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Bracketology 2019: Bubble trouble lurks as conference tournaments reach full swing

Nearly every remaining conference tournament will have stories to tell before the real field of 68 is announced.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at St. Mary’s
After more than a week off, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are both back in action in tonight’s WCC semifinals.
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

With 2018-19’s regular season in the history books, it’s all elimination basketball from now until someone cuts the nets down in Minneapolis on Monday, April 8th. This morning’s bracket is largely unchanged from Sunday’s version, though I did shuffle some teams around (as noted on the seed list). Most notably, I switched the positions of the LSU Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers on the No. 2 seed line. I also added the Atlantic Sun champion Liberty Flames and Big South-winning Gardner-Webb Bulldogs to the field, which led to a few adjustments from lines 12 down.

Before things start to pick up tomorrow, I wanted to take the opportunity today to look at the biggest seeding and selection storylines to monitor over the next seven days and nights. But first, here’s today’s full bracket.

Note: Auto bid holders in this section are noted by the conference names in parentheses. Arrows indicate movement up or down seed lines relative to Sunday’s projection. New entrants are marked with an asterisk. Teams that have clinched bids are in all caps.

1. East (Washington, D.C.)

Columbia, South Carolina (Fri./Sun.)

1. Virginia (ACC) vs. 16. St. Francis (Pa.) (NEC)/Norfolk State (MEAC)
8. UCF vs. 9. Utah State

San José, California (Fri./Sun.)

5. Maryland vs. ↑12. New Mexico State (WAC)
4. Kansas State (Big 12) vs. 13. Hofstra (CAA)

Hartford, Connecticut (Thu./Sat.)

6. Marquette vs. ↑11. Texas
3. Purdue vs. 14. Old Dominion (C-USA)

Tulsa, Oklahoma (Fri./Sun.)

↓7. Iowa State vs. 10. Minnesota
2. LSU (SEC) vs. ↑15. BRADLEY (MVC)

4. Midwest (Kansas City, Missouri)

Columbia (Fri./Sun.)

1. North Carolina vs. *16. GARDNER-WEBB (Big South)
↑8. Baylor vs. ↑9. Seton Hall

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

5. Mississippi State vs. 12. Temple/Indiana
4. Texas Tech vs. 13. UC Irvine (Big West)

Tulsa (Fri./Sun.)

↑6. Auburn vs. 11. TCU
3. Houston (American) vs. 14. Georgia State (Sun Belt)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

7. Buffalo (MAC) vs. 10. Arizona State
2. Michigan State (Big Ten) vs. 15. Omaha (Summit)

2. West (Anaheim, California)

Salt Lake City (Thu./Sat.)

1. Gonzaga (WCC) vs. 16. Iona (MAAC)/Prairie View (SWAC)
8. Louisville vs. 9. Washington (Pac-12)

Hartford (Thu./Sat.)

5. Wisconsin vs. 12. MURRAY STATE (OVC)
4. Florida State vs. *13. LIBERTY (ASUN)

Des Moines, Iowa (Thu./Sat.)

6. Villanova (Big East) vs. 11. Florida
3. Kansas vs. ↑14. Montana (Big Sky)

Jacksonville, Florida (Thu./Sat.)

7. Wofford (SoCon) vs. 10. Syracuse
↑2. Tennessee vs. 15. Colgate (Patriot)

3. South (Louisville, Kentucky)

Columbus (Fri./Sun.)

1. Kentucky vs. 16. Sam Houston State (Southland)
8. Oklahoma vs. ↓9. Iowa

San José (Fri./Sun.)

5. Nevada (MW) vs. ↓12. Ohio State/Clemson
4. Virginia Tech vs. 13. Vermont (Am. East)

Des Moines (Thu./Sat.)

6. Cincinnati vs. 11. St. John’s
3. Michigan vs. 14. Harvard (Ivy)

Jacksonville (Thu./Sat.)

7. VCU (A 10) vs. ↓10. Ole Miss
2. Duke vs. 15. Wright State (Horizon)

Last Four Byes: St. John’s, TCU, Florida, Texas
Last Four IN: Temple, Indiana, Ohio State, Clemson
First Four OUT: Belmont, NC State, Lipscomb, Creighton
Next Four OUT: Oregon, Alabama, UNCG, Furman

New Today: Gardner-Webb, Liberty
Leaving Today: Lipscomb, Radford

Bids by Conference: 9 Big Ten, 8 ACC, 8 Big 12, 7 SEC, 4 American, 4 Big East, 2 Mountain West, 2 Pac-12, 24 one-bid conferences

Bubble trouble lurks

With mid-major conferences taking center stage on the Monday and Tuesday nights of Championship Week, it’s typically quiet on the bubble front, as only the WCC tournament usually worries those teams competing for the final few spots in the field. And with the Gonzaga Bulldogs not only a tournament lock, but a likely No. 1 seed, that applies again this year. But 2019’s event in Vegas has a couple of wrinkles that make it a little more intriguing. For starters, the WCC bracket returned to a ladder format, meaning both the Bulldogs and second-seeded Saint Mary’s Gaels enter the fray tonight at the semifinal stage (9 p.m. ET, ESPN and 11:30 p.m., ESPN2) — after having last played on Saturday, March 2. Then, thanks to the BYU Cougars’ “no play on Sunday” rule, the tournament took yesterday off. That means Saturday’s quarterfinal winners, the eighth-seeded Pepperdine Waves and seventh-seeded San Diego Toreros, got a day off before taking the floor again tonight.

Yes, two teams that started the WCC tournament in Thursday’s first round will be looking for their fourth consecutive wins in the event. And if that happens bubble teams everywhere will be panicking because that means an at-large bid is about to vanish. (No. 1 seed contenders, on the other hand, would be rejoicing over Gonzaga’s misfortune.)

The more serious threat to the at-large pool comes earlier in the evening, as the Southern Conference’s top seed, the Wofford Terriers, takes on the second-seeded UNC Greensboro Spartans in that league’s title game (7 p.m., ESPN). If the Terriers win and complete a 21-0 SoCon campaign, an at-large spot is preserved. But if the Spartans pull the upset, someone’s bubble will pop.

And the drama will only continue as the week goes on.

  • The Buffalo Bulls, currently a seven seed in this projection, open MAC tournament play on Thursday at 12 p.m. Eastern (ESPN+ ($)) with the Toledo Rockets and Bowling Green Falcons their main threats for the title in Cleveland.
  • The Atlantic 10, consistently a multi-bid league in recent seasons, has only one at-large threat, the top-seeded VCU Rams. If Mike Rhoades’ squad falls at any point between Friday’s quarterfinals and Sunday’s title game, an at-large bid will vanish.
  • The Nevada Wolf Pack have long been an NCAA lock, despite a lack of Quad 1 wins. And with their win over the Pack in Logan last Saturday, the Utah State Aggies also put themselves in prime position for a bid. Bubble teams will have to hope for the two to meet in Saturday night’s final in Las Vegas, though an early loss for the Aggies could see them find late trouble.

Of course, a surprising Cinderella run in one of the multi-bid league tournaments could throw a further wrench into the picture. Let’s take a quick look at the most intriguing storylines in each.

Big East tournament

With four of the conference’s 10 teams finishing at 9-9, four others at either 8-10 or 7-11 and the Villanova Wildcats and Marquette Golden Eagles having fallen back to the pack over the final two weeks of the season, this is the power conference most likely to produce a surprise winner. Making matters worse, the favorites’ respective slides mean they’re going to have to win out at Madison Square Garden to have a real shot at a protected seed, most likely on the four line.

Pac-12 tournament

While both the regular-season champion Washington Huskies and second-seeded Arizona State Sun Devils are present in today’s projection, a slip-up in Las Vegas, particularly early on, could put them in a world of hurt. And like the Big East, the Pac-12 also has a bunched-up middle class. Just three games separated the third-seeded Utah Utes with the trio of teams that finished eighth in the standings. The worst case scenario for the bubble? A surprise team winning the final on Saturday night over either the Huskies or Sun Devils, with the eliminated favorite having been competitive in the semifinals.

American Athletic tournament

While the Houston Cougars are playing for a possible No. 2 seed and the Cincinnati Bearcats and UCF Knights are both NCAA locks at this point, the third-seeded Temple Owls will probably need to win at least a game to secure their spot. Complicating the picture, the Memphis Tigers — currently on the bubble’s fringe — host the tournament. Only Cincinnati was able to defeat Penny Hardaway’s team on its home floor during conference play. But there’s a caveat — Houston didn’t travel to the Mid-South during the regular season. But the Cougars and Tigers could meet in Saturday’s semifinals.

ACC tournament

Once you get past Tuesday’s opening round that features six teams that finished under .500, things will be popping in Charlotte. First up, the league’s bubble teams will take the floor on Wednesday with the Clemson Tigers and NC State Wolfpack playing a virtual elimination game in the afternoon session and the Syracuse Orange and Louisville Cardinals both looking to avoid the dreaded late bad loss that night. The top four seeds then hit the floor for the first time in Thursday’s quarterfinals, with the Virginia Cavaliers, North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils all very much alive in the race for No. 1 NCAA seeds and the Florida State Seminoles (and fifth-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies, for that matter) trying to jump above the four line. Friday night’s second semifinal could be the third UNC-Duke game of the season — but quite possibly the first to fully involve Zion Williamson.

SEC tournament

Travel a few hours west of Charlotte and the picture is similar in Nashville, but with a twist — the SEC’s No. 4 seed, the South Carolina Gamecocks, aren’t a real at-large threat, as they’re 15-15 in Division I games thanks to some woeful non-conference performances. Again, early action will feature bubble teams, with the Florida Gators taking on the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday afternoon in a game Mike White’s squad cannot afford to lose after a three-game skid to end the regular season. In the evening session, the Alabama Crimson Tide, currently projected on the outside looking in, could improve their stock by topping the Ole Miss Rebels. Quarterfinal Friday will feature the Gamecocks and the league’s three No. 1 seed contenders, the champion LSU Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers.

Big Ten tournament

While both the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines have featured in the race for No. 1 seeds throughout the season, it might take others stumbling for them to return to the top line at this point. (The Big Ten title game’s pre-Selection Show finish further complicates matters.) So, both are jockeying with the Purdue Boilermakers for spots on the two line. Plus, a spot on the NCAA tournament’s four line could be on the line when the fourth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers and fifth-seeded Maryland Terrapins meet in Friday’s second quarterfinal. Then there’s the bubble, with both the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Iowa Hawkeyes needing wins in Thursday’s second round to feel safe and the Ohio State Buckeyes and Indiana Hoosiers meeting in yet another possible NCAA elimination game to start that day’s quadruple-header.

Big 12 tournament

For starters, the Oklahoma Sooners and TCU Horned Frogs both must play in Wednesday’s opening round, with the potential of a loss being the most harmful to the Frogs’ chances. Then on Wednesday, the most intriguing quarterfinal is the nightcap, as the Texas Longhorns will face a serious challenge as they attempt to avoid the 16th loss that would knock them to .500 and likely eliminate them from NCAA consideration. What does Shaka Smart’s team have to do to avoid such a fate? Merely beat the Kansas Jayhawks on their de facto alternate home floor, Kansas City’s Sprint Center. Easy peasy. The Jayhawks currently feature on the No. 3 seed line nationally, while the conference’s co-champs, the Kansas State Wildcats and Texas Tech Red Raiders, are on line four. The highest finisher of the trio in K.C. is likely to end up as a three, with a chance for a No. 2 seed.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back to talk about the cases for and against the teams closest to the cut line.