by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We're still early enough in the college hoops season that Joe Lunardi's name has yet to become commonly mentioned on ESPN's telecasts. Don't worry, "St." Joe and other "bracketologists" will soon enough dominate discussions once beyond New Year's and as March Madness begins to loom on the horizon.

Though December is a bit early to make progostications for the NCAA Tournament, not really, as this time of year can be a barometer of sorts regarding where teams stand as we hit the holidays and prepare for the commencement of conference play. Obviously, our many "bracketology" updates will have a different look as we move into 2015, but as a measuring stick for the first month-and-a-half of the season, we believe it to be a worthwhile exercise in late December.

We at TGS will continue to provide our own Big Dance forecasts periodically into March. But we will wait until our January updates before including each team's "RPI" (Ratings Percentage index) number, a calculation that begins to become more illuminating as we get deeper into conference action. For now, we just offer our "seeding" as of Christmas week, with straight-up records thru December 22.

Remember, for all of our "bracketology" updates, the term "protected seed" refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and the 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 17, with the Dayton "First Four" games played on March 15 and 16. Remember, Selection Sunday is less than 12 weeks away!

EAST REGIONAL (Philadelphia)

At Des Moines...

1 Kansas (SUR 10-1) vs. 16 Albany (8-4)...The Big 12 is as top-heavy as any league in the nation, and we have no reservations putting two of its reps on the first line. Kansas looks a good bet to be in the mix for a one seed, with a deep roster at Bill Self's disposal and now augmented by potential dominator 6-9 frosh Cheick Diallo, who finally resolved his eligibility issues with the NCAA in early December. Remember, Diallo was not available when the Jayahwks suffered their only loss to date in mid-November at Chicago vs. top-ranked Michigan State. At the moment we give a slight nod to the Great Danes of Albany in the America East race, with the home team of Strat-o-Matic on Long Island, Stony Brook, plus New Hampshire, looking to be the other top contenders.

8 Wake Forest (8-3) vs. 9 UConn (7-3)...Danny Manning might be in the midst of working another miracle, this time as a head coach, as his second Demon Deacon team has been a pleasant surprise in the early going and has claimed a few noteworthy scalps (Indiana, UCLA, and Arkansas among them) despite being without star G Codi Miller-McIntyre for the first month of the season. He's back in the fold now, and he'd better stay there, as a tough slog thru the ACC awaits. After a couple of early losses in the Bahamas' Battle 4 Atlantis during Thanksgiving week, UConn has recovered and recently notched its best win of the season when routing Ohio State. But the news of C Amida Brimah's broken finger that might keep him out until February has placed a rather large hurdle in front of Kevin Ollie's team.

At St. Louis...

4 Duke (9-2) vs. 13 Chattanooga (10-2)...Duke has a lot of ground to cover before it can be rated alongside last year's latest Coach K title winner. In the short-term that journey has become even more bumpy with 6-9 Amile Jefferson, the Blue Devils' best interior defensive presence, temporarily out of action with a foot injury, and a return date unknown. His absence was felt in Saturday's loss vs. Utah and its 7-footer, Jakob Poeltl. By March, however, Duke could be a load if Jefferson is back in the fold and gangly 6-9 frosh Brandon Ingram lives up to the hype (which he has hinted at in the past month). The SoCon race looks wide open, with Chattanooga impressing the most in the early going for new HC Matt McCall, formerly Billy Donovan's lieutenant at Florida and now in charge of the Mocs after Will Wade moved to VCU. But UTC will need to get back top returning scorer G Casey Jones, currently out with an ankle injury, to fend off Mercer, Samford, East Tennessee, and maybe Furman when the conference tourney rolls around at Asheville March 3-6.

5 Villanova (9-2) vs. 12 UNLV (9-4)/Ole Miss (10-2)...Still time for Jay Wright's Nova to get back into protected seed territory, but its 23-point loss vs. Oklahoma in Honolulu, and blowing a lead before losing by 11 last weekend to Virginia, are results that could cost the Cats a line or two when Selection Sunday rolls around. Especially since running away with the Big East as a year ago looks very unlikely with the league exhibiting uncommon depth in the first month of the season. Early indicators from the Mountain West suggest a major downgrade in the loop, which will be fortunate to get two bids in March unless a couple of teams separate from the pack in league play. For the moment, UNLV's wins over Indiana and Oregon give Dave Rice's Rebs it a look at a play-in spot. It could be an all-Rebel play-in game if Ole Miss gets the call. Andy Kennedy's side owns one of the nation's top scorers in G Stefan Moody, but will be tested in upcoming SEC play.

At Raleigh...

2 Virginia (10-1) vs. 15 North Florida (10-5)...Tony Bennett's Virginia has bounced back from an early loss at George Washington (a result which now doesn't look so bad) with a collection of impressive wins, including double-digit margins past ranked West Virginia and Villanova. Expect the Cavs and their seasoned backcourt featuring Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes to maintain a high profile in the polls. In the Atlantic Sun, the North Florida Ospreys have four starters back from their first-ever Big Dance qualifier a year ago and look to be favored to repeat, though a new name to watch is NJIT, which joined the A-Sun this season and advanced to the CIT semifinals with a similar-looking team last year.

7 George Washington (10-2) vs. 10 Southern Cal (10-2)...One of the few mid-majors to make a lot of noise thus far has been Mike Lonergan's GW, showing the best early foot in the A-10 and with a win over Virginia that is likely to be a nice chit to cash on Selection Sunday. The midweek loss at DePaul, however, caused us to consider moving the Colonials down a couple of notches. This season might be Andy Enfield's revenge at Southern Cal after a couple of tough campaigns in L.A. had many calling for his head as well as that of AD Pat Haden. But the Trojans are deep and well-balanced and looking a bit like Enfield's old "Dunk City" teams at Florida Gulf Coast.

At Brooklyn...

3 Providence (12-1) vs. 14 Akron (8-2)...The new "Beast of the East" might be Providence as Ed Cooley solidifies himself as one of the nation's coaches to watch. The Friars have only fallen once, in gallant fashion vs. top-ranked Michigan State at the Wooden Classic. And the emergence of 6-9 soph F Ben Bentil (17 ppg) to complement do-everything G Kris Dunn (also 17 ppg) suggests Cooley has the best 1-2 punch in the Big East. It has been well over a decade since the MAC was a multi-bid league, and we doubt that changes this season. Though it looks like it could be a real dogfight featuring familiar contenders Akron, Ohio, Kent State, Toledo, and perhaps Northern Illinois.

6 Baylor (8-2) vs. 11 Indiana (10-3)...Baylor recently took it on the chops vs. Texas A&M, but such is our respect for the Big 12 that we keep the Bears in a favorable seed...for now. There will be plenty of chances for quality wins for Scott Drew's team in conference play. Prior to last weekend, we were not inclined to include Indiana in the field, but that was before the Hoosiers rallied to beat Notre Dame in what might be a watershed game for their campaign. IU has plenty of offense but not much defense, causing HC Tom Crean's tortured look on the sideline.


At Des Moines...

1 Michigan State (13-0) vs. 16 North Carolina A&T (5-9)/Long Island (6-4)...We usually don't see a Tom Izzo-coached team break 13-0 from the gate, but the Spartans hit this campaign in midseason form. Let's see how they respond to star G Denzel Valentine's knee injury that could keep him out until mid-January. Sparty had a narrow OT escape at Auburn Hills vs. pesky nearby Oakland in the first game without Valentine. In one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games, we can likely pencil in a MEAC rep, which at this moment is Cy Alexander's North Carolina A&T by default, because its 5-9 record is currently the best in the league! The Fighting Clair Bees of Long Island likewise have the current best record in the Northeast, but at least the Blackbirds are 6-4. Note that perennial NE contender Robert Morris has stumbled to a 2-10 break from the gate, but don't count out Andy Toole's Colonials, as the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport has often rallied in league play in the past.

8 Texas (8-3) vs. 9 Oregon (10-2)..."Shaka Ball" is beginning to take hold in Austin, where the Longhorns are proving to be quick studies in the "havoc" style that new HC Shaka Smart so brilliantly deployed at VCU in recent years. Texas is currently working on a 6-game win streak that includes a rousing home win over North Carolina that has effectively put the Horns in the field of 68, at least for the moment. Dana Altman's Oregon has made a quick reload with true frosh G Tyler Dorsey and juco F Chris Boucher contributing to a new-look Ducks attack. Good wins over Baylor, Valparaiso, and Alabama currently have the Webfoots likely on the safe side of the cut line heading into the holidays.

At Brooklyn...

4 Miami-Fla. (10-1) vs. 13 James Madison (10-3)...It is time to take this Jim Larranaga Canes edition very seriously, as Miami's upperclassmen-laden roster is romping thru the first portion of its schedule and delivering some frightful beatings, with poor La Salle on the wrong end of a 95-49 beatdown on Wednesday. ACC sources say this Miami team might be better than Larranaga's Sweet 16 team of 2013, with last year's transfers F Sheldon McClellan (ex-Texas; 16.5 ppg) and G Angel Rodriguez (ex-Kansas State; 13 ppg) leading the way. The Colonial is not what it was when it was a multi-bid league not long ago before many (VCU, ODU, George Mason) defected to the A-10. But Matt Brady's JMU remains and appears the team to beat, though last year's champ Northeastern, upgraded Elon, Charleston, and recent bridesmaid William & Mary (still looking for its first-ever Big Dance bid!) will give spirited chase into the conference tourney March 4-7 at Baltimore.

5 Texas A&M (9-2) vs. 12 Monmouth (8-3)...Billy Kennedy's A&M has already made significant noise in pre-league play with good wins over Texas, Gonzaga, Kansas State, and Baylor. The Ags might even be the team to beat in the SEC if Kentucky doesn't shape up soon. Meanwhile, one of the best storylines has been written in the Metro-Atlantic by unheralded Monmouth, not just because of the colorful antics of its bench but also having claimed high-profile scalps UCLA, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, and Georgetown, which have suddenly made HC King Rice (ex-North Carolina player and a Vandy assistant for Kevin Stallings) a hot commodity. At the moment, Monmouth would have a fairly solid at-large case to make, and the Metro-Atlantic could end as a two-bid league, but not sure if Iona (off to a slow start and having injury woes) or anyone else is up to challenging the Hawks.

At St. Louis...

2 Kentucky (9-2) vs. 15 Princeton (7-3)...While this Kentucky edition is not a reprise of the disappointing Nerlens Noel team of a few years ago, it's certainly not last year's wrecking machine, either, as losses to borderline UCLA and Ohio State suggest. Frosh C Skal Labissiere has skills, but is not the intimidator that Karl-Anthony Towns was a year ago, and an early injury to PG Tyler Ulis (since returned) exposed depth issues in backcourt. The Ivies do not appear to have a dominant team this season, with Tommy Amaker's Harvard rebuilding and star G Siyani Chambers out for the year with a knee injury. Princeton is always a safe call to be in the Ivy mix, with Columbia and Yale and perhaps even Amaker's team likely having a say in the race before it concludes.

7 Iowa (9-3) vs. 10 Seton Hall (10-2)...Fran McCaffery's Iowa has already been involved in what might end up as the game of the year, though unfortunately for the Hawkeyes they lost that contest to Iowa State. But an upperclassmen-core remains led by versatile 6-9 sr. F Jarrod Uthoff, scoring almost 19 ppg and canning 49% from beyond the arc. The Big East looks to be a bear this season and improved Seton Hall is one of the reasons. Last Saturday's rousing win over Wichita State was the latest confidence booster for the Pirates, though we caution that the Hall has started quickly only to fade in many recent seasons.

At Spokane...

3 Butler (10-1) vs. 14 Stephen F Austin (7-4)...Last Saturday's intense win over Purdue at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (the Boilermakers' first loss of the season) was enough to temporarily move the Bulldogs into protected seed territory. Chris Holtmann's veteran squad thus made the leap into the Top Ten, though staying there will be tough with the teeth of a rugged Big East schedule still to come. In the Southland, we still expect Stephen F. Austin to emerge, though a tough early slate has already given the Lumberjacks (with four starters back from last year's 29-win team) four losses. Improved Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Lamar are the only other Southland reps currently above .500.

6 Utah (10-2) vs. 11 Tulsa (8-4)...Utah doesn't quite have the sharp edge it did last season when do-everything Delon Wright (now NBA Raptors) was in the fold, but last Saturday's win over Duke at Madison Square Garden suggests the Utes can make the Dance again, and that 7-0 C Jakob Poeltl can be a force, especially against foes that cannot defend the post. We reach a bit with Tulsa, which has impressed despite its four losses, and expect its senior GS Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard to lead a charge into American play.


At Oklahoma City...

1 Oklahoma (9-0) vs. 16 Winthrop (8-3)/Navy (9-4)...Though this seems a bit of an unfair advantage for OU to be placed so close to home in the sub-regionals, it's only home courts that are not allowed by the NCAA in the second and third rounds. And since the Sooners play their games in nearly Norman, and not The Peake, the Ok City sub-regional is not off limits. Perhaps most impressive about the 9-0 start the Sooners have fashioned for Lon Kruger is that every win since the 84-78 opener vs. Memphis has been by double digits. The Big South has already scored a handful of notable non-league wins vs. Georgetown (Radford and UNC-Asheville pulling the trick) but could find itself entwined in a 16 vs. 16 play-in game once more. At the moment a measured vote for Winthrop based on best league record, though Asheville, Scott Cherry's High Point, and Cliff Ellis' Coastal Carolina are all going to have something to say about the race. The Patriot could also get invovled in a 16 vs. 16, though a good story is being authored at Navy by former Penn State HC Ed DeChellis.

8 Notre Dame (8-3) vs. 9 Florida (8-3)...The Fighting Irish have slipped a bit from a year ago, as last season's stars G Jerian Grant (now Knicks) and swingman Pat Connaughton (now Blazers) are both in the NBA. The Robin to Grant's Batman in last year's Irish backcourt, Demetrius Jackson, has emerged as a go-to scorer, and some of the other role players for Mike Brey's Elite Eight team from last season have stepped to the fore. SEC sources are already talking glowingly about new Florida HC Michael White, a onetime Ole Miss guard and recently having resuscitated the La Tech program. Expect the Gators to finish in the upper echelon of the SEC.

At Oklahoma City....

4 Purdue (12-1) vs. 13 La Tech (10-2)...Matt Painter has assembled a typical Purdue team, big and physical, with a pair of twin towers in 7-2 Isaac Haas and 7-0 AJ Hammons, and a big, physical G in 6-5 Raphael Davis, who has recently returned from injury. The Boilermakers were unbeaten before getting surprised by Butler last Saturday, but we keep them as a protected seed for now. La Tech has responded to new HC Eric Konkol, but several teams figure to seriously contend in Conference USA, including UAB and Middle Tennessee.

5 Cincinnati (10-3) vs. 12 St. Mary's (9-1)...Cincy's three losses are all vs. currently ranked teams (Butler, Xavier, and Iowa State), which shouldn't count as too much of a debit on the Bearcats' Big Dance bank account. Good wins over George Washington and VCU, both away from home, are positives for HC Mick "The Ghost" Cronin. Never underestimate Saint Mary's HC Randy Bennett, who has once again pulled some rabbits out of his hat in beautiful Moraga, with soph G Emmett Naar (15 ppg) the latest Aussie star for the Gaels, who are scoring 81 ppg and connecting on an eye-popping 54.2% of their FG tries. SMC has not played a demanding slate, but with plenty of soft spots in the WCC, where both BYU and Gonzaga also appear to be down, Bennett has a chance to keep the Gaels at least on the bubble and in the discussion.

At Raleigh...

2 North Carolina (10-2) vs. 15 New Mexico State (7-5)...Keeping G Marcus Paige (recent ankle sprain) healthy looks as if it is going to be a challenge for Roy Williams, who also has other injury concerns, with key frontliner Kennedy Meeks currently sidelined with knee problems. At full strength, however, the Tar Heels (not relying as much on true frosh this season) have as much manpower as any team, and it's not as if Williams doesn't know how to navigate through March. New Mexico State HC Marvin Menzies has his usual international lineup in Las Cruces, though the Ags are thankful that Dan Majerle's emerging WAC rival Grand Canyon, still in the reclassification stage, is a year away from Big Dance eligibility (though the Antelopes, who recently knocked off San Diego State and Houston, can go to one of the other postseason tourneys).

7 UCLA (8-4) vs. 10 Valparaiso (10-2)...UCLA took some losses in November, including at home vs. giant-killer Monmouth and two in the Maui Classic, but has since rebounded with big wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga (the latter on the road) that should keep the Bruins in good stead with the Selection Committee. With all starters back from last year's Horizon winner, Bryce Drew's Valpo is a heavy favorite to return to the Dance, though we would keep our eyes on explosive Oakland and fireball G Kahlil Felder, who almost led the Golden Grizzlies to a shocker over Michigan State at midweek.

At Denver...

3 Iowa State (10-1) vs. 14 South Dakota State (10-3)...The Cyclones do not seem to have skipped a beat for new HC Steve Prohm, imported from Murray State after Fred Hoiberg jumped to the NBA and the Chicago Bulls. Most of the weapons from last season's 25-win team are still in the fold, including All-American candidate F Georges Niang, though sr. G Naz Long could be done for the season with a hip injury. Still, ISU is a force in the deep Big 12. As are the Jackrabbits in the Summit, where vet HC Scott Nagy has what looks like another Big Dance contender at Brookings with four returning starters from last year's NIT team, including sr. G Deondre Parks (17.3 ppg).

6 South Carolina (11-0) vs. 11 Northern Iowa (7-4)...Okay, we know it's still early in the season, and South Carolina still doesn't have a marquee win. But 11-0 is 11-0, and while the Gamecocks will eventually be vetted by the SEC schedule, for the moment they are a pleasant surprise for HC Frank Martin, who finally seems to have his sort of roster in place in Columbia. Meanwhile, the deck has been reshuffled in the Missouri Valley, with Wichita State dealing with a series of injuries that have helped result in five pre-league losses and have made the Shockers look like they are going to have to win Arch Madness in St. Louis to get to the Dance. A better at-large candidate from the Valley might be Ben Jacobson's UNI, which already has marquee wins over North Carolina and Iowa State on its ledger.


at Providence...

1 Xavier (12-0) vs. 16 Southern U (8-5)...No question that as of Christmas, the "X" deserves a spot on the top line. Chris Mack's Musketeers have plowed thru a relatively challenging early slate that includes a romp to victory in the Disney World Classic at Orlando during Thanksgiving week. The closest margin of victory to date has been the 8-point win vs. combative Wake Forest on Dec. 22. SWAC reps have often been pulled into the 16 vs. 16 play-in whirlpool, but we suggest that might not be the case this season if Southern U wins the conference tourney, as the Jags are the only loop rep above .500 into late December.

8 Gonzaga (9-3) vs. 9 Colorado (10-1)...The Zags are down a notch or two from last season without long-serving Gs Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., while C Przemek Karnowski has missed recent action due to a back injury. Mark Few's team still looks like the team to beat in the WCC, but the Zags are not going to contend for a protected seed this term. Meanwhile, so far so good in Boulder, where Tad Boyle's Buffs look to rebound from a disappointing 2014-15. Remnants of previous CU Big Dance entrants are still around, including 6-10 sr. PF Josh Scott, while redshirt George King and Providence transfer Josh Fortune have added some real bite to the new-look backcourt.

At Denver...

4 Louisville (10-1) vs. 13 UA-Little Rock (10-1)...Don't worry about Rick Pitino, who has wiggled out of more tough jams than the Clintons, and looks to have survived the latest Cardinal scandal from a few months ago. As usual, too, Pitino has another Big Dance contender, though the Cards are going to go into the ACC portion of the schedule minus Mangok Mathlang, out until perhaps the end of January with a foot injury. Meanwhile, speaking of the Clintons, UALR might deserve a higher seed after an impressive pre-league run that was finally slowed on Tuesday night by Texas Tech. Plenty of experience on hand for new HC Chris Beard, who has molded a tough outfit, though UA-Arlington, Georgia State, and perhaps UL-Lafayette look like Sun Belt contenders as well. Could the Belt be a two-bid league this season?

5 West Virginia (10-1) vs. 12 Evansville (11-2)/Northwestern (11-1)...After a couple of down years following the jump to the Big 12, Bob Huggins has straightened out the situation in Morgantown. This year's Mounties have a chance of exceeding the unexpected Sweet 16 run of a year ago, and Huggy has gotten solid work from soph Jevon Carter, replacing graduated Juwan Staten at the point. In the Valley, we already noted Wichita's plight. At the moment, Evansville, which returned all starters from last spring's CIT winner and is off to an 11-2 start for rotund HC Marty Simmons, looks a better bet. And, for the heck of it, and while we can, why not include Northwestern in the field as a reward for its 11-1 start? We know the Cats have never made the Dance, and have been a false alarm in recent years, but Chris Collins really does look like he has a legit contender this season, featuring a solid backcourt led by G Tre Demps. Even an at-large play-in game would get the masses very excited in Evanston!

At Providence...

2 Maryland (10-1) vs. 15 Weber State (7-5)...Though Maryland has not been quite as impressive as most envisioned, the Terps have only slipped once (at North Carolina), and high-profile transfers PF Robert Carter (via Georgia Tech) and G Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke) have fit into equation that includes All-American candidate soph G Melo Trimble. The pieces appear in place for a deep March run; is HC Mark Turgeon up to the task? The Big Sky looks to be a big jumble, so at the moment a measured vote for Weber State, with the best 1-2 punch in the Sky with G Jeremy Senglin and F Joel Bolomboy, combining for 37 ppg. Idaho, Sac State, Eastern Washington, and Montana are also likely to be in the thick of the race.

7 Dayton (9-2) vs. 10 Boise State (8-4)...Archie Miller continues to push the right buttons at Dayton, with the Flyers deriving great benefit from James Madison transfer G Charles Cooke, scoring a team-best 14 ppg. Along with fellow A-10 member GW, Dayton has been one of the handful of mid-majors to impress thus far. With San Diego State floundering and UNLV inconsistent, Boise State looks the best bet to emerge from the Mountain West, which could possibly become a one-bid league this season. Three of the Broncos' losses are vs. ranked teams, and two of those are vs. Arizona, but HC Leon Rice has several key pieces in the fold from recent seasons, including now-healthy 6-6 Aussie Anthony Drmic, who missed much of last season with back problems.

At Spokane...

3 Arizona (12-1) vs. 14 Hawaii (8-1)...Thank goodness for transfers, as Sean Miller has plugged a couple of them (ex-Boston College F Ryan Anderson & ex-USF F Mark Tollefson) into the Arizona lineup with good results, while frosh G Allonzo Trier is scoring nearly 14 ppg. All helping to keep the Cats afloat while C Kaleb Tarczewski recovers from a broken foot that will keep him out into January. Check closely with Hawaii, which was just handed an NCAA probation dating to violations during the Gib Arnold era and that will supposedly ban the Rainbow Warriors from the postseason...but not until 2016-17. If that's the case, the current Hawaii could still advance to the Dance from Big West under new HC Eran Ganot, who has one of the Big West's best gunners in 6-5 jr. Aaron Valdes (18.1 ppg).

6 Pitt (9-1) vs. 11 Vanderbilt (7-4)...After missing the Dance last season, Jamie Dixon looks to have Pitt headed back to the party with a punishing yet precise outfit featuring inside (rugged PF Michael Young 18 ppg), intermediate (6-7 F Jamel Artis 14.2 ppg), and outside (G James Robinson 11 ppg) threats with experience. The Panthers have already taken several victims beyond the woodshed. We are projecting a bit with the Dores, who have labored the past two weeks minus key 7-footer Luke Kornet, the team's best post defender and a valuable piece on offense for HC Kevin Stallings. When Kornet returns, Stallings has one of the best frontline combos in the SEC with 7-0 Damian Jones, but recent losses have not helped the Vandy at-large cause.

Last four in: UNLV, Ole Miss, Evansville, Northwestern.

Last four out: Davidson, Florida State, Texas Tech, Michigan.

Next four out: Marquette, NC State, Cal, UT-Arlington.

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