4 key takeaways from the NCAA's early top 16 bracket reveal

Alabama would be the NCAA tournament No. 1 overall seed if it started today. Can the Crimson Tide hang onto it spot? (Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)

With the Super Bowl and Valentine's Day both in the rearview mirror, that can only mean one thing: March is almost here.

Twenty-two days before Selection Sunday, the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee shared a snapshot of its top 16 teams. Here is the partial bracket that the committee unveiled on Saturday afternoon and four key takeaways.


1. Alabama has the inside track to the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed

It was no mystery which four teams would land on the top seed line in Saturday’s bracket reveal. What was more interesting was the order in which the committee ranked Alabama, Houston, Purdue and Kansas.

Despite a loss at Tennessee earlier this week, Alabama (22-4) would be the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed if the season ended today. Selection committee chair Chris Reynolds cited the Crimson Tide’s 13-4 record in Quadrant 1 games and its 71-65 road win at Houston on Dec. 10.

“That win at Houston put them over the top,” Reynolds said.

Houston (24-2) was the second No. 1 seed even though it has fewer marquee wins than either Purdue or Kansas and is the only one of the group to have a loss outside the top two quadrants. Reynolds justified that by highlighting that Houston is unbeaten on the road, including “an impressive win at Virginia.”

While Reynolds highlighted the “parity” in the sport this season, Purdue (23-4) and Kansas (21-5) were still no-brainer choices as the final No. 1 seeds. The Boilermakers lead the Big Ten and boast non-league victories over Gonzaga, Marquette and Duke. The Jayhawks have played the nation’s toughest schedule and collected a national-best 12 Quadrant 1 victories.

Though the primary purpose of the NCAA’s in-season bracket preview is to generate discussion, the top seed line has often proven to be a harbinger of things to come. In five of the past six years, three of the four No. 1 seeds from the NCAA’s early sneak peek at the bracket have remained on the top seed line come Selection Sunday. That pattern likely would have continued in 2020, except COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

2. The committee has a Big 12 problem

A core bracketing principle for the committee is that teams from the same conference have to be placed in different regions if they’re on the top four seed lines.

That may prove impossible this year given the strength of the Big 12.

Kansas, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Iowa State each cracked the top 12 in Saturday’s bracket reveal, necessitating that two of those teams would land in the same region. In this case, the committee put Kansas (1) and Kansas State (3) in the West Region, where they could potentially meet in a regional final.

Believe it or not, the committee’s Big 12 problem could get worse in the coming weeks if TCU finishes strong. The Horned Frogs were also a projected top-four seed before losing their last four games without injured guard Mike Miles.

The presence of Iowa State and Kansas State on the No. 3 line suggests that the committee believes in the Big 12. That could bode well for potential Big 12 bubble teams Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

3. How the committee assessed Saint Mary’s (and what that means for everyone else)

One of the trickiest decisions the committee had to make was whether to include Saint Mary’s among its top 16. The Gaels (23-5) have been a season-long fixture in the top 10 of every major computer metric, yet their resumé didn’t compare favorably to other potential No. 3 and 4 seeds.

The two best teams that Saint Mary’s has beaten so far this season are Gonzaga and San Diego State. After that, the WCC-leading Gaels’ next most impressive victory is against … BYU? North Texas? Oral Roberts?

Saint Mary’s also has three losses to teams outside the NET’s top 100: Loyola Marymount, Washington and Colorado State. That’s more head-scratching losses than any other team in consideration for a top-four seed.

And yet, despite that modest resumé, Saint Mary’s still entered Saturday No. 5 in Bart Torvik’s ratings, No. 8 at KenPom and No. 7 in the NET. Metrics that take margin of victory into account love the Gaels, who have won 16 games so far this season by 10 or more points.

In the end, the committee disregarded predictive metrics and left Saint Mary’s out of its top 16, a decision that offers insight into how the committee might treat other teams whose resumés and metrics don't match.

Among the teams who, like Saint Mary’s, are banking on favorable predictive metrics to boost their seedings: UConn, Boise State and West Virginia.

Among the teams who are ranked lower in the predictive metrics than their resumes would suggest: Kansas State, Miami and Northwestern.

4. Who were the biggest snubs?

There were five teams in the running for the final spot in the top 16. Reynolds said the committee ultimately chose Xavier over Creighton, Miami, Saint Mary’s and UConn, though he described the margin among that quintet as “razor-thin.”

Of the four snubs, Creighton might have the best chance to leap into the top 16 by Selection Sunday. Since getting healthy, the Bluejays have lived up to their preseason top 10 ranking, reeling off eight straight victories before a double-overtime loss at Providence last week.

UConn, by contrast, has faded a bit since a torrid start. The Huskies are still top 10 in computer metrics, but they’ve lost seven times since winning their first 14 games.

The case for Saint Mary’s may depend on whether it can notch at least one more victory over Gonzaga, either in Spokane next Saturday or in the WCC tournament title game in early March. As for Miami, the Hurricanes might need to overtake Virginia and Pittsburgh to win this year’s unusually weak ACC.

NCAA tournament's early top 16

South Region

  1. Alabama

  2. Baylor

  3. Virginia

  4. Indiana

West Region

  1. Kansas

  2. Arizona

  3. Kansas State

  4. Gonzaga

Midwest Region

  1. Houston

  2. Texas

  3. Tennessee

  4. Xavier

East Region

  1. Purdue

  2. UCLA

  3. Iowa State

  4. Marquette