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Into the Great Wide Open that is This College Basketball Season …

March 11, 2018

Forgive me as I try to resist referring to the site of this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four as “San Antone.” I’m as giddy as a 7-year old on Christmas morning, for Selection Sunday is upon us, a prelude to the 12 Days of Basketball Christmas that is March (and early April) Madness, where at 6:00pm EST on TBS, we’ll see the field, seeding, and opening matchups for the 2018 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

Upon further reflection, I won’t deign to even call myself an “amateur bracketologist” as I did last year. I’m not pretending to know or predict where teams will be seeded, or what cities they’ll get sent to, just lobbing an educated guess at the 68 teams in the field – and really, only the 36 invites, as the 32 automatic qualifiers are, well, automatic. I’ll leave predicted seeding, locations and matchups to those who get paid by media conglomerates, or those who enjoy it as a serious hobby.

Last year I had 66/68 teams correct, missing on Syracuse and Illinois State for Providence and Vanderbilt, where factors like road record and strength of schedule were ultimately decisive. Unlike last year’s bubble which appeared smaller than prior years, this year’s bubble looms large, and the amount of teams that could find themselves under them skies of blue in San Antone err.. San Antonio, the first weekend of April (More to come in my preview this Wednesday) extends all the way to the fringes of that bubble. A Wild West shootout in a Wild West town beckons.

For now, here’s what we know, what I know, what I think I know, what I think that I think I know, and my educated speculation at who will be of good cheer during this most wonderful time of the year (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives that dreaded coal in their tube socks (Do basketball players even wear tube socks anymore? Never mind) from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee. We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments, including for the second time, the Ivy League; A whopping eleven (11) of which repeated from last season (marked below with a *) while only 13 of the 32 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (indicative of the regular season champion or leader) went on to win their conference tournament (marked with a ^).

American Athletic – Cincinnati^
America East – U. Maryland-Baltimore County
ACC – Virginia^
Atlantic Sun – Lipscomb
Atlantic-10 – Davidson
Big 12 – Kansas^
Big East – Villanova*
Big Sky – Montana^
Big South – Radford
Big Ten – Michigan*
Big West – Cal-State Fullerton
Colonial – Charleston
Conference USA – Marshall
Horizon – Wright State
Ivy – Penn
Metro Atlantic – Iona*
Mid-American – Buffalo^
Mid-Eastern – North Carolina Central*
Missouri Valley – Loyola-Chicago^
Mountain West – San Diego State
Northeast – LIU-Brooklyn
Ohio Valley – Murray State^
Pac-12 – Arizona*^
Patriot – Bucknell*^
SEC – Kentucky*
Southern – UNC Greensboro^
Southland – Stephen F. Austin
Southwestern Athletic – Texas Southern*
Summit League – South Dakota State*^
Sun Belt – Georgia State
West Coast – Gonzaga*^
WAC – New Mexico State*^

Simple math leaves 36 at-large bids to be decided. Looking at several metrics, the official NCAA RPI as well as CBS Sports’ “Nitty Gritty Report”, Ken Pomeroy’s data, The Bracket Matrix and a myriad of amateur and professional bracketology sites, as well as ESPN’s and CBS’s handy “Bubble Watch” running features, and what I have seen having watched volumes of college basketball this season (as I do), here are the teams that should be “Locks“, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses):

American Athletic (2): Houston, Wichita State
ACC (5) – North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech
Atlantic-10 (1) – Rhode Island
Big 12 (4) – West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas State
Big East (5) – Xavier, Butler, Seton Hall, Creighton, Providence
Big Ten (3) – Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State
Mountain West (1) – Nevada
Pac-12 (1) – USC
SEC (6) – Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas A&M

That’s a grand total of 28 teams that should be safe, which would leave eight (8) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the “Bubble” teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference

ACC (5) – North Carolina State, Florida State, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse
Atlantic 10 (1) – St. Bonaventure
Big 12 (4) – Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Baylor
Big East (1) – Marquette
Big Ten (3) – Penn State, Maryland, Nebraska
Conference USA (1) – Middle Tennessee
Mountain West (1) – Boise State
Pac-12 (2) – UCLA, Arizona State
SEC (2) – Alabama, Mississippi State
West Coast (1) – St. Mary’s

That’s an astounding 21 teams competing for the last eight (8) spots, the largest bubble in the last four seasons, with a glut of high-major conference teams at or near .500 in conference play and with double-digit losses overall. Throwing darts and drawing straws, what follows is my best guess as to the Not-so-Great-but-very-Good Eight, in order from safest to least safe:

UCLA

Florida State

North Carolina State

Middle Tennessee

Alabama

Notre Dame

St. Mary’s

St. Bonaventure

My “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, would be Louisville, Arizona State, Oklahoma, and Penn State. I’m almost never in favor of teams with sub-.500 conference records making the tournament, so that eliminates Arizona State, Syracuse and the Big 12 Bubble quartet. The exceptions I’d make would be Alabama, who finished 10-11 in SEC conference games after winning 2 games in the SEC Tournament, and Notre Dame, who like Alabama finished 10-11 in ACC games, and were missing a potential All-American in Bonzie Colson for most of the conference season, going 14-5 with him playing and 6-9 without.

Once again, with Middle Tennessee, St. Mary’s and St. Bonaventure, I’m a Champion for the “little guy”, all of whom have Top 40 RPIs that will be difficult for the Selection Committee to ignore.

The NCAA Selection Show beckons in less than two hours, with its usual bag of surprises, riddles, enigmas and mysteries. With apologies to the dearly departed Tom Petty, The future, is wide open.

As always, Happy March Madness Eve!

EDIT Tuesday, March 13, 2:20AM PST – With the field announced, I had an atrocious 64/68 teams correct above (seriously, my dog Mona Lisa could have done better). The bubble burst for Notre Dame, USC, St. Mary’s and Middle Tennessee (the first three of which, along with Baylor, were the first four teams left out according to the official NCAA March Madness Twitter, “earning” #1 seeds in the NIT), while I whiffed on Arizona State, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Texas. Four teams who had sub-.500 records in conference, which, why the heck even have conferences if losing the majority of conference games isn’t an impediment to an NCAA Tournament invitation, since the NCAA’s new-fangled “Quadrant” system for comparing teams have apparently cast non-conference wins and road/neutral court wins as the end-all, be-all. The little guys also got screwed, again, thanks in large part to this Quadrant system, as only 5 of the 36 at-large bids were scooped up by mid-majors (Houston, Wichita State, Nevada, Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure) outside the Top 6 high-major conferences (whose teams have little motivation and even less upside in scheduling mid-majors good enough to get into the NCAAs), but I digress. UCLA and St. Bonaventure, along with ASU and The Orange, were the last four teams in according to the NCAA’s Seed List. Notre Dame in fact was the first team whose bubble burst, knocked out by Davidson’s last-second win against Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Tournament final, according to the NCAA Selection Committee Chair Bruce Rasmussen. According to The 2018 Bracket Matrix, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi got 66/68 teams right; Last year he missed USC for Syracuse, while this year he essentially missed Syracuse for USC – Like I and many others did, as only 23 of the 187 brackets recorded by the Bracket Matrix had Syracuse in the field – as well as also missing ASU for St. Mary’s. In fact, only one (1!) of those 187 brackets got all 68 teams right. So, I don’t feel too bad. Still, I may give Mona Lisa a shot next year.

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