NCAA Tournament Drama: Bubble Watch 2023
Even though there is still a lot of basketball to be played before Selection Sunday, we can already see some trends in the NCAA tournament bubble picture.
In 2023, there won’t be as many mid-major teams competing for at-large bids as there were in the past.
At Bubble Watch, a mid-major is any team that is not Gonzaga and that is not in one of the six major conferences. We also let Gonzaga and Houston off the hook in the same way (and, anyway, the Cougars are joining the Big 12 next season).
Using this language, the golden age of at-large bids for mid-major schools happened 10 years ago. Between the 2012 and 2013 NCAA tournaments, 16 teams from mid-major conferences got at-large bids.
Over the past 10 years, however, the average number of at-large invites for mid-major schools has been closer to five. This average seems to be a good way to predict what will happen in 2023.
Yes, there are five teams in Bubble Watch from just the Mountain West. There is competition for bids from San Diego State, Boise State, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah State.
Unless someone steals a bid in the conference tournament, this group of five could get not only four at-large spots, but also three or even two. Outside of the Mountain West, Saint Mary’s and Florida Atlantic are the only teams that meet our criteria and seem likely to get at-large bids.
The numbers we see on Selection Sunday can be affected by the fact that conferences have slow times. For example, the Atlantic 10 usually lets a fair number of “at-large” teams into the field. But it looks like the A-10 will only get one bid this year. If that happens, it will be the first time since 2005 that the league has only one bid.
Plan on mid-major schools getting about 14% of the field’s at-large bids again in 2023. (Dear NCAA: In the round of 64, please try not to put teams from the top 14% against each other or against automatic qualifiers from mid-major schools. Thanks!)
On the other hand, a team like Oral Roberts, Charleston, or some other team could add to this number, assuming that teams like these don’t get automatic bids.
Here’s how we see the bubble right now:
- Teams from traditional conferences with only one bid: 22
- Locks: 17 teams
- The bubble: there are 41 teams, but only 29 spots
- 19 teams should be in
- 22 teams have work to do
NCAA Tournament: ACC
Should Be In
After playing four true road games in 21 days against likely NCAA tournament teams, Miami’s 22-point win over Duke at home was a nice change of pace. Before they won by four points at Clemson, they lost by a total of seven points at NC State, Duke, and Pitt. Still to come are road tests in the form of trips to North Carolina and Virginia Tech. In all honesty, there is also a loss on this profile for Georgia Tech. Even so, it’s possible that Miami could finish with a record of 23-7, win the ACC, and get the projected No. 6 seed. The offense against the ACC is led by Isaiah Wong, Norchad Omier, Jordan Miller, and Nijel Pack. They score 1.13 points for every possession.
Duke Blue Devils
All coaches want their teams to make fewer mistakes, but Duke would benefit the most from doing so. The Blue Devils have had more turnovers than every team in the ACC except for Louisville. On the offensive glass, Jon Scheyer’s team is the best, but Kyle Filipowski, Dereck Lively, and Ryan Young don’t get enough chances to be the best. Also, a good Duke defense would be even better if the other team didn’t run as many fast breaks when Duke turned the ball over. If the Blue Devils come into the tournament as the No. 6 seed, as is currently expected, they could cause a lot of trouble for the No. 3 seed, which is the favorite, if they take care of the ball.
NC State Wolfpack
One of the risks of being in the ACC for years has been the chance that Virginia will suffocate your offense. NC State ran into this risk in Charlottesville, where they lost by seven points. The Wolfpack only scored 50 points in a game with 58 possessions, which was the slowest game NC State has played this season. Kevin Keatts and his team were picked as the No. 8 seed in mock brackets before the game, and a loss on the road to the Cavaliers won’t change that projection by much. This is still an important road trip for the Wolfpack, which will continue with games at Boston College and Syracuse.
North Carolina is 25-3 at home over the last two seasons, and two of those losses were against Pitt. Jeff Capel’s team seems to have some strange, hypnotic power over the Tar Heels. This has given the Panthers’ chances of making the tournament a big boost. Wins on the road against UNC, NC State, and Northwestern add to the team’s 17-7 record, which also includes home wins against Virginia, Miami, and the Heels. If Pitt bids, it would be the first time since Jamel Artis and Michael Young played for Jamie Dixon in 2016 that he would be in the field of 68.
Things to do
After beating Duke at home and becoming a clear at-large candidate, the Tigers have lost three of their last six games. Five of those games were against teams that probably wouldn’t make the NCAA tournament. The sixth was a tough home loss to Miami, 78-74. Victories over the Blue Devils and NC State will continue to help this team’s profile, but a low NET ranking suggests that Brad Brownell’s team will need more wins like these if they want to keep their projected double-digit seed. Clemson still has games on the road against North Carolina, NC State, and Virginia, so there will be plenty of chances to get those wins.
The Tar Heels of North Carolina
Even though North Carolina came back hard at the end, they still lost by seven points at Wake Forest, which is enough to drop them from “Should be in” to “Work to do.” UNC has lost three games in a row because its offense is either in a slump or in a deep freeze, or both. North Carolina has shot 22% on 3s and 44% on 2s in the last 120 minutes. In the next few days, there will be a lot of talk about the Tar Heels’ profile and the fact that their “best” win, according to their team sheet, was a win against Ohio State on a neutral court. However, Hubert Davis’s main basketball concern is finding a way to score some points. (As of February 7)
Demon Deacons from Wake Forest
Wake Forest’s last two wins have been led by Tyree Appleby and Damari Monsanto, who have both been named “most amazing player.” Monsanto hit eight 3-pointers on the road against Notre Dame and scored 28 points in an easy win. Then it was Appleby’s turn at home against North Carolina. The 6-foot-0 senior scored 35 points, in part because he shot 28 free throws. In the second half, when the Tar Heels were behind, they fouled Appleby a lot to stop the clock. Wake is now a bubble team after the Demon Deacons beat UNC by seven points and came out on top. Even though they beat the Tar Heels, Duke, and Wisconsin, the Deacons are still ranked in the 60s by both the NET and the strength of their record. We have things to do. (As of February 8).
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NCAA Tournament: BIG 12
Locks the Kansas Jayhawks, Texas Longhorns, Iowa State Cyclones, Baylor Bears, and Kansas State Wildcats.
Should Be In
TCU Horned Frogs
Mike Miles Jr. was still out with a hyperextended knee, so TCU lost to Kansas State by 21 points on the road. Sometimes it’s easy to overstate the effect of losing a player, but in this case, the Horned Frogs’ offense has been less effective without Miles. During the three conference games that Miles didn’t play, TCU’s scoring per possession and accuracy from beyond the arc both went downhill. In the Big 12, of course, no stretch of games is easy. Still, the fact that the Frogs have games coming up at home against Baylor and on the road against Iowa State shows how important it is for Miles to be back in the lineup.
Things to do
Mountaineers from West Virginia
When West Virginia lost by one point at Oklahoma in mid-January, it looked like the Mountaineers would miss the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. The team coached by Bob Huggins was 10-7 and 0-5 in the Big 12. But in February, West Virginia has done better in close games that went against them in January. Since beating Iowa State by five points at home, the Mountaineers have won five of their last seven games. In his last four games, Erik Stevenson has scored 30 points twice. When he got hurt in a hard collision with the Cyclones, Kedrian Johnson and Emmitt Matthews scored 42 points between them. West Virginia has a record of 14-9 and is likely to be the No. 10 seed. (As of February 8)
Oklahoma State Cowboys
People think that there will be no bad losses in the Big 12 in 2023. Oklahoma State almost put this theory to the test when, with 18 seconds left, it tied Texas Tech at home, which was in last place, at 68 points each. Then, with 0.4 seconds left, John-Michael Wright tipped in the game-winning basket and added a free throw to give the Cowboys a much-needed win. Most people think that Mike Boynton’s team will be in the projected field, even if it will only be by the narrowest of margins. Now, things are going to get very tough for OSU. Three of its next four games will be on the road, at Iowa State, TCU, and West Virginia. Kansas is coming to play at home. (As of February 8)
One might wonder why a team with a record of 12-12 and a conference record of 2-9 is still on Bubble Watch. There’s no doubt that Oklahoma isn’t here because of momentum. In fact, the Sooners have lost six straight Big 12 games. But in the middle of that bad stretch, they beat Alabama by 24 points in a non-conference game. Kansas and Kansas State are the next two teams that OU will play at home. This is not a typical 12-12 situation, but Oklahoma does need to act quickly. (As of February 8)
NCAA Tournament: BIG EAST
Marquette Golden Eagles, Xavier Musketeers, UConn Huskies
Should be In
Last year at this time, Bryce Hopkins was playing an average of seven minutes per game for Kentucky, Devin Carter was coming off the bench for South Carolina, and Noah Locke was starting for a 13-19 Louisville team. (Cardinals fans say those were the good old days.) Along with veterans Ed Croswell and Jared Bynum, all three are now doing well in Providence. Hopkins, who is 6 feet 7 inches tall, has made a name for himself by drawing a lot of fouls on the defensive glass. The Friars were picked to finish fifth in the Big East in the preseason. This is the second straight season that Ed Cooley has done better than expected. The odds are that Providence will be the No. 6 seed.
Creighton looks a lot like the team that many people picked to win the Big East before the season started. In fact, that might be what the Bluejays do. Greg McDermott’s team is now 10-3 in the league after beating Seton Hall by 13 points. CU’s defense was the best in the Big East going into the game, and they won by a score of 22-7 to end the night. The Bluejays are a No. 7 seed in mock brackets because they lost to BYU, Arizona State, and Nebraska at home. Ryan Kalkbrenner missed two of those games, and now Creighton is almost in the top 15 in the NET rankings when they are at full strength. (As of February 8)
Things to do
Seton Hall Pirates
Seton Hall lost at home to Creighton 75-62, even though Al-Amir Dawes made five 3-pointers and Kadary Richmond stole the same number of balls. The loss puts the Pirates just outside of the projected field, but they still have a lot of chances to play their way into the bracket with the games they still have to play. A home game against Xavier will be in between road games against UConn and Providence. Under Shaheen Holloway, the Pirates’ style is similar to Marquette’s in that both teams’ defenses work hard to get takeaways. (As of February 8)
NCAA Tournament: BIG TEN
Should Be In
When your team goes almost nine minutes in the second half without making a field goal and still beats a ranked opponent, you know you have a strong team. After beating Rutgers 66–60 at home, Indiana has now won seven of the last eight games it has played. In the process, the Hoosiers have gone from being in real danger of being on the bubble to being close to a lock as a projected No. 5 seed. Trayce Jackson-Davis just keeps coming up with new ways to do amazing things. On a night when he scored 20 points, which is about average, he also grabbed 18 rebounds and passed the ball six times. (As of February 7)
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers played seven home games in the first 12 games of the Big Ten season (where “home” includes a win over Michigan at Madison Square Garden). This means that five of the Scarlet Knights’ last eight games will be on the road. The first game of this stretch was a six-point loss at Indiana. Rutgers will have to work hard in the last few games to keep or even improve what is expected to be a No. 5 seed. Steve Pikiell’s defense is the best in the Big Ten. In conference play, it has given up 0.96 points per possession. This number is 1.09 in Big Ten road games. (As of February 7)
Illinois Fighting Illini
Even though wins over UCLA and Texas on neutral floors look great now, Illinois still has a strange profile. Brad Underwood’s team has lost seven times, and four of those times were by at least 13 points. When Illinois is playing well, it is defending the paint at one end and riding five starters who all make at least 52% of their 2s at the other. When the Illini aren’t playing well, they lose by 22 points to Missouri in St. Louis or by 15 points to Penn State in Champaign. Mock brackets say that this varied and never-boring body of work will get a No. 5 seed next month, but Illinois has to play two games at home against Minnesota and Rutgers first.
Kris Murray scored 24 points for the Iowa Hawkeyes, and in the second half at Purdue, Iowa came back from a 21-point deficit to cut the lead to just six. In the end, though, the Boilermakers went on a 17–9 run to stop the Hawkeyes from beating the No. 1 team in the country on the road. Still, Fran McCaffery’s team will still have chances to win big games on the road, including at Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Indiana. If Iowa gets the expected No. 7 seed, its press can make it hard for a No. 2 seed to bring the ball up the court. In the second half, Purdue, which will be the No. 1 seed, turned the ball over 32% of the time. Patrick McCaffery came off the bench and stole five balls during the game. (As of February 9)
Terrapins of Maryland
On one level, Maryland’s road woes (they’ve only won at Louisville and Minnesota) aren’t getting better. They lost by five points at Michigan State. Well, think about adding another level to that first one. Even though they only made 3 of 22 shots from beyond the arc, the Terrapins kept playing against the Spartans until the 40th minute and lost on the road. This is something that every good team does from time to time. Much like Maryland did at Purdue a few weeks ago when they lost by three points. Kevin Willard’s team is expected to be the No. 8 seed, and they will now play Penn State and Purdue at home.
Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans needed a big boost from a player who made two shots from the field for them to beat a good Maryland team at home. Michigan State’s record went from 15-9 to 15-10 because A.J. Hoggard got 10 rebounds and gave out eight assists. This team could be a 9-seed, but they have lost some heartbreakers against good teams, including a one-point loss at home to Purdue last month. The defense of Tom Izzo’s team has caused more turnovers than any other team in the Big Ten.
Before beating Ohio State by six points on the road, the Wildcats were ranked as a No. 9 or No. 10 seed in mock brackets. The NET rankings still give the Buckeyes high marks, so the game in Columbus was a Quadrant 1 matchup with plenty of room to spare. Still, Northwestern will have even better chances in its next three home games against Purdue, Indiana, and Iowa. After that, there will be games at Illinois and Maryland. For most of the rest of the season, the Wildcats will be safe in the Big 12 zone. If they lose, it will be a “Great win!” or “Wow, that’s a tough league” unless they lose by a lot or by a wide margin. That’s not a bad place for a team on the bubble to be. (As of February 9)
Things to do
At Penn State, Chucky Hepburn and Connor Essegian made a total of nine 3-pointers to help the Badgers beat the Nittany Lions in overtime. Wisconsin has put together a nice set of wins for a team that had to play without Tyler Wahl for three games and has been outscored by a fair amount in Big Ten play. This profile shows that Greg Gard’s team won away games at Marquette, Iowa, Penn State, and Ohio State. They also beat USC on neutral ground and beat Maryland at home. The Badgers are still not in the predicted field, but they are still very much in the discussion. (As of February 8)
The Nittany Lions of Penn State
Penn State seems to be falling out of the field of 68 after a tough overtime loss at home to Wisconsin. Micah Shrewsberry’s team has lost three in a row and seven out of the last ten. For the Nittany Lions to get into the field, they would have to do more than just beat Indiana and Iowa at home and Illinois on the road. There’s still time to do so. Penn State will play two games against Maryland, the first of which will be in College Park. Before playing the Terrapins, the first thing the Nittany Lions need to do is strengthen their defense. The defense has given up 1.22 points per possession in the last three losses. (As of February 8)
NCAA Tournament: PAC-12
Arizona Wildcats, UCLA Bruins
Things to do
Both Joshua Morgan and Reese Dixon-Waters have been hurt and can’t play for the Trojans. They have now played two games without them. In their absence, USC beat Washington by six points at home, but they looked outmatched in the paint when they lost to Oregon, 78-60. Based on the numbers, this is still an at-large profile, even though it belongs to a team with a record of 17-7 that is going to be a double-digit seed. Andy Enfield’s team will now play at Oregon State on the road. When they get back home, they will host Cal and Stanford. The Trojans really need to get back to full strength as soon as possible. (As of February 10)
Before their home game against USC, most people thought the Ducks wouldn’t make it into the field of 68. An 18-point win over the Trojans doesn’t put Dana Altman’s team in the bracket by itself, but it fits in well with Oregon’s quickly improving situation. This profile now includes wins by at least 10 points at home against USC, Arizona, and Nevada, as well as a win by 10 points at Utah, which is good news for the NET rankings. In terms of metrics, the Ducks’ win over the Trojans gave them a nice little boost on the NCAA’s team sheets, but not a huge one. At 15-10, Oregon is looking to beat UCLA at home for its next big win. (As of February 10)
NCAA Tournament: SEC
Alabama Crimson Tide, Tennessee Volunteers
Should Be In
Auburn started the season 16-3, but has lost four of its last five games. Saturday, Alabama comes to town for what could be called a “no-risk” game for the Tigers. Bruce Pearl’s team would get more attention if they won, but a close loss to a projected No. 8 seed won’t hurt them at all. After playing the Crimson Tide, Auburn will play at home against Missouri and Ole Miss, followed by a road game at Vanderbilt. Holding serves at home against Missouri and getting things done against the Commodores and Rebels will be important for this team’s seed. Auburn gets called for fouls a lot: SEC teams average 24 free throws per game when they play Auburn.
Missouri seems to be headed toward a spot near the No. 9 line. This is because they have beaten Iowa State, Illinois, and Kentucky by an average of nearly 18 points. The Tigers have also lost by an average of 22 points to Kansas, Alabama, and Texas A&M. Dennis Gates and his 18-6 team have had their fair share of games that didn’t go their way. One reason for such big differences could be that Missouri is so good at not giving the ball away on offense while forcing it on defense. When this doesn’t happen, though, SEC opponents outscore the Tigers by a wide margin on each effective (turnover-free) possession.
The Razorbacks beat Kentucky 88-73. In the second half, they scored 47 points and made 18 of 25 shots from the field. Oscar Tshiebwe had only seven points and seven rebounds for the night as a whole, thanks to Arkansas’s defense. A 15-point win at Rupp Arena will give a big boost to numbers that for a projected No. 9 seed were already pretty good. No one knows why Eric Musselman feels like his team has to get off to a slow start in SEC play every season. But then, in February, the Hogs get on fire and go on a rampage. Later this month, Arkansas will play on the road against Alabama and Tennessee right after each other. (As of February 7)
Things to do
Wildcats from Kentucky
Before their home game against Arkansas, the projected field showed that John Calipari’s team would get one of the last four byes. Given that their position was already in danger, losing by 15 points to the Razorbacks adds another level of danger to this profile. It was a Quadrant 1 loss, so it could have been worse, but that’s kind of the point. A UK team that has lost all seven of its Quadrant 1 games is losing more and more of these games. The one win was, of course, at Tennessee, which is a great thing to have on your profile. But the Wildcats can’t just rest on the 40 minutes they have left. Georgia and Mississippi State are up next, and both are away games.
Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky are among the teams that have run into the buzz saw that is Alabama and lost by more than 10 points. After a 28-point loss in Tuscaloosa, Florida is now on that list. The Gators’ schedule should get a little easier from here on out, but it’s important to note that their next opponent, Vanderbilt, just beat Tennessee. Most predictions for Todd Golden’s team put them just outside the field, so wins at home against the Commodores and Ole Miss will be crucial, to say the least. After that, UF will go to Arkansas. (As of February 8)
Aggies of Texas A&M
If the committee sticks to what it said it would do and doesn’t look at conference records, it will miss out on some impressive numbers from Texas A&M. The Aggies are now 9-2 in the SEC. The only places they’ve lost are at Kentucky and Arkansas. Still, the bad thing about this profile is that they went 8-5 in non-conference games, and Boise State was the best team they played. The good news for Buzz Williams is that his team will get to play Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama at home, as well as Missouri and Mississippi State on the road. Texas A&M still has a lot of time to get into the field with its play. The first thing that needs to be done is to win at LSU.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State might want to rethink this whole tournament profile thing now that Alabama is doing to the SEC what Gonzaga used to do to the WCC every year. The Bulldogs played the Crimson Tide twice and only lost by a total of 14 points. This might be the most impressive thing that can be said about them. Even better, MSU can add to its work in its next two games, which are against Arkansas and Kentucky at home. Those are the games that can help a team like Mississippi State, which seems to be on the very edge of making the tournament. (As of February 8)
NCAA Tournament: AMERICAN
Cougars of Houston
Things to do
While waiting to play a very important two-game series against Houston, the Tigers scored 99 points and won easily at South Florida. DeAndre Williams led Memphis with 26 points, which is the same number as his age. (Truly. His 26th birthday was in October of last year.) Williams is having the best season of his long career, which started in 2019-20 with Evansville. The 6-foot-9-inch senior is making 57% of his 2-point shots, even though he is doing more than ever for the Memphis offense. Several mock brackets have the Tigers as one of the “first four out” teams. Again, two games against the Cougars could go a long way toward deciding this. (As of February 8)
Should Be In
San Diego State Aztecs
San Diego State, the projected No. 6 seed, beat Utah State by two points. This is the same way the Aztecs have done well all season. When Brian Dutcher’s team played the Aggies, they crashed the offensive glass and got 38% of their missed shots. In just 21 minutes, Jaedon LeDee came off the bench and had a 14-10 double-double with four offensive rebounds. There are still games on the road at Fresno State, New Mexico, and Boise State, but it’s likely that 19-5 SDSU will soon become a lock here at the Watch. (As of February 11)
Things to do
Boise State Broncos
The Broncos were getting closer to where they “should be” until they lost to San Diego State by 20 points. On an otherwise quiet Friday night in Division I, that one game dropped Leon Rice’s team eight spots in the NET rankings. The good news for Boise State is that their game on the road against the Aztecs is the toughest test they will face in the Mountain West this season. The Broncos could finish the regular season with 24 wins and 7 losses. If that happens, they could be in the running for a No. 8 seed.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Nevada has won four games in a row, including a home win by nine points over San Diego State. They are steadily moving into a safer spot in the bracket. For now, the Wolf Pack might still be a double-digit seed in one mock bracket or another. On the other hand, Steve Alford’s team looks better based on the numbers on Nevada’s team sheet. The 20-6 Wolf Pack will play another team trying to impress the committee in their next game, which will be on the road. On paper, Nevada’s trip to Utah State will be the toughest game it still has to play. (As of February 11)
New Mexico Lobos
When they lost by 12 at Air Force, New Mexico’s chances of making the tournament were as slim as they’ve ever been this season. The loss dropped the Lobos about 10 spots in both the NET rankings and the strength of record, which happened at the same time. After three losses in the last four games, these rankings were already going in the wrong direction for a projected double-digit seed. Nevada won two of them. The first one was in double overtime, and the second one was on a game-winning shot right before time ran out. New Mexico still has to play games against Boise State and San Diego State, and those games have become much more important. (As of February 11)
Utah State Aggies
When the Aggies played San Diego State at home, they were down by 10 points with 5:40 left, but they came back and were only down by one with the shot clock off. Then Max Shulga missed an attempt to step back, and the Aztecs won the game. Utah State is 19-6, but mock brackets show that they are on the wrong side of the projected cut line. They are also still looking for their “signature win.” The team of Ryan Odom is 15-0 against Quads 2 and 3, but only 1-4 against Quad 1. However, Nevada and Boise State will both be coming to Logan to play the Aggies. Utah State’s five 3-pointers against San Diego State were the fewest they had made all season in Mountain West games. (As of February 9)
Gonzaga Bulldogs and Saint Mary’s Gaels.
Should Be In
Florida Atlantic Owls
Even though Ole Miss and UAB beat them on the road, Florida Atlantic has been perfect this season. The Owls have a record of 23-2, and that record has impressed both pollsters and computers. Last year, FAU had a 19-15 season that ended in the CBI. Eight of the top ten players on this team in terms of minutes played were on that team. Now, Dusty May and his players are seeing the benefits of keeping the same players on the roster. Johnell Davis, who is the team’s top scorer, comes off the bench, is 6 feet 4 inches tall, anchors the defense on the glass, draws fouls, and shoots 90% from the line. In fake brackets, this group is the No. 9 seed. (As of February 9)
Work to do
Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
Oral Roberts has a good chance of getting an at-large bid as long as it keeps cruising through the Summit League. This way of thinking was put to the test, but in the end, it stayed the same as the Golden Eagles won 95-88 at St. Thomas. Max Abmas is one of the best scorers in the country, and ORU has a top-40 NET ranking (or close to it, depending on the day). They are 22-4 overall and 13-0 in the Summit. (As of February 9)
Cougars of Charleston
Can Charleston, if they have to, get an at-large bid? With a 23-3 record, the Cougars are a very strong team, and the fact that they are ranked in the top 50 for strength of record is proof of that. The problem for Pat Kelsey’s team is that in the past, the committee hasn’t always paid attention to how slowly they beat teams that aren’t good enough for at-large bids. Virginia Tech is the best team that Charleston has beaten. To Mike Young’s credit, Virginia Tech played a true road game at TD Arena. Also, the Cougars have a good chance of going undefeated and finishing the season with a record of 28-3.