Bubble Watch: A new era dawns
Another long strange trip to Selection Sunday begins
Hi. Hello. This is Bubble Watch. Welcome in.
For the better part of the past 15 years, we have been writing some version of this column somewhere on the Internet. It started at ESPN, where the thing got oddly popular beyond the tournament-tracking premise itself; we continued at The Athletic, where the routine continued. Now we embark on a new age, here at Buzzer, on our own little patch of the independent Internet, on the first light of the fifth day (er, metaphorically, anyway). Yes: Bubble Watch lives on.
For the uninitiated, the idea is to progressively track every team’s chances of NCAA Tournament inclusion — or, well, that’s the skeleton of the thing, anyway. This early in the calendar, the structure is more of an excuse to discuss every relevant team in college basketball, a chance to talk about the whole sport in minute and goofy detail. As we get closer to Selection Sunday, there is a bit more science dropped in among the art, but right now the main point is vibes. Good vibes, specifically. We value the journey every bit as much as the destination.
Needless to say, this feature will be a big focus of this newsletter over the coming weeks. It’s a reason why a lot of you signed up in the first place. If you’ve been on the fence, and want to help make the (considerable) time spent on this work possible, or just want to read everything we produce for the next few months, please consider supporting us with a paid subscription. (And if you can’t, totally cool too — spread the word, and thank you for being here!)
Buzzer by Eamonn Brennan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A few quick notes before we jump in:
It’s early, so teams that will be obvious locks in a couple of weeks aren’t there yet. Likewise, the distinctions between “should be in” and “work to do” are pretty fuzzy. All of this will matter a lot more in, like, a month.
Some email providers impose limits on email length. This is a long file, so if your email cuts off, be sure to click through to the site itself to read it all.
There are almost certainly typos in the below copy. We are our only editor; this is a one-man show. If you spot factual mistakes or just think we should consider a team not on the page, get in touch in the comments or shoot me a note.
NET and SOS are always current as of the previous day. Records are always up to date. Thanks as ever to Warren Nolan for his immensely helpful site.
OK. It’s time. Let’s begin again.
Another year, another non-vintage edition of the ACC. It’s not a bad league, but it’s not what the ACC used to be, and for whatever dug-in squabbles we’ve had with ACC folks the last couple of seasons — saying 2022 North Carolina was on the bubble before it nearly won a national title, Pitt fans getting angry at us for not appropriately valuing lots of league wins in a conference where 12 victories used to be as good as a ticket punched, stuff like that — the drift here genuinely bums us out. Whatever the larger headwinds in college athletics, and especially college football, there’s no reason the ACC shouldn’t be able to put a better top-to-bottom basketball product on the court every night. The middle to bottom of the league should be much better than it is, and the truly bad teams are weighing the rest of the league down. (Looking at you, Louisville and Notre Dame.) Nor is this new: The league hasn’t ranked higher than fifth in KenPom.com’s rankings since 2019-2020.
One fun bit of progress: Boston College seems pretty decent now! It’s been a minute! There are a few teams like that here. Pittsburgh looks better than its record, and BC and Syracuse (74th and 75th in the NET, respectively) both have a chance to get on this page soon. The top of the league is a bit better this year, too. But the ACC as a whole, as a broader concept, needs to figure itself out.
Should be in: North Carolina, Duke, Clemson
Work to do: Miami, Wake Forest, Virginia, NC State, Virginia Tech
North Carolina (11-3, 3-0; NET: 10, SOS: 10): One significant boon to the ACC: One of its two blueblood programs acting like it again. Last season’s no-show — from the same group that was a few bounces away from winning the national title — remains bizarre, but it’s probably not worth relitigating, because this team is different. Armando Bacot is still doing Armando Bacot things, but the addition of freshman point guard (and classical UNC type) Elliot Cadeau has allowed veteran combo guard R.J. Davis to play off the ball and hunt shots, and all of a sudden Carolina’s two-point-ish-guards offense looks like Carolina again, with Davis having by far the best season of his career. UNC isn’t supposed to lose at Littlejohn ever, and so Saturday’s win at Clemson — against a very good Clemson, too — felt more than just a good road league victory. The Tar Heels have returned to familiar, confident excellence.
Duke (11-3, 2-1; NET: 18, SOS: 99): It’s a very small sample size, but after their disastrous start under Micah Shrewsberry (and Shrewsberry’s I will literally kick all of you out of your tiny Notre Dame dorm rooms if you don’t start playing hard press conference) the Irish have played the second-best per-trip defense of any ACC team and taken a not-insignificant leap (from 226th to 165th) in adjusted efficiency margin. In other words, Duke being unable to fully pull away in South Bend Saturday might not be that disconcerting. Even if Jon Scheyer’s offense doesn’t always visibly hum, the Blue Devils have fixed last season’s biggest offensive issue — an Indiana-esque lack of perimeter shooting — and combined that improvement with balanced defense and few turnovers. The result might not always be aesthetically pleasing (at least to us; maybe that’s just us!) but it has been undeniably, and increasingly, effective.
Clemson (11-3, 1-2; NET: 23, SOS: 21): Shout out to P.J. Hall and Co. for adding another quality team to the top of the ACC, living up to even the most bullish preseason expectations in the process. Hall was good last season; now he is a wonderful and borderline dominant player, an All-American level finisher from just about anywhere averaging 28.3 points per 40 minutes while posting an 11.1 Hakeem Percentage — what CBB Analytics calls a player’s combined blocks and steals rate. Brad Brownell’s addition of Joe Girard has proved crucial, too, giving the Tigers’ core a badly needed hunter of perimeter shots. (It is still weird seeing Girard at Clemson — rarely has a player felt more quintessentially Syracuse. He should be doing NIL deals with Pastabilities; this all feels wrong.) The Tigers have lost two straight to Miami and North Carolina, but assuming that isn’t the start of a collapse this team’s ceiling remains as high as any Brownell has had.
Miami (11-3, 2-1; NET: 40, SOS: 110): Maybe we should pass on analyzing Miami for a while. Our theory on Miami last year was that their per-trip numbers weren’t fully optimized because they were so superior offensively against everyone that wasn’t UConn they sort of didn’t have to care about playing super locked-in defense, thus producing an underrated team that exploded en route to the Final Four. Maybe that’s a dumb theory! This Miami team, which put up 95 in 74 trips against Clemson last Wednesday, still sort of has that feel. This team is still obviously super talented. The offensive and defensive splits look similar, even as the metrics rate Jim Larranaga’s as barely among the nation’s top 50. This team was clearly overrated to start the year, and it might just merely this good, and it might lose in the first round of the tournament, but we’re going to avoid any sweeping pronouncements one way or the other just in case.
Wake Forest (11-3, 3-0; NET: 47, SOS: 164): If you think it’s a still bit early for Bubble Watch, it’s especially early for coaches to be complaining about media and fans having their annual fun tracking the look of the eventual NCAA Tournament bracket. Steve Forbes is way ahead of the game here: "The tournament is not in November, it's in March last time I checked," Forbes said on the ACC teleconference Monday. "What do you call those guys? Bracketologists? Proctologists?" Has a coach ever complained about bracketology before the first Bubble Watch is even published? Not that we can remember! Anyway: Let’s avoid the nitty gritty on Wake’s current at-large case, then, and instead just say that this is a super fun team scoring the ball at a high level, and that if Forbes’ Deacs continue to play the way they have all season — yes, even when they were losing tight games in November — they should have very little problem finding their way into the eventual bracket. Deal?