We are now officially into the stretch run of the college basketball season.
One month from today, we will find out which 68 teams made the NCAA tournament — and then it’s a three-week sprint to crown a national champion. Brackets, matchups AND office pools ruined by 4 p.m. on the opening Thursday. That’s all coming your way in exactly four weeks.
But we’re here to give you a head start on your bracket research, because we’re not going to make you wait until Selection Sunday to find out the juicy matchups, who’s in and who’s out.
The four 1-seeds will be Virginia, Villanova, Michigan State and Xavier
The first two are fairly self-explanatory. Virginia and Villanova have been two of the three best teams in college basketball for the past couple of months, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. The latter two is where it gets interesting. Michigan State doesn’t have the résumé of a 1-seed right now due to its lack of Quadrant 1 and 2 wins, but beating Purdue on Saturday puts the Spartans on the right track — and they could theoretically run the table the rest of the way and then win the Big Ten tournament in New York. At that point, they would be 31-3 with at least a conference tourney title. The fourth seems completely up for grabs, but Xavier controls its own destiny for the final 1-seed. The Musketeers get a potentially banged-up Villanova team at home next weekend, and a win there could give them the Big East regular-season title. Xavier likely needs to beat Villanova at some point in the next month to beat out the likes of Auburn, Texas Tech and others for the final 1-seed.
Gonzaga and Wichita State will spark the biggest seeding debates
Starting this season, the selection committee is expected to use non-RPI metrics a little more heavily, with five others listed on team sheets for the first time. That’s where the differences on Gonzaga will lie. The Bulldogs are ranked around the top 10 in BPI, KenPom and Sagarin — but their RPI is hovering near 50. Even if Gonzaga goes on to run the table and win the West Coast Conference tournament, how high can the Bulldogs’ seed rise? Based on the predictive metrics, they should be in the mix for a top-three seed. But given the rest of their résumé, that seems tough. As for Wichita State, the Shockers’ move from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic Conference was supposed to ease some of the debates — such as receiving a 10-seed last season despite being ranked in the top 10 at KenPom. The problem for Wichita State this season is its glaring lack of big wins. The Shockers’ best wins this season are over Houston and Marquette. Now, they do have two games remaining against Cincinnati, but short of a win against the Bearcats, the Shockers don’t have too many more games to improve their résumé.
A 1-seed will have to face Michael Porter Jr. in the second round
Missouri seems poised to play in the 8-9 game. The Tigers would be in the tournament as of today, with a handful of Quadrant 1 wins and a solid rest of the résumé. Their remaining schedule lends itself to the Tigers not really moving the needle either way. Michael Porter Jr., former elite recruit and projected top-10 pick, said on Friday that there’s a good chance he returns this season. A team that was a top 35 to 40 team all season suddenly adding one of the most talented players in the country? That’s a nightmare scenario for a 1-seed.
There will be only two at-large bids from teams outside the top seven conferences
Relative down years in the Big Ten and Pac-12, combined with a clear split between haves and have-nots in the AAC, opened the door for teams from outside the top conferences to sneak into the NCAA tournament. But that’s just not in the cards this season. The Atlantic 10 is down outside of Rhode Island, with St. Bonaventure too inconsistent to get a bid. Western Kentucky’s recent loss to UTSA could help prevent Conference USA from sending two teams, and the Missouri Valley is no longer a threat for multiple bids with Wichita State gone. On Selection Sunday, either Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s will get an at-large bid from the West Coast Conference, and Boise State will find a way to sneak into the First Four after falling in a close one to Nevada in the Mountain West title game.
Louisville will be the last team left out of the field
David Padgett has done a very good job righting the ship after the Rick Pitino drama in the fall, but the Cardinals are starting to slide. They’ve lost four of their last six and face a daunting final stretch: four of their final six are on the road, with the two home games coming against North Carolina and Virginia. There’s a legitimate chance Louisville goes 2-4 or 1-5 in the final three weeks. Combined with the Cardinals’ middling current resume (2-6 vs. Quadrant 1, 3-8 vs. 1 + 2), and Louisville is far from securely in the field. Unless they knock off Carolina or Virginia at the KFC Yum! Center or get some wins away from home in the regular season or ACC tournament, the Cardinals are going to be sweating on Selection Sunday.
Bonzie Colson will return for the ACC tournament and help get Notre Dame a bid
Bonzie Colson, the All-American forward from Notre Dame, has missed the past month with an injured foot — and the Fighting Irish have struggled mightily without him. They were 11-3 when he went down, and they’re now 15-10 after beating Florida State on Saturday. Colson’s original timetable had him back right before the ACC tournament. If Notre Dame can tread water until then and Colson can help lead them to two wins in the ACC tournament, coach Mike Brey could find himself back in the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in nine seasons, as the committee will take into account the missed games by Colson and Matt Farrell.
The SEC will get eight bids
Joe Lunardi has eight teams from the SEC in his latest Bracketology, so the number won’t be a surprise — but the pecking order will certainly change. Auburn and Tennessee seem secure as the top two teams from the league, but Texas A&M could push for a top-five seed when all is said and done. The Aggies are arguably the most talented team in the league and are starting to figure it out after a rough start to SEC play. Kentucky stays in the 6-seed area, while Florida could be lower than expected due to its RPI. Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas are also going to make it.
Double-digit bids on the way for the ACC
It has been a strange season for the ACC, with Virginia essentially clinching the regular-season title with more than a month left in the season and Clemson looking better than Duke and North Carolina. But the league will end up with 10 bids on Selection Sunday. The aforementioned four schools will be included, along with relative locks Miami and Florida State. NC State’s big wins will get them in, Virginia Tech helped itself tremendously with a win over Virginia, and we already discussed Notre Dame. Don’t forget Syracuse, either. The league would only need Syracuse or Louisville to get in, in this scenario to crack double-figures.
Trae Young and Oklahoma will fall to the 8-to-10 range
Oklahoma has been in position for a top-four seed all season, but the Sooners are heading the wrong way — and that will continue over the final few weeks of the regular season. Oklahoma has lost its past six road games, and the Sooners are 2-6 in their last eight games overall. Moreover, they still have to travel to Texas Tech, Kansas and Baylor, meaning a .500 finish in their final six games feels realistic. At that point, they’ll have double-digit losses and a slew of quality wins — Kansas, Texas Tech and Wichita State — won’t be able to save their drop.
Rhode Island will be the highest seeded team outside the top seven conferences
The Rams are running roughshod over the Atlantic 10, sitting at 12-0 in the league and 20-3 overall. More importantly, they have a top-10 RPI and nonconference SOS, with several quality mid-major wins to go with a neutral-site victory over Seton Hall. The Rams’ superior resume metrics will give Danny Hurley’s group the edge over the winner of the West Coast Conference tourney.
The Pac-12 will have one team wearing home jerseys in the first round
For a stretch, it looked like the Pac-12 might only get two or three bids to the NCAA tournament. It now appears they could receive as many as five bids, but only Arizona should feel secure. Arizona State has been annoyingly inconsistent since the start of conference play, yet will still make the tournament. USC, UCLA and Washington will battle it out otherwise. Arizona, meanwhile, hasn’t lived up to the preseason expectations that had it as a Final Four favorite. There’s a chance the Wildcats won’t be a top-four seed on Selection Sunday, yet they will be the highest-seeded Pac-12 outfit.