Bubble Watch: Clemson revives NCAA tournament life, UCLA vaults into the projected field

Corrections/clarifications: An earlier version of this story included the wrong team beating Notre Dame and the wrong record for Memphis.

On the eve of March, NCAA tournament bubble teams squared off for another jam-packed slate of games on Saturday. Some teams on the right side of the bubble stained their résumés. Others on the outside looking in bolstered their credentials — or did the opposite. Here’s a look at how each fringe team fared and whether they’re in the projected field.

Profile boosts

Clemson (out): The Tigers (14-13, 77 NET score) stunned Florida State 70-69 to revive their NCAA tournament hopes after falling to the “life support” category of USA TODAY Sports’ bracketology in recent weeks. The ACC hasn’t been as dominant as it has been in years past, but there are still opportunities to enhance the profile, which is exactly what Clemson took advantage of on Saturday — picking up a much-needed Quadrant 1 victory. This team is still far off of being on the right side of the bubble, but winning marquee games is always a recipe for success heading into March. 

Clemson Tigers forward Tevin Mack (13) and guard John Newman (15) celebrate after the Tigers defeated the Florida State Seminoles 70-69.

North Carolina State (in): The Wolfpack (18-11, 57 NET score) defeated Pittsburgh 77-73 on their home floor for a Quadrant 3 win. Not exactly a huge profile boost, but it avoided another Quad 3 loss (N.C. State has three already), which this team really couldn’t afford. Coach Kevin Keatts’ team has five Quadrant 1 victories, including a marquee win against Duke. It entered the day as one of the “last four in” and will likely be safer. 

Providence (in): The Friars (17-12, 50 NET score) picked up yet another Quadrant 1 win, this time beating Villanova 58-54 on the road to make for eight Quad 1 victories on the profile — far more than any bubble team. It’s a huge draw for a peculiar résumé that also features a Quadrant 4 loss and poor non-conference slate. Still, that’s four big wins in a row for a team that vaulted to a projected No. 11 seed in the last week. 

Oklahoma (in): Entering the day as a projected No. 11 seed, the Sooners (18-11, 49- NET score) made a statement by easily handling West Virginia 73-62. That gives Oklahoma five Quad 1 victories, no bad losses and a top-25 strength of schedule — a solid-looking portfolio heading into March. It also has two consecutive wins against ranked opponents (Texas Tech being the other) this past week heading into March.

UCLA (in): The Bruins (19-11, 76 NET score) have officially played themselves into the field thanks to seven consecutive victories, the latest a 69-64 home win over Arizona. That outcome also catapulted UCLA to the front of the Pac-12 standings. Coach Mick Cronin’s group had a better February than any team in the country. The problem is what happened before that, as the committee will notice a bad NET score, Quadrant 4 loss (to Cal State Fullerton) and non-conference strength of schedule in the 200s. 

Tyger Campbell, David Singleton, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jalen Hill and Chris Smith of the UCLA Bruins listen as head coach Mick Cronin talks during a timeout.

Mississippi State (out): The Bulldogs (19-10, 54 NET score) fended off SEC bottom-feeder Missouri 67-63 on the road to inch closer to the 20-win column. MSU is in desperate need of Quadrant 1 wins on its résumé (it only has two) and Saturday wasn’t going to provide it, but winning is key on the closing stretch for all borderline teams. 

Memphis (out): The Tigers (20-9, 61 NET score) survived a résumé stain by escaping Tulane 74-67 in overtime on the road. Memphis closes out the AAC regular season hosting Wichita State and then playing at Houston. It might need to win both to have a shot entering the conference tournament. 

Richmond (out): Starting the day as one of the “first four out,” the Spiders (22-7, 51 NET score) inched closer to being one of the “last four in” by dispatching Massachusetts 95-71. What’s hurting this Atlantic 10 team’s cause right now is too many of its wins come in the Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 department. Just four wins have come in Quad 1 and 2. 

Northern Iowa (in): The Panthers (25-5, 43 NET score) hammered Drake 70-43 and even though it’s a victory against an inferior Missouri Valley opponent, it’s important for UNI — a projected No. 11 seed currently — not to suffer a bad loss. As good as the numbers are for this team, just one Quadrant 1 loss could stand out to the selection committee. 

USC (in): The Trojans (21-9, 45 NET score) are moving closer to the safer side of the bubble, beating former bubble team Arizona State 71-61 at home after previously defeating Arizona earlier in the week. USC is a projected No. 10 seed but hasn’t been able to win on the road or establish consistency in the wide-open Pac-12. 

Profile stains

Utah State (out): The Aggies (23-8, 37 NET score) couldn’t really afford to stumble in the Mountain West and that’s what happened in a 66-64 loss to New Mexico in the season finale. They have too many of their wins in the Quadrant 3 and 4 departments and only four came in Quad 1 or 2 games. Now there’s work to do for USU to receive an at-large bid. It could take getting to the MWC tournament final vs. San Diego State to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. 

Florida (in): The Gators (18-11, 32 NET score) started the day as a No. 10 seed and had drifted closer to the safety zone. But Saturday’s 63-58 road loss to fellow bubble team Tennessee might deter Florida’s trajectory. The SEC is loaded with bubble teams and Florida right now has the best tournament portfolio of all of them — sporting a top-10 non-conference strength of schedule and no bad losses. But winning at Tennessee would have given the Gators another Quad 1 victory to help secure their likelihood to go to the NCAAs. Now there’s more to prove. 

Florida Gators guard Noah Locke (10) and guard Scottie Lewis (23) and guard Tre Mann (1) and forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. (24) during the second half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Arkansas (out): Entering the day as one of the “first four out,” the Razorbacks (18-11, 41 NET score) lost a road game at Georgia to fall further back to the wrong side of the bubble. Before Saturday, Arkansas had won two in a row, but a five-game skid to start the month really buried this team’s postseason hopes. There are no bad losses here and a top-15 non-conference strength of schedule but without more wins (including Quad 1 victories), this team won’t be in March Madness. 

South Carolina (out): The Gamecocks (17-11, 63 NET score) fell to fellow SEC bubble team Alabama 90-86 and it very well could’ve been an elimination game of sorts — with both teams on the outside looking in before tip-off. Coach Frank Martin’s group faces another bubble team on Tuesday when it hosts Mississippi State. A Quadrant 4 loss to Stetson in non-conference action could be dooming for this profile. 

Syracuse (out): Already on the outside looking in, the Orange (16-12, 59 NET score) didn’t do themselves any favors by losing to a 12-17 North Carolina team at home, 92-79. There are not enough wins on this profile to see envision coach Jim Boeheim’s team making it to the NCAAs. Syracuse has a decent road victory against Virginia but other than that, the profile is pretty bare. 

Notre Dame (out): The Irish (18-11, 55 NET score) likewise couldn’t really afford a bad loss, which is what it got in a 84-73 decision against Wake Forest. That outcome likely ended any chance for an at-large bid, given that Mike Brey’s team has a non-conference strength of schedule of 295 and just one Quad 1 victory. 


NCAA tourney explainer:

  • Quadrant 1 wins: Home games vs. 1-30 NET teams; Neutral-site games vs. 1-50 NET; Away games vs. 1-75 NET
  • Quadrant 2 wins: Home games vs. 31-75 NET; Neutral-site games vs. 51-100 NET; Away games vs. 76-135 NET
  • Quadrant 3 wins, losses: Home games vs. 76-160 NET; Neutral-site games vs. 101-200 NET; Away games vs. 136-240 NET
  • Quadrant 4 wins, losses: Home games vs. 161-plus NET; Neutral-site games vs. 201-plus NET; Away games vs. 241-plus NET

Note:  Mostly all statistical data are used from USA TODAY Sports veteran bracketologist Shelby Mast. WarrenNolan.com and the NCAA’s NET rankings are also a reference point. 

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson

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