For NCAA Bubble Teams, It's Time to Start Sweating

With the NCAA basketball season heading into the home stretch, there’s the usual gaggle of teams from major conferences who, for one reason or another, could find themselves on the outside looking in when March Madness rolls around.


Most bubble teams have only themselves to blame. They’re chances of making the big dance usually hang on doing well in their conference tournament. Their record alone won’t get them an invite. Chances are, they’ve had what the NCAA Selection Committee refers to as “bad” losses — a stumble or two against clearly inferior teams.

But where there’s hope, there’s life and several of the most prominent bubble teams can improve their chances immensely with a strong finish to the regular season and a good showing in their conference tournaments.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi takes a look at 10 bubble teams who have some work to do (subscription only):

(Note: RPI, or Ratings Percentage Index is a complicated formula that takes into account a team’s winning percentage, their opponent’s winning percentage, and their strength of scheduled or SOS).

Brigham Young Cougars

The Cougars (20-10, RPI 35, SOS 21) have hung around the bubble longer than expected thanks to their off-the-charts SOS rankings and a pair of very solid nonconference victories (at Stanford, neutral against Texas). Last week’s home-court win over Gonzaga should keep them in the conversation.

What they need: A win in the regular-season finale at San Diego and nothing less than a run to the West Coast Conference tournament title game.

Missouri Tigers

The Tigers (19-9, RPI 49, SOS 70) haven’t distinguished themselves either outside the league or within a mediocre SEC. The long-ago win over UCLA is only going to go so far, especially now that Mizzou has been swept by the likes of Georgia.

What they need: Win out (regular season) and probably no less than a berth in the SEC tournament title game.

Providence Friars

The Friars (18-10, RPI 60, SOS 68) represent the muddled middle of the new Big East. With its best wins at home, Providence clearly has more work to do. I’m not optimistic given two of the Friars’ remaining three games are on the road (at Seton Hall, at Creighton), the second of which is Doug McDermott’s senior night.

What they need: Three more wins, regardless of opponent or location. The Friars are going down to the wire.

St. John’s Red Storm

The Red Storm (18-11, RPI 63, SOS 30) and Providence have each won on the other’s court. It could be we see an elimination game between the two at the Big East tournament. Conveniently that would also be a home game for St. John’s, but it was Tuesday’s home loss to Xavier that made this much harder than necessary.

What they need: Same as Providence. The Red Storm need three more wins, regardless of opponent or location.

Tennessee Volunteers

The Volunteers (17-11, RPI 56, SOS 10) will live to fight another day after a workmanlike road victory at Mississippi State. Tennessee is now third in a two-team SEC pecking order, but with a very favorable schedule the rest of the way. I actually like the Vols’ chances.

What they need: Tennessee can and should run the table to reach 11-7 in the conference. Avoiding a bad loss in the SEC tournament might be enough.


A minimum of 20 wins is necessary to even be considered for selection to the tournament. At least, for the major conferences. But what about teams from weaker conferences?

Sam Houston State might be considered a true bubble team. Their overall record is 19-7 and are second in the Southland Conference to perennial power Stephen F. Austin. SFA is currently 25-2 and is a near shoo-in for the tournament.

But Sam Houston State might end up winning 23 games and be frozen out of the tournament. Their paltry SOS rank is 274 and their opponent’s SOS is even worse — 320. They have played only 2 games against teams in the top 50 RPI — Toledo and SMU — and been blown out of both.

The only way Sam Houston State is going to make it into the tournament is if they beat Stephen F. Austin to win the Southland Conference. The smaller colleges and universities in Division I have been complaining about this for years, but the NCAA has turned a deaf ear to them. The big conferences bring in the big bucks and that’s the way it is. The lion’s share of slots in the 68 team tournament will go to teams in the top conferences.

The teams mentioned above being on the bubble basically have their fate in their own hands. For a few of them, their efforts are likely to come up short.


Oh well, there’s always the NIT…


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