January 18, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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As usual, we break down the projected matchups by each region, beginning with the sub-regionals, which this season will begin on Thursday, March 20, following the Dayton "First Four" games played on March 18 and 19. Straight-up records and "RPI" as of January 15. Selection Sunday is only about 8 weeks away (but who's counting?).
EAST REGIONAL (New York City)
1 Syracuse (SUR 17-0, RPI-7) vs. 16 Radford (12-5, 186)...So far, so good for Syracuse in its new neighborhood of the ACC, although the more challenging portion of the league schedule is still to come. For the moment, however, Jim Boeheim's team is an easy call for a regional top seed. In the Big South, Mike Jones' Radford Highlanders established themselves as the team to beat in pre-conference play and have commenced loop action with a 2-0 mark.
8 Harvard (14-2, 34) vs. 9 Virginia (12-5, 28)...Harvard suffered its second loss of the season last week, but it was against another likely Big Dance entry (UConn) after an earlier loss to another expected tourney team (Colorado). We don't see many other potential banana peels on the Crimson's Ivy League schedule, so we expect Tommy Amaker's team can wear the home whites in opening sub-regional action. A couple of weeks ago we might not have given Virginia much of a chance to make the Dance. But three very impressive wins and a very unlucky loss at Duke later, and Tony Bennett's Cavs have (for the moment) played their way back into the field.
4 UMass (15-1, 3) vs. 13 Boston U (11-6, 102)...This matchup might have Red Sox Nation split. Even though UMass has been having a bit tougher time of it the past couple of weeks (witness Wednesday's very narrow escape at George Mason), the combination of a 15-1 record and a number three ranking in the latest RPI compel us to put the Minutemen into protected seed territory. Boston U, over from the America East, has its best chance to get back to the Dance in a few years and picked a good season to move into the Patriot, with recent league heavyweights Lehigh and CBS head honcho Les Moonves' alma mater Bucknell having slipped from recent strong editions.
5 Louisville (14-3, 39) vs. 12 Minnesota (13-4, 44)...Well, well, wouldn't this be a fascinating sub-regional storyline, the rare father vs. son coaching matchup? Once in a while the Selection Committee shows such a devilish streak and sets up very intriguing encounters in the Round of 64, and the battle of the Pitinos (papa Rick and son Richard) would be a hoot, if nothing else. While the Cards have some holes to fill (especially along the frontline) after last year's title run, they're comfortably into the field. Not so yet for Minnesota, though for the moment we give the benefit of the doubt to the loaded Big Ten over some other "bubble" teams (which can be found at the end of this piece in the "first four out" category).
2 Villanova (15-1, 4) vs. 15 Towson (11-6, 154)...How many hoop insiders envisioned Villanova at 15-1 heading into mid-January and ranked in the top ten? Not many, we're sure. While many preseason storylines in the reconfigured Big East were focused elsewhere, Jay Wright has authored the best chapter to date with the Wildcats, one of the pleasant surprises in the nation and an easy call for a protected seed at this juncture of the season. Less clarity in the depleted Colonial, where all of the recent heavyweights (VCU, George Mason, Old Dominion) have departed over the past two years, making this a definite one-bid league until further notice. What's left appears to be having a spirited race, but a measured vote for Towson (looking for a first-ever Big Dance bid) over Drexel and another first-time Dance hopeful, William & Mary.
7 Kansas State (13-4, 31) vs. 10 New Mexico (12-4, 20)...Those who saw Kansas State struggling early in the season (especially at the Puerto Rico Tip-off Tourney in November) would be surprised to see the Wildcats in the field of 68. Believe it, however, as Bruce Weber's team has improved dramatically over the past six weeks, with true frosh G Marcus Foster already one of the Big 12's best. We're keeping a close watch on Craig Neal's New Mexico, which looks to have slipped from last year's Mountain West championship side that earned a 3 seed to the Dance (and was summarily dumped by No. 14 Harvard right from the gate). The Committee is not likely to look as deep into the Mountain as it did a year ago when taking five teams, and the Lobos' latest direct hit came courtesy of UNLV on Wednesday at The Pit. Pre-league wins over Cincinnati and Marquette will come in handy on Selection Sunday, but there is still time for New Mexico to play itself out of the field.
3 Ohio State (15-2, 16) vs. 14 Mercer (12-5, 79)...Up until New Year's we might have had Ohio State as a top regional seed, but recent losses to Michigan State and Iowa have cost the Buckeyes a couple of lines. Still, we'd expect to see Ohio State stay within range of a protected seed all of the way into March. The Atlantic Sun has made some noise in the postseason the past couple of years, with Florida Gulf Coast's surprise "Dunk City" run to the Sweet 16 last year and Mercer winning the CIT two years ago. Now the Bears look as if they have another great chance to get to the Dance after being denied in their conference tourney the past couple of years.
6 UCLA (13-3, 37) vs. 11 Indiana State (14-3, 63)/George Washington (14-3, 24)...Steve Alford's UCLA looks as if it will comfortably qualify for the Dance, though probably just outside of protected seed territory. With Wichita dominating the Missouri Valley, the league might have to scratch and claw for another bid; Indiana State looks the best bet of the rest to land on the safe side of the cut line, though we suspect the Sycamores might be required to go the at-large play-in route. As might George Washington, much improved for respected HC Mike Lonergan. Although we are not sure the Committee will want to go five-deep in the A-10, as we are projecting for the time being.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Memphis, TN)
1 Michigan State (16-1,8) vs. 16 Southern U (8-9, 185)/Wagner (8-7, 246)...For the moment, Michigan State gets a regional top seed based partly upon its recent 72-68 win over Ohio State. Although Tom Izzo will want to make sure star 6-10 frontliner Adreian Payne (who missed Wednesday's win over Northwestern) is fully fit entering March. The SWAC is usually involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; a best guess at the moment is Roman Banks' Southern U, although any number of teams will have a chance in the conference tourney, which this year will be going big-time as it takes place at the Houston Rockets' Toyota Center. As for the Northeast, a measured mid-January vote for Bob Beckel's alma mater, the Wagner Seahawks, though as always we would keep an eye on the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, which has started league play at 2-0. But the NE winner can be expected to go the play-in-route if it wants to make it into the sub-regionals.
8 Missouri (13-2, 43) vs. 9 Texas (13-4, 52)...The storyline of note here is the resurrection of Texas, which missed the Dance for the first time in Rick Barnes' 15 seasons in charge a year ago, but looks ticketed for a return visit, especially if Monday's impressive win at West Virginia is any indication. We're not sure Frank Haith's Missouri is quite as dangerous as it was a year ago, but the Tigers still have enough firepower to survive in the SEC and get back to the Dance.
4 Duke (13-4, 27) vs. 13 Toledo (13-2, 46)...Man, we were tempted to knock Duke out of protected seed territory after a succession of recent shaky efforts, but for the time being we keep the Blue Devils as a four because they did manage to get out of jail at the last moment in Monday's heartstopper vs. Virginia. But there is still time for Duke to slip into the 5-7 seed range and likely remove it from home territory (this year it's nearby Raleigh) for the sub-regionals. The MAC once again looks to be a one-bid league, and this might be Toledo's best chance to make it to the Dance in recent years. As usual, keep an eye on Akron and Ohio, and perhaps Kent State, Buffalo, as well as upgraded Eastern Michigan, in what looks like another bloodbath in the MAC Tourney at Cleveland in March.
5 Colorado (14-3, 11) vs. 12 Green Bay (13-3, 36)...Colorado has probably played its way to a protected seed thru mid-January, but proceeding forward without key G Spencer Dinwiddie (out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL suffered last week at Washington) might make it tougher for the Buffs to stay in the 3-4 seed range. Coach Tad Boyle has plenty of depth on hand, however, so don't expect CU to fall very far, even minus Dinwiddie. Last Sunday's OT win at Milwaukee put Green Bay and electric G Keifer Sykes in firm control of the Horizon League race that no longer includes Butler, which these days might be missing its old league. Remember, the reg.-season winner of the Horizon gets to host its conference tourney, which could put the Fighting Phoenix in its home Resch Center for a chance to make the Dance in March.
2 Oklahoma State (15-2, 12) vs. 15 Elon (9-8, 173)...There is no question that Ok State is loaded and would be a protected seed if the Big Dance started this weekend. The question moving forward is if the Big 12, which can make a case as the deepest league in the nation, is going to cannibalize itself and thus knock some of the top contenders down a few rungs on the seeding ladder. We'll see. As for Elon, we actually saw the Phoenix in person at Boulder vs. Colorado in December and can envision them giving fits to some unsuspecting foe, especially if 6-8 Euro import Sebastian Koch is on fire from tripleville, as he was the night we saw him at the Coors Center. We rate Elon a slight edge in the SoCon over Western Carolina and Davidson, although that league tourney in Asheville shapes up as a donnybrook.
7 Cal (13-4, 32) vs. 10 UConn (13-3, 26)...Moving up the seeding queue is Mike Montgomery's Cal, which is on a definite ascent in recent weeks. Early Pac-12 efforts have been impressive, knocking off rival Stanford, then beating both Oregon schools on the road before whipping Washington on Wednesday night. The arrow points up at Berkeley. Meanwhile, it has pointed down the past couple of weeks in Storrs, with UConn suffering some defeats in early American action. It looks like the Huskies are going to have to fight off SMU and Houston for the fourth spot in the league behind Cincy, Louisville, and Memphis.
3 Florida (14-2, 6) vs. 14 Georgia State (10-6, 113)...Although it has been a bit bumpy at times with nagging injury woes continuing to surface, once again Billy Donovan's Florida looks to be the class of the SEC and would seem likely to be ticketed for the Orlando sub-regional. One team the "big boys" might want to avoid is Ron Hunter's Georgia State, which is quickly emerging as the team to beat in the Sun Belt. The Panthers' roster is loaded with transfers from big conferences (such as ex-Kentucky G Ryan Harrow, ex-VPI F Manny Atkins, and ex-Southern Cal C Curtis Washington), while G R.J. Hunter was a Big Ten-caliber recruit in hometown Indianapolis who decided instead to play at GSU for his papa Ron, formerly coach at IUPUI. Besides, we always look forward to GSU games for a chance to see our favorite AD, the lovely Cheryl Levick.
6 Iowa (14-3, 30) vs. 11 Boise State (12-5, 59)...After missing the Dance every year since 2007 (Steve Alford's last season in charge), Fran McCaffery's Iowa seems poised for a long-awaited return visit, and confirmed its intentions with a rousing Sunday win at Ohio State. We are less sure about the Boise invitation, or what the Committee is going to do with the Mountain West beyond San Diego State. But we suspect the Mountain is still a 2 or 3-bid league, and the Broncos got off the mat after a damaging weekend home loss vs. Wyoming to win a crucial game at Nevada to get back on track for a return visit (Boise was an at-large play-in loser vs. La Salle last season).
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Indianapolis, IN)
At San Antonio...
1 Wichita State (18-0, 10) vs. 16 Norfolk State (10-7, 256)/Stony Brook (10-6, 172)...After watching Wichita rally from an 18-point halftime deficit last Saturday to collar Missouri State in overtime, we are starting to believe those who have been saying the still-unbeaten Shockers might be able to run the table in the regular season. If so, after playing a decent non-league slate and having advanced to the Final Four with a similar-looking team last spring, how could anyone deny Wichita a regional top seed? MEAC squads have often been involved in 16 vs. 16 play-in games, and our best guess in mid-January is that Norfolk State might emerge from that mosh pit in March. The America East champ could also be involved in the 16 vs. 16 game; a measured vote for Steve Pickell's Stony Brook Seawolves, the home team of nearby Strat-o-Matic headquarters on Long Island. Vermont and Albany were the only other AE reps not buried deep beneath .500 after pre-conference play.
8 Oregon (13-3, 21) vs. 9 North Carolina (10-6, 54)...Taking a nosedive in recent weeks has been Oregon, which was cruising along as an unbeaten into January before running into Colorado at Boulder, then getting swept at home by Bay Area Pac-12 foes Cal and Stanford. Now we suspect the Ducks are barely eligible to be wearing their home whites (or yellows, or a lighter green, or whatever shade the Webfoots choose) in the round of 64. We admit to being a bit perplexed by North Carolina, which enters midweek at the bottom of the ACC and with losses piling up at an alarming rate. For the moment, "good wins" over Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky in pre-league play are still enough to keep the Tar Heels in the Dance, but Roy Williams had better make sure to take care of business against the beatable foes in ACC, and to not keep slipping against teams such as Wake Forest and Miami.
At St. Louis...
4 Kansas (12-4, 1) vs. 13 Manhattan (12-3, 62)...All of a sudden, Bill Self's diaper dandies at Kansas look like they have grown up, as recent wins over Kansas State and at Iowa State seem to confirm that KU is beyond its early-season adjustment phase to true frosh stars such as Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. By the time March rolls around, consider the Jayhawks a serious Final Four threat, although with four losses we have a hard time moving KU above a 4-seed (despite its lofty RPI) at the moment. Jayhawks fans can also be expected to flock to the St. Louis sub-regional. The Metro-Atlantic intrigues as usual, with pre-league and early conference action suggesting Manhattan (which is actually in The Bronx!) as the team to beat. But the Jaspers are going to want to make sure that likely MAAC MVP George Beamon gets beyond recent shoulder woes and is healthy for the stretch drive.
5 Memphis (12-3, 19) vs. 12 La Tech (14-3, 96)...After a late-November win over Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic at Disney World, and a recent triumph at Louisville, Memphis might be thinking it deserves a protected seed. The Tigers probably have a case, but for the moment we slot them at a five. They'll also get to host the American tourney at FedEx Forum in March. As for La Tech, it has established itself as the team to beat in Conference USA, but there is a cloud on the horizon with star G Raheem Appleby likely out for at least a month and maybe longer with an ankle injury. Appleby's recovery timetable has him back before the conference tourney in El Paso, which is good news for upwardly-mobile HC Michael White (due for a bigger assignment very soon).
2 Wisconsin (16-1, 2) vs. 15 Belmont (12-6, 68)...Prior to Tuesday night's loss at Indiana, we had the Badgers pegged as a number one seed. Still time for Bo Ryan to get Wiscy back on the top line, but in any case it looks like the Badgers are a good bet to land in their preferred sub-regional at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Rick Byrd's Belmont has faced Wisconsin in the Dance before, although this does not look to be as dangerous a Bruins' outfit as in recent seasons. But with no one else emerging in the Ohio Valley, Belmont is the default choice to get back to the Dance, especially with the conference tourney in its hometown of Nashville (though a few miles away from campus, at the Municipal Auditorium).
7 Kentucky (12-4, 17) vs. 10 VCU (13-4, 41)...There is little question that John Calipari is going to get Kentucky back into the Dance after last year's lost adventure of a season that ended with an NIT defeat in Moon Township, Pa. against Robert Morris. Although we have yet to see the Wildcats hit stride like another comparably-talented team with key freshman components, Kansas. There's still plenty of time, however, for UK to ascend. Meanwhile, VCU is not going to have an easy time getting back to the Dance, as A-10 foes have now had a year to experience "Shaka Ball" up close and personal. A midweek loss at George Washington is the latest example and suggests the Rams have work to do to get back to the Dance for a fourth straight year.
At St. Louis...
3 Creighton (15-2, 15) vs. 14 IPFW (14-5, 144)...While Butler is having all sorts of problems adjusting to its new Big East digs, Creighton is having no such worries and appears the team to beat in the reconfigured league. With Doug McDermott finishing his college career with a flourish, the Bluejays look a good bet to earn a protected seed regardless what might happen in the Big East Tourney, far, far away from Omaha, in New York City. Keep an eye on IPFW, whose home wins over both North Dakota State and South Dakota State last week have thrust the Mastodons into the team-to-beat perch in the Summit. IPFW has outstanding balance (eight scorers between 8-14 ppg) and shoots better than 50% from the floor, and played Dayton and Illinois very tough on the road in pre-Summit play. Don't overlook these guys.
6 Baylor (13-3, 14) vs. 11 Florida State (12-4, 29)...Referring to our earlier remarks about the depth of the Big 12, we present another example, Baylor, which found out that there are going to be few if any soft spots in the league in Wednesday's loss at Tubby Smith's improved Texas Tech. Which has temporarily dropped the Bears from a protected seed slot. Meanwhile, we are curious how the ACC race is going to unfold, with Duke and North Carolina both inconsistent, while newcomers Syracuse and Pitt might be the class of the league. But FSU cannot be overlooked, and a midweek win at Miami was good enough to keep the Seminoles in our field for this mid-January update.
WEST REGIONAL (Anaheim)
at San Diego...
1 Arizona (17-0, 3) vs. 16 Northern Colorado (10-3, 178)...As was the case in our last update in December, top-ranked Arizona would almost assuredly be the number one seed in the entire tourney if it began this weekend. Meanwhile, in the Big Sky, while expected top contenders Weber State and Montana have been a bit inconsistent, Northern Colorado's Bears have emerged as the team to beat. Remember the "Big Sky bonus" for the regular-season winner, which gets to host the conference tourney on its home floor.
8 Xavier (14-4, 38) vs. 9 Michigan (12-4, 45)...With last year's stars Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. now making their marks in the NBA, it is not the same Michigan team as a year ago, especially with frontliner Mitch McGary recently sidelined. But the clever John Beilein should keep the Wolverines a safe distance from the cut line and return for a Big Dance encore in March. As for Xavier, it seems more than capable of holding its own in the new-look Big East, and the wild second-half rally that collared Georgetown on Wednesday night should fuel the Musketeers for the next few weeks.
At San Antonio...
4 Iowa State (14-2, 9) vs. 13 New Mexico State (14-5, 54)...A couple of Iowa State losses in a row vs. Oklahoma and Kansas not only indicate how deep the Big 12 is this season, but also how hard it is going to be for Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones to maintain a protected seed into Selection Sunday. Stay tuned. About all that is recognizable from recent versions of the WAC is New Mexico State. The league still has an automatic bid, and the Aggies are overwhelming favorites to return to the Dance for a third straight year under HC Marvin Menzies. If you have a chance, watch skywalking 6-4 jr. Daniel Mullings, one of the nation's most exciting performers in fullcourt.
5 Cincinnati (16-2, 22) vs. 12 Dayton (13-4, 47)/Arizona State (13-4, 41)...All credit to Mick "The Ghost" Cronin and his Cincy Bearcats, who seem to have emerged as the team to beat in a top-heavy American. Cincy certainly remains in the mix for a protected seed as well. If the Selection Committee is going 5-deep in the A-10, we would not be surprised to see it makes one or two of those teams go the at-large play-in route to reach the round of 64. We project as much for George Washington and are suggesting the same route into the Dance could apply to Dayton. As it might for Herb Sendek's Arizona State, dangerous with explosive G Jahii Carson, but facing a very rugged and top-heavy Pac-12 schedule with plenty of mine fields around which to navigate.
At San Diego...
2 Pitt (16-1, 18) vs. 15 Stephen F. Austin (15-2, 95)...Much like Syracuse, after enduring Big East wars for the past few decades, Pitt does not look as if it is going to blink in its move to the ACC. What the Panthers or some other 1-thru-4 seed risk is being sent to a far-away place like San Diego for the sub-regionals, as few Western sides other than Arizona and perhaps San Diego State and maybe another Pac-12 rep look like high-seed candidates; teams from elsewhere will fill the spots. In the Southland, SFA has emerged as favorite. The Lumberjacks are now coached by Brad Underwood after recent HC Danny Kaspar, who bears a resemblance to long-ago cartoon character Cool McCool, moved to Texas State after last year's 27-5 mark and NIT bid.
7 Gonzaga (14-3, 23) vs. 10 Oklahoma (13-4, 25)...With BYU and Saint Mary's both taking on recent losses, it is fair to wonder if the WCC is going to be reduced to a one-bid league this season. What we are relatively sure of is that if there is to be only one qualifier from the league, it will once again be Gonzaga. Meanwhile, Lon Kruger can usually be counted upon to get whatever team he is coaching into sub-regional action. His OU Sooners look good enough to get there again, especially after last weekend's win over Iowa State, although many bumps lie ahead on the Big 12 trail.
3 San Diego State (15-1, 13) vs. 14 UC Irvine (11-7, 127)...San Diego State is the only sure Mountain West rep we can project into the Dance in mid-January. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, they won't be able to play in the sub-regional at their home Viejas Arena, and the next-nearest venues like Spokane, or perhaps San Antonio, are hardly around the corner. Of several possible first-time "Dancers" this season is UC Irvine, which has been close to NCAA bids before out of the Big West but now looms as the likely team to beat in the loop with 7-6 frosh C Mamadou Ndiaye drawing more than curious looks (NBA scouts can also be seen at Anteater games).
6 Saint Louis (15-2, 35) vs. 11 Indiana (12-5, 56)...Prior to Tuesday's rousing win over Wisconsin, we weren't sure we were going to project Indiana into the field. But that win, plus expectations that HC Tom Crean will have the young Hoosiers on the ascent in the second half of the season, and the usual Selection Committee respect for the Big Ten, is enough to slot them into an 11 seed for this update. Certainly no hesitation putting Saint Louis into the field, as Jim Crews' Billikens are a veteran bunch with plenty of performers who have won games in the Dance each of the past two years.
Last four in: Indiana State, George Washington, Dayton, Arizona State.
Last four out: Georgetown, Illinois, Stanford, Southern Miss.
Next four out: Tennessee, Clemson, Saint Mary's, SMU.
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