Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the latest NCAA tournament projections through games on March 6.
Ten days out from Selection Sunday, the bracket is starting to take shape. As major conference tournaments near, there’s still plenty of time for borderline teams to move to the right or wrong side of the bubble and for safer teams to move up or down the seeding line.
While most of the spotlight will be put near the top and bottom of the bracket, one seeding line to really put a magnifying glass to is at the No. 5 seed line. That’s where teams with pretty solid resumes are matched up against underrated mid-majors or a play-in game No. 12 seed riding the momentum of a victory in Dayton. Statistically, No. 12 seeds are the most likely to pull off first-round upsets. Since the tournament expanded in 1985, No. 12 seeds have won at least one first-round game in 29 of 34 years and have a total record of 47-89 (34.6%) in the first round.
The NCAA tournament is all about matchups. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the No. 4-No. 6 line to get a feel for which potential No. 5 seeds are susceptible to lose in the first round.
Wisconsin (currently projected No. 4 seed): The Badgers have been the best Big Ten team outside of the top three (Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue) but they’ve lost to teams in the No. 12-seed range (Indiana and Minnesota) and were upset by Western Kentucky in the non-conference schedule. Coach Greg Gard always has this team ready defensively, but outside of All-American Ethan Happ there’s not a ton of scoring.
Florida State (No. 5 seed): Coach Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles (24-6) are rolling, having won 11 of their last 12. But don’t let late-season success rule out how a tough matchup can bounce any good team out of the NCAAs. FSU doesn’t make a lot of three-pointers, ranking in the 200s nationally in made triples and three-point field goal percentage. And this is a balanced group, but only two players average double-figures, paving way for high-volume scorers to out-shoot the Seminoles
Virginia Tech (No. 5 seed): The Hokies (22-7) have only lost to good teams this season, with most of them on the road. Injuries always play a factor in upsets, and Virginia Tech has a big one it’s dealing with right now as Justin Robinson looks to come back to form after missing all of February with a ankle injury. Even if he returns, it’s worrisome because then the Hokies have to reset their team identity in a short time frame.
Nevada (No. 5 seed): The Wolf Pack (27-3) lost to projected No. 10 seed Utah State last week and also inexplicably fell to New Mexico by 27 points earlier in the Mountain West schedule. So there’s concern this Nevada team that will be seeded near the No. 5 line because of its mid-major conference and mediocre credentials. The Wolf Pack got all the way to the Sweet 16 last year with a similarly stout roster, but remember they ended up falling to darling Loyola-Chicago on a last-second jumper.
Maryland (No. 5 seed): The Terrapins (21-9) lost to Illinois in late January for one of the biggest head-scratching losses on their profile, a game that saw Maryland turn it over 21 times. The recipe for beating this team is to keep the rebounding margin close (the Terps are fourth nationally in that category) and out-shoot them from beyond the arc.
Villanova (No. 6 seed): The defending national champions are at a vulnerable seeding line thanks to a non-conference slate that saw them lose to Furman and Penn. The Wildcats don’t have the same firepower as last year with the loss of two NBA lottery picks. But the chemistry isn’t fully there, evidenced by three consecutive late February losses in Big East play to St. John’s, Georgetown and Xavier.
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Cincinnati (No. 6 seed): The Bearcats (25-4) have had a quietly strong season and are tied for the American Athletic Conference lead with Houston. As good as Mick Cronin’s defense is (Cincinnati ranks top-10 nationally in points allowed), this is a very poor shooting team. The Bearcats excel in low-scoring battles, but speed the tempo and make shots against this tough perimeter defense, and an upset is very reachable.
► No. 1 seeds: Virginia, Duke, Gonzaga, Tennessee
► Last four in: Alabama, Arizona State, Creighton, TCU
► First Four out: Clemson, Furman, UNC-Greensboro, North Carolina State
• Others considered for at-large bid (in no particular order): – Indiana, Georgetown, Murray State, Butler, Xavier
• On life support: Saint Mary’s, South Carolina, Memphis, Liberty, Dayton, Providence, Davidson
Multi-bid conferences: ACC (8), Big Ten (8), Big 12 (8), SEC (8), Big East (4), American (4), Mountain West (2), Pac-12 (2).
Leaders or highest RPI from projected one-bid conferences — (24 total): VCU (Atlantic 10), Vermont (America East), Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun), Montana (Big Sky), Radford (Big South) UC Irvine (Big West), Hofstra (CAA), Old Dominion (Conference USA), Wright State (Horizon), Yale (Ivy), Iona (MAAC), Buffalo (MAC), Norfolk State (MEAC), Loyola-Chicago (MVC), Nevada (Mountain West), St. Francis-Pa. (Northeast), Colgate (Patriot), Wofford (Southern), Sam Houston State (Southland), Prairie View A&M (SWAC), South Dakota State (Summit), Texas State (Sun Belt), New Mexico State (WAC), Gonzaga (WCC).
- Transition schools ineligible to participate: Cal Baptist, North Alabama.
About our bracketologist: Shelby Mast has been projecting the field since 2005 on his website, Bracket W.A.G. He joined USA TODAY in 2014. In his sixth season as our national bracketologist, Mast has finished as one of the top three bracketologists in the past five March Madnesses. He’s also predicted for The Indianapolis Star, collegeinsider.com and is an inaugural member of the Super 10 Selection Committee. Follow him on Twitter @BracketWag.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.