NCAA Tournament Field of 68 Projection: February
It's hard to believe that in a month, the college basketball regular season will be coming to a close and conference tournaments will be tipping off. In what has been a strange, turbulent, and shortened season for many, there has still been a lot of high-level basketball all around the country. As the regular season begins to wind down, many programs will look to make a late push to make up some ground in the standings, or insert themselves in to the bubble conversation. With that being said, let's take a look at how the field of 68 could look in the middle of March.
Predicted conference champions will be in italics, with the at-large bids presented normally. Note that the conference winners are predicted, and can not necessarily be first at the moment.
Take a look, find your team, and check back next month for a fresh bracket!
1 Gonzaga vs. 16 (North Carolina A&T vs. South Dakota)
8 Minnesota vs. 9 Drake
5 Virginia Tech vs. 12 Belmont
4 Texas Tech vs. 13 Little Rock
6 UCLA vs. 11 (Indiana vs. Seton Hall)
3 Tennessee vs. 14 Furman
7 Oklahoma State vs. 10 Clemson
2 Illinois vs. 15 Eastern Washington
Gonzaga has only had one game that finished with a margin under 10 points, and have had their foot on the gas pedal since the season started. The West Coast Conference appeared to have some formidable foes, but the Bulldogs seemingly might not lose during conference play. This grouping of teams does have some teams that can make them sweat. Illinois has seven Quad 1 wins, which ranks second in the country, to go along with three more in Quad 2. Another top 10 NET team is Tennessee, a team that has collected four Quad 1 wins in a tightly-contested SEC. Overall, if you count the three teams mentioned plus Texas Tech, there are four teams that rank within the top 15 of the NET rankings.
Looking deeper, teams like Oklahoma State and Minnesota never will get the recognition they deserve due to the conferences they are in, but are capable of knocking off the nation's best. Potential number one pick Cade Cunningham has been a star for the Cowboys, and Marcus Carr has done the same for the Gophers, averaging roughly 20 points per game. Don't be fooled by Drake's loss to Valparaiso over the weekend, they still are hovering around the top 30 in NET, and their series with Loyola-Chicago this weekend will determine their season's trajectory. Belmont has not lost a step since Casey Alexander took over for Rick Byrd, and the Bruins, in what seems like every year, have a chance to win a game or two.
1 Baylor vs. 16 (Prairie View A&M vs. Bryant)
8 Xavier vs. 9 Western Kentucky
5 Missouri vs. 12 (Colorado State vs. Stanford)
4 Wisconsin vs. 13 Toledo
6 Florida vs. 11 St. John's
3 Iowa vs. 14 Wright State
7 USC vs. 10 Connecticut
2 Houston vs. 15 Colgate
The running theme of this season is that it feels like two spots in the Final Four are already taken by Gonzaga and Baylor. While it is hard to forecast even past the current week in this sport, it certainly seems like they are on another level. Baylor, like Gonzaga, has six Quad 1 wins as part of their undefeated record. Their conference, though, will present them with many tests before the bracket is completed. The state of Texas has some really good basketball teams, and Houston is one of them. The Cougars get stellar guard play on a nightly basis, and have the fifth-most efficient defense in the country, per KenPom. Iowa and Wisconsin have been victims of a deep Big Ten in terms of their record. They are two veteran teams that have the depth to win in March, but one thing to watch for is Iowa's defense, which ranks 121st in adjusted defensive efficiency.
St. John's was 7-7 in the middle of January, but they have won six-straight, including two over ranked opponents. They play at one of the fastest paces in the country, and are a team that defensively can make it difficult for anyone on any given night. There are three Mountain West teams in this month's projection, and all three 100 percent deserve it. Colorado State is a team that not many have seen, but one that grades out extremely well. They ranked 47th in NET, sporting wins over San Diego State, Boise State, and Utah State. They have a trio of guards that average 10 or more points, and a defense that ranks in the top 50 of adjusted defensive efficiency.
1 Michigan vs. 16 UMBC
8 Colorado vs. 9 Boise State
5 Florida State vs. 12 Arkansas
4 Oklahoma vs. 13 Liberty
6 Rutgers vs. 11 Loyola-Chicago
3 Texas vs. 14 Grand Canyon
7 Louisville vs. 10 San Diego State
2 Villanova vs. 15 UC Santa Barbara
Jay Wright's Wildcats took a hard loss against St. John's last week, but that should be quickly forgotten when looking at the overall body of work for this team. Villanova's offense ranks fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency, despite missing almost an entire month due to COVID-19. They dropped to the two line, but that is more of a credit to the Big Ten and their two top teams. Michigan, despite being on a pause the past few weeks, grades out as one of the best teams in the nation. The Wolverines rank third in NET with four Quad 1 wins, and place in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They're legit.
This grouping is loaded with quality challengers. As mentioned in previous articles, Florida State can hang with any team in the nation with their length, size and interchangeability. They aren't the average five seed, and can still climb during the last few weeks of the season. Oklahoma recently beat three-consecutive top 10 teams, and is right on the cusp of overtaking Texas as the second-best team in the Big 12. San Diego State and Loyola-Chicago are dangerous mid-majors who rank 21st and 14th in NET, respectively.
1 Ohio State vs. 16 Abilene Christian
8 Oregon vs. 9 North Carolina
5 West Virginia vs. 12 St. Bonaventure
4 Creighton vs. 13 Winthrop
6 Kansas vs. 11 LSU
3 Virginia vs. 14 Hofstra
7 Purdue vs. 10 BYU
2 Alabama vs. 15 Siena
There are two number one seeds in this section of the bracket, but Ohio State deserved the slight edge. It is pretty remarkable what they have done this season, racking up a nation-leading eight Quad 1 wins in the toughest conference. That doesn't discredit Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide, who have been one of the most exciting teams to watch. Alabama ranks second in adjusted defensive efficiency, and 10 of their 15 wins are in Quad 1 and Quad 2. Both of these teams are capable of a Final Four run.
The (still) defending champions have played well this season, and their typical slow pace has led to a highly-efficient offense. The ACC isn't what it usually is, but their talent trumps their schedule. It is hard to imagine a season in which Creighton, West Virginia, Kansas, Oregon, and North Carolina are all in the same bracket, and none are higher than a four seed. The parity this season is something we haven't seen in a long time. With that being said, all of those teams could win games in March and no one would be surprised.
Who's on the bubble?
Just made the cut: Indiana, Seton Hall, Colorado State, Stanford
Just missed the cut: Maryland, Saint Louis, Richmond, VCU, Dayton, Utah State, Providence, SMU.
There was a lot of pressure to try to squeeze Maryland in, but they might need a few more wins to justify taking one of the last teams in out. All nine of their losses are in Quad 1, so they have had one of the toughest roads in the Big Ten so far. Their schedule doesn't get any easier, but they can move the needle in the Big Ten Tournament, if need be. The Atlantic 10 is a fantastic conference, but it can be unpredictable at times leading to some teams knocking off the top programs (Saint Louis and Richmond). The other two A-10 teams on the bubble, VCU and Dayton, have a lesser chance of getting on the right side of the bubble. Utah State might have the best chance to surge up the board in a crowded Mountain West, with two games against Boise State coming up later this month, along with the conference tournament.
(Cover Photo: Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports)