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Bracketology 2019: 2 huge rivalry games are about to shape the NCAA tournament picture

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Selection Sunday is now less than a month away. Power conference tournaments will tip in just three weeks. But in the coming days week, three showdowns that this season has been begging for will finally arrive. Each will significantly affect future projections.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs North Carolina
Kenny Williams and North Carolina defeated Duke in their last meeting, a 74-69 Tar Heel win that was the rubber match for 2018’s series.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to some seriously backloaded conference scheduling that would make HBO blush, this week sees the first meetings of 2019 for two of college basketball’s most anticipated annual rivalries. First up on Wednesday night, this bracket’s No. 1 overall seed, the Duke Blue Devils, hosts Tobacco Road archrival North Carolina Tar Heels, currently on line No. 2. Then, on Sunday afternoon, we have the first of two Michigan State Spartans-Michigan Wolverines showdowns in a two-week span. Those in-state rivals currently share the Big Ten lead and join the Tar Heels on seed line two.

And those aren’t the only two huge, potentially bracket-altering showdowns lurking this week. For the second Saturday in a row, the Tennessee Volunteers will hit the road for their first matchup of the season with a fellow SEC contender. But after their loss to the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena, the pressure will be on Rick Barnes’ Vols as they visit Baton Rouge for their lone scheduled contest with the LSU Tigers. Tennessee remains on the top line despite their Saturday setback, but that’s not likely to be the case with a loss to the Bayou Bengals.

This week’s results could really shake up what’s become a rather stagnant top portion of the bracket, even if today’s top line features a slight change. Duke remains at the top, but he Virginia Cavaliers jumped Tennessee into the second spot overall, with the Gonzaga Bulldogs following the Vols in fourth. Once again, Kentucky is the top No. 2 seed, followed by Michigan, UNC and Michigan State.

On seed line No. 3, last week’s quartet remains in place, though the Kansas Jayhawks, Houston Cougars and Marquette Golden Eagles have all jumped the Selection Committee’s top third seed, the Purdue Boilermakers. LSU leads the No. 4 seeds, followed by the Nevada Wolf Pack, Iowa State Cyclones and Wisconsin Badgers.

Looking at the bracket as a whole, we start by looking at the left side of the traditional bracket (East and West), followed by the right (South and Midwest).

Note: Auto bid holders in this section are noted by the conference names in parentheses. Arrows indicate movement up or down the seed list. New entrants are marked with an asterisk.

(1) East (Washington, D.C.)

Columbia, South Carolina (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Duke Blue Devils (ACC) vs. (↓16) Bucknell Bison (Patriot)
(8) Ole Miss Rebels vs. (↓9) Ohio State Buckeyes

San José, California (Fri./Sun.)

(5) Kansas State Wildcats (Big 12) vs. (12) New Mexico State Aggies (WAC)
(4) Nevada Wolf Pack (MW) vs. (13) Vermont Catamounts (America East)

Hartford, Connecticut (Thu./Sat.)

(↓6) Louisville Cardinals vs. (11) VCU Rams
(3) Marquette Golden Eagles (Big East) vs. (14) Radford Highlanders (Big South)

Des Moines, Iowa (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Baylor Bears vs. (↓10) Lipscomb Bisons
(2) Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten) vs. (*15) Texas State Bobcats (Sun Belt)

(4) West (Anaheim, California)

Salt Lake City, Utah (Thu./Sat.)

(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs (WCC) vs. (16) Prairie View A&M Panthers (SWAC)/Norfolk State Spartans (MEAC)
(↑8) Wofford Terriers (SoCon) vs. (↑9) Texas Longhorns

Hartford (Thu./Sat.)

(↑5) Iowa Hawkeyes vs. (12) Belmont Bruins (OVC)
(↑4) LSU Tigers vs. (13) Hofstra Pride (CAA)

Tulsa, Oklahoma (Fri./Sun.)

(↑6) Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. (11) NC State Wolfpack
(3) Houston Cougars (American) vs. (↑14) UC Irvine Anteaters (Big West)

Des Moines (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Washington Huskies (Pac-12) vs. (↑10) Seton Hall Pirates
(2) Michigan State Spartans vs. (15) Montana Grizzlies (Big Sky)

(2) South (Louisville, Kentucky)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Virginia Cavaliers vs. (16) St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash (NEC)/Canisius Golden Griffins (MAAC)
(8) Buffalo Bulls vs. (↓9) Auburn Tigers

Salt Lake City (Thu./Sat.)

(↑5) Florida State Seminoles vs. (*12) Liberty Flames (ASUN)
(4) Iowa State Cyclones vs. (13) Yale Bulldogs (Ivy)

Jacksonville, Florida (Thu./Sat.)

(↓6) Villanova Wildcats vs. (↓*11) TCU Horned Frogs/UCF Knights
(3) Purdue Boilermakers vs. (14) Bowling Green Falcons (MAC)

Columbus (Fri./Sun.)

(↓7) Virginia Tech Hokies vs. (↓10) Oklahoma Sooners
(2) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (15) Northern Kentucky Norse (Horizon)

(3) Midwest (Kansas City, Missouri)

Columbia (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Tennessee Volunteers (SEC) vs. (16) Sam Houston State Bearkats (Southland)
(↑8) St. John’s Red Storm vs. (↓9) Syracuse Orange

San José (Fri./Sun.)

(5) Texas Tech Red Raiders vs. (12) Davidson Wildcats (A 10)
(4) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (13) Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA)

Tulsa (Fri./Sun.)

(6) Maryland Terrapins vs. (↓11) Arizona State Sun Devils/Alabama Crimson Tide
(3) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (14) South Dakota State Jackrabbits (Summit)

Jacksonville (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Cincinnati Bearcats vs. (↑10) Minnesota Golden Gophers
(2) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (*15) Missouri State Bears (MVC)

Notes on today’s projection:

  • Nevada should be in the West region given their position in the seed list, but I ended up moving the Wolf Pack to the East to better balance the four regions.
  • Eric Musselman’s team features in one of the more intriguing Second Round possibilities, as Nevada could meet the Kansas State team it missed in 2018’s South Regional. Florida State-Iowa State (South), a potential Texas Tech-Wisconsin rock fight (Midwest), an Iowa-LSU contest that could be the reverse and an NC State-Houston matchup with 80s flavor (both West) are others that I wouldn’t mind checking out.
  • The top-two-seed Elite Eight would feature a Saturday Gonzaga-Michigan State (West) and Virginia-Kentucky (South) doubleheader with Tennessee-UNC (Midwest) leading into Duke-Michigan (East) on Sunday.

Rundown

Full seed list

Last Four Byes: Minnesota, Oklahoma,, VCU, NC State
Last Four IN: TCU, Arizona State, Alabama, UCF
First Four OUT: Florida, Utah State, Butler, Temple
Next Four Out: Nebraska, Clemson, Furman, Saint Mary’s

New Today: Canisius, Liberty, Missouri State, Texas State, UCF
Leaving Today: Butler, Clemson, Loyola Chicago, Monmouth, UT Arlington

Bids by Conference: 8 ACC, 8 Big 12, 8 Big Ten, 7 SEC, 4 Big East, 3 American, 2 Atlantic 10, 2 ASUN, 2 MAC, 2 Pac-12, 22 one-bid conferences

The thing that struck me the most when putting together today’s projection was how confident I feel about seed lines one through eight with less than a month to go. Beyond that point, the national picture still feels unsettled. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the bubble is expanding. In fact, the past week saw a slew of power conference teams on the fringe of the bid picture fall away, largely because of an epidemic of failure when opportunities were there to be seized.

  • We’ll start inside the bracket with TCU. The Horned Frogs are now in the First Four after falling to Oklahoma in Fort Worth Saturday and being upset by Oklahoma State last night.
  • The Arkansas Razorbacks have dropped three in a row. While Tuesday’s one-point road loss to the Missouri Tigers was bad enough, Saturday’s 77-67 home setback against Mississippi State was quality win chance missed.
  • In the Pac-12, the Arizona Wildcats were swept on their Rocky Mountain road trip, extending their losing streak to seven. Meanwhile, the Oregon State Beavers swept the Oregon Ducks for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Those results make the Beavers the conference’s best shot at an unlikely third bid.
  • The Providence Friars and Creighton Bluejays both dropped a pair of Big East games over the past seven days, pushing them into a tie for last in the league and out of the at-large picture.
  • The Indiana Hoosiers lost a must-win game at Minnesota Saturday to drop to 13-12 and 4-10 in Big Ten play.
  • Clemson almost got Louisville to give another home game away on Saturday, but the Cardinals escaped 56-55 after nearly allowing the Tigers a buzzer-beating layup to win.
  • A pair of fringe candidates from the American Athletic dropped needed matchups within moments on Saturday, as the Memphis Tigers couldn’t complete a season-sweep of UCF, while the South Florida Bulls fell in overtime to the visiting Temple Owls.

While a few power teams did pick up vital wins to boost their hopes, like Florida (at Alabama), Butler (over DePaul), Temple (at USF) and Nebraska (which has suddenly managed to win two straight just before their toughest stretch begins Saturday with a visit from Purdue), the focus of the bubble has shifted. You’ll notice a trio of mid-majors are lurking among the First Eight Out. So not only do we have two MAC and Atlantic Sun bids this week — the latter is thanks to Lipscomb sticking around as an at-large following a midweek loss to Liberty, but two Mountain West, Southern and West Coast bids can’t be ruled out.

  • Utah State is 19-6 with a win over Saint Mary’s back in November in Las Vegas. Their worst loss came at San Diego State, 141st in the NET, but a close 87-82 defeat to Arizona State might be the game the Aggies regret the most. While Nevada blew out Utah State in Reno on Jan. 2, the pair will meet again in Logan on March 2.
  • Wofford, currently a No. 8 seed here, is the SoCon’s best at-large bet, thanks to two Group 1 wins and no bad losses, along with a NET ranking of 26th, but Furman will also get a look too. Remember that the Paladins still have that early win at Villanova on their profile and just a single questionable loss to the Samford Bulldogs. And they can pick up another Group 1 victory on Saturday, when the Terriers visit Greenville, S.C. for a rematch of Wofford’s 59-54 Jan. 19 win in Spartanburg.
  • Saint Mary’s is the long shot of the group, thanks to a 1-6 record in Group 1 games and three Group 3 losses. But the Gaels will get another shot at Gonzaga, on March 2 in Moraga. Of course, topping the Bulldogs will take a near Herculean effort, as the Zags obliterated the Gaels 94-46 in their Feb. 9 game in Spokane.

I’m not quite ready to declare this the “year of the mid-major at-large bounty,” but with the strength of teams like Buffalo, Lipscomb and Wofford; VCU managing to win needed games when so many other bubble teams simply can’t; and Furman and Utah State largely keeping themselves out of trouble in the loss column, it’s becoming increasingly likely that some unexpected names will be called on the evening of March 17.

While I’ll have another bubble update here on Friday, starting tomorrow I’ll have a daily updated seed list over at Blogging the Bracket.