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Bracketology 2018: We know the top 16 teams in March Madness. Who’s next?

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Once again, it appears clear that picking up quality wins is the surest way to secure a bid and to improve seeding. Plus, did you realize five teams still can finish conference play unbeaten?

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Pacific
The Selection Committee didn’t do Gonzaga any favors in its Sunday bracket reveal, but the Bulldogs might not mind the path today’s projection offers them in response.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Since this is my first bracket projection after the Selection Committee’s mid-February preview, the top four seeds in each region match their Sunday picks. Now, had the announcement been made on Saturday (as in 2017), it would have been a different story. Ricky O’Donnell did a great job breaking down the bracket reveal, particularly in noting the influence of quality wins and the RPI. Here’s a quick reminder of who those 16 teams are and how they fit into the bracket’s four regions:

Despite the Committee’s incorporation of advanced metrics into selection sheets — capped by the creation of a so-called “super average” (which you can find at BartTorvik.com) that accounts for three results-based metrics (including the RPI) with a trio of predictive ones (think KenPom and Sagarin) — I’m not totally convinced that these are being fully embraced. Sure, the top 14 teams in Sunday’s release and this bracket matched the super average’s top 14. However, the last two No. 4 seeds in the early reveal did not go to the 15th- and 16th-ranked teams in the super average, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Wichita State Shockers.

No, the Committee bestowed those spots to the Oklahoma Sooners and Arizona Wildcats, ranked 21st and 24th, respectively. Given the emphasis on quality wins, it’s not surprising that the Shockers, with just two Group 1 wins (one fewer than Arizona and four fewer than Oklahoma), didn’t get the nod. However, Gonzaga has five top-tier wins, comparable to the Sooners’ total of six and higher than the Wildcats’ three. The Bulldogs are also a top 10 team in all three predictive metrics the Committee selected, while Arizona ranks between 14th and 24th and Oklahoma sits outside the top 30 across the board.

However, a comparison of the teams’ RPI is instructive here. The Bulldogs’ rank of 36th is well below that of both Arizona (18th) and Oklahoma (21st). (Note that Wichita State ranks 19th.) In other words, it sure looks like the RPI remains the ranking of choice.

Here’s the approach I took in building the rest of today’s bracket based on the top 16.

  • The “super average” is super helpful in ranking teams, but if you have any doubt, look at the RPI.
  • Quality wins outweigh everything else.
  • Copious losses balanced against quality wins will cost a team a seed line or two (see Kansas and North Carolina at the top of the bracket and the Florida further down).
  • Poor non-conference scheduling can be overcome at the top of the bracket (hi, Texas Tech and Michigan State) but will probably be a problem for teams close to the cut line (see Kansas State, N.C. State and Mississippi State, all of whom find themselves on the outside looking in right now).

After today’s full bracket and rundown, I’ll examine which teams have the most to gain in the quality win department over the final three weeks of the regular season. Plus, I’ll take a quick look at the shrinking number of teams in position to finish conference play with a spotless record.

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

Atlanta (Thu./Sat.) Boston (Fri./Sun.)
Atlanta (Thu./Sat.) Boston (Fri./Sun.)
Pittsburgh (Thu./Sat.) Pittsburgh (Thu./Sat.)
1. Virginia (ACC) 1. Villanova
16. Nicholls State/Ark.-Pine Bluff ↓16. FGCU (ASUN)
↓8. Creighton ↓8. Florida State
↓9. Michigan ↓9. Arkansas
Boise (Thu./Sat.) Boise (Thu./Sat.)
↓5. West Virginia ↑5. Rhode Island (A 10)
12. Middle Tennessee (C-USA) 12. Buffalo (MAC)
↓4. Tennessee ↑4. Ohio State (Big Ten)
13. Louisiana (Sun Belt) 13. ETSU (SoCon)
Wichita (Thu./Sat.) Dallas (Thu./Sat.)
↑6. Texas A&M ↑6. Arizona State
*11. Baylor *11. Syracuse/Temple
↑3. Michigan State 3. Texas Tech (Big 12)
14. College of Charleston (CAA) 14. Rider (MAAC)
Nashville (Fri./Sun.) Charlotte (Fri./Sun.)
↓7. Miami (Fla.) ↓7. Kentucky
↓10. Providence ↑10. Houston
↑2. Cincinnati (American) 2. Duke
↓15. UNC Asheville (Big South) 15. Bucknell (Patriot)

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

Los Angeles (Thu./Sat.) Omaha (Fri./Sun.)
Los Angeles (Thu./Sat.) Omaha (Fri./Sun.)
Detroit (Fri./Sun.) Detroit (Fri./Sun.)
1. Purdue 1. Xavier (Big East)
*16. NKU (Horizon) *16. Harvard/Savannah State
↑8. TCU ↓8. Alabama
↓9. Butler 9. Nevada (MW)
San Diego (Fri./Sun.) San Diego (Fri./Sun.)
↑5. Gonzaga ↑5. Wichita State
12. New Mexico State (WAC) 12. Loyola (Ill.) (MVC)
↑4. Arizona (Pac-12) 4. Oklahoma
13. Vermont (AE) 13. South Dakota State (Summit)
Dallas (Thu./Sat.) Charlotte (Fri./Sun.)
↑6. Saint Mary's (WCC) 6. Florida
↓11. Washington 11. Texas/UCLA
3. North Carolina ↓3. Clemson
↑14. UC Santa Barbara (Big West) 14. Belmont (OVC)
Wichita (Thu./Sat.) Nashville (Fri./Sun.)
↑7. Missouri ↓7. Seton Hall
↓10. Louisville ↑10. Virginia Tech
2. Kansas 2. Auburn (SEC)
↓15. Montana (Big Sky) 15. Wagner (NEC)

First Four

SOUTH (Automatic) MIDWEST (Automatic) EAST (At-Large) MIDWEST (At-Large)
SOUTH (Automatic) MIDWEST (Automatic) EAST (At-Large) MIDWEST (At-Large)
To Pittsburgh (Tue.) To Detroit (Wed.) To Dallas (Tue.) To Charlotte (Wed.)
16. Nicholls State (Southland) *16. Harvard (Ivy) *11. Syracuse ↓11. Texas
16. Ark.-Pine Bluff (SWAC) *16. Savannah State (MEAC) *11. Temple *11. UCLA
KEY: * = new to bracket ↑ = seed rising ↓ = seed falling

Rundown

LAST EIGHT IN FIRST EIGHT OUT ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
LAST EIGHT IN FIRST EIGHT OUT ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
Houston St. Bonaventure Baylor Kansas State
Providence Kansas State Harvard N.C. A&T
Washington N.C. State Northern Kentucky N.C. State
Baylor Marquette Savannah State Penn
Texas (Dayton) USC Syracuse St. Bonaventure
Syracuse (Dayton) LSU Temple USC
UCLA (Dayton) SMU UCLA Wright State
Temple (Dayton) Western Kentucky

Also considered (in order): Notre Dame, Boise State, Mississippi State, Utah, Nebraska, Maryland, UCF, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Georgia, Oregon, Colorado, South Carolina, Boston College, Iowa State

Bids by Conference

Conference Bids Teams (in Seed List Order)
Conference Bids Teams (in Seed List Order)
ACC 9 Virginia (auto bid), Duke, Clemson, North Carolina, Miami (Fla.), Florida State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Syracuse (First Four)
SEC 8 Auburn (auto bid), Tennessee, Texas A&M, Florida, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas
Big 12 7 Kansas, Texas Tech (auto bid), Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU, Baylor, Texas (First Four)
Big East 6 Villanova, Xavier (auto bid), Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler, Providence
American 4 Cincinnati (auto bid), Wichita State, Houston, Temple (First Four)
Big Ten 4 Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State (auto bid), Michigan
Pac-12 4 Arizona (auto bid), Arizona State, Washington, UCLA (First Four)
WCC 2 Saint Mary's (auto bid), Gonzaga

The majority of at-large contenders have between four (thanks to the early Big Ten Tournament) and six regular-season contests left. And after recalculating the number of quality win opportunities left, there’s still plenty of time for teams to make or break their selection and seeding.

Teams with the most to gain

Just nine teams have six games remaining against opposition currently in Groups 1 and 2. That includes a pair of current No. 2 (Duke and Kansas) and a No. 3 seed (Texas Tech, as North Carolina won its first such contest on Monday night over Notre Dame). The Red Raiders, Tar Heels and bubble teams Arkansas and Baylor had five Group 1 win opportunities alone remaining heading into Monday — and the Bears took advantage of their first, defeating Texas in Austin. West Virginia also won the first of its five remaining chances, taking down TCU. Other teams that still have five shots to really improve their chances include Louisville inside the bracket and Iowa State and Oregon outside of it.

Several teams have a quartet of Group 1 win chances coming up, starting with Clemson, Florida, Kentucky and Seton Hall, which all have plenty of chances left to boost their seeding, while Georgia, Oklahoma State, Providence, Syracuse and Virginia Tech can all work toward selection safety.

Danger ahead

The Purdue Boilermakers, the Committee’s final No. 1 seed, have very little margin for error the rest of the way, particularly after consecutive losses to Ohio State and Michigan State. You see, the Boilermakers don’t have a single quality win opportunity left in their remaining four regular-season matchups. So if Matt Painter’s team slips again, the door might well open for Duke, Kansas, Cincinnati or Auburn to seize the final spot on the top line.

All the way down the bracket, a weak Big Ten means staying in the at-large picture will be a challenge for the conference’s fringe. While the Nebraska Cornhuskers rank 54th in the RPI, they’re 0-6 against Group 1 with no chances left until Madison Square Garden.

Meanwhile, the 60th-ranked Maryland Terrapins, 0-8 against Group 1, will get one more chance to improve upon that mark — tonight’s game in Lincoln. In fact, the Penn State Nittany Lions, with a trio of Group 1 contests left, remain the Big Ten team best poised to make a late push for a bid.

In the Pac-12, the Washington Huskies will play a trio of Group 2 opponents the rest of the way, while Arizona and Arizona State have one Group 1 chance left each — their rematch Thursday night in Tempe. Friday night’s Rhode Island-St. Bonaventure showdown in Olean, N.Y. fills a similar role in the Atlantic 10, while the next Group 1 win chance Saint Mary’s might see is a potential rubber match with Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament final.

Chasing conference perfection

The first full week of February was a difficult one for the handful of teams that entered the month with hopes of running the table in league play. Purdue fell at home to Ohio State on Wednesday, then at Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. On Thursday, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns saw their 10-0 Sun Belt start ended by Ron Hunter’s Georgia State Panthers.

When Saturday arrived, Penn saw its hopes for a perfect 14-0 Ivy mark end at Harvard. Later that night, Gonzaga avenged its home loss to Saint Mary’s, ending the Gaels hopes for an 18-0 WCC mark. And the carnage continued on Monday, as the East Tennessee State Buccaneers, the SoCon front-runners, saw the UNC Greensboro Spartans end their 16-game win streak.

Therefore, with time running out on the regular season, just five of the nation’s 32 conference leaders remain perfect in league play. Amazingly, one of these teams, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, has already locked up an NIT bid (at worst.)

Home games against Kennesaw State Fighting Owls and Lipscomb Bison and a trip to in-state rival Stetson Hatters are all that stands between Dunk City and a perfect 14-0 ASUN record. But what about the other four squads?

  • In the America East, the Vermont Catamounts (21-5, 11-0) have won a somewhat unfathomable 32 straight conference games over the last three seasons. The defending conference champs play their next three at home before wrapping up the regular season with road contests at Stony Brook and Maine.
  • The American Athletic-leading Cincinnati Bearcats (23-2, 12-0) look like the team with the most difficult road to an unblemished league mark. For starters, Mick Cronin’s team plays at Houston on Thursday, then hosts Wichita State on Sunday. And the Bearcats still must travel to Wichita to close out the regular season.
  • In the Atlantic 10, Rhode Island (20-3, 12-0) generated quite a bit of conversation surrounding the Rams’ placement in the Committee’s bracket preview. Despite a 15-game winning streak and top-five ranking in the RPI, the Rams were nowhere to be found in the top 16. If Dan Hurley’s team can get past visiting Richmond tonight, Friday’s showdown at St. Bonaventure will likely be Rhody’s biggest hurdle to perfection. However, the Rams close regular season play at the Davidson, a team URI defeated in Kingston on Friday night.
  • Out in the Big Sky, the Montana Grizzlies (20-5, 13-0) won at Pitt back in November and have generally swept through league play. I say “generally” because the Griz needed overtime to avoid the sting of the Sacramento State Hornets on Saturday. After this week’s Eastern Washington-Idaho road swing, Travis DeCuire’s squad closes with three straight in Missoula.
  • Finally, the WAC’s New Mexico State Aggies (22-3, 9-0) were criminally overlooked heading into the season, thanks to the fact the Grand Canyon Antelopes were going to be NCAA-eligible for the first time. Plus, the Aggies are on their third coach in as many seasons, as former Bowling Green coach Chris Jans replaced Paul Weir, who took over at in-state rival New Mexico. But NMSU earned some national attention by defeating the Miami in the Diamond Head Classic and they’ve largely rolled through league play — completing a season sweep of the ‘Lopes in Las Cruces on Saturday night. The Aggies path to perfection is tricky, but manageable. Of the five wins they need, only two of those chances will come at the Pan American Center.

I’ll be back on Friday with a fresh look at the lock and bubble picture, including a closer examination of the teams closest to the cut line.