- Tennessee is still a No. 1 seed in our NCAA tournament picture for now, but Kentucky and even LSU could be ready to pounce.
Selection Sunday is now less than one month away, and every bracket you see between now and then should at least resemble the finished product. Teams already locked into the field will move up and down, while some at the opposite end of the picture will see their bubbles burst, but chances are good that we already know nearly 60 teams that will be dancing in March, including the presumed winners of one-bid leagues. In this edition of the Bracket Watch, we’ll put a special focus on the SEC, where there’s still plenty of time for the top three teams to jockey for position. Meanwhile, one of the preseason favorites in the conference is shaping up to provide the Selection Committee with one of its most challenging seeding decisions.
Last Four Byes
Last Four In
First Eight Out
Next Eight Out
LSU has been one of the brightest surprises of the season, a fact we’ve known for at least a month. The Tigers didn’t put themselves into the running for the SEC regular season title, though, until beating Kentucky last week in Lexington. Thanks to Kentucky’s win over Tennessee on Saturday, the Tigers now have a clear path to the conference’s regular season championship. If they win out, which would include a win over Tennessee at home on Saturday, they’d be SEC regular season champs. The rest of their schedule includes what should be layups against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt at home, a road trip to Alabama and two games with Florida, the first of which is Wednesday in Baton Rouge.
Should that scenario come to fruition, how high could the Tigers climb in the field of 68? It would certainly matter what they do in the SEC tournament, but they’d likely have to win that, too, to be a No. 1 seed. We have to assume that Duke and Gonzaga are locked into the top line at this point. If LSU doesn’t win the conference tournament, it’s likely that Tennessee or Kentucky will, and a wash of conference championships would almost certainly have the Tigers behind at least one of their SEC rivals on the seed list. There’s also, of course, teams like Virginia, Michigan, Michigan State and North Carolina to consider. Should the Tigers not claim both SEC titles, it’s a guarantee that at least one, and possibly all, of those teams would rank ahead of them. Still, no matter where they’re seeded, the Tigers have made it clear that they are a legitimate Final Four contender.
(1) Duke vs. (16) St. Francis (PA)/Prairie View A&M
(8) Washington vs. (9) Baylor
(5) Kansas State vs. (12) Lipscomb
(4) Marquette vs. (13) Murray State
(6) Virginia Tech vs. (11) Minnesota
(3) LSU vs. (14) Texas State
(7) Cincinnati vs. (10) Seton Hall
(2) Michigan vs. (15) Montana
Kentucky had quite the week, playing both of the teams with which it shares the top tier in the SEC. It started the week with a heartbreaking two-point loss to LSU after a missed basket interference call that would’ve forced overtime, but bounced back to thrash Tennessee, handing the Volunteers their first conference loss. Had Kentucky defeated LSU, it would be on top of the South Region, with Tennessee moved down to the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. We kept Tennessee as a No. 1, for reasons that will be explained when we get to the South Region. Kentucky, however, is clearly on the rise, and could easily end up as a top seed when the actual bracket is revealed less than four weeks from now. If the Wildcats win out in the regular season, they’d go into the conference tournament with two wins against Tennessee. That, combined with what they did in the non-conference, would likely have them ahead of the Volunteers on the seed list, even if the latter went on to win the SEC tournament. In that case, Kentucky would likely be the top SEC team in the eyes of the committee, unless LSU won both the regular season and tournament championships, and even that might not be enough for the Tigers, depending on what Kentucky does in the SEC tournament and how the computer rankings shake out. Barring some sort of disaster, Kentucky will be, at worst, a No. 2 seed.
(1) Virginia vs. (16) Sam Houston State
(8) Ole Miss vs. (9) Oklahoma
(5) Iowa State vs. (12) Clemson/UCF
(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) Yale
(6) Villanova vs. (11) VCU
(3) Houston vs. (14) Old Dominion
(7) Buffalo vs. (10) Ohio State
(2) Kentucky vs. (15) UC-Irvine
We’re keeping Tennessee on top of this region for the time being, though we did drop them a spot in the seed list, making them the third overall seed behind Duke and Virginia. The Volunteers were underdogs in Lexington over the weekend despite being the top-ranked team in the country, and have built up enough capital to absorb that sort of loss and not lose their standing as a No. 1 seed. The margin for error, however, is gone. The Volunteers are sitting on four Quadrant 1 wins, the same as Gonzaga and Houston, teams that are hamstrung by the competition in their conferences. By comparison, Duke and Virginia have seven Q1 wins, Kentucky has eight, and Michigan State has 10. Tennessee’s remaining schedule includes trips to LSU, Mississippi and Auburn, a home game with Mississippi State, and the rematch with Kentucky in Knoxville. The Volunteers have spent the entire season as a No. 1 seed in Bracket Watch, but there’s still plenty of opportunity for them to fall a line, or even two.
(1) Tennessee vs. (16) Quinnipiac/Norfolk State
(8) Texas vs. (9) NC State
(5) Maryland vs. (12) New Mexico State
(4) Nevada vs. (13) Hofstra
(6) Florida State vs. (11) Alabama
(3) Purdue vs. (14) Northern Kentucky
(7) St. John's vs. (10) TCU
(2) North Carolina vs. (15) Loyola-Chicago
Last week in this space, we discussed Virginia Tech, a team that passes the eye test as a legitimate second-weekend contender and is beloved by the computers, but doesn’t have the wins to match. The same goes for Auburn, which is 21st in NET, 16th on KenPom and Sagarin, and 17th in T-Rank. Take a look at Auburn’s game-by-game results, though, and you won’t find one win that jumps out. In terms of kenpom ranking, their best wins of the season have come against Florida, Washington and Murray State, all at home. There’s a realistic scenario where none of those three teams is in the tournament, though Washington is a good bet to get in, and Murray State is co-favorites with Belmont to get the automatic bid from the Ohio Valley Conference. As such, we have Auburn as a No. 9 seed, no matter what the computers say. The Tigers are unlikely to be in any real jeopardy on Selection Sunday, but they’ll need to win a few meaningful games before they make a significant move up the seed list. They do get both Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday and wrap up the regular season by hosting Tennessee, so they will have their opportunities.
(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Bucknell
(8) Wofford vs. (9) Auburn
(5) Louisville vs. (12) Temple/Utah State
(4) Texas Tech vs. (13) Vermont
(6) Iowa vs. (11) Florida
(3) Kansas vs. (14) South Dakota State
(7) Mississippi State vs. (10) Syracuse
(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Radford