Preseason Projection of the 2016 NCAA Tournament Bracket
North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland and Kansas open the 2015-16 men's college basketball season as our favorites to earn a No. 1 seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Preseason bracket projections are mostly garbage. We hear you loud and clear. It's plenty hard enough to project the field on the morning of Selection Sunday with several thousand games' worth of RPI and eye-test data, let alone in early November without having seen a single regular-season game.
So, don't view this as some misguided attempt to perfectly project what the field will look like. Rather, consider it a status check on where teams stand compared to one another and compared to where they would ultimately like to be.
Just like a regular-season projection, we'll take a look at the last five teams to make the field, the first five out and a few on the horizon.
After that, we'll present each seeded region, including the subregional locations in which each pod would be played, and some commentary on each region. Then we'll defend the rankings of the No. 1 seeds, followed by a summary of the entire field broken up by conference.
Last 5 In
Last Team In: UNLV Rebels
It's hard to believe the Rebels could lose four of the five leading scorers from an 18-15 team and still open the season anywhere near the tournament bubble, but they are loaded with key incoming players.
From the transfer market, they added Ike Nwamu, Jerome Seagears, Chris Obekpa and Ben Carter. They also have a pair of outstanding incoming freshmen in Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr. With Dwayne Morgan, Patrick McCaw, Goodluck Okonoboh and Jordan Cornish all looking to build on what was a pretty respectable freshman season, UNLV has a surprisingly deep and talented roster. And with nonconference games against UCLA, Oregon, Wichita State and Arizona on the docket, the Rebels should have strong computer numbers.
Second-to-Last: Pittsburgh Panthers
Criminally underrated after a rare, disappointing 2014-15 season, the Panthers add four key players (Damon Wilson, Sterling Smith, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Rafael Maia) to a roster that really only lost Cameron Wright. Finishing top six in the ACC will be extremely difficult this season, but Pittsburgh certainly has a shot.
Third-to-Last: Evansville Purple Aces
Others like Illinois State as the second team out of the Missouri Valley, but keep me marked down as an early member of the Evansville bandwagon. The Purple Aces are overrun with juniors and seniors, including their dual leaders: D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius. By the end of November, they will have faced Belmont and three teams in the Wooden Legacy to give us a better idea of where they stand.
Fourth-to-Last: Iowa Hawkeyes
Replacing Aaron White won't be easy, but Iowa somehow always finds a way. Led by seniors Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury and Anthony Clemmons, the Hawkeyes have more than enough experience to make some noise.
Fifth-to-Last: Boise State Broncos
Boise State lost last year's star (Derrick Marks), but the Broncos get back the man who led the team in scoring in 2013-14. Anthony Drmic was arguably the best player on the Broncos before suffering a season-ending injury in early December. Fortunately, it was early enough in the year for him to redshirt and maintain one year of eligibility.
If James Webb III remains as insanely efficient as he was last season while Chandler Hutchison has a breakout sophomore year, Boise State could be a top-25 type of team.
First 5 Out
First Team Out: Tulsa Golden Hurricane
It's tough to leave out a team with such an absurd amount of senior leadership, but the Golden Hurricane blew chance after chance last season, ultimately posting an 0-6 record against teams that made the tournament—and only one of those losses was decided by less than a nine-point margin. Until they prove capable of beating top teams, we have to keep them out.
Second Team Out: Oregon State Beavers
If you liked SMU making the tournament for the first time since 1993, you're going to love Oregon State's quest for dancing shoes for the first time since 1990. Led by potential Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton II, the Beavers play fierce defense. They should be much improved this season if any of their new guards can actually shoot the ball.
Third Team Out: Providence Friars
Kris Dunn is amazing. The rest of the roster is not. Ben Bentil and Jalen Lindsey are both breakout candidates, but desperately needing production out of a guy who missed each of the past two seasons (Rodney Bullock) is not a great place to be.
Fourth Team Out: Ohio State Buckeyes
The roster is extremely inexperienced, but the coach certainly has a history of success. Thad Matta has won at least 20 games in each of his 15 career seasons and has at least 24 wins in 13 of those years. Look for Jae'Sean Tate to have a big-time breakout year, but it might not quite be enough.
Fifth Team Out: Syracuse Orange
If DaJuan Coleman plays effectively and stays healthy, there's a chance here. With a solid freshman class and veterans such as Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, Syracuse has most of the pieces to contend. Anything less than a good year from Coleman, though, and the Orange have neither the strength nor depth in the frontcourt to survive in the ACC.
13 Others Worth Mentioning
Fresno State Bulldogs and Utah State Aggies
The Mountain West Conference has sent at least three teams to the NCAA tournament in five of the past six seasons. Fresno State and Utah State aren't the typical contenders in the MWC, but they both won at least 10 conference games last season, and both return all five of their leading scorers. They might not make it, but they'll be better than we're used to seeing.
Old Dominion Monarchs and Kent State Golden Flashes
Neither Conference USA nor the MAC is renowned for its ability to send multiple teams to the tournament. Of the conferences that don't often earn more than one bid, though, they have the best shot at doing so this year. UAB vs. Old Dominion and Central Michigan vs. Kent State should be the two-horse races in the respective conferences. Perhaps one will be enough of a photo finish to sneak in a second team.
Like Fresno State and Utah State, Pepperdine brings back pretty much everyone from a team that won 10 conference games last season. Usually, Saint Mary's is the third-best team in the WCC, but look for the Waves to crash the bubble discussion this year.
In the process of losing Treveon Graham, Briante Weber, Terry Larrier, Shaka Smart and several recruits, VCU has dropped off everyone's radar. But there's still a pretty good core here.
Or should I say "Kore"? With the addition of Oral Roberts transfer guard Korey Billbury, the Rams now have a pair of go-to senior guards—the other being Melvin Johnson. If JUCO big man Ahmed Hamdy Mohamed can give new head coach Will Wade quality minutes in the paint, VCU could still win this conference.
George Washington Colonials
GW has won 46 games over the past two seasons. Do you really think this team is going to disappear because Kethan Savage—a shooting guard who shot 40.1 percent from the field last season—transferred to Butler? The Colonials could be a top-four team in the A-10.
We'll mention Dayton out of respect for what Archie Miller has accomplished over the past few seasons, but this team might be a disaster without Jordan Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre or any player taller than 6'6" with collegiate experience. Unless Xeyrius Williams becomes a frontcourt god as a freshman, the Flyers have considerably more questions than answers.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Quite the opposite of Dayton, Marquette should have one of the most dominant starting frontcourts in the country in Henry Ellenson and Luke Fischer. The backcourt leaves a bit to be desired, but Steve Wojciechowski could work some magic with Duane Wilson, Jajuan Johnson, Haanif Cheatham and Sandy Cohen III.
South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks were one of the better defensive teams in the country last season, and they're replacing one of their woefully inefficient scorers (Tyrone Johnson shot 36.2 percent from the field last year) with one of the best freshman scoring guards available this year (Perry Dozier).
This could be the fifth- or sixth-best team in the SEC. If the Gamecocks manage to go dancing, it will be fun to hear tournament announcers completely butcher the names of Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas.
Georgia's entire season is likely riding on the shoulders of sophomore forward Yante Maten. Among Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and J.J. Frazier, the Bulldogs have plenty of veteran experience in the backcourt. However, after losing Marcus Thornton, Nemanja Djurisic and Cameron Forte this summer, Maten is the only player taller than 6'5" with any sort of legitimate experience or potential.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Gone are the days of Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash, but the Cowboys do still have one more year of Phil Forte to go along with a bunch of incoming players such as Jawun Evans, Chris Olivier and Igor Ibaka who could make an immediate impact. Most would agree OK State is the seventh-best team in the Big 12 this year, on an island between six likely tournament teams and three teams with virtually no hope of dancing. It could go either way.
Illinois Fighting Illini
This might be the most snake-bitten college basketball team ever. The Illini lost Tracy Abrams to a second consecutive season-ending injury, dismissed Darius Paul from the program for a second time and will likely open the season without projected starters Kendrick Nunn (thumb surgery) and Leron Black (knee surgery) as well as key freshman reserve Jalen Coleman-Lands (stress fracture).
However, those three players could be back by the end of November, which would mean a six-man rotation of Jaylon Tate, Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Black, Mike Thorne and Coleman-Lands for crucial nonconference games against Iowa State and Notre Dame. If the Illini are fully healthy for conference play, this is a team that could do some damage in the middle tier of the Big Ten.
East Region (Philadelphia)
Brooklyn, New York
No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 16 High Point
No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 9 Florida
Providence, Rhode Island
No. 4 Connecticut vs. No. 13 Belmont
No. 5 Utah vs. No. 12 Valparaiso
No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 14 South Dakota State
No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 11 Iowa/Evansville
Raleigh, North Carolina
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 North Florida
No. 7 Georgetown vs. No. 10 BYU
Stock Up: BYU Cougars (New to the Field)
BYU barely missed the cut in July's projection, and with Dayton losing Dyshawn Pierre and SMU being ruled ineligible for postseason play, we had little choice but to give the Cougars another look.
We liked what we saw.
In addition to a solid stable of returning players such as Kyle Collinsworth, Chase Fischer and Corbin Kaufusi, BYU adds a crucial frontcourt transfer in Kyle Davis and long-awaited, back-from-his-LDS-mission freshman Nick Emery.
In his offseason look at the West Coast Conference, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports wrote, "Emery has deep range and the type of quick trigger that could remind folks in Provo of Jimmer Fredette—seriously." If February rolls around and we're still hearing "Emery" and "Jimmer" in the same sentence, you're going to want to watch every BYU game that you possibly can.
Stock Down: Iowa State Cyclones (Down One Line)
To be a projected No. 1 or No. 2 seed, you're not allowed to have giant question marks.
Abdel Nader is a giant question mark.
Iowa State has some outstanding individual pieces. Georges Niang will be a preseason Wooden Award candidate, and Monte Morris certainly deserves to be one. Jameel McKay is an excellent shot-blocker who can also score pretty well in the post. And there's no shortage of perimeter options among Naz Long, Matt Thomas, Oregon State transfer Hallice Cooke and Marquette transfer Deonte Burton.
But Niang and McKay are the only players on the roster who have proved an ability to play in the post, and Niang's rebounding and defensive numbers are quite pedestrian for a man of his size (6'8", 230 lbs). One way or the other, Nader is going to play a pretty significant number of minutes at forward, and he'll need to be much more efficient than he has shown thus far in his career if the Cyclones are really going to vie for first or second place in the Big 12.
Stock Holding Steady: Xavier Musketeers (No Change)
Everyone fell in love with Matt Stainbrook during the 2015 NCAA tournament, but Xavier is still going to be pretty darn good without him. Look for Trevon Bluiett and Jalen Reynolds to be the stars with redshirt freshmen Edmond Sumner and Makinde London immediately playing a significant role. The Musketeers probably won't win the Big East, but they could come close.
Midwest Region (Chicago)
St. Louis, Missouri
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 16 Montana
No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Notre Dame
No. 4 California vs. No. 13 Iona
No. 5 Purdue vs. No. 12 UNLV/Pittsburgh
Des Moines, Iowa
No. 3 Indiana vs. No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette
No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 11 Louisville
St. Louis, Missouri
No. 2 Virginia vs. No. 15 Wofford
No. 7 West Virginia vs. No. 10 UCLA
Stock Up: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Up Two Lines)
On the one hand, there's still no telling what type of media firestorm will rain down upon Notre Dame amid the recently revealed sex scandal. If you've been too busy soaking up details of the mess at Louisville, you may want to read up on the academic coach who was fired from Notre Dame shortly after being accused of all but forcing football and basketball players to have sex with her own daughter.
To say the least, it has been a pretty messed up couple of months for college hoops.
On the other hand, we significantly underrated the Fighting Irish early on in the offseason. Demetrius Jackson is a stone-cold stud, and both Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem should have strong seasons in their substantially increased roles. Were it not for that ongoing off-the-court distraction, Notre Dame probably would be at least two seed lines higher.
Stock Down: Louisville Cardinals (Down Three Lines)
It's a coincidence that these two schools ended up in the same region, but Louisville had to be dropped a few lines because of its own scandal.
No one knows what to expect in terms of an eventual penalty from this whole thing, but if trying to change a player's grade in a class is grounds for a postseason ban, I don't foresee the NCAA turning a blind eye to rampant prostitution if the allegations are proven true. Even if the Cardinals were to survive the season with postseason eligibility intact, there's no possible way this saga ends up having a positive effect on the team, right?
Stock Holding Steady: Wisconsin Badgers (No Change)
No scandals here, but I do still view Wisconsin as a middling seed, despite its status as the No. 17 team in the preseason AP Top 25.
There's no doubt the Badgers will have a phenomenal computer resume. They play two games each against Maryland, Indiana and Michigan State, play road nonconference games against Oklahoma and Syracuse, and have neutral-court games against Georgetown and either Duke or VCU in the 2K Classic. Whether Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig will be enough to avoid losing 10 games is the big question.
South Region (Louisville)
Raleigh, North Carolina
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 16 UMKC/Texas Southern
No. 8 LSU vs. No. 9 Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 13 Columbia
No. 5 Butler vs. No. 12 UAB
Des Moines, Iowa
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Hofstra
No. 6 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Davidson
Brooklyn, New York
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Stony Brook
No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 10 North Carolina State
Stock Up: Oregon Ducks (Up Four Lines)
Less than a month after the mid-offseason projected bracket, I took a deep dive into the Pac-12 to project that conference's standings for the 2015-16 season. It quickly became apparent that Oregon was severely underseeded as a No. 11.
The Ducks legitimately could win the Pac-12, depending on how well and how quickly their new backcourt jells. With five frontcourt weapons such as Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, Dwayne Benjamin and Chris Boucher, solid guard play from Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis could translate into the best Ducks team we have seen since they went 29-8 en route to the 2007 Elite Eight.
Stock Down: Rhode Island Rams (Down Two Lines)
Not only did Dayton drop out of the projected field without Dyshawn Pierre for (at least) the first semester, but the perceived strength of the A-10 as a whole takes a pretty big hit with a weaker Flyers team.
As a result, through no fault of its own, Rhode Island slipped from No. 26 overall to No. 34 overall on the seed list. The Rams are still the favorite to win the conference thanks in part to the additions of Kuran Iverson and Four McGlynn, but winning a conference with a top tier made entirely of bubble teams isn't worth all that much.
Stock Holding Steady: LSU Tigers (No Change)
As was the case with Wisconsin, I'm still stubborn on LSU as a middling seed, despite its appearance in the AP Top 25. Those voters have the Tigers at No. 21, but I'm keeping them at No. 32 until we see how they deal with the lack of talented true big men. Ben Simmons is incredible, but if the point forward is their only viable frontcourt option, it could spell trouble.
Also, LSU has an incredibly weak nonconference schedule, aside from the Jan. 30 showdown with Oklahoma. The Tigers may well open the season 12-0, but with nothing tougher than neutral-court games against Marquette and probably NC State in the Legends Classic, their computer resume won't much benefit from the hot start.
West Region (Anaheim)
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Hampton/Mount St. Mary's
No. 8 San Diego State vs. No. 9 Michigan
No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 13 Central Michigan
No. 5 Vanderbilt vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
No. 3 Gonzaga vs. No. 14 UC Irvine
No. 6 Miami vs. No. 11 Boise State
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
No. 2 Wichita State vs. No. 15 Lehigh
No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 Texas
Stock Up: San Diego State Aztecs (Up Two Lines)
As noted in our "Others Worth Mentioning" section, the Mountain West Conference should be markedly better than last season, and San Diego State should be the king of that conference.
Efficient scoring has eluded the Aztecs for many moons, but this could be the most complete team Steve Fisher has had in a little while. With significant contributions from freshmen Jeremy Hemsley and Zylan Cheatham, and a substantially increased role for Malik Pope, they could be frighteningly good by the time they play the Dec. 22 home game against Kansas.
Stock Down: Michigan Wolverines (Down Two Lines)
Zak Irvin scored 187 more points than any other Wolverine last season, so it was a pretty big deal when he underwent back surgery in early September. Though the report from early October was that he is expected back for the start of the season, our rule of thumb is to proceed with caution with back injuries (See: McGary, Mitch; Embiid, Joel.)
And let's just say health was not Michigan's forte last season. Irvin and Kameron Chatman were the only players to appear in all 32 games in 2014-15, as Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. were done for the year before the end of January.
Stock Holding Steady: Arizona Wildcats (Down Two Overall Spots)
Arizona was dealt a pretty big blow in late October when excellent freshman Ray Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury. There was a better than reasonable chance that he would have been the opening-day starter at small forward.
For at least 95 percent of teams, losing a starter at this stage in the game could be catastrophic. For Arizona, it probably just means more minutes for guys such as Kadeem Allen, Elliott Pitts and Mark Tollefsen—which is hardly a bad thing. Though they lost four starters from last year's team, the Wildcats began the preseason with an absurd amount of depth. Even without Smith, they'll still be able to run nine deep without much of a drop in talent.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks (Previous Rank: 4)
At this point, we're left to assume that Cheick Diallo will not be eligible at the beginning of the season, and we have no idea if or when he'll be cleared.
Kansas is still the best team in the Big 12 and one of our preseason favorites for a No. 1 seed.
Diallo is like that one feature in a brand-new car that you really want. Maybe it's passenger climate control, heated seats or a state-of-the-art navigation system—whichever one you like the most and makes the analogy work. You absolutely love the car with that feature, but it would still be a pretty darn good car without it.
Such is life for Kansas, which still has some great frontcourt features such as Perry Ellis, Carlton Bragg, Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas. If Wayne Selden and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk even remotely live up to their full potential, Kansas is going to be very difficult to beat, with or without Diallo.
No. 3 Maryland Terrapins (Previous Rank: 1)
Nothing changed about Maryland to necessitate dropping from the top spot. However, the Terrapins are No. 3 in both the AP and coaches preseason polls, and there's so little separating these top three teams that there's not a particularly strong reason to argue against the masses on this one.
What I love most about this team is that you could pick any member of its projected starting five and legitimately make the argument that he is going to be the most important player on the roster. That definitely isn't the case for most teams, and it would certainly seem to work in Maryland's favor that each opponent has no clue which Terrapin will be the MVP of that game.
No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (Previous Rank: 3)
Until specifically instructed otherwise, you can just go ahead and assume that Kentucky will open every season as a projected No. 1 seed. This is John Calipari's seventh season with the Wildcats, and they have now been ranked in the top four of the preseason AP poll six times.
It's a much different team from last year—they'll be extremely reliant on their bevy of uber-talented guards rather than a seemingly never-ending supply of future NBA big men—but they might have even more talent in their starting five this year. If Alex Poythress is healthy and effective, good luck finding a weakness on this team.
No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (Previous Rank: 2)
The skepticism about the Tar Heels is understandable and duly noted. In the past six years, they have earned just one No. 1 seed while also missing the tournament once. In all but one of those seasons, they had a worse ranking in the final AP poll than their preseason rank—if they were in the final poll at all. They've made quite a habit of underachieving.
On the flip side of that coin, when they're supposed to be extra special, they have been. Excluding the 2015-16 season, the Tar Heels have been ranked in the top four of the preseason AP Top 25 six times in the past 18 years. They averaged 33.3 wins in those six seasons and earned a No. 1 seed each year, producing two national championships, two more Final Fours and two more Elite Eight appearances.
Scoff at Marcus Paige and company if you so choose, but this is a talented and experienced roster that should win the ACC if it can stay healthy.
Seeding by Conference
In case seeded regions aren't for you, and you just want to know where the "top" 68 teams stand in relation to one another, here is the list of each team's overall seed, broken down by conference ("First Five Out" in italics).
American: 16. Connecticut; 23. Cincinnati; 69. Tulsa
Atlantic 10: 34. Rhode Island; 42. Davidson
ACC: 2. North Carolina; 5. Duke; 7. Virginia; 24. Miami; 26. Florida State; 35. Notre Dame; 37. N.C. State; 41. Louisville; 46. Pittsburgh; 71. Syracuse
Big 12: 4. Kansas; 9. Oklahoma; 11. Iowa State; 21. Baylor; 27. West Virginia; 38. Texas
Big East: 6. Villanova; 17. Butler; 25. Georgetown; 31. Xavier; 72. Providence
Big Ten: 1. Maryland; 12. Indiana; 15. Michigan State; 20. Purdue; 30. Wisconsin; 33. Michigan; 45. Iowa; 73. Ohio State
Missouri Valley: 8. Wichita State; 44. Evansville
Mountain West: 29. San Diego State; 43. Boise State; 47. UNLV
Pac-12: 13. Arizona; 14. California; 19. Utah; 28. Oregon; 39. UCLA; 70. Oregon State
SEC: 3. Kentucky; 18. Vanderbilt; 22. Texas A&M; 32. LSU; 36. Florida
West Coast: 10. Gonzaga; 40. BYU
Other: 48. UAB; 49. Valparaiso; 50. Stephen F. Austin; 51. Belmont; 52. Columbia; 53. Central Michigan; 54. Iona; 55. UC Irvine; 56. Hofstra; 57. Louisiana-Lafayette; 58. South Dakota State; 59. Stony Brook; 60. Wofford; 61. North Florida; 62. Lehigh; 63. Montana; 64. High Point; 65. Mount St. Mary's; 66. Hampton; 67. UMKC; 68. Texas Southern
Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @kerrancejames.