With 2018-19’s regular season in the history books, it’s all elimination basketball from now until someone cuts the nets down in Minneapolis on Monday, April 8th. This morning’s bracket is largely unchanged from Sunday’s version, though I did shuffle some teams around (as noted on the seed list). Most notably, I switched the positions of the LSU Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers on the No. 2 seed line. I also added the Atlantic Sun champion Liberty Flames and Big South-winning Gardner-Webb Bulldogs to the field, which led to a few adjustments from lines 12 down.
Before things start to pick up tomorrow, I wanted to take the opportunity today to look at the biggest seeding and selection storylines to monitor over the next seven days and nights. But first, here’s today’s full bracket.
Note: Auto bid holders in this section are noted by the conference names in parentheses. Arrows indicate movement up or down seed lines relative to Sunday’s projection. New entrants are marked with an asterisk. Teams that have clinched bids are in all caps.
New Today: Gardner-Webb, Liberty
Leaving Today: Lipscomb, Radford
Bids by Conference: 9 Big Ten, 8 ACC, 8 Big 12, 7 SEC, 4 American, 4 Big East, 2 Mountain West, 2 Pac-12, 24 one-bid conferences
With mid-major conferences taking center stage on the Monday and Tuesday nights of Championship Week, it’s typically quiet on the bubble front, as only the WCC tournament usually worries those teams competing for the final few spots in the field. And with the Gonzaga Bulldogs not only a tournament lock, but a likely No. 1 seed, that applies again this year. But 2019’s event in Vegas has a couple of wrinkles that make it a little more intriguing. For starters, the WCC bracket returned to a ladder format, meaning both the Bulldogs and second-seeded Saint Mary’s Gaels enter the fray tonight at the semifinal stage (9 p.m. ET, ESPN and 11:30 p.m., ESPN2) — after having last played on Saturday, March 2. Then, thanks to the BYU Cougars’ “no play on Sunday” rule, the tournament took yesterday off. That means Saturday’s quarterfinal winners, the eighth-seeded Pepperdine Waves and seventh-seeded San Diego Toreros, got a day off before taking the floor again tonight.
Yes, two teams that started the WCC tournament in Thursday’s first round will be looking for their fourth consecutive wins in the event. And if that happens bubble teams everywhere will be panicking because that means an at-large bid is about to vanish. (No. 1 seed contenders, on the other hand, would be rejoicing over Gonzaga’s misfortune.)
The more serious threat to the at-large pool comes earlier in the evening, as the Southern Conference’s top seed, the Wofford Terriers, takes on the second-seeded UNC Greensboro Spartans in that league’s title game (7 p.m., ESPN). If the Terriers win and complete a 21-0 SoCon campaign, an at-large spot is preserved. But if the Spartans pull the upset, someone’s bubble will pop.
And the drama will only continue as the week goes on.
Of course, a surprising Cinderella run in one of the multi-bid league tournaments could throw a further wrench into the picture. Let’s take a quick look at the most intriguing storylines in each.
With four of the conference’s 10 teams finishing at 9-9, four others at either 8-10 or 7-11 and the Villanova Wildcats and Marquette Golden Eagles having fallen back to the pack over the final two weeks of the season, this is the power conference most likely to produce a surprise winner. Making matters worse, the favorites’ respective slides mean they’re going to have to win out at Madison Square Garden to have a real shot at a protected seed, most likely on the four line.
While both the regular-season champion Washington Huskies and second-seeded Arizona State Sun Devils are present in today’s projection, a slip-up in Las Vegas, particularly early on, could put them in a world of hurt. And like the Big East, the Pac-12 also has a bunched-up middle class. Just three games separated the third-seeded Utah Utes with the trio of teams that finished eighth in the standings. The worst case scenario for the bubble? A surprise team winning the final on Saturday night over either the Huskies or Sun Devils, with the eliminated favorite having been competitive in the semifinals.
While the Houston Cougars are playing for a possible No. 2 seed and the Cincinnati Bearcats and UCF Knights are both NCAA locks at this point, the third-seeded Temple Owls will probably need to win at least a game to secure their spot. Complicating the picture, the Memphis Tigers — currently on the bubble’s fringe — host the tournament. Only Cincinnati was able to defeat Penny Hardaway’s team on its home floor during conference play. But there’s a caveat — Houston didn’t travel to the Mid-South during the regular season. But the Cougars and Tigers could meet in Saturday’s semifinals.
Once you get past Tuesday’s opening round that features six teams that finished under .500, things will be popping in Charlotte. First up, the league’s bubble teams will take the floor on Wednesday with the Clemson Tigers and NC State Wolfpack playing a virtual elimination game in the afternoon session and the Syracuse Orange and Louisville Cardinals both looking to avoid the dreaded late bad loss that night. The top four seeds then hit the floor for the first time in Thursday’s quarterfinals, with the Virginia Cavaliers, North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils all very much alive in the race for No. 1 NCAA seeds and the Florida State Seminoles (and fifth-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies, for that matter) trying to jump above the four line. Friday night’s second semifinal could be the third UNC-Duke game of the season — but quite possibly the first to fully involve Zion Williamson.
Travel a few hours west of Charlotte and the picture is similar in Nashville, but with a twist — the SEC’s No. 4 seed, the South Carolina Gamecocks, aren’t a real at-large threat, as they’re 15-15 in Division I games thanks to some woeful non-conference performances. Again, early action will feature bubble teams, with the Florida Gators taking on the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday afternoon in a game Mike White’s squad cannot afford to lose after a three-game skid to end the regular season. In the evening session, the Alabama Crimson Tide, currently projected on the outside looking in, could improve their stock by topping the Ole Miss Rebels. Quarterfinal Friday will feature the Gamecocks and the league’s three No. 1 seed contenders, the champion LSU Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers.
While both the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines have featured in the race for No. 1 seeds throughout the season, it might take others stumbling for them to return to the top line at this point. (The Big Ten title game’s pre-Selection Show finish further complicates matters.) So, both are jockeying with the Purdue Boilermakers for spots on the two line. Plus, a spot on the NCAA tournament’s four line could be on the line when the fourth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers and fifth-seeded Maryland Terrapins meet in Friday’s second quarterfinal. Then there’s the bubble, with both the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Iowa Hawkeyes needing wins in Thursday’s second round to feel safe and the Ohio State Buckeyes and Indiana Hoosiers meeting in yet another possible NCAA elimination game to start that day’s quadruple-header.
For starters, the Oklahoma Sooners and TCU Horned Frogs both must play in Wednesday’s opening round, with the potential of a loss being the most harmful to the Frogs’ chances. Then on Wednesday, the most intriguing quarterfinal is the nightcap, as the Texas Longhorns will face a serious challenge as they attempt to avoid the 16th loss that would knock them to .500 and likely eliminate them from NCAA consideration. What does Shaka Smart’s team have to do to avoid such a fate? Merely beat the Kansas Jayhawks on their de facto alternate home floor, Kansas City’s Sprint Center. Easy peasy. The Jayhawks currently feature on the No. 3 seed line nationally, while the conference’s co-champs, the Kansas State Wildcats and Texas Tech Red Raiders, are on line four. The highest finisher of the trio in K.C. is likely to end up as a three, with a chance for a No. 2 seed.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back to talk about the cases for and against the teams closest to the cut line.