By Bruce Marshall
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. The term "protected seed" refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in any region, with those seeds usually accompanied by a geographically-convenient sub-regional assignment.
Straight-up records, RPI, and Strength of Schedule (SOS) ratings are thru Sunday, March 3.
March Mayhem has arrived!
EAST REGIONAL (Washington, D.C.)
1 Duke (SUR 25-4, RPI-1, SOS-2) vs. 16 Robert Morris (22-9, 113-169)...Even before F Ryan Kelly returned to the Duke fold with a bang (and how...36 points!) last weekend vs. the Miami Hurricanes, we had the Blue Devils on the top line. Now, with Kelly back and apparently in top form, don't be surprised if the Blue Devils ride into the Dance as the overall No. 1 seed, especially if they win the ACC Tourney. Meanwhile, the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, qualified to host this week's Northeast Tourney when beating Bryant in a 77-75 thriller at Coraopolis last Thursday. The Smithfield, RI-based Bulldogs, however, might like their chances in a rubber match vs. the Colonials. Games involving top contenders Robert Morris, Bryant, Wagner, Long Island, and Quinnipiac were almost all closely contested this season. The Colonials, however, are the only entry in that lot that might avoid a 16 vs. 16 play-in game.
8 Creighton (24-7, 37-79) vs. 9 San Diego State (20-8, 33-26)...After briefly worrying about their at-large prospects last week, the Creighton Bluejays finished the regular season on an upbeat note with a pair of wins, including a home thumping of Wichita State in the battle for top seed at this week's Arch Madness in St. Louis, so Greg McDermott's side is now surely on safe ground entering the conference tourney. Steve Fisher's SDSU has been mostly treading water for the last month while it loses contact with the Mountain West leaders; if the Aztecs are lucky, they would land a 10 or 11 seed, but we think they look awfully likely to be sentenced to one of the dreaded 8-9 games in the sub-regionals instead.
At Kansas City...
4 Kansas State (24-5, 19-52) vs. 13 Davidson (23-7, 75-107)...How about an all-Wildcat battle? Welcome into protected seed territory for K-State, which passed another test in the top-heavy Big 12 by winning at Baylor last Saturday on Rodney McGruder's clutch three-pointer at the buzzer (after a wild final-second sequence). Bruce Weber's Wildcats have won five straight and are tied for the lead atop the loop with Kansas, although to keep a protected seed, KSU might have to beat Oklahoma State in the reg.-season finale this weekend (or, of course, win the Big 12 Tourney). The SoCon Tourney will begin later this week in the Blue Ridge hub of Asheville, with Bob McKillop's Davidson the top seed after closing the regular season with 14 straight wins. Note that the only league rep to beat the Wildcats in conference play was Georgia Southern, which paid dearly for that transgression last weekend when on the wrong end of an 83-48 revenge beating administered by Davidson. Matt Matheny's Fighting Phoenix of Elon and Doug Wojcik's College of Charleston Cougars look to be Davidson's main competition in Asheville.
5 Ohio State (21-7, 20-20) vs. 12 La Salle (20-7, 45-89)...We haven't knocked OSU down from a 4 to a 5 seed because of their nervous win last week at Northwestern. Rather, we're speculating just a bit because we think the Buckeyes will lose at least once this week to either Indiana or Illinois, which, short of a run to the Big Ten title game, would likely move OSU from a protected seed and a chance at the Dayton sub-regional, only 70 or so miles from Columbus. We'll let Thad Matta's team prove us wrong. Meanwhile, John Giannini's La Salle has avoided most of the banana peels in this year's A-10 and should be in good shape for the Explorers' first trip to the Dance in 21 years, even if losing in this Saturday's regular-season finale at hot Saint Louis.
2 Georgetown (23-4, 10-3) vs. 15 Stony Brook (22-6, 83-266)...We weren't even including Georgetown as a protected seed until recent projections; now, if the dominoes fall right over the next two weeks, the Hoyas could enter the Dance as a number one regional seed. We also weren't thinking about JT III and Otto Porter as coach of the year and Wooden Award candidates, respectively, until a few weeks ago, either; a lot can change in a short period of time during this particular college hoops season. As for Stony Brook, it has clinched the top seed in this week's America East Tourney in Albany. The Seawolves, winners of 10 of their last 11, will likely have to fend off entries such as Vermont, Boston U, Hartford (the last team to beat Stony, on Feb. 10) and the host Great Danes from Albany before qualifying for their first-ever Big Dance invite.
7 Cal (20-9, 42-34) vs. 10 Cincinnati (20-9, 49-32)...If the regular season extended into April, red-hot Cal might qualify for a protected seed; Mike Montgomery's Golden Bears are now the hottest team in the Pac-12 with seven straight wins, including successes vs. all of the loop's top contenders, and can expect to be wearing their home white unis (or, if the mood strikes, their fancy goldenrod alternate outfits) at the outset of the sub-regionals. We don't know if Cincinnati was in trouble of dropping out of the field entirely if it lost last Saturday vs. UConn, but there's no question it was a welcome win for the Bearcats, who had been sliding the wrong way the past month. Oldtimers might recall this as a rematch of Final Four games in 1959 & '60, when Cal teams coached by Pete Newell beat George Smith's Cincy teams, featuring Oscar Robertson, two straight years in national semifinal matchups.
3 Florida (23-5, 10-23) vs. 14 Princeton (16-9, 115-143)...Big doings last weekend in the Ivy League. Not only did Princeton avenge an earlier loss to Harvard by winning the return match at Jadwin Gym on Friday, but the Crimson's subsequent stumble on Saturday at Penn puts the Tigers temporarily back in control at the top of the loop. Princeton, however, has three tricky road dates remaining on the schedule; win out and Mitch Henderson's squad qualifies for the Dance. But also remember that a flat-footed tie at the end of the regular season would necessitate the second one-game Ivy playoff in the last three seasons between the Tigers and Harvard. Stay tuned. As for Florida, we think the Gators probably gave up any hope of a top regional seed when losing in midweek at Tennessee. With the SEC profile a bit down this season, the Gators probably do no better than a three seed on Selection Sunday.
6 Saint Louis (23-5, 26-28) vs. 11 Virginia (20-9, 57-112)/Villanova (18-12/55-37)...Saint Louis wasn't even a sure thing to make the Dance a few weeks ago; now the Billikens have an outside shot at a protected seed if they keep winning through the upcoming A-10 Tourney at Barclays Center in Brooklyn after the event was played in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall the past several years. And Jim Crews is generating a lot of support as a potential national Coach of the Year (we second the nomination). Bad losses within the last week from both Virginia (at Boston College) and Villanova (at Seton Hall) have those two straddling the cut line, though in the Cavs' case a Thursday win over Duke was a huge plus. The 'Hoos have been trying to overcome an RPI that was badly damaged by early losses to Colonial foes George Mason, Delaware, and Old Dominion, and while we think they're in the field at the moment, Tony Bennett's side has little margin for error. The regular-season finale vs. Maryland could have huge implications. 'Nova also likely barely remains in safe territory after two straight losses, and could really use another marquee win over Georgetown in its reg.-season finale on Wednesday to feel more comfy about a call on Selection Sunday. Sunday's extremely bitter OT loss at Pitt could have been another big chip for Jay Wright to cash on Selection Sunday.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Arlington, TX)
1 Indiana (25-4, 7-18) vs. 16 Mercer (21-10, 131-272)/Norfolk State (19-10, 172-328)...Now alone and a game-and-a-half clear atop the Big Ten, Indiana has the look of a number one regional seed, even after last week's loss at Minnesota. Although there is still time to slip down a notch or two with games vs. Ohio State and at Michigan to close the regular season in the next week before the Big Ten Tourney. Whatever, a sub-regional assignment to Dayton, an easy drive for most Hoosier fans, looks very likely. Mercer's chance of escaping a 16 vs. 16 play-in game took a knock when losing last week at Florida Gulf Coast, which could also serve as a warning shot from the Eagles (who conquered Miami-Fla. early in the season) before this week's Atlantic Sun Tourney, which the Bears will host in Macon. We're positive the MEAC Tourney champ is involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 games; right now the clear favorite looks to be the Spartans from Norfolk State, last year's Big Dance Cinderella and undefeated in conference play and with 13 wins in a row heading into Monday night's game vs. the Rattlers from Florida A&M.
8 Oregon (23-6, 50-104) vs. 9 Colorado State (22-7, 17-25)...Oregon was in the discussion for a protected seed not long ago, but that was before the foot injury suffered by star frosh G Dominic Artis, who returned to active duty in limited minutes last Saturday vs. Oregon State. Perhaps we have seeded the Ducks a bit low, especially since they are currently tied with UCLA atop the Pac-12, but the RPI and SOS do not cry injustice for a middling seed. A loss this week at Colorado (which is very possible) and failure to win the Pac-12 Tourney probably puts the Ducks in 7-9 seed range. CSU's bid is safe, but the Rams have been slipping a bit since they cracked the national rankings for the first time in 59 years a few weeks ago. Three losses in their last four games have conceded the reg.-season Mountain West crown to New Mexico, and Larry Eustachy's team is now in real danger of getting stuck in an 8-9 game.
4 Oklahoma State (22-6, 22-55) vs. 13 Akron (23-5, 46-138)...A mid-major result that got little notice nationally last weekend, but was potentially significant in regard to Selection Sunday, involved Akron losing at Buffalo, 81-67. That result not only ended the Zips' nation's best 19-game win streak, but also put a dent in a possible at-large case if needed should Keith Dambrot's team lose in the MAC Tourney at Cleveland next week. Meanwhile, note the growing chorus of support for OSU, which is now a chic projection to make the Final Four among select college hoops aficionados. This would be a rematch of a November game at the Puerto Rico Tipoff (the Cowboys a 69-65 winner) that was a much-more compelling matchup than anyone realized at the time.
5 Pittsburgh (22-7, 44-56) vs. 12 Middle Tennessee (27-4, 24-127)...Pitt remains in the frame for a possible protected seed after Sunday's narrow OT escape vs. Villanova. What might eventually hold the Panthers back is a paucity of quality non-conference wins, although a deep run in the Big East Tourney could overcome that factor. As an aside, Pitt fans are forewarned to be very concerned about rumors that HC Jamie Dixon is going to be courted seriously by Southern Cal for the Trojans' job once the regular season is complete. Dixon, a California native, is reportedly tops on Troy's target list. Another possible interesting Selection Sunday dilemma could arise if MTSU should blow the upcoming Sun Belt Tourney, as it did a year ago. This time, however, Kermit Davis' Blue Raiders would seem to have a stronger at-large case if needed. No matter, expect countless bubble teams to be big MTSU fans when the Sun Belt festivities commence next week at Hot Springs.
2 Miami-Florida (23-5, 3-4) vs. 15 Niagara (18-12, 122-151)...For Miami, the temporary consequence of losing at Duke on Saturday is probable relinquishment of a top regional seed, even though the Canes are still likely to win the ACC regular-season crown. Miami now has more the look of a 2 seed unless Jim Larranaga's bunch can win the conference tourney in enemy territory at Greensboro. The Metro-Atlantic Tournament begins this week in Springfield, MA, and your guess is as good as any who might emerge from what appears to be the nation's most wide-open tourney. Joe Mihalich's Niagara, featuring prolific-scoring G Antoine Mason, enters as the top seed, so it gets a provisional nod for the moment, although we wouldn't be surprised if any from among seven entries ended up as the winner. Having said that, we would watch out for Canisius, Iona, and last year's winner of this event, Dancin' Jimmy Patsos' Loyola-Maryland Greyhounds.
7 Missouri (21-8, 35-53) vs. 10 Memphis (25-4, 18-70)...After a midweek non-league loss at Xavier, we've re-evaluated our position on Memphis, which we seeded as high as a 5 in our last update. But considering the Tigers' lack of quality wins, and the credibility issues regarding this year's Conference USA, that loss vs. the Musketeers likely has huge seeding consequences for Josh Pastner's team. Though (contrary to some bracketologists) we highly doubt Memphis is in a position to land on the wrong side of the cut line should it lose in the upcoming conference tourney in Tulsa, we suspect the Tigers have a good chance of wearing the road unis in the sub-regionals. Mizzou has made a fortress of its home court in Columbia and should be safely into the field of 68 after Saturday's win vs. pesky LSU. Missouri's body of work compares very favorably with a mass of other SEC contenders level or almost level in the standings but with lesser cases to make to the Selection Committee.
At Salt Lake City...
3 Marquette (21-7, 11-8) vs. 14 Bucknell (25-5, 14)...As the Big East race begins to resemble the old Demolition Derby from the Islip Speedway that used to be described so enthusiastically by Jim McKay on ABC's Wide World of Sports, Marquette finds itself as one of the last cars still running, tied for second place in the loop with Louisville (and behind only Georgetown) entering this last regular-season week before the Big East changes forever next season. And likely favored in the last two regular-season games at Rutgers and St. John's, the Golden Eagles appear to be a very good bet to earn a protected seed. The Patriot League Tourney begins later this week, with the alma mater of CBS head honcho Les Moonves, Bucknell, owning homecourt edge as long as it stays alive in the event. All eyes, however, are on second-seed Lehigh, which won the league tourney last year (and beat Duke in the sub-regionals) but has been without star G C.J. McCollum (23.9 ppg) since early January due to a broken foot. McCollum tossed the crutches away in late February, but his rehab would have to be fast-forwarded for him to be on the court for the Mountain Hawks in the Patriot Tourney that extends to March 13. If the Bison qualify instead, keep an eye on 6-11 C Mike Muscala, one of the potential breakout players in March.
6 Wisconsin (20-9, 26-17) vs. 11 Temple (21-8, 41-48)...We had been toying with the idea of granting Wisconsin a protected seed, but that was before its shocking Sunday home loss vs. Purdue. With a real logjam appearing on the 4-5-6 lines, we dock the Badgers and lower them after the result vs. the Boilermakers. And for reason, too; Bo Ryan's team likely goes into the Dance as no better than the 4th or 5th-rated Big Ten entry, so we suspect Wiscy is in the 5-6 range at the moment. Fran Dunphy's Temple exhaled a huge sigh of relief when surviving an upset bid by dangerous Detroit last week at the Liacouras Center; a loss would have been very damaging to Owl at-large hopes. Instead, we suspect Bill Cosby's alma mater will be one of five A-10 entries to the Dance, and make Fran Dunphy six-for-six in qualifying for the NCAAs since taking the Temple job in the 2007-08 season.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Indianapolis)
At Kansas City...
1 Kansas (25-4, 4-13) vs. 16 Charleston Southern (17-11, 186-282)/ Texas Southern (17-14, 179-267)...We have always expected Kansas to be destined for the sub-regional at the Sprint Center in nearby Kansas City, where the Jayhawks have already played this season and will be on display again next week in the Big 12 Tournament. After that puzzling detour in early February when losing three straight (including an inexplicable loss at TCU), Bill Self's team has stabilized with recent OT road wins at Oklahoma State and Iowa State, and looks to be a good bet to earn a top regional seed. The Big South race has more resembled one of Vince McMahon's WWE Battle Royals, with everyone in the league seemingly landing a haymaker or two. Top seeds entering the conference tourney at Conway, SC (where Coastal Carolina is the host) are Barclay Radabaugh's Charleston Southern Buccaneers and Scott Cherry's High Point Panthers, though many in the region are warning to keep an eye on the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs, as the Boiling Springs, NC entry closed the regular season on a 7-game win streak. The new team to beat in the SWAC Tourney is Texas Southern, as the Houston-based Tigers wrested top spot in the league from Southern U by beating the Jaguars 79-66 last week, TSU's 12th win in a row. Keep in mind that the Tigers were within shouting distance of Colorado, San Diego State, and Kansas State in pre-SWAC action.
8 Illinois (21-9, 34-9) vs. 9 Butler (22-7, 22-45)...Illinois' profile is strong enough that it was probably safely into the field of 68 prior to last weekend, but just in case, avoiding that banana peel vs. Nebraska (and it wasn't easy) has probably guaranteed the Illini an invitation. Butler's ticket is punched, too, but the Bulldogs have been slipping down the seeding scale in recent weeks, with home losses to Charlotte and Saint Louis prior to last Saturday's blowout loss at VCU. Having lost contact with the top of the A-10 (now occupied by the SLU Billikens), many are suspecting that shrewd HC Brad Stevens might have been doing it with mirrors in the first half of the season at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
4 Syracuse (22-7, 15-7) vs. 13 Valparaiso (24-7, 62-174)...Man, are we tempted to push the 'Cuse out of protected seed territory with three losses on the trot entering its midweek game vs. DePaul, which will be the Orange's last-ever Big East game at the Carrier Dome. Maybe Syracuse needs to beat Georgetown in the regular-season finale and make a nice run in the Big East Tourney to stay on the fourth line, but we believe it is all still within the reach of Jim Boeheim's team. Meanwhile, winning the regular-season crown has made Valparaiso the host team in the Horizon Tourney, where another title game vs. Ray McCallum's Detroit (as was the case last year when the Titans romped) appears to be in the offing before Bryce Drew's squad qualifies for the Dance.
5 Arizona (23-6, 13-28) vs. 12 Boise State (20-8, 43-63)...There, we've done it, knocking Arizona out of protected seed status after it lost a pair of Pac-12 road games in the L.A. area last week (including a bad loss at Southern Cal and second loss of the season vs. UCLA). The Wildcats enter the last week of the regular season in fourth place in the Pac-12, having lost 4 of their last 7, and might need a deep run in the conference tourney next week in Las Vegas to climb back to the fourth line. We also welcome Boise State to the lineup for the first time since early in our projection process. The Broncos have been helped by the solid conference RPI of the Mountain West, which has been jockeying with the Big Ten for top league spot all season. Last week's win over Colorado State was the deposit on an at-large slot; victories this week over either UNLV or San Diego State should move the Broncos further to the safe side of the cut line. Non-conference wins at Creighton and to a lesser extent vs. LSU, and a close road loss at Michigan State, are not hurting the Boise profile, either.
At Auburn Hills...
2 Michigan (24-5, 12-44) vs. 15 Montana (20-6, 100-270)...Though last week's hard-to-fathom loss at Penn State ranks alongside Kansas' defeat at TCU as the most startling upset of the season, John Beilein's Michigan recovered in time to beat Michigan State in a Sunday showdown to keep itself in the mix for a slot on the second (or perhaps even the first) line come Selection Sunday. Yet the Wolverines, only 4-4 in their last eight games, might still have to beat both Purdue and Indiana this week to stay at a number two. Montana is still most likely to be the host team for next week's Big Sky Tourney, but even if the event is held in Missoula, we're not sure the Grizzlies will even be favored, if star performers Will Cherry and Mathias Ward are hurting. In which case don't be surprised if hot Weber State (winner of nine straight entering home games vs. Portland State on Thursday, and Eastern Washington on Saturday) steals the bid from the Grizzlies.
7 North Carolina (22-7, 46-72) vs. 10 Saint Mary's (26-5, 38-113)...There's no more reason to worry about North Carolina making the Dance after five straight wins and a renewed bounce in the Tar Heels' step after Roy Williams' switch to a 4-G lineup a few weeks ago. Now Carolina is likely to be wearing its home white in the first sub-regional game, and some are beginning to wonder if Roy might be doing one of his best-ever coaching jobs after losing almost the entirety of last year's starting lineup to the NBA. Saint Mary's deftly avoided a banana peel on Saturday night vs. Santa Clara and should have no bubble concerns heading into the WCC Tourney that begins later this week at the Orleans Hotel Arena in Las Vegas.
At San Jose...
3 New Mexico (25-4, 2-3) vs. 14 South Dakota State (22-9, 72-176)...You're darned right New Mexico deserves a protected seed, pulling away to a clear regular-season title in what has been alternately (with the Big Ten) the nation's top-rated RPI league, the Mountain West, for the entire season. Heck, the Lobos' RPI (2) and SOS (3) suggests we might be short-changing them for a three seed. But expect a sub-regional assignment in either San Jose or Salt Lake City for Steve Alford's bunch. We know this would be another rematch of a regular-season game in which SDSU dealt the Lobos one of their four defeats after an arduous 1200-mile bus ride from Nashville (Belmont) to Albuquerque in December, dodging blizzards (which made air travel impractical) en route. First, the Jackrabbits must dispose of the regular-season Summit co-champ Western Illinois Leathernecks (who lost twice to SDSU) and dangerous North Dakota State (now with star G Taylor Braun back in action after injury) and others in the conference tourney at Sioux Falls, SD.
6 Notre Dame (22-7, 46-72) vs. 11 Belmont (24-6, 23-38)...Notre Dame has been hovering at the periphery of protected-seed territory all season, but it is getting crowded for those coveted spots, and last Saturday's loss at Marquette suggests the Fighting Irish are more likely in the 5-6 range as Selection Sunday approaches. As for Rick Byrd's Belmont, its solid RPI (23) and SOS (38) numbers suggest it might deserve better than an 11 seed, although we can never quite predict how the Selection Committee values mid-major success. In the Bruins' case, it might also mean they could get serious at-large consideration should they lose in this week's OVC Tourney, conducted at the old Municipal Auditorium across town from campus in Nashville. Although expected top challenger Murray State inexplicably flopped as a heavy favorite in two home games vs. UT-(Dean) Martin and SE Missouri State, neither an OVC contender, last week.
WEST REGIONAL (Phoenix)
at San Jose...
1 Gonzaga (29-2, 9-70) vs. 16 Northeastern (19-11, 159-208)...With Gonzaga having ascended to the top of the national rankings (not that it has meant a hoot this season) and being heavily favored for this week's WCC Tourney in Las Vegas, we fully expect the Zags to be the number one seed in the West. San Jose appears the most-likely sub-regional destination. The Colonial Tourney begins in Richmond later this week, but there were troubling developments last weekend as top seed Northeastern was dumped by lowly Old Dominion, the Huskies' third loss in five games that also included another puzzling setback vs. downtrodden UNC-Wilmington. Bad, bad losses both. The Colonial winner is now in real danger of falling into one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; should Bill Coen's Northeastern win the conference tourney, it probably stays at a non-play-in 16 seed, but any other CAA team that might win in Richmond is at risk of being placed in the "First Four" games at Dayton.
8 Virginia Commonwealth (23-6, 31-34) vs. 9 Oklahoma (19-9, 22-6)...We had been seeding VCU much higher for most of this season, and Saturday's dominating romp past Butler might advance the Rams' case for something better than an 8 on Selection Sunday. But once Shaka Smart's team dropped out of the lead in the A-10, we saw no compelling reason to keep them it protected seed territory. Meanwhile, it didn't take long for Lon Kruger to get Oklahoma back to the Dance, which hasn't happened since Blake Griffin's days in 2009. The Sooners, however, look a lot like many of Kruger's many past Big Dance entries that didn't escape the first weekend, good enough to perhaps win a game, as a likely 8 or 9 seed doesn't suggest a deep run for OU. This will, however, be Lon's record fifth appearance with a different school (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, and now the Sooners) in the Dance.
At Salt Lake City...
4 UNLV (22-7, 14-19) vs. 13 La Tech (26-3, 48-205)...We were wondering if UNLV might drop as low as a 10 or 11 seed a few weeks ago. Now, however, with a real chance to end the regular season on a 9-game win streak (especially with the Mountain West Tourney on its home court at the Thomas & Mack Center), and the Mountain's conference RPI being so strong, Dave Rice's Runnin' Rebels are positioned to climb into a protected seed assignment to either Salt Lake or San Jose. Where the opponent could be pesky La Tech, which has stayed unbeaten in the better-than-advertised WAC and might have an outside shot at an at-large bid should it lose in the conference tourney next week in Las Vegas (although its poor SOS numbers suggest that could be a tough sell). What they're really worried about in Ruston is that Ole Miss' recent collapse could cost HC Andy Kennedy his job and prompt a call to Bulldog HC Michael White, a former Rebel and destined for the brighter lights of a major conference very soon.
5 UCLA (22-7, 32-27) vs. 12 Maryland (20-9. 70-113/Tennessee (17-11, 56-36)...With all due respect to ESPN's Jay Bilas, whose games we reffed while he was a prep at Rolling Hills, CA High and whose opinion we usually concur, we were surprised he listed Arizona as a more dangerous threat in the Big Dance than UCLA while broadcasting last Saturday's Bruins-Wildcats game at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins have looked downright scary on some occasions in recent weeks, as Ben Howland has finally convinced his many star frosh (such as Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams, and Kyle Anderson) to play defense and rebound, while sr. North Carolina transfer PG Larry Drew II lends stability to the operation. Look out for these guys later this month. We had Tennessee pegged as a regular at-large entry after the Vols beat Florida for their sixth straight win last Tuesday, but a Saturday loss at Georgia (which has been playing much better lately) has forced us to put Cuonzo Martin's Vols into one of the at-large play-in games (as we have done with a similar profile Virginia after its Sunday loss at BC). We admit that Maryland is our last team in the field and a very provisional vote; the Terps are still going to have to play their way into the Dance with difficult tests vs. North Carolina and at Virginia prior to the ACC Tourney.
2 Louisville (24-5, 5-12) vs. 15 Long Beach State (17-11, 120-145)...While preparing for the odd sight of Louisville wearing its home whites and being well-supported in normally hostile territory at Lexington's Rupp Arena in the sub-regionals, Saturday's win at Syracuse reminded all that Rick Pitino's Cards are once again rounding into form in time for March Madness, with a rugged frontline led by ultra-physical 6-11 Senegalese C Gorgui Dieng able to compensate for some of the maddening inconsistencies of Gs Peyton Siva & Russ Smith. But when Siva & Smith are blowing hot at the same time, look out! Big West leader Long Beach State is hardly going to be a convincing favorite in the conference tourney next week at the Anaheim Honda Center, especially after its Saturday loss down the 405 Freeway at UC Irvine. The Beach and any winner of the Big West Tourney could easily be slotted into one of the 16 seeds, or perhaps even one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games at Dayton.
7 Minnesota (20-9, 15-1) vs. 10 Colorado (19-9, 29-21)...After wobbling to the point where they had slipped into severe bubble trouble with 8 losses in 11 games, the Gophers bounced back big last week with a huge home win over then-No. 1 Indiana and romp past Penn State to suddenly shore up any weaknesses in their Big Dance profile. Now at 20 wins and with the nation's best SOS, Minnesota has moved safely away from the cut line. Colorado's sub-30 RPI and SOS will also be enough to qualify the Buffs for the field of 68, but their seeding status has been falling with so many split weekends (like the last one in the Bay Area) during the Pac-12 campaign.
At Auburn Hills....
3 Michigan State (22-7, 8-15) vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin (24-3, 64-301)...Recent losses to Indiana and Ohio State and Sunday's bitter setback at Michigan have probably ended any discussion about Michigan State qualifying for a number one seed. But a three spot should still be good enough to give Tom Izzo's team a preferred sub-regional assignment to nearby Auburn Hills, also Michigan's likely destination, thus setting up some delicious crowd dynamics as fans of the Spartans and Wolverines surely offer throaty support for foes of the other. Which means a lot of fans at The Palace could be yelling for dangerous SFA if the Nacogdoches, TX-based Lumberjacks survive the upcoming Southland Tourney, where the likes of Northwestern State (beaten by just 1 point last weekend vs. the Lumberjacks) and Oral Roberts might pose problems in the conference tourney next week at Katy. With the nation's leading scoring defense at 50.1 ppg, SFA is one longshot entry that none of the big boys will be eager to face. Coached by mustachioed Danny Kaspar (who bears a striking resemblance to long-ago cartoon character Cool McCool), the Jacks have won at Lon Kruger's Oklahoma and recently at Big West leader Long Beach State in the BracketBusters.
6 NC State (21-8, 30-24) vs. 11 Wichita State (24-7, 40-93)...Another team nobody wants to see in March is NC State, which got hot right about this point of the campaign last season and advanced to the Sweet 16 and has looked the part again in recent weeks with wins in five of its last six. Mark Gottfried can silence a lot of his critics with another deep run in the Dance. As for Wichita, we don't think it fell out of the field with its two losses last week, including relinquishing the Missouri Valley reg.-season title to Creighton, but its seed slot probably dropped. Maybe to its advantage, as the Shockers were looking like an 8-9 game candidate, and now might get a break in the 10-11 range. By the way, there will be a lot of Wichita and Creighton fans around the country in this week's Arch Madness at St. Louis, as any number of other dangerous Valley entries (Indiana State, Northern Iowa, Illinois State) are capable of an upset and thus squeezing the edge of the bubble a bit tighter, as the Valley would become a 3-bid league.
Last four in: Maryland, Tennessee, Villanova, Virginia.
Last four out: Iowa State, Kentucky, Baylor, Arizona State.
Next four out: Alabama, Southern Miss, Ole Miss, Iowa