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Bracketology 2019: What the March Madness picture looks like with Championship Week underway

The first NCAA tournament bids of the season will be awarded this weekend. Two of those championship games could add even more mystery to the already messy bubble.

Casey Alexander’s Lipscomb Bisons might have an at-large shot if they lose Sunday’s Atlantic Sun championship game.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend brings the conclusion of the regular season for the majority of the nation’s conferences. As for the 13 leagues that wrapped things up a week ago, tournament action is ramping up. Saturday will see our first NCAA tournament bid earned, with three further teams securing their places on Sunday. Two of those matchups might affect the bubble picture, but before we discuss the specifics of that puzzle, we’ll start with our final countdown of tourney locks for the regular season.

As a reminder, you’ll see three sets of numbers in parentheses after each at-large candidate’s 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, March 7, 2019, NET data only reflects games played through Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (Info from WarrenNolan.com.) Asterisks (*) denote auto bid holders. All tip times are Eastern.

Locks and protected seeds

No. 1s: 1. Virginia* (27-2/15/10), 2. Gonzaga* (29-2/11/4), 3. Kentucky (25-5/14/11), 4. Duke (26-4/14/8)
No. 2s: 5. North Carolina (25-5/15/8), 6. Tennessee (26-3/14/8), 7. Michigan (26-4/17/8), 8. Michigan State* (24-6/15/10)
No. 3s: 9. LSU* (25-5/16/10), 10. Houston* (28-2/13/4), 11. Kansas (22-8/15/10), 12. Purdue (22-8/15/7)
No. 4s: 13. Texas Tech (25-5/15/6), 14. Virginia Tech (22-7/10/4), 15. Florida State (24-6/12/6), 16. Marquette (23-7/16/9)

The top 16 is largely unchanged from Tuesday’s bracket, though there’s been some shuffling on the four line due to Marquette’s Wednesday loss to the Seton Hall Pirates, the Golden Eagles’ third in a row. Over at Blogging the Bracket yesterday, I discussed my placement of some of these teams. In short, I’m attempting to predict what the Selection Committee will do based on recent history and their third annual bracket sneak preview, not my own preferences, when projecting the field.

Top four seeds by region

East: 1/1. Virginia* (Columbia 1), 2/6 Tennessee (Columbus 2), 3/12. Purdue (Jacksonville 2), 4/16. Marquette (San José 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 35

West: 1/2. Gonzaga* (Salt Lake City 1), 2/8. Michigan State* (Des Moines 2), 3/10. Houston* (Tulsa 2), 4/14. Virginia Tech (Hartford 1) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 34

South: 1/3. Kentucky (Columbus 1), 2/5. North Carolina (Jacksonville 1), 3/11. Kansas (Salt Lake City 2), 4/15. Florida State (Hartford 2) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 34

Midwest: 1/4. Duke (Columbia 2), 2/7. Michigan (Des Moines 1), 3/9. LSU* (Tulsa 1), 4/13. Texas Tech (San José 1) - Total of Top 4 Seeds = 33

I did make a slight change in assigning teams to first weekend sites, ticketing Virginia for Columbia, South Carolina instead of Columbus, Ohio, even though Charlottesville is technically closer to the Ohio capital. A friend reminded me that Charlotte, North Carolina, which has a large Virginia alumni base, is only a 90-to-120-minute drive away from Columbia, so might be preferable to the No. 1 overall seed. That change means the second anchor spot in South Carolina’s capital might be up for grabs in Saturday’s Duke-North Carolina matchup in Chapel Hill (6 p.m., ESPN) or in a potential ACC tournament semifinal featuring the two in one week’s time.

Other locks

No. 5s: 17. Kansas State* (23-7/12/7), 18. Wisconsin (21-9/13/8), 19. Villanova* (22-8/15/5), 20. Maryland (21-9/12/6)
No. 6s: 21. Mississippi State (21-9/12/8), 22. Cincinnati (25-5/10/4), 23. Nevada (27-3/8/1), 24. Wofford* (23-4/7/3)
No. 7s: 25. Buffalo* (26-3/6/2), 26. Iowa State (20-10/10/5), 27. VCU* (24-6/5/2), 28. Washington* (24-6/8/2)
No. 8s: 29. UCF (23-6/8/2), 30. Auburn (20-9/13/2), 31. Iowa (21-9/11/4), 32. Oklahoma (19-11/11/4)

Yeah, there are several mid-major regular season champions included in this group, and I’m a bit leery of calling Wofford and Buffalo locks, particularly the Terriers. But with Wofford ranked 14th in the NET on Thursday and Buffalo two spots lower, excluding either from the field after a conference tournament loss would be an absolute indictment of the NCAA’s new tool for evaluating teams.

Three of the four teams on seed line eight are trending upward. UCF won its second straight game over a ranked opponent, following Saturday’s win at Houston with a Thursday victory over Cincinnati back in Orlando. The Knights can further solidify their position by winning at Temple on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN2). Auburn has won five of its last six to shore up its previously shaky profile. Meanwhile, Oklahoma not only ended Kansas’ Big 12 title streak on Tuesday, but also picked up its fourth victory in five tries to earn a bit of bid security. Then there’s Iowa, which has tumbled from a potential four seed threat to an 8/9 game, thanks to four losses in their last five, capped by Thursday’s 20-point loss at Wisconsin.

Taking stock of where we are, with 25 of the 68 bids in the 2019 NCAA tournament going to the champions of likely single-bid conferences, 43 places — the 36 at-larges and 7 multi-bid league automatic bids — are up for grabs for everyone else. While I have 32 locks above, remember that Buffalo, Gonzaga, VCU and Wofford count against the total of 25 single-bid league champs, not the at-large group like the other 28 teams. Subtracting those 23 from of the 43-bid group, 15 bids remain up for grabs.

Of course, that number will shrink if the Bulls, Bulldogs, Rams or Terriers slip up over the next week and a half.

Bubble IN

No. 9s: 33. Louisville (19-11/8/4), 34. Baylor (19-11/12/4), 35. Syracuse (19-11/7/3), 36. Ole Miss (19-11/7/4)
No. 10s: 37. Utah State* (24-6/4/2), 38. Seton Hall (17-12/11/5), 39. Texas (16-14/9/5), 40. St. John’s (20-10/10/5)

The No. 9 seeds should all be safe, but there’s still reason to worry for each. Louisville could still use one more win, but that might have to come in Charlotte next week, as a trip to Virginia looms on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN). Baylor’s Wednesday home loss to Oklahoma State was an unwanted late shock, particularly with a difficult road trip of their own set for tomorrow — against Kansas (2 p.m., ESPN). While Syracuse shouldn’t have expected a win against Virginia on Monday, completing a season sweep of fellow bubble team Clemson wouldn’t be a bad idea (Saturday, 12 p.m., CBS). As for Ole Miss, three consecutive losses by a total of seven points have the Rebels trending downward.

Seton Hall, Texas and St. John’s are all seeded a little higher than anticipated because of their quality wins. Remember that the two 15-loss teams selected for the field of 68, Alabama last season and Vanderbilt in 2017, were safely into the field as No. 9 seeds because of the strength of their victories.

The cut line

Last Four Byes (No. 11s): 41. Minnesota (19-11/10/3), 44. Florida (17-13/7/3)

Minnesota’s midweek win over Purdue nearly required, particularly with tonight’s road finale against Maryland (7 p.m., FS1) being a dicier opportunity for a marquee victory. As for Florida, Wednesday’s overtime defeat to LSU in Gainesville might be something the Gators regret on Selection Sunday, particularly when a reversal would have resulted in a season sweep of the Tigers. Making matters worse for Mike White’s team, they have their own difficult road finale set for Saturday, at Kentucky (2 p.m., CBS).

No. 11s (Auto Bids): 42. Belmont* (24-4/5/2), 43. Lipscomb* (23-6/3/2)

While I feel rather confident that Buffalo and Wofford will earn at-large bids with conference tournament losses, the prospects for these Nashville rivals aren’t quite as bright. And with both the Bruins and Bisons seeing their auto bid fates decided this weekend, they could be in for a long wait if things go wrong.

Tonight, Belmont takes on the Austin Peay Governors in the first OVC tournament semifinal (8 p.m., ESPNU). If the Bruins win, they’ll face either Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers or a Jacksonville State Gamecocks squad that defeated them twice during the regular season in Saturday’s winner-take-all showdown (8 p.m., ESPN2). As for Lipscomb, they have just one game to sweat out, Sunday’s Atlantic Sun championship game against the Liberty Flames (3 p.m., ESPN) at home in Nashville. However, the Flames won their first trip to Allen Arena, 74-66, on Feb. 13.

Last Four Byes (No. 12s): 45. Arizona State (20-9/10/3), 46. Ohio State (18-12/8/4)

Arizona State visits archrival Arizona on Saturday (4 p.m., CBS) looking to avoid another questionable loss, following a split in Oregon last weekend. As for Ohio State, Wednesday loss at Northwestern — who entered that game riding a 10-game losing streak — was the Buckeyes’ fifth in their last seven outings. Beating Wisconsin in Columbus on Sunday (4:30 p.m., CBS) might just be the only way to save their bid, barring a run in the Big Ten tournament.

Last Four IN (No. 12s - First Four): 47. Indiana (16-14/8/6), 48. TCU (18-12/7/2), 49. Temple (22-8/7/2), 50. Clemson (18-12/6/1)

Yes, Indiana is back, again on the strength of their quality wins. Saturday’s victory over Michigan State was the Hoosiers’ fifth over a top 30 team this season, and while their 14 losses are a concern, remember what I wrote above about St. John’s, Seton Hall and Texas. On Thursday, Archie Miller’s team avoided one potential pothole by winning at Illinois fairly easily, but another lurks on Saturday, as the improved Rutgers Scarlet Knights visit Assembly Hall (12 p.m., BTN).

Even though the Selection Committee doesn’t evaluate conference records, I don’t think a 6-12 Big 12 record is going to help TCU’s case. And that’s a real possibility for the Horned Frogs, thanks to Saturday’s finale at Texas (12 p.m., ESPN2). On the flip side, adding a season sweep of the Longhorns to one previously earned over Iowa State should push Jamie Dixon’s team over the finish line.

Temple’s visit from UCF is a great opportunity for the Owls to pick up a third Quad 1 win, thanks to the Knights’ presence in the NET top 30. Clemson, meanwhile, can earn some breathing room by earning a season split with visiting Syracuse. The Tigers might still have to grab a win or two in Charlotte next week to secure a bid, however, particularly with conference tournaments potentially wiping out at-large spots.

First Four OUT: 69. NC State (20-10/7/2), 70. Creighton (16-13/9/3), 71. Alabama (17-13/9/3), 72. Butler (16-14/8/1)

NC State dropped out after Wednesday’s 63-61 home loss to the shorthanded Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets — the Wolfpack’s second sub-100 loss. Making matters worse for the Pack is their 352nd-ranked non-conference schedule, something the Selection Committee might hold over their heads. With Saturday’s visit to the Boston College Eagles, a team NC State needed overtime to defeat in Raleigh, not likely to move the needle, Kevin Keatts’ squad is yet another that will have to win an ACC tournament game or two to secure a bid.

A four-game winning streak has returned Creighton to the at-large picture, though the Bluejays will need to defeat the DePaul Blue Demons tomorrow night (8 p.m., FS1) to stay alive. Defeating the Blue Demons was a bridge too far for the Georgetown Hoyas on Wednesday, but at least Greg McDermott’s team gets them in Omaha, not Chicago.

Beating the Arkansas Razorbacks Saturday (6 p.m., SEC Network) won’t help Alabama all that much, so an SEC tournament run is a necessity for the Crimson Tide at this point. As for Butler, a Tuesday win over the Xavier Musketeers led to the pair switching places on the bubble. With the Bulldogs’ traveling to Providence for their regular-season finale tomorrow afternoon (12 p.m., FSN), avoiding a loss to the Friars and gathering some Big East tournament wins looks like the most likely combo for a return to the field.

Next Four OUT: 73. Furman (21-6/4/1), 74. Oregon (18-12/4/1), 75. Murray State (23-4/1/0), 76. Liberty (24-6/2/1)

All four of these squads will have their chances this weekend. Furman, Liberty and Murray State are all involved in their respective conference tournament, while Oregon visits Washington on Saturday night (10 p.m., ESPN). And that’s a rare Quad 1 win opportunity for the Ducks in a down Pac-12.

(Likely) One-bid conference reps

No. 13s: 51. New Mexico State*, 52. Old Dominion*, 53. Vermont*, 54. Hofstra*
No. 14s: 55. UC Irvine*, 56. South Dakota State*, 57. Harvard*, 58. Georgia State*
No. 15s: 59. Loyola Chicago*, 60. Montana*, 61. Wright State*, 62. Colgate*
No. 16s (First Round): 63. Sam Houston State*, 64. Campbell*
No. 16s (First Four): 65. Iona*, 66. Prairie View A&M*, 67. St. Francis (Pa.)*, 68. Norfolk State*

This afternoon, Loyola Chicago begins its quest for a second consecutive Missouri Valley title (1 p.m., ESPN+ ($)), while Iona plays its MAAC quarterfinal this evening (7 p.m., ESPN3) and Campbell hosts the second Big South semifinal (8:30 p.m., ESPN+ ($)). On Saturday, St. Francis (Pa.), South Dakota State and Vermont are all in conference tournament action, while Colgate and Hofstra face elimination on Sunday with Wright State back in action one night later.

In other words, there’s a good chance there will be some new names on the bottom four seed lines in my next bracket update, which will post Sunday. From then on, updates will be daily, with increasing frequency as we approach March 17.