On Saturday evening, the Utah State Aggies won their second consecutive Mountain West tournament championship to become the first team with an official ticket to the NCAA tournament. The Aggies’ 59-56 victory not only took their March fate out of the Selection Committee’s hands — a welcome development, considering their conference tournament’s unique early start for 2020 — but also opened up the race for a No. 1 seed. The Mountain West runners-up San Diego State Aztecs had been the fourth No. 1 in recent projections.
The Baylor Bears made that race even murkier, falling 76-64 away to the West Virginia Mountaineers for their fourth loss in five games. For now, both Baylor and San Diego State remain on the top line on the strength of their wins (the Gonzaga Bulldogs did move up to the No. 2 overall seed). However, all four No. 2 seeds — the Dayton Flyers (Atlantic 10), Florida State Seminoles (ACC), Creighton Bluejays (Big East) and Kentucky Wildcats (SEC) — are also conference tournament top seeds, meaning they could all be double champions of their leagues on Selection Sunday. And that’s something neither Baylor nor San Diego State will be able to boast.
Saturday’s second bid went to the OVC champion Belmont Bruins, who avenged their 77-65 loss to the Murray State Racers in 2019’s final with a 76-75 victory in Evansville, Indiana. Unlike last season’s Bruins, however, there won’t be an at-large bid awaiting the Racers.
After today’s full bracket and rundown, I’ll talk about how the bubble thinned considerably on Saturday.
Seed line movement is indicated by arrows and is relative to Monday’s bracket. Asterisks (*) indicate new entries. Teams in all caps (except for those that go by their initials) have clinched auto bids (two so far).
1. Midwest Region (Indianapolis)
Albany, New York (Thu./Sat.)
2. West Region (Los Angeles)
Spokane, Washington (Thu./Sat.)
3. South Region (Houston)
St. Louis, Missouri (Thu./Sat.)
Greensboro, North Carolina (Fri./Sun.)
St. Louis (Thu./Sat.)
4. East Region (New York)
Bids by conference: 10 Big Ten, 7 Big East, 6 Pac-12, 5 Big 12, 4 ACC, 4 SEC, 3 AAC, 3 WCC, 2 MW, 2 A 10, 22 one-bid conferences
Last four byes: Arizona State, Marquette, Rutgers, Texas Tech
Last four in: Xavier, Stanford, Cincinnati, Richmond
First four out: Texas, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, NC State
Next four out: UCLA, Mississippi State, Memphis, Saint Louis
Lowest-ranked NET at-large: Indiana (60)
Highest-ranked NET exclusion: Purdue (33, 16-15 overall so off the board due to record)
Note: I flipped BYU (a true five seed) with Penn State (a true six) to place the Cougars at Thursday/Saturday sites.
The bubble picture is clearer now
Saturday indicated that the Texas Longhorns might not be back after all. Their five-game win streak ended with a mighty thud: an 81-59 home loss to an Oklahoma State Cowboys team that entered the afternoon with a 16-14 record. As a result, Shaka Smart’s team remains on the outside looking in. On Thursday, Texas meets the Texas Tech Red Raiders (66-62 home losers to the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday) in what could be an at-large elimination game in the Big 12 tournament’s quarterfinals.
The UCLA Bruins, who entered Monday’s field as the Pac-12 leader, also couldn’t hold on to their place, falling 54-52 in a thrilling crosstown showdown with the USC Trojans. That defeat snapped the Bruins’ seven-game winning streak and, combined with the Oregon Ducks’ road victory over the Stanford Cardinal, deprived them of a share of the conference title. With a NET ranking of 75th as of Sunday morning, Mick Cronin’s team is going to need at least a couple wins in the Pac-12 tournament to get back on the right side of the bubble.
There’s still hope, however. With the way UCLA has played over the past month, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bruins won the conference’s auto bid, either.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights were Saturday’s biggest bubble winner. The biggest hurdle between Steve Pikiell’s team and March Madness was a woeful 1-10 record in all games away from the RAC, with the one win coming over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Scarlet Knights needed overtime to beat the Purdue Boilermakers, but they persevered, 71-68, and likely sewed up their first NCAA bid since 1991.
Outside of Kentucky’s shocking 71-70 comeback win over the Florida Gators, the SEC had a rough day, especially the teams on the bubble. Nearly all of them will need to make it to next Sunday’s SEC tournament final to earn an at-large. The exception is a Mississippi State Bulldogs squad that routed the Ole Miss Rebels, 69-44, in Starkville. Otherwise, the South Carolina Gamecocks lost to the Vanderbilt Commodores (who earlier in the week popped the Alabama Crimson Tide’s bubble), the Auburn Tigers routed the Tennessee Volunteers and the Texas A&M Aggies followed up their Wednesday win on the Plains by knocking off the Arkansas Razorbacks back in College Station.
After those results, is it really surprising that Mississippi State is the lone SEC club left among the first eight teams out?
Whither Northern Iowa?
The Northern Iowa Panthers currently have the most anxious wait in the country before Selection Sunday. On Friday, the eighth-seeded Drake Bulldogs housed the top-seed in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, 77-56, just six days after losing to the Panthers by 27 on their home floor.
While the Panthers still have a ranking in the NET’s top 50 (48th as of this morning), comparable metrics to other bubble teams and wins over the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder and South Carolina in Cancun, their chances of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday aren’t great.
I went back and looked at the fates of mid-major bubble teams who lost in their conference tournaments since the debut of the First Four in 2011. While losing in a league final gives a team a fighting chance, no mid-major that has lost in a conference quarterfinal has been selected since Dayton in 2014. And that Flyer team was part of a six-bid haul for that season’s Atlantic 10. The 2019-20 Missouri Valley isn’t anywhere near that strong.
The closest parallels to this season’s Northern Iowa team are the 2017 Illinois State Redbirds that were blown out by the Wichita State Shockers in the Arch Madness final, the 2018 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders that lost by three in overtime in the Conference USA quarterfinals and the 2016 Shocker team that lost to the Panthers by five in the Arch Madness semifinals. Of those three squads, on Wichita State ended up in the NCAA tournament, and not the NIT.
Therefore, the Panthers are in the First Four Out pending further developments.
On Sunday, three teams will secure their 2020 March Madness bids, with the Big South (1 p.m. ET, ESPN), Missouri Valley (2 p.m. ET, CBS) and Atlantic Sun (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) all crowning champions. You will also want to keep an eye on the first Southern Conference semifinal (4 p.m. ET, ESPN+) in which the East Tennessee State Buccaneers are expecting to move one win closer to their league’s auto bid. Both the No. 2 and 3 seeds in that bracket, the Furman Paladins and UNC Greensboro Spartans, lost their quarterfinals on Saturday night.
I’ll have a field of 68 update each day from now until Wednesday, when things will really pick up. You can also check out my TV viewing guides and full conference tournament coverage over at Blogging the Bracket.