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Bracketology: Unpredictability reigns over the NCAA Tournament with time running out

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March is only a few days old, but the madness is already intense. Before conference tournaments ramp up further and the first automatic bids of the season are awarded, our resident bracketologist looks at the bid picture with nine days left.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The madness of March has already arrived — manifesting itself with some unbelievable, and in one case, unprecedented, results in the single-bid conference tournaments. I'll discuss those more in a bit, but first it's time to take a final Friday look at how the bid picture stacks up with the power conferences' regular seasons wrapping up over this weekend and Selection Sunday right around the corner.

Locks and Protected Seeds (16)

*=automatic bid holder

1 seeds 1. Kansas*
2. Villanova*
3. Virginia
4. Michigan State
2 seeds 8. Miami
7. Xavier
6. North Carolina*
5. Oklahoma
3 seeds 9. Oregon* 10. West Virginia
11. Utah 12. Maryland
4 seeds 16. Kentucky 15. Indiana* 14. Iowa State 13. Duke

The biggest change among the Top 16 is that the Iowa Hawkeyes no longer sit among them, meaning a Big Ten Tournament title is their most likely path to spending the first weekend in Des Moines. This is the consequence of winning just once in a half-dozen games.

The No. 1 team overall, the Kansas Jayhawks, look safest for a top seed. Depending on what happens next weekend, I could see any of the teams ranked between second and seventh on the real bracket's top line. The Miami Hurricanes' chances are hurt thanks to three losses to teams from outside of the Top 100.

A team hurt by some shaky non-conference performances, the Indiana Hoosiers, might need to add a Big Ten Tournament title to its regular season title to move much higher than the three line. The Duke Blue Devils, meanwhile, could be in great position to jump higher (though not to the top line) by completing a season sweep of the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday.

Other Locks (10)

5 seeds 17. Iowa 18. Purdue 19. Texas A&M*
20. Baylor
6 seeds 24. California 23. Wisconsin 22. Arizona 21. Texas
7 seeds 25. Notre Dame 26. Dayton

Even though Iowa has declined, the Hawkeyes are still safe for selection, and a new Big Ten team joins them and the Purdue Boilermakers on this Friday — the scorching Wisconsin Badgers. (You must refer to them in those terms exactly now, since they've won 11 of 12.)

Each team on the five line has a reasonable chance to crack the Top 16 with some strong performances in their respective conference tournaments.

In Good Shape (6)

7 seeds

27. Colorado 28. Saint Joseph's
8 seeds 32. South Carolina 31. USC 30. Seton Hall 29. Texas Tech

One team in this group bears particular attention over the final week is the South Carolina Gamecocks. On Thursday, Frank Martin's team lost to the Georgia Bulldogs at home, their second loss to UGA this season. While the Gamecocks own a win at Texas A&M and defeated bubble team Tulsa in the Paradise Jam pre-Thanksgiving, they also have three losses to teams from outside of the Top 100. To be absolutely safe, South Carolina must win a tricky road game at Arkansas on Saturday and avoid an ill-timed slip-up at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

So. we've already counted through 32 bids. Add that total to the 24 bids reserved for likely single-bid conference champions and 56 of the 68 places are accounted for.

Bubble IN (2 + 1 auto bid leader)

9 seeds 33. Wichita State* 34. Syracuse 35. Vanderbilt

The Vanderbilt Commodores have a decent amount of breathing room after four straight wins, but if they can win in College Station on Saturday, they'll be a lock. As for the Syracuse Orange, Monday's loss at North Carolina means they're just treading water before a crucial road trip to Florida State on Saturday.

The Wichita State Shockers can take matters out of the Committee's hands with three straight wins this weekend, starting with one over the Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers early this afternoon.

Last Four Byes (Avoiding Dayton) (4+1 auto bid)

9 seeds


36. Providence
10 seeds 40. Connecticut 39. Pittsburgh 38. Temple* 37. Michigan

The auto bid in this group of five, the Temple Owls, put themselves in stronger position by defeating the Memphis Tigers on Thursday. That victory gave Fran Dunphy's team a share of the conference title, and thanks to the SMU Mustangs' absence, the top seed at the conference tournament in Orlando.

The Mustangs handed the Connecticut Huskies a costly loss later in the evening, but UConn hangs around for now. The Cincinnati Bearcats, one of my projected last four in heading into Thursday's play, lost at Houston. That knocked them out for now.

On Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Panthers did themselves no favors by following up a win over Duke with a loss at Virginia Tech. While Jamie Dixon's team should be fine with an 8-7 Top 100 record (though just 2-6 against the Top 50), three questionable losses and a lack of punch in the non-conference schedule department could deflate Pitt's seed.

Last Four In (First Four) (4+2 auto bids)

11 seeds 41. VCU* 42. Butler 43. St. Bonaventure 44. Monmouth*
11 seeds

46. Tulsa 45. Oregon State

Of the two at-large teams in this group, the Butler Bulldogs and St. Bonaventure Bonnies helped their cases the most this week. Both picked up crucial wins on Wednesday, the Bulldogs over a Seton Hall Pirates squad that had jumped them in the Big East pecking order and the Bonnies over a Saint Joseph's Hawks outfit they had already defeated in Philadelphia.

As for the Oregon State Beavers, the one item missing from their profile is a quality road win. They didn't get one at USC on Wednesday (a result that broke the Trojans out of a three-game skid) and won't at struggling UCLA Saturday. So, the Beavers will need to do a bit of work in Las Vegas next week to show they can do something away from Corvallis.

The VCU Rams have a golden opportunity on Saturday to both win their first Atlantic 10 title and move closer to bid safety, as they visit a Dayton Flyers team that's been struggling for about a month. As for the Monmouth Hawks, they open their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament run with the Rider Broncs this evening.

Tulsa is back for now, thanks to Cincinnati's loss to Houston.

First Four Out/Next Four Out

First 4 Out 69. Geo. Washington 70. Cincinnati
71. Gonzaga
72. Florida
Next 4 Out 76. Princeton
75. Ohio State
74. Florida State
73. Alabama

The surest way for almost every one of these teams to get in is with a conference tournament title, even if it's will be a difficult task for each. The exception is of course the Princeton Tigers, who are still alive for the Ivy crown, either due to a Yale stumble or the potential of a one-game playoff with the Bulldogs.

A win over SMU on Sunday would be Cincinnati's second, however, which would give them real hope.

The Florida Gators have dropped from the safety of a nine seed one week ago to the fourth team out today. But that's what happens after four straight losses.

On Saturday, the Gonzaga Bulldogs open WCC Tournament play against the Portland Pilots. They'll likely need three wins in Vegas to keep their NCAA Tournament streak, which started in 1999, going.

In The Hunt

77. Washington 78. LSU 79. Georgia Tech 80. Creighton

83. Clemson 82. Stanford 81. Georgia

Things are even more grim for the seven teams in this group. A win over woeful Washington State didn't move the needle much for the Washington Huskies, while the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets fell back into oblivion with a Tuesday loss at Louisville Cardinals. It's a similar story for the Stanford Cardinal, who had won four of five before losing by 10 at Arizona State late on Thursday night.

Auto Bids

12 seeds 47. Valparaiso* 48. San Diego State* 49. Hofstra* 50. Saint Mary's*
13 seeds 54. Yale* 53. Akron* 52. Chattanooga* 51. Little Rock*
14 seeds 55. Stony Brook* 56. Fort Wayne* 57. UAB* 58. Hawai'i*
15 seeds 62. High Point* 61. New Mexico State* 60. Stephen F. Austin*
59. Belmont*
16 seeds
(Direct)
63. Weber State* 64. Fla. Gulf Coast*


16 seeds
(First Four)
65. Hampton* 66. Lehigh* 67. Wagner* 68. Texas Sthn.*

The first automatic bid of the season will be awarded on Saturday, when the Ohio Valley Tournament champion is crowned in Nashville. It was not handed out last night, when the Atlantic Sun Tournament semifinals ended with both road teams winning in blowout fashion, however. That's even the case with the seventh-seeded and NCAA/NIT-ineligible Stetson Hatters visiting the fourth-seeded Florida Gulf Coast Eagles for the title on Sunday. No, Dunk City isn't automatically returning to the Dance for the first time since their Sweet Sixteen run in 2013 with their finals berth. That's because the Atlantic Sun decided before the season that if Stetson made the conference tournament final and wonthe regular season champion would receive the automatic bid.

Therefore, you might still see the top-seeded North Florida Ospreys represent the conference in the field of 68, even if FGCU walloped them on their home floor by an 89-56 score on Thursday night.

Already, we've seen two top seeds (North Florida and the Bucknell Bison, who lost a crazy double-OT game to the Holy Cross Crusaders in the Patriot League quarterfinals) and a pair of two seeds (the NJIT Highlanders lost their first-ever Division I conference tournament game in the Atlantic Sun quarters and the Albany Great Danes fell in the America East's round of eight) fall by the wayside. Plus, a Tennessee State Tigers team that looked to be the Belmont Bruins' biggest threat in the Ohio Valley lost in that conference's ladder quarterfinal round on Thursday.

I'd be a bit nervous if I were a fan of Monmouth or Wichita State. Both take the floor in their conference quarterfinals today. Visit and bookmark my Conference Tournament Central page for updated matchups and TV information throughout the final week-plus before Selection Sunday.

On the at-large front, the hopes of the Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans are all but over following a Thursday loss at the Appalachian State Mountaineers. That's two losses to teams ranked outside of the Top 250 for the Sun Belt regular season champions. They'll need to win twice in New Orleans next weekend to make the field.

I'll be back with a full bracket update on Sunday morning, starting a final week of at least once-daily updates.