The holidays are over, and though it might not seem like it, Selection Sunday for the 2016 NCAA tournament is just two months away. With that in mind, it's time to debut SI.com's first Bracket Watch of the season.
Before we get to the bracket, a word of caution: This bracket was published on Jan. 11, meaning there are still two months of basketball until the field is announced. A whole lot is going to happen between now and then. Teams that are barely on the radar now will surge into the picture. Teams that appear safe this week will ultimately be headed to the NIT, or worse. Another team that is in the top quarter of the bracket could easily fall onto the bubble, while a squad or two that seems to have a lot of work to do will play better and wind up safely in the field of 68.
In other words, don’t get too caught up in exact seeding just yet. Almost all those numbers will change at one point or another as the season plays out. What’s more, not every team that is in this bracket will be in the one that matters come March. Yet, all of them have certainly done enough during the first two months of the season to feel good about where they stand right now.
With that, let’s take a look at the field as it projects right now:
Breaking down the bracket
No. 1 seeds. Could just two conferences be represented on the top line this season? League play will almost certainly make that impossible, but for now the best the Big 12 (Kansas and Oklahoma) and Big Ten (Maryland and Michigan State) have to offer deserve the No. 1 seeds. How could this turn into a reality in two months? It might take championship splits, with one team taking the regular season and the other winning the conference tournament.
No. 2 seeds. North Carolina and Xavier are just off the top line for now, but both are knocking on the door. The Tar Heels might not face a severe test in ACC play until February, though Wake Forest, which heads to Chapel Hill on Jan. 20, is enjoying its best season in years and has a spot in our bracket. Similarly, the Musketeers play just one ranked team—traveling to No. 8 Providence on Jan. 26—over the next month. Villanova and Providence join Xavier here, making this seed line quite the Big East affair. Again, that’s a small-sample-size seeding anomaly that conference play will likely take care of naturally.
No. 3 seeds. Here we find another one of those anomalies, with Miami, Duke and Virginia—a trio of ACC teams—slotting on the same line. Road losses at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech last week left the Cavaliers, which entered the week ranked No. 4 in the AP poll, at No. 3, and they may soon fall even farther; they host the Hurricanes, whose only loss this year came by one point to Northeastern, on Tuesday and then go back on the road to play Florida State on Sunday. Like Miami, the Blue Devils are undefeated in conference play, but they don’t play one of the ACC heavyweights until visiting Coral Gables on Jan. 25. Kentucky, meanwhile, bounced back from a road loss at LSU last Tuesday with a comfortable win at Alabama on Saturday. The Wildcats' long game this week is at 7-7 Auburn.
No. 4 seeds. Again, two teams from one league are in the same spot: Iowa State and West Virginia from the Big 12. Iowa, out of the Big Ten, owns wins over Michigan State and Purdue and is worthy of being considered the third-best team in that league. So the Hawkeyes have a rematch with the Spartans in East Lansing on Thursday, and this time Michigan State will have Denzel Valentine, its star forward and All-America candidate who missed four games—including the 83-70 defeat at Iowa on Dec. 29—with a left knee injury. Texas A&M is either the second- or third-best team in the SEC, depending on how much you buy into South Carolina's unbeaten start. Iowa State beat its in-state rival in a thriller on Dec. 10 but has gone just 4-3 since. The Cyclones have road games this week at Texas and Kansas State. West Virginia and Texas A&M, meanwhile, have started their respective conference seasons undefeated, but neither has a signature win just yet. The Mountaineers' only loss came against Virginia on a neutral court in December, while the Aggies boast solid non-conference victories over Baylor, Gonzaga and Texas and have two road wins in the SEC already, over Mississippi State and Tennessee.