SI's College Basketball Projection System unveiled its complete, 1-351 preseason rankings on Nov. 4. Today we're looking at the system's projected NCAA tournament field. Every team in our top 49—aside from No. 17 SMU, which is ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA violations—is in the bracket, and the remaining 19 bids go to automatic qualifiers that are projected to win smaller conferences.
A brief explanation of our system, which is a collaboration among economist Dan Hanner, SI's Chris Johnson and myself: On offense, it works bottom-up, starting by projecting every player's efficiency and shot volume. We do this by incorporating his past performance, recruiting rankings, development curves for similar Division I players, the quality of his teammates and his coach’s ability to develop and maximize talent. Those stats are weighted based on the team's rotation—including human intel on who’s expected to earn minutes—then used to produce each team’s offensive efficiency projection. Our defensive forecasts are based on a blend of returnees' advanced stats (rebound, steal and block percentages), roster turnover (if churn is low, then 2014-15 performances in areas such as two-point field goal percentage are given a lot of weight; if high, then a coach’s historical defensive résumé matters more), experience (veterans have fewer lapses), height (taller frontcourts make for stingier defense) and depth of talent.
We simulate the season 10,000 times to account for variance in individual performances as well as injury scenarios. The seed lines in this bracket are filled out according to our rankings (teams 1-4 received No. 1 seeds, 5-8 received No. 2 seeds and so on) and the geographic regions are populated according to the NCAA's bracketing guidelines.
(NOTE: Hover over the image below to see an expanded version.)
• No. 1 seeds: North Carolina is SI's No. 1 overall seed, and thus is slotted in the East Region, which will be played in Philadelphia, 415 driving miles from Chapel Hill, N.C. The South Region is in Louisville, 538 miles from UNC. If Kentucky can lock up the South (as we project), it will enjoy the biggest geographic advantage of any of the No. 1s.
• No. 2 seeds: Maryland's natural landing spot is in the East, which could set up a marquee regional final between the Terrapins and North Carolina. A rematch of last season's Kansas-Wichita State second round game also looks possible, as SI projects the Shockers to be a No. 2 in the Midwest.
• No. 3 seeds: Arizona doesn't project to be a powerhouse like it was the past two seasons, but the Wildcats might be happy to get out of the West—specifically Southern California, the site of heartbreaking, Elite Eight losses at the hands of Wisconsin each of the past two seasons. SI projects Arizona as the Midwest's No. 3, with Gonzaga getting placed in the West as the strongest overall No. 3 seed.
• No. 4 seeds: Here's a shocking fact: In the history of the seeded NCAA tournament, Cal has never been higher than a No. 5 seed, which it has earned twice—in 1994, Jason Kidd's final season in Berkeley, and in 1997. SI projects the Golden Bears to break through as a No. 4 in the West.