By: Chris Molicki
Life on the bubble isn’t easy. For the teams call the bubble its home, there’s a constant stress of wondering how each win improves their chances, as well as if each loss will crush them. There’s a serious danger being that close to the bubble for too long.
There’s teams like this in every major conference, and I’ll go over one in each of the Big 5 conferences, as well as the Big East and the American, focusing on their current status, what will happen moving forward, and if they’ll end the year on the right side of the bubble.
Pittsburgh Panthers: As of late, the Jamie Dixon Panthers have been the kings of solid but unspectacular. Their computer numbers are in good shape (RPI 41, SOS 45) but not eye-popping. Their offense is very efficient (23 in AdjO on KenPom), but also lacks some flair, as they play at a very slow tempo. The experienced trio of Michael Young, Jamel Artis, and James Robinson has led this team to wins over Syracuse and Notre Dame, and their only loss that could be considered bad is at Clemson.
Prediction: The Blah Panthers are in a comfortable spot now, and they should get in as long as they avoid a end-of-the-season road sweep to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. They have two more opportunities to strengthen their chances with home games against Louisville and Duke. I see the Panthers losing their next three to Syracuse, Louisville, and Duke, but winning the two easy ones at the end and getting an #11 seed. Just the norm in Pittsburgh.
Kansas St.: It’s hard out here in the Big 12. Kansas St. has been a “bottom-feeder” in this conference, but still actually has a shot at an at-large bid. An RPI of 60 needs some improvement, but a SOS of 26 is a benefit of being in the conference they’re in. The Wildcats play lockdown D (7 in AdjD on Kenpom) and are led by a senior in Justin Edwards. The good news is they have plenty of opportunities left to get them to the dance. The bad news is they’re on the outside looking in, and it won’t be easy to change that.
Prediction: The next three games are huge for the Wildcats, hosting Kansas and Texas before visiting Iowa St. Winning two of three may be enough to get a bid, and Kansas St. does play much better at home, but I think they’ll ultimately fall short of accomplishing that feat.
Butler: It’s been such a roller coaster year for the Bulldogs. After a nearly perfect non-conference schedule, Butler has struggled in Big East play and dealt with some personal tragedies along the way. Their computer numbers need work (RPI 56, SOS 93), and they have suffered losses to Creighton and Marquette, but this team can put the ball in the basket. 15th in AdjO on KenPom, this squad has a high-powered offense. Kelan Martin is having a stellar year, while Kellen Dunham is always a threat despite some inconsistency. Roosevelt Jones has been a huge factor on both ends of the floor. And let’s not forget Andrew Chrabascz, a versatile player that helps make this offense what it is. But the clock is ticking on Butler.
Prediction: Butler magic is alive and well. In one of the best feel-good stories of the year, the Bulldogs run the table in the rest of conference play, including knocking off #1 Villanova on the road, en route to an NCAA tournament bid.
Connecticut: Led by a stingy defense (7 in AdjD on KenPom), the Huskies have the potential to be much better than they’ve been in the middling American. Shonn Miller is the leading scorer on the team, but more talent is there, as evident by guys like Rodney Purvis, Sterling Gibbs, and Daniel Hamilton. What has really hurt UConn is the diminished play of Amida Brimah, who missed 11 games this year and hasn’t been the player he was last year. Connecticut’s claim to fame is their win at Texas, as well as a neutral court win over Michigan. But that’s about it. There are limited opportunities for teams to make some noise in the America, but there is SMU, however, and the Huskies get them twice before the season is over.
Prediction: This is a talented and well-coached team that should be able to split with SMU. That win will propel them forward enough to be able to absorb a loss or two. I see a split with SMU, wins over USF, Houston, and UCF, and a loss to Cincinnati, making the Huskies a #7 seed.
Wisconsin: In arguably the strangest season in Wisconsin history, Bo Ryan retired, the Badgers uncharacteristically struggled, and then all of the sudden, they’ve made themselves a legit player in the Big Ten. Some people have the Badgers as a lock, but let’s pump the brakes on that just yet. Having the fifth toughest schedule in the country is great, as well as wins over Michigan St., Maryland, and Indiana. But there are huge blemishes, such as defeats to Western Illinois, Georgetown, Milwaukee, Marquette, and Northwestern. Despite winning seven straight, this team is still squarely on the bubble. Nigel Hayes is really starting to break out, Bronson Koenig is taking care of the ball, and Ethan Happ is coming into his own, which are reasons to be optimistic about Wisconsin.
Prediction: This is a good basketball team, plain and simple, and I trust they do what it takes to get in. They should beat Illinois and Minnesota, win one or two out of three against Iowa, Michigan, and Purdue, and pull off a few wins in the Big Ten tournament. This could lead to the Badgers vaulting all the way to an #8 seed, and one that no #1 seed wants to see. Quite the improvement from how the season began.
Oregon St.: We’ve seen a lot of father-son combos in the NCAA, the latest being Oregon St.’s Tres Tinkle and his father, head coach Wayne Tinkle. They’re a big part of a Beaver team led by Gary Payton II, who stuffs the stat sheet like few others. The question is, will their resume hold up? The computer loves the Pac 12 (Oregon St. has an RPI of 32 and a SOS of 8), but it will be interesting to see how the committee judges them come selection Sunday. With almost the whole league up for an at-large bid, it’s difficult to tell how good the conference actually is. Losses to Stanford, UCLA, and Arizona St. plus wins over Oregon, Cal, USC, Utah, and Colorado make up the meat of Oregon St.’s resume. They’d make life a lot easier if they can move up in the Pac 12 in the season’s final month.
Prediction: Road tests against Oregon and USC loom large, and the Beavers need to win at least one, while avoiding losses to Washington, Washington St., and UCLA. I don’t trust Oregon St. to pull it together down the stretch, making them NIT bound.
Vanderbilt: A team with such high expectations coming into the season, Vanderbilt has made like a fish and floundered. After playing a very tough non-conference schedule and collecting zero notable wins, the Commodores promptly lost to bubblemate LSU and Arkansas. Just when it looked like things were turning around (wins over Florida and Texas A&M), Vanderbilt pulled the rug out from under us, losing to Ole Miss and then an absolute heartbreaker to Mississippi St. With an RPI at 67 and not enough big wins, the Commodores need to make the most of their end of season schedule.
Prediction: Home games against Georgia and Tennessee are must-wins. A loss in either of those will kill Vanderbilt’s chances. But they’ll also need to beat at least one of Florida, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, as well as win a few games in the SEC tournament. A season sweep of either the Gators or the Aggies seems unlikely, and Kentucky is playing some great basketball right now. Draft prospects Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones will leave Vanderbilt without making the NCAA tournament.