Bracket Watch: Teams beginning to punch their tickets
Five teams punched their tickets to the NCAA tournament over the weekend, ushering in this year’s madness. Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), Yale (Ivy League), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), UNC-Asheville (Big South) and Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun) each earned their conference’s automatic bids. Three more will earn berths on Monday, with championship games in the Colonial (Hofstra vs. UNC-Wilmington), MAAC (Monmouth vs. Iona) and Southern (Chattanooga vs. ETSU) all on tap.
The power conference tournaments will have a major impact on overall seeding in the field of 68, but there aren’t many true bubble teams where we traditionally find them. Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, Clemson and LSU can all still muscle their way into the field without necessarily winning their respective conference tournaments. Michigan, Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh could also potentially fall out, but they might be the only true bubble teams from the power conferences.
The American and Atlantic 10 conferences will have the greatest impact on the makeup of the field. Eight teams from those two conferences head into their tournaments firmly on the bubble, all capable of securing the automatic bid or locking up an at-large bid with a couple of wins. At the start of the week, the Bracket Watch has Temple, Connecticut, Cincinnati, St. Bonaventure and VCU on the right side of the bubble, and Tulsa, Houston and George Washington on the wrong side.
It’s likely we’ll get at least a few head-to-head matchups between those teams that could serve as de facto play-in games. In fact, we’re guaranteed one, with Connecticut and Cincinnati slated to meet in the AAC quarterfinals on Friday. The winner of that game would likely play Temple, which will get the winner of East Carolina and South Florida, in the semifinals. Meanwhile, VCU and St. Bonaventure would face off in the A-10 semifinals should both advance that far. Everything is interdependent this time of year, but those games could very well determine who goes dancing and who has to settle for the NIT.
Last Four In
Connecticut (21–10, 11–7 AAC): The Huskies took care of business against UCF over the weekend, entering the AAC tournament as the No. 5 seed. They’ll meet Cincinnati in the quarterfinals in what is a monster game for both teams. The winner will be looking good, but may still need to do work, while the loser will be very nervous on Selection Sunday.
Michigan (20–11, 10–8 Big Ten): The Wolverines’ backslide continued last week, but the big picture shows a team that still deserves an at-large bid. They have three top-25 wins (Texas, Maryland and Purdue) and just two losses outside the top 50. They have to beat Northwestern in their opening game in the Big Ten tournament.
Cincinnati (22–9, 12–6 AAC): The importance of Cincinnati’s victory over SMU on Sunday cannot be overstated. They were looking at going into the AAC tournament without a win over a legitimate at-large team, which SMU would be if they were eligible for the postseason. Now they must follow that by beating Connecticut on Friday.
VCU (22–9, 14–4 A-10): This might seem a bit low for the Rams, and they could definitely move up a seed line or two depending on what they do in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Still, right now they have zero top-25 wins, and just two inside the top 50. That matches their number of losses to teams outside the top 150.
First Four Out
Wichita State (24–8, 16–2 MVC): The Shockers may have a name brand, but they simply don’t have enough to get an at-large bid, in the eyes of the Bracket Watch. They have just one top-50 win on the year, and while it was a very good one over Utah, that can’t be enough to get them to the Dance. That win over Utah is also their lone victory against a bona fide at-large team.
Tulsa (20–10, 12–6 AAC): The Golden Hurricane could easy flip spots with Connecticut or Cincinnati depending on how the AAC tournament unfolds, but for now they’re just about a half-step behind those two teams. It’s worth noting, however, that they play Memphis in the quarterfinals and would then play Houston, UCF or Tulane if the semifinals if they won their first game. In other words, they may not meet an at-large candidate until the championship game, should they advance that far.
Alabama (17–13, 8–10 SEC): The Crimson Tide really hurt their at-large chances with losses to Arkansas and Georgia last week. Having said that, they have four top-50 wins, three of which were over teams that will get at-large bids (Texas A&M, Notre Dame, South Carolina). If they can get a couple meaningful wins in the SEC tournament, they’ll be an interesting team on Selection Sunday.
Gonzaga (24–7, 15–3 WCC): This one is pretty simple. The WCC is a one-bid conference this year. These teams simply didn’t do enough in the nonconference portion of their schedules to justify any of them getting an at-large bid. Saint Mary’s is in our field as the favorite to win the conference tournament, which pushes the Bulldogs to the NIT.
Next Four Out
Ohio State (19–12, 11–7 Big Ten): The Buckeyes will need to get at least two resume-building wins at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis to remain in the at-large discussion on Selection Sunday. Before they even get that chance, they’ll play Penn State in their opening game. Win that one, and they get a chance to make a statement against Michigan State.
LSU (18–13, 11–7 in SEC): The Tigers are the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament and will likely draw No. 5 Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals, provided the Commodores can handle the winner of Tennessee vs. Auburn. If LSU wins that game and then upsets Texas A&M in the semifinals, it will at least stay on the selection committee’s radar all week long.
Clemson (17–13, 10–8 in ACC): A run to the ACC championship game would mean add wins over Georgia Tech, Virginia and likely Miami to the Tigers’ resume. Given their regular season victories against Duke, Louisville, Miami and Pittsburgh, that could be enough to get them over the hump.
George Washington (22–9, 11–7 in Atlantic 10): The Colonials don’t have the luxury the three other teams here do, because the A-10 conference just isn’t going to give them many opportunities to surge into the field. They’ll need to at least beat Saint Joseph’s in the quarterfinals and maybe top-seeded Dayton in the semifinals plus get some help from the teams in front of them to remain in contention.