NCAA tournament

Bracket Watch: Duke, Kansas and North Carolina In Contention for Top Line

Less than one week from now, the NCAA tournament bracket will be set. Even though less than half of the field’s 68 teams will have their tickets punched before Selection Sunday, the truth is that the vast majority of squads already know they’re in. For example: Michigan may have won the Big Ten tournament but Purdue and Michigan State can be just as sure as the Wolverines that they, too, will be dancing.

The in-or-out intrigue is reserved for the Bubble Watch, which we will be updating daily during Championship Week. The Bracket Watch, which we’ll also be updating daily, is focused on the seeding discussion as that changes with each passing day as the conference tournament results roll in.

Last Four In

Syracuse
Kansas State
Marquette
UCLA

First Four Out

USC
Louisville
Oklahoma State
Alabama

Next Four Out

Washington
Notre Dame
LSU
Oregon

South Region

The Michigan Wolverines have done it again. For the second straight season, the Wolverines will enter the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country after ripping through the Big Ten tournament. It wasn’t merely that the Wolverines claimed their second straight Big Ten tourney crown that was impressive. It was the way in which they did it. After needing overtime to get past Iowa in their first game, the Wolverines went on to beat Nebraska, Michigan State and Purdue by a combined 39 points. The wins over the Spartans and Boilermakers were both well in hand with five to seven minutes remaining. The final few minutes of the win over Purdue felt more like a coronation than a championship game between two Final Four contenders. That’s what it was, however, and few people thought we’d be able to say that about Michigan as recently as one month ago after it lost at Northwestern. The Wolverines haven’t lost since, stringing together nine straight wins including victories against every other team in the conference that is headed to the tournament. We have Michigan as a No. 3 seed, but even if they end up as a No. 4, or somehow a No. 5, they’re going to be a team no top seed will want to see in its region.

East Region

We’re down to three teams fighting for one spot on the top line. Virginia could lose its first ACC tournament game and still get a No. 1 seed. Villanova and Xavier are also near-locks for the top line. That leaves Kansas, North Carolina and Duke—our No. 2 seed in the East—fighting it out for the No. 1 seed in the West. Kansas has the inside track, with Duke close behind. Duke is a spot higher in RPI—fourth against fifth—but it will be hard for the committee to look beyond Kansas’s 10 Quadrant 1 victories, the second-most in the country. That same door is open for the Tar Heels, who actually lead the country with 11 Q1 wins. As the No. 6 seed in the ACC tournament, they have a much more challenging road to a conference title. If the chalk holds up, they’ll have to get through Syracuse, Miami, Duke and Virginia to cut down the nets in Brooklyn.

If Kansas goes on to take the Big 12 tournament title, it will likely add at least two more Q1 wins. Should the Jayhawks lose—even in the championship game—and Duke takes the ACC tournament title, the committee will likely give the fourth No. 1 seed to the Blue Devils. Thanks to the depth of the ACC, Duke would likely get three more Q1 victories if it wins the tournament this week. That, combined with a Kansas loss, should be enough to get the Blue Devils to the top line. That same door would be open for the Tar Heels, but they wouldn’t have the slam dunk case that Duke would in that scenario.

Midwest Region

Want to be the smart person in your pool who backs the double-digit seed that pulls off a couple of upsets to advance to the second weekend? Well, then it’s time for you to start falling in love with Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers won the Missouri Valley tournament over the weekend, notching the program’s first trip to the dance since 1985. Featuring a dynamic offense that ranks 14th in the country in three-point percentage and eighth in kenpom.com’s effective field goal percentage, the Ramblers dominated what is routinely one of the best mid-major conferences. It’s almost easier to find someone on this team who didn’t earn some individual hardware than someone who did. The Larry Bird Player of the Year Award? That went to junior guard Cameron Custer, who put up 13.4 points, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The Freshman of the Year? Forward Cameron Krutwig, who scored 10.5 points and pulled down 6.3 rebounds per game, took home that one. Senior guard Ben Richardson won the Valley’s Defensive Player of the year Award. And, of course, it should come as no surprise that head coach Porter Moser was named Coach of the Year, an award won in recent years by Gregg Marshall, Cuonzo Martin and Matt Painter.

Loyola can play with anyone, something it proved by going into Gainesville and knocking off the Gators back in December. With four players who shoot at least 40% from behind the arc, a second dynamic scorer in Donte Ingram, the 24th-ranked defense by kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency to go with the offense, and the confidence that comes from winning 28 games in the regular season, the Ramblers are going to be a tough out in the dance.

West Region

Loyola wasn’t the only team to dominate a Valley conference and win a championship over the weekend. Murray State went 16-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference and took down Belmont in the championship game on Saturday, getting back to the dance for the first time since 2012. The Racers aren’t quite the threat the Ramblers are. Unlike their Valley counterparts, there isn’t any one thing they do exceptionally well on offense that makes them a dangerous team against any opponent. They do, however, have a tremendous leader in Jonathan Stark, who averaged 21.8 points per game this season. Stark shot 46% from the field, 41% from three and 88.8% from the free throw line. When they need a bucket, they’ve got someone who not only can get it, but relishes having the ball in his hands at those moments. That’s crucial for any No. 12 or 13 seed, which the Racers are sure to be. They may not have as high a ceiling as Loyola, but just like the Ramblers, they’re perfectly capable of pulling off a run to the Sweet 16, taking down a couple of No. 4 and 5 seeds along the way.

Bolded teams = won NCAA tournament auto-bid

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