By Kevin Sweeney
It’s early February, and that means it’s officially Bubble Watch season, a time in which my Twitter mentions are loaded with questions of whether a team has any chance of an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. While the list of mid-majors with legitimate at-large chances isn’t all that long, there are several teams with some intriguing resumes that will be very interesting to monitor over the coming weeks.
LOCKS: Rhode Island
The Rams have dominated a down A10, sitting at 19-3 overall and 11-0 in conference play. They have some quality wins, no bad losses, and sit #6 in the RPI. Save an epic collapse down the stretch, Rhode Island will be dancing in March.
Bubble: Saint Bonaventure
The Bonnies don’t have the resume of an NCAA Tournament team at this point, though high-level wins over Syracuse and Maryland keep them in the conversation for now. However, 4 losses outside the top 100 of the RPI, including 2 outside the top 150, are resume-crushers. If they can win out (including a home game to Rhode Island) and lose to URI in the conference championship game, SBU might just sneak into the dance. However, their best chance remains to win the conference tournament.
Bubble: Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee
Perhaps the most intriguing bubble teams come from the same conference, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee each have interesting resumes should they falter in the CUSA Tournament in March. Western Kentucky will have one of the best wins of any bubble team, with an early-season neutral site victory over likely #1 seed Purdue. However, as of now they have 2 losses to sub-200 RPI teams that could burst their bubble. A win at MTSU is imperative, and Marshall sneaking into the top 100 and UTSA getting into the top 200 would be helpful as well.
Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee has the opposite problem of WKU. They virtually have no bad losses, as if Marshall sneaks into the top 100 the Blue Raiders won’t have a loss outside the top 100. However, a lack of top-tier wins is evident, as Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are among the SEC’s worst and Western Kentucky is presently their only top 50 wins. A 10-1 road mark stands out to me, as does their #22 RPI and top-70 SOS, but the Blue Raiders are far from NCAA Tournament locks.
Bottom line is that neither can afford another bad loss if they have any hopes of an at-large bid. To me, MTSU is the league’s best chance at an at-large, but as we saw with their seeding last year despite a historic season, the margin of error is not large. As of now, I would put in MTSU as an at-large, while WKU would be on the outside looking in.
The Ramblers are a team that clearly pass the eye test for me, but their resume leaves a fair amount to be desired. A road win at Florida is a great starting point, but there isn’t a lot of meat on the bone otherwise. Another major hurdle is a head-to-head loss to another team I’ll mention later in Boise State, a game in which the Ramblers were trounced. That said, the Ramblers have lost just 1 game all season that starting guards Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson have played in, and a quick simulation on rpiforecast.com shows that the Ramblers could have an RPI in the 25-30 range if they were to win out and lose to a good opponent in the conference championship game. Still, I wouldn’t give Loyola much of a chance of an at-large bid.
Bubble: Nevada, Boise State
I very much considered putting Nevada as a lock, but I decided there is just enough doubt with one more bad loss to keep them from lock territory. Should they not have a major slip-up, they should be fine, as the metrics like the Wolf Pack and a win over Rhode Island will look great come tournament time. But the resume isn’t deep, and a bad loss could haunt Nevada with their lack of quality wins.
As for Boise State, things are very much up in the air. On one hand, they have no bad losses. But wins over Oregon and Grand Canyon don’t look nearly as good as we thought they might, and there’s a real possibility the Broncos won’t have a top 50 win come March. A win over Nevada would absolutely move the needle, but they will continue to sit right near the cut line until Selection Sunday.
Bubble: New Mexico State
A Diamond Head Classic win over Miami continues to make the Aggies’ resume look nice, and NMSU has steamrolled the WAC throughout conference play. However, if they do slip up in #WACVegas, they will be in an interesting position. How will the committee value the eye test and the continued dominance that the Aggies have displayed so far in conference play? Personally, I think they’d be the perfect team to send to the First Four if they falter in the conference tournament, but I’m not confident that the committee would reward a resume that otherwise lacks quality wins.
Locks: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s
I’m fairly confident in putting both of these clubs into the NCAA Tournament as of now, though a bad loss or 2 could inject some doubt. Gonzaga has 4 top-50 wins, and Saint Mary’s has no losses if you forget that Thanksgiving weekend happened, where they fell to Georgia and Washington State at Wooden Legacy. Both teams are more than deserving to reach the NCAA Tournament, and should get in without too much trouble should they avoid a crushing loss to a lower-tier WCC team.