January 26, 2018
By Bruce Marshall
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Unlike our first update three weeks ago, which was mostly based upon non-conference action, the field of 68 begins to take much better shape in late January. Some of the heavyweight conferences are already claiming victims, as several entries in the Big 12, SEC and ACC that fancied their Big Dance chances as of New Year’s are now being dealt a cold dose of reality and perhaps shifting their aim to the NIT instead. Taking advantage are some of the mid-majors, who now look in line to gain a couple of more bids than we projected at the start of this month.
Still all to play for, and lots of action still to come, but as is usually the case, the biggest change in “Bracketology” projections comes from the start of January to the end of January. Expect fewer changes in the composition of the projected field as we move forward.
For this update, we include the “RPI” (Ratings Percentage Index) number for each team, though even that venerable calculation is carrying less weight these days as other measurements (including ESPN’s “BPI”) are going to be worked into the mix as added factors to consider by the Selection Committee. You’ll note the RPI has some interesting conclusions as of late January that do not always have a direct relation to the rankings or our projected seeds. The RPI will resemble the rankings and Big Dance projections a bit more as we get into February and beyond.
Remember, for all of our “Bracketology” updates, the term “protected seed” refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and likely favorable geographic placement in the sub-regional round.
As usual, we break down the projected matchups by each region, beginning with the sub-regionals, which this season will begin on Thursday, March 15, with the Dayton “First Four” games played on March 13 and 14. Straight-up records and RPI thru January 24. Remember, Selection Sunday is only a bit more than six weeks away!
EAST REGIONAL (Boston-TD Garden)
1 Villanova (SU 19-1, RPI-2) vs. 16 Radford (14-8, 129)...Jay Wright’s Wildcats continue to cruise and, at the moment, remain an easy projection for the top line. Though ‘Nova might have something to concern itself with in the next few weeks with the broken hand suffered in Tuesday’s win over Providence by G Phil Booth, who had emerged as a key cog while scoring better than 11 ppg. It is hoped that he will be ready by March, but his return date is unknown. Meanwhile, the Big South race is a logjam at the top, with four teams separated by one game, and Radford in pole position entering this weekend. Winthrop, UNC-Asheville, and Campbell are all breathing down the Highlanders’ necks.
8 Louisville (15-5, 12) vs. 9 USC (16-6, 40)...Give interim HC David Padgett some credit for keeping the ‘Ville in the mix in the ACC in the wake of the various transgressions on Rick Pitino’s watch. The Cards’ big lineup could cause problems for several foes in March. Out in the Pac-12, USC looks as if it has steadied the ship after a rocky December, with a five-game win streak into the weekend that included a sweep of the Oregon schools on the road. Andy Enfield’s Trojans appear to have finally overcome the absence of key G De’Anthony Melton, suspended for the remainder of the season.
4 Florida (14-6, 25) vs. 13 Belmont (15-6, 84)...We’re now wondering if we should keep the Gators as a protected seed after their midweek home loss vs. surging South Carolina. Or if we might have the wrong SEC team (perhaps Tennessee?) in this spot on the 4-line. But recent efforts have been mostly good for the Gators, and we suspect the Selection Committee is going to reward the top teams in the league in March. Lurking again out of the Ohio Valley are Rick Byrd’s Belmont Bruins, who have danced several times before. This year, however, the Bruins have no hometown edge for the conference tourney, which has moved from Nashville to Evansville. Murray State, defending champ Jacksonville State, and Tennessee Tech almost rate co-favorite status for the festivities that commence in just over a month (February 28, to be exact!).
5 Rhode Island (16-3, 11) vs. 12 Vermont (17-5, 74)...In one of the key developments since our last update, Rhody suddenly looks like a threat at a protected seed as it rolls thru the A-10, hardly drawing a deep breath; the Rams also haven’t lost since G EC Matthews returned from injury in early December. Right now, Dan Hurley’s team is the only A-10 side that looks good for an at-large in what could be a one-bid league if the Rams win the conference tourney in Washington on March 7-10. Among the more-dangerous of the “low-majors” might be Vermont, which advanced out of the America East last season and has already drawn clear from the pursuing pack, including UMBC, Hartford, and Albany. The Catamounts will get the all-important home-court edge in the conference tourney if they remain atop their loop.
2 North Carolina (16-5, 5) vs. 15 Penn (12-6, 188)...All of a sudden North Carolina looks like North Carolina again, though last weekend’s loss at VPI is cause for pause. Nonetheless, the Tar Heels schedule strength will keep them in good stead with the Selection Committee, especially as it usually values the computer numbers, which for now seem to love UNC. It’s been a while since Penn has made the Dance, though HC Steve Donahue has been involved more recently (with Cornell a few years ago). The Quakers have shown the best early foot in the Ivy race which has just gotten underway, though, as always, keep an eye on Tommy Amaker’s Harvard and Mitch Henderson’s Princeton, which figure to give chase.
7 Wichita State (15-4, 27) vs. 10 Kansas State (15-5, 27)...It looks like we might not have to worry about the procedural items that would have allowed the Wheatshockers to play in their hometown in the Wichita sub-regional, held at the downtown Intrust Arena and not the on-campus Koch Arena (the old “Roundhouse”), as a couple of recent losses make it seem unlikely Gregg Marshall’s team will end up as a protected seed. A matchup vs. K-State fits the profile of a tasty regional encounter that the Committee sometimes likes to arrange. Hats off to Bruce Weber’s Wildcats, who continue to hold their own in the rugged Big 12 and yet to peel off in the conference race as have a few others.
3 West Virginia (16-4, 22) vs. 14 Bucknell (14-8, 125)...Mountaineer fans are excited about a potential protected seed because it would most likely mean a sub-regional assignment at nearby Pittsburgh, just an hour or so away from Morgantown. At this stage, we’d say Bob Huggins’ troops are well on their way. As expected, Bucknell is starting to draw clear in the Patriot, with Boston U, Colgate, Navy, and Army giving chase, and will get the extra advantage of being at home all of the way in the conference tourney if it holds on to its lead in the regular-season race. The Pittsburgh site would also be preferred by the in-state Bison, the alma mater of CBS head honcho Les Moonves.
6 Seton Hall (15-5, 19) vs. 11 Boise State (15-4, 34)/Middle Tennessee (14-5, 30)....The Hall continues to float just outside of protected seed territory and well on the safe side of the cut line as Kevin Willard’s charges prepare for their third straight trip to the Dance. The Selection Committee has had a thing in the past about Boise State and play-in games; this would be the Broncos’ third in five years, though Leon Rice’s troops could avoid Dayton if they continue to hum in the Mountain West. MTSU has also had to go the play-in route before, though we think the Blue Raiders, Western Kentucky, and ODU all get a look as at-large candidates out of C-USA. Remember, Kermit Davis’ team has beaten Big Ten entries (Michigan State and Minnesota) in the first round of the Dance in each of the past two seasons.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Atlanta-Philips Arena)
1 Duke (18-2, 1) vs. 16 Bethune-Cookman (11-9, 276)/Wagner (13-6, 149)...After a one-year absence, Tobacco Road is back in the sub-regional mix which means that Duke is likely not to have to travel very far in the first week. Early ACC indicators are that Coach K is once again bound for the top line. They’ll be excited in Daytona Beach if Bethune-Cookman maintains its current lead in the MEAC, though the league has a top-heavy look, with North Carolina A&T & NC Central also very much in the frame. The MEAC champ, however, might be due a familiar spot in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games, a fate that has often befallen the Northeast champs as well. Staten Island-based Wagner looks a slight favorite at the moment, though the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Andy Toole’s Robert Morris, is lurking again as the Colonials look for a return to the Dance after an absence of a couple of years.
8 Michigan (17-5, 38) vs. 9 Arkansas (14-6, 23)...We have an “up” arrow next to the Wolverines, whose recent win at Michigan State suggested they could move up a few lines before Selection Sunday. Whatever seed they land, keep an eye on them, as John Beilein-coached teams have made noise in March before. Avoiding banana peels is a chore in this year’s balanced SEC, but Arkansas’ nervy double-OT win at Georgia on Tuesday is the type of result that will keep the Razorbacks in the field of 68 and unfortunately might keep Mark Fox’s Bulldogs on the wrong side of the cut line.
At San Diego....
4 Texas Tech (16-4, 18) vs. 13 UL-Lafayette (10-3)...The top tier of the ultra-competitive Big 12 all has four losses entering the weekend, but we’re putting several of those into protected seed slots regardless, including Chris Beard’s impressive Red Raiders. Emerging as the team to beat in the Sun Belt is UL-Lafayette, which became the frontrunner with last week’s come-from-behind road win at UT-Arlington. The reason we don’t like to call the Ragin’ Cajuns by their preferred “Louisiana” is that all of the other schools in the state seem to object to the label. So we will, too.
5 Tennessee (14-5, 14) vs. 12 Old Dominion (15-4, 97)...It is not much of a stretch to envision UT as a protected seed, which for the Vols would likely mean a sub-regional assignment at the preferable Nashville Bridgestone Arena venue. Still time for Rick Barnes’ troops, who appear to have staying power this season, to get an extended look at nearby Music City, which will also host the SEC Tourney. It has been awhile since C-USA was a multi-bid league but we are now thinking this might be the year. ODU, along with MTSU and WKU, all seem to have at-large shots. By the way, the C-USA Tourney will be held for the first time at the “Star” in Frisco, which is the 12,000-seat domed stadium in the Metroplex that is part of the Dallas Cowboys’ new complex and their indoor facility which is also home to local high school football in the fall!
2 Xavier (19-3, 4) vs. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (15-8, 167)...The “X” has made it as far as the Elite 8 on a few occasions, including last year, but there are some Big East observers who believe that this might be the best chance for the Musketeers to make it to the Final Four, with G Trevon Bluiett in contention for the Wooden Award and HC Chris Mack’s squad generating momentum after a successful pre-league run. The echoes of “Dunk City” still reverberate at FGCU, which has become something of a Big Dance regular, even after HC Andy Enfield took his act to USC. The Eagles have jumped to the lead in the Atlantic Sun and will be at home for the conference tourney as long as they stay ahead of closest pursuers Jacksonville, Lipscomb, NJIT, and North Florida.
7 TCU (15-5, 17) vs. 10 SMU (14-6, 54)...Putting these local sides together in a Metroplex war played in Dallas (where the Mustangs can compete in the sub-regional at AA Center and not the on-campus Moody Coliseum) would be a rematch of the annual Frogs-Ponies regular-season matchup, this term won by TCU at Fort Worth on Dec. 5. Rematches are also usually avoided by the Selection Committee. But not always, and this might be a de facto way to award the Frogs a venue break in the sub-regionals after competing in the mega-tough Big 12 and get the locals excited in Big D.
3 Ohio State (18-4, 16) vs. 14 Wright State (15-6, 83)...There hasn’t been a bigger “mover” since our last update than the Buckeyes, who are currently winging along undefeated in the Big Ten as new HC Chris Holtmann is putting himself in the frame for national Coach of the Year honors. We’ve jumped the Buckeyes from straddling the cut line at the end of December into a protected seed at the end of January. Whew! The Selection Committee sometimes likes in-state matchups, and Wright State, pleasantly nestled in the Dayton suburbs, would fir the bill. Raider HC Scott Nagy has danced several times before with South Dakota State, and a Jan. 11 win at Northern Kentucky has WSU at the top of the Horizon, though Milwaukee did inflict a defeat on Nagy’s team last Saturday.
6 Arizona State (15-4, 32) vs. 11 Notre Dame (13-7, 59)...The other half of the coin from Ohio State since our last update might be ASU, which was on the top line at the end of December but has encountered some turbulent air in the Pac-12 and is dropping fast down the seeding ladder. Pre-league wins over Xavier, Kansas State, and Kansas, however, should keep the Sun Devils from dropping too much further. Speaking of dropping, it was almost inevitable that injury-plagued Notre Dame, recently minus linchpins Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, would slip. It hasn’t been easy in the rugged ACC, but Mike Brey has kept the Irish afloat, and if the Domers can hang inside the field f 68, could be a very dangerous darkhorse if all hands are back on deck by March.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Omaha-CenturyLink Center)
1 Purdue (19-2, 10) vs. 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff (7-14, 280)/Nicholls (13-8, 205)...Purdue hasn’t lost since Thanksgiving week in the Bahamas, and as long as Matt Painter has his team rolling along atop the Big Ten (where Ohio State is currently tied), the Boilermakers will have a good chance to land on the top line. Even more of a certainty is that the SWAC champ will be involved in another 16 vs. 16 play-in game. As of late this week, Arkansas Pine-Bluff, with a 7-14 overall mark (not that bad for a SWAC entry!), is setting the pace. As is Nicholls in the Southland, though that loop could avoid the play-in game if better-regarded Stephen F Austin rallies and wins the conference tourney (the Lumberjacks would likely avoid the play-in).
8 Gonzaga (17-4, 62) vs. 9 Butler (14-7, 26)...Gonzaga’s computer numbers baffle, and a reason why the RPI should be discounted in January; Zags non-conference victims include Ohio State, Texas, Creighton, and Washington, and setbacks vs. Florida and Villanova certainly qualify as “good” losses. What gives, RPI? Butler was involved in the same PK 80 Tourney in Portland, and these two didn’t run into each other during Thanksgiving week. But they could as a potential tasty 8-9 matchup.
4 Auburn (18-2, 7) vs. 13 Loyola-Chicago (17-4, 69)...Auburn might not be wild about a sub-regional assignment in Boise, especially if the Tigers are a protected seed. As we scope the field in late January, however, the lack of West teams in potential 1-4 slots means that some top entries are going to be shipped pretty far away from their home region. For the moment, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers draw that short straw. We get the feeling Loyola-Chicago would play on the moon if it meant reaching the Dance for the first time since the Alfredrick Hughes-led team of 1985, coached by Gene Sullivan. And if the Ramblers do make the Dance, get ready for reference to Loyola’s 1963 NCAA champs, celebrating their 55th anniversary this year (and chronicled on these pages before). No longer having to worry about Wichita State (off to the American this season), the Ramblers have emerged as Missouri Valley’s team to beat after a midweek win over Drake, and the likely favorite at the fast-approaching “Arch Madness” in St. Louis.
5 Clemson (16-4, 6) vs. 12 New Mexico State (17-3, 47)...So far, an awfully good bit of coaching by Clemson’s Brad Brownell, who entered the season on the hot seat but looks well clear of trouble at this stage. Still, the Tigers are going to have to figure out how to proceed minus sr. F Donte Grantham, who emerged as a key cog and the team’s second-leading scorer but was just felled by a season-ending knee injury. In their first game minus Grantham, Brownell’s boys were held to 36 points in an unsightly loss at Virginia. On their third coach in as many seasons, the NMSU Aggies look to again be the class of the WAC. After their last two coaches landed good jobs in the Mountain West (Marvin Menzies at UNLV and Paul Weir at New Mexico), the new man to watch in Las Cruces is Chris Jans, who arrived from Gregg Marshall’s Wichita staff.
2 Kansas (16-4, 8) vs. 15 Canisius (13-8, 126)...Because the rugged Big 12 is cannibalizing itself this season, we doubt any loop team is going to land on the top line (as mentioned previously, the top tier of the league was all on four losses entering the weekend). But Kansas should be good for another protected seed and probably a sub-regional assignment in preferred Wichita. Meanwhile, the Metro-Atlantic race is turning into a real scrum, with the top half of the league well-matched and pulling clear from the bottom half. From the upper tier, the Golden Griffs from Canisius might rate the slight edge as of late January, but as usual, they will figure things out in the first week of March during the conference tourney at Albany, with Rider, Iona, and Niagara also in the mix.
7 Florida State (15-5, 39) vs. 10 Maryland (15-7, 51)...There are plenty of land mines in the ACC, but Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles have, thus far, managed to navigate around enough of them to avoid falling into any bubble trouble, a pattern we expect to continue into Selection Sunday. Maryland’s case is a bit harder to construct, especially as the Terps have yet to win on the Big Ten road. But Mark Turgeon’s team is making a fortress out of the Comcast Center in College Park, and the pre-league win over Butler should come in handy. Still, to avoid falling into the NIT, Maryland needs to win a couple on the conference trail. Old ACC hostilities could be renewed in this matchup.
3 Cincinnati (18-2, 24) vs. 14 William & Mary (13-6, 68)...Though the computer numbers seem to have a little bit of a problem acknowledging the Bearcats, we suspect the Selection Committee will not and likely places Mick “The Ghost” Cronin’s team in protected seed territory if Cincy continues to set the pace in the American. The real question, however, is if this is finally the year for William & Mary to make the Dance. The Tribe, along with The Citadel, Army, and St. Francis-NY, is among the handful of schools never to make the Dance from the outset. (Northwestern removed itself from that ignominious list last year.) Tony Shaver’s team has come close in recent years, and will have to get past Northeastern, Charleston, Towson, and Hofstra if this is to be the year.
6 Kentucky (15-5, 15) vs. 11 Syracuse (14-6, 41)...By this stage it is looking apparent that this is not a vintage John Calipari Kentucky edition, being that the Cats have recently dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2014. We don’t think UK is going to miss the Dance as did that Nerlens Noel team a few years ago, but the Cats are very unlikely to be in the protected seed discussion. Straddling the cut line has been Syracuse, though Jim Boeheim can never be discounted in March (remember his surprise run to the Final Four two years ago), and the midweek romp past capable BC at the Carrier Dome suggests the Orange might soon move onto safer footing.
WEST REGIONAL (Los Angeles-Staples Center)
1 Virginia (19-1, 3) vs. 16 Hawaii (13-5, 157)...Calm down, Virginia fans, it’s not a sure thing you’ll be sent to the West Regional. At this stage, however, both the Cavs and Duke project to the top line, and we suppose whichever wins the ACC Tourney likely stays in the South Region, with the other probably out to the West. In any event, the ‘Hoos should be at a nearby venue for the sub-regional, as HC Tony Bennett has his best chance to advance UVa beyond the Elite 8 in his Charlottesville tenure. As for the Big West, it has descended to the point where its champ is potential play-in game fodder, though we suspect that if Hawaii stays on top, the Rainbow Warriors can qualify as a good, old traditional 16 seed. UCSB, CS Fullerton, UCI and Long Beach will have a bit more of a regional edge than the Rainbow Warriors at the conference tourney in Anaheim.
8 St. Mary’s (19-2, 43) vs. 9 Texas (13-7, 42)...After losing a couple of games in the Wooden Classic at CS Fullerton during Thanksgiving week, St. Mary’s looked to have a long climb back to at-large territory. As of now, we’d say the Gaels have done it, not having lost since, and winning the first of two annual WCC regular-season bloodbaths last week vs. Gonzaga...at Spokane, no less. No bubble trouble expected in Moraga. Meanwhile, there’s enough heft in the Texas profile for the Horns to survive some of the shots they’ll likely take in the Big 12. But the way Shaka Smart’s team has rallied since the news of G Andrew Jones’ leukemia diagnosis suggests the team is playing for a higher cause and won’t get sucked into bubble trouble.
At San Diego...
4 Arizona (16-4, 20) vs. 13 South Dakota (18-5, 115)...After some ups and down the first month of the season, Arizona seems to have stabilized and again looks the team to beat in the Pac-12, with frosh C DeAndre Ayton looking a likely NBA lottery pick next June. Ayton is going to be a guy to keep an eye on in March. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s showdown win over state rival South Dakota State (and high-scoring F Mike Daum) at midweek has the Coyotes the team to beat, for the moment, in the Summit. Though it will take the always-intense league tourney in Sioux Falls to determine the league’s Dance rep.
5 Creighton (16-5, 29) vs. 12 Alabama (13-7, 34)/Houston (15-4. 50)...Still time for Creighton to make a move into protected seed territory, though the Bluejays aren’t going to be able to play in the Midwest Regional, which will take place at their home court CenturyLink Center in Omaha. Alabama will play anywhere as it struggles to survive in a deep and competitive SEC; for the moment we barely have the Tide in the field, helped by a recent four-game win streak, though the slope is slippery. We suspect Avery Johnson would be happy with a Dayton at-large play-in assignment, but then again, the smiling Johnson always looks happy. As for Houston, it becomes our fourth American team to make the field in this set of projections. A recent home romp over Wichita State won’t hurt the Cougars with the Selection Committee.
2 Michigan State (18-3, 28) vs. 15 Montana (14-5, 110)...The key for the Spartans is to get a protected seed and likely assignment to the nearby Detroit sub-regional at the new Little Caesars Arena. Tom Izzo would prefer the top seed in the Midwest, but the Spartans are currently running third (behind Purdue and Ohio State) in the loop, and might have to win the Big Ten Tourney to get consideration for the top line. Big Sky teams have caused occasional problems in the Dance (the last Jud Heathcote MSU team was beaten by Weber State back in 1995), and Montana might not be an easy out if the Grizzlies continue to set the pace in the loop. Keep an eye on Idaho, Northern Colorado, and that same giant-killer of a couple of decades ago from Weber State.
7 Miami-Fla. (15-4, 21) vs. 10 Providence (14-7, 36)...There would be an interesting extra angle to this matchup as Miami HC Jim Larranaga is a Providence alum, playing long ago under Joe Mullaney and Dave Gavitt. His Hurricanes look like they’ll stay pretty clear of the cut line and potential trouble in the ACC, with the latest confirmation a tense midweek win over Louisville. Not quite as sure about the Friars staying safe, though Ed Cooley’s teams seem to always rally in the second half of the season, and look like they can avoid enough trouble in the Big East to land in 9-11 seed territory.
3 Oklahoma (15-4, 9) vs. 14 ETSU (17-4, 66)...The Trae Young show out of Norman, otherwise known as the Sooners, is a good bet for the Dallas sub-regional, as OU indicated it can stay in protected seed territory with Tuesday night’s clutch win over Kansas. A team that might want to be avoided is Steve Forbes’ ETSU, which has pulled clear in the SoCon and hasn’t lost since before Christmas, when it was a narrow 2-point loser at high-ranked Xavier. UNC-Greensboro and Wofford, however, are right on the heels of the Bucs.
6 Nevada (18-4, 13) vs. 11 Buffalo (15-5. 31)...Nevada might have warranted a higher seed had it been able to escape Wyoming with a win on Wednesday. Instead, it was a 104-103 loss in double OT, but the Wolf Pack, who already rank among the nation’s leaders in true road wins, recently had a 16-game win streak in the Mountain West, and were within a few points in losses against Big 12 heavies Texas Tech and TCU, both away from Reno. No team, however, is going to want to run into Buffalo, which is steamrollering the MAC (no league foe yet within single digits into the weekend!), with the mid-December eligibility of Mizzou transfer G Wes Clark adding an even sharper edge to an already potent attack led by G CJ Massinburg (19 ppg) and F Nick Perkins (16 ppg). Watch out for these guys.
Last four in: Boise State, Middle Tennessee, Alabama, Houston.
Last four out: Georgia, Marquette, Missouri, Virginia Tech.
Next four out: Texas A&M, UCLA, Washington, Western Kentucky.
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