Bubble Watch: Syracuse can't quit life on the edge of the cut line

Once again, Syracuse finds itself in a familiar, if uncomfortable, position on the bubble.

Last season, the Orange just missed out on the 2017 NCAA tournament, despite going 10-8 in the ACC.

Conversely, in 2016, Syracuse barely scraped by with a 9-9 record in conference play. That was good enough to net a No. 10 seed, which, you might remember, the Orange parlayed into a trip to the Final Four.

The 2017-18 season therefore marks a rather incredible fourth consecutive time that Orange fans are being kept on pins and needles. At the moment, Syracuse is 7-9 in ACC play (is this sounding familiar?) and is being projected as one of the first four teams out by Joe Lunardi.

Why does this keep happening?

The simple answer is that Syracuse has been pretty consistent the past four seasons, hovering right around .500 year in and year out in the prestigious ACC. In fact, over that span, the Orange's record in conference play stands at 35-35.

Winning about as many games as you lose in a multibid conference is usually a pretty good indicator of bubble suspense. And, well, it's happening again with Syracuse this season.

The Orange will finish the regular season with games at Boston College and at home against Clemson. Losing both games would leave them at 7-11 in the ACC and, seemingly, out of the running for a bid.

Then again, that's not this program's style. A better showing to close the regular season -- prolonging the guessing throughout the ACC tournament -- seems much more in character.

By now, any reputable bubble watcher has surely learned that no team in Division I attracts bubble drama year after year quite like the Orange. On that metric, at least, Syracuse ranks No. 1 in the nation.

(Included for each bubble team is its ranking in four metrics: RPI; ESPN's strength of schedule (SOS); Basketball Power Index (BPI), which is a predictor of a team's performance going forward; and strength of record (SOR), which is a measure of a team's accomplishment based on how difficult its win-loss record is to achieve.)

ACC | Big 12| Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others


ACC

Locks

Virginia (26-2, 15-1 ACC)
(BPI: 2 | SOS: 34 | SOR: 1 | RPI: 1)

Duke (24-6, 12-5 ACC)
(BPI: 4 | SOS: 14 | SOR: 7 | RPI: 4)

North Carolina (22-7, 11-5 ACC)
(BPI: 8 | SOS: 1 | SOR: 5 | RPI: 5)

Clemson (21-7, 10-6 ACC)
(BPI: 18 | SOS: 29 | SOR: 14 | RPI: 9)

Virginia Tech (21-9, 10-7 ACC)
(BPI: 27 | SOS: 44 | SOR: 22 | RPI: 57)

Should be in

Florida State (19-9, 8-8 ACC)
(BPI: 35 | SOS: 48 | SOR: 36 | RPI: 47)

Leonard Hamilton is hoping the committee doesn't dwell on the FSU-NC State game, because losing by 20 in Raleigh was not the Seminoles' best look. The good news for fans in Tallahassee is this team has the perfect chance to prove the game against the Wolfpack was an outlier.

A win at Clemson this week would give Florida State's profile a boost and could potentially lift the Noles higher than their current projected spot on the No. 7 or No. 8 line. It would also give FSU an excellent chance of finishing with an above-.500 record in ACC play.


Miami (20-8, 9-7 ACC)
(BPI: 34 | SOS: 57 | SOR: 25 | RPI: 28)

Bubble Watch wishes to strongly emphasize the "should be in" section title with regard to the Hurricanes. It would take an absolutely perfect alignment of sinister events to keep this team out of the tournament. Still, as a projected No. 9 seed about to play a road game at North Carolina, Miami will want to seize the opportunity to improve its bracket position.

The Hurricanes' other remaining game is at home against Virginia Tech. Hosting the Hokies isn't a Quadrant 1 opportunity, but beating an NCAA tournament-level opponent in your season finale never hurts.


NC State (20-9, 10-6 ACC)
(BPI: 48 | SOS: 51 | SOR: 31 | RPI: 48)

Not many forecasters would have predicted the Wolfpack would be 10-6 in ACC play heading into the final week of the regular season. They've played themselves into the field with four straight wins, and something fairly significant would have to change for this team to be denied an at-large bid.

Remaining games at Georgia Tech and at home against Louisville likely won't change this picture much. No, an 0-2 finish wouldn't be optimal, but NC State's body of work (wins at home over Duke and Clemson and one on the road against North Carolina) speaks for itself. It has been a near-ideal first season for head coach Kevin Keatts.

Work to do

Louisville (19-10, 9-7 ACC)
(BPI: 32 | SOS: 52 | SOR: 39 | RPI: 37)

This is late February: Louisville played like its survival was on the line at Virginia Tech, and that was very likely the case. Starting with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the game, the Cardinals drained six straight 3-point attempts and turned a five-point deficit into a seven-point lead. The Cards won 75-68.

Louisville is very much alive, with a fresh Quadrant 1 win to its credit. Now David Padgett's team perhaps faces equal measures of promise and peril. Winning out against Virginia (at home) and NC State (in Raleigh) would not only put the Cards in the field but would do so with momentum and a better seed. Going 0-2 there, however, could return the team to sheer survival mode heading into the ACC tournament.


Syracuse (18-11, 7-9 ACC)
(BPI: 51 | SOS: 56 | SOR: 53 | RPI: 45)

One consequence of what's plainly a very good Syracuse defense is that, when the Orange turn around and play offense, the scoring comes primarily from just three players: Tyus Battle, Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett. Letting the opponent's five guys guard just three of yours is a tough way to go, and it showed at Duke, as Jim Boeheim's guys lost 60-44.

Yet, this very same good-D-not-much-offense Syracuse team is still on Lunardi's "first four out" list. Games at Boston College and at home against Clemson remain for a team that still hasn't beaten a ranked opponent and is 7-9 in the ACC.

Big 12

Locks

Kansas (23-6, 12-4 Big 12)
(BPI: 7 | SOS: 11 | SOR: 8 | RPI: 6)

Texas Tech (22-7, 10-6 Big 12)
(BPI: 12 | SOS: 27 | SOR: 17 | RPI: 30)

West Virginia (21-8, 10-6 Big 12)
(BPI: 9 | SOS: 31 | SOR: 17 | RPI: 30)

TCU (20-9, 8-8 Big 12)
(BPI: 19 | SOS: 17 | SOR: 21 | RPI: 19)

Should be in

Oklahoma (17-11, 7-9 Big 12)
(BPI: 41 | SOS: 2 | SOR: 29 | RPI: 31)

The bleeding has finally stopped in Norman. Oklahoma ended its six-game losing streak by beating Kansas State 86-77 at home. Bubble Watch has to think that was a much bigger deal for the Sooners than we'll ever know.

Oklahoma is still in the hunt for a No. 8 seed with games at Baylor and at home against Iowa State remaining. Missing the field entirely might still be theoretically possible -- an 0-2 finish would put the Sooners at 7-11 in the Big 12 -- but it's a far less likely scenario after the win over the Wildcats.


Kansas State (20-9, 9-7 Big 12)
(BPI: 50 | SOS: 46 | SOR: 30 | RPI: 60)

The Wildcats would likely have seven or even eight at-large teams taken after them in the bracket if the field was announce today. So yes, the loss at Oklahoma was a missed opportunity, but no, it doesn't detract from the fact that Bruce Weber's guys are in a good place.

Certainly, the Big 12 gives its members plenty of chances to improve their seed, and perhaps K-State can do just that with remaining games at TCU and at home against Baylor. A win in either contest would earn Kansas State an above-.500 finish in the nation's strongest conference.

Work to do

Baylor (17-12, 7-9 Big 12)
(BPI: 36 | SOS: 7 | SOR: 43 | RPI: 62)

Baylor is maintaining its membership on the "last four in" list after this weekend's loss at TCU. The Bears hosts Oklahoma this week before wrapping up the regular season at Kansas State.


Texas (17-12, 7-9 Big 12)
(BPI: 42 | SOS: 3 | SOR: 41 | RPI: 52)

The Longhorns were already walking a thin line between "in" and "out" of the bracket, and that was before Mohamed Bamba missed the 80-70 loss at Kansas with a left toe injury. Now Shaka Smart's team is 17-13, and the health of its one-and-done-track star is in doubt.

Texas finishes 2017-18 against West Virginia in Austin, a game that now takes on the aspect of a 40-minute season. A loss would drop the Horns to 7-11 in the Big 12, and giving at-large bids to teams that finish four games under .500 in-conference is a line the committee has chosen not to cross for the last 20 years.

Big East

Locks

Villanova (25-4, 12-4 Big East)
(BPI: 1 | SOS: 24 | SOR: 4 | RPI: 2)

Xavier (25-4, 13-3 Big East)
(BPI: 13 | SOS: 21 | SOR: 3 | RPI: 3)

Butler (19-10, 9-7 Big East)
(BPI: 24 | SOS: 18 | SOR: 32 | RPI: 35)

Creighton (20-9, 9-7 Big East)
(BPI: 21 | SOS: 36 | SOR: 22 | RPI: 32)

Seton Hall (20-9, 9-7 Big East)
(BPI: 30 | SOS: 35 | SOR: 24 | RPI: 21)

Should be in

Providence (18-11, 9-7 Big East)
(BPI: 72 | SOS: 30 | SOR: 46 | RPI: 41)

Providence has consistently maintained a four- to five-team cushion between itself and the cut line, which is likely about where it will find itself come Selection Sunday -- unless the Friars win at Xavier this week.

Beating a projected No. 1 seed on the road is the best profile-improvement measure imaginable for any team, and Providence should have a shot at pulling it off. The Musketeers have benefited from a huge free throw disparity in Big East play, but the Friars happen to be the league's next-best team in that same department.

Work to do

Marquette (17-12, 8-9 Big East)
(BPI: 47 | SOS: 10 | SOR: 47 | RPI: 67)

In theory, the Golden Eagles should be a Bubble Watch memory by this point. This is a team that lost at DePaul a few days ago and now sports a record of 16-12 and 7-9 in Big East play.

All true enough. Still, the season sweep over Seton Hall, plus the road wins at Creighton and Providence are still there on Marquette's profile. That's not good enough on its own for an at-large bid, goodness knows, but finishing with a win at home against the Creighton can at least continue the conversation.

Big Ten

Locks

Michigan State (28-3, 16-2 Big Ten)
(BPI: 5 | SOS: 59 | SOR: 2 | RPI: 14)

Purdue (26-5, 15-3 Big Ten)
(BPI: 3 | SOS: 43 | SOR: 6 | RPI: 10)

Ohio State (24-7, 15-3 Big Ten)
(BPI: 15 | SOS: 47 | SOR: 11 | RPI: 18)

Michigan (24-7, 13-5 Big Ten)
(BPI: 17 | SOS: 54 | SOR: 10 | RPI: 23)

Work to do

Nebraska (22-9, 13-5 Big Ten)
(BPI: 62 | SOS: 60 | SOR: 33 | RPI: 58)

One reason why the Cornhuskers and their gaudy 13-5 Big Ten record are not in stronger bubble position is that Nebraska has beaten just one opponent that will earn an at-large bid: Michigan. It's possible fate has given Nebraska something of a break in that department.

If the brackets hold their form at the Big Ten tournament, the Cornhuskers will play the Wolverines on Friday afternoon in one quarterfinal (assuming Michigan wins on Thursday). No other Quadrant 1 opportunity was possible for Nebraska from any other potential opponent playing on Wednesday or Thursday.

Your chance has arrived, Cornhuskers.

Pac-12

Locks

Arizona (22-7, 12-4 Pac-12)
(BPI: 22 | SOS: 65 | SOR: 28 | RPI: 17)

Should be in

Arizona State (19-9, 7-9 Pac-12)
(BPI: 44 | SOS: 69 | SOR: 56 | RPI: 39)

Bubble Watch doesn't make a habit of devoting much attention in late February to teams that won at Kansas and on a neutral-floor against Xavier. Discussion should be unnecessary by now. Then again, Arizona State is not making a habit of winning in late February. So here we are.

The Sun Devils have dropped three straight games, a skid that is very likely to come to an end when they face Cal in Tempe on Thursday. Assuming they beat the Bears, the season finale at home against Stanford will determine whether the Devils finish 9-9 in the Pac-12 or 8-10.

Work to do

USC (21-9, 12-5 Pac-12)
(BPI: 46 | SOS: 75 | SOR: 54 | RPI: 29)

The "altitude" road trip consisting of visits to Colorado and Utah is as tough as they come in the Pac-12. Nevertheless, the Trojans, at the most crucial point in their season, came away from Boulder and Salt Lake City with a 2-0 record.

Better still, the win over the Utes qualifies as a Quadrant 1 victory. USC wraps up the regular season with a bubble showdown at home against UCLA. The Trojans will enter that game in better shape than the Bruins in regard to profile, but handing the season sweep of the series to your crosstown rival would do no favors for said profile.


UCLA (19-10, 10-7 Pac-12)
(BPI: 61 | SOS: 67 | SOR: 63 | RPI: 53)

UCLA is still on the "first four out" list, but it could be worse. Before, during and after an 0-2 road trip to Utah and Colorado, the "body of work" approach to bracketing kept the Bruins right where they were -- outside the projected field by the slimmest of margins.

Would a win at USC in the season finale change that? Ideally, UCLA will want to win at the Galen Center and add at least one victory over a quality opponent in the Pac-12 tournament. It's the only shot the Bruins have short of the automatic bid (which, given the turmoil in Tucson with the Wildcats, might be more feasible than previously thought).


Utah (18-10, 10-7 Pac-12)
(BPI: 79 | SOS: 68 | SOR: 66 | RPI: 55)

On Thursday, the Utes looked like poetry in motion in beating UCLA at home. But a short turnaround for an early tip on Saturday afternoon made for a difficult outing against USC, as the Trojans came away from the Huntsman Center with a surprisingly easy 16-point win.

Now Utah has its hopes pinned on the Pac-12 tournament, looking for a Quadrant 1 opponent to bolster its résumé.


Washington (19-10, 9-7 Pac-12)
(BPI: 109 | SOS: 78 | SOR: 71 | RPI: 49)

The Huskies are on the "next four out" list, and time is growing short. Nor is Mike Hopkins' team likely to persuade the committee to extend a bid with anything that's yet to happen in the regular season (though winning out in home games against Oregon State and Oregon would of course help).

No, to get this bid, Washington will have to notch wins in the Pac-12 tournament against the most statistically impressive opponents at hand. The short list in question consists of Arizona, USC and, possibly, Arizona State.

SEC

Locks

Auburn (24-5, 12-4 SEC)
(BPI: 14 | SOS: 64 | SOR: 12 | RPI: 7)

Tennessee (21-7, 11-5 SEC)
(BPI: 16 | SOS: 6 | SOR: 9 | RPI: 12)

Kentucky (20-9, 9-7 SEC)
(BPI: 26 | SOS: 13 | SOR: 20 | RPI: 15)

Should be in

Arkansas (20-9, 9-7 SEC)
(BPI: 37 | SOS: 53 | SOR: 35 | RPI: 27)

Just one game removed from a 15-point loss to Kentucky, the Razorbacks recorded a crucial Quadrant 1 victory at Alabama. The win puts them in the running for a bracket line high enough to avoid a No. 1 seed in a potential round of 32 game.

Speaking of Quadrant 1, that's all Arkansas will see from this point forward. Auburn visits this week, and the Hogs close the regular season at Missouri.


Florida (18-11, 9-7 SEC)
(BPI: 31 | SOS: 16 | SOR: 40 | RPI: 50)

Winning at home against Auburn was a big and, perhaps, too easily overlooked marker for a Gators team that had lost five of its previous seven contests.

Florida closes the season on the road at Alabama and at home against Kentucky. The Gators are causing an unusual degree of disagreement across the various projected brackets, coming in as everything from a No. 6 seed to a No. 9. A 2-0 finish would mean two additional Quadrant 1 victories and an end to the bracketing confusion.


Texas A&M (18-11, 7-9 SEC)
(BPI: 38 | SOS: 8 | SOR: 37 | RPI: 26)

We'll never know how much the Aggies really needed their eight-point win at Vanderbilt on Saturday, but a loss would have dropped them to 6-10 in the SEC. Instead, A&M is heading into the home stretch holding its position as a projected No. 7 seed.

Depending on where Georgia and Alabama end up in terms of their RPI rankings, it's possible Texas A&M's remaining games against the Bulldogs (in Athens) and the Crimson Tide (in College Station) could both be Quadrant 1 opportunities. If that's the case, the Aggies could climb higher in the bracket with a couple of wins.


Alabama (17-12, 8-8 SEC)
(BPI: 49 | SOS: 33 | SOR: 58 | RPI: 44)

As difficult as Alabama's recent three-game stretch looked on paper -- at Kentucky, at Auburn and at home against Arkansas -- losing all three games has moved the Crimson Tide closer to the cut line than they would like.

The next order of business is to assure a finish at .500 or better in SEC play. Losing at home to Florida and on the road to Texas A&M to close out the season would leave Bama at 8-10 in the conference. Good enough for a bid? Perhaps, but it would be better not to test that theory.


Missouri (18-11, 8-8 SEC)
(BPI: 52 | SOS: 49 | SOR: 52 | RPI: 42)

Did the Tigers peak too early? They followed up on a surprising loss at home to Ole Miss with a 21-point drubbing at Kentucky. And a road game at Vanderbilt is possibly the worst-case scenario for a bubble team such as Missouri. A win will bring it no credit, but a loss would make things even more interesting heading into the season finale against Arkansas in Columbia.

Work to do

Mississippi State (21-8, 9-7 SEC)
(BPI: 58 | SOS: 71 | SOR: 44 | RPI: 61)

This "Mississippi State gets a bid" thing is looking way less wacky than it used to. No, the Bulldogs aren't there yet, but they've won three straight and are guaranteed to finish at least .500 in SEC play.

They finish with Tennessee in Starkville and LSU in Baton Rouge. The game against the Tigers could fall on either side of the line in terms of Quadrant 1 status, and Bubble Watch really hopes a bid for Mississippi State doesn't come down to simply where LSU ranks at the time of their matchup.


Georgia (16-12, 7-9 SEC)
(BPI: 82 | SOS: 22 | SOR: 59 | RPI: 70)

Yante Maten might be putting Georgia on his back. The senior recorded 27 points and 11 rebounds to go along with six blocks in the Bulldogs' 93-82 win at home over fellow long shot aspirant LSU.

Maten and his team will certainly get their chances to work their way closer to the bubble, as they close the season with a home game against Texas A&M and a visit to Tennessee. It's Quadrant 1 chances from here on out for the Dawgs.

American

Locks

Cincinnati (25-4, 14-2 AAC)
(BPI: 6 | SOS: 82 | SOR: 13 | RPI: 11)

Wichita State (23-5, 13-3 AAC)
(BPI: 11 | SOS: 70 | SOR: 18 | RPI: 13)

Houston (22-6, 12-4 AAC)
(BPI: 20 | SOS: 76 | SOR: 26 | RPI: 22)

Others

Locks

Gonzaga (27-4, 17-1 WCC)
(BPI: 10 | SOS: 103 | SOR: 15 | RPI: 33)

Rhode Island (23-4, 15-1 A-10)
(BPI: 25 | SOS: 92 | SOR: 19 | RPI: 8)

Nevada (25-5, 14-2 MWC)
(BPI: 28 | SOS: 114 | SOR: 34 | RPI: 16)

Should be in

Saint Mary's (27-4, 16-2 WCC)
(BPI: 23 | SOS: 247 | SOR: 42 | RPI: 43)

The Gaels have watched their projected seed steadily slide to the point where it's now in double-digit territory, which is not where they expected to be just two or three weeks ago.

Saint Mary's will face either Santa Clara or Pepperdine in the WCC tournament quarterfinals Saturday in Las Vegas. To put it bluntly, if the Gaels want to prove they're worthy of a better seed in the field of 68, they'll have to win the league's automatic bid by defeating Gonzaga in the final.


Middle Tennessee (23-5, 15-1 C-USA)
(BPI: 43 | SOS: 95 | SOR: 27 | RPI: 25)

No change for Middle Tennessee, which took care of business at home against UAB and will close out the season with intriguing home games against Western Kentucky (Conference USA's second-place team) and Marshall (the only C-USA opponent to beat the Blue Raiders this season).

Bubble Watch therefore sticks to its standard summation: Middle Tennessee could well get an at-large bid if it were to lose in the Conference USA tournament, but it would be wise not to test that hypothesis.

Work to do

St. Bonaventure (22-6, 12-4 A-10)
(BPI: 57 | SOS: 90 | SOR: 38 | RPI: 24)

The Bonnies should be on the right side of the cut line, but they face a dicey conclusion to the regular season, with games against Davidson at home and Saint Louis on the road.

It might be less tense if they were closing the season against the Atlantic 10's bottom tier instead of against two of the league's four strongest teams. Nevertheless, this is the hand the Bonnies have been dealt.


Boise State (22-6, 12-4 MWC)
(BPI: 53 | SOS: 119 | SOR: 49 | RPI: 46)

Bubble Watch has wondered aloud before how any sequence of events short of Boise State winning the Mountain West's automatic bid moves it from its place as one of Lunardi's first four out.

That answer would depend on what happens elsewhere on the bubble. A perfect storm of mishaps inflicted upon several other bubble prospects could elevate the Broncos. But it might be more statistically likely to go ahead and beat probable opponent Nevada in the MWC tournament title game.

Previous Bubble Watch editions: Feb. 6 | Feb. 9 | Feb. 12 | Feb. 16 | Feb. 20 | Feb. 23