This Week's Bracket
At this point in the season, the projection is taking on an if-the-tournament-started-today look. A few thoughts:
North Carolina has been the hardest team to figure out so far this year. Its schedule features two great wins (Louisville, Michigan State) along with two really bad losses (Belmont, UAB). True, I have Belmont projecting as the Ohio Valley champion and potential single-digit seed. However that is no excuse for Carolina to lose to them at home.
After getting as high as a three seed, then falling down to the eight line, UNC finds themselves as a six right now. They will probably stay in this range unless they can put together a few more quality wins while avoiding any more bad losses. They will have plenty of chances for some nice wins in ACC conference play this season.
Marquette today reminds me exactly of Wisconsin at this point in the 2012-13 season. Those Badgers finished the nonconference portion of the schedule at 9-4, avoiding a truly bad loss but lacking a good win to hang their hat on. This year's Marquette team played a tough schedule out of the gate, but failed to capitalize on any of their opportunities for a true signature win.
Much like last year's Badgers, Marquette cannot afford a lackluster conference season or else they could find themselves on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. I have them on the outside looking in at the moment, but they will have a great chance to play its way in over the next two months.
Among the teams near the top of the bracket, many boast a signature win but none have as many quality wins as Wisconsin. The Badgers' best win is probably over Florida, but the St John's, Saint Louis, Virginia, Marquette and even West Virginia wins will all look great in March. No other team has such balance in their schedule. This should pay huge dividends going forward, both in terms of experience in big games and resume building.
Something new this week, teams that have been added to the bracket since the last projection are in CAPS. Teams with acronyms for names (UCLA, VCU, etc.) will be noted with a hyphen after its name if they are new to the bracket (ex. UCLA--), but there are no such cases in this bracket.
I'll be back after the calendar flips to 2014 and ready to buckle down for what should be a wild ride to March.
There are a lot of misconceptions about making a bracket. Basically, you take the winners of the automatic-bid conferences, then the next best teams that didn't win their conference and rank them 1-68. Once these rankings are done, the teams are split up at increments of 4 into their seeds. The last 4 at-large teams and the last 4 auto bid teams are seeded in pairs, and represent the new "First Four" model, with play-in games on the first Tuesday and Wednesday of the tournament. Once I break the teams up into seeds, it is easy for me to see where one team maybe should be ahead of another. After teams are seeded, I make note of the "first four out" and "next four out" to keep a full radar of teams that are near tournament contention.
One small change to the bracket this year will be the number of auto bids and at-large bids. The breakup of the original Big East resulted in the creation of the new American Athletic Conference (AAC). Because the AAC meets the criteria for an automatic bid, the number of auto bids rose from 31 to 32. That, in turn, shrunk the number of at-large bids from 37 to 36. This really will not have a large impact on the bracket, as the winners of the new Big East and AAC will likely be teams that would have gotten in if the old conference was still in place. This is the second time that a conference breakup has resulted in an increase in auto bids, the first being the splitting of the WAC into the Mountain West about 10 years ago. That was the beginning of the play-in games, as the NCAA didn't want to see the number of at-large bids change out of fear of lowering the quality of the tournament. Since then, the play-in games have grown from one to four, so there is no reason to expand the tournament based on the most recent conference expansion.
As far as selecting teams, my process is not complicated. Remember, I am only selecting 36 teams because of the 32 auto bids. During the season, I use the current conference leaders to determine who my auto bids go to. Once I have these teams selected, I rank them 1-32. I then select the remaining 36 teams based on factors like the RPI, with special focus on certain RPI characteristics like quality wins and strength of schedule. The selection committee looks at each team as an independent in their selection in March, so I try not to let conference affiliation affect my seeding. I have a natural bias towards the Big Ten, simply by virtue of seeing so many Big Ten games in person each season. I do my best not to let this bias be a part of my bracket.
I am interested to see how the shift of power towards the major conferences affects seeding. The Horizon League, Conference USA and the Missouri Valley Conference all lost teams to the redistributed Big East and AAC. There were also some shifts among the low-major conferences that will have minor impacts. Bottom line: previous conference reputations will be more irrelevant than ever and there will be a period of feeling-out with the realignment.
In my opinion, the Big Ten returns as the best conference, but the ACC is not far behind. The AAC and new Big East are about equal, the Big 12 is about their level and the SEC and Pac-12 continue to lag slightly behind, despite having some top-level teams at the top of their conferences. The Atlantic-10 continues its rise and the Mountain West will be as competitive as always.
I'm looking to build on a season in which I correctly predicted 66 of the 68 teams in the field, correctly predicted 22 teams' seeds, got 28 teams predicted within one seed and 12 teams within two seeds.
When things pick up in January, I release a bracket every Friday, after the big Thursday games and before the busy weekends.