Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Basketball

The 2018 NCAA Tournament Bubble Primer

March 10, 2018

Life on the bubble is not fun, and if you’re experiencing it first hand, you usually take it one of two ways: either by turning into the human version of that lovable shrug emoji (so, just shrugging, I guess) and saying “we just have to wait and see,” or by tracking every other team on the bubble, watching their games, reading every bit of bracketology you can get your hands on and obsessing over every last bucket of conference tournament week. For those that fall in the latter, this is for you!

Tim Miles was somewhere in the middle. His Twitter was a great place to be this week as he campaigned for Nebraska’s tournament life, but then he went on BTN and confidently stated: “Here’s what I know, we’re in.”

Speak it into existence, right? Should he be that confident? It might be (excruciatingly) still too early to say. Let’s take one last look at the locks and maybes before Selection Sunday.

For the purposes of this post, we'll be using ESPN's RPI numbers here, quadrant win info from here, and seeding info from Bracket Matrix here.


Locks: Virginia, Duke, Miami, Clemson, North Carolina


NC State (21-11, 11-7 ACC)

( RPI: 62 | SOS: 73 | NCSOS: 258 )

They made things a little more interesting for themselves by losing to an RPI sub-150 Georgia Tech team in the final week of their season and then in the conference tourney to Boston College, but NC State is probably still safe. They’re an average nine-seed on Bracket Matrix, showing up on 102 of 106 brackets. The Wolfpack are 6-5 against the RPI top-50 with four wins against the top-25. Dropping out of the ACC tourney in two days probably hurts its seeding, but not NC State’s chance of making it.

Virginia Tech (21-11, 10-8 ACC)

( RPI: 60 | SOS: 77 | NCSOS: 333 )

The Hokies are probably in — most brackets have them around a nine seed according to Bracket Matrix — but they’re still weird. Virginia Tech is 4-8 against the RPI top-50 but 4-3 against the RPI top-25 and they own five Q1 wins. They’re not on the bubble, just don't really feel like a “lock.”

Florida State (20-11, 9-9 ACC)

( RPI: 52 | SOS: 87 | NCSOS: 324 )

The Seminoles are a 10-seed showing up on 104 of 106 brackets on Bracket Matrix. Probably has something to do with the six Q1 wins, the upset over North Carolina and the 6-6 record against the RPI top-50. The ‘Noles beating Louisville would have helped a number of other teams on the bubble, but that didn’t happen. Insert “this is why we can’t have nice things” line here.

Louisville (20-13, 9-9 ACC) 

( RPI: 38 | SOS: 12 | NCSOS: 79)

The Cards are an RPI darling (just look at those SOS numbers) but here’s the thing, they have no wins over the RPI top-50 in 11 tries and three Q1 wins in 13 tries. Louisville beat Florida State in its first game of the ACC tournament (nothing to get excited about) and found itself in a win-and-you’re-in scenario when it met class-of-the-conference Virginia. The Cards were promptly blown off the floor. Sound familiar? If they get in, it’s because of who they played, not who they beat.

Syracuse (20-13, 8-10 ACC) 

( RPI: 40 | SOS: 13 | NCSOS: 13 )

The Orange have four Q1 wins in 12 tries and really strong RPI numbers (see above), but they got bounced from the ACC tournament on the second day — a 78-59 loss to North Carolina. What to do, what to do? Bracket Matrix has the Orange in the first four out category. That feels about right.

Notre Dame (20-14, 8-10 ACC)

( RPI: 65 | SOS: 44 | NCSOS: 174 ) 

Does Notre Dame get credit for beating a Pitt team that went 0-for in conference play by three points? Does it get credit for Virginia Tech imploding late on day two of the conference tournament? What about getting smacked 88-70 by Duke on day three? Bonzie Colson’s return and the Fighting Irish’s ensuing run was a nice story but the Irish should be on the outside looking in with a 2-9 record in Group 1 games. They’re in the next four out on Bracket Matrix.

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State


Oklahoma (18-13, 8-10 Big 12)

( RPI: 47 | SOS: 27 | NCSOS: 148 )

Geez. Where to start? Oklahoma was a top-five team. Oklahoma also went 2-8 in their last 10 games, flopping out of the Big 12 tournament on the first day with a half-hearted loss to its in-state rival. Oklahoma also hasn’t won a single game away from Norman in all of 2018. And they’re still probably getting in. Bracket Matrix has the Sooners as a 10-seed, showing up on 106 of 106 brackets. Thank Trae Young for that.

Texas (19-14, 8-10 Big 12) 

(RPI: 50 | SOS: 21 | NCSOS: 94 )

With six Q1 wins, an impressive resume and an average 11-seed with 104 appearances on Bracket Matrix, Texas is probably in. Losing to Iowa State in the first tournament game likely would have hurt their case and helped the field, but that didn’t happen. Then the almost beat Tech. Sorry guys.

Oklahoma State (19-14, 8-10 Big 12)

( RPI: 87 | SOS: 65 | NCSOS: 310)

Of the four teams on this maybe list, the Cowboys are playing the best right now. Losing to Kansas in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament could end up hurting their tournament chances but they picked up another win over Oklahoma on day one. Oklahoma State is 7-10 against the RPI top-50 with a 5-12 record in Q1 games. If the RPI numbers were better and they had a 9-9 conference record, the Pokes might be a lock. Instead, they’re sitting in the next four out on Bracket Matrix.

Baylor (18-14, 8-10 Big 12)

(RPI: 64 | SOS: 14 | NCSOS: 115 )

The Bears are 4-12 in Q1 games, 6-11 against the RPI top-50 and lost its first and only game of the Big 12 tournament to West Virginia, 78-65. Baylor is under Bracket Matrix’s cut line and after losing four of their last five, that’ll be a painful thing to hear confirmed on Selection Sunday.

Big East

Locks: Villanova, Xavier, Butler, Creighton, Seton Hall, Providence


Marquette (19-13, 9-9 Big East) 

( RPI: 56 | SOS: 30 | NCSOS: 149 )

The Golden Dwyane Wades (that’s what they’re called, get over it) were looking good and then closed 6-7 down the stretch. That’s not so good. What’s more, they got stomped by Villanova 94-70 in their second game of the Big East tournament. Marquette beat Depaul in their first game but that won’t do anything for its tournament chances. Losing to ‘Nova helped everyone but Marquette, they’re on the outside looking in.

Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan


Nebraska (22-10, 13-5 Big Ten) 

(RPI: 55 | SOS: 121 | NCSOS: 297 )

Which numbers do you want to look at? The number that says 304 of the 306 teams in a major conference to win 13 games got in? Or the numbers that say Nebraska has more in common with the two that didn’t than the 304 that did? The number that says 61 Big Ten teams to win 13 conference games got in? Or the big fat one in the Q1 wins column and the RPI top-50 wins column? Nebraska needed a win over Michigan in the conference tournament that it didn’t get. It has needed a really friendly bubble that hasn’t been friendly enough. It’s not looking good.


Lock: Arizona


USC (23-11, 12-6 Pac-12)

( RPI: 34 | SOS: 58 | NCSOS: 64 )

The Trojans are an 11-seed according to Bracket Matrix. They could have moved up with a win over Arizona in the Pac-12 championship, but the 75-61 loss shouldn't hurt them. Losing to Oregon State or Oregon in previous days would have done that, but the Trojans beat both soundly. USC has more than likely played its way into the field.

UCLA (21-11, 11-7 Pac-12)

( RPI: 36 | SOS: 54 | NCSOS: 76 )

Losing to Stanford in their first game of the conference tournament would have helped out some other teams a lot. But UCLA won; the Bruins did what they needed to do. They didn’t need to beat Arizona and they still took the Cats to overtime. The Bruins are 3-7 in Q1 games and 4-4 against the RPI top-50. Saying they’re safe feels strange, but they appear that way. Bracket Matrix shows the Bruins on 106 of 106 brackets as an average 10-seed.

Arizona State (20-11, 8-10 Pac-12)

( RPI: 63 | SOS: 80 | NCSOS: 142)

The Sun Devils are going to miss the field with wins over two possible No. 1 seeds. How does that happen? Can we get Herm Edwards’ take? Arizona State lost five of its last six, including bowing out of the Pac-12 tournament in one game with a 97-85 loss to Colorado. The rest of the bubble says thank you.


Locks: Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Missouri


Mississippi State (22-11, 9-9 SEC)

( RPI: 71 | SOS: 103 | NCSOS: 284 )

The Bulldogs have 2 Q1 wins in 10 tries, they’re 4-8 against the RPI top-50 and dropped a game to Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals that would have gone a long way towards helping their resume. Bracket Matrix has them in the next four out.

Alabama (19-15, 8-10 SEC)

( RPI: 35 | SOS: 5 | NCSOS: 27 )

Yeah, the Tide probably shouldn't be on the bubble anymore. A loss to Kentucky in the SEC semis doesn't cancel out what happened in Alabama's first two tournament outings. You see what Collin Sexton did to Auburn? Side note: anybody else say “Alabama” in the Verne Lundquist voice every time? No? Just me? Moving on.


Locks: Cincinnati, Wichita State, Houston


Locks: Gonzaga, Rhode Island, Nevada, St. Bonaventure


St. Mary’s (28-5, 16-2 WCC) 

( RPI: 44 | SOS: 211 | NCSOS: 200 )

St. Mary’s losing in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament to BYU was bad news bears. The Gaels have a 2-1 record in games against the RPI top-50 but only one Q1 win in two tries. Bracket Matrix has St. Mary’s as an 11-seed and one of the last teams in but it's like a coin-flip at this point.

Middle Tennessee (24-7, 16-2 C-USA)

( RPI: 33 | SOS: 84 | NCSOS: 11 )

Same situation here. Middle Tennessee was upset by Southern Miss in the C-USA quarterfinals, 71-68. Is the Conference USA a two-bid league? No. Is it going to be? Probably not. Bracket Matrix has them in the next four out.

Automatic Qualifiers

Tickets Punched: Davidson (A10), UMBC (America East), Cincinnati (American) Virginia (ACC), Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun), Kansas (Big 12), Villanova (Big East), Montana (Big Sky), Radford (Big South), Michigan (Big Ten), Cal State Fullerton (Big West), College of Charleston (Colonial), Marshall (C-USA), Wright State (Horizon League), Penn (Ivy League), Iona (MAAC), North Carolina Central (MEAC), Loyola Chicago (Missouri Valley), San Diego State (MW), LIU Brooklyn (Northeast), Murray State (Ohio Valley), Arizona (Pac-12), Bucknell (Patriot League), Kentucky (SEC), UNC Greensboro (Southern), Texas Southern (SWAC), South Dakota State (Summit League), Georgia State (Sun Belt), Gonzaga (WCC)

Mid-Major Upsets:

There were some results from the mid-majors that hurt the bubble during Champ Week. 

Nevada, the top seed in the Mountain West, lost to San Diego State, the eventual tournament champ, on Friday. The Wolfpack are still a lock to make the field of 68, which means the upset just cost someone else on the bubble a bid.

The same goes for St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies assumed (rightfully so) they would be dancing and decided to hold out forward Courtney Stockard (12 ppg, team-high 49 percent shooting) for precautionary reasons. Then they lost to Davidson 82-70, who turned around and beat Rhode Island in the final to win the autobid. Both Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure still have strong cases for at-large bids, both sit in the RPI top-25, with Rhode Island at No. 14 and St. Bonaventure at No. 21. A three-bid Atlantic-10 conference would be a worst-case scenario for any bubble team, Nebraska included.

There were several other upsets too — Louisiana, the top seed in the Sun Belt, lost in the conference semifinals and Hampton, the MEAC's top seed, lost in the conference final to North Carolina Central — but neither figure to affect the bubble. Neither team has a strong enough case to turn their league in a multiple-bid league.

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