Preseason Bracketology: North Carolina Leads The Way, But Don't Get Too Worked Up About It

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 25: John Henson #31 of the North Carolina Tar Heels points to the sky on bench to celebrate the defeat of the Marquette Golden Eagles during the east regional semifinal of the 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Prudential Center on March 25, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The Tar Heels, Kentucky, Ohio State, and UConn are the top seeds in Chris Dobbertean's preseason bracket projection, which is sure to be proven wrong over the next few months.

It's the first Monday in November, the day that serves as the college basketball season's soft opening. While tonight and Wednesday will be filled with campus-site games from the 2K Sports Classic, the rest of Division I can begin their campaigns on Friday. That evening offers a slate highlighted by top-ranked North Carolina and Michigan State, who will play in, or should I say on, the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, the most unique venue in the sport's history.

However, as SB Nation's resident bracketologist, my purpose for writing this post is not to discuss the near future, but the seemingly distant one. I'm writing, of course, of the madness of March, which indeed seems very far away, considering it's not even winter yet, even if the season's weather made an unexpected, calamitous cameo last weekend.

That's right, it's time for my annual preseason bracket projection. For reasons I'll explain below, my motto for this exercise is, "Bookmark for purposes of later laughter, ridicule, and, in the case of this entry's commenters, 'I told you so's.'" That means this post will be informative, but extremely light on analysis.

2012 Tournament Basics

Before I unveil my bracket (which you've probably already scrolled down to), let's first take a quick look at how the 2012 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship will unfold in a little more than four months time. Once again, there will be 68 teams involved, 31 conference champions and 37 teams selected at-large. All of these teams will be playing for spots in the Final Four, which returns to the Superdome in New Orleans after an eight-year absence on March 31 and April 2, 2012.

The tournament will begin when the four lowest-ranked conference champions and four final at-large selections play in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 13 and 14. Those four winners will join the other 60 teams in the Second and Third Round, which will be played between Thursday, March 15 and Sunday, March 18. Here's a quick look at when and where those games will be played. Host schools are in parentheses. Remember that these schools cannot play on their home floors or in arenas where they serve as the designated host. That's an important consideration in a season which sees many of them as serious contenders for bids.

Thursday, March 15 and Saturday, March 17, 2012
Albuquerque, N.M., University Arena (New Mexico)
Louisville, Ky., KFC Yum! Center (Louisville)
Pittsburgh, Pa., CONSOL Energy Center (Duquesne)
Portland, Ore., Rose Garden (Oregon)

Friday, March 16 and Sunday, March 18, 2012
Columbus, Oh., Nationwide Arena (Ohio State)
Greensboro, N.C., Greensboro Coliseum (Atlantic Coast Conference)
Nashville, Tenn., Bridgestone Arena (Ohio Valley Conference)
Omaha, Neb., CenturyLink Center (Creighton)

This tournament marks the event's return to Louisville and Pittsburgh after lengthy absences. The NCAA last visited the Derby City in 1991 (at Freedom Hall), and the Steel City in 2002 (Civic Arena).

Thanks to a cluster of close sites ranging from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, intrepid fans could potentially hit two venues in the same weekend, with the Louisville-Nashville and Columbus-Pittsburgh pairs within a reasonable driving distance.

Curiously, thanks to their cities' designated host institutions, Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt would be eligible to play in their own backyards during the first weekend. In this projection, I actually have the Commodores in Nashville; however, I've placed the Panthers in Columbus, as both Connecticut and Syracuse rank ahead of them on the preseason S-curve. Naturally, Greensboro will be a likely landing spot for North Carolina and Duke.

The 16 survivors from the first weekend advance to the regionals, which will take place at four sites that return to the traditional East-West-Midwest-South alignment after a season where there were Southeast and Southwest regionals. Keep in mind that if a regional host school makes the field, it must be placed in a completely different quarter of the bracket.

Thursday, March 22 and Saturday, March 24, 2012
East: Boston, Mass., TD Garden (Boston College)
West: Phoenix, Ariz., US Airways Center (Arizona State)

Friday, March 23 and Sunday, March 25, 2012
Midwest: Saint Louis, Mo., Edward Jones Dome (Missouri Valley Conference)
South: Atlanta, Ga., Georgia Dome (Georgia Tech)

St. Louis will host its second Midwest Regional in three years, while the Phoenix area hosts its third West Regional in five-year span (two downtown and one in Glendale). And, looking ahead, Atlanta will host the 2013 Final Four.

The Bracket

With all that out of the way, here's my preseason projection. The top of the bracket is probably what you'd expect,as North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State, and Connecticut are my top four seeds, but you may see some surprises as you examine the rest of the field of 68.

SOUTH
Atlanta (Fri/Sun)
MIDWEST
St. Louis (Fri/Sun)
Greensboro (Fri/Sun) Louisville (Thu/Sat)
1 North Carolina (ACC) 1 Kentucky (SEC)
16 UT Arlington/Texas Southern 16 Bucknell/Long Island
8 Temple
8 Texas
9 Missouri
9 Purdue
Albuquerque (Thu/Sat) Omaha (Fri/Sun)
5 Michigan State
5 California
12 Mississippi State/St. Mary's 12 Marshall/Miami
4 Louisville
4 Wisconsin
13 Harvard (Ivy)
13 Kent State (MAC)
Nashville (Fri/Sun) Omaha (Fri/Sun)
6 Texas A&M 6 Gonzaga (WCC)
11 VCU
11 Oregon
3 Vanderbilt
3 Kansas (Big 12)
14 Iona (MAAC)
14 Oral Roberts (Summit)
Columbus (Fri/Sun) Greensboro (Fri/Sun)
7 Washington
7 Cincinnati
10 Illinois
10 Drexel (CAA)
2 Pittsburgh
2 Duke
15 Weber State (Big Sky)
15 UNC Asheville (Big South)
WEST
Phoenix (Thu/Sat)
EAST
Boston (Thu/Sat)
Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat) Louisville (Thu/Sat)
1 Connecticut (Big East)
1 Ohio State (Big Ten)
16 Stony Brook (Am. East)
16 Hampton (MEAC)
8 UCLA
8 Villanova
9 BYU
9 Belmont (A-Sun)
Portland (Thu/Sat) Portland (Thu/Sat)
5 Michigan
5 Baylor
12 Wichita State
12 George Mason
4 Xavier (A-10)
4 Florida State
13 Nevada (WAC)
13 Detroit (Horizon)
Albuquerque (Thu/Sat) Columbus (Fri/Sun)
6 Marquette
6 Alabama
11 Oklahoma State
11 West Virginia
3 Arizona (Pac-12)
3 Memphis (C-USA)
14 Long Beach State (Big West)
14 Davidson (SoCon)
Nashville (Fri/Sun) Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat)
7 UNLV (MWC)
7 Creighton (MVC)
10 Virginia
10 New Mexico
2 Florida
2 Syracuse
15 Florida Atlantic (Sun Belt)
15 Austin Peay (OVC)
FIRST FOUR (Dayton)
Tuesday: To Louisville
Tuesday: To Albuquerque
16 Bucknell (Patriot)
12 Mississippi State
16 Long Island (NEC) 12 St. Mary's
Wednesday: To Greensboro Wednesday: To Omaha
16 Texas-Arlington (Southland)
12 Marshall
16 Texas Southern (SWAC)
12 Miami

Last Four Out: Butler, Virginia Tech, Georgetown, Indiana
Next Four Out: Notre Dame, Northwestern, Indiana State, Saint Louis

Conference Breakdown

In this projection, 19 conferences are represented by just one team. Here's how the bid race stacks up in the 12 multi-bid leagues before the season tips off.

Big East: 8 (Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, Villanova, West Virginia)
I don't think the conference will grab 11 bids this season, though eight is nothing to sneeze at. Keep an eye out for Notre Dame, Georgetown, and a young St. John's team in particular.

Big Ten: 6 (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois)
The league expands by one, thanks to the addition of Nebraska, who will struggle to contend for a bid. You won't be able to say the same about Indiana, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Big 12: 6 (Kansas, Baylor, Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma State)
The ten-team Big 12's depth, and challenging double round-robin schedule, will help its teams grab a healthy amount of bids, though the top teams will have to prove themselves worthy of a spot on the top two lines.

ACC: 5 (North Carolina, Duke, Florida State, Virginia, Miami)
The ACC seems like it will be a bit top-heavy this season, as several teams, including Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest, are in transitional phases.

Pac-12: 5 (Arizona, California, Washington, UCLA, Oregon)
The expanded conference should roar back to respectability, but not necessarily title contention. Like in the Big Ten, the conference's newcomers, Colorado and Utah, aren't likely to compete for a bid.

SEC: 5 (Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Mississippi State)
The SEC eliminated divisions this year, just in time for a season where there will be more balance between East and West. Just look for the top three from the East to be heads and shoulders above the rest.

CAA: 3 (Drexel, VCU, George Mason)
The Colonial shocked the country by landing three teams in the 2011 field, with the Rams reaching the Final Four, despite having to play an extra game. It's possible the conference could repeat the feat this time around.

West Coast: 3 (Gonzaga, BYU, St. Mary's)
BYU became the conference's ninth member as a consequence of its football independence, and the Cougars should immediately threaten a Gonzaga team they eliminated in last year's tournament, for the league crown.

Atlantic 10: 2 (Xavier, Temple)
Two bids seems a bit low for the A-10, and there will be plenty of teams (Dayton, Duquesne, George Washington, St. Joseph's, Saint Louis) with the chance to grab a third or fourth.

Conference USA: 2 (Memphis, Marshall)
Much like the A-10, C-USA features a clear favorite and a selection of strong contenders. The Thundering Herd look to be the strongest from a pack that includes UCF, Tulsa, UAB, and UTEP.

Missouri Valley: 2 (Creighton, Wichita State)
The Valley looks set for its best season since the 2005-06 campaign, which saw the conference land four bids. Expect to hear from Indiana State and Northern Iowa before the season is over.

Mountain West: 2 (UNLV, New Mexico)
Even though BYU is gone and Boise State has moved in to replace them (with more changes ahead for next season), the Mountain West will still contend for multiple bids. The Runnin' Rebels and Lobos lead the way, but San Diego State and Colorado State, among others, will provide stiff competition for the favorites.

A Disclaimer

Now that you've taken a look at my bracket, please share your thoughts about it in the comments, but don't get too worked up over things. Remember that projecting the 68-team field during the season is difficult enough, performing the task before a single game has been played redefines the term 'fool's errand.' Taking a look back at my past two attempts, the results are a testament to how unpredictable-and fun-college basketball can be.

Last season, I correctly predicted 27 out of the 37 at-large teams before the year started, with Maryland, Mississippi State, N.C. State, and Northwestern among the most questionable misses. My automatic bid picks were far worse, however, thanks to the unpredictability of conference tournaments. There are 31 conferences eligible for an NCAA auto bid (sorry, Great West). In 2011, I picked just 13 of those winners correctly. Granted, that's an improvement of the 11 auto bids I got right in 2009-10's effort. That season, I managed to select 19 of the 34 at-large teams correctly. Some of my more hilarious misses from 2010 included Mississippi, Mississippi State, Northwestern (guess who isn't in the bracket this year), and Oregon State.

While those totals are somewhat respectable, I missed the mark more often than not on the seeding side. Last season, I managed to place just seven teams on their exact March seed lines, including three top seeds (Duke, Kansas, and Pittsburgh) and curiously, a 10 seed, Florida State. I also managed to get eight within one seed line. That total of 15 teams ended up being a slight decline on 2010's number, 16. That year I managed to peg nine teams' seedings correctly, including Kansas and Kentucky on the top line and Florida State again (this time as a nine), with seven others within a line of their final placing.

All of these misses tell me one thing, this bracket will be left in the dust by the time the calendar turns to December. As fans, it's simply best to sit back and enjoy the season as it unfolds. It's sure to be another wild and unpredictable ride to Selection Sunday.

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