February 12, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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Remember, for all of our "Bracketology" updates, the term "protected seed" refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and usual favorable geographic placement in the sub-regional round.
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, with the Dayton "First Four" games played on March 18 and 19. Straight-up records and RPI as of Feb. 9 are included.
By the way, Selection Sunday is less than 5 weeks away (but who's counting?).
EAST REGIONAL (New York City)
1 Syracuse (SUR 22-0, RPI-5) vs. 16 Southern (13-10, 187)/Robert Morris (14-11, 160)...Even if Syracuse should lose a few games down the stretch, there is little chance of the Orange blowing a protected seed, or the 'Cuse missing out on the sub-regional in conveniently-located Buffalo. Meanwhile in the 16 vs. 16 play-in games, expect the Northeast and SWAC champs to be involved. And from the former, here we go again with the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, familiar postseason participant Robert Morris, which has overcome a rough non-league portion of its schedule to emerge in pole position for homecourt edge throughout its conference tourney. As for the SWAC, we have seen plenty of upsets in its league tourney in recent years, though this time around, Baton Rouge-based Southern U appears a clear favorite.
8 UMass (18-4, 11) vs. 9 Colorado (18-6, 27)...Emerging unscathed from this year's Atlantic 10 would have been a neat trick for any team. So, UMass, though cooling down lately, is a long way from bubble trouble despite a few league defeats. In fact, the Minutemen's robust RPI suggests it should at least wear white unis in the Round of 64. As for Colorado, we have temporarily moved it safely away from the cut line, as the Buffs seem to have straightened out following G Spencer Dinwiddie's knee injury last month. Sunday's emphatic win over Washington confirms that CU is back in business.
At San Antonio...
4 Iowa State (18-4, 8) vs. 13 Delaware (18-7, 66)...After wins last week at Ok State and at home vs. TCU (the game in which Melvin Ejim scored a Big 12-record 48 points), Iowa State has moved back into protected seed territory. Expect the Selection Committee to grant a pretty wide seeding berth to Big 12 entries. Meanwhile, it's less than a month before the CAA gets together for its tourney at the Richmond Coliseum, once one of the many homes of the ABA Virginia Squires during the Julius Erving (and later) era. And at the moment, U-Dee has established itself as a pretty clear favorite in that event, drawing away from closest pursuers Towson and William & Mary in the league table.
5 Cincinnati (22-3, 14) vs. 12 UWGB (19-5, 61)...Saturday's heavy loss at SMU broke a 15-game win streak for the Bearcats, so perhaps we have punished the Bearcats a bit too harshly with their drop from protected seed territory. Cincy still projects in the 3-5 seed range, and with some difficult tests still ahead, we simply put the Mick "The Ghost" Cronin Bearcats on the lower end. Over in the Horizon, Green Bay suddenly looks to have a challenge from surging Cleveland State, which has pulled almost abreast in the standings after the Fighting Phoenix lost to Milwaukee over the weekend. Remember, the winner of the Horizon regular season gets to host the conference tourney.
2 Villanova (21-2, 3) vs. 15 Davidson (14-11, 155)...Although that blowout loss at few weeks ago vs. Creighton still puzzles, Nova is still safely in protected seed territory and is even poised to move to the top line should one of the currently-projected number one seeds falter. The SoCon race has gone through a bit of a mixer, but with seven wins in a row, familiar face Davidson has now emerged as the frontrunner, with surprising Chattanooga and surging Wofford giving chase.
7 Pitt (20-4, 27) vs. 10 Oklahoma State (16-7, 29)...Suddenly in danger is Oklahoma State, fading fast and getting a bit too close for comfort to the cut line after four straight losses. Now the Cowboys have to survive Marcus Smart's three-game suspension. Could OSU actually play its way out of the Dance? Unlikely, but not impossible. Pitt doesn't seem to have that concern, but the Panthers are not exactly tearing up the ACC lately, struggling for OT wins vs. league also-rans Miami and Virginia Tech in the last week.
3 Kentucky (18-5, 13) vs. 14 Iona (15-8, 98)...Inexorably, Coach Cal's Cats have moved into protected seed territory, and Kentucky is almost assured of returning to the Dance after last year's late-season disappearance. Unlike a year ago, this Wildcat edition seems to be getting better as the campaign progresses. Surging in recent weeks has been Iona, which moved into sole possession of first place in the Metro-Atlantic with Sunday's win over the Buffalo branch of the Jesuits from Canisius. But Jim Baron's Golden Griffs, the "pollsters" from Quinnipiac, and the Jaspers from Manhattan (which is actually in The Bronx!) are all going to think they have a real shot in next month's conference tourney at Springfield, MA.
6 Wisconsin (19-5, 12) vs. 11 Harvard (18-4, 35)...After Sunday's clutch win over Michigan State, Wisconsin is back above .500 in the Big Ten and once again in contention for a protected seed, though we think the Badgers might need a top-four finish in the league to earn of those. But it's not as if the Wiscy fans are going to mind a little road trip to a place like Orlando for the sub-regionals. Let's also not pencil Harvard into the field too quickly, as Saturday's upset loss vs. the Eli (Manning) of Yale has suddenly made the Ivy a race after all. Just in case, does Tommy Amaker's Crimson have the credentials to make it into the field as an at-large entry?
SOUTH REGIONAL (Memphis, TN)
1 Florida (21-2, 4) vs. 16 Vermont (15-9, 110)...There is not much intrigue about the Gators' sub-regional destination, almost assuredly Orlando, and a look at the upcoming schedule suggests that Billy Donovan's bunch seems a good bet to qualify not only as a protected seed, but on the top line as well. Several hundred miles north, the America East race is heating up, with Vermont and Stony Brook going at it in Affirmed-vs.-Alydar fashion. They'll probably settle things in the Belmont, er, make that the final of the A-East Tourney, to be played on the home court of the regular-season champ. For the first time in memory, the preliminary tourney rounds will be played at one site, the Albany Great Danes' SEFCU Arena.
8 North Carolina (16-7, 34) vs. 9 SMU (19-5, 48)...We've got a big arrow pointing up for North Carolina, which is officially surging with five straight wins. The local showdown vs. Tobacco Road rival Duke comes on Wednesday night, but regardless, the Tar Heels look to have moved a good distance from the bubble after appearing to be in Big Dance trouble a few weeks ago. Similarly, red-hot SMU is on the ascent and now has moved safely away from the cut line after Saturday's romp past Cincy. It would be a neat storyline for Larry Brown to play his alma mater in the tourney, though we suspect both of these hot teams could seed higher than this in March.
At San Diego...
4 Michigan (17-6. 16) vs. 13 Mercer (19-6, 69)...Michigan has hit a couple of bumps on the Big Ten road in the past ten days at Indiana and Iowa and could conceivably be out of protected seed territory already. For the moment we give John Beilein's squad the benefit of the doubt and have kept it at a 4, but with Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State on deck, the Wolverines could slide down the seeding scale in the next couple of weeks. After getting close in recent years, Mercer again looks to be the team to beat in the Atlantic Sun, although Florida Gulf Coast has been surging lately. For what it's worth, the Bears won the reg.-season meeting by a 68-55 count back on January 23, and Mercer will thus own any regular-season tiebreaker to win top seed and home court throughout the conference tourney.
5 Oklahoma (18-6, 22) vs. 12 La Tech (20-5, 73)/Cal (15-8, 51)...Lon Kruger's Oklahoma has to qualify as one of the pleasant surprises of not only the Big 12, but the entire country, as the Sooners have hardly skipped in a beat in a mostly-reloading situation. They're definitely in the protected seed mix, though we slot them at a 5 for the time being. Things are getting pretty interesting in the post-Memphis world of Conference USA, which looks to have three teams on Big Dance radar (Southern Miss, UTEP, and La Tech). If the Ruston-based Bulldogs can stay afloat until PG Raheem Appleby returns from injury (which should be later this month), they'll have a shot at an at-large if they don't win the conference tourney. As for slumping Cal, it might be out of the field if not for its recent win over then top-ranked Arizona. The Golden Bears have lost 4 of 5 and need to stop the bleeding, and fast, this week when they travel to the Northwest to face the Washington schools.
2 Duke (19-5, 9) vs. 15 Boston U (17-8, 102)...At one point this season we were hardly sure Duke was in protected seed category. But after 7 wins in their last 8 games, the Blue Devils are probably in the 2-3 seed range, and Coach K probably has another short trip for the sub-regionals, with Raleigh this year's nearby destination. Homecourt edge in the Patriot League Tourney is probably going to be decided between loop newcomer Boston U and D.C.-based American U, which sits just across the street from where Chris Matthews goes to work and produces Hardball each weekday at the NBC News Washington bureau.
7 Texas (18-5, 23) vs. 10 Tennessee (15-8, 47)...Longtime football fans might recall the matchup of these schools from the 1969 Cotton Bowl, won by Texas 36-13. After last year's disappointment, the Horns are looking very solid to make it back to the Dance for HC Rick Barnes, although Saturday's loss at Kansas State has moved the Longhorns further from the protected seed discussion. There are several bubble teams in the SEC, and at the moment we believe Cuonzo Martin's Vols are probably on the safe side of the cut line. But like LSU, Ole Miss, Mizzou, and maybe Vanderbilt, UT is probably going to need to win a couple of more times on the SEC trail to avoid a sweat job on Selection Sunday.
At San Antonio...
3 Louisville (19-4, 33) vs. 14 Belmont (19-8, 58)...Maybe this Louisville edition is down a notch from last year's title-winning side, but by this stage we have learned to never discount a Rick Pitino-coached team in March. The learned Pitino would also not discount a Rick Byrd-coached Belmont team, although the Bruins have only come close once (vs. Duke in 2008) to pulling a sub-regional upset in their many past appearances at the Dance. Belmont looks to be the team to beat in the upcoming OVC Tourney, played across town from campus in Nashville at the Municipal Auditorium, a monument to early '60s architectural splendor.
6 UCLA (18-0, 19) vs. 11 Southern Miss (20-3, 36)...It's hard to ever call UCLA a sleeper, but we suspect Steve Alford's Bruins are flying a bit under the national radar and could be a very dangerous team in March, especially since 6'9 hybrid Kyle Anderson is one of the more versatile weapons in the country. Watch these guys. Southern Miss dodged a bullet on Friday vs. Marshall but bounced back strongly on Sunday vs. Charlotte to keep at the top of the C-USA table alongside UTEP, with La Tech close behind. We think C-USA is at least a two-bid league this season, however, and the Golden Eagles will have a shot at an at-large if they don't win the league tourney (which will be a big edge to Tim Floyd's UTEP, as it will be played at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso).
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Indianapolis, IN)
At St. Louis...
1 Wichita State (25-0, 6) vs. 16 VMI (14-9, 240)/NC Central (17-5, 144)...We noticed some debate on the sports channels over the weekend if Wichita would really get a top seed if it stays unbeaten. Considering how the Shockers made the Final Four last season, we'd give that an emphatic yes, although we're going to be less sure if Wichita loses in Arch Madness next month in St. Louis. What the Shockers' dominance in their own league has also done is make the Missouri Valley a likely a 1-bid loop this season. Rest assured the Big South champ is involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; if it's VMI, we will be recalling the Keydets' unlikely run to the Elite Eight in 1976. We are less sure the MEAC is involved in one of 16 vs. 16 games, especially if NC Central wins the league. Although the MEAC has featured many upsets in its tourney over the years.
8 George Washington (19-4, 31) vs. 9 Xavier (16-7, 46)...This would be a matchup of former league rivals, at least until the "X" moved to the Big East this season. GWU might be deserving of a better seed than this, as we believe the Selection Committee could grant a very wide berth to the A-10, with as many as five bids. As for the Musketeers, they have been able to stave off bubble trouble with a succession of hard-fought wins such as Saturday's grinder vs. Providence.
4 Saint Louis (22-2, 16) vs. 13 Georgia State (17-6, 76)...If Saint Louis continues winning, it is going to be very hard to deny the Billikens a protected seed come Selection Sunday, although they will not be sent to their hometown for sub-regional action. A matchup vs. Georgia State would prove fascinating on a couple of different fronts, including the fact that lovely Panthers' AD Cheryl Levick used to hold the same position at SLU. GSU and its collection of various D-I transfers has emerged as the clear favorite in the Sun Belt, whose tourney will be taking place in New Orleans next month.
5 Iowa (18-6, 37) vs. 12 Florida State (14-9, 51)...Iowa might be thinking it deserves protected seed consideration after Saturday's thumping of Michigan. And the Hawkeyes figure to stay in that discussion all of the way to Selection Sunday, as Fran McCaffery is ready to steer Iowa to its first Big Dance bid since 2007. Meanwhile, we might be reaching a bit to keep FSU in the field after the Noles have lost four of their last five games, including beatdown administered by Maryland over the weekend. A solid SOS (Strength of Schedule) and the Seminoles' pre-league wins over UMass and VCU will be worth cashing on Selection Sunday only if FSU straightens out its act in the next week with some winnable ACC games (Miami and Wake Forest) on deck.
At St. Louis...
2 Kansas (18-5, 1) vs. 15 New Mexico State (18-8, 82)...The recent loss at Texas has, for the moment at least, probably moved KU off of the top line, but the St. Louis sub-regional still seems a safe bet. These games will be played in the Scottrade Center, home of the NHL's St. Louis Blues and the Missouri Valley "Arch Madness" Tourney, and not the Edward Jones Dome, so we wonder if there are going to be enough tickets for the crush of Jayhawks fans, who have numbered more than 20,000 alone for NCAA games played at the Rams' dome in past years. Emerging from what is left of the WAC is probably going to be New Mexico State, but the Ags have not dominated that loop and might have a struggle in the league tourney, to be held in front of a handful of fans next month at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
7 New Mexico (18-4, 25) vs. 10 VCU (19-5, 26)...After sending five teams to the Dance last season, the Mountain West looks more like a two-bid league this time around. New Mexico, staying above the fray with San Diego State, seems likely for one of those invitations for new HC Craig Neal. VCU has endured a few losses in A-10 play, which have not yet put the Rams in bubble trouble but have caused them to slide a bit down the seeding scale. Still, the Rams and their "Shaka Ball" are something no opponent would like to face in March.
3 Michigan State (20-4, 7) vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin (22-2, 80)...Good and bad news over the past week for Michigan State. First the bad, and it's not terribly bad...a close loss to Wisconsin at Madison. Not too damaging, really. The good news? Star big man Adreian Payne has returned to active duty from a worrisome foot injury. In the bigger picture, the latter will prove far more significant. (The Spartans now have another injury to worry about as key G Keith Appling will miss a couple of weeks with a wrist injury, though he should be healthy again by the start of March.) In the Southland, it looks to be SFA's bid to lose, though we were saying the same thing last year about the Lumberjacks until they were dumped in the conference tourney. We will miss the Bracket Busters this year because it used to afford us a chance to further scout teams like SFA before the Dance.
6 Memphis (18-5, 32) vs. 11 Stanford (15-7, 38)...What a thrill ride over the weekend for Memphis, making a whirlwind late rally to collar Gonzaga in the last two minutes, and eventually cover the spread to boot, at FedEx Forum. The Tigers might still have a look at a protected seed with a fast finish in the top-heavy American. The next month is not only going to determine Stanford's tourney fate, but also perhaps that of Cardinal HC Johnny Dawkins, widely rumored to need a Big Dance bid to save his job. After a slow break in Pac-12 action, Stanford has played like a tourney team the past month, and confirmed its intention with a revenge win last Wednesday at rival Cal.
WEST REGIONAL (Anaheim)
at San Diego...
1 Arizona (22-1, 2) vs. 16 Weber State (13-7, 163)...Staying on the top line might not be so easy for Arizona, as the Cats are now minus key cog Brandon Ashley, out for the rest of the season. But even a few more losses should not move UA out of the San Diego sub-regional. In the Big Sky, Weber State has emerged as the team to beat after Saturday's 79-65 win over top contender Northern Colorado at Ogden. The question that must be asked now is if the Sky champ is in any danger of getting tossed into one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games.
8 Gonzaga (21-4, 21) vs. 9 LSU (15-7, 60)...We'll see how the Zags recover from blowing a late double-digit lead on Saturday at Memphis, where a victory could have kept Mark Few's team in the mix for a protected seed. In any case, Gonzaga's streak of consecutive Big Dance appearances almost assuredly extends to 16 in a row in March. After a potentially-damaging loss at Georgia last week, LSU bounced back to hold serve at home in the Maravich Center by beating Auburn. Much like another aforementioned SEC rep, Tennessee, the Tigers will help themselves a lot with the Selection Committee by winning a couple of road games in the next month. LSU's inclusion remains very provisional, especially with other SEC reps such as Mizzou and Ole Miss and several others still lurking close behind on the bubble.
4 Ohio State (19-5, 17) vs. 13 Toledo (20-3, 28)...Three straight wins, including successes at Wisconsin and Iowa, have put the Buckeyes back into the protected seed mix. Ohio State had been sliding in the other direction for much of January after losing five of six at one point. For the first time in a while, the MAC might not necessarily be a one-bid league should Ted Kowalczyk's high-flying Toledo get knocked off in the always tension-packed conference tourney at Cleveland, as the Rockets (who pushed Kansas in pre-league play) have decent at-large credentials. But since we're not sure who might knock off Toledo, we'll slot the Rockets as our only MAC rep, and we can dream of a tasty in-state clash with the Buckeyes.
5 Virginia (19-5, 18) vs. 12 St. Joe's (16-7, 43)/Providence (16-8, 49)...We suspect that if Virginia keeps winning, the Cavs are going to have a very good shot at a protected seed. We weren't thinking as much of UVa in late December when it was bombed at Tennessee, but the Cavs have only lost once, controversially so at Duke, since. In one of the at-large play-in games, for the first time this season we are moved to include Phil Martelli's surging St. Joe's in the mix after Saturday's rousing win on Hawk Hill over VCU. With the A-10 rating so well, we believe there is a very good chance the Selection Committee goes five deep in the league. We're not as sure about Providence, which has played itself right to the edge of the cut line with losses in three of its last four. Needless to say, Ed Cooley's Friars have some work to do to shore up their candidacy before Selection Sunday.
2 San Diego State (21-1, 15) vs. 15 UC Irvine (16-9, 125)...There is a groundswell of national support building for Steve Fisher's SDSU, which hasn't lost since Nov. 14 against Arizona. But aside from a win over Creighton in Anaheim, there is not another top-quality victory on the Aztecs' slate. We need a little more evidence before suggesting that any Mountain West team is ready to make a deep run in March, especially considering how none of the league's five reps escaped the sub-regionals a year ago. UCI is a provisional vote as the moment out of the Big West. An Anteater bid would be big news in Orange County, as UCI has never been to the Big Dance. Before it gets there, however, it might have to replicate last week's stirring win at the Bren Center over red-hot Long Beach State in the Big West Tourney. Note that UCI and SDSU once competed in the old PCAA during the same season, 1977-78, the Anteaters' first campaign in the loop and the Aztecs' last before a move into the WAC the following year.
7 UConn (18-5, 30) vs. 10 Arizona State (15-6, 32)...The more we see of the American, the more we think it can match up with any league in the country this season. Part of the reason is Kevin Ollie's UConn, one of five loop reps we currently project into the field. The Huskies seem to have finally moved on from the Jim Calhoun era. Herb Sendek's ASU continues to do enough to stay on the safe side of the cut line, although it gave its fans a scare in Tempe over the weekend when almost blowing a 20+-point lead against Oregon. For now, however, the Sun Devils are probably clear of the bubble.
3 Creighton (19-4, 10) vs. 14 North Dakota State (18-6, 53)...We were close to moving Creighton out of a protected seed after Sunday's loss at St. John's. But the Bluejays' body of work is still solid, and Doug McDermott & Co. were running neck-and-neck with Villanova atop the loop until last weekend. A team most top seeds are going to want to avoid in the sub-regionals if possible is going to be vet-laden North Dakota State, which won at Notre Dame in pre-league play and has emerged as the team to beat in the Summit after last Saturday's win at Fargo over the Mastodons from IPFW.
6 Kansas State (16-7, 29) vs. 11 Minnesota (16-8, 43)...The Big 12 was going to cannibalize itself this season, and the question has been which teams were going to be victimized. Already Baylor appears to be one, and now perhaps Oklahoma State, but the fact that Bruce Weber has kept K-State out of that mess is a credit to him and the Wildcats. Keep an eye on star frosh G Marcus Foster, arguably having more impact than any newcomer in the Big 12 (Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid included). As for Minnesota, it scored a crucial win over Indiana on Saturday at The Barn in what was an effective play-in game (at least for the next round of projections) to Bracketologists like us. So, for the moment, Richard Pitino's team remains in the field after some stumbles in recent weeks (including a potentially-damaging home loss to Northwestern).
Last four byes: Florida State, Stanford, Tennessee, Minnesota.
Last four in: La Tech, Cal, St. Joe's, Providence.
Last four out: Indiana, BYU, Missouri, St. Mary's.
Next four out: St. John's, Ole Miss, NC State, UTEP.
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