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Bracketology 2020: Butler and San Diego State are No. 1 seeds. North Carolina is out

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The NCAA’s mid-season bracket projection features some strange names on the top line and some notable programs missing from the field.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Penn State Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season tipped off on Nov. 5, I posted a rather pedestrian preseason bracket projection complete with the usual caveat that it was an exercise in futility and that things would look completely different on Selection Sunday.

However, we are now roughly halfway between the start of the season and that date — Sunday, March 15 — and the field of 68 is already completely unrecognizable from the one I conjured up a little more than two months ago. For starters, a whopping 29 of the 68 teams in the projected bracket below are newcomers. OK ... that’s not all that unusual, as there were 28 changes between 2018’s preseason effort and the first projection of 2019. Instead, it’s some of the names, both missing and present, that provide this bracket’s shock value, particularly if you’ve been more focused on football’s championship chase up until this point.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at North Carolina
Roy Williams, like many North Carolina fans, has had trouble watching the Tar Heels lately.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for the North Carolina Tar Heels (a preseason No. 3 seed) or the Cincinnati Bearcats (an NCAA Tournament team for nine seasons running), you’re going to be disappointed. Neither team is even close to the “under consideration” board at this moment, thanks to early struggles brought about by injury and the rules I’ve implemented to evaluate teams based on how the Selection Committee used the NET in 2019.

Note that the 73rd-ranked St. John’s Red Storm were the lowest-rated team in Selection Sunday 2019’s NET to earn an at-large bid. Balancing this guidance against the newness of the metric, I’m only considering teams in the NET Top 80 for at-large selection. In Monday’s NET (which I used to build the bracket), the Tar Heels ranked 101st and the Bearcats 88th, so they’re out. Other notables who missed the cut for today include the Iowa State Cyclones (81st), Pittsburgh Panthers (84th) and Syracuse Orange (87th).

But the struggles of these March mainstays have opened the door for some new names. The two most shocking are those of the Penn State Nittany Lions and Rutgers Scarlet Knights — a pair of woebegone programs who’s sudden resurgence helped boost the Big Ten’s current bid total to 10 (out of 14 teams). Remember that the old 16-team Big East set the record for most bids with 11 back in 2011.

  • The Nittany Lions are in position to reach the tournament in Pat Chambers’ ninth season, having last qualified in 2011 — Ed DeChellis’ eighth and final campaign in Happy Valley. Penn State’s last NCAA trip before that came in 2001 — when Jerry Dunn’s squad reached the Sweet Sixteen. Based on those dates, the Nittany Lions, currently 12-2 and projected as a No. 4 seed, are a year ahead of schedule!
NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Rutgers
Consecutive wins over Wisconsin and in-state rival Seton Hall have Rutgers in this bracket projection and dreaming of more consequential hardware.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
  • As for Penn State’s rivals from New Jersey, the Scarlet Knights are already 11-3 in Steve Pikiell’s fourth season — having won just 15, 15 and 14 games in the first three. Rutgers is a No. 7 seed in today’s bracket heading into tonight’s visit from ... Penn State. By the way, the Scarlet Knights last reached the NCAA Tournament in 1991 under current TV commentator Bob Wenzel. That’s 29 years and six head coaches ago!

Naturally, the top of today’s projection was not immune from the general oddness of the 2019-20 season so far. Sure, the Kansas Jayhawks, a No. 1 seed back in November, and the Duke Blue Devils, found on seed line No. 2 two months ago, make up half of today’s top seed line. But back then it was nearly impossible to predict that the Butler Bulldogs, an 11th-seeded First Four participant, and the San Diego State Aztecs, completely absent from the preseason bracket, would make up the other half. Oddly enough, the Florida Gators, a November top seed, for all intents and purposes replaced Butler in this bracket’s First Four. As for the Kentucky Wildcats, November’s fourth No. 1, they’re on seed line No. 8 today after a non-conference season that saw them defeat preseason No. 1 Michigan State Spartans on Opening Night, then lose to the Evansville Purple Aces a week later. While John Calipari’s team managed to defeat the Louisville Cardinals at home before the start of SEC play, losses in Las Vegas to the Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes hurt their profile a bit.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Virginia
Saturday’s home win over archrival Virginia Tech kept 2019’s National Champions in today’s bracket.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

You will also likely be surprised by the placement of 2019’s National Champion, the Virginia Cavaliers. They’re on the 11 line, thanks in part to some offensive struggles that are damaging their metrics, but also thanks to a lack of quality wins early on. The Cavaliers don’t yet own a single Quad 1 victory and they’ve yet to play a team ranked higher than 48th in the NET (the Purdue Boilermakers).

So without further delay, here’s today’s full bracket and rundown. Asterisks (*) mark new entrants, while arrows indicate whether a returning team’s seed rose or fell. The full seed list is available on Blogging the Bracket.

1. East Region (New York, New York)

Greensboro, North Carolina (Fri./Sun.)

1. Duke (ACC) vs. *16. Morgan State (MEAC)/Robert Morris (NEC)
↓8. Kentucky vs. ↓9. VCU

Sacramento, California (Fri./Sun.)

5. Arizona vs. *12. Louisiana Tech (C-USA)
↑4. Wichita State (AAC) vs. 13. Loyola Chicago (MVC)

Cleveland, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

↓6. Seton Hall vs. ↓11. Florida/Purdue
*3. West Virginia vs. ↑14. Colgate (Patriot)

Cleveland (Fri./Sun.)

↓7. Memphis vs. *10. Utah
↓2. Michigan State (Big Ten) vs. *15. Stony Brook (Amer. East)

4. West Region (Los Angeles, California)

Sacramento (Fri./Sun.)

*1. San Diego State (MW) vs. *16. Kansas City (WAC)
↓8. Texas Tech vs. ↓9. Saint Mary’s

Albany, New York (Thu./Sat.)

*5. Creighton vs. *12. Akron (MAC)
*4. Penn State vs. ↑13. Wright State (Horizon)

Spokane, Washington (Thu./Sat.)

*6. Arkansas vs. ↓11. Virginia
3. Oregon vs. *14. UC Santa Barbara (Big West)

Spokane (Thu./Sat.)

↓7. Marquette vs. *10. Minnesota
2. Gonzaga (WCC) vs. *15. Winthrop (Big South)

2. Midwest Region (Indianapolis, Indiana)

St. Louis, Missouri (Thu./Sat.)

↑1. Butler (Big East) vs. *16. Princeton (Ivy)/Grambling State (SWAC)
*8. BYU vs. *9. Georgia

Albany (Thu./Sat.)

↓5. Louisville vs. ↑12. Liberty (ASUN)
↓4. Maryland vs. *13. College of Charleston (CAA)

St. Louis (Thu./Sat.)

↓6. Villanova vs. ↓11. Washington
*3. Dayton (A 10) vs. *14. Rider (MAAC)

Omaha, Nebraska (Fri./Sun.)

↑7. Wisconsin vs. 10. Houston
↑2. Baylor (Big 12) vs. *15. North Dakota State (Summit)

3. South Region (Houston, Texas)

Omaha (Fri./Sun.)

1. Kansas vs. *16. Tennessee State (OVC)
↑8. Colorado vs. *9. Iowa

Tampa, Florida (Thu./Sat.)

↑5. Michigan vs. *12. Stephen F. Austin (Southland)
↑4. Florida State vs. *13. Furman (SoCon)

Greensboro (Fri./Sun.)

*6. Stanford (Pac-12) vs. ↓11. Xavier/LSU
↑3. Ohio State vs. ↑14. Montana (Big Sky)

Tampa (Thu./Sat.)

*7. Rutgers vs. ↓10. Oklahoma
↑2. Auburn(SEC) vs. *15. Little Rock (Sun Belt)

Rundown

Bids by Conference: 10 Big Ten, 6 Big East, 6 Pac-12, 6 SEC, 5 Big 12, 4 ACC, 3 AAC, 3 WCC, 2 Atlantic 10, 23 one-bid conferences

Last Four Byes: Minnesota, Houston, Virginia, Washington
Last Four IN: Florida, Xavier, LSU, Purdue
First Four OUT: NC State, Indiana, Georgetown, Illinois
Next Four Out: Oklahoma State, Richmond, Virginia Tech, Oregon State

Lowest-Ranked NET At-Large: Florida (52)
Highest-Ranked NET Exclusion: Illinois (38)

Also Considered (in NET order): Yale, Missouri, Temple, Northern Iowa, SMU, St. John’s, Alabama, Arizona State, Duquesne, Ole Miss, East Tennessee State, USC, TCU, Utah State, Saint Louis, Texas, Mississippi State, Santa Clara, DePaul, Notre Dame, Tennessee

New Today (29/68): Akron, Arkansas, BYU, College of Charleston, Creighton, Dayton, Furman, Georgia, Grambling State, Iowa, Kansas City, Little Rock, Louisiana Tech, Minnesota, Morgan State, North Dakota State, Penn State, Princeton, Rider, Robert Morris, Rutgers, San Diego State, Stanford, Stephen F. Austin, Stony Brook, Tennessee State, UC Santa Barbara, Utah, Winthrop
Leaving Today: Belmont, Bethune-Cookman, Cincinnati, Davidson, ETSU, Fairleigh Dickinson, Georgetown, Harvard, Hofstra, Indiana, Iona, Mississippi State, Missouri, NC State, New Mexico State, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Radford, Sam Houston State, South Alabama, South Dakota, Syracuse, Texas, Texas Southern, Toledo, UC Irvine, Utah State, Vermont, Western Kentucky

Bracket Notes

  • I’ve been doing this for a long time (2010 was my first season with SB Nation, for reference) and I cannot think of a bracket projection with so many potentially explosive first and second round matchups.
  • Rematches feature heavily in this bracket’s projected top-two Elite Eight matchups. Saturday’s twin bill would likely start with a Big 12/Big East Battle rematch between Butler and Baylor in Indianapolis and close with an all-Pacific timezone matchup in the West between San Diego State and Gonzaga. Sunday’s doubleheader would undoubtedly begin with a rematch of Kansas and Auburn’s 2019 Round of 32 matchup in Houston and end with yet another Duke-Michigan State showdown in New York — the third in the span of a little more than a year.
  • Due to variance in early conference scheduling, there are some surprise auto bid holders in this field, with negative repercussions for those leagues’ seeding. By virtue of their win over the Penn Quakers in the Ivy League’s first game of the year, the 5-8 Princeton Tigers represent the conference today instead of the Yale Bulldogs or Harvard Crimson. In the WAC, the Kansas City Roos (formerly UMKC) are 2-0 after the first week of play, one win better than the conference’s perennial champs, the 1-0 New Mexico State Aggies. Then there are the Vermont Catamounts, the lone America East team yet to begin conference play — that means the conference’s highest-ranked entry in the NET sits this one out. Note that early idiosyncrasies are a taste of the surprises that await during Selection Week.
  • Note that since the Idaho Vandals host Spokane’s First and Second Round pods and the Horizon League and IUPUI Jaguars are responsible for the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis, both Gonzaga and Butler can play quasi-home games this March. However, since the Houston Cougars serve as one of the South’s hosts, they must be placed in a different region entirely. Similarly, the Creighton Bluejays cannot play in Omaha for the first weekend.

Can the Big Ten really account for a full quarter of this season’s at-large teams? Will the ACC only place a quartet in the field of 68? On Friday, I’ll be back with more details on where each of the multi-bid conference stand with a little more than two months before Selection Sunday.