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Bracket Watch: Who Opens the Season in SI's Men's NCAA Tournament Field?

College basketball season is here, and there’s no better way to get excited about what’s to come than looking ahead to March Madness. Of course, the NCAA tournament is a party that teams get invited based on their résumés, résumés that haven’t begun to be formed yet. So in this preseason edition of Bracket Watch, we’ll use Sports Illustrated's 1–358 rankings to build a seed list and then place the teams according to bracketing principles.

With that methodology comes a few caveats. The aim of the 1–358 rankings was to predict who would qualitatively be the best teams in the sport. Therefore, obviously it’s likely that teams that qualitatively deserve tournament selection don’t get in because they don’t have quality wins. That’s why a team like Michigan State, which was No. 57 in KenPom entering the 2021 tournament, went dancing while Duke (KenPom No. 36 pre-tournament) did not. 

The other caveat is that two teams that would qualify for the preseason field based on their rankings are not included: Oklahoma State, which was recently ruled ineligible for postseason play in 2022, and James Madison, which will not be allowed by the CAA to compete for its autobid because JMU is leaving the league after this year for the Sun Belt.

With that said, here’s what our preseason field looks like.

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme

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

West Region (San Francisco)

No. 1 Gonzaga* vs. No. 16 Bryant*/Norfolk State*
No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech
No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Buffalo*
No. 4 Illinois vs. No. 13 Iona*
No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 11 St. John's
No. 3 Kentucky* vs. No. 14 Chattanooga*
No. 7. Seton Hall vs. No. 10 Colorado State
No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 15 Southern Utah*

Just as it did last year, Gonzaga enters this season as the No. 1 overall seed in the field. And with nonconference tests against Texas, UCLA, Duke, Alabama and Texas Tech on the docket, the Zags will have plenty of opportunities to solidify their standing as No. 1 overall again. A potential Elite Eight matchup against Baylor in a rematch of the 2021 national championship game would be plenty of fun,

We should also highlight two bubble teams from a season ago that find themselves on the right side entering this season: St. John’s and Colorado State. The Red Storm bring back two stars in Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander, plus add several new pieces to round out the rotation, while the Rams run it back after falling likely one conference tournament win shy of sneaking in last year.

PREVIEWS: American | ACC | Big 12 | Big East

South Region (San Antonio)

No. 1 Texas* vs. No. 16 Prairie View A&M*/Nicholls State*
No. 8 Loyola Chicago* vs. No. 9 BYU
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Belmont*
No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 13 New Mexico State*
No. 6 St. Bonaventure* vs. No. 11 LSU
No. 3 Villanova* vs. No. 14 South Dakota State*
No. 7 Texas Tech vs. No. 10 Florida
No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 15 Stony Brook*

Loyola Chicago as a No. 8 seed potentially facing a team with orange as a primary color in the second round? I think I have seen this movie before.

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In all seriousness, Loyola is a good example of preseason seeding not necessarily aligning with what’s realistic. The Ramblers will get some chances at big wins at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but if last year’s top-10 KenPom finish didn’t sway the committee into something better than a No. 8 seed, that may be the ceiling for a Missouri Valley team moving forward.

From a matchups standpoint, a rematch of last year's first-round meeting of St. Bonaventure and LSU (only this time in the 6/11 game) would certainly be entertaining. Meanwhile, No. 5 Ohio State would draw another upset waiting to happen in extremely dangerous No. 12 Belmont.

PREVIEWS: Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | Best of Rest

Midwest Region (Chicago) 

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Hofstra*
No. 8 Virginia vs. No. 9 USC
No. 5 Indiana vs. No. 12 Oklahoma/Mississippi State
No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Wright State*
No. 6 UConn vs. No. 11 Richmond/Louisville
No. 3 Duke* vs. No. 14 Liberty*
No. 7 Arizona vs. No. 10 Rutgers
No. 2 Memphis* vs. No. 15 UC Irvine*

The thing that stands out in this region, is without a doubt, the brands. Kansas, Memphis, Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, UConn, Arizona and Virginia as the top eight seeds in a region would be a television dream come true, arguably featuring eight of the top 20 programs in the country. Of course, this is March, so the dream UConn/Duke or UNC/Indiana second-round matchups would inevitably turn into Duke/Richmond and Indiana/Wright State … which are just as fun in my book!

From a bracketing standpoint, I avoided all season rematches in the first and second rounds when feasible, but the uncertainty of in-season tournament schedules could have a further impact. For instance, it’s quite possible that Richmond and Louisville will meet in the Bahamas Championship, in which case that First Four matchup would no longer work.

East Region (Philadelphia)

No. 1 UCLA* vs. No. 16 Winthrop*
No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 9 San Diego State*
No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 UAB*
No. 4 Houston vs. No. 13 Louisiana*
No. 6 Florida State vs. No. 11 Wichita State
No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 14 Colgate*
No. 7 Auburn vs. No. 10 West Virginia
No. 2 Michigan* vs. No. 15 Yale*

By virtue of being the fourth No. 1 seed, UCLA gets stuck in the East Region, which would mean a cross-country flight for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. That may seem like something relatively minor in the grand scheme, but with the tournament back to a traveling schedule, it’s worth noting. A potential Elite Eight rematch with Michigan would be pretty fun.

If you’re looking for one mid-major that would be worth picking to nab a first-round upset, No. 13 Louisiana might be one to track throughout the year. Why? Size. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ frontcourt duo of Theo Akwuba and Jordan Brown won’t be overwhelmed by any high-major team.

SI's full preseason bracket:

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