Bracketology 2012: Michigan State Conquers The Top Line

The Spartans join Syracuse, Kentucky, and Missouri on the top line of Chris Dobbertean's latest bracket projection.

With less than three weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, there is an increasing amount of clarity at the top of the bracket. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the bottom of the at-large pool (as I've been writing in Bubble Watch over the past three weeks), and the revolving door sweeping teams between the NCAA field and NIT sees more action on this Monday morning.

Not only are there some fresh, if not new, names in the field this week, but there's also been a change on the top line from last week's projection, as Michigan State moved past Duke to take the No. 1 spot in the West Region. Yes, the Blue Devils own better RPI and Strength of Schedule rankings, and they defeated the Spartans in New York City back in November, but the difference between the teams' conferences and, therefore, schedules is starting to play a major role in the race. The Spartans taken advantage of an ultra-competitive Big Ten, racking up a 6-2 mark against teams in this projection over their last 12 total contests, with three of those wins coming in the past nine days. Duke, meanwhile, has only three wins against the current field in their last 12 (against two losses), thanks to the relative weakness of the ACC.

I'll have more analysis after the full 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 Stony Brook (America East) 16 UNC Asheville/Savannah St.
8 California (Pac-12) 8 Kansas State
9 BYU 9 Memphis
Albuquerque (Thu/Sat) Portland (Thu/Sat)
5 UNLV 5 Florida State (ACC)
12 Long Beach State (Big West) 12 Cincinnati
4 Florida 4 Wisconsin
13 Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt) 13 Alabama/Texas
Albuquerque (Thu/Sat) Nashville (Fri/Sun)
6 Notre Dame 6 Creighton
11 Purdue 11 Seton Hall
3 Baylor 3 Michigan
14 Oral Roberts (Summit) 14 Davidson (Southern)
Greensboro (Fri/Sun) Omaha (Fri/Sun)
7 Saint Louis 7 Gonzaga
10 Harvard (Ivy) 10 Connecticut
2 North Carolina 2 Kansas
15 Long Island U. (Northeast) 15 Nevada (WAC)
(4) WEST
Phoenix (Thu/Sat)
(3) MIDWEST
St. Louis (Fri/Sun)
Columbus (Fri/Sun) Omaha (Fri/Sun)
1 Michigan State (Big Ten) 1 Missouri (Big 12)
16 Miss. Valley St./UT Arlington 16 Bucknell (Patriot)
8 Vanderbilt 8 St. Mary's (West Coast)
9 Iowa State 9 West Virginia
Nashville (Fri/Sun) Portland (Thu/Sat)
5 Wichita State (MVC) 5 Indiana
12 N.C. State/Xavier 12 Miami
4 Louisville 4 Temple (Atlantic 10)
13 Drexel (CAA) 13 Iona (MAAC)
Columbus (Fri/Sun) Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat)
6 Murray State (OVC) 6 New Mexico (MWC)
11 Northwestern 11 Southern Miss. (C-USA)
3 Marquette 3 Georgetown
14 Akron (MAC) 14 Belmont (Atlantic Sun)
Greensboro (Fri/Sun) Louisville (Thu/Sat)
7 San Diego State 7 Virginia
10 Mississippi State 10 Washington
2 Duke 2 Ohio State
15 Valparaiso (Horizon) 15 Weber State (Big Sky)
FIRST FOUR (Dayton)
Tuesday: To Louisville
Tuesday: To Portland
16 UNC Asheville (Big South)
13 Alabama
16 Savannah State (MEAC) 13 Texas
Wednesday: To Columbus Wednesday: To Nashville
16 Miss. Valley State (SWAC) 12 N.C. State
16 UT Arlington (Southland) 12 Xavier

Syracuse remains in the top spot overall in this projection, ahead of Kentucky, for many of the same reasons Michigan State is ahead of Duke. The Big East typically offers the Orange a higher quality of opponent than the Wildcats are getting in an increasingly mediocre SEC. In their last 12 games, Syracuse, still the number 1 team in the RPI table, has faced seven teams from this projection, while Kentucky has faced only three. While the Wildcats look far more dominant than the Orange, some of this gap in perception may be a result of a disparity in competition.

Both Syracuse and Kentucky will certainly hear their names called on Selection Sunday. The same cannot be said for this week's new at-larges -- Northwestern and Washington, and three holdovers from last week that are just hanging on, Alabama, N.C. State and Texas. The Wildcats and Huskies replace Illinois, a club that's in the midst of an epic collapse, and Arizona, the team the Pac-12 co-leaders defeated (and swept) on Saturday.

Of course, if you disagree with my choices for the last few teams in, all I have to say for myself is, wait until Friday for Bubble Watch. Things will have likely changed again by then, especially since several teams on the outside looking in -- Colorado State and USF, for example -- have opportunities to grab significant wins in the coming days.

After the rundown, I'll take a look at some of last week's other bracket winners and losers.

BIDS BY CONFERENCE LAST FOUR BYES ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
Big East: 9
Seton Hall Belmont Arizona
Big Ten: 7 Cincinnati Northwestern Illinois
ACC: 6 Northwestern Savannah State Mercer
Big 12: 6 Miami Washington Minnesota
SEC: 5
LAST FOUR IN Xavier Norfolk State
A-10: 3
Xavier PROCEDURAL SHIFTS
MWC: 3 Alabama BYU 9, up from a 10
WCC: 3 Texas Mississippi State 10, down from a 9
C-USA: 2
N.C. State Northwestern 11, up from a 12
MVC: 2 LAST FOUR OUT Cincinnati 12, down from an 11
Pac-12: 2
Arizona

1-Bid Conferences: 20 Illinois


UCF


Colorado State


NEXT FOUR OUT


Minnesota


Dayton


LSU


USF

Winners

Michigan
The Wolverines claimed a share of second in the Big Ten with Saturday's win over Ohio State, which further cemented their position on the No. 3 seed line, over teams like Indiana and Wisconsin, though that's likely to change over the final two weeks of the regular season.

New Mexico
Thanks to impressive wins at San Diego State and over UNLV at The Pit, the Lobos are now two-games up in the Mountain West race with four to play. Plus, they're in position to earn a protected seed, but not quite there yet, mostly thanks to a disappointing performance out of the league.

Cincinnati
With Saturday's win over Seton Hall, the Bearcats' record against the RPI Top 50 moved to a shiny 4-3. For most teams that would be enough to start making NCAA plans; however, most teams aren't burdened by Cincinnati's non-conference schedule, which is negatively impacting the team's RPI and overall profile. Upcoming games with Louisville and Marquette at home and a trip to surprising USF, a rival looking for quality wins of their own, offer Mick Cronin's squad some opportunities to earn more breathing room.

BracketBusters Victors
Creighton, Murray State and Wichita State all picked up significant wins on Saturday, while Drexel's resounding win over Cleveland State provided a boost to the Dragons' slender at-large hopes. Look for the Bluejays, Racers and Shockers to all be in the field on Selection Sunday, no matter what happens the rest of the way, and for all of three to be wearing white uniforms on Second Round Thursday and Friday.

Losers

BracketBusters Losers
On the other hand, Davidson, Long Beach State and St. Mary's all saw their chances take a hit over the weekend. The Wildcats' already slim at-large hopes disappeared with their loss to Wichita State, so they need to claim the Southern Conference automatic bid to make the field. On the other hand, the Gaels remain in good shape, even though they've now lost two straight, including a conference loss to Loyola Marymount, and are a bit banged up.

On the surface, it would appear that the 49ers would be in a similar place to Davidson after they fell at Creighton. Yet for many weeks, I've felt that Long Beach State could be this year's version of VCU, a quality mid-major that receives a chance by the Selection Committee over power conference teams with questionable profiles. In my mind, Dan Monson's team warrants an at-large even with a loss in the Big West final, thanks to an ambitious non-conference schedule, sterling conference record and their play on the court. The continued weak state of the bubble makes me feel that this result is more and more probable if the 49ers continue to win in the Big West.

Conference USA
On Saturday, the soon-to-be dissolved league suffered a double-blow when Memphis lost to UTEP at home and Southern Mississippi fell at Houston. Those defeats mean it's increasingly likely that C-USA will again send just one team to the NCAA Tournament, probably the Tigers, since they host the conference tournament. However, it's possible Memphis could sneak in as an at-large if they fail to take advantage of their hosting opportunity, if the Selection Committee looks favorably upon Josh Pastner's non-conference scheduling (see Long Beach State above).

UCF remains in the picture, but Southern Mississippi swept the Golden Knights, and UCF's two best wins, over Memphis and UConn, look worse by the day.

Connecticut
Speaking of the Huskies, they've won just twice since picking up back-to-back wins over West Virginia and Notre Dame back on Jan. 9 and 14. UConn sits in 10th in the Big East at the moment, meaning they'd need to make another five-day run at Madison Square Garden to earn the auto bid. Plus, Saturday's postgame interviews indicate that things aren't all that rosy in Storrs. Of course, a win over Syracuse on Sunday could change everything, but a tricky trip to visit the Villanova Wildcats awaits on Monday. The Huskies' season is very much on the line.

N.C. State
For most of Thursday night, it looked like the Wolfpack were going to beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a victory that would have provided Mark Gottfried's team with a needed marquee win. Then, the Blue Devils overturned a 20-point deficit to steal the victory. No worries for State though, as Florida State, a team that needed a Michael Snaer buzzer beater to defeat the Virginia Tech Hokies at home hours before the Wolfpack lost, was coming into town, providing another opportunity.

As you know, the Seminoles completely shut the Wolfpack down, and Karl Hess, the "king" of college basketball officials, threw N.C. State alums Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta out of the arena, an event which fired the crowd up more than anything happening on the court. Now, the Pack are stuck with a 2-7 record against the RPI Top 50, instead of a 3-6 or 4-5. Others' misfortune is only reason N.C. State is in the field on this Monday. Grabbing a home win over North Carolina on Tuesday is an absolute necessity to stay in the picture for next week.

The SEC
While Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt are all NCAA-bound, the Southeastern Conference may be hard pressed to put more than that trio in the field of 68. Alabama is back in today's projection after Saturday's somewhat surprising win over the Tennessee Volunteers, but its position is not exactly secure, especially since Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green are still suspended. Nearby rival Mississippi State is now in real danger of completely falling out of the field, thanks to three consecutive losses -- and upcoming games with Kentucky and the Crimson Tide. Currently, the pair are in a four-way tie for fourth place with the Volunteers and LSU Tigers. (Yes, it's very possible that one of the latter two teams could earn a bye in the SEC Tournament.) If Alabama and Mississippi State find themselves playing on Thursday in New Orleans, there's a good chance both could be headed to the NIT, limiting the SEC to three NCAA entrants.

Finally, here's a look at the crucial bracket matchups scheduled for Monday through Thursday nights. Pay special attention to Tuesday, which may go a long way to providing bubble clarity.

Monday, February 20
Connecticut at Villanova, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
A loss to the Wildcats could be a death blow for UConn.

Texas Southern at Mississippi Valley State, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Delta Devils can clinch the SWAC title outright with a win over the Tigers and keep their dream of an undefeated conference season alive.

Baylor at Texas, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
After losing to at Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Longhorns suddenly need a win over the fading Bears to boost their profile.

Tuesday, February 21
Illinois at Ohio State, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Buckeyes, sure to be angry after falling to Michigan Saturday night, can all but bury the Illini's chances with a revenge win in Columbus.

Kansas State at Missouri, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Tigers already avenged one of their two losses when they beat Oklahoma State last Wednesday. They can complete the mini-mission Tuesday. On the other hand, a win for the Wildcats would be another solid addition to their résumé.

Auburn at Florida, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Saturday's win at Arkansas was an illustration of how dangerous the Gators can be. However, the Tigers, victors over Mississippi State over the weekend, will be in search of their second upset win in a row.

Georgetown at Seton Hall, 7 p.m. ET (Big East Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Pirates' profile would be helped greatly by a home win over the Hoyas, especially after Saturday's loss at Cincinnati.

Xavier at Massachusetts, 7 p.m. ET (FS Ohio/Comcast Network)
The Minutemen's crucial five-game stretch is not going well, thanks to consecutive losses to St. Joseph's and La Salle. A win over the Musketeers, who are looking to keep the momentum from their Saturday overtime win over Dayton going, would provide a boost, though it may be too little, too late for UMass.

Michigan at Northwestern, 8 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
This game may very well be the one that determines if the Wildcats finally make their first-ever NCAA Tournament.

Miami at Maryland, 8 p.m. ET (ACC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
After Saturday's loss at Virginia, the Terps are limited to the spoiler role in the ACC race. On Tuesday night, they can damage the Hurricanes' hopes.

North Carolina at N.C. State, 8 p.m. ET (ACC Network Regional/Full Court/ESPN3)
While this isn't the biggest game in N.C. State's illustrious history, it is the biggest in Mark Gottfried's short tenure in Raleigh.

Kentucky at Mississippi State, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Bulldogs have slid down to the bubble after three straight bad losses. Unless they pull off the upset of the year, they could be looking at an NIT bid.

Virginia at Virginia Tech, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Cavaliers cannot get caught looking ahead to their home games with North Carolina and Florida State, especially since they already lost to the Hokies in Charlottesville.

New Mexico at Colorado State, 10 p.m. ET (The Mtn.)
The Rams came back to beat Wyoming on Saturday to keep their hopes alive. A win over the runaway Mountain West leaders would be an even more significant boost.

Wednesday, February 22
West Virginia at Notre Dame, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Fighting Irish look to complete a sweep of the Mountaineers, and to run their win streak to nine in the process.

James Madison at Drexel, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Dragons made a great impression with Saturday's win at Cleveland State. Now, as Drexel continues to make a case for an at-large, it needs to continue its good work in the Colonial.

USF at Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET (Big East Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
This season's weak bubble is helping the Bulls' case, particularly now that they have 10 Big East wins, but a victory at the Orange would do more than a loss by any other team.

Minnesota at Michigan State, 8:30 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
The Spartans look to continue their Big Ten dominance, while the Golden Gophers would jump right back into the conversation with a win in East Lansing.

UC Santa Barbara at Long Beach State, 11 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The 49ers own a three-game lead over the second-place Gauchos in the Big West, boosted by a 23-point win at the Thunderdome.

Thursday, February 23
Duke at Florida State, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The winner takes another step toward the ACC regular season title.

Alabama at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Crimson Tide, just on the right side of the bubble in this bracket, look to hand the Razorbacks their second straight home loss.

Murray State at Tennessee State, 8 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Racers head to Nashville with the opportunity to avenge their only loss of the season.

Louisville at Cincinnati, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Saturday's win over Seton Hall helped the Bearcats' case, but a victory over Louisville would be far more helpful.

BYU at Gonzaga, 11 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Thanks to St. Mary's loss to Loyola Marymount on Wednesday night, both teams are back in the West Coast Conference race, with the Bulldogs owning an edge thanks to a win over the Gaels.

My next full bracket will be out Monday, but be sure to visit again on Friday for a Bubble Watch update and weekend TV preview.

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