Welcome to Introduction On BubbleTology 101: How Schools Are Selected Into The NCAA Tournament, Generally Speaking

Good morning, or afternoon virtual class as the case may be.

I am Big Z, College Basketball Superfan since 1979 and today I would like to talk a bit about why we hear so often in late February into early March–and that is simply the term, “Bubble Watch.”

(Two ladies named Tiffany and Patricia draw this kind of bubble to illustrate their point, albeit not too effective):


Image courtesy of sputterpub.wordpress.com

No, it is not that kind of bubble.  But Patricia and Tiffany get some bonus points for trying.

But that’s not what I am referring to here.

(Ladies seem a bit dazed and confused.)

This course involves following the seeding and bracketing procedures on how a certain group of individuals based in Indianapolis, Indiana choose the best, or in some cases–most worthy schools on being included in that year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Rather than explain verbatim about the S-Curve and why it exists…I would like to center my discussion on why the brackets are as such (a template of a typical blank bracket shows up on the board):


I could think of three reasons why fans are so enamored with the brackets:

a) Fans can understand why schools are seeded the way they are (most of the time depending on geography and other factors).

b) To create a sense of fairness and that most schools would not have to travel too far to get to their games at the pre-determined venues.

c) It is also a great recruiting tool not only for coaches and media alike, but also for admissions people and website designers who can boldly state in their school colors that their team made the NCAA Tournament, Sweet Sixteen, Final Four, whatever have you.

You may notice one thing slightly different, this was the bracket used prior to 2011 when there was only one extra game that would fill the final blank line in your brackets.

In other words, the NCAA decided that CBS had basically too much of a good thing, IMHO–and that the cable channel that gives you Operation REPOOOOO and other reality shows called TruTV came up with–you guessed it, three extra games otherwise known as the First Round at the UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio.

In other words, there are 68 schools that qualify each March for the “Big Dance.”

Personally, I think having those extra four games is a bit much.  When you see bracket pools filled out (when people fill in brackets to win either prizes or sums of money, albeit the NCAA condones all forms of sports gambling), it is meant to be for fun and hopefully for “entertainment purposes only”, as all the so-called online gaming sites like to tout these days.

And people like Jerry Palm from CBSSports.com and Joe Lunardi from ESPN, one of their key jobs is to predict not only who makes the tournament, but where they will be seeded!

(Both Patricia and Tiffany’s eyes get really big staring at the brackets).

But perhaps the best and most effective way that the Selection Committee concludes on how these teams make the NCAA Tournament and Todd Wright used to explain this in 2008 on his former overnight ESPN Radio sports talk show.

The three things that he explained in the simplest of terms are:

1. Every bubble team needs to win two (2) games in their conference tournament (typically takes place no later than the first two weeks of March).

2. Each school needs to win at least 20 games overall during the season.

3. Each school needs to achieve at least a .500 record during conference play, typically when conference season shortly after Christmas and New Year’s.

Let us use some schools that are having shaky seasons as examples:

Oklahoma State.  Even after Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension last Saturday with a monster performance compiling 16 points, 10 assists and six steals in a decisive revenge victory over Texas Tech–they are a classic case.

Their current record entering Monday night is 17-10 overall, but 5-9 in Big 12 play (that includes their recent seven game losing streak during the entire Smart suspension for shoving a fan).

Two big red flags right there.  Let’s examine their RPI a bit:

In non-conference play, they are a hot 17.  Conference play, they are a meager 81.  Overall, the Cowboys are a 49–which in general is pretty respectable.

The biggest glaring weakness is that OSU is that they are 4-12 on the road.  Not good, especially since they are 3-9 playing against in the RPI Top 50.

Basically, they would have to win every game remaining on their schedule, starting tonight at TCU.

They would then play a pair of home games against Kansas and Kansas State on March 1 and 3 before going to Iowa State on March 8.  Then their conference tournament starts.

Bottom line, don’t expect Oklahoma State in the Dance unless they win every remaining game they play.

Let’s move onto a perennial team that is often called on each March since 1999, and that is Gonzaga.

Gonzaga sits at 23-6 overall, but 13-3 in their first season in the West Coast Conference.  They split their two meetings with BYU (11-5 in WCC play).  With the quality of play in the WCC taking a small hit this season due to all of the restructuring around the country, this looks like a one-bid conference.  Perennial contenders St. Mary’s is also in the mix, but they have to win their conference tournament–albeit they are 10-6 in the conference and a 20-9 overall.So, the jury is still out on that conference.  Gonzaga’s RPI is 26 overall, but 38 in conference play.

Another school that used to coast in the former Conference USA and now is struggling to stay afloat in the newly named American Athletic Conference is the Memphis Tigers.

Memphis is 21-6 overall, 10-4 in the conference.  So far, so good one must think.

(Everyone in the virtual class gets busy scribbling down numbers in their notepads).

Let’s look inside the numbers a bit:

The Tigers’ RPI is 36 overall and 25 in AAC play, both very good numbers in any typical year.

But since this year has been sooooooooooo topsy-turvy, each of their six losses is magnified a bit more:

Four of their six losses have been with teams ranked in the RPI Top 26 to 50, including three games on the road.  But just like Oklahoma State, Memphis will have to win some huge games to improve their chances:

Thursday at Houston, formerly a tough place to play but won’t help out in their RPI too much.

But their final three games are definite appetizers, they look too appealing to pass up:

March 1 hosting Lousiville, at Cincinnati on March 6, then two days later hosting surprising SMU of Dallas.

Other schools clearly on the bubble amongst other mid-major schools include Xavier and a surprising entrant in Nebraska.

If I have time later on, I will hope to explain a bit further about their current quandrys as we enter this very special time of year.

But for now, time to go grab a good tasting burger.


Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy watching or listening to the games.

(Just as the ladies in the virtual class pretend to jump out of their seats…)

And there might be a pop quiz later in the week if you are all watching Project Runway or Fashion Police–so please…study smart.  Have a great day.


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