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NCAA tournament Bubble Watch: Bracket power shifting to SEC

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Washington, Johnson lead Kentucky to 17-point win over Tennessee (1:45)

PJ Washington drops 23 points and Keldon Johnson adds 19 of his own to power No. 5 Kentucky to a big 86-69 win over No. 1 Tennessee. (1:45)

Editor's note: The NCAA tournament Bubble Watch has been updated through games of Sunday, Feb. 17.

We know that Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU are the three best teams in the SEC, we just don't know in what order. The Wildcats have muddied the picture by losing at home to the Tigers in the last second of the game but then beating the Volunteers by 17 at Rupp just four nights later.

The one thing we do know, however, is that collectively Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU form one of the strongest trios the league has seen in a long time. In fact, these are the best of times for SEC hoops.

For starters, the conference is poised to make its biggest splash on the top four seed lines of the NCAA tournament bracket in 17 years.

Consider Joe Lunardi's projected bracket. He has Tennessee as a No. 1 seed, Kentucky as a No. 2 and LSU on the No. 4 line. If those seeds hold on Selection Sunday, it will mark the SEC's best showing at the top of the bracket since 2002.

The actual bracket is still a month away from being released, of course, but current projections reveal the extent to which the SEC may be rising while other major conferences are in danger of taking a step back.

True, the ACC and Big Ten look about the same as last season in terms of throwing their top-four-seed weight around. But what appears likely is that the SEC's rise in this category is being fueled by significant year-to-year declines recorded by both the Big 12 and the Big East.

Here's how we're projecting the bubble right now:

Bids from traditional 'one-bid' leagues: 23 teams
Locks: 17 teams
The bubble: 34 teams for 28 available spots
Should be in: 13 teams
Work to do: 21 teams

ACC | Big 12| Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Others


ACC

Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville
Should be in: Virginia Tech, Florida State, Syracuse
Work to do: NC State, Clemson

Should be in

Virginia Tech Hokies

Virginia Tech's conference opponents are attempting a truly historic number of 3s. Meaning in the history of major-conference play dating back over the last decade and beyond, we've never seen a defense allow this many 3-point attempts. To be sure, that won't matter on nights when Kerry Blackshear erupts for 29 points on just nine shots (he was 10-of-11 at the line) the way he did in the Hokies' six-point win at Pitt. Still, if this potential No. 6 seed is paired with a perimeter-oriented opponent in a March bracket (Villanova?), be aware that the potential exists for opponent-induced 3-point mayhem. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Florida State Seminoles

With wins over not only Purdue and LSU but also Louisville, those mid-January losses at Boston College and at Pittsburgh actually loom a bit larger. Indeed, at the time, it seemed like the whole season might go sideways for Leonard Hamilton's men. Instead, those losses are now looking more and more like underachievement from a team whose other defeats came at the hands of Villanova, Virginia and Duke. Florida State has now won seven straight and is cruising toward a No. 6 seed (if not better) with the league's best 2-point FG defense in ACC play. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Syracuse Orange

It's not easy winning road games in the ACC, certainly, but the concern for Syracuse goes beyond a 15-point loss at NC State. The concern is that Jim Boeheim's group, never presumed to be a high-powered offense, is scoring at a rate that's low by even the most modest expectations. In the past three outings, Oshae Brissett, Tyus Battle and their teammates have produced just 0.89 points per possession. Scoring from beyond the arc has been in particularly short supply, and Syracuse has given the ball away on 21 percent of its possessions in those games. To recap, this is a team nominally in line for a No. 8 or 9 seed but one that's also in a scoring slump as it prepares to host Louisville and Duke at the Carrier Dome. There's a lot on the line for the Orange in the coming days. (Updated: Feb. 13)

Work to do

NC State Wolfpack

Losing 94-78 at Duke drops NC State to 6-7 in ACC play, but the Wolfpack may not turn out to be the best example of those over-privileged but under-.500 major-conference bid hoarders you tend to hear about. Kevin Keatts' team drew one severely front-loaded conference schedule, and now that his guys have played Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Syracuse and the Blue Devils just in the past three weeks, they're about to get a well-deserved respite of sorts. The game at Florida State the first Saturday in March will be no picnic, certainly, but other than that, NC State has two games against Boston College and one each against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech left to play. The prospective No. 9 or 10 seed still looks solid, even at 6-7. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Clemson Tigers
Brad Brownell's team has announced its arrival in Bubble Watch -- with back-to-back, one-point losses. That can happen. Bubble Watch, like the committee itself, takes the long, whole-season view, and losing consecutive nail-biters at Miami and at Louisville is not in itself a deal-breaker. At 5-7 in ACC play but with an eight-point win over Virginia Tech at Littlejohn Coliseum serving as this team's headline statement, the Tigers are projected as a No. 10 or 11 seed. Then again, the loss at the hands of the Hurricanes was Clemson's third Quad 2 defeat of the season. In sum, a 5-7 conference record in mid-February does raise the stakes for looming home dates against Florida State and North Carolina, not to mention upcoming road games against the Quad 2 likes of Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.(Updated: Feb. 16)

Big 12

Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State
Should be in: Kansas State
Work to do: Baylor, TCU, Texas, Oklahoma

Should be in

Kansas State Wildcats

The theme of Kansas State's conference season has been feast or famine in terms of both health and results. Recall that the Big 12's first-place team stumbled out of the gate and lost its first two conference games to Texas and Texas Tech by a combined score of 130-104. Kamau Stokes logged just 21 minutes total in those two games, and Dean Wade didn't play at all. Now, Bruce Weber's dealing with more of the same. Wade limped off the floor in the Wildcats' 78-64 loss at home to Iowa State (and signed autographs for fans afterward while wearing a boot), and Cartier Diarra is out with a broken finger. K-State's shown in mock brackets as a No. 5 seed, but that number can rise or fall depending on who's available to play. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Work to do

Baylor Bears

Scott Drew's team is still struggling to get healthy and whole. King McClure has now missed three straight games due to an ailing knee, and Makai Mason has been in and out of action while struggling with a toe issue. Both players missed the Bears' 86-61 loss at Texas Tech. Devonte Bandoo has done some heroic work in February trying to fill the absence of two starters with 3-pointers, but a 25-point defeat in Lubbock suggests Drew needs McClure and Mason back sooner rather than later. The population of teams in a strong Big 12 that can beat a short-handed version of a projected No. 8 seed such as Baylor is fairly large. (Updated: Feb. 16)

TCU Horned Frogs

In a Big 12 that's hardly lacking for good defense, TCU is trending toward being the exception to that rule. Indeed, among the league's eight teams that are playing for NCAA tournament position, the Horned Frogs are the outlier on D, allowing 1.08 points per possession in conference play. That's not an outlandish figure, but TCU's interior defense in particular is looking shaky. The Big 12 has converted 54 percent of its 2-pointers against the Frogs, and in Oklahoma's nine-point win in Fort Worth, Kristian Doolittle lit up Jamie Dixon's guys to the tune of 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting inside the arc. If TCU does land around the No. 8 line as expected, a top seed could find the paint to its liking on offense in the round of 32. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Texas Longhorns

Call it luck, karma or toughness in crunch time, but Texas looks stronger statistically than your ordinary 7-6 Big 12 team. Those six losses, by the way, have come by a combined 27 points. The Longhorns are expected to draw something in the neighborhood of a No. 9 seed, and this group could definitely give a top seed a game in the round of 32. With a neutral-floor win over North Carolina to their credit (not to mention wins at home over Purdue and Kansas), Shaka Smart's men make up possibly the most dangerous 15-11 team you've ever seen. Yes, that's a non sequitur. Sometimes those are true. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Oklahoma Sooners

To this point in the 2019 calendar year, OU has defeated one at-large-quality opponent, and now the Sooners have done so twice this season. In earning the season sweep over TCU, Lon Kruger's men looked more impressive than they have at any point in the conference season. Oklahoma threw a stingy zone defense at the Horned Frogs in Schollmaier Arena, and the visitors cruised to a 71-62 win. OU is still very much in double-digit seed territory (this is, after all, a team that's 4-9 in the Big 12 and 16-10 overall), but for the first time in a long time, the Sooners look capable of playing in a manner that will keep them in the bracket. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Big East

Lock: Marquette
Should be in: Villanova
Work to do: St. John's, Seton Hall, Butler

Should be in

Villanova Wildcats

Bubble Watch is surprised to see you still hanging around "should be in" territory, Villanova. We had rather thought you would have locked up this question by now. Doubtless you'll be moving on up soon, but, in the meantime, that second half at the Garden against St. John's was not your best promotional material: 28 points in 37 possessions and 3-of-15 on your 3-pointers. Yikes. Burn that tape, take care of business on the road at Georgetown and/or Xavier, then let's revisit this little matter of categorical justice, shall we? (Updated: Feb. 17)

Work to do

St. John's Red Storm

Chris Mullin's men really rise to the level of the opponent. A St. John's team that was taken to the 40th minute at the Barclays Center by California and that lost at home to DePaul and Providence is striding confidently around the mock brackets with that unmistakable "We're 3-1 against Marquette and Villanova" gleam in its eye. That will indeed do wonders for a profile. The Johnnies are 7-6 in the Big East and looking at a potential No. 9 seed. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Seton Hall Pirates

The Seton Hall résumé reflects a mastery of winning when it counts. The Pirates won against Kentucky on a neutral floor, they won on the road at Maryland and, yes, they won at Creighton, giving Kevin Willard's team its third Quad 1 victory of the season. Those three notches on the belt plus a respectable Big East record (which currently stands at 7-6) could indeed get the job done for a group that entered the game against the Bluejays projected as a No. 11 seed. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Butler Bulldogs

At 6-7 in Big East play and with its marquee win being a neutral-floor victory over Florida, Butler badly needs to upgrade its profile. The Bulldogs have road games remaining at Marquette and Villanova, and a win in at least one of those contests is now looking more or less essential for a team listed as "first four out" by Lunardi. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Big Ten

Locks: Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue
Should be in: Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa
Work to do: Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana

Should be in

Wisconsin Badgers

Life is brutal at the top of the Big Ten. Ethan Happ has scored 38 points and pulled down 23 rebounds in the past two games, and all that got Wisconsin was losses to Michigan and Michigan State. Nick Ward was particularly effective on Happ for the Spartans, forcing the Badgers senior into six turnovers and making him take 20 shots to get his 20 points. Now Greg Gard's team, which is 0-2 since it was tapped as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA's bracket preview, gets a welcome six days of rest before returning to the court at home against Illinois. (Updated: Feb. 12)

Maryland Terrapins

If you've watched Maryland this season, you've likely been told this is one of the youngest teams in the country. That is indeed correct, and it helps explain both how good this team is and how great it could become. As one would expect from a youthful group, the Terrapins have suffered from an exceedingly large turnover disparity in Big Ten play. Take turnovers out of that equation, however, and Bruno Fernando, Anthony Cowan and Co. can play with, literally, anyone. In the Terps' 13-point loss at Michigan, for example, this young team that's a presumed No. 6 seed actually came close (1.08 points per no-turnover possession) to matching the Wolverines (1.10) on turnover-neutral scoring. The fact that Maryland committed 16 turnovers and U-M had just six, however, translated into a double-digit margin of defeat. (Updated Feb. 16)

Iowa Hawkeyes

If you're not watching Iowa, you're missing hands-down the most entertaining team in the nation, world, you name it. Not content to merely beat Northwestern with a last-second 3 by Jordan Bohannon in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes took their cardiac-kids routine to Rutgers. This time it was Joe Wieskamp who hit the last-second game-winner off a deflected full-court baseball pass, with the added kicker that it was a corner 3 that actually grazed the backboard. (Are you not entertained?) It's two wins, regardless of how Iowa happened to get it done. Fran McCaffery's men are 20-5 and heading toward a potential No. 6 seed. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Work to do

Ohio State Buckeyes

In what is fast becoming a recurring Bubble Watch 2019 theme, let's discuss a major-conference team with an ugly conference record. At 6-8 in Big Ten play, Ohio State suddenly finds itself mired in a rather severe scoring drought. Over the Buckeyes' past three games they've eked out just 0.82 points per possession. (Translation: Georgia Tech-bad on offense. Worse, actually.) Bubble Watch doesn't wish to be alarmist, there's no shame in losing at Michigan State, and, after all, OSU's still a solid No. 9 seed in many mock brackets. But, again, 0.82. If that continues, the "solid No. 9 seed" part will not. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Minnesota Golden Gophers

When last we checked in on the Gophers, Bubble Watch had this to say: "Minnesota is a 6-8 Big Ten team being shown as a No. 11 seed in mid-February. Everything in that sentence fairly screams, 'Win some games.'" The good news for Richard Pitino's men is that they are now a 7-8 Big Ten team being shown as a No. 11 seed after they thrashed Indiana 84-63 at Williams Arena. Now the table is set for the big one: Michigan is coming to the Twin Cities, and a win there, paired with the road victory the Gophers already recorded at Wisconsin, would push this team a long way toward "should be in" status. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Indiana Hoosiers

You're wondering why an Indiana team that's 4-10 in the Big Ten and has lost 10 of its past 11 is still here after losing by 21 on the road to a Minnesota team that is itself kind of bubbly. That's easy. The Hoosiers are here because they started that game as proud members of a number of reputable mock brackets. IU was able to attain that status, of course, because that 11th game in the recent stretch was, incredibly, a win at Michigan State. Pair that with victories against Marquette and Louisville and you have a profile that could get you in the field of 68 if Indiana decides to start winning games. But right now, the Hoosiers really don't look like they're going to decide to start winning games.(Updated: Feb. 16)

Pac-12

Should be in: Washington
Work to do: Arizona State

Should be in

Washington Huskies

Mike Hopkins' men will likely reach Selection Sunday showing a road victory at Oregon as their best win. That may not sound particularly impressive, but this is in fact the Pac-12's best per-possession team by a healthy margin, one that's likely to post a gaudy W-L record in conference play. All of the above may well result in a seed in the middle of the bracket and, consequently, a game against a high seed in the round of 32.. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Work to do

Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils would likely be in the field of 68, barely, if the selection were held today. Absent the most extreme string of either wins or losses in the arid Quad-1-scarce savannah known as the Pac-12, ASU could remain in this state of bubbly uncertainty for the foreseeable future. True, the upcoming road game at Oregon would in fact qualify as Quad 1 at this writing. Nevertheless, Arizona State has already done its best work under this heading, having won at home against Kansas and Washington and in Las Vegas against Mississippi State and Utah State. (Updated: Feb. 16)

SEC

Locks: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU
Should be in: Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss
Work to do: Alabama, Florida

Should be in

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Just hours before MSU tipped off its game at Arkansas, the athletic department in Starkville announced that 6-foot-2 sophomore Nick Weatherspoon had been suspended indefinitely due to an unspecified violation of team rules. That was no issue against the Razorbacks, as Ben Howland's team won 77-67. Indeed, Howland can put Tyson Carter in Weatherspoon's starting spot, as the coach did in Fayetteville, and see a similar level of performance. Losing depth is never a positive, of course, but it's not clear the suspension will have a significant impact in the near term on a team that's being envisioned as a No. 7 seed. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Auburn Tigers

The knock on the Tigers is that that they're an efficient bunch beloved of laptops but that, oh by the way, Auburn doesn't actually beat any good teams. Bruce Pearl's men are just 2-5 against SEC opponents listed as locks, should-be in's or work-to-do's by Bubble Watch, and the wins came at home against Alabama and Florida. AU won't get a chance to change its "all stats, no statements" reputation until it plays at Kentucky next weekend. In the meantime, a team that's being shown as anything from a No. 7 to a No. 9 seed would be well advised to take care of business mid-week at home against Arkansas.(Updated: Feb. 13)

Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss has what might be the cleanest profile an 18-7 team could construct for itself. Every one of those seven losses, for example, falls under the heading of Quad 1. Plus, the Rebels now own road wins not only against Auburn, but also at Mississippi State. If Kermit Davis and his men emerge at 20-7 after this current take-care-of-business interlude (Ole Miss won at home against Missouri and will now visit South Carolina before returning to Oxford to play Georgia), we might be envisioning the Rebels as a step up from a No. 8 seed. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Work to do

Alabama Crimson Tide

As a genre that has proliferated over the past decade or so, the bubble watch typically exists to overreact to the most recent game played. Naturally, we here capital-B-and-W Bubble Watch would never stoop to such hackery, so you can trust us when we say Alabama's most recent game was aberrantly damaging to the Crimson Tide's bracket position. Avery Johnson's team entered its home game against Florida as a projected No. 10 seed, but losing 71-53 in Tuscaloosa to an opponent that started the contest 13-11 and ranked No. 40 in the NET does you no seeding favors. Alabama would still likely make the tournament if the selection were held today, but something as low-profile as the upcoming road game at Texas A&M now takes on added importance. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Florida Gators

Look who's still hanging around in "first four out" territory. The Gators are now 14-11 and 6-6 in SEC play, not numbers that necessarily translate seamlessly into "at-large." Then again, this is also a group with two Quad 1 wins (at Arkansas and at Alabama) and a NET ranking that has been hovering in the 30s and 40s. The 18-point victory at Tuscaloosa was, easily, the Gators' most complete performance of the conference season and could not have come at a better time. LSU is up next, in Baton Rouge. (Updated: Feb. 16)

American

Lock: Houston
Should be in: Cincinnati
Work to do: UCF, Temple

Should be in

Cincinnati Bearcats

Here's a stat that suggests we may be selling Cincinnati a bit short and, specifically, that a No. 7 line-type team like the Bearcats could make some snooty No. 2 seed very uncomfortable in the round of 32. American opponents have been lighting it up against UC from beyond the arc, to the tune of 38 percent shooting on their 3s (a high number in what's actually one of the worst 3-point shooting leagues in Division I). Still, the bottom-line results for the Cincinnati defense have been quite good, thanks in large part to this team's ability to force misses inside the arc. It's possible we'll see an even better version of this defense when the hoops gods at last cut it some slack. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Work to do

UCF Knights

Give UCF credit. The Knights have shown an unmistakable ability to cling tenaciously to what's supposed to be a precarious spot, the very bottom of the at-large field on either the No. 11 or No. 12 line. That status is holding steady after UCF took care of Memphis at home 79-72. The Knights will now get the opportunity to strengthen their hold on an at-large bid thanks to two remaining games against Cincinnati and one at Houston. The first meeting with the Bearcats is up next, in Cincinnati. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Temple Owls

It's not as if a loss at South Florida would have been excessively damaging to Temple's bracket position. The Bulls entered the game ranked No. 76 on the NET, and thus the contest was a Quad 2 entry on the Owls' profile. Still, when you're a projected No. 12 seed, as Fran Dunphy's team is, you grab every single win you can get. And Temple won, barely. David Collins went to the line for USF in the final second but missed both shots, and the visiting team escaped 70-69. The Owls are very much alive. (Updated: Feb. 17)

Others

Lock: Gonzaga, Nevada
Should be in: Buffalo
Work to do: Wofford, VCU, Lipscomb

Should be in

Buffalo Bulls

Congratulations, Bulls. You navigated what on paper looked to be a challenging two-game road swing and came away passing with flying colors. Wins at Akron and at Toledo mean Nate Oats' team now has a realistic shot at winning out the rest of the way. Running the table would give Buffalo a 16-2 record in the MAC, but even dropping a game along the way, as UB already did at Northern Illinois and at Bowling Green, wouldn't wreck a profile that includes a win at Syracuse. UB appears to be heading for something in the neighborhood of a No. 7 seed. (Updated: Feb. 16)

Work to do

Wofford Terriers

The Southern Conference has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament, but there's a first time for everything. Wofford is in this discussion because the Terriers are 23-4, with the losses coming to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi State. Mike Young's team additionally own Quad 1 wins at UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State. Finally, it's worth noting Wofford won at South Carolina by 20, even though that shows up on the profile as a Quad 2 victory.(Updated: Feb. 16)

VCU Rams

Bubble Watch has good news and bad news for VCU. The good news is the Rams just won what on paper is their toughest remaining contest on the schedule, a road game at Dayton. Mike Rhoades' team came away with a 69-68 win and now stands at 19-6 overall with a No. 11 seed waiting for it if mock brackets are to be trusted. The bad news, of course, is that mock brackets in February can't necessarily be trusted. The win at Texas will continue to serve VCU well, but it would have been nice if the Flyers had been six or seven spots higher in the NET rankings and thus afforded Marcus Evans & Co. a shot at a second Quad 1 victory. Alas, it was not to be. Keep winning, Rams.(Updated: Feb. 17)

Lipscomb Bisons
Welcome to the fun, Bisons. We here at Bubble Watch Mission Control have been watching you for a while now. You can be justly proud of Rob Marberry's Ethan Happ-like post mastery (with better foul shooting), the team-wide attention to detail and total mastery on the defensive glass and, yes, your road win at TCU in November. Historically speaking, the at-large-bid production of the Atlantic Sun has not been what one would term voluminous, but your combination of the marquee win with a 30-ish ranking in the NCAA Evaluation Tool promises to make this an interesting next few weeks. Congratulations, and one last thing. You can thank your ranked-60-something-in-the-RPI lucky stars that the old metric is gone. Bubble Watch rejoices with you there. (updated: Feb. 16)