March 2, 2018
By Bruce Marshall
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We have been keeping pace with the brackets and the composition of the field is now solidifying, with movement (as usual) continuing within the ranks. It’s also good to keep an eye on any potential “bid stealers” in conference tourney action that need wins in those events to advance from leagues that already have one or more teams safely into the field. Potential upsets in those tourneys can effectively “shrink” the bubble, so keep an eye on proceedings.
Below, beyond straight-up records, 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 through 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 through February 28. Remember, Selection Sunday is looming on March 11!
EAST REGIONAL (Boston-TD Garden)
1 Villanova (SUR 26-4, RPI-2) vs. 16 Wagner (22-8, 106)...Jay Wright’s Nova has had a few stumbles in recent weeks and might have been in danger of slipping off the top line had it lost (which it almost did) on Wednesday at Seton Hall, coupled with an earlier-than-expected exit at next week’s Big East Tourney. The latter might still cause a bit of top-line angst, but we’d be surprised if the Cats weren’t a 1-seed and the Pittsburgh sub-regional. Northeast Conference Tourney action has already gotten underway at midweek and favored Wagner (with home court edge as long as it lasts) began with a comfy opening round win on Staten Island over Central Connecticut.
8 Virginia Tech (21-9, 47) vs. 9 Texas A&M (19-11, 27)...We suppose that VPI removed any drama about making the field when it dumped Duke on Big Monday at Blacksburg. Along with earlier wins over North Carolina and on the road at Virginia, there looks to be no way the Hokies can now play themselves out of berth. Let’s see if that means Buzz Williams will continue to let his hair grow. A week ago we weren’t sure if Texas A&M was going to stay in the field, but gutty road wins at Vandy and Georgia plus events elsewhere suggest the Ags have moved a good bit away from the cut line. Quadrant 1 pre-league wins away from College Station vs. West Virginia and Southern Cal should seal the deal for A&M.
4 Ohio State (24-7, 8) vs. 13 Murray State (24-5, 68)...Had Ohio State lost last Friday at Indiana and entered the Big Ten Tourney with three losses in its last five games, the Buckeyes might have been a hard sell to stick as a protected seed. But Chris Holtmann’s bunch squeezed past the Hoosiers and barring an early exit at this weekend’s Big Ten Tourney at MSG should be able to hold on the 4-line. Meanwhile they’ve tipped things off at the OVC Tourney, this year moved out of Nashville and into Evansville. With a late rush, Murray State surpassed Rick Byrd’s Belmont to enter as the top seed at the Ford Center. They’ll wrap up the OVC festivities this weekend.
5 Kentucky (21-9, 14) vs. 12 Vermont (25-6, 60)...Making a late move are John Calipari’s “Kiddie Kats” from UK, now on an impressive 4-game win streak after a midweek thumping of Ole Miss. If UK continues its late surge thru the SEC Tourney it might yet climb to a protected seed, but Calipari will gladly take a sub-regional assignment in Detroit. The America East Tourney gets underway this weekend but won’t crown its champion until a week from Saturday. Defending champ Vermont led wire-to-wire in the regular season and will be prohibitively favored in an event in which the Catamounts will have home edge as long as they stay alive.
2 Duke (24-6, 4) vs. 15 Penn (21-7, 132)...We suppose there is an outside shot that Duke could end up on the top line, which would require the Blue Devils to win next week’s ACC Tourney in Brooklyn and some early exits by other top contenders in their conference tourneys. Even that might not be enough to get Coach K a 1 seed, and we think Duke is pretty well locked into a 2 at this stage. As for Penn, it has taken control of the Ivy race by winning last week vs. Harvard, but a potential rubber match looms in next week's Ivy Tourney (involving the top four finishers). Which will be held at the Quakers' Palestra.
7 Creighton (21-9, 33) vs. 10 Missouri (19-11, 41)...Any worries that Creighton had of slipping into a dreaded 8 vs. 9 matchup were probably alleviated by last Saturday’s win over Villanova. The Bluejays could even move up to the 6-line with a win at Marquette this weekend and a deep run in the Big East Tourney next week at MSG. Three straight losses had Mizzou sinking toward the cut line before a crucial midweek win at Vandy temporarily stopped the bleeding. The Tigers can all but lock down their bid with a win this weekend over Arkansas. Now, will touted frosh Michael Porter, Jr. really return from his season-long back injury for the SEC Tourney next week in friendly territory for the Tigers (St. Louis)?
At San Diego...
3 West Virginia 22-8, 29) vs. 14 Bucknell (22-9, 82)...A late surge with three wins into this weekend’s regular-season finale vs. Texas has enhanced the Mountaineers’ chances of landing a protected seed. To get to the 3-line might require a deep run in next week’s Big 12 Tourney in Kansas City, but Bob Huggins’ crew is capable and appears to be peaking at the right time. As expected, Bucknell romped home with the Patriot regular-season title and will host all of its league tourney games, which commence this week. The Bison are guaranteed of at least one media cheerleader, alumnus and CBS head honcho Les Moonves.
6 Rhode Island (23-5, 15) vs. 11 Nebraska (22-9, 57)/Louisville (19-10, 38)....Any dreams URI might have had of landing a protected seed probably went out the window when getting blitzed by St. Joe’s (shockingly so, we might add) in the Rams’ home regular-season finale on Tuesday. The consolation is that Dan Hurley’s team is in no at-large pressure in next week’s A-10 Tourney in D.C., but a quick exit could risk Rhody slipping into 8-9 seed territory. The Selection Committee has under-seeded mid-major powers before. Nebraska has been playing must-win games for over a month and recently lost a stinger at subpar Illinois. Still, the Huskers closed their regular-season slate winning 8 of 9, and while computer numbers aren’t overwhelming (and Quadrant 1 wins scarce), the Committee has to take a look if Nebraska makes a deep run in the Big Ten Tourney. Meanwhile the ‘Ville might have done enough in last weekend’s win at VPI to sew up a bid, but the Cards have a lot of losses lately. A win over Virginia on Thursday, however, likely moves the ‘Ville away from at-large play-in territory.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Atlanta-Philips Arena)
1 Virginia (26-2, 1) vs. 16 NC A&T (18-12, 231)/Florida Gulf Coast (22-10, 164)...Short of losing their last two regular-season games vs. the ‘Ville and Notre Dame, and an early exit in next week’s ACC Tourney at Barclays Center, we see almost no way that the Cavs get moved off of the top line. They’re odds-on to enter the Dance as the number one overall seed, too. The MEAC Tourney will take place next week at the Norfolk Scope, one of the home courts for the ABA Virginia Squires during the Julius Erving era in the early ’70s, and the event remains a toss-up. Indeed, five teams were tied atop the loop at 11-4 in league play entering this final weekend of regular-season play! A measured vote for NC A&T to emerge, but your guess is as good as ours. Florida Gulf Coast’s latest edition of “Dunk City” is favored to emerge from the Atlantic Sun Tourney, which has already commenced with the top seed Eagles already romping past USC-Upstate in the opening round on Monday. Top-seed FGCU has home edge throughout the event.
8 St. Mary’s (27-4, 42) vs. 9 St. Bonaventure (23-6, 21)...Where the Selection Committee might seed the WCC Gaels has been a topic of wide speculation among Bracketologists; we suspect the Committee puts SMC in an 8-9 game somewhere. The Vatican might be called upon to intercede if St. Bonaventure provides the opposition. Having survived the Tuesday night triple-OT marathon vs. dangerous Davidson, we think Bonnies fans can not only probably stop sweating out a bid but have probably moved ahead in the seeding queue and away from a possible at-large play-in assignment at Dayton in the First Four.
4 Auburn (24-6, 7) vs. 13 Buffalo (22-8, 35)...Auburn has taken a few hits lately on the SEC road (three straight losses on the conference trail) which have probably downgraded the Tigers to the 4-line. A quick exit in the SEC Tourney might risk Bruce Pearl’s bunch sinking a little further. Still favored in next week’s MAC Tourney is Buffalo, but things haven’t seemed so easy for the potent Bulls in recent weeks; in fact, they’ve covered only one pointspread in their last nine games, with road losses at Kent State, Northern Illinois, and Miami-Ohio in the last month. MAC action at the “Q” next week suddenly doesn’t seem the foregone conclusion it did a few weeks ago.
5 Texas Tech (22-8, 35) vs. 12 Louisiana (25-4, 37)...The Red Raiders remain one of the storylines of this college hoops season, but four straight losses into Saturday’s regular-season finale at TCU have probably knocked Chris Beard’s team out of protected seed territory and down to the 5-line. A mid-major to watch could be Louisiana, which some in the Sun Belt believe might be deserving of an at-large look if the Cajuns get dumped in next week’s conference tourney in New Orleans. In any event, don’t be surprised if ULL HC Bob Marlin is on a short list for some expected power conference openings (including one that has already appeared at Ole Miss).
2 Purdue (26-5, 10) vs. 15 Northern Kentucky (22-8, 110)...There is still a chance that the Boilermakers could end up on the 1-line, but after a couple of losses down the stretch including a bitter close setback at Michigan State that effectively decided the regular-season champion, nothing short of a Purdue win at the Big Ten Tourney this weekend at MSG gives Matt Painter’s bunch a shot at the top line. The topsy-turvy Horizon race ended up an Affirmed vs. Alydar-like battle between NKU and Wright State, with the random element of IUPUI getting involved to have a say in the regular-season title and top seed for the loop tourney at Little Caesars Arena that begins this weekend (the Norse will be top seed thanks to their win last Sunday over IUPUI...the same Jaguars who knocked the Raiders out of first place the preceding Friday night). Beware of several others in the Horizon for the fun in Detroit.
7 TCU (21-9, 19) vs. 10 USC (21-9, 30)...Making a late push to move not only clear of any risk at the cut line but also likely away from a dreaded 8 vs. 9 assignment is TCU, which could better this projected spot on the 7-line with a win at Texas Tech on Saturday and advancement to deep into next week’s Big 12 Tourney at Kansas City. As for SC, to land as a 10 and safely away from the cut line might require a weekend win over UCLA and another couple of Ws in next week’s Pac-12 Tourney. All within reach of the Trojans, who handled the recent Pac-12 “altitude trip” to Colorado and Utah much better than their crosstown travel partner Bruins (who lost at both Boulder and Salt Lake City).
3 Gonzaga (27-4, 31) vs. 14 Rider (22-8, 35)...The moving target that is Quadrant 1 wins has alternately worked in favor and against Gonzaga the past month. But we suspect the Committee needs no extra confirmation about the prowess of the Zags, who reached the title game last season and are about to qualify for their 20th straight Dance. (Keep an eye on the rumor picking up some steam on the coast that Gonzaga might make a move into the Mountain West as soon as next season). They’re tipping things off this weekend in the always-exciting Metro-Atlantic Tourney in Albany, where the Rider Broncs enter as top seed and slight favorite, though the Buffalo area pair of Canisius and Niagara, plus Iona, all think they have a shot as well (and they all do!).
6 Houston (23-6, 20) vs. 11 Providence (18-12, 43)...While several Big 12 and SEC entries have seen their profiles wobble a bit in recent weeks, Houston’s has solidified, with wins over Wichita State and Cincy on top of an early-season win over SEC Arkansas. All more than compensating for a recent loss at capable Memphis. As for Pprovidence, the Friars are going to be riding the bubble into Selection Sunday, though we suspect a recent win over Villanova is going to be enough to put Ed Cooley’s team in the field. Note that these two did meet on December 20 at the Dunk (Cougars winning 70-59), and while regular-season rematches are usually avoided in the first round, they aren’t forbidden, either.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Omaha-CenturyLink Center)
1 Michigan State (28-3, 13) vs. 16 Texas Southern (12-19, 243)/Nicholls (21-9, 139)...Never mind Joe Lunardi and others who stubbornly are keeping the Spartans off of the top line because of Strength of Schedule arguments and lack of Quadrant 1 wins. We say Tom Izzo’s team gets on the top line if it wins the Big Ten Tourney at MSG after this weekend. Can’t see the Selection Committee putting MSU anywhere but a 1-seed in that scenario. Confirmation of the wackiness of this college season that Grambling, of all teams, recently owned the nation’s longest SU win streak (11). But the Tigers then promptly lost at home to Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Mississippi Valley State. And Grambling is ineligible this season, which means the next week’s SWAC Tourney at Houston (at the venerable Delmar Fieldhouse, once upon a time the home court of the Elvin Hayes-era Houston Cougars) will be a free-for-all, with Mike Davis-coached Texas Southern (after an 0-13 non-league SU mark) in position for its second straight Dance invite. Nearby the SWAC extravaganza will be the Southland Tourney in Houston suburb Katy, where Nicholls likely enters as top seed next week.
8 Seton Hall (20-10, 22) vs. 9 Florida State (19-10, 46)...Eight schools are going to get the dreaded 8-9 assignment with the winner almost surely facing a 1-seed in the second round. Had Seton hall been able to knock off Villanova at midweek in Newark (instead of losing by 1 in OT) we’d have said the Pirates were more likely to end up on the 7-line. We admit to some trepidation placing Florida State on the 9-line and not lower after the Noles enter this weekend having dropped 3 of 5. But FSU has several good wins in its satchel (Florida in pre-league, plus North Carolina and others in the ACC), and a 9-9 or 10-8 mark in the ACC ought to be enough to slip in under the flag this season.
4 Tennessee (22-7, 9) vs. 13 South Dakota State (25-6, 59)...Whether it’s as a 3-seed or a 4-seed, the first weekend target for the Vols is the nearby Nashville sub-regional at Bridgestone Arena, where the red-hot NHL Predators will temporarily vacate for hoops action in two weeks. A win this weekend over Georgia and avoiding an early upset at the SEC Tourney next week would likely put UT on the 3-line, but it’s the first weekend in Nashville that means most for the Vols. One of the more intriguing mid-majors would be South Dakota State featuring prolific-scoring 6-9 jr. F Mike Daum, as the Jackrabbits look to return to the Dance. The Summit Tourney, however, is never a picnic, even as it is held in friendly territory for top-seeded SDSU at nearby Sioux Falls, where action commences this weekend.
5 Clemson (22-7, 8) vs. 12 Loyola-Chicago (25-5, 32)...A recent 3-game losing streak, stopped only when lowly Georgia Tech appeared on the schedule, has likely cost the Tigers a protected seed, though we have a hard time envisioning Brad Brownell’s team dropping much further than the 5-line. Nostalgia alert for Loyola-Chicago, which enters this weekend as the top seed for the Missouri Valley’s “Arch Madness” in St. Louis. 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. Expect further retrospectives on the ‘63 NCAA champion Loyola side, subject of several pieces on these pages in years past. Do the Ramblers have a shot at an at-large if they get dumped at Scottrade Center this weekend?
2 Kansas (24-6, 5) vs. 15 UNC-Greensboro (24-7, 83)...KU’s rather remarkable streak of Big 12 regular-season crowns has grown to 14 with yet another title this season. But we are not convinced the Jayhawks end on the top line, especially if they lose in the conference tourney next week in Kansas City (where the Jayhawks have stumbled several times when entering as the top seed). Meanwhile some developments since our last update in the SoCon, where a late fade by ETSU allowed UNC-Greensboro to pass the Bucs and enter this weekend’s conference tourney at Asheville as the top seed. Keep an eye on stretch runners Mercer and Furman, each bringing long win streaks into Asheville (Bears 8 straight, Paladins six in a row).
7 Miami-Fla. (21-8, 24) vs. 10 Arizona State (19-9, 39)...Jim Larranaga’s Canes have been in seed-enhancement mode in recent weeks and helped themselves immensely with that midweek thrill win at Chapel Hill. That ought to be enough to get the Canes out of a threat to play in one of the 8-9 games. Meanwhile, falling far since January has been ASU, which was actually on the top line for our first update just before New Year’s but is in danger of finishing below .500 in the modest Pac-12 if it can’t sweep Cal and Stanford (which the Sun Devils should) this weekend in Tempe. Neutral-court and road wins over projected top seeds Xavier and Kansas, plus another neutral venue win over Kansas State, are probably what will keep ASU in the field.
3 Cincinnati (25-4, 11) vs. 14 Charleston (23-7, 74)...A couple of recent losses to Houston and Wichita State threatened to drop the Bearcats to the 4-line, but losses elsewhere across the country simply put Cincy in the company of several other accomplished sorts. The pre-league wins over Florida, UCLA, and Mississippi State (two of those away from home) will help the Bearcat profile. Meanwhile, for a brief moment last week, Charleston (along with Michigan State) held the nation’s longest SU win streak at 11 before the Cougars lost in OT at William & Mary last Saturday. Nonetheless, Charleston is top seed and favorite in this weekend’s CAA Tourney, taking place across town at the North Charleston Coliseum.
6 Florida (19-11, 45) vs. 11 Oklahoma (17-12, 36)...Stabilizing in the last week has been Florida, which used much-needed wins over Auburn and at Alabama (a romp vs. the Tide) to upgrade its profile that already included some nice Quadrant 1 wins on neutral courts vs. Gonzaga and Cincinnati before New Year’s. We suspect that moves the Gators into the 6-7 seed range. We are less sure about Oklahoma, which temporarily slowed its death spiral last weekend vs. Kansas State but immediately fell again (and hard) at Baylor, making the Sooners 0-for-2018 SU on the road (though OU did win on the Big 12 trail at TCU on Dec. 30). Lon Kruger and Trae Young have lost 7 of 8 as of March 1 and would fall to 7-11 in Big 12 play if losingt home on Saturday vs. Iowa State. The Selection Committee has never rewarded a team with that bad of a record in league play with an at-large berth. (If this OU-Florida matchup materialized, it would also feature Kruger vs. one of his former employers.)
WEST REGIONAL (Los Angeles-Staples Center)
1 Xavier (26-4, 3) vs. 16 UNC-Asheville (20-11, 116)...As long as the “X” doesn’t have to see Villanova anytime soon after recently losing an 11th straight to Jay Wright’s Cats, the Musketeers might have their best-ever chance at making the Final Four. The “X” has never been on the 1-line, either, and has achieved its highest-ever ranking this season, so maybe this is the year. We suppose it is very possible that whichever entry wins the Big South Tourney would (as usual) be a candidate for one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games. But if UNC-Asheville makes home court edge work and emerges from the conference tourney, the Bulldogs’ RPI suggests they could avoid a play-in.
8 Arkansas (21-9, 26) vs. 9 NC State (20-9, 48)...We were wondering for a while if Arkansas might be falling into some bubble trouble, but wins in 6 of 7, including a success at Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday vs. Auburn, have moved the Razorbacks well clear of the cut line. So, too, has apparently NC State, which looks to have made a great hire in HC Kevin Keatts, who looks in line for a third straight Big Dance trip after taking UNC-Wilmington each of the past two years. Like Arkansas, the Wolfpack is roaring down the stretch, with four wins on the trot into Thursday at Georgia Tech, with wins over Duke and North Carolina (the latter on the road), and in the Bahamas vs. Arizona in November already in the satchel.
At San Diego...
4 Arizona (22-7, 17) vs. 13 New Mexico State (24-5, 52)...It’s been a turbulent couple of weeks in Tucson, with HC Sean Miller on leave (though in a turn of events appears headed back to the sideline), while wondrous 7-1 frosh Deandre Ayton has been reinstated to active duty. Barring any more unforeseen developments, Arizona should hang on the 4-line, but the way things are going in Tucson, we’re not sure what to expect next. New Mexico State will be top seed in the WAC Tourney, 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. Though NMSU has slipped a couple of times in recent weeks at Seattle and Utah Valley, something to think about when the conference tourney action commences next week at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
5 Michigan (24-7, 25) vs. 12 Middle Tennessee (23-5, 28)...Another Big Ten foe is just what MTSU wants after knocking off Michigan State and Minnesota, respectively, the past two seasons in first-round action. Fair to speculate whether the Blue Raiders are in line for an at-large if they get dumped in next week’s Conference USA Tourney at the Dallas Cowboys’ sparkling “The Star” in Frisco, In a down year in the Big Ten, however, Michigan has at least held up its end of the bargain, and John Beilein teams have made noise before in March.
2 North Carolina (22-8, 6) vs. 15 UC Irvine (16-15, 128)...Can the Tar Heels really climb as high as the 2-line, even after their midweek loss vs. Miami? With a bushel of Quadrant 1 wins, the computer numbers love UNC, so we expect that a good showing in next week’s ACC Tourney in Brooklyn gives the Heels a shot at the 2-line. We’re not sure what to expect in the Big West, where longtime pace car UCSB has started to leak oil the past couple of weeks and allowed UCI to catch it and move to the lead heading into the final weekend of regular-season play. Though no fewer than six teams would seem to have a realistic shot in the conference tourney at the NHL Ducks’ Honda Center next week.
7 Butler (19-11, 34) vs. 10 Kansas State (20-10, 63)...Neither of these sides were particularly helped by midweek results, especially Butler, a loser at St. John’s. But the Bulldogs have the sorts of wins (Ohio State on a neutral court in the PK 80 Classic at Portland back in Thanksgiving week, plus over Villanova) that seem to mean more in the Selection Committee’s new metrics. Meanwhile, with a win over Baylor on Saturday, K-State will finish 10-8 in the rugged Big 12, which should solidify the Wildcats’ at-large credentials.
3 Wichita State (23-5, 12) vs. 14 Montana (21-7, 102)...Procedural note as the Shockers can compete in the hometown sub-regional as it is being contested at the Intrust Bank Arena, not the Koch Arena, WSU’s home court. And recent efforts (including the road win at Cincy) suggest Gregg Marshall’s team can get a protected seed. We’re looking forward to the Big Sky Tourney in Reno, where Montana looks likely to enter as the top seed, but where more than half of the loop believes it has a realistic shot to win. The fun begins next week at Reno Convention Center, adjacent to the sparkling Atlantis Hotel and Casino.
6 Nevada (26-5, 16) vs. 11 UCLA (19-10,53)/Baylor (18-12, 58)...Nevada is 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, and have yet to seem to have missed injured PG Lindsey Drew. Watch the Wolf Pack’s seed closely, as if Nevada gets dropped into an 8-9 game, consider it evidence of bias in the Selection Committee against the mid-majors. It is getting dicey to project the at-large play-in teams, though with decent performances in their respective conference tourneys next week, we think UCLA and Baylor might just barely fall onto the safe side of the cut line. The Bruins’ profile is suddenly being helped by its December neutral-court win (in New Orleans) over resurgent Kentucky, while the Bears have made a nice stretch run (6-2 SU their last 8) in the rugged Big 12.
Last four byes: Oklahoma, Providence, USC, Kansas State
Last four in: Louisville, Nebraska, UCLA, Baylor
Last four out: Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas
Next four out: Boise State, Mississippi State, Western Kentucky, Syracuse
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