The Bracket From the Start of Conference Play

Tennessee’s 75-70 loss at Arizona capped a terrific day of college basketball, one that will set the landscape as the sport moves to conference play. In the power six conferences, only three teams remain unbeaten: Purdue, UConn, and the surprising year one surge from Chris Jans and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs survived 68-66 against Nicholls State, joining their close wins over Marquette and Utah to build to 11-0. We’ll learn much more there soon: after facing Drake tomorrow, Mississippi State opens SEC play with Alabama and a trip to Knoxville.

In the last five non-covid-affected NCAA Tournaments (2016-2019, 2022), one seeds average 4.55 losses on Selection Sunday, two seeds 6.25 losses. The race to the top of the bracket sometimes comes down to how little you’ve lost. In that regard, UConn appears to have the best combination of talent + league: the Huskies are the only Big East team currently in the KenPom Top 25, but have five wins over the KenPom Top 50 including a 15-point victory over Alabama. Gonzaga appears less likely to be in the one seed chase this year, but Houston is 11-1 and has no remaining games over KenPom Top 25 foes in the American (Memphis is 26th).

Beyond those two, the plot thickens.

KenPom projects the three best leagues to be the Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC. The latter two have issues with the basement (Minnesota 178th KenPom, South Carolina 195th), but each boast five teams in the KenPom Top 25. The Big 12 is ridiculous top-to-bottom, with four teams in the KenPom Top 25 but almost the entire league in the Top 50 (Kansas State is currently 52nd). Any team who separates from those packs is likely staring a one seed square in the face, but chaos seems far more likely. That could benefit the best teams in weaker leagues: Virginia in the ACC, UCLA or Arizona in the Pac 12.

We’ve combined KenPom’s regular season projected records with Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast probability for one seeds. At the outset of conference play, the race for the top of the bracket looks something like this:

KenPom Projected Losses & Torvik TourneyCast 1 Seed Probability

TeamKenPom Projected LossesTorvik 1 seed %
UConn362
Houston355.3
UCLA535.3
Gonzaga53.7
Tennessee640.7
Purdue650.1
Arizona626.6
Virginia66.7
Kansas744
Duke710.5
Virginia Tech70.6
Texas819
Alabama823.7
Arkansas83.7
Memphis80
Kentucky90.9
Mississippi St90
Arizona State90
Baylor108.2
West Virginia116.1
Indiana111.1

The projected losses, of course, is entering conference tournament play. So they’re all plus-one if that squad doesn’t win during championship week.

Despite the loss to Arizona, Tennessee currently has the fifth-best odds to earn a one seed at Torvik, which would make them first on the two line if all this held true. I’m uncertain how much of these projections are reliant on the health of Josiah-Jordan James, who continues to be game-to-game. All of these teams are worth keeping an eye on, especially in what still appears to be a more wide-open year without clear favorites.

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