Here's the big question: how do you rank teams who didn't play close to the same amount of games this season?
In a COVID world where game cancellations are wreaking havoc, we may find ourselves in a situation where some teams have played fewer than 15 games and still make the NCAA Tournament. For the at-large bids, it's a crazy scenario trying to figure that out.
Sprinkle in there the lack of non-conference schedules for some teams to take advantage of and comparing one league to another has become infinitely more challenging. You want to reward those who have made it through a normal schedule without penalizing those who haven't. Paradoxical in its own right, the committee has a pretty unenviable task at this point.
I still have questions about travel, isolation and risk involved with a single-site tournament in Indianapolis. Is there enough time for all teams to travel, quarantine and test negatively so the games are safe? An outbreak that rolls through the tournament could be this year's major storyline.
Alas, we persevere and prepare for what a tournament may look like. Here's our first attempt at a Bracketology session, predicting where the field stands as of early Feburary.
31. That's the number to know for automatic bids. This year there will only be 31 conference champions earning an automatic bid to the big dance. That leaves 37 at-large berths, more than ever before, and fewer competition leagues for them.
Of those 31, I'd venture a guess that there are 20 conferences who are bound to having one bid. The other eleven: AAC, Atlantic-10, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, MVC, Mountain West, SEC, PAC-12, and WCC.
Let's push those eleven leagues aside for the moment and focus on the 20 schools who will fill out the bottom of the bracket. Six will be 16-seeds, and the other 14 filling in seeds 13-15, with two 12-seeds, at the lowest. That puts this tournament in a really strange spot: if there are three mid-majors who win their leagues and put together impressive campaigns, we could see a major-conference at-large bid be slotted as a 13-seed.
Watch out for schools like Belmont (14-0, 20-1 overall) from the Ohio Valley Conference -- they've played a large enough schedule to know they aren't a fluke of a bad team, but have zero impressive non-conference games (their best win was against George Mason, an 8-8 team in the A-10). If they make the tournament, it may be hard to put them behind a pretty mediocre mid-major on the seeding board. The same goes for UAB (9-1, 16-2, C-USA) and Winthrop (13-1, 16-1, Big South), who are in the same boat. Not good enough to be an at-large, but could wind up with an impressive resume that logjams the committee in the 11-13 seed range.
Of the eleven schools with multi-bid potential, three are on the list that could only wind up with one representative. The Missouri Valley is the prime example, where Drake (9-0, 18-0) has just become ranked in the top-25. There's a chance they run the table and go unbeaten, meaning they're likely to be a top-8 seed.
Drake's improbably run still has its biggest tests: two consecutive games with Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers (11-1, 16-3) could meet Drake three times before the end of the year. Those games will heavily impact bubble teams. The only scenario where I see both getting in is if Drake wins both regular season matchups, but the Ramblers take the conference tourney crown. Drake, currently 51st in KenPom rankings, would be the tournament's first bracket buster -- it's actually Loyola who is a top-15 KenPom team.
Is there a chance both teams make it? An outside one. But the fact they'd have to beat each other up to get there is somewhat concerning. Sure, Drake beat Kansas State, but that isn't saying much this year. Loyola doesn't have an impressive non-conference win.
Jump to the AAC for a moment, where Houston is destroying all competition in the league. They're a potential one-seed thanks to their dominance; 6th on KenPom rankings despite playing in a league that doesn't test well analytically right now. The league's shot at adding a second team likely comes through a Houston loss in the conference tourney. Despite a win over Ole Miss and good losses to Missouri and Oklahoma State, I don't see Wichita State being a bubble team
The other league with some wild consideration for multi-bids: the Atlantic-10. As of now, Joe Lunardi only has them as a one-bid conference. But three of the four teams listed as "first four out" on his board are from the A-10. There's a ton of movement still to happen, but the four team grouping of St. Bonaventure (7-2, 9-2), VCU (6-2, 13-4), Richmond (4-2, 10-4) and St. Louis (1-2, 8-3) all provide unique challenges.
Richmond and St. Louis were nationally-recognized programs before COVID interruptions. The lack of games could really hurt them if the in-conference resume isn't that impressive despite some quality non-conference games. Richmond beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt, hung in against West Virginia... they've played only two games since January 9th. The Bilikens are only 1-2 in A-10 play, and have logged only three games since December 23rd. Will wins over LSU and NC State carry enough weight to push them through if the only get a handful games more?
The Bonnies have cooled after an impressive start to league play. Then there's VCU, probably the most consistent resume of the group. They have undoubtedly the toughest conference schedule remaining, though, and could easily drop off. At this point, the A-10 could be a four-bid league or a one-bid league. Sleepers like Davidson (7-4, 11-5) and others are waiting to burst the hopes of the top-4.
We're close enough to the end of the season that a few programs are stone cold locks. Teams who are in excellent shape, baring an unforeseen and improbable collapse that rarely happens to the nation's best.
Gonzaga and Baylor are the top two teams in the country. Somewhere in the 1 thru 3 range on the seeding chart will fall Michigan, Villanova, Houston, Alabama, Ohio State, Illinois, Virginia and Texas. The next tier down is nipping at their heels, and also pretty secure: Iowa, Texas Tech, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Creighton and West Virginia.
Right now, that's a pretty comfortable list of 18 schools who will be somewhere near the 5-seed mendoza line and above. I'd expect that to be the group who draws a mid-major, auto berth instead of an at-large team from a major league.
A Conference Look
After the locks who are in the elite tier, there's a group of schools I feel are either "in great shape", "in good shape" or "need to earn their ticket". I'll give a brief overview of each by the major conferences involved:
In great shape: Florida State, Virginia Tech
In good shape: Louisville
Need to earn their ticket: North Carolina, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Duke, Syracuse
Lock: Villanova, Creighton
In great shape:
In good shape: Xavier
Need to earn their ticket: Connecticut, Seton Hall, St. John's
Lock: Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, West Virginia
In great shape: Kansas, Oklahoma State*
In good shape:
Need to earn their ticket: TCU
*OK State could be facing a postseason ban
Lock: Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois
In great shape: Wisconsin
In good shape: Purdue, Rutgers, Minnesota
Need to earn their ticket: Indiana, Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State
In great shape:
In good shape: Boise State
Need to earn their ticket: San Diego State, Utah State, Nevada, Colorado State
In great shape: USC, UCLA, Colorado
In good shape: Oregon
Need to earn their ticket: Stanford, Arizona
Lock: Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri
In great shape: LSU
In good shape: Arkansas, Florida
Need to earn their ticket: Auburn, Georgia
In great shape:
In good shape: BYU
Need to earn their ticket:
At this point, there are 33 teams who are "in good shape" of those teams, in a year when the max number of at-large berths is 37. Of course, several of these teams will win their conference tournaments, moving them over to the automatic bid area. Teams "in good shape" or above winning all eight of their tournaments would increase the "need to earn their ticket" group up to a max of 12. With 21 teams on the list, and a few mid-major bubble-poppers we discussed earlier, there's plenty of drama between now and then.
Of course, Oklahoma State is the most curious case for the year. They're appealing an NCAA Tournament ban; if they make the tournament, they're a top-8 seed. If they miss it, one bubble team's angel gets its wings. Nobody has a timeline for when a decision would be made.
There are some pretty odd bubble teams. Penn State is 30th in KenPom rankings somehow despite going 7-8. They're a tough team to peg. St. John's is relatively low on KenPom despite passing the eye test at 13-7.
Scheduling will play a role in this. Arizona, firmly on the bubble, has three games in one week: vs. Oregon, at UCLA, at USC. Utah State finishes with four games against Boise State and Nevada; Boise finishes with them and San Diego State. Expect movement late in the MWC. No team has more big games remaining than the Indiana Hoosiers. After Duke's loss to UNC, they have no margin for error and can't afford any COVID disruptions.
Buckle up, college fans. This is going to be a wild finish.