Bracket Watch: Key Opportunities Await in Pivotal Stretch

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Four weeks from Friday is the start of the first round of the men's NCAA tournament. That means bubble teams are officially on the clock to start moving the needle. Every update to Sports Illustrated’s Bracket Watch sees a few teams shuffle in and out of the field, a trend that should continue until Selection Sunday. Which teams will find a seat when the music stops and this months-long game of musical chairs ends in March? Here’s our latest projected field.

On the Bubble:

First, we welcome Wichita State to the bubble after a huge victory over No. 6 Houston Thursday night. The Shockers’ résumé had been one with no great wins and no bad losses … until now. They still are currently on the outside looking in, but will get two more opportunities to move the needle next week against fellow bubble team SMU. In terms of action to watch this weekend, UConn could lock itself into the field with a road win at Villanova with James Bouknight back in the fold, while Minnesota could help the committee forget about the Gophers’ road woes if it knocks off Illinois in Minneapolis on Saturday.

Last Four Byes:

Saint Louis

Last Four In:

North Carolina
Ole Miss

First Four Out:

Colorado State
St. Bonaventure
Wichita State

Next Four Out:

St. John's
Utah State

Kansas basketball's Christian Braun

*Indicates the team is projected to win its conference's automatic bid

Gonzaga Region: 

No. 1 Gonzaga* vs. No. 16 Wagner*/NC A&T*
No. 8 Clemson vs. No. 9 Xavier
No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 12 Belmont*
No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 13 UC Santa Barbara*
No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Saint Louis
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Liberty*
No. 7 Loyola Chicago* vs. No. 10 Seton Hall
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Siena*

After manhandling rival Saint Mary’s Thursday night, it seems all but guaranteed that Gonzaga will enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. The Bulldogs have just three games left in the regular season, and they have a 99% or better win probability in each of them, per KenPom. Add in the fact that Gonzaga is exploring opting out of the WCC tournament, and it seems very likely the Zags will be the first team since 2014–15 Kentucky to complete an unblemished regular season.

Meanwhile, Kansas has quietly risen back up the seed list during an easier stretch of schedule, but will get tested Saturday against a very good Texas Tech team. A fifth straight win could vault the Jayhawks back into the conversation for a No. 4 seed—or better. 

Baylor Region:

No. 1 Baylor* vs. No. 16 South Dakota*/Prairie View A&M*
No. 8 Florida vs. No. 9 San Diego State
No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky*
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Winthrop*
No. 6 Missouri vs. No. 11 Maryland
No. 3 Houston* vs. No. 14 UNC Greensboro*
No. 7 Colorado vs. No. 10 VCU*
No. 2 Illinois vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon*

It’s hard to see Houston landing a No. 1 or No. 2 seed after the Cougars lost on the road at Wichita State. The unfortunate reality for them is that they haven’t played a tough enough schedule to be able to cover for having three losses to teams not currently in the projected field. So while the metrics buy into Kelvin Sampson’s team, my guess is that the committee won’t reward them.

Closer to the bubble, one team that has been discussed at length in recent weeks is Maryland. After sweeping back-to-back games against Nebraska, the Terps find themselves in the best position they’ve been in all year to dance. With good metrics, great wins and now a record clearly over .500, Maryland is likely two wins away from punching its ticket. A road win at Rutgers Sunday would allow it to really vault up the seed list.

Michigan Region:

No. 1 Michigan* vs. No. 16 Texas State*
No. 8 BYU vs. No. 9 LSU
No. 5 USC* vs. No. 12 Minnesota/Ole Miss
No. 4 Texas vs. No. 13 Wright State*
No. 6 Rutgers vs. No. 11 UConn
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian*
No. 7 Virginia Tech vs. No. 10 Indiana
No. 2 Villanova* vs. No. 15 James Madison*

Michigan has not missed a beat since returning from its COVID-19 pause, looking dominant once again with a cruise-control 71–64 win over Rutgers that was not as close as the scoreline would indicate. The big test comes Sunday against fellow No. 1 seed Ohio State in Columbus. A win there might vault the Wolverines into the conversation for the No. 2 overall seed, especially if Baylor falters after returning from a lengthy COVID-19 shutdown.

Meanwhile, the coming days will be huge for a USC team that still has a lot to prove. The next week features home games against Arizona and Oregon as well as a road trip to Colorado. Win those three games, and the Trojans have a chance to move up significantly before the calendar flips to March.

Ohio State Region:

No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 16 Eastern Washington*
No. 8 Louisville vs. No. 9 Boise State*
No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 North Carolina/Drake
No. 4 Texas Tech vs. No. 13 Toledo*
No. 6 Purdue vs. No. 11 UCLA
No. 3 Virginia* vs. No. 14 Colgate*
No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 Oregon
No. 2 Alabama* vs. No. 15 Vermont*

Boise State has stayed relatively comfortably above the cut line in recent weeks, but its difficult closing stretch in Mountain West play was always going to dictate whether it would earn an at-large bid. The Broncos opened that stretch with a big home win over Utah State Wednesday, and completing the sweep against the Aggies Friday night would push them a bit closer to lock status. A road win next week at San Diego State also would do the trick.

Meanwhile, North Carolina gets a chance for its first win over an NCAA tournament team all season Saturday when it hosts a Louisville team that could be shorthanded coming off a COVID-19 issue. The good news for the Tar Heels is that their schedule toughens some down the stretch, giving them more opportunities for needle-moving wins and less chances to take a bad loss. 

Sweeney's full March Madness projection, as of Feb. 19:

Bracket Watch update as of Feb. 19