This Week's Bracket
Conference play has finally arrived, and with it comes my third NCAA Tournament bracket projection of the season. Two-and-a-half months from Selection Sunday, certain teams have played their way into early consideration while others have placed themselves squarely on the "bubble".
Conference rankings are another focal point of my bracket projection, and this week the Big Ten has retained its top position. Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State appear to be virtual locks for bids. Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota all have work to do to secure berths, but I expect at least three of these teams to be able to breath easy on March 16.
Purdue has a chance to sneak into the field, but they are the least likely of the teams mentioned so far. The remaining Big Ten teams, Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern, will likely be left battling only for an NIT bid.
The Atlantic 10 is deep once again this year, and this projection features five A-10 schools. One of the toughest and deepest "mid-major" conferences, the A-10 is overlooked year after year but they will be hard to ignore if they can, once again, place more teams in the tournament than one of the BCS conferences.
Wisconsin 2 seed justification: Seeding teams is essentially ranking them. In my opinion, I believe that right now Michigan State is simply a better team than Wisconsin. For that reason, they remain one line above the Badgers. Wisconsin and Michigan State are both ranked fourth in one poll and fifth in another. It is a real toss up at this point between the two teams.
Wisconsin will have plenty of opportunities to change this over the coming weeks, including the head-to-head matchup with the Spartans in February. Wisconsin remains at the top of the two-seed line, ready for a likely move up if Ohio State knocks off Michigan State next week.
Note: The question has been raised to me, why do some teams have their conference listed next to them and others don't? The teams with their conferences listed next to them are the current projected conference winners.
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.