We’re only two weeks away from the NCAA selection committee revealing their top 16 teams, so this is the time of year when bracket projections begin to hold water.
As we hit the end of January, here’s a look at how the bracket shapes up. The bracket holds 32 automatic bids for conference champions (noted with italics), and the remaining 36 are at-large selections. Teams are evaluated by how they have performed to this point in the season without projecting how they will perform the rest of the year, but conference champions have been selected using KenPom projections.
Here’s the full field of 68 through results of Jan. 28 with analysis on the bracket and the bubble below:
Last four in: Kansas State, SMU, Missouri, Houston
In whispering distance: Boise State, Washington, Middle Tennessee
In talking distance: Utah, Virginia Tech
In shouting distance: South Carolina, UCLA, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame
**One huge thing to note for this year’s selection process is the team sheets given to committee members group wins and losses differently than in the past. Instead of displaying records against the Top 50 and Top 100 RPI, wins will be grouped into four quadrants that take location (home/road/neutral) into account.
Quadrant 1 will be Home 1-30, Neutral 1-50, and Road 1-75.
Quadrant 2 will be Home 31-75, Neutral 51-100;, and Road 76-135.
Quadrant 3 will be Home 76-160, Neutral 101-200, and Road 136-240.
Quadrant 4 will be 161-351, Neutral 201-351, and Road 241-351.
Here’s an example of how it will look:
**At one point, the Big 12 had a legit chance to set a record by sending eight of its 10 teams dancing. While there’s still a chance that happens, it’s becoming highly unlikely. The league has seven teams in right now, including Kansas State in the First Four. Oklahoma State is still in striking distance, but the Cowboys will need to go above .500 in their eight remaining regular season games to become serious bid contenders. Meanwhile, Baylor and Iowa State have pretty much fallen off the map.
**How about the job Bruce Pearl is doing at Auburn (2 seed, West) despite being shrouded in the FBI investigation? The Tigers lead the SEC at 7-1 and are the favorites to cut the nets in St. Louis in about six weeks. They’re 5-2 against Quadrant 1 with their worst loss coming on a neutral site to Temple, who’s 44th in RPI despite barely being above .500. Advanced metrics back up Auburn’s status as a team that can make a deep run in March. The Tigers are ranked No. 8 in KenPom but only No. 24 in Sagarin.
**Also, shout out to Brad Brownell, who entered the season on the hot seat after six straight years with a tournament appearance and has Clemson (2 seed, East) as a darkhorse contender for a No. 1 seed. The Tigers lost starting forward Donte Grantham to a season-ending knee injury, but they’re now 2-1 without him — and that loss came at Virginia (1 seed, South). Overall, they’re 5-4 against Quadrant 1 with no losses and 12-0 against everyone else.
**You may be surprised to see Michigan State as a No. 4 seed despite their hype as a national title contender and their No. 5 ranking in KenPom. The Spartans’ resume is simply lacking compared to the nation’s other elite teams, hinging on a neutral-site win over North Carolina (3 seed, Midwest) in November. Since then, their best win was Sunday’s victory at Maryland, who is not even on the bubble.
**Temple isn’t listed anywhere here, but the Owls are a sneaky team that could enter the conversation with a strong February even though they’re currently 11-10 overall and 3-6 in the American. The Owls own two neutral-site wins over the top 10 RPI, which goes a long way toward offsetting their four losses against Quadrant 3 teams. Next month they’ll face Wichita State twice and Houston at home.
**Last year, we saw four programs make the NCAA Tournament for the first time. This bracket has only one newbie: Bethune-Cookman (16 seed, East). That being said, William & Mary is currently tied for first in the CAA, and South Dakota is a half-game out of first in the Summit League.
Bids by conference:
ACC — 9
SEC — 8
Big 12 — 7
Big East — 7
Big Ten — 4
AAC — 4
Pac-12 — 3
WCC — 2