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Conference tournaments are just two weeks away, and Selection Sunday will be soon thereafter. Which means the "bracketology" talk is now going to dominate college hoop conversation for the next few weeks.
The likely composition of the 68-team NCAA Tourney field has taken on some definition but as always the situation remains quite fluid and any number of teams can still play themselves in, and play themselves out, of at-large consideration. Remember, too, that all teams (save those from the Ivy league) can play their way into the Big Dance via conference tourneys, which we will begin previewing next week.
In the meantime, we present our latest projections for the fast-approaching Big Dance. Notable changes from the last update include the omissions of sliding Illinois and Alabama from the field of 68; there is still time for both to fight their way into the Dance, but at some point teams are going to have to pay the consequences for losing. Teams such as West Virginia and Kansas State are advised to stop its own bleeding, and quickly, or risk falling on the wrong side of the cut-line.
Following are our latest Big Dance projections for 2012; straight-up records and RPI numbers are thru February 15.
EAST REGIONAL (Boston)
1 Syracuse (SUR 26-1, RPI-3) vs. 16 Long Island (19-7, 154)...Syracuse has thus far only slipped on only one banana peel (at Notre Dame, and that was without C Fab Melo) and continues on course for a top regional seed, although at the moment the Orange likely sit behind Kentucky for the overall tourney number one slot. The Northeast Tourney looks like a battle between a Long Island side once renowned under legendary HC Claire Bee, plus the pride of Staten Island (Wagner) and the home team of the Pittsburgh airport (Robert Morris). We suspect the NEC winner, as long as it is one of those three, can avoid one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games.
8 Vanderbilt (17-8, 32) vs. 9 Harvard (21-3, 39)...Vandy figured on a better slot than this for much of the winter, but the Commodores have slipped too often to be considered a candidate for a protected seed. Although their high-ranked strength of schedule at least figures to keep them in white jerseys for the first round. Harvard could have put a hammerlock on Ivy honors last weekend, but fell asleep at Princeton after a rousing win at Penn. We still think it's highly unlikely the Crimson actually blows the Ivy crown, although at the moment Harvard has at-large credentials to make the Dance (for the first time) via that route if necessary.
4 Michigan (19-7, 24) vs. 13 Akron (18-7, 62)...Michigan can go a long way to securing a protected seed with a win over Ohio State this weekend, and the Wolverines could even end up doing better than the 4th line if they close with a rush and perform well in the Big Ten Tourney. We doubt the MAC sends multiple teams to the Dance, and the conference tourney in Cleveland ought to be a war as usual. Akron rates a slight nod at the moment, although any number of others from the stronger East half of the loop (Kent State, Ohio, and Buffalo) could pip the Zips at "The Q" next month.
5 UNLV (22-5, 18) vs. 12 Virginia Commonwealth (22-6, 59)/Arizona (18-8, 40)...UNLV is having some problems on the Mountain West road and could fall out of protected seed territory, although the Selection Committee has been known to throw bones to five seeds before and give them a preferred sub-regional destination anyway. And with so few western sides in contention for a protected seed, the Committee might toss one of these curveballs and reward a top MWC side such as the Rebels and send them to their preferred Albuquerque without a 1 thru 4 designation. We suspect the Committee will also look favorably upon the Colonial after awarding the league a surprising three bids last year and seeing VCU shock the world by advancing to the Final Four. The Rams might get another shot in an at-large playoff game as a year ago. We're not sure the Committee goes more than two deep in the Pac-12, either, and might make Arizona go the at-large play-in route as well.
2 North Carolina (22-4, 7) vs. 15 Bucknell (20-6, 104)...There's still time for North Carolina to claim a spot on the top line, although to do so the Heels will have to win the ACC Tourney and hope for some slip-ups by Ohio State and the Big XII top contenders. No matter, Roy Williams' Tar Heels are almost surely bound for the Greensboro sub-regional. Meanwhile, it looks like the alma mater of CBS head honcho Les Moonves, Bucknell, is 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 Bethlehem, PA-based Lehigh, as well as American U, across the street from the NBC Washington studios, where Pat Buchanan used to be seen almost every day (but not lately).
7 Temple (20-5, 34) vs. 10 West Virginia (16-10, 37)...The A-10 is cannibalizing itself as usual, but Temple is staying above the fray and carries an 8-game win streak into this weekend. The Owls look by far the safest at-large bet from the loop and could easily do better than this seventh seed if they keep winning. Then, we'll be asking again when the Fran Dunphy-coached Owls can win a game in the sub-regional (something they haven't done four years running). Slipping down the seeding scale is West Virginia, which is another loss or two from falling into some bubble trouble. At some point the Mountaineers (losers of five of their last six thru Feb. 15) are going to have to win a few more games to stay on the safe side of the cut line.
3 Baylor (22-4, 12) vs. 14 Iona (20-6, 52)...Recent losses to Kansas and Mizzou have temporarily pushed Baylor out of contention to earn a top regional seed. The Bears could still get there but are going to have to win the Big XII Tourney to do so. Some in East wonder if Iona might warrant at-large consideration if the Gaels don't win the Metro-Atlantic Tournament; it's possible, but we wouldn't suggest Iona risk it. The Gaels, with Arizona transfer G Momo Jones in the fold, could be one of those mid-majors the big boys are going to want to avoid if at all possible in March.
6 Notre Dame (18-8, 43) vs. 11 Mississippi State (19-7, 55)...The way Notre Dame is playing lately, the Irish might end up in protected seed territory by Selection Sunday. Seven straight wins and a 9-3 Big East record almost have Notre Dame in the field already, and only a couple of more regular-season wins will make it official. The same cannot be said of Mississippi State, which is playing itself into some bubble trouble with consecutive losses to Georgia and LSU. The Bulldogs might be getting some help from implosions by other SEC Big Dance wannabes Alabama and Arkansas, but the Maroon is nonetheless advised to end its current slump on Saturday at Auburn.
SOUTHEAST REGIONAL (Atlanta)
1 Kentucky (25-1, 1) vs. 16 Mississippi Valley State (14-11, 213)/Stony Brook (17-8, 161)...The Louisville sub-regional at the KFC Yum! Center looks to be a shoe-in for UK, as Coach Cal's Wildcats also appear on track for the number one seed for the entire Big Dance as long as things don't change much between now and Selection Sunday. Jerry Rice's alma mater, the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State, appear the best bet to emerge from abyss known as the SWAC, although that tourney has provided several shockers in recnet years. MVSU enters this weekend as the only loop side with an above-.500 record. The America East champ likely is forced into one of the 16 vs. 16 play-ins; at the moment it's a measured vote for Long Island's Stony Brook Seawolves, although the Vermont Catamounts, Albany Great Danes, and Boston U Terriers could cause trouble in the upcoming conference tourney.
8 Saint Louis (21-5, 16) vs. 9 UConn (16-9, 38)...UConn temporarily stopped the bleeding with Wednesday night's win over DePaul, although the fading Huskies (under .500 in Big East play and losers of 6 of their last 8) could still find themselves in bubble trouble if their slump endures. Jim Calhoun's absence is another distraction in Storrs, where they're not even dreaming about a repeat of last year's March run. Indeed, Rick Majerus' Saint Louis looks more capable of causing problems in the Dance, and the Billikens look on the safe side of the cut line after surpassing the 20-win plateau and winning their last five prior to Saturday's game vs. Fordham.
4 Florida State (17-7, 25) vs. 13 Drexel (22-5, 78)...The Seminoles have moved into the unquestioned third spot in the ACC, and their recent wins over North Carolina and Duke have put Leonard Hamilton's squad in position to secure a protected seed. Nashville would seem a likely destination with the Tar Heels and Blue Devils likely to have dibs on the Greensboro sub-regional. We think the Committee goes 2 or 3-deep in the Colonial, and Drexel's current 14-game win streak has put the Dragons into the at-large mix. Although any among Bruiser Flint's squad, VCU, and George Mason would be advised to win the conference tourney in Richmond just in case the Selection Committee doesn't regard to loop as highly as we do this term.
5 Wichita State (22-4, 11) vs. 12 Kansas State (17-9, 22)...We suspect the Missouri Valley is going to be a multi-big league this March, with Wichita and Creighton looking to be in good shape for at-large berths. Which brings up the possibility that the Valley could end up with three bids for the first time in almost a decade if the Shockers or Bluejays should both fail to succeed in Arch Madness next month in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Kansas State could be playing itself into some bubble trouble and will need to stop the bleeding before the Big XII Tourney to feel totally comfy with an at-large spot.
2 Michigan State (20-5, 5) vs. 15 Belmont (20-7, 35)...Tom Izzo's Michigan State has put itself in position to sneak into the top line after last Saturday's win at Ohio State. If the Spartans can win the Big Ten Tourney they might yet get there, although at the moment we suspect they're at least solid on the second line. Izzo might not be thrilled if his MSU side has to run into Rick Byrd's dangerous Belmont Bruins, who lost by only 1 at Duke in November. First, however, Belmont has to fend off dogged Mercer and survive the fast-approaching Atlantic Sun Tourney to get back to the Dance.
7 Southern Miss (22-4, 35) vs. 10 Iowa State (18-8, 36)...This would be an intriguing matchup simply because it would pit current USM coach Larry Eustachy against former employer Iowa State. And, yes, sometimes the Selection Committee has a devilish streak when deciding upon such sub-regional matchups. As it is we think the Golden Eagles look good for an at-large bid no matter what happens in the C-USA Tourney at Memphis. And we suspect Fred Hoiberg's Iowa State is in good shape for an at-large as well, especially with a win over Kansas under its belt.
3 Georgetown (19-5, 13) vs. 14 Davidson (19-6, 70)...Considering all of the rebuilding JT III has had to do with this season's Hoyas, we think this is one of the best coaching jobs we have seen at Georgetown since papa "Big Jawn" almost took the Hoyas to the Final Four in 1980...two years before Patrick Ewing showed up on campus. Davidson is no stranger to March Madness, and it should be noted that HC Bob McKillop has danced several times with teams that didn't have Stephen Curry on the roster. The Wildcats have emerged as the team to beat in the upcoming SoCon Tourney.
6 San Diego State (20-5, 48) vs. 11 BYU (21-6, 31)...Remember that devilish streak we talked about certain Selection Committees demonstrating in years past? If this year's Committee is one of those, it could easily pit these old Mountain West rivals together to renew hostilities in what was once a hate-filled rivalry. Steve Fisher's Aztecs, however, are slipping down the seeding scale after recent losses at Colorado State and UNLV and home to New Mexico, and appear out of the protected seed discussion for now. As for BYU, it has some more work to do to secure its at-large spot before it competes in its first WCC Tourney at Las Vegas in two weeks.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (St. Louis)
1 Ohio State (22-4, 2) vs. 16 Norfolk State (18-8, 180)/UNC-Asheville (19-8, 137)...Ohio State has a few more blemishes on its Big Dance resume' than the other projected number one seeds and thus looks the most vulnerable to be knocked off of the top line. But we suspect the Buckeyes can stay in this slot as long as they win the Big Ten Tourney. 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. The Bucks could 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 UNC-Asheville Bulldogs from the Big South, although Cliff Ellis' Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will provide a stiff challenge in that fast-approaching conference tourney.
8 Virginia (19-6, 28) vs. 9 Memphis (19-7, 21)...Virginia has slipped down the seeding scale in the past two weeks with losses in three of its last four games, with the setback at Clemson likely costing the Cavs a line. Just in case, Tony Bennett's side ought to avoid a complete collapse in the next couple of weeks and not give the Committee any reason to doubt their Big Dance credentials. Meanwhile, Josh Pastner's Memphis seems to have recovered from a rough patch of form before New Year's and is well-positioned to qualify as an at-large, although the Tigers might not need to take that route as they are going to be favored in the C-USA Tourney at their FedEx Forum home. Memphis is one side to watch in the coming weeks as it could easily move up the seeding ladder.
4 Florida (20-6, 14) vs. 13 Valparaiso (19-9, 127)...Florida has emerged as the clear number two team from the SEC and is likely to stay in protected seed territory, as Billy Donovan's Gators count defeats to projected number one regional seeds Syracuse, Ohio State, and Kentucky (all on the road) among their "good" losses. As for Valpo, it has suddenly emerged as the favorite for the upcoming Horizon Tourney, since the Crusaders appear likely to host the event in their cozy, 5000-seat ARC. Although we would keep our eyes on Butler, beginning to stir once more with three straight wins entering their BracketBuster on Saturday vs. Indiana State.
5 Louisville (20-6, 19) vs. 12 Xavier (16-9, 58)...Rick Pitino's Louisville has stabilized since its January slump and is a threat to slip into protected seed territory should it finish fast. And we assume Pitino will not-so-gently remind his Cardinals about their first-round NCAA loss to Morehead State last March. Xavier is less worried about a protected seed than it is simply making the field of 68, and will have to finish fast to keep its at-large hopes alive. Early wins over Purdue and Cincinnati (in the brawl game) figure to come in handy on Selection Sunday, and the Committee might also take into account the suspensions and depleted roster that impacted the Musketeers in their 1-5 stretch around the holidays.
2 Kansas (21-5, 4) vs. 15 Oral Roberts (23-5, 65)...Kansas is still very much in the frame for a spot on the top line, which the Jayhawks will likely get if they can win the Big XII Tourney. Win or lose that event at the Sprint Center, however, and KU is probably going to the Omaha sub-regional. As for Oral Roberts, it has emerged as the team to beat in the upcoming Summit League Tourney in Sioux Falls, SD.
7 Saint Mary's (23-4, 27) vs. 10 Cincinnati (18-8, 49)...We don't think SMC is in bubble trouble yet, but the Gaels are falling down the seeding ladder after recent losses to Gonzaga (not too harmful) and Loyola-Marymount (which could hurt). Just to be safe, SMC, which has been heartbroken by the Committee before, ought to win its BracketBuster on Saturday at Murray State to remove any Selection Sunday doubts. Meanwhile, Cincy's NCAA profile has several holes, but the Bearcats do own some decent road wins at Georgetown and UConn, and if they stay above .500 in the Big East (which many believe would keep any team on the safe side of the cut line), we think Mick Cronin's team squeezes into the field with room to spare.
3 Indiana (20-6, 9) vs. 14 Middle Tennessee State (23-4, 44)...Indiana has stabilized after a brief 3-game slump in mid-January and is headed back to the Dance for the first time under Tom Crean (and first time overall since 2008). Earlier wins over Kentucky and Ohio State have the Hoosiers well-positioned for a protected seed as well. Although Crean might not be thrilled to draw dangerous MTSU, which many observers believe could be the most-dangerous Sun Belt rep in years. Kermit Davis' Blue Raiders will be prohibitive favorites in the fast-approaching conference tourney in Hot Springs, AR.
6 Creighton (22-5, 23) vs. 11 Miami-Florida (15-9, 47)...Creighton's recent wobbles that included a three-game losing streak have probably taken the Bluejays out of consideration for a protected seed, but their at-large credentials still look solid even if they lose a featured BrackeBuster on Saturday vs. dangerous Long Beach State. As for Miami, it could have helped its cause greatly with a win on Wednesday night vs. North Carolina, because the Canes could use one more signature win to go along with their Feb. 5 upset at Duke. But with five wins in their last seven games, Miami appears capable of finishing fast and gaining the attention of the Selection Committee. And we all know what kinds of problems Jim Larranaga's teams can cause in March.
WEST REGIONAL (Phoenix)
1 Missouri (24-2, 6) vs. 16 UT-Arlington (19-5, 95)...Mizzou looks a good bet to land a spot on the top line as long as it wins the upcoming Big XII Tourney, and Kansas or Baylor's don't win it, in Kansas City. 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. Remember that UTA won that event in 2008 as an 8th-seeded team, and the Southland Tourney has provided many surprises in the past, although we think the loop can avoid one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games if the Movin' Mavs represent the league.
8 Cal (20-6, 20) vs. 9 Purdue (17-9, 33)...Cal looks to be the best set of any Pac-12 side to earn an at-large berth no matter what happens in the upcoming conference tourney at Staples Center, an event that is shaping up to be wide open. As for Purdue, the Boilermakers stopped the bleeding earlier this week with extremely important wins over Northwestern and Illinois. A win on Saturday over Michigan State would almost lock up the bid for Matt Painter's side, which can also likely stay on the safe side of the cut line by finishing above .500 in league play.
4 Wisconsin (19-6, 8) vs. 13 Long Beach State (19-6, 41)...The question most are asking in the Big West is if Long Beach has done enough to secure an at-large berth if it should slip again in the Big West Tourney as they did a year ago. We think the 49ers should be in regardless, something they can almost assure with a BracketBuster win at Creighton this Saturday. No matter, expect the 49ers to simply take care of business in the conference tourney at the Honda Center. Wisconsin has no bubble concerns and is instead thinking it can secure a protected seed, although the Badgers would like to be closer to home than Portland for the sub-regionals.
5 Gonzaga (20-4, 26) vs. 12 George Mason (22-6, 105))/NC State (18-7, 51)...With few western sides looking like protected seed candidates, don't be surprised to see the Selection Committee unofficially designate Gonzaga as one of those, even if giving the Zags a 5 seed, by sending Mark Few's team to the desirable Portland sub-regional. Gonzaga is also looking like the top-rated WCC entry with Saint Mary's hitting some black ice in the past two weeks. The other at-large play-in game could feature another Colonial rep, perhaps under-the-radar George Mason, and Mark Gottfried's NC State, which can move out of play-in territory if it can score just one signature win (which it currently lacks) in the next couple of weeks.
2 Duke (21-4, 10) vs. 15 Weber State (20-4, 113)...Coach K and Duke helped their chances to get to the top line with the recent win at North Carolina, but to give themselves a better chance will likely have to win the upcoming ACC Tourney. 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 the nation's top-scorer, Oakland product G Damian Lillard, and Randy Rahe's Wildcats will get the advantage of hosting the conference tourney in Ogden if they can hold on and win the regular-season crown.
7 Murray State (24-1, 53) vs. 10 Seton Hall (18-8, 46)...There seems to be a lot of chatter regarding Murray State, and if the Racers could still somehow blow a Big Dance bid if they lose their BracketBuster vs. Saint Mary's and also stub their toe in the upcoming Ohio Valley Tourney. Even in that worst-case scenario, we think it's unlikely they would be kept out, considering the sorts of teams in contention at the edge of the bubble. Or, would Murray get consideration for a protected seed if it should win out in the regular season and OVCC Tourney? Possible, although we suspect it's unlikely. Speaking of the bubble, we think Seton Hall has temporarily moved safely clear of any such trouble with its recent wins over Rutgers, Pitt, and St. John's, as the Pirates look poised to return to the Dance for the first time since Louis Orr's entry did so in 2006.
3 Marquette (21-5, 15) vs. 14 Nevada (22-4, 100)...Given the likely composition of the sixteen protected, 1-thru-4 seeds (which figures to include Marquette), a couple of them are going to probably be sent further away from home than they would like in the sub-regionals, defeating the whole "protected seed" concept. Buzz Williams' Golden Eagles could be one such side. They also look a good bet for the third line in whatever sub-regional they compete, which means a likely foe could be David Carter's Nevada, which has won 19 of its last 20 games entering Saturday BracketBuster at Iona but still might have to win the WAC Tourney in Las Vegas to get back to the Dance for the first time since 2007.
6 New Mexico (21-4, 17) vs. 11 Texas (17-9, 22)...A few weeks ago, New Mexico looked to be straddling the cut line, but now that the Lobos have assumed sole possession of first place in the Mountain West, we think Steve Alford's side is in much-safer territory. Texas has plenty of blemishes but also one of the nation's toughest schedules, and its current 4-game win streak suggests that Rick Barnes' young Longhorns have probably matured in the nick of time to gain the attention of the Selection Committee.
Last four in: Virginia Commonwealth, Arizona, George Mason, NC State.
Last four out: Illinois, Washington, Alabama, Minnesota.
Next four out: Oregon, La Salle, Northwestern, Saint Joseph's.