This article is part of our College Hoops Barometer series.
On the precipice of the NCAA Tournament, we'll take a look at the bubble teams. Who's in, who's on the fringe, and who's got some work left to do? Of course, all of this is subject to change as the conference tournaments begin in earnest. This article is being posted Wednesday evening, so there's plenty of basketball left to be played. Beware the dreaded bid stealers, though. Sam Merrill's late-game heroics versus San Diego State in the Mountain West Final this past Saturday catapulted Utah State off the bubble and into the tournament, thus shrinking the bubble by one spot.
As for the remainder of the bubble, we'll be using a variety of measurements, including conference record, overall record, and the good ol' eye test to hash out which teams are worthy, and which teams should be left out in the cold. As a refresher, we are in the second year of usage of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), which takes into account a variety of factors, including individual game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses. In addition, wins (and losses) are now separated into Quadrants, depending on the caliber of opponent as well as the location of wins. To simplify, Quadrant 1 wins are the most valuable and come against the strongest competition. Kansas and Baylor are currently tied with 11 Quadrant I wins. By contrast, Quadrant 4 losses are the worst result, coming against inferior squads. Most teams have wins and losses in at least three quadrants, so it is important to not just look at Quadrant 1 wins, though those are certainly most likely to help a school's cause.
While all these new-fangled statistics will be used, the same questions remain. What matters more, big wins or bad losses? Should a sub-.500 conference record automatically preclude your squad from inclusion in the NCAA Tournament? How about a .500-record overall? How important is how a team is playing at the time of Selection Sunday? What role should the non-conference schedule play? How should injuries be considered? We'll tackle these queries and more in the Bubble Edition of the College Hoops Barometer.
Rutgers – Rutgers should be in, but I want to talk about the Scarlet Knights for a second. Rutgers hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Yes, you read that correctly. Not that the Scarlet Knights were ever been a proverbial hotbed of NCAA success, but the fact that a program first from the Big East and then in the Big Ten could have such a drought is mind-boggling.
In terms of its resume, Rutgers has a NET rating in the top 35. Rutgers is over .500 in the toughest conference in college basketball. They have four Quadrant I wins, including wins over ranked opponents in the form of Maryland, Seton Hall and Penn State. The win over Wisconsin from earlier in the season is now looking much more impressive as well, and they also beat Illinois, as well as fellow Bubble team Indiana in the only meeting this season between the schools. The Scarlet Knights do have a Quadrant III loss, but otherwise no other horrific defeats. The OT win over Purdue might have just pushed the Scarlet Knights into the big dance for certain. With Seton Hall expected to be a force in the tourney as well, it's quite a time to be alive and a college basketball fan in the state of New Jersey.
Arizona State –Remember last year, when everyone piled on the lackluster Pac-12? 2020 is a different animal, as the conference has the chance to place as many as seven teams in the field. Arizona State's resume on paper appears to be a positive. The Sun Devils have five Quadrant I wins and four Quadrant II wins. Also importantly, they do not have any Quadrant III or Quadrant IV losses to drag them down. Their NET rating is now 52, though, after dropping three of its last four regular season contests. I still think they've done enough to gain entry, but another couple of wins certainly wouldn't hurt.
Cincinnati –The Bearcats are an interesting test case for this year's selection committee. It's been a topsy-turvy season to say the least. Their best player, Jarron Cumberland, has been injured on multiple occasions and also suspended. They have just two Quadrant I wins. Cincinnati also has four Quadrant III losses, though oddly the Bearcats never lost a Quadrant II matchup in eight tries. Their NET ranking of 51 shows they are not nearly as much of a lock as their 13-5 conference record would seem to indicate. I think they have enough to get in at 20-10 on the season (an early season win over Houston helps), but it's been much more of a struggle than anticipated.
UCLA – The NET rating is unkind to UCLA; if just that was considered, the Bruins likely wouldn't stand a chance. Fortunately, other factors are involved, and UCLA's outlook looks a tad rosier than that number would indicate. The Bruins finished second in the Pac-12 at 12-6, and in a conference currently projected to send seven teams to the tourney, that speaks volumes. UCLA has six Quadrant I wins, more than any other school on this list. However, it's not all sunshine and rainbows for the Bruins. UCLA is the rare bubble squad with both a Quadrant III as well as a Quadrant IV loss. That home loss to Cal-State Fullerton looks particularly revolting. Fortunately, though, that was much earlier in the season, as was the loss to Hofstra (the Pride could be a tourney team too). As a result, the good seems to outweigh the bad for the Bruins, who won seven of their final eight games of the regular season.
Xavier – Let's dive straight into the resume first, and one can immediately see why the Musketeers are on the bubble. Xavier is 19-12 on the season, but just 8-10 in the Big East. They have just three Quadrant I wins, but seven Quadrant II wins. They do not have any Quadrant III or Quadrant IV losses. Their NET ranking is 44. Xavier was looking much better a week ago before two-straight losses, albeit to tourney teams in the form of Providence and Butler. The marquee win for the Musketeers came on February 1 against Seton Hall, but otherwise the results have been rather mediocre for the Musketeers. Not too many lows, but not too many highs. With Utah State's automatic inclusion due to winning its conference tournament, it now appears the Musketeers have some work to do if they want to punch their own ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Indiana – The Big Ten could have 10 entries in the Big Dance (and possibly 11 if Purdue does something crazy in the Big Ten tourney). Beating Wisconsin would have been a huge boost for the Hoosiers, but alas, they lost a late lead and still appear to be firmly on the fringes. Helping the cause for the Hoosiers are several wins over big-time opponents, though. They beat ACC Champion Florida State earlier this season, and also beat then-ranked opponents in the form of Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa State and Penn State. That's four Quadrant I wins for Indiana, and five Quadrant II victories. A losing record in conference play (9-11) isn't terrific, but the Hoosiers can confidently say they played in the best conference in college basketball this season. Indiana has no truly bad losses to date (zero Quadrant III or IV defeats), but the Hoosiers still may need to do a little more to ensure their spot. A loss to Nebraska in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament is unlikely, but would be catastrophic.
Texas – The NET ratings of both Indiana and Texas have plunged recently, as the Longhorns suffered an ugly 22-point loss to non-tourney squad Oklahoma State. Texas was 9-9 in the conference but does have five Quadrant I wins to its credit. And despite the above-mentioned bad loss, they still do not have any Quadrant III or Quadrant IV losses. Their date with Texas Tech could be a "win-or-go-home" scenario for either school, though much more so for the Longhorns.
Stanford – The Cardinal once seemed like a virtual lock for the tourney, only to drop consecutive games to end the regular season and finish .500 in conference play. However, the NET ranking loves Stanford (31). Despite a poor conference record, the Cardinal was 11-2 in non-conference play, with losses only to Kansas and Butler. However, its biggest win during that non-conference stretch was Oklahoma. Stanford also has a Quadrant III loss despite its four Quadrant I triumphs. The biggest win of the season came versus Oregon, but other than a win over Colorado the remainder of the schedule has produced very pedestrian results. The Cardinal should not be resting on its laurels.
NC State – It feels like the Wolfpack are in this spot every year. Their resume is much like the rest of the Power 5 schools on this list, showing just how difficult it is to separate the most deserving schools when coming to this point. NC State was 19-12 during the regular season (same record as Texas, UCLA and Indiana). The Wolfpack went .500 in conference play (same as Stanford and Texas). They have four Quadrant I wins (same as Stanford and Indiana). On the downside, two Quadrant III losses hurt, as does the weakness of the ACC relative to other years. On the plus side, they have three big-time wins; a monstrous win over Duke, an early-season victory over Wisconsin (which looks better and better with each passing day), as well as a triumph over defending champion Virginia, albeit a slightly watered-down version. Will those wins be enough to catapult NC State into the tournament? Or will losses to three of the six worst teams in the ACC spell doom? NC State may be the fringiest of the fringy squads. However, another win over Duke, Thursday's opponent, would likely secure its entry in the field.
Richmond – The NET rating for Richmond is strong at 38, and the Spiders won nine of their last 10 games to finish off the regular season, including four-straight victories to finish off a 14-4 record in the Atlantic-10. They couldn't beat Dayton (only two teams could this season), but the lack of defining wins could hurt the Spiders. Though they did register three Quadrant I wins, only the defeat of Wisconsin (the Badgers helped everyone out earlier this season apparently) now looks impressive. A 15-point loss to Radford is not exactly helpful, but the Highlanders did finish tied for first with Winthrop in the Big South during the regular season. Nevertheless, Richmond's resume may lack that necessary juice. Of course, if the Spiders could somehow unseat Dayton, then all bets are off. It does not appear likely, though.
Wichita State – Let's analyze two possible tournament teams from the American Conference back-to-back. Wichita State is 23-8 on the season, with two Quadrant I wins, seven Quadrant II wins and zero Quadrant III or Quadrant IV losses. Its current NET rating is 41. The Shockers could get a boost by dismantling Tulsa by 22 points in the regular season finale, but in a bit of an odd twist, Tulsa finished 13-5 in the conference with a share of the regular season crown, yet has a lower NET than Wichita State and is not even considered as good of a tournament team at this time. Otherwise, the biggest wins came in the state of Oklahoma against the Sooners and the Cowboys, only one of which is a tournament-caliber team. In other words, Wichita State's sheet appears to be lacking in statement victories. Perhaps only beating Houston in the conference tournament could save the Shockers.
Memphis – It is safe to say this season has not gone as planned for Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. The Tigers went from bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in arguably the history of college basketball, to becoming embroiled in controversy, having their star player James Wiseman declared ineligible and ultimately leaving the school, and now look like they will not even make the NCAA Tournament. Part of the issue is that there are at least three, and possibly four worthier teams just in the American Conference. It appears unlikely both Memphis and Wichita State would both get into the big dance. The other issue is just two Quadrant I wins and three Quadrant III losses for the Tigers. Memphis split the season series with Wichita State, so that's essentially a wash. The resume of the 21-10 Tigers just does not seem to pass muster, even just against conference mate Wichita State, let alone the other bubble teams.