Bracketology: NCAA Tournament Projections and Bubble Watch

by Robert Ferringo – 2/17/2011

All I know is this: 68 is a whole lotta teams.

For those of you that have been kicking it with the Tea Party/mountain folk in the hills of Tennessee over the last few months, I am here to remind you that the NCAA Tournament has actually expanded this year. The Big Dance will now feature 68 teams, with four at-large squads taking on four automatic qualifiers in a play-in game on the Tuesday before the actual 64-team tournament begins on Thursday.

The changes were enacted last July. And while I do feel that most college basketball fans are well aware of the newly inflated field, I think that most of the common, fair-weather, and “March-only” fans will be surprised the Monday after Selection Sunday when they try to fill out the awkward new March Madness brackets. In short, the decision was made in an attempt to generate more revenue from one of the biggest sporting events in the country.

And I will also say that no matter what the marketers, branding experts, and bobbleheads say: I will never refer to these PLAY-IN GAMES as the FIRST ROUND of the NCAA Tournament. And I think that anyone that does bow down to these naming conventions (which are part of the apocalypse, but that’s neither here nor there) is an clown.

I’m not going to sit here and cry for the automatic qualifiers that I think are getting screwed out of this deal by having to take part in the farcical play-in games. But I will say that no matter how grotesque this expansion has been it’s still better than the proposed dumpster baby that a 96-team field would have been. (And yes, we were closer to a 96-team tournament than anyone cares to admit.)

So the new system has also served to create a bigger “bubble” of teams vying for those last slots. If the idea was to eliminate bitching by the last couple of teams that felt they should have been invited into the tournament, let me be the first to tell you this system will fail miserably. There will always be bitching. Only now by lowering the bar (which the NCAA has done to get a few more teams in the tourney) they have opened up the process to even more complaining. Trust me. You will see.

OK, so you are kind of caught up on what the NCAA Tournament bracket is going to look like. Now let’s talk about what the NCAA Tournament field is going to look like. Here’s a breakdown some bracketology of what I think the Race for 68 looks like with some NCAA Tournament projections and bubble watch:

Atlantic 10 (3)

In: Xavier*

Bubble (On Verge): Temple*, Richmond*

Bubble (On Fringe): Dayton, Duquesne

Skinny: The A-10 received two at-large bids last year while putting a trio of teams in the NCAA Tournament. It will be difficult but not impossible to match that number this year. Temple and Richmond are two teams that pass the eye test, but they don’t really have the resume. The Owls get a crack at Duke on Dec. 23 and they need a strong showing there. Duquesne gets a little love on this list because they are the No. 2 team in the conference and one of the hotter teams in the nation. But they have no nonconference resume to speak of. Dayton is a big-time X-Factor. Dayton and Duquesne will only make The Dance if they win the conference tournament. But I legitimately think that one of them can, so I am thinking that there will be three teams from this league in the tournament.

ACC (5)

In: Duke*

Bubble (On Verge): North Carolina*, Florida State*

Bubble: (On Fringe): Clemson*, Virginia Tech*, Maryland, Boston College

Skinny: Duke is obviously in and North Carolina and Florida State will be on that line of my NCAA Tournament projections the next time they come out. I will say though: FSU just lost its clear-cut best player, Chris Singleton, and even though “no timetable” has been set for his return I don’t think he will play again this year. If FSU goes into a free fall they could actually play their way out. But I think they will do enough limping to get in the dance. I also think that Clemson is knocking on the door and that Virginia Tech will find a way in. But besides that I think that any other ACC bids – at this point – would be a huge reach.

Big 12 (5)

In: Kansas*, Texas*, Texas A&M*, Missouri*

Bubble (On Verge): Kansas State*

Bubble: (On Fringe): Baylor, Oklahoma State, Colorado

Skinny: Kansas State actually moved up a slot to “On The Verge” by virtue of their win over Kansas on Monday. If you blow out the No. 1 team in the country I have a feeling you’ll find yourself dancing. That win was huge for a team that has been feeble in Big 12 play, but they also have wins over fellow bubble teams Gonzaga, Washington State and Virginia Tech, and I think that’s what gets them over the hump. But beyond that, I have a really hard time finding a sixth team from this league. Baylor’s strength of schedule is No. 333 and they have zero good nonconference wins. Colorado (No. 326) is in a similar spot. But they have swept Kansas State, beat Missouri and beat Oklahoma State so they can be considered. Oklahoma State has some decent wins (Missouri State, Alabama, Kansas State, Missouri), but they still have a pretty flimsy resume overall. Also, they are just 3-6 in their last nine and things could get worse if they get rocked by Texas, A&M and Kansas over the next six days.

Big East (9)

In: Pittsburgh*, Notre Dame*, Georgetown*, Villanova*, Connecticut*, Syracuse*, Louisville*

Bubble (On Verge): West Virginia*, St. John’s*

Bubble (On Fringe): Cincinnati, Marquette

Skinny: Seeding will be the big issue in the Beast, but right now I don’t think there is much of an argument about how I have the teams stacked up here. West Virginia is fading fast, but I still think they are just a couple wins away from punching their ticket. They have nice nonconference wins over Purdue and Vanderbilt, two teams that will be in the field, and with the No. 23 toughest schedule in the nation you have to consider them nearly a lock. As for the true “bubble” teams in the conference I think St. John’s has the best shot, I think Cincinnati is a sinking ship, and I think that Marquette is a team that is good enough to get into the Field of 68 but won’t unless it goes on a massive run to close the year. And with four of their next six at home, including home games against St. John’s and Cincinnati as well as a road shot at Connecticut, the Golden Eagles have a schedule that could help them build some steam.

Big Ten (7)

In: Ohio State*, Wisconsin*, Purdue*

Bubble (On Verge): Illinois*, Minnesota*

Bubble (On Fringe): Michigan State*, Penn State, Michigan*

Skinny: So much for this being the strongest conference in the country. I know that it is rated the No. 1 league in the land, but as we really start to talk turkey this group is a bit lacking. The top three are locks. Illinois is a team playing itself out of the tournament (3-6 in L9 and serious chemistry issues), but their win over North Carolina in November is a big trump card even though if they played today UNC would win by 40. Same goes with Minnesota. They are just 1-4 in their last five games and injuries have really slowed them down; they don’t look like a tournament team. But they beat UNC and West Virginia back in November and they have respectable strength of schedule numbers. If the tournament started today Michigan State wouldn’t be in. They have a nonconference win against Washington, but that’s it. I do think that they will claw their way in – somehow. But they definitely have work to do. If the Big Ten were to get seven teams, and I think you’d have to flip a coin between Penn State and Michigan. Michigan has more wins, but they have zero big wins and their top nonconference ‘W’ was over Clemson. Ho-hum. Penn State has some real marquee victories, beating Illinois and Wisconsin, and their overall nonconference resume is much stronger, but they are just 13-11 right now and lost to Michigan in the head-to-head.

Colonial (2)

In: None

Bubble (On Verge): Old Dominion*

Bubble (On Fringe): George Mason*

Skinny: The CAA has been a one-bid league for three straight years, but this season I think that George Mason has an outside shot at garnering an at-large bid if they don’t win the league. This should be a fierce conference tournament, with Old Dominion more than capable of making a third straight trip to the Big Dance. Mason has won 12 straight and just demolished VCU on the road. If they can get a ‘W’ against reeling Northern Iowa this Saturday in the Bracket Buster I think they could win out the regular season. Then a trip to the conference championship game should be enough to get them in despite a weak nonconference resume. Old Dominion actually has a solid resume. They have wins over Clemson, Xavier, Richmond and Dayton in the nonconference and they split with Mason. They host Cleveland State on Saturday and if they can win that game and can make the semifinals or finals of the CAA tourney I would have to think they are more deserving than a team like Cincinnati or some other BCS league wannabe.

Conference USA (1)

In: None

Bubble (On Verge): None

Bubble (On Fringe): UTEP*, Memphis

Skinny: It doesn’t make much sense that leagues like the CAA, WCC and Missouri Valley can garner multiple bids on a regular basis and that CUSA is headed for just one solo bid for the fourth time in five years. And last year, when both UTEP and Houston made it, they BARELY got that second bid. But to this point no one has the nonconference resume to garner consideration. I think that it will come down to the three teams I mentioned above in the tournament championship (especially now that UAB just lost one of its best players to injury) but only one of them will advance.

Horizon (2)

In: None

Bubble (On Verge): None

Bubble (On Fringe): Butler*, Cleveland State*

Skinny: I do not think that Butler is going to win the Horizon League Championship this year and I think that is going to put the selection committee in a brutal spot. It would be real tough to leave last year’s runner-up and Everyone’s Favorite Underdog out. Valparaiso is another team that I think could win this tournament and spoil Butler’s season. However, I think when all is said and done this league gets two teams in.

Missouri Valley (1)

In: None

Bubble: (On Verge): None

Bubble (On Fringe): Wichita State*

Skinny: This one is a one-bid league and I don’t think that Wichita State should be left out. They don’t have a great resume, but there is absolutely no doubt that they are a tournament team. Missouri State and Creighton are potential spoilers.

Mountain West (3)

In: BYU*, San Diego State*

Bubble (On Verge): UNLV*

Bubble (On Fringe): New Mexico, Colorado State

Skinny: Every year I scream about how good the Mountain West is and how they deserve more bids. I am going to say the same thing this year, as I believe this league should get at least three teams. New Mexico and Colorado State have a ton of work to do if they really want to get on the bubble, but UNLV better make it again.

Pac-10 (4)

In: Washington*, Arizona*

Bubble (On Verge): UCLA*

Bubble (On Fringe): Washington State*

Skinny: Last year at this time they had maybe one lock and I successfully predicted a two-bid league. This year I think that they will get three teams in there and that Washington State could sneak in the back door for the fourth slot. They have games against Arizona, Washington and UCLA left. If they can get two of three of those games then they are in business. But if not then I think they will be right around No. 68, No. 69 or No. 70 on Selection Sunday. UCLA is in and will probably be up a line on the next projection.

SEC (6)

In: Tennessee*, Kentucky*, Florida*, Vanderbilt*

Bubble (On Verge): None

Bubble (On Fringe): Alabama*, Georgia*

Skinny: I’m being liberal with Alabama and Georgia here because I still think they both have plenty of chances to play their way in, despite pretty weak overall resumes. Vanderbilt didn’t play many good teams, but they beat the ones they needed to, namely fellow bubble teams Marquette and St. Mary’s as well as that marquee win over North Carolina.

WCC (1)

In: None

Bubble (On Verge): None

Bubble (On Fringe): Gonzaga, St. Mary’s*

Skinny: I think that this is a one-bid league – and I don’t think that bid is going to Gonzaga. I don’t think there is any doubt that St. Mary’s is the best team in this conference and I think they are a no-doubt tournament team. Especially after making the Sweet 16 last year. But other than a win over St. John’s they did nothing in the nonconference. If they beat Utah State on Bracket Buster Saturday they are in. If they lose that game they would need to sweep Gonzaga to be in. If they lose both they have to win the WCC Tournament. Gonzaga played everyone, but they didn’t beat anyone. Their best wins are over Xavier, Baylor and Marquette. That’s not enough.

WAC (1)

In: Utah State*

Bubble (On Verge): None

Bubble (On Fringe): None

Skinny: Last year the WAC was pretty nasty and they (deservedly) received two bids to the NCAA Tournament. This year they are a train wreck. But Utah State is like St. Mary’s: there is no doubt in my mind that they are one of the best 40 or so teams in the country, but they really haven’t proven it against top competition.

Automatic Bid Leagues (17):

America East – Vermont

Atlantic Sun – Belmont

Big Sky – Montana

Big South – Coastal Carolina

Big West – Long Beach State

Ivy League – Harvard

Mid-American – Buffalo

Metro – Fairfield

MEAC – Hampton

Northeast – Central Connecticut

Ohio Valley – Murray State

Patriot League – Bucknell

Southern – Charleston

Southland – Sam Houston State

SWAC – Jackson State

Summit – Oakland

Sun Belt – Florida Atlantic

*Denotes a team I think will make the NCAA Tournament. Right now I only have 67 teams in there. You pick the 68th. I think right now it comes down to one of the three Big 12 teams, Penn State, Cincinnati, or Colorado State. But honestly: who cares at that point.

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