By Bruce Marshall
A mid-January look at how the "Bracketology board" sets up after conference play has commenced remains a worthwhile exercise as the college hoops campaign reaches its halfway point. From this point forward, discussion of the "Big Dance" will become a top storyline in college hoops.
For the monet, still refraining from listing the RPI numbers that are often skewed by any number of non-conference games. We've long believed that the best time to really look hard the RPI is probably early February.
As usual, projected matchups are broken down by each region, beginning with the sub-regionals, which this year will begin on Thursday, March 21. Straight-up records are thru January 13. We'll update our projections periodically through the season all of the way up to March Madness...which isn't that far away.
EAST REGIONAL (Washington, D.C.)
1 Duke (SUR 15-1) vs. 16 Bryant (11-4)...We can stop any of the unbeaten talk regarding Duke after Saturday's loss at NC State knocked the Blue Devils out of the top spot in the polls. But Coach K's team would need to stumble a few more times before jeopardizing its spot on the top line. Meanwhile, new developments over the past few weeks in the Northeast, where the Bryant Bulldogs, led by Columbia transfer G Dyami Starks, have temporarily drawn clear of the pack to trigger Big Dance chatter for the first time ever in Smithfield, RI. Remember, this team was 2-28 last season!
8 Wyoming (14-1) vs. 9 Georgetown (13-3)...There is some Big Dance history between these two, who met in a memorable second-round game at Logan, Utah back in Patrick Ewing's freshman year of 1982. Jim Brandenburg's Wyo, featuring F Bill Garnett and G Mike Jackson, went toe-to-toe with the Hoyas deep into the second half before succumbing, 51-43. Now, Larry Shyatt's Cowboys are 14-1 and likely one of four or five teams from the Mountain West to go dancing in March. The Hoyas are still seeking some legit quality wins after recent back-to-back setbacks vs. Marquette and Pitt.
4 Butler (14-2) vs. 13 Murray State (12-4)...Butler looks to be handling its transition from the Horizon League to the A-10 with a minimum of difficulty, and Brad Stevens' team is developing the profile that should reward it with a protected seed. Murray State took a couple of hits in the first month of the season from some high-profile foes, but the Racers and star G Isaiah Canaan look a good bet to return to the Dance from the Ohio Valley.
5 UCLA (14-3) vs. 12 Oklahoma (11-3)/BYU (13-3)...Look out for UCLA, which appears to have navigated some turbulent waters and is beginning to take flight with its cast of super-hyped frosh led by Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams, and Kyle Anderson. Meanwhile, Lon Kruger seems to be pushing the right buttons at Oklahoma, which won a significant game on Saturday vs. Oklahoma State and could easily be taking a 7-game win streak into a Big 12 showdown vs. Kansas on January 26. BYU, it won a crucial WCC game on Saturday at Santa Clara, but the Cougs are going to have to avoid finding banana peels to keep themselves on Selection Committee radar.
At Kansas City...
2 Indiana (15-1) vs. 15 Harvard (9-5)...At the moment, Indiana is a coin toss to end up on the top line; we keep the Hoosiers as a 2 for the time being, with Tom Crean's side the most likely of ours "2s" to move into a one seed in the next few weeks. Harvard might have lost a lot of firepower from last year's Ivy champs, but Tommy Amaker has uncovered new stars in soph swingman Wesley Saunders and frosh G Syani Chambers for what still appears to be the Ivy's most-talented contingent.
7 Miami-Florida (12-3) vs. 10 Memphis (12-3)...This might be a bit light for Memphis, which has emerged again as the team to beat in Conference USA and rides a 6-game win streak into Wednesday's game vs. Rice. At the least, the Tigers are the only C-USA side that could expect to get an at-large beat if not winning the conference tourney in March. As for Jim Larranaga's Miami, it has opened up a fast 3-0 in the ACC despite being without injured C Reggie Johnson for the past few weeks. With the league not as deep as in years past, we project the Canes crashing through the 20-win barrier to safely qualify for the Dance.
3 Florida (12-3) vs. 14 Northeastern (9-7)...The Gators still look to be the class of the SEC, although the possible sight of Florida playing in enemy territory at Lexington, while functioning as the de facto home team, could be a bit strange. The Colonial race turned inside-out earlier this month when Northeastern emerged as the new team to beat after winning at George Mason. Although the CAA looks to be cavalry charge for the one expected Big Dance berth, with Delaware and James Madison possibly challenging the Huskies and Patriots. Remember, VCU has left the league, and several entries (ODU, Towson, Georgia State) are ineligible for the CAA Tourney because of either poor academic performance (Towson) or pending switches of leagues (ODU & Georgia State).
6 Cincinnati (14-3) vs. 11 Oklahoma State (11-4)...In protected seed territory not long ago, Cincy has taken a few hits in recent weeks and has slipped a few rungs on the seeding ladder. The Bearcats would still have a long way to fall to miss the Dance entirely, but for now just look like a side that has slipped a few seeds. Ok State's early-season win over NC State in Puerto Rico is now looking pretty good, but the Cowboys missed a chance to really solidify themselves into the field with recent losses vs. Gonzaga and Oklahoma.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Arlington, TX)
At Auburn Hills...
1 Michigan (16-1) vs. 16 Western Illinois (14-3)...John Beilein's Michigan took its first loss of the season on Sunday at Ohio State, but at this point that one defeat is not enough to the knock the accomplished Wolverines off of the top line. More intrigue lies in the Summit League, where the Western Illinois Leathernecks have impressed. But they'll have to beat out the likes of North Dakota State and last year's loop winner South Dakota State to make it to the Dance.
8 Pitt (13-4) vs. 9 Colorado (11-5)...Pitt needed last week's win at Georgetown to stop some of the bleeding from recent weeks, but that resounding success at Verizon Center at least kept the Panthers from falling into dark jersey territory when the sub-regionals commence. With three losses in the last four games, however, Jamie Dixon's side could still slide into trouble. Colorado has started a bit slowly in the Pac-12 at 1-3, but still is rated among the nation's leaders in the sometimes-deceiving RPI.
4 Missouri (12-3) vs. 13 Davidson (9-6)...Losses in their last two road games at UCLA and Ole Miss suggest that the Tigers (who have played almost all of their games at Columbia, or on neutral courts in the Bahamas) might find some more banana peels when they return to the road in coming weeks. Don't be surprised if Mizzou falls out of protected seed territory in our next update. Despite some early losses vs. a very sticky pre-league slate, Davidson (with most of its regulars back from last year's Big Dance entry) still looks the most-likely to emerge from the SoCon.
5 New Mexico (15-2) vs. 12 St. Mary's (13-4)/Texas A&M (12-3)... The Lobos might warrant a slightly better seed and we could easily envision them in protected seed territory come March. The Big Dance prospects for Texas A&M are looking better after the win over Kentucky and the apparent shallowness of the SEC. Saint Mary's could fall into danger for an at-large play-in game if the Gaels don't start to get some scoring help for their frontline.
2 Syracuse (16-1) vs. 15 Stony Brook (12-4)...Syracuse has spent most of the first two months of the season on the top line, but the late-December loss to Temple probably keeps the Orange as a number two for the moment; its ability to reclaim a number one seed will involve navigating successfully through a still-treacherous Big East. In the America East, the Stony Brook Seawolves have broken 3-0 from the gate, with expected challenges to materialize from Albany, Hartford, Vermont, and Boston U.
7 Illinois (14-4) vs. 10 North Carolina (11-5)...Look out below! Falling fast is Illinois, with four losses in its last six games to drop from protected seed territory after Saturday's 74-51 beatdown administered by Wisconsin. This could turn into a full-fledged nosedive if John Groce's Illini aren't careful, with several tricky Big Ten tests on deck. Still, we can speculate about a possible sub-regional matchup vs. UNC that would recall a bristling national title game in 2005 at St. Louis, won by Roy Williams' Tar Heels over Bruce Weber's Illinois. This is hardly a vintage UNC edition, although the Saturday win over Florida State temporarily stopped the bleeding.
At Salt Lake City...
3 Creighton (16-1) vs. 14 Bucknell (14-3)...With Creighton taking care of business in the Missouri Valley, it would be hard to deny the Bluejays a spot on the top line if they keep winning. As for CBS head honcho Les Moonves' Bucknell, the Bison are now clearly the team to beat in the Patriot League after the recent season-ending injury suffered by star G C.J. McCollum of Andrea Tantaros' alma mater Lehigh.
6 Virginia Commonwealth (14-3) vs. 11 Maryland (13-2)...We're still not completely sold on Maryland, which took advantage of a fairly-soft pre-league slate to pile up a lot of wins. Then again, the ACC doesn't look too difficult, so the Terps might be able to improve upon their currently-projected seed. It's interesting that league newcomers Butler and VCU might be emerging as the class of the A-10; "Shaka Ball" has won 11 in a row heading into Thursday's game at St. Joe's.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Indianapolis)
1 Louisville (15-1) vs. 16 Southern U (11-6)/VMI 8-7)...If the thought of another SEC team (such as aforementioned Florida) getting support at Kentucky's Rupp Arena seems a bit strange, imagine the sight of in-state enemy Louisville wearing its home whites on the court of its blood rival in the sub-regional? Of the teams likely competing for two of the 16 seeds, we project the SWAC (right now Southern U the only team with a winning record) and the Big South (high-scoring VMI currently in the lead) becoming involved. By the way, do you know that the Keydets of VMI reached as far as the Elite Eight as recently as 1976?
8 Baylor (11-4) vs. 9 Oregon (13-2)...Scott Drew's Baylor is down a notch from last year's Elite Eight team, but frosh frontliner Isaiah Austin is a good piece around whom the Bears can rally back to the Dance. Speaking of rallying to the Dance, that's exactly what we expect from Oregon, already with some headliner wins vs. UNLV on the road and at home against Arizona. Dana Altman's star freshmen aren't getting the mention of some of the other young headliners elsewhere, but the Ducks' frosh G tandem of Dominic Artis & Damyeon Dotson will keep OU afloat.
At San Jose...
4 San Diego State (14-2) vs. 13 Utah State (14-1)...With defeats only vs. Syracuse (on the aircraft carrierMidway) and vs. Arizona (in Honolulu), the Aztecs have technically not lost on the mainland this season. We could see one or even two Mountain West sides earning protected-seed status. Meanwhile, we need a bit more evidence before jumping on the bandwagon of Utah State, which played a softer pre-league slate than usual this season. But we've also learned to never underestimate a Stew Morrill-coached team.
5 Michigan State (14-3) vs. 12 Charlotte (14-2)...One of the stealth teams we are keeping an eye on is Charlotte, with lots of depth, plenty of athletes, a numbing defensive work ethic, and a clever vet PG in Pierria Henry, all enough to threaten upsets in March. This is looking more and more like a typical Tom Izzo MSU team that will be peaking in March, although this Spartan edition is relying a bit more on perimeter work after the graduation of workhorse frontliner Draymond Green.
At Salt Lake City...
2 Gonzaga (16-1) vs. 15 Montana (10-4)...Most regional observers are in agreement that this is Mark Few's best-looking Gonzaga side, with outstanding inside-outside balance and depth. Versatile 7-footer Kelly Olynyk might be the nation's most-improved player. Montana has been the team to beat in the Big Sky since star G Will Cherry returned to active duty in mid-December following a foot injury; the Grizzlies are unbeaten in six games since, thru Jan. 16.
7 Kentucky (10-5) vs. 10 Arizona State (14-2)...Just about the time we are ready to begin believing that Kentucky can make a run at a protected seed, the Wildcats throw in a stinker like they did on Saturday vs. Texas A&M. At the halfway point of the season, and yet to demonstrate much game-to-game consistency, it's safe to say that UK is not going to come close to matching the accomplishments of last year's team. Which might keep some of this year's frosh stars in tow for another year. Meanwhile, maybe it's time to start taking Herb Sendek's ASU seriously after a recent 6-game win streak that included wins over expected Pac-12 contenders Colorado & Oregon State.
At Auburn Hills...
3 Minnesota (15-2) vs. 14 Wright State (13-4)...We don't think Minnesota hurt its protected seed prospects too much with last Saturday's close loss at Indiana. Tubby Smith might have his best team since taking the Gophers' job in 2007, especially with four DD scorers led by G Andre Hollins at 14.4 ppg. Raise your hand if you expected Wright State to be setting the early pace in the Horizon League after high-scoring G Julius Mays transferred to Kentucky last summer. But shrewd HC Billy Donlon has cobbled together a snarling "D" (allowing only 55.7 ppg, 12th in nation) and balanced offense featuring explosive G Reggie Arceneaux.
6 Marquette (12-3) vs. 11 Boise State (13-2)...Just when we thought Marquette might have to scramble to make the Dance when losing in mid-December at UW-Green Bay, the Golden Eagles have won five in a row, including significant Big East wins over Georgetown and Pitt. Looks like Buzz Williams really does know what he's doing. So, for that matter, does Boise HC Leon Rice, a former Gonzaga aide and whose Broncos are going to benefit from the Mountain West affiliation if they stay above .500 in that rugged loop. The non-conference win at Creighton (Bluejays' only loss to date) could be a valuable chip for Boise to cash on Selection Sunday.
WEST REGIONAL (Phoenix)
at Kansas City...
1 Kansas (14-1) vs. 16 Norfolk State (8-10)/Florida Gulf Coast 12-7)...While KU will have a big regional edge in sub-regional action at Kansas City, the Sprint Center is not the Jayhawks' home court (in fact, it's an adjacent state), so Bill Self's team will likely be on display not too far from Lawrence in the sub-regionals. Norfolk State made noise in the Dance last year with its shock upset over Missouri, but there's no more Kyle O'Quinn to dominate in the paint. Still, the Spartans might be the best in the MEAC, while the Eagles from Ft. Myers-based Florida Gulf Coast (with all starters back from last year) could be the team to beat in the Atlantic Sun after Belmont's move to the OVC.
8 Temple (11-4) vs. 9 Kansas State (13-2)...Though Temple has taken a few hits, that rousing late-December win at MSG vs. Syracuse should help keep Fran Dunphy's Owls on the safe side of the cut line into Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, Bruce Weber is doing a better job than expected at K-State, on a 6-game win streak thru Jan. 15 with crucial wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia in the last week.
4 Ohio State (13-3) vs. 13 Loyola-Maryland (8-2)...Could we have this rematch of sub-regional action last season when the Buckeyes won by a 78-59 count? We're a lot more sure about the Buckeyes returning to the Dance (and at the moment likely as a protected seed after Sunday's upset win over Michigan) than we are about Loyola's return trip, but we would look forward to being entertained by Greyhound HC Jimmy Patsos, whose entertaining sidelines act is often more entertaining than action on the court. Loyola currently holds a slight lead in the Metro-Atlantic.
5 Notre Dame (14-2) vs. 12 Middle Tennessee (14-4)...Notre Dame has a strong case for a protected seed, but we're projecting that the Irish will eventually fall beneath a top-four regional slot. Lack of quickness has cost Notre Dame more than a few times, as it did on Saturday at UConn. Which could be a problem against a dangerous entry such as Middle Tennessee, which was probably the best team in the Sun Belt last season before Western Kentucky made a surprise run in the conference tourney, and the Blue Raiders won a couple of games in the NIT instead.
At San Jose...
2 Arizona (15-1) vs. 15 Stephen F Austin (14-1)...Arizona had cut it close so many times that it was bound to lose one of these days; these days came last Thursday at Oregon. We don't think the Wildcats are going to jump back on the top line anytime soon. Key your eyes on SFA, a favorite of the RPI and whose seeding could rise as high as a 12 or 13 based on the rating angle.
7 Wisconsin (12-4) vs. 10 Wichita State (15-2)...We should have learned not to underestimate a Bo Ryan-coached team; after Saturday's 74-51 dismantling of Illinois, the Badgers have that "look" once again. Wichita might feel a bit aggrieved by dropping a few lines after Sunday's loss to Evansville, but the Shockers still look a good bet to qualify as the Valley's second rep (along with Creighton).
3 NC State (14-2) vs. 14 Long Beach State (8-8)...The Beach doesn't have the manpower it did last season, but the 49ers finally do have recently-eligible transfers G Keala King (Arizona State) & F Tony Freeland (DePaul) on the floor, and we expect the Beach to become the team to beat in the Big West. NC State might take that a bit further as Saturday's win over Duke confirms the Wolfpack as a serious team to beat not only in the ACC but also for national honors. Mark Gottfried's frosh stars F T.J. Warren & G Rodney Purvis continue to make solid contributions.
6 UNLV (14-3) vs. 11 Ole Miss (13-2)...UNLV has yet to shake its on-the-road doldrums from last season in the Mountain West, which makes it imperative for the Rebels to hold serve at the Thomas & Mack Center, which UNLV almost didn't on Saturday vs. Air Force. Ole Miss could be a scary team in March with plenty of athleticism on the blocks and former Utah G Marshall Henderson now effectively pulling the strings on the perimeter.
Last four in: Saint Mary's, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, BYU.
Last four out: Saint Louis, Virginia, Colorado State, Louisiana Tech.
Next four out: Florida State, Iowa State, Villanova, La Salle.