2024 NCAA Tournament Bracket Watch: Iowa State climbs to No. 2 line, Zags get in – The Athletic

By Brian Bennett4h agoSupported By

(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

In 1986, religious scholar James P. Carse published an influential book called “Finite and Infinite Games.” Finite games, in Carse’s definition, are those that have defined rules and declare winners and losers. The infinite game, on the other hand, is that which “changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game.” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote an insightful piece in 2022 about how Major League Baseball’s pursuit of solving the finite game through analytics damaged the infinite game — i.e., creating an enjoyable experience for fans to watch.


There is no game quite as finite as the NCAA Tournament, where the hopes and dreams of a school and its fans can be crushed in a single-elimination, 40-minute contest. But as we await another incredible tournament here on the first day of March (huzzah!), we have to wonder: Who is looking out for the infinite game?

In a recent interview with ESPN, NCAA president Charlie Baker indicated that he’s open to the idea of expanding the tournament if it’s “done with care and consideration.” Baker added that there could be updates on tournament expansion by the end of the Final Four next month. We have long been in the camp that says the tournament is perfect as is and should be fiercely protected. We could live with a few extra play-in games if that’s what it takes to keep the greedy jackals at bay. But then ESPN’s “College GameDay” put up this graphic last Saturday:

At the time that graphic aired, LSU was 14-12 (and promptly lost at home to Mississippi State); Maryland was 14-13; Washington was 15-12 (before losing by 16 at Arizona) and considered highly likely to fire its coach; and VCU was 17-9 with home losses to Norfolk State and George Washington. All were ranked below 70th in the NET. That’s just one network’s version of how things might go, of course, but it bangs home the same point we made while doing this exercise before last season: There is simply no good reason for expanding the tournament to 80 or more teams. Cheers to Jay Bilas, who said during the GameDay segment that expanding the tournament would be “profoundly stupid.”

The theoretical lure of more cash can naturally be blinding. The tournament will already have a different feel next year because of the rise of superconferences. How long do you think 16- and 18-team mega-leagues will be satisfied with “only” seven, eight or even nine bids to the dance? Just look at what happened to the NIT, where this year for the first time the top two non-NCAA Tournament teams in the NET from each power conference will not only be guaranteed a bid but be given the chance to host first-round games. That came about because the NCAA tried to fend off a move by Fox to create its own postseason events featuring Big Ten, Big East and Big 12 schools only. That sounds like the very definition of an infinite game gone horribly wrong.


We sincerely hope the stewards of college basketball resist the urge to foul up one of the few things the NCAA does extremely well, that they do indeed exercise great “care and consideration” — not exactly a hallmark of college sports leaders’ decision-making process — moving forward. But we’d also advise you to fully soak up the magnificence of these next six weeks of madness. Because the NCAA Tournament, at least as we have all come to know and love it, very well could have a finite amount of time left.

Fin. Let’s get to notes on this week’s bracket, now just 16 days until Selection Sunday:

• The big news at the top of the bracket is Iowa State pushing past Kansas on the No. 2 line. This is as much about lingering doubts over Kevin McCullar Jr.’s long-term availability as it is resumes, though the Cyclones lead the Jayhawks in most metrics and do own a head-to-head win, albeit at home. Kansas could reverse this if McCullar gets healthy and it finishes strong if for no other reason than its nonconference schedule blows Iowa State’s out of the water.

• Kentucky makes the rare late-season, two-seedline jump after picking up a pair of Q1 wins: over Alabama and at Mississippi State. Turns out, scoring 117 points against a top-4 seed, as the Wildcats did against the Crimson Tide, helps the metrics quite a bit.

• Plenty of movement on the cutline, headlined by the inclusion of Gonzaga. The Zags have had everything but the big wins on their team sheet; well, the victory over Kentucky in Rupp Arena now looks even better, and they picked up a second Q1 road win against San Francisco on Thursday night. Mark Few’s team, which also clinched a bye into the WCC semifinals, can probably afford to lose at Saint Mary’s on Saturday in the regular season finale and still get an invite. Drake is our last team in this week. With several high majors spitting the bit down the stretch — looking at you, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Butler and Cincinnati, among others — we might as well give the final spot to a mid-major that made the most of its limited Quad 1 opportunities. The Bulldogs are 3-1 in Quad 1.


• Turnover on us last week for putting UConn as the No. 1 overall seed ahead of Purdue. The Boilermakers, then and now, have the better team sheet, and we probably got caught up in some recency bias because of Purdue’s loss at Ohio State and the Huskies’ blowout win over Marquette. We haven’t given all that much thought to the No. 1 overall seed lately, because it’s glaringly obvious that no matter the order, UConn is going to the East Region, Purdue to the Midwest and Houston to the South. But we have corrected last week’s mistake.

• Because we get asked every week, here’s a primer on how we choose our automatic qualifiers for the non-power leagues. We use a blend of both metrics and results. So if a team overwhelmingly has the league’s best team sheet but is a half-game or a game out of first place, we’ll stick with that school. Teams that have at least a two-game lead in the standings — South Florida in the AAC, for example — get the AQ here. When conference tournaments begin, and they kick off on Monday (double huzzah!) with the Atlantic Sun, we will go with the highest remaining seed.

• Questions? Gripes? Bring ’em to the comments section, and we’ll parse out some of our infinite wisdom.

First Four Dayton 16 Eastern Kentucky 16 Grambling Dayton 11 Seton Hall 11 Wake Forest Dayton 16 Merrimack 16 Norfolk State Dayton 11 Virginia 11 Drake Midwest Region (Detroit) Indianapolis 1 Purdue 16 Quinnipiac Indianapolis 8 Nevada 9 Oklahoma Brooklyn 4 Creighton 13 Princeton Brooklyn 5 Auburn 12 South Florida Memphis 3 Alabama 14 High Point Memphis 6 Washington State 11 Seton Hall Wake Forest Omaha 2 Iowa State 15 Colgate Omaha 7 Utah State 10 Michigan State South Region (Dallas) Memphis 1 Houston 16 South Dakota State Memphis 8 Colorado State 9 Florida Atlantic Spokane 4 Illinois 13 UC Irvine Spokane 5 Clemson 12 McNeese State Pittsburgh 3 Duke 14 Louisiana Tech Pittsburgh 6 South Carolina 11 Gonzaga Charlotte 2 Tennessee 15 Morehead State Charlotte 7 Texas Tech 10 Providence West Region (Los Angeles) Salt Lake City 1 Arizona 16 Merrimack Norfolk State Salt Lake City 8 Texas 9 Northwestern Salt Lake City 4 San Diego State 13 Akron Salt Lake City 5 BYU 12 Grand Canyon Omaha 3 Kansas 14 Charleston Omaha 6 Saint Mary’s 11 Virginia/Drake Indianapolis 2 Marquette 15 Eastern Washington Indianapolis 7 Mississippi State 10 New Mexico East Region (Boston) Brooklyn 1 UConn 16 Eastern Kentucky Grambling Brooklyn 8 Boise State 9 TCU Spokane 4 Kentucky 13 Samford Spokane 5 Dayton 12 Appalachian State Pittsburgh 3 Baylor 14 Vermont Pittsburgh 6 Wisconsin 11 Indiana State Charlotte 2 North Carolina 15 Oakland Charlotte 7 Florida 10 Nebraska

First Four Out Next Four Out Last Four In Last Four Byes
Villanova Kansas State Virginia Michigan State
St. John’s Utah Wake Forest New Mexico
Texas A&M James Madison Seton Hall Providence
Colorado Ole Miss Drake Gonzaga

Multi-bid conferences

League Bids
Big 12 9
Big Ten 6
Mountain West 6
Big East 5
Pac-12 2
Missouri Valley 2

Seed list

1 Purdue AQ
2 UConn AQ
3 Houston AQ
4 Arizona AQ
5 North Carolina AQ
6 Tennessee AQ
7 Marquette
8 Iowa State
9 Kansas
10 Alabama
11 Baylor
12 Duke
13 Creighton
14 San Diego State AQ
15 Illinois
16 Kentucky
17 Clemson
18 Auburn
19 BYU
20 Dayton AQ
21 Saint Mary’s AQ
22 Washington State
23 Wisconsin
24 South Carolina
25 Utah State
26 Florida
27 Texas Tech
28 Mississippi State
29 Colorado State
30 Boise State
31 Texas
32 Nevada
33 Northwestern
34 Oklahoma
35 TCU
36 Florida Atlantic
37 Nebraska
38 Michigan State
39 New Mexico
40 Providence
41 Gonzaga
42 Virginia
43 Wake Forest
44 Seton Hall
45 Drake
46 Indiana State AQ
47 South Florida AQ
48 Appalachian State AQ
49 Grand Canyon AQ
50 McNeese Sate AQ
51 Samford AQ
52 UC Irvine AQ
53 Princeton AQ
54 Akron AQ
55 Louisiana Tech AQ
56 Vermont AQ
57 High Point AQ
58 Charleston AQ
59 Eastern Washington AQ
60 Oakland AQ
61 Morehead State AQ
62 Colgate AQ
63 Quinnipiac AQ
64 South Dakota State AQ
65 Eastern Kentucky AQ
66 Merrimack AQ
67 Norfolk State AQ
68 Grambling AQ

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE.

The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Photo of Drake’s Tucker DeVries: Matt Dayhoff / USA Today)

Get all-access to exclusive stories.

Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.

Start Free Trial

Brian Bennett is a senior editor for The Athletic covering college basketball. He previously wrote about college sports for ESPN.com for nine years and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal for nine years prior to that. Follow Brian on Twitter @GBrianBennett