Bracket Watch: Duke back on top line, Hoyas and Hoosiers moving up
The top 16 teams from last week’s Bracket Watch went a combined 27-4 in the last seven days. As such, all 16 teams returned to the top quarter of the bracket this week, albeit with some minor shuffling.
The most notable move, perhaps, is that Duke is back on the No. 1-seed line. The Blue Devils had the nation's attention by beating Pittsburgh at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 19 and St. John's in New York on Sunday to give head coach Mike Krzyzewski his 999th and 1,000th career wins, respectively. More importantly, they seem to have corrected their flaws on defense, more on which below.
Duke displaces Villanova as a top seed after the Wildcats were blown out by Georgetown in Washington D.C. last Monday night. Partly because of that 78-58 win, the Hoyas made the biggest gain in this week's Bracket Watch, jumping from a 10-seed to a five. They now have three wins against teams with an RPI of 31 or better, and four of their five losses came to teams inside the top 20. Georgetown will have a chance to rise even higher over the next two weeks. Three of the Hoyas' next four games are against Xavier, Providence and Villanova, each of whom is in our projected field yet again.
Indiana is the other big mover this week after scoring 89 points and cruising to a 19-point win over Maryland last Thursday. The Hoosiers had their four-game winning streak snapped on Sunday at Ohio State, but they still look like the third-best team in the Big Ten and are 4-4 against the RPI top 50. Freshman James Blackmon and junior Yogi Ferrell form one of the best backcourts in the country, combining to average 32.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. They carried Indiana in that win over the Terrapins, going for 46 points and shooting 10-of-13 from behind the arc. After checking in as a 9-seed last week, the Hoosiers moved all the way up to the 6-line in this week’s Bracket Watch. (See below for the full 68-team field.)
1. Kentucky (19-0, Last week: Midwest 1) – After winning back-to-back overtime games to start the new year, the Wildcats have reverted to dominant form. They've won their last four games by an average of 23.5 points, with only an eight-point home victory over Vanderbilt last Tuesday providing a semblance of drama. KenPom.com now gives our No. 1 overall seed a 43.5-percent chance of finishing the regular season undefeated.
2. Kansas (16-3, LW: South 3) – The Jayhawks cruised to a 75-62 win at Texas on Saturday behind emerging freshman forward Cliff Alexander. Last year's Naismith prep player of the year, Alexander is still coming off the bench, but he just put together his best back-to-back performances of the season. After scoring 13 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the win over Oklahoma on Jan. 19 he notched 15 points and nine rebounds against the Longhorns. Kansas gets Big 12 bottom-feeder TCU to start the week on Wednesday, then hosts surprising Kansas State on Saturday; at 5-2 through Sunday the Wildcats are just a half-game behind their in-state rivals in the conference standings.
3. Notre Dame (19-2, LW: MW3) – The Irish fought back from an 18-point first-half deficit for an impressive overtime win at North Carolina State on Sunday. They’ll get another chance to prove they can hang with the ACC’s heavyweights when Duke visits South Bend on Wednesday. That's the first of two games with the Blue Devils over the next two weeks, but those are also the only matchups with a ranked opponent that Notre Dame has scheduled through February.
4. Maryland (18-3, LW: S4) – The Terrapins barely escaped Northwestern at home on Sunday, winning by one on Dez Wells' last-second tip-in, but most of their recent struggles have come on the road. They lost at Illinois on Jan. 7 and were routed at Indiana last Thursday. They’ll be tested again on the road this week when they head to Columbus to face Ohio State on Thursday.
1. Virginia (19-0, LW: S1) – The Cavaliers suffocated Georgia Tech on Thursday, winning 57-28 but then survived a scare in Blacksburg on Sunday, using a late run to eventually knock off Virginia Tech 50-47. Things now get considerably more difficult for Virginia, which is now embarking on one of the toughest stretches any team will face all season: hosting Duke on Saturday, playing at North Carolina on Monday and then hosting Louisville on Feb. 7. If the Cavaliers are still undefeated after that gauntlet, they'll have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the contenders for a No. 1 seed.
2. Villanova (18-2, LW East 1) – The Wildcats lost their spot on a top line after that aforementioned defeat at Georgetown last week. Still, this is a team with zero losses to teams outside the top 25 in RPI.
3. Iowa State (14-4, LW: MW2) – Defense is the Cyclones’ bugaboo, and that showed up in a loss on Saturday at Texas Tech, as the Red Raiders knocked down 11 three-pointers, more than double their season average. Iowa State also ranks 267th in the country in offensive rebounding rate, a weakness that gets them in trouble when they aren’t knocking down their shots.
4. Wichita State (18-2, LW: S4) – Life remains free and easy for the Shockers in the Missouri Valley, and that may not be a great thing with respect to their eventual seeding. They beat up on Missouri State and Drake last week and will likely only have two more games this season against top-50 competition, those coming in their home and home matchups with Northern Iowa.
1. Duke (17-2, LW: E2) – Coach K's 1,000th career win helped move the Blue Devils to the top of the South Region, but it’s the move to a 2-3 zone that has revitalized his team following its back-to-back losses to North Carolina State and Miami in the middle of this month. After allowing 53.4 percent shooting from the field and 55.6 percent from three-point range combined in those defeats, Duke limited its next three opponents -- Louisville, Wake Forest and St. John's -- to 39.6 percent from the floor combined and just 22.0 percent from deep. The Blue Devils can solidify their hold on this seeding during a huge week ahead: road games at Notre Dame on Wednesday and Virginia on Saturday.
2. Wisconsin (18-2, LW: S2) – Still playing without starting senior point guard Traveon Jackson, who is out until late February with a broken right foot, the Badgers waxed Iowa by 32 points at home last Tuesday, and then picked up a hard-fought overtime win at Michigan on Saturday. Jackson's replacement in the starting lineup, sophomore Bronson Koenig, had 13 points in each game, and has looked very comfortable as the team’s starting point guard. Koenig is averaging 37 minutes and 12.3 points in his three games since taking over while shooting 53.3 percent from beyond the arc and committing only two turnovers total.
3. Utah (16-3, LW: E3) – The Utes rebounded from an 18-point loss at Arizona on Jan. 17 by blowing out the visiting Washington schools last week. They'll be in Los Angeles this week to play UCLA and USC, and it's imperative that they take care of business if they want to stay on this seed-line.
4. VCU (16-3, LW: MW4) – The Rams have now won 11 straight games and are 6-0 in the Atlantic 10 after knocking off league doormats Duquesne and Saint Louis last week. First-place in the conference will be at stake when George Washington (6-1) visits on Tuesday.
1. Gonzaga (20-1, LW: West 1) – Unless something unexpected happens, we’re almost certainly going to see a West Region with Gonzaga and Arizona in the top two spots. All that’s left to figure out is which team occupies the top line. The Zags, which beat second-place St. Mary's by 21 last week and remain perfect in the West Coast Conference, get that spot for now, but it’ll be hard to hold off the Wildcats if they win the Pac-12.
2. Arizona (18-2, LW: W2) – The Cats posted an impressive victory at Stanford and then routed Cal last week for a sweep in the Bay Area. They host the Oregon schools this week in a bid to keep pace with Gonzaga for the top seed out West.
3. North Carolina (16-4, LW: W4) – Since losing at Kentucky on Dec. 13, the Tar Heels have won 10 of 11, with the only loss coming by one point at home against Notre Dame on Jan, 5. Their offense doesn't always run smoothly, but they rank fifth in adjusted offense on KenPom and 18th nationally in scoring average and they've shot almost 52 percent over their past four games. The schedule gets much tougher for North Carolina now, with home games against Syracuse this Monday and Virginia on Feb. 2 sandwiched around a visit on Saturday to Louisville.
4. Louisville (16-3, LW: W3) – Speaking of the Cardinals, they’re obviously safely in the field of 68, but they have some resume-building to do if they want a better seed. Their only top-50 win came on a neutral court against Indiana back on Dec. 9, though they did also beat Ohio State at home in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They don’t have a bad loss on their resume, but they still need to prove they can beat top competition before they can be bumped up the bracket.