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We've turned the calendar to a new month, and now the Big Dance is looming ever larger on the horizon. It won't be more than a few weeks before we begin to preview the lower-rung Division I conference tournaments.
The composition of the 68-team NCAA Tourney field remains quite fluid at the edge of bubble but the rest of the field is taking on some real definition. By this time, we're relatively sure of most of the teams that will make the field.
But there is still a full month of games to be played, and plenty of time for any number of teams to still play their way in, and play their way out, of contention. We recall our latest update in mid-January when we not only had Seton hall in the field, but projected the Pirates as a protected seed; a protracted losing streak later, and we have the Hall as one of the first teams out this week. Meanwhile, Notre Dame, nowhere until a few weeks ago, has used its recent win over top-ranked Syracuse as a springboard to get itself into the Big Dance mix.
Following are our latest Big Dance projections for 2012; straight-up records and RPI numbers are thru February 1.
EAST REGIONAL (Boston)
1 Syracuse (SUR 22-1, RPI-3) vs. 16 UNC-Asheville (16-7, 137)...Syracuse has relinquished the top spot in the polls but has not yet cost itself a line in the seedings; the Orange still have a number one regional profile, and with C Fab Melo due back in the lineup, we suspect Syracuse keeps this spot in the East. The Big South looks as if it will come down to UNC-Asheville and Cliff Ellis' Coastal Carolina; for the moment, a measured vote for Eddie Beidenbach's Bulldogs, although it will be touch-and-go for UNCA (or whomever wins the Big South Tourney) to avoid one of the play-in games.
8 Wichita State (19-4, 15) vs. 9 Southern Miss (20-3, 43)...Wichita didn't help its case with last weekend's loss to a subpar Drake, but the Shockers helped their at-large case in December with a win over UNLV and should make the Valley at least a 2-bid league again. We're thinking CUSA might be a multi-bid league again as well, with Larry Eustachy's USM now sitting in the driver's seat and looking good for an at-large (if the Golden Eagles need to go that route) after a midweek showdown win over Memphis. At Columbus...
4 Michigan State (17-5, 6) vs. 13 Ohio (18-4, 77)...Tom Izzo's Spartans have taken a couple of tough losses recently, and we have to pay attention to the recent knee injury (though not regarded as season-threatening) suffered by deluxe PF Draymond Green. Still, MSU would be in protected seed territory as of now. Ohio and Akron look to be the class of the MAC, which might have a chance at an extra bid for the first time in a decade. Remember, John Groce's Bobcats pulled a stunner over Georgetown in the sub-regionals two years ago.
5 Virginia (18-3, 24) vs. 12 Washington (14-7, 73)/Texas (13-9, 29)...Tony Bennett's UVa might have a case for a protected seed and still figures in the frame for a 3 or a 4. In any event, the Cavs look destined to return to the Dance. Keep an eye on Washington, which might be emerging as a stealth entry in the watered-down Pac-12; Lorenzo Romar's teams are notorious for making late-season runs, and last week's win at Arizona might signal another uptick down the stretch. For the moment we put the Huskies into the play-in game alongside Texas, which has lot of "good losses" but not enough "good wins" to yet feel comfy.
2 Baylor (19-2, 9) vs. 15 Bucknell (17-6, 99)...Baylor still has plenty of time to put itself on the top line, although the Big Xii is pretty crowded at the top this season with Mizzou and Kansas also looking at protected seeds. Meanwhile, it looks like the alma mater of CBS head honcho Les Moonves, Bucknell, is emerging as the team to beat in the Patriot league, where the regular-season winner will get home-court edge throughout the conference tournament next month. Also in the mix is Bethlemem, PA-based Lehigh, as well as American U, across the street from the NBC Washington studios, where if guys are lucky enough they might get a glimpse of Norah O'Donnell going to work.
7 Temple (15-5, 36) vs. 10 Arkansas (16-6, 68)...As the A-10 goes through its annual shake-out of Big Dance hopefuls, Temple again looks to be one of th survivors, and the Owls have a menacing look these days with C Michael Eric now back in the lineup. The bigger question come March will be if the Owls can survive their first sub-regional test after losing four of those in a row for HC Fran Dunphy. Meanwhile, we're admittedly a bit aggressive on this Arkansas projection, but the Razorbacks' midweek win over Vandy and spotless home mark at Bud Walton Arena might get Mike Anderson's team a serious look from the Selection Committee.
3 Florida (17-4, 12) vs. 14 Belmont (16-7, 45)...This could be one of those bones the Selection Committee often likes to throw to a worthy mid-major; a few years ago, the Committee put Stephen Curry's Davidson in nearby Charlotte for the sub-regional, and they might do the same with Nashville-based Belmont, which qualifies for the Bridgestone Arena (home of the NHL Predators) sub-regional because it is not the Bruins' home floor. First of all, the Bruins must fight off Mercer in the Atlantic Sun. And drawing Belmont h might not humor Florida's Billy Donovan if the Gators have to draw Rick Byrd's ever-dangerous crew that lost by just 1 at Duke in November.
6 Louisville (17-5, 26) vs. 11 BYU (18-6, 31)...After wobbling in mid-January, Rick Pitino's banged-up Louisville side seems to have stabilized in recent weeks. Remember that the Cards were dumped in the first round last March by Morehead State, and we're not sure the 'Ville looks likely to make a deep run this year, either. Much the same for BYU, which has stayed afloat minus Jimmer Fredette but has not been able to distort enemy defenses as it could when Jimmer was bombing away. But another Sweet 16 trip is unlikely for the Cougs, who also can't find too many more banana peels (such as a recent loss to Loyola Marymount) in their new WCC affiliation if they want stay out of bubble trouble.
SOUTHEAST REGIONAL (Atlanta)
1 Kentucky (16-1, 2) vs. 16 Mississippi Valley State (4-11, 225)/Stony Brook (8-6, 197)...Now that Syracuse has slipped off of the top perch in the polls, Kentucky has a chance to enter the Big Dance as the number one overall seed. And the Louisville sub-regional at the KFC Yum! Center looks to be a natural fit for Coach Cal's Wildcats. Flip a coin for the SWAC's Big Dance rep; at the moment we project it to be Jerry Rice's alma mater, the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State (who scored 29 points in a first-round game vs. Ben Howland's UCLA a few years ago). Whichever team emerges will surely be involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games. So might the America East champ, at the moment looking to be a race between Long Island's Stony Brook Seawolves and the Albany Great Danes, with the surging Vermont Catamounts and Boston U Terriers hinting that they could also cause trouble in the upcoming conference tourney.
8 Kansas State (15-6, 23) vs. 9 UConn (14-7, 42)...With UConn's losing streak on four straight following Wednesday's setback vs. Georgetown, they're starting to think the unthinkable in Storrs, that maybe the Huskies miss the Dance altogether. We caution that UConn managed to win the whole thing a year ago after finishing just 9-9 in conference play, so we wouldn't worry too much yet, although the Huskies look nothing like a serious March threat at the moment. K-State might be slipping down the seeding queue itself, although it still has enough capital from early-season successes to keep it on the safe side of the cut line for a while.
4 Murray State (21-0, 39) vs. 13 Middle Tennessee State (20-3, 38)...There will be plenty of discussion regarding Murray's qualifications for protected seed status if the Racers maintain their undefeated record (the last such in the country). Right now we would put Murray at least at a four seed and place it in the near by Louisville sub-regional to boot. The Selection Committee might want to test the Racers, however, with an assignment such as Kermit Davis' dangerous MTSU, which clearly looks the class of the Sun Belt and might be doing enough to earn at-large consideration if it should stumble in the conference tourney.
5 Wisconsin (18-5, 5) vs. 12 Miami-Florida (13-7, 61)...Wisconsin has quickly turned things around after losing three straight to open Big Ten play last month. The pride of Darby, PA, coach Bo Ryan, might think his Badgers deserve a protected seed, but this would not be a bad draw for Wiscy, and the Louisville sub-regional would be within driving distance for red Winnebago caravan to motor down from Madison. We're projecting bit with Miami, but the ACC is not especially strong in the lower half of the table, and we suspect that Jim Larranaga's now-healthy Canes can emerge as the 5th qualifier from the loop.
2 Kansas (17-4, 4) vs. 15 Davidson (15-5, 80)...No more Stephen Curry at Davidson, but Bill Self might be having some nightmares about the Wildcats when he recalls how close they came to derailing the Kansas express to the 2008 title game in the Elite Eight. And Bob McKillop might have Davidson back in the Dance for the first time sicne after a recent upswing has moved the Wildcats past Bobby Cremins' College of Charleston and into the favored spot in the loop.
7 Gonzaga (17-3, 28) vs. 10 Alabama (14-7, 25)...Some handy non-conference wins over Arizona and Xavier should be gifts that keep on giving for the Zags and keep them on the safe side of the cut line come Selection Sunday. The WCC profile is also strong enough to benefit Mark Few's team, as the Zagaroonies look to make their 14th straight Big Dance appearance. Alabama has tailed off since December and recently broke a 4-game losing streak, and had better be careful to avoid many more potholes if the Tide wishes to avoid bubble trouble.
3 Marquette (19-4, 14) vs. 14 Iona (17-5, 49)...Marquette is emerging as the number two team in this year's Big East and we foresee little trouble in the Golden Eagles securing a protected seed. Iona has been the favorite all season in the Metro-Atlantic, but we wonder if the Gaels will have done enough to have an at-large case if they don't win the conference tourney next month at the very neutral site of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA.
6 Harvard (18-2, 35) vs. 11 Xavier (14-7, 56)...Tommy Amaker's Harvard looks good for an at-large bid even in the wildly unlikely scenario that it should be nosed out by someone (Penn, perhaps?) in the Ivies. In the meantime expect the Crimson to be the first Ivy rep to wear white in the sub-regionals since Princeton did it in 1998 against UNLV. As for the "X," it dug itself quite a hole after its meltdown following the Dec. 10 brawl vs. Cincinnati, but appears (with some difficulty) to be digging out of trouble while other A-10 contenders begin to fade.
SOUTHWEST REGIONAL (St. Louis)
1 Ohio State (19-3, 1) vs. 16 Norfolk State (16-7, 164)/Long Island (15-7, 153)...Although teams are barred from playing on their home floors in the sub-regionals, Ohio State can benefit from a loophole in that the Columbus games will be played at the NHL Blue Jackets' Nationwide Arena and not the Value City Arena on the Buckeyes' campus. So, much as Villanova was able to play in Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center in the sub-regional a few years ago, so can OSU paly at Nationwide Arena. The Bucks likely face the winner of one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; for this one, we project Bob Dandridge's alma mater Norfolk State Spartans from the MEAC, and the Long Island from the Northeast, although the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, figures to fight the Blackbirds for home-court edge and favorite status in next month's conference tourney.
8 Iowa State (16-6, 40) vs. 9 Illinois (16-6, 41)...The Selection Committee doesn't grade on style points, so Illinois is not likely to be docked a grade for its ugly 42-41 midweek win over Michigan State. No one is going to accuse Iowa State of being listless, however, after the Cyclones' back-to-back home wins over Kansas and K-State have Fred Hoiberg's team (for now, at least) on the safe side of the Selection Sunday cut line.
4 Georgetown (16-4, 16) vs. 13 Oral Roberts (20-4, 55)...Georgetown should have very little to worry about regarding its Dance bid, although more slip-ups such as last Saturday's loss at Pitt could begin to jeopardize its protected seed status. Which in this case might not mean much if we're sending the Hoyas out to Portland (more on that in a moment). Meanwhile, they're always expecting a miracle at Oral Roberts, which has emerged as the Summit's team to beat. Who remembers that ORU almost made the Final Four in 1974? And why did the school change its name from the Titans, anyway.
5 San Diego State (19-3, 44) vs. 12 Saint Louis (17-5, 22)...Here's what we meant about the so-called protected seed in this scenario; sometimes a Selection Committee will reward a fifth seed with a more-favorable sub-regional, as it might with SDSU this year and put the Aztecs in Portland. Why? The West is short of quality protected seed candidates, and this is one what to semi-balance that dynamic. A matchup between the Aztecs and Rick Majerus' Saint Louis Billikens would be tasty; the Bills seem to be doing just enough in the A-10 to stay on the safe side of the cut line, while other conference foes are falling the by wayside.
2 North Carolina (19-3, 7) vs. 15 Cleveland State (16-4, 60)...The likelihood of both North Carolina and Duke being placed in the Greensboro sub-regional would create an interesting on-site dynamic at the Coliseum, wherein Duke fans would be rooting hard against the Heels in their game, while Carolina supporters do the same to the Blue Devils and offer throaty support for their opponent. Just in case Cleveland State is the Tar Heels' foe, Roy Williams might want to caution his team, because the Vikings were good enough to win at Vanderbilt early in the season.
7 Mississippi State (17-5, 47) vs. 10 Memphis (15-6, 27)..After a bumpy ride in the first month of the season, Josh Pastner's Memphis seems to have stabilized, although the Tigers might not have as strong an at-large case as CUSA rival Southern Miss, which just beat Memphis this week. We suspect that Rick Stansbury's Mississippi State will continue to stay on the safe side of the cut line and scare several opposing coaches come March with a jumbo-sized frontline led by bruisers Renardo Sidney & UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie.
3 Creighton (20-2, 17) vs. 14 Nevada (18-3, 88)...Creighton looks well-set for a return to the Dance even if the Bluejays should slip next month in Arch Madness at St. Louis. With Wichita State also looking good for an at-large bid, the Valley could become a 3-bid league if someone else can pull an upset in the conference tourney. Meanwhile, Nevada held the nation's longest non-Murray State win streak at 15 in a row entering Thursday night's game vs. Utah State. This would be a rematch of a crackling sub-regional matchup in 2007 won by the Wolf Pack in overtime.
6 Indiana (17-6, 10) vs. 11 Cincinnati (15-7, 51)...Indiana has been going back-and-forth quite a bit the past month, but those earlier wins over likely number one seeds Kentucky and Ohio State are going to keep the Hoosiers in safe territory unless they completely collapse in the next month. The latter might also be true off Cincinnati, which at the moment looks to have done enough to make the field but could be on a slippery slope as well with three straight losses entering the weekend. You can start sounding the alarms at Fifth Third Arena if the Bearcats drop their next game (Feb. 4) vs. DePaul.
WEST REGIONAL (Phoenix)
1 Missouri (20-2, 8) vs. 16 UT-Arlington (15-5, 93)...Whoever wins the Big XII Tournament probably gets a number one regional seed (as long as it's either Kansas, Baylor, or Missouri). Right now we have a light preference for the Tigers, which gives them the best chance at earning a top seed. The Movin' Mavs of UTA, the home team of Six Flags over Texas, have suddenly pulled clear in the Southland and are likely to be favored over Pat Knight's Lamar Cardinals and others in the conference tourney in the Houston suburb of Katy next month. But remember that the last time UTA won that event in 2008, it entered as an 8th-seeded team.
8 West Virginia (15-8, 30) vs. 9 Cal (17-5, 21)...Bob Huggins' West Virginia has taken n some water with a number of recent losses. It's not enough to put the Mountaineers into bubble trouble just yet, but their seed is sliding. Meanwhile, Cal looks to be the only Pac-12 side with a clear at-large case at the moment (although we have made room for Washington in our updated field as well). Oldtimers might get a kick out of this matchup which would be a rematch of the 1959 NCAA title game won by Pete Newell's Golden Bears over a West Virginia side featuring Jerry West, 71-70.
4 Michigan (16-6, 32) vs. 13 Long Beach State (16-6, 37)...The main question with Long beach is if the 49ers have done enough to secure an at-large berth if they should slip again in the Big West Tourney as they did a year ago. We think the Beach, which played arguably the nation's toughest non-league slate, probably has done enough, although the wins over Pitt and Xavier aren't looking as good as they once did. No matter, expect the 49ers to simply take care of business in the conference tourney at the Honda Center. Meanwhile, Michigan is teetering on protected seed territory; a win on Sunday over Michigan State would certainly help the Wolverines' cause.
5 Saint Mary's (21-2, 18) vs. 12 New Mexico (18-4, 19)/VCU (18-5, 57)...If this looks familiar for VCU, it should, because the Rams began their trek to last year's Final Four in the at-large playoff game at Dayton as well. For this bracket update we out VCU back into the same role, this time vs. Steve Alford's New Mexico side that will have a chance to squeeze into the field as long as the Lobos stay locked in the third spot in the Mountain West.
2 Duke (18-3, 11) vs. 15 Weber State (16-4, 116)...Coach K and Duke can probably get back onto the top line, and a win in the ACC Tourney would be a huge boost. Regardless, the Blue Devils look bound for nearby Greensboro in sub-regional action. Weber State has emerged as the team to beat in the Big Sky thanks to one of the nation's top-scorers, Oakland product G Damian Lillard.
7 Vanderbilt (16-6, 33) vs. 10 Purdue (15-7, 34)...Just when it looked like Vandy had straightened everything out and was on course for a protected seed, the Dores gave away a couple of SEC games vs. Mississippi State & Arkansas, which has cost them a couple of rungs on the seeding ladder. Also slipping in recent weeks has been Purdue, which has dropped out of contention for the Big Ten's regular season crown and could be getting into bubble trouble if not forging a turnaround soon.
3 UNLV (20-3, 13) vs. 14 Drexel (18-5, 76)...UNLV appears steaming toward a protected seed, as the Rebels have some very good non-conference wins (North Carolina at the Orleans Hotel Arena in Las Vegas and Illinois at Chicago, plus aa romp past Pac-12 leader Cal at the Thomas & Mack Center, on top of their solid Mountain West profile. We think the Colonial might be a multi-bid league and suggest keeping an eye on Drexel, working on a 10-game win streak after a midweek win at Northeastern, and our pick to survive the CAA Tourney in Richmond next month.
6 Florida State (15-6, 20) vs. 11 Notre Dame (14-8, 64)...We maintain that any team finishing above .500 in Big East play will be looked upon very favorably by the Selection Committee. Which could bode very well for Notre Dame which is also hot in recent weeks, another late-season bonus for Big Dance hopefuls. FSU might thinks it rates better than a six seed after its recent wins over North Carolina and at Duke, and the Noles might get there yet.
Last four in: Texas, Washington, New Mexico, Virginia Commonwealth.
Last four out: Stanford, NC State, La Salle, Minnesota.
Next four out: Dayton, George Mason, Seton Hall, Oregon.