2016 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Super Early Projection for Field of 68

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 3, 2015

2016 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Super Early Projection for Field of 68

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    It may be July, but true college basketball fans always have March on the brain.

    For the first time in quite a while, the state of college basketball's offseason is stable enough for an updated projection of the 2016 NCAA tournament field.

    The deadline for early entrants to the NBA draft has long since passed. The coaching carousel appears to have finally come to a halt. All of the 5-star recruits have chosen a college, as have all but two of the 4-star guys. Even all of the noteworthy transfers have decided where they'll be living next semester.

    Save for some inevitable injuries and dismissals "for violation of team rules," we pretty much know what every team will be going to war with in November. And though it's still way too early to be think about bracket season, we are long overdue for a bracket projection less antiquated than the one we posted in mid-April.

    Back then, California and Louisville hadn't made their big offseason splashes and were lingering on the bubble. Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones hadn't even declared for the draft yetlet alone been replaced by the signings of Derryck Thornton and Brandon Ingram. Heck, our current No. 1 overall seed hadn't even picked up the guy who will likely start at shooting guard for them.

    Long story short, things have changed.

    As always, we'll look at the last five teams into the field followed by the first five teams missing the cut. Then, it's on to a region-by-region snapshot of the field of 68, with some commentary on teams that have moved the most in the past two-plus months. And we'll wrap things up with the ranking of the No. 1 seeds and a summary of the entire field broken down by conference.

Last 5 In

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Last Team In: Mississippi State Bulldogs

    At the time of our last projected bracket, Ben Howland had been announced as the new head coach of Mississippi State, but he hadn't yet signed 5-star guard Malik Newman.

    Let's just say that was one heck of an impact addition. The Bulldogs haven't been to the tournament since 2009, but they may have enough to sneak in with their new coach and star player.

    Second-to-Last: Oregon Ducks

    Oregon missed out on the Jamal Murray sweepstakes, but the Ducks are still looking solid with the addition of Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis and freshman point guard Tyler Dorsey. Joseph Young was one of the best shooting guards in the country last season and will not be easy to replace, but those two guys at least give coach Dana Altman a good chance of leading his team back to the tournament.

    Third-to-Last: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

    The Fighting Irish lost two NBA draft picks in Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, but it's hard to argue with the starting five they'll bring back from a team that earned a No. 3 seed this past March. Demetrius Jackson should be one of the nation's best lead guards this season, and a supporting cast of Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson and Zach Auguste ought to be formidable.

    Fourth-to-Last: West Virginia Mountaineers

    This is just a hunch, but I imagine more teams will be prepared for the Mountaineers' style of play this season after their "do whatever it takes to steal the ball" strategy seemed to catch many opponents off guard last year. They'll still make the tournament, but thanks to a year of game tape and no more Juwan Staten, they won't do so nearly as comfortably.

    Fifth-to-Last: Georgia Bulldogs

    No one ever talks about Georgia, but coach Mark Fox has done quite the fine job over the past few years of rebuilding this program into an annual tournament contender. Replacing frontcourt duo Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic will be no small challenge, but a veteran backcourt of Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines and J.J. Frazier goes a long way to help soften the blow. If Yante Maten can have a bit of a breakout sophomore season, the Bulldogs will be dancing.

First 5 Out

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    Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

    First Team Out: Pittsburgh Panthers

    Just moments after our way-too-early bracket published, it was announced that Durand Johnson would not be returning to Pittsburgh after missing all of last season. However, the Panthers have added Rafael Maia, Sterling Smith and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa via transfer this summer, so they could be in good shape.

    The ACC should be strong, and that could eventually work against someone. We already have eight ACC teams in the field, so Pittsburgh would make it nine out of 15. Sending 60 percent of a conference to the tournament isn't inconceivablethe Big 12 sent 70 percent last year and the Big East got 68.8 percent in 2011but that doesn't make it easy or common.

    Second Team Out: BYU Cougars

    Nothing to see here. Just another bracket projection with BYU on the bubble, per usual.

    BYU might actually be strong. Despite losing Tyler Haws and several other seniors, the Cougars still have Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer and will be adding quite a few quality players returning from their LDS missions, including Nick Emery, Jakob Hartsock and Braiden Shaw. If those 20-year-old freshmen can hit the ground running, BYU could give Gonzaga a run for its money in the WCC.

    Third Team Out: Ohio State Buckeyes

    It's strange that Thad Matta doesn't get the type of "it doesn't matter who's on the roster, that coach will find a way to make the tournament" respect that coaches like Bo Ryan receive. Matta has a career winning percentage of .762 and has won at least 20 games in each of his 15 years as a head coach.

    That said, the Buckeyes have to replace a ton this year. There are only four returning players who scored so much as a single point last season, and they will desperately lack backcourt leadership without Shannon Scott and D'Angelo Russell. Also, the Big Ten should be ridiculously strong this year.

    Fourth Team Out: Creighton Bluejays

    After a woeful 2014-15 season, Creighton should be headed for a bounce-back year. Impact transfers Mo Watson and Cole Huff will be eligible, and perhaps this will be the year that Isaiah Zierden actually stays healthy. Still, improving from 14-19 to make the NCAA tournament while losing five seniors is a tall task.

    Fifth Team Out: Providence Friars

    Kris Dunn is some kind of incredible. He and Utah's Jakob Poeltl are on the short list of guys who have already played a year of college basketball and are likely to be lottery picks in 2016.

    But can he do it alone? Ohio State's Russell was one of the best individual talents in the country last year, but he had a solid supporting cast and still only led Ohio State to a No. 10 seed. Even if Ben Bentil has the type of breakout year we're expecting, the Friars might have trouble winning enough games to go dancing.

East Region (Philadelphia)

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Brooklyn, New York

    No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 16 Winthrop

    No. 8 Florida vs. No. 9 Cincinnati

    Denver, Colorado

    No. 4 Baylor vs. No. 13 Central Michigan

    No. 5 Miami vs. No. 12 Iona

    Spokane, Washington

    No. 3 California vs. No. 14 UC Irvine

    No. 6 Purdue vs. No. 11 North Carolina State

    Raleigh, North Carolina

    No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Stony Brook

    No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 10 Boise State

    Stock Up: California Golden Bears (up nine lines)

    California wasn't the singular reason that we felt compelled to do another offseason bracket projection, but it was definitely one of the biggest driving forces.

    Back in mid-April, the ink on Ivan Rabb's commitment hadn't even dried, Jaylen Brown's decision to sign with the Golden Bears was still several weeks away, and we still weren't sure whether or not Tyrone Wallace would come back for his senior year. They were a strong candidate to return to the tournament after missing it in 2015, but they weren't nearly the foregone conclusion that they are now.

    UCLA and San Diego State have owned California over the past few years, but Cuonzo Martin has this program in fantastic shape to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997.

    Stock Down: North Carolina State Wolfpack (down seven lines)

    Once upon a time, the Wolfpack were only losing Ralston Turner and Desmond Lee. With Terry Henderson transferring in and guys like Trevor Lacey and Kyle Washington returning, they were in great shape to be the fourth-best team in the ACC.

    But Lacey declared for the draft and Washington transferred to Cincinnati, leaving behind a roster searching for answers. North Carolina State does still have Cat Barber, Lennard Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya, but this isn't nearly the deep rotation of talent it was a few months ago. 

    Stock Up: Purdue Boilermakers (up four lines)

    Not only did Purdue convince A.J. Hammons to come back for a fourth season, but Matt Painter also added 5-star big man Caleb Swanigan and transfer point guard Johnny Hill.

    As opposed to last offseason when Wisconsin was clearly the best team in the Big Ten and we were struggling to find a team worthy of coming in second place, this year Maryland is head and shoulders ahead of the pack, but the pack is exceptional. Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue should each spend most of the season ranked in the AP Top 25, and it's not crazy to envision a scenario in which the Boilermakers actually challenge the Terrapins for the conference title.

    Stock Down: Florida Gators (down two lines)

    In mid-April, Billy Donovan was still the head coach, and Chris Walker and Eli Carter were still expected to be on the roster. Instead, the Gators will now have to move on without any of those pieces.

    They should still be in good shape, though, if Brandone Francis and John Egbunu make as much of an impact as they are capable of doing. Devin Robinson should also be headed for a breakout year after a lackluster start to his freshman season, and another year of Dorian Finney-Smith certainly won't hurt matters.

Midwest Region (Chicago)

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    St. Louis, Missouri

    No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 16 Norfolk State / North Florida

    No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 9 Dayton

    Des Moines, Iowa

    No. 4 Indiana vs. No. 13 Belmont

    No. 5 Georgetown vs. No. 12 Valparaiso

    Des Moines, Iowa

    No. 3 Wichita State vs. No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette

    No. 6 SMU vs. No. 11 West Virginia / Notre Dame

    St. Louis, Missouri

    No. 2 Iowa State vs. No. 15 Montana

    No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Utah

    Stock Up: Georgetown Hoyas (up three lines)

    D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera had already changed his mind about declaring for the draft before our last bracket, but I've grown more optimistic about the rest of the Hoyas in the past few months. Isaac Copeland and Paul White are both headed for big years, and Jessie Govan just might be big and talented enough to keep Georgetown from missing Joshua Smith too badly. This will be a young roster, but it could be the second-best team in the Big East. 

    Stock Down: Iowa State Cyclones (down one line)

    All things considered, this is a minor change. We previously had the Cyclones at No. 4 overall, and for losing one of the most respected coaches of the past few seasons, they only dropped to No. 6 overall. And, really, that had more to do with the ridiculous additions by Duke and Kansas than it did Fred Hoiberg's decision to coach the Chicago Bulls. Iowa State should still be one of the best teams in the country.

    Stock Up: Wichita State Shockers (up one line)

    In early May, Wichita State scored one of the most important pickups of the entire offseason by adding Cleveland State transfer Anton Grady. The Shockers were always going to be the best team in the MVC, but they're ready to be one of the top 10 teams in the nation now that they have a proven talent in the frontcourt. As long as Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet stay healthy, Wichita State could get back into the discussion for a second No. 1 seed in three years.

    Stock Down: SMU Mustangs (down one line)

    This was a rather minor slip from No. 17 overall to No. 23 overall, but there really weren't any other movers in this region worth mentioning. Nothing has really changed about the Mustangs roster in the past few months, but their competition in the AAC has improved with Connecticut adding Shonn Miller and Sterling Gibbs. Now that they don't have a cakewalk to the conference regular-season crown, they have dropped slightly.

South Region (Louisville)

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    Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    Raleigh, North Carolina

    No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary's / Texas Southern

    No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 UCLA

    Providence, Rhode Island

    No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 13 Yale

    No. 5 Connecticut vs. No. 12 UAB

    Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

    No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Wofford

    No. 6 Vanderbilt vs. No. 11 Oregon State

    Brooklyn, New York

    No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts

    No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 Davidson

    Stock Up: Oregon State Beavers (new to the field)

    I'm willing to admit when I've made a mistake, and I straight up whiffed on the Beavers earlier this offseason. Oregon State should really be a "stock down" team with the announcement in early June that Victor Robbins was officially dismissed from the program, but Gary Payton II and company are instead on the up and up for being placed in the field this time around.

    This is an outstanding defensive team that struggled to score with any regularity last year. The addition of freshman shooting guards Tres Tinkle and Stephen Thompson Jr. could be a huge boost for an inexperienced team that was quietly much better than most seemed to notice. 

    Stock Down: Michigan State Spartans (down two lines)

    Caleb Swanigan was committed to Michigan State for less than a month, but our last update took place during the sweet spot of Spartans hysteria when the Final Four appearance was fresh on the brain and Swanigan was the supposed missing piece that was going to carry the team back to the national semifinals once again.

    Now that Swanigan is at Purdue and we're quite a bit further removed from the 2015 run, our optimism for the Spartans in 2015-16 isn't nearly as high. They'll still be good, but ranking in the top 10 in the nation might be pushing it. 

    Stock Up: Connecticut Huskies (up six lines)

    As mentioned on the previous slide, Kevin Ollie's squad made quite the offseason upgrade in acquiring graduate transfers Shonn Miller (Cornell) and Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall). The Huskies were a fringe tournament team before those signings, but now they're a serious contenderespecially if Jalen Adams has as great of a freshman season as many are expecting. 

    Stock Down: UCLA Bruins (down two lines)

    Nothing has changed about UCLA's roster since mid-April, but that just means the Bruins stood still while several Pac-12 teams bypassed them. With California's new recruits, Utah's Jakob Poeltl decision to stay for another year and the pieces that Oregon added, it got a whole lot harder to win 12 games in this conference.

West Region (Anaheim)

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

    No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 New Mexico State

    No. 8 Louisville vs. No. 9 LSU

    Spokane, Washington

    No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 Stephen F. Austin

    No. 5 Butler vs. No. 12 Oregon / Mississippi State

    Denver, Colorado

    No. 3 Arizona vs. No. 14 Hofstra

    No. 6 Texas vs. No. 11 Georgia

    Providence, Rhode Island

    No. 2 Virginia vs. No. 15 Bucknell

    No. 7 Rhode Island vs. No. 10 San Diego State

    Stock Up: Louisville Cardinals (new to the field)

    If we include incoming transfers, Louisville arguably has the best 2015 "recruiting" class in the countrythe biggest piece of which didn't commit until late April.

    Drexel transfer Damion Lee averaged 21.4 points per game last season and was remarkably efficient, considering he was the only good thing going for the Dragons in 2014-15. He is exactly what the Cardinals needed after losing Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell.

    Rick Pitino will have a ton of new pieces this year, but it shouldn't be too difficult to fit them all together to form a tournament team.

    Stock Down: LSU Tigers (down two lines)

    LSU is going to have one of the best 1-2-3 punches in the country with Antonio Blakeney, Tim Quarterman and Ben Simmons. But with neither a true point guard nor a true center who has shown much of anything, we're growing increasingly skeptical about Johnny Jones' ability to make this team any better than the one that underachieved its way to a No. 9 seed this past season.

    Stock Up: Rhode Island Rams (up one line)

    We were already projecting Rhode Island to be the best team in the A-10, and that has become an even more likely scenario with the news from early June that Memphis transfer Kuran Iverson will be immediately eligible to play for the Rams. With him in the mix with E.C. Matthews, Hassan Martin and Jared Terrell, Rhode Island shouldn't be too far behind Gonzaga and Wichita State for the title of best team from a non-major conference.

    Stock Down: Arizona Wildcats (down one line)

    As was the case with SMU, Arizona drops slightly because its in-conference competition improved substantially. The Wildcats didn't drop far, in part because they recently added San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefsen, who should immediately help out in the frontcourt. Winning the Pac-12 title is going to be much more of a challenge, though, with California now looking like one of the top teams in the country.

Ranking the No. 1 Seeds

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    No. 4: Kansas Jayhawks (Previous Rank: 11)

    Simply put, Cheick Diallo was a game-changer for the Jayhawks.

    They were already going to be good. A 12th consecutive Big 12 title wasn't out of the question, even though Iowa State was arguably the favorite to win the conference, with Oklahoma and Baylor not all that far behind.

    But with the upgrade that they got at power forward when Diallo committed, the Jayhawks vaulted from "solid squad" to "national championship potential." If Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk has the type of sophomore year that many are expectingDraft Express has him evaluated as the No. 15 pick next June—Kansas will be even better.

    No. 3: Kentucky Wildcats (Previous Rank: 1)

    Adding Jamal Murray kept Kentucky in the conversation for the No. 1 overall seed, but it wasn't nearly the haul we were expecting when we gave the Wildcats the way-too-early top spot in mid-April.

    At that time, seven Wildcats had declared for the draft, but Jaylen Brown, Malik Newman, Diallo, Brandon Ingram, Stephen Zimmerman and Thon Maker had yet to declare and all had Kentucky high on their list of potential landing spots. Given John Calipari's recent history with 5-star recruits, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would sign at least a couple of those studs.

    However, they all went elsewhere, leaving Murray as a good consolation prize.

    The Wildcats should win the SEC with room to spare and head for a No. 1 seed for the fourth time in seven seasons. But No. 1 overall might be just a little bit out of reach without the absurdly talented depth previously presumed.

    No. 2: North Carolina Tar Heels (Previous Rank: 3)

    So far, so good for North Carolina this postseason, because no news is good news as far as the Wainstein Report is concerned. The university did receive a notice of allegations in late May, but it was vague and shed no light on whether the men's basketball program is in any danger of a 2016 postseason ban.

    Until/unless something more pessimistic arises, we're forced to assume that the Tar Heels will be eligible for the tournament. And if that proves to be the case, they should receive one of the No. 1 seeds.

    We previously had the Tar Heels as a No. 1 seed, and nothing about their situation has changedother than Duke reloading and becoming much more likely to contend for the ACC title. As long as it is eligible and healthy, feel free to continue operating under the assumption that North Carolina is headed for at least 28 wins.

    No. 1: Maryland Terrapins (Previous Rank: 2)

    Not only did Kentucky fail to make the number of offseason splashes that we were anticipating, but Maryland even made one of its own by adding Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimonshoring up the one potential weakness on the roster by adding what ESPN's Jeff Goodman recently ranked as the No. 1 transfer of this offseason.

    The Terrapins now have arguably the best starting five in the country with Melo Trimble, Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone in there for tipoff and Jared Nickens, Dion Wiley, Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky coming off the bench.

    Don't go putting any money on an undefeated season, but it's tough to see this roster losing enough games to miss out on a No. 1 seed.

Seeding by Conference

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    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: 19. Connecticut; 23. SMU; 34. Cincinnati

    Atlantic 10: 26. Rhode Island; 35. Dayton; 40. Davidson

    ACC: 2. North Carolina; 5. Duke; 8. Virginia; 18. Miami; 28. Florida State; 30. Louisville; 41. N.C. State; 45. Notre Dame; 69. Pittsburgh

    Big 12: 4. Kansas; 6. Iowa State; 9. Oklahoma; 16. Baylor; 21. Texas; 44. West Virginia

    Big East: 7. Villanova; 17. Georgetown; 20. Butler; 29. Xavier; 72. Creighton; 73. Providence

    Big Ten: 1. Maryland; 14. Michigan State; 15. Indiana; 24. Purdue; 25. Michigan; 31. Wisconsin; 71. Ohio State

    Mountain West: 38. San Diego State; 39. Boise State

    Pac-12: 11. Arizona; 12. California; 36. UCLA; 37. Utah; 43. Oregon State; 46. Oregon

    SEC: 3. Kentucky; 22. Vanderbilt; 27. Texas A&M; 32. Florida; 33. LSU; 42. Georgia; 47. Mississippi State

    West Coast: 13. Gonzaga; 70. BYU

    Other: 10. Wichita State; 48. Valparaiso; 49. UAB; 50. Iona; 51. Yale; 52. Belmont; 53. Central Michigan; 54. Stephen F. Austin; 55. UC Irvine; 56. Wofford; 57. Louisiana-Lafayette; 58. Hofstra; 59. Montana; 60. Oral Roberts; 61. Bucknell; 62. Stony Brook; 63. New Mexico State; 64. Winthrop; 65. Norfolk State; 66. North Florida; 67. Mount St. Mary's; 68. Texas Southern

    Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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

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