Bubble Watch 2024: Brace yourself for NCAA tournament drama



Bubble Watch 2024: Brace yourself for NCAA tournament drama Can any of 2024’s bubble teams repeat what Utah State did in 2023 (and in 2021)? Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

March is here at last. At Bubble Watch, this means fans of "Work to do" teams have already started posing what we call The Question.

The scenario in The Question is always the same. What if my team runs the table the rest of the way but then loses in the conference tournament final? Would my team get a bid?

It's a good question in the sense that it describes the most interesting, or at least the most suspenseful, situation.

Consider a "Work to do" team such as 28-3 James Madison. If the Dukes improve their profile from this point forward as much as they possibly can, short of qualifying automatically, will that be enough to make the tournament?

As interesting as it is in theory, however, this scenario is more rare than we imagine. Running the table and then losing in the conference final doesn't happen all that often.

After all, a team strong enough to post multiple consecutive wins this time of year is unlikely to be on the bubble in the first place. That type of team will instead typically be found in the "Locks" category.

Just look at recent history. We'll define past bubble teams as either one of the last eight at-larges in the field or as one of the teams named by the NCAA as the first four out. Within this group of 36 teams over the past three years, we've seen just two successful executions of the "run the table and lose" at-large scenario.

Both times it was Utah State that pulled it off.

In 2021, the Aggies won six in a row and then lost in the Mountain West tournament title game to San Diego State. USU was named a No. 11 seed and paired with Texas Tech in the round of 64.

Last year, Utah State once again strung together seven straight victories before again falling to the Aztecs in the conference finals. This time, the Aggies were given a No. 10 seed and bracketed with Missouri.

Conversely, if your bubble team isn't Utah State, the "running the table" track record is nonexistent over the past three selections -- with one exception, when "winning out" all the way to the conference championship game didn't get the job done.

In 2022, Texas A&M defeated seven straight teams leading up to the SEC tournament title game. The Aggies then lost to Tennessee and at 23-12 didn't hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Instead, A&M was named by the NCAA as No. 3 on the "First four out" list.

The example of Texas A&M two years ago serves as a sobering reminder. Even if James Madison or another bubble team does reel off a win streak all the way to their conference title game, it still might not be enough. Nevertheless, every "Work to do" team without exception will do its best to run that table.

Here is our current projection of the bubble:


Keywords: NCAA tournament

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