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The tangled string of Christmas lights that is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament season is slowly beginning to unravel, and it’s not especially festive. This season, the Big Dance is one step forward and two steps back. Just when a team seizes the inside track, it scores 32 points in its next game and falls right back to the pack.
Most of the March Madness discourse is focused squarely on the bubble, which is constantly forming and re-forming like globules in a lava lamp. Because of this volatility, the bubble seems to be spread thinner than usual—more ripe for bursting, if you will. In a way, this season’s bubble encompasses tournament seeds that in more stable years would be considered safe ground.
Some of these teams are going to miss out. This may include teams projected for the tourney now but that could crash and burn, and this is a particularly strong risk this year for the aforementioned reasons. The warning lights are flashing particularly brightly for the teams listed below.
To reiterate, they are all either projected to make the tournament or compete for an at-large bid. We’re not debating the Georgetowns of the world here. You can’t crash and burn from ground level.
Each team’s NET rating appears next to the team name. Strength of remaining schedule and Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 wins are also big parts of the equation.
Got it? Good. Let’s get it on.
Bracketology projections are courtesy of Bleacher Report’s Kerry Miller. All statistics are current as of 12 p.m. ET Thursday.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Record: 17-11, 7-8 in Big 12
Projected tournament seed: 11
Quadrant 1 key wins: West Virginia, Texas Tech, Minnesota
Quadrant 2 key wins: Mississippi State, Oregon State
Q1: 4-9, Q2: 5-2, Q3: 5-0, Q4: 3-0
With Tuesday’s much-needed win over Texas Tech, Oklahoma shored up the sinking foundation of its tournament resume following what had been a 3-4 February.
As impressive as it was, though, this win does not heal all the Sooners’ wounds, nor does it erase a pretty subpar February. Simply put, they’re going to have to find ways to score the basketball. Per NCAA stats, Oklahoma averages 70.5 points per contest, tied for 195th in the country. Its top three scorers—Kristian Doolittle, Brady Manek and Austin Reaves—account for 63 percent of the team’s scoring per game.
The Sooners’ final three games offer some hope. First comes their rematch with a ravenous West Virginia squad still considered a tournament lock but positively hemorrhaging right now with a 1-5 record in its last six contests. Following that are two winnable-on-paper games at home against Texas and on the road at TCU. It’s not time to panic yet in Norman, but it is time to put the pedal to the metal.
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Kyusung Gong/Associated Press
Record: 19-9, 8-7 in Pac-12
Current projected seed: None
Quadrant 1 key wins: Oregon State, LSU, Stanford
Quadrant 2 key wins: UCLA, Washington
Q1: 3-7, Q2: 5-1, Q3: 6-1, Q4: 5-0
The Trojans aren’t just backing into the tournament. They’re backing into doors and priceless vases. They’ve lost two straight and five of seven. That’s not the direction you want to be headed this time of year.
USC closes out the regular season with Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. That’s a tall order, with Arizona sitting seventh in national NET rankings and the three sporting a combined average of 43.
The flip side, of course, is that it has three good chances at important wins. It’s just that USC isn’t exactly approaching this final stretch from a position of strength.
It’ll need to win at least two of those games to end the season with a winning conference record. A losing conference record doesn’t necessarily rule the Trojans out, especially in this mud sandwich of a season, but at a minimum, it wouldn’t enhance the optics.
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Holly Hart/Associated Press
Record: 18-9, 10-6 in Big Ten
Current projected seed: 8
Quadrant 1 key wins: Michigan (twice), Penn State
Quadrant 2 key wins: Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota
Q1: 5-7, Q2: 3-1, Q3: 1-1, Q4: 8-0
The Illini don’t win on style points.
That’s fine, as long as you’re getting wins. But that’s dried up recently too, and all you’re left with is ugly on ugly.
Illinois started February 16-5 and will end it 19-9. It’s not an out-and-out emergency, but it makes the team’s tournament foothold much more treacherous.
Cracks are starting to show. Sometimes, the Illini struggle to generate adequate firepower outside of star guard Ayo Dosunmu, who scored nearly a third of the team’s combined points in its two most recent wins. Playing without him earlier this month, Illinois managed just 57 points in a lopsided loss at Rutgers—well below its 72.5 season average.
They’ve been able to compensate for this shortcoming with defense, rebounding and dirty work. But what happens when the Illini’s opponent brings a sword to the rock fight?
After defeating dungeon-dweller Northwestern Thursday, their season ends with tournament-level teams in Indiana, Ohio State and Iowa. Those teams will surely be looking to wrap up Dosunmu while burnishing their own dance credentials.
Illinois will fall back on its strengths. Will it be enough absent a big scoring pop from Dosunmu? It’s not a question Illinois fans want to ponder.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Record: 18-11, 9-9 Big Ten
Projected tournament seed: 10
Quadrant 1 key wins: Seton Hall, Penn State, Wisconsin
Quadrant 2 key wins: Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota
Q1: 3-9, Q2: 4-1, Q3: 3-1, Q4: 7-0
In State College Wednesday night, the Scarlet Knights had a chance to win their season series with Penn State, but a furious late comeback came up just short, and the two will end the regular season with a split.
That first win still looks pretty good, though, as do their other big wins in both quadrants. But lurking behind the flashy names is a relatively shabby 3-9 Quadrant 1 record and cringeworthy losses to Pittsburgh and St. Bonaventure.
This evidence points to Rutgers’ inconsistency. The team has now lost three straight and is 2-6 in its last eight. Its final two games are against Maryland and Purdue. It’s not far-fetched to suspect the Knights will need at least one win and a solid conference tournament run to keep their foothold in the bracket, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how they’ll answer the bell from here on out.
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Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press
Record: 21-7, 11-4 in AAC
Projected tournament seed: 8
Quadrant 1 key wins: Wichita State (away game), South Carolina
Quadrant 2 key wins: Wichita State (home game), UConn, Washington
Q1: 2-4, Q2: 6-3, Q3: 8-0, Q4: 5-0
You have to feel for the Cougars. In their 4-3 February run, Houston’s losses all came by one or two points. The question is whether that signals a trend or just a patch of unbelievably bad luck.
Despite the program’s resurrection and success in recent years, the Cougars still suffer from a case of mid-majoritis. Their two best wins were both Wichita State, which sits well below the Cougars with a 46 NET rating. That makes for a thinner margin for error.
The Cougars’ remaining schedule includes Cincinnati, UConn and a shot at redemption when they welcome Memphis to Hofheinz Pavilion for the finale. Among those opponents, only a win over the Huskies in Storrs would be considered Quadrant 1—and even then by the skin of its teeth. All the games are winnable but aren’t locks, creating a low-upside, high-downside dynamic to the end of the Cougars’ regular season.
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Nati Harnik/Associated Press
Record: 19-9, 7-8 in Big East
Projected tournament seed: 7
Quadrant 1 key wins: Creighton, Villanova, Marquette
Quadrant 2 key wins: Florida, Xavier, Minnesota
Q1: 8-7, Q2: 5-2, Q3: 1-0, Q4: 5-0
Anyone putting money down on the Bulldogs right now must be concerned more with cleanliness than prosperity. Because they have run aground with no tugboats in sight.
They are probably the longest shot on this list to miss the tournament given what they’ve accomplished on the season, but no Bulldog should be resting on his laurels or dog bed or whatnot.
Butler is 2-5 in February and has dropped three straight, most recently a gross 81-59 loss at Creighton that was also its largest margin of defeat this season. Creighton guard Marcus Zegarowski—the team’s second-leading scorer—shredded the Bulldogs, hitting all seven of his three-point attempts. Think maybe you want to guard that guy?
The team’s KenPom.com offensive and defense rankings—27th and 56th, respectively—tell the tale. Butler has a hard time getting a stop when it needs one, particularly in big games, creating a death by 1,000 cuts. The Bulldogs defense has been very good at points during the 2019-20 campaign, but it’s falling apart at the wrong time. On the season, they’ve allowed a stingy 62.8 points per game—good for 25th nationally. On their current losing streak, they’re giving up an average of 76.
Oh, and leading scorer Kamar Baldwin aggravated an ankle injury during the Creighton game. They think he’ll be back for the next game, but it’s not the kind of issue you want to deal with this time of year.
The regular season closes out with DePaul, Saint John’s and Xavier. So there is still hope. Their 15 Quadrant 1 games (and their winning record in those games) will stand out regardless. But if they keep trending this way, a spectacular crash-and-burn is a distinct possibility.