Three-quarters of the way through a historically unpredictable college basketball season, the NCAA tournament selection committee shared a snapshot of its top 16 teams. Here are four key takeaways from the partial in-season bracket the committee unveiled on Saturday afternoon.
1. The four No. 1 seeds have pulled away from the rest of the field
A comment that committee chairman Kevin White made about the quartet of No. 1 seeds provided the biggest takeaway from Saturday’s bracket reveal show. The Duke athletic director said on CBS that those four teams were “unanimous” No. 1 seeds and that “there was a bit of a separation between 4 and 5, quite frankly.”
As expected, Big 12 leader Baylor (20-1) would be the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed if the regular season ended Friday night. Of the five teams nationally with two or fewer losses, the Bears’ 13-1 record in quadrant 1 or 2 games is by far the best.
Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State joined the Bears on the top seed line. The Jayhawks’ nine quadrant 1 victories are the most of any team in the country, while the Zags and Aztecs have a handful of impressive non-conference victories and a combined one loss all season.
The committee ranked its No. 2 seeds in the following order: Duke, Dayton, Louisville and West Virginia. Of that quartet, West Virginia has by far the most chances to make up ground with the No. 1 seeds thanks to seven upcoming quadrant 1 games including two against Baylor and one against Kansas.
Though the primary purpose of the NCAA’s in-season bracket preview is to generate discussion, the top seed line has often proven to be a harbinger of things to come. In the previous three years the NCAA has given this early sneak peek at the bracket, three of the four No. 1 seeds have remained on the top seed line come Selection Sunday.
2. Gonzaga, not San Diego State, has the inside track to No. 1 in the West
One of the most significant decisions the committee made on Saturday was slotting one-loss Gonzaga a spot ahead of undefeated San Diego State. That gives the Zags the inside track to retain the coveted No. 1 seed in the West Region and the geographically favorable path to the Final Four that comes with it.
The committee geographically protects the top seeds as much as possible, so San Diego State will likely head to Sacramento for the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend and Gonzaga will almost certainly start in Spokane. If both are still in position to land No. 1 seeds by Selection Sunday, where either head next will depend on how the committee views either in relation to the other.
Only one could be sent to Los Angeles, where either would likely benefit from easy travel and tremendous fan support. The other could be shipped to Indianapolis or New York if Baylor stays the No. 1 overall seed and claims the Houston Regional.
White said Saturday the committee gave the slight edge to Gonzaga over San Diego State because of quality wins. The Aztecs are 8-0 in Quad 1 and 2 games with victories away from home against Creighton, Iowa and BYU. The Zags are 7-1 in Quad 1 and 2 games with wins against Arizona, Oregon and BYU.
“It’s such a fine line,” White said. “I think at the end of the day across the 10-member committee, it was the fact that the Zags had two really good wins over Arizona and Oregon.”
It may be tough for San Diego State to overtake Gonzaga if both teams win out. The Zags have more quad 1 and 2 opportunities remaining, beginning on Saturday night at rival Saint Mary’s.
The only other two times it made the Sweet 16, San Diego State filled Anaheim’s Honda Center with its fans in 2011 and 2014. San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher has said he’d prefer a No. 2 seed in the West to being shipped East as a No. 1, but the selection committee traditionally has not moved teams down a seed line to keep them close to home.
3. The bracket reflects the parity across the sport
It’s fitting that the selection committee’s top 16 included teams from nine different conferences. Parity across college basketball might be at an all-time high this season thanks to the scarcity of elite talent.
A record number of underclassmen left college basketball early to turn pro last spring even though many went unselected in the NBA draft. The freshman class tasked with replacing that lost talent also has proven to be unusually weak.
Three of the best players in the class, LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton and James Wiseman, each chose not to pursue college basketball. Other top freshmen like Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, North Carolina’s Cole Anthony and Washington’s Isaiah Stewart are on teams unlikely to make the NCAA tournament.
The result is a season in which seven teams have held the No. 1 ranking and no dominant team has yet emerged. That’s reflected in a bracket reveal that has only two blue bloods and three teams from outside college basketball’s six power conferences.
4. Penn State is the biggest snub
It was somewhat understandable when Penn State did not appear among the committee’s top 16 on Saturday afternoon. It was far more puzzling when the Nittany Lions were not among the three near-misses who White said generated the most discussion.
Penn State (17-5) has a 6-3 record in quadrant 1 games, a big improvement over the 3-6 record of a Michigan State team that was the committee’s last No. 4 seed. Worse yet, the Nittany Lions also beat the Spartans (16-7) on Tuesday in East Lansing.
Throw in the fact that Penn State also has only one loss to a team outside the NET top 50 and victories over Maryland, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State, and it’s easy to make a case that the Nittany Lions could have been on the No. 4 line in Michigan State’s place. At the very least, they should have been one of the teams White listed as being under consideration along with Iowa, Kentucky and LSU.
Historically, which teams have made the committee’s in-season top 16 has largely held up.
Fifteen of 16 teams on the 2017 in-season bracket retained top-four seeds in March. Thirteen of 16 achieved that feat in 2018. Last year, it was only 11 because a few of the No. 3 and 4 seeds suffered late-season slumps and plummeted down the bracket.
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