Way-Too-Early Projections for 2019 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket
Dunking sensation Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils will open the 2018-19 men's basketball season as a projected No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament and are joined by Gonzaga, Kansas and Kentucky.
In-season bracket projections will be slathered with dialogue about KenPom.com rankings, strength of schedule, the new NCAA Evaluation Tool formula and various other advanced statistics. Huge wins and awful losses will spur the conversation about the biggest movers.
For preseason projections, though, it's all about research and gut feelings. In each region, we'll discuss one team in the field that didn't go to the Big Dance last year, one team projected for a much better seed than last year and one team that isn't looking quite as strong as it was in 2017-18.
Before that, we'll start with the bubble, like we always do. And after the region-by-region breakdown, I'll explain why the No. 1 seeds are ranked in the order that they are. At the end is a list of overall seeds by conference as a handy reference guide.
Last 5 In
Last Team In: Maryland Terrapins
On the one hand, Maryland has a lot of holes to fill after losing five of the eight leading scorers from a team that didn't even get an invite to the 2018 NIT, much less the NCAAs.
On the other hand, Mark Turgeon is in great position to do just that with one of the top recruiting classes. Jalen Smith, a 5-star forward, will join forces with sophomore Bruno Fernando to give the Terps one heck of a frontcourt. And incoming 4-star guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala should pair nicely with Anthony Cowan and Darryl Morsell.
There's not a ton of depth, so one injury bug could derail the season. But as long as Maryland stays healthy for a change, it should be a top-five Big Ten team in what figures to be a mediocre year for that conference.
Second-to-Last In: Miami Hurricanes
Miami's backcourt lost a ton with the departures of Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker and Ja'Quan Newton, but big man Dewan Hernandez (formerly Dewan Huell) is on the short list of 5-star players from the 2016 class who are still playing college basketball. He'll be the rock-solid anchor for a team that surprisingly still has a lot of talent.
Still, the 'Canes are in great shape with Chris Lykes, Dejan Vasiljevic, Anthony Lawrence II and Florida Gulf Coast transfer Zach Johnson (16.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 2.0 SPG, 39.2% 3PT last season). If Ebuka Izundu or Sam Waardenburg has enough of a breakout year to give Hernandez (who changed his last name to honor his mother) some help in the paint, Miami could easily be a top-seven ACC team in a league that has had nine NCAA tournament teams in each of the last two seasons.
Third-to-Last In: Vanderbilt Commodores
Much like Maryland, Vanderbilt lost four of the top six scorers from a team that wasn't anything special last year, but the Commodores have hope thanks to a loaded batch of freshmen. Simi Shittu and Darius Garland were both McDonald's All-Americans, and Aaron Nesmith is no slouch of an incoming shooting guard.
The 'Dores also add Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan after he sat out last season. It wouldn't be surprising to see all four of those new players starting alongside Saben Lee.
Fourth-to-Last In: USC Trojans
Lather, rinse, repeat. USC lost its three leading scorers, but it signed three top-85 recruits to plug those gaps.
The real potential for the Trojans, though, lies in the players who didn't make as much of an impact as expected last season. Former ACC transfers Derryck Thornton and Shaqquan Aaron should be full-time starters now, and sophomores Jordan Usher and Charles O'Bannon Jr. ought to thrive in their increased roles.
If this is the year Bennie Boatwright finally stays healthy, USC could win the Pac-12.
Fifth-to-Last In: Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State quietly had a solid rebuilding year, going from 5-27 to 16-16. And aside from losing big man Drew Eubanks as an (undrafted) early entrant to the NBA, the roster is intact. Stephen Thompson Jr., Ethan Thompson and Tres Tinkle give the Beavers a solid trio to build around.
They certainly don't have the stud freshmen that USC or Vanderbilt does, but JUCO transfer Kylor Kelley could be all the difference they need to get back to the NCAA tournament.
First Team Out from Each Relevant Conference
ACC: Notre Dame: Mike Brey always seems to turn C+ recruits into A- assets, but losing Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson and Martinas Geben from a team that didn't even make the NCAA tournament last year isn't easy. Along with significant improvement from the likes of DJ Harvey and John Mooney, the Fighting Irish desperately need UConn transfer Juwan Durham to make a splash.
Big 12: Texas Tech: The Red Raiders were gutted by the departures of Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith and others, but there's still potential. Jarrett Culver will be the new go-to guy, and transfers Tariq Owens (St. John's) and Matt Mooney (South Dakota) could be critical starters.
Big East: Butler: Replacing both Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman is going to be a challenge. The Bulldogs still have Kamar Baldwin and Paul Jorgensen, but they'll need a lot of guys to make a leap. Duke transfer Jordan Tucker won't be eligible until the second semester. He could make a real difference in Big East play.
Big Ten: Iowa: I absolutely love Fran McCaffery's potential. The Hawkeyes lost almost nothing this offseason and could really compete in this conference if they just play a little bit of defense for a change. However, there are so many outlets projecting Iowa to finish in 10th or 11th place in the Big Ten that I've lost faith in my gut. Just remember when they finish top-five in the league that I wanted to predict it, though.
Pac-12: Arizona: The Wildcats lost their entire starting five and didn't add a 5-star player. They'll be relying almost entirely on transfers (Chase Jeter, Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther) and guys who should have been more valuable as reserves last year (Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee, Brandon Randolph and Alex Barcello). It might work out, but there are much safer bets out there.
SEC: Arkansas: The ultimate mystery team. The Razorbacks have an outstanding player in Daniel Gafford, but what else is there? JUCO transfer Mason Jones and New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris need to be impact performers for the young Hogs.
AAC: Houston: It won't be easy to replace Rob Gray Jr., but Houston will be a factor in the conference if Massachusetts transfer DeJon Jarreau pans out.
A-10: Davidson: Of these 10 teams, Davidson would've been the next one into the field if there was another spot available. The Wildcats have an excellent backcourt tandem in Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson.
MWC: San Diego State: The Aztecs are clearly the top challengers to Nevada, but they will only have a few opportunities at marquee wins. Unless they plan on upsetting the Wolf Pack in league play, the Aztecs better snag at least one quality win in the Maui Invitational.
WCC: BYU: It's probably going to be a down year for Saint Mary's, but BYU will make sure someone gives Gonzaga a challenge during conference play. Keep an eye on Yoeli Childs as a potential AP All-American.
East Region (Washington D.C.)
Columbia, South Carolina
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 Lehigh/St. Francis (PA)
No. 8 Alabama vs. No. 9 UCF
San Jose, California
No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 Georgia State
No. 5 UCLA vs. No. 12 Montana
No. 3 Auburn vs. No. 14 UNC Greensboro
No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 11 Saint Louis
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Vermont
No. 7 Indiana vs. No. 10 Iowa State
New to the Field: Indiana Hoosiers
Outside of Duke's quartet of phenoms, there's not a more highly anticipated freshman in the country than Romeo Langford. The reigning Mr. Basketball in Indiana was a legend in the state long before he signed with the Hoosiers, and now he's primed to become one of the biggest one-and-done stars the Big Ten has ever had.
Langford is just one half of what should be a phenomenal inside-outside duo along with senior forward Juwan Morgan. Both Hoosiers have legitimate All-American potential.
The unknown is what they have beyond that pair. Devonte Green, De'Ron Davis and Saint Mary's transfer Evan Fitzner figure to be the other three starters. Maybe freshman forward Jerome Hunter can sneak into that mix. But even Langford, Morgan and three scarecrows might be enough to reach the tournament.
Noteworthy Riser: UCLA Bruins (No. 11 seed to No. 5 seed)
UCLA lost two good ones in Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh, but the Bruins are making up for it and then some with this freshman class.
First of all, let's not forget that Jalen Hill and Cody Riley will be joining the team as redshirt freshmen. LiAngelo Ball was the name most often referenced in the whole shoplifting in China incident, but only because of his family. Hill and Riley were the players UCLA actually missed during the season-long suspension, as they were both top-100 recruits.
On top of those late arrivals, the Bruins added five more top-100 recruits from this year's class, most notably McDonald's All-American big man Moses Brown. One of them, Shareef O'Neal, has already been ruled out for the season due to a heart condition.
There's not a ton of returning talent beyond sophomores Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, but UCLA should be the top challenger to Oregon for the Pac-12 title.
Noteworthy Slider: Michigan Wolverines (No. 3 seed to No. 6 seed)
Michigan still has several key pieces from last year's national championship runner-up. Charles Matthews is the biggest star out of that group, which includes Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske.
That's the good news.
The bad news is the Wolverines lost most of the stars from that team. Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are all out of the picture. Thus, not only do the likes of Poole and Livers need to take a huge step to fill those voids, but they need a couple of their 4-star freshmen to make an immediate impact, too.
They'll still be more than fine and should finish top-four in the Big Ten without much trouble. But the league isn't going to be that strong, so they wouldn't get a great seed in the dance unless they score big wins over Villanova or North Carolina in November.
Midwest Region (Kansas City)
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Radford
No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Clemson
San Jose, California
No. 4 Oregon vs. No. 13 South Dakota State
No. 5 LSU vs. No. 12 Maryland/Miami
No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 New Mexico State
No. 6 TCU vs. No. 11 Oregon State
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Belmont
No. 7 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 10 Providence
New to the Field: Oregon Ducks
It's not often that a team misses the NCAA tournament, loses three of its top four scorers and then becomes the projected champion of a major conference the following year. But that's where Oregon is at thanks to the best recruiting class among schools not named Duke or Kentucky.
Bol Bol is the biggest star of the bunch, both literally and figuratively. The 7'2" son of Manute Bol is an even better version of former Oregon star Chris Boucher. His three-point range and shot-blocking ability will make him equally difficult to guard and score against. Pair him with Kenny Wooten (5.2 blocks per 40 minutes last year) and it's hard to imagine Oregon finishing outside the top five in the nation in two-point field-goal defense.
The Ducks also add 5-star SF Louis King and top-75 guys Will Richardson, Francis Okoro and Miles Norris. And though there isn't a ton of veteran experience on the roster, they do have a three-year starter at point guard in Payton Pritchard as well as fifth-year senior Paul White. Factor in sophomore wing Victor Bailey Jr. and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi transfer Ehab Amin and that's a mighty fine 10-man rotation.
Noteworthy Riser: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (No. 11 seed to No. 7 seed)
The Ramblers will not be a one-hit wonder.
Leading scorers Clayton Custer and Marques Townes are both back as seniors, and big man Cameron Krutwig returns after averaging 10.5 points and 6.1 rebounds as a freshman. This is still the team to beat in the Missouri Valley Conference—and without a close runner-up.
Whether the Ramblers actually move up a few seed lines will depend on how well they capitalize on nonconference opportunities. They'll host Nevada as the showcase game of the MWC/MVC Challenge, in addition to neutral-site games against Maryland, Saint Joseph's, Richmond and either Boston College or Wyoming. Loyola will have a solid resume if it can win three out of those five and avoid taking too many L's elsewhere.
Noteworthy Slider: Virginia Cavaliers (No. 1 seed to No. 3 seed)
Going from the No. 1 overall seed to No. 9 overall isn't exactly a fall from grace, but it's worth mentioning I'm a bit lower on Virginia than most.
The Cavaliers should still be great, especially if De'Andre Hunter taps into his near-limitless potential and becomes this year's version of former Villanova three-and-D wing Mikal Bridges. Combine that stud with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and a relatively deep frontcourt, and it's not hard to see the Cavs keeping pace with Duke and North Carolina atop the ACC.
But replacing Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall will be no easy task. Wilkins was the heart and soul of that pack-line defense, and Hall was a huge asset on offense, leading the team in three-point percentage and ranking second in both points and assists.
South Region (Louisville)
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 16 Lipscomb
No. 8 Purdue vs. No. 9 Cincinnati
Des Moines, Iowa
No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Harvard
No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky
Des Moines, Iowa
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 14 Rider
No. 6 Mississippi State vs. No. 11 Texas
Columbia, South Carolina
No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 15 Stephen F. Austin
No. 7 St. John's vs. No. 10 Memphis
New to the Field: Marquette Golden Eagles
Andrew Rowsey led the Golden Eagles in both points and assists last season, so the offense may take a hit after his graduation. But they get back six other players who played more than 17 minutes per game, including Markus Howard and Sam Hauser, so the cupboards aren't bare.
They're also adding Fordham transfer Joseph Chartouny and Nebraska transfer Ed Morrow as well as redshirt freshman Joey Hauser. All three should be immediate impact players, but Chartouny will be the most important.
He might not contribute that much on offense, but going from Rowsey to Chartouny on defense is like switching from a screen door to a storm door to keep the cold air at bay. Rowsey was a liability on that end of the floor, but Chartouny has been one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation over the past three years. He'll be key in making Marquette the top challenger to Villanova in the Big East.
Noteworthy Riser: Syracuse Orange (No. 11 seed to No. 4 seed)
The starting five accounted for 89.7 percent of Syracuse's points scored last season, and all of those players are back for another year. The only remotely important player the Orange lost was Matthew Moyer, who transferred to Vanderbilt. But he only averaged 1.4 points and 1.4 rebounds over his final 16 games, so how much of a loss is that, really?
East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes and freshman Jalen Carey will be more than enough to fill that small void, giving Syracuse an eight-man rotation capable of competing for a national championship.
At any rate, Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard returning should be enough for the Orange to not sweat too much on Selection Sunday for a change.
Noteworthy Slider: Purdue Boilermakers (No. 2 seed to No. 8 seed)
Carsen Edwards is awesome and deserves every preseason accolade he has been given. And Matt Haarms—whether he's still obsessively adjusting his hair or not—is a mountainous post presence who will help Purdue's defense remain strong.
But without Isaac Haas, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson, the Boilermakers have a lot of question marks.
Is Ryan Cline ready to finally become an impact player as a senior? Can Nojel Eastern contribute on offense after a dreadful freshman season? Will Dartmouth transfer Evan Boudreaux be able to put up similar numbers (17.6 PPG, 9.5 RPG) against much tougher competition?
There are more than enough concerns to keep Purdue from being seeded any higher than this.
West Region (Anaheim)
Salt Lake City
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Texas Southern/North Carolina Central
No. 8 Nebraska vs. No. 9 North Carolina State
No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 Northeastern
No. 5 Washington vs. No. 12 Buffalo
Salt Lake City
No. 3 Nevada vs. No. 14 UC Irvine
No. 6 Florida State vs. No. 11 USC/Vanderbilt
No. 2 Kansas State vs. No. 15 Wright State
No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Xavier
New to the Field: Washington Huskies
It sure didn't take long for Mike Hopkins to turn this program around, did it? After Lorenzo Romar ended his tenure as Washington's head coach with five consecutive seasons of 19 or fewer wins, Hopkins won 21 games in his first season and could be headed for a number much closer to 30 in his second campaign.
Excluding Carlos Johnson (transferred out of the program with 3.8 PPG in the middle of last season), the Huskies did not lose a single player who averaged better than 1.3 points per game in 2017-18. And now—two years after going 9-22 with a painfully young roster—they have one of the most veteran squads in the country.
Noah Dickerson, David Crisp and Matisse Thybulle should all start as seniors, with Dominic Green playing a key role off the bench for a fourth straight season. The biggest star, though, should be sophomore lead guard Jaylen Nowell. He averaged 16 points per game as a freshman and should be special once again.
Noteworthy Riser: Kansas State Wildcats (No. 9 seed to No. 2 seed)
Kansas State shocked everyone by reaching the Elite Eight last March, but it won't be a surprise if this same cast of characters does it again this year. The Wildcats get back all six of their leading scorers, including big man Dean Wade, who was only healthy enough to play eight minutes during their tournament run.
To improve their seed considerably, they'll just need to beat some quality opponents before the tournament. K-State went 0-7 against Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia last year, and most of those games weren't even competitive. Coupled with a pithy nonconference schedule, Kansas State barely had a resume worthy of a spot in the field.
One year older, wiser and stronger, though, the Wildcats should be a Top 10 team and a fierce competitor to their in-state rivals for the Big 12 crown.
Noteworthy Slider: Xavier Musketeers (No. 1 seed to No. 10 seed)
There aren't many teams who lost more this offseason than Xavier did.
Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Kerem Kanter and Sean O'Mara all graduated. Kaiser Gates unexpectedly declared for the draft. And former head coach Chris Mack took the same position with Louisville.
What's left is a first-time head coach (Travis Steele), an inefficient point guard (Quentin Goodin), a pair of part-time starters who need to step into much bigger roles (Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones) and two mid-major grad transfers (Kyle Castlin and Ryan Welage). If Xavier didn't have an active 22-year streak of winning seasons, more people would be reading that as a formula for disaster.
I don't expect Xavier to be down for long, but this has "rebuilding year" written all over it.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Duke Blue Devils
There's no doubting the talent in Duke's starting lineup. RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson are all mortal locks to become 2019 lottery picks. Freshman point guard Tre Jones might be able to join them in that club. And don't rule out the possibility of Marques Bolden finally fulfilling the potential that made him a top-15 recruit in 2016.
The concerns are the lack of depth and lack of experience.
If Bolden doesn't come around or if any of the four freshmen struggles or suffers an injury, the hopes and prayers of the Blue Devils will hinge on the play of guys like Jordan Goldwire, Jack White and Antonio Vrankovic. With all due respect to those players, that's not a championship formula.
Stay healthy, though, and Duke should win the ACC and lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for just the second time in eight years.
No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Two years after playing in the national championship game, Gonzaga has the talent to get back there again.
The depth isn't the same as it was during the 2017 run, and that depth will be immediately put to the test with stretch 5 Killian Tillie expected to miss most of nonconference play following surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle. Tillie (6'10") is one of just two players on the roster taller than 6'8"; the other is a 6'11" freshman from Serbia (Filip Petrusev). It could be an interesting first two months.
Assuming Tillie eventually makes a full recovery, though, Gonzaga should be the best non-blue blood in the country. Rui Hachimura already had a breakout season last year, and he should be headed for an even bigger one. Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. give the Zags a strong backcourt. And transfers Brandon Clarke and Geno Crandall ought to play big roles in their new threads.
No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats
Even though Tennessee and Auburn split the SEC regular-season title last year and figure to be Final Four contenders once again this year, the conference still runs through Lexington.
Inconsistency due to inexperience is what doomed the Wildcats to a mediocre (by their standards) season last year. But with three key sophomores (PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green) returning and an excellent fifth-year senior grad transfer joining the mix (Reid Travis), that shouldn't be a problem for the Wildcats this time around.
In fact, this team is so deep that we could see the return of—dare we say it?—platoons. If redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker Jr. can work his way into the equation, Kentucky will legitimately run 10 deep with four combo guards, two wing-forwards and four big men. And that platoon approach resulted in 38 wins a few years ago.
No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks
There are several different formulas for building a title contender, but Kansas seems like the clear favorite thanks to a super potion involving all of them.
Veteran leadership in the backcourt? Lagerald Vick checks that box.
Highly touted recruits? Add three more checks for Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson and David McCormack.
Immediate-impact transfers? Only Nevada can boast more checks here. Dedric Lawson might be the national POY, and both Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson are sure to be key parts of the rotation.
A deep enough frontcourt to withstand injury? Even if Silvio De Sousa doesn't appear in a single game amid the whole FBI situation, the Jayhawks still have Udoka Azubuike, McCormack, both Lawsons and Mitch Lightfoot. They'll be just fine.
Put it all together and you've got a team that should win the fourth national championship in program history.
Seeding by Conference
In case seeded regions aren't enough 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.
American (3): 33. Cincinnati; 35. UCF; 40. Memphis
ACC (9): 4. Duke; 5. North Carolina; 10. Virginia; 14. Virginia Tech; 15. Syracuse; 24. Florida State; 34. Clemson; 36. North Carolina State; 46. Miami
Big 12 (6): 1. Kansas; 8. Kansas State; 16. West Virginia; 22. TCU; 39. Iowa State; 42. Texas
Big East (5): 6. Villanova; 20. Marquette; 27. St. John's; 37. Providence; 38. Xavier
Big Ten (7): 12. Michigan State; 21. Michigan; 26. Indiana; 29. Purdue; 30. Wisconsin; 31. Nebraska; 47. Maryland
Pac-12 (5): 13. Oregon; 18. Washington; 19. UCLA; 43. Oregon State; 44. USC
SEC (8): 2. Kentucky; 7. Tennessee; 11. Auburn; 17. LSU; 23. Mississippi State; 28. Florida; 32. Alabama; 45. Vanderbilt
Other (25): 3. Gonzaga; 9. Nevada; 25. Loyola-Chicago; 41. Saint Louis; 48. Western Kentucky; 49. Montana; 50. Buffalo; 51. Georgia State; 52. Harvard; 53. South Dakota State; 54. Northeastern; 55. Rider; 56. UC Irvine; 57. New Mexico State; 58. UNC Greensboro; 59. Stephen F. Austin; 60. Vermont; 61. Wright State; 62. Belmont; 63. Lipscomb; 64. Radford; 65. St. Francis (PA); 66. Lehigh; 67. Texas Southern; 68. North Carolina Central.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.