Predicting Which ACC, Big 12 And SEC Bubble Teams Will Reach The 2021 NCAA Tournament
With just five weeks left before the start of conference tournaments for the ACC, Big 12 and SEC – the top three conferences by RPI this season – it’s time to take stock of the NCAA Tournament hopes for the bubble teams in each of those leagues.
All RPI figures are according to BoydsWorld.com.
What defines a bubble team in the ACC is tricky to evaluate. Not only does the conference have an RPI problem caused by a more insular schedule and a dearth of premium non-conference series, but it is playing 12 conference weekends and just 50 overall games. How close to the bubble is Florida State (18-14, 13-11, 66 RPI)? It should be safely in the field, but in another year that RPI would be the subject of much discussion.
For this exercise, we’ll focus on the teams in the bottom half of the ACC standings. This year, with a 36-game conference schedule, ACC teams with losing conference records probably can still at least be in the mix. Getting to 16 ACC wins ought to be enough, especially when considering the rest of the bubble.
Record: 17-16, 8-13
Remaining conference schedule: at Virginia, at Louisville, Virginia Tech, at Clemson.
Duke has been up and down throughout the season and has yet to win back-to-back series or produce a winning streak longer than three games. But it has done just enough to keep itself in striking distance of the NCAA Tournament. To reach regionals, the Blue Devils are going to have to find consistency that has thus far eluded them and they’re going to have to do so against a tough slate. Three of their last four series are on the road and two are against the ACC’s current division leaders. In Duke’s favor is that it has the best RPI of the ACC’s bubble teams. It also had a series cancelled due to Covid-19 protocols and so because it will only play 33 ACC games, reaching 16 conference wins probably won’t be necessary. Going .500 against its remaining conference slate and then adding another win in the ACC Tournament might be enough. If Duke does finish strong enough to reach regionals, it will have earned it.
Record: 18-16, 12-12
Remaining conference schedule: Miami, at Notre Dame, Louisville, at Georgia Tech.
Because it already has 12 ACC wins banked, UNC is in the best shape of any team examined here. Getting to 16 ACC wins doesn’t even require winning another series. But after being relatively safely in the field for weeks now, the Tar Heels are now just .500 and staring at a very difficult final four series. UNC does also own wins against East Carolina and South Carolina, which should help bolster its resume. Still, the Tar Heels need to avoid a slump down the stretch.
North Carolina State
Record: 16-13, 9-12
Remaining conference schedule: Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest, at Pittsburgh, Florida State.
After starting the season 4-9 and having its series against Duke cancelled due to Covid-19 protocols, NC State has righted the ship over the last month and is back in the postseason picture. The question now is whether the Wolfpack can stay there over a challenging final month of the season. There of NC State’s final four ACC opponents are ranked in the Top 25, though it does at least get Virginia Tech and Florida State at home. Trips to Wake and Pitt are tricky, but NC State is 8-2 on the road over the last month. One further complicating factor is that because it lost an ACC series to Covid, the Wolfpack will only play 33 ACC games. Would going 6-6 down the stretch to get to 15-18 in the ACC be enough or does it need a winning record to potentially keep pace in the win column with Clemson or Virginia? The guess here is that the Wolfpack will go to Charlotte for the ACC Tournament needing to bolster its resume.
Record: 17-18, 9-15
Remaining conference schedule: Duke, at Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, at Boston College.
Virginia has the best case of the teams in the bottom half of the ACC standings. It is just 9-15 in ACC action but has played better over the last few weeks and its finish to the season is manageable. The Cavaliers should be able to record at least seven wins in that stretch to get to 16 ACC wins going into the conference tournament. Virginia seems likely to flirt with a .500 overall record, however. A winning record is this year not a prerequisite for an at-large bid, but it’s hard to imagine the selection committee viewing a team with a losing record favorably.
The Big 12 hasn’t proved to be as deep as many expected it to be coming into the season, but its top-end quality can’t be denied. With three Big 12 teams likely to host and the conference ranking second in RPI, producing five regional teams seems reasonable. But will any team take the opportunity?
Record: 24-12, 5-7
Remaining conference schedule: at Texas Tech, Kansas State, at Oklahoma State, Oklahoma.
Just about everything the Bears have done to this point screams bubble. The biggest point in their favor to this point is that they are fifth in the Big 12 by virtue of a series win against West Virginia. If Baylor can hold that position against a good but not great closing schedule, it should be enough to see it through to regionals. Five more Big 12 wins means it would go to the conference tournament on the bubble. Six might be enough to save it some anxious moments leading up to Selection Monday regardless of what happens in Oklahoma City.
Record: 14-16, 5-7
Remaining conference schedule: at Kansas State, Texas Christian, Oklahoma, at Texas
Calling the Mountaineers a bubble team right now feels generous. They haven’t won a series this month and have just one winning non-conference weekend. But WVU is tied with Baylor for fifth in the Big 12 (though it would lose a tiebreaker, as it lost the head-to-head series) and its RPI can still be raised to an at-large range. The Mountaineers need to get ahead of Baylor in the Big 12 standings. That means they probably need to go at least 6-6 and possibly 7-5 in their final 12 conference games. A non-conference series win against Miami (Ohio) is probably a must as well.
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The SEC has reached the halfway point of its conference season and it’s time to get real about some of its teams’ postseason chances. Typically, 15 SEC wins puts a team safely in the field and 13 or 14 at least put a team in the conversation. That’ll probably be the case again this year as the conference is playing a normal schedule. While Georgia is also a bubbly 7-8 in SEC play, it ranks 22 in RPI and has a series win at Vanderbilt. With series against Missouri and Auburn on tap over the next two weeks, the Bulldogs should be able to pull themselves off the bubble.
Record: 23-13, 7-8
Remaining conference schedule: at Kentucky, Missouri, at Vanderbilt, at Louisiana State, Mississippi State
The Crimson Tide haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2014 but are tracking that way in coach Brad Bohannon’s fourth season. The remaining schedule is not easy, but Alabama should be able to pick up at least seven wins against it. This weekend at Kentucky is important for both teams and a series win for Alabama would ease the pressure considerably over the final four weeks.
Record: 22-12, 7-8
Remaining conference schedule: Alabama, at Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, at Vanderbilt.
Kentucky has been bubble-out in recent updates but is in seemingly fine shape at 7-8. Typically, 13-14 SEC wins at least puts a team on the bubble and the Wildcats are on pace for that. But they are 5-1 against Auburn and Missouri, the teams in last place in each of the conference’s divisions, and 2-7 against everyone else, including a home series loss to LSU. Even by SEC standards, Kentucky is facing a challenging second half and it will need at least six wins and a win in the first round of the SEC Tournament to feel good about its chances. It’s doable, but there isn’t much margin for error.
Record: 22-14, 4-11
Remaining conference schedule: Mississippi, Arkansas, at Auburn, Alabama, at Texas A&M.
For the last couple weeks, LSU has been listed as one of the last teams in the field, despite a difficult start to conference play. Well, it now stands 4-11 in the SEC. Getting 10+ SEC wins over the next five weeks against its slate will be very challenging. The most likely path for LSU to reach the NCAA Tournament would be winning series against Auburn, Alabama and A&M – three teams not currently ranked in the Top 25 – and going 2-4 against Ole Miss and Arkansas. That would give the Tigers 12-14 SEC wins. Add in a win or two in the SEC Tournament and – when combined with LSU’s still strong RPI – it’s probably enough. But it’s a narrow path to walk.
Record: 22-17, 4-11
Remaining conference schedule: Tennessee, at Mississippi State, Mississippi, at Auburn, Louisiana State.
The Aggies are off the bubble as things stand. But this is the SEC West and that means a path still exists. A&M probably needs at least 8-9 wins from its final five SEC series. Then (assuming it doesn’t win 11+ SEC games over the next five weeks) it would need to win its SEC Tournament opener. The good news for the Aggies is they still have to play Auburn and LSU, the other teams in bottom half of the SEC West and of the three top-15 teams still on its schedule, two of them are at home. No matter what, it’s a tough path to climb, particularly for a team that has found little consistency in conference play.