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Bracketology: Villanova, Baylor, Kansas, and UCLA lead the way

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The 2016 champs are at the head of the class again in the first real bracket of 2017.

NCAA Basketball: Charleston at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Despite Wednesday night’s road loss to Butler, Josh Hart and the Villanova Wildcats are the top team in my first in-season projection of 2017. Even after the setback at Hinkle, the defending national champs remain at the top of the RPI table, thanks to road wins over Purdue and Creighton and neutral-site triumphs over Notre Dame and Wake Forest.

Baylor, owner of home wins over Oregon and Xavier along with a Battle 4 Atlantis title clinched with a victory over the Louisville, sits second overall. A Big 12 rival of the Bears, Kansas, anchors the Midwest region, due in no small part to an 8-0 record against the RPI Top 100. Finally, UCLA edges Kentucky for the final top seed, in part due to their Dec. 3 win at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats join Butler, Duke, and resurgent Oregon on the two line.

This first bracket of 2017 is one of the most unusual ones I’ve built in my eight seasons performing this particular task for SB Nation. I’ll elaborate on this statement after today’s full bracket and rundown.

EAST SOUTH
EAST SOUTH
New York (Fri/Sun) Memphis (Fri/Sun)
Buffalo (Thu/Sat) Tulsa (Fri/Sun)
1. Villanova 1. Baylor (Big 12)
16. Longwood/Hampton 16. FDU/New Orleans
8. Virginia Tech 8. Clemson
9. Maryland 9. Saint Mary's
Greenville (Fri/Sun) Milwaukee (Thu/Sat)
5. Purdue 5. Notre Dame
12. Arkansas/Middle Tenn. 12. Wichita State (MVC)
4. Virginia 4. Xavier (Big East)
13. Vermont (AE) 13. Akron (MAC)
Buffalo (Thu/Sat) Orlando (Thu/Sat)
6. Wisconsin 6. SMU (American)
11. UT Arlington (SB) 11. Northwestern/N.C. State
3. West Virginia 3. Florida State (ACC)
14. Bucknell (Patriot) 14. Furman (SoCon)
Sacramento (Fri/Sun) Indianapolis (Fri/Sun)
7. Minnesota 7. Pittsburgh
10. Miami 10. Dayton
2. Oregon (Pac-12) 2. Kentucky (SEC)
15. E. Washington (Big Sky) 15. North Dakota State (Summit)
WEST MIDWEST
San José (Thu/Sat) Kansas City (Thu/Sat)
Sacramento (Fri/Sun) Tulsa (Fri/Sun)
1. UCLA 1. Kansas
16. UC Davis (Big West) 16. Texas Southern (SWAC)
8. Iowa State 8. Rhode Island
9. VCU (A 10) 9. South Carolina
Orlando (Thu/Sat) Salt Lake City (Thu/Sat)
5. North Carolina 5. Creighton
12. Marshall (C-USA) 12. Boise State (MW)
4. Florida 4. Arizona
13. Yale (Ivy) 13. New Mexico State (WAC)
Salt Lake City (Thu/Sat) Milwaukee (Thu/Sat)
6. USC 6. Indiana
11. Illinois 11. UNCW (CAA)
3. Gonzaga (WCC) 3. Louisville
14. Canisius (MAAC) 14. Oakland (Horizon)
Greenville (Fri/Sun) Indianapolis (Fri/Sun)
7. Seton Hall 7. Cincinnati
10. Michigan State (Big Ten) 10. Michigan
2. Duke 2. Butler
15. Belmont (OVC) 15. Florida Gulf Coast (A-Sun)
FIRST FOUR (Dayton)
To Buffalo (Tue.) To Tulsa (Wed.)
16. Longwood (Big South) 16. Fairleigh Dickinson (NEC)
16. Hampton (MEAC) 16. New Orleans (Southland)
To Orlando (Tue.) To Greenville (Wed.)
11. Northwestern 12. Arkansas
11. N.C. State 12. Middle Tennessee

Rundown

BIDS BY CONFERENCE AVOIDING DAYTON ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
BIDS BY CONFERENCE AVOIDING DAYTON ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
ACC: 11 Miami (38) Akron Cal St. Bakersfield
Big Ten: 9 Michigan (39) Boise State Chattanooga
Big 12: 4 Dayton (40) Bucknell Colorado
Big East: 4 Illinois (42) Canisius Connecticut
Pac-12: 4 LAST FOUR IN Eastern Washington Eastern Michigan
SEC: 4 Arkansas (43) Florida State Fort Wayne
A 10: 3 Middle Tennessee (44) Furman Georgia
American: 2 N.C. State (45) Hampton Lehigh
C-USA: 2 Northwestern (46) Illinois Long Beach State
WCC: 2 FIRST FOUR OUT Longwood Monmouth
One-Bid: 22 Temple Marshall Norfolk State
TCU Middle Tenn. Northern Iowa
Valparaiso Minnesota Oklahoma
Colorado N.C. State Princeton
NEXT FOUR OUT N.D. State Sam Houston State
Georgia New Mexico State San Diego State
Wake Forest New Orleans Syracuse
Oklahoma State Northwestern Texas
Nevada Oakland Texas A&M
SMU UAB
South Carolina Utah
UC Davis Valparaiso
USC Weber State
Yale Winthrop

Under Consideration (in alphabetical order): Arkansas State, BYU, California, College of Charleston, George Mason, George Washington, Houston, Illinois State, Iowa, Kansas State, Marquette, Memphis, Nebraska, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Providence, Saint Joseph’s, St. Bonaventure, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, UCF

The 2016-17 college basketball season has been a fairly difficult one to predict — all you have to do is look at results from the Big Ten and ACC over the past week to realize that. Some of these unexpected developments made this projection a unique one. For starters, the top four seeds in each of the four regions are as balanced as they can get, with the overall seed numbers for each quartet totaling a perfect 34. I’ve been projecting brackets since 2006 and can’t recall ever having such balance at the top. Bracketing rules usually prevent it.

You might also notice that each of the 16 pods in this projection are anchored by a team that’s geographically convenient. Thanks to UCLA’s resurgence, the two Western sites are currently anchored by four regional teams — there was no need to ship an Eastern or Midwestern team to Sacramento or Salt Lake City to fill a hole. Plus, great starts by Florida State and Florida mean the Orlando site might have two local teams playing there in March.

This was even possible without the presence of a Big Ten team on the top four seed lines — the fifth-seeded Purdue Boilermakers are currently that conference’s highest-ranked team.

Now, in just about every radio and podcast interview I’ve given so far this season, I’ve said that 2017’s at-large pool is going to be power-conference intensive. And that remains true even though I have two Conference USA teams in this projection. (Hey there, Middle Tennessee!) This week, the six power conferences account for a whopping 31 of 36 at-large bids, with the ACC and Big Ten taking 18 of those 31. Given how few mid-majors were able to distinguish themselves during November and December, don’t expect this to change.

As a result, much of this season’s remaining drama will be played out in the middle tiers of the power conferences. Picking up quality wins over the final two months of the season is likely the only way several squads — mostly those in the “Under Consideration” group above will get in, thanks to indifferent performances over the first few weeks of the season.

I’ll discuss those squads and their cases in more depth as the clock ticks down to Selection Sunday. My next full update will come on Tuesday, accounting for a busy first full weekend of January.