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Bracketology 2018: The Selection Committee’s top-16 preview is already irrelevant

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Thanks to a wild evening of upsets, we have jostling on the No. 1, 2 and 3 seed lines and, naturally, some changes near the cut line. And don’t look now, but Saturday could be just as bonkers.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Auburn
Auburn is currently projected to be a No. 1 seed. In basketball. No, you’re eyes aren’t deceiving you.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been five days since the Selection Committee’s sneak preview gave us all a peek at the NCAA Tournament’s top 16 teams. You can already set fire to it.

At the start of Thursday evening, the top four seed lines looked set with the exception of a couple of minor changes. First, the Oklahoma Sooners, still a No. 4 seed in Tuesday’s bracket, were due to slide out after losing for the fourth consecutive time, set to be replaced by the Gonzaga Bulldogs. There was also going to be a slight shuffle at the top — as the Villanova Wildcats were due to fall down to third overall, behind both the Virginia Cavaliers and Xavier Musketeers, thanks to their second loss in three games.

But when Thursday’s action tipped off, that narrative headed for the dumpster. For starters, the Purdue Boilermakers went off the rails, losing at 11-16 Wisconsin Badgers — the Boilers’ third defeat in succession. That means the Auburn Tigers are now this projection’s fourth No. 1 seed.

Note: Quality win data (the ratio in parentheses, see Jan. 26 post for more info) and RPI information are courtesy WarrenNolan.com and accurate as of the morning of Feb. 16, 2018 and only reflect games against Division I opponents.

Locks and Protected Seeds

No. 1 Seeds No. 2 Seeds No. 3 Seeds No. 4 Seeds
No. 1 Seeds No. 2 Seeds No. 3 Seeds No. 4 Seeds
1. Virginia* (8/13) 5. Kansas (9/15) 9. Cincinnati* (5/12) 13. Tennessee (4/9)
2. Xavier* (8/16) 6. Purdue (5/10) 10. North Carolina (7/11) 14. Arizona* (3/10)
3. Villanova (8/14) 7. Duke (2/9) 11. Michigan State (3/8) 15. Gonzaga* (4/6)
4. Auburn* (6/11) 8. Texas Tech* (6/11) 12. Clemson (3/10) 16. West Virginia (6/11)
* = auto bid

And as you can see above, the surprises didn’t end in Madison! The formerly third-seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders, victorious over Oklahoma on Tuesday night, now find themselves on the two line, as they swapped places with the Cincinnati Bearcats. Mick Cronin’s team saw its perfect start to American Athletic Conference play ended by the Houston Cougars. Meanwhile, the Ohio State Buckeyes join Oklahoma in dropping from the four line, as the Penn State Nittany Lions trounced them in State College — a vital victory for the Lions’ own March hopes. The West Virginia Mountaineers rise up to replace Ohio State.

Protected Seeds by Region

1. SOUTH 4. WEST 2. MIDWEST 3. EAST
1. SOUTH 4. WEST 2. MIDWEST 3. EAST
1. Virginia* (Pittsburgh) 1. Auburn* (Nashville) 1. Xavier* (Detroit) 1. Villanova (Pittsburgh)
4. West Virginia (San Diego) 4. Arizona* (San Diego) 4. Gonzaga* (Boise) 4. Tennessee (Boise)
3. Cincinnati* (Nashville) 3. North Carolina (Charlotte) 3. Clemson (Dallas) 3. Michigan State (Wichita)
2. Purdue (Detroit) 2. Texas Tech* (Dallas) 2. Kansas (Wichita) 2. Duke (Charlotte)

These four regions are largely unrecognizable from Sunday’s version. And looking ahead to Saturday’s busy schedule, more changes could be afoot. Just look at all of these top-tier teams facing stern tests between now and Tuesday, with many coming away from home.

With Villanova in the midst of a rough patch, the Wildcats’ trip to Xavier (Saturday 4:30 p.m., Fox) could define both the Big East title and top seed races.

Seeds in parentheses.

(3) Michigan State at Northwestern, 2 p.m. (Fox)
(1) Auburn at South Carolina, 3:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
(4) West Virginia at (2) Kansas, Saturday 6 p.m. (ESPN)
(4) Tennessee at (bubble) Georgia, Saturday 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
(2) Texas Tech at (11) Baylor, Saturday 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
(3) North Carolina at (11) Louisville, Saturday 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)
(2) Duke at (3) Clemson, Sunday 1 p.m. (ACC Network/ESPN3)
(5) Wichita State at (3) Cincinnati, Sunday 4 p.m. (ESPN)
(bubble) Penn State at (2) Purdue, Sunday 8 p.m. (BTN)
(5) Oklahoma at (2) Kansas, Monday 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Locks (Teams 17-19) and Near Locks (Teams 20-28)

No. 5 seeds No. 6 seeds No. 7 seeds
No. 5 seeds No. 6 seeds No. 7 seeds
17. Ohio State* (2/8) 21. Texas A&M (5/9) 25. Florida (5/10)
18. Wichita State (2/11) 22. Alabama (6/9) 26. Seton Hall (4/6)
19. Rhode Island* (1/6) 23. Missouri (5/10) 27. Arizona State (3/8)
20. Oklahoma (6/8) 24. Saint Mary's (2/5) 28. Miami (Fla.) (3/5)
* = auto bid

Our group of locks hasn’t grown all that much since last week, rising from 16 to 19, as three of four No. 5 seeds join the group. (Oklahoma really needs to start winning again.) Once we get to seed line six, inconsistency really starts to become an issue, with the resurgent Texas A&M Aggies the closest team to locking down a spot, and that’s after their four-game win streak ended at Missouri on Tuesday.

A&M has come a long way since its 0-5 SEC start and looks far more like the team that caught the nation’s attention by smashing West Virginia on opening night. Heading into Thursday, the Saint Mary’s Gaels also approached lock status, but they dropped their second game in a row, this time at the 14-13 San Francisco Dons. That defeat handed control of the WCC race to Gonzaga, which is now a game up on the Gaels.

Remember how six teams still had a shot to finish their conference seasons unbeaten in Tuesday’s projection? Thursday’s results reduced that number to just two, and one of the remaining teams, the Rhode Island Rams, faces its stiffest test of league play tonight, visiting a St. Bonaventure Bonnies club that would love to pick up a fourth Group 1 win for its at-large hopes (Friday 7 p.m., ESPN2).

Other Games to Watch

(bubble) Syracuse at (7) Miami, Saturday 12 p.m. (CBS)
(11) Texas at (5) Oklahoma, Saturday 12 p.m. (ESPN)
(6) Alabama vs. (8) Kentucky, Saturday 2 p.m. (CBS)
(6) Missouri at (bubble) LSU, Saturday 2 p.m. (ESPN)
(6) Texas A&M at (10) Arkansas, Saturday 4 p.m. (ESPN)
(7) Florida at Vanderbilt, Saturday 4 p.m. (ESPN2)
(5) Ohio State at (9) Michigan, Sunday 1 p.m. (CBS)
DePaul at (7) Seton Hall, Sunday 1 p.m. (FS1)
(7) Miami at (bubble) Notre Dame, Monday 7 p.m. (ESPN)

At this point, it’s time to calculate how many NCAA Tournament places are still up for grabs with three weeks to go. Of the 68 places available, 24 are set to go to the champions of likely one-bid conferences. That means 44 spots will be filled by the eight champs of the multibid leagues and the 36 at-large selections. So far, we’ve accounted for 27 of these 44 bids (at the moment, Rhode Island represents the Atlantic 10’s only bid), leaving just 17.

Bubble IN

No. 8 seeds No. 9 seeds No. 10 seeds
No. 8 seeds No. 9 seeds No. 10 seeds
29. Florida State (6/7) 33. TCU (4/6) 37. Virginia Tech (3/8)
30. Kentucky (2/10) 34. Michigan (2/5) 38. Arkansas (4/5)
31. Creighton (2/9) 35. Nevada* (2/8)
32. Providence (5/8) 36. Butler (3/7)
* = auto bid

The table above accounts for nine of those 17 places, with the Mountain West-leading Nevada Wolf Pack the exception. However, Eric Musselman’s squad (22-5, 14-2) gained both separation in the league race and a crucial Group 1 road win by defeating nearest rival Boise State (19-6, 10-4) on the Broncos’ home floor on Wednesday night. At this point, the only way Boise, or any other non-Nevada Mountain West squad for that matter, will reach the field is by winning three or four games in the league tournament in Las Vegas.

In terms of power conference teams, the Florida State Seminoles (in overtime over Clemson) and Providence Friars (who handed Villanova its second loss in three games) both picked up crucial wins on Wednesday night to edge themselves closer to safety. On the flip side, the Kentucky Wildcats, losers of four in a row, Butler Bulldogs, in the midst of a three-game skid, and TCU Horned Frogs, who last won consecutive games on Dec. 18 and 22, are all headed in the wrong direction.

Games to Watch

(8) Providence at (9) Butler, Saturday 12 p.m. (Fox)
(10) Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Saturday 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
(9) Nevada at Utah State, Saturday 6 p.m. (CBSSN)
(bubble) Oklahoma State at (9) TCU, Saturday 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
(bubble) Marquette at (8) Creighton, 10 p.m. (FSN)
Pitt at (9) Florida State, Sunday 6 p.m. (ESPNU)

Just eight spots remain, so it’s time to take a closer look at the cut line.

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. Houston (4/6) 43. Louisville (2/3) 69. St. Bonaventure (3/5) 73. Utah (3/5)
40. Kansas State (4/8) 44. UCLA (2/5) 70. USC (2/6) 74. Marquette (3/6)
41. N.C. State (5/7) 45. Texas (5/7) 71. Temple (3/6) 75. WKU (1/4)
42. Washington (4/5) 46. Baylor (3/5) 72. Syracuse (1/7) 76. Penn State (2/4)

Last four in

Avoiding Dayton: 39. Houston, 40. Kansas State, 41. N.C. State, 42. Washington

Houston was Thursday’s biggest winner, as the Cougars’ home victory over Cincinnati bought them some real breathing room. On the other hand, Washington is in serious trouble after dropping a home game to the Utah Utes.

43. Louisville Cardinals

(18-8, 8-5 ACC); RPI: 41; KenPom: 29; “Super Average”: 33; SOS: 43; non-conf. SOS: 77

With just two Group 1 wins (over Florida State and Notre Dame), the Cardinals’ lack of bad losses is mainly what’s keeping them afloat. (Louisville’s worst loss by RPI was at No. 49 Syracuse.) But with all of the Cards’ remaining five games qualifying for Group 1 status, they have a real chance of improving their seed during the closing stretch. A word of caution, however. David Padgett’s team last won a game over a team in this projected field way back on Jan. 13 (Virginia Tech).

Next game: vs. North Carolina, Saturday 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)

44. UCLA Bruins

(18-8, 9-5 Pac-12); RPI: 50; KenPom: 49; “Super Average”: 51; SOS: 69; non-conf. SOS: 84

While the Bruins are a pedestrian 5-6 in road/neutral games, their two best wins came away from Pauley Pavilion — over Kentucky in late December in New Orleans and, more impressively, at Arizona. That’s important because to secure a bid, UCLA will have to win on the road. After hosting Oregon on Saturday, the Bruins play their final three games in hostile environments, starting with the daunting Utah-Colorado trip and a finale at archrival USC. With wins over all three of those foes currently qualifying for Group 1 status, Steve Alford’s squad can put itself in great position by taking two out of three.

Next game: vs. Oregon, Saturday 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

45. Texas Longhorns

(15-11, 5-8 Big 12); RPI: 57; KenPom: 44; “Super Average”: 44.5; SOS: ; non-conf. SOS:

While the Longhorns boast five Group 1 wins, four losses in their last five games have pushed them closer to the cut line. Still, if a team’s complete body of work is important, earl- season victories over Butler and Alabama and league wins over TCU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma should help keep Texas around. However, Shaka Smart’s Horns could really use some road victories, as they’ve defeated only Iowa State away from home in Big 12 play. And an immediate opportunity comes on Saturday, as Texas can sweep Oklahoma by winning in Norman.

Next game: at Oklahoma, Saturday 12 p.m. (ESPN)

46. Baylor Bears

(15-10, 6-7 Big 12); RPI: 54; KenPom: 33; “Super Average”: 40; SOS: 28; non-conf. SOS: 136

Similar to Louisville, the Bears’ lack of bad losses keeps them afloat, but the presence of a trio of sub-300 RPI wins (and a non-D1 foe) deflates their profile. This is why Baylor ranks below Texas despite sweeping them. Scott Drew’s club is a poor 3-8 in Group 1 games, but thanks to the strength of the Big 12, all five of their remaining contests currently qualify. With three of those set for Waco, the Bears have plenty to play for.

Next game: vs. Texas Tech, Saturday 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

First Four Out

69. St. Bonaventure Bonnies

(19-6, 9-4 A 10); RPI: 40; KenPom: 66; “Super Average”: 52.7; SOS: 105; non-conf. SOS: 55

Honestly, the Atlantic 10’s struggles have negatively impacted the Bonnies’ hopes. With only St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island ranking in the RPI top 50, and only Davidson joining the pair in the top 100, quality win opportunities in the league are almost non-existent. And it doesn’t help that none of the Bonnies’ top four victories — Buffalo, Vermont, Syracuse and Maryland — is guaranteed to be in the field as of right now. This is why defeating URI at the Reilly Center is absolutely vital for Mark Schmidt’s squad’s chances.

Next game: vs. Rhode Island, Friday 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

70. USC Trojans

(18-9, 9-5 Pac-12); RPI: 42; KenPom: 50; “Super Average”: 50.3; SOS: 41; non-conf. SOS: 35

While the Trojans defeated Oregon in a bubble game on Thursday night, the win might have come at a steep cost, as star forward Bennie Boatwright injured his knee in the second half. In terms of USC’s profile, thanks to a down Pac-12, the Trojans’ two best wins are still the two they claimed over New Mexico State and Middle Tennessee in the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas week, giving Andy Enfield’s club a poor record of 2-5 in Group 1 games.

Like UCLA, the road trip to the Rockies will provide a pair of opportunities to add to that total. However, unless the Bruins jump into the RPI top 30 in the next two weeks, the pair’s meeting at the Galen Center might be more meaningful to UCLA’s profile than USC’s.

Next game: vs. Oregon State, Saturday 11 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)

71. Temple Owls

(15-11, 7-7 American); RPI: 38; KenPom: 82; “Super Average”: 64.2; SOS: 10; non-conf. SOS: 13

Had Fran Dunphy’s outfit won at and, therefore, swept Wichita State last night, it would still be in my projected field. Sunday’s home game against Houston, which Temple lost to by three in Texas back on Dec. 30, offers another chance. While a pair of neutral-site victories over a No. 1 seed (Auburn) and a No. 3 (Clemson) highlight the Owls’ profile, inconsistency, in the form of four Group 3 losses and a late December/early January five-game skid, seriously damages their chances.

Next game: vs. Houston, Sunday 4 p.m. (CBSSN)

72. Syracuse Orange

(17-9, 6-7 ACC); RPI: 49; KenPom: 48; “Super Average”: 48.8; SOS: 29; non-conf. SOS: 26

The Orange’s thin roster accurately reflects its NCAA profile. A Feb. 5 win at Louisville is currently Syracuse’s only Group 1 victory and a pair of sub-100 losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech look like serious missed opportunities in mid-February. The same applies to Wednesday’s home loss to N.C. State, which featured a late Orange rally before they simply ran out of gas. Hope remains in the form of four Group 1 games the rest of the way, with two at home (North Carolina and Clemson). Starting the closing stretch by topping inconsistent Miami in Coral Gables on Saturday would be quite helpful for Jim Boeheim’s crew.

Next game: at Miami, Saturday 12 p.m. (CBS)

Next Four Out: 73. Utah, 74. Marquette, 75. Western Kentucky, 76. Penn State

Also Considered

Teams 77-80 Teams 81-84 Teams 85-88 Teams 89-90
Teams 77-80 Teams 81-84 Teams 85-88 Teams 89-90
77. Nebraska (0/4) 81. Miss. State (1/5) 85. Colorado (2/5) 89. Iowa State (4/6)
78. LSU (5/7) 82. Georgia (3/8) 86. Boston College (2/3) 90. Oklahoma State (4/5)
79. Boise State (0/5) 83. UCF (1/4) 87. SMU (2/5)
80. Notre Dame (2/5) 84. Oregon (1/5) 88. Maryland (0/2)

Time is running out on the 14 teams above. Like Boise State, Colorado (falling at Washington State on Thursday), Mississippi State (stunned at Vanderbilt Wednesday), Oregon (also beaten at the buzzer at USC), SMU (losers of four in a row) and Maryland (whose bubble might have been popped by Nebraska on Tuesday) did themselves no favors this week. On the flip side, the Cornhuskers keep on winning, which they must continue to do with their weak schedule, while Georgia‘s win at Florida put the Bulldogs back in the hunt.

Other Bubble Games to Watch

(bubble x2) SMU at UCF, Saturday 11 a.m. (ESPNU)
(bubble) Iowa State at (10) Kansas State, Saturday 1 p.m. (ESPNU)
(11) North Carolina State at Wake Forest, Saturday 4 p.m. (ACC Network/ESPN3)
(bubble x2) Notre Dame vs. Boston College, Saturday 4 p.m. (ACC Network/ESPN3)
(bubble) Colorado at (10) Washington, Saturday 8 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)
Ole Miss at (bubble) Mississippi State, Saturday 8:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
(bubble) Utah at Washington State, Saturday 10 p.m. (ESPN2)
(bubble) Nebraska at Illinois, Sunday 3:30 p.m. (BTN)
(bubble) Maryland at Northwestern, Monday 7 p.m. (FS1)

Auto Bid Only

No. 12 seeds No. 13 seeds No. 14 seeds No. 15 seeds No. 16 seeds
No. 12 seeds No. 13 seeds No. 14 seeds No. 15 seeds No. 16 seeds
46. Middle Tennessee* (1/4) 51. Vermont* 55. Belmont* 59. Montana* 63. FGCU*
48. New Mexico State* 52. Louisiana* 56. Rider* 60. Bucknell* 64. Harvard*
49. Loyola (Ill.)* 53. South Dakota St.* 57. UC Santa Barbara* 61. Northern Kentucky* 65. Winthrop*
50. Buffalo* 54. ETSU* 58. Charleston* 62. Wagner* 66. Nicholls State*
* = auto bid 67. Savannah State*
68. Ark.-Pine Bluff*
avg. losses = 11

Three teams from this table joined Cincinnati in seeing their runs at conference perfection ended on Thursday night — the ASUN’s Florida Gulf Coast (upset at home by Kennesaw State), Big Sky leader Montana (a nine-point loser at Eastern Washington) and, most interestingly for the at-large picture, New Mexico State, topped by Utah Valley in Orem. The Aggies’ first WAC loss of the season all but ends their at-large hopes, meaning the only team in listed above with a decent shot at Committee selection is C-USA leader Middle Tennessee.

With Rhode Island facing a stiff test on Friday night and Vermont hosting Hartford (15-11, 8-4 America East) on Sunday, the ranks of league unbeatens might be completely empty by the time Tuesday’s projection rolls around.