by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Back by popular demand, another installment of “Bracketology” seems in order as the calendar turns to February.

Remember, for all of our “Bracketology” updates, the term “protected seed” refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and usual 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 20, with the Dayton “First Four” games played on March 18 and 19. Straight-up records and RPI thru January 29. Selection Sunday is only 6 weeks away (but who’s counting?).


At Buffalo...

1 Syracuse (SUR 20-0, RPI-2) vs. 16 Stony Brook (15-7,155)/Robert Morris (11-10, 158)...Full steam ahead for Syracuse in its new neighborhood of the ACC, and we think the Orange can even endure a couple of hits (Saturday vs. Duke, perhaps?) and still stay on the top line. Almost assuredly, the Orange will be assigned to the nearby Buffalo sub-regional. In the America East, Stony Brook and Vermont project as the teams to beat in the conference tourney; for the moment we opt for the home team of Strat-o-Matic headquarters in Long Island, Stony Brook. The Northeast race might even be more of a traffic jam, but lookee-here, once again back on top of the league table entering February is the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris.

8 George Washington (17-3, 35) vs. 9 Xavier (15-5, 30)...Entering February, Mike Lonergan’s George Washington has put itself on the safe side of the cut line as the A-10 sorts itself out, and outfits such as Dayton fall by the wayside. Expect the Selection Committee to go 4-5 deep in the A-10 (including the Colonials). There are also enough soft spots in the reconfigured Big East for Xavier to stay in the field, as the Musketeers would have to back up quite a bit to put themselves in any bubble trouble.

At San Antonio...

4 Oklahoma (17-4, 38) vs. 13 Belmont (17-7, 61)...No team has been a “mover” any more in the past two weeks that Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma, which claimed another high-profile Big 12 scalp (Oklahoma State) on Monday and has moved itself into protected seed discussion. Now the question is if Kruger can take a team beyond the sub-regionals, something he hasn’t been able to do since his 2007 team at UNLV. As for Belmont, it has emerged as the favorite in the Ohio Valley, and will have the benefit of the conference tourney in its hometown of Nashville (though a few miles away at the Municipal Auditorium, and not the Mike Curb Center on campus).

5 UMass (17-3, 37) vs. 12 Missouri (16-4, 48)...It was going to be asking a lot of UMass to stay in protected seed territory into March, considering the mine field that is the Atlantic 10. A couple of recent road losses at Richmond and St. Bona have pushed the Minutemen slightly back in the queue. As for Mizzou, is continues to straddle the cut line, but we suspect the mid-level of the SEC is not going to be ignored by the Committee if some other “bubble” teams from major conferences continue to lose.

At Milwaukee...

2 Michigan State (19-2, 8) vs. 15 Canisius (14-7, 95)...Anyone who doubted that Tom Izzo could not keep his Spartans in protected seed territory needs to refer to the midweek result at Iowa when the Spartans, without key cogs Adreian Payne & Branden Dawson, still took down the high-flying Hawkeyes at Iowa City. The closest any team has come to emerging in the Metro-Atlantic has been Jim Baron’s Canisius, but as usual that conference tourney (played in Springfield, MA this season) looks to be a wide-open affair. The pollsters from Quinnipiac, a newcomer to the league, plus always-dangerous Iona, and Manhattan (if it can keep star G George Beamon healthy) loom as the top other contenders in the conference tourney.

7 Gonzaga (19-3, 27) vs. 10 LSU (13-6, 65)...With Saint Mary’s and BYU still trying to gain the attention of the Selection Committee, Gonzaga remains the one WCC entry that looks safely into the field of 68 (in the Zags’ case a likely 16th straight Big Dance invitation). As for LSU, we are suitably impressed by the Tigers’ recent rally and recent win over Kentucky to put the Baton Rouge bunch back into the field, though Johnny Jones’ team is going to have to win a few league games away from the Maravich Center if it wants to stay on the safe side of the cut line.

At Raleigh...

3 Duke (17-4, 3) vs. 14 Mercer (17-5, 68)...Up until perhaps a week ago, we weren’t sure that Duke was a protected seed. Now, however, after that Monday night win at Pitt, Coach K looks like he will be having another short, in-state sub-regional trip (this time to Raleigh). The Atlantic Sun has made some noise in the postseason the past couple of years, with Florida Gulf Coast’s surprise “Dunk City” run to the Sweet 16 last year and Mercer winning the CIT two years ago. Now the Mercer Bears look as if they have another great chance to get to the Dance after being denied in their conference tourney the past couple of years.

6 Wisconsin (17-4, 20) vs. 11 Harvard (15-3, 43)... It wasn’t long ago that Wisconsin was cruising along unbeaten and in the discussion for a top regional seed. A couple of weeks and four losses later, the Badgers are sliding and causing HC Bo Ryan more indigestion than one of those hoagies from his native Chester, PA. As for Harvard, it can really take control of the Ivy League race if it can handle main challenger Princeton this weekend. Don’t be surprised if Tommy Amaker’s Crimson become the first overall team to sew up a Big Dance bid sometime in late February.


At St. Louis...

1 Wichita State (22-0, 10) vs. 16 NC Central (13-5, 126)...As long as Wichita State continues to stay unbeaten, how can the Shockers be denied a top regional seed? A few quality wins in pre-conference play should help Wichita stay in protected seed territory even if it drops a few games between now and March, although we suspect Wichita might have to win “Arch Madness” in St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Tourney title to stay on the top line. We’re not altogether sure that MEAC frontrunner (as long as it is NC Central) is going to have to go the 16 vs. 16 play-in route to make the field this season.

8 Kansas State (15-6, 40) vs. 9 Providence (15-5, 45)...The Big 12 is going to claim some victims this season (Baylor looking to be the most-likely candidate at the moment), but to this point Bruce Weber’s K-State has been able to hold its own in the nation’s toughest league and is a very safe distance from the cut line. We also suspect that Providence has moved into safer territory with a recent uptick, though the Friars are going to have to make sure they can win some games on the Big East road, and not just in the friendly Dunkin Donuts Center.

At Raleigh...

4 Louisville (17-3, 5) vs. 13 Toledo (18-2, 66)...Louisville appears to be safely into the field of 68, but the question each season around Churchill Downs is if the Cards have enough to make a Final Four run. We’re not sure if Rick Pitino has the defensive interior to replicate last season’s charge to the title, but the Cards are going to get their chance in March. If Toledo keeps winning, it is fair to ask whether the MAC might become a multi-bid league for the first time in over a decade just in case the Rockets are upset in the conference tourney in Cleveland. At this point, Toledo appears a clear favorite.

5 Oklahoma State (16-4, 16) vs. 12 Green Bay (17-4, 61)...At this stage, the only question regarding Ok State’s Big Dance candidacy is if it still deserves a protected seed. After Monday’s loss at Oklahoma, we say no, although that could change in the next few weeks. With Butler off to the Big East, Green Bay has emerged as the team to beat in the Horizon race, although the Fighting Phoenix got a reminder from Valpo earlier in the week that they had better not overlook the Crusaders come conference tourney time in March. Remember, the Horizon reg.-season champ hosts the league tourney.

At Orlando...

2 Florida (17-2, 11) vs. 15 American (13-7, 90)...Perhaps Kentucky mounts a challenge to Florida in the second half of the SEC race, but regardless, we think Gator fans can start making reservations for the Orlando sub-regional. Interesting developments in the Patriot league, where American U (9-0 in conference play!) has emerged as the team to beat, and remember this is another loop where the regular-season champ hosts the conference tourney. If it’s the Eagles, that means visitors can see the NBC News Washington bureau headquarters right across the street from campus and perhaps get a glimpse of Chris Matthews...though such sightseeing is not as fun anymore after Norah O’Donnell moved to CBS.

7 Texas (16-4, 36) vs. 10 Arizona State (16-5, 28)...It looks like Texas’ absence from the Big Dance is going to last all of one season, as the Horns have positioned themselves far on the safe side of the cut line, and seem to be less vulnerable than some of the other borderline Big 12 contenders. Meanwhile, Herb Sendek quietly goes about his business at Arizona State, which is more than holding its own in the deep Pac-12. Barnes and Sendek once matched wits when each was in the ACC (Barnes at Clemson, Sendek at NC State...a long time ago).

At St. Louis...

3 Creighton (18-3, 4) vs. 14 Stephen F Austin (18-2, 55)...While some of the schools that switched leagues this season (such as Butler and George Mason) have struggled in their new surroundings, Doug McDermott and Creighton continue to set the pace in the Big East. Emerging as the team to beat in the Southland is Stephen F. Austin; one of the things we’re going to miss about the discontinued Bracket Busters is the chance to see teams like the Lumberjacks, who won one of those matchups last season at Long Beach State.

6 Pitt (18-3, 12) vs. 11 La Tech (17-4, 39)...It might seem a bit harsh to move Pitt out of protected seed territory after just a few losses, but the Panthers were so outclassed on Monday vs. Duke that we envision some more losses in their immediate ACC future. As for La Tech, it patiently awaits the return of injured PG Raheem Appleby sometime later in February. C-USA is going to be in the mix to get an extra bid if the Bulldogs and Southern Miss continue to win.


At St. Louis...

1 Kansas (16-4, 9) vs. 16 Southern U (11-10, 201/Coastal Carolina (12-9, 237)...We are projecting just a little bit with Kansas, but leading the Big 12 is enough to put the Jayhawks on the top line of one of the regionals. Expect KU to be sent to the St. Louis sub-regional, where we have previously witnessed the wave of supporters from Lawrence buying up the tickets. It is almost a certainty that champs from the SWAC and South are going to be involved in the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; right now, Southern and Coastal Carolina appear to be the teams to beat in those respective loops.

8 Ohio State (16-5, 21) vs. 9 VCU (17-4, 26)...As a punishment for their recent slump, the Buckeyes could draw a team that no one wants to see, VCU. The bigger question regarding OSU at the moment is just how far the Buckeyes might fall. After all, if they could lose at home to Penn State, who in the Big Ten can’t beat them? Unlikely that OSU plays its way out of the field of 68, but Thad Matta could use a few wins, and fast.

At Orlando....

4 Kentucky (15-5, 15) vs. 13 Delaware (15-7, 79)...We considered taking Kentucky out of a protected seed after the midweek loss at LSU, but the arrow has been pointing up in Lexington for a while now, and it is not that much of a leap of faith to expect the Cats to continue their ascent into February. So a 4 seed seems about right. An awkward matchup for some higher seeds in the Dance could be U-Dee, with its explosive backcourt combo of Devon Saddler and Jarvis Threatt, combining for better than 40 ppg. The Blue Hens took charge of the Colonial race earlier this week with a decisive win at William & Mary.

5 Virginia (16-5, 13) vs. 12 Oregon (14-5, 41)/SMU (16-5, 44)...After getting crushed by 35 at Tennessee a bit over a month ago, we didn’t even project Virginia into the field. But a big January for Tony Bennett’s Cavs now has them knocking on the door of a protected seed. Oregon’s plight has not improved much since our last update, though the Ducks did finally stop their recent 5-game slide with a win at lowly Washington State. Non-league wins over Georgetown and Illinois, however, are not looking as good as they did earlier in the season. We were almost ready to put Larry Brown’s SMU into the field as an 11 seed and being able avoid an at-large play-in game, but the midweek loss at South Florida suggests the Mustangs have a bit more work to do before avoiding the “First Four” in Dayton.

At Milwaukee...

2 Michigan (15-4, 7) vs. 15 Chattanooga (14-8, 231)...Along with Oklahoma and Virginia, the other big “mover” in January was John Beilein’s Michigan, which has suddenly surfaced atop the Big Ten table. As long as the Wolverines stay near the top of the loop, they’re in protected seed territory. The So Con usually doesn’t send its team to the 16 vs. 16 game, and we don’t think it will this season, either, although the RPI of current league leader Chattanooga might suggest otherwise.

7 UCLA (16-4, 18) vs. 10 Tennessee (13-7, 25)...The Bruins seem to be finding their traction for new HC Steve Alford, who has never had this much material to take with him to the Big Dance at previous SE Missouri State (now just Mizzou State), Iowa, and New Mexico stops. Tennessee is suddenly getting a nice boost from its December romp past Virginia and early January win at LSU, though the Vols are going to have to show more consistency in the SEC if they want to stay on the safe side of the cut line.

At San Diego...

3 Cincinnati (19-2, 23) vs. 14 Georgia State (14-6, 81)...Never underestimate Mick “The Ghost” Cronin, who has his Cincy Bearcats atop the newly-formed American and ahead of such heavyweights as Louisville and Memphis, which many believed were the teams to beat in the loop. As for Georgia State, it was finally stopped by freezing weather in the region that postponed a midweek game vs. South Alabama. But the Panthers and their collection of D-I transfers have been flying with 11 wins in a row to run away from the rest of the Sun Belt and make the lovely AD Cheryl Levick seem pretty smart for hiring HC Ron Hunter away from IUPUI a few years ago.

6 Iowa State (15-4, 19) vs. 11 Florida State (13-7, 24)...At least Iowa State hasn’t collapsed like Baylor, which for the moment has played its way out of the field. But the Cyclones are going to continue dropping down the seeding ladder if they stay beneath .500 in league play. Florida State’s position is more precarious, as the Noles have more losses on their ledger, but we believe there are more wins to be found in the ACC that should prop up FSU’s candidacy.


at San Diego...

1 Arizona (17-0, 3) vs. 16 Northern Colorado (3-4, 150)...As was the case in our last update, top-ranked Arizona would almost assuredly be the number one seed in the entire tourney if it began this weekend. Meanwhile, in the Big Sky, while expected top contenders Weber State and Montana have been a bit inconsistent. Northern Colorado’s Bears have emerged as the team to beat. Remember the “Big Sky bonus” for the regular-season winner, which gets to host the conference tourney on its home floor.

8 New Mexico (16-4, 51) vs. 9 Minnesota (15-6, 31)...After sending five teams to the Dance last season (and watching none of them advance beyond the sub-regionals), the Mountain West looks like a 2-bid league this time around. But New Mexico seems to have done enough with a recent spurt to move itself comfortably away from the cut line. Meanwhile, Richard Pitino’s Minnesota Gophers have done enough to stay in the field, too, although many potholes still await in the Big Ten (ask Wisconsin & Ohio State).

At Spokane...

4 Iowa (16-5, 6) vs. 13 IPFW (16-6, 153)...Even after that bitter midweek home loss to Michigan State, Iowa’s ascent through the past month has Fran McCaffery’s side in protected seed territory. A possible first-timer in the Dance is Summit leader IPFW, which plays a few of its games in the Allen Country War Memorial Coliseum that used to be the home court of the old Fort Wayne Pistons of the NBA. But the Mastodons (one of our new favorite nicknames) are extremely well-balanced and are also one of the NCAA’s best shooting teams at 50% from the floor, so opponents must be wary.

5 Saint Louis (19-2, 22) vs. 12 Stanford (13-7, 44)/Southern Miss (18-3, 42)...We were very tempted to put Saint Louis into a protected seed slot and believe the Billikens could still earn a 3 or 4 seed if they continue to perform as they have in recent weeks. Stanford could have used a win over top-ranked Arizona on Wednesday to enhance its candidacy, but the Cardinal has nonetheless put itself in position for the Big Dance invite that HC Johnny Dawkins might need to save his job. Southern Miss is also hanging out on the bubble and increases the chances of C-USA becoming a multi-bid league (along with La Tech).

At Spokane...

2 San Diego State (18-1, 17) vs. 15 New Mexico State (15-7, 83)...The only potential downer in what has been a wildly successful (and unexpected) San Diego State season is the fact the Aztecs cannot play in the sub-regional being played in their Viejas Arena. Spokane and San Antonio are the next-nearest venues, and neither is around the corner, so the Aztecs and their fans have to be ready to pack their bags for the sub-regionals. What is left of the WAC should end up sending Marvin Menzies’ New Mexico State back to the Dance for a third straight year; watch the Ags’ 6-4 jr. skywalker Daniel Mullings, one of the best high-wire acts in college hoops

7 UConn (16-4, 34) vs. 10 North Carolina (15-6, 32)...We have been wondering what to do with North Carolina, which we believe has solidified its place in the field with back-to-back wins over Clemson and Georgia Tech, but still isn’t above .500 in ACC play. Its non-league wins over Louisville, Kentucky, and Michigan State might eventually push the Tar Heels much higher up the seeding scale. UConn looks as if it is going to be able to return to the Dance for HC Kevin Ollie after last year’s ineligibility.

At Buffalo...

3 Villanova (18-2, 14) vs. 14 UC Irvine (13-8, 92)...We’re still having trouble processing last week’s Villanova result against Creighton when the Bluejays hit those 21 three-pointers. Luckily for the Wildcats, that only constitutes one loss, and as of yet does not jeopardize their protected seed status. Get ready to hear the UCI war cry “Zot!” which is linked to its unique Anteater mascot. UCI has never been to the Dance, but this could be the year, and the Anteaters would generate more curiosity than just their nickname because of 7-6 frosh C Mamadou Ndiaye, who has NBA scouts very curious. But Hawaii and UCSB would be no worse than co-favorites if the Big West Tourney started this weekend at the Honda Center, home of the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.

6 Memphis (16-4, 29) vs. 11 Cal (14-7, 47)...There is still time for Memphis to move into the protected seed discussion, but there are some roadblocks in the American that might keep the Tigers in this middle-range seeding territory. The Pac-12 is suddenly looking as deep and dangerous as the Big 12, so Cal had better be careful that its current 3-game losing streak doesn’t extend much longer, or the Golden Bears (like Oregon and Colorado) could slip into some serious bubble trouble.

Last four in: Stanford, SMU, Oregon, Southern Miss.

Last four out: Indiana, Colorado, Baylor, Saint Mary’s.

Next four out: Clemson, Utah, Boise State, Richmond.

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