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Bubble Watch 2020: First look at the wildest bubble watch yet

Editor’s note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through Saturday’s games.

Is this the wildest and most volatile bubble ever? Possibly!

We say that’s the case every season, but this time we really mean it.

Seven different teams have held the No. 1 spot in the AP poll. Ohio State has gone from a virtual No. 1 seed to near-bubble status. Rutgers is shown here under “should be in.” North Carolina is nowhere to be seen. Wild.

Bubble Watch 2020 is here to wrest clarity from the chaos and give you a clear picture of where the tournament field stands.

To deliver on that mission, the Watch will once again be 100% live. Team bubble profiles will be updated continuously as games are played.

As has been the case since the dawn of Bubble time, the categories in play are “locks,” “should be in” and “work to do.” Over the coming days, the top of the “should be in” section will migrate more or less en masse into the lock category.

Do not get riled that your favorite team is shown here as “should be in” instead of under “locks.” It is but a phase, an opportunity for Bubble Watch to salute your team in prose, a chance we never got with the stunning likes of San Diego State and Dayton. (We hardly knew ye.)

You’ll find the bubble mapped out quantitatively here because, well, that’s how the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee puts together the field. The committee has 32 automatic bids and 36 at-large invites to distribute. The Watch measures the bubble by projecting how many of those invites will go to traditional one-bid leagues.

Consider the made-to-order example of 2020 tournament no-brainer San Diego State. If the Aztecs should see fit to win the Mountain West tournament, Brian Dutcher’s group is likely to be the only team from the MWC in the field of 68.

However, for our purposes, we’re counting and indeed listing SDSU as a lock while projecting there will be 21 other leagues that will absorb just one tournament bid. Double-counting is strictly prohibited here in the Bubble Watch bungalow.

Accounting for each bid shows us how large the bubble truly is in this brutal zero-sum selection world. On Selection Sunday 2019, Bubble Watch correctly forecast the share of the field that would be awarded to representatives of one-bid leagues. We’re going for 2-for-2 this season.

Here’s our initial projection of the bubble:

Bids from traditional “one-bid” leagues: 21 teams
Locks: 10 teams
The bubble: 44 teams for 37 available spots
Should be in: 21 teams
Work to do: 23 teams

ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others


ACC

Locks: Duke, Florida State, Louisville

Work to do

NC State Wolfpack

This is where we came in, literally. The last Bubble Watch of 2019 featured a learned disquisition on the tournament prospects of the Wolfpack. Well, not much has changed in 323 days. This season’s learned disquisition says Kevin Keatts’ guys are not there yet. Everything about NC State, from its NET ranking (50-ish) and Quad 1 record (3-3) to its projected ACC record (.500-ish) and in-conference performance (league average on both sides of the ball) says borderline. The Wolfpack do get two cracks at Duke and one against Florida State (at home), so perhaps Markell Johnson and his teammates can still move this needle.

Virginia Tech Hokies

In November, Mike Young’s men beat Michigan State by five in Maui, and, on paper, a four-point victory at Syracuse also qualifies as Quad 1. However, that’s it in terms of quality wins for the Hokies, who have swung and missed by notably wide margins against the likes of Dayton (89-62 loss in Maui), Duke (77-63 loss in Blacksburg), Florida State (74-63 defeat, also at home) and even fellow bubble denizen Virginia (65-39 loss in Charlottesville). Results like that have landed this team on a lot of First Four Out or even Next Four Out lists. The door is open, or at least slightly ajar, but Virginia Tech could definitely use a strong February.

Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia is customarily a lock when Bubble Watch gets up and running, so we haven’t had to concern ourselves with this particular program in a while. Let’s see … [checks notes] insanely great defense, perimeter shooting was “can’t throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat”-level bad until a recent uptick, got it! Very interesting. With a NET ranking in the 50s and a 2-2 record in Quad 1, the Cavaliers will have to play their way into the field from here. They will have the opportunity to do so, with two shots at Louisville and a home game against Duke.

Big 12

Locks: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia

Work to do

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Amaze friends who are overly reliant upon simplistic program stereotypes: Texas Tech has been the most accurate team from the field by a fair margin in Big 12 play. Then again, these same Red Raiders give the ball away on occasion and, more surprising, aren’t defending the rim all that well against conference opponents. Add it all up, and the men from Lubbock are clinging somewhat tenuously to the projected field with a double-digit seed. It sounds precarious — and perhaps it is — but bear in mind this now appears to be the worst case for the Red Raiders as a program in any given season. Chris Beard, the Watch salutes you.

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Alondes Williams gets things started with a thunderous poster, then on the next possession Austin Reaves drives and skies for the slam. Finally, Reaves and Williams work in tandem to rock the rim.

Oklahoma Sooners

Lon Kruger’s group is closer to No. 50 on the NET, while aforementioned Texas Tech is nearer to No. 30. Otherwise, these two teams share a good deal in common in profile terms. Both the Sooners and the Red Raiders would likely land in the bracket as double-digit seeds or close to it if the season ended today. Both figure to be .500-ish finishers in a Big 12 that’s preposterously strong at the top yet not quite as deep as what we’ve seen in recent years. Like Texas Tech (2-8), Oklahoma sports a so-so record against Quad 1 (2-6), yet will have several chances to improve that mark.

Big East

Lock: Seton Hall

Should be in

Butler Bulldogs

The Bulldogs are still showing up in mock brackets as around a No. 5 seed, but something has felt amiss during this current 2-4 streak. Over the past six games, the once-formidable Butler defense has allowed opponents to score 1.09 points per possession. Part of the problem there has been shoddy “free throw defense.” Conference opponents are shooting better than 80% on their freebies against the Bulldogs. (Make some noise and wave some cutouts, Hinkle.) Still, opposing offenses are getting more chances to score these days than Butler, and it shows.

Villanova Wildcats

Barring unforeseen developments, the Wildcats will be moving on up to the pricey “lock” real estate in the near future. Allow the Watch to therefore use this fleeting opportunity to note that Jay Wright’s guys will apparently secure a nice seed in the absence of insanely great shooting for the first time in a decade. Villanova’s been excellent on defense in Big East play, partly as the result of luck (opponents are missing shots from beyond the arc) but more so due to superb defensive rebounding and preventing opposing offenses from attempting 3s (although Creighton did sink 11 treys in defeating Nova 76-61 in Philadelphia). It’s a new look.

Creighton Bluejays

Before beating Villanova by 15 on the road, Creighton had hovered below the top-25 radar pretty much all season. The Bluejays surfaced just once, at No. 25, in mid-January before disappearing again. Nevertheless, Greg McDermott’s men were already on solid Bubble Watch ground, even prior to taking out the Wildcats. Now, with six Quad 1 wins and a projected No. 5 seed, one might characterize that same terrain as rock-solid. Never mind the rather lackluster rebounding, the Bluejays make their shots from both sides of the arc and simply do not foul.

Marquette Golden Eagles

Marquette would appear to be headed for its second consecutive seed in the Nos. 5 to 8 vicinity. Markus Howard is Markus Howard, of course, and Steve Wojciechowski’s group does a commendable job limiting opponents to one shot on offense. Big double-digit victories at home against Villanova and on a neutral floor against USC have the potential to look better and better in the event that those opponents win some games in February and beyond. Note additionally that Marquette has joined Villanova in the Big East’s highly-perimeter-oriented club. Sacar Anim and Brendan Bailey have proved themselves to be valuable supporting shooters alongside Howard.

Work to do

Xavier Musketeers

In their 74-62 win at Seton Hall, the Musketeers strengthened their tournament profile markedly while recasting the Big East title race in new and more competitive terms. The victory in Newark, New Jersey, marked the second Quad 1 win of the season for Travis Steele’s group, and beating the No. 10 team in the nation on its home floor definitely qualifies for the (unfailingly overused) “signature win” label. This game has the feel of being the first piece of evidence used in Xavier’s favor in the committee room. Make no mistake, with a NET ranking in the 60s and a 2-6 Big East record prior to this game, the Musketeers certainly needed a new talking point to stay viable.

Georgetown Hoyas

Masters of suspense that they are, the Hoyas lurk on the very edge of the chasm separating “36th at-large bid” from “wait until next year.” On paper, Georgetown’s quality wins are a victory at home over Creighton and one on the road at SMU. Those games do fit the letter of the Quad 1 law, but will they really sway any committee votes in a close comparison with a competing bubble aspirant? Patrick Ewing’s men would be smart to seize the day in one or, better still, both of those upcoming home games against Seton Hall and Villanova.

Big Ten

Locks: None

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Cassius Winston gets the steal and finds Aaron Henry on the fast break for the alley-oop jam.

Should be in

Michigan State Spartans

Congratulations to the 16-6 Spartans, the most lockable of “should be in” teams listed in this first installment of Bubble Watch. Only the Watch’s fear of what might transpire if Cassius Winston were lost for any period of time is keeping Michigan State out of “lock” territory at the outset. MSU is not likely to languish here in the land outside the locks for long.

Maryland Terrapins

In an otherwise tumultuous season nationally, Maryland’s been an island of relative calm locally. The Terrapins have never been ranked higher than No. 3 nor lower than No. 17 in 2019-20. This kind of consistency comes from losing to only the very best opponents. Mark Turgeon’s men are a perfect 16-0 against teams that are either in the bottom half of Quad 1 or in Quads 2, 3 or 4. The Terps are, however, 1-4 against the top half of Quad 1. Maryland appears to be on track for a spot on the No. 4 line or thereabouts, and past experience suggests you might not want to bet on the opponent in the round of 64.

Iowa Hawkeyes

The hoops nation as a whole understands that Luka Garza is pretty amazing, yet somehow this same appreciation has not filtered through with regard to the Iowa offense as a whole. Big mistake. The Hawkeyes are in the running for No. 1 offense in the nation honors. Put it this way: No Big Ten team comes close to what Fran McCaffery’s offense has done in league play. (Michigan State is a distant second.) Garza is the foundation, of course, but CJ Fredrick shooting 47% on 3s certainly doesn’t hurt. Iowa can torment opposing defenses in a way few teams can, which is why this team, so-so defense and all, is projected as a No. 5 seed.

Penn State Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions have a shot at equaling or even exceeding the best NCAA tournament seed in program history. Penn State earned a spot on the No. 5 line in the 1996 tournament, and this season Lamar Stevens & Co. appear to be headed in that same general direction. Pat Chambers’ men take very good care of the ball and then prevent opponents from doing the same thing. It’s simple. It works. If this group can work around its iffy rebounding and frequent (by Big Ten standards) fouling, we might see Penn State in the second weekend for the first time since 2001.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Was it really just 44 days ago that this team was 8-4 after losing by seven on a neutral floor to Missouri? Since that night, Illinois has won eight of its past nine (the only loss came at Michigan State) while ascending from bracket afterthought to potential No. 6 seed. Kofi Cockburn and the Illini are forcing misses in the paint for the first time since the days of Mike Tisdale, and Ayo Dosunmu has suddenly become rather outstanding on offense. This latter development puts Illinois fans in something of an incentive quandary. The better the sophomore plays, the higher this team’s potential — yet the less likely it is he’ll return as a junior.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Welcome to Bubble Watch, Rutgers. It’s been a while, or, possibly, never? We’ll have to ask our archivist, Leopold “Pops” Von Ranke, to consult the Watch’s back files. In the meantime, the Scarlet Knights are threatening to make this whole historic “We’re in Bubble Watch!” celebration a short one. Steve Pikiell’s team is already debuting in the heady realm of “should be in.” If the men from Piscataway, New Jersey, keep performing at their current level in the deepest and strongest conference in the country, it’s only a matter of time before this projected No. 7 seed is a lock. Yes, Rutgers is on a lock trajectory. What a time to be watching the bubble.

Wisconsin Badgers

You can’t swing a cat in the Big Ten this February without seemingly knocking over 12 or so teams heading for Nos. 7 or 8 seeds. Yea, verily, the Badgers are another one of those squads, and Nate Reuvers continues to perform at a high level while carrying an increasingly large share of the workload on offense. In the Quad 1 conveyor belt that is this season’s Big Ten schedule, the Badgers have already played no fewer than 13 contests in the NET’s top quadrant while posting a 6-7 record. The nine-point loss to New Mexico on a neutral floor in November will never not be odd, but Wisconsin’s profile is in exceptionally good shape for a team with a 13-9 overall record.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Laptops just won’t give up on projected No. 8 seed Ohio State. Go ahead, lose four road games in a row by double digits (at Minnesota, Maryland, Indiana and Penn State). The best rating systems still insist on seeing this glass as half full. That’s fine as far as it goes, though it does remind the Watch of Trae Young-era Oklahoma. When the best thing you can say about a team is, “Wow, these opponents you’re losing to by consistently wide margins are really good,” it’s not a ringing endorsement. Note that, in a season where Division I is perimeter-challenged, both the Buckeyes and their Big Ten opponents have been really good at making 3s.

Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana is 1-5 in true road games this season, and the good news for Hoosiers fans is there are no true road games in the NCAA tournament. (Dayton’s not exactly looking like First Four material.) A more durable concern for this particular projected No. 8 seed transcends mere geography: IU, by the lights of the ultra-low-turnover Big Ten, is giving the ball away with regularity. Since the entirety of Indiana’s remaining schedule is made up of potential NCAA tournament teams (i.e., the Hoosiers have already banked their Northwestern and Nebraska wins), addressing this performance issue could nip any forthcoming bracket anxiety in the bud.

Work to do

Michigan Wolverines

Thank you, Michigan, for demonstrating how the seemingly straightforward “work to do” label can, in fact, contain several different meanings. The Wolverines would be in the tournament if the selection were held today, for example, and it’s possible they would even receive a seed in the (high) single digits. Still, Juwan Howard and his men have work to do. Michigan is 13-8 overall and 4-6 in conference play in a league that can hand teams losses at every turn. The 18-point neutral-floor win over Gonzaga will always look magnificent on the profile, but a crucial two-game homestand against Ohio State and Michigan State now looms for the Wolverines.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Things could go either way with Minnesota, kind of like a year ago. In that case, the Golden Gophers ended up with a No. 10 seed, and, since that time, Daniel Oturu has emerged as a potential 2020 first-round NBA draft pick. Minnesota’s main profile challenge, however, is an unusually high number of missed opportunities for this early in the season. The team’s best résumé bullets are a season sweep over Ohio State and a win at home against Penn State. Who knows, sweeping the Buckeyes could pay big returns if OSU is able to mount a sustained run. In the meantime, the Gophers are 3-8 against Quad 1.

Purdue Boilermakers

The version of Purdue that beat Michigan State by 29 in West Lafayette, Indiana, a few weeks back would be a tournament lock by now. Conversely, the Boilermakers that we saw lose to Nebraska by 14 in Lincoln would merit neither space nor mention in Bubble Watch. Somewhere in between those poles is the “real” Purdue, one that’s holding on to a double-digit seed in many mock brackets despite having lost five of its past eight games. At 5-6 in the Big Ten and with a remaining schedule made up exclusively of at-large-caliber opponents, Purdue might test how far under .500 a team can go in conference play and still earn a bid.

Pac-12

Locks: None

Should be in

Oregon Ducks

The Ducks’ 10-point loss at Stanford gives the Watch an opportunity to tut-tut a likely No. 4 seed that will probably be moved to a lock in the near future just the same. So, let’s do this. Tut-tut! Your defense in Pac-12 play has been so-so, Oregon, and you allow conference opponents to attempt more free throws than you record. There, scolding complete. Seeing this same glass as half full, Payton Pritchard is a wonder with the ball in his hands, and, as a team, Oregon marries low-turnover ball with plenty of offensive boards. A top-four seed could indeed be the end result.

Colorado Buffaloes

Having wins over Dayton and Oregon is a good place to start your profile, and the Buffaloes additionally blew USC off its home floor by 19. If Tad Boyle’s team earns its projected No. 6 seed, that will represent the best bracket position occupied by the program since seeds became a 64-team thing in 1985. While defense has been CU’s leading characteristic on the season as a whole, that script has been flipped in conference play: Tyler Bey, McKinley Wright IV and the rest of the Buffs have been scoring points at a rate higher than that of any other Pac-12 offense.

Arizona Wildcats

Maybe Sean Miller should have put Stone Gettings into the starting lineup sooner. Since the senior was given his first start, Arizona has won four of its past five games. In the Wildcats’ 17-point win Saturday at Washington State, Miller’s X factor needed just 25 minutes to post a 19-12 double-double. With Gettings earning touches on offense and laudably pun-free mentions in Bubble Watch, Arizona is poised to improve its projected No. 6 seed. A team this close to having both the league’s best offense and its strongest D in Pac-12 play could land even higher in the bracket.

Work to do

USC Trojans

On paper, USC has a good defense that forces misses in the paint and denies looks beyond the arc. By the same token, freshman Onyeka Okongwu is one of the most promising players in the league, one who plays taller than 6-foot-9 on both sides of the ball. Yet, for a team envisioned as an NCAA tournament No. 8 seed, the Trojans sure do record their share of lopsided defeats. Losses to Marquette, Washington and Colorado came by 22, 32, and 19 points, with the kicker on that final result being that it occurred in the Galen Center. Consistency is not yet Southern Cal’s thing.

Stanford Cardinal

Stanford entered February as something of a NET prodigy, ranked No. 28 in the NCAA’s metric of choice. That’s higher than the AP Top 25 likes of Illinois (No. 29 in the NET), Wichita State (No. 32) or Houston (No. 35). Jerod Haase’s team secured that lofty perch even before defeating Oregon 70-60 in Palo Alto, California, the Cardinal’s first Quad 1 victory of the season. For a group that had lost three straight and was being slotted as a likely No. 11 seed, the victory over the Ducks was potentially season-saving. Anyway, we’ll see.

SEC

Locks: None

Should be in

Auburn Tigers

One year after reaching the Final Four as a No. 5 seed, Auburn is in position to potentially earn a higher spot in this year’s bracket. At 19-2, the Tigers certainly look the part of a top-16 team, and Samir Doughty‘s 23 points in Saturday’s 75-66 home win over Kentucky felt very much in character for the senior. The surprising aspect of this season’s Auburn team, however, is that it really hasn’t shot well at all in SEC play. Maybe that means the Tigers will be national champions for sure when the shots start falling. Possibly it suggests that low accuracy will catch up to Bruce Pearl’s offense. The answers will not be long in arriving: Auburn faces Arkansas, LSU and Alabama in its next three contests.

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Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey stops on a dime with the crossover, then sinks the 3-pointer to give Kentucky a 35-34 lead over Auburn at halftime.

Kentucky Wildcats

The calendar says February, and it’s still an open question how Kentucky expects to win games against top opponents. With offense? Defense? It’s hard to say, because the Wildcats have been good but not great at both to this point in SEC play. Nick Richards appeared to be blowing up big in January (see his 25-14 double-double at Texas Tech), and maybe that is what is taking place. Will that be sufficient to get this team its projected top-four seed, or will UK fall to a lower spot on the bracket line due to some combination of so-so 2-point shooting and the high volume of attempts that opponents record from the field? Such are the questions still in play for John Calipari’s team.

LSU Tigers

For a second consecutive season, Will Wade’s team is proving itself to be borderline omnipotent in nail-biters. LSU is 6-0 in SEC games decided by six points or less. Fussy analytics types will huff and puff that this “can’t be sustained,” and, well, that is correct. Still, those wins happened, they’re in the books and now the Tigers are atop the SEC and perhaps looking at something in the neighborhood of a No. 5 seed. With Darius Days and Emmitt Williams leading the way, the Bayou Bengals are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation.

Work to do

Arkansas Razorbacks

At the risk of sounding like a backhanded compliment, the Watch says Arkansas has one of the strongest profiles of any “work to do” team. The Razorbacks own a 16-5 record, a true road win at Indiana and, best of all, a ridiculously low in-conference turnover rate that powers the offense that builds the profile. Maybe that adds up to a No. 8 seed, as the mock brackets suggest, or possibly the Hogs can attain an even higher position in the bracket. In terms of seeding, it of course doesn’t matter whether Mason Jones wins SEC player of the year. It matters only that he’s playing well enough to do so.

Florida Gators

Florida thrashed Auburn 69-47 in Gainesville in mid-January, a game that constitutes the platform, so far, for the Gators’ tournament hopes. No other opponent defeated by Mike White’s team this season is currently ranked in the top 30 of the NET, and UF ended a three-game losing streak only by means of a six-point victory Saturday over 8-13 Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. Whether this body of work is sufficient for a double-digit seed, as current mocks suggest, is a moot point. Florida’s postseason fate will instead rise or fall not only on the Auburn win but also on what transpires in two upcoming games against Kentucky and one, at home, against LSU.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Like Florida (see previously), Alabama also hosted Auburn in January and also trounced the Tigers. Nevertheless, there is a fair degree of consensus that Nate Oats’ group is currently perched on the wrong side of the bubble. At 12-9, the Crimson Tide lost by one point at home to Penn and also fell by 15 to Iowa State on a neutral floor. Taking care of business against the bottom half of the SEC plus victories in upcoming games against LSU (in Tuscaloosa), and, especially, Auburn (this time on the Tigers’ floor) would provide a significant lift. Otherwise, the Tide will be looking for the required wins at the SEC tournament.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

While the Bulldogs’ 1-5 record in Quad 1 is not stellar, this is one of the SEC’s better offenses. Reggie Perry is an accomplished high-volume 2-point scorer (who continues to try 3s as well), Robert Woodard II is a potential 2020 first-round draft pick and Mississippi State as a team excels at crashing the glass on offense and generating second chances. All in all, there’s enough here to potentially move MSU from its current status on more than a few First Four Out lists to a spot in the field of 68.

American

Locks: None

Should be in

Wichita State Shockers

If there can be such a thing as a projected No. 7 seed that seems shaky, Wichita State might fit the description. After losing by three at Tulsa (on Elijah Joiner‘s nifty buzzer-beater), the Shockers now stand at 17-4. The two opponents Gregg Marshall’s group has played that are currently ranked in the top 25, West Virginia and Houston, beat Wichita State by 12 and 11 points, respectively, and neither of those contests were road games. Finally, Wichita State is 5-3 in the American, and, for the moment, ranks as one of the two least accurate offenses from the field in league play. It just feels a bit shaky for a spot on the No. 7 line, even allowing for Jaime Echenique‘s 15-10 double-double (with three blocks and two steals) against the Golden Hurricane.

Houston Cougars

Few teams have profiles that probe the boundary lines of the NCAA’s team sheets quite like Houston. The neutral-floor win the Cougars notched against Washington might or might not qualify as Quad 1 depending on which side of No. 50 the Huskies inhabit in the NET rankings on a given day. The same can be said for the boundary at No. 75, South Carolina, and Houston’s true road victory in Columbia in December. The bottom line here is that enough of these close evaluative calls have gone Houston’s way to land the team on the No. 7 line in reputable mock brackets. The loss at Cincinnati notwithstanding, that bracket position could turn out to be about right if the Cougars keep outscoring the American by 0.12 points per possession.

Work to do

Memphis Tigers

Penny Hardaway’s youthful rotation is in danger of dropping out of the projected 68-team field. The 40-point loss at Tulsa was both worrisome and further evidence of the Tigers’ inability, thus far, to score points against American defenses. Nevertheless, the NET still smiles on Memphis, relatively speaking, giving the team a perch around No. 50. Perhaps the rating system is on to something: Precious Achiuwa, for one, has taken his interior scoring prowess to a whole new level in conference play. If Achiuwa becomes more of a Tigers trend and less of an exception, this team might be able to stay in the field.

Others

Locks: Gonzaga, San Diego State, Dayton

Work to do

BYU Cougars

Speaking now in terms of league play only, the Cougars are one of the most accurate teams we’ve seen from the field in recent years. BYU’s effective FG percentage thus far in West Coast Conference play (61.6) compares favorably with what we saw from Villanova in its heyday (60.3 in 2018). Different strengths of schedule and, most of all, different numbers of games: Mark Pope’s team has taken the floor in conference play nine times. Consider this merely an early tip for filling out your bracket if BYU really does end up with a No. 9 or 10 seed. These guys don’t miss.

Saint Mary’s Gaels

If the WCC really does put three teams into the field of 68 (meaning Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s), it will be the first time the league has done so since 2012. That was the season when — well, this is a coincidence — Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s all went dancing. For the Gaels to join this fun, Randy Bennett’s team will need to shore up its interior defense. Conference opponents are connecting on 53% of their 2s against projected No. 9 seed SMC. On the plus side, Saint Mary’s has fared far better from beyond the arc than its WCC opponents. Other things being equal, perimeter-oriented contests are good news for the Gaels.

Rhode Island Rams

Notching the season sweep over VCU will help Rhode Island’s tournament prospects. So would sweeping Dayton, and the Rams will still play the Flyers twice. The question is how sustainable this team’s excellent defense will prove to be over the long haul. The Atlantic 10 has connected on just 26% of its 3s against David Cox’s team thus far. Then again, if Fatts Russell continues to play the way he did against VCU (30 points), URI is going to be one tough team to beat.

VCU Rams

The Rams have tasted the best and worst of A-10 times during their past two games, blasting Richmond but then losing by 12 at Rhode Island. In a season where Dayton has already secured lock status, VCU will still get a shot at the Flyers when Anthony Grant’s team pays a visit to Wade Arena. Speaking of the upcoming contest against UD, Mike Rhoades’ team will rise or fall in large part based on what it does during a six-day window in February. The home date against Dayton as well as road games at Richmond and Saint Louis are VCU’s only remaining (scheduled) Quad 1 opportunities.

Liberty Flames

You might remember the Flames as the team that, in a 2019 NCAA tournament first weekend remarkably devoid of upsets, scored an upset. Ritchie McKay’s No. 12-seeded team knocked out Mississippi State 80-76. One year later, Liberty is again hoping to make waves in the bracket. With a punishing defense and the voluminous interior scoring of Scottie James, the Flames will be heavily favored to win the automatic bid from the Atlantic Sun. If they should not do so, McKay’s men will have to fall back on a really impressive looking record (currently 21-3) and, ideally, a better NET ranking than the 60-ish one they show now.

Richmond Spiders

Behold, the far outer fringes of the bubble. Beyond this point there are only high hopes and long odds. The Spiders did themselves no favors by following up on a competitive loss at home to mighty Dayton with a not-so-competitive defeat at the hands of local rival VCU on the Rams’ home floor. Nor does the schedule necessarily benefit Chris Mooney’s team. It appears Richmond will have to bump into the likes of the Flyers, VCU or Rhode Island at the Atlantic 10 tournament in order to record its next Quad 1 opportunity. The Spiders do have a 10-point neutral-floor victory over Wisconsin to their name, but they will have to work to make that game matter.

Two bubble teams in the same medium-sized metropolis? Oh, the suspenseful humanity!

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