While Villanova, Virginia and Purdue remained on the top line, Xavier grabbed the No. 1 seed from Duke, and Gonzaga and Nevada moved up, in our latest NCAA tournament projection.
Now that the Super Bowl is behind us and the football season is fully in the rear-view mirror, the attention of the sports world shifts to college basketball. We here at SI.com, of course, have focused on the sport since before Thanksgiving, so if you’re just joining us, we can give you the lay of the land. Dan Greene has a full guide and breakdown to get you up to speed on the top teams, players and storylines so far in the season, and here you can get a better understanding of our projected field of 68 for this year’s NCAA Tournament. How does that projection look at the start of the first full week of February? We’re glad you asked. Find out below in the SI.com Bracket Watch, and come back on Thursday for an updated look at the field of 68.
Last Four In
First Four Out
Next Four Out
How high can Gonzaga climb? Or perhaps a better way to get at the issue is to ask: does Gonzaga have a seed ceiling? If they win out and sweep the WCC regular season and tournament championships, can they get any higher than a No. 5 seed? The unsatisfying answer is that with five weeks left until Selection Sunday, it’s too close to call. Gonzaga did do some good work in the non-conference portion of its schedule, beating Ohio State and Texas on neutral floors, and Creighton at home. The Bulldogs have lost just four games, and three of those were to teams either certain or likely to make the tournament—Villanova, Saint Mary’s and Florida. They also have a bad loss at San Diego State on the resumé. The problem, as it has always been for Gonzaga, is that there’s so little margin for error in the WCC. Any loss to any team that isn’t Saint Mary’s or BYU is an ugly one. Wins over those teams, even though their two regular season games remaining with them are on the road, won’t be a huge boost to the Bulldogs’ seeding. So long as they avoid disaster, they should be no worse than a No. 6 seed, but it’s hard to see them getting anything better than a No. 4.
Butler is about to kick off its biggest week of the season. The Bulldogs have quietly made themselves one of the most efficient teams on both sides of the floor, ranking 28th in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency, and 33rd on the defense end. They’re one of 12 teams in the country ranked in the top 35 in both metrics, a list that includes the likes of Virginia, Purdue and Kansas, but not Villanova, Duke or Arizona. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a step in their first year under LaVall Jordan, and this was after losing three key players from last season’s Sweet 16 team. The pessimist, however, could point out that while Butler has won five of its last six games, those five wins were against Marquette (twice), DePaul (twice) and St. John’s. The optimist could counter that simultaneous offensive and defensive efficiency doesn’t just happen, no matter the opponent, and that Butler is the one team to knock off Villanova this season. So why is this Butler’s biggest week of the season? Well, the Wildcats will get their shot at revenge on Saturday in Philadelphia. Before that, though, the Bulldogs host Xavier, which just became the No. 1 seed in the West Region in the SI.com Bracket Watch. If the Bulldogs can engineer a split, they’d have to consider that a positive week.
Arizona State’s slide gives us an opportunity to discuss a key tournament principle. The committee does not care when teams won and lost certain games. They’ll consider a team’s play without a star player due to injury, but, assuming full health, it doesn’t matter if a team won or lost a specific game in November or February. All that matters is that it’s on the resumé. That’s why we’re still holding the Sun Devils as a No. 7 seed. Yes, their 5-6 record in the Pac-12, which includes losses to Colorado, Oregon and Stanford, is unsightly. The recency of some of those games might make it hard to square their status as a No. 7 seed with, say, Creighton and Texas both sitting on the No. 8 line. Turn the calendar back a couple of months, however, and you’ll find an Arizona State win over Xavier on a neutral floor. You’ll remember that the Sun Devils went into Lawrence and knocked off Kansas. Those are, without exaggeration, two of the best wins of the season. Pretend those wins happened over the last three weeks, and the losses to Oregon and Stanford were way back in 2017. Being a No. 7 seed doesn’t seem so odd now, does it? The Sun Devils are certainly in jeopardy of falling down the bracket should they play as poorly in the second half of the Pac-12 season as they did in the first. For now, though, they’ve done enough to land on the No. 7 line, and they’ve done so while reminding us of a valuable lesson: In the world of NCAA tournament bracketing, there’s no difference between November and February.
There hadn’t been any change at the very top of the bracket for weeks, with Villanova, Virginia, Purdue and Duke all taking care of their business. That changed over the weekend, when Duke shockingly lost at St. John’s. That was the Blue Devils third loss to teams outside the top 50 both on kenpom.com and in the RPI, the other two coming to Boston College and North Carolina State. All three of those games were on the road, but No. 1 seeds simply do not lose three games of that caliber. Wins over Michigan State, Texas and Florida State simply aren’t enough to offset those losses, as far as being on the top line is concerned. The easy move, for a brief time on Saturday, looked to be bumping Kansas to a No. 1 seed. Later that same day, though, the Jayhawks went out and dropped a home game to Oklahoma State. They’ve now lost three games at home and another in Kansas City, which was effectively a home game, as well. That left Xavier as the last No. 1 seed candidate standing, and bumped the Musketeers up to the top line for the first time this season. The Musketeers have risen all season, with their only losses coming to Arizona State on a neutral floor, at Providence and at Villanova. They beat Cincinnati at home, and been a worthy 1a to Villanova’s No. 1 in the Big East, knocking off Butler, Seton Hall and Creighton. Behind seniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura, they’re scoring 120 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-best offensive efficiency in the country. The Musketeers spend this entire week on the road, visiting Butler and Creighton, so this could be a short-lived stint on the top. But if they extend their current six-game winning streak to eight games this week, there will be no doubting their status as one of the very best teams in the country.