Monday January 18th, 2016

Last Four In

Alabama: The Crimson Tide has beaten all the teams it should while losing to every superior team it has faced thus far. That's good enough for now, but they’ll need to grab an impressive win at some point to stay in the field.

VCU: The Rams have two wins over teams inside the top 100 on kenpom.com, and the Atlantic 10 isn’t going to give them much opportunity for big wins. That means they’ll have to post an overwhelmingly strong conference record to remain worthy of an at-large bid.

Connecticut: The Huskies will also need a resume-building win or two over the next couple months, but the lack of a really bad loss has them just on the right side of the bubble.

Clemson: It’s pretty much a rule that if a team beats ranked Duke and Miami teams in the same week, it’s going to get into the next edition of the Bracket Watch, especially if it also has a win over a ranked Louisville squad right before that. The Tigers can’t just wipe away losses to Massachusetts, Minnesota and Georgia, but they are headed in the right direction.

First Four Out

UT-Arlington: The Sun Belt Conference could get two teams in the dance, with both UT-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock on the at-large radar. For now, though, the Mavericks are just outside, but that could change if they beat the Trojans on Saturday.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have a couple of nice wins over George Washington and VCU, but two losses to Temple—including last Saturday's double-overtime setback—are enough to keep them on the outside looking in for now.

Vanderbilt: The Commodores have underperformed, with their best win of the season coming against Alabama. That’s not going to be enough for an at-large bid.

Florida State: Last week’s win over Virginia definitely got the Seminoles on the at-large radar. If they can even just split their games with Louisville and Pitt this week, they’ll likely be on the happy side of next week’s bubble.

Regional Breakdown

Midwest: Kansas may have lost to West Virginia last week, but the Jayhawks remain not just on the top line, but our No. 1 overall seed. One road loss to a very good team does not negate everything else the Jayhawks have done to this point of the season. Our projected Midwest Region would be a tough draw for both Kansas and No. 2 seed Michigan State, but bracketing principles force the two of them into the same region. This is, in fact, a tough region top to bottom, with Miami, Arizona, Purdue and South Carolina (the No. 3 through 6 seeds, respectively) all capable of making a run to the Final Four. Little Rock, meanwhile, figures to be one of the more threatening double-digit seeds, so long as it gets an invite to the Big Dance. At this stage, the Trojans could potentially be worthy of an at-large invite even if it doesn't win the Sun Belt's automatic bid.

South: Oklahoma is our No. 2 overall seed, hanging onto its spot on the top line after an impressive win over the Mountaineers last Saturday. It is entirely possible for the Big 12 to get two No. 1 seeds this season.

Iowa, meanwhile, might be the most intriguing team in this region. The Hawkeyes jumped from No. 4 in the Midwest last week to No. 2 in the South this week on the strength of a convincing win over Michigan State in East Lansing last Thursday. It was Iowa's second win over the Spartans this season, but this one was far more impressive than its 83-70 victory to open Big Ten play back on Dec. 29. In last week's rematch, the Hawkeyes had to contend with Michigan State All-America candidate Denzel Valentine, who missed the teams' first matchup with a knee injury. Despite his presence, Iowa rolled to a 76-59 triumph to move to 5-0 in conference play, further confirmation that they're an elite team in the Big Ten.

Virginia remains on the 3-line despite Sunday's loss at Florida State—its third defeat in its past four games—thanks in part to a win over No. 8-ranked Miami last Tuesday. Next up in this region is another struggling ACC team: Duke, which has now lost back-to-back games, falling at Clemson and at home against Notre Dame. It's unlikely the Cavaliers and Blue Devils will wind up in the same region on Selection Sunday, but bracketing principles forced our hand here. We’ll revisit the situation next week, but, at least by having them at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, they’d avoid each other until a potential meeting in the Elite Eight.

East: Here we find our first new No. 1 seed. North Carolina’s only win this week wasn't super impressive—a 12-point home victory over an NC State team that is winless in the ACC—but stumbles by Michigan State and Maryland left the top line with a couple vacancies. The Tar Heels’ résumé (16-2 overall, unbeaten in the ACC and boasting the No. 5 RPI in the nation) pushed them to one of those two spots.

Checking in at No. 2 is Villanova, which will remain in this region so long as it can stay on one of the top two seed lines. We see the growing profile of the SEC reflected in Texas A&M on the No. 3 line. The Aggies took down Florida and Georgia last week and are now 5–0 in the conference. There’s a very real chance that they are the conference’s best team, something we haven’t been able to say since the days of Acie Law. St. Mary’s, which checks in at No. 9, looms as a dangerous middle-of-the-pack team while simultaneously making the West Coast Conference appear to be a two-bid league this season, along with perennial tournament darling Gonzaga.

West: Like the East, the West region has a new team up top in Xavier. The Musketeers picked up easy wins against DePaul and Marquette last week, which didn’t exactly raise their profile, but were enough to move them to No. 1. Xavier hosts Georgetown and Seton Hall this week, but next week’s meeting with Providence will be its first chance for a signature Big East win. As is the case with Duke and Virginia, the Musketeers and Friars probably won’t end up in the same region, but this week’s puzzle compelled us to group them together.

Speaking of opening eyes, West Virginia did just that last week, beating then-No. 1 Kansas and nearly taking down No. 2 Oklahoma in Norman before falling by two points. The Mountaineers jumped from a No. 4 seed last week to a No. 2 this week and could keep climbing thanks in part to a schedule that finally lightens up, as they don't play another ranked team for the rest of the month.

All that upward movement means a couple teams had to fall down in the bracket. Maryland was probably overseeded as a No. 1 last week after barely escaping Wisconsin, so while the Terrapins' three-point loss at unranked Michigan was hardly egregious it, coupled with advancement elsewhere, leaves them at a No. 4. Maryland has a golden opportunity to shoot back up the bracket, with games at Michigan State and versus Iowa in two of its next three outings.

Kentucky, meanwhile, did suffer a bad loss, falling to a sub-.500 Auburn team on the road, the second straight week the Wildcats have lost a road game to an unranked SEC team. Kentucky is down to a No. 5 seed.

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