2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection for the Field

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 15, 2016

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection for the Field

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    Kentucky was a No. 1 seed in the preseason. Lonzo Ball and UCLA took that away from the Wildcats.
    Kentucky was a No. 1 seed in the preseason. Lonzo Ball and UCLA took that away from the Wildcats.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    With the 2016-17 men's college basketball season roughly 25 percent complete, the projected No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament are Villanova, Duke, Baylor and UCLA.

    It has been about six weeks since our preseason projection of the 2017 NCAA tournament field, and quite a few things have changed. Back then, Texas and North Carolina State were both projected as No. 5 seeds. Neither one is even in the projected field at this point. On the flip side of that coin, current No. 5 seeds Notre Dame and South Carolina weren't even in the projected field in early November.

    It's still way too early in the season to start using RPI in these projections. That data looks better each week, but it's still quite wonky. Middle Tennessee at No. 8 and Wake Forest at No. 12 are the two big ones keeping us from even considering diving any further into those numbers. Instead, these projections are rooted primarily in KenPom rankings and quality wins.

    As always, 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 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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    No Kris Dunn. No Ben Bentil. No problem.
    No Kris Dunn. No Ben Bentil. No problem.Stew Milne/Associated Press

    Last Team In: Pittsburgh Panthers (8-2)

    The neutral-court loss to Duquesne is quite the eyesore, but wins over Maryland, Marquette, Eastern Michigan, Yale, Buffalo and Penn State help soften that blow. It has been a long time since the Panthers put together a nonconference schedule this good, and they should enter ACC play in good shape because of it.

                    

    Second-to-Last: TCU Horned Frogs (9-1)

    Say what you will about Washington this season, but beating the Huskies by a double-digit margin in back-to-back games was a solid showing for TCU. Following that up with a 23-point beatdown of an Arkansas State team that already has wins over Georgetown and Chattanooga was even more impressive. It'll probably only take a couple weeks of Big 12 play to send the Horned Frogs packing, but we cannot disregard what they've done just because they've taken more than their share of lumps in conference play for the past four years.

                        

    Third-to-Last: SMU Mustangs (8-3) 

    With head-to-head wins against both TCU and Pittsburgh, SMU would be hard to justify leaving out of this projection. That said, we're more skeptical about this team than any other in the current field. With big frosh Harry Froling suddenly deciding to transfer this week, the Mustangs' already short rotation becomes even more shallow in the frontcourt. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye has been great, but the blowout loss to Michigan and surprising loss to Boise State showed what can happen when he's held in check.

            

    Fourth-to-Last: Northwestern Wildcats (8-2)

    Is this finally the year? Northwestern already has wins over Texas and Wake Forest and darn near knocked off both Butler and Notre Dame away from home. The Wildcats have one more big nonconference test this Saturday against Dayton to help determine just how many Big Ten wins they'll need to break their eternal NCAA tournament drought.

             

    Fifth-to-Last: Providence Friars (8-2)

    Rodney Bullock is doing one heck of a Ben Bentil impression, averaging 21.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Former Indiana Hoosier Emmitt Holt is making the most of his second chance, putting up 14.0 points and 5.6 rebounds. Jalen Lindsey is raining threes (20-of-43), and Kyron Cartwright is in the running for the national lead in assists per game (7.7). Add it all up and the Friars are the biggest positive surprise that no one is talking about.

First 5 Out

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    For Moses Kingsley and Arkansas, it's close but no cigar.
    For Moses Kingsley and Arkansas, it's close but no cigar.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    First Team Out: Arkansas Razorbacks (8-1)

    The 8-1 record looks nice, but the Razorbacks have not yet beaten a team even on the radar for an at-large bid, and they haven't won a game away from home—losing by 14 at Minnesota in their only attempt thus far. They still have road games against Texas and Oklahoma State to potentially pad their nonconference profile, but there's not much there at the moment.

                         

    Second Team Out: Rhode Island Rams (6-4)

    Third Team Out: VCU Rams (7-3)

    The Atlantic 10 should eventually be a multi-bid league. It has sent at least three teams to the past nine NCAA tournaments and has more than enough average-to-above-average teams for some cream to inevitably rise to the top. But as things currently stand, the entire conference is 1-17 against the KenPom Top 55 with the one exception being Rhode Island's neutral-court win over Cincinnati.

    Both of these sets of Rams are playing well, but they've each blown several opportunities and won't get many more the rest of the way. Suddenly, VCU's home game against Middle Tennessee this coming Saturday is of the utmost importance.

                         

    Fourth Team Out: Ohio State Buckeyes (8-2)

    Home wins over Providence and Connecticut look nice. The two-point road loss to Virginia is even nicer. But what's up with that home loss to Florida Atlantic? That will probably be the worst red mark on any bubble team's resume come Selection Sunday, and there aren't even any injuries to try to blame it on. The Buckeyes will need to do a little extra work in Big Ten play to make up for it.

             

    Fifth Team Out: Oklahoma Sooners (6-3)

    Almost doesn't count, which means the overtime loss to Northern Iowa and one-possession loss to Wichita State won't do the Sooners any good. That leaves them with a resume that boasts nothing more than a neutral-court win over a Clemson team that was playing without two key guys.

On the Horizon

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    Central Florida has never won a NCAA tournament game. Could Tacko Fall get the Knights there this year?
    Central Florida has never won a NCAA tournament game. Could Tacko Fall get the Knights there this year?Alex Menendez/Getty Images

    Texas Tech Red Raiders (9-1)

    Kansas State Wildcats (9-1)

    Each of these Big 12 teams is one bucket away from being undefeated, but the best win between the two of them is Texas Tech's buzzer-beating win at home against Rice. Moreover, neither one has a nonconference game remaining against a team in the KenPom Top 75. With that type of nonconference "strength" of schedule, it's likely going to take at least 11 Big 12 wins to make a worthy tournament resume. Even in what is a bit of a down year for the Big 12, that's asking too much.

                               

    Wake Forest Demon Deacons (8-2)

    North Carolina State Wolfpack (7-2)

    Solid early records, but these two ACC schools are a combined 0-4 against the KenPom Top 100. NC State should be getting a boost with the debut of Omer Yurtseven coming on Thursday night. However, like the aforementioned Big 12 teams, there will be a lot of work to do in conference play to rectify the pithy nonconference schedules. And though the ACC is clearly the best conference in the country, these are its 12th- and 13th-best teams we're talking about.

              

    Marquette Golden Eagles (7-3)

    Steve Wojciechowski's boys have a pair of wins away from home by double-digit margins against SEC schools (Georgia and Vanderbilt), but that's as good as it gets for a team that already has three losses. Outside of the annual game against Wisconsin, their best chances for quality wins came in the 2K Classic. They went 0-2 with a blowout loss to Michigan and a heart-breaker against Pitt. They'll need a few big wins over the likes of Villanova, Creighton, Butler and Xavier before they can be taken seriously for a tournament bid.

                   

    California Golden Bears (8-2)

    The early win over South Dakota State doesn't look anywhere near as good as it once did, and the early loss to San Diego State seems to be getting uglier by the day. But with Charlie Moore emerging as a freshman star, this feels more like a tournament team than its resume currently suggests. Big opportunity to change the narrative next Wednesday at home against Virginia.

                      

    BYU Cougars (7-3)

    BYU is usually right on the cut line at this time of year, but losing at home to Utah Valley has a way of changing things. The Cougars do have nice wins over Colorado and Princeton, but it may take multiple wins over Gonzaga and Saint Mary's to get back into the bubble conversation.

                     

    Northern Iowa Panthers (5-4)

    They aren't particularly close at the moment with four losses, but they have wins over Oklahoma and Arizona State with games coming against Iowa and North Carolina in the next week. They have a better chance of improving their nonconference RPI and SOS than probably every other team on the bubble.

                      

    UCF Knights (7-2)

    We're not supposed to have rooting interests, but you're out of your mind if you think I'm not pulling for Tacko Fall and the Knights this year. Monday's home loss to Penn was not a good look, but prior to that, they were 7-1 with wins over Mississippi State and Massachusetts and a hard-fought loss to Villanova. As weak as the AAC is, there's a chance UCF could be the second-best team in its conference.

East Region (New York City)

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    The Shockers are once again one of the best mid-majors in the country.
    The Shockers are once again one of the best mid-majors in the country.Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Buffalo, New York

    No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Wagner / NC Central

    No. 8 Clemson vs. No. 9 Dayton

                    

    Salt Lake City 

    No. 5 Saint Mary's vs. No. 12 Monmouth

    No. 4 Oregon vs. No. 13 Chattanooga

             

    Orlando, Florida

    No. 6 Wichita State vs. No. 11 Colorado

    No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 Ohio

             

    Tulsa, Oklahoma

    No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech

    No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Winthrop

              

    Stock Rising: Wichita State Shockers (Up 22 Spots)

    After losing Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Anton Grady and Evan Wessel, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Wichita State. Sure, the Shockers were still projected to win the Missouri Valley Conference, but without a single noteworthy senior on the roster, they were supposed to be more of a No. 11 or No. 12 seed than the 11th- or 12th-best team in the country.

    Instead, they're looking almost as good as usual. Wichita State is 9-2 with wins over Oklahoma, LSU, Colorado State, Tulsa and Long Beach State and has a pair of close losses to Louisville and Michigan State. Rather than two or three players doing all the work, it's an endless barrage of role players with 10 guys averaging between 5.1 and 10.5 points per game.

    Catch Saturday's game against Oklahoma State if you can. After that, they'll pretty much just be beating up on the MVC.

             

    Stock Falling: Michigan State Spartans (Down 13 Spots)

    We're not completely abandoning ship with Michigan State, but four November losses is shockingly new territory for the Spartans. Granted, all four of those losses came away from home against teams that may well win their major conferences. But at a certain point, the quantity of quality losses becomes a concern.

    Outside of a neutral-court win over Wichita State, Michigan State hasn't done much of anything. It struggled in recent wins over Oral Roberts and Tennessee Tech (playing without Miles Bridges) and barely escaped with a home win over Florida Gulf Coast last month. Always count on Michigan State to be better in March than it is in November, but early losses and close wins could mean a worse seed for the Spartans than we're accustomed to seeing.

                    

    Holding Steady: Dayton Flyers (Up One Spot)

    Rhode Island was originally the projected top team from the Atlantic 10, but Dayton is now in possession of that honor with no other team playing like it wants it. The Flyers have decent wins over Alabama, East Tennessee State and New Mexico as well as missed opportunities in the form of close losses to Saint Mary's and Nebraska. They'll have two more games in the next week against Northwestern and Vanderbilt to potentially enhance their resume.

Midwest Region (Kansas City, Missouri)

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    P.J. Dozier has South Carolina on the brink of breaking a tournament drought of more than a decade.
    P.J. Dozier has South Carolina on the brink of breaking a tournament drought of more than a decade.Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    Tulsa, Oklahoma

    No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 New Hampshire

    No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 9 Miami

               

    Orlando, Florida

    No. 5 South Carolina vs. No. 12 UNC-Wilmington

    No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Princeton

                 

    Milwaukee

    No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 11 SMU / Northwestern

    No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 14 Fort Wayne

            

    Indianapolis

    No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 Seton Hall

    No. 2 Indiana vs. No. 15 Bucknell

                        

    Stock Rising: South Carolina Gamecocks (New to the Field)

    Despite Monday's loss to Seton Hall, South Carolina is looking like the second-best team in the SEC through the first quarter of the season. The Gamecocks have wins over Syracuse, Michigan and Monmouth and have played arguably the best and most aggressive team defense outside of West Virginia.

    P.J. Dozier is at the forefront of that defensive assault, averaging 2.3 steals to lead a team recording more than eight per game. With Chris Silva ranking fifth in the nation in block percentage, the guards can be as aggressive as they want without too much fear of lost containment resulting in an easy bucket.

    Dozier is also one of the leaders on offense, shooting 41.2 percent from three-point range and averaging 13.6 points per game, improving considerably on an inefficient freshman season. He has quietly been one of the most valuable players in the country and should help carry the Gamecocks to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004.

                   

    Stock Falling: Arizona Wildcats (Down 15 Spots)

    Considering the injuries and suspensions they've dealt with, the Wildcats are playing surprisingly well. They barely lost neutral-court games against Butler and Gonzaga and scored a neutral-court win over Michigan State.

    However, those are their only three games this season against KenPom Top 100 teams, and that 1-2 record just isn't cutting it. Saturday's road game against Texas A&M is a huge one for both teams.

                      

    Holding Steady: Louisville Cardinals (Down Two Spots)

    Like Arizona, Louisville has only played three games of note: wins over Purdue and Wichita State and a three-point, neutral-court loss to Baylor. The Cardinals were up by as many as 20 on the Bears in that game before giving it all away. They're still struggling to find their identity on offense, but this isper usualan elite defensive team that finds ways to win more often than not.

    After Saturday's game against Eastern Kentucky, the Cardinals will have four in a row against Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana and Notre Dame. Time to find out what this team is capable of doing this year.

South Region (Memphis, Tennessee)

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    The Golden Gophers are easily the most surprising of the nine teams with 10 wins.
    The Golden Gophers are easily the most surprising of the nine teams with 10 wins.Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Greenville, South Carolina

    No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 Texas Southern / Long Beach State

    No. 8 Maryland vs. No. 9 Texas A&M

               

    Milwaukee

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

    No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Valparaiso

    Buffalo, New York

    No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee

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

    Indianapolis

    No. 7 Cincinnati vs. No. 10 Minnesota

    No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 North Dakota

                      

    Stock Rising: Minnesota Golden Gophers (New to the Field)

    From 8-23 to 11-1, Minnesota has had the most incredible turnaround to start this season.

    These aren't cupcake wins we're talking about, either. Eight of the Golden Gophers' 10 wins have come against teams in the KenPom Top 200, including three (Texas-Arlington, Vanderbilt and Arkansas) in the Top 80.

    Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch is one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the country. Milwaukee transfer Akeem Springs is making an early case for Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 9.0 points and leading the team in made triples.

    But the best "addition" came from within, as Dupree McBrayer has lived up to our expectations by becoming one of the nation's unheralded breakout sophomores.

    We'll see if they can keep it going. Minnesota started 11-2 two seasons ago before going 6-12 in Big Ten play to miss the postseason. Regardless of how it ends, it has been a fun early story.

                           

    Stock Falling: Wisconsin Badgers (Down Nine Spots)

    The Badgers have been almost as good as expected. They already have wins over Syracuse, Marquette, Oklahoma, Georgetown and Tennessee. They are dominating the paint, ranking third in the nation in rebounding margin and shooting 58.5 percent from inside the arc. Their only losses were to North Carolina and Creighton.

    But we had Wisconsin projected to win the Big Ten and No. 5 on the overall seed list in the preseason. Ethan Happ and Co. are playing well but not quite that well. That isn't to say they won't win the Big Ten, but Indiana is the current favorite with Wisconsin and Purdue jostling for position in second place.

                 

    Holding Steady: Cincinnati Bearcats (No Change)

    Maybe it's just because their AAC counterpart, Connecticut, has been so disappointing, but the Bearcats have looked solid despite a pair of losses to Rhode Island and Butler. They're just as good on defense as they always are, but they have been more productive on the offensive end than usual. That conference is theirs to lose.

West Region (San Jose, California)

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    Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson have Notre Dame in great shape.
    Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson have Notre Dame in great shape.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Sacramento, California

    No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 16 Sam Houston State

    No. 8 Iowa State vs. No. 9 Syracuse

                

    Sacramento, California

    No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh / TCU

    No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 Nevada

              

    Salt Lake City

    No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Providence

    No. 3 Gonzaga vs. No. 14 Cal St. Bakersfield

               

    Greenville, South Carolina

    No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State

    No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 15 Belmont

              

    Stock Rising: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (New to the Field)

    Notre Dame was our second team out back in early November but only because of how absurdly deep the ACC is. As we wrote at the time, "The ACC has four of the top nine teams in the country, seven of the top 25, 10 of the top 40 and 12 of the top 51. It's going to be one heck of a gauntlet that leaves a couple of deserving teams on the outside looking in."

    Thus far, though, the Fighting Irish belong among the ACC teams in the Top 25, rather than just the top 51. They have neutral-court wins over Colorado and Northwestern, as well as emphatic home wins over Iowa and Fort Wayne. And they had Villanova on the ropes on a neutral court for about 30 minutes until Josh Hart completely took the game over.

    What's incredible about this team is how efficient it has been despite losing Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste. Bonzie Colson has developed into a double-double machine. Steve Vasturia is thriving as a senior. And Matt Farrell has come out of nowhere to become one of the most dominant lead guards in the country, averaging 13.0 points and 5.5 assists per game after putting up just 2.6 and 1.6, respectively, as a sophomore.

    They have another big test on a neutral court against Purdue on Saturday, but this looks like a team that could finish top five in the ACC. Credit to Mike Brey for doing a great coaching job, as usual.

                        

    Stock Falling: Syracuse Orange (Down 17 Spots)

    Frankly, Syracuse probably should have dropped even further than this. RPI is a fairly trashy data point for at least a few more weeks, but the Orange are currently ranked No. 163 in RPI, according to WarrenNolan.com. They are 0-3 away from home. Their best win came against Monmouth, which isn't getting into the dance without the MAAC auto bid. Their second-best win came against Holy Cross, which is just plain sad after five weeks of games.

    If they win their next three home games against Georgetown, Eastern Michigan and St. John's, they'll at least begin to right the ship in advance of ACC play. Lose any of those games, though, and they're officially in trouble.

    Last year, they just barely got in with a 9-9 ACC record that included a road win over Duke. And that team had a resume with nonconference wins over Texas A&M and Connecticut. It might take 11 ACC wins for Syracuse to make up for this nonconference profile.

                                    

    Holding Steady: North Carolina Tar Heels (Down One Spot)

    North Carolina has been even a little bit better than expected (when Joel Berry II is on the court), but just wanted to note here that we're taking a "major conference champions" approach to the top six seeds at this early point in the season. Kansas and North Carolina are very much in the hunt for No. 1 seeds, as the top nine teams in the country are pretty interchangeable, but they are our bottom two No. 2 seeds for now.

Ranking the No. 1 Seeds

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    Josh Hart is the best player on the best team in the country.
    Josh Hart is the best player on the best team in the country.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    No. 4 UCLA Bruins

    UCLA's defense is giving up a ton of points, but when you're leading the nation in both two-point and three-point percentage, who needs defense?

    The Bruins staked their claim to a No. 1 seed with a road win over Kentucky two weekends ago and backed it up with a 102-84 win over Michigan this past Saturday. Starting center Thomas Welsh didn't even play in the game against the Wolverines, and the Bruins still beat them mercilessly.

    We'd like to see UCLA defeat one or two more quality opponents before we start thinking about No. 1 overall seed, but to be on the top line at all is more than anyone was expecting.

                   

    No. 3 Baylor Bears

    Based solely on quality of wins and losses, there's a strong case to be made for Baylor as the No. 1 overall seed. The Bears have neutral-court wins over Louisville, Michigan State and VCU. They have home wins over Oregon, Xavier and Florida Gulf Coast. Even their 34-point win over Sam Houston State bears mentioning, as that's probably the best team in the Southland Conference this season.

    But we're unwilling to vault the Bears ahead of either the reigning national champs or the preseason favorite to win it all, because, well, we're just not. Villanova has looked great all season long, and Duke is looking almost unbeatable now that it's finally getting healthy. Outside of those two teams, though, Baylor is where it's at right now.

    They'll need to dethrone Kansas as the 12-time reigning Big 12 champion in order to hang onto this spot on the top line, but if the Bears keep playing like this, it can happen.

                                

    No. 2 Duke Blue Devils

    Duke's resume isn't all that great compared to these other three No. 1 seeds, but the Blue Devils are still the favorites to win the nation's best conference and they look like the best team in the country. They had to tread water for a little while without Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden (and with a hobbled Grayson Allen). With that trio back and doing work, it's almost laughable how well this team is playing.

                      

    No. 1 Villanova Wildcats

    In the past 15 days, Villanova swept its fourth consecutive Big 5 seriesthis one by an average margin of 22.0 points per winand made one heck of a statement in rallying for a key victory over previously unbeaten Notre Dame.

    It has been a while since we legitimately entertained the notion of a team winning back-to-back national championships, but that's where we're at with this Villanova squadwhich might be even better than it was last year. If and when Eric Paschall starts scoring more efficiently, good luck finding a weakness to exploit on this team.

Seeding by Conference

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    Virginia is a No. 3 seed, but London Perrantes' hair is a No. 1 seed.
    Virginia is a No. 3 seed, but London Perrantes' hair is a No. 1 seed.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    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: 27. Cincinnati; 44. SMU

    Atlantic 10: 36. Dayton; 70. Rhode Island; 71. VCU

    ACC: 2. Duke; 8. North Carolina; 11. Virginia; 13. Louisville; 19. Notre Dame; 25. Florida State; 29. Clemson; 33. Miami; 34. Syracuse; 38. Virginia Tech; 46. Pittsburgh

    Big 12: 3. Baylor; 7. Kansas; 10. West Virginia; 31. Iowa State; 40. Oklahoma State; 45. TCU; 73. Oklahoma

    Big East: 1. Villanova; 12. Creighton; 17. Xavier; 22. Butler; 37. Seton Hall; 42. Providence

    Big Ten: 6. Indiana; 14. Wisconsin; 16. Purdue; 28. Michigan State; 30. Michigan; 32. Maryland; 39. Minnesota; 43. Northwestern; 72. Ohio State

    Pac-12: 4. UCLA; 15. Oregon; 23. USC; 24. Arizona; 41. Colorado

    SEC: 5. Kentucky; 20. South Carolina; 26. Florida; 35. Texas A&M; 69. Arkansas

    West Coast: 9. Gonzaga; 18. Saint Mary's

    Other: 21. Wichita State; 47. Middle Tennessee; 48. Texas-Arlington; 49. UNC-Wilmington; 50. Monmouth; 51. Princeton; 52. Chattanooga; 53. Nevada; 54. Valparaiso; 55. Florida Gulf Coast; 56. Ohio; 57. Cal St. Bakersfield; 58. Fort Wayne; 59. Belmont; 60. Winthrop; 61. North Dakota; 62. Bucknell; 63. New Hampshire; 64. Sam Houston State; 65. Long Beach State; 66. Texas Southern; 67. North Carolina Central; 68. Wagner

              

    Stats are courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports-Reference.com. Recruiting information is courtesy of Scout.

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