Bracketology Update (1/19)

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Update (1/2)

Mid-January is the proper time for another "Bracketology" update, as conference play has had a few weeks to settle in across the country, and we get a bit better idea how the field of 68 might look come March.

At the moment, we’re projecting a pretty “soft” bubble this season. Many of the leagues are top-heavy, and with only a handful of mid-majors looking like they’re at-large worthy, we’re thinking there might not be a lot of drama come Selection Sunday. A quick look at the cut line suggests as much; though things can change over the next six to seven weeks, we’re anticipating the look of the field to be more cut-and-dried than usual. This season, with a heavy emphasis on “power conferences” not named the Pac-12.

We’ve decided to wait for our next update to include any additional calculations and ratings (such as the new “BPI”) that figure to look a lot different in a couple of weeks as conference play continues and naturally adjusts some of those numbers, which will begin to take on more significance in February.

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; this season, things start a week later than a year ago. The Dayton “First Four” games will be played March 19-20; sub-regional action commences on March 21, with the Final Four pushed to April 6-8. Selection Sunday will be here before you know it, this year on St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday, March 17!

Straight-up records thru January 15.

EAST REGIONAL (Washington, D.C.-Cap One Arena)

At Hartford...

1 Virginia (SUR 16-0) vs. 16 Stony Brook (15-3)...Nothing has changed on the top line in this region from our last update, with Virginia, if anything, strengthening its claim to the top overall seed as it continues to thump competent ACC opposition. Capable Clemson and Virginia Tech haven’t come close in the past week; we’ll see how this Saturday’s showdown goes vs. Duke. At the moment we have the Cavs as the top ACC seed, and thus on the top line in the East. In the America East, the home team of Strat-o-Matic on Long Island, Stony Brook has, with defending champ Vermont, already moved clear from the rest of the pack. Expect the Seawolves and Catamounts to eventually meet for the AE bid in March, and to stay well clear of the 16 vs. 16 play-in game.

8 UCF (13-2) vs. 9 Kansas State (12-4)...Johnny Dawkins has a contender on his hands in the American with his UCF, and the Knights could become a real curiosity come March with 7-6 Tacko Fall patrolling the paint. We can envision the Selection Committee going 4-deep in the American. Meanwhile, key F Dean Wade has returned from injury not a moment too soon for Bruce Weber’s K-State, which was looking like it might drop from view in the competitive Big 12. But recent rousing wins over West Virginia and Iowa State seem to have steadied the ship in Manhattan.

At Columbus...

4 Maryland (15-3) vs. 13 Liberty (14-4)...With the Big Ten likely to be granted an extremely wide berth by the Selection Committee, it is reasonable to expect any entry that finishes near the top of the loop to be given protected seed consideration. So it goes with Marc Turgeon’s Terps, who look every bit a No. 4 seed into mid-January. The schedule begins to get tougher right about now, however, for Maryland, which over the next month will have to visit several Big Ten snake pits. As for Liberty, the Fightin’ Falwells look to be pulling clear along with last year’s champ Lipscomb in the A-Sun. Both have scored noteworthy non-league wins on the road (Flames at UCLA, Bison at TCU). It would be a surprise if these two do not battle for the league’s auto-berth in March.

5 Villanova (13-4) vs. 12 Wofford (14-4)...’Nova might not be at quite the same level as its pair of national title winners the past three years, but Jay Wright seems to have the Wildcats straightened out after hitting some bumps during the first month of the season. Still time for ’Nova to move into protected seed territory as the Big East race begins to shake out. The SoCon once again looks to be a highly-competitive loop, though Wofford has shown good early foot in league play and impressed the most in non-conference action (the blowout win at South Carolina on Nov. 26 now looking particularly good).

At San Jose...

2 Texas Tech (15-1) vs. 15 Rider (9-7)...At this point, it’s fair to put the Red Raiders on the 2-line, given that their only loss into mid-January was a competitive affair vs. Duke. Several banana peels await as the meat of the Big 12 slate looms, but Chris Beard’s side looks a good bet to at least get as far as it advanced last March, all the way to the Sweet 16. We were waiting for a team to emerge in the Metro-Atlantic, and it looks like preseason favorite Rider has hit its stride just as conference play has commenced. The Broncs have quickly taken charge of the league race after taking some lumps vs. a challenging (and far-flung) pre-league slate. With a veteran squad that returned almost everyone from last year’s 22-win NIT qualifier, Rider looks the clear team to beat in the loop.

7 NC State (14-3) vs. 10 Indiana (12-5)...Both of these sides need to be careful in the coming weeks. We’ve docked the Wolfpack a couple of rungs on the seeding ladder after the inexplicable midweek loss to lowly Wake Forest, ominous because much tougher tests remain in the ACC. NCS has a ways to go before it could get into some bubble trouble, and the Auburn win will resonate nicely into March, but the Pack has not looked the same since its recent big effort came up short vs. North Carolina. The same scenario could apply to Archie Miller’s Indiana, which has suddenly dropped three straight with the bulk of the Big Ten schedule still to come. There are very few soft spots left on the Hoosiers’ slate.

At Columbia, SC...

3 Buffalo (16-1) vs. 14 Princeton (9-5)...By this point, most have warmed to the idea that Buffalo, with only a loss at Marquette on its ledger into mid-January, should earn a protected seed in March. We’re not convinced the Bulls have to be a 4-seed, however; they could just as easily end up on the 3-line if they continue to dodge bullets in the MAC. Meanwhile, in a quirk of Ivy league scheduling this season, Princeton has already gotten both games out of the way vs. preseason favorite Penn...and the Tigers won them both. Still a long way to go in the race, and the Quakers could yet be heard from, while Brown and Yale have been making some noise as well. Speaking of the Eli, note that the 4-team Ivy Tourney moves from Penn’s Palestra to Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater at historic Payne Whitney Gym in March.

6 Mississippi State (13-3) vs. 11 San Francisco (14-3/Washington (12-4)...Ben Howland’s Bulldogs bounced back from their bitter weekend loss to cross-state Ole Miss by gutting out a win vs. Florida, the latest bit of evidence that MSU is bound for the Dance for the first time on Howland’s watch. Remember, the Bulldogs did advance all the way to the NIT semis last March. Given that the edge of the bubble is looking like it might be a bit soft, the Pac-12, like a year ago, might be able to slip a couple of extra teams into the at-large play-in round. Washington, which narrowly missed a bit last March for HC Mike Hopkins, might be in position if it stays among the leaders in a down year for the Pac. USF has impressed from the get-go this season and we doubt last Saturday’s competitive, late loss to Gonzaga is going to hurt the Dons too much.

SOUTH REGIONAL (Louisville-KFC Yum! Center)

At Jacksonville...

1 Tennessee (15-1) vs. 16 Norfolk State (9-10)/Wagner (8-7)...Not much question, at least at the moment, about Tennessee’s credentials for the top line. The Vols look like the team to beat in the combative SEC and have the non-conference results to back up the claim, with good wins over Louisville and Gonzaga (neither of those in Knoxville, by the way), and the only loss in OT vs. Kansas at Madison Square Garden. Sounds to us like Rick Barnes has a team that belongs on the top line. In 16 vs. 16 play-in land, the MEAC champ as usual looks a likely candidate, with Norfolk State appearing the best of that lot into mid-January. Keep an eye on NC Central and NC A&T as well. The Northeast has often been drawn into the 16 vs. 16s and this season looks no different, with Bob Beckel’s alma mater Wagner getting a weak mid-January recommendation. Keep an eye on St. Francis (NY), which along with William & Mary has the longest Big Dance drought (0 for-forever)!

8 Cincinnati (15-3) vs. 9 Minnesota (13-3)...These sides both might think they warrant better seeding, but we’ll let each play their way into convincing us they’re above the 7-9 range. Cincy might like the thought of playing in the regional at nearby Louisville, where the Bearcats once won an NCAA title (1962) across town from KFC-Yum! Center at old Freedom Hall, but they’ll have to advance out of the sub-regionals first. Minnesota has a couple of good Big Ten wins already vs. Nebraska and Wisconsin, but there are plenty of trap doors awaiting on the conference trail.

At Columbia, SC...

4 North Carolina (13-4) vs. 13 Hofstra (15-3)...Roy Williams has not been too pleased the past week with his Tar Heels, who were mauled at home by Louisville and needed about 39 minutes before putting away Notre Dame at the Dean Dome on Tuesday. UNC has a couple of reliable vets in F Luke Maye and wing Cameron Johnson, but Roy is a bit disappointed in the maturity levels of his many “me-first, me-second” frosh. We’ll see if the Heels grow up between now and March. Looks like a real scrap is developing in the Colonial, where Hofstra could make its first Big Dance appearance since Jay Wright was the coach in 2001, and explosive sr. G Justin Wright-Foreman (25 ppg) providing the thrills. Defending CAA champ Charleston and always-tough Northeastern are lurking.

5 Marquette (15-3) vs. 12 Saint Louis (13-4)...We admit that Marquette might warrant a better seed than a 5, especially with the fireworks show that is G Markus (with a “k”) Howard, now in the conversation for the Wooden Award. (Though everyone in Milwaukee is wondering if Howard’s recent back injury should be of concern.) If the Golden Eagles stay in the top two of the Big East, Wojo might get his protected seed after all. As for the A-10, we’re not sure this year if it’s going to be more than a one-bid league, which should make the conference tourney in Brooklyn quite a donnybrook. No fewer than six teams look to have a legit shot; for the moment a measured vote for Travis Ford’s well-schooled Billikens.

At Columbus...

2 Michigan State (15-2) vs. 15 Northern Kentucky (14-4)...Tom Izzo has had problems escaping the sub-regionals in recent years though we suspect this Spartans edition will not meet that same fate. Izzo took a 10-game win streak into Nebraska on Thursday and had yet to take a deep breath in Big Ten play. The Horizon has a new featured attraction in Detroit frosh G Antoine Davis, a scoring machine tallying near 30 ppg and with the green light to shoot from his coach, who’s also his papa (well-traveled Mike Davis). But for now a nod to the more-veteran Norse of NKU (already a big winner vs. the Titans) to emerge from the conference tourney at Little Caesars Arena.

7 Florida State (13-4) vs. 10 Ole Miss (13-3)...The ACC can prove a very slippery slope for a team in a slump, and that’s what FSU has to worry about after its all-out effort was cruelly denied against Duke, followed up by a flat performance vs. aroused Pitt. We think the Noles are too good to drop too much further, but for the moment we’ve docked them for the Panthers loss. The surprise package of the SEC has been Ole Miss, which has quietly snuck up on the rest of the league with new HC Kermit Davis, who arrived from a winning run at MTSU . Perhaps the midweek loss to LSU begins to turn things in the other direction, but we also are obliged to mention the sterling 14-2 spread mark Davis has manufactured into Saturday’s game vs. Arkansas.

At Tulsa...

3 Oklahoma (13-3) vs. 14 Winthrop (11-6)...Many Big 12 sources believe this is a better Oklahoma team than last year’s edition that became too Trae Young-centric, as the Sooners look more like a usual well-oiled Lon Kruger production this season. Staying as a protected seed, however, might not be easy with all sorts of traps being set around the Big 12. Winthrop might be the best in the Big South, but there looks to be a nice logjam at the top of the loop, with Radford, Tubby Smith’s High Point, and giant-killer Gardner Webb (from Boiling Springs, NC!) all in the mix.

6 LSU (13-3) vs. 11 Murray State (13-2)...Will Wade’s upgraded recruiting efforts in Baton Rouge look like they’ll be rewarded in Year Two as the Tigers appear to be Big Dance-bound and likely to wear the home whites in first round. Last Tuesday’s win at surging Ole Miss should have converted the few remaining skeptics. An early vote for the mid-major that no power-conference rep wants to see is Murray State, which has assumed the favorite’s role in the Ohio Valley behind highlight-reel G Ja Morant. Old reliable Belmont and gritty Jacksonville State, however look like they won’t make it easy for the Racers in the Valley.

MIDWEST REGIONAL (Kansas City-Sprint Center)

At Des Moines...

1 Michigan (17-0) vs. 16 Ark-Pine Bluff (6-10)/Lehigh (10-5)...Raise your hand if you saw this coming with Michigan; we sure didn’t, and we’re not sure John Beilein did, either. But we believe, at the moment, it would probably be between the unbeaten Wolverines and unbeaten Virginia Cavaliers for the number one overall seed. Who knows what might happen in the SWAC, where once again no team entered league play above .500. But the Golden Lions of Pine Bluff have broken quickly in loop action to become a measured vote as one of the teams in a 16 vs. 16 game at Dayton. The Patriot has also been involved in these 16 vs. 16s, too, though we might be selling Lehigh or Bucknell a bit short. By March either of those sides could work up to the 14 or 13-line.

8 Syracuse (12-5) vs. 9 TCU (13-3)...By now we’ve learned to never underestimate Jim Boeheim, who reminded everyone again on Monday night with the upset win at Duke that overlook the Orange at your own risk. Remember how the ‘Cuse, off of an at-large play-in win over Arizona State, dumped 3-seed Michigan State in the 2nd round last season. Beware. TCU’s record suggests the Frogs might deserve a better seed than a 9 but not a lot of heft in the non-conference win list, and already a couple of losses early in Big 12 play.

At Salt Lake City...

4 Kentucky (13-3) vs. 13 Loyola-Chicago (11-7)...We have seen some hints of an emergence by Kentucky, which appears as if it will be a work in progress for John Calipari into March. By that point, if the Cats continue to improve, they will likely be a team to watch, and appear a good bet for a 3-4 seed. And, look-ee here, Loyola-Chicago is once again starting to stir, and in a watered-down Missouri Valley could emerge again for HC Porter Moser. The Ramblers might lack the sharp edge of last season but they still have the ringleader of that magical run to the Final Four in G Clayton Custer. And Sister Jean is still around for moral support!

5 Houston (16-1) vs. 12 Seton Hall (12-6)...Many have forgotten how close Houston came to knocking out Michigan in the second round last March, as only a long desperation buzzer-beater saved the Wolverines. Not many figured the Cougs would be better after the departure of star G Rob Gray, but it can safely be said that HC Kelvin Sampson knows what he’s doing. Seton Hall has enough good wins to land on the safe side of the cut line and maybe at a better seed than this, and G Myles Powell has become one of the stars of this season. But the Pirates are starting to take some losses in the competitive Big East.

At Tulsa...

2 Kansas (15-2) vs. 15 Abilene Christian (14-3)...Still plenty of time for the Jayhawks to land on the top line in some region, especially if they can win the Big 12 regular-season crown for an astounding 15th straight time! Until further notice, however, road losses at Arizona State and Iowa State have KU on the 2-line. The Dance would mark a new adventure for Abilene Christian, in only its second year of full-blown postseason D-I eligibility. The Wildcats made it into the CIT last season and could do better this March. Look for the Sam Houston State Bearkats, among others, to offer resistance in the Southland.

7 Wisconsin (11-6) vs. 10 St. John’s (14-3)...Wisconsin is starting to take on some water as the defeats are piling up, but there are yet no “bad” losses on the ledger (Western Kentucky does not qualify as one of those), and we are expecting the Selection Committee to dig very deep into the Big Ten in March. Those teams will be allowed a few more losses, we suspect. Ominous for Chris Mullin’s St. John’s was the recent dip in form after the injury to G Shamorie Ponds, who might be the MVP of the Big East. As long as Ponds gets healthy soon, the Red Storm should hang in the field into March; if not, Mullin’s team could be scrambling in the Big East Tourney.

At Jacksonville...

3 Virginia Tech (14-2) vs. 14 South Dakota State (14-6)...Just because the Hokies became the latest victim of rampaging Virginia is no reason to move VPI off the 3-line, where we will keep Buzz Williams and his troops for the time being. This still looks like a protected-seed entry to us. Expected back for another spin from the Summit is South Dakota State, with prolific 6-9 F Mike Daum sticking around for his tenth season with the Jackrabbits. We’re kidding, of course, it only seems that long. SDSU has come close before in the Dance; is this the year the Rabbits finally pull the upset?

6 Purdue (11-6) vs. 11 North Texas (16-2)...Carsen Edwards is ramping up his candidacy for the Wooden Award, and while Matt Painter’s Boilermakers have never been this reliant on one player, Edwards looks good enough to carry the load as this season’s answer to Jalen Brunson from recent campaigns at Villanova. Conference USA provided a Big Dance shocker last season when Marshall dumped favored Wichita State, and many believe Grant McCasland’s emerging North Texas is capable of the same. Remember, the Mean Green are postseason-tested, having won the CBI last spring.

WEST REGIONAL (Anaheim-Honda Center)

at Hartford...

1 Duke (14-2) vs. 16 Montana (11-6)...Yep, we thought about moving Coach K off the top line after the Monday night home loss vs. Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse. But there is already a lot of heft in the Blue Devils schedule (wins over Kentucky, Auburn, Indiana, and Texas Tech in pre-league play), and plenty more quality wins are on the plate in the ACC. Especially as Duke figures to be favored in every remaining game (even Saturday vs. unbeaten Virginia). So the Blue Devils stay as a 1-seed for now. The Big Sky figured to be Montana’s playground this season, but the Grizzlies have already suffered a couple of shock defeats vs. Portland State and Eastern Washington. Though the vet Griz did restore order vs. temporary Sky leader Northern Colorado last weekend.

8 Iowa (14-3) vs. 9 Arizona (13-4)...The Big Ten race features a lot of sharp elbows but Iowa looks ready for a return to the Dance after a brief hiatus. Especially as Fran McCaffery’s team has apparently learned to win on the Big Ten trail. The Hawkeyes might even warrant better than an 8 seed. This is a provisional nod to Arizona out of the Pac-12, which is admittedly down this season and might be a one-bid league (though we tend to think not). Sean Miller has done an admirable quick rebuild in Tucson, though who knows if any possible penalties might await in light of some recent developments involving former asst. Book Richardson. Stay tuned.

At Des Moines...

4 Auburn (12-3) vs. 13 Georgia State (13-4)...Auburn has taken a few hits this season, most recently at Ole Miss, and its place as a protected seed is certain open for review. For the moment, we keep Bruce Pearl’s Tigers on the 4-line, but with a warning not to slip out of contention in the SEC. The clever Ron Hunter has advanced his Georgia State out of the Sun Belt on many occasions and this season could mark another notch in the coach’s belt. Danny “Cool McCool” Kaspar’s Texas State, UL-Lafayette, and Georgia Southern appear the top challengers.

5 Nebraska (13-4) vs. 12 Arizona State (11-5)/VCU (12-5)...Very little chance that Nebraska would get snubbed again on Selection Sunday if the Cornhuskers come anything close to the 13-5 league mark of last season that was only deemed good enough for an NIT invite. No Christmas cards to the Selection Committee from Trim Miles, that’s for sure. We are giving much benefit of the doubt to the Pac-12, which might not deserve more than one team in the Dance. And this is not the season for ASU to stumble in the conference race like it did a year ago. But good wins vs. Mississippi State and Kansas are the best non-league efforts by any Pac side and should age well into March. As for VCU, the Rams have been a pleasant surprise for HC Mike Rhoades, and the non-league win at Texas will keep the Rams in the mix. Whatever, the A-10 getting a second team into the field will be a bubble mystery into March.

At Salt Lake City...

2 Gonzaga (16-2) vs. 15 New Mexico State (13-4)...Now that Mark Few has key cogs Killian Tillie and Gene Crandall back from injury, there should be no stopping the Zags in the WCC after clearing their toughest league hurdle last Saturday at USF. Imagine another battle royale vs. Duke after their epic clash in Maui? Once again NMSU looks the class of the WAC, though the Ags already have a league loss at upstart Cal Baptist. Alas, the Lancers are in transition from D-II and can’t participate in the Dance, but look for them in the CBI or CIT.

7 Iowa State (12-4) vs. 10 Temple (13-3)...The Big 12 is a darned entertaining league this season and Iowa State is one of the reasons why it has been so much fun to watch. Steve Prohm did a quick reboot in Ames with several transfers who should get the Cyclones back to the Dance after last year’s dip in form. It only seems right for Temple to get a call on Selection Sunday in the farewell season for respected HC Fran Dunphy, who has been to the Dance with the Owls and Penn more times than we can remember. After handing Houston its first loss earlier this month, and the American looking robust, we doubt the Owls sweat on Selection Sunday.

At San Jose...

3 Nevada (17-1) vs. 14 UCSB (13-3)...The Mountain West slate is turning into a wild ride for the Wolf Pack, who have already been dumped at New Mexico and needed Cody Martin’s last-second triple to escape at Boise State on Tuesday. Are these wake-up calls for Eric Musselman’s crew, or signs of more underlying issues? We’ll see. As usual the Big West looks up for grabs, though at the moment, Joe Pasternak’s UCSB might rate a slight nod over UC Irvine. They’ll settle things in the wide-open Big West Tourney at the NHL Ducks’ Honda Center in March.

6 Louisville (11-5) vs. 11 Ohio State (12-4)...These sides are both going to take some losses as the season progresses in their respective rugged loops, but, until further notice, expect each to land on the safe side of the cut line. Last weekend’s Louisville romp at North Carolina figures to be a nice ticket to cash for the Cardinals come Selection Sunday. A bit more concern, perhaps, for OSU, without that sort of win in its satchel to date, and dropping down the seeding ladder after three straight losses, including a damaging setback at Rutgers on Jan. 9. Be careful, Buckeyes.

Last four byes: Seton Hall, Ohio State, Indiana, Temple

Last four in: San Francisco, Washington, Arizona State, VCU

Last four out: Dayton, Fresno State, Texas, South Carolina

Next four out: Butler, Georgetown, Pitt, Florida