Image credit: UConn RHP Enzo Stefanoni (Photo courtesy of UConn)
The bubble isn’t a fun place to be at this time of year. The tension in each game feels heightened as you can see in real time how every result affects the postseason pecking order.
Adding to the stress of being on the bubble is that your own team’s results aren’t happening in a vacuum, and a team’s place on the bubble is always relative to everyone else fighting for the same spots.
That means it’s the time of year for scoreboard watching, and never is that more true than conference tournament week, when upset results in tournaments all across the country can end in stolen bids.
A stolen bid is when a team that wasn’t going to be an at-large team wins an automatic bid from a conference that has at least one other team slated to be an at-large team.
Let’s use an example. Last season’s American Athletic Conference provided a textbook stolen bid. East Carolina was going to be in a regional no matter what happened in the conference tournament. So when South Florida, a team well outside of the at-large discussion, won the automatic bid, the AAC went from a one-bid league to a two-bid league, taking an available at-large spot away from the bubble.
The four best conferences can technically produce stolen bids, but it’s rare because a majority of the teams competing in the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC tournaments are already assured of spots in the field of 64, meaning there just aren’t that many teams competing that need the auto bid to get in.
This guide serves to highlight the leagues to watch where stolen bids are most likely to occur and which teams bubble teams should be rooting for in those leagues.
American – The AAC is in exactly the same place it was last season. East Carolina, which dominated the league with a 20-4 record and has an RPI inside the top 30, is going to be in a regional regardless. If any team other than ECU wins the automatic bid, and Central Florida and Houston in particular seem capable, this becomes a two-bid league and steals a bid from the bubble, just as it did in 2021.
ASUN – Fans of bubble teams should root for one of Liberty or Kennesaw State to win the auto bid. They tied for the best record in the ASUN during the regular season and both have RPIs right around 40, which would put either team on the bubble when it doesn’t win the auto bid. It’s also possible that either of these teams being eliminated from the ASUN tourney would push them out of at-large range in RPI, so there’s also the possibility of this being a one-bid league and effectively giving a bid back to the bubble.
Big East – With an RPI just outside the top 50 and a gaudy 43-13 overall record, Connecticut is the team for bubble teams to root for. The Huskies will be very much on the bubble themselves if they lose twice to get eliminated from the Big East Tournament, but UConn winning the auto bid would take it out of the question. The only other Big East team even in the neighborhood is Xavier, which has worked its way into the top 65 in RPI.
Big South – This is probably a one-bid league regardless, but Campbell, which went 20-3 in conference play during the regular season, is at least on the periphery of the discussion with an RPI of 60. To avoid having one more team to sweat out on Selection Monday, bubble teams should be rooting for the Camels.
Big Ten – The Big Ten is going to get at least two teams into regionals, but Maryland is the only lock in the conference, so that’s where rooting interests should lie. If it’s not Maryland, root for Rutgers, a team on the good side of the bubble, or Iowa, a team teetering on the bubble. Anyone else winning the Big Ten Tournament would be a stolen bid.
Colonial – Similar to the Big South, the CAA is probably a one-bid league in the end, but College of Charleston dominated during the regular season and has an RPI just north of 60, so pull for the Cougars just to be safe.
Conference USA – This is the most chaotic bubble situation among mid-major leagues. Southern Mississippi is a regional lock, and Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio are all very much on the bubble. C-USA probably ends up getting somewhere between two and four bids, and USM winning the auto bid can assure that number is on the lower end of the spectrum.
Missouri Valley – Dallas Baptist, as the only MVC team with an RPI inside the top 75, is the team to root for here. It’s safe with the top-15 RPI it has had basically all season. Any other team winning the tournament would make this a two-bid league overnight.
Southern – Wofford is the pick to get behind for bubble teams, as it has an RPI inside the top 40 and should be a lock for a regional. Mercer, with an RPI just north of 50, is also technically in the mix, but would probably be on the outside looking in for an at-large bid if the season ended today.
Sun Belt – The SBC looks to be, at minimum, a three-bid league, with Texas State, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina all looking like locks, but other teams in the tournament field, like Louisiana, South Alabama, Troy and Georgia State, are good enough to win the auto bid, which would steal a bid and make this a four-bid league.
West Coast – Gonzaga is the clear team to focus on here, with an RPI inside the top 30, although with an RPI of 55, San Diego is also in the mix. Those are the two teams to get behind, but if a team other than Gonzaga or USD wins the auto bid, perhaps the Toreros end up on the wrong side of the bubble after all.
WAC – This is one of the clearest ones of all, as Grand Canyon, with an RPI of 44, is the only team in the conference inside the top 100 of RPI. The Lopes wouldn’t be guaranteed an at-large spot if they fall short of the auto bid, but to avoid the bubble being even more crowded, that’s who bubble teams should hope wins it.