January 9, 2018
By Bruce Marshall
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We’re near the halfway point of the college hoops season and about to enter “Joe Lunardi time” as Selection Sunday and the NCAA Tournament loom on the horizon.
Though this is our first “Bracketology” update of the season on these pages, we have been keeping chart of our projected seeds since November and can already imagine some very slim pickings in the at-large pool for the mid-major ranks. Especially with power conferences such as the Big 12 (with no team entering loop play with more than three losses) and the ACC (with 13 realistic Dance candidates into New Year’s) taking up a lot of the available oxygen. It’s still a bit early to say, but we could envision a 68-team field with no more than a handful of at-large reps from the mid-major ranks.
We'll wait until our next update before including the “RPI” (Ratings Percentage index) number for each team, as we are still early enough in the conference season where those numbers might be distorted by misleading pre-league slates. By the time we get to February, however, the “RPI” numbers generally carry a bit more weight.
Remember, for all of our “Bracketology” updates, the term “protected seed” refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and likely 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 15, with the Dayton “First Four” games played on March 13 and 14. Straight-up records thru January 2.
Remember, Selection Sunday is only a bit more than two months away!
EAST REGIONAL (Boston-TD Garden)
1 Villanova (SU 13-1) vs. 16 Navy (10-5)...Jay Wright’s Wildcats have already found a banana peel in Big East play (at Butler on Dec. 30) but entered the festive season on top of the polls. Villanova is still the favorite in the Big East and still looks likely to be placed on the top line come Selection Sunday. Less sure about things in the Patriot, where Navy has been surprisingly good in pre-league play, but Army, Colgate, and preseason favorite Bucknell (which played a tough pre-league slate) all figure to be in the mix.
8 Florida (10-4) vs. 9 SMU (12-2)...The Gators hit some bumps in the road in early December but the Tuesday night win at Texas A&M was an important step in the right direction for Michael White’s troops, who reached the Elite Eight last season. With the SEC displaying a bit more depth than originally thought, every win is going to come in handy for Florida. Carrying the flag for the mid-majors is likely to be the American (though it chafes at the mid-major label), as it is one of only a few, including perhaps the Mountain West and West Coast, to offer some serious at-large candidates. We could see four American sides with realistic at-large hopes, including SMU.
At San Diego...
4 Texas Tech (13-1) vs. 13 Vermont (9-5)...The top storyline of the college season as it nears the halfway point could easily be the Big 12, which, as mentioned in the intro, boasted every team with three losses or fewer entering league play, and all ten having realistic Big Dance hopes. It’s about time, however, to begin taking Chris Beard’s Texas Tech seriously after Tuesday night’s win at Kansas. At the moment, the Red Raiders would have to merit consideration for a protected seed, though they’ll have to earn it the next two months with no easy touches in the loop slate. Meanwhile, the America East could turn into a real scrum, with the Vermont Catamounts looking for a return trip to the Dance. Albany and UMBC look to be the other top contenders.
5 Arkansas (11-3) vs. 12 Maryland (13-3)/St. Bonaventure (11-3)...Arkansas could end up being one of those teams victimized by a deeper and tougher SEC, and the Razorbacks already hit a speed bump in their conference road opener at Mississippi State. But Mike Anderson’s side looks good in the computer numbers with handy non-conference wins over Oklahoma (the Sooners’ only loss into this weekend) and Minnesota and seems a very good bet to return to the Dance. One of the Dayton at-large play-in games could involve Maryland, which brought a 7-game win streak into Thursday night at Michigan State, and maybe St. Bonaventure, though the midweek loss at Dayton (the Bonnies will at least be familiar with the floor at UD Arena!) is a potential stinger. Still, prior to the Wednesday setback, Bona had not lost since star G Jaylen Adams returned from injury in early December, with a win over Syracuse likely a nice chit to cash on Selection Sunday.
2 Virginia (12-1) vs. 15 Canisius (8-7)...Tony Bennett’s Cavs will recall their embarrassing exit in the second round vs. Florida last March as a motivator all the way thru Selection Sunday. The midweek beatdown of Virginia Tech at Blacksburg suggests that the ‘Hoos are a threat to get at least as far as they did in 2015 and ‘16, all the way to the Elite Eight. This does not look like a vintage year in the Metro-Atlantic, where no clear favorite emerged in pre-league play. At the moment, the Golden Griffs from Canisius look as good a bet as any to emerge from the conference tourney in Albany, with Manhattan, Rider, and recent Big Dance rep Iona all likely to have a say.
7 Baylor (10-4) vs. 10 Middle Tennessee (9-4)...This already is shaping up as a tough conference run for Baylor, which has ominously dropped its first two Big 12 games. There’s plenty of back-class with the Bears, but Scott Drew has to be careful as the Bears could easily slip into the NIT if they continue to have trouble in their league. No one in the Dance is going to want to face MTSU, which has beaten Big Ten entries (Minnesota & Michigan State) in the first round of the Dance each of the past two years. Kermit Davis’ squad could once again emerge from C-USA, with Memphis transfer F Nick King now complementing pinball, all-name G Giddy Potts, a veteran of recent Blue Raider Dance visits. Marshall and Old Dominion appear to be the other top threats in C-USA, which has the look once again of a one-bid league.
3 Purdue (14-1) vs. 14 Charleston (11-3)...Among the non-Michigan State sides in the Big Ten, Purdue looks to have the best chance to earn a protected seed. The Boilermakers, who reached the Sweet 16 for Matt Painter last March, have recovered from a pair of losses in the Bahamas during Thanksgiving week and have run off ten straight wins into this weekend’s game vs. Nebraska. The closest thing to a clear-cut choice in the Colonial is Charleston, which gets the conference tourney in its hometown in early March, though William & Mary is thinking it might be able to make the Dance for the first-ever time.
6 Clemson (13-1) vs. 11 Auburn (13-1)...We’ve seen this all-Tiger matchup on the gridiron in recent years. Both of these coaches (Brad Brownell and Bruce Pearl) entered this season under some fire, extra heat at Auburn with the FBI probe touching the Plains. Both, however, have played above expectations in the first two months of the season, but will have to navigate tough conference waters to stay on the safe side of the cut line.
SOUTH REGIONAL (Atlanta-Philips Arena)
1 Duke (13-1) vs. 16 NC Central (7-8)/Radford (9-6)...After a one-year absence, Tobacco Road is back in the sub-regional mix which means that Duke is likely not to have to travel very far in the first week. Not sure what eventually happens in the ACC but at the moment we are willing to wager that Duke ends up on the top line. In one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games it seems prudent to project the MEAC champ in one of the spots as no loop entry was even at .500 in non-conference play. NC Central, at 7-8, was the closest (along with North Carolina A&T). The Big South has been involved in play-in games before and could do so again in Dayton, with Radford looking a slight favorite over Liberty and UNC-Asheville into January.
8 Butler (12-4) vs. 9 Rhode Island (10-3)...Butler took some losses prior to New Year’s but played a tough schedule and helped its at-large cause immensely with a win over top-ranked Villanova last weekend. Still much work to do under new HC LaVall Jordan, but at the moment the Bulldogs look bound for a seed in the 7-10 range. Meanwhile, Rhody is whole again after star G EC Matthews went down with an injury in November. Matthews is back and the Rams look again to be the team to beat in the A-10 and make a return to the Dance. Dan Hurley’s squad also appears to be one of the few solid at-large candidates from the mid-major ranks.
4 Texas A&M (11-3) vs. 13 Murray State (10-3)...The Ags have started SEC play ominously at 0-2, though injuries have had something to do with that. Fortunately for A&M, it figures to be whole again soon, and top scorer F DJ Hogg is due back from a recent suspension.Remember, this is a team that many were regarding as a Final Four threat in early December when all of the pieces were still in place. We always like the Ohio Valley, whose tourney in Nashville often turns into a barnburner. Resurgent Murray State has been to the Dance many times before and looks a slight favorite as league play commences, though Jacksonville State, Tennessee Tech, and Belmont (which usually benefits from the tourney in its hometown) should present strong arguments.
5 Gonzaga (12-3) vs. 12 Central Michigan (12-2)...It might be asking much for a return trip to the Final Four, but Mark Few’s Gonzaga should have no trouble reaching the Dance for a 20th consecutive time. The Zags, along with Wichita State and Cincinnati, look to be the surest at-large candidates (if any of them need to go that route) from the mid-major leagues. It’s also been almost two decades since the MAC was a multi-bid league and that’s not likely to change this season, either. The conference tourney at the “Q” in Cleveland often turns into a war, and right now Keno Davis’ CMU might rate a slight edge, though we’d keep an eye on Nate Oats’ Buffalo squad, especially since Missouri transfer G Wes Clark has recently gained eligibility for the Bulls.
2 Xavier (15-1) vs. 15 UNC-Greensboro (10-4)...The “X” has made it as far as the Elite 8 on a few occasions, including last year, but there are some Big East observers who believe that this might be the best chance for the Musketeers to make it to the Final Four, with G Trevon Bluiett in contention for the Wooden Award and HC Chris Mack’s squad generating momentum after a successful pre-league run. There is everything to play for in the SoCon, where the league race has just begun and not much definition developed in pre-loop play. UNCG might be the early favorite, but also watch out for East Tennessee State, Furman, and North Carolina-conqueror Wofford.
7 Tennessee (9-4) vs. 10 Boise State (13-2)...Already the SEC looks a bit of a slippery slope for the Vols, who have lost a pair of games out of the chute in league play vs. Arkansas and Auburn, which speaks to the depth of the league this season. But Rick Barnes’ squad had some good wins in pre-league play and ought to be able to straighten out, though like in the Big 12 this season, there are no soft touches in the SEC. Impressing in the Mountain West has been Boise State, which has reached the Dayton First Four play-in a couple of times under HC Leon Rice. The Broncos look poised to make it this time as either the Mountain West champ or a plain, regular at-large.
3 Kansas (11-3) vs. 14 Wright State (10-5)...After Tuesday’s loss at the Phog to Texas Tech, there is some concern in Lawrence that KU’s 14-year run as Big 12 regular-season champion could end. That might be true, but the Jayhawks have so much back-class that they cannot ever be discounted, and there is the usual talent in the cupboard for Bill Self to make it to the Dance as a protected seed once more. The Horizon’s ever-changing composition could find Wright State, from the Dayton suburbs, emerging as the league’s lone Dance rep, though the race appears very wide-open, with Oakland, Northern Kentucky, and perlahps Milwaukee also looking like they could make some noise in the loop.
6 Florida State (12-2) vs. 11 Mississippi State (13-1)...FSU’s midweek win over North Carolina signaled once again that Leonard Hamilton’s Noles mean business and can probably handle the treacherous ACC well enough to get back to the Dance. Though FSU will take some inevitable hits along the way in that brutal loop. The revived SEC is best represented by Mississippi State, which beat Arkansas in a thriller on Tuesday and has only one loss (at Cincinnati) for HC Ben Howland, looking to take the Dogs to their first Dance since he took charge in Starkville two years ago.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (Omaha-CenturyLink Center)
1 Michigan State (14-1) vs. 16 Texas Southern (2-13)/Robert Morris (9-6)...This doesn’t look like one of those recent seasons in which Tom Izzo’s Michigan State started slowly before picking up momentum after New Year’s. Instead, the Spartans hit their stride in December and have been scoring 100 points or more consistently before getting full-time into their league schedule. Never mind Texas Southern’s 0-13 SU mark in pre-league play, Mike Davis’ Tigers were on the road straight for almost two months and played a schedule that would rank among the nation’s toughest. They’re favored again in the SWAC but would almost surely once more have to go the play-in route. As could Robert Morris, which appears revived after a couple of down years, as the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport looks for a return to the Dance from the Northeast after an absence of a couple of years.
8 Texas (10-4) vs. 9 Notre Dame (11-3)...Texas has been in pretty tough with a demanding schedule that should have prepared it for the expected grueling wars upcoming in the d-e-e-p Big 12. The recent return of key cog soph G Andrew Jones after a brief absence should be a plus for Shaka Smart’s Longhorns and their shot-swatting 6-11 frosh C, Mo Bamba. We’ll see about Notre Dame, which is going to have to survive until perhaps the ACC Tourney without injured star PF Bonzie Colson, who hopes to return by March. Mike Brey’s well-drilled Irish ripped NC State at midweek minus Colson, but will have their hands full minus their best player for the next 6-8 weeks. Can the Irish hang in there minus Colson?
4 Arizona (11-3) vs. 13 UL-Lafayette (12-3)...After a brutal week in the Bahamas during Thanksgiving-time when losing all three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Arizona has recovered and sent a message to hated Arizona State that it is not going to give up control of the state that easily in last Saturday’s Cat win at Tucson. Arizona was minus key G Rawle Alkins during the Bahamas slump and looks formidable again at full-strength. The Sun Belt race is often a cavalry charge and this season should be no different. Preseason pick UT-Arlington just had a couple of bad stumbles on the conference trail, leaving the Ragin’ Cajuns as the early frontrunner.
5 North Carolina (12-3) vs. 12 Missouri State (12-3)...Still plenty of time for UNC to work its way to a protected seed, but this is not quite the same Tar Heels team that bludgeoned everyone on the way to a third national title for Roy Williams last April. Piling up wins in the ACC won’t be easy, either, if the midweek loss (though only by one point) at Florida State is any indicator. Speaking of indicators, all we have to know about Mizzou State’s credentials is how the Bears turned the screws on potent South Dakota State and prolific 6-9 F Mike Daum (held to just 7 points) in a 73-53 beatdown of the explosive Jackrabbits back on Dec. 2. With PF deluxe Alize Johnson, Paul Lusk’s bunch could be the team to beat in Arch Madness now that Wichita has moved to the American.
2 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. 15 Stephen F Austin (12-3)...Enjoy the Trae Young show at OU while you can, because he looks like a sure one-and-done unless he wants to stick around Norman for another year (which sources say he might want to do). In the meantime, he’s the best freshman guard we have ever seen, and by the end of the season we might call him the best college guard we’ve ever seen if he keeps leading the nation in scoring and assists! Don’t sleep on SFA, which narrowly missed vs. SEC Mississippi State and Mizzou in pre-league play and beat LSU. The Lumberjacks look like the team to beat in the Southland.
7 Seton Hall (13-1) vs. 10 Minnesota (12-3)...The Hall might warrant better than a 7 seed based upon what the Pirates have accomplished thus far, and they could certainly end us as a projected seed. Yet the Hall has tailed off before after midseason, though we suspect they’ll comfortably make it back to the Dance for HC Kevin Willard. We’re not sure Richard Pitino’s Minnesota makes it back comfortably to the Dance, and suspect the Gophers might ride the bubble into March, though the Big Ten looks a bit more forgiving than some of the other major loops this season.
3 Wichita State (11-2) vs. 14 Lipscomb (10-5)...Procedural note on Wichita, which is eligible to play the sub-regional in its hometown because the games take place at Intrust Bank Arena, not the Shockers’ home Koch Arena; Big Dance rules stipulate a team must play three games on a court before considering it a home venue, so Gregg Marshall’s dangerous troops, now competing in the American, could get a big venue break in sub-regional weekend. Nashville-based Lipscomb has opened a few eyes already with a couple of wins over crosstown Belmont, though they’ll have to beat preseason choice Florida Gulf Coast and the Stetson Hatters to emerge from the Atlantic Sun.
6 TCU (13-1) vs. 11 Syracuse (12-3)...We expect TCU to take a few lumps in Big 12 play, but the Frogs have already proven they can win on the conference trail with their OT win over Baylor, and an experienced squad off an NIT title can get Jamie Dioxon back to the Dance with his alma mater. Jim Boeheim is still kicking at the ‘Cuse, and while this doesn’t appear a vintage Orange side, Boeheim has taken lesser squads than this one into the Dance.
WEST REGIONAL (Los Angeles-Staples Center)
at San Diego...
1 Arizona State (12-1) vs. 16 Penn (9-5)...A couple of months ago, no one would have believed that ASU would be the last remaining unbeaten in the country, so we’re not going to dock the Sun Devils for last weekend’s close loss at Arizona. Earlier, Bobby Hurley’s small-ball deluxe recipe had beaten Kansas State, Xavier, and Kansas...all away from Tempe. For now, ASU belongs on the top line. The Ivy is intriguing as preseason favorites Harvard and Princeton have yet to justify the hype, while Penn looks better than expected. Remember, Quakers HC Steve Donahue took a couple of Cornell squads to the Dance (and won while there) not that long ago when he was coaching the Big Red.
8 Michigan (13-3) vs. 9 Nevada (13-3)...John Beilein has taken many teams to the Dance before and should get the Wolverines back there in March, perhaps with a chance to better their Sweet 16 run from a year ago. We don’t see the M dropping any further than the 8 line in our future reviews. Keep an eye on Nevada, which was close to wins over Big 12 powers Texas Tech and TCU in mid-December and has the look of a potential team to avoid in March, as Eric Musselman’s bevy of lengthy transfers can create matchup issues for many foes. The Wolf Pack looks for a return to the Dance and appears one of the handful of mid-majors capable of at-large consideration.
4 Kentucky (12-2) vs. 13 New Mexico State (12-3)...John Calipari’s teams often wait until the second half of the season to coagulate, as would befit squads with so many freshmen, but we’re not sure this collection of UK blue-chippers is on the same level as the Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns teams of recent years. To be safe, however, keep an eye on the Cats. New Mexico State fared well in the recent Diamond Head Classic and looks the best of the lot in the WAC for new HC Chris Jans, who arrived from Gregg Marshall’s Wichita staff. The transfer-laden Ags could be a tricky sleeper in March.
5 Miami-Fla. (12-2) vs. 12 South Dakota State (13-4)...We might want to reconsider putting Miami as high as the 5 line after its midweek loss at Georgia Tech put a bit of a stain on what was a successful pre-league run for the Canes. Jim Larranaga can scheme Miami into the Dance, but there are tougher ACC tests than the Yellow Jackets, and we could see the Canes dropping to the 8-9 seed range. We mentioned South Dakota State earlier and believe the Jackrabbits will again emerge from the highly-entertaining Summit, and that high-scoring 6-9 jr. F Mike Daum could be one of the “buzz” names in March.
2 West Virginia (13-1) vs. 15 Northern Colorado (11-4)...Big 12 observers believe the Mountaineers are capable of getting thru the rugged Big 12 relatively unscathed and give Bob Huggins his best chance to get back to the Final Four since 2010. A vet WVU backcourt featuring sr. Gs Daxter Miles, Jr. & Jevon Carter has already survived tough conference road trips to Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Meanwhile, the team to watch in the Big Sky might be Northern Colorado, fueled by Arizona State transfer G Andre Spight. Montana, Idaho, and Portland State also look to make it an interesting winter in the Sky.
7 UCLA (11-3) vs. 10 Louisville (11-3)...A recent surprise win over Kentucky and a quick break from the gate in the Pac-12 suggests that Steve Alford can get the post-Lonzo Ball Bruins back to the Dance. That didn’t appear to be a sure thing for much of the first month of the season, but the Pac-12 does not look as strong as a year ago, and UCLA should be able to chase the Arizona schools and stay clear of the bubble. We’ll see about the ‘Ville, which has a throwback look with its big lineup in the era of “small-ball” rosters. But the drop-off from Rick Pitino to David Padgett on the bench is incalculable, as the recent lopsided loss vs. Kentucky would suggest.
3 Cincinnati (12-2) vs. 14 UCSB (11-3)...This might be the best chance Mick “The Ghost” Cronin has had to go deep into the Dance, as the Bearcats’ snarling defense will make them a team to avoid in March. If it needs the at-large out of the American, Cincy will have no problems, one of the handful of teams out of mid-major loops with that luxury. Meanwhile, the most impressive Big West entry to date has been UCSB, with new HC Joe Pasternack (recently Sean Miller’s sidekick at Arizona) molding some transfers alongside holdover soph bombardier G Max Heidegger in a stylish offense that bears no resemblance to the grinding Bob Williams teams of recent years.
6 Creighton (12-3) vs. 11 St. Mary’s (13-2)/Georgia (10-3)...Go-go Creighton is scoring better than 90 ppg and should have no problem getting HC Greg McDermott back to the Dance with a chance to do some real damage. If this play-in at-large matchup materializes, it would be a rematch of a crackling battle in the Wooden Legacy at Fullerton during Thanksgiving week won by Georgia, 83-81. SMC might have needed that one to add a bit more heft to its SOS (Strength of Schedule) numbers that might not look so good coming out of the WCC. As for the Dawgs, they look legit with PF Yante Maten and could easily move up the seeding ladder. If HC Mark Fox needs a Dance invite to save his job, he might be in luck.
Last four in: Maryland, St. Bonaventure, St. Mary’s, Georgia.
Last four out: Ohio State, Alabama, Southern Cal, UNLV.
Next four out: Houston, St. John’s, Missouri, Boston College.
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