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BSD Bubble Forecast: Tuesday

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One more big bubble rundown before major conference tourneys get underway

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Practice Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the final Tuesday edition of the BSD Bubble Forecast. Today, I’m going to step back and reset where the bracketology landscape stands. The upcoming analysis is effectively my rundown of the current conventional wisdom, presented in (hopefully) a logical, easy to follow format. The bottom of the article will still include yesterday’s recap and the traditional viewing guide for today, I’m just postponing the traditional Matrix charts as little has changed since yesterday. Today is also a good chance to take stock, as its sort of the calm before the storm as the next five days are jam-packed with conference tournament (and bubble) action. Enjoy.

First, I’m going to briefly go over the basic math, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

The NCAA Tournament includes 68 teams. There are 32 conferences, each of which crowns a champion with a conference tournament (yes, even the Ivy has switched to a tournament format). All 32 conference champions earn automatic berths to the NCAA Tournament. This leaves 36 at-large slots.

Before we tackle those 36 slots, we need to break down the conference landscape. Many conferences do not contend for any of the 36 slots. Other conferences are locks to consume plenty. Based on my read of the bubble, here is where the conferences stand, ranging from definite multi-bid leagues to definite one-bid leagues:

The outermost conferences are clear-cut, in each direction. To be on the safe side, I was extra cautious with the “Likely One-Bid” designation. I would bet against Vermont, Monmouth, Princeton, UT-Arlington, or Nevada earning an at-large slot, but I’m not ready to write them off quite yet. We’ll come back to this later. In the middle, CUSA is a toss-up because of MTSU, and the MVC is a toss-up because of Illinois State. Again, we’ll revisit these.

Now let’s go through the definite multi-bid conferences, and see how many at-large slots are accounted for with locks. For this exercise, I included all teams slotted as a 9-seed or better in the latest Matrix. All of these teams are currently unanimous selections among 107 brackets:

Let’s assume, for now, that each of those conferences crown a tournament champion from the above list. This table would then account for 26 at-large slots (35 teams - 9 auto-bids).

In other words, there are at most 10 at-large slots remaining for additional at-large teams from those nine multi-bid leagues (36 total slots - 26 accounted for above). That number could easily fall below 10. Let’s look at the possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: MTSU Needs and Earns an At-Large

As the title indicates, this is a two-part scenario. MTSU is the #1 seed and clear favorite in the CUSA Tournament, which begins tomorrow. They are currently in the Matrix as an 11 seed, suggesting that they would be a bubble team if they do not secure the auto bid. First things first: what are the chances they need an at-large bid? According to Kenpom, MTSU is 49.5% to win the CUSA title (meaning there is a 50.5% chance they are in the at-large bubble pool).

In this case, I would put their tournament odds at slightly better than even. Any loss in the CUSA Tournament would be a bad loss, but MTSU is in the field with a few spots to spare right now. Plus, I can already imagine the significant pushback to an MTSU Selection Sunday snub, given their overall record, success in the tournament last year, and the complete lack of other mid-major at-large contenders this year. So, all told, I’ll estimate MTSU’s odds of needing and earning an at-large slot at 30%.

Scenario 2: Illinois State Earns an At-Large

This scenario is quite straightforward. Wichita State clinched the Missouri Valley’s automatic bid with a convincing win over Illinois State, leaving the Redbirds’ fate hanging in the balance. ISU currently sits as the last team in the field in the Matrix. Personally, I believe they are more likely to drop than rise, but this is still certainly close to a coin flip. I’ll estimate their tournament odds at 40%.

Scenario 3: A “Surprise” Mid-Major Earns an At-Large

Here we have a bit of a catch-all. Remember that list of five mid-majors I wasn’t ready to rule out? (Repost, for your convenience: Vermont, Monmouth, Princeton, UT-Arlington, and Nevada). Any one of them (or another mid-major that I’m overlooking) earning an at-large would remove a slot from the power conference bubble pool. Currently, none seem to be seriously in contention for an at-large. But, its actually quite normal for the Matrix to whiff on the last team or two in the field, with the committee somewhat frequently surprising the prognosticators with mid-major inclusions.

In 2011, VCU earned an at-large, despite making the field in only 15/89 Matrix brackets. That wasn’t even the best example from that year — UAB made the field despite an 11/89 mark. In 2012, Iona earned an at-large, after appearing on 7/115 brackets in the Matrix. Last year, one bracket in the Matrix correctly included Tulsa.

Do I think any of that aforementioned group of five have a particularly strong at-large case? No. But the point is, we have to acknowledge that the committee may do something unexpected. Having said that, I put the chances of an off-the-radar mid-major at-large at 10%. It’s an unusually weak crop this year. Plus, four of those five top contenders may not even need an at-large.

Scenario 4: A Dark Horse Wins a Major Conference Tournament

Last but not least: what if something “crazy” happens in a major conference tournament? Every now and then, an off-the-radar major conference team “steals” a bid. It’s hard to picture in the ACC, since nearly the whole league is on the radar (and I’m not going to worry about Boston College running the table), but this is a real possibility in some other major leagues. Just UConn alone is probably about 5% to win the AAC Tournament, thanks in part to home court advantage. Richmond’s chances, needing only three wins, are probably even higher in the A10. Teams like Colorado and Tennessee are each likely in the 1-2% range. If you are skeptical of these odds, go check out the 2008 SEC Tournament. They don’t call it March Madness for nothing.

Kenpom hasn’t posted the odds for all of these tournaments so far, so I am not yet able to do the full calculation, but for this exercise, a ballpark estimate will be sufficient. As such, I will estimate that there is about a 20% chance a team from ‘off-the-board’ wins a multi-bid conference tournament.

Combine those four calculations and you can quickly see how it’s more likely than not that 1 of those 10 available at-large bids disappears. In other words, the bubble teams from those nine multi-bid conferences are likely fighting over 9 spots, not 10.

Now, here’s the bubble table for those nine conferences, erring on the side of over-inclusive, and with teams sorted within their league in order of current resume strength:

Again, to summarize: 25 teams, fighting for ~9 spots. All 25 have one more chance to impress the committee, as they all compete in conference tournaments this week. As you enjoy championship week, this table is an effective summary of which teams to pull against. Not only are these the teams Wake Forest needs to remain in front of to make the tournament, but this is also the group that Wake Forest will need to beat out to avoid a trip to Dayton for the First Four.

Big Picture for Wake Forest

Don’t let that math discourage you — I could argue that Wake has the best resume of those 25, and we’re undeniably in the top nine. Many of those 25 would need multiple conference tournament wins to really be in the conversation for passing Wake. That said, let’s just win today and make this easy, ok?

Monday Recap

Bubble teams who were supposed to win, and won:

UNC Wilmington (vs. College of Charleston) <— CAA Final
Gonzaga (vs. Santa Clara) <— WCC Semifinal
St. Mary’s (vs. BYU) <— WCC Semifinal

Bubble teams who were supposed to lose, and lost:

(None)

Bubble teams landing upset victories:

(None)

Bubble teams suffering upset losses:

(None)

The bubble picture became a bit clearer last night. First, UNC-Wilmington took their name out of the at-large pool for sure, capturing the CAA title. They project as a 12 seed in the Big Dance. Out west, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s took care of business, removing the possibility of a bid thief in that league (Scenario 4).

Elsewhere, congratulations to East Tennessee State for winning the Southern and Iona for winning the MAAC in a pair of thrilling games. The former projects as a 13 or 14 seed, while the latter projects as a 14 or 15 seed.

Tuesday Bubble Schedule

12:00 ESPN2: NC State vs. Clemson <— ACC Opening Round
2:00 ESPN2: Boston College vs. Wake Forest <— ACC Opening Round
7:00 ESPNU: Pittsburgh vs. Georgia Tech <— ACC Opening Round

All of the real bubble action today is concentrated in the ACC. Georgia Tech and Clemson both must win to keep any faint hope alive. The WCC Championship (9:00 ESPN) is the game of the day, but is not bubble relevant. Gonzaga is playing for a #1 seed potentially, while St. Mary’s is safely in the field as well, currently projected as a 6 seed (which is a potential Wake Forest matchup in the round of 64). Kenpom likes Gonzaga by four.

In addition to the West Coast final, we have three more mid-major championship games tonight. The Northeast tips off at 7:00 on ESPN2, with #215 Mount St. Mary’s favored by six over #253 St. Francis PA. The winner of this game will almost certainly be a 16 seed, and should be headed to Dayton.

Meanwhile, on ESPN, #262 Milwaukee faces #148 Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League final, where NKU is favored by six. They project as a 15 seed in the Matrix. Milwaukee lost nine consecutive games to end the regular season, earning the 10 seed in the (10 team!) Horizon League tournament with a 4-14 conference record. Three consecutive upsets later and they are playing for the league title and automatic berth. March.

The most entertaining championship of them all might be in Sioux Falls, SD, where #173 Nebraska-Omaha is a one point favorite over #182 South Dakota State, in which should be a high-scoring battle for the Summit league crown. The Matrix likes South Dakota State as a 15 seed.

Finally, two more conferences besides the ACC begin tournament action tonight. In the Big Sky, 2-seed Eastern Washington is a very slight favorite in a wide open field. North Dakota is currently included in the Matrix, as a 16 seed. In the SWAC, Texas Southern is a significant favorite, and is currently slotted as a 15 seed. Both are one-bid leagues, and are not bubble-relevant.

I hope you enjoyed today’s breakdown. Now let’s get a comfortable win this afternoon so we don’t have to sweat this bubble drama all week. Go Deacs!