Less than one week from now, the first bids to the 2018 NCAA tournament will be officially locked up. The Big Ten, Missouri Valley, Big South and Atlantic Sun all play their conference tournaments this week, with championship games on Sunday. That means when we reconvene for the Bracket Watch in the first full week of March, the net cutting will have already begun. The madness is just about here.
One housekeeping note before we get started on this edition of the Bracket Watch. It will be business as usual in these parts this week, with an update to the Bracket Watch on Thursday. Beginning next Monday, March 5, we will update the Bracket Watch every day leading up to Selection Sunday. The composition of the field of 68 changes quickly during Championship Week, and those changes will be reflected in our bracket every day, giving you the most up-to-date picture no matter when you check in with us.
With that, let’s get to the first Bracket Watch of the final week of the regular season.
Last Four In
First Four Out
Next Four Out
Virginia and West Virginia are on a collision course in the Sweet 16 in this edition of the Bracket Watch. The two played each other in early December, with the Mountaineers handing the Cavaliers one of their only two losses this season. It might seem odd to have a non-conference rematch in the Sweet 16, but there is no bracketing principle that proscribes such a meeting. The committee is supposed to do what it can to avoid non-conference rematches in the First Four and first round, but after that it is no longer a consideration. Given that the ACC and Big 12 will both place at least three teams into the top-four seed lines in the field, this rematch is well within the realistic range of outcomes. It’s unlikely that Virginia and Kansas would end up in the same region, with both almost certain to get preferential geographic treatment. Texas Tech could end up with the Cavaliers, or there could be no Big 12 team on one of the other top-four lines in their region. It would be awfully interesting for the likely No. 1 overall seed to have to deal with a Sweet 16 opponent it has already lost to in the regular season.
UCLA is the last team in our field of 68, narrowly edging out USC. Why did the Bruins win the battle of Los Angeles? It’s a fair question, considering that most of the metrics point in the opposite direction. The Trojans have a better RPI (27 against 54), a better strength of schedule (46 against 69), more Quadrant 1 wins (four against three) and fewer sub-100 losses (one against two). So why the Bruins? Selection Committee chairman and Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen said in a recent interview that, while Q1 wins matter, they aren’t all created equally. The committee, according to Rasmussen, will consider not only the volume of Q1 and Q2 wins, but the identity of the teams beaten, as well. That’s where UCLA jumps ahead of USC. The Bruins’ Q1 wins came against Kentucky, Arizona and USC. The Trojans got theirs against Middle Tennessee State, New Mexico State, Utah and Oregon. In other words, UCLA has done a better job proving it can beat at-large quality competition than has USC. That’s enough to get them over the hump.
The major conferences are heading into their final week of the regular season, except for the Big Ten, which kicks off its tournament at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. There is still plenty of time for multiple teams to upset the current No. 1-seed order, but the team most likely to do so is Michigan State. For all the doom saying surrounding the Spartans this season, they ended the year 28-3 overall and 16-2 in the Big Ten. They beat North Carolina, Purdue and Notre Dame before Bonzie Colson’s injury. Their only losses of the season, meanwhile, came to Duke, Ohio State and Michigan. The Spartans are 10th in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency and seventh on the defensive end, making them the only team in the country in the top 10 in both metrics. Their ceiling is the best in the country, which is typically the case for any team that has two players about three months away from becoming lottery picks in the NBA Draft. The one issue that could hold them back is turnover differential. The Spartans rank 250th in the country in offensive turnover rate and 343rd in defensive turnover rate. Put another way, they turn it over far too often while generating a statistically insignificant number of turnovers on defense. That hasn’t hurt them in a down Big Ten this year, but it could when they try to run though, say, Auburn, Xavier, Villanova and Virginia on their way to a national championship. If they can solve that problem, or at least mitigate its effects, they may be the most dangerous team in the country.
It’s not often that North Carolina goes on a quiet six-game winning streak, but that is part and parcel of this uniquely unpredictable college basketball season. The Tar Heels were a wobbly contender just one month ago, having lost three straight games to fall to 5-5 in the ACC. They haven’t lost since, picking up wins over Duke, NC State, Syracuse and Louisville in that stretch. They’ve found another gear offensively and are now scoring 122.4 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth in the country behind only Villanova, Duke, Purdue and TCU. Like the Spartans, the Tar Heels loom as a possible No. 1 seed, depending on what they do the next two weeks. They wrap up the regular season by hosting Miami on Tuesday and visiting Duke on Saturday. There are multiple realistic paths for them to get to the top line. They could beat Duke on Saturday and do some damage in the ACC tournament to climb up a seed line. They could lose to Duke but go on to win the ACC tournament, and that could be enough to do the trick. No matter if their seed, though, they’ve proved in February that they are a legitimate national championship contender.