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Bracketology 2019: Chaos has expanded its range to the top of the bracket

Thanks to Zion Williamson’s knee injury, there are now major questions at the top of the bracket — complementing the mess near the cut line.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

I won’t be burying the lede on this Friday. The Duke Blue Devils remain the No. 1 overall seed on my list below, despite Zion Williamson exiting Wednesday’s blowout home loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels with a knee injury that resulted from a blown-out shoe. With the likely top pick in the NBA Draft “day-to-day” and likely to return to the court at some point this season (though whether he should do so became a hotly-debated topic almost immediately after he was helped off the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor), I’m inclined to think the Blue Devils will be whole again soon.

And given Duke’s advantages over the other contenders for the top spot — a sweep of the Virginia Cavaliers and more quality wins than the Tennessee Volunteers and Gonzaga Bulldogs (though the Zags have a head-to-head win over the Blue Devils), I didn’t see a clear alternative.

Of course, if Mike Krzyzewski’s squad is swept by the Syracuse Orange on Saturday, the math changes. That contest will be played under a cloud due to Wednesday night’s tragic, fatal automobile accident involving Orange coach Jim Boeheim.

With today’s top seed line explained, it’s time to examine the rest of the bracket, where an increasing number of teams have locked up a bid since last Friday. Remember that to be considered a “lock,” a team can lose each and every game it will play between now and Selection Sunday and still be safely in. With three weekends to go, that number ranges between four and seven depending on the conference.

Of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament field, 24 will be champions of likely one-bid conferences. That leaves 44 bids — 36 at-large places and eight for the champions of probable multi-bid leagues. I’ll count through the number of these that are locked up and available as I work down the seed list.

As a reminder, you’ll see three sets of numbers in parentheses after each at-large candidate’ name. The first is its overall record in games against Division I opposition only. The second is its total of Group 1 and 2 “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, Feb. 21, 2019, the Group 1 and 2 win information reflects the NET data published before the games played on that date. (Info from WarrenNolan.com.) Asterisks (*) denote auto bid holders.

Locks And Protected Seeds

No. 1s: 1. Duke* (23-3/14/7), 2. Virginia (23-2/13/8), 3. Tennessee* (23-2/11/4), 4. Gonzaga* (26-2/10/4)
No. 2s: 5. Kentucky (22-4/12/8), 6. North Carolina (21-5/11/6) , 7. Michigan* (24-3/15/7), 8. Michigan State (22-5/13/10)
No. 3s: 9. Kansas (20-6/14/9), 10. Houston* (25-1/13/3), 11. Marquette* (22-4/13/8), 12. Purdue (19-7/13/7)
No. 4s: 13. LSU (21-5/13/6), 14. Kansas State* (20-6/10/6), 15. Florida State (21-5/10/5), 16. Wisconsin (18-8/11/7)

Thanks to victories over Penn State and Indiana, though the latter was a bit too close for comfort, Purdue is a lock this week. I can’t see a 19-13 Boilermaker squad being left out.

Kansas State and Florida State jumped into the top 16 at the expense of Iowa State and Nevada. The Cyclones were swept by Baylor on Tuesday, while the Wolf Pack lost at San Diego State, the same team that knocked them out in last season’s Mountain West semifinals, on Wednesday.

Top Four Seeds By Region

East: 1/1. Duke* (Columbia 1), 2/7. Michigan (Des Moines 1), 3/11. Marquette* (Hartford 1), 4/13. LSU (Hartford 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 32

South: 1/2. Virginia (Columbus 1), 2/5. Kentucky* (Columbus 2), 3/12. Purdue (Jacksonville 2), 4/14. Kansas State* (Salt Lake City 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 33

Midwest: 1/3. Tennessee* (Columbia 1), 2/6. North Carolina (Jacksonville 1), 3/9. Kansas (Tulsa 1), 4/16. Wisconsin (San José 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 34

West: 1/4. Gonzaga* (Salt Lake City 1), 2/8. Michigan State (Des Moines 2), 3/10. Houston (Tulsa 2), 4/15. Florida State (San José 1) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 37

With four ACC and Big Ten teams present in the top 16 and three SEC squads, balancing these regions continued to be a challenge.

Of our 44 open bids, 16 are now accounted for, leaving 28 up for grabs. But we have more locks!

Other Locks

No. 5s: 17. Maryland (20-7/11/6), 18. Nevada* (24-2/8/0), 19. Texas Tech (21-5/12/4), 20. Iowa State (19-7/8/5)
No. 6s: 21. Iowa (20-6/10/4), 22. Mississippi State (19-7/12/8), 23. Cincinnati (22-4/6/3), 24. Virginia Tech (20-6/8/3)

Mississippi State has won three straight to solidify its position, though the most recent of those victories was partially the result of some bad fan behavior at Georgia. Cincinnati, the Bulldogs’ best non-conference win, also improved its standing by knocking off UCF on Thursday night.

That’s 8 more bids off the board. 20 remain.

Nearing Safety

No. 7s: 25. Washington* (21-5/6/1), 26. Villanova (20-7/13/4), 27. Baylor (17-9/11/4), 28. Buffalo (22-3/6/3)
No. 8s: 29. Louisville (18-9/9/4), 30. Syracuse (18-8/8/3), 31. Wofford* (20-4/6/2), 32. Auburn (17-8/10/1)

Thanks to consecutive losses to St. John’s and Georgetown, Villanova has gone from possible protected seed to the 6-to-7-seed range. It’s a similar story for Louisville, which has won just two of its last six. Baylor’s win at Iowa State bought the Bears a little more breathing room, while Syracuse’s victory over the aforementioned Cardinals will help the Orange as they work their way through the most difficult portion of their schedule.

Even though 8 teams fall within this group, since Wofford represents the likely one-bid Southern Conference, only 7 of them count toward our bid calculation. We’ve now truly reached 2019’s bubble — the final 13 places in the field.

Bubble IN

No. 9s: 33. St. John’s (19-8/9/6), 34. Ole Miss (18-8/7/4), 35. Texas (15-11/8/4), 36. Ohio State (17-9/7/4)
No. 10s: 37. VCU* (20-6/5/2), 38. Oklahoma (16-10/8/3), 39. Florida (15-11/7/3)

Was LSU looking ahead to Tennessee on Wednesday night? Perhaps. But Florida certainly won’t mind, as the Gators certainly needed a high-quality road win for their profile. And with many other bubble teams continuing to struggle this week, Mike White’s squad finds themselves above the Dayton-bound group they couldn’t even crack on Tuesday. VCU extended its win streak to seven by absolutely annihilating a Rhode Island squad it fell to on the road a few weeks ago. And with Davidson losing at home to Dayton on Tuesday, Mike Rhoades’ club is now the lone Atlantic 10 team in the field.

Providence’s sweep of St. John’s cost the Red Storm some positioning after the Johnnies defeated Butler and Villanova, while Ole Miss also slid a bit following a loss at South Carolina, even though the Gamecocks are fourth in the SEC. Ohio State took care of Northwestern in Columbus to snap a two-game skid, while both Texas and Oklahoma have had some time off before they meet in Norman on Saturday.

The Cut Line

Last Four Byes (No. 10s): 40. NC State (19-8/7/1)
Last Four Byes (No. 11s): 41. Minnesota (17-10/8/3), 42. Arizona State (18-8/8/4), 43. Seton Hall (16-10/11/3)

Minnesota’s expected home loss to Michigan and Seton Hall’s less forgivable one to Xavier both dropped them a seed line today. However, the fact the Golden Gophers have won just one of their last six games is a far more troubling trend for their hopes. NC State avoided disaster at home against Boston College, winning after overtime on Wednesday, while Arizona State had no trouble with Stanford at home.

Last Four IN (No. 11s - First Four): 44. TCU (17-9/6/1), 45. UCF (19-6/5/0)
Last Four IN (No. 12s - First Four): 46. Utah State (20-6/3/1), 47. Lipscomb (19-6/4/2)

Even though Lipscomb lost to the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, 229th in the NET, on Wednesday night, I’m keeping the Bisons in the field for now, thanks to the quality of the teams behind them. However, I don’t think that a two-bid Atlantic Sun will be a reality in three weeks’ time. That’s because Lipscomb’s defeat handed control of the conference race to Liberty — now one loss up in the standings. And with the ASUN Tournament being hosted by higher seeds all the way through, that might give the Flames an advantage. But that’s not a given as the pair split their season series, with each winning on the other’s home floor.

UCF missed a major opportunity to shore up its candidacy in Cincinnati last night, while TCU gets one on Saturday when Iowa State visits Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs already shocked the Cyclones in Ames two weeks ago. As for Utah State, a trip to Boise State and visit from San Diego State are all that stands between the Aggies and a home game with Nevada on March 2.

First Four OUT: 69. Temple (19-7/6/1), 70. Butler (15-12/7/2), 71. Georgetown (16-10/8/4), 72. Alabama (15-11/9/2)
Next Four OUT: 73. Furman (19-5/4/1), 74. Clemson (15-11/4/1), 75. Saint Mary’s (18-10/2/1), 76. Murray State (20-4/1/0)

With Temple treading water in the American Athletic, Butler losing at both St. John’s and Marquette recently and Alabama following Saturday’s home loss to Florida by being swept by a bad Texas A&M squad, Georgetown looks like the team from the First Four Out group that’s best positioned to make a move. Wednesday’s 12-point home win over Villanova pushed the Hoyas to 6-7 in the Big East. While that’s not impressive, they now sit just a half-game behind 7-7 St. John’s and Seton Hall, and that pair is currently tied for third in the top-heavy league. With two games against DePaul and a Saturday trip to Creighton left, along with a chance at avenging a 15-point road loss to the Pirates and a regular-season finale at Marquette, Patrick Ewing’s club will have opportunities to establish itself as the third-best team in the conference. The question is whether they can play with the consistency needed to do so.

Furman hosts neighbors Wofford, a team it lost to by five on the road, on Saturday. And with the Terriers ranked in the NET’s top 25, the Paladins have a shot at adding a second Group 1 win to a profile that already features a win at Villanova. Clemson needs to snap its three-game skid quickly, though beating Boston College at home on Saturday won’t do much for their bid prospects. Saint Mary’s, which held Pacific to 32 points on Thursday, is working toward next Saturday’s visit from Gonzaga, while Murray State looks to be cruising to a bye to the OVC Tournament semifinals.

The Next 12 Out

77. South Carolina (13-12/7/3), 78. Oregon State (16-9/5/1), 79. Nebraska (14-12/7/2), 80. UNC Greensboro (21-5/2/1), 81. Providence (15-12/7/2), 82. South Florida (17-8/2/0), 83. Davidson (18-7/4/0), 84. Oregon (15-11/3/1), 85. Memphis (16-11/2/0), 86. San Francisco (20-6/2/0), 87. Toledo (19-6/2/0), 88. Fresno State (18-7/2/1)

I’m listing just about all of these teams as a courtesy at this point. Nebraska’s 24-point road loss to Penn State all but ended the Huskers’ at-large hopes, while Oregon State and Oregon both cost themselves position with their respective Thursday losses to UCLA and USC.

But there’s one team here that will definitely give the Selection Committee headaches and that’s the first one listed — South Carolina. The Gamecocks won just five of their 13 non-conference games this year. While the eight losses feature some very respectable names in Clemson, Michigan, Providence, Virginia and Wofford, Frank Martin’s team also lost to the Stony Brook Seawolves (150th in the NET) and Wyoming Cowboys (319th). The SEC/Big 12 Challenge didn’t even provide a respite, as the Gamecocks fell at Oklahoma State in that event.

While South Carolina ably portrayed Mr. Hyde in non-league play, the team has also aced the Dr. Jekyll role in the SEC. Conference play has provided the Gamecocks with three Group 1 wins and four top 35 victories. In fact, if the season ended today, they’d own the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament — and the bye to the quarterfinals that come with it. And with just two of Carolina’s remaining opponents being at-large threats, such an ending is quite possible. But the lack of late quality win opportunities and bad non-conference results really limit the Gamecocks’ at-large hopes.

(Likely) One-Bid Conference Reps

At-Large Hopefuls

No. 12s: 48. Belmont* (21-4/5/2), 49. Liberty* (20-5/2/1), 50. New Mexico State* (21-4/2/0)

Must Win Conference Tournament

No. 13s: 51. Yale*, 52. Hofstra*, 53. Old Dominion*, 54. Vermont*
No. 14s: 55. Bowling Green*, 56. Radford*, 57. South Dakota State*, 58. UC Irvine*
No. 15s: 59. Montana*, 60. Loyola Chicago*, 61. Northern Kentucky*, 62. Georgia State*
No. 16s (First Round): 63. Bucknell*, 64. Sam Houston State*
No. 16s (First Four): 65. Prairie View A&M*, 66. Norfolk State*, 67. St. Francis (Pa.)*, 68. Canisius*

As we rapidly approach the end of the regular season, a mere pair of teams can complete the regular season with a perfect conference record. One of those, Wofford, faces its sternest test on Saturday at Furman. The other, Gonzaga, hosts BYU tomorrow, with their toughest remaining matchup, that trip to Saint Mary’s, a week away. With so few teams truly dominating their conferences in 2019, expect lots of changes in this section of the bracket down the stretch.

My next full update will post on Tuesday.