The 2019 bubble may look weak if we compare to past seasons. But that’s by comparing the current bubble outlook to the finished products of other seasons. The reality is 2019 presents an above average number of realistic bid thief opportunities, where a team that would otherwise be outside the field takes an automatic spot, and the projected winner of that league then bumps to one of the at-large selections.
Here is my current projected outlook of teams at the bubble:
Last four at-larges with byes: Syracuse, Oklahoma, Utah State, Seton Hall
Last four at-larges (playing in Dayton): Central Florida, Minnesota, Arizona State, Furman
Other projected automatic bids seeded 11 and 12: VCU, Belmont, Lipscomb
First four at-larges out: Alabama, Nebraska, Temple, Butler
But realistically, most or all of those teams in the Last Four In would be out once the auto bids start rolling in, and the bubble would look a lot different.
Using the auto bid percentage estimates by Bart Torvik, I’ve got 3.6 bids as the average number that will be claimed by teams, who would otherwise not be in the field, from conferences where the projected auto bid leader is currently in my Top 50 (seeded as a 12 or better). Here’s my breakdown of the odds of a bid thief coming from the various conferences:
Ohio Valley (69%): Belmont has a decent enough at-large case to go to Dayton if they don’t win the title, and the OVC has Murray State and Ja Morant lurking. If Belmont were to, say, lose in the final to the Racers, they would be sitting on the bubble with a 27-5 record, and a road win at UCLA to go with two wins over Lipscomb and a road win at Murray State, and one of the losses at Purdue.
MAC (53%): Buffalo is pretty much a tournament lock at this point, but since they are the only team that could win the conference tourney and be an at-large, this presents a real possibility of a spot going away.
Pac-12 (49%): The Pac-12 is way down this year, to the point that Washington is the only team clearly in the field, with Arizona State right on the bubble. If anyone else wins the conference tourney, or if the Sun Devils win it to solidify there spot, the bubble shifts.
Atlantic-10 (48%): Like Buffalo in the MAC, Virginia Commonwealth is the only team in the A-10 that looks slated for the field at the moment. But this tournament always produces upsets and it seems highly likely someone else could claim the auto spot, bumping VCU to the at-large pool. With a road win at Texas and a neutral court win over another potential bubble team in Temple highlighting their work, I think they would end up on the correct side of the cutoff in that case.
Atlantic Sun (32%): Lipscomb is a heavy favorite to win the A-Sun, but upsets happen, and Liberty has already beaten them once. The Bisons would have a decent at-large case with a NET ranking in the Top 50 and a road win at TCU.
Southern (24%): Wofford and Furman both have at-large cases, and Wofford is in pretty good shape. Wofford’s only four losses are to North Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi State, and they are currently unbeaten in a Southern Conference with three other Top 100 teams by NET ranking. Furman won at Villanova in the non-conference and has a big home game against Wofford next week that could bolster an at-large case.
American (23%): Houston and Cincinnati are in and UCF is on the right side of the bubble, but if someone like Temple or Memphis jumps up and wins the tournament that reduces the at-large spots.
Mountain West (21%): Nevada is the heavy favorite and Utah State is on the bubble. Fresno State leads the list of bid thieves that could win the conference tournament.
Big East (20%): The Big East really has only three teams solidly in the field, and Marquette and Villanova aren’t the dominant top seeds you see in other power conferences, so someone could surprise here.
WCC (15%): Gonzaga would need to be upset, but San Francisco, St. Mary’s, or BYU are all on the wrong side of the cut line now but capable.
Big Ten, SEC, ACC, and Big 12 (<3% each): these conferences are loaded with at-larges and unlikely to produce a bid thief.
Add all that up, and three bid thieves, and maybe more, seem like a very real possibility in a month.
Next up are my full seeding projections.