NCAA Tournament Bubble Breakdown: Kansas State Jumps Up, Seven Teams Still Lurking

NCAA Tournament Bubble Breakdown: Kansas State Jumps Up, Seven Teams Still Lurking


NCAA Tournament Bubble Breakdown: Kansas State Jumps Up, Seven Teams Still Lurking

Things happened yesterday in college basketball. TCU stunned presumptive #1 overall seed Kansas in the Big 12 tournament. Others, notably Iowa and Illinois from the Big Ten tournament, had their shots at a tournament bid slip away. The biggest result, when it comes to crossing the bubble and popping someone else’s, was Kansas State beating Baylor last night. As a result, I now have Kansas State in the field, and Illinois State dropping out.

That all sets up what is the key day when it comes to settling the tournament field. Of the eight conferences that have multiple at-large possibilities, we have the following:

  • ACC–where all four teams in the semifinals are already in the NCAA tournament;
  • Big East–all four teams are in, with Xavier’s big win over Butler eliminating any doubt there;
  • Pac-12–three of the four in, California needing a big upset of Oregon;
  • Big 12–three of the four in (Kansas State right on the cutline), with TCU probably needing to win the auto bid to get in;
  • SEC–five teams in, with Ole Miss and Georgia needing big wins, and Alabama likely needing the auto bid;
  • Big Ten–seven teams in, with Indiana as the wildcard;
  • Atlantic-10– two teams in, one capable of getting at-large with semifinal win (Rhode Island), and five bid thieves alive in the quarterfinals;
  • American– two teams in, one capable of getting at-large with semifinal win (Houston), and five bid thieves alive in the quarterfinals.

So by my estimate, if we are trying to account for serious danger for teams just in the field right now, we have the Atlantic-10 and American situations to monitor, plus Middle Tennessee in the Conference USA Tournament (they have a plausible case if they are at 29-5 and lose in final).

I put together a similarity analysis of at-large selections from the past six tournaments. Teams were compared based on RPI, overall record, record against the RPI Top 25, record against the RPI Top 50, and overall games against Top 50. Differences were squared, so that teams that aren’t close in all those categories would not appear.

The formula used was [1000-(RPI rank diff squared)-(Overall Wins diff squared x10)-Overall Losses diff x10)-(Top 25 Wins diff x20)-(Top 25 Losses diff x20)-(Top 50 Wins diff x20)-(Top 50 Losses diff x20)-(Top 50 Games diff x10)].

Here’s a quick rundown of the last four at-large spots, and those that still have a chance, using that similarity analysis to show the number of teams that had a score of “750” or higher for each candidate, and percentage that made the field. Some are similar to lots of prior teams; others are more unique.

I list teams I believe can still earn an at-large and be reasonably in the discussion, shy of winning the auto bid. All of these similarities are based on the record of the team in question losing today (if they are still alive), so if they advance the chances would increase.

So, for example, there are 19 teams somewhat similar to Wake Forest (RPI of 38, 19-13, 1-6 against RPI Top 25, 3-9 against RPI Top 50). Seventeen of them made the tournament. The two most similar were Connecticut 2012 (RPI 32, 3-8 vs Top 50, 9 seed) and Georgia 2011 (RPI 41, 3-9 vs Top 50, 10 seed). The two that missed had an RPI around 50. Three of the “similar” teams had to play in Dayton (South Florida 2012, Tennessee 2014, NC State 2014).

You’ll notice that Syracuse doesn’t really have any comparables. The RPI is so low (86 on the NCAA site today), and most teams with a RPI that low don’t have 6 Top 50 wins. Georgetown in 2014, who went 6-7 against tournament teams and had 3 top 25 wins, missed out with a better RPI than Syracuse now and should demand a recount if this has become the new standard. As I broke down after their loss, Syracuse is a true wildcard. But, results like Kansas State winning make them more likely to drop out.

This is a strong “bubble” in the sense that every team projected above Syracuse has a resumé that has resulted in selection far more than 50% of the time. Last year, we saw teams like Tulsa and Temple get in with questionable peripherals, and the competition that just missed out was St. Mary’s and San Diego State, teams inside the Top 50 but with few big wins (Illinois State might be the closest example to those teams).

This year, the competition is Vanderbilt (two wins against Florida), Kansas State (two wins against Baylor), USC (wins over SMU and UCLA), Michigan State (six top 50 wins), Wake Forest (just beat Louisville and Virginia Tech on the road, no bad losses).

So, Syracuse is right on the cutline. I think, with so many possibilities, they will be out by Sunday. There are the possibility of auto bid thieves, and in addition, here are the scenarios where these seven teams could be in the discussion (comparables got selected more than half the time).

Georgia could be in the mix by beating Kentucky today (about a 50% chance) and could pass Syracuse with just that. I think everyone else–with the possible exception of TCU–would pass Syracuse for that final slot by achieving the above scenarios. And I’m not ruling out Middle Tennessee getting to Dayton if they lose in the Conference USA Final.

We’ll have a lot more clarity after today, but right now, the actual bubble is pretty small, but that could change with upsets. Illinois State is likely already in trouble, and Syracuse could soon follow.