Bracketology 2012: Conference Grind Creates Shifting NCAA Tournament Landscape

HARTFORD, CT - JANUARY 29: Ryan Boatright #11 and Jeremy Lamb #3 of the Connecticut Huskies walk on the court in the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on January 29, 2012 at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Four weeks ago, SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean released his first NCAA Tournament bracketology of 2012. Since then, several teams have seen their fortunes change for better or worse.

It's time for the final NCAA Tournament bracket projection of January, which means that not only is March is creeping closer, but also that conference play has roughly reached its midway point. Thanks to the resumption of the winter grind, we are starting to get a better idea of teams' true March prospects, which translates to the final bracket of the month looking considerably different than the one I posted just three weeks ago (and last week's edition for that matter). That's simply because the typical pattern of a season is starting to play out.

On one hand, several early season surprises, like Indiana, Kansas State, and Seton Hall, have started to struggle mightily now that conference play is underway. Conversely, a few teams who didn't live up to their early expectations, for example, Florida, Florida State, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin, have begun to assert themselves. Then you have teams like Alabama and Connecticut, who are simply struggling to live up to the preseason hype.

That's not to say this season is lacking in positive surprises. If you're a fan of the unexpected, you will be pleased to see plenty of fresh names in lofty positions on the S-curve (Creighton, Marquette, Murray State, and Virginia). As the next six weeks unfold, we will have to see if these teams can hold their spots, and which teams will rise to the occasion to replace the ones who cannot.

Here's this week's bracket.

(1) EAST
Boston (Thu/Sat)
(2) SOUTH
Atlanta (Fri/Sun)
Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat) Louisville (Thu/Sat)
1 Syracuse (Big East) 1 Kentucky (SEC)
16 Long Island U. (NEC) 16 Miss. Valley St./Stony Brook
8 Southern Mississippi (C-USA) 8 Gonzaga
9 New Mexico 9 Wichita State
Portland (Thu/Sat) Albuquerque (Thu/Sat)
5 Michigan 5 San Diego State
12 Harvard (Ivy) 12 Notre Dame
4 Vanderbilt 4 Wisconsin
13 Long Beach State (Big West)
13 Cleveland State (Horizon)
Nashville (Fri/Sun) Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat)
6 Temple 6 Mississippi State
11 Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt) 11 Xavier
3 Creighton (MVC) 3 Georgetown
14 Oral Roberts (Summit) 14 Iona (MAAC)
Omaha (Fri/Sun) Greensboro (Fri/Sun)
7 Connecticut 7 Indiana
10 Purdue 10 California (Pac-12)
2 Missouri 2 Duke (ACC)
15 George Mason (CAA) 15 Mercer (Atlantic Sun)
(4) WEST
Phoenix (Thu/Sat)
(3) MIDWEST
St. Louis (Fri/Sun)
Louisville (Thu/Sat) Nashville (Fri/Sun)
1 Ohio State (Big Ten) 1 Baylor
16 Bucknell (Patriot) 16 UNC Asheville/UT Arlington
8 Kansas State 8 Illinois
9 Seton Hall 9 Memphis
Portland (Thu/Sat) Columbus (Fri/Sun)
5 Virginia 5 Florida
12 Iowa State/Saint Louis 12 Colorado State/Washington
4 Murray State (OVC) 4 Marquette
13 Davidson (Southern) 13 Massachusetts (A-10)
Albuquerque (Thu/Sat) Columbus (Fri/Sun)
6 St. Mary's (WCC) 6 West Virginia
11 Cincinnati 11 Dayton
3 UNLV (MWC) 3 Michigan State
14 Akron (MAC) 14 Nevada (WAC)
Omaha (Fri/Sun) Greensboro (Fri/Sun)
7 Florida State 7 Louisville
10 Minnesota 10 Alabama
2 Kansas (Big 12) 2 North Carolina
15 Weber State (Big Sky) 15 Norfolk State (MEAC)
FIRST FOUR (Dayton)
Tuesday: To Louisville
Tuesday: To Portland
16 Stony Brook (America East)
12 Iowa State
16 Miss. Valley State (SWAC) 12 Saint Louis
Wednesday: To Nashville Wednesday: To Columbus
16 UNC Asheville (Big South)
12 Colorado State
16 UT Arlington (Southland) 12 Washington

For the second week in a row, Syracuse holds off Kentucky for the top spot overall, with the Orange's prospects for remaining there still very much up in the air thanks to Fab Melo's continued absence from the lineup. Ohio State remains on the top line, heading up the West Region, while Baylor jumps back up to replace Kansas. The Bears grabbed two decent wins this week, fighting off Oklahoma in Norman and Texas at home, while the Jayhawks followed Monday's rather unimpressive home win over Texas A&M with a loss at bracket newcomer Iowa State on Saturday afternoon. Archrival Missouri and Tobacco Road pair Duke and North Carolina join Bill Self's team as two seeds.

Here's this week's rundown.

BIDS BY CONFERENCE LAST FOUR BYES ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
Big East: 9
Dayton Akron Ball State
Big Ten: 8 Xavier Colorado State Marshall
A-10: 5 Cincinnati Iowa State Oklahoma
Big 12: 5 Notre Dame Massachusetts Oregon
SEC: 5
LAST FOUR IN Washington UCF
ACC: 4
Saint Louis

MWC: 4 Colorado State

C-USA: 2 Iowa State

MVC: 2
Washington

Pac-12: 2 LAST FOUR OUT

WCC: 2
Oklahoma

1-Bid Conferences: 20 Northwestern


BYU


Marshall


NEXT FOUR OUT


Stanford


Mississippi


UCF


Oregon

The last few spots of the bracket continue to be a revolving door. Expect to see continued turnover on the 11 and 12 lines over the next few weeks as conference play continues to change the national perception of teams.

For this week, Oklahoma falls out of today's bracket with Iowa State jumping in to replace them, even though the Sooners won in Manhattan to earn a season sweep of Kansas State on Saturday. The Cyclones get the nod thanks to their Saturday victory over Kansas. That result gives their surprisingly good computer numbers a bit more credibility, and the fact Fred Hoiberg's team is a two games up on Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings also boosts State's case.

The Sooners would still be in if the Atlantic 10 didn't take an extra spot this week. Massachusetts is back in as the conference's auto bid holders, as they have a better overall record than either La Salle or St. Bonaventure, the two teams with whom the Minutemen currently share the conference lead. Of the four A-10 at-large squads, only Temple is tied with the lead trio in the loss column, having played one fewer conference game, while Dayton, Saint Louis, and Xavier all own three league losses already. That doesn't bode well for the Atlantic 10's prospects in the long term, especially since the Flyers loss Saturday came at home to a woeful Rhode Island team (4-18, 1-6 A-10). If the alleged contenders keep dropping games to teams out of the NCAA conversation, watch for them to be passed by middling Big Six conference squads.

Conference USA's bid total was halved this week, as Marshall and UCF both dropped a pair of games. The Herd fell at home to a bad UAB squad Wednesday, then missed an opportunity to get back on track when they lost a foul-filled game at Memphis Saturday. On the other hand, the Knights couldn't keep the momentum gained from picking uptheir first-ever win over Memphis and first win at UAB last week, as the struggling UCF offense failed in losses to Tulsa and Southern Mississippi. The Herd and Knights are now tied for fourth, looking up to not only the Tigers and Golden Eagles, who are locked in a tie for first until they meet Wednesday, but also the third-place Golden Hurricane. Both Marshall and UCF will now likely need to win the C-USA auto bid to dance, which won't be an easy task, as the conference tournament is on Memphis' home floor.

The Mountain West, which may or may not be merging with C-USA in the near future, is a beneficiary of its potential partner's struggles, as Colorado State sneaks in after grabbing an emphatic win over San Diego State on Saturday afternoon, though the Rams' blowout loss at the hands of New Mexico on Wednesday gave me some pause. Much like Iowa State, Tim Miles' team needed a significant win to bolster their impressive computer numbers. The Rams can improve their standing if they can steal a win at UNLV on Wednesday night.

Oregon falls out of the bracket after their loss to Oregon State on Sunday night. However, the Pac-12 retains two bids, as Washington, who shares the league lead with Cal, sneaks into the First Four. This simulates the most likely bid scenario for the weakest major conference--two bids at the most, with the regular season and tournament champions likely to earn them. If the same team wins both crowns, don't worry. I suspect the Selection Committee will ensure a second team sneaks in.

As this Friday is the first in February, it will be time for my weekly Bid Watch posts to begin. I'll have a list of weekend games then. In the meantime, here are some contests to pay attention to over the next four nights.

Monday, January 30th
Missouri at Texas, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Longhorns have been passed by Iowa State and Oklahoma in the bid conversation, so they're in need of a marquee win. On the other hand, a loss in Austin could cost the Tigers in the race at the other end of the bracket.

Tuesday, January 31st
Michigan State at Illinois, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Fighting Illini have gone 6-6 in their last 12, capped by a three-game losing streak. Their performance in a tough five-game stretch that starts tonight will indicate if they can stay in the bracket for the long haul.

Seton Hall at Marquette, 8 p.m. ET (Big East Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
Speaking of losing streaks, the Pirates have dropped four straight, looking absolutely awful for significant parts of home losses to Notre Dame and Louisville. The Bradley Center is not the place where visitors' losing streaks typically end.

Vanderbilt at Arkansas, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Razorbacks have yet to win away from Bud Walton Arena, but they've been unstoppable at home. If the Commodores don't take this trip seriously, they could meet the same fate Michigan did back on January 21st.

Kansas State at Iowa State, 9 p.m. ET (FS Midwest/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Wildcats have already been swept by one Big 12 bubble team, Oklahoma. They'll need to do better against the Cyclones, though the chance for Hilton Magic is high.

Wednesday, February 1st
Indiana at Michigan, 6:30 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
The first of a pair of difficult road contests for the Hoosiers, who have so far only won at Penn State in Big Ten play.

Connecticut at Georgetown, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
A win in the Nation's Capital would do wonder for the Huskies' chances at a protected seed.

Memphis at Southern Mississippi, 8 p.m. ET (CBS College Sports)
Conference USA's two 6-1 teams meet in Hattiesburg, the second of two guaranteed, and three possible, matchups. The Tigers won by just two at Fedex Forum on January 11th.

Oklahoma at Kansas, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Jayhawks will look to avoid a second straight loss to a bubble team, though they have the sizable advantage of facing the Sooners at Phog Allen.

Colorado State at UNLV, 10:30 p.m. ET (The Mtn.)
As I said before, a win at the Thomas & Mack Center would truly bolster the Rams' profile, especially as the Runnin' Rebels currently sit in a protected seed position.

Thursday, February 2nd
Gonzaga at BYU, 11 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Cougars have already been swept by St. Mary's, but this is their first WCC meeting with the conference's other powerhouse. A win against the Bulldogs would provide a boost to BYU's diminishing at-large hopes.

Arizona at California, 11 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
The Golden Bears will look to keep their place at the top of the Pac-12 with a win over a Wildcats team that will be missing Kevin Parrom for the rest of the season.

My next full bracket will be out in a week's time, but look for Bid Watch on Friday morning. You can also follow me on Twitter to get the link as soon as it is posted.

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