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Preseason Bracketology: Kentucky edges its loaded rivals (for now)

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For the third season in a row, Kentucky begins the season by holding the No. 1 overall seed in Chris Dobbertean’s preseason bracketology. But for the first time since Louisville claimed the top spot back in 2012, the Wildcats' selection wasn’t automatic.

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Happy 2015-16 college basketball season everyone! The road to Houston and the Final Four looks like it might be even more action-packed than a 2014-15 season that saw Kentucky keep its perfect record all the way to the national semifinals—where it lost to Wisconsin ... who happened to fall to Duke two nights later.

Even though all three of those teams lost a significant amount of talent over the offseason, they naturally reloaded—the Wildcats and Blue Devils more so than the Badgers—and will be factors in the title race this season. Kentucky and Duke sit among 2016's likely elite, a group that also includes the team that replaced Wisconsin as the Big Ten favorite, Maryland, a pair of the Blue Devils' ACC rivals in North Carolina and Virginia and perennial Big 12 champion Kansas.

Below the top six, there's a slightly bigger group of teams with the talent to at least get to NRG Stadium. This pool includes Gonzaga—who fell to Duke in the South Regional final in that building last season; a Wichita State team that might be better than the recent editions that made the Final Four and went through the regular season undefeated; Iowa State and Oklahoma, Kansas's main competition in the Big 12; and the Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana squads that will challenge Maryland for the Big Ten crown.

Kentucky claims the top spot over all of these teams because of a combination of a quality non-conference schedule and relatively trouble-free path to its conference title, at least when compared to its ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten rivals. Maryland, Kansas and North Carolina join the Wildcats on the top line, with the Tar Heels' two likeliest rivals for the ACC title—Duke and Virginia—right behind them on the two line.

After the full bracket, I'll have a rundown of two minor, but potentially important changes to the bracketing process for this year.

(1) SOUTH
Louisville (Thu/Sat)
(2) EAST
Philadelphia (Fri/Sun)
St. Louis (Fri/Sun) Brooklyn (Fri/Sun)
1 Kentucky (SEC) 1 Maryland (Big Ten)
16 Bucknell/High Point 16 NJIT (A-Sun)
8 Dayton 8 Florida State
9 West Virginia 9 Texas A&M
Providence (Thu/Sat) Providence (Thu/Sat)
5 Xavier 5 Wisconsin
12 Iona (MAAC) 12 Old Dominion (C-USA)
4 Indiana 4 Villanova (Big East)
13 Stephen F. Austin (Southland) 13 New Mexico State (WAC)
Des Moines (Thu/Sat) Denver (Thu/Sat)
6 Cincinnati (AAC) 6 Rhode Island (A 10)
11 Syracuse 11 Louisville
3 Wichita State (MVC) 3 Utah
14 UL Lafayette (Sun Belt) 14 Hofstra (CAA)
Oklahoma City (Fri/Sun) Raleigh (Thu/Sat)
7 N.C. State 7 Purdue
10 Iowa 10 LSU
2 Iowa State 2 Duke
15 Yale (Ivy) 15 Stony Brook (AE)
(4) WEST
Anaheim (Thu/Sat)
(3) MIDWEST
Chicago (Fri/Sun)
Raleigh (Thu/Sat) Oklahoma City (Fri/Sun)
1 North Carolina (ACC) 1 Kansas
16 Hampton/Mount St. Mary's 16 Texas Southern (SWAC)
8 Texas 8 Georgetown
9 Butler 9 Miami
Spokane (Fri/Sun) St. Louis (Fri/Sun)
5 UCLA 5 Vanderbilt
12 Valparaiso (Horizon) 12 Oregon/San Diego State
4 Michigan State 4 Michigan
13 UC Irvine (Big West) 13 Central Michigan (MAC)
Des Moines (Thu/Sat) Denver (Thu/Sat)
6 California 6 Connecticut
11 BYU/VCU 11 Northern Iowa
3 Oklahoma 3 Arizona (Pac-12)
14 Belmont (OVC) 14 Montana (Big Sky)
Spokane (Fri/Sun) Brooklyn (Fri/Sun)
7 Notre Dame 7 Baylor
10 Boise State (MW) 10 Davidson
2 Gonzaga (WCC) 2 Virginia
15 North Dakota State (Summit) 15 Chattanooga (SoCon)
FIRST FOUR (Dayton)
Tuesday: To Raleigh Tuesday: To Des Moines
16 Hampton (MEAC) 11 BYU
16 Mount St. Mary's (NEC) 11 VCU
Wednesday: To St. Louis Wednesday: To St. Louis
16 Bucknell (Patriot) 12 Oregon
16 High Point (Big South) 12 San Diego State

BIDS BY CONFERENCE AVOIDING DAYTON ARRIVALS DEPARTURES
ACC: 9 Davidson (40) Bucknell (Patriot) Albany (AE)
Big Ten: 7 Syracuse (41) California Arkansas
Big 12: 6 Louisville (42) Central Michigan (MAC) Buffalo (MAC)
Pac-12: 5 Northern Iowa (43) Chattanooga (SoCon) Coastal Carolina (Big Sth)
A 10 :4 LAST FOUR IN Connecticut E. Washington (Big Sky)
BE: 4 Oregon (44) Florida State Georgia
SEC: 4 VCU (45) High Point (Big South) Georgia State (SB)
AAC: 2 BYU (46) Hofstra (CAA) Harvard (Ivy)
MVC: 2 San Diego State (47) Iona (MAAC) Lafayette (Patriot)
MW: 2 FIRST FOUR OUT Miami Manhattan (MAAC)
WCC: 2 Ohio State Michigan North Florida (A-Sun)
One-Bid Conferences: 21 Florida Montana (Big Sky) Northeastern (CAA)

Providence Mount St. Mary's (NEC) Ohio State

George Washington NJIT (A-Sun) Oklahoma State

NEXT FOUR OUT Old Dominion (C-USA) Ole Miss

Tulsa Rhode Island (A 10) Providence

Pittsburgh Stony Brook (AE) Robert Morris (NEC)

Oregon State Syracuse St. John's

Oklahoma State Texas A&M SMU (AAC)


UL Lafayette (SB) UAB (C-USA)


Vanderbilt Wofford (SoCon)


Yale (Ivy) Wyoming (MW)

Also considered: Colorado State, Evansville, Fresno State, Georgia, Illinois, Illinois State, Loyola-Chicago, Marquette, Memphis, New Mexico, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Richmond, South Carolina, Temple, UAB, UNLV, Utah State

Past Performance

Remember that a preseason bracket is barely worth the pixels it's presented in. Last season, 44 of the 68 teams in my preseason projection ended up in the actual field. I correctly predicted 23 of the 36 at-large teams last November, a total not helped by the down seasons UConnFlorida, Kansas State, Michigan, Nebraska, Pitt, and Syracuse experienced.

My 2015 preseason bracket was a slight improvement over my 2014 effort. I missed 28 total teams two seasons ago, but only whiffed on 11 at-larges, not 13.

Site Considerations

You may have noticed a few teams' placement based on this season's sites. Villanova can play in the East Regional in Philadelphia, since the Wildcats will only play three games at the Wells Fargo Center, the maximum allowed under NCAA rules, and La Salle is the host institution. Similarly, Gonzaga may head down the road to Spokane Arena, a venue they don't visit at all during the regular season. Idaho is the designated host there. Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are permitted to play in Oklahoma City, as the Big 12 has host responsibilities in the state capital.

On the other hand, Louisville cannot be placed in the South Region, since they're the hosts, while in the earlier rounds, North Carolina State and Providence must travel and Iowa State must journey further than Des Moines. The Cyclones host Wells Fargo Arena's first March Madness weekend.

Bracketing Changes

Back in July, the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee, better known as the Selection Committee, announced a pair of changes to the bracketing process that aren't reflected in this projection, since games have yet to be played. However, they will come into play when we get closer to March.

The first concerns the First Four. Last season, UCLA was a shock at-large selection, earning a direct spot in the Round of 64, while Dayton, whom many thought was safe, ended up playing a First Four game on its home floor. Thanks in part to the controversy that resulted, the Selection Committee will now subject the last four at-large teams selected to the same discussion and seed scrubbing process that all of the other teams selected for the field previously underwent.

In other words, the last four teams selected will no longer necessarily be the four at-large squads sent to Dayton. The four lowest-ranked at-larges after the Committee's deliberations will go instead. It might not be a large distinction, but it could be a significant one.

The second change affects teams at the top of the field. In the past few seasons, the Selection Committee has abandoned the S-Curve previously used to build the bracket. That approach strove to match the top one seed with the worst two seed, the second one with the third-ranked two, and so on. Recent brackets have instead focused on keeping teams closer to their natural regions, which is why Arizona was the two in Wisconsin's West region and Kansas filled that role in Kentucky's Midwest bracket one season ago.

Now, the Committee has a bit more flexibility in assigning the two seeds to regions, particularly the top one, the bracket's fifth-ranked team. If keeping the top No. 2 seed in its natural region would lead to a regional final matchup with the overall No. 1 seed, the No. 2 can be sent to another region to improve the bracket's competitive balance.

Also, there's another change coming to this season's NCAA Tournament, a welcome one. The Rounds of 64 and 32 will revert to their previous names, the First and Second Rounds. The First Four will just be the First Four, not a First Round in which the overwhelming majority of teams get a bye.

And that's a change I think we all can approve of.