February 9, 2018
By Bruce Marshall
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Things are happening with the projected Big Dance brackets, as even since our last update two weeks ago, there has been considerable movement. The “bubble” has even expanded slightly, with some newcomers now getting attention, and a few of those even barging into our projected field of 68. Expect more movement in the next few weeks.
Beginning with our last 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.
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 February 6. Get ready..."Selection Sunday" is only a month away!
EAST REGIONAL (Boston-TD Garden)
1 Villanova (SUR 22-1, RPI-2) vs. 16 Wagner (17-6, 102)...There are more than a few Big East insiders who believe this Jay Wright edition might be better than the NCAA champs from two years ago. In the end, they’ll be happy on the Main Line just to reach that level, and with Jalen Brunson moving into serious contention for the Wooden Award, another star in Mikal Bridges, and a deep and versatile supporting staff, maybe so. Even a midweek upset loss to sudden giant-killer St. John’s is not enough (at least yet) to knock the Cats off the top line, though they could drop a notch or two in the national rankings. The Northeast champ is always likely to get involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games, but if Bob Beckel’s alma mater, Wagner, can hold on to the expected home serve in the conference tourney, the league might avoid that fate in March. Mt. St. Mary’s, St. Francis-Pa, and the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, look the most likely contenders.
8 Florida (15-8, 46) vs. 9 TCU (16-8, 26)...The Gators continue to mystify, good enough to beat Gonzaga and almost take down Duke during the PK 80 Tourney in Portland during Thanksgiving week, but then winning only 9 of their next 17 after facing the Blue Devils. We suppose there is a scenario where Florida lands on the wrong side of the cut line, given the improved depth of this season’s SEC. But this was still a team many believed had Final Four potential after last March’s run to the Elite 8. Meanwhile, TCU is desperately hoping not to be victimized by the ruggedness of the Big 12, though the Frogs caused more problems for themselves by losing their recent Big 12-SEC Challenge game at Vanderbilt. Computer numbers say the Frogs are safe for now, but a slide in the wrong direction could get worrisome in coming weeks, especially with the injury to key G Jaylen Fisher.
4 Clemson (19-4, 4) vs. 13 Belmont (19-6, 78)...We’re not hearing a lot of mention for Clemson’s Brad Brownell as a Coach of the Year candidate. Maybe that’s because Brownell was on the hot seat entering the season. But there might only be a handful of mentors doing a better job, and the Tigers appear to have withstood an injury to second-leading scorer Donte Grantham. As long as the 3s keep falling, Clemson can stay a protected seed. Meanwhile Rick Byrd knows the Big Dance drill with his Belmont Bruins, who continue to set the pace in the OVC. Byrd won’t get the conference tourney as usual in hometown Nashville next month, however, as the event moves to Evansville. Murray State, defending champ Jacksonville State, and Tennessee Tech are others to watch for the festivities that commence in just a few weeks (February 28)!
5 Oklahoma (16-7, 14) vs. 12 Vermont (19-5, 53)...The Sooners and Trae Young have been an entertaining storyline since November, but it looks like OU is running out of steam, unable to win on the Big 12 road and finally losing in Norman on Monday night vs. West Virginia. Young’s numbers are still prodigious, but less consistent, and there are concerns about the supporting cast. Computer numbers remain good, so Lon Kruger’s bunch has to fall a lot further before getting into bubble trouble. But just in case, a win at Iowa State on Saturday would be helpful. 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 are close to securing home-court edge in their conference tourney that begins March 3.
2 Michigan State (23-3, 21) vs. 15 Penn (16-6, 168)...The RPI is apparently not a big fan of the Spartans (or the Big Ten, for that matter), but it’s hard not to put Tom Izzo’s bunch in protected seed territory, even after the narrow midweek escape at Iowa and looking up at Ohio State and Purdue in the Big Ten standings. Numerous fundamental indicators, such as top ten nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, suggest Izzo could once again be playing into the second weekend and beyond. Meanwhile, Penn conclusively stamped itself as the Ivy team to beat with Tuesday’s romp at Princeton. Remember, the Ivy has a tourney (involving the top four finishers) these days, and the good news for the Quakers is that it will again be held at The Palestra on campus.
7 Butler (17-8, 27) vs. 10 USC (17-7, 44)...That Dec. 30 win over top-ranked Villanova remains a nice token for Butler to redeem on Selection Sunday and for the moment is helping keep the Bulldogs a good distance from the cut line. What Butler will have to work on into the Big East Tourney is improving its profile enough to avoid an 8-9 game and a date vs. a top seed in the second round, should it survive the opener. The latter would be no sure thing against a USC side that won twice in the Dance last season and returns several of its top contributors from a year ago. The Trojans, however, have a ways to go before locking up their bid, and could have helped themselves had they not lost a bitter verdict vs. crosstown UCLA last week.
3 Tennessee (18-5, 13) vs. 14 Bucknell (17-9, 97)...Penciling UT into a protected seed would have seemed ludicrous before the season began. Now, it’s looking very likely, especially after the midweek win at Kentucky, and the Vols can probably plan on an extended run in Music City, where the SEC Tourney is also played these days at the same Bridgestone Arena. As something unexpected happens in the next few weeks, will be the host team for the league tourney that begins February 27. Colgate, Boston U, Navy, and Army look to be the most serious challengers. The Bison are guaranteed of at least one media cheerleader, alumnus and CBS head honcho Les Moonves.
6 Rhode Island (19-3, 6) vs. 11 Nebraska (18-8, 59)/NC State (16-7, 61)....We suppose there could be a legit argument to place Rhody as a protected seed; the RPI certainly suggests it would be justified. And the Rams haven’t lost since key G EC Matthews returned from injury in early December. At the least, URI looks a near-lock for an at-large should it get upset in its conference tourney, otherwise the A-10 could be a one-bid loop this season. A welcome into our brackets for Nebraska, which started winning in late December and hasn’t stopped. With the Big Ten down this season, there are more wins on the horizon for HC Tim Miles, who seems to have emphatically pulled himself off the hot seat. Also a welcome to NC State, already with wins over Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, and Arizona. So why the trepidation and nothing better at the moment than an at-large play-in spot? A couple of non-helpful pre-league losses to UNC-Greensboro and Northern Iowa, but new HC Kevin Keatts is nonetheless proving a home run hire in Raleigh.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Atlanta-Philips Arena)
1 Virginia (22-1, 1) vs. 16 NC A&T (15-9, 205)/UNC-Asheville (16-9, 125)...For the moment, Virginia gets the top seed in the South (instead of being shipped out to the West) thanks to its rousing Jan. 27 win at Duke. With pole position in the ACC, the Cavs look good for the top line and a sub-regional assignment in Charlotte. But to stay on the top line in the South might require a win in the ACC Tourney (or at least Duke not winning that event in Brooklyn). The MEAC is often involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games and this season looks no different, with pole-sitting NC A&T’s RPI in the low 200s. For a MEAC rep, however, the Aggies’ SU record isn’t too bad. The Big South often gets involved in the 16 vs. 16 clashes, too, though UNC-Asheville looks the one loop rep that might have a chance to avoid that fate. Winthrop and Radford will be top challengers in one of the annually-early conference tourneys.
8 Alabama (15-9, 36) vs. 9 Washington (17-6, 35)...Aficionados of defense would love this matchup, especially with new HC Mike Hopkins having imported the Syracuse zone from mentor Jim Boeheim to Seattle to confound the Pac-12. Arizona and Arizona State were the latest to become ensnared in the Husky defensive web last week, as surging U-Dub temporarily moves away from the cut line. Bama HC Avery Johnson has reason to smile, too, after the Tide’s recent romp at Florida, but a subsequent loss at ascending Mississippi State prevents Bama from advancing much above the 8-line for now.
4 Ohio State (20-5, 20) vs. 13 UL-Lafayette (20-3, 58)...Maybe Dan Dakich was right when he forecast the Buckeyes into his Final Four before anyone else; even Urban Meyer probably isn’t that bullish. But HC Chris Holtmann has proven an inspired hire from Butler and OSU could yet improve on the four-line, as its rousing midweek rally and win at Purdue suggests. It’s been a long time since we had an at-large entry from the Sun Belt, though the Ragin’ Cajuns are beginning to creep into that discussion as they stay unbeaten in league play into early February and continue to show well in the RPI. Still, the best advice to make the Dance for ULL, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, or any Belt contender is to win the conference tourney next month in New Orleans.
5 Seton Hall (17-6, 17) vs. 12 Buffalo (18-6, 38)...The Hall enters mid-February in seed-improvement mode, as only an unexpected complete collapse could put the Pirates in bubble trouble. Wins over Texas Tech and Louisville in non-conference play could even give the Hall a shot at a protected seed with a fast finish. A mid-major nobody will want to face is Buffalo, which has become the clear favorite in the MAC. The Bulls were even thinking they might have an at-large case if needed, but after a recent loss at Kent State, to be safe, UB had better win the conference tourney at the “Q” in Cleveland.
2 Auburn (21-2, 5) vs. 15 Rider (17-7, 71)...On a short list of Coach of the Year favorites should be Bruce Pearl, who has Auburn in a spot no one envisioned early in the season, especially with C Austin Wiley having missed the season due to eligibility issues. Jay Bilas might have summed up the Tigers style best when saying ”they have a bunch of guys playing like they‘re on 1-day contracts,” though the midweek loss vs. Texas A&M was a bit unexpected. No clear favorite has yet emerged in the Metro-Atlantic, though the Rider Broncs top the table entering mid-February. As usual, the conference tourney in Albany figures to be a donnybrook, with Iona, Canisius, and Niagara looking like serious contenders, too.
7 Michigan (19-7, 32) vs. 10 Louisville (16-8, 34)...With its win over Michigan State as a buffer, the Wolverines shouldn’t fall into bubble trouble, even after the midweek loss at Northwestern. But there is plenty of room for improvement on the seed line for John Beilein’s troops, who risk being placed in an undesired 8-9 first-round game if they’re not careful. Speaking about being careful, that’s just what the ‘Ville has to be with a worrying recent downturn, and four losses in five after a Big Monday setback vs. Syracuse. To be safe, David Padgett’s Cards are advised to take care of business in their next two games vs. Georgia Tech and Pitt, as the slate ramps up immediately thereafter (UNC, Duke, VPI, Virginia, and NC State into the ACC Tourney).
3 Texas Tech (19-4, 12) vs. 14 Charleston (18- 06, 77)...Texas Tech has been more than holding its own in the Big 12, though the Red Raiders really caught our eye with their bruising recent win at South Carolina, one of the few road successes in the recent Big 12-SEC Challenge. Chris Beard’s defense has also been good enough to win at Kansas and should have the Red Raiders en route to a protected seed and a sub-regional slot in Big D. In the Colonial, Charleston has recently nudged ahead, but the good news for the Cougars is that conference tourney will be held in home territory nearby at the North Charleston Coliseum as opposed to recent years in Baltimore and Richmond. William & Mary (still seeking its first-ever Big Dance bid), Northeastern, Hofstra, and Towson are others to watch in the CAA event, which will be getting underway March 3.
6 Wichita State (18-5, 29) vs. 11 Boise State (20-4, 40)...Unlike recent years in the Missouri Valley, another very good Gregg Marshall Wichita team has not been beyond the occasional slip in the new neighborhood of the American, which figured as it is a step up from the Valley. Nonetheless, the Shockers have lost most of their big games, and present a bit of a seeding dilemma unless they can knock off league leader Cincy when they meet on Feb. 18. Meanwhile the Mountain West might be back to being a multi-bid league this season thanks to Nevada and Boise, though the Broncos look at risk of another at-large play-in assignment at Dayton. Working in Boise’s favor, however, is no bad losses yet on the schedule, and an RPI that suggests an at-large is reasonable.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Omaha-CenturyLink Center)
1 Purdue (23-2, 8) vs. 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff (9-16, 303)/Nicholls (14-9, 184)...We’re suddenly a bit less sure of Purdue staying on the top line after blowing that big lead (at Mackey Arena, no less) at midweek vs. Ohio State. Still, Purdue has a share of the Big Ten lead, and could still secure a spot on the top line no matter what happens in the conference tourney (which, as an early heads-up, takes place a week earlier than usual this March because it is being played at Madison Square Garden, where the Big East always has first call during tournament week). It is almost a certainty that the SWAC champ will be involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; no league entry was above .500 overall as of midweek, where 9-16 Arkansas-Pine-Bluff currently sets the pace ahead of Grambling and Jackson State. The Southland might also be bound for a 16 vs. 16 play-in assignment. The Colonels from Nicholls have been setting the pace for the past month, though the team to watch remains Stephen F Austin, which at 18-5 overall could be the one loop rep to avoid a First Four play-in date at Dayton.
8 Texas (15-8, 39) vs. 9 MTSU (18-5, 32)...Texas has been in a win- one-lose-one pattern since the start of January, which is not the ideal trait for a team in one of your brackets come March. Though it is also a function of the rugged Big 12. So far, the Horns have hung in there minus top scorer G Andrew Jones after his scary leukemia diagnosis. Meanwhile, MTSU has surged back ahead in C-USA with road wins at WKU and ODU within the past two weeks. The Blue Raiders, still with pinball G Giddy Potts and now fortified with Memphis/Bama transfer F Nick King, are a mid-major no one, or certainly no Big Ten entry, wants to see in March (ask Michigan State and Minnesota, each beaten in the first round by MTSU the past two years).
4 North Carolina (17-7, 10) vs. 13 South Dakota State (20-6, 72)...The Tar Heels are taking enough hits in the ACC that staying in protected seed territory might be a bit dicey. But non-league wins over Tennessee, Ohio State, and Michigan are a reminder to the ACC haters to watch what they might be saying. Having said that, with all of the speed bumps in the loop, UNC could still get shuffled back in the seeding queue. One of these days we have to get to the Summit Tourney in Sioux Falls, notoriously one of the most-raucous affairs of tournament week. At the moment, we put South Dakota State and prolific 6-9 jr. F Mike Daum into the field, but the Jackrabbits have already lost once to in-state South Dakota, which continues to give chase, while entries such as Fort Wayne and Denver look capable of causing trouble as well.
5 Gonzaga (21-4, 49) vs. 12 Loyola-Chicago (19-5, 50)...Perhaps the Zags are down a notch from last year’s national finalist, and dropped a bit off of the radar with some of their earlier losses (Florida, Villanova, San Diego State, St. Mary’s). The early-season wins over Ohio State and Washington, however, are looking better all the time. Speaking of looking better, that’s what Loyola seems to be against every other Missouri Valley entry, as Rick Majerus disciple Porter Moser has the Ramblers poised for their first Big Dance entry since the Alfredick Hughes team coached by Gene Sullivan in 1985. If Loyola makes it, we might have to dust off some of our old retrospectives about the 1963 NCAA champion Ramblers, still one of the most-compelling tales in college sports annals.
2 Kansas (19-5, 9) vs. 15 Wright State (18-7, 101)...There has been some variety in the recent winners of the Big 12 Tourney, once again held in Kansas City from March 7-10, but the fact the Jayhawks are on course to once again enter Sprint Center as the top seed with a 14th straight regular-season title in their satchel is one of the most enduring and awe-inspiring marks in college hoops. After all, the Big 12 has never been a chump league. As a warning to KU backers, however, their team has been dumped in the sub-regionals before, and this Jayhawks edition has questionable depth and defensive presence at the rim. Stay alert, KU fans. If Wright State can slalom through the Horizon Tourney, it will be a feather in the cap of HC Scott Nagy, who previously took several South Dakota State teams to the Dance. Northern Kentucky, UIC, and local entry Oakland are other contenders for the league tourney in Detroit.
7 Kentucky (17-7, 16) vs. 10 Providence (16-8, 28)...A recent win at West Virginia in the Big 12-SEC Challenge got a lot of UK fans thinking that the Cats have turned the corner. But here’s a more-sobering stat to consider; Coach Cal’s current edition has been outscored by 1 point in SEC play entering this weekend. If that isn’t confirmation that this is not a vintage Calipari edition, nothing is. Meanwhile, Providence will probably be riding the bubble into March, though, for the moment, we have Ed Cooley’s Friars on the safe side. After narrowly escaping Georgetown’s upset bid at midweek, Cooley’s team is advised to do the same this weekend vs. DePaul, as late-season bad losses to put in front of the Selection Committee are the last thing Providence needs.
3 Cincinnati (22-2, 11) vs. 14 East Tennessee State (21-4, 64)...The Bearcats might even be in line for a higher seed if they keep winning, which they’ve been doing non-stop since early December lossed vs. crosstown Xavier and Florida. Playing the best defense of any team not named Virginia, this looks like Mick “The Ghost” Cronin’s best bunch of Bearcats, who continue to throttle opposition in the American. At least a protected seed seems a reasonable call in mid-February. Another undefeated in its league, though drawing less attention, is ETSU and its current spotless run thru the SoCon. But the Bucs probably have no margin for error in the conference tourney, where UNC-Greensboro and Wofford figure to present the stiffest challenges.
6 Miami-Fla. (17-5, 18) vs. 11 UCLA (16-7, 56)...It has surprised some ACC observers that Jim Larranaga’s Miami has yet to miss second-leading scorer Bruce Brown, who has been out the past couple of weeks with injury. But the Cane offense is still humming as Miami continues to avoid banana peels in the ACC. UCLA has some ground to make up in the computer numbers, and the December win over Kentucky in New Orleans isn’t worth as much as last year’s win over the Cats. But Steve Alford has the Bruins cooking on the attack end, crosstown USC was vanquished in a crucial last week, and UCLA can move onto safer ground if it fares well vs. the Arizona schools this weekend.
WEST REGIONAL (Los Angeles-Staples Center)
1 Xavier (22-3, 3) vs. 16 Florida Gulf Coast (18-8, 140)...Welcome to the top line to the “the X” after a recent hot run has it almost abreast of Villanova in the Big East and climbing the rankings. Losses to Arizona State, Providence, and ‘Nova have all come away from Cintas Center, and making a fortress at home should help the Musketeers stay in contention for a spot on the top line, though Chris Mack’s team might have to win the Big East Tourney to stay here. We’ve seen FGCU in the Dance before, even since the “Dunk City” run by Andy Enfield’s team to the Sweet 16 five years ago, and the Eagles look like the only Atlantic Sun rep that might be able to avoid a 16 vs. 16 play-in game.
8 Florida State (17-6, 41) vs. 9 Arizona State (17-6, 43)...FSU continues to avoid serious trouble in the ACC thanks to an offense that is hitting on all cylinders and a low turnover rate, good characteristics in any league. Like most ACC entries, the Noles can see their computer numbers improve with a couple more league wins...almost all wins are “good wins” in the ACC. We’ll see about ASU, which has been in a steady decline since Pac-12 play began. For the moment, pre-league wins over Xavier, Kansas State, and Kansas (none of those in Tempe) would keep the Sun Devils in the field, but anything less than a split this weekend vs. the LA schools at Wells Fargo Arena could put Bobby Hurley’s team in bubble trouble.
At San Diego...
4 West Virginia (18-6, 33) vs. 13 New Mexico State (20-3, 47)...There was some panic in coal country when the Mountaineers recently dropped five of six. But just when it looked as if WVU might be in trouble, Bob Huggins’ troops throttled Kansas State and won at Oklahoma, reminding us why we considered this team a Final Four threat before New Year’s. As of midweek, the Mounties are also the only team to have knocked off next week’s presumptive number one, Virginia. As for New Mexico State, it again looks like the class of the WAC, as the Aggies proceed with their third coach in four years after Marvin Menzies (to UNLV) and Paul Weir (to New Mexico) moved up to the Mountain West the past two years. The new coach to watch on the radar in Las Cruces is Chris Jans, recently on Gregg Marshall’s Wichita staff.
5 St. Mary’s (23-2, 20) vs. 12 Virginia Tech (16-7, 65)/Texas A&M (15-8/25)...The Gaels have recovered from their pair of Thanksgiving week losses to Washington State and Georgia at the Wooden Classic in Fullerton to not lose since into early February, with Aussie C Jock Landale putting up the sorts of numbers we haven’t seen from a college big since Jahlil Okafor. To stay in the West, however, might require beating Gonzaga another time in their inevitable showdown for the WCC Tourney title next month in Las Vegas. VPI has bubble written all over it, but the Hokies and their 85 ppg offense have the benefit of potential good wins awaiting in the ACC, which has apparently prompted HC Buzz Williams let his hair grow a bit. As for Texas A&M, the midweek upset win at Auburn is enough for us to put them in the field, considering other early wins over West Virginia and USC, and a late-season rally apparently beginning at just the right time for HC Billy Kennedy.
2 Duke (19-4, 7) vs. 15 Montana (18-5, 104)...In our last update, we warned that Duke probably had to win vs. Virginia to stay on the top line into our next report. Not only did the Blue Devils fail that one, they subsequently lost to St. John’s, too, so now Coach K’s team looks more likely to slip to the 3-line instead of back into one of the top-line seeds, at least until further notice. Big Sky teams have caused occasional problems in the Dance, and Montana might not be an easy out if the Grizzlies continue to set the pace in the loop. Also keep an eye on Idaho, Northern Colorado, and Weber State for what is shaping up as a nervy conference tourney in Reno.
7 Creighton (17-6, 23) vs. 10 Arkansas (16-8, 34)...That sigh of relief you might have heard at midweek was probably HC Greg McDermott after his Bluejays barely escaped an upset bid by DePaul. Creighton is in seed-improvement mode now, and, like several other sides, is going to want to move into the 5-6-7 range in order to delay any matchup vs. a regional top seed until the second weekend. In other words, avoid an 8 or 9 seed. Meanwhile, Arkansas is more concerned with just making the Dance and might have to pick up the pace in the SEC, where it sat underwater as of midweek. Wins over Oklahoma and Tennessee are helping the Big Dance profile, but maybe not enough if the Hogs come in at 8-10 or 7-11 in the SEC.
at San Diego...
3 Arizona (19-5, 19) vs. 14 UCSB (18-5, 94)...The upside remains considerable for U of A but the Wildcats have been mostly overlooked since their 0-for-3 performance at the Battle for Atlantis in November. Star frosh big 7-1 DeAndre Ayton appears lottery-bound, and G Allonzo Trier has been playing like an All-American lately, but something still seems to be missing from this collection of Cats. Sean Miller is running out of time to get all of the pistons firing for a deep March run. A matchup vs. UCSB would intrigue because new Gaucho HC Joe Pasternack spent the past few years as Miller’s assistant. UCSB assumed team-to-beat status in the Big West recently with a couple of wins over CS Fullerton and a revenge success at the Thunderdome vs. Hawaii.
6 Nevada (20-4, 15) vs. 11 Kansas State (16-7, 66)...Nevada looks like the first “safe” Mountain West entry since San Diego State from three years ago, as Eric Musselman’s collection of transfers continue to terrorize the league. The Wolf Pack, with a lineup of four 6-7 components and another at 6-4, is a “new style big team” with much of its size out on the perimeter, paced by the transfer Martin twins from NC State (though Caleb is out for a bit with a toe injury). Nevada could present several matchup problems in the Dance. As for K-State, it steadied itself with the needed midweek win at Texas. Preceding losses vs. Kansas and West Virginia were not unexpected, but they came by a combined 52 points, which was more than a bit alarming. The Wednesday win at Austin might have been the biggest yet this season for Bruce Weber’s troops
Last four in: Nebraska, NC State, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M.
Last four out: Missouri, Houston, Mississippi State, St. Bonaventure.
Next four out: Syracuse, Western Kentucky, Old Dominion, Penn State.
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