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NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Counting Teams In (Marquette) And Out (Penn State)

SB Nation's resident bracketologist takes a break from sifting through team profiles to count down where teams stand in terms of making this year's field of 68.

In my Bubble Watch post for last week, I looked at just about every single team that had a sliver of a chance at an at-large bid. It was a long column. Some of you just may even be waking up from a week-long nap after reading it.

So, for the next two weeks, that type of post is going on the shelf (and into the recesses of my mind for a rework). A more traditional bubble watch will return in this space on Friday, February 4th, five weeks and two days from Selection Sunday. Hopefully in the intervening fortnight, we'll have a little more bubble clarity, and a shorter list, though that isn't a given with the way the 2010-11 season has gone so far.

In its place, you'll find something like an interim bracketology but with less structure. Instead of potential matchups and game locations, I'll be focusing on who fits within the various tiers on the bracket: who's safe vs. who's not; protected seeds vs. the First Four, and so forth. However, I won't really talk much about one-bid leagues in this post, as there is no guarantee in those races, thanks to the unpredictability of conference tournaments.

For starters, let's break down how I see the field shaking out heading into the weekend.

18 automatic bids held by one-bid leagues
13 automatic bids held by potential multiple-bid conference leaders, 6 of these teams are locks

17 at-large teams are locks
20 at-large teams still have work to do

Now let's see how these teams fit down the S-curve.

The Safe And Protected

Our first group of locks consists of the "protected seeds," the top 20 teams on the S-curve, so named because of a bracketing principle in the NCAA's Principles and Procedures Document (emphasis from the document).

To recognize the demonstrated quality of such teams, the committee shall not place teams seeded on the first five lines at a potential "home-crowd disadvantage" in the first round.

These are the teams that have the best shot of playing closest to home on the first weekend, and really don't have to worry about facing a situation like playing Ohio State in Cleveland or Duke in Charlotte. I've paired each of the top 16 with the best geographically-appropriate first weekend site. Note that I've placed Pitt in Washington (a Thursday/Saturday site), instead of Cleveland (Friday/Sunday) as in this week's bracketology, as this allows the committee to place a 16-seed First Four game in each of the Tuesday and Wednesday doubleheaders in Dayton

Note: Teams with an asterisk currently own their conference's automatic bid.

1 line 1. Ohio State* (Cleveland) 2. Kansas*
3. Pittsburgh* (Washington) 4. Duke*
2 line 8. Villanova
7. Connecticut (Washington) 6. San Diego State* (Tucson) 5. Syracuse (Cleveland)
3 line 9. Texas
10. BYU
11. Kentucky
12. Texas A&M (Tucson)
4 line 16. Washington* (Denver) 15. Missouri
14. Purdue
13. Notre Dame (Chicago)
5 line 17. Illinois 18. Michigan State 19. Louisville 20. Wisconsin


With a whopping four Big Ten teams spread between lines 4 and 5, and Ohio State parked on the top line, it's likely one of the 5 seeds would be swapped for a 6 seed in an actual bracket, to balance things out.

Most of the top 16 is the same as on Tuesday, though Washington has jumped up to line 4 after their convincing home win over fellow Pac-10 contender Arizona on Thursday night.

In Good Shape

The second tier consists of teams who aren't quite on the level of the top 20, though they may have had moments or runs of brilliance. While these teams are safely in the field for the moment, a bad loss or two, or significant changes surrounding their opposition that might make wins or losses look worse, could send them tumbling down to the bubble. In fact, just on Wednesday and Thursday nights, West Virginia (to Marshall), Gonzaga (at Santa Clara), and UNLV (at home to Colorado State) suffered losses that dropped them from safety.

6 line 24. Georgetown 23. Vanderbilt 22. West Virginia 21. Minnesota
7 line 25. St. Mary's* 26. Temple 27. UNLV 28. Gonzaga


Work To Do

These are the teams that have the most to do the rest of the way for a variety of reasons--loading up on soft non-conference opponents, playing poorly on the road, not playing up to potential, dropping a game they shouldn't have, generally being inconsistent, or all of the above. Since all of these teams are in power conferences, they'll have plenty of opportunities to either improve or further damage their lot. Virginia Tech moves up here after their big victory at Maryland on Thursday night, while Florida drops after an unconvincing win at Auburn.

8 line 32. North Carolina 31. Georgia 30. Tennessee 29. Florida*
9 line 33. Arizona 34. St. John's 35. Boston College 36. Kansas State
10 line 37. Virginia Tech


Living On The Edge

With the expansion to 68-teams, and the shift from an Opening Round/Play-In Game to the "First Four," the teams at the bottom of the at-large pool now have two aims: 1) to get in the field in the first place and 2) avoid a trip to Dayton (and an extra game) if at all possible.

For the first time ever, the "Last Four In" should be evident, as it's assumed these teams will play at UD Arena on March 15th and 16th. Additionally, the category of the "Next Four In" has added importance, as these teams receive direct entry into the new Second Round.

For clarity's sake, I've stripped out the three auto bid holders who fit in this portion of the S-curve, Xavier, Utah State, and Missouri State. That's why the numbers will skip in places over the next few tables.

Direct Entry (Next Four In) 38. Florida State 39. Cincinnati 41. Old Dominion 43. Oklahoma State
First Four (Last Four In) 44. UCF 45. Colorado 46. Marquette 47. Butler
First Four Out 48. Penn State 49. Richmond 51. Colorado State 52. Cleveland State


Finally, the "Next Eight Out" are just a few wins from the field, here's how stack up on the S-curve as well. Again, auto bids (in this case, Harvard, UTEP, and VCU) are left out.

53. UCLA 55. Washington State 56. Dayton 59. Clemson
60. Marshall 61. Baylor 62. Maryland 63. Wichita State


My next bracket projection will appear here on SB Nation on Tuesday, January 25th. In the meantime, be sure to visit Blogging the Bracket (and follow me on Twitter) for more analysis and TV picks between now and Selection Sunday.