Perhaps your team is well on its way to the NCAA Tournament, poised to earn one of the top seeds. Or maybe you’ve tuned out because your team has had a rough year.
Some teams’ fates, however, will still depend on these next few weeks. With 36 at-large bids, there are many teams looking to fight their way into one of the final spots in the tournament.
Yes, it’s time to take a look at which tourney hopefuls have played their way onto what’s known as the bubble.
The best way to determine which teams should get in and which teams should be out is through a blind resume test. We’ll use three examples that compare three teams and their records, TRACR ranking, and record against teams currently in the top 25 in TRACR.
Recall that TRACR (Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster) is a net efficiency metric that calculates a team’s points per possession on both sides of the ball, adjusted by the team it plays. The model rewards teams that do well against good teams and punishes those that do poorly against weaker squads.
This is a great tool to use for Bracketology as it shows how good a team is against the strongest opponents, regardless of record. Still, a team needs to win some games if they want to get in.
Let’s start with our first set of teams.
We have two teams similar in record, while another has a better record but worse TRACR. The first team is Wisconsin, while the second team is New Mexico. I’ll get to those teams in a moment. The third team is… ugh… North Carolina.
Trust me, I have nothing against North Carolina… I grew up in Illinois and was rooting for Sean May and Raymond Felton in 2005. I think it is safe to say, however, that it has been an extremely disappointing and frustrating season for the Tar Heels. Armando Bacot is still racking up double-doubles, but it feels like they still have to use him more often. In addition to being 0-3 versus teams ranked in TRACR’s top 25, they are 0-9 against Quad I teams. They are 2-5 in their last seven.
After making it to the championship game last season, the Tar Heels are in danger of missing out. They have a chance to bounce back with home games against Virginia (45th) and Duke (24th), but they will have to be impressive wins in order to get back up in TRACR.
Wisconsin needs a similar big win coming up against Purdue (No. 7). The Badgers beat the Boilermakers in dramatic fashion last season and a win here likely means a spot in the tournament. They have a fine record and some good wins, especially at Marquette (16th) and finally got a double-digit win against Iowa (41st) on Wednesday.
But that is the problem with Wisconsin. It has played in 16 games decided by five or fewer points – most in Division I. TRACR wants larger victories, which is why it moved up after the Iowa win but has stayed in the 50-60 ranks prior. The heartbreaking loss to Kansas really hurts the Badgers, too.
New Mexico had a tremendous start and was even ranked early on, but Mountain West play has been an issue. Richard Pitino’s Lobos are 7-8 in conference play and 1-5 this month. They are now ranked fifth in TRACR among Mountain West teams. A win against San Diego State could put them back in business, and finishing with more than 20 wins entering Selection Sunday could entice the committee.
The committee must look at the recent performance of the Mountain West, too. The conference is 0-8 in the NCAA Tournament since the 2019 season. San Diego State is a lock, while Nevada and Boise State look like they will be a higher seed. Does the tournament need a fourth Mountain West team?
Now for the next group:
Based on the TRACR rankings, you might expect all three teams to make the NCAA Tournament. But there’s a chance that only one of them gets in. Team 1 is Memphis, Team 2 is West Virginia and Team 3 is Michigan.
Though Memphis is just 1-2 against teams in TRACR’s top 25 and is considered a bubble team, it seems like the AAC will have two teams in the tourney. All seven of the Tigers’ losses have been by single digits, and four were by three points or less. None were bad losses either; they lost close ones to Alabama (No. 2) and Houston (No. 1). Memphis plays Houston on March 5, and a win there would make the Tigers a lock for the tournament. Unless there is a complete collapse, it seems like they’ll be in regardless.
West Virginia has a weak record and has struggled against teams in TRACR’s top 25, but the Mountaineers are the highest-ranked team among the nine bubble teams here. That just goes to show how good the Big 12 has been this season. Of the 10 teams in the conference, nine are in the top 50 in TRACR, and Oklahoma (57th) is not far behind.
The Mountaineers have had big wins and bad losses. After beating Oklahoma by 32, they lost to Texas by 34. They also have wins over Pittsburgh (60th), Florida (63rd) and Auburn (21st) in nonconference play. The problem with West Virginia is that it is 5-10 in conference play and still has to play at Kansas (No. 4), at Iowa State (25th) and at home against Kansas State (19th). There’s a chance the Mountaineers could lose all three. Win two of three, and they could be dancing. It is a tough spot.
Michigan’s rise does not help West Virginia. The Wolverines were in a similar position last year but ended up reaching the Sweet 16. They have a really bad loss at home to Central Michigan (338th) and lost by 25 to Arizona State (82nd). They have talent in Hunter Dickinson and Jett Howard, but it has not added up.
There have been more key wins lately, though. In addition to beating Northwestern (29th) twice, Michigan has won its last two games against Michigan State (15th) and Rutgers (36th). The Wolverines play Wisconsin on Saturday in a game that will certainly adjust both teams’ bubble status, but they finish on the road against Illinois (27th) and Indiana (26th). While Michigan is on the rise, it may not be enough.
Time for one more blind resume test:
There might be only one team dancing here. Team 1 is Mississippi State, Team 2 is Oklahoma State and Team 3 is USC.
It has been a rollercoaster of a season for Mississippi State, which began the season 11-0 before losing eight of its next nine. Since then, the team has gone 6-2. It has not been an injury issue, either – it just happens.
Mississippi State lost by 34 to Tennessee (No. 8) but every other defeat has been by a reasonable amount. The Bulldogs also have wins over Marquette, TCU (28th) and Arkansas (13th). Their remaining schedule is not too difficult, but they will need to beat Texas A&M (17th) to stay in contention.
Oklahoma State is in a similar spot to West Virginia. The Cowboys have a meh record overall, but they’re better in conference play than the Mountaineers and might be able to finish stronger. West Virginia just beat Oklahoma State by 18, however, after the Cowboys won by seven in the first meeting on Jan. 2. It was OK State’s third straight loss.
There is a chance that Oklahoma State and West Virginia both get in. If they play each other in the Big 12 tournament, it could be a deciding factor in which team dances and which team goes to the NIT. Either way, these next few weeks will be critical.
Is there a chance the Pac-12 only gets two teams in? Arizona State (82nd) has some key wins but doesn’t rank high in TRACR. Oregon (46th) has lost too many close games. Utah (62nd) looked like it might be on the bubble before losing three in a row. That leaves USC as a possible third and that’s about it.
The Trojans have looked great over their last three games, winning each one by double digits, but those came against the bottom teams in the Pac-12. They had previously lost to Oregon State (198th). They also have a bad loss against Florida Gulf Coast (223rd) and fell to another bubble team in Wisconsin at a neutral site.
The fate of USC will likely come down to its last three games of the regular season. It begins with a game at Utah, followed by home games against Arizona (12th) and Arizona State. It is possible that the Trojans need to win all three, especially against the Wildcats.
If they do not, they will have to have a great Pac-12 tournament to get in.