Bracketology 2019: Gonzaga the biggest winner of NCAA tournament’s top 16 preview

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, 2019’s version of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee revealed its current top 16 with five weeks left until the real field of 68 is announced. Naturally, those of us in the bracketology industry were most interested in how the Committee would use its new evaluation tool — the NET (which stands for NCAA Evaluation Tool, not “new evaluation tool” — while seeding teams. And based on Saturday’s offering, the Committee looks like it’s using NET much like the RPI in the past. And that’s something to keep in mind based on how accurately the past two bracket sneak previews pegged the top 16 teams in the 2017 and 2018 fields. In other words, the NET should be a good, but not perfect, indicator of a team’s seed.

The NET won’t be a perfect match, since the Committee appears to still be using two of its other favorite metrics in its deliberations. Just 14 of the top 16 teams in Saturday morning’s NET found themselves on the Committee’s top 16 list. The two exceptions were the 10th-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies and 16th-ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders. And why were those teams left out? It looks like a combination of poor non-conference scheduling and an inability to make up for that failing by picking up top 25-type wins in league play caught up with both the Hokies and Red Raiders. This conclusion looks particularly reasonable when you note that the two teams ranked outside of the NET 16 that ended up in Committee’s list were the Kansas Jayhawks, owner of the nation’s top non-conference schedule, and Marquette Golden Eagles, 98th in non-league scheduling but with three top 30 wins heading into the weekend (now four, as they defeated the Villanova Wildcatss on Saturday).

And with that in mind, the top 16 of today’s projection matches the Committee’s selections exactly, and I attempted to apply their logic to the remainder of the bracket. Basically, I stuck close to the NET when appropriate, making adjustments based on contenders’ quality win totals and strength of schedule ranks. This became increasingly necessary as I went down the list, particularly with struggling squads like Nebraska Cornhuskers (13-11) and Florida Gators (12-11) ranked 40th and 41st in the NET on Monday. That’s still in at-large range if going strictly by the numbers, but when you dig into those squads actual results, both fall short.

As usual, we start by looking at the left side of the traditional bracket (East and West), followed by the right (South and Midwest).

Note: Auto bid holders in this section are noted by the conference names in parentheses. Arrows indicate movement up or down the seed list. New entrants are marked with an asterisk.

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

Columbia, South Carolina (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Duke Blue Devils (ACC) vs. (*16) UT Arlington Mavericks (Sun Belt)
(8) Buffalo Bulls vs. (↓9) Oklahoma Sooners

Jacksonville, Florida (Thu./Sat.)

(↑5) LSU Tigers vs. (*12) Clemson Tigers/Butler Bulldogs
(↑4) Iowa State Cyclones vs. (*13) Yale Bulldogs (Ivy)

Hartford, Connecticut (Thu./Sat.)

(↑6) Florida State Seminoles vs. (↓11) Minnesota Golden Gophers
(3) Marquette Golden Eagles vs. (↓14) Radford Highlanders (Big South)

Des Moines, Iowa (Thu./Sat.)

(↑7) Cincinnati Bearcats vs. (10) TCU Horned Frogs
(↓2) Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten) vs. (15) Montana Grizzlies (Big Sky)

(4) West (Anaheim, California)

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

(↑1) Gonzaga Bulldogs (WCC) vs. (16) Prairie View A&M Panthers (SWAC)/Norfolk State Spartans (MEAC)
(↑8) Ohio State Buckeyes vs. (9) Ole Miss Rebels

Hartford (Thu./Sat.)

(↓5) Villanova Wildcats (Big East) vs. (*12) Belmont Bruins (OVC)
(4) Louisville Cardinals vs. (↓13) Hofstra Pride (CAA)

Tulsa, Oklahoma (Fri./Sun.)

(6) Iowa Hawkeyes vs. (11) NC State Wolfpack/VCU Rams
(↓3) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (*14) Loyola Chicago Ramblers (MVC)

Des Moines (Thu./Sat.)

(↑7) Washington Huskies (Pac-12) vs. (↓10) Alabama Crimson Tide
(2) Michigan State Spartans vs. (↓15) UC Irvine Anteaters (Big West)

(2) South (Louisville, Kentucky)

Columbia (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Tennessee Volunteers (SEC) vs. (16) Sam Houston State Bearkats (Southland)
(↓8) Syracuse Orange vs. (9) Lipscomb Bisons (ASUN)

San José, California (Fri./Sun.)

(↓5) Texas Tech Red Raiders vs. (12) Davidson Wildcats (A 10)
(↑4) Nevada Wolf Pack (MW) vs. (*13) Vermont Catamounts (America East)

Tulsa (Fri./Sun.)

(↓6) Virginia Tech Hokies vs. (11) Seton Hall Pirates
(3) Purdue Boilermakers vs. (↓14) Bowling Green Falcons (MAC)

Jacksonville (Thu./Sat.)

(↓7) Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. (↑10) Texas Longhorns
(↑2) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (15) Bucknell Bison (Patriot)

(3) Midwest (Kansas City, Missouri)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Virginia Cavaliers vs. (*16) St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash (NEC)/Monmouth Hawks (MAAC)
(↑8) Auburn Tigers vs. (↑9) Wofford Terriers (SoCon)

San José (Fri./Sun.)

(5) Kansas State Wildcats (Big 12) vs. (↑12) New Mexico State Aggies (WAC)
(4) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (↓13) Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA)

Salt Lake City (Thu./Sat.)

(↓6) Maryland Terrapins vs. (↓11) Arizona State Sun Devils
(3) Houston Cougars (American) vs. (↑14) South Dakota State Jackrabbits (Summit)

Columbus (Fri./Sun.)

(7) Baylor Bears vs. (↓10) St. John’s Red Storm
(2) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (↑15) Northern Kentucky Norse (Horizon)

Notes on today’s projection:

  • With Virginia and Kentucky ahead of Michigan and Michigan State on the seed list and Columbus the closest first weekend site for both, there are no Big Ten teams assigned to Ohio State’s arena. So, the Wolverines and Spartans end up in Des Moines, while Purdue and Kansas anchor Tulsa’s two pods.
  • Projected second round matchups that are particularly attractive include Iowa State-LSU and Marquette-Florida State in the East; Nevada-Texas Tech and a Charleston Classic final rematch between Purdue and Virginia Tech in the South (provided Justin Robinson returns for the Hokies); all four in the Midwest, with Kentucky-Baylor specifically standing out; and the Big East reunion between Louisville and Villanova, Kansas-Iowa and Michigan State-Washington out West. That final matchup is particularly intriguing when you consider that Syracuse knocked the Spartans out last year and former Orange assistant Mike Hopkins naturally runs a similar system in Seattle.
  • Finally, the Selection Committee’s top 16 didn’t give us any super-sexy regional final matchups like the Duke-Kentucky East final I’d been projecting over the past couple of weeks, but there’s still plenty of quality in the pairings they gave us. Saturday’s order of play is a toss-up with Tennessee-North Carolina in the South and Gonzaga-Michigan State in the West. As for Sunday, the Midwest’s Virginia-Kentucky would likely be the lead-in to Duke-Michigan in the East.

Rundown

Full seed list

Last Four Byes: Texas, Minnesota, Seton Hall, Arizona State
Last Four IN: NC State, VCU, Clemson, Butler
First Four OUT: UCF, Temple, Indiana, Utah State
Next Four Out: Arkansas, Oregon, South Florida, Florida

New Today: Belmont, Butler, Clemson, Loyola Chicago, Monmouth, St. Francis (Pa.), UT Arlington, Yale
Leaving Today: Georgia State, Illinois State, Indiana, Jacksonville State, Princeton, Rider, Robert Morris, Temple

Bids by Conference: 9 ACC, 8 Big 12, 8 Big Ten, 7 SEC, 5 Big East, 2 American, 2 Atlantic 10, 2 MAC, 2 Pac-12, 23 one-bid conferences

Yes, Arizona State is back after they dropped out of Friday’s bubble update thanks to an awful Thursday loss to Washington State. Naturally, given the topsy-turvy nature of both the Sun Devils’ and Pac-12’s seasons, they then handed Washington its first conference loss of the season. Clemson, victorious over fading Virginia Tech, and Butler, a winner at Georgetown in a major Big East bubble showdown, join the field, replacing Temple and Indiana. The Owls were blown out at Tulsa, 76-58, on Saturday, while the Hoosiers have now beaten only Michigan State in their last 10 games after a Sunday home loss to Ohio State.

Gonzaga’s elevation to the top line over both Kentucky and Michigan paired with 23-1 Nevada’s placement as a No. 4 seed despite a lack of Group 1 wins (the Wolf Pack are 8-0 in Group 2 games with 10 top 100 victories overall) makes me slightly optimistic about the fate of mid-majors this season. And this translates to higher-than-expected seeds for a quartet of conference leaders — eighth-seeded Buffalo (MAC), a pair of nines in Wofford (Southern) and Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun) and 12th-seeded Belmont (Ohio Valley). Wofford and Belmont are both seeing boosts because of the strength at the top of their respective conferences (even if the bottom halves of both leagues are extremely weak), while Buffalo is helped by general consistency across the MAC’s NET rankings. As for Lipscomb, a top 40 non-conference schedule, highlighted by a win at TCU, is doing the bulk of the work. However, Belmont’s profile in turn receives a boost by its sweep of the Bisons in the pair’s annual home-and-home series.

With so much mediocrity present from coast-to-coast this season, it might be a good time for the Committee to think outside of the power conference box when filling out the field. We’ll just have to see if the pleasant surprises of Gonzaga and Nevada’s positions in the top 16 will result in any unexpected selections on March 17th.

My next update, in the form of yet another look at the bubble, will arrive on Friday. And there’s no telling how many more twists and turns the season will take over those three days.

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