The Shape Of The Bubble

Submitted by Brian on March 9th, 2009 at 1:58 PM

The situation, as it stands: Michigan is 9-9 in the Big Ten and is looking like a likely NCAA tournament entry. They have impressive nonconference wins and a decent record against a top-ten schedule. They are seeded seventh in the Big Ten tourney and have drawn Iowa in the first round.

So what, exactly, are Michigan's chances? Let's go off Basketball Prospectus' expansive 45-member list of bubble participants and filter them into categories.

How Many Spots?

There are 31 autobids and 29 locks on the BP list, so the minimum number of spots on the bubble is five. There are 11 autobids in conferences with tourney locks: the maximum number is sixteen. Realistically, it will be going to hard for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, and Pac 10 to dump a bid on someone not already going to the tourney, so we're really between 10 and 16 spots.

We've got these conferences which could dump extra bids out:

  • WCC: St Mary's is in the final against Gonzaga tonight; if St Mary's wins that's two bids for sure for the WCC. If they lose no one knows what will happen with the Gaels.
  • A-10: if Xavier or Dayton doesn't win the tourney, an extra bid goes out.
  • MidCon: Butler is a lock, but only Butler.
  • CUSA: Memphis is a one seed and the rest of the conference is poo.
  • Mountain West: BYU and Utah are in; three conference members are kind of sort of on the bubble.
  • SEC: only LSU and Tennessee are assured and they're definitely capable of blowing it.

It's hard to see anyone in CUSA beating Memphis, but if you're not expecting some crazy stuff to go down in the SEC you're fooling yourself. You'll probably see two or three wack autobids, leaving our count at 13-ish.

The Bubble


Dayton, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Boston College, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Arizona State are locks in all but world-shaking disaster scenarios. Any scenario in which Michigan gets in ahead of one of these teams is one in which Michigan has become a stone-cold lock; we can disregard those scenarios, then. We're concerned with what happens if M goes 1-1 or 0-1 at the BTT.

We've just given away eight spots and are down to two to eight, but probably five.


Some of the teams below may squeeze their way into the tournament but it's hard to imagine a scenario that includes any of them as an at-large participant that does not also include Michigan. (Remember that this list came out Friday, so it's a bit outdated (Davidson) and it's also extremely, extremely generous (Northwestern, for one).)

  • Davidson: one nonconference win of note, an RPI of 68, the #173 schedule, and too many losses. They're done; they didn't even make their conference tourney final.
  • Kentucky: four-game losing streak to end season, RPI of 79, horrible conference: dead.
  • Auburn: checking in with the resident Auburn blog reveals no thought to an at-large bid.
  • Georgetown, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame: all Big East teams that have suffered spectacular flameouts to end the season. Bid scenarios all involve runs to the BE tourney final, which obviously can't happen for all of them.
  • Northwestern, Nebraska, USC, Mississippi State and Washington State: all major conference teams with extremely remote aspirations. (Seriously: Mississippi State?)
  • Niagara, VCU, George Mason, UAB, Western Kentucky, and Tulsa: all mid-major teams that are listed as a courtesy, or something, because even in the Bracket Matrix there are no at-large bids below the assumed autobids of VCU and WKU. At this point Michigan is already ahead of these teams and if they're going to be relevant in this conversation they have to lose in their conference tournaments, likely to a team in the same universe as Iowa. Adding a few more mid-major scalps to the wall isn't going to shoot them past Michigan. (UAB is 2-10 against the RPI top 100. There is no way they are getting an at large.)
  • Creighton: also a mid-major with a shaky resume and they have the added benefit of being done for the season, losing by 24 in their conference tournament; if they get in it won't be over Michigan.


  • Rhode Island's loss to 12-17 UMass is widely held to be the final nail in their at-large hopes.
  • Temple is 19-11 in the A-10, 1-5 against top 25 RPI teams and 0-0 against 26-50. Though their RPI is pretty good, they'll need a deep run in the A-10 tournament.
  • VT and Miami, meanwhile, are both 7-9 in conference and have RPIs in the 50s. They play each other in the first round of the ACC tournament; loser is done, and then winner is done unless there's a Christmas miracle against UNC.
  • Maryland suffered a crippling loss to Virginia in its final game of the regular season and now needs to beat #2 seed Wake Forest if they're going to get any at-large consideration.
  • Kansas State is the Penn State of the Big 12: two games above .500 in conference, garbage teams outside of it. The Big 12 is not as strong as the Big 10 this year, not by a longshot, and they're well back.
  • I'd have lumped Providence in the above category but for this weird fascination with them: #71 RPI, 18-12, #48 SOS, 2-5 top 25 and 0-3 next 25. They're 6-12 against the top 100. Somehow before the weekend this was a team listed on three more brackets than M was at the Bracket Matrix. They will have to take out DePaul or Cincinnati and then win against Louisville in the third round of the Big East tournament to get in ahead of M, I think.



Florida just slipped back into the top 50 in RPI, which sadly raises their record against same top 50 from 0-5 to 1-5. #48 RPI, #91 SOS… maybe they can slip by but there aren't many opportunities to make hay in the SEC.

Florida is the exact same team as South Carolina: #49 RPI, #91 SOS, 2-6 against the top 50. Realistically, both need two wins in the SEC tourney to get in. This being the SEC, though, they're not up against Wake Forest or UNC or Louisville in their quest to get there. Michigan is probably ahead of both of these teams unless they win two more conference tourney games than M.


You are a fan of both these teams, because they have very high RPIs and could threaten to snag an at-large if they don't win their conference tourneys. The general feeling is that both are autobid or bust, but even though it's been carefully explained to me that the committee doesn't actually look directly at RPI I'm a little leery of the #24 and #27 teams sitting out there as potential at-large selections.


St. Mary's is a weird case because their star point guard broke his hand and the Gaels proceeded to lose some games without him. He returned for the WCC semifinal against Portland. He didn't play well (3 of 12) but St. Mary's set up the showdown everyone expected. If Gonzaga wins and Patrick Mills looks healthy the committee will have an interesting decision to make. They have included teams in the past based on that expectation. They're a wildcard.

(You're rooting for the Zags tonight at nine, BTW, as they're in either way. I strongly suspect St Mary's will make it either way.)


Michigan has an equivalent RPI, an equivalent conference record, and a basically equivalent big nonconference win on a neutral floor (UCLA for M, Louisville for Minnesota). Michigan then tacks on the Duke win and a season sweep of the Gophers. If Minnesota does two games better than M in the Big Ten Tourney they get priority. One and it's interesting. Michigan has to lead now.


This was discussed last week in detail: at this juncture Penn State has no case for a bid over Michigan. They get a first round bye and probably need to win twice in the BTT to even get in the conversation again, and they probably have to make the final to get in over M.


Very close to Michigan minus a tiny bit of SOS or two: 19-12, #52 RPI, #29 SOS, 2-1 against the top 25 and 3-7 against the next 25. Big nonconference wins over Kansas and Gonzaga. Their resume is basically Michigan's resume.


I lump in this trio of Mountain West teams because realistically they'll have to cut each other's throats in the conference tourney to have a case. San Diego State, home of old friend Steve Fisher, is the best positioned right now. One of these teams could claw in over Michigan if M loses to Iowa.

We lose to Iowa… then what?

How good do you feel about those teams we're going up against? If there are two available bids, you are feeling terrible. If there are eight, you are feeling great. Arizona probably shoots past us, and then Minnesota if they do better in the Big Ten tourney and maybe one of the WAC teams and one of the SEC teams and maybe one of the "huge tourney run or bust" teams and then we're probably fifth in anything approximating the center of a Gaussian distribution. Which is also the center of the Gaussian distribution for "who is the last team in the tournament?" And the center of the Gaussian distribution for "who is the first team out of the tournament?"

Gack it up against Iowa and we are on pins and needles and just praying that the committee looks at Michigan's schedule and its big wins and gives us the That Year Georgia Got An At Large bid. It's basically 50-50. Who wants to go into Selection Sunday 50-50? No one whatsoever.

Beat Iowa and?

We'd have to suffer a huge number of autobid shenanigans and otherwise perfectly negative results to get the boot. Michigan can hold serve and be very confident; going 1-1 in the BTT is holding serve.

Rooting Guide For Tonight?

Two conference championship games come off at 9PM: St Mary's vs Gonzaga on ESPN and Niagara vs Siena on ESPN2. You're rooting for Gonzaga, somewhat halfheartedly as I think the Gaels will get in either way, and Siena, lots.



March 9th, 2009 at 4:19 PM ^

Not when the game's in Indianapolis. That's an absolute no-win situation for PSU: a 1-17 team in a de facto road game (but it's counted as neutral for RPI purposes). Even if they win, their RPI will likely drop from playing such a low-ranked opponent.

Yinka Double Dare

March 9th, 2009 at 2:43 PM ^

We're rooting hard for Butler tomorrow night as well. Cleveland State is very capable of winning that game -- Butler swept them, but won the game at Cleveland State on a buzzer beating 3 pointer to win by 2, and then won the rematch at Hinkle by 2.


March 9th, 2009 at 3:44 PM ^

Providence people love because of a winning Big East record. Its supposed to be, you know, the best, meanest league in the land.

But, if you look deeper, they played the easiest Big East slate. Give them Georgetown or Notre Dame's Big East slate and that 10-8 mark is reversed, or worse.

And, the Butler Bulldogs play in the Horizon League, not the mid-con, anymore......stop using media guides from the 1990s, will ya!

Agreed on the Gaels. They are in.

Siena, because of all the bubble carnage recently, may merit an at large if they dont win tonight. But it wont matter, Saints roll this evening on their home floor.


March 9th, 2009 at 4:04 PM ^

Some trivia:

I don't think Butler was actually ever in the Mid-Con. It looks like Butler was a founding member of the Midwestern City Conference which became the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and ultimately became the Horizon League. Several members of the present-day Horizon League did come over from the Mid-Con, though (Cleveland State, UIC, Wisc-GB, Wisc-Mil, and Wright State (also, Northern Illinois, but they didn't stick around)).


March 9th, 2009 at 8:28 PM ^

These are some nice observations. I agree with Providence. They have exactly 1 big win and that's easily erased by their home loss to Northeastern, a team we destroyed at home, by the way.

I'm starting to realize that the B10 probably won't get 8 teams. Your point about Siena is well taken. Say the same for St. Mary's, Creighton or any of the Mountain West teams. The point is that you can easily place some of these mid-majors into the tournament just to avoid the prospect of the B10 getting 8 teams, which as a percentage of the number of actual teams in the league, is quite high.

I just don't think the B10 is strong enough to warrant 8 teams. The top three teams are nothing special and there's a lot of mediocrity in the middle. Think about it. You match the top three in the B10 with Pitt/UConn/Louisville and UNC/Duke/Wake or even Oklahoma/Kansas/Missouri the B10 falls well short as far as quality at the top. Therefore, going just 9-9 in conference works against you because it means you didn't beat anyone in conference. That's why I think it will come down to who had more quality wins in the non-conference. If you can't size up the conference because there aren't any top line teams, the non-conference becomes the tiebreaker.

That's why Michigan is in the driver's seat now. Michigan simply has a better non-conference than either Minnesota or Penn State. Two of those three teams are probably in, but they can easily exclude two if all three teams lose in the first round, for example.

I think you'll have a lot of committee members just say, "Well, they lost to Iowa/NW/Indiana, they don't really deserve it, let's just give it to a mid-major."

To prevent that possibility, Michigan should just beat Iowa. Otherwise, I'm afraid we're probably going to be out (60/40).


March 9th, 2009 at 3:54 PM ^

I guess I'm excited to make the tourney and break the drought, but I don't really care one way or the other. Assuming we come in around an 11 seed, that puts us playing Wake Forest/Kansas/Villanova/Gonzaga-level of competition, and only goes up from there. It's a moral victory, but I'm happier with the Duke & UCLA wins than a tourney bid.

Why is the opinion that the Big Ten is good this year? Is it moreso that the Big 12, Pac 10 and Big East aren't as strong? After MSU, the Big 10 is basically a toss-up, with 3 games separating 8 teams. Put Purdue and Illinois into a second-tier and there's a 5-way tie among decent, but probably not good, teams.

I guess I see most of the conferences like this: two or three good teams, a bunch of average teams, a couple doormats. How do you say the Big Ten gets 8, but the Pac 10 gets 5?


March 9th, 2009 at 4:00 PM ^

Take a look at the schedules of the Pac Ten teams, and see how many quality OOC wins there are. Arizona had one or two, but nothing wild. Outside of that, every pac ten team lost to every decent OOC team they played. They should be lucky to get 5, and they will fare poorly at the dance, I predict.

I Blue Myself

March 9th, 2009 at 4:51 PM ^

The consensus is that Wake, Kansas, and Villanova are all in the 2-3 seed range. Mich wouldn't see a team that good until the second round. A first round opponent for an 11 seed is likely to be no better than Purdue, Illinois, or UCLA. Far from an automatic loss.

The Big Ten is especially good this year in one way -- it's very deep. It has, as you say, lots of very similar teams in the middle, most of which appear to be just good enough to make the tourney this year. At the top, the ACC and Big East are clearly better, but their midlevel teams aren't as good.

Why do people think the Big Ten will get 8 and the Pac 10 five? Compare the resumes of the middle of the pack teams in each league. The Big Ten teams have better results across the board. Not to say that the Big Ten is drastically better than the Pac 10, it's just that when you draw the line at 65 teams, small differences end up looking big.


March 9th, 2009 at 10:46 PM ^

I know I was picking 2/3 seeds. I'm not even arguing a first-round win. What I'm trying to say is I guess I'm not that excited about going just to go, and maybe (or even probably) get one win. What I meant was I'd rather have two big regular season wins than one tourney win. Maybe the program looks at it differently, I don't know.

I'll look at football the same way: I'll be happier with .500 overall than with a win at the Motor City bowl.

As far as the number of teams being picked, I'm just saying I wouldn't be surprised if the selection committee looks at all the possible Big Ten teams and says "Wow, 8 of 11? That's too many." and decides to even out the numbers a bit. Not saying it's fair, just that it doesn't seem unlikely to me that they would do it. How do you pick between Penn State and Northwestern and, say, Arizona or Texas?

Yinka Double Dare

March 9th, 2009 at 5:17 PM ^

Just to give you an idea of who we'd potentially be playing, the current 6 seeds of Lunardi (who has us at an 11): LSU, Tennessee, Arizona State and Syracuse. The 5s are Gonzaga, Purdue, Illinois and Florida State. The 7s are Butler, Cal, West Virginia, and Marquette.

While there are some matchups there I'd hate and some I'd really like, there isn't anyone there that screams "no chance". We've beaten two of the four 5 seeds and one of the others, FSU, lost to another 1-3-1 D, 3 point shooting team in Northwestern.


March 9th, 2009 at 5:59 PM ^

Why is this post called "Shape of the Bubble?" Aren't all bubbles spherical? Maybe it should be "Contents of the Bubble."

- You are now all dumber from having read this...(Forgive me, I'm bored at work)


March 9th, 2009 at 6:59 PM ^

I was thinking that, but realized it was a dumb thing to say.

Also, haven't you ever blown bubbles? They try to be spherical, but if there is any wind at all, they can often be quite oblong. You are both wrong and unfunny.