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Bracketology: A first look at the bubble for 2017

SPOILER: It’s a mess.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Northwestern
Vic Law and Northwestern are getting closer to finally breaking the Wildcats’ NCAA drought.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Selection Sunday 2017 is rapidly approaching with only six weeks and two days of basketball remaining before we know the 68 teams that will set off on the road to Glendale. With conference play nearing its midway point, it’s time for our first look at which teams are in strong bid position and which ones have more work to do over the next month and a half.

Quite a lot has happened since my post from last Friday listing 16 possibilities for the four No. 1 seeds. For starters, a whopping 10 of those squads have lost at least once. Plus, Allonzo Trier returned for Arizona, and thanks to the end of that personnel mystery and the Wildcats’ win over UCLA, Sean Miller’s team has jumped into contention. Still, even though Villanova, Kansas, and Kentucky all fell on Tuesday night, all three remain on the top line of today’s projection, joined by Big 12 co-leader Baylor.

The big news off the court this week is the Selection Committee’s new midseason sneak peek at the top 16 that will come on Feb. 11. But there’s no need to wait that long. Here’s the top 16 teams in my current projection.

Top Four Seeds

1 seeds 2 seeds 3 seeds 4 seeds
1 seeds 2 seeds 3 seeds 4 seeds
1. Villanova 5. Gonzaga* 9. Louisville 13. Notre Dame
2. Kansas 6. N. Carolina* 10. Butler* 14. Virginia
3. Kentucky* 7. Florida St. 11. Oregon 15. Cincinnati*
4. Baylor* 8. Arizona* 12. UCLA 16. West Virginia

Now, here’s how these 16 teams look when placed into the four regions and assigned to first weekend sites.

Top Four Seeds By Region

1. Villanova (Buffalo) 1. Baylor (Tulsa) 1. Kansas (Tulsa) 1. Kentucky (Indianapolis)
4. Virginia (Greenville) 4. Notre Dame (Milwaukee) 4. Cincinnati (Buffalo) 4. West Virginia (Orlando)
3. UCLA (Sacramento) 3. Oregon (Sacramento) 3. Louisville (Indianapolis) 3. Butler (Milwaukee)
2. Florida State (Orlando) 2. Gonzaga (Salt Lake City) 2. Arizona (Salt Lake City) 2. North Carolina (Greenville)

Since this is the first of these posts for 2017, let me refresh your memory on how I count through the field. Of the 68 places in the NCAA Tournament, I’m assuming that 23 of them will go to single-bid conference champions. That leaves 45 spots — the 36 at-large selections and nine champions of the likely multi-bid conferences. Now this total might fluctuate slightly if a team like Conference USA leader Middle Tennessee, one of the few mid-majors in the picture, needs an at-large spot due to a conference tournament loss.

With our 16 protected seeds known, 29 spots are up for grabs. While it’s still a bit early to call a team a lock, the top 16 and these 11 squads are close.

Near Locks

5 seeds 6 seeds 7 seeds
5 seeds 6 seeds 7 seeds
17. Wisconsin 21. South Carolina 25. USC
18. Purdue 22. Duke 26. Saint Mary's
19. Creighton 23. SMU 27. Xavier
20. Maryland* 24. Florida

With Wednesday night’s big home win over UCLA, USC shored up its credentials, which were softening thanks to a 4-4 start to Pac-12 play. On the flip side, Creighton, a three seed in Tuesday’s full projection, has slid down to a five, thanks to a pair of losses in their first full games without the injured Maurice Watson.

Wisconsin, Purdue, and Maryland, the top three Big Ten teams in this projection, are nearing protected seed range. On the other hand, the preseason No. 1 of many, Duke, has tumbled down to the six line.

That’s 27 spots with 18 remaining. After line seven, things start to get really muddled.

Bubble IN

7 seeds 8 seeds 9 seeds 10 seeds
7 seeds 8 seeds 9 seeds 10 seeds
28. Northwestern 29. Indiana 33. Dayton* 37. Iowa State
30. Virginia Tech 34. Minnesota 38. Seton Hall
31. Middle Tenn* 35. California
32. Marquette 36. Michigan

Three teams stand out from this group. Marquette is soaring to safety, thanks to back-to-back wins over Creighton and Villanova. On the other hand, Minnesota is burrowing its way toward the cut line — the Golden Gophers’ Wednesday loss at Ohio State was their fourth in succession. But another Big Ten squad, Northwestern, is inching closer to earning its first-ever NCAA bid. The Wildcats’ next five games, starting Sunday with inconsistent Indiana, will go along way to determining whether they break the jinx.

Note that as an eight seed, Middle Tennessee would have an excellent shot at earning an at-large if the season ended today.

All that’s left are the last four byes into the First Four and the quartet of teams destined for Dayton.

The Cut Line

Last Four Byes Last Four In First Four Out Next Four Out
Last Four Byes Last Four In First Four Out Next Four Out
39. Michigan State 43. Miami 69. Georgia Tech 73. Clemson
40. VCU 44. Texas Tech 70. Oklahoma St. 74. Rhode Island
41. Arkansas 45. Wake Forest 71. Utah 75. N.C. State
42. Kansas State 46. TCU 72. Pitt 76. UT Arlington

If the Blue Raiders were to lose in a hypothetical Conference USA Tournament happening this weekend, TCU would be the team to drop out. You’re probably surprised to see Michigan State this low, but the Spartans head into Sunday’s home game with Michigan on a three-game skid. The four Big 12 teams on either side of the cut line are largely interchangeable at this point, though Oklahoma State‘s 2-6 Big 12 record is the biggest mark against their selection. It’s a similar story for Pitt from the ACC. The Panthers have quality non-conference wins over Marquette and Maryland, but a 1-6 league record that includes a five-game losing streak capped by the biggest home loss in conference history is downright awful.

The team from this group to keep an eye on is Georgia Tech. On Wednesday night, the Yellow Jackets ran Florida State out of McCamish Pavilion to pick up their second win of the season over a squad likely to be a top three seed. While Josh Pastner’s team has losses to Ohio Bobcats (at home), Tennessee (another team to watch after Tuesday’s win over Kentucky), Penn State and Georgia (a team that cratered its bubble chances with a 20-point home loss to Alabama on Wednesday), those two wins along with a road victory over VCU and a potential tiebreaking win over Clemson are quite helpful. The thing the Yellow Jackets need, however, is a quality ACC road win (or two). But if Tech can stun Notre Dame in Atlanta on Saturday, they’ll get a closer look for Tuesday’s projection.

Utah sits on the outside looking in after Thursday night’s home loss to Oregon. Thanks to their truly awful non-conference schedule, the Utes could have used that one.

Even though NC State kicked off this week of madness with a Big Monday victory over Duke, the Wolfpack are still a ways out thanks to their soft non-conference schedule. But given the mess that surrounds them, Mark Gottfried’s squad will surely find itself in better position with another win or two.

This week, I’m deliberately putting the “also considered” group in alphabetical order, since it’s the college basketball equivalent of the shrug emoji.

Alabama, Boise State, Georgia, Houston, Illinois, La Salle, Memphis, Oakland, Ole Miss, Ohio State, Penn State, St. Bonaventure, Temple, Tennessee, UCF, Wichita State

Finally, here’s a look at how the 22 remaining single-bid conference representatives stack up. Of this group, UNCW, Nevada, and Valparaiso have the best chance at earning an unlikely at-large. I’ll discuss their profiles in more detail as the weeks roll on.

Likely Auto Bid Only

12 seeds 13 seeds 14 seeds 15 seeds 16 seeds
12 seeds 13 seeds 14 seeds 15 seeds 16 seeds
47. UNCW* 51. Illinois State* 55. Vermont* 59. Belmont* 63. Weber State*
48. Nevada* 52. Monmouth* 56. Princeton* 60. Bucknell* 64. Texas Sthn*
49. Valparaiso* 53. UNCG* 57. Winthrop* 61. N. Dakota St.* 65. UC Irvine*
50. New Mexico St.* 54. Akron* 58. FGCU* 62. Georgia Sthn.* 66. New Orleans*
67. FDU*
68. Morgan State*

My next full update will arrive on Tuesday. What are you most looking forward to on this weekend’s slate? (Besides Saturday’s Kansas-Kentucky showdown.)