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Bracketology Update: The State of the Bubble

Why Alabama is a win away from the NCAA Tournament

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Villanova vs Texas Tech Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Following Alabama’s huge road win against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Tuesday night, the Crimson Tide now find themselves at 17-11 (8-7 SEC) with three games left to play in the regular season. As the calendar flips to March, the annual and inevitable question among college basketball fans everywhere remains: are we in? And if we aren’t, what do we need to do to get there?

For Avery Johnson’s club, the answer might surprise the more pessimistic portion of the Tide Hoops fan base, because the Tide are really close to securing an at-large bid. Nothing can ever be certain when it comes to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and how they operate, especially since this is the first year they’ve subbed their new NET rankings in for the old, antiquated RPI metric, but Alabama is very likely only a win away from making a second straight appearance in the Big Dance. We’ve been as critical of Avery Johnson as anyone, but back-to-back tournament appearances would be the first time that has happened in Tuscaloosa since 2005-2006, which is certainly an accomplishment. Whether or not meeting the bar of just making the tournament is where Alabama fans want, or should expect, the program to be can be tabled for another day.

But for now, Alabama is probably a win away from dancing again in 2019. There are a variety of factors that make us comfortable in making this prediction, but the overwhelming reason why is because the bubble this year is amazingly weak.

Defining the Bubble

The NCAA Tournament ‘bubble’, for those not in the know, is essentially the group of college basketball teams that find themselves right on or near the cut-line between making the tournament or not. Ever since the NCAA decided to add an additional four at-large teams to the tournament field with the creation of the First Four play-in round in 2011, it’s become a bit of a meme for people to gripe about how weak the bubble is every year. Well, this year certainly hasn’t bucked that trend, and for good reason.

The bubble is really weak this year.

Let’s take a look at the teams considered to be ‘on the bubble’ on the first day of March:

  • UCF (21-6, 11-4 AAC; NET: 31; SOS; 90)
  • Temple (20-8, 10-5 AAC; NET: 57; SOS: 57)
  • Memphis (18-11, 10-6 AAC; NET: 53; SOS: 51)
  • Davidson (20-8, 11-4 A-10; NET: 76; SOS: 98)
  • Dayton (19-9, 11-4 A-10; NET: 67; SOS: 87)
  • Clemson (17-11, 7-8 ACC; NET: 41; SOS: 33)
  • NC State (20-8, 8-7 ACC; NET: 32; SOS: 147)
  • Texas (15-13, 7-8 Big 12; NET: 36; SOS: 4)
  • Oklahoma (17-11, 5-10 Big 12; NET: 42; SOS: 10)
  • TCU (18-10, 6-9 Big 12; NET: 43; SOS: 31)
  • Seton Hall (16-11, 7-8 Big East; NET: 65; SOS: 43)
  • Butler (15-13, 6-9 Big East; NET: 54; SOS: 21)
  • Georgetown (17-11, 7-8 Big East; NET: 71; SOS: 75)
  • Creighton (15-13, 6-9 Big East; NET: 56; SOS: 14)
  • Ohio State (18-10, 8-9 B1G; NET: 40; SOS: 48)
  • Minnesota (17-11, 7-10 B1G; NET: 60; SOS: 45)
  • Utah State (23-6, 13-3 Mountain West; NET: 34; SOS: 74)
  • Arizona State (19-8, 10-5 PAC-12; NET: 63; SOS: 62)
  • Florida (17-11, 9-6 SEC; NET: 30; SOS: 26)
  • Alabama (17-11, 8-7 SEC; NET: 48; SOS: 28)
  • Belmont (23-4, 14-2 OVC; NET: 51; SOS: 213)
  • Murray State (23-4, 14-2 OVC; NET: 55; SOS: 260)
  • Furman (22-6, 11-5 SOCON; NET: 47; SOS: 217)
  • UNC-Greensboro (24-5, 13-3 SOCON; NET: 61; SOS: 132)
  • Saint Mary’s (19-10, 10-4 WCC; NET: 39; SOS: 52)
  • San Francisco (21-7, 9-5 WCC; NET: 52; SOS: 137)

These 26 teams currently range anywhere from 9-seeds to mid-tier NIT teams. According to Bracket Matrix, who I’ve referenced on RBR many times, 14 of these teams are currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament field. Alabama finds itself as one of the few among the 26 who can say that they are a top 50 team in the NET, with a top 30 SOS, and (with one more win) a .500 or better conference record. That bodes very well for the Crimson Tide. Not included in this analysis is another of the selection committee’s preferred metrics, the quadrant system. Alabama finds itself near the top of this list in both Q1/Q2 games (the Tide also happen to be tops in the SEC in this metric) and wins.

In other words, Alabama is very likely to be one of the top 14 teams on this list.

Bid Thieves

Of course. I would be remiss if I ignored the inevitable truth that the bubble will likely shrink come Selection Sunday. Gonzaga, Buffalo, Wofford, and VCU are all teams that are currently projected to earn automatic bids that would otherwise also deserve at-large spots if any of them failed to win their conference tournaments. However, Buffalo is the only one that would be coming from a supposed one-bid league, as the WCC, SOCON, and A-10 all have teams currently on the bubble. Still, most of those teams would likely fall behind Alabama due to SOS (and name brand) alone. Either way, these four conferences could end up sending extra teams that would jump Alabama and take the Tide’s place in the field.

I think it would be conservative to assume that two of the four teams above fail to win their respective conference tournaments, which would shrink the number of bubble at-large bids from 14 to 12.

Where Alabama Fits

Currently, the aggregated field of internet bracketologists that make up Bracket Matrix has Alabama slated as a 12-seed, participating in the First Four in Dayton. However, Alabama appears on more brackets than any other projected play-in team, as well as Arizona State and Temple, who both are currently projected to be 11-seeds.

Further, if you refine the aggregate of brackets to only include a few of the top-ranked bracketologists*, the Crimson Tide’s place in the field seems more comfortable. Two-time Bracket Project champion (and my personal favorite) Bracketville, has Alabama as it’s top-ranked 11-seed. Bracketville famously (at least in the crummy corners of internet bracket talk) kept Alabama and Oklahoma in their bracket even after the two teams’ epic collapses to end the 2018 season last year, and was one of the only brackets to project that Alabama would not only get in the tournament, but do so comfortably on Selection Sunday. The Delphi Bracket, the only bracket that has outperformed Bracketville over the previous five years, has Alabama as an 11-seed as well.

*Bracket Matrix ranks bracketologists every year after Selection Sunday for accuracy and then creates a trailing five year look-back ranking, of which Joe Lunardi, the most overrated bracketologist of all-time, finds himself in 68th out of 127 entries

So, of the 26 teams referenced earlier, we can feel pretty confident in deducing that Alabama is somewhere around the 5-10 range right now. If 12 of those teams are going dancing, that means Alabama would likely be one of them if the season ended today.

But the season doesn’t end today, and honestly, that’s still probably a good thing for Avery Johnson’s group. There isn’t another team on the bubble that has the favorable schedule Alabama has the rest of the way. No, not favorable in the sense that the games will be easy, but favorable in that the games will be big boosts to the Tide’s resume.

A home date with a top-15 LSU squad this Saturday is basically no lose situation for Alabama. A win would be a massive boost to the resume that could be the difference in an entire seed line, whereas a loss is simply viewed as nothing more than a missed opportunity. The Tide isn’t falling out of the bracket because they lost to a projected 3-seed. Auburn is another Q1, tournament team that is considered much more of an opportunity than it is a potential land-mine. A win over Auburn beefs up the Tide’s resume slightly and likely moves them up a few spots; a loss really doesn’t change much for Alabama other than the fact that it’s another loss.

The road trip to a .500 overall Arkansas team seems like a potential ugly mark on the Tide’s ledger if the guys were to fall short in Fayetteville, but since the Razorbacks are actually in the top 75 in NET (72nd), a game at their place is also considered a Q1 game. And there’s a ~90% chance the team Alabama faces in their opening game of the SEC Tournament would be a Q1 (top-50 in NET) opponent on a neutral floor.

So, Alabama’s currently sitting on the correct side of the bubble with nothing but Q1 games left on the schedule. That’s a pretty good place to be in. A 1-3 finish would put the Tide at 18-14 overall, which is a lot of losses, but their SOS would almost certainly be up into the top 20 at that point, and if the Tide showed well in all four games, their NET ranking wouldn’t drop much, if at all. The selection committee gave an Alabama team with a very similar resume (19-15, 8-10 SEC; RPI: 36; SOS: 21) a 9-seed last season.

Let’s just assume the most realistic 1-3 finish happens, where the Tide split their upcoming homes games by beating Auburn, lose in Fayetteville, and then go one-and-done in Nashville. The loss to LSU doesn’t hurt Alabama at all, the win over Auburn and loss to Arkansas probably comes out as a push, and a neutral site loss to say, Florida or Mississippi State maybe costs them a spot or two. Nothing happens in a vacuum of course, but based on the way most of the bubble has been performing lately, we’d feel pretty confident in saying that Alabama still ends up on the right side of the bubble. Now, they’d almost certainly be playing in Dayton, but they’d be dancing.

A pair of wins makes all of this a moot point: Alabama’s going back to the NCAA Tournament at 19-14 or better. So, hopefully the Tide rip off a pair of huge home victories in their next two and ride that momentum into another special March. But, considering where Alabama currently stands on this weak bubble, and what lies ahead for the Tide, one more single victory will likely do the trick.

Hopefully, after what has become an annual drag in February, Avery Johnson’s got another fun March in store for the Tide.