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Bracketology: Ben Simmons and LSU are still on the wrong side of the bubble

In terms of the top of the at-large pool, little has changed from last Friday's initial look at the teams that have virtually sewn up bids. But things are getting a little more interesting near the cut line, as some teams with the potential to pick up some late quality wins have muscled their way into the picture this week.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, I was reluctant to use the "L" word, lock, since we still had six weeks and two days left. Now that another week has passed and just about everyone has eight regular season games (or fewer) remaining, I feel a little more comfortable in using the term.

To be considered a lock, a team would be able to withstand a losing record over the final five weeks to still earn a bid. Yes, a drop in seeding would result from such a swoon, but a fading lock would still remain above the cut line.

Remember, with 25 of the 32 Division I conferences likely to send just one team to the 2016 NCAA field, there are really 43 bids up for grabs—the 36 at-large bids and seven bids that will go to the winners of the probable multi-bid conferences.

Let's start counting down how many of those remain in play.

Locks and Protected Seeds (16)

*=automatic bid holder

1 seeds 1. Oklahoma*
2. North Carolina*
3. Villanova*
4. Iowa
2 seeds 8. Maryland
7. Oregon*
6. Xavier
5. Kansas
3 seeds 9. Michigan State 10. Virginia
11. West Virginia 12. Texas A&M*
4 seeds 16. Baylor 15. Purdue 14. Miami 13. Iowa State

Other Locks (6)

5 seeds 17. Providence 18. Indiana* 19. Louisville
20. USC
6 seeds
21. Dayton

These 21 teams are in the strongest position in early February, but there are a couple of squads who could see their seed drop between now and Selection Sunday.

Could the SEC be left without a protected seed for the first time since 2009? It's unlikely, as Texas A&M, whose Thursday loss at Vanderbilt was its second straight road setback, should be fine when all is said as done, That's because of the Aggies' final four road trips, only a game at LSU is particularly worrisome. However, a setback in any of the other three would be a late bad loss, which could send Billy Kennedy's team tumbling.

Providence is another team in this group to keep an eye on as long as Ben Bentil, its leading scorer, is absent. Bentil and Kris Dunn are responsible for more than half of the Friars' points, so if Providence doesn't find a reliable third option in Bentil's absence, a lower seed could be a strong possibility.

Indiana, whose final eight games include a pair with Iowa, a trip to Michigan State and visits from Purdue and Maryland, is the team outside of the Top 16 with the best chance to earn a protected seed. That's a schedule that ensures the Big Ten co-leading Hoosiers will remain in the conference title chase until the very end.

In Good Shape (9, including one single-bid conference auto bid)

6 seeds 24. Michigan 23. Kentucky 22. Utah
7 seeds 25. Notre Dame 26. Texas 27. Duke 28. Arizona
8 seeds

30. Pittsburgh 29. Wichita State*

Kentucky, which followed its Big 12/SEC Challenge loss at Kansas with a defeat at Tennessee, looks increasingly likely to find itself in a position comparable to 2014's eight seed, though the Wildcats still have an excellent chance of finishing higher. Saturday's home game with improving Florida, a team currently tied with the Cats for third in the SEC, will be a nice litmus test of Kentucky's hopes for the next five weeks.

In Michigan's case, the early returns from the tougher second half of the Big Ten schedule have not been positive, as the Wolverines were blown out by Indiana at home on Tuesday night. With six of their final eight games coming against bid contenders, John Beilein's squad must show that such a result is an aberration, as wins over Maryland and Texas could use some company.

Wichita State has won 15 of 16 since going 0-3 at the Advocare Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend. The Shockers are also four games up on Evansville and Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley with just seven games to play. Considering how much better Gregg Marshall's team has looked since Fred Van Vleet's return, don't expect Wichita State to be snubbed should it finish a perfect Valley regular season and fall short at Arch Madness, even in a down year for the conference.

Bubble IN (10, including two single-bid conference auto bids)

8 seeds 32. Cincinnati* 31. Florida

9 seeds 33. VCU* 34. Valparaiso* 35. Monmouth* 36. UConn
10 seeds 40. Florida State 39. Syracuse 38. Saint Mary's* 37. Colorado

At this point, 30 bids from our pool of 43 are off the table, but the numbers will deceive, as Saint Mary's, Valparaiso and Monmouth will each have a great claim to an at-large should an ill-timed loss occur during the Championship Fortnight.

Of the half-dozen power conference squads in this group, Florida and Syracuse have impressed the most over the past week, with the Gators hammering West Virginia in the Big 12/SEC Challenge to earn a much-needed quality win. The Orange, meanwhile, started a rare four-game ACC homestand with three wins, even if they struggled to put away both Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Florida State has also prospered during a relatively weak part of its ACC slate, sandwiching a needed win over Clemson between ones in potential trap games against Boston College and North Carolina State.

Last Four Byes (Avoiding Dayton)

11 seeds 41. South Carolina 42. Washington 43. California 44. Seton Hall

South Carolina has slid closer to the cut line because there simply isn't much on its profile, despite a Top 30 RPI ranking. For example, the Gamecocks currently have a 1-1 record against the RPI Top 50, but both of those games came against an Alabama team that's currently 3-6 in the conference and therefore cannot be expected to retain that ranking. Frank Martin's squad's next five games will determine their fate: as they visit Texas A&M, host LSU and Kentucky, visit Missouri (OK, maybe not that one), then host Florida.

Likewise, Seton Hall, which has beaten two Big East hopefuls below it in the pecking order in the past week (Creighton and Marquette) can further improve its position in its next three outings—a home-and-home with Georgetown with a visit from Butler in between. Wichita State's continued success also helps the Pirates, who happen to be the only team to defeat the Shockers since Thanksgiving weekend.

Last Four In (First Four)

12 seeds 48. Oregon State 47. Clemson 46. Butler 45. Gonzaga

As the positions of Florida State and Syracuse have improved, so has Clemson's. The Tigers, still boasting a questionable RPI of 72, now have a 6-5 record against the RPI Top 50. They also have what passes as a respectable ACC road win, their January 5th victory at the Carrier Dome.

Oregon State jumps in following its Thursday night win over Utah, which bumped the Beavers' Top 50 record to 3-5 and their Top 100 mark to 6-8, with no losses to teams from outside of the Top 100.

First Four Out/Next Four Out

First 4 Out 69. LSU 70. Geo. Washington
71. Stanford
72. Wisconsin
Next 4 Out 76. Georgetown
75. Vanderbilt
74. UCLA
73. Saint Joseph's

LSU, lurking just behind Clemson in the RPI table, but with just two Top 50 wins, continues to sit on the outside looking in. This is the case even though the Bayou Bengals share the SEC lead with Texas A&M. But thanks to road games at South Carolina and Kentucky along with home encounters with the Aggies and Florida, the Tigers will have a chance to rise.

So will their SEC rivals from Vanderbilt, thanks to their Thursday win over A&M, a team the Commodores will happen to play again to close the regular season. But Kevin Stallings' squad must be careful over the next two weeks or so. Vandy plays five teams largely out of the bid picture before playing three contenders in their final four regular season games.

Wisconsin, winner of five in a row, is another squad that has gotten itself into a position where it can contend, but which also faces long odds because of what's left. The Badgers play just three of their remaining eight games at the Kohl Center, and just one of those is against a contender (Michigan). Visiting Maryland, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue late isn't exactly the formula for earning a late bid, but stranger things have happened. The Badgers' best non-conference wins over VCU and Syracuse, both away from Madison, also look better than they did a few weeks back.

UCLA, which has now been swept by USC and Washington, continues to drop further back.

In The Hunt

77. Texas Tech 78. Ohio State 79. Temple 80. St. Bonaventure
84. BYU 83. Nebraska 82. Tulsa 81. Creighton
85. Boise State 86. Kansas State 87. Georgia 88. Marquette

Despite an RPI ranking of 45th, Texas Tech's at-large chances might have ended with Wednesday's overtime loss to Oklahoma State in Lubbock. Given the Red Raiders' struggles in the first half of the Big 12 schedule, don't expect them to get close to .500 in the conference after a 3-6 start. Similarly, Thursday's loss in Madison might have been the end of the road for Ohio State, even at 6-5 in the Big Ten, but a pair of games with Michigan State and one with Iowa to wrap up the regular season all mean the Buckeyes cannot be counted out.

With Thursday's win over Saint Mary's, BYU now has a victory over each of the WCC's more likely at-large candidates, so the Cougars are back in the picture, though they're still a long way from the right side of the cut line.

Likely Auto Bid Only

12 seeds

49. Chattanooga* 50. San Diego St.*
13 seeds 54. Stony Brook* 53. South Dakota St.* 52. Little Rock* 51. UC Irvine*
14 seeds 55. Belmont* 56. Akron* 57. UNCW* 58. Yale*
15 seeds 62. Montana* 61. Stephen F. Austin* 60. North Florida*
59. UAB*
16 seeds
(Direct)
63. UNC Asheville* 64. New Mexico St.*


16 seeds
(First Four)
65. Bucknell 66. Fair. Dickinson* 67. Hampton* 68. Texas Sthn.

Some of the names here have changed, but virtually all of the teams in this portion of the bracket (with the exception of Chattanooga, San Diego State and perhaps Little Rock) will only make the field by cutting down the nets during Selection Week.

I'll be back on Tuesday with a full bracket projection, accounting for yet another busy February weekend.