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Is It Likely For NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams To Make The Tourney The Next Season?

Well, let’s look at last year’s bubble teams and see where they’re heading this season.

Villanova v Marquette
We’re not excited about the results, either.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

If you haven’t already, pop on over to Paint Touches and read this incredibly detailed and exhaustively researched breakdown by Ryan Jackson of the success of coaches taking over teams that did not make the NCAA tournament in the final year under the previous coach. You have to go read that first because it’s what sparked the idea for this article in my head. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

[sips coffee]
[watches Ant-Man & The Wasp trailer again]
[watches Deadpool/Cable promo again]

All set? Cool.

After reading through Ryan’s details of how rebuilds have gone in the one and done era of college hoops, an idea popped into my head. Ryan used “two straight NCAA tournament appearances” as his guidepost for success, as Marquette is still looking for a second appearance at all under Steve Wojciechowski, and hopefully the 2017-18 campaign turns into his second straight appearance. We know that things are a little dicey in that regard for the Golden Eagles right now, and we know that Marquette wasn’t that far from the cutline last year, too.

That’s what led me to wonder: how are last year’s other bubble teams heading towards the 2018 tournament? Are they better than last year? Are they struggling to stay in the bubble conversation? Are they comfortably in? What do they know? Do they know things?

Let’s find out!

First, here’s the explanation for “bubble teams.” It’s everyone who was a #9, #10, or #11 seed last year. All of the #12 seeds were automatic bids, so we’re leaving them out. We included the 9s, because if 11 is the cutoff, then it’s possible that some of the 9s are actually 10s that got moved for rules purposes as opposed to actually being seeded there. We’re also including the four #1 seeds from the NIT, as the NCAA selection committee officially designated them as the first four out by giving them #1 seeds in the NIT. We’re going to do a little fact box for each team, with their record, KenPom rank, and tourney finish from last year, along with their record, KenPom rank, and Bracket Matrix standing as of February 20th at 7:45pm. That will give us a picture of where they were last season and where they are right now. Minor disclaimer: I’m using their end of season record and KenPom ranking, mostly just because sorting through the KenPom pre-tournament data is an extra pain in the butt that won’t really affect the outcome of what we’re trying to compare here. From there, we’ll address the situation for each team, looking at circumstances that may have caused them to jump up and/or get smacked down between last year and this year.

For example, here’s Marquette’s blurb, which would belong with the other #10 seeds:

Marquette

2017 Record: 19-13
2017 KenPom Rank: #32
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 64 to South Carolina, 93-73

2018 Record: 15-11
2018 KenPom Rank: #50
2018 Bracket Matrix: Next Four Out, appearing in 7 of 113 brackets.

Pretty simple, huh? Ok, onwards and outwards......


#9 SEEDS

Virginia Tech Hokies

2017 Record: 22-11
2017 KenPom Rank: #50
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 64 to Wisconsin, 84-74

2018 Record: 19-8
2018 KenPom Rank: #35
2018 Bracket Matrix: #10 seed, 108 of 113

This one is essentially a tossup, as there’s not really all that much different between a #9 and a #10. The big difference for Buzz Williams’ team this year is they’re a much better defensive team, but it’s just not turning into wins. The Matrix collective isn’t 100% sold on the Hokies, but VaTech gets three of their last four at home to prove themselves.

Vanderbilt Commodores

2017 Record: 19-16
2017 KenPom Rank: #33
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 64 to Northwestern, 68-66

2018 Record: 11-16
2018 KenPom Rank: #86
2018 Bracket Matrix: Nope

Matthew Fisher-Davis was lost for the season to a shoulder injury in late January, but Vanderbilt was in bad shape before that. Heading into the game where he suffered the injury, the ‘Dores were already 6-11 on the season and 1-3 in SEC play. The fact that they’ve gone 4-7 since then is actually a compliment to head coach Bryce Drew. However, they went 0-7 in the non-conference schedule against KenPom top 100 teams, and that’ll pretty much end your chances at a postseason berth right there.

Michigan State Spartans

2017 Record: 20-15
2017 KenPom Rank: #40
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 32 to Kansas, 90-70

2018 Record: 26-3
2018 KenPom Rank: #4
2018 Bracket Matrix: #2 seed, 113 of 113

I was mentally prepared to write something about “turns out having Miles Bridges on your team is a good thing,” but Bridges only missed two Big Ten games last season while the Spartans went 2-0 without him and 8-8 with him. Instead, the big deal is having Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, and Joshua Langford all back after a decent freshman year, and then adding Jaren Jackson to the mix. A bit of luck on all sides for head coach Tom Izzo, but he’s not going to say no to this year’s top seed, and they probably would have gotten that seed even if Bridges hadn’t come back for a second season. Also doesn’t hurt that the Big Ten has a grand total of three good teams, and that includes the Spartans.

Seton Hall Pirates

2017 Record: 21-12
2017 KenPom Rank: #51
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 64 to Arkansas, 77-71

2018 Record: 18-9
2018 KenPom Rank: #40
2018 Bracket Matrix: #9 seed, 113 of 113

Like Virginia Tech, Seton Hall finds themselves in relatively the same place that they were in a year ago. The difference between the two is that the Matrix collective prefers the Hall to the Hokies, and that’s because SHU has a neutral site win over Texas Tech that just keeps looking better and better. With that said, Seton Hall would be best served by doing themselves a favor, and fast. They snapped a four game losing streak with a five point home win over DePaul that had no business being as close as it was, and that left them at 7-7 in Big East action after starting 3-0. Four games left, two home, two road, none of them more than a coin toss at a chance of victory.

#10 SEEDS

VCU Rams

2017 Record: 26-9
2017 KenPom Rank: #48
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 64 to Saint Mary’s, 85-77

2018 Record: 15-12
2018 KenPom Rank: #158
2018 Bracket Matrix: Nope

This is probably the one spot in this article where you, as a Marquette fan, really wished that the Rams were trending upwards instead of downwards. MU’s current NCAA tournament profile would be a hell of a lot better looking if VCU was projected as a tournament team, but instead they’re 7-7 in the Atlantic 10, which is maybe a two-bid league this season, depending on how St. Bonaventure turns out. This team looked like it should probably have been better with Justin Tillman and Jonathan Williams taking up bigger roles to fill the gaps left behind by JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox, but first year head coach Mike Rhoades is taking it in the pants after replacing Will Wade.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

2017 Record: 20-13
2017 KenPom Rank: #22
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 64 to Michigan, 92-91

2018 Record: 15-12
2018 KenPom Rank: #75
2018 Bracket Matrix: Nope

The ‘Pokes have been victimized by two things. First, Brad Underwood bolted after one season to Illinois, and as I recall, that had something to do with a mild pay dispute with his athletic director. Mike Boynton’s been fine as his replacement, putting OSU into the top 100 in KenPom in both offensive and defensive rankings. That leads to the other problem for them: The Big 12 is absurdly great this season, projecting to put eight of their 10 teams into the tournament. Four of OSU’s five league wins this year have come against those eight teams, and two of them have come on the road against teams projected to get top 4 seeds in the NCAA tournament. That’s pretty good! It’s just not going to be enough for the NCAA tournament.

Wichita State Shockers

2017 Record: 31-5
2017 KenPom Rank: #8
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 32 to Kentucky, 65-62

2018 Record: 21-5
2018 KenPom Rank: #14
2018 Bracket Matrix: #4 seed, 113 of 113

The Shockers are one of two automatic bid teams that we’re dealing with here, but they also have the weird note of no longer being in the conference where they earned that bid. They also also have the weird note of being a top 10 KenPom team last season that just did not have the wins to justify a higher seed in the tournament. Their best win was a home date against #49 Illinois State with the Redbirds missing one of their starters, and that team did not make the NCAA tournament. Thus, WSU is mostly the same team this year, even with Markis McDuffie missing 11 games and Landry Shamet recovering from an injury right before the season started, they’re just in a different league. Ok, they’re significantly worse on defense, but mostly the same, but now they have better wins as a part of the AAC, and now they’re a top four seed-type team.

#11 SEEDS

Providence Friars

2017 Record: 20-13
2017 KenPom Rank: #60
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the First Four to USC, 75-71

2018 Record: 17-10
2018 KenPom Rank: #69
2018 Bracket Matrix: #10 seed, 104 of 113

We’ve got a whole bunch of #11 seeds, because both of the First Four games landed in the #11 seeds. Providence was one of them and dropped their game in Dayton last year. This year, they’re right about in the same spot with mostly the exact same team. All of this makes sense.

USC Trojans

2017 Record: 26-10
2017 KenPom Rank: #53
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 32 to Baylor, 82-78

2018 Record: 19-9
2018 KenPom Rank: #52
2018 Bracket Matrix: First Four Out, 35 of 113

The Trojans had a pretty successful NCAA tournament, advancing from the First Four to the Round of 32. Much like Providence, the team they beat in Dayton last year, they’re essentially in the exact same spot as they were last year, except a little bit down instead of a little bit up. They recently lost three straight games to the Pac-12’s three likely tournament teams, all on the road, so that’s not helping their case. They also don’t have De’Anthony Melton (8 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) back from last year, as the sophomore guard has been ruled ineligible due to his connections to the FBI probe into college basketball corruption and hasn’t played at all.

Xavier Musketeers

2017 Record: 24-14
2017 KenPom Rank: #31
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Elite Eight to Gonzaga, 83-59

2018 Record: 24-4
2018 KenPom Rank: #13
2018 Bracket Matrix: #1 seed, 113 of 113

A note on Xavier: They were 15-6 and 5-3 in Big East play when Edmond Sumner was lost for the season to a knee injury. They then went 4-6 the rest of the way thanks to a six game losing streak that actually had more to do with an injury to Trevon Bluiett than anything else. After getting to the Big East tournament semifinals, the X-Men then advanced to the Elite Eight because - breaking news - they were still a very good basketball team that figured out a thing or three in the final 10 regular season games after Sumner’s injury. Shocker then that they’re aiming to be a #1 seed with Bluiett back for his senior year, then, huh?

Rhode Island Rams

2017 Record: 25-10
2017 KenPom Rank: #34
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 32 to Oregon, 75-72

2018 Record: 22-4
2018 KenPom Rank: #30
2018 Bracket Matrix: #5 seed, 113 of 113

Breaking news: Junior heavy team that had a successful season including winning their conference tournament makes big jump when juniors become seniors, film at 11.

The big difference between this year and last year for Rhody is that they haven’t suffered a bad loss. Last season, they lost at Valparaiso (KenPom #104, maybe not bad, but definitely not helpful) as well as at home to La Salle (#140) and Fordham (#202). URI’s four losses this season: at #18 Nevada, #1 Virginia on a neutral floor, at #42 Alabama, and at #63 St. Bonaventure. These are all perfectly acceptable losses, and all Quadrant 1 games for the Rams. Nice job by them.

Kansas State Wildcats

2017 Record: 21-14
2017 KenPom Rank: #30
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the Round of 64 to Cincinnati, 75-61

2018 Record: 19-8
2018 KenPom Rank: #49
2018 Bracket Matrix: #10 seed, 96 of 113

Kansas State finds themselves on the plus side of the Big 12 mishegas, managing an 8-6 record in an incredibly difficult league to navigate, and thus pretty cleanly in the tournament at this point. With that said, they’re also mostly in the same spot they were last season, as only 85% of the Matrix collective thinks they deserve a place in the field of 68.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

2017 Record: 19-14
2017 KenPom Rank: #36
2017 Tourney Finish: Lost in the First Four to Kansas State, 95-88

2018 Record: 10-17
2018 KenPom Rank: #88
2018 Bracket Matrix: Nope

The Demon Deacons lost John Collins to the NBA Draft after last season. They have not replaced his production, and thus, even though they’ve got other guys back again, they are not good. They were not good from the jump this season, losing to Georgia Southern and Liberty at home in their first two games.

NIT #1 SEEDS

Syracuse Orange

2017 Record: 19-15
2017 KenPom Rank: #55
2017 NIT Finish: Lost to Ole Miss in the second round, 85-80

2018 Record: 18-9
2018 KenPom Rank: #45
2018 Bracket Matrix: #11 seed, Last Four In, 77 of 113

Syracuse’s last three seasons: Self-imposed postseason ban, shocking Final Four appearance as a #10 seed, NIT #1 seed. This year? Barely scraping their way into NCAA tournament contention and needing a win against a collection of North Carolina and Clemson at home and Duke and Boston College on the road in order to lock up that bid.

I’m just going to throw it out there: Moving to the ACC has not gone particularly great for the Orange. Why, exactly, is Jim Boeheim insisting on keeping his job in order to coach his own kid? Can you imagine the kind of noise that Orange fans will make if they don’t cleanly get into the field during the kid’s time on campus?

California Golden Bears

2017 Record: 21-13
2017 KenPom Rank: #62
2017 NIT Finish: Lost in the first round to Cal State Bakersfield, 73-66

2018 Record: 8-19
2018 KenPom Rank: #232
2018 Bracket Matrix: Nope

Cal lost their head coach - Cuonzo Martin, and five major contributors — Ivan Rabb, Charlie Moore, Jabari Bird, Kameron Rooks, and Grant Mullins — so it is not a surprise that the Bears have gone massively backwards this season. Rooks and Moore transferred out in conjunction with Martin’s departure, which just made new coach Wyking Jones’ job even harder.

Illinois State Redbirds

2017 Record: 28-7
2017 KenPom Rank: #49
2017 NIT Finish: Lost in the second round to UCF, 63-62

2018 Record: 15-13
2018 KenPom Rank: #160
2018 Bracket Matrix: Nope

If Dan Muller wants to campaign against the end of graduate transfers, I’m going to make fun of him, but I’m at least going to understand where he’s coming from on the topic. Two of his major components from last season, MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins, left ISU as graduate transfers after last season, compounding the problem of Paris Lee finishing his eligibility. Thus, Illinois State is sitting in fourth place in a Missouri Valley Conference that has lost both Creighton and Wichita State during this decade, which is not a good way to try to get into the NCAA tournament.

Iowa Hawkeyes

2017 Record: 19-15
2017 KenPom Rank: #71
2017 NIT Finish: Lost in the second round to TCU, 94-92

2018 Record: 12-17
2018 KenPom Rank: #99
2018 Bracket Matrix: Nope

Fran McCaffery has won two NCAA tournament games in three appearances in his first seven years running the show in Iowa City. This year’s team should probably be better than it has been, given that last year was relying on four freshman to play important roles, and all four are back this season. Combine “barely missed NCAA tournament with four freshmen” with “Big Ten is hilariously awful this season,” and you’d think that the Hawkeyes would be at least competitive. Nope, they’re 3-13 in the league and riding a five game losing streak. I think I just figured out why they might be upset about McCaffery getting a mystery extension in November.


17 bubble teams from last year that aren’t Marquette. Nine teams appear to be trending towards a spot in this year’s field, eight teams heading away from a spot. Three of the trending away teams were in the NIT last season in the first place. Of the non-Marquette teams that made the NCAA tournament last season, 62% of them seem to be preparing for another tourney bid this season.

Two of the five teams that made it last year but are trending outwards right now underwent coaching changes in the offseason. Another suffered a major injury, another lost an NBA First Round pick, and another is under the FBI microscope.

And then there’s Marquette. No coaching change, no major injury up til now, no NBA Draft pick, no FBI scrutiny.

Please win your next four games, Golden Eagles.