by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Now that the college football season is behind us, it's hoops time, which means full steam toward March Madness. Get ready to hear a lot more from ESPN's "St. Joe's" Lunardi and other "bracketologists" as we move closer to March. It's been three weeks since our last bracket projection, and there has not been a lot of movement in the intervening span. We would expect that to start changing soon, as conference play has shifted into high gear and the inevitable winnowing of serious candidates for the 68-team field progresses.

We at TGS will continue to provide our own Big Dance forecasts periodically into March. For our mid-January update, we include "RPI" (Ratings Percentage Index) number, along with straight-up records, thru January 13.

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 17, with the Dayton "First Four" games played on March 15 and 16. Remember, Selection Sunday is only a bit more than eight weeks away!

EAST REGIONAL (Philadelphia)

At Des Moines...

1 Michigan State (SUR 16-1, RPI-7) vs. 16 Navy (13-5, 153)...The Spartans have key G Denzel Valentine back in the lineup after a brief injury absence that also coincided with the Spartans' first loss of the season at Iowa in late December, knocking Tom Izzo's team out of the No. 1 ranking. But MSU still looks like a top-line team to us and might ascend back atop the rankings before long. At the moment, CBS head honcho Les Moonves' alma mater Bucknell, under new HC Nathan Davis (most recently at Randolph-Macon), has the early lead in the Patriot. But the most impressive loop team to date has been Navy, under former Penn State HC Ed DeChellis. The Mids were picked near the bottom of the league but performed far above expectations in pre-Patriot play.

8 Butler (12-4, 45) vs. 9 LSU (10-6, 119)...Butler has slipped a few notches from our previous rankings, as it has already absorbed a few blows in the deep Big East. But the early setbacks have been vs. what appears to be the best three teams in the loop (Villanova, Xavier, and Providence), and good pre-league wins vs. Temple, Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Purdue should keep the Bulldogs on the safe side of the cut-line for a while. We project a bit here with LSU, but believe it is justified, as the Tigers have started to roar since G Tim Hornsby and F Craig Victor were activated in mid-December. Already the Tigers have wins over Vandy, Kentucky, and Ole Miss since New Year's, and the commercial side of the Selection Committee knows that potential top NBA draft pick F Ben Simmons is on the LSU roster.

At Brooklyn...

4 Miami-Florida (13-2, 18) vs. 13 Monmouth (12-4, 31)...Jim Larranaga has his best team in Coral Gables since the 2013 Sweet Sixteen team, and the upperclassmen-laden Canes look a good bet to secure a protected seed, even after the bitter loss earlier this week at Virginia. As for Monmouth, note that the aforementioned Lunardi has the Hawks in as an at-large in his latest brackets, but Lunardi simply grants automatic bids to first-place teams in their respective leagues. And after a few games in the Metro-Atlantic, Iona is setting the pace. But the MAAC's auto bid is determined by conference tourney, and Monmouth still appears to be the favorite (though the Gaels could be dangerous when fully healthy, as high scorer G A.J. English has missed early action). Monmouth still might have an at-large case with its wins over UCLA, Notre Dame, USC, and Georgetown, but the bad losses at Canisius and Army mean King Rice's team is well-advised to take care of business at the conference tourney in Albany March 3-7.

5 Iowa State (12-4, 26) vs. 12 San Diego State (10-6, 103))/Seton Hall (12-4, 56)...ISU has probably temporarily played itself out of a protected seed with recent losses to Baylor and Texas, and will undoubtedly take a few more hits in the treacherous Big 12. But barring a complete collapse, Steve Prohm's Cyclones should not have to worry about the bubble into March. That will not be the case with the other two we have projected into on the Dayton "First Four" play-in games. We suspect that San Diego State is going to significantly rehab its at-large prospects in the Mountain West (where it is currently unbeaten) and approach Selection Sunday in decent position to gain a bid, even if it loses in the conference tourney at Las Vegas. As for Seton Hall, the Pirates might deserve a higher ranking, but we foresee some issues in the deep and rugged Big East, and suspect the Hall might be clinging to the bubble when we get to Selection Sunday.

At Providence...

2 Villanova (15-2, 1) vs. 15 North Florida (13-6, 125)...With the top RPI as of midweek, Jay Wright's 'Nova could certainly justify a place on the top line. But the double-digit losses to Oklahoma and Virginia have, for the moment, at least, cost the Cats a line. Though there is certainly time for Nova or whichever team emerges as Big East champ to claim a place on the top line. By the way, the Cats can play in the Philly Regional because it is La Salle, not 'Nova, as the official host of the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in later March. In the Atlantic Sun, the North Florida Ospreys are progressing smoothly with 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 group last March.

7 Oregon (13-3, 11) vs. 10 Texas Tech (11-4, 20)...The Pac-12 is one loaded league this season, and given the apparent shortage of quality mid-majors, there will be room for major conferences such as the Pac to probably load up with six or more bids to the Dance. And we suspect Dana Altman's Oregon stays on the safe side of the cut line. We are less certain about Texas Tech, especially since the Red Raiders compete in the brutal Big 12. But if Tubby Smith's team can mostly hold serve in Lubbock and pick up a few quality wins (Texas has already been victimized) along the way, and steal a couple of wins on the conference trail, it should at least ride the bubble into Selection Sunday. Where, as mentioned above, its membership in a power league could prove a plus this season.

At Oklahoma City...

3 Texas A&M (14-2, 12) vs. 14 Harvard (8-8, 52)...Texas A&M has been a pleasant surprise all season and many beleive it is the best team in the SEC. For the moment we do not hesitate to have Billy Kennedy's team in protected seed territory. They have just started play in the Ivy, and based upon more league games played, Princeton is currently topping the table (and would be the Ivy auto qualifier in Lunardi's latest brackets). But Harvard impressed a lot more than any Ivy rep in pre-league play, more than holding its own and even reaching the finals of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu during Christmas week, were it gave top-ranked Oklahoma a good run. Tommy Amaker's Crimson could return to the Dance for a fifth straight year.

6 Dayton (13-3, 17) vs. 11 Saint Mary's (14-2, 54)...There are going to be a few trap doors in this year's A-10 race, though we didn't expect Dayton to fall through the one at La Salle last weekend. But a bounce-back win over Davidson suggests HC Archie Miller has the Flyers back on track. Randy Bennett's Saint Mary's has been the pleasant surprise of the WCC, though the Gaels are not going to be able to afford many more results such as last week's loss to Pepperdine if they want to stay on the safe side of the cut line.


At Des Moines...

1 Kansas (14-2, 2) vs. 16 Southern (10-7,191)/High Point (12-4, 156)...Even after the Big Monday loss at West Virginia, we have kept the Jayhawks on the top line. The other defeat came in mid-November at Chicago vs. Michigan State, so a couple of losses to top ten-caliber teams should not penalize a team too much, especially since KU has plenty of other quality wins. The SWAC would seem almost a certainty to be involved in a 16 vs. 16 game, as the Southern U Jaguars are the only loop rep currently with a record above .500. The Big South has a bit more depth, but, at the moment, a measured vote for Scott Cherry's High Point Panthers, featuring sr. F John Brown, an ACC-caliber performer known for his windmill dunks. Also keep at eye on UNC-Asheville, which beat Georgetown (as did another Big South rep, Radford) in pre-league play.

8 UConn (11-4, 81) vs. 9 George Washington (14-3, 29)...The Huskies have taken a few hits, but most believe Kevin Ollie's team will be among the few left standing at the end of the term in the American. Soon, UConn also gets back shot-swatting 7-0 C Amida Brimah, a holdover from the national title team of two years ago but sidelined for the past several weeks with a broken finger. GW's at-large case has been damaged by bad road losses at DePaul and Saint Louis, but wins over Virginia, Seton Hall, and Tennessee would be enough right now to keep the Colonials in the field. Still, HC Mike Lonergan risks problems with the Selection Committee with any more bad losses like those vs. the Blue Demons and Billikens.

At Denver....

4 Pitt (14-1, 21) vs. 13 Valparaiso (13-3, 24)...Pitt has quietly posted one of the most subtle 14-1 records in the nation. There are reasons to believe Jamie Dixon's team is legit, especially after its wire-to-wire win at Notre Dame last weekend. Tougher ACC dates await, but for now the Panthers probably rate a protected seed. Valpo sent a message to the rest of the Horizon that the title road still goes thru the Crusaders after their beatdown of challenger Oakland last Friday. With almost all of his weapons back from last year's Big Dance qualifier, HC Bryce Drew again has the team to beat in the loop.

5 Purdue (15-3, 32) vs. 12 Northern Illinois (14-2, 70)...Recent losses to Iowa and Illinois have temporarily cost the Boilermakers a protected seed, but there is plenty of time for Matt Painter's team to move back into that category. Barring injuries, hard to imagine Purdue not steering very clear of the cut line on Selection Sunday. The MAC looks to be a wide-open race, but as usual it appears a one-bid league, as it has been for well over a decade. Northern Illinois' midweek win at Toledo suggests the Huskies might be the team to beat, but Akron, Kent State, Eastern Michigan, and even the midweek NIU victim Rockets are going to think they have a chance at the MAC Tourney in Cleveland March 10-12.

At Raleigh...

2 North Carolina (15-2, 5) vs. 15 Omaha (12-6, 137)...The Tar Heels haven't lost in over a month (Dec. 12 at Texas) and now have C Kennedy Meeks back from injury. With all hands on deck for one of the few times this season, Roy Williams looks to have a serious Final Four contender. Especially since the Tar Heels are less reliant upon frosh than other national contenders. Keep an eye on Omaha, now eligible for the postseason after completing its transition phase. The explosive Mavs score 85 ppg, and Marlin Briscoe's alma mater is setting the early pace in the Summit, with IPFW, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State likely to give chase.

7 Utah (12-4, 22) vs. 10 Ole Miss (12-4, 46)...Utah might lack some of the sharp edge it had last season when swingman Delon Wright (now NBA Raptors) was on the roster. But good wins over San Diego State, Texas Tech, BYU, Duke, and now Colorado (important to get that one vs. the Buffs after losing at Cal and Stanford in Pac-12 opening weekend action) keep the Utes away from the bubble. Ole Miss is awfully reliant upon G Stefan Moody, but as long as he continues to score at a 24 ppg clip, the Rebs should be able to hang in the field.

At Denver...

3 Xavier (15-1, 3) vs. 14 Belmont (11-6, 131)...The "X" might deserve a higher seed than this, perhaps even on the top line. We have time to move the Musketeers higher, though the depth in the Big East suggests Chris Mack's team takes some torpedo hits along the way in conference play. As for Belmont, it is currently watching nearby Tennessee State set the pace in the OVC. But vet HC Rick Byrd has most of his weapons on hand from last year's Big Dance qualifier, and still gets our nod for the conference tourney held across town at The Jetsons-looking Nashville Municipal Auditorium March 2-5.

6 Baylor (13-3, 37) vs. 11 Ohio State (12-6, 60)...We were thinking about sliding Baylor further down the seeding totem pole until last weekend's win over Iowa State and its impressive follow-up romp past TCU. Now steadied, the Bears can afford to endure some of the inevitable back-and-forth in this year's Big 12 race and likely maintain a mid-level seed. We project a bit with Ohio State and that shrewd HC Thad Matta can coax another Big Dance qualifier out of a precocious but talented group of mostly-young Buckeyes. Last Sunday's loss to Indiana broke a 7-game win streak that included a triumph over Kentucky, which, at the moment, is the result that has OSU in our field.


At Oklahoma City...

1 Oklahoma (14-1, 4) vs. 16 Hampton (8-7, 214)/Wagner (10-5, 207)...As long as Oklahoma stays at or near the top in the Big 12, it is going to have a clear shot at a spot on the top line. Also, note that "The Peake" in Oklahoma City, while a huge regional edge for the Sooners, does not activate the NCAA stay-away role for OU. Only if the sub-regional were conducted in nearby Norman at the Lloyd Noble Center would the Sooners be prohibited from participating at that venue. Ok City is close to Norman, but no restrictions there for OU. One of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games is almost assuredly going to involve a rep from the MEAC, where the Hampton Pirates are currently the only team above .500. Out of the wide-open Northeast, an early projection for Bob Beckel's alma mater, Staten Island-based Wagner. Familiar Northeast rep Robert Morris is off to a very bumpy 3-14 start, and we are not sure the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport is going to be able to rally into contention this season.

8 Wichita State (11-5, 50) vs. 9 Cincinnati (13-5, 90)...Here comes Wichita, which has recovered from a slow start (in which injuries were a major factor) and is now rolling in Missouri Valley play, where it has already dispatched two contenders Evansville and Southern Illinois. By the time we get to "Arch Madness" at St. Louis in the first week of March, we suspect Gregg Marshall's Shockers will have at least locked up an at-large berth, though the Valley could end up a one-bid league if Wichita wins the conference tourney. A matchup vs. Cincinnati would rekindle old memories from days in the Missouri Valley back in the early '60s, when the Shockers and Bearcats had an intense rivalry. A long 37-game win streak by the two-time defending NCAA champion Bearcats was stopped by Wichita in '63 thanks to a memorable effort by the Shockers' Dave Stallworth, who scored 46 points.

At St. Louis...

4 Iowa (12-3, 15) vs. 13 UAB (13-3, 117)...Based upon its late-December win over then-top ranked Michigan State, and a subsequent road win at Purdue when rallying from 19 points down, Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes have a pretty strong case for a protected seed...at least in mid-January. They'll probably need to at least stay in the top three of the Big Ten to maintain that status into Selection Sunday, but for now we reward Iowa with a four seed. UAB returns most if its lineup from the team that made it to the Big Dance last March and, as a 14 seed, pulled a shocked over Iowa State in the Round of 64. Competition in C-USA likely comes from La Tech, Middle Tennessee, and UTEP, though it will almost surely be a one-bid league this season.

5 Louisville (13-3, 23) vs. 12 Houston (13-3, 121)...The 'Ville will very likely be in contention for a protected seed into Selection Sunday, though there are plenty of land mines in this year's ACC. Note that Rick Pitino's team is prevented from playing in the South Regional, as its KFC-Yum! Center home floor will be the venue for the regional finals. Hoop historians will get a kick if the opening foe is Houston, recalling one of the thrill games in Big Dance history in 1983, the dunk-fest semifinal at the Albuquerque Final Four featuring the Cougars' "Phi Slama Jama" edition. This term, Kelvin Sampson's Cougars have been one of the pleasant surprises of the season, though the victim list is not overly impressive, reflected in their subpar RPI.

At St. Louis...

2 Kentucky (13-3, 10) vs. 15 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (12-3, 107)...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 a recent lopsided loss to LSU, and earlier setbacks vs. borderline UCLA and Ohio State, suggest. In the Southland, the team to watch in the first two months has been A&M-Corpus Christi, under the watchful eye of former Rice HC Willis Wilson. The Islanders will eventually have to deal with challenges from Sam Houston State and recent Big Dance noise-maker Stephen F. Austin before getting their NCAA ticket punched.

7 Indiana (14-3, 57) vs. 10 UALR (14-1, 75)...The tortured Tom Crean has stepped clear of most of the banana peels on the Hoosier schedule for the first half of the campaign, and also looks to be moving clear of the hot seat that many believed he was occupying into this season. The Sun Belt is shaping up as a very interesting race between UALR, UT-Arlington, and Georgia State, with some impressive non-Belt wins for each. In the Trojans' case, it's San Diego State and Tulsa. Little Rock and UTA also might have longshot at-large chances, but the Belt has been a one-bid league for a long time, so the March 10-13 tourney in New Orleans should be a doozy.

At Raleigh...

3 Virginia (13-3, 8) vs. 14 Chattanoogs (14-3, 62)...The Cavs have taken some hits already on the ACC road...at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, which has to concern HC Tony Bennett more than a little bit as tougher assignments await on the conference trail. But the Tuesday win over Miami temporarily stopped the bleeding and keeps UVa as a protected seed until further notice. The most impressive SoCon entry has been Chattanooga, now under the direction of first-year HC Matt McCall, a longtime Billy Donovan aide at Florida. (Predecessor and Shaka Smith disciple Will Wade took the VCU job after last season.) Not sure what happened to the Mocs when whipped at Furman, but they'll have a chance to get back on top of the league when facing early frontrunner East Tennessee State this weekend.

6 Southern Cal (15-3, 19) vs. 11 Northwestern (15-3, 100)...It might be time to start taking SC very seriously after the Trojans' recent quality wins over Arizona and UCLA. The Pac-12 is deep and could send up to eight teams to the Dance, and it looks as if HC Andy Enfield can get even with his many critics in the L.A. area and put a smile on the face of AD Pat Haden, who felt some heat the past two years after the Enfield hire. Maybe we're just softies and want to see Northwestern in the Big Dance for the first time. But Chris Collins might have a legit contender in Evanston, and the midweek win over Wisconsin, plus to earlier triumphs on the Big Ten road, suggest that these Wildcats might not be false alarms, as have been several recent NU editions.


at Providence...

1 Maryland (15-2, 14) vs. 16 Cal State Bakersfield (12-5, 136)...We thought about dropping Maryland a line after its midweek loss at Michigan, but the Terps still have plenty of good wins and the look of a number one seed. So, for the moment, we keep Maryland on the top line, though we will find out like the rest if HC Mark Turgeon is really capable of leading a team into the Final Four. If you've been wondering whatever happened to former Ole Miss and Georgia State HC Rod Barnes, he's been at Cal State Bakersfield for the past few years and now has his best Roadrunner edition. We'll have to wait for the WAC Tourney at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas March 10-12 to see if Barnes can deny Marvin Menzies' New Mexico State of a fifth straight Big Dance visit.

8 Boise State (12-4, 51) vs. 9 Texas (10-6, 25)...Count us among those who have learned to like the current Boise edition, with many familiar faces from last season's team that lost a "First Four" game by a point to Dayton on the Flyers' home floor last year. So far, Leon Rice's well-coached Broncos have not missed the graduated G Derrick Marks, who kept the ball in his hands an awful lot the past few years. Better ball-sharing and teamwork appears evident in the new Bronco edition, which we believe will be in position for an at-large by March, lessening the chance of the Mountain becoming a one-bid league this term. We were probably not going to put Texas in the field until its Tuesday upset over Iowa State. That win, plus an earlier upset over North Carolina, and a road win at Stanford, give Shaka Smart some very good Ws that the Selection Committee will certainly note. Still, Shaka needs to get back C Cam Ridley ASAP to better help navigate the many mine fields of the Big 12.

At Denver...

4 Arizona (13-3, 34) vs. 13 Albany (14-4, 96)...Arizona's chances at a protected seed might have been jarred when the Cats were swept last weekend at UCLA & USC. But UA usually holds serve at Tucson, and its tourney pedigree is good, all suggesting the Cats will have likely earned a four seed by Selection Sunday. The America East race is likely going to be a dog fight between the Great Danes of Albany (with their Scooby-Doo logo) and the Seawolves of Stony Brook, the home team of Strat-o-Matic on Long Island.

5 Duke (14-3, 9) vs. 12 Hawaii (13-2, 97)...Duke's profile is not looking as strong as usual, with not many quality wins (yet) and with another loss this week at Clemson, which caused a lot of spittle to be spewed by Coach K and temporarily dropped the Blue Devils out of protected seed territory. Duke needs C Amile Jefferson to get back in the lineup if it wants to make another deep run in March. We suspect that a lot of Big Dance entries would like to avoid Hawaii, which has emerged as a force under first-year HC Eran Ganot, almost beating Oklahoma at the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas. As usual, the Rainbow Warriors' eventual fate will be determined by how they fare on the mainland, where they must play the Big West Tourney at the Anaheim Honda Center March 10-12. Long Beach State and defending champ UC Irvine will be there to pick up any pieces.

At Spokane...

2 West Virginia (15-1, 13) vs. 15 Weber State (11-5, 163)...Its Big Monday win over Kansas solidifies West Virginia as a protected seed, and now we can start talking about the Mounties as a one seed, though plenty of treacherous assignments remain in the Big 12. 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 36 ppg. Montana and Idaho look to be the top challengers in the Big Sky; remember, the regular-season champ hosts the conference tourney in the Sky.

7 Gonzaga (13-3, 43) vs. 10 Michigan (13-4, 36)...How can Gonzaga get to play in the sub-regional at the Spokane Arena, about a mile from campus? Well, the Arena is not the Zags' home court, and it is actually Idaho as the sub-regional host school (so it's the Vandals who would be prohibited from playing on this floor). We're still not sure how much this Gonzaga edition has dropped from a year ago with the departures of vet Gs Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. and 7-0 C Przemek Karnowski still down with a back injury that might sideline him the rest of the season. Meanwhile, we weren't sure about including John Beilein's Michigan in the field until Tuesday's win over Maryland. When healthy (as they weren't a year ago), the Wolverines can be dangerous.

At Brooklyn....

3 Providence (15-2, 16) vs. 14 William & Mary (11-4, 55)...After having a week to stew about blowing a late lead against Marquette, Providence displayed its mettle when rallying from a halftime deficit to win at Creighton this past Tuesday. Which is only the latest of several efforts by Ed Cooley's Friars that compel us to keep them in protected seed territory. Since we put Northwestern into our field for what would be the first time ever, we do the same with William & Mary, which has been knocking on the door in the CAA Tourney the past few years but might have its best chance to finally kick it down at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore (called the Civic Center when the NBA Bullets played there in the '60s) March 4-7.

6 South Carolina (15-1, 27) ) vs. 11 Notre Dame (11-5, 48)/Colorado (12-4, 33)... Of course, all of these projections are provisional (not to mention that they don't really count). But the Gamecocks-at-5 is more provisional than most of the recommendations, because South Carolina has started quick and faded before under HC Frank "The Bouncer" Martin. And some SEC sources are wondering if it will be more of the same after the Cocks suffered their first loss when whipped at midweek at Alabama. Mike Brey's Notre Dame does not look the threat it was last season when Jerian Grant (now NBA Knicks) and Pat Connaughton (now NBA Blazers) paced a precision-executing squad, but the Irish might be good enough to slip in near the edge of the bracket, perhaps a play-in game. Tad Boyle's Colorado has fallen a bit from our last report, with losses at Cal and home vs. Utah in its first three Pac-12 games, but the Buffs at least still manage to hang in the field this week.

Last four in: San Diego State, Seton Hall, Notre Dame, Colorado.

Last four out: Clemson, St. Bonaventure, Washington, Kansas State.

Next four out: Saint Joseph's, Florida State, UCLA, UT-Arlington.

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