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Bracketology 2021: The Top 16 might as well be called the Big 16 right now

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Two conferences with names that don’t match their respective membership numbers are dominating the protected seed race in early February.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana
Illinois is riding a four-game win streak to the bracket’s upper reaches.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

That’s right, today’s top four seed lines are dominated by the Big Ten and Big 12, with the two conferences combining for just a little more than half of the top 16, with nine teams. That’s an increase of one over both Friday’s and Tuesday’s brackets, as West Virginia now sits on the fourth seed line. Amazingly, these two leagues are dominating the protected seed race despite the struggles of powers Kansas (a seven seed today) and Michigan State (nowhere near the field at the moment).

However, all is not rosy for these two conferences, and the door is very much open for the group of teams currently occupying the fifth and sixth seed lines, including Florida State, Tennessee, Pac-12-leading USC, and Xavier, among others. That’s because Iowa seems to be entering its customary late-season swoon, and Texas is joining them. Both have posted identical 1-4 records in their last five contests.

On the other hand, Illinois has jumped up to the two line (and the No. 5 spot overall) thanks to four straight victories, capped by Saturday’s 75-60 triumph over Wisconsin. The Fighting Illini were scheduled to play at Michigan on Thursday night, which would have been a showdown for a spot on the No. 1 line. However, the Wolverines postponed that contest, meaning Brad Underwood’s team will now play at Nebraska on Friday.

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the Big Ten and Big 12 dominate the protected seed group at the moment, the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, and Missouri Valley have crowded out the competition near the cut line. Eight of the 14 teams on seed lines 10 through 12 (including the First Four places) come from these conferences. This past weekend’s results shook up the three league races.

  • In the Atlantic 10, Saint Louis defeated conference-leading St. Bonaventure for its first post-pause victory. Richmond, currently the final at-large, is currently paused and will be up until next Wednesday’s crosstown showdown with fellow bubble team VCU. The Rams have won three in a row heading into tonight’s road test at Dayton.
  • Loyola Chicago (12-1) is now tied with Drake (9-1) in the loss column in the Missouri Valley race. The Ramblers have won 10 in a row heading into their weekend series in Des Moines. On the other hand, the Bulldogs’ tendency to start slowly finally caught up to them this weekend, as they followed a narrow 80-77 win at Valparaiso with a 74-57 loss to the same opponent on Sunday. Plus, Niko Medved’s squad has to play a midweek game, at home against Northern Iowa, before meeting Loyola for two starting on Saturday.
  • The Mountain West now has four teams in the field, thanks to Utah State’s (11-2) move into first, at the expense of Boise State (10-3) and Colorado State (11-3). The Broncos have dropped three of four, thanks to a weekend sweep at Nevada. San Diego State, currently at 8-3 and in fourth, are the highest-seeded conference entrant, on line nine.

Indiana rejoined the field after Sunday’s win over Iowa. The Hoosiers replace Maryland, who dropped consecutive games to Penn State and Ohio State. UConn also drops out of the field. The Huskies’ Saturday loss to Seton Hall was their third in their last four, which is a problem for a team whose profile is highlighted by a win over USC and has little else.

After today’s full bracket and rundown, I’ll discuss the midweek TV schedule.

The Bracket

Stars (✴️) indicate new entrants, while arrows (⬆️ ⬇️) indicate movement up and down the seed list.

Rundown

IN (9): Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Fairleigh Dickinson (NEC), Indiana, Monmouth (MAAC), Sam Houston State (Southland), Texas State (Sun Belt), UMBC (AE), Utah State (MW), Wofford (SoCon)
OUT: Bryant (NEC), Iona (MAAC), Louisiana (Sun Belt), Maryland, Montana State (Big Sky), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), UConn, UNCG (SoCon), Vermont (AE)

Last Four Byes: Saint Louis, Seton Hall, Drake, Indiana
Last Four IN: St. John’s, Boise State, Colorado State, Richmond
First Four OUT: Oregon, North Carolina, UConn, Maryland
Next Four OUT: Western Kentucky, VCU, SMU, Wichita State

Bids by Conference

*: auto bid holder

One-bid conferences: 21

Big Ten (9): 1. Michigan*, 1. Ohio State, 2. Illinois, 3. Wisconsin, 3. Iowa, 6. Purdue,
7. Rutgers, 9. Minnesota, 11. Indiana
Big 12 (7): 1. Baylor*, 4. Texas, 4. Oklahoma, 4. West Virginia, 5. Texas Tech, 7. Kansas, 8. Oklahoma State
SEC (6): 2. Alabama*, 3. Missouri, 5. Tennessee, 7. Florida, 8. Arkansas, 10. LSU
ACC (5): 3. Virginia*, 5. Florida State, 6. Virginia Tech, 8. Clemson, 8. Louisville
Big East (5): 1. Villanova*, 4. Creighton, 6. Xavier, 10. Seton Hall, 12. St. John’s (First Four)
Pac-12 (5): 5. USC*, 6. UCLA, 7. Colorado, 8. USC, 9. Stanford
Mountain West (4): 9. San Diego State, 11. Utah State*, 12. Boise State (First Four), 12. Colorado State (First Four)
Atlantic 10 (3): 10. St. Bonaventure*, 10. Saint Louis, 12. Richmond (First Four)
Missouri Valley (2): 11. Drake, 11. Loyola Chicago*
West Coast (2): 1. Gonzaga*, 9. BYU

Midweek Lineup

Games are presented in relative order of importance. All times are Eastern. All times and broadcast information is CoVID-dependent. I’ll try to keep this section updated, but if I don’t, check out MattSarzSports.com’s weekly and daily schedules for the latest information.

Tuesday

Afternoon and early evening

Alabama at South Carolina, 6:30 p.m. (SECN)
Dayton at VCU, 5 p.m. (CBSSN)
Arkansas at Kentucky, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Penn State at Michigan State, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Syracuse at NC State, 6:30 p.m. (ACCN)
Notre Dame at Duke, 4:30 p.m. (ACCN)
La Salle at St. Bonaventure, 6 p.m. (ESPN+ ($))

The early Tuesday night schedule is highlighted by a trio of struggling blueblood programs that will need to do more than win tonight to get their at-large chances back on track. Elsewhere, SEC-leading Alabama travels to South Carolina looking to rebound from their first conference loss of the season. Dayton-VCU and Syracuse-NC State are crucial intraconference bubble games, while St. Bonaventure hosts an improved La Salle squad, following Saturday’s loss to Saint Louis.

Mid to late evening

West Virginia at Texas Tech, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
St. John’s at Butler, 9 p.m. (FS1)
Creighton at Georgetown, 9 p.m. (CBSSN)
Texas at Kansas State, 8 p.m. (ESPN+ ($))
New Mexico at Colorado State, 11 p.m. (FS1)
Iowa State at TCU, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)

West Virginia-Texas Tech is another big contest in the protected seed race, with the Mountaineers traveling to Lubbock looking to top the Red Raiders for a second time. In the other key Big 12 game in this window, Texas will aim to end their three-game skid when they visit a bad K-State team. In the Big East, St. John’s can record its seventh straight win tonight, while Creighton will attempt to avenge a Wednesday home loss to Georgetown. Over in the Mountain West, Colorado State hosts New Mexico to start their two-game series with the Rams aiming to remain in touching distance of league-leading Utah State.

Wednesday

Afternoon and early evening

Rutgers at Iowa, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Virginia at Georgia Tech, 7 p.m. (ACC RSNs)
Houston at South Florida, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Furman at UNCG, 5 p.m. (ESPNU)
Northern Iowa at Drake, 7 p.m. (CBSSN)
UConn at Providence, 4 p.m. (FS1)
Wichita State at UCF, 7 p.m. (ESPN+ ($))
Tulane at Tulsa, 5 p.m. (ESPN+ ($))

Iowa hosts Rutgers in a must win, since the Hawkeyes play four of their last six scheduled games away from home. ACC-leading Virginia and Houston both hit the road, with the Cavaliers’ trip to Georgia Tech being the more important game from a bubble perspective. Furman visits SoCon-leading UNCG in a matchup of two teams capable of winning a game in the field of 68. In the Missouri Valley, Drake saw its perfect run end at the hands of Valparaiso on Sunday. The Bulldogs host UNI before Loyola Chicago visits for a weekend top of the table clash.

In the Big East, a road loss to Providence would drop UConn further into NIT range. On the other hand, two of UConn’s former conference rivals, Wichita State and Tulsa, need to keep winning to remain in the chase.

Mid to late evening

Georgia at Tennessee, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Missouri at Ole Miss, 9 p.m. (SECN)
Indiana at Northwestern, 9 p.m. (BTN)
LSU at Mississippi State, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Marquette at Villanova, 9 p.m. (FS1)
Wyoming at Utah State, 8 p.m. (Stadium)
Rhode Island at Saint Louis, 9 p.m. (CBSSN)
San José State at San Diego State, 11 p.m. (CBSSN)

Don’t look now (Okay, fine, look... That is kind of the point of this whole exercise.), but Georgia has won three in a row to get to 12-6. The Bulldogs’ next five games come against teams in this projected field, so they’ll have a chance to make their case. However, three of those games are on the road, starting tonight in Knoxville. Otherwise, Missouri and Indiana have to be careful of a road letdown following big weekend home wins, while LSU returns to action at Miss. State having dropped four of five. League leaders Nova and Utah State both meet beatable foes at home, as does Mountain West contender San Diego State. Preseason Atlantic 10 favorite Saint Louis hosts Rhode Island, with the Billikens aiming to win their second straight contest. Travis Ford’s squad picked up a needed win over St. Bonaventure on Saturday.

Thursday

Afternoon and early evening

Colorado at Stanford, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Wisconsin at Nebraska, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)
Winthrop at Radford, 6 p.m. (ESPN+ ($))
Eastern Washington at Montana State, 7 p.m. (SWX/Pluto.tv)
Cincinnati at Memphis, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Utah at California, 6 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)

While Stanford’s home game against Colorado is the bubble game of the early Thursday slate, the top teams in the Big South and Big Sky meet in potential Championship Week previews.

Mid to late evening

Purdue at Minnesota, 8 p.m. (BTN)
Oregon at Arizona State, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Eastern Kentucky at Belmont, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
USC at Washington, 10 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)
UCLA at Washington State, 11 p.m. (FS1)
UNLV at Boise State, 10 p.m. (CBSSN)
Gonzaga at Santa Clara, 10 p.m. (KHQ/WCCN)
Iowa State at Kansas, 8 p.m. (ESPN+ ($))
New Mexico at Colorado State, 8 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oregon State at Arizona, 8 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)

Other than Purdue’s attempt to sweep Minnesota, Belmont’s latest attempt to stay perfect in the OVC, and a rare Thursday Big 12 contest between Iowa State and Kansas, the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones feature heavily in this window. In the Pac-12, the Oregon and L.A. schools hit the road aiming to grab key road wins. On the other hand, the Mountain West’s two contenders in action tonight, Boise State and Colorado State, must defend their home floors. The Broncos are in particular need of a win, following a weekend sweep at Nevada. WCC-leading Gonzaga, on the other hand, is another road warrior tonight, as the Bulldogs will hope to follow Monday’s win over BYU with a victory at Santa Clara.

On Friday, I’ll be back with the final bracket projection before the Selection Committee’s sneak preview special on Saturday, a half-hour that will inform the remainder of this season’s work.