NCAA Tournament: 5 Most Intriguing Bubble Teams

By | February 27, 2024

Less than three weeks before Selection Sunday, the men’s NCAA tournament field is gradually coming into focus.

Purdue, Houston and UConn are virtual locks to receive No. 1 seeds. Arizona, North Carolina and Tennessee are among the teams looking for the final spot on the top seed. The Big 12 will likely have the most teams in the field. Talented but unreliable Kentucky will be a fancy Final Four pick… and a trendy pick to be an upset first-round victim.

The only area of ​​the bracket where clarity is more elusive is at the bell. As always, it’s still a free-for-all for the last big spots in the field of 68, with major programs in desperation mode and small-conference minnows dreaming big.

Below is a look at the five most intriguing bubble teams this season. The list includes a recent national champion, a perennial power with the third-longest men’s NCAA tournament streak and a team that made the AP Top 25 this week but would likely not receive an at-large bid if the season ended today .

GONZAGA (22-6, 12-2 WCC, KenPom: 21, NET: 21, SOR: 43)

The last time Gonzaga failed to make the NCAA Tournament, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston hadn’t started dating, the frenzy over the movie Titanic hadn’t died down and Total Request Live hadn’t yet debuted.

The Zags still have work to do to keep that 24-year streak going into March.

Gonzaga earned neutral-court wins over Syracuse, UCLA and USC early in the season, but none of those marquee teams have lived up to expectations this season. That left the Zags without a win over a projected NCAA tournament team heading into January.

Strong computer data and a huge road win at Kentucky in February have put Gonzaga back in overall contention, but the Zags don’t have much room for error. They are still just 1-5 in Quadrant 1 matches and 3-6 against the top two quadrants.

Gonzaga closes the regular season this Thursday in San Francisco with 22 wins and two nights later in first place at WCC Saint Mary’s. Swipe that one and Gonzaga can rest assured his name will be called on Selection Sunday. Lose one or more and the Zags will enter the WCC Tournament and be under pressure to earn the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

projection from Tuesday: Last four in

SOUTH FLORIDA (21-5, 14-1 American, KenPom: 94, NET: 84, SOR: 55)

South Florida will be the ultimate test case for how much November’s results really matter.

Early Quadrant 4 home losses to Central Michigan and Maine under 200 have buried the Bulls in every major stat line. Two straight road losses against Hofstra and UMass haven’t helped either, even if they weren’t that damaging.

Since early December, when South Florida came to prominence under new coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, the Bulls have been a completely different team. They are 21-1 during that stretch and alone in first place in American, three games ahead of second-place Florida Atlantic and Charlotte. They have yet to play a Quadrant 1 game this season, but they have solid wins in Quadrant 2 over Florida Atlantic, SMU, Memphis and Florida State.

AP voters are willing to overlook early struggles in South Florida: The Bulls broke through at No. 25 in the poll this week.

Bracketologists have been less forgiving: While the margin between South Florida and other bubble teams has narrowed, most don’t view the Bulls’ resume as something of a high caliber. The bad early losses are anchors because the selection committee preaches that a team should be judged based on its entire body of work.

Can South Florida get into the NCAA tournament without getting the American’s automatic bid? It would be unprecedented for a team to receive an at-large bid while still in the 80s in the NET and in the 90s in KenPom and with no Q1 matchups. The Bulls need to keep winning and hope this committee sees them as they are now and not as they were four months ago.

projection from Tuesday: No. 12 seed (automatic bid)

CINCINNATI, OHIO – FEBRUARY 07: Villanova Wildcats Head Coach Kyle Neptune meets Lance Ware #14 in the first half against the Xavier Musketeers at the Cintas Center on February 7, 2024 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Villanova and head coach Kyle Neptune are in danger of missing a second straight NCAA Tournament since Jay Wright resigned. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

VILLANOVA (15-12, 8-8 Big East, KenPom: 33, NET: 38, SOR: 61)

A Villanova team that for years was the class of the Big East under Jay Wright is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the second straight time since his retirement. The Wildcats likely won’t receive a bid in the coming weeks without a torrid finish.

Villanova started to dig a hole in mid-November when it lost to Penn, which has proven to be a bottom-two team in the Ivy League. A few weeks later, the Wildcats dropped two more Big Five games to Saint Joseph’s and Drexel.

That trio of losses in Quadrant 3 could still doom Villanova, but the Wildcats also had some big wins in non-league play. In late November, Villanova captured Maryland, Texas Tech, North Carolina and Memphis in eight days. The Wildcats also have league wins against Creighton and fellow bubble teams Providence and Butler.

Villanova’s remaining schedule includes a must-win game against Georgetown on Tuesday and tests against potential NCAA tournament teams Providence, Seton Hall and Creighton. Three wins in those four games feels important. If anything, Villanova may have to win the Big East tournament to earn an NCAA bid.

projection from Tuesday: next four out

WAKE FOREST (18-9, 10-6 ACC, KenPom: 19, NET: 25, SOR: 44)

Poor Wakey Forest.

The demon deacons Finally Topple Duke to secure their first major win of the weekend, only to have it gobbled up

Wake Forest would likely take the field if its season ended today, but its NCAA Tournament hopes remain uncertain. The top 25 ranking in predictive metrics is a big plus, as is the lack of losses in Quadrants 3 and 4. However, the 6-9 record in Quadrant 1 or 2 games is not.

Saturday’s win over Duke was Wake Forest’s first clear Quadrant 1 win of the season. A home win over Florida in late November is also on the cards, as the Gators hover around No. 30 in the NET rankings.

Last week, with Wake Forest in the ACC’s top four yet outside the field of 68 in most mock brackets, Demon Deacons coach Steve Forbes railed about the league’s perception. He specifically mentioned ESPN’s Joe Lunardi for saying that if the ACC wants more NCAA tournament bids, it needs to recruit better.

“He doesn’t like to be in his own way,” Forbes said.

A week later, Wake Forest has battled its way into most of the mock brackets and increased its hopes of staying there. The Duke’s victory is much-needed proof that the Demon Deacons aren’t just predictive statistics, darlings. They can also beat elite competition.

projection from Tuesday: Final four byes

INDIANA STATE (24-5, 15-3 Valley, KenPom: 46, NET: 33, SOR: 36)

Which mid-major has the best chance of surviving an upset in its conference tournament and still securing an NCAA bid?

It could be Princeton, which has followed up last year’s Sweet 16 run with another impressive 21-win campaign. Or it could be James Madison, who is 26-3, including a season-opening win at Michigan State.

But the most realistic candidate of all is probably Indiana State, which can win the Missouri Valley Conference outright this week with victories over struggling Evansville and Murray State. The Sycamores have impressive top-40 rankings in the NET and Strength of Record and top 50 rankings in every other NCAA-sanctioned metric.

That all sounds promising for the state of Indiana, but the Sycamores have one glaring hole on their resume. They are 0-2 against power conference opponents, having swung and missed in road games at Alabama and Michigan State.

Can Indiana State secure an at-large bid without a top-100 non-league win? It will come down to how the Sycamores finish and what this selection committee values.

projection from Tuesday: No. 11 seed (automatic bid)

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