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Bracketology 2019: A first look at the bubble picture with seven weeks to go

Since it is late January, the bubble is heavily populated. And at the top of the bracket, there’s a new overall No. 1 seed.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Iowa
Thanks in part to Thursday’s huge road win over Iowa, Michigan State finds itself at the top of the seed list heading into January’s final weekend.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Last week in this space, I reviewed the cases of 14 potential No. 1 seeds. But now that we are heading into the final weekend of January, it’s time to switch our focus a bit — to the bid picture as a whole. As a reminder, this isn’t a traditional bubble watch post. I’m not going to delve into the pluses and minuses of the contenders in minute detail, at least not for the first few weeks. Instead, I’m examining teams and their relative distance from the cut line at a higher level. Note also that I am not yet ready to declare any team an NCAA Tournament “lock,” since we are seven weekends away from Selection Sunday.

With that, we’ll start at the top of the bracket with the top four seed lines. These are the protected seeds, who will avoid the fate of having to play a virtual road game in the First Round only.

After each team’s name, you’ll see three sets of numbers in parentheses. The first is its overall record in games against Division I opposition only. The second is its total number of Group 1 and 2 AKA “quality” wins, with the third indicating the number of Group 1 wins, since the Selection Committee has indicated that it values these the most.

Note: While team records reflect games played through Thursday, January 24, 2019, the Group 1 and 2 win information reflects the NET data published before the games played on that date. Asterisks (*) denote auto bid holders.

Protected Seeds

No. 1s: 1. Michigan State* (18-2/11/9), 2. Duke (16-2/8/6), 3. Tennessee* (16-1/8/4), 4. Virginia (17-1/8/4)
No. 2s: 5. Michigan (18-1/10/4), 6. Kansas* (16-3/10/9), 7. Gonzaga* (19-2/5/3), 8. Kentucky (15-3/6/4)
No. 3s: 9. Marquette (17-3/8/5), 10. North Carolina* (15-4/7/5), 11. Texas Tech (15-4/7/4), 12. Maryland (16-4/8/4)
No. 4s: 13. Houston* (19-1/9/2), 14. Wisconsin (13-6/7/5), 15. Kansas State (15-4/6/4), 16. Louisville (14-5/6/4)

There are four significant changes among the top 16 when compared to Tuesday’s bracket. The first comes at the very top, as Michigan State now holds the No. 1 overall seed following a casual Thursday night road hammering of Iowa. The Spartans now have nine Group 1 wins, three more than Duke and four more than Tennessee, Virginia and Michigan. While Kansas has just as many high-quality victories, the Jayhawks’ losses to Arizona State and West Virginia hold them down for the moment.

The other significant change is a major overhaul of seed line No. 4, with Kansas State (Tuesday winners over Texas Tech), Louisville (victorious over N.C. State on Thursday) and Wisconsin (a Wednesday victor at Illinois) replacing Buffalo, Iowa State and Virginia Tech.

The biggest game for this group this weekend, by some margin, is Kansas’ Saturday trip to Kentucky for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge (6 p.m., ESPN).

Top Four Seeds by Region and Site

South: 1/1. Michigan State* (Columbus 1), 2/6. Kansas* (Des Moines 1), 3/10. North Carolina* (Jacksonville 2), 4/13. Houston* (Tulsa 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 30

East: 1/2. Duke (Columbia 1), 2/8. Kentucky (Des Moines 2), 3/12. Maryland (Hartford 2), 4/15. Kansas State (San José 1) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 37

South: 1/3. Tennessee* (Columbia 2), 2/5. Michigan (Columbus 2), 3/9. Marquette (Jacksonville 1), 4/16. Louisville (San José 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 33

West: 1/4. Virginia (Hartford 1), 2/7. Gonzaga* (Salt Lake City 1), 3/11. Texas Tech (Tulsa 1), 4/14. Wisconsin (Salt Lake City 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 36

Now, Louisville’s elevation to a four seed complicated the bracketing a bit, which resulted in a set of regions that aren’t ideally balanced. The Cardinals are the fourth ACC team in, but they also need to be kept out of the South region, since they’re its host institution. And with four Big Ten teams and a trio of Big 12 squads also in the top 16, keeping these conference rivals apart as strongly suggested in the Selection Committee’s Principles and Procedures document, was a particularly tricky task this time around.

Next In Line

No. 5s: 17. Virginia Tech (15-3/4/2), 18. Purdue (13-6/6/4), 19. Iowa State (14-5/4/3), 20. Nevada* (19-1/8/1)
No. 6s: 21. Buffalo (16-2/4/2), 22. Villanova* (15-4/8/4), 23. Oklahoma (14-5/8/5), 24. LSU (15-3/7/3)

The majority of these teams have a chance at jumping into to line four (or above) when all is said and done, though Buffalo and Nevada will find their odds reduced because of the lack of quality wins available in their respective conferences. This week was particularly difficult for the Bulls, who were stunned by Northern Illinois on Tuesday night — the Huskies’ first win over a ranked opponent in 46 years.

Of this group, the team that I feel has the most to gain is Villanova. Not only are the Wildcats the lone Big East team that’s undefeated in conference play, they still have to play Marquette — the highest-ranked league squad in the seed list — twice.

Above The Bubble For Now

No. 7s: 25. Iowa (16-4/8/4), 26. Mississippi (14-4/5/2), 27. Mississippi State (14-4/7/2), 28. Syracuse (14-5/5/2)
No. 8s: 29. Florida State (14-5/6/2), 30. Auburn (12-5/5/0), 31. Minnesota (14-5/5/3), 32. Cincinnati (17-3/3/1)

When you hit seed line No. 7, the profiles start becoming a bit more flawed. Whether its a lack of quality wins, as in Auburn and Cincinnati’s cases; or recent skids, see Florida State; or the presence of some questionable losses, an issue for both Syracuse and Minnesota, these squads all have a little bit more work to do before they can feel safe.

The most important game for this group is again an SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchup, as Mississippi hosts Iowa State on Saturday (12 p.m., ESPN). With the Cyclones ranked in the NET top 30, the Rebels have a shot at picking up a third Group 1 home win.

Bubble IN

No. 9s: 33. Nebraska (12-6/6/2), 34. St. John’s (15-4/6/1), 35. Indiana (12-7/5/4), 36. N.C. State (15-4/6/1)

The flaws are a bit more apparent with this group. The Cornhuskers (2-4 in their last six) and Hoosiers (losers of five straight) are trending in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, some lousy non-conference scheduling might yet cost the Red Storm and Wolfpack their places.

The Cut Line

Last Four Byes (No. 10s): 37. TCU (14-4/5/0), 38. Ohio State (12-6/4/2), 39. Texas (11-8/5/4), 40. Seton Hall (12-7/7/2)

While the Longhorns (North Carolina, Purdue) and Pirates (Kentucky, Maryland) have the best wins of this quartet, their loss totals have been climbing in league play. It’s a similar problem for the Buckeyes, losers of five straight who seem to be working in concert with Indiana and Nebraska to limit the Big Ten’s March ceiling. As for the Horned Frogs, their issue is a lack of marquee wins. All three of their Group 1 opportunities have come in road games — all losses. Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge home matchup with Florida (12 p.m., ESPN2) won’t change that, though it could serve as an important bubble tiebreaker.

Last Four IN (No. 11s - First Four): 41. Arizona State (14-5/7/3), 42. Butler (12-8/5/1), 43. Temple (15-4/5/1), 44. Alabama (12-6/8/2)

After this week’s action, the Sun Devils and Crimson Tide rotate in, with Arizona and UCF dropping out. Arizona State, in particular, has an argument for being safer, thanks to a home win over Kansas and neutral-site one over Mississippi State, but three losses against teams from outside of the top 100 negatively impact Bobby Hurley’s squad’s profile.

First Four OUT: 69.VCU (13-6/3/1), 70. UCF (15-3/3/0), 71. Baylor (12-6/6/4), 72. Arizona (14-6/4/1)

Even though the Knights and Rams both own wins over Temple, UCF took down Alabama in Orlando and VCU won at Texas, both find themselves on the wrong side of the cut line for now. Mike Rhoades’ club drops out after a disappointing Wednesday loss at Rhode Island, though the MAC requiring two bids today conspires to keep them out. As for Johnny Dawkins’ outfit, a midweek road beatdown of Tulane, a truly putrid opponent, didn’t move the needle for a team lacking a Group 1 win.

Baylor, winners of three straight and four of five, has a huge opportunity on Saturday, as the Bears host Alabama in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge (12 p.m., ESPNU).

Next Four OUT: 73. Pittsburgh (12-7/3/1), 74. Florida (11-7/4/1), 75. San Francisco (16-3/1/0), 76. Saint Louis (14-5/3/1)

The Panthers haven’t really been able to build on ACC home wins over Louisville and Florida State, as they’ve dropped consecutive games to Syracuse and Duke, but they’ll have a chance to sweep the Cardinals on Saturday (Raycom/ESPN3, 2 p.m.). Meanwhile, the Gators will have yet another chance at picking up a Group 1 win in Fort Worth tomorrow. As for the Dons, they’re biding their time for until consecutive road games against Saint Mary’s next Saturday and Gonzaga on the following Thursday. Meanwhile, the Billikens dropped out of the bracket after Wednesday’s road loss at Duquesne cost them their perfect Atlantic 10 record.

The Next 12 Out

(presented in order) 77. DePaul (11-7/4/2), 78. Creighton (10-8/3/1), 79. Utah State (13-5/1/1), 80. Clemson (11-7/3/0), 81. Lipscomb (13-4/2/1), 82. Fresno State (13-4/2/1), 83. Saint Mary’s (13-8/1/0), 84. Providence (12-7/4/1), 85. Oregon (11-8/2/2), 86. Arkansas (11-7/2/0), 87. Davidson (13-5/2/0), 88. Northwestern (12-7/2/0)

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you, DePaul really is on this list, even after years of this website making jokes at the Blue Demons’ expense. While a sweep on Seton Hall and road win over St. John’s put Dave Leitao’s club in the thick of the bubble conversation, losses to Notre Dame and Xavier keep them just outside the top group of contenders.

Naturally, the bid prospects for the six power conference teams above are more optimistic than those of the half-dozen mid-majors included. However, Oregon is in real trouble after last night’s home loss to Washington.

(Likely) One-Bid Conference Reps

At-Large Hopefuls

No. 11s: 45. Washington* (15-4/3/1), 46. Murray State* (13-3/0/0)

No. 12s: 47. Wofford* (13-4/3/1), 48. Hofstra* (17-3/0/0), 49. Liberty* (14-4/2/0), 50. Old Dominion* (16-5/2/1)

I’m including the Huskies in this group because last night’s aforementioned win in Eugene was their first that qualifies for Group 1 status. And they’re not going to get that many additional chances in Pac-12 play. Without a Pac-12 Tournament title, Mike Hopkins’ club could very well find itself in the same position as 2012’s Pac-12 regular season champs — in the NIT.

As for the other five teams listed, their at-large chances are close to nil, thanks either to a lack of truly quality wins (Murray State, Wofford, Hofstra, Liberty) or a collection of bad losses limiting the value of the good wins present on the profile. That distinction goes to Old Dominion, winner at Syracuse and over VCU in Norfolk, but also owner of four sub-100 losses. But with a soft bubble, a perfect league record coupled with a loss in the conference tournament title might give Wofford, Hofstra and Liberty a chance.

Last night, the Terriers and Pride both saw their respective quests for perfect conference seasons helped by thrilling buzzer-beaters.

Wofford’s came in overtime over visiting Samford.

Meanwhile, the Pride headed to halftime at James Madison with a nine-point lead thanks to one of basketball’s rarest made shots.

Note that Hofstra leads the CAA by three full games after eight conference matchups. That’s domination.

Must Win Conference Tournament

No. 13s: 51. Radford*, 52. Texas State*, 53. Bowling Green*, 54. George Mason*
No. 14s: 55. UC Irvine*, 56. Stony Brook*, 57. South Dakota State*, 58. Loyola Chicago*
No. 15s: 59. Northern Kentucky*, 60. Princeton*, 61. Weber State*, 62. Bucknell*
No. 16s (First Round): 63. Rider*, 64. Cal State Bakersfield*
No. 16s (First Four): 65. Sam Houston State*, 66. Prairie View A&M*, 67. Norfolk State*, 68. Robert Morris*

There are plenty of potentially dangerous First Round opponents lurking in this group, but remember that this section of the seed list is the one most likely to see significant shuffling between now and Selection Sunday.

My next full bracket will arrive on Tuesday, January 29th.