2020 Men's NCAA Tournament Projections 1 Month into the Regular Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 10, 2019

2020 Men's NCAA Tournament Projections 1 Month into the Regular Season

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    Louisville's Chris Mack and Lamarr Kimble
    Louisville's Chris Mack and Lamarr KimbleTimothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    One month into the 2019-20 men's college basketball season, our projected No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament is a team that hasn't even been to the Sweet 16 since 2015. Louisville has had three different head coaches while dealing with multiple scandals, but Chris Mack has this team pointed in the direction of a national championship banner to replace the one from 2013 it had to vacate.

    Joining the Cardinals on the projected top line are Ohio State, Maryland and Kansas.

    Projections this early in the season are a bit wonky, as it's always a struggle to let go of our preseason expectations while trying to make sense of the actual results. Plus, the first edition of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings won't be released until Dec. 16, so it's all quality wins, eye test and KenPom rankings for now.

    Still, the end of college football's regular season always feels like the perfect time for a projected bracket, as there are alumni and fans around the country taking a peek in the direction of the hardwood while they wait for bowl season to begin.

    For each of the four regions, we'll discuss one team that wasn't in our preseason projection, one that is in much better shape than expected and one 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 5 In

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    Virginia Tech's Landers Nolley II
    Virginia Tech's Landers Nolley IIMarco Garcia/Associated Press

    Last Team In: Virginia Tech Hokies (6-3, KenPom No. 60)

    Since that shocking win over Michigan State in the Maui Invitational, the Hokies have lost three straight by double digits to Dayton, BYU and Duke. But they had the Blue Devils on the ropes with nine minutes remaining before things got out of hand. Mike Young's three-point bombers are way better than anyone was expecting.

            

    Second-to-Last In: Saint Mary's Gaels (9-2, KenPom No. 45)

    The Gaels have a couple of quality wins over Wisconsin and Utah State, but that home loss to Winthrop in the opening week of the season puts them squarely on the bubble for now. They probably need to win at least two of their next three gamesat California, at Arizona State, vs. Nevadain order to feel good about their at-large chances at the start of conference play.

            

    Third-to-Last In: Oklahoma Sooners (7-1, KenPom No. 40)

    This is probably a bit too low on Oklahoma, considering it has three road/neutral wins over KenPom top 75 foes. However, its only game against a projected tournament team was a 19-point loss to Stanford, which is another bubble team you'll be reading about in one moment. The Sooners have big road games against Wichita State and Creighton in the next week to try to further prove they belong in the field.

            

    Fourth-to-Last In: Stanford Cardinal (8-1, KenPom No. 53)

    Stanford has the aforementioned win over Oklahoma, a hard-fought close loss to Butler and then a bunch of home wins over teams that don't matter. That resume isn't going to improve between now and Christmas, either, but the Cardinal have a colossal home game against Kansas on Dec. 29. If they are unable to upset the Jayhawks, they might need to win a dozen Pac-12 games to make up for a lackluster nonconference slate.

            

    Fifth-to-Last In: West Virginia Mountaineers (7-1, KenPom No. 35)

    Speaking of big opportunities on the 29th, West Virginia plays a neutral-site game against Ohio State that day. The Mountaineers have a bunch of decent wins, but Saturday's loss to St. John's just about nullifies their entire 7-0 start to the season. That game against the Buckeyes might be their only nonconference data point against a tournament team. They had better at least show up for it.

First 5 Out

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    Iowa State's Tyrese Haliburton
    Iowa State's Tyrese HaliburtonCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    First Team Out: Iowa State Cyclones (6-3, KenPom No. 31)

    The Cyclones picked up a big home win over Seton Hall on Sunday night, avenging their neutral-site loss to the Pirates in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But they also acquired losses to Michigan (forgivable) and Oregon State (not quite as forgivable) in the process of losing three of their first seven games for the first time in over a decade. A bubble battle with Iowa is on deck.

           

    Second Team Out: Wichita State Shockers (8-1, KenPom No. 37)

    Like the Cyclones, the Shockers got a key W on Sunday, spanking Oklahoma State by 19 on the road. That's all Wichita State has done thus far, though. It entered the weekend at 7-1 with a loss to West Virginia in its only game against a KenPom top 100 team. The Shockers will host Oklahoma this Saturday and VCU the following Saturday. A split of those two games would be positive news. A sweep would be massive.

            

    Third Team Out: Illinois Fighting Illini (6-3, KenPom No. 43)

    The Illini came painfully close to coming back from a 45-18 deficit against Miami, but they fell just shy in an 81-79 loss. A few days later against Maryland, they blew a 15-point second-half lead for a one-point loss on the road against a projected No. 1 seed. This is obviously a capable team, but its best win of the season was against Grand Canyon. They'll get another huge opportunity at home against Michigan on Wednesday.

           

    Fourth Team Out: Connecticut Huskies (6-2, KenPom No. 51)

    The home loss to Saint Joseph's was disturbing. The subsequent home win over Florida wiped the slate clean. Since then, the Huskies have lost a double-overtime heartbreaker against Xavier and smashed Miami by 25. They have a big neutral-site game against Indiana (at Madison Square Garden) coming up Tuesday night. Win that one, and Connecticut deserves to move into the projected field.

          

    Fifth Team Out: Creighton Bluejays (7-2, KenPom No. 58)

    Creighton had perhaps the most bizarre two-day swing of any team during early-tournament season. After getting waxed 83-52 by San Diego State, the Bluejays turned around and dropped 46 first-half points on Texas Tech en route to an overtime win. They also put up a solid fight at Michigan in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. They should be the sixth- or seventh-best team in the Big East, which might be enough to make the tourney this year.

East Region (New York City)

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    San Diego State's Malachi Flynn
    San Diego State's Malachi FlynnDavid Becker/Associated Press

    Greensboro, North Carolina

    No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 16 Prairie View A&M/Bethune Cookman
    No. 8 Marquette vs. No. 9 Texas Tech

    Tampa, Florida

    No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Western Kentucky
    No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 12 East Tennessee State

    Spokane, Washington

    No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 14 Colgate
    No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 NC State

    Greensboro, North Carolina

    No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Rider
    No. 7 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State

            

    New to the Field: San Diego State Aztecs (10-0, KenPom No. 32)

    So much for the Mountain West Conference being Utah State or bust, eh? San Diego State was the surprise winner of the Las Vegas Invitational, blowing out Creighton before defeating Iowa by double digits. Prior to that event, the Aztecs also won a true road game against BYU. Granted, none of those teams is projected to dance at the moment, but those are three quality wins on an undefeated resume.

    Transfers have been the name of the game for head coach Brian Dutcher. Former Washington State guard Malachi Flynn is leading the Aztecs in points and assists. Vanderbilt transfer Yanni Wetzell is averaging double-digit points and leading the team in rebounds. And while Santa Clara transfer KJ Feagin has struggled to find his shot (32.1 percent from the field), he was one of the nation's most noteworthy transfers this offseason. If or when he gets rolling, San Diego State might get even better.

                     

    Noteworthy Riser: Oregon Ducks (7-2, KenPom No. 14)

    Good luck finding a better two-loss team. The Ducks have wins over Memphis, Houston and Seton Hall, and in both losses, they gave Gonzaga and North Carolina all they could handle on a neutral court. Once the second semester begins and 5-star freshman center N'Faly Dante is eligible to play, Oregon should quickly emerge as one of the top candidates to win the national championship.

                

    Noteworthy Slider: Texas Tech Red Raiders (5-3, KenPom No. 29)

    Texas Tech has only played three games against KenPom top 200 teams, losing each one. However, the Red Raiders have played the last two games without star freshman Jahmi'us Ramsey (leg injury), which has thrown an extra wrinkle into trying to adjust to life after Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens. This should still be a top-four team in the Big 12, but it's no surprise that last year's national runners-up need to go through an adjustment period.

Midwest Region (Indianapolis)

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    Butler's Kamar Baldwin
    Butler's Kamar BaldwinJustin Casterline/Getty Images

    St. Louis, Missouri

    No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 16 Eastern Washington/St. Francis (PA)
    No. 8 Washington vs. No. 9 Penn State

    Sacramento, California

    No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 New Mexico State
    No. 5 Memphis vs. No. 12 Belmont

    St. Louis, Missouri

    No. 3 Butler vs. No. 14 Northern Iowa
    No. 6 Dayton vs. No. 11 Stanford/Saint Mary's

    Cleveland, Ohio

    No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 South Dakota
    No. 7 Colorado vs. No. 10 LSU

            

    New to the Field: Butler Bulldogs (9-0, KenPom No. 13)

    There is a bunch of teams that have been much better than expected, but Butler tops that list. This was supposed to be a bottom-third-of-the-Big-East squad, but the Bulldogs already have five KenPom top 75 wins, including a statement win over Florida (76-62) this past weekend.

    The Bulldogs went 16-17 last year before losing shooting guard Paul Jorgensen and both halves of their Joey Brunk-Nate Fowler center tandem. Even with Kamar Baldwin's return as a borderline first-team All-American, the rest of the teamespecially the frontcourtwas a big unknown.

    A pair of Bryces have led the way, though. Milwaukee transfer Bryce Nze has been excellent in the paint, and Bryce Golden has been a legitimate answer at center after barely seeing the floor last year as a freshman. And senior wing Sean McDermott has been unconscious, shooting 45 percent beyond the arc and 70 percent inside it. If that trio keeps contributing like this, Butler will win the Big East.

                     

    Noteworthy Riser: Michigan Wolverines (8-1, KenPom No. 12)

    Don't fret the no-show against Louisville in the ACC/B1G Challenge. Michigan had just won three tough games in the Bahamas over Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga in the span of about 52 hours. If the Wolverines were fatigued for that game, it's understandable. And they bounced back with a 103-91 win over Iowa a few days later to show that they'll be more than fine. Hats off to Juwan Howard for an amazing start to his head coaching career.

                

    Noteworthy Slider: LSU Tigers (7-2, KenPom No. 28)

    LSU's two losses both came in dramatic fashion away from home against VCU and Utah State. Neither was a bad loss as far as the resume is concerned, but it does leave the Tigers without anything better than a neutral-site win over Rhode Island. There's plenty of time left to improve that nonconference resume, though. The Tigers will close out 2019 with games against East Tennessee State, USC and Liberty, and then they will face Texas in the SEC/B12 Challenge in late January.

South Region (Houston)

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    Indiana's Devonte Green
    Indiana's Devonte GreenDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Cleveland, Ohio

    No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 16 Stephen F. Austin
    No. 8 Utah State vs. No. 9 Florida

    Omaha, Nebraska

    No. 4 Baylor vs. No. 13 Vermont
    No. 5 Indiana vs. No. 12 Oklahoma/Virginia Tech

    Albany, New York

    No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 Wright State
    No. 6 Seton Hall vs. No. 11 Texas

    Tampa, Florida

    No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 15 Radford
    No. 7 VCU vs. No. 10 Houston

            

    New to the Field: Indiana Hoosiers (8-1, KenPom No. 26)

    The Hoosiers took one on the chin this weekend in an 84-64 loss at Wisconsin, just a few days after a 16-point win over Florida State that seemed to announce to the world that they're for real. They started 8-0 with each win by double digits, but that victory over the Seminoles was the first one of any real significance.

    Even with that ugly loss, it's clear that Archie Miller has this team playing with aggression and physicality. Despite playing in mostly blowouts and never getting to benefit from game-end marches to the free-throw line, the Hoosiers lead the nation in free-throw rate, averaging a staggering 29.7 attempts per game. Led by freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis, this is also one of the best rebounding teams, ranking 22nd in offensive rebound percentage and 12th on the defensive end.

    In both regards, this looks nothing like the Indiana team that sputtered its way to barely-above-.500 records in each of the past two seasons. Even in a loaded Big Ten, the Hoosiers appear to be a real contender.

                     

    Noteworthy Riser: Auburn Tigers (8-0, KenPom No. 16)

    Despite losing its three leading scorers (Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke) and two other key members of last year's rotation (Horace Spencer and Malik Dunbar), Auburn hasn't missed a beat in what could have been a post-Final Four rebuilding project.

    Samir Doughty has taken a massive step forward into a primary scoring role. Freshman Isaac Okoro has gotten out to a tremendous start. Both Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoywho sat out the entire 2017-18 season and struggled last yearare both scoring in double figures. Anfernee McLemore remains a top-notch defender in the paint. And J'Von McCormick has built on a nice run in last year's NCAA tournament while thriving as the new starting point guard.

                

    Noteworthy Slider: Florida Gators (6-3, KenPom No. 32)

    While Auburn has exceeded expectations in becoming arguably the best team in the SEC, the equal-but-opposite reaction has been Florida plummeting from its perch as a preseason Top 10 team. Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. has been great, but nothing else is going right.

    In particular, highly touted freshmen Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann have both been major disappointments thus far, with the exception of Lewis' contributions on defense. If those two young guys don't come around soon, neither will the Gators.

West Region (Los Angeles)

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    DePaul's Jaylen Butz (2), Jalen Coleman-Lands (5) and Charlie Moore (11)
    DePaul's Jaylen Butz (2), Jalen Coleman-Lands (5) and Charlie Moore (11)Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    Omaha, Nebraska

    No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Delaware
    No. 8 DePaul vs. No. 9 Liberty

    Albany, New York

    No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 13 Yale
    No. 5 North Carolina vs. No. 12 Toledo

    Sacramento, California

    No. 3 Arizona vs. No. 14 UC Irvine
    No. 6 Florida State vs. No. 11 West Virginia

    Spokane, Washington

    No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 15 Texas State
    No. 7 Xavier vs. No. 10 Arkansas

            

    New to the Field: DePaul Blue Demons (9-1, KenPom No. 61)

    Last year, DePaul had one nonconference victory over a major-conference foea two-point overtime win against a Penn State team playing without arguably its most important player (Mike Watkins). In each of the three seasons before that, the Blue Demons had no such wins. The last time they won at least three games against major nonconference opponents was in 2006-07, which is also the last time they had 20 wins in a season.

    Well, DePaul already has wins over Iowa, Boston College, Minnesota and Texas Tech, and it should get a fifth one at home against Northwestern two weekends from now.

    Big man Paul Reed had a breakout year last season, and he has taken another huge step forward this year, averaging 15.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 1.9 steals and 1.8 assists per game. And he's not even supposed to be one of the leaders of this team, considering former transfers Jalen Coleman-Lands and Charlie Moore and freshman Romeo Weems were all 4-star recruits.

    Something special is brewing in Chicago. DePaul won 19 games last year, and it appears to be on its way to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.

                     

    Noteworthy Riser: Liberty Flames (11-0, KenPom No. 71)

    Of the eight remaining undefeated teams, Liberty has the best chance of entering the NCAA tournament with a zero still in the loss column. The Flames have a couple of tricky road games against Vanderbilt and LSU, but they should breeze through Atlantic Sun play with little resistance. It would be stunning if they have more than three losses on Selection Sunday.

    Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay spent a few years as Tony Bennett's assistant at Virginia, and Bennett clearly instilled in McKay the importance of defense and methodical, deliberate offense. Opponents are averaging just 49.6 points against this defense. It's a completely different style of play, but you're looking at this year's Wofford.

                

    Noteworthy SliderMichigan State Spartans (6-3, KenPom No. 4)

    A lot of the top preseason teams have fallen on hard times early on, but this slow start by the former favorite to win the national championship is the most concerning.

    Marquette transfer Joey Hauser was denied his hardship waiver request and has to sit out this season. Joshua Langford is out for at least another month with a foot injury. And with freshman combo guard Rocket Watts struggling for the first eight games before missing Sunday's game against Rutgers with a "stress reaction" in his leg, Michigan State simply does not have the offensive firepower we were anticipating.

    They'll figure things out. Tom Izzo almost always does. But this team has not looked the part of a title contender at any point yet this season.

Ranking the No. 1 Seeds

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    Louisville's Jordan Nwora
    Louisville's Jordan NworaJustin Casterline/Getty Images

    No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks

    Yes, people are going to get unnecessarily angry about the fact that we have Kansas one spot ahead of Duke on the overall seed line despite the Blue Devils beating the Jayhawks 68-66 in the Champions Classic.

    Since then, however, Kansas is 7-0 with five good-not-great wins over Dayton, Colorado, BYU, East Tennessee State and UNC-Greensboro. Most importantly, the Jayhawks didn't lose a home game to Stephen F. Austin.

    Even with that colossal misstep against the Lumberjacks, know that it was still tempting to put Duke here, given its subsequent road win over Michigan State. The Blue Devils aren't likely to be legitimately challenged again until they face Louisville on January 18, and they'll probably be back on the top line by the time that huge game happens.

    Back to Kansas, though, the Jayhawks seem to have cleaned up the major turnover issue that plagued them against Duke, and they have been excellent on defense with the exception of Dayton getting magma hot from three-point range (16-of-33) in the Maui Invitational Championship. Kansas is clearly the cream of the crop in the Big 12 once again.

          

    No. 3 Maryland Terrapins
    No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes

    Will the Big Ten ultimately get two No. 1 seeds? Probably not. It hasn't even produced a single No. 1 seed since Wisconsin in 2015, and it hasn't double dipped on the top line since Michigan State and Illinois in 2001.

    But if you had to project one conference to pull it off this year, the Big Ten is the obvious choice. Ohio State, Maryland and Michigan are Nos. 3-5, respectively, in the latest AP poll; Michigan State is gone-but-not-forgotten at No. 16; and while Purdue isn't in that Top 25, the Boilermakers are No. 6 on KenPom. Factor in Penn State and Indiana as fringe Top 25 teams on KenPom, and you've got one hell of a top 50 percent of a 14-team league.

    As far as this particular ordering is concerned, Ohio State's 25-point win over Villanova and 25-point road win over North Carolina are too much for Maryland to overcome at the moment. The Buckeyes also smashed Penn State by 32 this past weekend for good measure while the Terrapins needed a minor miracle to avoid losing at home against Illinois.

    Each of these teams has a huge nonconference game yet to comeMaryland at Seton Hall on the 19th; Ohio State vs. Kentucky on the 21st—but we officially cannot wait for the head-to-head battle on January 7.

          

    No. 1 Louisville Cardinals

    I've made this observation before, but it's worth reiterating: Louisville reminds me of the 2013-14 Syracuse team that started 25-0, though I think this Cardinals team has more potential because Jordan Nwora is a serious National Player of the Year candidate.

    Where the two teams feel similar is that while there may be lengthy lulls on offense, during which it feels like they're never going to put the game away, there seems to be a spurt in every game in which they simply suffocate the opponent on defense and assert their dominance with a 5-10-minute run.

    There were two such runs (16-3 and 13-2) in the marquee win over Michigan. Against both USC Upstate and Pittsburgh, it looked like anybody's game midway through the second half, but a 28-4 run in the former and a 17-2 run in the latter turned both games into routs. In the season opener against Miami, the Cardinals trailed 16-9 prior to a ridiculous 40-10 run.

    This team just has another gear that few can compete with. Louisville should win the ACC and earn a No. 1 seed.

Seeding by Conference

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    Kansas' Devon Dotson
    Kansas' Devon DotsonCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    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. The first five out are italicized.

    American (2): 20. Memphis; 39. Houston; 70. Wichita State; 72. Connecticut

    Atlantic 10 (2): 23. Dayton; 28. VCU

    ACC (7): 1. Louisville; 5. Duke; 10. Virginia; 19. North Carolina; 24. Florida State; 42. NC State; 47. Virginia Tech

    Big 12 (7): 4. Kansas; 13. Baylor; 34. Texas Tech; 40. Oklahoma State; 41. Texas; 43. West Virginia; 45. Oklahoma; 69. Iowa State

    Big East (6): 9. Butler; 21. Villanova; 22. Seton Hall; 27. Xavier; 29. DePaul; 32. Marquette; 73. Creighton

    Big Ten (7): 2. Ohio State; 3. Maryland; 7. Michigan; 15. Michigan State; 16. Purdue; 18. Indiana; 33. Penn State; 71. Illinois

    Mountain West (2): 17. San Diego State; 31. Utah State

    Pac-12 (5): 11. Arizona; 12. Oregon; 26. Colorado; 30. Washington; 44. Stanford

    SEC (6): 8. Auburn; 14. Kentucky; 25. Tennessee; 35. Florida; 37. LSU; 38. Arkansas

    West Coast (2): 6. Gonzaga; 46. Saint Mary's

    Other (22): 36. Liberty; 48. East Tennessee State; 49. Toledo; 50. Belmont; 51. Yale; 52. Vermont; 53. New Mexico State; 54. Western Kentucky; 55. Northern Iowa; 56. UC Irvine; 57. Wright State; 58. Colgate; 59. Rider; 60. Radford; 61. Texas State; 62. South Dakota; 63. Delaware; 64. Stephen F. Austin; 65. Eastern Washington; 66. St. Francis (PA); 67. Prairie View A&M; 68. Bethune-Cookman

                                      

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