Welcome to the first edition of Bracket Watch for 2018. It’s the third week of January and there are still two months of the regular season remaining before Selection Sunday. Here’s what we know, with certainty:
Villanova is very good.
So are Virginia, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Purdue and Duke.
Trae Young is one of the most fun college basketball players in recent memory.
The real bracket the selection committee puts together won’t look much like the one in this column.
That’s truly about it. We have an idea of how the rest of the season will unfold, but what makes sports so great is that they don’t care about our theories. That’s true of every sport during every year, and it seems particularly true about college basketball in the 2017-18 season. It’s a season that has already been defined by the question, “Wait, are we sure XYZ Team is actually good?” Consider the following.
Arizona entered the season as the No. 1 team in SI.com’s rankings. The Wildcats lost three straight games in November, dropped a game to a mediocre Colorado team and is now ranked 23rd on kenpom.com.
Arizona State was the last remaining unbeaten in the country. The Sun Devils have started Pac-12 play 2-3, including losses to Colorado and Oregon. In their most recent game, they escaped with a two-point win at home over Oregon State, a team that is 10-7 overall this year with losses to Wyoming and Kent State.
Michigan State recently climbed to the top of the polls. Since then, the Spartans lost to Ohio State by 16, Michigan (at home) by 10, and needed overtime to escape an upset bid by Rutgers. Their stay atop the polls was brief.
Kentucky is justifiably outside the top 20 in the polls for the first time in nearly two years.
All that being said: this season has taken a leap from the typical baseline of unpredictability. We’ve got two more months of twists and turns to enjoy and we’ll be tracking it all—and what it means for the postseason—right here on SI.com with the Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch each and every Monday from here on out.
Last Four In
First Four Out
Middle Tennessee State
Next Four Out
San Diego State
How good is Villanova? Well, the Wildcats have lost just once, falling at Butler in a game where the Bulldogs connected on 15 of 22 three-point attempts. They’re scoring 126.4 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the country. They own wins over Gonzaga, Tennessee and Xavier, the first two of which came on neutral floors. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges rank fifth and seventh, respectively, in kenpom.com’s Player of the Year standings. So, how good is Villanova? At this point of the season, it’s hard to say the Wildcats are anything short of the best team in the country.
Take a few leaps of faith with us for this section. Should West Virginia and Virginia remain in the mix for No. 1 seeds—say, they both win their conferences—then a game played between the two on Dec. 5 could factor significantly in the bracketing process. West Virginia won that game in Morgantown, 68-61. It stands as Virginia’s only loss of the season to date, but it could come back to bite them. Atlanta is the host of the South Region this season, while the Midwest Region will stage its semifinals and finals in Omaha. Both Morgantown and Charlottesville are significantly closer to Atlanta than Omaha, meaning the Mountaineers and Cavaliers could be battling for the right to be the No. 1 seed a couple hundred miles closer to home. For now, we give the edge to the Mountaineers thanks, at least in part, to their win over the Cavaliers in early December.
Despite the above paragraph, no one should be sleeping on Tony Bennett’s team. This is another classic Virginia squad, ranking 351st—also known as dead last—in the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo, as well as average possession length. They’re first in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 85.7 points per 100 possessions, and they haven’t reached that point by fattening up on weak opponents. The Cavaliers held Rhode Island to 55 points, West Virginia to 68 points and North Carolina to 49 points. With three players—Kyle Guy, Devon Hall and Ty Jerome—all shooting at least 43.1% from behind the arc on at least 61 attempts, this Virginia team packs nearly as much scoring punch as the group from a few seasons ago, highlighted by Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes. This is a national title contender.
There’s not much more we can say about Trae Young that hasn’t already been said. He’s appointment television every time he takes the floor, and he has turned the Sooners—projected to finish sixth in the Big 12 at the start of the season—into one of the best teams in the country. So let’s turn our attention to the bottom of this region where we find the Purdue Boilermakers, another surprise national championship contender. Purdue is one of the most experienced teams in the country, starting four seniors and one sophomore. The Boilermakers are one of the most dangerous shooting teams in the country, ranking seventh in three-point percentage. They seemingly have on the floor, at all times, four guys who can stroke it from behind the arc and a 7-footer, whether it’s Isaac Haas or Matt Haarms. Dakota Mathias, Vince Edwards and P.J. Thompson, all seniors, are all shooting at least 44.1% from three on at least 68 attempts. They rank seventh in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, and fifth in adjusted defense, making them the only team in the top 10 in both. Michigan State was supposed to run away and hide in the Big Ten, but it’s Purdue that looks like not only the class of the conference, but the league’s best chance to break its national championship drought, which stretches back to 2000.