Bracket Watch: Kentucky Moves to the Top Line as Multiple Challengers Loom

All four top lines in our bracket projection saw a change after the week's action, including Tennessee losing its longtime No. 1 seed to an SEC foe.
Publish date:

Think You Can Make an Unbustable Bracket? Sign Up for SI's Realtime Bracket Challenge

Selection Sunday is now less than three weeks away, which means we have officially reached crunch time in both the at-large and seeding process. Not including automatic bids from single-bid leagues, more than half, and possibly upwards of 80% or 90%, of the field is locked in at this point. Given the state of the bubble, which we will discuss in depth in this week’s Bubble Watch (quick preview: it isn’t softer than usual, there are simply fewer teams than usual in the mix), the most interesting bracket developments will be over seeding. There’s proof of that at the top of the field in this edition of Bracket Watch, where we have changes on the top three lines.

For the first time all season, Tennessee is not a No. 1 seed. After losing to LSU this weekend, the Volunteers dropped to a No. 2, replaced on the top line by SEC foe Kentucky. Michigan also slipped a spot, falling to a No. 3 seed after losing at home to a Michigan State team playing without Joshua Langford (who has been out since December and will miss the rest of the season) and Nick Ward. Replacing the Wolverines on the two-line is Houston, which is 26–1 overall and ranked fourth in the NET, behind Gonzaga, Virginia and Duke. Those three are getting awfully close to securing their spots atop the field, but the fourth No. 1 seed remains up for grabs, and there’s still time for Gonzaga, Virginia or Duke to slip up and drop down a seed line.

In this edition of the Bracket Watch, we’ll take another look at the state of the two-line, considering where our four No. 2 seeds stand with three weeks to go before the bracket is finalized.

Last Four Byes

Arizona State

Last Four In

Seton Hall
Utah State

First Eight Out

Saint Mary's

Next Eight Out

South Carolina

East Region

In an earlier Bracket Watch this season, we considered Houston’s chances of going undefeated. The Cougars lost to Temple in their very next game after that Watch was published, and that still stands as their only loss of the season. So if the Cougars somehow lose to East Carolina on Wednesday, we guess you know who to blame. Anyway, should the Cougars win out, including the AAC tournament, could they get to the top line? Absolutely, but they’d need a little bit of help. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume here that Duke, Virginia and Gonzaga all end up as No. 1 seeds. Houston would likely need split championships in the SEC and Big Ten. If Kentucky wins out, as well, it’s hard to envision the committee ranking the Cougars ahead of the Wildcats. The same fate would likely befall the Cougars should Michigan State, Purdue or Michigan go on a run in the Big Ten and win out. Those teams would simply have too many Q1 wins, with almost as strong a rating as Houston in the NET, to ignore. It’s a tough needle to thread, but Houston could still move up to a top seed. Even if that doesn’t happen, its path to a No. 2 seed is clear.

(1) Duke vs. (16) St. Francis (PA)/Prairie View A&M
(8) Washington vs. (9) St. John's
(5) Kansas State vs. (12) Lipscomb
(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) New Mexico State
(6) Virginia Tech vs. (11) Minnesota
(3) LSU vs. (14) Texas State
(7) Villanova vs. (10) VCU
(2) Houston vs. (15) Montana

Midwest Region

The one knock on Tennessee for most of the season has been its schedule, particularly in conference. There’s an obvious top tier in the SEC that includes Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU. Until two weekends ago, the Volunteers hadn’t played either team in their tier. Now they’ve played both, and are 0–2 in those games. Yes, they remain one of two teams to beat Gonzaga, but their doubters now have a leg to stand on after the losses to Kentucky and LSU. So, how do the Volunteers get back to a No. 1 seed? Well, it’s actually quite simple. They need to either beat Kentucky in Lexington this weekend and have a strong showing in the SEC tournament, or win the tournament on a run that includes victories over Kentucky and LSU. Anything short of that will likely keep the Volunteers off the top line.

(1) Virginia vs. (16) Rider/Norfolk State
(8) Auburn vs. (9) Oklahoma
(5) Nevada vs. (12) Murray State
(4) Kansas vs. (13) Yale
(6) Louisville vs. (11) Arizona State
(3) Michigan vs. (14) Old Dominion
(7) Buffalo vs. (10) Texas
(2) Tennessee vs. (15) Wright State

West Region

When Nick Ward suffered a hairline fracture of his shooting hand in Michigan State’s win over Ohio State two Sundays ago, it seemed appropriate to recalibrate the team’s ceiling. Ward is out indefinitely and could miss the rest of the season, which would put the Spartans down two starters with Joshua Langford already on the shelf. They quieted any talk of diminished expectations over the weekend, however, going into Ann Arbor and coming out with a 77–70 victory. At 14–3 in the Big Ten, the Spartans now sit atop one of the deepest conferences in the country. They’re a half-game ahead of Purdue, one game in front of Michigan and two games clear of Maryland. They wrap up the regular season by visiting Indiana and hosting Nebraska and Michigan, and will go into the conference tournament likely as a top-two seed, at worst. If the chalk holds and the Spartans win out, including the Big Ten tournament, they’d go into the tournament with 14 Q1 wins and likely a top-five rating in the NET. That should be enough to get them to a No. 1 seed, no matter what Kentucky does the rest of the season.

(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Bucknell
(8) Ole Miss vs. (9) NC State
(5) Mississippi State vs. (12) UCF/Utah State
(4) Texas Tech vs. (13) South Dakota State
(6) Iowa vs. (11) TCU
(3) Marquette vs. (14) Hofstra
(7) Cincinnati vs. (10) Florida
(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Radford

South Region

Finally, we have North Carolina, which is coming off its best week of the season with wins over Duke and Florida State. Sure, there was a Zion Williamson-sized hole in Duke’s lineup in the Tar Heels’ win, but it counts nearly the same as it would with the Blue Devils at full strength, especially considering the margin of victory and the fact that it was in Durham. The Heels will certainly be favored in their next three games (vs. Syracuse, at Clemson, at Boston College) and could be in the regular season finale against Duke, even if Williamson plays. Like Michigan State, North Carolina would be sitting pretty, in terms of earning a No. 1 seed, if it wins out. Not only would it add the second victory over Duke, but it would likely need to go through at least two, and possibly three, of Duke, Virginia, Louisville, Florida State and Virginia Tech to win the ACC tournament. If the Heels, Wildcats and Spartans all win out, UNC may not leapfrog both of those teams, but it could knock one of its ACC brethren from the top line. And if Kentucky or Michigan State were to falter while North Carolina wins the rest of its games, the Heels could slide in front of one, or both, of those teams.

(1) Kentucky vs. (16) Sam Houston State
(8) Baylor vs. (9) Syracuse
(5) Florida State vs. (12) Alabama/Seton Hall
(4) Maryland vs. (13) Vermont
(6) Iowa State vs. (11) Temple
(3) Purdue vs. (14) UC-Irvine
(7) Wofford vs. (10) Ohio State
(2) North Carolina vs. (15) Loyola-Chicago

Full NCAA Tournament Bracket Watch (as of Feb. 25)