabbed a somewhat misleading Q1 win over a depleted Oklahoma squad on Day 2 of the Big 12 tournament. The Sooners were down three of their top six scorers on Wednesday, including leading scorer Javian McCollum, who re-aggravated a shoulder injury last week. Despite the circumstances, the victory is enough to lock in the Frogs, who advance to face Houston on Thursday in Kansas City.

Oklahoma should still be in the field as well, but we’re going to shift it to “waiting game” for the time being, at least until we see how things shake out with a few more of these bubble teams and potential bid thieves. There’s a good chance the Sooners become a lock before Selection Sunday, so long as nothing truly crazy happens.

That could be curtains for Kansas State’s at-large hopes after the loss to Iowa State on Thursday. The Wildcats were still below the cut line based on most projections entering the game, but with so many bubble teams falling on Thursday, we’ll move them to “waiting game” until the metrics update on Friday and we get a clearer picture.

Cincinnati was lurking after a win over injury-ravaged, short-handed Kansas that was without first-team, All-Big 12 standouts Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr. But the Bearcats drop out following Thursday’s loss to Baylor in the Big 12 quarterfinals.

nova scaled


Justin Moore and Villanova have no margin for error left. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

Big East

Locks:

Marquette,

UConn,

Creighton

On the bubble:

Providence

Waiting game:

Villanova,

Seton Hall,

St. John’s

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

Seton Hall (20-12)

65/61

27/40

5-8

St. John’s (20-12)

32/26

40/43

3-9

Providence (21-12)

57/53

38/37

6-8

Villanova (18-15)

39/34

16/64

4-11

Movement: One night after an uninspiring win over DePaul, Villanova put up a valiant effort, falling in overtime to Marquette. That probably burst the Wildcats’ very resilient bubble, but I’d like to take a fresh look at the metrics on Friday before counting them out, so for now, Kyle Neptune’s squad will play the waiting game.

Nova joins Seton Hall, who will be white-knuckling it until Sunday evening after St. John’s beat them by 19 in the Big East tournament. Entering the day, the Pirates were in according to most projections, often as one of those last four byes. A loss to the metric-darling Johnnies isn’t enough to drop Seton Hall below the cut line in a vacuum, but with other bubble teams and bid thieves still alive, it will be a stressful few days for the Pirates.

And now the Johnnies will have to wait and see as well. St. John’s may have played itself into the field with the win over Seton Hall, but it’s not quite enough to lift above the “waiting game” line following Friday’s loss to UConn. The predictive metrics are great, and missing an at-large would be close to unprecedented from a NET perspective, at least based on how things stood entering Friday. But three Q1 wins — the best being Creighton at home — doesn’t exactly jump off the team sheet. St. John’s will be rooting against Ohio State, Texas A&M, Pitt, Virginia, Providence, Colorado and the rest of the bubble brigade on Friday night.

Providence is creeping toward that cut line with a massive win over Creighton on Thursday. The Friars are now 6-8 in Q1 games and 9-12 in the top two quads, including home wins over Creighton, Marquette and Wisconsin. Still on the bubble, but a team that was fighting uphill entering the week is gaining ground. Nova, after Wednesday’s uninspiring performance, is 10-11 in Quads 1 and 2 with wins at Creighton and over North Carolina and Texas Tech on neutral courts.

Pac-12

Lock:

Arizona,

Washington State

On the bubble:

Colorado

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

Colorado (23-9)

26/24

85/39

2-5

Movement: The Buffs will not go away quietly, winning at Oregon and Oregon State last week to stand firm on the bubble, although road wins over Washington and the Ducks were the team’s only Q1s wins. We’ll see if Thursday’s late-night victory over Utah will add to Colorado’s total when the metrics update on Friday, but either way, it keeps CU alive and, most likely, in the tournament field ahead of the semifinal game against Washington State.

Meanwhile, that’s it for the Utes, who rode the struggle bus down the stretch of Pac-12 action, dropping nine of their last 14.

su scaled


Tolu Smith and Mississippi State have thrown away some golden opportunities. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

SEC

Locks:

Alabama,

Tennessee,

Auburn,

Kentucky,

Florida,

South Carolina,

Mississippi State

On the bubble:

Texas A&M

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

Mississippi State (20-12)

41/37

42/47

3-8

Texas A&M (19-13)

46/48

23/49

5-6

Movement: Congrats to Mississippi State, which climbs from “on the bubble” to a lock courtesy its win over Tennessee on Friday. The Bulldogs dropped to the bubble with four straight losses to end the regular season, but re-solidified itself back into the bracket by knocking off the Vols and advancing to the SEC semis. They were probably in regardless, but that result removes all doubt.

It’s been a big day for the SEC bubble squad, with Texas A&M taking out Kentucky on Friday evening. The Aggies aren’t quite off the bubble just yet, but add a sixth Q1 win and advance to face the winner Florida vs Alabama. A&M is now 6-6 in Q1 and 13-8 in the top two quadrants with great SOS metrics. The biggest thing holding it back is 2-5 record in Q3, so we’ll leave the Aggies on the bubble for now, but they could elevate to “projected to be in” depending how the rest of the evening develops.

Mountain West

Lock:

San Diego State,

Boise State,

Utah State,

Nevada,

Colorado State

On the bubble:

New Mexico

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

New Mexico (23-9)

23/27

87/63

4-6

Movement: Colorado State’s win over San Jose State on Wednesday avoids a bad loss and cements the Rams as a lock for the NCAA Tournament as they kept it rolling with a second-round win over Nevada on Thursday. That means five locks now for the Mountain West.

New Mexico has a chance to add to that, escaping bubble trouble with a 10-point win over Boise State on Thursday. Not a lock yet, but the Lobos do move up to the “projected to be in” line ahead of Friday’s semifinal showdown with CSU.

robbie a scaled


Robbie Avila and Indiana State can only wait now. (Keith Gillett / AP)

Others

Lock:

Dayton,

Gonzaga

Projected to be in:

Florida Atlantic

On the bubble:

Princeton

Waiting game:

Indiana State

Automatic qualifiers:

Morehead State,

Longwood,

Stetson,

Drake,

James Madison,

Samford,

Charleston,

Wagner,

Oakland,

Saint Mary’s,

South Dakota State,

McNeese State,

Colgate,

Montana State

Team (Record) NET/KenPom SOS/SOR Quad 1

FAU (24-7)

33/36

99/35

2-1

Indiana State (27-6)

28/44

130/41

1-4

Princeton (22-3)

49/56

190/27

0-0

Movement: We have a bid thief in the Atlantic 10. Or at least we will come Sunday. No. 6 seed Duquesne defeated No. 3 seed Dayton, 65-57 on Thursday, knocking the A-10’s lone lock out of the conference tournament. Despite finishing third in the regular season, the Flyers were the only legit at-large candidate for the league, a reality reinforced when 1-seed Richmond and 2-seed Loyola Chicago both lost earlier on Thursday. Now bubble teams everywhere are cursing the Flyers, who opened the door for either Saint Joseph’s, VCU, St. Bonaventure or the Dukes — four teams with three combined Q1 wins — to sneak into the NCAA Tournament via the auto bid. That’s one less spot up for grabs.

Memphis is done after a disappointing six-point loss to sub-.500 Wichita State in the second round of the AAC tournament on Thursday. The Tigers still had work to do to earn an at-large, but now have zero chance after such an early exit.

This is good news for fellow bubble teams, especially if FAU can win the auto bid. The Owls, who earned a double-bye to Friday, remain on the “projected in” line with just two Q1 wins (though one is a neutral-site over Arizona) and two Q4 losses, but are solid away from home, and the SOS, NET and resume average are all strong. That’s the profile of a team that should be in.

Indiana State is on at-large watch after losing to Drake in a tightly contested MVC title game. It was the ideal scenario for the league to get two teams in, and I think Indiana State has legit at-large credentials. But it’s going to be a long week for the Sycamores sweating this one out. Drake was previously on the bubble, but because their automatic bid could be the nail in the coffin for Indiana State in particular, it makes the Bulldogs a potential bid thief. Princeton remains on the bubble as the No. 1 seed in the Ivy League’s four-team conference tournament, which begins on Saturday with a semifinal matchup against Brown.

James Madison punched its ticket with a blowout win in the Sun Belt championship game on Monday evening over Arkansas State, moving the Dukes off the bubble and onto the automatic qualifier line.

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 photo of Pitt’s guard Jaland Lowe and Provdence’s Jayden Pierre: Justin Cooper / AP and Richard Deutsch / USA Today) 





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