Midseason Projections for the 2019 NCAA Tournament Bracket
Men's college basketball conference play is heating up, but it hasn't yet affected the top of the 2019 NCAA tournament projection. Undefeated Michigan and Virginia still have a firm grip on a No. 1 seed, as does Duke, thanks to Cam Reddish's game-winner at Florida State on Saturday.
The fourth spot on the top line is a close call between Tennessee, Texas Tech, Kansas and Gonzaga, any of which could absolutely get there in the next two months.
Far away from the No. 1 seed conversation, the Pac-12 might end up being a one-bid league, but it does have three teams in this projection—though Washington, Arizona and Arizona State are each on the bubble as No. 10 through 12 seeds.
The Big Ten, on the other hand, is sitting pretty with 10 bids. No other league is projected with more than seven.
For each of the four regions, we'll discuss one team that is in much better shape than it was in our Jan. 3 projection and one team that—though still in position to dance—isn'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, there will be an explanation of 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
Last Team In: Arizona State Sun Devils
Since mid-December, Arizona State has an excellent win over Kansas and four questionable losses to Vanderbilt, Stanford, Utah and Princeton. The Sun Devils are 4-5 overall since starting 7-0 and are quickly playing their way to the wrong side of the bubble.
But they still have four Quadrant 1 wins, which only 10 teams in the country can boast. Even No. 2 seeds Texas Tech and Gonzaga don't have that many.
The problem, though, is that Arizona State is the only member of that 10-team club with a Quadrant 3 or Quadrant 4 loss, and the Sun Devils have three of them. And as Pac-12 play trudges along, they're more likely to add some bad losses than great wins. Unless they turn things around posthaste, this might be the last time we see them in the projected field.
Second-to-Last In: Butler Bulldogs
For as much time as we spend harping on the Pac-12's futility, the Big East is quietly putting together an unimpressive season. Marquette is a legitimate second-weekend team, and Villanova seems to be turning things around with a five-game winning streak.
Beyond that top two, though, it's four teams on the bubble and four teams that would need to do a lot of work just to get there. And the most "bubblicious" team in the Big East is Butler.
The Bulldogs have nice wins over Ole Miss, Florida and Creighton, but they also have seven losses—five of which came against teams not currently projected for the tournament. They led by 10 with less than six minutes remaining in Sunday's loss to Xavier before going ice-cold and falling to 1-3 in Big East play.
Third-to-Last In: Alabama Crimson Tide
Is Alabama a good team that occasionally suffers bad losses or an OK team that sometimes pulls off surprising upsets?
The Crimson Tide has Quadrant 1 wins over Kentucky and Liberty, as well as a 4-0 record in Quadrant 2 games. But they also have home losses to Georgia State and Texas A&M as well as a neutral-site loss to Northeastern, giving them a 1-3 record against Quadrant 3.
The A&M loss Saturday stings the most because a) it's a conference game the Tide should have won, b) it happened most recently and c) the Aggies won by one point on a last-second, off-balance three-pointer by TJ Starks. Alabama is going to be in a bunch of coin-flip games over the next two months, and that was not a promising start to that gauntlet.
Fourth-to-Last In: Temple Owls
Temple is 3-0 since our last projection. The Owls won a home game against Houston thanks to a controversial offensive foul with one second remaining, and they won overtime games against Wichita State and South Florida.
So, they haven't exactly made things look easy. In fact, seven of their 13 wins have come by a margin of four points or fewer. But that 7-0 record in tight games was enough to bump them into the field, at least temporarily.
It doesn't hurt matters that all three of Temple's losses (Villanova, UCF and VCU) came away from home against projected tournament teams. If they can avoid adding bad losses to the likes of East Carolina, Tulane, Penn or Tulsa, they should remain in good shape.
First 4 Out
First Team Out: Syracuse Orange
Pardon my French, but what the heck, Syracuse?
The Orange were finally in a great position to move comfortably into the field for the first time in what feels like five years. They had won four in a row, including back-to-back Quadrant 2 victories over Notre Dame and Clemson. All they had to do was win a home game against Georgia Tech and they probably would have been a No. 10 seed—mercifully absent from the bubble discussion for a change.
Instead, they got stung by the Yellow Jackets in a 73-59 slopfest. Georgia Tech committed 22 turnovers, but it had 15 steals of its own; meanwhile the Orange shot 7-of-33 (21.2 percent) from three-point range. Maybe Syracuse got caught peeking ahead to Monday's road game against Duke. It will almost need to win that game to get back into the projected field anytime soon.
Second Team Out: Florida Gators
Florida was already on the bubble in our New Year's projection, and it has since suffered home losses to South Carolina and Tennessee.
There's no shame in the Volunteers loss, since UT is a projected No. 1 seed. Plus, the Gators were in that game for 39 minutes until Tennessee tacked on nine late points to make the 11-point margin less respectable. But losing at home to the Gamecocks was a major issue for a team that frankly hasn't done much this season.
Year in and year out, Florida somehow tricks KenPom.com into thinking it's better than it actually is. The Gators have been a top-30 team on the tempo-free analytics site all season long, even though they have six losses and only one win against a projected tournament team—a home victory over bubble-y Butler. They better start adding some quality victories if they want their rankings to count for anything on Selection Sunday.
Third Team Out: Creighton Bluejays
If Creighton does miss the tournament, it's not for lack of opportunities. The Bluejays have already faced Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Marquette, Nebraska, Villanova, Ohio State and Butler.
Unfortunately, they are 0-7 in those games against projected tournament teams. And the only one they came particularly close to winning was the home game against Marquette, which went to overtime when the Golden Eagles canned a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer.
Creighton entered Sunday leading the nation in effective field-goal percentage, so there's no question this team could be dangerous if it gets to dance. Lack of defense may force the Bluejays to try to win the NIT instead.
Fourth Team Out: Saint Louis Billikens
It's only mid-January, but we're already scraping the bottom of the major-conference at-large barrel. So instead of throwing out a team like Baylor or Clemson who either has awful losses or no wins worth mentioning, let's shine some love on the Atlantic 10's Saint Louis.
The Billikens have won four in a row and ought to be able to push that winning streak to 14 before back-to-back road games against Dayton and VCU in late February. If they're able to do so, they'll definitely move into the projected field. A road win over Seton Hall and a home win over Butler in the opening month of the season should help keep this resume in the conversation for the foreseeable future.
East Region (Washington, D.C.)
Columbia, South Carolina
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 16 Rider
No. 8 Seton Hall vs. No. 9 Texas
San Jose, California
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 13 North Texas
No. 5 Florida State vs. No. 12 Lipscomb
Des Moines, Iowa
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 South Dakota State
No. 6 Wisconsin vs. No. 11 Temple/Alabama
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 15 Radford
No. 7 Villanova vs. No. 10 UCF
Noteworthy Riser: UCF Knights (New to the field)
Truthfully, there's not much to love about UCF's resume.
The Knights have only faced one Quadrant 1 opponent, losing in overtime at Missouri—which barely even qualifies as a Quadrant 1 game. They also suffered a Quadrant 4 loss at home to Florida Atlantic. That L doesn't look quite as bad as it did at the time, but it's still quite ugly.
But there's not much to hate, either. Those are UCF's only losses of the season, and recent victories over Temple and Connecticut have bumped the Knights' count of Quadrant 2 wins from one to three. UCF is also in the top 40 in both the NET and KenPom rankings, which looks nice alongside a 13-2 record.
According to KenPom, UCF should be favored in each of its next nine contests, which includes a home game against Houston that could give this resume a huge boost. As long as the Knights don't have another FAU-sized letdown against Tulane or Tulsa in the next two weeks, they should be in good shape to make the tournament for the first time since 2005.
Noteworthy Slider: Wisconsin Badgers (No. 4 seed to No. 6 seed)
Remember November Wisconsin?
The Badgers started the season 8-1 with quality wins over Oklahoma, NC State and Iowa. Their lone loss was a hard-fought, predictably-low-scoring affair with Virginia. After opening the season unranked, they climbed all the way to No. 12 in the AP poll and appeared to be one of the top challengers for the Big Ten crown.
Since then, they are 3-4 with two meaningless home wins over Grambling State and Savannah State. They have lost three of their last four, including a home game against Purdue in which the team shot 56.2 percent from three-point range while Ethan Happ finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.
If Wisconsin couldn't beat what is essentially a one-man team with that type of performance, what is it going to take to turn things around?
Midwest Region (Kansas City, Missouri)
Columbia, South Carolina
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 Lehigh
No. 8 Mississippi State vs. No. 9 TCU
San Jose, California
No. 4 Maryland vs. No. 13 Yale
No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 12 Arizona State/Butler
Salt Lake City
No. 3 Nevada vs. No. 14 New Mexico State
No. 6 Indiana vs. No. 11 Arizona
No. 2 Texas Tech vs. No. 15 UC Irvine
No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Minnesota
Noteworthy Riser: Maryland Terrapins (No. 11 seed to No. 4 seed)
Though the previous projection was published the morning after Maryland's home win over Nebraska, that game admittedly wasn't factored into the seeding. We had already slotted the Terrapins into a play-in game as a No. 11 seed and opted to just keep them there rather than shuffling things at the 11th hour. After all, it was their first quality win of the season, and there was still an argument to be made that they barely belonged in the field.
But they have since added road wins over Minnesota and Rutgers and a home win over Indiana to improve to 5-1 in Big Ten play, as well as 6-3 against Quadrants 1 and 2. Coupled with recent struggles by Ohio State and Wisconsin, it's looking like Maryland is the third-best team in the league—and deserves to be seeded as such.
If you haven't yet watched this young team play, there's no time like the present. The Terrapins will host Wisconsin on Monday before traveling to Ohio State on Friday and Michigan State next Monday. And that isn't even the toughest stretch remaining on their schedule, as they'll play Wisconsin, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State in the span of 22 days in February.
Maryland has already faced a top-30 schedule, and it might have a top-five strength of schedule before all is said and done.
Noteworthy Slider: Mississippi State Bulldogs (No. 4 seed to No. 8 seed)
Mississippi State finished nonconference play in excellent shape. The Bulldogs went 12-1 with good-but-not-great wins over Cincinnati, Saint Mary's, Clemson, Wofford and Dayton. Their lone misstep was a neutral-site loss to Arizona State—which looked like an OK loss a few weeks ago.
They had climbed all the way to No. 14 in the AP poll and looked like a team that could challenge Tennessee, Kentucky and Auburn for the SEC crown.
But in the past week, they had a bad road loss to South Carolina and blew an 11-point first-half lead in a home loss to Ole Miss, opening SEC play with an 0-2 record.
With only one game each against Vanderbilt, Georgia, Missouri and Texas A&M, those are the types of games Mississippi State needs to win if it expects to go .500 or better in league play. Losing two of them right away puts the Bulldogs back up against the wall. They'll now need to score some quality wins over top-five SEC teams in order to remain comfortably in the field.
South Region (Louisville, Kentucky)
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Wagner/Norfolk State
No. 8 LSU vs. No. 9 St. John's
No. 4 Buffalo vs. No. 13 Vermont
No. 5 NC State vs. No. 12 Wofford
No. 3 North Carolina vs. No. 14 Loyola-Chicago
No. 6 Nebraska vs. No. 11 Kansas State
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Montana
No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Cincinnati
Noteworthy Riser: Buffalo Bulls (No. 6 seed to No. 4 seed)
Buffalo is making mincemeat of the Mid-American Conference.
The Bulls opened MAC play with a 16-point road win over Eastern Michigan. They proceeded to annihilate Toledo by 30 before blowing out Miami (Ohio) by 24 points.
Now that's how you make an impression in a mid-major conference.
Toledo was supposed to be the top challenger to Buffalo, but the Bulls quickly proved they have no equal in this league by dropping 110 points on the Rockets. As a result of those three beatdowns, Buffalo jumped from No. 31 to No. 18 in the KenPom rankings—and made a similar-sized leap from No. 24 to No. 14 on our overall seed list.
Noteworthy Slider: Cincinnati Bearcats (No. 7 seed to No. 10 seed)
Cincinnati's play over the past 10 days has left much to be desired.
After a no-good, very-bad loss to East Carolina, the Bearcats needed a last-second bucket to force overtime against Tulsa. They were also taken to overtime by Connecticut before winning both of those games in extra frames. So, things could've gone much worse than they did, but it has still been an uninspiring three-game stretch.
Cincinnati only has one win over a team anywhere close to a projected at-large bid, and that's only because Ole Miss is undefeated since losing to the Bearcats more than six weeks ago. They had better score a few wins over the likes of Houston, Temple and UCF if they expect to go dancing for a ninth consecutive season.
West Region (Anaheim, California)
No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 16 Abilene Christian/Texas Southern
No. 8 Iowa State vs. No. 9 Ohio State
Des Moines, Iowa
No. 4 Houston vs. No. 13 Hofstra
No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State
No. 3 Virginia Tech vs. No. 14 Georgia State
No. 6 Ole Miss vs. No. 11 VCU
Salt Lake City
No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky
No. 7 Purdue vs. No. 10 Washington
Noteworthy Riser: Ole Miss Rebels (New to the Field)
Prior to the start of conference play, Mississippi's schedule was a whole lot of nothing. The Rebels had a decent neutral-site win over Baylor, a couple of missed opportunities against Cincinnati and Butler, and nine other wins not worth considering.
But it only took three SEC games for Ole Miss to pick up a trio of Quadrant 1 wins to soar all the way from the bubble to a No. 6 seed.
The Rebels began with a road win over Vanderbilt before an unexpected 15-point home win over Auburn and an even more unexpected road win over Mississippi State—their 10th consecutive victory since Nov. 24.
Freshmen were crucial in the two most recent games. KJ Buffen came off the bench for a career-high 16 points and three steals against Auburn, and Blake Hinson exploded for a career-high 26 points at Mississippi State.
There are still a lot of games to be played, but Ole Miss is well on its way to its best season since earning a No. 3 seed in the 2001 NCAA tournament.
Noteworthy Slider: Ohio State Buckeyes (No. 6 seed to No. 9 seed)
Conference play hasn't been anywhere near as kind to Ohio State as it has been to Ole Miss.
The Buckeyes did win their two early-December Big Ten games against Minnesota and Illinois, but they are 0-3 in January against Michigan State, Iowa and Rutgers.
Though it came at home, the loss to Michigan State is understandable. The Spartans are on the short list of serious threats to win the national championship. Even the road loss to Iowa is forgivable, considering the Hawkeyes also have wins over Nebraska and Iowa State and are desperately trying to rally from an 0-3 start in league play.
But the loss to Rutgers?
Bad idea, Buckeyes. And with four more games in January against Maryland, Purdue, Nebraska and Michigan, this three-game losing streak could turn into a monthlong disaster in a hurry.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
5. Texas Tech Red Raiders (15-1)
No, there aren't five No. 1 seeds this year. But in addition to all the time spent talking about the No. 11 seeds on the verge of missing the tournament, we've decided to also start discussing the No. 1 seed bubble, when Texas Tech is the top challenger to the top seed line.
Since our last projection, Texas Tech has flexed its defensive muscles in wins over Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas. The Red Raiders are 4-0 in Big 12 play with just the neutral-court loss to Duke keeping them from chasing an undefeated season.
Beyond Jarrett Culver, their offense leaves much to be desired. But they have held all 16 opponents below one point per possession, so they're able to get away with the occasional turnovers and air balls. Kansas's Big 12 streak is in danger of being snapped.
4. Tennessee Volunteers (14-1)
The Volunteers picked up their second-best win of the season on Saturday, winning at Florida behind yet another great performance from Grant Williams. The big man had 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals in the 78-67 victory, earning the right to troll the Florida fans with a little post-game Gator chomp.
Like Texas Tech, a neutral-court loss to a title contender (Kansas in overtime) is the only blemish on Tennessee's schedule. But the Vols also have a huge win over a title contender (Gonzaga) that helps push them ahead of the Red Raiders. Also, their nonconference schedule was stronger than Texas Tech's, as half of the Red Raiders' resume consists of home wins against Quadrant 4 opponents.
3. Duke Blue Devils (14-1)
Duke finally played some true road games this week, dismantling Wake Forest before narrowly defeating Florida State on a last-second Cam Reddish three-pointer. Zion Williamson missed the entire second half against the Seminoles after getting poked in the eye*, but Reddish and RJ Barrett shouldered the load, finishing with a combined 55 points.
Coupled with the earlier neutral-site victories over Kentucky, Auburn and Texas Tech, Duke now has four wins away from home against KenPom top-20 teams. It's tempting to vault the Blue Devils ahead of undefeated Virginia because of that, but we'll let them settle that on the court this coming Saturday in Durham.
*That happened to Marvin Bagley III in a key game against Michigan State last year, too. Is this just a rite of passage for Duke's potential No. 1 draft picks now?
2. Virginia Cavaliers (15-0)
Virginia has opened ACC play on some kind of a tear. After struggling with the likes of Wisconsin, Maryland, Dayton and VCU early in the season, the Cavaliers were up 29 on a good Florida State team before calling off the hounds. They proceeded to win road games over Boston College and Clemson by a combined margin of 47 points.
Only two opponents have scored 60 or more points against Virginia this season, and one of those instances was Marshall scoring a bunch of meaningless buckets against backups in a game that was 91-48 with three minutes remaining.
That defense is about to face a pair of serious tests, though. Virginia will host Virginia Tech on Tuesday before traveling to Duke on Saturday.
1. Michigan Wolverines (16-0)
The final margin was only 11 points, but Michigan made a statement early in its recent win over Indiana. The Wolverines led 32-13 in the first half, reminiscent of the team that beat the tar out of Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue earlier in the season.
They have gone through some stretches when it seems like they can't buy a bucket on offense, but they also have spurts like those where it seems like this team—not Duke—should be the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship.
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. First four out are in italics.
American (4): 13. Houston; 38. UCF; 39. Cincinnati; 43. Temple
ACC (7): 2. Virginia; 3. Duke; 11. Virginia Tech; 12. North Carolina; 17. NC State; 19. Florida State; 27. Louisville; 69. Clemson
Big 12 (7): 5. Texas Tech; 6. Kansas; 9. Oklahoma; 31. Iowa State; 33. Texas; 34. TCU; 41. Kansas State
Big East (5): 18. Marquette; 25. Villanova; 32. Seton Hall; 36. St. John's; 45. Butler; 71. Creighton
Big Ten (10): 1. Michigan; 8. Michigan State; 15. Maryland; 21. Indiana; 23. Nebraska; 24. Wisconsin; 26. Iowa; 28. Purdue; 35. Ohio State; 37. Minnesota
Pac-12 (3): 40. Washington; 42. Arizona; 46. Arizona State
SEC (7): 4. Tennessee; 16. Kentucky; 20. Auburn; 22. Ole Miss; 29. LSU; 30. Mississippi State; 44. Alabama; 70. Florida
Other (25): 7. Gonzaga; 10. Nevada; 14. Buffalo; 47. VCU; 48. Murray State; 49. Wofford; 50. Lipscomb; 51. North Texas; 52. Hofstra; 53. Yale; 54. Vermont; 55. New Mexico State; 56. Georgia State; 57. Loyola-Chicago; 58. South Dakota State; 59. Radford; 60. UC Irvine; 61. Northern Kentucky; 62. Montana; 63. Lehigh; 64. Rider; 65. Abilene Christian; 66. Texas Southern; 67. Wagner; 68. Norfolk State; 72. Saint Louis
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.