by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Well, ESPN's BracketBusters has disappeared into the sunset, its final installment of an 11-season run having ended over the weekend. Although, as in many past years, BracketBusters results could still be felt on Selection Sunday.

For the last edition of the BracketBusters, there appear to be a few easy-to-identify winners and losers. Among them...

1) WINNER: Saint Mary's...Running out of time to post a marquee win in the regular season, the Gaels comfortably handled Creighton in Moraga, just 48 hours after another important home win over BYU. We suspect the Selection Committee will have been impressed with SMC's resolve in a must-win situation, and its RPI has already jumped into the high 30s after hovering in the low 50s in previous weeks. Importantly for the Gaels, they likely don't have to beat high-flying Gonzaga in the upcoming WCC Tourney in Las Vegas to earn a Big Dance bid, although at least advancing to the tourney finale would be a plus. The Zags are the only team to have beaten SMC since mid-December.

2) LOSER: Creighton...We're stuck on the same Busters game, we know, but Creighton-SMC was the event's featured contest last Saturday for a reason, as there were real at-large implications for both...and potential dire consequences for the loser. Which in this case would be the Bluejays, who have dropped off of the pace in the Missouri Valley and have lost 6 of their last 11 games. We still have Creighton in our field of 68 (more on that in a moment), but just barely so. After looking like a Big Dance lock for a couple of months, Creighton is suddenly in real bubble trouble and must at least win all of the way to the MVC Tourney Arch Madness final in two weeks at St. Louis to feel reasonably comfy about an at-large bid.

3) LOSER: Summit League...Main contenders South Dakota State, North Dakota State, and Western Illinois were all considered possible mid-majors to watch. But SDSU (vs. Murray State) and NDSU (vs. Akron) were double-digit losers in their Buster games, and all WIU did was lose vs. a second-division Horizon side, Cleveland State. While several of the featured Busters mid-majors looked good over the weekend, the Summit teams did not impress.

4) WINNERS: Akron, Belmont, Davidson...These three entries were all winners in featured Busters action and have enhanced their own potential NCAA at-large cases in the process (especially Belmont, whose RPI now sits at 22 after routing capable Ohio U, and Akron after securing win number 18 in a row vs. aforementioned North Dakota State). Along with a couple of high-profile mid-majors that didn't participate in the Busters (namely Middle Tennessee and La Tech and perhaps Bucknell), there are a collection of peripheral entries who seem to have legit Big Dance at-large cases should they lose in respective conference tourneys. The Big Dance bubble could thus become a lot more crowded with a few upsets in conference tourneys involving those teams.

So, we bid the BracketBusters adieu. Although we suspect no one is quite as relieved about the demise as Don Best schedule master Greg Daraban, who merely rolled his eyes when we asked if he would miss the Busters in upcoming Februarys. As one could imagine, shoe-horning all of those extra games into the schedule rotation on short notice (the matchups were never announced until a few weeks before they were played) is tedious work at best.

Meanwhile, following is our latest Bracketology update. Please note that beginning late next week, we're going to be providing daily updates on our website homepage (www.goldsheet.com) regarding the projected composition of the field. We did the same last year in conference tourney week, which swings into full gear in two weeks.

As usual, we 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 24. Remember, Selection Sunday is less than three weeks away!

EAST REGIONAL (Washington, D.C.)

At Philadelphia...

1 Duke (SUR 23-3, RPI-1) vs. 16 Robert Morris (20-9, 126)...So much for F Ryan Kelly's injury keeping the Blue Devils off of the top line. Sure, Duke has lost a few games, but so has everyone else, and by the time Kelly returns to active duty, Coach K is likely to have earned another top seed. With lots of alumni in the Northeast, the Dookies would also be well-supported in the Philly sub-regional. The home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, has surged ahead of (Emmett) Bryant, the Claire Bees of Long Island, and the pollsters from Quinnipiac in the Northeast Conference, although the Colonials will have to beat Bryant in a revenge match this Thursday before being relatively assured of home-court edge through the upcoming NEC Tourney.

8 UCLA (20-7, 42) vs. 9 Belmont (22-6, 22)...We'll take the Bruins in this one! There is certainly time for the UCLA version to climb free of the sentence of an 8 or 9 seed, and the Westwood bunch looked good in its revenge romp past Southern Cal on Sunday. At least Ben Howland's team looks to be on firm ground on the safe side of the cut line after some wobbles in the last month. Meanwhile, the Belmont version of the Bruins might view a 9 seed as quite a reward, and rest assured no national contenders would be interested in hooking Rick Byrd's boys and star G Ian Clark (18.4 ppg & 54.5% FG shooting!), especially after their romp past capable Ohio U in last weekend's Bracket Busters. The Nashville bunch also must be considered for an at-large berth should it get KO'd (perhaps by dangerous Murray State and G Isaiah Canaan) in the upcoming OVC Tourney, in which Belmont will also have a hometown edge in Music City, where games will be played at the downtown Municipal Auditorium, just a few miles from campus.

At Dayton...

4 Ohio State (20-7, 23) vs. 13 Davidson (21-7, 87)...Wins in the last week over Minnesota & Michigan State have moved Ohio State back into protected seed territory and a likely preferred sub-regional assignment in nearby Dayton, just 70 miles from Columbus. But Thad Matta's Buckeyes are probably going to have to win at least two of their last three reg.-season games and avoid a quick exit in the Big Ten Tourney at Chicago to stay on the radar for a desired spot in Dayton. Bob McKillop's Davidson is no stranger to the Big Dance and will be seeking a return visit after losing honorably (only 69-62) vs. Final Four-bound Louisville in the sub-regional at Portland last March. The Wildcats, who survived an exciting OT Bracket Buster vs. Big Sky leader Montana, will be favored in the fast-approaching SoCon Tourney in the pleasant Blue Ridge Mountain community of Asheville.

5 Kansas State (22-5, 20) vs. 12 Villanova (18-10, 54)... Interspersed among the many Villanova losses are a growing collection of quality wins (Syracuse, Louisville, at UConn, Marquette) that have likely moved the Wildcats to the safe side of the cut line. Getting to 20 reg.-season wins and avoiding an early KO in the Big East Tourney likely earn the bid and complete perhaps Jay Wright's best coaching job at Nova. Another bunch of Wildcats, this one from Manhattan, KS, still has a chance at a protected seed and a preferred sub-regional assignment in Kansas City. Regardless, Bruce Weber's reputation has been sufficiently rehabilitated at KSU after his recent Illinois teams earned the label of underachiever in recent years.

At Lexington...

2 Louisville (22-5, 8) vs. 15 Stony Brook (20-6, 91)...After that puzzling three-game spin-out in mid-January, Louisville has regained its equilibrium and should comfortably qualify for a protected seed. Which means that during the sub-regionals we might have to get used to the very odd sight of the Cardinals wearing their home whites and having the majority of the crowd on their side in what is usually hostile enemy territory at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The home team of the Strat-o-matic headquarters, Long Island's Stony Brook, has almost wrapped up the home-court advantage in the upcoming America East Tourney; a win over the Boston U Terriers on Thursday night would all but sew up that very important edge for Steve Pikiell's Seawolves.

7 Wichita State (24-5, 30) vs. 10 Saint Mary's (24-5, 39)...While Creighton has been wobbling in the Missouri Valley, Gregg Marshall's gritty Wichita State keeps on winning and looks to be safely removed from the bubble as we approach Arch Madness late next week in St. Louis. The Shockers might even think they can get involved in the protected seed discussion if they continue to win thru the conference tourney. Meanwhile, Saint Mary's at-large case looks a lot more convincing after back-to-back wins in a 48-hour period vs. BYU and then Creighton in the BracketBusters. Previously, the Galloping Gaels' RPI was hovering in the low 50s, but now that it has dropped into the high 30s, things are looking up in Moraga. Note that Randy Bennett's side has lost only to Gonzaga since just prior to Christmas.

At Salt Lake City...

3 New Mexico (23-4, 3) vs. 14 Harvard (17-7, 83)...While some regional observers believe Steve Alford is doing it with mirrors in Albuquerque, we're not even sure the Lobos have to win the Mountain West Tourney to secure a protected seed and likely assignment to the preferred Salt Lake City sub-regional. Numbers like an RPI at 3 and Strength of Schedule (SOS) at 4 are usually rewarded handsomely on Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, Tommy Amaker's Harvard continues to set the pace in the Ivies, although the Crimson will need to beat Princeton in a showdown later this week at Jadwin Gym to take complete control in the league race.

6 Saint Louis (21-5, 34) vs. 11 Maryland (19-8, 66)/ Iowa State (19-8, 51)...A couple of weeks ago, we noted that Saint Louis' at-large hopes would likely be determined by an upcoming tough trio of tests vs. A-10 contenders Charlotte, VCU, and Butler. Consider the Billikens having passed with flying colors, winning all of those games and soaring to the top of the conference on the heels of a current 9-game win streak. SLU is now safely clear of the bubble, and HC Jim Crews should be in line to get the Bills' job on a full-time basis. We'll see about Maryland, which has been trying to overcome a suspect RPI due to a soft pre-league slate. But the Terps' recent win over Duke will be a nice chip to cash on Selection Sunday and keeps them within sight of an at-large (although it might be the play-in game) with a strong finish. ISU is a very provisional pick at the moment; we suspect the Cyclones are going to have to beat either Kansas or Oklahoma State in games preceding the Big 12 Tourney to solidify their at-large candidacy.


At Austin...

1 Miami-Florida (22-4, 2) vs. 16 Mercer (20-9, 140)/Norfolk State (18-10, 172)...Miami had been asking for problems in recent weeks, and its unbeaten run in the ACC finally came to an end on Saturday at Wake Forest. That might not be enough to knock the Canes out of a projected number one regional seed as of late February, but there is suspicion among regional observers that Jim Larranaga's squad could have peaked too soon. We'll see. Among the four 16 vs. 16 play-in teams are likely to be champs from the Atlantic Sun and MEAC. From the former, the Mercer Bears have suddenly taken control from the Miami-conquering Florida Gulf Coast Eagles and have the added edge of hosting the conference tourney in Macon, and the tourney no longer involves Belmont (off to the OVC). Remember, Mercer eventually won the CIT last spring. The favorite in the MEAC Tourney will be defending champ 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 Colorado (18-8, 29) vs. 9 Illinois (20-9, 33)...Colorado has its share of warts, but the Selection Committee usually rewards teams with a sub-30 RPI and SOS numbers like those owned by the Buffs. Barring a complete collapse in the next two weeks and an early exit at the Pac-12 Tourney, CU is safely away from the cut line. So, too, would seem to be Illinois. Even though the Illini's 5-game win streak was snapped on Sunday at Michigan, John Groce's side has claimed enough scalps (Maui Classic title including wins over North Carolina and Butler, plus possible top regional seeds Indiana & Gonzaga) to temporarily move clear from the bubble. Although Illinois is advised to beat Nebraska and Iowa in its next two games before feeling really comfy about its at-large status.

At Austin....

4 Oklahoma State (20-6, 28) vs. 13 Akron (22-4, 48)...This would be a rematch of a November game at the Puerto Rico Tipoff that was a much more compelling matchup than anyone realized at the time. OSU won that game 69-65 and has collected some other impressive scalps (Tennessee, NC State, Oklahoma, and especially Kansas, the latter on the road, no less); had the Cowboys survived last week's OT rematch vs. Kansas, we think their chances of a protected seed and likely ticket to Austin for the sub-regionals would be even stronger. Now, short of winning the Big 12 Tourney, OSU will need to finish fast and probably beat Kansas State in the reg.-season finale to earn a top-four regional seed, but it remains within reach. As for the Zips, they'll have a case for a stronger seed than a 13 if they continue their nation's best 18-game win streak, but they had better be careful what they wish for, as a 12 or 13 is more desirable than the 8-9-10-11 slots that Akron might believe it deserves. More importantly, has Keith Dambrot's side done enough to secure an at-large bid if it should lose in the upcoming MAC Tourney in Cleveland?

5 Pittsburgh (21-7, 43) vs. 12 Temple (19-8, 49)...We have temporarily moved the Panthers outside of protected seed territory after last week's home loss vs. Notre Dame. Although there is still time (especially with upcoming games vs. South Florida and DePaul) for Pitt to play its way into a 3 or 4 seed with a strong finish and deep run in the Big East Tourney. We've been wondering what to do about Temple for the past month, especially after that unprecedented series of recent Owls white-knucklers (five straight games decided by one point!). But wins over fellow A-10 bubblers La Salle and Charlotte in the last week suggest Fran Dunphy can make it six Big Dances in a row since he took the Temple job in 2007. The win over Syracuse at Madison Square Garden in December will also likely come in handy on Selection Sunday.

At Auburn Hills...

2 Michigan (23-4, 9) vs. 15 Niagara (17-11, 114)...We suspect the Wolverines could wind up anywhere from a 1 to a 4 seed depending upon what transpires in the next few weeks. Although there is little chance John Beilein's team drops out of protected seed territory. That almost surely means a short trip to the NBA Detroit Pistons' home base at the Palace of Auburn Hills for the sub-regionals. The upcoming Metro-Atlantic Tourney looks to be one of the most wide-open in the country; at the moment, we simply list current leader Niagara, although at least six other sides (Loyola-Maryland, Canisius, Iona, Rider, Fairfield, and Manhattan) will think they have a legit chance in Springfield. Remember, the Metro-Atlantic sent two teams (Jimmy Patsos' Loyola & Tim Cluess' Iona) to the Dance last March.

7 Butler (22-6, 31) vs. 10 North Carolina (19-8, 21)...This would be a rematch from Butler's 82-71 win in the Maui Classic way back in Thanksgiving week. While the Bulldogs still appear to be safely into the field of 68, we have dropped them out of protected seed territory for the time being after recent home losses to Charlotte and Saint Louis; Brad Stevens' team likely has to win the A-10 Tourney to climb back into discussion for spot on the fourth line. Meanwhile, Roy Williams' switch to a smaller lineup is paying dividends for the Tar Heels, who are moving clear from bubble trouble with recent convincing home wins over Virginia & NC State. UNC might not be a threat to win it all this season, but the Dance wouldn't be quite the same without the Heels.

At Kansas City...

3 Georgetown (21-4, 13) vs. 14 Bucknell (22-5, 53)...A couple of weeks ago, Georgetown's RPI and SOS were keeping it away from a protected seed. Now, however, the Hoyas have won nine in a row, lead the Big East, and have serious Wooden Award (Otto Porter) and Coach of the Year (JT III) candidates. Maybe a three seed is too low? Whatever, don't overlook reps from Patriot League, which has recorded several sub-regional upsets in recent years. This year, CBS head honcho Les Moonves' alma mater Bucknell is poised to get back to the Dance after last week's win over Fox' Andrea Tantaros' alma mater Lehigh gave the Bison control of the league race and inside track for home-court edge throughout the fast-approaching conference tourney (although the road team won both regular-season meetings between the Bucknell and the Mountain Hawks...why did Lehigh get rid of the "Engineers" nickname, anyway?). Keep in mind, however, that Lehigh could regain the services of star G C.J. McCollum (out since early January with a broken foot) for the conference tourney.

6 UNLV (21-7, 14) vs. 11 Kentucky (19-8, 45)...A few weeks ago, we were wondering about scenarios wherein UNLV might play its way out of the field entirely. But three straight wins (including overcoming the road bugaboo with a win at Wyoming), a solid RPI helped by this year's status of the Mountain West, and continuing to make a fortress out of the Thomas & Mack Center (where the Rebs will likely be favored in the upcoming conference tourney) have moved Dave Rice's squad safely away from the cut line. We're still wondering about Kentucky's Big Dance credentials, especially after the recent injury to C Nerlens Noel. But Coach Cal's Cats still have plenty of McDonald's All-Americans on their roster, and last Saturday's gutsy, scratching and clawing OT win over Mizzou suggests UK is not ready to settle for an NIT bid just yet.


At Dayton...

1 Indiana (24-3, 6) vs. 16 Southern U (20-8, 191)/Charleston Southern (16-10, 183)...Recent road wins at Ohio State and Michigan State have pushed the Hoosiers to the top of the Big Ten table, which this season is probably going to be good enough for a spot on the top line regardless what transpires in the upcoming conference tourney at Chicago's United Center. The sub-regional trip to Dayton is also a convenient and relatively short drive for Hoosier backers. Expect the Big South and SWAC champs to be two of the four teams in the pair of 16 vs. 16 play-in games. The Big South race has had more twists and turns than the Monaco Grand Prix; Charleston Southern now looks the most likely to emerge, although Scott Cherry's High Point, Chris Holtmann's Gardner-Webb, and Eddie Biedenbach's UNC-Asheville all remain serious threats. Meanwhile, Southern U remains the only SWAC side above .500, although Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff are giving spirited chase in the conference race.

8 Virginia Commonwealth (22-6, 36) vs. 9 Missouri (19-8, 37)...While VCU was leading the A-10, we felt obliged to keep the Rams in or near protected seed territory. Now, however, the Rams have dropped out of the top spot in the league, and we are compelled to instead weigh the RPI (36) and SOS (73) numbers that suggest a lower seed. Win the A-10 Tourney, and maybe Shaka Smart's team gets back in the protected seed discussion. Mizzou could have effectively sewn up a spot in the field of 68 had it won at Kentucky last Saturday; instead, the Tigers lost in OT, but a win earlier in the week over Florida is enough to keep Frank Haith's team out of serious bubble trouble for the time being.

At Salt Lake City...

4 Notre Dame (22-6, 44) vs. 13 Valparaiso (22-7, 69)...Since Notre Dame lost 3 of 4 in short span during mid-January, the Irish have stabilized, and recent wins at home vs. Louisville and Cincinnati and at Pittsburgh have moved the Fighting Irish back into the protected seed discussion. Meanwhile, Valparaiso looks like it will have homecourt edge in the Horizon Tourney, but it did last year as well and lost in the league title game vs. Detroit. A title game rematch vs. the Titans (who won on the Crusaders' court two weeks ago) for another trip to the Dance could be on deck for Bryce Drew's squad in a few weeks.

5 Memphis (19-4, 14) vs. 12 Minnesota (18-9, 16)...We've seen this sort of late-season fade before from Minnesota, just 14-28 SU in the month of February since Tubby Smith took over in the 2007-08 campaign. For the moment, however, we are keeping the Golden Gophers in the field on strictly procedural grounds because of high-rated RPI (16) and SOS (1!) numbers. But at some point, Minnesota, which is 3-8 its last 11 thru Feb. 25, is going to have to win a few more games. With the Big Ten's status as the top-rated league this season, the Committee would likely bite on a conference rep with an 8-10 league record, but we don't think the Gophers get in if they finish 7-11 in league play, strong RPI/SOS numbers or not. Losses vs. either Penn State, Nebraska, or Purdue in the next two weeks might force Minny to win the Big Ten Tourney to make the field of 68. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, no such worries at Memphis, which hasn't lost a game since mid-December (at Louisville) while it continues to fly mostly under the radar in C-USA. If the Tigers keep winning, they'll have a solid case for a protected seed.

At Kansas City...

2 Kansas (23-4, 5) vs. 15 Montana (18-6, 106)...Kansas still could end up on the top line, but needs to do a bit more recovering from its recent 3-game losing streak that included a bad, bad loss at TCU (avenged last weekend, by the way, when the Jayhawk starters outscored the Frog starters 34-0 in the first half at the Phog!) and likely win the Big 12 Tourney to reclaim a number one seed. Regardless, it's a pretty safe bet that KU gets placed in the nearby sub-regional at Kansas City's Sprint Center, where the Jayhawks have played before this year and will also compete in the upcoming Big 12 Tourney. In the Big Sky, Montana maintains a slight lead over Weber State, and all indicators point toward a rubber match in Missoula (where the Grizzlies will likely host the conference tourney) for the Big Dance bid in a few weeks.

7 San Diego State (20-7, 32) vs. 10 Cincinnati (19-9, 50)...The Mountain West's standing as the second-rated league means that SDSU hasn't taken too many hits for some recent losses in league play. So expect the Aztecs to be wearing their home whites in the first game of their sub-regional. We're not as sure about Cincinnati, which is sliding the wrong way the past few weeks and has fallen beneath .500 in Big East play. We suspect Mick "The Ghost' Cronin's Bearcats are still safe if they win two of their final three regular-season games, but anything less could be problematic (and two of those games are very difficult ones vs. Louisville & UConn).

At San Jose...

3 Arizona (23-4, 11) vs. 14 South Dakota State (21-9, 84)...We're still a bit skeptical about the credentials of Arizona, which has endured several harrowing escapes; a few well-placed baskets along the way would have the Wildcats in the discussion for seeds between 7-10 instead of those in the protected range. But enough other Pac-12 contenders have stumbled that the Cats have been able to stay at the top of the Pac table, and pre-league wins over Florida, Miami-Fla., and San Diego State have U of A solidly in protected seed territory, and likely ticketed to the San Jose sub-regional. We're going to look forward to the upcoming Summit League Tourney, in which Nate "53-point" Wolters and South Dakota State should have a regional edge in Sioux Falls. North Dakota State and Western Illinois are the top contenders, although we must note that all three were beaten on the road in Bracket Busters action last weekend.

6 Marquette (19-7, 17) vs. 11 Virginia (19-8, 79)...Marquette has been hanging around the higher seeds for the past month and a half, but last Saturday's loss at Villanova probably pushed the Golden Eagles away from protected seed status unless they can take down Syracuse and Notre Dame this week. As for Virginia, the Cavs have been working hard to overcome the damage to their RPI that early losses vs. CAA reps George Mason, Delaware, and Old Dominion might have caused. But Tony Bennett's side has made a fortress in ACC play out of its home John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, and a home win over Duke on Thursday could go a long way to securing an at-large bid.


at San Jose...

1 Gonzaga (27-2, 2) vs. 16 Northeastern (18-10, 148)...We can't overlook Gonzaga as a regional top seed any longer. The Zags haven't lost in WCC play, own a solid résumé including non-conference wins at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, and would be ahead in the Big 12 with their wins over Kansas State, Baylor, and Oklahoma State. As long as Gonzaga keeps winning, it likely earns the top seed in the West. The upcoming Colonial Tourney figures to be a free-for-all, with expected top seed Northeastern just a couple of buckets away from a four-game losing streak (which includes a setback at subpar NC-Wilmington). Delaware, George Mason, Drexel, and even William & Mary will like their chances next week in Richmond, although the CAA is so downgraded this season that its tourney champ could possibly get sucked into one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games.

8 Oregon (22-6, 47) vs. 9 Oklahoma (18-8, 19)...We know that Oregon (4-4 SU its last eight) has been hindered by star frosh G Dominic Artis' foot injury during recent games. But the statute of limitations has almost run out for that excuse, and the Ducks had better start winning some games (still-injured Artis or not) if they want to stop their slide down the seeding scale. We knew that it wouldn't take Lon Kruger very long to have Oklahoma back into the Dance; the Sooners, with wins over Kansas & Oklahoma State in their back pockets, look in good shape for an at-large. Which would be Kruger's record fifth Dance appearance with a different school (Kansas St., Florida, Illinois, and UNLV prior).

At Philadelphia...

4 Syracuse (22-5, 12) vs. 13 La Tech (24-3, 52)...We're finally thinking that Syracuse might not play its way back onto the top line. The Orange have stumbled a few too many times in Big East play to warrant a number one regional seed, and last Saturday's home loss vs. Georgetown will make it hard to climb back to a number one regional slot. Although the Cuse still seems a good bet to stay in protected seed territory. Along with other mid-majors like Belmont, Middle Tennessee, and Akron, La Tech (with 16 SU wins in a row) might feel as if it has a legit at-large case should it lose in the upcoming WAC Tourney. Just in case, we suggest the Bulldogs take care of business in the event at the Orleans Hotel Arena in Las Vegas. Then hold their breath while suitors begin to line up for a chance to talk to up-and-coming HC Michael White, likely destined for greener pastures very soon.

5 Wisconsin (19-8, 24) vs. 12 Creighton (22-7/41)/La Salle (19-7, 38)...Of all of the great coaching jobs done by Wisconsin's Bo Ryan over the years, some regional observers think this year might be his masterpiece. The Badgers are again punching above their weight, but this time without any shot-creating elements (like Jordan Taylor the past few years) on the roster. Meanwhile, both Iowa State and La Salle seem destined to ride the bubble into Selection Sunday and are obviously straddling the cut line. The Explorers, who haven't danced in 21 years, avoided a bad loss on Sunday when rallying to beat Rhode Island, but still have a bit more work to do, especially after last week's loss vs. Big Five rival Temple. A strong finish is what Creighton might now incredibly need just to make the field of 68, as its late-season slide continued in the BracketBusters loss at Saint Mary's. Now 5-6 in their last 11 games, the Bluejays' skid has endured for too long to be considered just a blip on the Big Dance radar screen, as Greg McDermott's side has officially played itself into bubble trouble.

At Lexington...

2 Florida (22-4, 7) vs. 15 Long Beach State (17-10, 115)...There are times we think Florida looks like the best team in the country. But the Gators have flopped inexplicably on four different occasions, which also happen to be their only games when seriously challenged. A bit of Secretariat in the Gators, romping home most nights but failing when eyeballed deep in the stretch? (And yes, Secretariat did lose three times in his Triple Crown year of 1973.) That's enough to keep Billy Donovan's team off the top line, at least for the moment. Long Beach State, a loser at home vs. Stephen F. Austin in its Bracket Buster, doesn't look as menacing as last year, but still leads the Big West and will be the favorite when that conference tourney convenes at the Anaheim Honda Center in a few weeks.

7 NC State (19-8, 25) vs. 10 Middle Tennessee (25-4, 27)...NC State remains a bit of an enigma, loaded with NBA-caliber talent but also an unnerving example (for Wolfpack fans, at least) of the parts being greater than the sum. Which is not the first time we have said that about a Mark Gottfried-coached team. Still, we would keep an eye on the Raleigh bunch. It is fair to ask whether Kermit Davis' red-hot MTSU (RPI 27) will have an at-large case if it blows the Sun Belt Tourney, which it also did as a favorite last March. The Blue Raiders won't want to chance it, however, and could be one of those mid-majors everyone wants to avoid in the Dance, especially considering the couple of games they won in the NIT last spring.

At Auburn Hills....

3 Michigan State (23-5, 9) vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin (23-3, 78)...After MSU was talking about securing a spot on the top line, last week's losses to Indiana and Ohio State have temporarily cooled all of that discussion in East Lansing. We're still keeping Tom Izzo's Spartans as a protected seed and assume their sub-regional assignment will be to nearby Auburn Hills (where, if Michigan is involved, as expected, in the other half of the brackets, crowd dynamics could be delicious, with fans of the Wolverines and Spartans offering throaty support for opponents of the other). We're sure MSU or any other entry will not sleep on well-coached Stephen F. Austin, which fired a warning shot to the field with its Bracket Busters win at Long Beach State. Earlier, SFA won at Norman vs. Lon Kruger's likely NCAA-bound Oklahoma. Could the Jacks (whose RPI was among the nation's leaders into January) have a chance at an at-large spot if they blow the Southland Tourney? Lookalikes: SFA HC Danny Kaspar and CNN political analyst Alex Castellanos.

6 Colorado State (21-6, 15) vs. 11 Cal (18-9, 49)...Despite a pair of losses last week vs. MW heavyweights UNLV & New Mexico, CSU remains safely into the field of 68, buoyed by an RPI that is paying a lot of respect to the Mountain West this season. To get a protected seed, however, we now suspect that Larry Eustachy's senior-leaden Rams are going to have to win the conference tourney in Las Vegas. A first-time welcome to this year's projected field of 68 for surging Cal, the talk of the Pac-12 in recent weeks with a five-game win streak that includes victories over likely NCAA invitees Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon. Now the Golden Bears get to finish their regular-season slate with three home games at Haas Pavilion before the Pac-12 Tourney at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. They're getting their dancing shoes ready in Berkeley.

Last four in: Maryland, Creighton, La Salle, Iowa State.

Last four out: Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arizona State, Boise State.

Next four out: Alabama, Southern Miss, Charlotte, Baylor.

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