Updated Projections for the 2019 NCAA Tournament Bracket

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 11, 2018

Updated Projections for the 2019 NCAA Tournament Bracket

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    Michigan's Ignas Brazdeikis (13) and Zavier Simpson (3)
    Michigan's Ignas Brazdeikis (13) and Zavier Simpson (3)Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    One month into the college basketball season, our projected No. 1 overall seed for the 2019 NCAA tournament is one of the teams that played in last year's national championship game. The Michigan Wolverines are undefeated and (for the most part) unchallenged with quite a few quality wins already under their belt.

    Joining the Wolverines on the projected top line are Duke, Gonzaga and Virginia.

    Projections this early in the season are a bit wonky, especially as we all try to figure out how the new NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings actually work. But it's a solid representation of how nonconference play has gone that the Big Ten has nearly twice as many projected bids as the SEC does and more than twice what the Pac-12 has.

    For each of the four regions, we'll discuss one team that wasn't in our preseason projection, one team that is in much better shape than expected and one team thatthough still in a good position to danceisn't as good as we thought.

    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 4 In

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    Seton Hall's Myles Cale (22) and Myles Powell (13)
    Seton Hall's Myles Cale (22) and Myles Powell (13)Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Last Team In: Seton Hall Pirates

    Seton Hall wasn't even on the radar heading into the weekend. The Pirates already had losses to Louisville, Saint Louis and Nebraskaand they got smoked by the Cornhuskers. Their only decent win to buoy those losses was a two-point neutral-court victory over Miami, which isn't saying much.

    But a neutral-court win over Kentucky sure does make it easier to buy stock in a team's potential. The Pirates will get another shot to prove their worth before conference play begins too. They play at Maryland on Dec. 22.


    Second-to-Last In: Louisville Cardinals

    Louisville got a huge home win over Michigan State in the ACC-B1G Challenge, as well as a head-to-head win over Seton Hall that served as a pseudo tiebreaker here at the back end of the at-large field.

    But they have also blown more than their fair chance of big chances. Louisville hung right with Tennessee for about 32 minutes before losing by double digits. And the Cardinals blew late leads in losses to Marquette and Indiana. Had they won any of those three close games, they'd be sitting pretty instead of teetering on the bubble.


    Third-to-Last In: Arkansas Razorbacks

    The Razorbacks would have been comfortably in the field prior to their home loss to Western Kentucky this past Saturday. The Hilltoppers aren't a bad team by any means, but that's a game you've got to win when you're on the bubble.

    The one-point victory over Indiana keeps Arkansas in the picture for the time being, but that is this team's only win over a KenPom Top 200 team thus far. In other words, the Hogs are on thin ice. And it's worth noting that the four toughest games left on their schedule are all on the road against Auburn, Tennessee, Texas Tech and Kentucky. Quality wins will be tough to come by.


    Fourth-to-Last In: San Francisco Dons

    The Dons haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, but they've gotten out to a great start. They're 8-1, and seven of those wins were by a margin of at least 18 points, including blowing out California and Stephen F. Austin. And the lone loss was a close game on a neutral court against Buffalo, which is nothing to be ashamed of.

    San Francisco will host Stanford on Dec. 22 before home games against Saint Mary's, Gonzaga and BYU within the first three weeks of West Coast Conference play. The Dons have put themselves in great position, and now is the time to capitalize.

First Team Out from Each Relevant Conference

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    LSU's Naz Reid
    LSU's Naz ReidPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    ACC: Clemson

    The Tigers have repeatedly let golden opportunities slip through their fingers. Close losses to Creighton and Nebraska have left this team with nothing better than a neutral-court win over Georgia. They're going to need to do some serious work in conference play.


    Big 12: None

    Eight of the league's 10 teams are projected for the field, and neither Baylor nor Oklahoma State is close.


    Big East: Providence

    The Friars got smashed by Michigan, but who hasn't? The road win over Boston College was nice. Following it up with a home loss to Massachusetts was not.


    Big Ten: Northwestern

    The Wildcats got destroyed by Fresno State in the first round of the Wooden Legacy. Not only did that result look bad, but it put them on the loser's side of the bracket, keeping them from opportunities to beat Miami and Seton Hall. They probably need to beat Oklahoma on Dec. 21 to have any realistic shot at dancing.


    Pac-12: Washington

    The Huskies had impressive showings against both Gonzaga and Minnesota, losing each of those contests in the final few seconds. But if they are unable to upset Virginia Tech this coming weekend, they're going to enter Pac-12 play without any quality wins. Given the current state of that league, there aren't going to be many opportunities to fix that in January or February either.


    SEC: LSU

    Of the nine teams in this section, LSU has the most potential to make a deep tournament run. The combination of Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams could be all sorts of special. But early losses to Florida State and Oklahoma State have left the Tigers without much of a resume to stand on. Upcoming games against Houston, Saint Mary's and Furman loom large as opportunities for decent wins.


    A10: Davidson

    The Wildcats are 8-1, but their best wins were back-to-back games against Northeastern. Opportunities abound in the next few weeks, though. They'll face Temple, Wake Forest and North Carolina before beginning Atlantic 10 play. Even a 1-2 record in those three games would likely help Davidson's resume.


    AAC: UCF

    The early home loss to Florida Atlantic is quite the albatross, but the Knights have done well to move on from that misstep, winning the Myrtle Beach Invitational before a quality home win over Alabama. This is our first team out at the moment.


    MWC: Utah State

    The Aggies already have wins away from home over Saint Mary's, UC Irvine and Weber State, and they put up one heck of a fight on a neutral court against Arizona State. They get one more massive nonconference opportunity at Houston on Dec. 20, which could make or break their at-large chances.


    WCC: Saint Mary's

    The Gaels already have four losses and aren't anywhere close to the projected field, but credit to Randy Bennett for early wins over New Mexico State, New Mexico and California despite losing five of last year's seven leading scorers.

East Region (Washington, D.C.)

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    Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver
    Texas Tech's Jarrett CulverJohn Weast/Getty Images

    Columbia, South Carolina

    No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 16 Abilene Christian/St. Francis (Pa.)

    No. 8 Houston vs. No. 9 St. John's


    San Jose, California

    No. 4 Villanova vs. No. 13 Lipscomb

    No. 5 North Carolina State vs. No. 12 New Mexico State


    Jacksonville, Florida

    No. 3 Auburn vs. No. 14 Belmont

    No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 11 Louisville/San Francisco


    Tulsa, Oklahoma

    No. 2 Texas Tech vs. No. 15 Vermont

    No. 7 Indiana vs. No. 10 Creighton


    New to the Field: Texas Tech Red Raiders

    Texas Tech is 8-0 and has won every game by at least an 11-point margin, including neutral-site games against USC, Nebraska and Memphis that were supposed to be serious tests.

    Chris Beard has to be the early front-runner for national coach of the year, because the Red Raiders are every bit as good as they were last season despite losing star player Keenan Evans and five other key role players.

    Jarrett Culver has been predictably great, but it's the immediate impact of transfers that made Texas Tech so great. St. John's transfer Tariq Owens is one of the top shot-blockers in the nation, and South Dakota transfer Matt Mooney is leading the team on both ends of the floor with 3.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game.

    Circle Dec. 20 on your calendars. That's when Texas Tech gets a chance to make a major statement against Duke at Madison Square Garden.


    Noteworthy Riser: North Carolina State Wolfpack (No. 9 seed to No. 5 seed)

    I don't understand why the NET loves this resume so much.

    NC State's high KenPom ranking (No. 27) makes sense, because the 8-1 Wolfpack decimated six of their opponents, beating Mount St. Mary's, Maryland-Eastern Shore, UNC Asheville, Maine, Saint Peter's and Western Carolina by a combined margin of 227 points. Blowing out bad teams has always been a great way to improve one's KenPom stock.

    But the NET was supposed to mitigate that effect, giving an incentive for margin of victory but capping it at 10 points. And yet, the Wolfpack are No. 18 in the latest NET rankings, even though their only noteworthy win of the season was against Vanderbilt shortly after it lost Darius Garland for the season.

    Upcoming games against Penn State and Auburn should provide a more meaningful look into whether this team is actually good.


    Noteworthy Slider: West Virginia Mountaineers (No. 4 seed to No. 11 seed)

    R.I.P. Press Virginia (2014-18).

    After four Jevon Carter-led seasons as one of the best turnover-forcing units ever, West Virginia's defense is just run-of-the-mill. The Mountaineers still have Sagaba Konate as an excellent rim protector, but they're giving up a lot of free throws and rarely forcing turnovers.

    As a result, they have losses to Florida, Buffalo and Western Kentucky without any signature winsand unless they win at Tennessee in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge in late January, they won't have any great nonconference victories come Selection Sunday.

    It's too early to throw in the towel on this team, if only because there are so many juniors and seniors who have played a key part in the program's recent winning tradition. Things are not going according to plan thus far, though.

Midwest Region (Kansas City, Missouri)

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    Oklahoma's Christian James
    Oklahoma's Christian JamesJohn Weast/Getty Images

    Columbus, Ohio

    No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Radford

    No. 8 Marquette vs. No. 9 UCLA


    Des Moines, Iowa

    No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 Old Dominion

    No. 5 Purdue vs. No. 12 Southern Illinois


    Hartford, Connecticut

    No. 3 North Carolina vs. No. 14 Montana

    No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Oregon


    Tulsa, Oklahoma

    No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Rider

    No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Texas


    New to the Field: Oklahoma Sooners

    Oklahoma didn't just lose Trae Young. Primary big man and top defensive asset Khadeem Lattin graduated, and sophomores Kameron McGusty and Jordan Shepherd both transferred out of the program. That seemed like too much attrition to overcome for a team that backed its way into the 2018 NCAA tournament with losses in 11 of its final 15 games.

    But Christian James' transition to "the man" for the Sooners has gone spectacularly, and graduate transfers Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds have both been indispensable additions.

    Thanks to that trio, the Sooners already have neutral-court victories over Florida, Notre Dame and Dayton and just one loss to a quality Wisconsin foe. And they still have four big nonconference opportunities remaining against USC, Creighton, Northwestern and Vanderbilt.


    Noteworthy Riser: Michigan Wolverines (No. 6 seed to No. 1 seed)

    We'll have more to say about the Wolverines in the No. 1 seed section, but it bears mentioning here how much better they have been than was expected. They destroyed Villanova in Philadelphia and made mincemeat of both North Carolina and Purdue.

    As great as Duke's freshmen have been, the most important first-year player in the nation might be Michigan's Ignas Brazdeikis. He is the reason the Wolverines have been able to thrive in spite of losing Moritz Wagner to the NBA. Jon Teske's emergence from part-time big man to full-time starter and defensive juggernaut has also been a major development.


    Noteworthy Slider: Oregon Ducks (No. 4 seed to No. 11 seed)

    Oregon should be better now that 5-star freshman wing Louis King has made his return to the court after missing almost a year of action because of a knee injury. But he's joining a team that is already in a bit of turmoil following a November home loss to Texas Southern.

    The Ducks were supposed to be the class of the Pac-12, but they went just 4-3 in their first seven games without Kingeven though Bol Bol has been every bit as great as advertised. The win over Syracuse was nice, but not enough to make up for what has been a slow start as a whole.

    If the tournament started today, Oregon would probably be left out of the field. We're giving the Ducks a little benefit of the doubt, though, and trusting that they'll hold their own in the next few weeks against Baylor, San Diego and Boise State (twice).

South Region (Louisville, Kentucky)

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    Buffalo's CJ Massinburg (5) and Nate Oats
    Buffalo's CJ Massinburg (5) and Nate OatsJeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Columbia, South Carolina

    No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 Lehigh

    No. 8 Iowa vs. No. 9 Butler


    San Jose, California

    No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 13 South Dakota State

    No. 5 TCU vs. No. 12 Davidson


    Columbus, Ohio

    No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 14 Northeastern

    No. 6 Buffalo vs. No. 11 Arkansas/Seton Hall


    Jacksonville, Florida

    No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Georgia State

    No. 7 Syracuse vs. No. 10 Kansas State


    New to the Field: Ohio State Buckeyes

    Aside from Texas Tech, this was easily the biggest whiff in the preseason projection. But in my defense, who the heck thought Ohio State could lose Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich and somehow get better?

    Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young and Musa Jallow have all taken big steps forward as sophomores, and the freshman classdevoid of top-75 recruitshas already delivered more than was to be expected. The big key, though, has been Wake Forest graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods. He and C.J. Jackson give the otherwise young Buckeyes a strong, veteran backcourt.

    Early road wins over Cincinnati and Creighton look great on this resume, as does the home blowout of Minnesota. The Buckeyes will also get a neutral-court game against UCLA in two Saturdays. Win that one and there's a strong case to be made that this is the top challenger to Michigan in the Big Ten.


    Noteworthy Riser: Buffalo Bulls (No. 12 seed to No. 6 seed)

    One of just nine remaining undefeated teams, Buffalo already has road wins over West Virginia, Southern Illinois and St. Bonaventure, as well as a quality neutral-site victory over San Francisco. The Bulls will face Southern Illinois again this coming Saturday, followed by road games against Syracuse and Marquette, so they could soar even higher if they keep winning.

    This is no fluke either. This is the same team that almost beat Cincinnati in November 2017 before annihilating Arizona in the NCAA tournament. In the preseason, we had the Bulls as the projected MAC champions and one of the top teams from one-bid leagues. But that was clearly underselling this team's potential.


    Noteworthy Slider: Kansas State Wildcats (No. 2 seed to No. 10 seed)

    With every noteworthy player returning from last year's Elite Eight roster, big things were expected from Kansas State.

    Early returns haven't been great, though, because the Wildcats are a disaster on offense. They struggled to pull away from Kennesaw State, Denver and Penn, scored 46 points in a loss to Tulsa and allowed Markus Howard to score 45 in a loss to Marquette.

    Aside from that Howard outlier, the defense has been outstanding. But if they don't remember how to score soon, the Wildcats are going to lose a lot of games in Big 12 play.

West Region (Anaheim, California)

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    Wisconsin's Ethan Happ
    Wisconsin's Ethan HappDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Salt Lake City, Utah

    No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Howard/Texas Southern

    No. 8 Arizona State vs. No. 9 Maryland


    Hartford, Connecticut

    No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 13 Yale

    No. 5 Nebraska vs. No. 12 Furman


    Des Moines, Iowa

    No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 14 UC Irvine

    No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 11 West Virginia


    Salt Lake City

    No. 2 Nevada vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky

    No. 7 Iowa State vs. No. 10 Arizona


    New to the Field: Furman Paladins

    Arizona State is actually the highest-seeded team from this region that wasn't in our preseason projection, but we would be remiss if we didn't both point out 10-0 Furman and explain why an AP Top 25 team is currently projected for a No. 12 seed.

    Furman has one outstanding road win over Villanova, one impressive-at-the-time-but-losing-value-by-the-day road win over Loyola-Chicago and eight other wins that have no value aside from the fact that they weren't losses.

    The good news is the Paladins will have plenty more chances to prove just how good they are. They play at LSU on Dec. 21, and they'll have two conference games each against Wofford and UNC Greensboro. If they can win three of those five games while minimizing disastrous losses the rest of the way, they'll have an excellent case for an at-large bid, if necessary.


    Noteworthy Riser: Wisconsin Badgers (No. 8 seed to No. 3 seed)

    Is there a better early candidate for the Wooden Award than Ethan Happ?

    Wisconsin's senior big man is averaging 19.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.6 blocks per game, and he has done so while playing at a snail's pace against a tough schedule. He carried the Badgers to victory over Xavier. He had double-doubles in wins over Oklahoma and NC Stateas well as in the two losses to Virginia and Marquette. And he was a crucial part of Wisconsin's road win over Iowa.

    Upcoming home games against Savannah State and Grambling State are going to damage Wisconsin's resume a bit, but this is still going to be one of the better nonconference profiles in the country. As long as the Badgers don't crash and burn in Big Ten play, they should be headed for a single-digit seed with room to spare.


    Noteworthy Slider: Kentucky Wildcats (No. 1 seed to No. 6 seed)

    We've come to expect early growing pains from Kentucky since it's typically one of the youngest teams in the country. But this team was supposed to be better immediately thanks to three returning sophomores and graduate transfer Reid Travis.

    That hasn't been the case.

    Even before the loss to Seton Hall this past Saturday, Kentucky struggled for the first 30 minutes against both Southern Illinois and UNC Greensboro, and it gave up 82 points to VMI. All seven of the Wildcats' wins ended up coming by a double-digit margin, which looks just fine as far as the NET is concerned. But the eyes know betterand the eyes remember that Kentucky got manhandled by Duke in the Champions Classic.

    The 'Cats can change the narrative before the end of the calendar year, though. They'll face North Carolina in Chicago on the 22nd, and they'll play at Louisville one week after that. A pair of wins there would put Kentucky right back onto the fringe of the No. 1 seed conversation. But for now, they're nowhere close.

Ranking the No. 1 Seeds

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    Virginia's De'Andre Hunter
    Virginia's De'Andre HunterG Fiume/Getty Images

    4. Duke Blue Devils

    Duke has won eight of 10 games by at least a 20-point margin. The two exceptions were a six-point, neutral-court win over Auburn (projected No. 3 seed) and a two-point, neutral-court loss to Gonzaga (projected No. 1 seed).

    Impressive stuff from a freshman-heavy team, but don't overlook how great the three juniors have been. Both Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier have been perfect assets as offensive rebounders and defensive stoppers in the paint, and Jack White's emergence as a hustle guy and legitimate three-point threat is a big reason why the freshmen have been able to consistently get good looks at the hoop.

    And Duke's defense has been uncommonly incredible. The Blue Devils lead the nation in steal percentage and rank fifth in block percentage. It's because of this that Duke keeps destroying opponents, even though its three-point shooting has come back to earth in a big way since the season-opening performance against Kentucky.


    3. Gonzaga Bulldogs

    The close loss to Tennessee on Sunday knocked Gonzaga down from the No. 1 overall seed, but the Bulldogs are still the early favorite to land the top spot in the West Region. That's regardless of whether they are No. 1 or No. 4 overall since the only other team in our top 28 that would also be interested in being the favorite out west is Nevada.

    The Zags are ridiculously good on offense, even though they've played the entire season to this point without big man Killian Tillie. Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura have more than shouldered the load in his absence, as both frontcourt players would be mortal locks in the top 20 of any way-too-early POY rankings.

    They already have a neutral-court win over Duke, and they could complete the Tobacco Road sweep by winning at North Carolina this coming Saturday. If they win that one, it's hard to imagine they'll fall short of a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.


    2. Virginia Cavaliers

    Make all the UMBC jokes you want, but Virginia is trending toward a second consecutive No. 1 seed and its fourth in six years.

    Per usual, the Cavaliers defense is excellent. Only one of nine opponents (Maryland) has even reached 60 points against Virginia. Getting Alabama transfer Braxton Key to replace Isaiah Wilkins has been a perfect fit, and freshman guard Kihei Clark has been a great first line of defense for the pack-line D.

    More importantly, the Cavaliers have multiple legitimate go-to scorers now. Last year, it often felt like Kyle Guy or bust. While Guy is still a key weapon for them, both De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome have joined him to create a three-headed monster averaging nearly 43 points per gamewhich feels more like 63 points, given the strength of this defense and Virginia's pace of play.

    It might not be enough to make you feel comfortable picking Virginia to finally reach the Final Four. But last year's dud won't be what keeps the Cavaliers from becoming a No. 1 seed.


    1. Michigan Wolverines

    Speaking of elite defenses...

    Michigan is 10-0 and has won all but one of those games by a double-digit margin. As previously mentioned, that includes statement wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue. The Wolverines also have quality wins away from home over Northwestern and Providence.

    In the process, they've put together the most efficient defense in the country. They don't aggressively hunt for blocks or steals, but they defend without fouling, they do a great job of denying three-point looks and they trust Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers to challenge anything close to the rim. Basically, they're daring opponents to beat them with mid-range jumpers, which is a brilliant strategy in college basketball.

    It's a close call between Virginia and Michigan for the No. 1 overall seed, but we're going with the Wolverines because they have been more dominant in the big games. It doesn't hurt that they're the best team in what is currently the best/deepest conference.

Seeding by Conference

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    Gonzaga's Brandon Clarke
    Gonzaga's Brandon ClarkeMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    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 (2): 24. Cincinnati; 30. Houston

    ACC (8): 2. Virginia; 4. Duke; 11. North Carolina; 13. Florida State; 14. Virginia Tech; 18. NC State; 28. Syracuse; 45. Louisville

    Big 12 (8): 5. Kansas; 8. Texas Tech; 19. TCU; 22. Oklahoma; 25. Iowa State; 37. Kansas State; 40. Texas; 42. West Virginia

    Big East (6): 16. Villanova; 31. Marquette; 33. St. John's; 34. Butler; 39. Creighton; 46. Seton Hall

    Big Ten (9): 1. Michigan; 10. Michigan State; 12. Wisconsin; 15. Ohio State; 17. Purdue; 20. Nebraska; 27. Indiana; 32. Iowa; 35. Maryland

    Pac-12 (4): 29. Arizona State; 36. UCLA; 38. Arizona; 41. Oregon

    SEC (5): 7. Tennessee; 9. Auburn; 21. Kentucky; 26. Mississippi State; 44. Arkansas

    WCC (2): 3. Gonzaga; 43. San Francisco

    Other (24): 6. Nevada; 23. Buffalo; 47. Davidson; 48. New Mexico State; 49. Furman; 50. Southern Illinois; 51. Lipscomb; 52. South Dakota State; 53. Old Dominion; 54. Yale; 55. Northeastern; 56. Belmont; 57. UC Irvine; 58. Montana; 59. Vermont; 60. Georgia State; 61. Rider; 62. Northern Kentucky; 63. Radford; 64. Lehigh; 65. Abilene Christian; 66. St. Francis (Pa.); 67. Texas Southern; 68. Howard


    Advanced stats courtesy of KenPom.com. NET rankings courtesy of NCAA.com.

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.