NCAA Tournament Bid Thieves: Breaking Down Bubble-Busting Scenarios

Bracket Bid Thieves NCAA Tournament 2020

Can Utah State get revenge on San Diego State in the MWC Tourney and bust somebody else's bubble? (Photo by Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire)

It’s the time of the year when Bubble Talk really gets going, and “Bid Thieves” come back into vogue. For those that don’t know, “Bid Thieves” are teams that take up a bid, knocking another team “off the bubble.” In order to have a true “bid thief” situation, you need a team to win its conference tournament that was otherwise unlikely to secure an at-large, AND have another team or teams in that conference that are at-large quality (and were presumptively the auto bid recipient).

In this post, you’ll see support for all of the following:

  • East Tennessee State and Northern Iowa are true mid-major wildcards for an at-large spot if they don’t get the auto bid;
  • The conferences (outside those two mid-majors) most likely to produce a bid thief are the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, American, and SEC;
  • Overall, the most likely outcome is that the bubble shrinks by 2 to 3 spots this year; and
  • It is very unlikely that the bubble does not shift at all due to “bid thieves.”

A Quick Review of 2019 Bid Thieves

Last year had a lot of bid thieves emerge. 2019 featured three clear bid thief situations that reduced the bubble, plus one other that qualifies with the spirit of how people generally use the term.

  • In the Pac-12, Oregon won the conference title. That bumped Washington into the at-large pool of teams.
  • In the Atlantic 10, Saint Louis won the conference tournament, and VCU moved to the at-large pool.
  • In the Ohio Valley, Murray State beat Belmont in the final and got a No. 12 Seed, while Belmont still got in as one of the final at-larges as a No. 11 Seed.
  • The other situation was Saint Mary’s winning the WCC title. Saint Mary’s was below the bubble until they beat a No. 1 Seed in Gonzaga in the final. They ended up with a No. 11 Seed, the same as the final at-large teams.

Now, we’l turn to 2020, by looking at our projected odds of winning each conference tournament, as well as our projected teams in or near the field using the bracket predictions and bubble breakdown.

East Tennessee State and Northern Iowa

East Tennessee State out of the Southern Conference and Northern Iowa from the Missouri Valley are interesting wildcards. Neither team is a lock to make the tournament as an at-large if they don’t win the conference tournament, but both have plausible cases. East Tennessee State is 27-4, won at LSU, and played at Kansas. They probably should be in, having that record while playing two road games against high-major tournament teams, but you never know. Northern Iowa, likewise, is 25-5 and has wins at Colorado and against a potential bubble team out of the SEC in South Carolina on a neutral court.

So either of them could be this year’s Belmont, who still got in as a mid-major after losing a tough final. But they could also be this year’s Saint Mary’s from 2018 or Illinois State from 2017, who both got NIT No. 1 Seeds as one of the “First Four Out.” Recent history suggests both will be right on the cutline to play in Dayton or go to the NIT if they don’t win the auto bid.

Our conference projections give East Tennessee State a 43% chance and Northern Iowa a 42% chance of winning the auto bid.

If you do the math, then, there is roughly a 50/50 chance that one of these teams (and the other bubble teams that could be bumped if they get the nod) will be sweating it out on Selection Sunday, and a 33% chance that both of them are. There’s only an 18% chance that both win their respective conference tournaments and make things much simpler at the bubble.

Mountain West

San Diego State is of course a lock for the tournament, with the potential to be a No. 1 Seed. Utah State has a viable at-large case, but looks like they will be on the wrong side of the bubble … unless they can beat San Diego State. Every other Mountain West team is auto bid or bust.

Our projections give San Diego State a 49% of winning the Mountain West tournament, and Utah State a 28% chance. That means a 23% chance for everyone else.

But Utah State also appears to be in the same situation as Saint Mary’s a year ago. They need the big win against San Diego State, and the only way it happens is in the final, for the auto bid. So realistically, this is a 50/50 situation where an auto bid thief could happen.

Atlantic 10

Dayton is the only lock in the Atlantic 10, playing for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Rhode Island, Richmond, and Saint Louis are bubble teams. As of right now, all appear to be on the wrong side of it.

Our conference tournament projections currently give Dayton a 49% chance of winning the auto bid. The trio of bubble teams collectively have a 30% chance of winning it, leaving 21% for other teams. It’s possible that Rhode Island or Richmond (whoever were to win a semifinal matchup) would have an at-large case but this is looking like another situation where it’s close to 50/50 that a bid thief happens.

American Athletic

Houston is the only clear at-large lock in the American, though Wichita State looks to be above the cut line as well. Any conference tournament victory by Wichita State would merely solidify their standing in the field. Our projections give Houston a 36% chance and Wichita State a 17% chance of winning the tournament.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati and Memphis are at or just below the bubble. They might be able to get in by, say, reaching the American final, but that would be a question mark. Our projections collectively give them a 28% chance of being the tournament champion.

All other teams project as playing for the auto bid, and that most likely includes Tulsa, who currently sits as the No. 2 Seed. All other teams in the American have a 19% chance of winning it and becoming a bid thief, led by Connecticut, Tulsa, and SMU.

Southeastern Conference

Among the power conferences, the SEC projects as the most likely to produce a bid thief situation in 2020. (Though certainly not as likely as the Pac-12 was last year.) That’s because the top of the conferences isn’t all that dominant, and the middle includes plenty of teams that appear on the wrong side of the bubble. Kentucky, Auburn, and LSU are a combined 15-4 in games decided by 6 or less. We give those top three teams, plus Florida, a 71% chance of winning the title. Those teams would all certainly be in already.

Mississippi State is right on the bubble, and would probably be in a position to be selected if they made a run to the final. Our projections have them at 6% to win the SEC Tournament.

South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama all look to be on the wrong side of the bubble, and needing major results. They might all need the auto bid. Our projections show a 19% that one of those four could win the title. That leaves a 4% chance for the remaining teams (Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt).

The Rest

The remaining conferences with at-large quality teams offer at best a 5% chance of a bid thief, because they are deep with tournament teams and have some of the best teams in the country. It’s unlikely that any teams in the bottom tier of these conferences can pull off a run to the tournament title.

Based on our current odds of winning each tournament, there is about a 5% chance that a bid thief comes from the ACC or Pac-12, a 3% chance one comes from the Big Ten or Big 12, and a 2% chance from the Big East or West Coast Conference.

Overview of Odds for Bid Thieves

Setting aside the mid-major situations with East Tennessee State and Northern Iowa for now, here are some estimates on the likelihood of getting a certain number of bid thieves in 2020, based on the chances in each conference outlines above.

Number of Bid ThievesPercent Chance
4 or more5%

If we add the chances that East Tennessee State, Northern Iowa, or both lose, creating the Belmont bubble situation, we get the following for the number of spots the bubble could shrink in 2020.

Number of Bid ThievesPercent Chance
5 or more9%

It is very unlikely the bubble does not shrink at all. In fact, there’s only about a 2% chance this year that the bubble looks like it does now. There’s only a 15% chance that the bubble shrinks by one or zero spots. This exercise probably overestimates the chances at the high end for lots of thieves, and that’s because the bubble shrinking in turn has an impact on who is on the bubble. Take East Tennessee State as an example. If there is only one bid thief situation (the auto bid from their own conference), they are on the bubble. If it shrinks by 3-4 spots, they become a long shot for selection.

The most likely scenarios are that it shrinks by two to three slots. That means, as you study projections today for the Last Four In, you should make a mental adjustment. The likelihood is that about half those teams are really on the outside. We may not know the identity of the teams that will claim auto bids unexpectedly, but we should not be surprised when it happens.