Like always, I break down the projected matchups by each region, beginning with the sub-regionals, which this year will begin on Thursday, March 21. Straight-up records and RPI are thru Sunday, February 10.
1 Florida (SUR 19-3, RPI-4) vs. 16 Florida Gulf Coast (18-8, 98)...Normally, a team like Florida would get knocked off of the top line after an effort like last week's ugly loss at Arkansas. But with almost every other potential number one seed also going down within the last week, the damage is lessened, and a watered-down SEC doesn't figure to offer too many other speed bumps for the Gators. At the moment, Fort Myers-based Florida Gulf Coast holds a slim lead over Mercer in the Atlantic Sun; the Eagles' relatively-solid RPI would probably allow them to miss the 16 vs. 16 play-in game should they win the A-Sun Tourney (although Mercer gets to host that event in Macon).
8 UNLV (18-6, 23) vs. 9 North Carolina State (17-7, 19)...Both of these sides have been sliding down the seeding scale the past couple of weeks, although each temporarily stopped the bleeding over the weekend. UNLV, however, could fall into bubble trouble if it continues to falter on the road in Mountain West play (recent losses at Boise and Fresno haven't helped), while the alarm bells would definitely have been ringing in Raleigh had the Wolfpack not squeezed out that 1-point win at Clemson on Sunday. We suspect these two both straighten themselves out before Selection Sunday, but for now rate no better than the 8-9 range.
4 Virginia Commonwealth (19-5, 51) vs. 13 Bucknell (20-4, 57)...VCU has regained some traction with three straight wins, and a look at the upcoming slate suggests the Rams could develop lots of momentum heading into the A-10 Tourney at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the event has moved after being conducted at Convention Hall in Atlantic City the past few years. The Patriot League race changed in January when Lehigh G C.J. McCollum (23.9 ppg) went down with a foot injury, but Andrea Tantaros' alma mater has stayed afloat and has managed an upset over Bucknell, which temporarily assumed the league's favored role when McCollum went down. The winner of their rematch on Presidents Day at Bethlehem likely gets to host the conference tourney and the huge edge that entails.
5 Oregon (19-5, 42) vs. 12 Saint Louis (18-5, 60)...The Ducks have waddled out of protected seed territory with three losses in their last four games, coinciding with the absence of star frosh G Dominic Artis, temporarily sidelined by a foot injury. Oregon was also wobbly when finally stopping the skid on Saturday vs. Utah, so the slide could continue until Artis returns. Into our field for the first time is Jim Crews' surging Saint Louis, as the Billikens have won six straight and 15 of 17 entering this week. Three key games in the next ten days vs. Charlotte, Butler, and VCU will likely decide SLU's at-large fate.
2 Syracuse (20-3, 8) vs. 15 Stony Brook (17-5, 81)...Good news over the weekend for Syracuse in that star F James Southerland resolved his eligibility issues and was available again for active duty. With Southerland back in the fold, look for the Orange to re-establish control of the Big East race and have a chance to end up on the top line after all. The America East race looks to be a two-horse race between the Strat-o-matic headquarters home team, Long Island's Stony Brook, and the Vermont Catamounts. Keep an eye on the league table, as the winner gets homecourt edge throughout the fast approaching conference tourney, which has proved a huge edge in this loop in the past.
7 Oklahoma (15-7, 21) vs. 10 Ole Miss (18-5, 46)...Lon Kruger's resurgent Oklahoma got the marquee win it was looking for last Saturday against Kansas, and its solid RPI suggests the Sooners could be wearing the home jerseys in the first round of the Dance. This would be a record fifth appearance with a different school in the Dance for Kruger, who has previously steered alma mater Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, and UNLV to the NCAA Tourney. Despite last Saturday's blowout loss at Missouri, we think Ole Miss is still on pretty safe ground away from the cut line, although the downgraded SEC could cause some RPI-related problems if the Rebs slip a few more times, and we would keep an eye on a possible upcoming suspension for F Reginald Buckner after throwing punches in last Saturday's loss at Missouri.
At Auburn Hills...
3 Michigan State (20-4, 11) vs. 14 Harvard (13-7, 79)...Look out for Michigan State, as Tom Izzo once again seems to have a team that could be peaking as it hits March (which we have seen from the Spartans before). A bonus as a protected seed for MSU would be an almost-certain sub-regional assignment to nearby Auburn Hills, where the dynamics could be very interesting with fans of rival Michigan (also likely ticketed for The Palace) rooting hard for the Spartans' opponent. Which could be Harvard, once again looking like the class of the Ivy League, although Tommy Amaker's side was dumped on Sunday by Columbia in a game postponed a day by the Nemo storm. The game vs. Princeton this Saturday at Cambridge appears to be the first of a two-legged showdown to determine the Ivy's Big Dance rep.
6 Cincinnati (18-6, 26) vs. 11 Temple (16-7, 49)/North Carolina 16-7, 32)...At only 6-6 in its last twelve games, Cincy is quickly slipping out of sight of a protected seed, and a quick look at the upcoming slate suggests the Bearcats could fall further down the seeding scale for Mick "The Ghost" Cronin. Tourney regulars Temple and, dare we say, North Carolina are both riding the bubble at the moment, and no guarantees to make it into the Dance. The Owls are living dangerously with a pair of one-point wins in the last week vs. Charlotte & Dayton keeping Fran Dunphy's side in the field (barely) at the moment. We've suspected this isn't one of Roy Williams' vintage Chapel Hill editions since early in the season, and last Saturday's lopsided loss at Miami further confirms those suspicions.
1 Duke (21-2, 1) vs. 16 Bryant (16-6, 132)/Norfolk State (15-10, 199)...Duke is No. 1 in the Coaches' Poll this week (Indiana in the AP Poll), not that the Blue Devils or any other team is welcoming that designation this season. Coach K's side almost looked as if it didn't want the burden of being number one when nearly blowing its Sunday game at lowly Boston College, surviving by only a 62-61 count. Whatever, Philly would be a proper sub-regional destination for the Blue Devils, whose alumni base is heavy in the Northeast. The America East race looks like it is going to come down to the Bryant (Gumbel) Bulldogs and Vermont Catamounts; in Bryant's case, it is quite a story after last year's 2-28 mark. Right now we suspect the AE champ likely gets involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games, as almost assuredly will be the MEAC champ. Which at the moment looks like it could once again be Norfolk State, although the Spartans will be entering March without the star of last year's giant killers, C Kyle O'Quinn, now with the NBA Orlando Magic.
8 UCLA (18-6, 39) vs. 9 Wichita State (20-5, 41)...UCLA badly needed the two wins its recorded last weekend vs. the Washington schools, as a loss to either would have been damaging to the Bruins' recently-weakening NCAA case that featured losses in 3 of 4 before the visits by the Huskies and Cougs. Still, Ben Howland's team isn't out of the woods yet. An assignment vs. Wichita would be a rematch of the 1965 Final Four at Portland, when John Wooden's Bruins rolled by a 108-89 count. That Shocker team remains one of the most-unlikely Final Four qualifiers in our memory, as Wichita lost star players Dave Stallworth and Nate Bowman during the course of that season. Like UCLA, Wichita has been heading in the wrong direction the past few weeks, losing three of four; the Shockers can still play themselves out of an at-large spot, especially if they lose their upcoming Bracket Buster vs. Detroit.
At San Jose....
4 Butler (20-4, 15) vs. 13 Middle Tennessee (22-4, 28)...Butler likely has to win the A-10 Tourney to stay in consideration for a protected seed. But if the Bulldogs succeed in Brooklyn, they will have a solid case for a top-four regional seed, with some very good non-conference wins (North Carolina, Indiana, Gonzaga) in their back pockets. As for Kermit Davis' MTSU, the upcoming Sun Belt Tourney at Hot Springs will be a chance to correct a wrong from last year when the similarly-favored Blue Raiders were dumped in the conference tourney, and unlikely Western Kentucky emerged. Remember, MTSU advanced to the NIT last March where it won games before exiting.
5 Marquette (17-5,16) vs. 12 Virginia (17-6, 100)...Marquette will certainly have a chance to play its way into a protected seed, but the treacherous Big East could also knock the Golden Eagles down the ladder as well. Marquette's difficulties shooting the three-ball (where it is only hitting 30%) could pose problems in the next few weeks. Virginia's RPI has been hurt by very-early losses to George Mason and Delaware in November, but the Wisconsin win is now looking better for Brit Hume's alma mater, and the Cavs have climbed into third place in the ACC after their crucial Sunday win at Maryland.
At Auburn Hills...
2 Michigan (21-3, 5) vs. 15 Northeastern (16-8, 127)...Recent losses at Indiana and Wisconsin have probably moved John Beilein's Wolverines off of the top line for the time being, although Michigan has time to play itself back into a number one seed. The Colonial can be thankful that Northeastern is its one contending team that is improved from year ago, or else the CAA would be a candidate to send its rep into one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games. Which could still happen if there are upsets in the conference tourney at Richmond. What happened to the CAA this season? No more VCU (off to the A-10) in the loop, it's hardly a vintage George Mason contingent this season, and we've seen what has happened to usual contender Old Dominion.
7 San Diego State (18-5, 25) vs. 10 Villanova (15-9, 68)...A few weeks ago we were weighing Steve Fisher's SDSU as a possible protected seed, but some recent banana peels in the Mountain West have shoved the Aztecs a bit down the ladder. Meanwhile, lots of intrigue regarding surging Villanova, which can't afford too many other slip-ups like its recent loss vs. Providence, but continued its ascent last week vs. DePaul and South Florida. Now Jay Wright's Wildcats are at least in position to capitalize upon January wins over Louisville and Syracuse, which remain some very nice chips to cash on Selection Sunday.
At Salt Lake City...
3 Pittsburgh (20-5, 34) vs. 14 Davidson (17-7, 112)...Perhaps making the biggest jump of all in the past two weeks has been Jamie Dixon's surging Pittsburgh, which is moving up the Big East table in a hurry with wins in 7 of its last 8 games and a chance to hit the conference tourney in full flight with a favorable schedule in the next three weeks. Although having absorbed some losses in pre-league play, Bob McKillop's Davidson has taken command of the SoCon and appears to be a clear favorite for that fast-approaching conference tourney in Asheville.
6 Oklahoma State (17-5, 27) vs. 11 Akron (19-4, 52)...With five straight wins, including a stunner at Kansas on February 2, Ok State has moved far clear of the cut line and might have a chance to nab a protected seed if the uptick continues. A matchup vs. Akron would be a rematch of a competitive game played in the Puerto Rico Shootout back in November, when the Cowboys won by 4. As for the Zips, the question is if they could warrant serious at-large consideration (and make the MAC a two-bid league) if they lose in the conference tourney; Keith Dambrot's streaking side enters the week on a nation's-best 15-game win streak. For that reason, its upcoming Bracket Buster game vs. North Dakota State will take on added significance.
1 Indiana (21-3, 13) vs. 16 Southern U (16-8, 186)/UNC-Asheville (15-10, 157)...Although Indiana blew a chance to remain on top of the polls when losing at Illinois last week, the Sunday win at Ohio State stabilized the situation enough so that the Hoosiers probably remain on the top line as we head into mid-February. Expect the Big South and SWAC champs to be two of the four teams in the pair of 16 vs. 16 play-in games. Significant developments over the past two weeks in the Big South, as UNC-Asheville has pulled ahead of Charleston Southern in the South half of the loop and would now appear to be the favorite for the upcoming conference tourney, where Charleston Southern and Scott Cherry's High Point figure to provide the stiffest opposition. Meanwhile, Southern U remains the only SWAC side above .500, although Arkansas-Pine Bluff enters the week having pulled level in the league standings.
8 Kentucky (17-6, 44) vs. 9 Colorado (16-7, 20)...Yes, we acknowledged that John Calipari's newest group of diaper dandies isn't quite the equal of his last one a year ago. But no, we don't think the Cats are going to be in danger of missing the Dance, with several winnable games remaining on the SEC slate. Colorado has also moved safely away from the cut line after last weekend's pair of wins on the road against the Oregon schools. The Buffs had put themselves in some trouble with a slow start in Pac-12 play, but their solid RPI ought to provide some cushion on Selection Sunday.
At Kansas City...
4 Notre Dame (19-5, 50) vs. 13 Belmont (20-5, 18)...Five overtimes vs. Louisville is enough to move Notre Dame (at least temporarily) back into protected seed territory. But the Irish still have three Big East road games remaining vs. currently-ranked teams and could slide back into the 6-7 seed range if not careful. Belmont, like fellow mid-majors Akron and La Tech, has positioned itself for a possible at-large berth if it can't win the tourney in the Ohio Valley, where the Bruins moved from the Atlantic Sun. Stiff opposition, however, figures to come from Isaiah Canaan and Murray State, which won the OVC Tourney a year ago and beat the Bruins last week. Both are also involved in tricky Bracket Busters (Belmont vs. Ohio, the Racers against Nate "53-point" Wolters and South Dakota State) late next week.
5 Colorado State (19-4, 14) vs. 12 Arizona State (18-6, 61)...Don't sleep on senior-laden CSU, which has cracked the national rankings for the first time in 59 years, has won four straight, and has an RPI to suggest that the Rams could be in contention for a protected seed if they keep winning. Arizona State's prospects are a bit more dicey at the moment, especially after Saturday's narrow home loss vs. Stanford. Not much more room for error for Herb Sendek's Sun Devils if they want to stay on the safe side of the cut line.
2 Louisville (19-5, 7) vs. 15 Montana (18-4, 86)....Although Rick Pitino's Cards have lost four times in recent weeks (including the five-OT marathon on Saturday at Notre Dame), the 'Ville and its single-digit RPI remain in solid shape for a protected seed. Since a recent win over Weber State, Montana has been in control of the Big Sky race, which comes with an extra bonus; the regular-season champ gets to host the conference tourney. Remember, the Grizzlies have not lost in 14 games since star G Will Cherry returned to the starting lineup in mid-December after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.
7 Creighton (20-5, 31) vs. 10 Minnesota (17-7, 10)...Both of these sides are dropping like rocks in recent weeks. Which is particularly worrying for Tubby Smith's Minnesota, which has fallen apart in the second half of the season before and could be in danger of doing so again, with losses in six of its last eight games. The Gophers are also just 5-6 in Big Ten play and will be giving the Selection Committee an excuse to ignore them if finishing below .500 in conference play. As for Creighton, it is in an earlier stage of descent, but 4 losses in its last 7 have dropped Doug McDermott and the Bluejays far away from protected seed territory.
At Kansas City...
3 Kansas (19-4, 9) vs. 14 Valparaiso (19-6, 88)...We've had Kansas on the top line for much of the season, but a current three-game losing streak has knocked the Jayhawks down a couple of rungs on the ladder. But not out of protected seed territory and a likely sub-regional assignment at the Sprint Center in nearby Kansas City...at least not yet. The Horizon race looks to be tilting in the direction of Valpo, which will get to host the conference tourney (as it did last year, when losing in the finale vs. Ray McCallum's Detroit) if it wins the loop's regular-season crown.
6 Wisconsin (17-7, 43) vs. 11 Saint Mary's (21-4, 54)...For a while we were wondering if Bo Ryan and Wisconsin might miss the Dance entirely; silly us, as the Badgers proved they belong in last Saturday's thrill-packed OT win over Michigan. Wiscy is now safely away from the cut line. Not so with Saint Mary's, although the Gaels have been surging with nine wins in a row. But with a very so-so RPI, the Gaels are probably not going to be able to breath easier unless they win one of two upcoming showdowns at Moraga, first vs. Gonzaga on Feb. 14, and then in the Bracket Buster nine days later vs. Creighton.
1 Miami-Florida (19-3, 2) vs. 16 Niagara (14-11, 123)...The biggest "mover" in recent weeks has been Jim Larranaga's Miami, still unblemished in ACC play and without a loss in 11 straight overall entering Wednesday's game at Florida State. The Canes would be a dead-bang certainty for the top line would the Dance be starting this week. As for Niagara, its once solid lead atop the Metro-Atlantic has all but disappeared, and that postseason tourney in Springfield, MA looks to be one of the most wide-open in the country. Jimmy Patsos' Loyola-Maryland, Jim Baron's Canisius, Tim Cluess' Iona, Sydney Johnson's Fairfield, and Kevin Baggett's Rider will all feel like they have a realistic shot in that event.
8 Memphis (20-3, 36) vs. 9 Missouri (17-6, 35)...The arrow is pointing up for Memphis, still unbeaten vs. C-USA foes this season and having likely cleared its biggest hurdle in loop play with Saturday's win at Southern Miss. Josh Pastner's guys also look to be the only league team in good shape for an at-large bid as well. Mizzou has had its problems on the road in its new SEC surroundings, but it is holding serve nicely in Columbia and should have no trouble landing comfortably on the safe side of the cut line on Selection Sunday.
4 Ohio State (17-6, 17) vs. 13 Western Illinois (18-5, 138)...It was a tough week for Ohio State, but losses to top five foes Michigan (in OT) and Indiana are hardly demerits in the eye of the Selection Committee. What it has done to the Buckeyes, however, is leave them little room for error if they wish to stay as a protected seed and get this desirable sub-regional assignment in nearby Dayton, just 70 miles from Columbus. For the moment, we have pegged Western Illinois as the rep from the Summit League, but the Leathernecks are going to have plenty of competition (especially from South and North Dakota States) in the league tourney, contested in hostile territory at Sioux Falls.
5 Kansas State (19-5, 22) vs. 12 Indiana State (16-8, 40)/La Salle (16-6, 29)...Maybe all Bruce Weber needed was a change of scenery; Manhattan, KS isn't much to look at, but it's no worse than Champaign-Urbana, where Weber's act had run stale in recent years. Indeed, K-State's performance rates as one of the surprise developments in the Big 12 this season. We have moved surging Indiana State into the field, via the at-large play-in game route. The Sycamores have been building a pretty nice portfolio in recent weeks, however, with recent wins over Valley heavyweights Creighton and Wichita State having thrust ISU into a tie atop the league table entering this week. Pre-league wins in the Diamond Head Classic over Ole Miss and Miami-Florida (the Canes' last loss) will also get notice from the Selection Committee. Meanwhile, wins over Butler & VCU have La Salle in line for its first NCAA bid in 21 years.
At Salt Lake City...
2 Gonzaga (23-2, 12) vs. 15 Long Beach State (14-9, 111)...We gave serious consideration to placing Gonzaga on the top line; indeed, had the Zags not blown that game at Butler a few weeks ago, they might be a number one seed. If they keep winning in the next few weeks, they might get there yet. The Big West race took another turn this past week when Hawaii blew out loop leader Long Beach in Honolulu, evening their season series at one apiece. If they're going to have a rubber match in the conference tourney, however, remember that it will be on the mainland at the NHL Anaheim Ducks' Honda Center, not too far from the Beach campus.
7 Georgetown (17-4, 30) vs. 10 Illinois (17-8, 33)...The story here is the reappearance of Illinois, which we dropped out of the field for our last update. But recent wins over top-ranked Indiana, then avenging an earlier home loss to Minnesota by beating the Gophers at The Barn, have the Illini breathing again. Along with the Maui Classic title and a December win at Gonzaga, Illinois has plenty of ammunition for an at-large case. Georgetown looks in even more solid shape, although another soft pre-league slate hasn't helped the Hoyas' RPI.
At San Jose....
3 Arizona (20-3, 6) vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin (20-2, 77)...We're still not completely sold on Arizona, which confirmed our suspicions with a home loss to a so-so Cal side on Sunday. The Cats, who lost a game at the McKale Center to UCLA a few weeks ago, have also survived several close calls along the way. Not the most convincing example, if you ask us. As for the Nacogdoches, TX-based Lumberjacks from SFA, there are some who believe they could merit some at-large consideration should they blow the Southland Tourney, especially if they win their Bracket Buster game next week at Long Beach. They won't be an easy out if they make the Dance.
6 New Mexico (20-4, 3) vs. 11 La Tech (21-3, 45)...New Mexico's RPI suggests it ought to be in consideration for a protected seed, though in truth a sub-regional assignment in either San Jose or Salt Lake City would suit the Lobos just fine. Recent heavy road losses at San Diego State and UNLV suggest Steve Alford might be doing it with mirrors, and UNM is probably going to have to win the Mountain West Tourney in Las Vegas to get a top four slot. As for La Tech, along with Akron and perhaps Belmont, the Bulldogs are an accomplished mid-major that might warrant a Big Dance at-large look if they lose in the WAC Tourney, which is shaping up to be a pretty interesting event with surging New Mexico St., Denver, and Utah State also in the mix. Whatever, the new "it' coach could be the Bulldogs' Michael White, an Ole Miss alum who will be hard for AD Bruce Van De Velde to hold onto in the coming years.
Last four in: Indiana State, La Salle, Temple, North Carolina.
Last four out: Maryland, Iowa State, Baylor, UMass.
Next four out: St. John's, Charlotte, Boise State, Southern Miss.
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