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Bracketology: The bubble is a mess one week before Selection Sunday

On Wednesday night, Northwestern finally escaped a bubble that’s somehow become more crowded. But where do the other contenders stand heading into the final weekend of the regular season?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

When compared to Tuesday’s version, little has changed at the top of today’s bracket. The most significant change affected the two and three lines, as Butler and Louisville swapped places following the Cardinals’ Wednesday night loss at Wake Forest. Meanwhile, Virginia and Purdue occupy the final two spots on the four line, as Minnesota and West Virginia dropped after I did a scrub and fresh review of all contenders.

After today’s full bracket, I’ll run through where the lock and bubble picture stands with nine days before Selection Sunday’s arrival.

1. Midwest (Left) and 2. East (Right)

Kansas City (Thu/Sat) New York (Fri/Sun)
Kansas City (Thu/Sat) New York (Fri/Sun)
Tulsa (Fri/Sun) Buffalo (Thu/Sat)
1. Kansas (Big 12) 1. Villanova (Big East)
16. North Dakota (Big Sky) 16. Mt. St. Mary's/N.C. Central
8. Northwestern 8. Maryland
9. Virginia Tech 9. VCU
Salt Lake City (Thu/Sat) Milwaukee (Thu/Sat)
5. Minnesota 5. Iowa State
12. UNCW (CAA) 12. Nevada (MW)
4. Arizona 4. Virginia
13. Oakland (Horizon) 13. Monmouth (MAAC)
Greenville (Fri/Sun) Buffalo (Thu/Sat)
6. Cincinnati 6. Saint Mary's
11. Wichita State/Syracuse 11. Xavier
3. Louisville 3. Duke
14. Belmont (OVC) 14. Bucknell (Patriot)
Indianapolis (Fri/Sun) Indianapolis (Fri/Sun)
7. Dayton (A 10) 7. Wisconsin
10. Michigan State 10. USC
2. Butler 2. Kentucky (SEC)
15. South Dakota (Summit) 15. Winthrop (Big South)

4. West (Left) and 3. South (Right)

San José (Thu/Sat) Memphis (Fri/Sun)
San José (Thu/Sat) Memphis (Fri/Sun)
Salt Lake City (Thu/Sat) Greenville (Fri/Sun)
1. Gonzaga (WCC) 1. North Carolina (ACC)
16. Texas Southern (SWAC) 16. UC Davis/New Orleans
8. Oklahoma State 8. Michigan
9. Providence 9. Arkansas
Orlando (Thu/Sat) Milwaukee (Thu/Sat)
5. Notre Dame 5. West Virginia
12. Rhode Island/Illinois 12. UT Arlington (Sun Belt)
4. Florida 4. Purdue (Big Ten)
13. Princeton (Ivy) 13. Vermont (AmEast)
Orlando (Thu/Sat) Sacramento (Fri/Sun)
6. SMU (American) 6. Creighton
11. Middle Tennessee (C-USA) 11. Illinois State (MVC)
3. Florida State 3. UCLA
14. Akron (MAC) 14. FGCU (A-Sun)
Sacramento (Fri/Sun) Tulsa (Fri/Sun)
7. South Carolina 7. Miami
10. Marquette 10. Seton Hall
2. Oregon (Pac-12) 2. Baylor
15. Cal State Bakersfield (WAC) 15. UNC Greensboro (SoCon)

First Four

To Buffalo (Tue.) To Orlando (Tue.) To Greenville (Wed.) To Greenville (Wed.)
To Buffalo (Tue.) To Orlando (Tue.) To Greenville (Wed.) To Greenville (Wed.)
16. Mount St. Mary's (NEC) 11. Rhode Island 16. UC Davis (Big West) 11. Wichita State
16. N.C. Central (MEAC) 11. Illinois 16. New Orleans (Southland) 11. Syracuse

Bids are rapidly disappearing, while the bubble isn’t really shrinking. A whopping 35 of 45 available spots are all but spoken for with a little less than a week to play.

Locks (31)

Teams are listed in seed list order.

1 seeds: Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina, Gonzaga
2 seeds: Oregon, Baylor, Kentucky, Butler
3 seeds: UCLA, Louisville, Duke, Florida State
4 seeds: Florida, Arizona, Virginia, Purdue
5 seeds: Minnesota, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Iowa State
6 seeds: Cincinnati, Creighton, Saint Mary’s, SMU
7 seeds: South Carolina, Wisconsin, Dayton, Miami
8 seeds: Maryland, Oklahoma State, Northwestern

Outside of the WCC Tournament, which will go a long way toward determining Gonzaga‘s top seed fate, the Pac-12 and ACC Tournaments look to be the most important events to watch next weekend in terms of top-line developments. For the sake of the Selection Committee’s deliberations, it’s a good thing both end on Saturday night.

Naturally, Northwestern is here following Wednesday’s amazing, buzzer-beating home win over Michigan — a victory that almost assuredly ended the Wildcats’ run in the NCAA wilderness. Meanwhile, thanks to their home win over VCU on Wednesday night, the Dayton Flyers clinched the top seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and elevated themselves into the lock category.

Near locks (4)

8 seeds: Michigan
9 seeds: Virginia Tech, Arkansas, VCU

One thing holds these four teams back from clinching lock status — there’s still the potential they can pick up one last bad loss, not necessarily this weekend, but next week. Power conference tournament brackets are going to be something to watch for over the weekend, as they could lay out significant roadblocks for potential tourney squads.

Bubble in (2)

9 seed: Providence
10 seed: Michigan State

The Providence Friars have won five in a row, and with only a game at St. John’s left in their regular season, they might just be a near lock by the time the Big East Tournament arrives. On the other hand, Michigan State‘s loss at Illinois wasn’t the best way to start their final two-game road swing. Michigan State heads to Maryland for a tricky one on Saturday. Lose that and it could be a close call for Tom Izzo’s team, especially if it struggles in Washington, D.C. next week.

Cut line (8 in, 17 under consideration)

Last four byes: Marquette, USC, Seton Hall, Xavier
Last four IN: Wichita State, Syracuse, Rhode Island, Illinois

Illinois, now 5-8 against the Top 50 thanks to that win over Sparty, replaces Vanderbilt in today’s projection. But the Illini face a potential trap game when they visit last-place Rutgers on Saturday, and the Big Ten Tournament might yet offer up another potential questionable late-loss opportunity.

Of these eight, however, the team to really keep an eye on is Xavier, which is 3-6 since losing Edmond Sumner for the season, with the losses part of an ongoing streak. While you’d expect the Musketeers to top DePaul on Saturday in Rosemont, they might have to play the Blue Demons again on Wednesday’s Big East Tournament first round to get to a potential must-win against second-seeded Butler. Given the late struggles, it’s possible the Selection Committee doesn’t think much of a Sumner-less Xavier squad, even with two late wins over the Big East’s worst team.

First four OUT: Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, California, Georgia
Next four out: Ohio State, Kansas State, Georgia Tech, Clemson
Also considered (in order): Iowa, Houston, TCU, Valparaiso, Alabama, Ole Miss, BYU, College of Charleston, UCF

Vanderbilt falls out after Tuesday’s loss at Kentucky, the Commodores’ 14th setback of the season. Keep that number in mind over the next week, as the Selection Committee has never awarded an at-large bid to a team bearing more than that many losses. That means the majority of teams in this group are in danger of falling out of the picture entirely with one or two more losses. Take a look at these totals: Clemson (14), Georgia Tech (13), Iowa (13), Ohio State (13), Syracuse (13), Alabama (12), Georgia (12), Illinois (12), Kansas State (12), TCU (12), and Wake Forest (12).

Of course, the Committee could decide to take a 15-loss team for the first time, but there should be enough options available to make such a decision unnecessary.

Other than Illinois, Wake Forest was the biggest midweek winner, as the Demon Deacons finally picked up a marquee win by defeating the Louisville Cardinals. However, Wake is still just 2-9 in games against Top 50 foes, while Illinois is 5-8. If quality wins matter as much as I suspect, that’s a significant gap. Danny Manning’s team gets another opportunity to increase that total on Saturday, when it visits Virginia Tech.

Iowa inserted itself into the picture at the last minute by stunning struggling Wisconsin in Madison last night. A couple of hours later, California saw its hopes take a serious hit with a 30-point loss at Utah.

Will get a look if necessary (in order of at-large likelihood)

Middle Tennessee, Illinois State, UT Arlington, UNCW, Nevada

Illinois State, Wichita State, and UNC Wilmington are in the spotlight first, as their conference tournaments take place this weekend. If both Illinois State and Wichita State reach the Arch Madness final on Sunday afternoon, I suspect both will make the field. Next Saturday’s busy slate features both Middle Tennessee‘s and Nevada‘s potential conference championship games, while UT Arlington‘s won’t take place until Selection Sunday itself.

However, the Blue Raiders almost eliminated themselves last night, as FIU, ranked 344th in the RPI, opened up a 19-point first-half lead in Murfreesboro. Eventually, Kermit Davis’s squad rallied for a 70-67 victory, avoiding one of the worst losses possible this season.

But Thursday was just that kind of night, as MEAC regular season champ North Carolina Central lost to North Carolina A&T, currently second-to-last in the RPI table. That win was the Aggies’ first of the year against a Division I foe. Unfortunately for the MEAC, that result means the Eagles (and likely any other conference tournament winner) will likely end up as one of the four 16 seeds sent to Dayton.

By conference

ACC: 9
Big Ten: 8
Big East: 7
Big 12: 5
Pac-12, SEC: 4
A 10: 3
American, MVC, WCC: 2
One-Bid Conferences: 22

At this point, the Big 12, American, and WCC look to be the conferences with the most set bid totals, with plenty of jostling possible for the other seven multibid leagues. We’ll see how things look when I post my next full update on Sunday morning. Plus, I’ll be chiming in with bubble updates on Saturday as events warrant.