The “it’s early” qualifier with respect to the NCAA tournament starts to get a little tiring at this point of the season. You know it’s early. I know it’s early. You know I know it’s early; I know you know it’s early; and so on. With seven weeks left before Selection Sunday, it feels necessary to couch any bracket talk in a-lot-could-change disclaimers, even though it mostly goes without saying.
Yes, it is still early in the bracketing process. Still, some of the picture is starting to harden. We likely already know the identity of at least 25 teams that will be in the tournament. In this week’s Bracket Watch, the first 28 teams—from No. 1 overall Villanova all the way through the entire No. 7 line—were relatively easy to pick and seed. It started getting interesting with the No. 8 seeds, and no team with an at-large berth seeded 10th or worse would feel good if Selection Sunday were this week.
The bracketing process will pick up steam over the next few weeks, with more and more teams turning into solid bets for a spot in the field. It might still be early, but that won’t be the case much longer.
Last Four In
First Four Out
Next Four Out
Remember in 2015 when Kentucky and Wisconsin were clearly the two of the best teams in the country, but there was a concern that the Selection Committee would slot them into the same region? We could be headed for a similar situation this season with Villanova and North Carolina. Now, to be clear, North Carolina has not proved itself one of the top six or seven teams in the country yet—let alone one of the two best. The Tar Heels, however, certainly have that ceiling, and the right proving ground in the ACC. They’ve already banked a win over Florida State, and have six remaining games with Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame and Duke. If the Heels do indeed earn a top-two seed, the committee could easily send them to New York on the geographic-preference argument, which would land them at the bottom of Villanova’s region. Of course, the Heels have a long way to go, and a brutal road to navigate, to secure a spot that high in the field.
There were no significant changes to any team in this region from last week. Keep an eye on Creighton, however, which lost senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the season to a torn ACL. The Bluejays lost their first game without Watson, falling at home to Marquette. This remains a seriously talented team, but they’re going to have to find a way to steady themselves after losing their leader. They have a good chance to get right against Georgetown and DePaul this week.
One team in this region should stand out clearly. The UCLA Bruins had been on the top line for every iteration of the Bracket Watch this season. With one loss, they dropped to a No. 3, and in Kansas’s region no less. We’ll get to that decision when we turn to the West Region.
As for the Midwest, the addition of UCLA didn’t change much beyond the Bruins physical presence. Arizona was already ticketed for the slot before their win in Los Angeles, so a Pac-12 member was going to be here, regardless of that outcome. Florida State held onto their No. 2 seed with an impressive week, knocking off Notre Dame and Louisville at home. If any team can sweep the ACC regular season and tournament titles, it will likely force its way to the top line. The Seminoles are as dangerous as any team in the conference.
Marquette deserves special mention here for jumping into the field of 68, and avoiding the First Four, with a win at Creighton on Saturday. Steve Wojciechowski’s team, like any on the bubble, has its flaws, but a true road victory against a team the caliber of Creighton, even without Watson, is a distinguisher. It helps, too, that all six of the Golden Eagles losses are to top-65 teams, all of which will either be safely in the Dance or in the bubble discussion. Five, in fact, are in our field of 68 this week.
Baylor is showing why you should not submit your seeding process to the ebb-and-flow nature of the college basketball season. An understandable loss to West Virginia two weeks ago—the Bears were 5.5-point underdogs in Morgantown—brought into question Baylor’s status as a No. 1 seed. Since then, the Bears have reeled off three relatively comfortable wins over Kansas State, Texas and TCU, two of which came on the road. The Bears were then, and are now, deserving of the top line. Kentucky, however, continues to nip at their heels.
The Wildcats enjoyed another week of SEC dominance, capped off with an 85–69 win over South Carolina at home. The Gamecocks previously took down Florida, getting their best win of the season. It was nearly poetic to see to see the Wildcats immediately strike down a potential threat to their primacy in the conference. The Big 12-SEC Challenge is this weekend, and the marquee game will be in Lexington, with Kansas paying a visit. That matchup will serve as a marker the rest of the way.
O.K., let’s get to the top of this region. Gonzaga clearly deserves the top seed, thanks to the result at Pauley Pavilion this weekend. The Bulldogs are undefeated with a win over one of their fellow western elite, Arizona, not to mention victories against Florida, Iowa State and Saint Mary’s. They were already worthy of a top seed, and UCLA’s loss opened the door in San Jose. The real battle here is between the two Pac-12 teams for the No. 2 seed in the region.
Arizona and UCLA have strong, similar résumés as we head into the final week of January. Arizona picked up a standout win on Saturday, while UCLA already had one against Kentucky. They both have just two losses, with Arizona falling to Gonzaga and Butler, and UCLA tripping up against Oregon before falling to the Wildcats over the weekend. Arizona is 11th on kenpom.com and eighth in the RPI rankings. UCLA is 15th and 23rd. Arizona is 4–2 against the top-50, while UCLA is 2–2. Isn’t it safe to say that, at this moment, Arizona has the better résumé? And by virtue of the Wildcats win at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, as well as the return of guard Allonzo Trier, they have to be considered the favorite to win the Pac-12. That earns them the No. 2 seed out West.
As for UCLA, the Bruins may be one of the top-eight teams in the country, and they certainly have the résumé to back up such a seeding. The reasoning for such a dramatic fall, then? With Gonzaga and Arizona earning the top two seeds out west, UCLA no longer has that geographic protection. Not only are North Carolina, Florida State and Kentucky every bit as deserving of a top-eight seed as UCLA, they also have geography on their side, with the three remaining regions hosted in New York, Kansas City and Memphis. UCLA, as it happens, is out of luck. The Bruins are not, however, out of time. With a return game against the Wildcats in Tucson at the end of the year and the Pac-12 conference tournament, the Bruins can still get back atop the Pac-12, and into the upper part of the West Region.