Bracketology: Tight race at the top

Nate Shron

For the third straight week, Duke, Kansas, Michigan and Arizona occupy the top four spots in Chris Dobbertean's Tuesday bracket projection, but Syracuse and Florida are just about ready to break the quartet's stranglehold.

An epic Saturday afternoon and evening -- highlighted by Syracuse‘s stunning win at Louisville and Butler‘s buzzer-beater against Gonzaga -- were just a taste of the the drama that's to come between now and the night of Monday, April 8th.

Those amazing finishes, along with Florida‘s total domination of Missouri (and Texas A&M on Thursday) and Kansas‘s escape from the clutches of Texas earlier in the day, are just snapshots of what is shaping up to be an epic race for this season's crop of No. 1 and 2 seeds. It's a chase that looks like it will reach its conclusion on Selection Sunday itself, just as it should. What's the fun in having everything all set a month or two out, after all?

Once again, Duke, Kansas, Michigan and Arizona are the No. 1s, with Syracuse and Florida just behind the lead pack and Louisville and Indiana holding down the final pair of spots on line two. The top four still have a loss each, and all sat in the top five of the RPI (per BBState) at the time I prepared this bracket. Curiously, No. 3 Miami is the team preventing a clean sweep. Syracuse also is a member of the one-loss club, but the Orange's RPI ranking of 11, combined with the worst defeat of the bunch, against Temple, means they're the top No. 2 seed this week. As for Florida, who may be playing the best basketball in the country right now, two December losses in hostile environments put the Gators in the sixth overall position for the moment.

"For the moment" is a phrase I don't want you to forget in the coming weeks, as I suspect changes will be coming as March 17th approaches. I expect the current top seed group to break up as conference play unfolds and the inequities in league schedules start to affect results. Note that of the 20 teams to earn top seeds in the past five seasons, 17 earned at least a share of their regular season conference title, compared to 11 that claimed a tournament crown. In my opinion, that trend hands an advantage to Florida (thanks to the wins available in a down SEC), Kansas (as its Big 12 dominance shows no signs of stopping), the champion of a deep Big Ten (watch out for Michigan State) and the Big East winner (advantage Syracuse at the moment). Duke also fits in this group, provided Ryan Kelly returns from injury soon.

Arizona and Gonzaga may be in trouble, however. Saturday's loss in Indianapolis may have cost the Bulldogs, even if they sweep through the West Coast Conference slate. Meanwhile, Arizona has the deck stacked against it because of a disadvantageous Pac-12 schedule. (More on that particular situation in a bit.)

Still, nearly two months of basketball remain to be played. That's plenty of time for reality to intervene and render my predictions foolish.

A conference-by-conference look at the bid picture follows the bracket and rundown.

(1) EAST
Washington (Thu/Sat)
(2) SOUTH
Arlington (Fri/Sun)
Philadelphia (Fri/Sun) Kansas City (Fri/Sun)
1 Duke 1 Kansas (Big 12)
16 Norfolk State or Stetson 16 Bryant (NEC)
↑ 8 Mississippi (SEC) 8 Georgetown
9 Baylor 9 Wisconsin
San Jose (Thu/Sat) San Jose (Thu/Sat)
5 Cincinnati 5 Oregon (Pac-12)
12 Bucknell (Patriot) 12 Southern Mississippi (C-USA)
4 Wichita State (MVC) 4 N.C. State
13 Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt) 13 Stephen F. Austin (Southland)
Salt Lake City (Thu/Sat) Dayton (Fri/Sun)
6 San Diego State 6 Missouri
11 Temple 11 Colorado State
3 Gonzaga (WCC) 3 Butler
14 Long Beach State (Big West) 14 Harvard (Ivy)
Dayton (Fri/Sun) Lexington (Thu/Sat)
7 Marquette 7 Illinois
10 Colorado 10 Iowa State
2 Indiana 2 Louisville
15 Weber State (Big Sky) 15 Northeastern (CAA)
(4) WEST
Los Angeles (Thu/Sat)
(3) MIDWEST
Indianapolis (Fri/Sun)
Salt Lake City (Thu/Sat) Auburn Hills (Thu/Sat)
1 Arizona 1 Michigan
16 Albany (AmEast) 16 Charleston Southern or Southern
8 Oklahoma 8 UCLA
9 Pittsburgh 9 North Carolina
Austin (Fri/Sun) Austin (Fri/Sun)
5 Ohio State 5 Kansas State
12 Belmont (OVC) 12 Boise State or Memphis
4 Miami (ACC) 4 New Mexico (MW)
13 Akron (MAC) 13 Louisiana Tech (WAC)
Kansas City (Fri/Sun) Auburn Hills (Thu/Sat)
6 Creighton 6 VCU (A-10)
11 Kentucky 11 Indiana State or Iowa
3 Minnesota 3 Michigan State (Big Ten)
14 Davidson (SoCon) 14 Valparaiso (Horizon)
Philadelphia (Fri/Sun) Lexington (Thu/Sat)
7 UNLV 7 Notre Dame
10 Oklahoma State 10 Wyoming
2 Syracuse (Big East) 2 Florida
15 Niagara (MAAC) 15 Western Illinois (Summit)
FIRST FOUR (Dayton)
Tuesday: To Auburn Hills
Tuesday: To Auburn Hills
16 Charleston Southern (Big South) 11 Indiana State
16 Southern (SWAC) 11 Iowa
Wednesday: To Philadelphia Wednesday: To Austin
16 Norfolk State (MEAC) 12 Boise State
16 Stetson (A-Sun) 12 Memphis

BIDS BY CONFERENCE LAST FOUR BYES ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
Big Ten: 8 Colorado Albany BYU
Big East: 7 Colorado State Davidson Charlotte
Big 12: 6 Kentucky Indiana State College of Charleston
MWC: 6 Temple Iowa Florida Gulf Coast
ACC: 4
LAST FOUR IN Kentucky Iona
Pac-12: 4
Memphis Louisiana Tech Montana
SEC: 4 Iowa Niagara North Dakota State
A-10: 3 Boise State Pittsburgh Saint Louis
MVC: 3 Indiana State Southern Mississippi Stony Brook
C-USA: 2 LAST FOUR OUT Stetson Tennessee State
1-Bid Conferences: 21 Maryland Valparaiso Texas A&M

BYU Weber State Utah State

Saint Louis Western Illinois Wright State

St. Mary's


NEXT FOUR OUT


Arizona State


Xavier


Charlotte


Texas A&M

PROCEDURAL MOVES

Iowa State 9 down to 10

Pittsburgh 11 up to 10

Also considered (in order): Washington, Alabama, Rutgers, Virginia, La Salle, Lehigh, Stanford, St. Joseph's, Arkansas

Atlantic 10

Bids This Week: 3/Last Week: 5
Charlotte lost by 20 at Richmond on Saturday to fall from the ranks of the A-10 unbeatens and this week's bracket. Of the remaining trio of perfect squads, Butler and VCU are pretty much locks at this point of the season. The Bulldogs are on the three line now, with a chance at moving up a bit (though a No. 1 seed is pretty much out of reach, given how strong teams one through nine on the S-curve are). However, the third unbeaten, Xavier, still has work to do to get in the field, thanks to earlier losses to Pacific, Vanderbilt, Wofford (at home) and Wake Forest. The schedule works in the Musketeers favor, however. They have already beaten Temple, plus they still face VCU, Saint Louis and bubble team Memphis at home. However, a second win over Butler, this time at Hinkle Fieldhouse to close the regular season might be vital to their hopes. First things first, though. The Musketeers visit dangerous Charlotte and St. Joseph's this week.

Saint Louis dropped out after an overtime home loss to Rhode Island, since there isn't much left on its profile besides wins over New Mexico and Texas A&M, with the latter squad's struggles post-Rupp Arena not helping matters. Temple, perhaps the most confounding team in the country, remains just in, after losing at home to St. Bonaventure for the first time ever. The Owls really need to win at Butler on Saturday night, a task they're certainly able to complete, to boost their flagging hopes.

Five A-10 Games To Watch
Xavier at Charlotte, Wednesday 7:30 p.m. ET (FS Ohio)
VCU at Richmond, Thursday 7 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
Temple at Butler, Saturday 6 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Xavier at St. Joseph's, Saturday 6 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
La Salle at VCU, Saturday 8 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)

ACC

Bids This Week: 4/Last Week: 4
Last week, I wrote that the ACC was in danger of only sending three teams to the field of 68. Seven days later, I think four is a better bet. Five, however, is dicey, and will depend largely on Maryland grabbing enough quality wins in conference play to slip in. Right now, I have the Terps just outside, thanks to their truly abysmal non-conference schedule, a flaw the Selection Committee hammers consistently. Three ACC losses, which can be described as differing shades of ugly, also don't help matters. Two games with Duke, a home contest against North Carolina and a pair against Virginia, which would be getting more serious consideration if it would only stop picking up RPI-killing losses, are significant for both Maryland's and the conference's hopes.

Miami, who joins Duke and N.C. State as protected seeds this week, can really cement its place among the nation's elite (and justify its current standing in the RPI) by completing a home sweep of the Blue Devils and struggling Florida State.

Five ACC Games To Watch
Duke at Miami, Wednesday 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Georgia Tech at North Carolina, Wednesday 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Maryland at Duke, Saturday 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
North Carolina at N.C. State, Saturday 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Florida State at Miami, Sunday 6 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Big 12

Bids This Week: 6/Last Week: 6
With four of the Big 12's six teams down in the muddle that is lines eight through 10, the two teams who meet tonight in Manhattan have separated themselves in the race for seeding. While Kansas will obviously be in the thick of the race for a No. 1 seed until the end, Kansas State is quietly putting together a case for a protected seed, one that will be even stronger should the Wildcats pull the upset.

As for the quartet of bubble teams, Iowa State can't afford to slip up at Texas Tech before Saturday's visit from K-State, while Baylor and Oklahoma State play winnable games that afternoon against TCU and West Virginia, respectively. As for Oklahoma, the weekend sees the Sooners traveling to Lawrence, where a victory would certainly be a shocking result. Next week all four squads should be in similar positions, barring a bad loss.

Five Big 12 Games To Watch
Kansas at Kansas State, Tuesday 8 p.m. ET (Big 12 Network/ESPN3)
Iowa State at Texas Tech, Wednesday 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
West Virginia at Oklahoma State, Saturday 1 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Kansas State at Iowa State, Saturday 1:30 p.m. ET (Big 12 Network/ESPN3)
Oklahoma at Kansas, Saturday 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Big East

Bids This Week: 7/Last Week: 6
Pittsburgh, winner of three of its last four, slides back into the field, bringing the Big East's bid total to seven, a number more in line with the lofty expectations for the conference's final season in its hybrid form.

In terms of positioning, things aren't all that rosy outside of Syracuse and Louisville, thanks to either non-conference heft (Marquette, Notre Dame, Pitt and, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati) or conference struggles (Georgetown). Still, there are enough opportunities for quality wins between now and the Big East Tournament for someone other than the Orange and Cardinals to grab a top four seed. For instance, the Bearcats would have reached the No. 4 line had they won at Syracuse on Monday afternoon.

Fringe at-large candidates Rutgers, St. John's, Seton Hall, USF and Villanova really need to find some on-court consistency quickly. The Pirates and Wildcats are on serious skids, while the Bulls just topped Georgetown to end a four-game losing streak. On the other hand, the Red Storm has won two in a row, though the Scarlet Knights, a team that really needs to start stringing wins together, can sweep them on Wednesday.

Five Big East Games To Watch
Louisville at Villanova, Tuesday 8 p.m. ET (Big East Network/ESPN3)
Syracuse at Villanova, Saturday 11 a.m. ET (ESPNU)
Louisville at Georgetown, Saturday 12 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Notre Dame at USF, Saturday 12 p.m. ET (Big East Network/ESPN3)
Pittsburgh at Louisville, Monday 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Big Ten

Bids This Week: 8/Last Week: 7
Having survived a trip to Penn State and stunned Ohio State, Michigan State now moves further into a stretch that could see it challenge Michigan and Indiana for a No. 1 or 2 seed. The Spartans visit Bloomington Sunday, though they cannot look past tonight's game Wisconsin. Speaking of the Badgers, they got a boost by winning at Assembly Hall one week ago, but slipped back a bit with a loss at Iowa, who slides into the First Four, partially as a result. Hawkeye fans can't get too comfortable though with their team's position, thanks to road trips to Ohio State and Purdue this week.

Minnesota dropped down to the third line after a home loss to Michigan, a game the Gophers' really needed to stay in the conversation for a top two seed. Meanwhile, Illinois continues to slide down the S-curve after three straight defeats.

Five Big Ten Games To Watch
Iowa at Ohio State, Tuesday 6:30 p.m. ET (BTN)
Michigan State at Wisconsin, Tuesday 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Minnesota at Wisconsin, Saturday 2 p.m. ET (BTN)
Michigan State at Indiana, Sunday 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Michigan at Illinois, Sunday 6 p.m. ET (BTN)

Missouri Valley

Bids This Week: 3/Last Week: 2
Wichita State‘s home win over Creighton gave the Shockers control of the Valley race, at least until the two meet in Omaha for the regular season finale on Saturday, March 2nd. The Shockers also hold the last spot among this week's top 16. At the other end of the bid picture, Indiana State, winner of two straight, owns the final at-large spot for today, as its neutral-court wins over Miami and Mississippi keep looking better and better. The Sycamores really need to avoid bad losses from here on out, which is a difficult thing to expect in this conference.

Five Valley Games To Watch
Indiana State at Illinois State, Wednesday 8 p.m. ET (WTWO)
Northern Iowa at Indiana State, Saturday 1 p.m. ET (WTWO)
Evansville at Illinois State, Saturday 8 p.m. ET (FS Midwest/CSN Chicago/ESPN3)
Bradley at Wichita State, Saturday 8 p.m. ET (Cox-Kansas)
Creighton at Southern Illinois, Sunday 8 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Mountain West

Bids This Week: 6/Last Week: 6
While the chances of three bids for the Missouri Valley ticked up over the past seven days, the odds of a six-team Mountain West contingent slipped. Sure, the same half dozen teams are still hanging around, but two in particular saw their chances take real hits in the past week. Wyoming took care of San Diego State in Laramie on Saturday, but Luke Martinez‘s arrest on felony charges and Wednesday's loss at Fresno State could really cost them as the conference season grinds on. Boise State, meanwhile, is really just a buzzer-beater away from an 0-3 league start. Wednesday's home overtime loss to New Mexico was a blown opportunity, while Saturday's defeat at Air Force was not the best response to that bit of adversity, even if Jeff Elorriaga was out with a concussion. The Broncos cannot afford to drop either game this week, Fresno State at home or Nevada away.

As for the forecasted contenders, this week's schedule will see a few more opportunities for shuffling. Unbeaten New Mexico may not stay that way for long, as the Lobos travel to Viejas Arena Saturday afternoon -- three days after Colorado State, the only one-loss team in the league, visits The Pit. The Aztecs make the tricky trip to Reno on Wednesday, while UNLV, smarting from a Saturday loss in Fort Collins, can send Wyoming further down the bubble one night later.

Five Mountain West Games To Watch
Colorado State at New Mexico, Wednesday 8 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
San Diego State at Nevada, Wednesday 10 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
Wyoming at UNLV, Thursday 9 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
New Mexico at San Diego State, Saturday 4 p.m. ET (NBC Sports Network)
Air Force at Wyoming, Saturday 9 p.m. ET (ROOT Sports)

Pac-12

Bids This Week: 4/Last Week: 4
By toppling UCLA on Saturday afternoon, while most people were watching Syracuse stun Louisville, Oregon moved itself into pole position for the Pac-12 regular season crown, thanks to the conference's unbalanced schedule. As Andy Katz of ESPN.com pointed out on Monday morning, the Ducks won their only regular season meetings against the Bruins and Arizona, their two main rivals for the crown, who happen to meet each other twice over the coming weeks.

The wild card in the race is Washington, even if the Huskies did lose to Utah on Saturday. Lorenzo Romar's team has a home-and-home scheduled against each of the three heavyweights between now and March 10th, with the first of those games coming Saturday in Eugene. All six contests will be vitally important to the Huskies, who, much like last year, have little to brag about on the non-conference portion of their profile, other than a win over Saint Louis. The difference this season is that the Pac-12 slate will provide quality wins.

Conversely, Colorado‘s non-conference results are the only thing keeping the Buffaloes in the field at the moment after they split their road trip to the Evergreen State last week. Arizona State slipped down the pecking order after its home loss to Arizona, while Stanford remained ahead of California with its triumph Saturday. All three of the outsider, much like Washington, have a ways to go before they crack the field.

Five Pac-12 Games To Watch
UCLA at Arizona, Thursday 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Stanford at Colorado, Thursday 10 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
UCLA at Arizona State, Saturday 4 p.m. ET (FSN/FCS Pacific)
Washington at Oregon, Saturday 7 p.m. ET (Pac-12 Network)
California at Colorado, Sunday 3:30 p.m. ET (FSN)

SEC

Bids This Week: 4/Last Week: 4
Texas A&M could not build on its win at Kentucky, and losses to Florida and Alabama ensured that the Aggies' stay in the projection was a short one. However, the Wildcats return this week, thanks to wins over Tennessee and Auburn, with the latter being the team's best performance in quite some time.

Ole Miss continues to share the SEC lead with Florida, though the Rebels' path to bringing an unbeaten SEC mark into the two teams' meeting on February 2nd -- Tennessee, at Auburn, Kentucky -- is not quite as clear as the Gators' route, which goes through Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Missouri continues to struggle without Laurence Bowers, as the Tigers have now lost to both co-leaders, but home games against the Gamecocks and Vanderbilt will give them a chance to work out some kinks this week. Of course, the controversy surrounding head coach Frank Haith's tenure at Miami is a distraction Mizzou doesn't need right now.

As for the teams on the outside looking in, keep an eye on Alabama, who hosts Kentucky and can complete a sweep of Tennessee this week, and Arkansas, slated to host Mississippi State and visit struggling South Carolina. Wins in those contests certainly won't push the Crimson Tide and Razorbacks into the field, but they can serve as building blocks toward that eventual goal.

Five SEC Games To Watch
Kentucky at Alabama, Tuesday 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Texas A&M at LSU, Wednesday 8 p.m. ET (SEC Network/ESPN3)
Tennessee at Mississippi, Thursday 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Alabama at Tennessee, Saturday 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Mississippi at Auburn, Saturday 8 p.m. ET (Select FSNs/ESPN3)

Elsewhere

At-Large Bids This Week: 1/Last Week: 2
With Belmont sweeping Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State to seize control of the Ohio Valley race and former West Coast co-leader BYU‘s home loss to St. Mary's, courtesy of a Matthew Dellavedova buzzer-beater, both those conferences revert to one-bid status for this projection. Conference USA picks up a bid, on the other hand, as Southern Mississippi enters as league leaders, thanks to its half-game lead over Memphis, who hangs around as one of the First Four. That situation should continue next week, barring a loss for either team.

The remainder of the week sees several titanic matchups that will impact conference tournament seeding in leagues where it matters, like the Patriot (where higher seeds host throughout) and the WCC (in its final year of giving the top two seeds a bye straight to the semifinals). BYU's game at Gonzaga has the added bonus of at-large importance for the Cougars.

Five Mid-Major Games To Watch
Lehigh at Bucknell, Wednesday 6 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)
BYU at Gonzaga, Thursday 11 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Marshall at Memphis, Saturday 2 p.m. ET (FSN/FCS Atlantic)
Western Kentucky at Middle Tennessee, Saturday 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Louisiana Tech at Utah State, Saturday 9 p.m. ET (KMYU/ESPN3)

Next Tuesday will see my final update of January. Once February arrives, I'll start releasing quick updates on Fridays to set up the weekend's action.

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