New Year Projections for the 2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket
Miles Bridges and the Michigan State Spartans have beaten their last four opponents by a combined margin of 193 points, but it wasn't enough for them to begin the calendar year as the projected No. 1 overall seed for the 2018 men's NCAA basketball tournament.
The Spartans are a No. 1 seed, though, joined on the top line by Duke, Villanova and Xavier. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Louisville, Ohio State and UCLA are among the teams smack dab on the bubble.
As always, we'll take a look at the last five teams to make the field, as well as the first five out and a few others 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.
KenPom rankings and RPI ratings current through the start of play on Jan. 1.
Last 5 In
Last Team In: Ohio State Buckeyes (11-4, RPI: 50, KP: 48, SOS: 38)
Outside of two recent games against Appalachian State and Citadel, Ohio State did an excellent job with its nonconference schedule. In addition to the PK80, the ACC/B1G Challenge (Clemson) and the CBS Sports Classic (North Carolina), the Buckeyes played a bunch of games against respectable minor-conference teams. There aren't any individual wins that stand out, but the collection of victories over William & Mary, Radford, Northeastern, Robert Morris, Miami (OH) and Texas Southern looks solid.
Will it be enough in March? Starting out Big Ten play with a pair of wins over Wisconsin and Michigan was crucial for the Buckeyes. They only play one game each against Michigan State, Purdue and Minnesota, so they should be able to go no worse than 13-5 in conference play, which would do the trick.
Second-to-Last In: Louisville Cardinals (10-3, RPI: 39, KP: 42, SOS: 49)
Louisville's resume is a classic early-January dilemma. The Cardinals lost to three excellent opponents—at Purdue, at Kentucky, vs. Seton Hall—and haven't played anyone else of value. They went undefeated against the rest of their schedule, but their best opponent along the way was either Albany or Indiana. And they haven't won a true road game yet this season.
Name brand and preseason expectations are the only reasons Louisville sneaks in at this point. If you were to instead affix the name "LSU" to this resume, we'd probably toss it aside without a second thought. But we almost have to give Louisville the benefit of the doubt until there are a few more noteworthy games on the schedule. Just give it a couple weeks, though. The Cards play road games against Virginia, Miami, Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame in January.
Third-to-Last In: Utah Utes (10-3, RPI: 34, KP: 54, SOS: 75)
For what it's worth, I'm not buying Utah as a tournament team. The Utes have strong computer numbers now, but that's only because their home win over Missouri (RPI: 24) looks better than it probably will by the end of the season. Aside from that, they did not win a single nonconference game against a team in the RPI top 150.
If I'm wrong, though, we're going to find out before the end of this month. The Utes host Arizona and Arizona State this weekend, play at UCLA and USC the following weekend and then have their road trip against Arizona and Arizona State over the final weekend in January. They probably need to win at least two of those six games to have a real shot at going dancing.
Fourth-to-Last In: Boise State Broncos (12-2, RPI: 25, KP: 58, SOS: 60)
In the long run, Boise State is going to be a tough call for the selection committee. The Broncos don't have any great wins. The best victory either came on a neutral court against Illinois State or on the road against Oregon—neither of which was legitimately considered for an at-large spot in this exercise. And aside from the two games against Nevada, they won't have much of a chance to prove anything in Mountain West Conference play. Boise State doesn't have any bad losses, though, and its computer resume is quite strong.
The Broncos are the Saint Mary's of the MWC. They blew a couple of golden opportunities in nonconference play, and now they need to avoid bad losses for the next two months. If they happen to win at least one game against the best team in the conference along the way, even better.
Fifth-to-Last In: Texas Longhorns (9-4, RPI: 59, KP: 32, SOS: 41)
At this point in the season, big wins are more important than number of losses. The Longhorns already have several quality wins (Alabama and Butler on neutral courts). They also have respectable wins over Lipscomb and at VCU. Moreover, all four of Texas' losses came against teams currently projected for the NCAA tournament.
The best news for the Longhorns is that Mohamed Bamba is starting to shine. The super freshman had 17 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in the win over Alabama just before Christmas. He followed that up with 22 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks against Kansas in the Big 12 opener. When he's making an impact in the paint, this team is drastically tougher.
First 5 Out
First Team Out: UCLA Bruins (11-3, RPI: 41, KP: 49, SOS: 54)
The win over Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic was nothing short of massive for UCLA, but it wasn't quite enough to put this team into the projected field. Rather, it gave the Bruins legitimate at-large life heading into Pac-12 play, as their best win of the season prior to defeating the Wildcats was a home game against South Dakota, which isn't saying much.
UCLA only plays one game each against Arizona and Arizona State, and that's about all the Pac-12 is bringing to the table this year. Anything worse than a 13-5 record in conference play would mean both bad losses and a lack of quality wins. Maybe the Bruins could sneak in by going 12-6, but it would be a photo finish.
Second Team Out: Georgia Bulldogs (9-3, RPI: 58, KP: 63, SOS: 141)
Over the past few years, Georgia has become notorious for its lackluster resumes. In four straight seasons, the Bulldogs have won between 19 and 21 games. They always finish .500 or better in SEC play, but never with more than a couple of quality wins, which has left them in a near-permanent bubble state.
This year, though, they've taken a different approach to the same destination. Nonconference wins over Saint Mary's, Temple and Marquette are arguably their three best November/December victories since 2011. Unfortunately, the loss to Massachusetts stands out like a sore thumb and weighs down this entire resume. The Dawgs will need to do a fair amount of work in SEC play to erase that bad loss and make the tournament.
Third Team Out: St. John's Red Storm (10-4, RPI: 35, KP: 60, SOS: 16)
Getting blown out at home against Providence was not the start to Big East play that anyone was expecting from the Red Storm, and it quickly put a damper on what had been a good-not-great nonconference run. Wins over UCF and Nebraska aren't nearly enough to buoy a four-loss resume.
But it should be noted that opportunities abound for the Johnnies. They still play two games each against Villanova and Xavier, and they have home games remaining against Seton Hall and Duke. Odds are they'll end up losing most (possibly all) of those contests and won't have a stellar resume on Selection Sunday. This team is going to have one heck of a strength of schedule, though.
Fourth Team Out: Mississippi State Bulldogs (12-1, RPI: 74, KP: 68, SOS: 305)
Mississippi State is the only one-loss team that isn't in the projected field, and that's because it has played one of the weakest schedules in the entire country. The road game against Cincinnati was the only test the Bulldogs have faced, and they failed it. Outside of that, a few home wins over Dayton, North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin are as good as it gets.
Despite the 11-1 start, MSU will need to go 10-8 or better in SEC play.
Fifth Team Out: Temple Owls (7-6, RPI: 32, KP: 72, SOS: 2)
Good luck finding a more bizarre resume than Temple's. The Owls are 5-3 against teams in the KenPom top 75 and 2-3 against teams outside the KenPom top 125. Neutral-court wins over Clemson and Auburn look fantastic. The home loss to Tulane and road losses to La Salle and George Washington? Not so much. The strength of schedule keeps them in the conversation for now, but to remain there, they'll need to turn things around in AAC play by winning at least 11 of their final 17 regular-season games.
5 Others Worth Mentioning
In addition to the 10 teams hovering right on the bubble, here are five teams who were supposed to be better than they currently are. There's still plenty of time for each to right the ship and secure a single-digit seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament. For now, though, things aren't looking great.
Florida Gators (9-4, RPI: 87, KP: 35, SOS: 78)
Neutral-court wins over Cincinnati and Gonzaga should pay dividends for the Gators in the long run. However, neither of those teams is currently in the RPI top 50—they're both in the KenPom top 10, though—and they surrounded those two wins with losses to Duke, Clemson, Florida State and Loyola Chicago.
The home loss to the Ramblers is the one that's dragging Florida down, and it's the one that opened our eyes to the possibility that this team simply isn't that good. Maybe the Gators were just riding hot three-point shooting for the first two weeks of the season. But KeVaughn Allen hasn't been playing up to his full potential, and the Gators are hoping to get John Egbunu back from a torn ACL before the end of the season. If and when they get to full strength, they'll be a force in the SEC.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-3, RPI: 71, KP: 28, SOS: 150)
Coming back from a 20-point second-half deficit for a last-second, neutral-court victory over Wichita State is the only thing standing between Notre Dame and complete disaster. The only other game thus far that the Fighting Irish have played against an RPI top-100 team was a blowout loss to Michigan State. And yet, they have an 11-3 record thanks to bad losses to Ball State and Indiana.
If Notre Dame finishes in the top half of the ACC standings with something in the vicinity of a 10-8 conference record, it should be fine. But even that doesn't seem like a sure thing for a team that climbed as high as No. 5 in the AP poll in November.
Baylor Bears (10-3, RPI: 125, KP: 34, SOS: 239)
Even before the 77-53 loss to Texas Tech to open Big 12 play, Baylor wasn't in my projected field. A neutral-court win over Creighton is the only noteworthy positive thing the Bears have done this season. Eight of their 10 wins have come at home against teams outside the RPI top 150.
Blowing out those cupcakes helped Baylor fool KenPom and the AP voters for a while, but the RPI metrics aren't buying what Baylor is selling. Every game in Big 12 play is an opportunity to prove something, but the Bears might need to win 11 conference games to make up for their pathetic nonconference schedule.
Northwestern Wildcats (10-5, RPI: 76, KP: 53, SOS: 73)
In what was supposed to be a season building upon the first NCAA tournament appearance in program history, Northwestern is 0-4 against the RPI top 100 and has an ugly loss to Georgia Tech (RPI: 245). The Wildcats already played (and lost) their only regular-season game against Purdue, and they only have one game against Michigan State. That means opportunities for statement wins from this point forward are almost nil.
That isn't to say Northwestern needs to win every game between now and Selection Sunday, but anything short of an 11-7 record (10-6 the rest of the the way) in Big Ten play wouldn't even be worth considering.
Providence Friars (10-5, RPI: 44, KP: 59, SOS: 34)
Providence opened Big East play with a 22-point win over St. John's. The Friars proceeded to lose to Creighton by 19 in their next game. They are now 4-4 in their last eight, and the home wins against Brown and Stony Brook were far too close for comfort.
Despite a bad loss to Massachusetts, this resume isn't terrible. However, the Friars will need to pick up at least a few quality wins in Big East play. Simply taking care of business against DePaul, Georgetown, St. John's and Marquette isn't going to cut it.
East Region (Boston)
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Texas Southern/North Carolina A&T
No. 8 Alabama vs. No. 9 SMU
San Diego, California
No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 13 Lipscomb
No. 5 Clemson vs. No. 12 New Mexico State
No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 14 Towson
No. 6 Auburn vs. No. 11 Ohio State/Louisville
Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 15 Iona
No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 10 USC
Moving Up: Clemson Tigers (12-1, RPI: 15, KP: 21, SOS: 67)
After a 2016-17 season full of "almosts" and "should haves," Clemson has been a fun team that is better than anyone anticipated.
Against all odds, the Tigers lost Jaron Blossomgame, Avry Holmes and Sidy Djitte and still got better. They already have road wins over Ohio State and Florida, and recent blowout wins over South Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Carolina State are impressive from both a KenPom and RPI point of view.
Anchored in the paint by Texas A&M transfer Elijah Thomas, Clemson has become one of the best defenses in the nation. Brad Brownell's guys contest shots without fouling and do a great job on the defensive glass. That's perhaps the biggest change from yesteryear, when the Tigers allowed a ton of offensive rebounds and didn't do much to keep opponents from getting open looks at the rim.
Whether Clemson actually belongs in the ACC's upper echelon will be determined by a four-game stretch in mid-January. The Tigers will play vs. Miami, at North Carolina, vs. Notre Dame and at Virginia in the span of 11 days. If they can go 2-2 during that gauntlet, they'll just about lock up a tournament bid that has eluded them for several years.
Moving Down: USC Trojans (10-5, RPI: 40, KP: 46, SOS: 10)
Under two months ago, USC was one of the top candidates to reach the 2018 Final Four.
At this point, it's not even clear if the Trojans are one of the four best teams in the lackluster Pac-12.
They won the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii over Christmas, but an early loss by Miami kept that tournament title from counting for as much as it could have. Worse, USC bookended that tourney with bad home losses to Princeton and Washington. Coupled with previous blown opportunities against Texas A&M, SMU and Oklahoma, the Trojans have been one disappointment after another this season.
USC was our No. 19 overall seed at the beginning of December, but a rough month necessitated a drop of 21 spots. If the Trojans don't run the table through a Downy-soft January schedule, they'll be in serious trouble.
Midwest Region (Omaha)
No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 16 Radford/St. Francis PA
No. 8 Nevada vs. No. 9 Gonzaga
No. 4 Seton Hall vs. No. 13 Belmont
No. 5 Texas Tech vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee
No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 Buffalo
No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Maryland
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Bucknell
No. 7 Syracuse vs. No. 10 Houston
Moving Up: Oklahoma Sooners (11-1, RPI: 3, KP: 15, SOS: 20)
The Trae Young Experience has been an incredible ride. Oklahoma's freshman guard is averaging 29.6 points and 10.6 assists through 12 games. And the numbers don't even capture how much fun he has been to watch, and how much it feels like he has already wrapped up every applicable individual award less than halfway through the season.
But his individual achievements have somewhat obscured just how good this team has been.
The Sooners have won true road games against Wichita State and TCU, and they won what were effectively road games against USC in Los Angeles and against Oregon in Portland. They obliterated Northwestern and have won six other games by at least a 10-point margin.
Young has been great, but Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz made it abundantly clear over the past two seasons that it takes more than one superstar to consistently win games. The national public may view Christian James, Brady Manek and Khadeem Lattin as role players serving as Young's sidekicks, but this entire team has been rock solid for two months.
The Sooners were barely a No. 6 seed in our Dec. 1 bracket, but they are now the top No. 2 seed. And if they happen to win at West Virginia this weekend, feel free to declare them the new No. 1 overall seed.
Moving Down: Gonzaga Bulldogs (12-3, RPI: 73, KP: 9, SOS: 180)
Gonzaga has quickly turned into this year's microcosm of the RPI vs. advanced metrics debate. KenPom has the Zags in the top 10 while a strict RPI seeding of the field wouldn't even have Gonzaga anywhere close to the bubble.
The true ranking of this team lies somewhere in the middle. Wins over Creighton, Ohio State, Texas and Washington give Gonzaga a better collection of quality wins than 95 percent of schools. But the loss to Florida looks an awful lot worse now than it did at the time, and the recent loss to San Diego State was a bad look, to say the least.
As a result, Gonzaga will enter West Coast Conference play without much of a cushion. A road loss to Saint Mary's and/or BYU wouldn't be the end of the world, but if the Bulldogs go 15-3 or suffer a particularly inexcusable home loss in the next two months, they'll be on the bubble heading into the conference tournament.
South Region (Atlanta)
Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 Stephen F. Austin
No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Saint Mary's
No. 4 TCU vs. No. 13 South Dakota State
No. 5 Wichita State vs. No. 12 Vermont
No. 3 Texas A&M vs. No. 14 Louisiana
No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Texas
No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 15 Oakland
No. 7 Cincinnati vs. No. 10 St. Bonaventure
Moving Up: Butler Bulldogs (12-3, RPI: 20, KP: 39, SOS: 26)
Losing to Butler didn't do much to hurt Villanova. The Wildcats are still our No. 2 overall seed to begin the 2018 portion of this season.
But it was a humongous victory for the Bulldogs, who wouldn't have even been in the projected field a week ago.
Prior to that 101-93 win, Butler's resume was uninspiring. Each of its three losses (Maryland, Texas and Purdue) came by a double-digit margin, and its best wins (Utah and Ohio State) came against bubble teams.
Shooting the lights out against the No. 1 team in the country is a great way to change one's perception in a positive way, though. The Bulldogs felt like the eighth-best team in the Big East on Saturday morning, but by the end of the night, fourth in the Big East seemed like a more reasonable expectation.
We'll find out in a hurry whether it was a turning point or a one-game mirage, as Butler will play at Xavier, vs. Seton Hall and at Creighton within the next eight days.
Moving Down: Cincinnati Bearcats (12-2, RPI: 54, KP: 8, SOS: 197)
There's a huge divide between how the RPI and the advanced metrics view Cincinnati.
But this is nothing new. I've been pointing out for years that Mick Cronin has mastered the art of fooling the margin-of-victory rating systems by annihilating bad opponents early in the season. The Bearcats already have eight wins by at least a 25-point margin, but only one of those games came against a team in the RPI top 150 (Wyoming: 77). Hence the poor strength of schedule.
Against quality opponents, this is just an average team. Cincinnati lost to Xavier and Florida in back-to-back weeks and barely beat Buffalo. The wins over Mississippi State and UCLA were nice, but neither of those teams is currently in the projected field.
Long story short, the jury is still out on the Bearcats, who don't play their first game against Wichita State until the second half of February. Cincinnati was a projected No. 3 seed before those losses to the Musketeers and the Gators, but they have since slipped four lines to a No. 7.
West Region (Los Angeles)
No. 1 Xavier vs. No. 16 Princeton
No. 8 Rhode Island vs. No. 9 Michigan
No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 UC Santa Barbara
No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Missouri State
No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 14 Furman
No. 6 Miami (FL) vs. No. 11 Boise State/Utah
San Diego, California
No. 2 Arizona State vs. No. 15 Portland State
No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 Minnesota
Moving Up: Arizona State Sun Devils (12-1, RPI: 6, KP: 18, SOS: 48)
The Sun Devils were unable to knock off Arizona last Saturday, but they still boast arguably the most impressive resume in the country. The road win over Kansas is the crown jewel, and neutral-court victories over Xavier, St. John's and Kansas State are pretty swell.
Oklahoma has been a lot of fun to watch and unstoppable on offense because of a freshman named Trae (Young). For Arizona State, it's due to a senior named Tra (Holder). He is averaging 22.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game. His year-over-year improvement in efficiency and accuracy is a ringing endorsement for the benefits of college basketball, as he was a freshman who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn three years ago.
He's just one piece of a remarkable puzzle, though. Each player in ASU's primary six-man rotation is averaging better than nine points per game. And Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell has quickly become a key contributor after missing the first eight games of the season.
Feel free to pick this team to lose early in the tournament because of its poor defense, but get ready for the Sun Devils to potentially be a No. 1 seed. Per KenPom, they are favored to win every remaining game.
Moving Down: Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-3, RPI: 53, KP: 43, SOS: 125)
It feels like a lifetime ago, but back at the end of November, Minnesota was supposed to be a Sweet 16-caliber team. The Golden Gophers were 7-1 with wins over Alabama and Providence and a lone loss to a quality Miami team.
But then they lost to Nebraska and Arkansas and barely survived for a one-point home win over Drake. In the span of one week, they went from fringe Final Four contender to biggest example of why this is a down year for the Big Ten.
They have rebounded a little bit with three straight victories by double-digit margins, but home wins over Oral Roberts, Florida Atlantic and Harvard don't prove anything. A home game against Purdue on Jan. 13 is their only chance in the next six weeks to show that they belong in the tournament field. Let that one slip away and it'll be an uphill climb for the Gophers.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4: Xavier Musketeers (14-1, RPI: 2, KP: 16, SOS: 21)
Per usual, it was a tough call for the final No. 1 seed. Oklahoma and Purdue were both viable candidates, and Arizona State wasn't far behind, thanks to a head-to-head win over Xavier.
But at No. 2 in RPI with only that one loss, it was impossible to deny the Musketeers this spot.
But this team has been flirting with disaster without much of a net. Xavier doesn't have a single RPI top-50 win, and each of its last five games were won by a margin of 10 points or fewer—including home games against Marshall and DePaul. The impressive computer numbers are more an indication of smart scheduling than pure domination, though Trevon Bluiett and Co. can put on a show when necessary.
Only once in the past eight years have there been two No. 1 seeds from the same conference (North Carolina and Virginia in 2016), but the Big East has a reasonable chance of joining that club.
No. 3: Michigan State Spartans (14-1, RPI: 27, KP: 2, SOS: 115)
Michigan State jumped to No. 1 in Monday's AP Top 25, but let's be honest: That's only because Duke and Villanova lost more recently. From an overall resume perspective, the Wildcats and Blue Devils are clearly a step ahead of the Spartans, who have a neutral-court win over North Carolina and not much else.
Though the strength of schedule isn't great, the margins of victory have been a little ridiculous for Michigan State. The four most recent victories—home games against Houston Baptist, Long Beach State, Cleveland State and Savannah State—came by an average margin of 48.3 points. Twelve of the Spartans' 14 wins have come by at least an 18-point margin. And their only loss of the season was a close, neutral-court battle with Duke seven weeks ago.
The strength of schedule isn't going to get much better in Big Ten play, but Michigan State is a legitimate threat to enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed with a 32-2 record.
No. 2: Villanova Wildcats (13-1, RPI: 8, KP: 1, SOS: 63)
Even in defeat, Villanova was impressive.
The Wildcats scored 93 points in a 72-possession game and only committed four turnovers at Hinkle Fieldhouse. However, Butler shot an absurd 15 of 22 (68.2 percent) from three-point range and simply could not be stopped. It felt like we were rewatching one of those games between Villanova and Creighton from Doug McDermott's senior year when the Bluejays were unconscious from the perimeter.
The fall from the top overall spot isn't a far one for the Wildcats, as they still have five RPI top-80 wins—each of which came away from home. Despite the early loss, they remain the team to beat in the Big East, thanks to one of the most potent offenses in the country.
No. 1: Duke Blue Devils (13-1, RPI: 1, KP: 4, SOS: 4)
Defense remains a serious concern for the Blue Devils, but with this offense, does it really matter?
Florida State made 15 three-pointers against Duke in their ACC opener, but Duke rallied for a 100-93 win behind a combined 46 points and 37 rebounds from Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. Duke struggled from both the three-point and free-throw lines in the game, and it still managed to score at will against an opponent that previously held Florida to just 66 points.
Duke now has nine RPI top-100 wins—though none have come against a team in the RPI top 25—and it may well double that total before the regular season is finished.
Seven of its next 11 games are on the road, including games at North Carolina and Miami. Don't be surprised if the Blue Devils suffer another few losses before the tournament, but it would require quite the collapse for this team to enter the Big Dance as anything other than one of the five favorites to win it all.
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.
18. Wichita State
32. Rhode Island
33. St. Bonaventure
8. North Carolina
27. Florida State
16. West Virginia
17. Texas Tech
14. Seton Hall
71. St. John's
3. Michigan State
46. Ohio State
43. Boise State
6. Arizona State
9. Texas A&M
72. Mississippi State
34. Saint Mary's
47. Middle Tennessee
48. New Mexico State
49. Missouri State
53. UC Santa Barbara
54. South Dakota State
61. Portland State
64. Stephen F. Austin
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.