- The start of 2019 brings our first NCAA tournament Bracket Watch since the preseason. Which teams made the cut as conference play gets underway?
It’s the first week of a new year, and there are still more than two months until Selection Sunday. Here’s what we know about this season’s college basketball landscape, with certainty.
Duke is dangerous on offense to an almost hilarious degree.
The same is true for Gonzaga.
John Beilein’s Michigan team looks better than the one that went to the national championship last year.
Nevada is as good as advertised.
Virginia is much better than advertised.
There are at least nine teams harboring realistic national title hopes, and another 10 that shouldn’t feel silly dreaming about a Final Four right now.
The bracket that the selection committee puts out in March will look little, and perhaps nothing, like the one in this column.
Sure, we think we have an idea for where the season is headed over the next 10 weeks, but ideas don’t always come to fruition. For a readily accessible example, take yourself all the way back to March 2018. How many people had Loyola as a Final Four contender then, let alone at this time last year? The Ramblers were no more than a blip on the at-large radar last January, and they still could’ve missed the tournament had they not earned the automatic bid from the Missouri Valley Conference. Less than a month later, they were in the Final Four.
In other words, there’s a lot left to figure out over the rest of the college basketball season. With non-conference play out of the way, can Nevada go undefeated? Will Kentucky be a second-semester monster, as it has been so often in previous seasons? Is Duke or Virginia the best team in the ACC, and can they stay out of one another’s way enough for both to get top seeds? Is there a Loyola lurking among the mid-major conferences this season? We may think we know the answers to some or all of these questions, but all sports, and this one in particular, have a way of reminding us that we’re not as prescient as we like to believe. What we do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that bracket season has arrived. Let’s celebrate with the first SI.com Bracket Watch of 2019.
Last Four Byes
Last Four In
First Eight Out
Next Eight Out
Duke did just about everything it could have hoped for in non-conference play, going 11–1 with its only loss coming to Gonzaga on a neutral floor. The Blue Devils knocked off Kentucky, Auburn, Indiana and Texas Tech, all while looking like the most complete team in the country. They’re ranked second in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency, and third on the defensive end of the floor. The last time a team finished in the top three in both was the 2007–08 season, when Kansas was second on offense and first on defense. That team, of course, beat Memphis for the national championship. Duke begins ACC play on Saturday against Clemson at home.
(1) Duke vs. (16) Texas Southern/Wagner
(8) Kansas State vs. (9) LSU
(5) Indiana vs. (12) Wofford
(4) Marquette vs. (13) New Mexico State
(6) Louisville vs. (11) Minnesota
(3) Texas Tech vs. (14) Georgia State
(7) Seton Hall vs. (10) Clemson
(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Vermont
The Jayhawks deserve some understanding for a recent loss at Arizona State, even though the Sun Devils turned right around and lost to Princeton at home in their next game. The Jayhawks did show in that loss, however, what could crush them come tournament time. Kansas ranked fifth, fifth and 10th, respectively, in three-point percentage over the last three years. Devonte’ Graham, Frank Mason and Svi Mykhailiuk, the trio that carried the Jayhawks from behind the arc during that window, are all gone. This year, they rank 103rd in three-point percentage. In the loss to Arizona State, they went 7 for 28 from distance in a game they lost by four points. Lagerald Vick has shot it well, but he’s not getting any help from his teammates. What’s worse, there’s no sign that any help is coming.
(1) Kansas vs. (16) Abilene Christian/Morgan State
(8) Nebraska vs. (9) Villanova
(5) Houston vs. (12) Washington/Ole Miss
(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) Old Dominion
(6) NC State vs. (11) Texas
(3) Kentucky vs. (14) Montana
(7) St. John's vs. (10) Purdue
(2) Nevada vs. (15) Radford
Look, I forgive you if you haven’t been paying much attention to college basketball yet this season. Football, both the NFL and college, dominates the last four months of the year, with college hoops picking up what it can at the margins. If you’re just getting back to the court, one of the first things you need to do is familiarize yourself with how good this Michigan team is. When the Wolverines waved goodbye to Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rakhman and Duncan Robinson after last year’s trip to the national championship game, there was good reason to think they’d slide a bit this season. Instead, they’ve become even better, entering 2019 as one of the four remaining undefeated teams in the country, with wins over North Carolina, Villanova and Purdue. Charles Matthews has turned into a legit two-way star. Jordan Poole, lightly used as a freshman last season, is shooting 50% from behind the arc and averaging 13.5 points per game. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis has been the offensive shot in the arm the team needed, leading the Wolverines at 16.5 points per game in just shy of 30 minutes per game. On top of all that, Michigan ranks fourth in the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 87.5 points per 100 possessions. This team is primed for another Final Four run.
(1) Michigan vs. (16) Holy Cross
(8) Iowa State vs. (9) Florida
(5) Mississippi State vs. (12) Lipscomb
(4) North Carolina vs. (13) South Dakota State
(6) Buffalo vs. (11) UCF/Butler
(3) Florida State vs. (14) Loyola-Chicago
(7) Arizona State vs. (10) Maryland
(2) Gonzaga vs. (15) Northern Kentucky
The Pac-12 is suffering through what could be the conference’s worst ever season, with the distinct possibility that it is a one-bid league. That makes Gonzaga and Nevada the top teams out west, which should have them vying for the No. 1 seed in this region. The Bulldogs, however, lost to North Carolina and Tennessee, while Nevada’s best non-conference win came against Arizona State. In other words, they’re going to have to completely dominate their respective conference if either one is going to end up atop this region. We have Tennessee as the final No. 1 seed to begin the Bracket Watch portion of the season, largely by virtue of their win over Gonzaga. There’s a good argument for Virginia here, as well, but as good as the Cavaliers have been, their only win over a team safely tracking for the Big Dance right now came against Wisconsin at the Battle 4 Atlantis. The SEC isn’t quite as strong in the middle this year as it was last year, and the Volunteers don’t play Kentucky, Auburn or Mississippi State until February. They could bank a lot of wins and goodwill over the next six weeks.
(1) Tennessee vs. (16) Rider
(8) Iowa vs. (9) TCU
(5) Virginia Tech vs. (12) Murray State
(4) Oklahoma vs. (13) Charleston
(6) Auburn vs. (11) VCU
(3) Ohio State vs. (14) UC-Irvine
(7) Cincinnati vs. (10) Creighton
(2) Virginia vs. (15) Yale