Mid-Major Bubble Watch

By Kevin Sweeney

Northwestern University is closed for just the sixth time in the last 100 years thanks to Antarctica-level temperatures.

So how am I spending my record-cold day?

By reviewing mid-major resumes, of course! What else would I be doing?

Much has been made of this year’s “weak” bubble, but for the most part, mid-majors have struggled to take advantage and establish themselves as strong at-large candidates. Which clubs have the best chance to find their way into the field should they falter in the conference tournament?

Locks:

Gonzaga (#2 in NET, #4 in KenPom, 3-2 vs Q1)

No doubt here. The Zags have an elite win on a neutral floor against Duke and their worst loss is on the road against a top-10 North Carolina team. Their average margin of victory in Q3 and Q4 games this seasons is 35.6 points. This team is a legit national title contender and has a strong case for a #1 seed if they don’t lose the rest of the way.

Nevada (#17 in NET, #16 in KenPom, 0-0 vs Q1, 7-0 vs Q2)

Save the stunning blowout defeat at New Mexico earlier this month, Nevada has been mostly flawless. The lack of Q1 wins may hurt the Pack when it comes to seeding, though their road win over current NET #76 USC has a good chance to sneak up into quadrant one, as should a road trip to Utah State later this season. The good news for Eric Musselman’s group is that they seem to have figured out some of the offensive woes that plagued them for much of January, with back-to-back dynamic offensive performances against Colorado State and UNLV. A top-4 seed is very attainable.

Buffalo (#18 in NET, #18 in KenPom, 2-1 vs Q1)

Nate Oats’ group jumped onto the national scene last season with their NCAA Tournament demolition of Arizona and further established itself in the non-conference season with wins at West Virginia and Syracuse. The win at West Virginia certainly hasn’t aged well, but the Bulls have done a nice job avoiding bad losses and grabbed a sneaky Q1 win in Ireland against an excellent San Francisco team. The Northern Illinois loss isn’t good, but remains a Q2 thanks to NIU’s 116 NET ranking. The Bulls should be fine regardless of conference tournament results as long as they don’t fall off a cliff.

Heavy Consideration:

Lipscomb:

lipscomb team sheet

What Lipscomb has going for it is that they have no no bad losses. Their worst loss is at home vs a top-75 team in Belmont. They also have great metrics (top-40 in NET and KenPom), and a high-level road win at TCU. They’ve done everything the committee asks mid-majors to do: schedule up in the non-conference, beat everyone you are supposed to beat, and steal a couple big ones.

That said, it’s still likely an uphill battle for the Bisons to get into the field if they lose in the conference tournament. No team from a conference ranked 20th or worse in KenPom’s conference rankings has received an at-large bid since Iona in 2012 from the MAAC. Every game left on the schedule except for a home game against Liberty would be a resume destroyer if Casey Alexander’s team were to lose.

If Lipscomb can win out before losing to Liberty in the conference championship game, they’ll have a fighting chance on Selection Sunday. Any other outcome likely rules out the at-large bid.

Wofford:

 

wofford team sheet

Wofford is one of the darlings of the NET, with their #30 ranking drawing plenty of attention among bracketologists. However, I’m less optimistic about their at-large chances than most.

Like Lipscomb, the Terriers have avoided bad losses like the plague. When your worst loss is at Oklahoma, you are obviously doing something right. The strength of the SoCon this year is also in their favor, as the league ranks 10th in KenPom and provides legit resume-building opportunities with UNCG, ETSU, and Furman all in the top 80 of the NET.

Still, I’m fairly skeptical that the committee will reward a team whose best win will be a road win at UNC-Greensboro. However, if the Terriers keep winning, they can make that choice a difficult one.

San Francisco:

san francisco team sheet

I have been a long-standing member of the Dons bandwagon, and the job that Kyle Smith has done with this group can’t be understated. Put on the tape when they took on Gonzaga or Buffalo this year and tell me this isn’t an NCAA Tournament team.

However, thanks to narrow defeats in both ballgames, San Francisco is left with a lot of ground to make up in the resume department. A home win vs Saint Mary’s is their only Q1/Q2 win as of now, though they will get two cracks at Q1 victories in the coming days with road trips to SMC and Gonzaga on the horizon. A trip to Provo to play BYU will also be a Q2 opportunity later in the year.

To me, USF is the clearest example of a team that passes the eye test but may not pass the resume test. What’s frustrating is that it’s not the Dons’ fault that their resume is lacking. They scheduled three Pac-12 teams: Cal, Stanford, and Arizona State. Unfortunately, Cal and Stanford wound up being bottomfeeders, and the matchup vs ASU was canceled due to poor air quality in the Bay Area after wildfires struck the region. What makes things worse is that a source close to the situation told me that USF offered to go to Tempe to play the game and Arizona State refused.

The Dons likely have to find a way to beat Gonzaga. But there’s no doubt in my mind this team deserves to be in.

Utah State:

utah state team sheet

The fact that we are even having this conversation speaks volumes about the job Craig Smith has done in his first year in Logan after inheriting a program that hadn’t finished over .500 in Mountain West play since the 2014-15 season.

Realistically, the Aggies have to win out in the regular season, including a win at home against Nevada in early March, to get in. Perhaps they can afford one more loss, as long as it is a Q2 (at Fresno State, for instance). Getting an elite win vs Nevada would certainly give them a shot, but the clearest path for the Aggies remains winning MWC Tournament in Las Vegas.

The Long Shots:

Hofstra:

The owners of the nation’s longest winning streak, the Pride haven’t lost since a 2-point heartbreaker at VCU in late November. They have an NBA guard in Justin Wright-Foreman and plenty of other talented pieces on the roster. Their top-50 NET will help, but even if the Pride win out, an at-large bid is still very unlikely. The Pride won’t get another Q1 opportunity this season, and even accumulating Q2’s by winning on the road at Charleston and Northeastern probably won’t be enough in the resume department to get in. No one will want to see this team in March, though.

Murray State:

Despite having likely top-5 pick Ja Morant, the Racers likely won’t have enough good wins to entice the committee should they not win the OVC Tournament. Not getting a road crack at Belmont doesn’t help either, as that would have been one final chance at a Q1 win.

Belmont:

One of the few high-level mid-majors that haven’t been helped by the move from RPI to NET, the Bruins own a weird resume that includes a 4-1 record vs Q1 and Q2, but 3 Q3 losses and a NET of 69 (their RPI is 45). The good wins (3 of which have come on the road) should keep Rick Byrd’s club in the conversation, but my feeling now is that it’s a long shot that we get a #2BidOVC.

What Do We Do With the A10?

I couldn’t really figure out how to sort the three A10 teams that still have a chance at an at-large (Saint Louis, VCU, and Davidson) so I figured I’d just do a small section on them. Each resume has some appeal, but I don’t really like any of them as at-large teams.

Saint Louis got two good wins in the non-conference (at Seton Hall, home vs Butler), but the metrics hate them (88th in NET isn’t close to at-large territory) and they have 2 Q3 losses.

VCU has a great win at Texas and a good neutral win vs Temple. Their win over Hofstra is aging nicely, too. However, they only will get the chance for one more Q1 or Q2 win in regular season play, that coming in the form of a trip to Dayton. It’s hard for me to see them building a better resume than the high-majors they’ll be competing with.

Davidson has no Q1 wins and the NET likes them a lot less than the RPI. They also have 2 Q3 losses.

All three of these teams could go to the Sweet 16 with the right draw. None of them deserve at-large bids. Dayton, George Mason, and even Duquesne also wouldn’t be easy draws. But there isn’t a top-end team clearly in the at-large mix like we are accustomed to, and the league has largely cannibalized itself so far in conference play.

Summary:

Podcast partner Brad Cavallaro and I talked preseason about our preseason at-large bid expectations for mid-majors. We set the over/under for non-Nevada/Gonzaga at-larges at 1.5, and that number looks about right. Buffalo should be set for an at-large, but there’s a good chance they get in anyway with the auto-bid. I’ll continue to push for Lipscomb and San Francisco in particular to get rewarded, but it will likely be an uphill battle.

All team sheets are courtesy of WarrenNolan.com. 

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