2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Early February Projection of the Field of 68
The Purdue Boilermakers have battled through several close calls recently, but they remain cemented on the No. 1 line in our latest projection of the 2018 men's NCAA tournament.
If you are among the throngs of sports fans who wait until after the Super Bowl to start paying attention to college basketball, welcome to a world where things are considerably different than usual. Annual powerhouses like Duke, Michigan State, Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky entered the season among the favorites to win the national championship, but not one of them is in great shape for a No. 1 seed.
Instead, well-rounded, defensive-minded, veteran teams like Purdue, Virginia and Villanova have separated from the pack and become the teams to beat.
At the opposite end of the bracket spectrum, this season's bubble picture is much uglier than it has been previously. Normally, there are a handful of deserving teams left out. This time, though, it was hard to justify why the last three teams belong in the tournament.
As always, we will take a look at the last five teams to make the field, the first five out and a few others on the horizon.
After that, we will 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 will defend the rankings of the No. 1 seeds, followed by a summary of the field broken up by conference.
Last 5 In
Last Team In: LSU Tigers
13-9, RPI: 75, KP: 68, SOS: 44
The defense of LSU as a projected tournament team begins by pointing out just how ugly things have gotten on the bubble recently.
In the previous projection, the last three teams in were South Carolina, Marquette and Kansas State, and the first three teams out were Virginia Tech, SMU and Western Kentucky. Apologies to those teams for that curse, but since then, they went a combined 2-9 with wins over UTEP and Boston College.
Throw in Syracuse's multiple losses to drop out of the field, and the standard for being one of the top 36 at-large teams in the country has been lowered considerably.
Thus, let's welcome the nine-loss Tigers.
LSU is 4-6 in SEC play, with season sweeps of both Arkansas and Texas A&M. Will Wade's bunch also had a neutral-court win over Michigan and a home win over Houston. Not one of those wins is fantastic, but the collection is solid and arguably does enough to counterbalance the losses to Stephen F. Austin and Vanderbilt.
2nd-to-Last: Temple Owls
13-10, RPI: 42, KP: 88, SOS: 2
Remember, the bar for sneaking into the field has been lowered. If you find that hard to believe, just wait until we get to the First 5 Out slide.
Temple has several dreadful losses: George Washington, La Salle, Memphis and Tulane. Temple also has three extremely impressive wins: neutral-court games against Clemson and Auburn and a home game against Wichita State. Yes, 10 losses is a lot, but the Owls played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and Vanderbilt got in as a No. 9 seed with 15 losses in the same scenario last year. A 6-2 record the rest of the way should be more than enough for Temple.
3rd-to-Last: Boise State Broncos
18-4, RPI: 37, KP: 47, SOS: 111
Boise State was the top beneficiary of the aforementioned carnage. The Broncos were previously our fourth team out, but they climbed back into the projected field after nothing more than an overtime win at home against UNLV. Because the Broncos don't have a single Group 1 victory, though, they are at the mercy of what the major conference teams on the bubble are able to do during the next several weeks.
4th-to-Last: USC Trojans
17-7, RPI: 43, KP: 43, SOS: 50
USC blew a double-digit lead against UCLA, snapping a six-game winning streak with a loss to a team not in the projected field. It wasn't a bad loss, but it was a missed opportunity for a team that doesn't have many remaining. The Trojans play at Arizona and Arizona State this week. If they don't win at least one of those games, it's going to be difficult to make the case for this team to reach the NCAA tournament with little more than neutral-court wins over Middle Tennessee and New Mexico State.
5th-to-Last: Houston Cougars
17-5, RPI: 41, KP: 35, SOS: 104
Houston missed out on a huge opportunity against Cincinnati Wednesday, but the Cougars did win a road game against UCF. Compared to every other team that was within a few spots of the previous edition's cut line, that's one heck of a good week. They still play SMU twice, host Cincinnati and play at Temple, so there are a few opportunities remaining to improve this resume.
First 5 Out
1st Team Out: St. Bonaventure Bonnies
16-6, RPI: 49, KP: 73, SOS: 105
It was tempting to place St. Bonaventure into the field ahead of LSU and Temple, but we opted for the teams with four Group 1 wins as opposed to the one treading water with wins over Buffalo, Maryland and Syracuse. The good news for the Bonnies is they are pointing back in the right direction with a four-game winning streak. But they still need to go 7-1 the rest of the way to make the Atlantic 10 a two-bid league.
2nd Team Out: UCLA Bruins
16-7, RPI: 53, KP: 58, SOS: 65
UCLA got a much-needed home win over USC, but that didn't do much to move the needle for the Bruins. This is still a resume with one great win (Kentucky on a neutral court) and a bunch of questionable losses in Pac-12 play. Five of their remaining seven regular-season games are on the road—against Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah and USC. UCLA will need to win at least two, probably three, of those games to reach the Big Dance.
3rd Team Out: Marquette Golden Eagles
13-10, RPI: 60, KP: 50, SOS: 9
Marquette has a road win over Providence, a home win over Seton Hall and a slew of missed opportunities. The Golden Eagles don't have any terrible losses, but a 2-9 record in Group 1 games leaves much to be desired. They play at Seton Hall Wednesday and at Creighton February 17. They probably need to win at least one of those games, as well as each of the four remaining games against St. John's (twice), Georgetown and DePaul.
4th Team Out: Virginia Tech Hokies
16-7, RPI: 67, KP: 41, SOS: 94
Virginia Tech should send a thank you letter to Washington head coach Mike Hopkins. The only reason this team is still in the conversation is because its neutral-court win over the Huskies eight days into the regular season has gained a ton of value over the past several weeks. Aside from that, the only quality win the Hokies have came during a home game against North Carolina.
As mentioned in the previous projection, though, VT needs to buckle up for a bumpy ride to finish the regular season. This team still plays Duke twice, plays at Virginia and Miami and hosts Clemson and Louisville. Not great news with a bubbly resume that requires a 4-4 finish to remain in the hunt for a bid.
5th Team Out: Kansas State Wildcats
16-7, RPI: 70, KP: 52, SOS: 97
Kansas State was sitting pretty last time around, but losses to Kansas and West Virginia by a combined margin of 52 points sent the Wildcats spiraling out of the projected field. There are still plenty of opportunities for them to get back in, but they did nothing of value in nonconference play and only have one win against a team in the top six of the Big 12 standings—a home game against Oklahoma. Kansas State needs at least four more regular-season wins to have an argument for a spot in the field.
On the Horizon
Here's one sentence on each of the 10 other teams within shouting distance of an at-large bid, listed in alphabetical order.
Georgia Bulldogs: It's been one step forward, one step backward all season long for the Bulldogs, and that continued by bookending a quality home win over Florida with losses to Kansas State and Mississippi State.
Maryland Terrapins: A home win over Butler in the first week of the regular season is Maryland's only Group 1 or Group 2 victory.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: A three-game winning streak puts this six-loss team into the conversation, but it's going to be hard to overlook the horrendous nonconference SOS (310) if the Bulldogs don't go at least 5-3 the rest of the way.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: Point out the 8-4 Big Ten record all you want, but what matters is Nebraska is just 2-8 against Groups 1 and 2.
Oklahoma State Cowboys: Saturday's road win over Kansas was massive, but it was merely the first big step on a long journey back to relevance.
SMU Mustangs: SMU has a couple of great wins over Arizona and Wichita State, but the bad losses to Tulsa, Tulane, Temple and Northern Iowa are the overpowering smell coming from this resume.
South Carolina Gamecocks: The "Last Team In" in the previous projection lost at home to Mississippi State and got destroyed by Texas A&M in the past seven days.
Syracuse Orange: Opportunities abound in the next few weeks, but Syracuse and its anemic offense does not have a win over a projected at-large team.
Utah Utes: Utah has a decent stash of good wins (Missouri, Washington and at Arizona State) and only one ugly loss (UNLV), but it's going to take at least a 5-2 finish to the regular season to take this resume seriously.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: All Western Kentucky had to do was avoid disaster in C-USA play, but Saturday's loss to UTSA likely puts the Hilltoppers in "auto bid or bust" territory.
East Region (Boston)
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 North Carolina A&T / Texas Southern
No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 9 Florida
No. 4 Miami vs. No. 13 East Tennessee State
No. 5 Rhode Island vs. New Mexico State
No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Rider
No. 6 Saint Mary's vs. No. 11 USC / Boise State
Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 15 Bucknell
No. 7 Nevada vs. Providence
Moving Up: Miami Hurricanes (↑ 10 spots)
17-5, RPI: 19, KP: 26, SOS: 40
One of the strangest phenomena in college basketball is when teams start playing well after losing a key player for an extended period of time.
Texas got two of its best wins of the season in the first three games after learning about Andrew Jones' leukemia diagnosis. Notre Dame annihilated NC State in its first game without Bonzie Colson. And despite losing Bruce Brown for up to six weeks following foot surgery, Miami took care of business with wins over Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.
Can the Hurricanes continue to play well, or will they bottom out without their leader, similar to Notre Dame's seven-game losing streak?
The good news is their remaining schedule isn't all that daunting. They do host Virginia on Feb. 13 and play at North Carolina on Feb. 27, but each of the other six games is winnable, even without Brown. If he returns in time for the ACC tournament, it could be to a team that's 23-7 with a first-round bye to the quarterfinals in said tournament.
That would be good enough for something in the vicinity of a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Moving Down: Florida Gators (↓ 13 spots)
15-8, RPI: 48, KP: 38, SOS: 26
It was not a good week for the Gators.
First, they lost by 12 on the road against bubbly Georgia. Next, FanRag Sports' Jon Rothstein reported that John Egbunu—the starting center who tore his ACL in February 2017—hasn't started practicing in his rehab from that injury. Then, they got smashed at home 68-50 by bubbly Alabama.
Florida consequently dropped 17 spots on KenPom and 12 spots in RPI, causing it to tumble more than three full seed lines in this projection.
The Gators are still in good shape, though. If it gets to the point that we are debating whether they belong in the field, neutral-court wins over Cincinnati and Gonzaga and the road wins over Kentucky, Texas A&M and Missouri will go a long way toward keeping them in. But they have lost four of their past seven games, meaning they are sliding in the wrong direction.
Midwest Region (Omaha)
No. 1 Purdue vs. No. 16 Penn / Stephen F. Austin
No. 8 Washington vs. No. 9 Alabama
No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 13 South Dakota State
No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Louisiana
No. 3 Cincinnati vs. No. 14 UC Santa Barbara
No. 6 Florida State vs. No. 11 Arkansas
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Wagner
No. 7 Butler vs. No. 10 TCU
Moving Up: Washington Huskies (new to the field)
17-6, RPI: 35, KP: 87, SOS: 38
The predictive metrics that rely on margin of victory don't much care for Washington, but it's impossible to imagine this team would get left out of the NCAA tournament if it began today.
That's because the Huskies swept their recent home games against Arizona and Arizona State, climbing to 7-3 in Pac-12 play. Noah Dickerson was sensational in both matchups, finishing with a combined 46 points and 23 rebounds.
In addition to those recent victories, Washington also has road wins over Kansas and USC in a season with nothing worse than a home loss to Stanford. It's a strong enough resume that the Huskies were going to be comfortably in even if they had lost to Arizona Saturday night. Beating the Wildcats just pushed them further into the field.
Feel free to argue Washington's KenPom, Sagarin and BPI ratings as reasons this team shouldn't be in the field. Just know that all you would be doing is proving a point that we shouldn't be putting an increased emphasis on those margin-of-victory metrics when it comes to selecting the at-large teams.
Moving Down: Arkansas Razorbacks (↓ 11 spots)
15-8, RPI: 40, KP: 46, SOS: 27
Along with SEC rival Florida in the East, Arkansas took one of the biggest tumbles following an 0-2 week.
The Razorbacks lost back-to-back road games against Texas A&M and LSU. They were atrocious on defense in both games, particularly the latter, giving up 94 points to LSU in a 70-possession game.
Arkansas has lost six of its past 10 games, which should explain why it has plummeted from a No. 3 seed in the New Year's projection to its spot as a No. 11 seed.
The Hogs do have a few quality wins over Oklahoma and Tennessee, but they probably need to go 5-3 the rest of the way to remain in the field. Considering five of those games are against Auburn, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama and Missouri, that won't be easy.
South Region (Atlanta)
Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 16 UNC-Asheville
No. 8 Wichita State vs. No. 9 Texas A&M
No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Loyola-Chicago
No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 12 Buffalo
No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 14 Belmont
No. 6 Creighton vs. No. 11 Houston
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 15 College of Charleston
No. 7 Texas vs. No. 10 Arizona State
Moving Up: Texas Longhorns (↑ eight spots)
15-8, RPI: 36, KP: 34, SOS: 16
It's not often that a team jumps up two seed lines in a week in which it lost a game, but it's hard to penalize the Longhorns for losing in overtime on the road against Texas Tech. And they made up for it with an impressive win over Oklahoma.
The net result is a marginal increase in all the computer metrics and a fifth Group 1 win for Texas.
It's kind of amazing the Longhorns have been able to piece together a 5-5 Big 12 record while shooting as poorly as they do. Per KenPom, Texas entered play on Sunday ranked 326th in the nation in three-point percentage and 315th in free-throw percentage. But this team is so relentless on defense it almost won a home game against Kansas and forced overtime away from home against Duke, Gonzaga and Texas Tech.
Assuming things remain roughly the same and Texas gets a seed in the Nos. 7-10 range, it's going to be tempting to pick Mo Bamba and Co. to pull off a big upset over a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Moving Down: Arizona State Sun Devils (↓ 10 spots)
17-6, RPI: 44, KP: 32, SOS: 68
It has been quite the tale of two seasons for the Sun Devils. Since starting 12-0 with great wins over Xavier, Kansas and Kansas State, they have gone 5-6 in Pac-12 play against teams from what is widely regarded as the worst of the power conferences.
It would be one thing if they were losing to the likes of Arizona, USC and UCLA, but they have played a grand total of one game against those teams. Instead, Arizona State has home losses to Utah and Oregon and road losses to Stanford, Washington and Colorado—each of which ranks outside the top 70 on KenPom.
Most people expected Arizona State to come back to earth once its unsustainable three-point shooting regressed to the mean, but no one thought the fall would be this drastic. The Sun Devils better win at least one of their next three home games—against USC, UCLA and Arizona—or they might be the first team to miss the tournament after entering January as a projected No. 1 seed.
West Region (Los Angeles)
No. 1 Xavier vs. No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast
No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Louisville
No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Vermont
No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 12 LSU / Temple
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 14 Montana
No. 6 Seton Hall vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Wright State
No. 7 Gonzaga vs. No. 10 North Carolina State
Moving Up: Missouri Tigers (↑ 11 spots)
14-8, RPI: 32, KP: 37, SOS: 12
It was a rough week for a lot of teams in the SEC, but Missouri was a nice exception to that rule, picking up identical 69-60 wins at Alabama and against Kentucky.
This is quite the turnaround from the previous projection, wherein the Tigers were one of the last teams into the projected field following their sixth loss in nine games. They are 5-6 in Group 1 games and have climbed a dozen spots in the RPI ratings since Jan. 29.
Can Missouri capitalize on what appears to be a favorable schedule the rest of the way? The road game against Kentucky and home game against Texas A&M won't be easy, but the Tigers play two games against Ole Miss, home games against Mississippi State and Arkansas and road games at LSU and Vanderbilt. A 4-4 record in those matchups would probably do the trick, though we would recommend at least five wins just to be safe.
Now for the bigger question: Will Michael Porter Jr. return this season, and how would that affect tournament seeding and expectations for this team? And could you imagine the drama if Missouri faced Washington—the team Porter originally signed with—in the first round and he played in that game? Let's all start rooting for both of those teams to get in just for that possible situation.
Moving Down: Louisville Cardinals (↓ 13 spots)
16-7, RPI: 26, KP: 33, SOS: 21
Because Louisville doesn't do a doggone thing in nonconference play, it has always been a strong candidate for volatile swings in the bracket projections.
Since this has been a "no great wins, no terrible losses" resume, it would only take a couple of quality wins for the Cardinals to suddenly look a lot better. Conversely, three losses in the span of four games—regardless of how acceptable those losses are—could have a significant, negative impact on the team's resume.
Louisville has recently taken the latter path, losing at Miami, at Virginia and at home to Florida State. There's nothing unforgivable about any of those results, but the Cardinals are quickly approaching critical mass in quality losses.
They are 1-6 in Group 1 games and 3-7 overall against Groups 1 and 2. The road win over Notre Dame felt great in mid-January, but that is losing value faster than bitcoin. And the other Group 2 win—against Virginia Tech—wasn't even against a projected tournament team.
Louisville is still safely in the field, but if it were to lose any of its next three games—versus Syracuse, versus Georgia Tech or at Pittsburgh—that might be a different story in the next projection.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Xavier Musketeers
21-3, RPI: 3, KP: 16, SOS: 19
In the previous projection, the race for the final No. 1 seed was a close call between Duke and Kansas. But with the former losing to St. John's and the latter losing to Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon, it's suddenly a two-team battle between Auburn and Xavier.
There's no wrong answer here, but Xavier edges it because its four best wins—at Seton Hall, versus Cincinnati, versus Creighton and versus Butler—are a bit better than Auburn's four best wins—at Tennessee, at Missouri, versus Middle Tennessee and at Mississippi State. Moreover, Xavier's nonconference schedule was better than Auburn's. But we are splitting hairs that will be split for us before Selection Sunday.
Either way, the fourth No. 1 seed is way behind the top three. Even if Villanova had lost to Seton Hall Sunday afternoon, there was no chance the Wildcats were going to fall behind Xavier or Auburn.
No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers
23-2, RPI: 7, KP: 3, SOS: 52
The Boilermakers have won 19 in a row, but they might be running out of steam. Since three consecutive wins over Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa by a combined margin of 85 points, Purdue has been in four straight tight games. The Boilermakers barely escaped with a two-point win over Rutgers Saturday.
We'll soon find out whether they are running out of steam or whether they were just looking ahead to their two massive Big Ten showdowns. Carsen Edwards and Co. host Ohio State Wednesday before a road game against Michigan State Saturday. Those ought to be the two best games of the Big Ten season.
Unless Purdue loses both of them, though, expect to see the Boilermakers on the top line once again in the next projection.
No. 2 Villanova Wildcats
22-1, RPI: 2, KP: 1, SOS: 30
Playing without Phil Booth hasn't been much of a problem for Villanova. The Wildcats slaughtered both Creighton and Seton Hall recently to further assert their dominance over the Big East and most of the country.
Depth is definitely a concern until Booth returns, but Villanova still has an absurdly strong group of starters. All five scored in double figures against both the Bluejays and the Pirates while making a combined 31 three-pointers.
The Wildcats have a brutal schedule ahead, though. From Saturday until Feb. 28, they host Butler and play road games against Providence, Xavier, Creighton and Seton Hall. But even if they pick up a pair of losses during that stretch and fail to win the Big East tournament, there's a great chance they would still get a No. 1 seed.
No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers
22-1, RPI: 1, KP: 2, SOS: 17
The last time a team made it through ACC play with an undefeated or one-loss record was in 2001-02, when Maryland went 15-1 before winning the national championship.
It's look increasingly inevitable that Virginia is going to end that drought. The Cavaliers are 11-0 in ACC play. Based on KenPom percentages, there's a 24.4 percent chance they get to 18-0 and a better than 50 percent chance they go at least 17-1. Either way, it would be the most conference wins in a single season in ACC history.
And if you thought Duke's 63 points and Louisville's 64 were signs this pack-line defense is starting to crack, Virginia went into the Carrier Dome and held Syracuse to 44 points Saturday. This team must be so demoralizing to face, and this should be the year Tony Bennett finally gets to the Final Four.
Seeding by Conference
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. The first five out are in italics.
29. Wichita State
13. North Carolina
24. Florida State
40. North Carolina State
72. Virginia Tech
18. Rhode Island
69. St. Bonaventure
11. Texas Tech
20. West Virginia
73. Kansas State
19. Seton Hall
12. Michigan State
16. Ohio State
45. Boise State
39. Arizona State
34. Texas A&M
21. Saint Mary's
42. Middle Tennessee
48. New Mexico State
53. East Tennessee State
54. South Dakota State
56. UC Santa Barbara
60. College of Charleston
61. Wright State
63. Florida Gulf Coast
65. Stephen F. Austin
67. North Carolina A&T
68. Texas Southern
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.