Bracket Watch: Time Running Out Heading Into Regular Season's Final Weekend

Where does the field of 68 stand before the first automatic bids of 2021 are handed out?
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It’s time to officially punch some tickets to March Madness! Automatic bids begin getting awarded Saturday with the men's OVC championship, and several more will be officially booked by Monday night. With autobids come bid-stealers, a critical story line to watch for bubble teams. Could someone swoop in and steal a bid in the Missouri Valley, potentially making it a three-bid league? If you’re a fan of a bubble team, you certainly hope not. How does the field look heading into this critical weekend? 

On the Bubble

The bubble continues to not do itself any favors. Xavier could have essentially clinched its spot in the NCAA tournament if it had just won at Georgetown, but that was apparently too tough a task for the Musketeers. Meanwhile, Seton Hall stares down a near must-win game Saturday at St. John’s after losing Wednesday to UConn. A loss there would drop the Pirates to 13–12 and likely out of the field entering the Big East tournament. One more team still on the right side of things is Boise State, but the Broncos are now in full-sweat mode entering the Mountain West tournament after a terrible home loss to Fresno State.

It feels like I’m running out of teams with a real shot of cracking the field who aren’t in yet. Wichita State has quietly crept up by keeping its résumé clean in recent days, and it’s possible the Shockers could sneak in even if they fall in the AAC tournament. I’d advise Saint Louis and Utah State to take things out of the committee’s hands and win their conference tournaments.

Last Four Byes:

Georgia Tech
VCU
Colorado State
Xavier

Last Four In:

Seton Hall
Michigan State
Boise State
Drake

First Four Out:

Duke
Wichita State
Saint Louis
Utah State

Next Four Out:

Syracuse
Indiana
SMU
Memphis

UNC's Armando Bacot dribbles vs. Syracuse

*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 Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Rutgers
No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 Michigan State/Drake
No. 4 Texas vs. No. 13 Winthrop*
No. 6 Missouri vs. No. 11 St. Bonaventure*
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 James Madison*
No. 7 San Diego State* vs. No. 10 Louisville
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Southern Utah*

Figuring out exactly what to do with the middle of the Big 12 remains a major challenge with less than 10 days until Selection Sunday. Take No. 4 seed Texas: The Longhorns have no bad losses and multiple high-level wins. But their NET/KenPom rankings aren’t great, and they have a relatively high number of total losses from playing in a tough conference. A No. 4 seems right for now, partially because others around them have bad losses. But the range is wide—I could see them anywhere from the back end of the No. 3 line to the top end of the No. 6.

One autobid to watch this weekend is 22–1 Winthrop, which will play for a Big South championship on Sunday against Campbell. I’m still skeptical that the committee would put in the Eagles if they don’t win the conference tournament, but they’d likely be in the Next Four Out if nothing else. With only two losses, I wouldn’t completely close the door on a surprise from the committee. 

Baylor Region

No. 1 Baylor* vs. No. 16 Texas State*
No. 8 Maryland vs. No. 9 Florida
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara*
No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 Belmont*
No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 11 VCU
No. 3 Villanova* vs. No. 14 UNC Greensboro*
No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 UCLA
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon*

One question I’ve seen floating around is what happens to a team’s seeding when it loses a key player for the remainder of the season, like how Villanova just lost star point guard Collin Gillespie. Personally, I’d be surprised if Villanova moves down at all because of it. Now, if the Wildcats finish the season with a loss to Providence and an early Big East tournament exit, they could fall to a No. 4 seed by Selection Sunday. But regardless, it’s likely Villanova will be over-seeded relative to how good it actually is by tournament time given how much different a team it is without Gillespie.

One team in its conference tournament this weekend that’s worth tracking in the at-large hunt is VCU, which sits among the “Last Four Byes” as of now. A deep run in the A-10 tournament would likely lock in the Rams, while a quarterfinal loss to Dayton could seriously jeopardize their at-large hopes.

Michigan Region

No. 1 Michigan* vs. No. 16 Cleveland State*
No. 8 Loyola Chicago* vs. No. 9 LSU
No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky*
No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 13 Colgate*
No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Colorado State
No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian*
No. 7 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 North Carolina
No. 2 Houston* vs. No. 15 UMBC*

Michigan’s run as the No. 2 overall seed was very short-lived, as that blowout home loss to Illinois knocked the Wolverines back down to No. 3. No matter how ugly that loss was, Michigan is in no serious risk of dropping off the No. 1 line and is likely a lock. Closer to the bubble, North Carolina could remove all doubt if it knocks off Duke at home on Saturday in a rivalry showdown. A loss would be far from catastrophic, and it’s likely UNC would find its way in regardless, but a win would end any sweating for the Tar Heels.

Illinois Region

No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 16 South Dakota State*/Prairie View A&M*
No. 8 Oregon vs. No. 9 UConn
No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Seton Hall/Boise State
No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 13 Toledo*
No. 6 Texas Tech vs. No. 11 Xavier
No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 14 Liberty*
No. 7 BYU vs. No. 10 Georgia Tech
No. 2 Alabama* vs. No. 15 Siena*

Illinois is now a heavy favorite to hold the last No. 1 seed after its win at Michigan, but the debate will really be decided Saturday when the Illini travel to Ohio State. The Buckeyes already have one head-to-head victory against Illinois, and sweeping that season series would make the race for the final No. 1 seed a lot more interesting. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech can punch its ticket to Indianapolis with a win Friday night against Wake Forest. A loss, however, would be catastrophic.

Sweeney's full March Madness projection, as of March 5: