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Bracket Watch: UNC Drops Out of Field Amid Early Bubble Intrigue

Plus, what should you make of the difference between résumé and predictive metrics for teams like Wisconsin and Texas?

Our second projected men’s NCAA tournament bracket of the season is here! We have a big week ahead of us, with multiple top-20 matchups heading into Saturday’s always-entertaining Big 12/SEC Challenge, headlined by Kansas hosting Kentucky. How does the field look as we wrap up the month of January? 

On the Bubble

Last Four Byes:

San Francisco
West Virginia
Miami
Oregon

Last Four In:

Oklahoma
Florida
Wyoming
Arkansas

First Four Out:

Creighton
North Carolina
Mississippi State
Michigan

Next Four Out:

Cincinnati
Texas A&M
VCU
Belmont

As expected, we did have some movement on the bubble this week. The most notable move? North Carolina has fallen out of the field after a pair of blowout losses last week to Miami and Wake Forest. The Tar Heels are currently without a Quadrant I victory and sit at No. 46 in the NET. They don’t have a single win against our projected field of 68. UNC has plenty of time to fix its résumé and go dancing, but right now things aren’t pretty in Chapel Hill.

UNC's Caleb Love

Tar Heels sophomore Caleb Love

The rubber is about to meet the road for Wyoming, which is probably the most surprising team based on preseason projections to be in the at-large mix. The Cowboys are at No. 31 in the NET and have a winning record in Quad 1 + Quad 2 games, which is enough for me to have them in the field as of today. A grueling upcoming stretch of five games could decide their fate, starting Tuesday at Boise State. They’ll also host Colorado State, Utah State and the Broncos in their next five. Come away with a winning record in those games, and the Cowboys could be cruising into March. 

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

West Region

No. 1 Gonzaga* vs. No. 16 New Orleans*/UNC-Wilmington*
No. 8 Loyola Chicago* vs. No. 9 Davidson*
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Iona*
No. 4 Providence* vs. No. 13 Toledo*
No. 6 Illinois vs. No. 11 Boise State*
No. 3 Villanova vs. No. 14 Arkansas State*
No. 7. Texas vs. No. 10 Miami
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 15 Cleveland State*

There’s a 15-spot difference in the NET and a 19-spot difference in KenPom between Villanova and Wisconsin. So why are the Badgers on the No. 2 line while Villanova falls to the No. 3? Wisconsin’s 5–2 record against Q1 (including two road/neutral wins over top-10 NET teams) means I’m keeping the Badgers on the No. 2 line despite their mediocre metrics. The bottom line is this: If these predictive metrics are right, Wisconsin will lose more games down the stretch and fall down the seed list once it does. If they’re wrong and Wisconsin keeps winning, the Badgers will climb in the predictive metrics. For now, I’ll rely heavily on the résumé.

Another team in a peculiar spot in terms of résumé vs. metrics is Texas, who is No. 17 in both the NET and KenPom but a No. 7 seed in our bracket. Texas is just 5–5 in games against Q1 and Q2 and have just one Q1 win. The Longhorns get opportunities to bolster that record every night in Big 12 play, so don’t be surprised if things get turned around. But for now, it’s very hard to give the Longhorns anything better than a No. 7.

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South Region

No. 1 Auburn* vs. No. 16 Southern*/Colgate*
No. 8 Colorado State vs. No. 9 Wake Forest
No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 12 UAB*
No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 13 Chattanooga*
No. 6 UConn vs. No. 11 Oklahoma/Florida
No. 3 Duke vs. No. 14 Wagner*
No. 7 USC vs. No. 10 San Francisco
No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 15 Weber State*

Auburn’s win over Kentucky didn’t move the Tigers over Gonzaga on the seed list, but the win helps solidify the Tigers’ hold on No. 2 overall ahead of Baylor. However, it is worth noting that Auburn has just two games left on its regular-season slate against top-30 KenPom teams. Baylor has six. That could go one of two ways: Auburn could stack wins and distance itself from Baylor while the Bears experience the grind of Big 12 play, or Baylor could get hot and catch up to Auburn even if the Tigers keep a clean résumé. Remember, whichever of the two comes out ahead on the seed list gets to play its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in San Antonio, rather than Chicago or Philadelphia.

UCLA has just two Q1 wins, and the weakness of the Pac-12 (just five top-75 teams in the NET) will give the Bruins fewer opportunities to build up that number than their counterparts from other conferences. That raises the stakes even more for UCLA’s Tuesday night showdown with Arizona, which sits at No. 1 in the NET. In the next 10 days, the Bruins play the Wildcats twice. If UCLA wants a protected (i.e., top-four) seed come March, it needs a split.

Midwest Region

No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Norfolk State*
No. 8 Indiana vs. No. 9 Saint Mary's
No. 5 Xavier vs. No. 12 Wyoming/Arkansas
No. 4 Texas Tech vs. No. 13 South Dakota State*
No. 6 Marquette vs. No. 11 Murray State*
No. 3 LSU vs. No. 14 Princeton*
No. 7 BYU vs. No. 10 West Virginia
No. 2 Houston* vs. No. 15 Cal State Fullerton*

Indiana had a chaotic week, beating Purdue for the first time since 2016 and giving Mike Woodson an early signature win before getting blown out at home by Michigan. As a result, the Hoosiers don’t move from the No. 8 line where they were in last week’s predictions. The lack of a meaningful win in the nonconference won’t help IU, but if it finishes with a winning record in the Big Ten it should wind up a couple of seed lines higher than it currently is.

In the “fun hypothetical matchups” department, this 6 vs. 11 game between Marquette and Murray State—in what would be a rematch of when Ja Morant led the Racers to a 12-over-5 upset win in 2019—is right up there. Marquette has played great basketball under Shaka Smart and the Golden Eagles’ 5–4 record against Q1 gives them a chance to rise even higher on the seed list as we inch towards February, while Murray State has a real at-large chance if it can keep racking up wins in the OVC.

East Region

No. 1 Arizona* vs. No. 16 Longwood*
No. 8 Iowa vs. No. 9 TCU
No. 5 Iowa State vs. No. 12 Florida State*
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Vermont*
No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Oregon
No. 3 Michigan State* vs. No. 14 Liberty*
No. 7 Seton Hall vs. No. 10 San Diego State
No. 2 Kansas* vs. No. 15 Seattle*

Arizona stays as our fourth No. 1 seed despite rising to the top spot in the NET since our last projection. One notable stat: In six Pac-12 games leading into Tuesday’s matchup with UCLA, the Wildcats haven’t played a single top-75 team. It’s hard to build a résumé in league play when half of your conference won’t play in the postseason.

One of our bracketology’s biggest risers in the last week was TCU, as the Horned Frogs rose from out of the field to a No. 9 seed. Winning by 15 at Iowa State completely changed the complexion of TCU’s résumé. If Jamie Dixon’s team can get to 8–10 in league play, I’d guess it will find itself in the field. 

Full bracket projection (as of Jan. 25)

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