The calendar turns later this week to February, the final full month of the college basketball regular season. It’s the month in which thinking about Selection Sunday—truly anticipating it—no longer feels ridiculous. This weekend shook up our projected field of 68—it won’t be a surprise if that happens for the rest of the season. Most of the movement was at the backend of the field, with a few new teams joining the fray, but there was one team toward the top that reached new heights. We’ll discuss them a little later when we take a look at the Midwest Region.
Last Four In
First Four Out
Next Four Out
The first Bracket Watch we published this season was just three weeks ago, and included West Virginia as a No. 1 seed. The Mountaineers have lost four of six games since then, with their wins both coming at home against Baylor and Texas. As such, they’ve been one of the biggest losers in our Bracket Watch timeframe, falling to a No. 3 seed to start the final week of January. Their typically stifling defense has failed them their last two games, losses to TCU and Kentucky. They surrendered 82 and 83 points in those losses, as well as a shocking 1.26 points per possession to the Wildcats. As good as they can be offensively, especially with Esa Ahmad back in the fold, they need their defense to carry them. They rank 242nd in the country in kenpom.com’s effective field goal percentage, 242nd in three-point percentage and 226th in two-point percentage. They have a good opportunity to get back on track this week with games against Iowa State and Kansas State.
There are a lot of bracket projections out there—you can probably think of at least four or five places off the top of your head where you can find another one. So, first and foremost, thanks for reading ours. The main reason I bring that up, however, is because you’re not likely to find NC State in the field of all, or even a majority, of those brackets. So why do we have NC State in the field (and not by way of Dayton for the First Four)? It’s all about the teams they have defeated. Years ago, I remember Jay Bilas saying something to the effect of: “All bubble teams have flaws. I want to know who you can beat.” That has always stuck with me. The one thing every team on the bubble has proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that they can lose to almost anyone. If the point of this exercise is to find the 36 best at-large teams, then focusing on the teams everyone beat seems more relevant than stewing over their worst losses. NC State took down North Carolina in Chapel Hill over the weekend, adding that to wins over Duke and Clemson (before Donte Grantham’s ACL injury). Those are three impressive trophies on their mantle. Yeah, they have losses to Northern Iowa and UNC Greensboro. So what? They’ve proven that on their best days, they can beat anyone in the country. For my money, that earns them a bid to the dance.
Auburn hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003, when it advanced to the Sweet 16 behind Marquis Daniels. The program has never been to a Final Four and has only once reached the Elite Eight, in 1986. The former streak is guaranteed to end this year and Bruce Pearl’s team has what it takes to carry the program somewhere it has never been before. The Tigers are absolutely a Final Four contender. Sure, no team should get too excited about beating LSU at home, but consider how Auburn did it. They scored 95 points and 1.3 points per possession. They were up by 13 points five minutes into the game, and held a 29-12 lead at the midway point of the first half. Once they took a double-digit lead, they never relinquished it. This came on the heels of a 91-point performance at Missouri, which came days after beating Georgia by 14 at home. Behind what’s essentially a four-guard attack featuring Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Desean Murray and Mustapha Heron, the Tigers are a nightmare matchup for any team because of the mismatches they can create at nearly every spot on the floor. They use that athleticism to get up and down the floor—19th-fastest adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com—they shoot nearly 40% from three and they make their free throws. Auburn has connected on 78.5% of its free throw attempts this year, the ninth-best rate in the country. In what’s shaping up to be the best top-to-bottom season for the SEC in a long time, Auburn just might be its best bet for a Final Four appearance.
It isn’t often in the modern era of college basketball that we see two seniors rise up together at a tournament mainstay in a major conference, seemingly getting better each year along the way to give themselves their best shot at a Final Four appearance in their final season. That’s exactly what Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura are doing at Xavier. The duo is averaging 31.9 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and 2.2 steals per game for the No. 6 team in the country, placing the Musketeers as the only real challenge to Villanova’s primacy in the Big East. To be fair, Bluiett and Macura—along with Edmond Sumner—had Xavier on the doorstep of the Final Four last year, losing to eventual national runner-up Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Still, that was a much different team that needed to make a run in the Big East tournament simply to earn a No. 11-seed in the big dance. Barring disaster, this year’s Xavier squad will be somewhere in the No. 2- to No. 4-seed range. Bluiett and Macura have had great careers at Xavier and they have a real chance to wrap them up with a special season.