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Conference tournaments have begun, and the process of whittling the NCAA Tourney field down to 68 teams is now proceeding at full speed.
As usual, the edge of the proverbial "bubble" is looking pretty soft, even more so in the second year of an expanded tourney and four more at-large bids than we had from 1985 thru 2010. Entries such as Mississippi State, West Virginia, UConn, Northwestern, and a few others swing wildly from "in" and "out" depending upon the projections of the certain Bracketologist.
By our calculations, there is still some maneuvering to be done at the periphery of the bubble, with teams in danger of being knocked off depending upon what happens in conference tourney action. This weekend, we would watch closely in the Missouri Valley (with two bids secure) and West Coast (probably three bids) and be on the lookout for any upsets that would effectively bump at at-large contender from the field. Stay tuned.
Following are our latest Big Dance projections for 2012; straight-up records and RPI numbers are thru February 29.
EAST REGIONAL (Boston)
1 Syracuse (SUR 29-1, RPI-1) vs. 16 Long Island (19-7, 154)...Nothing has changed regarding Syracuse, which continues to cruise along with only the one slip at Notre Dame. At this stage, we think the Orange will get a spot on the top line even f Jim Boeheim's team doesn't win the Big East Tourney. The Northeast Tourney still 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). Advantage to the Claire Bees, er, Blackbirds, however, as they have the home-court edge in the conference tourney.
8 New Mexico (23-6, 34) vs. 9 Iowa State (21-9, 32)...New Mexico cost itself a line or two with last week's losses at Colorado State and TCU. The Lobos can play themselves out of 8-9 range with a strong showing at next week's Mountain West Tournament. Iowa State could have made a case for an improved seed had it been able to pull the upset over Missouri at midweek, but the Cyclones should be in safe territory nonetheless with wins over Kansas and K-State (twice over the Wildcats).
4 Wisconsin (22-8, 8) vs. 13 Drexel (25-5, 66)...Wisconsin moved back into position for a protected seed with last Sunday's win at Ohio State, but we're still sending the Badgers out to Portland for sub-regional action. Don't worry, the Winnebagos will make the drive to Oregon. As for Bruiser Flint's Drexel, we're thinking the Dragons might be able to make it as an at-large just in case they can't win this weekend's CAA Tourney at Richmond. If Bruiser's team can't, we've still got two spots on the 13th line for Colonial reps.
5 Florida (22-8, 21) vs. 12 Colorado State (18-10, 26)/West Virginia (18-12, 56)...Florida's double-digit losses last week at Georgia (bad loss) and Vanderbilt (not so bad, but the result didn't help) might have pushed the Gators out of protected seed territory. A good showing in next week's SEC Tourney might be required to get Billy Donovan's team back into contention for the third or fourth line. CSU's strong RPI and Strength of Schedule numbers give the Rams a chance at their first bid in nearly a decade, and the Wednesday night win over UNLV gives Trim Miles' team wins over each of the MWC powers (New Mexico and San Diego State plus the Rebels) at Fort Collins. But nix all of that if CSU can't finally get a road Mountain West win on Saturday at Air Force. As for WVU, the Mounties needed that Tuesday win over DePaul to prevent from falling on the wrong side of the cut-line, but cannot afford an early exit at next week's Big East Tourney. Watch Bob Huggins' team win the whole thing at Madison Square Garden.
2 Ohio State (24-6, 2) vs. 15 Bucknell (23-8, 109)...We're thinking that Ohio State might have missed its chance to get placed in the Columbus sub-regional thanks to recent losses vs. Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin; remember, the Buckeyes are eligible for Columbus because those games are being played at the NHL Blue Jackets' Nationwide Arena, not the Bucks' on-campus Value City Arena. As for CBS head honcho Les Moonves' alma mater Bucknell, the Bison are favored in the just-commenced Patriot League tourney because of home-court edge; Lehigh and America U figure to provide the toughest hurdles.
7 Kansas State (21-9, 20) vs. 10 Alabama (20-9, 25)...Just when it looked like Kansas State could threaten protected seed territory after recent wins over Baylor and Missouri (beating the Tigers for the second time), Frank Martin's team loses to Iowa State and probably slips back into the 6-7 range. As for Alabama, it has straightened out its problems just in time to move away from the bubble with four straight wins to put itself in good position heading into next week's SEC Tourney at New Orleans.
3 Wichita State (26-4, 11) vs. 14 Iona (24-6, 48)...With several protected seed candidates (such as Florida, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Florida State) suddenly dropping a few games, the door is wide open for red-hot Wichita State to grab a 3 or a 4 seed. The Shockers are no longer a secret, either; several are already tabbing Gregg Marshall's team as a potential Final Four candidate. Iona sent a warning shot with its recent BracketBuster win over Nevada that it could cause some trouble; the Scott Machado-Arizona transfer Momo Jones backcourt is one of the most explosive in the country.
6 Notre Dame (20-10, 43) vs. 11 Oregon (20-8, 46)...Notre Dame was on its way to protected seed territory before running into St. John's & Georgetown in the last week. The Irish could climb back up to the fourth line with a deep run in the Big East Tourney but look more likely to land in a 5 or 6 slot. Taking advantage of the weaker bottom of the Pac-12 is Oregon, now at 20 wins and looking for a couple of more this weekend vs. Utah and Colorado before next week's conference tourney at Staples Center. As we mentioned last weekend, we're seeing the Pac as at least a three-bid league in the Dance after looking as if it might not get more than one rep for much of the season
SOUTHEAST REGIONAL (Atlanta)
1 Kentucky (25-1, 1) vs. 16 Mississippi Valley State (18-11, 219)/Stony Brook (20-8, 161)...As we've said for weeks, 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 recent years. MVSU enters this weekend undefeated in league play, but we'd still watch out for Southern U and perhaps Texas Southern in the conference tourney next week at Garland, TX. Stony Brook has secured its first-ever America East regular-season crown, and the Long Island-based side champ will be favored when the conference tourney commences this weekend at Hartford; the highest remaining seed will get to host the title game on March 10.
8 Memphis (22-8, 18) vs. 9 Saint Louis (23-6, 17)...Memphis' move up the seeding ladder was slowed with a recent home upset loss vs. UTEP, but the Tigers can still move out of 8-9 range if they win the C-USA Tourney next week on their home court at the FedEx Forum. Rick Majerus' Saint Louis also took a bad loss last week at Rhode Island, and like Memphis could move out of 8-9 range by winning next week's A-10 Tourney in Atlantic City. Majerus could do some real damage in the buffet line at the hotels along the Boardwalk.
4 Michigan (21-8, 16) vs. 13 Butler (19-13, 124)...Michigan is teetering on the edge of protected seed territory after last week's loss at home vs. Purdue. As long as the Wolverines don't slip again before the Big Ten Tourney, their solid profile, include good wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State, should get them to a protected seed. We're doing a leap of faith by projecting Butler to win the Horizon Tourney, which has already begun. The advantage in the event belongs to Valparaiso, which will play at home as long as it stays alive, but the Bulldogs have been stirring in the past weeks, and remember how last year's team won at Milwaukee in the conference tourney finale. Don't bet against Brad Stevens in March.
5 Florida State (19-9, 29) vs. 12 South Florida (19-11, 49)...South Florida's Wednesday night win at Louisville was the marquee scalp the Bulls needed to get on the right side of the cut-line. That and a current 12-5 Big East mark should get Stan Heath a spot in the Dance and a meaty contract extension in Tampa. The Selection Committee occasionally puts together nearby foes who mostly avoid one another during the regular season, and we could see one of those regional battles on tap if Leonard Hamilton's Florida State draws USF.
2 Missouri (26-4, 7) vs. 15 Davidson (22-7, 64)...Mizzou would have had a clear shot at a spot on the top line had it not blown that big second half lead at Kansas last week. The Tigers could still get a number one seed, but they'll have to win the Big XII Tourney to do it. As for Davidson, it will be favored in the SoCon Tourney, which gets going this weekend in Asheville. Remember, HC Bob McKillop has taken several Davidson sides to the Big Dance that didn't include Stephen Curry. In SoCon Toruney action, keep an eye on Wofford and College of Charleston, which has proceeded since midseason minus HC Bobby Cremins, out on a medical leave of absence.
7 Virginia (21-7, 22) vs. 10 BYU (24-7, 49)...The Cavs are safely into the field of 68 and will be spending the next week and a half trying to stay out of the 8-9 seed range; a quick exit in the ACC Tourney is the one thing Tony Bennett's team should try to avoid. BYU is still thinking that it has some work to do in this week's WCC Tourney before it can feel safe about a bid, but the Cougs are probably on the safe side of the cut line as long as avoid what would be a major upset against the winner of the San Diego-Pepperdine game on Friday night.
3 Marquette (24-6, 14) vs. 14 Belmont (24-7, 60)...Tricky, tricky here, as the Selection Committee is not beyond setting up a quality mid-major with a de facto "home game" in the sub-regional despite a high-numbered seed; does anyone recall Davidson, as a 10th seed, getting dates at Charlotte four years ago when Stephen Curry was bombing away for the Wildcats? Don't be surprised if Rick Byrd's Belmont gets similar treatment with the sub-regional in hometown Nashville, but played at the NHL Predators' downtown Bridgestone Arena. Do you think Carrie Underwood shows up? Or what about those Dolly Parton look-alikes who clean up the ice during timeouts at the Preds games? (Just asking.) Marquette might have slipped to the third line with its Wednesday loss at Cincy, but we like the idea of the Golden Eagles playing in Nashville, and the possibility HC Buzz Williams breaks into another jig (like he did at West Virginia) when one of his favorite country tunes blares over the speakers.
6 Murray State (29-1, 43) vs. 11 Mississippi State (20-10, 63)...We suppose Murray State could still nab a protected seed, but we think that the Racers really want is a sub-regional assignment in either Louisville (don't sweat that one, Murray fans, there will be too many UK backers at the KFC Yum! Center), or Nashville. As for Mississippi State, the Maroon would have played itself to the wrong side of the cut line had it lost at South Carolina on Wednesday night. Now Rick Stansbury has to make sure his Bulldogs avoid an early exit in next week's SEC Tourney at New Orleans.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (St. Louis)
1 Kansas (25-5, 3) vs. 16 Savannah State (20-108, 187)/UNC-Asheville (21-9, 146)...To keep this spot on the top line, Kansas is probably going to have to win the Big XII Tourney next week at the Sprint Center in nearby Kansas City, where the Jayhawks are always a de facto home team. KU doesn't figure to fall further than a two seed after last week's dramatic comeback win over Missouri. KU likely gets a 16 vs. 16 play-in winner; look out for Shannon Sharpe's alma mater, the Savannah State Tigers, who are about to win the MEAC regular-season crown over favored Norfolk State. Look out, however for Bon Dandridge's alma mater Spartans in the MEAC Tourney at Winston-Salem next week, along with perhaps Bethune-Cookman.
8 Purdue (20-10, 40) vs. 9 California (23-7, 26)...We have been keeping our eyes on Purdue in the past couple of weeks since the Boilermakers bottomed out following the suspensions of D.J. Byrd (since returned) and Kelsey Barlow; since then, Matt Painter's squad is one of the hottest in the Big Ten, one we would watch in next week's Big Ten Tourney at nearby Indianapolis, and beyond. Cal is still looking good to get a spot in the field out of the Pac-12, although the Golden Bears have relinquished the top spot in the conference table to Washington.
4 Georgetown (22-6, 9) vs. 13 Harvard 24-4, 37)...Facing an important test to stay in protected seed territory on Monday night, Georgetown dumped Notre Dame convincingly, and with other potential 3-4 seeds losing within the last week, we think the Hoyas at least hang on to a four spot, perhaps moving to the third line with a good showing in the Big East Tourney. Meanwhile, Tommy Amaker's Harvard has played itself into some trouble in the Ivies with last week's loss to Penn. The possibility of another Ivy playoff like a year ago (when Princeton beat the Crimson on a last-second Doug Davis basket) is real, with the Quakers the likely opponent, which begs the question if Harvard has enough at-large credentials to make the field of 68 should it get KO'd again in the playoff. We think Harvard does, and Penn might give us a chance to find out.
5 Creighton (25-5, 30) vs. 12 Texas (19-11, 53)...Creighton has hit a few bumps in the last month but the Bluejays still have a cleaner-looking resume' than a lot of reps from major conferences. We're not sure Greg McDermott's team can get into protected seed territory but a spot on the fifth line looks very possible. As for Texas, it avoided potential big problems on Wednesday night when avoiding an upset bid by Lon Kruger's Oklahoma. The young Longhorns still don't have a lot of wiggle room, but their strong strength of schedule numbers should help them fall on the safe side of the cut line.
2 North Carolina (26-4, 6) vs. 15 Oral Roberts (26-5, 71)...North Carolina can still get to the top line, but it is going to have to likely beat Duke twice in the next week (or hope someone else beats the Blue Devils) and win the ACC Tourney to do so. Either way, expect the Tar Heels to find their way to the nearby Greensboro sub-regional. Meanwhile, oral Roberts is going to have its hands full in next week's Summit League Tourney at Sioux Falls, SD, which is about a 45-minute drive from top contender South Dakota State, so the Jackrabbits will be very well- represented. Note that ORU moves to the Southland Conference next season.
7 San Diego State (23-6, 49) vs. 10 Cincinnati (21-9, 42)...There are some who believe that Steve Fisher has done one of the best coaching jobs of his career with the current San Diego State edition. We don't disagree, although some losses in recent weeks have probably pushed the Aztecs down a line or two on the seeding scale. Cincinnati looks to be safely into the field after its Wednesday win over Marquette, which was preceded by a win last week over Louisville. With several good road wins and 11 wins already in the Big East, the Bearcats will be dancing again with Mick "The Ghost" Cronin.
3 Indiana (23-7, 9) vs. 14 Middle Tennessee State (25-5, 47)...Not many teams have the collection of scalps owned by Indiana, which includes Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. The Hoosiers, dancing for the first time since 2008, will be doing it as a protected seed, too. Many regional observers also believe that Kermit Davis' MTSU could be the most-dangerous Sun Belt rep in years. The Blue Raiders might even have an at-large case if they blow next week's conference tourney in Hot Springs, but we don't think they'll need to explore that route.
6 Gonzaga (24-5, 31) vs. 11 Seton Hall (19-10, 45)...With good non-conference wins over Notre Dame, Arizona, Oral Roberts, and Xavier, and a 2nd-place finish behind Saint Mary's in the well-respected WCC, the Zags make it into the field with plenty of room to spare. That's not necessarily the case with Seton Hall, which needs to do a little more work to feel comfy after losing two of its last three games (including a potentially-damaging loss to Rutgers). The Pirates can take some pressure off themselves by getting to 20 wins and 9-9 in the Big East by taking care of business at DePaul this Saturday.
WEST REGIONAL (Phoenix)
1 Duke (26-4, 10) vs. 16 UT-Arlington (22-6, 93)...Duke's margin for a number one seed has to do with Tyler Zeller's clumsiness and a dramatic triple by frosh Austin Rivers a few weeks ago at Chapel Hill. Now there's a chance the Blue Devils will look at the Tar Heels twice within the next week, although the one that would sew up a top regional seed for Duke will be at the ACC Tourney in Atlanta. The Movin' Mavs of UTA, the home team of Six Flags over Texas, enter next week's Southland Tourney in the Houston suburb of Katy as the favored team, although we're going to want to listen in to Lamar HC Pat Knight's press conferences. A chip off the old block, that Pat Knight!
8 Saint Mary's (25-5, 36) vs. 9 Washington (20-8, 59)...The Galloping Gaels from Moraga look safely into the field of 68 after winning the WCC regular-season crown, but SMC lost a rung or two on the seeding latter with recent losses to Loyola-Marymount and at Murray State in the Bracket Buster. Randy Bennett's team might have to win the WCC Tourney to escape the dreaded 8-9 seed range. Lorenzo Romar looks to have U-Dub peaking at the right time again, and we suggest the Huskies are going to be into the field regardless of results in the Pac-12 Tourney as long as they hold on to the top spot in the regular-season race this weekend at USC and UCLA.
4 Vanderbilt (21-9, 25) vs. 13 Virginia Commonwealth 25-6, 61)/Northwestern (17-12, 44)...The whole protected seed thing loses some meaning this season because there don't appear to be any western teams in line for one thru four seeds. Thus, we send Vandy out to Portland as a four seed, not as far-fetched an idea as it seems with the Dores having just dusted off Florida to give themselves another quality win, along with a heavyweight schedule that will impress the Selection Committee. We think it would be a crime if the CAA is limited to only one rep this season and believe Drexel and Shaka Smart's VCU can both make it, providing one or the other wins the Colonial Tourney this weekend at Richmond. And we remember what the Rams did when they started in this same First Four game at Dayton vs. Southern Cal a year ago. We still think Northwestern has a shot at its first-ever bid with good RPI and strength of schedule number. But Bill "Conan O'Brien" Carmody must make sure his Wildcats don't lose at Iowa this weekend, which would probably then require NU to make a deep run at next week's Big Ten Tourney to keep in the frame.
5 Louisville (22-8, 22) vs. 12 Southern Miss (24-6, 51)...Rick Pitino's Louisville has probably played its way out of a protected seed with losses in the last week vs. Cincy and at home vs. South Florida. Larry Eustachy's Southern Miss, meanwhile, almost played its way out of the field altogether before pulling out wins over Rice and SMU, losses either of which likely to have sent the Golden Eagles to the wrong side of the cut line after a shaky few weeks. We'd still suggest avoiding the banana peel this Saturday at Marshall for USM.
2 Michigan State (24-6, 4) vs. 15 Montana (23-6, 82)...The Spartans' midweek loss at Indiana might have temporarily knocked MSU off of the top line, but Tom Izzo's bunch can likely climb back to a number one seed in a region by winning next week's Big Ten Tourney at Indianapolis. Out in the Big Sky, Montana has won the regular-season title and the right to host the conference tourney is Missoula. A quick rematch with high-scoring Damien Lillard and runner-up Weber State, a 66-51 loser to the Grizzlies on Tuesday, probably on deck next week. Remember when Larry Krystowiak's Montana upset Nevada in the first round back in 2006.
7 Temple (23-6, 34) vs. 10 Long Beach State (22-7, 40)...Of all of the mid-majors, we suspect the one the "big boys" want to see least in their region is go-go Long Beach. Drawing the short straw could be Temple, which looks to be only one of a few survivors of the annual cannibalization that occurs in the A-10, which we believe send only two reps to the field of 68 (Temple at Saint Louis). Time to start asking when Fran Dunphy is going to win an NCAA Tourney game with the Owls after being bounced in the first sub-regional game each of the past four seasons.
3 Baylor (25-5, 15) vs. 14 Nevada (23-5, 101)...Baylor has probably taken too many hits in the past few weeks to get back to the top line, even if the Bears win the Big XII Tourney next week in Kansas City, but they're definitely a protected seed and likely on the 2nd or 3rd line. After losing its featured BracketBuster game at Iona, Nevada's only route to the Big Dance is likely by winning next week's WAC Tourney at the Orleans Hotel Arena in Las Vegas.
6 UNLV (24-7, 21) vs. 11 UConn (17-12, 35)...UNLV was looking good for a protected seed a few weeks ago, but problems on the Mountain West road have cost the Rebels a couple of lines on the seeding scale. Note that UNLV didn't cover a point-spread in its seven MWC trail this season. UConn is hardly in safe territory yet but we somehow expect the Huskies to make it into the field, especially with the news that HC Jim Calhoun is likely to return to the sidelines soon. Remember, we were hardly thinking about UConn as a title contender at this time last year, either.
Last four in: Colorado State, West Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth, Northwestern.
Last four out: Arizona, Xavier, Miami-Florida, NC State.
Next four out: George Mason, Illinois, Dayton, Wyoming.