Bracketology 2019: College basketball has variety in the championship chase

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Clemson Tigers have obliterated the Alabama Crimson Tide — another college football season is done. And while football’s 2018 campaign concluded with many fans wondering whether we’ll ever see someone, anyone different competing for a national title, things are just a little different as college basketball enters 2019.

Sure, the Duke Blue Devils hold today’s No. 1 overall seed and fellow blue bloods Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina sit among the protected top four seed lines in this first real projection of the season. (Let’s just pretend November’s preseason bracket never happened. I know I have!) But of the 11 other teams ranked among the top four seed lines, just two — Michigan (1989) and Ohio State (1960) — have won an NCAA Tournament title. And further four — Iowa State, Tennessee, Texas Tech and Virginia Tech — have never even reached the Promised Land of the Final Four. In other words, there’s a decent chance that at least one new team joins the ranks of the elite this April in Minneapolis.

So without further delay, here’s how the bracket looks after the conclusion of the majority of non-conference play (other than the SEC/Big 12 Challenge and a few stray contests here and there). The left side of the bracket (the East and West regions) will meet in one semifinal with the right side (South and Midwest) paired in the other.

(1) East (Washington, D.C.)

Columbia, S.C. (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Duke Blue Devils vs. (16) Robert Morris Colonials (NEC)/Norfolk State Spartans (MEAC)
(8) Villanova Wildcats (Big East) vs. (9) Maryland Terrapins

San Jose, Calif. (Fri./Sun.)

(5) Indiana Hoosiers vs. (12) Hofstra Pride (CAA)
(4) Iowa State Cyclones vs. (13) NJIT Highlanders (ASUN)

Tulsa, Okla. (Fri./Sun.)

(6) N.C. State Wolfpack vs. (11) LSU Tigers/VCU Rams
(3) Houston Cougars (American) vs. (14) UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (Big West)

Des Moines, Iowa (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. (10) TCU Horned Frogs
(2) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (15) George Mason Patriots (Atlantic 10)

(4) West (Anaheim, Calif.)

Hartford, Conn. (Thu./Sat.)

(1) Virginia Cavaliers vs. (16) Texas Southern Tigers (SWAC)/Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (Southland)
(8) Iowa Hawkeyes vs. (9) Arizona State Sun Devils

San Jose, Calif. (Fri./Sun.)

(5) Marquette Golden Eagles vs. (12) Fresno State Bulldogs (Mountain West)
(4) Ohio State Buckeyes vs. (13) Stony Brook Seawolves (America East)

Tulsa, Okla. (Fri./Sun.)

(6) Nevada Wolf Pack vs. (11) San Francisco Dons (WCC)
(3) Oklahoma Sooners vs. (14) Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners (WAC)

Salt Lake City, Utah (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Louisville Cardinals vs. (10) Arizona Wildcats (Pac-12)
(2) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (15) Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons (Summit)

(2) South (Louisville, Ky.)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten) vs. (16) Northern Colorado Bears (Big Sky)
(8) St. John’s Red Storm vs. (9) Nebraska Cornhuskers

Hartford, Conn. (Thu./Sat.)

(5) Buffalo Bulls (MAC) vs. (12) Wofford Terriers (Southern)
(4) Virginia Tech Hokies (ACC) vs. (13) Georgia State Panthers (Sun Belt)

Jacksonville, Fla. (Thu./Sat.)

(6) Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. (11) Kansas State Wildcats/Syracuse Orange
(3) Florida State Seminoles vs. (14) Lehigh Mountain Hawks (Patriot)

Des Moines, Iowa (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Auburn Tigers vs. (10) Creighton Bluejays
(2) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (15) Green Bay Phoenix (Horizon)

(3) Midwest (Kansas City, Mo.)

Columbia, S.C. (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Tennessee Volunteers (SEC) vs. (16) Rider Broncs (MAAC)
(8) Purdue Boilermakers vs. (9) Cincinnati Bearcats

Salt Lake City, Utah (Thu./Sat.)

(5) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (12) Murray State Racers (OVC)
(4) Texas Tech Red Raiders (Big 12) vs. (13) Loyola Chicago Ramblers (MVC)

Jacksonville, Fla. (Thu./Sat.)

(6) Seton Hall Pirates vs. (11) North Texas Mean Green (C-USA)
(3) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (14) Winthrop Eagles (Big South)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

(7) Texas Longhorns vs. (10) Alabama Crimson Tide
(2) Michigan State Spartans vs. (15) Princeton Tigers (Ivy)

Some notes on team placement and matchups:

  • Remember the days when there was more separation between teams from the same conference across the bracket, not just among those on the top four seed lines? With the Selection Committee focusing more on geography than bracket balance in recent seasons, clustering is something to watch out for. And with so few Western teams in this field, that’s apparent in this projection. Notice that I’ve placed both teams from each of the Mountain West, Pac-12 and West Coast conferences all in the West region. With only Gonzaga among the top 16 in this projection, this type of bracketing a real possibility come March 17th. Note that the Bulldogs and Saint Mary’s both featured in the West bracket just two seasons ago.
  • Of the 10 Big Ten entrants, eight of them find themselves slotted for the top half of a regional bracket (as a 1, 4, 5, 8 or 9 as opposed to a 2, 3, 6, 7, 10 or 11). As a result that’s led to a traffic jam here with a trio of potential all-Big Ten regional semifinals and a single potential all-conference second round matchup.
  • The bottom half of the Midwest region could feature a rematch of the Las Vegas Invitational championship game between Texas and Michigan State in round two.
  • Villanova-Maryland in round one with the winner almost assuredly facing Duke on second round Sunday? Yes, please.
  • Similarly, the other Columbia pod, features Tennessee, Purdue and Cincinnati squads that really seem like they should play a little more frequently, thanks to geography.
  • The East Region’s at-large First Four matchup is a spicy one, with VCU taking on LSU, coached by former Rams boss Will Wade. Similarly, Stony Brook coach Jeff Boals would face former employer Ohio State in the West first round, though I think that meeting might be just a bit friendlier.
  • If the top two seeds in each region held serve all the way through to the Elite Eight, you might want to clear your calendar for March 30th and 31st now. Saturday’s doubleheader would see Virginia meeting Gonzaga in Anaheim, likely followed by Michigan and Kansas in Louisville. Then, Sunday would open with Tennessee and Michigan State in Kansas City with Duke and Kentucky meeting for the final spot in the Nation’s Capital.

Rundown

Last Four Byes: Arizona State, Alabama, Creighton, TCU
Last Four IN: LSU, VCU, Kansas State, Syracuse
First Four OUT: Butler Bulldogs, Ole Miss Rebels, UCF Knights, Saint Louis Billikens
Next Four Out: Florida Gators, Clemson Tigers, Temple Owls, Missouri Tigers
Also Considered: Washington Huskies, Vanderbilt Commodores, Arkansas Razorbacks, Lipscomb Bisons, Utah State Aggies, Liberty Flames, Furman Paladins, Northwestern Wildcats, Dayton Flyers

Full seed list(added at 11:48 a.m. Eastern)

New Today (multi-bid conferences only): Arizona, Fresno State, Houston, Iowa, Louisville, LSU, Minnesota, Oklahoma, San Francisco, Seton Hall, St. John’s, VCU
Leaving Today: Butler, BYU, Clemson, Florida, Miami (Fla.), Oregon, Saint Louis, South Carolina, UCF, UCLA, Washington, West Virginia

Bids by Conference: 10 Big Ten, 8 ACC, 7 Big 12, 6 SEC, 5 Big East, 2 American, 2 Atlantic 10, 2 Mountain West. 2 Pac-12, 2 West Coast, 22 one-bid conferences

January’s first projection features a fair amount of turnover when compared to preseason, with 28 new entrants this time, with 15 of those new representatives coming from likely single-bid conferences. For the moment, the Pac-12 does not rank among the one-bid leagues. I’ll discuss that possibility in more detail in my next post on Friday, where I’ll look at how non-league play set the possible multi-bid conferences up for March. As you might be able to guess based on the totals above, the Big Ten is set up for an impressive turnaround from 2018’s four-bid effort, while the SEC has some work to do to live up to some lofty preseason hype.

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