Early Projections for the 2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 1, 2017

Early Projections for the 2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket

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    Udoka Azubuike
    Udoka AzubuikePaul Beaty/Associated Press

    Following a two-week-long deluge of early-season tournaments and an uncompetitive ACC-Big Ten challenge, the projected No. 1 seeds for the 2018 NCAA tournament are Duke, Kansas, Villanova and Michigan State.

    While it's never too early to start thinking about the NCAA tournament, it is still way too early to start using RPI in the process of selecting and seeding the field. Case in point: Temple, Missouri, Vermont, Nevada and Middle Tennessee all entered play on Thursday ranked in the Top 10 in RPI. With all due respect to those teams and fans, that's just plain ridiculous.

    Instead, we're using a combination of KenPom and Sagarin rankings, AP poll data, preseason expectations and gut responses to early results to come up with this projection of the 68-team masterpiece.

    As always, we'll take a look at the last five teams to make the field, as well as the first five out.

    After that, we'll present each seeded region, including the subregional locations in which each pod would be played and some commentary on which teams have moved the most in 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

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    Tony Carr
    Tony CarrKathy Willens/Associated Press

    Last Team In: Northwestern Wildcats

    Northwestern was a No. 4 seed in the preseason bracket, and it would be a little harsh to drop the Wildcats out of the field after just three weeks. It sure was tempting, though, considering they have already suffered losses to Georgia Tech, Creighton and Texas Tech without beating anyone of value. At this point, they almost have to win at Oklahoma on Dec. 22 to have any sort of nonconference win worth bragging about.

            

    Second-to-Last: Temple Owls

    Temple always seems to have a strange tournament resume. This year, the Owls are 4-1 with wins over Clemson, South Carolina, Auburn and Old Dominion, but they lost to La Salle, which is unquestionably the worst opponent they have faced thus far. And yet, they haven't faced a projected tournament team to date. It's tough to get a good read on this team, but Temple did just beat the brakes off South Carolina. That's enough to sneak onto the right side of the bubble.

            

    Third-to-Last: St. John's Red Storm

    St. John's has been one of the best shot-blocking teams over the course of the past five seasons, and that hasn't changed this year. But the Red Storm have added outstanding defense at the point of attack, forcing nearly 20 turnovers per game. Consistency is the big question with this team, but if the offense comes around, St. John's has the defense to compete with anyone.

             

    Fourth-to-Last: Penn State Nittany Lions

    The sophomore duo of Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens has been outstanding. It hasn't yet produced any quality wins, but the Nittany Lions hung with Texas A&M for longer than expected. They also put up a solid fight on the road against North Carolina State. They'll need to do some damage in Big Ten play, though, because they may end up without any RPI Top 100 nonconference wins.

            

    Fifth-to-Last: Missouri Tigers

    When the news broke that Michael Porter Jr. is expected to miss the entire season following back surgery, everyone wrote off Missouri. Everyone except for the Tigers, that is. Since then, they have picked up wins away from home over St. John's and UCF, and they darn near won a neutral-court game against West Virginia. There's still a lot of talent on this roster, especially when Kassius Robertson is hitting three-pointers like he can.

First 5 Out

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    Tyus Battle
    Tyus BattleBrett Carlsen/Getty Images

    First Team Out: Florida State Seminoles

    After losing Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, the Seminoles weren't expected to amount to much this season. They still haven't faced anyone better than Rutgers, but they're 6-0 and have won five of those games by at least a 17-point margin. Even if they don't win Monday's road game against Florida, they could make a solid statement by at least putting up a fight.

       

    Second Team Out: Syracuse Orange

    6-0 with wins over Maryland, Oakland, Iona, Toledo and Texas Southern is much more than I expected from Syracuse. Syracuse is ranking No. 1 in the nation in both offensive rebounding percentage and block percentage. Like Florida State's game against Florida on Monday, Syracuse could turn some heads against Kansas on Saturday, even in a loss.

        

    Third Team Out: Kansas State Wildcats

    Kansas State is 6-1, but the only remotely respectable opponent it has faced was Arizona State, which resulted in a two-point, neutral-court loss. That was a big missed opportunity. Even if the Wildcats beat Vanderbilt on Sunday and/or Georgia in the SEC-B12 Challenge in late January, there aren't going to be any marquee nonconference wins on this resume. They'll probably need at least 10 wins in Big 12 play, which is unlikely.

          

    Fourth Team Out: Michigan Wolverines

    Michigan got plastered by North Carolina in the ACC-B1G Challenge fewer than 10 days after a neutral-court loss to LSU. And the neutral-court win over VCU isn't nearly as valuable as it would have been in previous years. The Wolverines face UCLA on Dec. 9 followed by Texas on Dec. 12. They better win at least one of those if they want to dance.

         

    Fifth Team Out: Saint Mary's Gaels

    As mentioned in my article earlier this week on teams sounding the early-season alarm, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Saint Mary's gets an at-large bid following losses to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy. The Gaels could go 24-3 the rest of the way with three losses to Gonzaga and their best win of the season would be, what, at BYU? Gross. And it's not like getting left out of the NCAA tournament with at least 25 wins is a foreign concept to this program.

East Region (Boston)

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    Tra Holder
    Tra HolderDavid Becker/Getty Images

    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

    No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Idaho

    No. 8 Arizona State vs. No. 9 Texas

                    

    Boise, Idaho

    No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Middle Tennessee

    No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Valparaiso

                              

    Detroit, Michigan

    No. 3 Kentucky vs. No. 14 Yale

    No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Penn State/St. John's

                      

    Charlotte, North Carolina

    No. 2 Virginia vs. No. 15 Buffalo

    No. 7 Creighton vs. No. 10 Maryland

             

    Moving Up: Arizona State Sun Devils

    The early breakout team of the year, Arizona State smoked San Diego State in the opening week before knocking off both Kansas State and Xavier in the Las Vegas Invitational. The Sun Devils are 6-0 and have scored at least 90 points in each game. Their defense (or lack thereof) is a legitimate concern, but if Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and De'Quon Lake keep playing like this, Arizona State will be dancing for just the second time in the 2010s.

                  

    Moving Down: Maryland Terrapins

    Maryland looked great in an early win over Butler and followed it up with a respectable win over Bucknell. But then the Terrapins lost to a St. Bonaventure team playing without its star (Jaylen Adams) and a Syracuse team giving significant minutes to three freshmen who weren't in the 247 Sports composite Top 100. Maybe if Maryland wasn't turning the ball over 17.3 times per game, it would be 8-0 instead of 6-2. The turnover percentage is a major red flag moving forward.

                     

    Holding Steady: Minnesota Golden Gophers

    Despite a home loss to a good Miami team, Minnesota is looking like a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten. Jordan Murphy has recorded a double-double in each game, Reggie Lynch is blocking shots like he always does and the other three starters are all shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range. As a whole, though, we need to see more from this defense. Giving up 84 points when Alabama played a quarter of the game with just three players was not a great showing.

Midwest Region (Omaha)

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    JJ Caldwell
    JJ CaldwellAlex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Wichita, Kansas

    No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 UC Santa Barbara/St. Francis PA

    No. 8 Providence vs. No. 9 UCLA

                   

    Wichita, Kansas

    No. 4 Miami vs. No. 13 College of Charleston

    No. 5 Purdue vs. No. 12 Vermont

                     

    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

    No. 3 Cincinnati vs. No. 14 UNC-Asheville

    No. 6 Seton Hall vs. No. 11 Temple/Northwestern

                     

    Dallas, Texas

    No. 2 Texas A&M vs. No. 15 Belmont

    No. 7 TCU vs. No. 10 SMU

         

    Moving Up: Texas A&M Aggies

    I was practically driving the Texas A&M bandwagon this offseason, and even I'm astounded at how impressive this team has been. Aside from Duke, good luck finding a better early resume than A&M's wins away from home over USC, West Virginia, Penn State and Oklahoma State. (And the Aggies still play nonconference games against Arizona and Kansas.) There's still room for improvement, too, once JJ Caldwell and Robert Williams start playing more.

          

    Moving Down: Providence Friars

    Providence only has one loss (vs. Minnesota), but there have been too many close calls against the likes of Rider, Belmont and Washington. And this is with the Friars shooting 47.0 percent from three-point range as a team, so what happens when that number comes back to earth? They also announced Wednesday, per Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal, that Emmitt Holtlast year's No. 2 scorer, rebounder and shot-blockeris out for the year due to an abdominal injury.

    Holding Steady: Miami Hurricanes

    Miami finally faced its first legitimate challenge of the season and passed that test with an 86-81 road win over Minnesota. Sophomore duo Bruce Brown and Dewan Huell was sensational, enabling the 'Canes to pick up a big victory while still waiting for Lonnie Walker to look like himself. The highly touted freshman underwent surgery on a torn meniscus in July and has not yet made much of an impact. Once that changes, you're looking at a serious national championship contender.

South Region (Atlanta)

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    Keenan Evans
    Keenan EvansJohn Weast/Getty Images

    Charlotte, North Carolina

    No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 North Carolina A&T/Texas Southern

    No. 8 Alabama vs. No. 9 Wisconsin

                   

    San Diego, California

    No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 South Dakota State

    No. 5 Xavier vs. No. 12 Texas-Arlington

                     

    Nashville, Tennessee

    No. 3 Florida vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast

    No. 6 Louisville vs. No. 11 Rhode Island

                     

    Dallas, Texas

    No. 2 Wichita State vs. No. 15 Iona

    No. 7 Texas Tech vs. No. 10 Oregon

         

    Moving Up: Texas Tech Red Raiders

    Texas Tech dropped from the ranks of the undefeated with a loss to Seton Hall Thursday night. Despite that neutral-court outcome against a quality foe, the Red Raiders remain one of the big surprises of the first few weeks of the season. They defeated their first six opponents by an average margin of 28.0 points, including destroying Northwestern in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. They have a big game this Tuesday against Nevada that could cement their spot as one of the top five teams in the Big 12.

           

    Moving Down: Oregon Ducks

    The unofficial hosts of the PK80 did not have a great showing in that event. The Ducks lost to Connecticut, needed overtime to beat DePaul and allowed Oklahoma's Trae Young to score 43 points. At this point, their only opportunities for decent wins are against Boise State and Fresno Stateneither of which is projected to make the tournament. Factor in the Pac-12 looking down as a whole, and Oregon is probably going to be a bubble team for the next three months.

          

    Holding Steady: Wichita State Shockers

    Even without Markis McDuffiewho is still recovering from a preseason foot injuryWichita State has been every bit as good as advertised. The Shockers choked away a 16-point lead over Notre Dame in the Maui Invitational championship, but it's remarkable they were able to put the Fighting Irish in such a deficit. Once this team starts putting together full 40-minute efforts against decent opponents, look out. 

West Region (Los Angeles)

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    Corey Kispert
    Corey KispertCraig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Detroit, Michigan

    No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 16 Stephen F. Austin

    No. 8 Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Tennessee

                    

    Boise, Idaho

    No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 Mercer

    No. 5 USC vs. No. 12 Bucknell

                     

    San Diego, California

    No. 3 Arizona vs. No. 14 New Mexico State

    No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 11 Missouri

                     

    Nashville, Tennessee

    No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 15 Oakland

    No. 7 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Nevada

         

    Moving Up: Tennessee Volunteers

    In late October, Matt Norlander of CBS Sports ranked all 351 teams heading into the 2017-18 season. He had Tennessee at No. 118. Based on various SEC preseason power rankings, a lot of people agreed that this was not expected to be a tournament team.

    Suffice it to say, the Volunteers are better than expected. They upset Purdue in the Battle 4 Atlantis opener. They almost beat Villanova before defeating NC State in the third-place game. Then they came home and stomped a respectable Mercer team. While the football program frantically searches for a coach its fans won't hate, Rick Barnes has the basketball program playing outstanding defense and shooting lights out from the perimeter.

          

    Moving Down: Arizona Wildcats

    Speaking of the Battle 4 Atlantis, Arizona went 0-3 against NC State, SMU and Purdue and enters December without a single win against a KenPom Top 150 team. There are plenty of opportunities remaining, as the Wildcats will face Texas A&M, Alabama, Connecticut and UNLV in the next three weeks. However, if they don't figure out how to play with some defensive intensity, they'll be picking up even more losses during that stretch.

          

    Holding Steady: Gonzaga Bulldogs

    Gonzaga let a massive opportunity slip through its fingers, losing in double overtime to Florida in the PK80. But between that loss and the surrounding wins over Ohio State and Texas, the Bulldogs proved they are still a factor in spite of losing four key players from last season. Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell Jr. have been outstanding contributors in the primary rotation.

    The Zags have two more huge opportunities on their doorstep. They host Creighton Friday night before a neutral-court game against Villanova on Tuesday. Should they happen to beat both of those Big East opponents, they could be headed for either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the fourth time in six years.

Ranking the No. 1 Seeds

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    Wendell Carter Jr.
    Wendell Carter Jr.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    No. 4: Michigan State Spartans

    This spot was left open until Thursday night. Had Notre Dame beaten Michigan State, the Fighting Irish would have taken over the fourth No. 1 seed. Instead, the Spartans took care of business in an 81-63 spanking that made it look like it's Duke and Michigan State head and shoulders better than everyone else this season.

    That 18-point win over Notre Dame came just four days after Michigan State defeated North Carolina by an 18-point margin. The ACC may have dominated the ACC-B1G Challenge, but a Big Ten team just asserted its dominance by smoking two of the ACC's top two teams.

    And it should be smooth sailing for the next month for the Spartans. Their toughest opponent between now and Jan. 4 is Nebraska. They'll be 14-1 before you know it.

         

    No. 3: Villanova Wildcats

    Were it not for a few early exits from the NCAA tournament, would we be talking about Villanova as a college basketball dynasty right now?

    The Wildcats have won four straight Big East championships and have an overall record of 136-17 since the start of the 2013-14 season. They have earned either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in each of the past four NCAA tournaments and seem destined to stretch that streak to five. And they have two legitimate National Player of the Year candidates in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.

    Jay Wright used to just be the best-dressed man in college basketball, but he has become the best coach who isn't already in the Hall of Fame.

         

    No. 2: Kansas Jayhawks

    Save for one offensive dud in a narrow win over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, Kansas has been obliterating everyone it faces. The Jayhawks won their other five games by an average margin of 38.8 points—and South Dakota State, Toledo and Oakland aren't exactly the little sisters of the poor.

    All five starters are averaging at least 13.5 points per game. Three of them—Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman—are shooting at least 50 percent from three-point range, and Devonte' Graham might actually be the best shooter of the bunch once he gets rolling. Overall depth and frontcourt prowess remain a significant concern with freshman Billy Preston still not playing, but this roster could shoot its way to at least 30 wins while just playing six guys.

        

    No. 1: Duke Blue Devils

    With neutral-court wins over Florida, Michigan State and Texas, there's no question Duke—which entered the season as the projected No. 1 overall seed—remains the front-runner for this spot. Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. have been unstoppable. Trevon Duval (when he isn't shooting jumpers) has been an indispensable point guard. And Grayson Allen is back to playing like a star.

    The big question is the defense. It's blatantly obvious that Duke is tougher to score against when playing its 2-3 zone, but Mike Krzyzewski seems hellbent on playing as much man-to-man as possible. It's not because the man with 1,080 career wins doesn't know what he's doing, but rather because playing zone all the time wouldn't help prepare his one-and-done players for the NBA.

    The Blue Devils have the offense to make up for their defensive shortcomings, but it's possible that commitment to player development eventually results in a loss or four that knocks Duke from the top overall seed.

Seeding by Conference

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    Trevon Bluiett
    Trevon BluiettJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

    In case seeded regions aren't for you and you want to know where the "top" 68 teams stand in relation to one another, here is a list of each team's overall seed, broken down by conference. ("First Five Out" in italics.)

    American: 7. Wichita State; 10. Cincinnati; 37. SMU; 44. Temple

    ACC: 1. Duke; 6. Virginia; 8. Notre Dame; 13. Miami; 14. North Carolina; 22. Louisville; 29. Virginia Tech; 69. Florida State; 70. Syracuse

    Big 12: 2. Kansas; 16. West Virginia; 23. Oklahoma; 24. Baylor; 25. TCU; 28. Texas Tech; 33. Texas; 71. Kansas State

    Big East: 3. Villanova; 18. Xavier; 21. Seton Hall; 27. Creighton; 31. Providence; 43. St. John's

    Big Ten: 4. Michigan State; 17. Purdue; 20. Minnesota; 36. Wisconsin; 38. Maryland; 42. Penn State; 45. Northwestern; 72. Michigan

    Pac-12: 11. Arizona; 19. USC; 32. Arizona State; 35. UCLA; 39. Oregon

    SEC: 5. Texas A&M; 9. Florida; 12. Kentucky; 26. Arkansas; 30. Alabama; 34. Tennessee; 41. Missouri

    West Coast: 15. Gonzaga; 73. Saint Mary's

    Other: 40. Nevada; 46. Rhode Island; 47. Vermont; 48. Texas-Arlington; 49. Valparaiso; 50. Bucknell; 51. College of Charleston; 52. Middle Tennessee; 53. Mercer; 54. South Dakota State; 55. New Mexico State; 56. Florida Gulf Coast; 57. UNC-Asheville; 58. Yale; 59. Belmont; 60. Oakland; 61. Buffalo; 62. Iona; 63. Stephen F. Austin; 64. Idaho; 65. UC Santa Barbara; 66. St. Francis PA; 67. Texas Southern; 68. North Carolina A&T

                                      

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.