Those inclined to zip directly to the tail end of the at-large field of any NCAA tournament bracket projection are probably already thinking the phrase that truly means college basketball’s postseason is drawing within shouting distance.

“The bubble is worse than ever this year.”

The names of the teams in question change — well, unless they’re North Carolina State, Syracuse and (in a few recent seasons) Arizona State and Oklahoma — but the sentiment remains the same. And this year, there actually will be something of a point to the annual complaint.

With the Ivy League opting out of the season, there’s one less automatic qualifier in the 68-team field. That means instead of 36 at-large selections, there will be 37.

Some seasons, the at-large picks filling in the No. 11 and No. 12 lines in the NCAA field (and those relegated to the No. 1 seeds in the NIT) are better than others. While it’s possible this year’s final at-large team is qualitatively better than previous selections at the edge of the field, it’s also a mathematical fact the 37th-best at-large team is reaching the tournament for the first time.

Cue up the chorus of complaints now, though just remember it still beats college football’s weekly selection committee dog and pony show.

As for whether that extra spot will wind up going to an extra-unworthy team, it’s still far too soon to tell. Only a relatively small percentage of schools are halfway into their league schedules, and nearly every power conference team still has at least 12 regular season games scheduled.

Seeing the likes of Duke and North Carolina sitting on the borderline right now can be a bit eye-opening, but experience suggests programs with plenty of talent and a history of success have more than enough time to turn things around when they have less-than-stellar résumés in mid-January.

Those Tobacco Road titans need only look at where Virginia sat around this time last year. The Cavaliers, fresh off a national title, were 12-6 and scuffling mightily on offense after a Jan. 20 loss to N.C. State. But they won 11 of their next 12 to close the regular season and were safely in the tournament field when the pandemic halted the season.

There’s plenty of fluidity for now. A good week against the right opponents can still make a noticeable difference relative to the rest of the field. Of course, if enough teams have bad weeks, it’s safe to assume the annual rite of bubble bashing will be on its way to a peak.

Field notes

Last four included: Wichita State, Indiana, Duke, Pittsburgh

First four on the outside: Loyola Chicago, North Carolina, Stanford, Colorado State

Next four on the outside: Marquette, Maryland, San Diego State, St. Bonaventure

Conference call: Big Ten (10), ACC (7), Big 12 (7), Big East (5), SEC (5), Pac-12 (4), Atlantic 10 (3), American Athletic (2), Mountain West (2), West Coast (2)

Moving in: Georgia State, Jacksonville, Montana State, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Maryland Baltimore County, Utah State, Wichita State

Moving out: Coastal Carolina, Liberty, North Carolina, N.C. State, San Diego State, Southern Utah, Stanford, Stony Brook

Bracket projection

West vs. East, South vs. Midwest

West Region

(1) WEST COAST/Gonzaga vs. (16) MID-EASTERN/Florida A&M-BIG SKY/Montana State

(8) MOUNTAIN WEST/Boise State vs. (9) Xavier

(5) PAC-12/UCLA vs. (12) Duke/Wichita State

(4) Ohio State vs. (13) SOUTHERN/Furman

(3) ACC/Virginia vs. (14) BIG WEST/UC Irvine

(6) Illinois vs. (11) ATLANTIC 10/Virginia Commonwealth

(7) Connecticut vs. (10) Rutgers

(2) Texas vs. (15) WESTERN ATHLETIC/Grand Canyon

There weren’t many semi-serious bullets for Gonzaga to dodge in conference play. Its trip to Saint Mary’s counted as one. A 14-point victory later (while scoring a season-low 73 points), Gonzaga should resume cranking out blowouts for at least a few weeks. … Who knows how the committee would deal with Duke? Slotting the Blue Devils in a play-in game is basically a punt for this exercise. …

The metrics love Illinois, but it is a 9-5 team with a few stumbles at home. It probably belongs on the No. 6 or No. 7 line at this point. … Connecticut-Rutgers would not only be a rematch of old Big East rivals but also the first pairing of former American Athletic teams in the postseason. You can look it up.

East Region

(1) BIG EAST/Villanova vs. (16) NORTHEAST/Bryant

(8) Louisville vs. (9) Purdue

(5) Oregon vs. (12) MID-AMERICAN/Toledo

(4) SEC/Alabama vs. (13) SUMMIT/South Dakota State

(3) Texas Tech vs. (14) SUN BELT/Georgia State

(6) Virginia Tech vs. (11) Arkansas

(7) Saint Louis vs. (10) Utah State

(2) Michigan vs. (15) HORIZON/Cleveland State

Villanova is scheduled to return to action Tuesday against Seton Hall, its first game in 27 days. On Saturday, Saint Louis is scheduled to end a 31-day layoff and meet St. Bonaventure. … You can tell a program has had a long NCAA tournament drought when it played in the Mideast bracket in its previous appearance. Such is the case for Toledo, which last earned an NCAA nod in 1980. …

Alabama is 6-0 in SEC play for the first time since winning eight in a row to start the 1986-87 conference schedule. The Crimson Tide get a good test Tuesday at LSU. … A tip of the hat to Utah State, which swept San Diego State last weekend to run its winning streak to 10. The Aggies have held their past seven opponents to fewer than 60 points and rank eighth in’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

South Region

(1) BIG 12/Baylor vs. (16) ATLANTIC SUN/Jacksonville-SOUTHWESTERN/Southern

(8) Minnesota vs. (9) Brigham Young

(5) Missouri vs. (12) Indiana/Pittsburgh

(4) Colorado vs. (13) ATLANTIC SUN/Belmont

(3) AMERICAN ATHLETIC/Houston vs. (14) SOUTHLAND/Abilene Christian

(6) Clemson vs. (11) Oklahoma

(7) West Virginia vs. (10) Seton Hall

(2) Wisconsin vs. (15) COLONIAL/Northeastern

If only Minnesota could play all of its games at home. It is 4-0 in Big Ten games at Williams Arena, averaging a margin of victory of 16.8 points. It is 0-4 in league road games, getting defeated by an average of 19.8 points. … Colorado is getting a bit of a metrics bounce (No. 7 in the NET through Sunday), but the Buffaloes have earned all 11 of their victories by at least seven points, have picked off Oregon and Southern California, and have no puzzling losses. …

Clemson isn’t nearly as bad as it looked against Virginia, getting blasted, 85-50, in its first game in 11 days. But that contest is a great reminder that teams could be coming off long breaks even at the start of the postseason and be unusually out of rhythm. … Speaking of breaks, West Virginia is scheduled to play Kansas State on Saturday, its first game in 14 days.

Midwest Region


(8) LSU vs. (9) MISSOURI VALLEY/Drake

(5) Florida State vs. (12) Richmond

(4) Creighton vs. (13) CONFERENCE USA/UAB

(3) Kansas vs. (14) METRO ATLANTIC/Siena

(6) Southern California vs. (11) BIG SOUTH/Winthrop

(7) Oklahoma State vs. (10) Michigan State

(2) Tennessee vs. (15) PATRIOT/Navy

UMBC as a No. 16 seed? What could possibly happen there? … The last time Creighton dropped a conference game it could have and maybe should have won, it ripped off a six-game winning streak. The Bluejays get Providence and Connecticut at home this week. …

Winthrop is 13-0 and has won 18 in a row dating from last season. It also has no Quadrant 1 victories and just one Quadrant 2 victory (Furman), and there aren’t opportunities remaining for high-end victories. It would be a wonderful case study to see how the committee treated the Eagles if they happened to win out. … Michigan State is scheduled to play Illinois on Saturday, its first game in 15 days. The Spartans hold steady in this exercise.

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