Bracket Watch: SEC Upsets Throw Auburn, Mississippi State Into the Middle of the Fray

Michael Beller

The bracket-building process presents a number of what the SI.com selection committee likes to call “breaking points.” These are lines on the bracket in which a number of teams could slot, and none of the contenders has done enough to distance itself from the others. They exist throughout the bracketing process, but don’t matter too much in January. In February, however, and certainly during championship week, they are the inflection points that will truly determine how the bracket shakes out on Selection Sunday.

To illustrate a breaking point, let’s use an example from this week’s Thursday Bracket Watch update. Houston landed as the No. 5 seed in the West Region, sticking in place even after losing at Temple on Wednesday. Look down a line, and you’ll see Iowa State, Mississippi State and Auburn as three of our four No. 6 seeds. Dig into the respective résumés of those four teams, and you won’t find much to differentiate them. Houston has the best NET rating, a new factor that is going to factor heavily into the selection and seeding processes, but no real standout victory. Iowa State has a signature win over Kansas, but also two losses to teams that may not be in the mix for at-large bids. Auburn rates highly in NET and on kenpom.com, but its best wins of the season came against Arizona and Murray State. Mississippi State has a few solid, though not spectacular, victories over Clemson and Cincinnati, but ranks last among the group in NET. See what we mean about a lack of differentiation?

Ranking the Major Conferences by Their Level of Depth

The truth of the matter is that any of those four teams could have ended up with our final No. 5 seed. It went to the Cougars largely because a tight road loss to Temple is excusable, and their strong NET made a worthy tiebreaker. Still, there are good arguments for all of the other three teams that were in consideration for the spot.

It may not seem a huge deal, but decisions like that drive the makeup of a bracket. With Mississippi State and Aubun on the 6-line, they had to stay away from Kentucky, a No. 3 seed, since teams from the same conference cannot meet before the Sweet 16. That meant that Iowa State would be paired with either Texas Tech or Kansas in a potential Sweet 16 matchup, two teams it knows very well. And, of course, should it end up meeting either of those teams in the Big 12 tournament, it would be unable to play that team before the Elite Eight; bracketing principles say that teams from the same conference that play one another three times in the regular season, including the conference tournament, must avoid one another until the regional finals. Now you can understand why we call these spots breaking points, right? Bracketing principles, as much as a team’s résumé, will determine which team gets the higher seed. Thankfully, we still have another nine weeks of basketball for these teams to differentiate themselves and, hopefully, push bracketing principles to the side.

Last Four Byes

Alabama
Mississippi
Syracuse
UCF

Last Four In

Arizona
Temple
Florida
Creighton

First Eight Out

Butler
San Francisco
Washington
Clemson
Kansas State
Fresno State
Utah State
Saint Louis

Next Eight Out

Missouri
Dayton
Arkansas
Notre Dame
Liberty
Belmont
Charleston
Baylor

GREENE: Big 12 Basketball Is in for a Wild Ride

East Region

(1) Duke vs. (16) Texas Southern/Sacred Heart
(8) LSU vs. (9) Purdue
(5) Buffalo vs. (12) Wofford
(4) Marquette vs. (13) New Mexico State
(6) Iowa State vs. (11) Syracuse
(3) Kentucky vs. (14) North Texas
(7) Ohio State vs. (10) Arizona State
(2) Texas Tech vs. (15) Montana

Midwest Region

(1) Michigan vs. (16) Abilene Christian/Norfolk State
(8) TCU vs. (9) Cincinnati
(5) NC State vs. (12) Lipscomb
(4) Nevada vs. (13) Georgia State
(6) Auburn vs. (11) UCF
(3) Virginia Tech vs. (14) UC-Irvine
(7) Iowa vs. (10) Texas
(2) Gonzaga vs. (15) Lehigh

South Region

(1) Virginia vs. (16) Purdue Fort Wayne
(8) St. John's vs. (9) Minnesota
(5) Indiana vs. (12) Florida/Creighton
(4) Oklahoma vs. (13) Yale
(6) Mississippi State vs. (11) Temple/Arizona
(3) Florida State vs. (14) Vermont
(7) Seton Hall vs. (10) Alabama
(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Radford

West Region

(1) Tennessee vs. (16) Rider
(8) Nebraska vs. (9) Louisville
(5) Houston vs. (12) Murray State
(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) Hofstra
(6) Maryland vs. (11) VCU
(3) North Carolina vs. (14) Northern Kentucky
(7) Villanova vs. (10) Ole Miss
(2) Kansas vs. (15) Loyola-Chicago

Full NCAA Tournament Bracket Watch (as of Jan. 10):