by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We’re getting close to Selection Sunday. In fact, the first bids for the NCAA Tournament will be handed out at the end of next week, when the earliest conference tournaments conclude. Get ready for an overdose of “St. Joe’s” Lunardi and his Bracketology mentioned more and more on ESPN...a sure sign that March is just around the corner.

We at TGS will have one more “Bracketology” update at the start of the main conference championship week (Issue No. 30). Next week, we will provide a preview of the first wave of conference tournaments (Issue No. 28) and then a “Bubble Update” (Issue No. 29) as we gear up for the annual March Madness fun.

Remember, for all of our 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. Straight-up records and RPI are as of February 24. Remember, Selection Sunday is only a bit more than two weeks away!

Hey, didn’t they just play the Super Bowl?

EAST REGIONAL (Philadelphia)

At Providence...

1 Villanova (SUR 24-4, RPI-2) vs. 16 North Florida (20-10, 166)...Even with its Wednesday night loss to Xavier, we’re not ready to knock Jay Wright’s ‘Nova off of the top line. After all, the Wildcats (who had won seven straight prior to losing to the Musketeers) have stayed consecutive weeks as number one in the polls longer than any team since New Year’s. Still, Nova might have to win the Big East Tourney to guarantee a spot on the top line. In the Atlantic Sun, the Ospreys of North Florida, looking to make a return trip to the Dance, continue to set the pace and can sew up home edge throughout their conference tourney with a win over Jacksonville on Saturday.

8 Pittsburgh (19-8, 36) vs. 9 UConn (19-8, 39)...Pitt has not been setting the world on fire in the ACC, but the recent convincing win over Syracuse should stabilize the Panthers on the safe side of the cut line as Jamie Dixon’s team prepares for a return to the Big Dance after getting knocked out of the NIT at the first hurdle a year ago. A potential matchup vs. old Big East foe UConn would rekindle plenty of memories for each and temporarily revive a once-spirited rivalry. The Huskies are among a cluster of American entries that should earn mid-level seeds.

At Spokane...

4 Indiana (22-6, 29) vs. 13 Chattanooga (24-5, 63)...The tortured Tom Crean is resting a bit easier these days, as his Hoosiers have emerged on top of the Big Ten scrum as the regular season is about to close. The war drums have definitely stopped beating in Bloomington with IU about to steal the Big Ten regular-season crown, all done without second-leading scorer G James Blackmon, Jr., sidelined since late December. Continuing to set the pace in the SoCon is Chattanooga, which has hit a couple of bumps in the past few weeks for new HC Matt McCall but can sew up top seed in the conference tourney with wins vs. VMI and Samford this weekend. Some believe the Mocs might even have a shot at an at-large should they stumble next week in Asheville, as pre-league victims include Georgia, Illinois, and Dayton.

5 Iowa State (19-9, 18) vs. 12 Monmouth (23-6, 45)...The Big 12 has beaten up on itself ever since conference play commenced, and ISU has probably been nicked a few too many times to land in protected-seed territory. Though, as you note above, the Cyclone RPI hasn’t been overly damaged by the many losses, as the rugged league schedule has helped in that regard. Meanwhile, Monmouth could prove an interesting test case for the Selection Committee if it blows the upcoming metro-Atlantic Tourney. Though most believe the Hawks have solid at-large credentials, in retrospect their wins at UCLA and Georgetown do not look as good as they did before New Year’s, though the triumphs over Southern Cal and Notre Dame are worthwhile. The recent home loss to Iona has some Monmouth fans worried before the conference tourney commences next week in Albany.

At Raleigh...

2 Virginia (21-6, 5) vs. 15 Yale (18-6, 54)...The recent bitter loss at Duke, and another close setback on Monday at Miami-Florida, has knocked the Cavs off of the top line for now, though Tony Bennett’s team can re-state its case for a number one seed if it wins the upcoming ACC Tourney, which for once will be conducted at a venue (Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.) where the ‘Hoos could have a regional edge. The Ivies have turned into a three-team race between Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. If the standings hold as they are into this weekend, get ready for another Ivy playoff, as the Eli and Tigers are currently deadlocked at the top and already split their regular-season series.

7 Providence (19-8, 36) vs. 10 Colorado (20-9, 35)...Once as high as a three seed in our brackets, Providence has been slipping down the ladder the past few weeks and is now out of protected seed territory. But there is a long way for the Friars to drop before they would find themselves in bubble trouble. Speaking of which, Colorado likely avoided as much with its very crucial Wednesday win over Arizona. The Buffs had taken some hits in recent Pac-12 play, but the success vs. the Wildcats gives Tad Boyle’s bunch a needed marquee win and a bit of cushion as March approaches.

At St. Louis...

3 Kentucky (21-7, 11) vs. 14 Stony Brook (23-5, 52)...After his Wildcats dropped out of protected seed territory in January, John Calipari seems to have righted the Kentucky ship just in time for another run in March. Though at the moment we don’t foresee the Wildcats or any SEC rep climbing higher than a three seed on Selection Sunday. As for Stony Brook, the home team of Strat-o-Matic games on Long Island continues to set the pace in the America East. Albany is giving the most serious chase, but the Seahawks’ win over Maine last Sunday clinched the all-important home-court edge in the conference tourney.

6 Dayton (22-5, 17) vs. 11 Temple (17-10, 62)/Michigan (20-9, 55)....Dayton has several good non–league wins (Iowa, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Monmouth), but recent home losses to St. Joe’s and St. Bonaventure have prevented the Flyers from moving any higher. There might even be some cause for alarm, as Dayton narrowly missed a third straight loss when forced to rally late to win an unsightly overtime matchup vs. Saint Louis on Tuesday. The edge of the bubble is quite fluid as several candidates line up for a chance at the at-large play-in games. Temple helped itself with the Sunday win at Houston, but couldn’t follow up at midweek vs. Tulsa. As for Michigan, John Beilein has not been able to get top scorer Caris LeVert healthy, though we are still keeping the Wolverines in the field.


At St. Louis...

1 Xavier (25-3, 6) vs. 16 Texas Southern (14-12, 208)/Wagner (18-9, 193)...After Wednesday’s rousing win at the Cintas Center vs. top-ranked Villanova, the “X” has a claim to a regional top seed, though the Musketeers might have to win the Big East Tourney to stay on the top line. In the 16 vs. 16 play-in discussion, rest assured the SWAC will be involved this season. After a 1-11 non-conference mark, Mike Davis’ Texas Southern has emerged on top in league play. The Northeast is also likely to be involved in the 16 vs. 16 battles, too, and Bob Beckel’s alma mater Wagner continues to set the pace and can sew up home edge throughout the conference tourney by beating St. Francis (PA) and Robert Morris this weekend. Speaking of Robert Morris, the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport should never be dismissed in the Northeast Tourney.

8 Cincinnati (20-8, 54) vs. 9 George Washington (21-7, 50)...Cincy tests the “good loss” theory (which is often overblown) but has won enough in the combative American to probably get the Bearcats into their home white jerseys for the sub-regional tip-off. Meanwhile, a late surge by George Washington might gain the attention of he Selection Committee, which has already taken notice of the Colonials’ early-season win over Virginia. As long as GWU doesn’t stumble early in the A-10 Tourney at Brooklyn, that win over the Cavs might make be the ticket for Mike Lonergan’s team on Selection Sunday.

At Denver....

4 West Virginia (21-7, 14) vs. 13 UAB (22-5, 83)...Bob Huggins made a run to the Sweet 16 last spring with a WVU team not as well regarded as the current version. The Mountaineers figure to test the “tough schedule theory” that many Big 12 entries will ride to up the seedking ladder in March. UAB will have any sub-regional foe on alert after last year’s upset over another Big 12 foe, Iowa State. With a similar squad, the Blazers continue to set the pace in Conference USA, with Middle Tennessee, La Tech, high-scoring Marshall, and recently-surging UTEP providing stiff competition in the upcoming conference tourney in friendly territory for the Blazers, played across town at the Birmingham-Jefferson County Civic Center (and not UAB’s Bartow Arena).

5 Arizona (22-6, 26) vs. 12 UALR (24-3, 44)...Arizona might not be on the same level as recent Wildcat editions, which is why we have slotted Sean Miller’s team out of protected seed territory and out of the West Regional for the first time in a few years. Meanwhile, keep an eye on dangerous UALR, which has pulled clear from the field in the Sun Belt. If needed, the Trojans might also have an at-large case, with good pre-league wins over San Diego State and Tulsa in their satchel.

At Raleigh...

2 North Carolina (23-5, 8) vs. 15 IPFW (22-7, 65)...The Tar Heels still have time to climb back to the top line, and winning ACC Tourney in two weeks might be enough to turn the trick. For the moment, its recent loss to Duke probably cost UNC a line, though the Heels are still likely ticketed to the convenient Raleigh sub-regional, a short ride from Chapel Hill on Tobacco Road. Keep an eye on surging IPFW, which has come out of nowhere to win 15 of its last 18 and move into the surprise lead in the Summit, much of that surge minus injured second-leading scorer Mo Evans, out due to academic suspension since mid-January. The Mastodons, however, are going to have lots of competition in the conference tourney at Sioux Falls, especially from regional favorite South Dakota State.

7 Southern Cal (19-8, 30) vs. 10 Texas Tech (18-9, 29)...This is still a redemption year for SC HC Andy Enfield, though the Trojans have been slipping down the seeding ladder in recent weeks, still struggling to win on the Pac-12 road and suffering a home loss last week vs. Utah. A welcome to the brackets for Tubby Smith’s Texas Tech, an unannounced Big 12 contender that has barged its way into consideration for the first time this season after an impressive recent run that has seen the Red Raiders win five straight. Tubby’s victims in the past few weeks include Big Dance-bound Iowa State, Baylor, and Oklahoma.

At Des Moines...

3 Iowa (20-7, 15) vs. 14 Belmont (20-9, 85)...Iowa has been picking up a few losses in recent weeks (including a potentially-damaging one at Penn State) that could cost the Hawkeyes a line or two. If the slump continues into the upcoming Big Ten Tourney, Fran McCaffery’s team might slide out of a protected seed and a chance to compete in friendly sub-regional territory at Des Moines As for Belmont, it will likely enter next week’s OVC Tourney as the top seed, but will have some local competition from another Nashville-based side, transfer-laden Tennessee State. Neither one has an official home-court edge, however, as the event is contested at The Jetson’s-looking Nashville Municipal Auditorium.

6 South Carolina (23-5, 32) vs. 11 Seton Hall (19-7, 41)...Perhaps we should seed SC a bit higher, as the Gamecocks have navigated several treacherous situations in the SEC and gear for their first return to the Big Dance since the days of HC Dave Odom. But a soft non-league slate has its RPI looking worse than a 23-5 SEC team should. So far, no late-season fade for Seton Hall, which has made a habit of teasing its followers in recent years and then disappearing from Big Dance radar as the season has progressed. For now, the Pirates appear on the safe side of the cut line.


At Des Moines...

1 Kansas (24-4, 1) vs. 16 Bucknell (16-12, 185)/Hampton (16-9, 182)...More than a few shrewd observers believe that Kansas might have turned the corner in last month’s SEC-Big 12 challenge when winning a thriller in overtime vs. Kentucky. At their best, the Jayhawks might look better than any team in the country. Though we must remind that Bill Self’s KU has found several banana peels in past sub-regionals. One of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games is almost assuredly going to involve a rep from the MEAC, where the Hampton Pirates continue to set the pace. The Patriot is also likely to be involved in 16 vs. 16 action, with CBS head honcho Les Moonves’ alma mater, Bucknell, under new HC Nathan Davis after Dave Paulsen moved to George Mason, currently ahead of Lehigh and Boston U in the standings as the Bison close in on home-court edge throughout the upcoming conference tourney.

8 Saint Joseph’s (22-5, 28) vs. 9 Wisconsin (18-10, 42)...Though Phil Martelli’s St. Joe’s does not have an overly-impressive non-league résumé, the Hawks are still flying high in the well-regarded A-10 and will surely be one of the handful of teams from the loop called on Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, surging Wisconsin has barged its way into the field on the heels of a recent breathtaking surge that has seen the Badgers win nine of ten and knock off many Big Ten contenders, most recently Iowa (on the road, no less!) on Wednesday night.

At Oklahoma City...

4 Texas A&M (21-7, 22) vs. 13 Akron (21-7, 49)...Just as we were ready to pull the Aggies from protected seed territory after four straight losses, A&M has won three straight, including a rousing home success vs. Kentucky, to likely move into contention for a spot in the preferred Oklahoma City sub-regional. In the MAC, Akron has been setting the pace in its half of the loop, though the Zips have a couple of slips lately, including a bad loss at Miami-Ohio on Tuesday. As usual, the MAC Tourney is going to be a wide-open affair when action moves to “The Q” in Cleveland after first-round games at campus sites.

5 Wichita State (22-7, 47) vs. 12 Valparaiso (24-5, 60)...We didn’t buy the arguments from some pundits that Wichita was in danger of missing the Dance after its recent loss to Northern Iowa. The Shockers have run away in the Missouri Valley and should not have to sweat even if they should stumble next week at “Arch Madness” in St. Louis. Valpo’s record and RPI suggests it, too, might be able to get an at-large bid even if losing in the Horizon Tourney. But the Crusaders will be prohibitive favorites for that event, which now has a neutral site in Detroit (Joe Louis Arena March 5-8) after being held on campuses in recent years.

At Denver...

2 Michigan State (23-5, 13) vs. 15 New Mexico State (20-9, 109)...After hitting a few bumps around New Year’s during a period in which key G Denzel Valentines was sidelined, Tom Izzo’s MSU has stabilized and looks, as usual, to be hitting March on the ascent. Don’t count out the Spartans for a chance at a top regional seed if they can win the Big Ten Tourney at Indianapolis. Familiar March name New Mexico State has finally wrested control of the WAC away from Rod Barnes’ upstart Cal State Bakersfield and will once again be the favorite in the conference tourney before a handful of hardcore fans at the Orleans Hotel Arena in Las Vegas.

7 Utah (21-7, 9) vs. 10 Butler (18-9, 61)...Sometimes the Selection Committee gives preferential geographic treatment to teams outside of the protected seed territory. Such could be the case with Utah, which would be thrilled to be sent to nearby Denver for the sub-regionals, even though its work suggests a better seed than 7. The top half of the Big East has been tough this season and has already hampered the at-large cases of sorts such as Marquette, Georgetown, and Creighton. For the moment, Butler looks like it will do enough to avoid the call from NIT (which will be a likely landing spot for the others mentioned), but remains on shaky footing on the safe side of the cut line.

At Brooklyn...

3 Miami-Florida (22-5, 7) vs. 14 UNCW (21-6, 64)...We would not rule out the possibility that Jim Larranaga’s Miami could end up on the top line. The Canes would probably have to win the ACC Tourney to do so, but they have enough wins to warrant consideration, and bouncing back from last weekend’s North Carolina debacle to conquer Virginia on Monday was a reminder not to overlook Miami. The Colonial looks wide open, as it has been in recent years, and likely having another shot to qualify for its first-ever Dance will be William & Mary. For the moment, however, a measured vote for Kevin Keatts’ entertaining UNCW, though the Tribe, James Madison, Hofstra, and defending tourney champ Northeastern all think they have a chance when the fun starts one week hence in Baltimore.

6 Texas (18-10, 23) vs. 11 Gonzaga (21-7, 67)...After Saturday’s ugly loss to Baylor, Shaka Smart’s Texas needed to bounce back on Monday at Kansas State to preclude any potentially-damaging late-season slide. The Longhorns did so, just barely (71-70), but that’s good enough to further solidify Texas into the field. Solidly in the field is not the theme with Gonzaga, which has fewer marquee wins than usual, was swept by Saint Mary’s, and might need to win the WCC Tourney that begins next week in Las Vegas, or risk missing the Dance for the first time since 1998. One way or another, however, something tells us the Zags are going to make the field.


at Oklahoma City...

1 Oklahoma (22-5, 3) vs. 16 Winthrop (20-7, 136)...Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma has lost a few times in recent weeks, though there remains enough heft in the Sooners’ case to keep it on the top line. The sweep administered by Kansas likely moves OU out of its preferred Midwest Regional, but thhe Sooners should get their sub-regional assignment to the Ok City Peake, which, while a huge regional edge for OU, does not activate the NCAA stay-away rule. Only if the sub-regional were conducted in nearly Norman at the Lloyd Noble Center would the Sooners be prohibited from participating at that venue. Moving into pole position for the upcoming Big South Tourney is Winthrop, a familiar Big Dance name a few years ago when Wichita’s Gregg Marshall was still coaching the Eagles. Keep in mind that the event is conducted at Coastal Carolina’s home HTC Center in Conway, so don’t count out Cliff Ellis’ Chanticleers.

8 Saint Mary’s (22-4, 59) vs. 9 Cal (18-8, 20)...These Bay Area schools could more easily travel on a bus to face one another, as was the case when the Gaels trekked to Berkeley and lost a close 63-59 verdict in December. But we suspect both are going to make the field of 68, with Saint Mary’s helping its cause immensely with the recent win at Gonzaga that will likely give the Gaels the regular-season WCC crown and a good chance at an at-large, even if they don’t win the conference tourney in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Cal has enough quality wins in the well-regarded Pac-12 to make it to the Dance for the first time in the reign of 2nd-year HC Cuonzo Martin.

At Brooklyn...

4 Duke (20-7, 12) vs. 13 Hawaii (22-3, 78)...Duke has recently rallied itself back into the protected seed discussion. Although the Blue Devils would probably rather be nearby on Tobacco Road at Raleigh for the sub-regional, the Brooklyn venue would be the second choice for Coach K’s team, and the large contingent of Duke alums in the Big Apple. This would not be optimum travel to Brooklyn for Hawaii, six time zones away from home. The Rainbow Warriors might have a case for an at-large, which they might need, since the Big West Tourney is on the mainland, and top rivals UC Irvine and Long Beach State will have the local edge at the Anaheim Honda Center, close by both the Anteaters and 49ers. We will assume that the Rainbow Warriors will sacrifice the frequent flier miles and won’t go back to Honolulu from Anaheim should they get a call from the Selection Committee.

5 Purdue (21-7, 21) vs. 12 Vanderbilt (17-11, 53)/St. Bonaventure (19-7, 33)...Though Purdue has spent the last two months as one of our protected seeds, some losses in recent weeks have temporarily pushed the Boilermakers down a line or two. Purdue might need a deep run in the upcoming Big Ten Tourney to get back in 3-4 territory. In the other at-large play-in game, we reach a bit on Vanderbilt, which has good numbers that should improve as long as the Dores win into the SEC Tourney, conducted again in hometown Nashville at the NHL Preds’ Bridgestone Arena. It’s a photo finish for these last slots, and St. Bonaventure does not own a significant non-A-10 win. But the Bonnies have bounced both St. Joe’s and Dayton on the road in recent weeks, and a fast finish could get Bona in just under the tape.

At Providence...

2 Maryland (23-5, 10) vs. 15 Weber State (20-7, 156)...We still don’t know what to make of Maryland’s recent loss at lowly Minnesota, which should disqualify the Terps from landing on the top line. But Maryland is definitely in protected seed territory, as we see if HC Mark Turgeon can steer a team deep into the Final Four for the first time. The Big Sky has become more of a jumble with the recent knee injury suffered by Weber State F Joel Bolomboy, one of the stars of the Sky. It’s really a toss-up between the Wildcats, Montana, and Eastern Washington for this event no longer held on campuses, but rather at a neutral venue, in this case Reno. Though not at the Nevada Wolf Pack’s Lawlor Center, but instead at the Events Center, home of the NBA D-League Bighorns.

7 Notre Dame (19-8, 27) vs. 10 San Diego State (21-7, 10)...Though Notre Dame doesn’t appear to be at the same level of last year’s Elite Eight team that featured Gs Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton (now both in the NBA), this year’s Fighting Irish are good enough to make it back to the Dance. A team Notre Dame, or nobody else, might want to see is San Diego State, which has just wrapped up another Mountain West regular-season crown and will be a solid favorite when the league tourney tips off at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center in two weeks. The Aztecs might not need to win in Vegas to get their bid, but they won’t want to chance it. Regardless, SDSU looks like the only MW entry capable of getting any at-large attention this season.

At Spokane....

3 Oregon (22-6, 4) vs. 14 Stephen F Austin (21-5, 101)...Oregon recently had a wasted trip to the Bay Area that jeopardized its protected seed status, but the Ducks have bounced back smartly since and can likely get to their preferred Spokane sub-regional. Especially with an RPI that strongly suggests a protected seed. It’s about time for some bigger-name school to pull HC Brad Underwood out of SFA, which is on the verge of its third straight trip to the Dance. The Lumberjacks will first have to get by the Southland Tourney in the Houston suburb of Katy, where the main challenge this season is likely to come from HC Willis Wilson’s Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders.

6 Baylor (20-8, 25) vs. 11 Tulsa (19-9, 37)...Like fellow Big 12 entry Iowa State, Baylor has probably suffered too many losses in conference play to stay as a protected seed. But the Bears, like almost everyone else in the Big 12, are very safely into the field. Tulsa can start feeling that way now, too, after a recent surge has put Frank Haith’s team near the top of the American. Wins in the past few weeks at SMU and at home vs. Houston, Cincy, and Temple, plus a pre-league win over Wichita State, give the Golden Hurricane case enough heft to get the attention of the Selection Committee.

Last four in: Michigan, Temple, Vanderbilt, St. Bonaventure.

Last four out: Ole Miss, Syracuse, VCU, Florida.

Next four out: Alabama, Clemson, Marquette, Ohio State.

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