By Bruce Marshall
Lots can change in the Bracketology report at this time of the season. In fact, we've really turned our brackets inside-out since our last update in mid-January, and expect to do more of the same throughout February as the NCAA Tourney begins to loom larger on the horizon.
This update, we also add in RPI (Rating Percentage Index) numbers for the first time this season; we had refrained from weighing the RPI too heavily until now, figuring that a month's worth of conference play would provide more meaningful numbers after the wild disparities in some schools with their non-conference schedules.
As usual, we break down the projected matchups by each region, beginning with the sub-regionals, which this year will begin on Thursday, Mar. 21 ("First Four" in Dayton on Mar. 19 and 20).
Straight-up records and RPI are thru Wednesday, January 30. Remember, March Mayhem isn't that far away.
EAST REGIONAL (Washington, D.C.)
At Auburn Hills...
1 Michigan (SU 20-1, RPI-6) vs. 16 Bryant (13-6, 151)...We're thinking at least two Big Ten teams land on the top line, and Michigan has the best shot to do so. Those who suggested early that this might be John Beilein's best-ever team, including his previous stops at West Virginia, Richmond, and Canisius, are being proved correct. Meanwhile, the Northeast has turned into a dogfight; for the moment we prefer the (Emmett) Bryant Bulldogs (are we dating ourselves, or what?), led by Columbia transfer G Dyami Starks, as Big Dance chatter is heard for the first time ever in Smithfield, RI (and certainly not heard at all last season when Bryant finished 2-28!). Although the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, and Sacred Heart (below .500 overall but tied atop the loop at 6-2 with Bryant and Robert Morris at midweek) remain very much in the mix.
8 Georgetown (15-4, 38) vs. 9 North Carolina (14-6, 36)...Shades of 1982 at the Superdome, when a then-called "Mike" Jordan was a mere frosh but hit the winning bucket of a pulsating 63-62 title game win over Georgetown and its frosh C, Patrick Ewing, in truly one of the memorable NCAA title games. Will Fred Brown be watching? Also the first-ever CBS televised national title game (maybe TNT or CBS could re-enlist Gary Bender and Billy Packer for announcing duties). With four wins in their last five heading into the weekend, we think the Tar Heels are moving away from bubble trouble, although this certainly doesn't appear to be one of Roy Williams' vintage teams at Chapel Hill. Nor does it appear to be a vintage hoops year at Pat Buchanan's alma mater.
4 Creighton (19-3, 30) vs. 13 Bucknell (17-4, 45)...After a couple of recent defeats, Creighton has straightened itself with easy wins over Southern Illinois and Mizzou State to stay in contention for a protected seed. Rampaging F Doug McDermott figures to be one of the spotlighted players in March. The Patriot League race was turned inside out earlier in January when Lehigh G C.J. McCollum (23.9 ppg) went down with a foot injury, but Andrea Tantaros' alma mater has stayed afloat and even managed an upset over Bucknell, which temporarily assumed the league's favored role when McCollum went down. Expect the Mountain Hawks and Bison to battle down to the wire, likely meeting on the home court of one in the conference title game.
5 Ole Miss (17-3, 31) vs. 12 Memphis (17-3, 49)...We had the Rebs as a protected seed before the midweek loss to Kentucky. But with G Marshall Henderson leading the SEC in scoring, and much of the league struggling, the folks in Oxford can at least start making their Big Dance plans. As for Conference USA, it could be a one-bid league this season, especially if Josh Pastner's Memphis wins the loop tourney. The Tigers and Southern Miss are likely the only C-USA sides with a realistic shot at an at-large berth, however. A Rebs-Tigers matchup would have plenty of local flavor, as the schools are not far apart.
2 Syracuse (18-2, 9) vs. 15 Stony Brook (15-5, 92)...There's still time for Syracuse to climb back to the top line, but the Orange have struggled a bit lately minus suspended sparkplug James Southerland (eligibility issues), have some new injury worries (frosh PD DaJuan Coleman bad knee), and the recent loss at Villanova has temporarily put Syracuse on our second line. Whatever, there's a very good chance the Orange end up in Philly for the sub-regionals. Fans of Strat-o-Matic games might be amused that one of the schools closest to Strat-o's Long Island headquarters in Glen Head is Stony Brook, which has a shot at its first Big Dance bid if it continues to set the pace in the America East. Familiar Big Dance qualifier Vermont and Boston U. are giving chase.
7 San Diego State (16-4, 29) vs. 10 Colorado (14-6, 21)...Although this might seem a more-likely West Regional matchup, both have slid down their respective conference totem poles in January and will be at the whim of the Selection Committee in March. SDSU is still looking to recover from recent losses to UNLV and Wyoming that have temporarily knocked it out of protected seed territory. For CU, it has bounced back from losing four of their first five Pac-12 games, winning three straight heading into the weekend to rehab the Buffs' Selection Sunday hopes.
At Kansas City...
3 Butler (17-3, 20) vs. 14 Harvard (10-6, 91)...The Bulldogs helped their protected seed status greatly with the recent win over Gonzaga sans injured G Rotnei Clarke, but a subsequent loss at La Salle suggests there are going to be some more banana peels to avoid in A-10 play. If Butler wins the conference tourney (which this year has moved from Atlantic City to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn), we think it gets a protected seed. Still a lot of basketball left to be played in the Ivy League, but to this point Tommy Amaker's Harvard side once again appears the class of the loop.
6 Kansas State (16-4, 37) vs. 11 Maryland (15-6, 65)/St. John's (14-7, 75)...Maybe all Bruce Weber really needed was a change of scenery away from Champaign-Urbana; his new K-State team has been one of the pleasant surprises in the Big 12 and seems on course to stay clear of the cut line as we move into February. Recent developments in the Big East suggest that Steve Lavin is steering his St. John's side back into the bubble discussion, and the Red Storm is hitting February with a head of steam (five straight wins). We're thinking that could get the Johnnies into an at-large play-in game, perhaps vs. Maryland, although the Terps have failed to build upon their recent win over NC State with three losses in four subsequent games, including a midweek setback vs. Florida State that has put Mark Turgeon's team in definite bubble trouble.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Arlington, TX)
1 Florida (17-2, 5) vs. 16 Florida Gulf Coast (14-8, 113)/Norfolk State (12-10, 193)...Florida is on a General Sherman-like march through the SEC at the moment, and we dare say the Gators could end up as the number one overall seed, as they figure to face less resistance than any Big Ten, Big 12, or Big East contenders for spots on the top line. Although it might be a bit strange seeing the Gators wearing their home whites if they're shipped to the nearest sub-regional (as would be expected) at Lexington, normally hostile territory. Meanwhile, take your pick in the Atlantic Sun race, where the league has turned into a free-for-all after recent powerhouse Belmont moved to the OVC. By midweek five teams were tied atop the league standings at 6-3; our current preference is for Florida Gulf Coast. But the Eagles or any other side that might win the Sun are likely ticketed for a 16 vs. 16 play-in game, where the MEAC champ is likely headed as well. At the moment, a measured vote for Norfolk State to make a return trip to the Dance, although the Spartans are minus last year's star Kyle O'Quinn (now with the NBA's Orlando Magic), who paced that huge sub-regional upset win over Missouri last March.
8 Colorado State (17-4, 23) vs. 9 Wisconsin (14-7, 47)...As the Mountain West race shakes out, CSU definitely looks as if it is going to be one of the survivors. Is there a first-year coach in the country who walked into a better situation than the Rams' Larry Eustachy, who inherited an all-senior lineup from a team that made the NCAA field of 68 last March? This might not be Wisconsin's best team under Bo Ryan, but the Badgers remain tough as ever to beat, and even a mid-table finish in the Big Ten is going to be good enough to get an invitation on Selection Sunday.
4 Louisville (17-4, 11) vs. 13 La Tech (18-3, 42)...If you thought the sight of Florida wearing the home whites at Rupp Arena would look strange, imagine how the senses might react to Louisville being the "home" team for a game on the UK Wildcats' home court? The Cards, however, have put themselves in some danger of missing a protected seed with three recent defeats in a row, although last Monday's win vs. capable Pitt has temporarily stopped the bleeding. Before La Tech leaves for Conference USA next season, it looks to be the class of the WAC, especially with injury-plagued Utah State faltering in recent weeks. The next coach du jour after the season could well be the Bulldogs' Michael White, who could quickly be in demand at many higher-profile ports of call.
5 Minnesota (16-5,11) vs. 12 Middle Tennessee (18-4, 35)...While some Big Ten observers were wondering if a few recent losses by Minnesota suggested that the Gophers were ready to go into a deep funk as they have the at this stage the past couple of years, we don't think so. Although Tubby Smith's side might have trouble scrambling back into protected seed territory. Once again, Kermit Davis' MTSU looks to be the class of the Sun Belt; it was a year ago, too, before getting upset in the conference tourney and then winning a couple of games in the NIT. The Blue Raiders will be favored again in this season's Belt Tourney at Hot Springs.
2 Duke (18-2, 1) vs. 15 Northeastern (12-8, 109)...Duke has time to climb back onto the top line in one of the regions, but we don't think we can consider the Blue Devils as a serious national title contender until F Ryan Kelly returns from injury. How far the Colonial has dropped from its recent multi-bid status, and having sent a pair of reps (George Mason and VCU) to the Final Four in recent years. This year, the CAA is getting dangerously close to the play-in game, especially with VCU having left the league, several entries banned from the postseason, and other contenders either in down years or hampered by injuries. A measured vote at the moment for Northeastern, but the fragility of the Huskies' status was underlined in a midweek upset loss at home vs. so-so Georgia State.
7 UCLA (16-6, 32) vs. 10 Oklahoma State (14-5, 44)...While frosh-leaden UCLA should still safely make the field of 68, the Bruins' seeding is fluctuating after recent losses to Arizona State and Southern Cal. The Bruins could easily fall into the 9-11 seed category if they're not careful. So might Oklahoma State, although the Cowboys won a crucial midweek game vs. Iowa State to stay on the safe side of the cut line...at least for now.
At Auburn Hills...
3 Michigan State (17-4, 12) vs. 14 Davidson (13-7, 111)...Never underestimate a Tom Izzo-coached MSU team, which despite its Sunday loss at Indiana has seemed to hit stride in recent weeks. If history repeats, the Spartans will again be peaking as we head into March, although Izzo's current edition is a bit more perimeter-oriented than usual MSU title contenders. The Spartans would also likely get ticketed for the nearby Palace of Auburn Hills for sub-regional action. Although having taken some hits in pre-league play, Davidson is slowly taking command of the SoCon and appears to be a clear favorite for the fast-approaching conference tourney. A similar-looking Wildcat team made the Dance last season for vet Big Dance HC Bob McKillop, who has taken several sides to the Dance minus Stephen Curry.
6 Cincinnati (17-4, 25) vs. 11 Temple (14-6, 56)...There is still time for capable Cincy to work its way into protected seed territory, although we suspect Mick "The Ghost" Cronin's current, perimeter-oriented edition probably lands in the 5-6 range instead. There's a bit of concern in Philly that Temple could be in trouble of missing the Dance entirely for what would be the first time in HC Fran Dunphy's six-year tenure at the school; the A-10 is deeper this season with the additions of Butler and VCU. But the league also benefits from those new powers, and we suspect at least four A-10 bids will be forthcoming. The Owls' mid-December win over Syracuse will be a valuable chip to cash on Selection Sunday, too.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Indianapolis)
At Kansas City...
1 Kansas (19-1, 2) vs. 16 Southern U (14-7, 174)/Charleston Southern (12-6, 170)...We would give Kansas as good a chance as any top contender of garnering the number one seed for the entire tourney; as it is, we suspect the Jayhawks are at least on course for the top line in the Midwest. Remember, since the nearby Sprint Center in Kansas City isn't KU's home court (even though the Jayhawks have played at the site this season), Bill Self's troops are eligible for sub-regional action at this very friendly venue. Expect the Big South and SWAC champs to be two of the four teams in the pair of 16 vs. 16 play-in games. There are clear favorites in both leagues right now, as Charleston Southern is cruising in the Big South (and one of only two teams, along with 11-10 UNC-Asheville, over .500 for the season from the loop), and Southern U is the only SWAC side above .500 (no one else even remotely close).
8 Notre Dame (17-4, 48) vs. 9 Kentucky (14-6, 63)...Wouldn't this be a dandy sub-regional matchup! Shades of Austin Carr going wild at Freedom Hall in Louisville and scoring 50 poitns vs. Adollph Rupp's Cats in December of 1970! UK's midweek win over Ole Miss should ease the concerns of any Big Blue backers who were wondering if Coach Cal's newest group of diaper dandies migth miss the Dance entirely. Although we don't think the current UK version is anything close to last year's Anthony Davis-led side. As for Notre Dame, the Irish are wobbling, but have at least stopped the bleeding a bit with recent wins over South Florida and Villanova. But we suspect the Irish are looking at more losses and perhaps dropping to dark-uni-in-sub-regional range before Selection Sunday.
4 Ohio State (16-4, 24) vs. 13 Akron (16-4, 67)...While Ohio State might not be on par with last year's Final Four team led by the departed Jared Sullinger, the Bucks are more than holding their own at home in Big Ten play, and the win over Michigan suggests to us that Thad Matta's side can qualify for protected seed status and get this preferred sub-regional assignment in nearby Dayton. It could be an all-Ohio battle if matched vs. the MAC champ, which at the moment we project to be Keith Dambrot's Akron, although Ohio U (with much the same look as last year's Sweet 16 team, save for new HC Jim Christian) figures to have something to say about that at the conference tourney in Cleveland.
5 Virginia Commonwealth (17-5, 39) vs. 12 Belmont (17-4, 14)...VCU has made a smooth adjustment to the A-10, and while not dominating loop foes quite as much as we expected, still looks to be on course for a top two finish in the league and contention for a protected seed. Belmont has also made a move to a new league (from the Atlantic Sun to the Ohio Valley), and Rick Byrd's tourney veteran Bruins appear to be emerging as the class of the OVC pack as well. The Eastern Kentucky Colonels and last year's league champ, the Murray State Racers, figure to give chase into the conference tourney
2 Miami-Florida (16-3, 3) vs. 15 Montana (14-4, 125)....There hasn't been a bigger "mover" from our last update than Jim Larranaga's Miami, which has emerged as the team to beat in the ACC and has welcomed C Reggie Johnson back to active duty from a hand injury. Those who wondered what Larranaga could do with more talent on his hands than he was working with at George Mason are getting their answer. As for Montana, it assumed command of the Big Sky race last Saturday in Missoula when beating top contender Weber State; remember, the regular-season champ in the Sky also hosts the conference tourney. The Grizzlies have not lost in ten games since star G Will Cherry returned to the starting lineup in mid-December after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.
7 Pitt (17-5, 52) vs. 10 Baylor (14-6, 34)...The Big East doesn't appear to be quite as top heavy as it was a couple of years ago when more than half of the league earned Big Dance invites, but the Selection Committee will still go pretty deep in the loop, and Jamie Dixon's side gets back to the Dance after missing out a year ago (although the Panthers did win the CBI). The Committee also likely goes deep into the Big 12, although Baylor is probably going to need a few more marquee wins to move into the single-digit seeding range.
At San Jose...
3 Oregon (18-3, 19) vs. 14 Detroit (14-8, 87)...Keep an eye on Oregon, which emerged as the team to beat in the Pac-12 in January but is now going without injured star frosh PG Dominic Artis (foot injury) for a bit, losing at Stanford on Wednesday in the first road game of his absence. Another loss this Saturday vs. Cal, however, could knock the Ducks out of protected seed territory. The Horizon race remains competitive, but we suspect that when the dust settles, it will be Ray McCallum's Detroit Titans emerging from the pile. Remember, Detroit won the conference tourney last season, and its rugged pre-league slate is beginning to pay dividends, as the midweek win at Wright State suggests the Titans are about to take control of the loop.
6 UNLV (17-4, 17) vs. 11 Saint Mary's (18-4, 63)...This would be a fascinating regional clash, and Saint Mary's would welcome this assignment in San Jose, within an hour of its Moraga campus. The Gaels helped their at-large candidacy greatly with a recent one-point win at BYU that puts them temporarily ahead of the Cougs in the WCC queue. There have been indications that UNLV and man-child frosh star PF Anthony Bennett could surge to the top of the Mountain West, but the Rebs need to prove they can win consistently on the road to have a chance at a protected seed.
WEST REGIONAL (Phoenix)
1 Indiana (19-2, 16) vs. 16 Niagara (13-8, 118)...As mentioned earlier, we fully expect two Big Ten teams to land on the top line and for Indiana to be one of those. The Hoosiers would gladly take the sub-regional assignment in Dayton, a close drive on the west side of neighboring state Ohio for the countless IU backers. No clear-cut favorite has yet emerged from the Metro-Atlantic; at this moment, our best guess is Niagara, which has surged in recent weeks, although any number of others (Iona, Loyola-Maryland, Canisius, Fairfield, Rider) figure to rate a decent shot in the upcoming free-for-all conference tourney, to be held in early March at Springfield, MA.
8 Wichita State (19-3, 18) vs. 9 Oklahoma (14-5, 22)...The Missouri Valley is likely a multi-bid league this March, and for the moment Wichita State appears safely in the field of 68, though the Shockers slipped a notch or two in the seeding scale after a midweek loss to pesky Indiana State. Notice that Lon Kruger has been waving his magic wand in Norman, as his Sooners appear on course for a return to the Dance for the first time since Blake Griffin's days on campus. Kruger has already taken alma mater Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, and UNLV to the Dance before, and can set a record by taking his fifth school to the tourney in March.
At Salt Lake City...
4 New Mexico (18-3, 7) vs. 13 North Dakota State (16-5, 59)...The best chance for a Mountain West rep to gain a protected seed is likely going to be New Mexico, although the top level of conference contenders are likely to beat up one another. The Lobos needed to bounce back from last Saturday's ugly 55-34 loss at San Diego State, and Wednesday's grinding win at Wyoming is just what the doctor ordered for Steve Alford's crew. We love the developing race in the Summit League, where three distinctly different-styled teams (North and South Dakota State, plus Western Illinois) have emerged as the teams to beat. The league tourney in Sioux Falls should be a donnybrook.
5 Marquette (5-4, 20) vs. 12 Virginia (15-5, 92)/La Salle (14-6, 26)...Buzz Williams' reputation is being burnished even more by steering this mostly-rebuilt Marquette edition into contention for a protected seed. The Golden Eagles qualify as one of the pleasant surprises in this year's Big East. The final at-large play-in game could have a surprise guest, with Tony Bennett's Virginia making a nice impression in recent weeks and moving into contention after the crucial midweek win over NC State. If anything, the Cavs are on an upward trajectory at the moment. La Salle, looking for its first NCAA invitation since 1992, put itself in position with recent wins over Butler & VCU, but a shock midweek home loss to UMass has pushed the Explorers back to near the cut line.
At San Jose...
2 Arizona (17-2, 4) vs. 15 Pacific (12-8, 112)...We're still not completely convinced that Arizona is going to hold onto a protected seed, considering all of the close calls the Wildcats have endured. Although the Pac-12 does not have as many banana peels as the Big Ten or Big East (or the Mountain West, for that matter), so we think Sean Miller's Cats maintain a 2 or 3 seed. The Big West race is wide open; any among Pacific, Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, and Hawaii will have a good chance in the league tourney at Anaheim's Honda Center in March. Maybe we're just being nostalgic, but we would get a kick out of seeing UOP make the Dance in the final season for retiring HC Bob Thomason, who has quietly developed a model mid-major program in Stockton. The Tigers, by the way, move to the WCC (where they once competed until the early '70s) next season.
7 Missouri (15-5, 26) vs. 10 Villanova (13-8, 49)...It wasn't long ago that we had Mizzou as a protected seed. Now, with injuries (such as key F Laurence Bowers) impacting proceedings and the Tigers taking bad losses such as Wednesday's setback at LSU, Frank Haith's team is sliding the wrong way on the seeding pole. Heading in the other direction is Jay Wright's Villanova, which was temporarily cooled by Notre Dame in a close loss on Wednesday night, but will find that recent wins over Syracuse and Louisville could come in very handy on Selection Sunday.
At Salt Lake City....
3 Gonzaga (19-2, 8) vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin (16-2, 77)...A lot of West Coast observers believe that this is Mark Few's best team in his 14 seasons at Gonzaga; the Zags could even have had a stronger case for a regional top seed had they not lost that last-second decision at Butler a few weeks ago. Few's team could easily move into a 2 slot, and there's still time to make a run at a regional top seed as well. The Lumberjacks from SFA, which once upon a time produced NFL place-kicker Mark Moseley, have emerged as the team to beat in the Southland. The Nacogdoches, TX bunch is being chased by Scott Sutton's Oral Roberts, which made the move from the Summit League after last season.
6 NC State (16-5, 15) vs. 11 Arizona State (16-4, 58)...This would be a very interesting sub-regional matchup if ASU HC Herb Sendek was pitted vs. former employer NC State. Speaking of the Wolfpack, it could easily yet work its way back into protected seed territory, but too many flat road efforts (such as losses at Maryland, Wake Forest, and Virginia) are going to undermine some very good wins (such as Duke and North Carolina) and likely keep NCS out of protected seed territory. As for Sendek, this season is turning into a redemption of sorts as he was squarely on the hot seat, especially with a new AD (Steve Patterson) in the fold. With last Saturday's rousing win over UCLA, Sendek is definitely proving he can still coach.
Last four in: Maryland, St. John's, La Salle, Virginia.
Last four out: Southern Miss, Charlotte, Wyoming, Illinois.
Next four out: BYU, Iowa State, Boise State, Saint Louis.
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