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Bracketology: Kentucky and (yes) Virginia lead the way

Now that college football's first-ever FBS-level bracketed tournament is in the books, it's time to turn our attention to a more familiar friend, college basketball's 68-team leviathan of a field.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

After two months filled with surprising starts and shocking results, the 2014-15 season's first real bracket projection looks significantly different than the preseason version. Sure, November overall No. 1 seed Kentucky remains in that spot, but the Wildcats' former cohorts have all fallen. The latest to drop, Duke, slipped to the two line after Tuesday night's stunning blowout home loss to Miami and Sunday's setback at North Carolina State. The Blue Devils join two other November leaders-- Arizona and Wisconsin -- on line two. The Wildcats and Badgers fell after picking up their second defeats of the season at the hands of Oregon State and Rutgers, respectively, on Sunday evening.

Undefeated Virginia and Big East leaders Villanova replace the Wildcats and Badgers, with the impressive Cavaliers -- a squad that held the Scarlet Knight team that beat Wisconsin to an incomprehensible 26 points on Nov. 29 -- taking the second spot overall. Perennial Big 12 champion Kansas claims the fourth spot, replacing Duke.

After this week's full projection, I'll take a quick look at some of the bigger changes from the preseason, as well as some intriguing conference breakdowns, and a few games to watch between now and next Tuesday's projection.
One housekeeping note: for the next few weeks, I will be using the KenPom projected conference leaders to fill the automatic qualifier positions. When mid-February rolls around, and the sample size is more substantial, I'll move to using conference standings as the determinant for these 32 spots.

Cleveland (Thu/Sat)
(2) EAST
Syracuse (Fri/Sun)
Louisville (Thu/Sat) Charlotte (Fri/Sun)
1 Kentucky (SEC) 1 Virginia (ACC)
16 Texas Southern/Vermont 16 UL Lafayette/St. Francis-Brooklyn
8 Oklahoma State 8 88 Iowa
9 Colorado State 9 Alabama
Columbus (Fri/Sun) Jacksonville (Thu/Sat)
5 Seton Hall 5 Iowa State
12 George Washington/LSU 122 Wofford (SoCon)
4 Notre Dame 4 Louisville
13 Eastern Washington (Big Sky) 13 Iona (MAAC)
Portland (Thu/Sat) Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat)
6 Oklahoma 666 Stanford
11 San Diego State (MW) 11 Old Dominion (C-USA)
3 Utah (Pac-12) 3 Maryland
14 UC Santa Barbara (Big West) 14 Lafayette (Patriot)
Seattle (Fri/Sun) Portland (Thu/Sat)
7 Georgetown 7 Michigan State
10 Temple 10 St. John's
2 Gonzaga (WCC) 2 Arizona
15 Murray State (OVC) 15 Hofstra (CAA)
(4) WEST
Los Angeles (Thu/Sat)
Houston (Fri/Sun)
Omaha (Fri/Sun) Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat)
1 Kansas (Big 12) 1 Villanova (Big East)
16 North Dakota State (Summit) 16 USC Upstate (A-Sun)
8 Ohio State 8 Baylor
9 Syracuse 9 Illinois
Louisville (Thu/Sat) Seattle (Fri/Sun)
5 Arkansas 5 Butler
12 Connecticut/N.C. State 12 Green Bay (Horizon)
4 Wichita State (MVC) 4 West Virginia
13 Harvard (Ivy) 13 Bowling Green (MAC)
Columbus (Fri/Sun) Jacksonville (Thu/Sat)
6 Cincinnati (AAC) 6 Northern Iowa
11 Miami 11 Indiana
3 VCU (A 10) 3 North Carolina
14 N.C. Central (MEAC) 14 Sam Houston State (Southland)
Charlotte (Fri/Sun) Omaha (Fri/Sun)
7 Texas 7 Wyoming
10 Xavier 10 Providence
2 Duke 2 Wisconsin (Big Ten)
15 Coastal Carolina (Big South) 15 New Mexico State (WAC)
Tuesday: To Louisville Tuesday: To Louisville
16 Texas Southern (SWAC) 12 Connecticut
16 Vermont (AE) 12 N.C. State
Wednesday: To Pittsburgh Wednesday: To Columbus
16 UL Lafayette (Sun Belt) 12 George Washington
16 St. Francis-Brooklyn (NEC) 12 LSU

ACC: 8 Providence Alabama Boise State
Big 12: 7 St. John's Bowling Green BYU
Big East: 7 Miami Butler Colorado
Big Ten: 7 Indiana Colorado State Dayton
SEC: 4 LAST FOUR IN Eastern Washington Denver
AAC: 3
N.C. State Hofstra Florida
MW: 3 LSU Illinois Florida Gulf Coast
Pac-12: 3 Connecticut Indiana Georgia State
A 10: 2 George Washington Lafayette Holy Cross
MVC: 2 FIRST FOUR OUT Miami Kansas State
One-bid conferences: 22 Dayton N.C. State Louisiana Tech

BYU North Dakota State Massachusetts

Washington Northern Iowa Memphis

Tulsa Oklahoma State Michigan

NEXT FOUR OUT Old Dominion Nebraska

California St. Francis-Brooklyn Pittsburgh

Tennessee St. John's Richmond

UNLV Sam Houston State Robert Morris

Georgia Seton Hall SMU

Temple Stephen F. Austin

UC Santa Barbara Stony Brook

UL Lafayette Toledo

USC Upstate UC Irvine

Vermont UCLA

West Virginia Weber State

Wyoming William & Mary

Also considered (in alphabetical order): Boise State, Colorado, Davidson, DePaul, Florida, Florida State, Louisiana Tech, Loyola-Chicago, Marquette, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Oregon, Oregon State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rhode Island, SMU, St. Mary's, South Carolina, TCU, Texas A&M, Tulane, UCLA, UTEP, Valparaiso, Vanderbilt

A whopping 25 teams from my preseason projection are absent from the first effort of 2015, with 2014 Final Four participant Florida; fellow tournament regulars Kansas State, Memphis, Michigan, Pittsburgh, and UCLA; and preseason buzz teams Nebraska and SMU the most notable departures since November. All eight will need to impress during conference play to jump back in, a task that will be easier for some.

That's because quality win opportunities look to be more available to bid contenders in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, and Big Ten than the rest of the nation. The ACC placed eight teams in this projection after Miami's win last night, while the three Big conferences each contributed just one fewer. The SEC provides a quartet, a significant improvement from recent seasons, though LSU is barely hanging on. Three Pac-12 teams are included, a total that would have been larger had Washington and California built upon strong early season performances early in the league.

The Mountain West is another three-bid league out west, with surprises Wyoming and Colorado State joining preseason pick San Diego State, though the Aztecs have slid down the seed list since preseason, primarily due to their significant struggles on offense. Another three teams come courtesy the American Athletic Conference, including defending national champion Connecticut, though the Huskies sit behind Cincinnati and Temple in the league pecking order.

Thanks to competitive middle-tiers, the SEC, Pac-12 and, to a lesser extent, Mountain West could see their collective fortunes improve as the weeks tick on. The same cannot be said for the American, which sees a significant drop-off in quality past its middle tier of SMU, Tulsa, and Tulane. Of that trio, the Golden Hurricane -- victors at Temple on Saturday and over UConn on Tuesday -- looks to be the best bet to sneak in.

The Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley each provide a pair of teams -- a result that's a steep decline for the eastern league, which placed a half-dozen teams in 2014's field and a minor improvement for a conference that earned just a single bid last season. Still, don't expect a flood of mid-majors earning at-larges on Selection Sunday, even after several noteworthy upsets in November and December. BYU's early West Coast Conference struggles see the Cougars on the outside looking in, along with A-10 contender Dayton, the Flyers' results don't quite match up with their lofty computer numbers yet. On the other hand, UD's A 10 rival George Washington, winners over Wichita State in the Diamond Head Classic final, but losers at Penn State and at La Salle, is another team just barely in. Old Dominion -- C-USA's best hope and current auto bid holder -- would have just held on to an at-large position after a Saturday loss at Western Kentucky.

Wichita State, Northern Iowa, VCU and Gonzaga look to be the best at-large bets from outside of the Power 5/Big East/American group. Save the Panthers, all of those teams are currently in protected positions on the top four seed lines.

To close, here are a list of games I'll be paying particular attention to between now and my next projection, which will return to its regular Tuesday slot in less than a week's time.

North Carolina at N.C. State (Wednesday 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Marcus Paige and the Tar Heels stunned Louisville in the dying moments on Saturday, while the Wolfpack exposed some of Duke's flaws in Sunday's win in Raleigh. Only one of these teams will end up happy Wednesday night.

Duke at Louisville (Saturday noon ET, ESPN)

You might have noticed that the Cardinals' projected seeding doesn't really match their ranking, thanks to a relative lack of quality wins. Sending the Blue Devils to a third straight defeat might just help change that discrepancy.

Michigan State at Maryland (Saturday 4 p.m. ET, CBS)

These two played a brutal 40 minutes of regulation and a pair of entertaining overtimes on Dec. 30 in East Lansing. The winner of this one likely takes the title of "Big Ten's Second Best" for at least a few days.

Kentucky at Alabama (Saturday 4 p.m. ET, ESPN)

The top team in this projection should face another early SEC test in Tuscaloosa against an improved Crimson Tide squad that's looking to pick up a seed-boosting marquee win.

Utah at Arizona (Saturday 7 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks)

It's a shame that more people won't be able to see the first of two meetings between the Pac-12's two best outfits. Can the Wildcats solve the Utes' stingy defense?

Kansas at Iowa State (Saturday 9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Oklahoma at Kansas (Monday 9 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Two of the Jayhawks' most serious challengers for the Big 12 regular season crown get to take their shots at the conference's longtime king within a 48-hour span.

Connecticut at Stanford (Saturday 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

An important, and late, non-conference test for a pair of teams that could use one.

BYU at St. Mary's (Saturday 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

While the Cougars and Gaels likely won't stop Gonzaga from claiming the WCC regular season crown, both have at-large hopes. That means the pair's two (and maybe three, should they find themselves in a Championship Week semifinal in Vegas) meetings will be vital.