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5 Ways To Make Sense Of The Bubble

The time of year popularly known as Championship Week, but which is actually a fortnight, is upon us.

This means that until 6 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, March 16 — Selection Sunday — the main topic of conversation in American sports will revolve around a bubble that has nothing to do with housing prices.

College baseball selects teams for its postseason, but the nation's attention is not fixed on a bracket sheet for the lead-up to the College World Series. The weeks before Selection Sunday — especially the final 72 hours before the unveiling of the brackets — fray the nerves of not one fan base in one locality, but several communities across the country. Moreover, these communities often vary in size and visibility. Murfreesboro, Tenn., rejoiced last March when its Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders were selected as an at-large team. Lexington, Ky. — home of one of the three greatest college basketball programs in the United States — was plunged into a deep, dark depression when the Kentucky Wildcats did not appear in the field of 68.

There's a magic associated with Selection Sunday, but with that magic comes — what's the word? — MADNESS.

This madness is evident in the next two weeks — not just the crazy endings and stunning upsets, but in the talk which surrounds the bubble and its "last four in / first four out" drama, college basketball's version of Election Night.

During these next two weeks, it's easy to throw around a lot of terms carelessly, and it's just as easy to react prematurely to a given event. We've all done it. I certainly have. On the Friday before Selection Sunday, Team A feels like a lock, but on Saturday night, it's on the bubble. On the Thursday before Selection Sunday, Team B seems to be done, but after five bubble teams lose on Friday, it reaches the First Four in Dayton.

How are you — we — going to cope with the next two weeks? Let's hit on five key distinctions you need to make when you watch various games and conference tournaments:

5 – Wins (And Losses) Matter For Different Reasons

During the next two weeks, bubble teams will play different kinds of games as they finish their regular seasons and begin their conference tournaments. A very simple distinction to make is the one between a "loss avoidance game" and an "opportunity game." For any teams that are particularly close to the bubble, these two types of tests become crucial, but in different ways. This is where the bubble evaluation process can be confusing, so it's helpful to develop boundaries and definitions.

If a bubble team wins a "loss avoidance game," it doesn't improve its resume so much as it avoids a massive blow to its resume. If a bubble team wins an "opportunity game," it substantially enhances its profile and leaps past other bubble competitors. You can readily figure out what's being said here: A "loss avoidance game" comes against a bad team, whereas an "opportunity game" comes against a very good team.

Teams on the bad side of the bubble at this time of year want to play the toughest possible opponents, so that they can win an "opportunity game" and move way up the ladder. In short, "opportunity games" give teams on the bad side of the bubble a chance to succeed and thereby improve their positions.

Teams on the good side of the bubble won't suffer if they play elite opponents, but if they play a "loss avoidance game" against an inferior foe, they have a chance to lose and slide far down the pecking order. In other words, "loss avoidance games" give teams on the good side of the bubble a chance to fail and thereby cause great damage to their positions. 

Here's where this issue can get muddled for a lot of fans during Championship Fortnight: 

For a team on the good side of the bubble, losing a "loss avoidance game" is obviously disastrous. Yet, when this kind of game is won, you will often hear commentators say that the team in question is "safely in the field." This makes it seem as though the victory was an accomplishment. In reality, the game merely represented the last chance for a team to do great harm to its resume. By avoiding a loss — a bad one — a team reached a place of safety, thereby improving its status.

Here's an example of a "loss avoidance game" from the coming week:

BYU, the No. 2 seed in the West Coast Conference Tournament, will play in the quarterfinals against the winner of the first-round 7-versus-10 game (Portland-Loyola Marymount). BYU will not improve its so-so resume with a win… but it would set fire to its resume if it loses. That's a classic "loss avoidance game."

Let's take this example a step further: Let's say for the sake of argument that BYU had defeated Utah (another bubble team) earlier in the season while also taking care of Iowa State at home. The Cougars, under those (hypothetical) circumstances, would probably be "safely in the field" with a win in their "loss avoidance game" against the 7-10 winner in the WCC quarters. Under the current actual circumstances, BYU probably needs to make the WCC final and play Gonzaga (not any other opponent) in order to feel reasonably good about its NCAA tournament chances.

Hmmm… why does BYU have to play Gonzaga — and not anyone else — in the WCC final to feel good about making the field of 68 as an at-large team? This leads us to our next point of clarity amidst March's Madness:

4 – Opponents In Conference Tournaments Can Carry Great Weight

This point isn't hard to illustrate, but it does get lost in the emotions and the tumult of March.

Why must BYU face (and, to complete the point, lose to) Gonzaga and only Gonzaga in the WCC final to feel more comfortable about its at-large chances?

If BYU faces the Zags, the Cougars will be playing a team that is already likely to make the field of 68. BYU and Gonzaga are the only two teams in the WCC that can reach the Big Dance as at-large selections. Therefore, BYU can absorb a loss to GU and not take a big hit as a result. On the other hand, if BYU plays a non-Gonzaga opponent in the WCC final — fourth-seeded Saint Mary's or fifth-seeded Pepperdine — that opponent will be in position to get one of those unexpected automatic bids that crops up in the conference tournaments. That unexpected autobid removes one at-large bid from the board, the bid that could be the difference between No. 68 in the Dance and No. 69, which is worth a number one seed… in the NIT.

You will hear commentators and fans say that "If Team X gets three wins, it's in the tournament," or that "If Team Y doesn't get two more wins, it will not make the tournament." It's always better to say that if a team wins a certain number of games, it will give itself a good chance, a 50-50 chance, or a slim chance. Saying that a team will definitely be in the tournament should be reserved for the safer calls, the teams that are "locks" or "near-locks." True bubble teams are best handled with the words "possibly" or "probably."

The biggest point to keep in mind, though, about this part of the next two weeks is as follows: Wins in isolation mean little; wins against certain kinds of opponents matter a lot more, and they lend crucial dimensions of added definition to this process.

3 – "Locks" And "Popped/Burst Bubbles" Need To Mean Exactly What They Suggest

The very notion of a "lock" means that a situation is somehow sealed — it takes on a measure of permanence. Similarly, a bubble that bursts or is popped can no longer exist again. Its existence is over. The bubble team's bubble death is final.

A "lock," then, must necessarily refer to a team that is safely in the field even if it loses every remaining game on its schedule. A team whose bubble bursts is a team whose at-large candidacy can safely be pronounced dead even if it managed to win every remaining game on its schedule other than the conference tournament final, which would confer an autobid and remove that team from the at-large pool for an entirely different reason.

Among the teams that are not going to be a top-four seed, let's take SMU as an example of a lock. The Mustangs won an opportunity game (Connecticut) and a loss avoidance game (UCF) this past week. They play two high-quality opponents this week (Louisville, Memphis) and will therefore not absorb enough of a resume hit to drag them downward in the direction of the bubble. Even a three-game losing streak could not push SMU out of the field. That's what a lock is.

As for a team whose bubble was thought to have burst a few weeks ago, look at Indiana. The Hoosiers seemed to be 100-percent done after losing to Northwestern, Penn State, and Purdue. However, they've just beaten Iowa and Ohio State over the past few days, and they still have Nebraska and Michigan on the schedule, plus the Big Ten Tournament.

Ask yourself: "If Indiana wins its next two games; becomes the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament; beats third-seeded Michigan State in the quarterfinals; beats second-seeded Wisconsin in the semifinals; and loses narrowly to top-seeded Michigan in the final, is it at least under consideration for an at-large bid?"

You have to answer a firm, unflinching, 100-percent "NO!" to that question if you really think Indiana is irrevocably and irretrievably an NIT team right now. Yes, the Hoosiers are not likely to make the NCAAs, but are they absolutely dead? Not if they win out through the Big Ten semis. No bubbles have burst in Bloomington, Ind. — not yet.

2 – "Bubble Game" Is A Generic Term; Look To Sharpen It With Specificity Whenever Possible

We've already talked about a "loss avoidance game" and an "opportunity game," but those are bubble games in which one of the two teams is on the bubble and under intense scrutiny. What about the games in which both teams are on the bubble?

Three flavors of "bubble gum" enter the picture here: play-in games, play-out games, and leverage games.

The closer one gets to Selection Sunday, the greater the likelihood of a true play-in or play-out bubble game. This is especially the case in the 4-versus-5 quarterfinals in the conference tournaments. Last year, a perfect example emerged in the SEC Tournament, as No. 4 Alabama defeated No. 5 Tennessee in a play-out game. Alabama then encountered an "opportunity game" in the SEC semis against No. 1 Florida, but when the Crimson Tide failed to win that game, they were through as an at-large candidate.

In this final week of regular season play, there are still a few miles to travel before the conference tournaments, which means that bubble games might not yet have "play-in" (the winner is clearly in the field) or "play-out" (the loser is clearly out of the field) dimensions. If you can't say with certainty that a game is a play-in or play-out situation for both teams, it's best to refer to it as a "leverage game," in which two bubble teams are jockeying for position. The winner isn't a lock with a win, and the loser isn't quite 100-percent done with a loss. Teams merely improve or hurt their standing relative to the big, broad bubble.

A good example of a leverage game arrives this Wednesday night in Berkeley, Calif. The Utah Utes — on the bad side of the bubble — take on the California Golden Bears, a team that's on the good side of the bubble… but moving in the wrong direction, toward the middle of the bubble.

If California wins, the Golden Bears would very likely be in the field of 68, but in the event that they lost to Colorado and then in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, they might still sweat a little bit on Selection Sunday, thereby making them something less than a lock. A potential loss in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament could deliver a resume hit that would drag the Bears toward the cut line. Utah can't lose many more times, to be sure, but if the Utes did fall on Wednesday, would they be completely dead? They could defeat Stanford over the weekend and then win three games in the Pac-12 Tournament before losing in the final. That might be good enough to get Utah into the field, so Utah would not die a bubble death in Berkeley — not quite. This is still a leverage game more than a play-in or play-out game, even if Cal wins.

If Utah beats Cal, though, both teams would be brought to very similar positions on the bubble. From that perspective, this is even more clearly a leverage game as opposed to a play-in or play-out game.

If you want an example of a play-out game, this upcoming Saturday's game between Missouri and Tennessee would seem to fit the bill — if not perfectly, at least more than other examples you can find across the country. Neither team picked off Kentucky or (especially) Florida in the SEC this season. Tennessee did beat Virginia, but the Vols really can't claim too much else on their resume, a split with Xavier (not a clean win in only one meeting) being a bright spot.

Yes, it's reasonable to claim that the Missouri-Tennessee loser might still have a slim chance at an at-large bid with a run to the SEC Tournament final, but the SEC's lack of quality depth means that a first-rounder and a quarterfinal are both likely to be nothing more than "loss avoidance games." Tigers-Vols might be a leverage game, but it's certainly closer to a play-out game for both teams involved, especially when compared to Utah-Cal.

1 – The Composition Of Wins And Losses Makes A Resume, Not Total Wins Or Conference Records

Every year in Bubbleville, at least some fans will say the following: "You can't have a losing record in your conference" or "You can't keep a team that won 12 (or 13, or 14) conference games out of the field."

Remember 2011 Alabama, 12-4 in the SEC? The Crimson Tide didn't make the NCAA tournament. 

Remember 2012 Washington, the regular season Pac-12 champion with a 14-4 conference mark? The Huskies did not make the field of 68.

Conversely, Florida State made the 1998 NCAA field with a 6-10 record in the ACC. Last year, Minnesota went 8-10 in the Big Ten but got in because its conference was so good. This year, the Big 12 is strong enough that it will likely push at least one team with a losing conference record into the field (Baylor or Oklahoma State). There's actually a very realistic chance that both the Bears and Cowboys could be invited to the Dance.

These and other examples reinforce a core point about any bubble resume: Its mixture of wins and losses — major conquests or the absence thereof; awful tumbles or the absence thereof — represents its essence. Conference records mean less than they once did, given that conference expansion has created imbalanced schedules. A team that goes 10-6 against a cake schedule has less meat on the bone than a team that went 7-9 against a Murderer's Row.

One must also account for road-neutral records in this process. (This is why Utah, with a fairly solid profile in many other respects, is still slightly behind the curve — the Utes simply haven't done a thing on the road this season.) Furthermore, one must weed out non-Division I wins (Utah also suffers here, having won two games against such opponents) or other low-grade D-I cupcakes. Too much sugar and not enough whole grain in a scheduling diet can cause distress to the stomach on Selection Sunday.

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Carry these five points with you over the next two weeks. When you discuss the bubble with your friends, chances are you'll run into a topic or case study that brings one or more of these issues into focus.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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