NCAA Tournament Field of 68 Projection: March
It seems like yesterday when the world came to a pause days before the 2020 NCAA Tournament was supposed to begin. After months of uncertainty, postponements, and doubt that the NCAA would make it this far, we are so close to three of the most exciting weeks in sports.
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 in a few weeks for extensive NCAA Tournament coverage!
1 Gonzaga vs. 16 (Prairie View A&M vs. James Madison)
8 Maryland vs. 9 Oregon
5 Creighton vs. 12 (Boise State vs. Georgia Tech)
4 Texas Tech vs. 13 Winthrop
6 Wisconsin vs. 11 Connecticut
3 Florida State vs. 14 Eastern Washington
7 Oklahoma State vs. 10 VCU
2 Houston vs. 15 Grand Canyon
Mark Few's Gonzaga Bulldogs are still at the top, but the gap between them and other one seeds has closed considerably over the past month-plus. With that being said, their numbers still speak for themselves, ranking in the top ten nationwide in adjusted offensive (AdjO) and defensive (AdjD) efficiency. Houston and Florida State are not separated by much between the two and three line. The Cougars rank fifth in NET, and are fourth in adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM), while the Seminoles have eight combined Quad 1 and 2 wins to go along with a top-ten AdjO. A Sweet 16 matchup between them would be a must-watch.
The 4-7 seeds can all make runs in this region as well. Oklahoma State might be the most intriguing among them, as the Cowboys are tied for second in the country in Quad 1 wins with eight. Some of the lower seeds in this grouping should not be counted out. Dana Altman has proven on a yearly basis that Oregon can make it to the second weekend of the tournament. VCU has one of the best defenses in the nation, and have eight combined Quad 1 and 2 wins. Looking at the mid-majors, Winthrop has dominated the Big South all season long and should give whoever they face a tough time.
1 Michigan vs. 16 UMBC
8 Florida vs. 9 BYU
5 USC vs. 12 Colorado State
4 Texas vs. 13 Abilene Christian
6 Clemson vs. 11 Belmont
3 Iowa vs. 14 UNC Greensboro
7 Virginia Tech vs. 10 Drake
2 Villanova vs. 15 Colgate
There has been some discussion as to whether Michigan is the best team in the country. While they were blown out by Illinois a few nights ago, their overall body of work speaks for itself. Since coming off of their pause, they have collected wins over Wisconsin, Rutgers, Ohio State, Indiana, and Iowa. They also rank second in AdjEM with top ten grades in AdjO and AdjD, making them one of the most efficient teams in the nation. Seeds 2-4 shouldn't be forgotten, however. It is never smart to count out Jay Wright and Villanova in March, and between their veteran experience and effective offense (fifth in AdjO), they will be dangerous once again. Iowa has the depth and shooting capabilities to make a run, and Shaka Smart's Longhorns are battle-tested from a deep Big 12.
The lower seeds in this region are fantastic. Belmont has been one of the most dominant mid-major teams all year long, featuring five players who average double-figures. Colorado State has a tiro of guards that can put tremendous pressure on an opposing defense, and have taken the next step in an increasingly tough Mountain West. Wes Miller's UNC Greensboro squad looks ready to surprise, featuring a defense that can keep them in any game versus a higher seed.
1 Baylor vs. 16 (Siena vs. North Carolina A&T)
8 Rutgers vs. 9 LSU
5 Purdue vs. 12 (Wichita State vs. Xavier)
4 Virginia vs. 13 UC Santa Barbara
6 Arkansas vs. 11 Seton Hall
3 West Virginia vs. 14 South Dakota State
7 Missouri vs. 10 North Carolina
2 Ohio State vs. 15 Texas State
Baylor and West Virginia played an absolute classic earlier this week, and a potential rematch could occur either in the Big 12 Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. After a long pause due to COVID-19 and a loss to Kansas, many wondered how long it would take for the Bears to recapture their momentum, but their win over the Mountaineers should help jumpstart it. Both have six or more Quad 1 wins and also rank in the top 20 in AdjEM. Ohio State has fallen off the one line, but they are just victims of an incredibly deep Big Ten.
There are multiple teams that could go on a sneaky run in this region. Virginia has been largely forgotten among the national powers, but have been steady all year in a weaker ACC. Purdue has quietly put together a very impressive season, with 20 of their 25 games coming in Quads 1 or 2. They are 13-7 in those contests. Arkansas has been quite a surprise in the SEC, and Eric Musselman proved during his time at Nevada that he can win in March. Teams like Missouri, Rutgers, LSU, and Seton Hall have all endured tough conference schedules, but are battle-tested and have veteran players that can make a difference in a tournament setting.
1 Illinois vs. 16 Bryant
8 Loyola-Chicago vs. 9 San Diego State
5 Tennessee vs. 12 Western Kentucky
4 Kansas vs. 13 Toledo
6 UCLA vs. 11 Wichita State
3 Oklahoma vs. 14 Liberty
7 Colorado vs. 10 St. Bonaventure
2 Alabama vs. 15 Cleveland State
There are few teams right now that are on a better run than Illinois. The Illini have won 10 of their last 11 games, a few without National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu. Kofi Cockburn has taken his game to another level, and their depth is among the best in the Big Ten. Alabama has been a great story out of the SEC this season, playing at a blistering pace (fourth in adjusted tempo). Perhaps their best trait, however, is their defense, which ranks third in AdjD. These two teams appear to be on another tier than the rest in this region, but if there is any program that can knock them out, it is Oklahoma. The Sooners, despite losing three straight, still have wins over West Virginia, Kansas, Texas, and Alabama.
Two teams in this region that deserve some spotlight are Colorado and Loyola-Chicago. Colorado had a top-20 team in numerous statistical categories last year, but were in the midst of a long losing streak when COVID-19 hit. This season, they have proven once again that they can play with anyone, ranking 15th in NET and 17th in AdjEM. Loyola-Chicago will be looking to replicate the magic from 2018, and in some metrics they grade out better than that Final Four team. Their defense ranks second in AdjD, and outside of Gonzaga they are the highest mid-major in the NET rankings.
Who's on the bubble?
Just made the cut: Boise State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Xavier
Just missed the cut: Utah State, Michigan State, Syracuse, Saint Louis, Memphis, Duke, Ole Miss, SMU
Let's just get this out of the way, Duke and Michigan State are on the outside looking in. They are a combined 25-20, and have had their fair share of struggles this season. Duke failed to capitalize on a weaker ACC, and Michigan State had the unfortunate reality of playing in the Big Ten. The Spartans, however, have the better chance to move onto the other side of the bubble with two games against Michigan to end the regular season. A split there, plus a few wins in the Big Ten Tournament, could very well give them the edge over other teams.
Syracuse is peaking at the right time. They are a lot closer to sneaking in than people think. This week alone they have wins over North Carolina and Clemson, and can continue to make a case to the selection committee with a strong showing next week in the ACC Tournament. What hurts them immensely is their 1-6 record against Quad 1 teams.
In terms of the last teams in, Boise State has moved from comfortably in to on the bubble due to two losses to San Diego State and a home setback against Fresno State. Georgia Tech has won five straight games to put themselves into the tournament conversation. If you look at some of their losses, however, it raises some eyebrows. As for Louisville and Xavier, they can make their cases stronger with a few wins at their respective conference tournaments.
(Cover Photo: Donald Page/Getty Images)