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Bracketology 2019: Kentucky is now a No. 1 seed as the finish line draws near

Last week’s trio of titanic tussles added some much needed drama to the race for the four regional anchors. Meanwhile, the bubble picture continues to weaken.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Kentucky
On Saturday, Kentucky routed Auburn while Tennessee fell at LSU in overtime. As a result, the Wildcats are now a No. 1 seed and the Vols are a 2.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

One week ago, we were waiting for what we thought would be the games of the year in the ACC and Big Ten and a rather important matchup in the SEC. Those games have now come and gone — and with the North Carolina Tar Heels handling the Zion Williamson-less Duke Blue Devils on Wednesday, the LSU Tigers taking an overtime thriller against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday and the Michigan State Spartans triumphant on the Michigan Wolverines’ home floor one day later, the top two seed lines of today’s projection look significantly different than last Tuesday’s.

Sure, Duke remains No. 1 overall, as the Blue Devils took care of the Syracuse Orange on Saturday and Williamson should return from his knee sprain in the near future, while the Virginia Cavaliers sit just behind in the second spot overall. But then it’s all change, as the Gonzaga Bulldogs, 27-2 and atop both polls, hold the third spot overall, with the Kentucky Wildcats claiming the final top seed. While John Calipari’s team has lost three games since the 34-point drubbing Duke handed it in the Champions Classic on opening night, those defeats have come by a total of five points!

But the ‘Cats aren’t the only team making a push for a spot on the top line. Naturally, North Carolina is right in the thick of the race after Wednesday’s win in Durham. The 22-5 Tar Heels are today’s top No. 2 seed, closely followed by Michigan State. The Spartans’ 11 Group 1 wins are more than any other contender — Kentucky and Virginia follow with nine each. Tennessee, meanwhile, drops to seventh overall following consecutive Saturday losses in Lexington and Baton Rouge, while Michigan occupies the final spot on the two line. The Wolverines have been mere mortals of late, 4-3 in their last seven games.

LSU has jumped up to a No. 3 seed thanks to its Saturday win, though the Houston Cougars, who defeated them at the Fertitta Center on December 12th outrank them. The Big East-leading Marquette Golden Eagles and Kansas Jayhawks/Kansas State Wildcats/ round out the three line. The Purdue Boilermakers, Texas Tech Red Raiders, who thoroughly dominated Kansas in Lubbock on Saturday night, Wisconsin Badgers and Florida State Seminoles round out the protected seeds for today.

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

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) Sam Houston State Bearkats (Southland)
(↓8) Baylor Bears vs. (9) Auburn Tigers

Hartford, Connecticut (Thu./Sat.)

(5) Kansas State Wildcats (Big 12) vs. (↓*12) Minnesota Golden Gophers/Utah State Aggies
(4) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (13) Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA)

Hartford (Thu./Sat.)

(↑6) Virginia Tech Hokies vs. (11) Arizona State Sun Devils
(3) Marquette Golden Eagles (Big East) vs. (↓14) Hofstra Pride (CAA)

Jacksonville, Florida (Thu./Sat.)

(↓7) Iowa State Cyclones vs. (↓10) Ohio State Buckeyes
(↓2) Tennessee Volunteers vs. (15) Missouri State Bears (MVC)

(4) Midwest (Kansas City, Missouri)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

(↑1) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (16) Bucknell Bison (Patriot)
(↑8) Syracuse Orange vs. (↑9) Oklahoma Sooners

Jacksonville (Thu./Sat.)

(↓5) Nevada Wolf Pack (MW) vs. (↓12) Seton Hall Pirates
(↓4) Purdue Boilermakers vs. (13) Yale Bulldogs (Ivy)

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

(↑6) Washington Huskies (Pac-12) vs. (11) UCF Knights
(3) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (14) UC Irvine Anteaters (Big West)

Columbia (Fri./Sun.)

(↑7) Buffalo Bulls (MAC) vs. (*10) Florida Gators
(2) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (*15) Wright State Raiders (Horizon)

(2) South (Louisville, Kentucky)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Virginia Cavaliers vs. (16) St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash (NEC)/Canisius Golden Griffins (MAAC)
(8) St. John’s Red Storm vs. (↓9) Ole Miss Rebels

San José, California (Fri./Sun.)

(↑5) Maryland Terrapins vs. (12) Belmont Bruins (OVC)
(↑4) Texas Tech Red Raiders vs. (13) Vermont Catamounts (America East)

Tulsa, Oklahoma (Fri./Sun.)

(↑6) Cincinnati Bearcats vs. (↓11) Lipscomb Bisons (ASUN)
(↑3) LSU Tigers (SEC) vs. (14) Radford Highlanders (Big South)

Des Moines, Iowa (Thu./Sat.)

(↓7) Villanova Wildcats vs. (↓10) Texas Longhorns
(2) Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten) vs. (15) Texas State Bobcats (Sun Belt)

(3) West (Anaheim, California)

Salt Lake City (Thu./Sat.)

(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs (WCC) vs. (16) Prairie View A&M Panthers (SWAC)/Norfolk State Spartans (MEAC)
(↓8) Louisville Cardinals vs. (↑9) VCU Rams (A 10)

San José (Fri./Sun.)

(5) Iowa Hawkeyes vs. (↓*12) Alabama Crimson Tide/Temple Owls
(↑4) Florida State Seminoles vs. (↓13) New Mexico State Aggies (WAC)

Tulsa (Fri./Sun.)

(6) Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. (11) NC State Wolfpack
(3) Houston Cougars (American) vs. (14) South Dakota State Jackrabbits (Summit)

Des Moines (Thu./Sat.)

(↑7) Wofford Terriers (SoCon) vs. (↑10) TCU Horned Frogs
(2) Michigan Wolverines vs. (15) Montana Grizzlies (Big Sky)

Notes on today’s projection:

  • You likely noticed the potential Marquette-Virginia Tech “Buzz Williams Bowl” in the East Second Round in Hartford. That would be the headline round of 32 game in a region that could also feature a Duke-Auburn rematch, a physical Wisconsin-Kansas State showdown and a potentially-explosive Tennessee-Iowa State matchup.
  • In the Midwest, the two through 4 seeds would all face major hurdles on their respective paths to the regionals. No. 2 North Carolina could take on a Buffalo (or an improved Florida), No. 3 Kansas might face Pac-12 champ Washington and No. 4 Purdue would potentially face two-loss Nevada.
  • Belmont over Maryland (South) would be the trendy 12-over-5 upset pick, with the Bruins’ archrival, Lipscomb, leading the way on the 11-over-6 list thanks to the Bisons’ matchup with Cincinnati. Michigan State-Villanova would be the most tantalizing Second Round option in that bracket.
  • In the West, the three of the top four seeds — No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Florida State — all reached last season’s regional in Los Angeles and the Wolverines stunned the No. 3 seed, Houston, in the Second Round. The Bulldogs and Seminoles look likely to face the most difficult Second Round matchups here, with Louisville and Iowa the trickiest possibilities for both. However, Mississippi State would be a nice challenge for Houston, while Wofford could become this season’s Cinderella with a win over Michigan.
  • Your 1-vs.-2 Elite Eight matchups would likely start with Gonzaga-Michigan (West) on Saturday, with Virginia-Michigan State (South) closing out the first doubleheader. Sunday play would begin with Duke-Tennessee (East) with an all-blue-blood showdown between Kentucky and North Carolina (Midwest) wrapping the weekend up.


Full seed list

Last Four Byes: Arizona State, N.C. State, UCF, Seton Hall
Last Four IN: Minnesota, Alabama, Temple, Utah State
First Four OUT: Butler, Clemson, Georgetown, Furman
Next Four Out: Saint Mary’s, Dayton, Davidson, Liberty

New Today: Florida, Iona, Temple, Utah State, Wright State
Leaving Today: Bowling Green, Canisius, Davidson, Liberty, Northern Kentucky

Bids by Conference: 8 ACC, 8 Big 12, 8 Big Ten, 8 SEC, 4 American, 4 Big East, 2 Mountain West, 2 Pac-12, 24 one-bid conferences

The at-large picture continues to be unusually unbalanced, with four conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC — accounting for a whopping 28 of 36 bids available. And thanks to changes in a handful of single-bid conference races, the number of multi-bid leagues dropped from 11 last week to a mere eight today. The Atlantic Sun, Atlantic 10 and MAC are now all down to a lone entrant apiece.

And the weirdness of the 2018-19 season continues when you look at the first eight teams left out of today’s field, as mid-majors dominate the list. Taking a look at each of the power conferences, it’s not hard to see why.

  • Of the seven ACC teams outside of the field, only Clemson owns a record that’s above .500.
  • The American’s second tier — Memphis, South Florida and Tulsa — have all won 16 or more games, but the Tigers are the lone team above .500 in league play.
  • Both Big 12 teams left out, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, are 10-17.
  • While all 10 Big East teams boast winning records overall, only three can say the same in league play. And St. John’s is just 8-7! Georgetown, at 6-8, even looks like the third-strongest bubble team (after Seton Hall and Butler) despite losing at Creighton on Saturday.
  • Five of the six Big Ten teams on the outside looking in have losing records, with the exception — 15-13 Nebraska — just 2-6 since Issac Copeland was lost for the season.
  • While the Pac-12 has a whopping eight excluded teams with records that are over .500, their hopes are collectively dragged down by the conference’s lousy performance in non-league play. Only Washington ranks in the NET top 30, with just Arizona State and Oregon joining the Huskies in the top 75.
  • Just two of the six SEC teams left out are over .500 and those are 14-13 South Carolina and Arkansas.

In other words, I may have to reconsider my stance from Feb. 15. While this may not be the worst bubble ever, it’s certainly weak and thin, particularly with the stronger mid-major conferences, like the Atlantic 10, Mountain West and West Coast struggling to provide contenders to legitimately fill the void.

More bubble talk to come on Friday when I look at the bid picture heading into the first weekend of March.