The Gold Sheet
Where did the season go?
We’re talking about the college basketball campaign, now preparing to enter its home stretch. And as February progresses, the focus switches to the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Indeed, one of our most-popular website features last season was our weekly “Bracketology” update, featuring NCAA Tourney projections. Of course, there’s nothing official about our projections for the NCAA Tournament. And once the actual tourney pairings are made on Selection Sunday, all of the “Bracketologists” are out of business for the next ten months. (Indeed, we wonder if any web pages see their hits drop as dramatically as do those that predict NCAA Tourney pairings after Selection Sunday.). And remember, conference tournaments will decide automatic NCAA berths in each league save the Ivy, and the results in those events are especially crucial in likely 1 or 2-bid leagues. For the moment, we opt for standings to fill out our field, using head-to-heads or the RPI as tiebreakers (with the exception of the Patriot, where we’re making our own call right now).
So, here we go with our first installment of Big Dance projections.
Straight-up records and RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) are thru February 8.
EAST REGIONAL (Boston)
1 UConn (SUR 22-1, RPI-1) vs. 16 Princeton (9-8, 224)...Never mind UConn for a moment; the bigger surprise here might be Princeton, which after a shock thrashing of league holder Cornell has jumped to the front of the Ivy League queue. There’s still time for the Big Red to reassume command of the loop, but for the moment we opt for the team on top, and that’s the Tigers. Just in case Princeton holds on in the league, it will be interesting to see what the Selection Committee will do with an RPI as low as the Tigers’ would likely be; in other words, would they dare send an Ivy rep to the play-in game? It’s probably all moot if Princeton has to face the Huskies, who for the moment are our number one seed for the entire tourney.
8 LSU (18-4, 40) vs. 9 Cal (18-6, 26)...Trent Johnson’s surprising LSU continues to set the pace in the SEC West and appears in full gallop after easy wins over Georgia and Alabama in the past week. Although many aficionados are wondering if even winning this year’s watered-down SEC West is good enough for an at-large, don’t count us in that group; if the Tigers win the West, their ticket is punched. Meanwhile, Cal righted itself with a couple of nice home wins last week against the Washington schools. And just in case this one materializes, it would pit a coach (Golden Bears’ Mike Montgomery) vs. one of his disciples (Johnson worked under Monty at Stanford).
4 Butler (21-2, 22) vs. 13 Siena (18-6, 66)...Despite last week’s loss at combative Wisconsin-Green Bay (itself on the periphery of the NCAA bubble), Butler remains on top of the Horizon League and will get the added bonus of playing host to any of its games in the conference tourney if it wins the regular-season crown. For the moment a non-league win at Xavier gives the Bulldogs a protected seed. Keep an eye, however, on Siena, no stranger to the Big Dance after routing Vanderbilt in the first round last season, and with several of the same faces on hand from a year ago. Currently drawing clear in the underrated Metro-Atlantic as well.
5 Purdue (17-6, 12) vs. 12 Boston College (18-7, 52)...It was not a good week for Purdue, which absorbed a bitter OT loss at Ohio State and was then thrashed over the weekend at Illinois. Moreover, star soph Robbie Hummel missed both games with a back injury, and needles to say the Boilermakers need Hummel back as soon as possible. Purdue thus drops from protected seed territory for the moment. Meanwhile, BC can absorb a weekend loss against Wake Forest and remain in the field because of the 5-game win streak that preceded it. But remember, the Eagles are prone to be streaky this season (they lost 4 straight before the 5-game win streak), and the next two on deck are Clemson and Duke.
2 Memphis (20-3, 6) vs. 15 Robert Morris (17-8, 128)...We saw what we needed to see from Memphis on Saturday night against Gonzaga; the Tigers are once again very much for real. The 13-game win streak Memphis took into Spokane was mostly accomplished vs. CUSA opposition, but after dismantling the Zags we can safely say that John Calipari’s young bunch is clearly on the rise, with Tyreke Evans and Robert Dozier pacing another blistering squad that’s playing better defense than last year’s NCAA finalist. For the moment, Robert Morris has drawn clear in the Northeast Conference, with Mount St. Mary’s the only other NEC entry above .500.
7 Texas (15-7, 31) vs. 10 San Diego State (17-5, 42)...Don’t look now, but Texas could soon find itself in some bubble trouble. Considered a likely protected seed just a couple of weeks ago, the Horns’ 3-game losing streak has slid them well down the S-curve. The major concern for HC Rick Barnes is that the Longhorns have lost a couple of games in a row in Austin (vs. underdogs Kansas State & Missouri), and if UT can’t hold serve at the Frank Erwin Center, more trouble could be on the way. Speaking of trouble, current Mountain West co-leader SDSU is one of those teams you’d like to avoid in the first round. In typical Steve Fisher fashion, the Aztecs have lots of athletes, plenty of quickness in the backcourt and on the wings, and are capable of pulling a Big Dance upset or two.
3 Wake Forest (18-3, 9) vs. 14 Northeastern (16-7, 37)...It wasn’t an especially crucial win, but Sunday’s 93-76 romp past Boston College was an important one nonetheless for Wake, which was off its worst showing of the year in a 27-point midweek loss at Miami. Still, because of the recent losses to the Canes and Georgia Tech, we’ve pushed the Deacs down to a number three seed for the time being. Northeastern temporarily holds the top spot in the Colonial, although shock midweek losses by both the Huskies (at cellar-dweller William & Mary) & Virginia Commonwealth (at struggling UNC-Wilmington) were likely mortal blows to either’s slim at-large hopes.
6 West Virginia (16-7, 16) vs. 11 Kansas State (16-7, 45)...This would certainly be an intriguing matchup, with Bob Huggins facing his former employer, Kansas State (remember, Huggy did make a quick pit stop in Manhattan a couple of years ago). The Mountaineers staked their claim to a tourney seed with a resounding Saturday romp past Providence, and we suspect WVU will earn one of the many bids bound to be doled out to Big East entries. The Wildcats are a new arrival into the field this week, based upon their 5-game win streak that includes recent successes at both Texas and Texas A&M. One of the hot teams in the country at the moment.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Memphis)
1 North Carolina (21-2, 3) vs. 16 Morehead State (14-11, 193)...We have little doubt the Tar Heels will be playing their sub-regional games in Greensboro, and will assuredly enter the Dance as a top regional seed if they prevail in the ACC Tourney. This week’s game vs. Duke doesn’t have as many Big Dance repercussions as most imagine, as both are likely ticketed to the Greensboro pod for the sub-regional. At the moment, OVC leader Morehead State could be a candidate for the play-in game, but the Eagles have made a recent run to take the top spot in the league from defending champ Austin Peay.
8 Utah State (23-1, 35) vs. 9 Cincinnati (16-8, 50)...With the nation’s longest winning streak (18 games), Utah State has also developed a solid Big Dance at-large case, which means the WAC could likely end up a 2-bid league if someone other than the Utags ends up winning the conference tourney. Hint: the event is in Reno, so if Mark Fox can ever get his young Nevada squad firing on all cylinders, the Wolf Pack could be a team to watch in March. Speaking of teams to watch, Cincy is certainly one of those right now in the Big East. Saturday’s overtime win over Georgetown gives the Bearcats a season sweep of the Hoyas, which could certainly come in handy come nitty-gritty time on Selection Sunday
4 Florida (19-4, 30) vs. 13 Buffalo (16-5, 82)...With Florida establishing itself as the team to beat in the SEC East after a wild midweek win over South Carolina, and with division rival Kentucky hitting the skids, the Gators’ NCAA profile is suddenly looking a lot better. We could envision Billy Donovan’s team riding its recent momentum into the conference tourney (this year played in Tampa) and then to the Dance. We don’t have as many good things to say about the MAC, perhaps enduring its worst year in memory. The power in the league is definitely in the East half, where Buffalo holds a narrow lead over hot Miami-Ohio.
5 Missouri (20-4, 13) vs. 12 Southern Cal (15-7, 38)...Mike Anderson is doing his thing again at Mizzou, just as he did a few years ago with UAB. The bigger question for Tigers fans is what Anderson might do if Alabama comes calling and offers him its head coaching spot after the season. Stay tuned. There’s still time for SC to drop from the field, with plenty of banana peels scattered about the Pac-10, and no guarantee the Committee goes more than 5 deep from the loop (at the moment, we’re giving SC the nod over Arizona, which gets to hos SC later in the week).
2 Marquette (20-3, 18) vs. 15 Sam Houston State (13-8, 132)...We were tempted to move the Golden Eagles down to a 3-seed after losing Friday night at South Florida. But given that it was Marquette’s first conference loss, and that it still sits tied for the lead in the rugged Big East, we can’t dock Buzz Williams’ crew too much, although we do suspect the Eagles are a team with some minor flaws that will be exposed somewhere in the postseason. The Southland is split into two divisions, and right now West leader Sam Houston rates a slight nod over East leader Stephen F. Austin based upon a slightly better league mark (7-1 vs. 7-2). SFA does, however, own a 75-73 win over the Bearkats, and remember that an 8 seed (Texas-Arlington) won the Southland tourney last March.
7 Florida State (18-5, 34) vs. 10 BYU (17-5, 27)...It’s been awhile since Florida State made the Big Dance, but we suspect the drought will be over in march, and the Noles will make the big field for the first time since 1998. Saturday’s win at hot Clemson puts FSU definitely in the field at this juncture, and the Noles would have to hit a cold patch to jeopardize those chances. Meanwhile, the Mountain West has turned into a real 5-team dogfight. For the moment we have three teams in the field, including BYU, but remember that UNLV (which we kept out this week after a couple of bitter overtime losses) hosts the conference tourney once more, and the Rebs have won the event on their home floor the past two years. Keep in mind that the Cougars must be slotted into Thursday-Saturday action because of LDS restrictions on Sunday games.
3 Xavier (20-3, 11) vs. 14 East Tennessee State (17-6, 127)...So much for protected seed status, might wonder Xavier or any top 4-seeded team from the Central or Eastern Time Zones that has to travel west to Portland or Boise for sub-regional action. But with the west likely to produce only one protected seed (UCLA), some high-powered teams from out of the region will be playing sub-regional action in the west. That could mean Xavier, which should still hold a protected seed despite Saturday’s loss at Duquesne. ETSU is currently one game up on holder Belmont and emerging Jacksonville in the Atlantic Sun.
6 Gonzaga (17-5, 19) vs. 11 Kentucky (16-7, 49)...If this matchup would come to pass, at this venue, no less, Gonzaga would be the de facto protected seed, as no sub-regional venue would suit the Zags better than Portland. Not that Gonzaga deserves as much after Saturday’s loss vs. Memphis, but the Committee often throws a few such curveballs each postseason. Although the Zags haven’t seemed quite the same since blowing that late lead in Seattle vs. UConn Dec. 20, their body of work is still impressive enough. We’re not sure we can say that same about Kentucky after the Wildcats’ recent struggles, which include three straight defeats that have pushed UK to the edge of the bubble.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Indianapolis)
At Kansas City...
1 Oklahoma (23-1, 5) vs. 16 Play-in game...The beat goes on for Blake Griffin and Oklahoma, cruising along in the Big XII and lurking in the background to steal a number one overall seed if UConn, Pitt, or North Carolina hit any more bumps in the road. The new Sprint Center in Kansas City will be the likely sub-regional destination for the Sooners. For the moment, we have the SWAC’s Alabama State (12-8, 232) facing Todd Bozeman’s Morgan State (13-10, 175) from the MEAC in the play-in game, although we wonder if the Selection Committee would pit two schools from historically-black conferences together. One note about the play-in game is that its winner will always be playing in a Friday sub-regional, and might not always face the overall top seed in the tourney.
8 Illinois (19-5, 20) vs. 9 Washington (17-6, 24)...Getting splits on the Pac-10 road hasn’t hurt U-Dub the past two weeks, and the Huskies have displayed some moxie while winning the back end of both weekend sets (at Arizona State & Stanford) after dropping the openers. Washington is safely in the field and could certainly move up the S-curve. Illinois is probably feeling it should move up, too, after Sunday’s romp past Purdue, but remember that the Boilermakers were without ace Robbie Hummel, and the Illini has tossed in a few stinkers lately (ugly losses at Minnesota & Wisconsin, in particular). This would be a rematch of an exciting 2nd-round game at San Diego three years ago, won by the Huskies.
4 Clemson (19-3, 7 vs. 13 Western Kentucky (17-7, 96)...After its midweek romp past Duke, Clemson was probably looking at a higher seed than 4, but a subsequent home loss to Florida State has brought the Tigers down to earth just a bit. Still, anyone who saw the Duke demolition knows what Oliver Purnell’s squad can do, so there’s no question (for the moment, at least) that Clemson belongs in protected seed territory. We’re not sure Western Kentucky is as menacing as a year ago, when the Hilltoppers made it to the Sweet 16 under HC Darrin Horn (now at South Carolina). For now, however, WKU holds a slight lead over hot Troy in the Sun Belt East, with Arkansas-Little Rock the only entry above .500 in league play in the Western half.
5 Villanova (19-4, 15) vs. 12 Mississippi State (16-7, 78)...Nova can certainly make a case for a protected seed after Saturday’s home romp past Syracuse. We suspect, however, that the Wildcats’ soft non-league slate (when Nova lost vs. its most challenging opponent, Texas) could end up keeping Jay Wright’s team out of protected seed territory. We’ll see. We’ll also see how deep the Committee will want to go in the SEC, where Mississippi State figures to be a bubble team on Selection Sunday. Right now, we think the Bulldogs might slip in under the wire.
At Kansas City...
2 Louisville (17-4, 10) vs. 15 VMI (19-4, 143)...Louisville still figures to have a chance at earning a number one seed, but will have to wait just a bit after getting humbled at home by UConn last Monday. Does anyone remember VMI reaching the Elite Eight way back in 1976, when the Keydet Express was finally derailed by a then-unbeaten Rutgers side? VMI is currently tied atop the Big South with Radford, but earns the temporary nod based upon its earlier 87-72 win over the Highlanders.
7 Davidson (20-4, 36) vs. 10 Arizona State (18-5, 21)...An interesting possible scenario unfolded over the weekend, when Davidson was upset at home by Bobby Cremins’ College of Charleston. What that means is that it’s not impossible for the Southern Conference to become a 2-bid league this season, as Stephen Curry’s Wildcats would figure as an at-large even if they lose in the league tourney, which now doesn’t seem as far-fetched an idea as it did last week. As for Arizona State, the Sun Devils are back on fairly solid footing after their road sweep of the Oregon schools that followed shock home losses vs. Washington State and Washington. A chance to move up the S-curve awaits this week as the Devils host UCLA & USC.
3 Michigan State (19-4, 8) vs. 14 American (15-7, 117)...Not many would have guessed that Michigan State could lose at home vs. both Northwestern and Penn State and still be on course to win the Big Ten regular-season crown and earn a protected Big Dance seed. But that’s where the Spartans appear to be headed. American is currently tied with Holy Cross atop the Patriot League, and despite losing once vs. the Crusaders owns a superior W-L mark (15-7 vs. 12-11 for the Cross, thru Feb. 8). Thus, Jeff Jones’ Eagles get our Patriot bid this week.
6 South Carolina (17-5, 46) vs. 11 Georgetown (13-9, 33)...No, we’re not sure Georgetown belongs in the field after a recent slump that includes 6 losses in its last 7 games, including a pair of setbacks vs. Cincinnati and a loss at Seton Hall. Hardly tourney-worthy stuff. But the RPI remains in Big Dance range, and wins over UConn and Memphis will probably keep the Hoyas from falling out of the field for another week or so, or until the slump ends. There’s apparently going to be no slumping with South Carolina, which rebounded from a tough midweek loss vs. Florida to easily dispatch of struggling Georgia. We have a feeling that Gamecock G Devan Downey will be one of the players to watch in March.
WEST REGIONAL (Glendale, AZ)
1 Pitt (21-2, 4) vs. 16 Long Beach State (12-10, 153)...We definitely have Pitt on the top line, and the Panthers are likely to be Philly-bound for the sub-regionals. Whether they go there as top seed in the east or another region probably depends on whether the Panthers win the Big East tourney or not. Nonetheless, Pitt fans want nothing less than an Elite Eight appearance (and preferably a Final Four) from the Panthers, who haven’t progressed beyond the Sweet 16 on recent years under Jamie Dixon or Ben Howland. The Big West is a decidedly mediocre league this season, but it also might be the widest-open of any loop, with any of its entries figuring to have a shot in the conference tourney. Right now, Long Beach looks to be the slightest of favorites for that event.
8 Tennessee (14-8, 39) vs. 9 Dayton (21-2, 51)...Tennessee isn’t safe quite yet, not after Saturday’s bitter 1-point loss at Auburn. The Vols’ tough non-league slate should help, although UT lost a lot of those games (including a pair vs. Gonzaga). We still think they’re in, but avoiding a Kentucky-like slump would be advisable. Dayton, with only two defeats, would appear to be solidly in the field, the Flyers staying on Xavier’s heels in the A-10 and owning an impressive non-conference win over Marquette.
4 Kansas (19-4, 17) vs. 13 North Dakota State (18-5, 80)...We’re sure the Committee will toy with idea of putting defending champ Kansas near home in Kansas City, which it could technically do within the rules of sub-regional host cities. But we think the Committee will do the right thing and move the Jayhawks a bit further away. One of the better storylines of the season is being authored by North Dakota State, as the Bison are in their first year of eligibility for the Summit (nee mid-Continent) Conference crown after a five-year wait period. A lineup stocked with 5th-year seniors adds a bit more intrigue to the current Summit leaders.
5 Ohio State (17-5, 23) vs. 12 Northern Iowa (17-6, 84)...We suppose it’s time to start taking Ohio State seriously after the Buckeyes swept Purdue and Minnesota last week. Successes at Wisconsin and Northwestern this week would give OSU six wins on the trot and start the Buckeye faithful wondering about a possible protected seed. Unlike a few years ago, when multiple entries were anticipated from this top mid-major loop, the Missouri Valley could be a one-bid league this season. Right now, Ben Jacobson’s UNI leads Illinois State and Creighton (both on the periphery of the bubble), setting up what should be an interesting “Arch Madness” in the MVC Tourney at St. Louis in early March.
2 Duke (20-3, 2) vs. 15 Boston U (17-8, 127)...Duke is almost certainly destined for the Greensboro sub-regional, but for the Blue Devils to stay in their preferred South or East regionals, they’ll likely have to beat North Carolina this week and probably do it again in the ACC Tourney. Right now, we don’t see Duke on the top line, but things could change. The America East race is tight, with Boston U currently holding a 1-game lead over Vermont and Binghamton.
7 Syracuse (18-6, 25) vs. 10 Minnesota (18-5, 32)...Minnesota looks to be losing traction, dropping 4 of its last 6 as it slips back into bubble trouble. The rest of the regular-season schedule doesn’t look bad, however, and that December win over Louisville in Glendale should provide some help with the Committee if needed. With five losses in its last seven games, Syracuse could yet turn into another Big East casualty (a la Notre Dame and Georgetown), but as long as the Orange stay at or above .500 in conference play it should be fine.
3 UCLA (19-4, 14) vs. 14 Weber State (15-8, 114)...This would be a rematch of a first-round game won handily by UCLA two years ago, and would also pit Bruin HC Ben Howland vs. his alma mater once again. If UCLA continues its recent form (four straight lopsided home wins over Cal, Stanford, USC, and Notre Dame), the Bruins could easily move up a line by Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, Weber State has begun to pull away from Montana and Portland State in the Big Sky.
6 Utah (16-7, 29) vs. 11 Miami-Florida (14-8, 28)...We think the Mountain West might get as many as three bids, and right now league-leader Utah would get one of them. Non-conference wins over Gonzaga and LSU are gifts that will keep on giving for the Utes through Selection Sunday. Miami almost had a huge week, routing favored Wake Forest and nearly pulling a major upset at Duke. Still, the Canes’ NCAA profile is looking better after the Wake result, and this is a team no higher seed would want to hook in the first round thanks to G Jack McClinton, who almost single-handedly took out Saint Mary’s in first-round action last year.