That's right, we're back! I've got to say that Chris from Blogging the Bracket has been doing such a nice job with his SBN Bracketology pieces that it somewhat killed my urge to actually do these this year. But a) they're still fun, b) Ross made this fun image that I'd hate to go to waste, and c) they're still fun. So I'm doing them. Below the jump is my first projected bracket of February.
Three Mountain West teams and Butler are all fighting for a potential 4-seed. Gonzaga may end up a 5. Northern Iowa may end up a 6. Five mid-major teams are in the RPI Top 20 (#10 New Mexico, #12 Rhode Island, #13 Northern Iowa, #15 Butler, #17 Temple), while many major conference teams have winning records in their conference but RPIs of 60 or worse (#60 Marquette, #64 Virginia Tech, #72 Illinois, #94 Virginia, plus not those in the Pac-10, which frankly isn't a major conference this year). SIX Atlantic 10 teams might make The Dance.
In other words, this is a strange year.
Now, some of this weirdness will get ironed out in proceeding weeks -- just from having to finish their conference seasons, some of these mid-major stars will see their RPI regress -- but we're late enough in the season that I think it's safe to say we could end up with more mid-majors in the tourney ... just enough to make Jay Bilas' head explode (had to use Bilas instead of Billy Packer since Packer's no longer on my television).
Speaking of Bilas, when I was going back through last year's Rock-M-Tology posts, I found this one, in which I lambasted Bilas for proposing a 128-team NCAA Tournament with no automatic bids on College Gameday. Funny thing is, I have no recollection of this at all. I've slept a lot since then, I guess. And spent many hours writing about football. Anyway, it's just ironic, then, that he recently said this in regard to the NCAA's plan to look into expansion to 96 teams:
It’s not broken now. The best teams are competing. All we’re really saying is, 'Let’s add some more at the end and would that be tragic?' Of course not. It wouldn’t be bad. It just wouldn’t be in the best interest of the best teams. ... If it’s just to give more kids the experience of playing in the NCAA Tournament, we’re always going to want to add more for that reason. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to get in the way of the best teams competing for the national championship.
Anyway, as I was saying, this appears to be a mid-major showcase year if things play out right. And it does my underdog-loving heart good.
Below are the teams ranked much higher in other brackets than in my own. I could be talked into any of these teams in the coming weeks, but right now their standing doesn't make a lot of sense.
Cincinnati and UConn - From what I can tell, nobody actually has these teams in the tourney at the moment, but just the fact that they're still on the "First __ out" lists is kind of baffling. Cincy is ranked #59 RPI and #74 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and while they were impressive in November, beating both Vandy and Maryland on a neutral court, they're 10-8 since December 1, and the best win they have is against ... UConn. The Huskies (#57 RPI, #53 KenPom) had a nice home win against Texas, but they followed that with three straight losses, and the Texas win is the only one they've got against either the KenPom or RPI top 50. They've still got time to turn things around, but they haven't yet.
Temple - The Owls definitely deserve to be in the tourney -- that's not the problem here. The problem is, aside from their marquee win over Villanova, they (like UConn) have little else going for them. They beat Rhode Island (#12 RPI) and Xavier (#29 KenPom), but that's about it. And that loss to St. John's? Ouch. I've seen them in the conversation for a 4 or 5 seed, and to me they don't deserve anything higher than a 7.
Ohio State - How much do you value KenPom's ratings? If you do quite a bit, then tOSU should be a Top 4 seed. If you don't ... then they don't have a ton going for them in terms of high seeding. Their resume is better than Temple's, but I still don't see them deserving much higher than a 6. The back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and @Purdue were awesome, but let's just say that the loss to UNC and at Michigan are leaving a bit to be desired right about now.
Illinois - Illinois has possibly the strangest resume on the board. They are 8-3 in the Big Ten, which should get you in no matter what. They have wins over Michigan State (#14 RPI), Vanderbilt (#19 RPI) and Clemson (#22 KenPom). This points to a team that is easily in. But ... remember when they lost to Bradley and Utah back in November? And Georgia in December? Their strength of schedule has been quite weak overall, leading to a #72 RPI and #54 KenPom ranking, neither of which are good enough to get them in. Right now I have them out, but I assume that will change as long as they win one of their next three games, a murderous stretch of @Wisconsin, Ohio State, and @Purdue. They finish the season with @Ohio State and Wisconsin, meaning their strength of schedule will improve quite a bit as long as they don't lose them all.
Gonzaga - Another team that is easily in but being considered for too high a seed, the Zags have a very impressive-looking win over Wisconsin to brag about, and they handled St. Mary's on the road, which is impressive. But they lost at San Francisco (#205 RPI, #225 KenPom), lost by 35 to Duke, and looked less than impressive in wins over Washington State, Colorado and Santa Clara. I gave them a 6, but they could easily be an 8 ... either way, they're not a 4-5.
Now it's time to make the case for some mid-majors, now that I've dumped on some others.
Butler - When I initially drew everything up, I had Butler as a 4-seed, but I figured that wasn't quite realistic, so I dropped them to a 5. But that's as far as I'm going. (Okay, I'll probably drop them to a 6 later ... I don't like that loss to Minnesota.) The Bulldogs have done just about as much as you can with the schedule they had, going 2-3 against teams in the KenPom top 31 (winning their last two, against Ohio State and Xavier) before going off to feast on their Horizon League opponents. They host Siena on BracketBuster Saturday, which could be huge in determining their seed. They will end up with a gaudy win total, but they just don't have enough big names on the schedule, and it will end up hurting them.
Wichita State - They split with Northern Iowa (winning by 9, losing by 3), beat Texas Tech (by 2) and lost to Pittsburgh (by 13) ... and that's all the contact they've had with the RPI Top 40. I'm one of the few who has them in the tourney, and therefore I'm calling them underrated, but I'm already talking myself out of them. The road losses to Illinois State, Creighton and Drake probably make them tourney unworthy. But if they beat Utah State on BracketBuster Saturday ...
Richmond and Xavier - Good lord, how good is the top of the A10 this year?? Richmond (#31 RPI) has four wins over tourney teams (Missouri, Florida, Old Dominion, Temple) and only one iffy loss (@SLU), while Xavier (#27 RPI, #29 KenPom) has wins over Rhode Island, Dayton, Charlotte and Cincinnati, and their worst loss was to either Marquette or Dayton. Most people have Xavier in, though I have them higher (8-seed) than most I've seen, while Richmond should probably be safely in, but others have them at about 50/50.
Florida State and Clemson - Two teams that are probably going to draw a lower seed than they deserve, these are two pretty scary mid-rung ACC squads. They are #23 and #22 respectively in KenPom's rankings, #40 and #43 in the RPI, and either one could end up a couple of seeds higher than they are currently projected.
Marquette - How does a team manage to rank #18 in KenPom's rankings and #60 in the RPI? By losing seven (SEVEN!) games by five points or less. A 1-point loss to Florida State, a 1-point loss to West Virginia, a pair of 2-point losses to Villanova, a 5-point loss to Syracuse. They have two losses to teams outside of KenPom's Top 25 (N.C. State and DePaul). At this moment, if they can string enough wins together to make the tournament, they'll be the most dangerous 11- or 12-seed possible.
Last 8 In
We're at an interesting place right now. Five of the last eight in are mid-majors whose rankings will probably slip over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, five of the first six out are major conference teams who will probably see their rankings rise just for playing the teams they will be playing between now and the end of the season. So this will be the most fan bracket I produce, with the UTEP's and Dayton's of the world safely in and Illinois out.
First 8 Out
San Diego State
Big East - 7
ACC - 7
Big 12 - 6
Atlantic 10 - 6
SEC - 5
Big Ten - 4
Mountain West - 3
West Coast - 2
Conference USA - 2
Missouri Valley - 2
And here we go.
Midwest Regional (in St. Louis)
1 Kansas vs 16 Lehigh / Jackson State
8 Florida vs 9 Maryland
in Oklahoma City
5 Butler vs 12 Louisville
4 New Mexico vs 13 Cornell
6 Georgia Tech vs 11 UTEP
3 Georgetown vs 14 College of Charleston
7 Temple vs 10 Wichita State
2 Wisconsin vs 15 Pacific
West Regional (in Salt Lake City)
1 Kentucky vs 16 Stony Brook
8 Xavier vs 9 Clemson
5 Baylor vs 12 Marquette
4 BYU vs 13 Murray State
in San Jose
6 Gonzaga vs 11 Virginia Tech
3 Michigan State vs 14 Sam Houston
7 Missouri vs 10 Rhode Island
2 West Virginia vs 15 Morgan State
South Regional (in Houston)
1 Syracuse vs 16 Robert Morris
8 Utah State vs 9 Richmond
5 Tennessee vs 12 Siena
4 UNLV vs 13 California
in San Jose
6 Northern Iowa vs 11 Dayton
3 Purdue vs 14 Weber State
in New Orleans
7 Florida State vs 10 UAB
2 Kansas State vs 15 Jacksonville
in New Orleans
East Regional (in Syracuse)
1 Villanova vs 16 Arkansas State
8 Texas A&M vs 9 Old Dominion
5 Wake Forest vs 12 Charlotte
4 Vanderbilt vs 13 Kent State
6 Pittsburgh vs 11 St. Mary's
3 Texas vs 14 Oakland
in Oklahoma City
7 Ohio State vs 10 Ole Miss
2 Duke vs 15 Coastal Carolina
My At-First-Glance Final Four
Kansas, Kentucky, Purdue, Villanova
Second glance: Georgetown, West Virginia, Syracuse, Texas
Missouri's inevitable path to destiny™ (ahem)
Rhode Island, West Virginia, Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas, Villanova