The first weekend of February turned out to be thrilling in the sports world. While most of the sports world readied for what became an unprecedented Super Bowl, three teams in possibly the best conference in college basketball earned what could be silver-bullet wins. Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all went on the road and knocked off, respectively, Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia. That could lock the second tier of the Big 12 into the field of 68 with five weeks remaining until Selection Sunday. Those teams will get a further examination in the Bubble Watch. For now, we’ll focus on the makeup of the field in the first Bracket Watch of February.
Oklahoma State, which was one of the big winners from the Big 12, finds its way into the bracket this week. It would be in keeping with Cincinnati’s lack of respect if we ignored the Bearcats for the Cowboys, but it’s time for the least-discussed top-16 seed in the country to get its due.
Cincinnati has won 14 straight games and is 10–0 in the American Athletic Conference, putting it on track for the program’s first outright conference regular season championship since the inception of the AAC in the 2013–14 season. Mick Cronin’s teams have long been known for their defense, and that’s no different this year. The Bearcats are eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. This season, however, the Bearcats have a couple of go-to scorers in junior Kyle Washington and sophomore Jacob Evans, who average 13.7 and 13.5 points per game, respectively. Add to the mix the experience of senior Troy Caupain and junior Gary Clark, who each average double-digit scoring, and the Bearcats have the profile of a truly dangerous tournament team for the first time since 2014.
If there’s one concern, it’s the lack of a truly standout win. Cincinnati beat Iowa State on the road, as well as Xavier and SMU at home. That, to date, is the Mustangs only league loss of the season. The top two teams in the AAC will meet for the second time this season on Sunday, this time in Dallas. If the Bearcats can pull off the season sweep, they’ll be all but a lock to take the AAC regular conference crown.
Three of the tournament’s most interesting top-16 seeds are in this region. Kansas, despite its shocking home loss to Iowa State over the weekend, remains safely on the top line. The next three teams in the region, however, all deserve further exploration.
Louisville nearly climbed to the top line in this week’s Bracket Watch. Baylor’s case for a No. 1 seed is as weak as it has been all season after dropping a home game with Kansas State over the weekend; had that knocked the Bears off the top line, the Cardinals would have been the next team up. Louisville is No. 2 on kenpom.com, No. 4 in the RPI, and No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Cards have lost four times this season, all on the road or neutral floors, and to teams ranked No. 27 on kenpom.com or better. So what’s keeping the Cardinals from a No. 1 seed? The lack of an A-plus victory. Louisville’s best win of the season was at home over either Kentucky or Duke, depending on your view of those two teams. Of course, the Kentucky win has lost some luster with the Wildcats dropping three of their last four games, and the Cardinals hosted Duke when the Blue Devils were at the height of their struggles. The Cardinals could bully Baylor of the top line with a big win, but they don’t have it quite yet. That could change on Monday when they visit Virginia.
After losing two straight games, UCLA, the Midwest Region’s No. 3 seed, took care of business in the state of Washington, beating the Huskies and Cougars by a combined score of 202–145. Like the Cardinals, the Bruins best win over the season came over Kentucky, though the Bruins did it in Lexington. Their next best win is over . . . Michigan? California? At Utah? Both Michigan and Utah are out of our field of 68, and Cal is one of the last four in. What’s more, they Bruins lost to both of their prime contenders in the Pac-12, Arizona and Oregon. UCLA has done enough to be a No. 3 seed, and could certainly climb higher, but, for now, cannot contend with the résumés of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
Finally, No. 4 seed Purdue got its most important win of the season over the weekend. Not its best—that remains an 11-point triumph over Wisconsin on Jan. 8—but its most important. Heading into Saturday’s game at Maryland, Purdue’s best road win of the season had been Michigan State. The Boilermakers lost to both Iowa and Nebraska on the road, too, calling into question their ability to win consistently away from Mackey Arena. The way they hung with the Terrapins all game in College Park, finally reversing the tide late to earn a 73–72 win, was their most impressive showing of the season. As usual, Caleb Swanigan was in the middle of the action, scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. The sophomore is a real contender for National Player of the Year honors.
Rarely do we reach down to the No. 11 seed for our regional focus, but this is a special circumstance. Wichita State and Illinois State are going to be right at the center of the bubble discussion for the rest of the season.
After the Shockers’ 41-point win over the Redbirds on Saturday, the top two teams in the Missouri Valley Conference are in a shared, unique position. Both of them have at least one solid metric, with Wichita State ranked 17th on kenpom.com and Illinois State ranked No. 34 in the RPI. Neither, however, did anything especially positive out of conference. In fact, the only noteworthy element of either nonconference résumé is that the Redbirds lost to Tulsa, San Francisco and Murray State.
Any examination of either Wichita State’s or Illinois State’s résumé shows that both would struggle to earn an at-large bid. The Shockers did what they needed to do by tying up the season series over the weekend, but neither team will be comfortable on Selection Sunday without winning the MVC tournament.
As we enter the second week of February, are we sure we know who the Kentucky Wildcats are?
Two weeks ago, most any close observer of college basketball would have included the Wildcats among the legitimate national championship contenders. This was despite the fact that, when Kentucky played in that weight class in the nonconference, the Wildcats went 1–2, losing at home to UCLA, on the road at Louisville and beating North Carolina on a neutral court. The SEC doesn’t afford them any tests against top-tier Final Four contenders and, unsurprisingly, the Wildcats won their first seven games in conference. Things have taken a brutal turn since then.
The Wildcats have lost two of their last three conference games. First, they dropped an 82–80 decision at bubble team Tennessee. Over the weekend in Gainesville, Florida jumped all over the Wildcats early and never looked back, handing them their worst loss of the season, a 22-point drubbing. Add in a home loss to Kansas sandwiched in between, and the Wildcats are now 1–3 against elite competition.
Obviously, it’s far too early to write off a John Calipari-coached team with the kind of talent he consistently assembles. Still, it might be time to recalibrate expectations for a team that dropped to a No. 4 seed in this week’s Bracket Watch.