NCAAB

March Madness Bubble Watch: Which Teams Are In? Who’s Got Work to Do?

A look at who's likely to get into the NCAA tournament when it comes to the bigger conferences in college basketball.

February 26, 2024

We’re nearing the end of the college basketball regular season, putting us firmly into bubble watch territory for March Madness. We’ll take a look at the state of most of the major conferences in terms of teams that should definitely be getting into the NCAA tournament, as well as teams that have more work to do.

ACC

Definitely In: Duke, UNC, Clemson
Should be In: Wake Forest, Virginia
Need a Good Run: Virginia Tech, Pitt

Duke and UNC are the class of the conference and are more concerned about seeding than sweating out a berth to the big dance. Though the standings are quite close, UNC should be the top representative for the conference, as they rank tied for third in the country with seven Quad 1 wins. (A Quad 1 win is a home win against a 1-30th ranked team, road win against a 1-75th ranked team, or a neutral court win against 1-50th ranked team.)

They’ve also done a better job of dominating lower-level competition than Duke and have a head-to-head win (with another matchup to come). Clemson is the only other team with a winning record against Quad 1 opponents, and their 19-8 overall record is good enough for a five or six seed.

Virginia and Wake Forest are trending in opposite directions, as the Cavaliers have lost three of their last four games. The Demon Deacons upset Duke on Saturday, but that accounted for their first Quad 1 win of the year. Virginia should be in the tournament more comfortably than Wake Forest, but both should ultimately see their names in the bracket barring a meltdown.

Pitt has won six of its last seven games and is above .500 in conference play. If they win out and have a strong tournament, perhaps that’s enough to get them in. The Hokies need to win the conference tournament to get in.

Big 12

Definitely In: Houston, Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor, BYU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma
Should Be In: TCU, Texas
Need a Good Run: Cincinnati

The Big 12 is among the deepest conferences in the country, and that’s evident from the lengthy list of teams that are all but locked into the tournament.

That brings us to TCU and Texas, with the Horned Frogs having a particularly strong case to be included in the field. They currently sit fourth in the Big 12 Conference standings, amongst the likes of Houston, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas – all of whom are currently ranked inside the Top 11 nationally at the moment. TCU is far less impressive against the top competition they’ve faced (3-7 against Quad 1), though they’ll certainly have the chance to prove themselves with upcoming matchups against Baylor (Monday) and at BYU (Saturday). A win in either matchup would likely lock them in.

Texas has a similar story. They have four wins against Quad 1 opponents, paired with just a 6-8 record in conference play. Interestingly, that’s also where they’ve had the marquee wins of their season against the likes of Baylor, Oklahoma and TCU. They close the regular season against Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Baylor. A win in two of those three contests likely means the Longhorns can be written on the bracket in pen rather than pencil.

Cincinnati has a 16-11 overall record and are just 5-9 in conference play. Their one signature win is at BYU early in the conference schedule, and they’ll need to add to their resume to make it into the dance. That could come in the form of a win at Houston or a couple wins in the conference tournament against quality opponents.

Big East

Definitely In: UConn, Marquette, Creighton
Should Be In: Villanova
Need a Good Run: St. John’s, Providence, Xavier, Seton Hall, Butler

The Big East could be very well represented come late March, or be in for a disappointing close to the season. The elites are all likely to be three seeds or better and will be favored for deep runs in the tournament. (UConn is currently the favorite to win it all, with +520 odds to take the title on Tipico). After that, questions abound, as reflected by the lengthy list of teams in our third category.

Look at any advanced metrics and Villanova is a fringe top 25 team. However, their on-court tournament resume is less compelling. They’ve dropped seven straight games to Quad 1 teams and only one of their three wins in that category have come on the road. They also have a mediocre 8-8 record in conference play.

That could change quickly with a strong close to the regular season, and they have matchups against fellow bubble teams in Providence and Seton Hall while closing on the road against Creighton. At least one win against Providence and Seton Hall is likely a must – both are on the road –and toppling the Blue Jays would likely clinch things.

Of the remaining teams, Seton Hall is in the best position with Providence just slightly behind. The Pirates have made a statement with their in-conference play by going 11-5 with big wins over UConn, Marquette, and Providence. They have a tough road prior to the conference tournament, including a rematch against UConn and showdowns with Villanova and Creighton. A win over Villanova and a win or two in the conference tournament should be enough for them to go dancing.

Both the volume of teams involved and the fact that many of the bubble teams face each other make this one of the most interesting conferences to watch down the stretch.

Big Ten

Definitely In: Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin
Should Be In: Michigan St., Nebraska, Northwestern
Need a Good Run: Iowa, Ohio State

Purdue and Illinois are the class of the conference, and confidence in the rest of the teams has arguably changed in the last few weeks. Wisconsin was on a roll through January, but since then have gone just 2-5 with bad losses to Rutgers and Michigan. Even so, with a 10-6 record in the conference and six wins over top-tier opponents, they should at least be safe to find their name involved in the tournament.

Michigan State appears as safely “in” on most bracketology reports, but like Wisconsin, they’ve stumbled in recent weeks. The Spartans have dropped decisions to Minnesota, Ohio State, and Iowa in their last six games, and are now just 9-8 in the conference. With only a 3-7 record against Quad 1 opponents, their resume isn’t particularly strong. That said, if they can right the ship down the stretch with wins over Northwestern and Indiana, they should be fine.

Speaking of Northwestern, they’re my favorite of the “Should Be In” group. They’re 9-7 against Quad 1 and 2 opponents, while Nebraska has a 7-8 record in the same situation. Both have 10 wins in the conference, which pads their resume.

Iowa and Ohio State would both need to make deep runs into the conference tournament to make the dance.

Mountain West

Definitely In: San Diego St., New Mexico St., Colorado St., Utah St.
Should Be In: Boise St.
Need a Good Run: Nevada

It was interesting compiling this list, as the Mountain West is considered a mid-major by the general public. Yet, they have four teams that should be comfortably in the dance, equivalent to all the biggest conferences in the country with the exception of the Big 12.

To be clear, it lacks both the top-end teams and depth of the best conferences in the county. Given that, there’s not a ton to talk about in terms of the bubble. Boise State currently sits tied with Utah State for first place in the conference and simply needs to keep the ship steady to stay in the picture. They close the regular season with a trip to San Diego State and a win in that game – potentially clinching a share of the regular-season conference championship – would likely cement their status.

Nevada has momentum after winning seven of their last nine games and also boasts five Quad 1 wins, tied for the lead among all teams in the conference. They probably need to do a bit more to pad their resume due to a slow middle stretch of the season (3-4 in January), but a win over either Colorado State or Boise State should do the trick.

Pac-12

Definitely In: Arizona, Washington St.
Should Be In: N/A
Need a Good Run: Colorado, Utah, Oregon

The Pac-12 is having a difficult season overall and could very well head into the tournament with only two teams in the mix. Arizona is elite, the rest of the conference is a mess.

Colorado has the next best chance of the trio that needs more work, but with just a 1-5 record against Quad 1 teams, its case is thin. A run to the conference tournament final could change their outlook, but they need to prove capable of beating quality opponents. A deep run in the conference tournament and playing well in any matchup against Arizona or Washington State should help mightily.

SEC

Definitely In: Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky
Should be In: Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi St.
Need a Good Run: Texas A&M, Ole Miss

The SEC is another conference with the chance to be one of the better represented in the county.  Florida took some time to get going early in the season and stumbled in winnable games against Ole Miss and Wake Forest. Since, they’ve found their groove and are 9-5 in conference play. That’s enough as things stand, but they still have matchups at South Carolina and against Alabama. Losing both and falling to 4-10 against Quad 1 opponents could raise some questions.

Mississippi State is in a similar situation as they’ve taken care of business against inferior opponents. They’ll close with Kentucky, Auburn, and South Carolina, and losing all three would dent their outlook considerably. South Carolina has arguably the best resume of this group and should be in barring a total collapse.

Texas A&M and Ole Miss are a test of quality wins against overall record. The Aggies have five wins against Quad 1 opponents but are just 15-12 overall. The Rebels are 19-8, but just 4-8 against Quad 1 and 2 opponents. Both arguably need to pad their resumes down the stretch, but it shouldn’t take a conference tournament championship for either.

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Dale Weber
Dale began working at RotoWire in 2017 writing MLB game wraps. He now covers primarily MLB, NFL and racing, but also has experience writing in a wide range of sports, including MMA, golf and soccer.
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