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  • There's a clear divide between the top line and the No. 2 seeds with a month left in the regular season. Can anyone close the gap?
By Michael Beller
February 07, 2019

The current incarnation of the SI.com Bracket Watch Committee has been on the job since the 2013–14 season, and it cannot remember a year in which the No. 1 seeds were seemingly so entrenched with just more than five weeks until Selection Sunday. Sure, it’s possible that one or more of Duke, Tennessee, Virginia and Gonzaga will falter over the next month, opening the door for another team to slide up to the top line. It could happen as soon as this weekend, in fact, if Duke secures a season sweep of Virginia with a win in Charlottesville. Still, these four-teams have unimpeachable résumés to date, and recent slipups by Michigan, Michigan State and Kansas have put a bit of distance between the No. 1 seeds and the rest of the field. The Big Ten leaders are still in the mix, as are Kentucky and North Carolina, but it’s going to take something special from any other team to jump to the top of a region.

With that in mind, we thought it appropriate to focus on our four No. 2 seeds in this edition of the Bracket Watch. Where do those four teams stand relative to the teams ahead of them? What would it take for them to unseat Duke, Tennessee, Virginia or Gonzaga and get a coveted No. 1 seed? Consider it our state of the 2-line as we plunge into the heart of February.

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Last Four Byes

Minnesota
Alabama
NC State
TCU

Last Four In

Seton Hall
Temple
Arkansas
UCF

First Eight Out

Florida
Nebraska
Butler
Arizona
Clemson
Creighton
Georgetown
Oregon

Next Eight Out

Utah State
Davidson
UNC-Greensboro
San Francisco
Belmont
Fresno State
St. Mary’s
Oregon State

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East Region

Michigan State has lost three straight games and now finds itself in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Ten with Purdue and Wisconsin, one game behind Michigan. We can forgive the Spartans for losing at Purdue (in fact, we predicted it), and even a home loss to Indiana wasn’t beyond the pale. Their loss at Illinois earlier this week, however, was a shock. The Fighting Illini are finally pulling out of a years-long tailspin and are no longer a pushover, but it was still stunning to see them control the Spartans throughout, leading by as many as 14 in the second half and ending the game on a 16-8 spurt after falling behind by three.

Despite this recent downturn, the Spartans still have plenty of time to get back to the top line. They play at Wisconsin on Tuesday and have two games remaining with Michigan, giving them three significant résumé-building opportunities before the Big Ten tournament. If they’re going to make the most of them, though, they’ll have to figure out what has gone wrong with their offense of late. They’ve scored 1.02 points per possession during their three-game losing streak. And while the absence of Joshua Langford hurts, they won their first seven games without him, including victories over Purdue, Maryland, Iowa and a fully healthy Nebraska.

(1) Duke vs. (16) Robert Morris/Prairie View A&M
(8) Washington vs. (9) Ohio State
(5) LSU vs. (12) VCU
(4) Nevada vs. (13) Murray State
(6) Florida State vs. (11) TCU
(3) Houston vs. (14) UC-Irvine
(7) Buffalo vs. (10) Alabama
(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Loyola-Chicago

Midwest Region

North Carolina has the most direct path to the top line of any No. 2 seed. Why? The Tar Heels have three games remaining with our current No. 1 seeds, the first of which comes Monday when they host Virginia. They play Duke on Feb. 20 and again in their regular-season finale on March 9, and then there’s the entire ACC tournament that could give them another game or two against the conference leaders. There’s also the fact that the Tar Heels’ résumé includes wins over Gonzaga, Virginia Tech and Louisville, a strong foundation from which to climb to the top of a region. If they go 2–1 in those three games with Duke and Virginia and avoid bad losses the rest of the way, they could easily find themselves in front of one of their ACC rivals for a No. 1 seed.

(1) Tennessee vs. (16) Rider/Norfolk State
(8) Cincinnati vs. (9) Arizona State
(5) Virginia Tech vs. (12) UCF/Seton Hall
(4) Iowa State vs. (13) Hofstra
(6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Lipscomb
(3) Purdue vs. (14) Northern Kentucky
(7) Mississippi State vs. (10) Minnesota
(2) North Carolina vs. (15) Montana

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South Region

Kentucky is the No. 2 seed most likely to end up on the top line in the real bracket. The Wildcats have found their stride, winning eight straight games and 11 of their last 12. They ended the non-conference portion of their schedule with wins over North Carolina and Louisville, added a win over Kansas in the Big 12–SEC challenge, and have conference victories over Auburn and Mississippi State. They find themselves in a position similar to North Carolina, in that they’re going to have to go through their conference’s top team to earn a No. 1 seed.

Kentucky and Tennessee have yet to cross paths this season but still have two meetings with one another before the SEC tournament. The first comes on February 16 in Lexington, with the return matchup in Knoxville on March 2. Let’s say both teams hold serve against the rest of the conference, split their regular season meetings and play a rubber match for the SEC title. That game could have a No. 1 seed at stake. It’s also possible both SEC teams could earn a No. 1 seed, though that would take some help in the form of at least one of the ACC powers or Gonzaga stumbling down the stretch.

(1) Virginia vs. (16) Sam Houston State
(8) Ole Miss vs. (9) Indiana
(5) Villanova vs. (12) New Mexico State
(4) Marquette vs. (13) Yale
(6) Kansas State vs. (11) Wofford
(3) Wisconsin vs. (14) Old Dominion
(7) Baylor vs. (10) Syracuse
(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Radford

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West Region

Taken from purely a résumé-building standpoint, Michigan is in a nearly identical spot to its in-state rival. In addition to the two meetings it still has with Michigan State, it plays Wisconsin on Saturday in Ann Arbor. In fact, with two games left against Maryland, too, the Wolverines have more opportunities to impress the committee into granting them a No. 1 seed than the Spartans. They’re also in better form of late, with their only two losses coming on the road to Wisconsin and Iowa, two teams safely headed to the dance. Given what they’ve done already and the opportunities in front of them the rest of the season, the Wolverines could bully their way to the top line even without help from any of the teams currently there. If they go, say, 4–1 in their five games against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland, and then win the Big Ten tournament, it will be awfully hard for the committee to find four teams more worthy of a No. 1 seed.

(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Bucknell
(8) Texas vs. (9) St. John's
(5) Iowa vs. (12) Temple/Arkansas
(4) Louisville vs. (13) Vermont
(6) Maryland vs. (11) NC State
(3) Kansas vs. (14) South Dakota State
(7) Auburn vs. (10) Oklahoma
(2) Michigan vs. (15) Texas State

Full SI.com NCAA Tournament Bracket Watch (as of Feb. 7)

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