Four months of rivalry renewals, conference races and home court pageantry all pave the way to March, when college basketball takes over the sports world for one magical month. But who will be in pole position when the road to the Final Four begins? Sports Illustrated’s college basketball preview is built upon our preseason projections, an in-depth historical modeling system designed to calculate the strength of all 351 teams in Division I. From that data, we have constructed a preseason forecast of the 2018 NCAA tournament’s field of 68. The bracket below is derived from SI's 1–351 team rankings by projected scoring margin. From there, we assigned seeds to the 68 qualified teams to build out each region—in essence, this is what the NCAA tournament field would look like if our team projections came true.
Our projections give the top overall seed to Arizona, placing the West Region in the top left quadrant. At this point of Sean Miller’s career, he knows better than anyone that making the Final Four for the first time isn’t easy, so it would only be fitting for him to have to get through Kentucky to claim Wildcat bragging rights, as well as a trip to San Antonio. This region would also feature three programs breaking NCAA tournament droughts: UCF hasn’t been in the dance since 2005, Auburn’s last trip was in 2003 and Loyola-Chicago, which won the 1963 national championship, has been on the outside looking in every season since 1985.
Miles Bridges stunned everyone when he announced he would return to East Lansing for his sophomore year. Now, everyone would be stunned only if the Spartans aren’t on the top line. East Lansing is equidistant from Boston, the host of the East Region, and Omaha, where the Midwest Region semifinals and finals will be played. Given Wichita State’s proximity to Omaha, the committee would likely send Michigan State to Boston in this scenario. This would be a fun region, with a reloaded Villanova, led by holdover Jalen Brunson, and veteran-laden teams West Virginia and Notre Dame all being real threats to knock off the Spartans. This region would also feature the return of late-90s tournament mainstay College of Charleston, which hasn’t been in the tourney since 1999.
What do you know, Duke is at the top of the South Region. That seems to be a familiar picture. Atlanta would be filled with talent in late March should this bracket come to fruition. The chalk would have Cincinnati, Florida and one of Saint Mary’s or Baylor joining the Blue Devils in the regional semifinals, and that would make for one exciting trio of games. The Gaels are poised to knock Gonzaga from its perch in the West Coast Conference for just the third time in the Mark Few era, and they also have designs on the program’s first Sweet 16 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Still, even with all that talent, Duke would be heavy favorites to emerge from this region.
Wichita State parlayed its run of dominance in the Missouri Valley Conference into an invite to the American Athletic Conference, and that will help it avoid the strength of schedule arguments that have dogged the program in recent years. The Wichita State-Kansas history is well known. The teams met in the tournament on this same court in Omaha two years ago for the first time since 1993, with the 10th-seeded Shockers upsetting the second-seeded Jayhawks. If they meet again this year, it will be as equals. That would, unquestionably, be the highlight of this region. Louisville will be happy to put an offseason filled with talk of agents and shoe deals behind it, especially when it shows what it can do on the court, and would be a serious threat to break up the all-Kansas Elite Eight matchup.