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Bracketology 2012: At Midway Point, Syracuse Leads The Way, Baylor Earns 1-Seed

The Orange are joined by Kentucky, Baylor, and UNC on the top line of our first NCAA Tournament bracket projection of the 2011-12 season.

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Two months and two days ago, I released my preseason bracketology. Curiously enough, Selection Sunday will be upon us in ... two months and two days (March 11th). That means we are now midway through the college basketball's regular season and it's time for weekly bracketology to begin on SB Nation. So, without further delay, here's my first published attempt at projecting the field of 68 based on the first nine weeks of the campaign.

Boston (Thu/Sat)
Atlanta (Fri/Sun)
Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat) Louisville (Thu/Sat)
1 Syracuse (Big East) 1 Kentucky (SEC)
16 Long Island (NEC) 16 Bucknell/UNC Asheville
8 Wisconsin 8 Dayton
9 Temple 9 St. Mary's
Portland (Thu/Sat) Nashville (Fri/Sun)
5 Vanderbilt 5 Michigan
12 BYU 12 Colorado (Pac-12)
4 Kansas State 4 West Virginia
13 Harvard (Ivy)
Omaha (Fri/Sun) Nashville (Fri/Sun)
6 Marquette 6 Creighton (MVC)
11 New Mexico 11 Iona (MAAC)
3 Kansas 3 Seton Hall
14 Belmont A-Sun) 14 Nevada (WAC)
Columbus (Fri/Sun) Greensboro (Fri/Sun)
7 Alabama 7 Illinois
10 Saint Louis 10 Southern Miss. (C-USA)
2 Michigan State (Big Ten) 2 Duke
15 Ball State (MAC) 15 Norfolk State (MEAC)
Phoenix (Thu/Sat)
St. Louis (Fri/Sun)
Greensboro (Fri/Sun) Albuquerque (Thu/Sat)
1 North Carolina 1 Baylor (Big 12)
16 Alabama State/Stony Brook 16 Lamar (Southland)
8 Stanford 8 Purdue
9 Wichita State 9 San Diego State
Portland (Thu/Sat) Albuquerque (Thu/Sat)
5 Louisville 5 Virginia
12 Northwestern 12 Long Beach State (Big West)
4 UNLV (MWC) 4 Connecticut
13 Marshall/Notre Dame 13 Davidson (Southern)
Columbus (Fri/Sun) Pittsburgh (Thu/Sat)
6 Gonzaga (WCC) 6 Florida
11 Cleveland State (Horizon)
11 Memphis
3 Indiana 3 Georgetown
14 Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt) 14 George Mason (CAA)
Omaha (Fri/Sun) Louisville (Thu/Sat)
7 Mississippi State 7 Murray State (OVC)
10 Cincinnati 10 Xavier
2 Missouri 2 Ohio State
15 Weber State (Big Sky) 15 Oral Roberts (Summit)
Tuesday: To Louisville
Tuesday: To Portland
16 Bucknell (Patriot)
12 Marshall
16 UNC Asheville (Big South) 12 Notre Dame
Wednesday: To Greensboro Wednesday: To Nashville
16 Alabama State (SWAC)
13 LSU
16 Stony Brook (AmEast)
13 UCF

Even though the 2011-12 season has been fairly tumultuous so far, this early January bracket looks rather like early January brackets of seasons past. There's just a bit of separation at the top and a considerable mess at the bottom of the at-large pool. The race for the four coveted number one seeds looks to be a six team race, with Syracuse, Kentucky, and Baylor having an advantage at the moment over North Carolina, Ohio State, and Duke. The Tar Heels just sneak past the Buckeyes for the top spot in the West this time around.

The protected seed group is "Big" conference-heavy, as five Big East teams are represented, including surprising Seton Hall and West Virginia, alongside all four bracket entrants from the Mountaineers' future conference, the Big 12, and three squads from the Big Ten. Since I'm on the subject of league performance, here's this week's rundown, which not only provides a conference breakdown, but also a look at the long list of substitutions from the preseason bracket, along with those in best position to fall out or rise up in the coming weeks.

Big East: 9
New Mexico Alabama State Arizona
Big Ten: 8 Memphis Ball State Austin Peay
SEC: 6 BYU UCF California
A-10: 4 Northwestern Cleveland State Detroit
Big 12: 4
LAST FOUR IN Colorado Drexel
C-USA: 4
LSU Dayton Florida Atlantic
ACC: 3 Marshall Indiana Florida State
MWC: 3 Notre Dame Kansas State Hampton
WCC: 3
UCF Lamar Kent State
Pac-12: 2
Northern Iowa Middle Tennessee Oklahoma State
1-Bid Conferences: 20 Iowa State Murray State Oregon

Virginia Tech Norfolk State Texas

Oklahoma Northwestern Texas A&M

NEXT FOUR OUT Notre Dame Texas-Arlington

St. Joseph's Saint Louis Texas Southern

Texas San Diego State UCLA

Indiana State Seton Hall

California Southern Mississippi


You'll likely notice that the conference that's struggled the most since November 7th is America's punching bag, the Pac-12, which went from five teams in that projection to a mere two now‒and Colorado is only in as the auto bid. The ACC and Colonial Athletic Association also met similar fates, thanks to lackluster performances during the non-conference portion of the season, as each league lost two entrants. Three Big 12 teams that appeared in the preseason are gone, but Kansas State has exceeded expectations, meaning the 10-team loop only lost one spot, and Iowa State, Oklahoma, and Texas could jump in over the next few weeks.

Those conferences' collective struggles have led to more bids for the Atlantic 10, Big East, and Big Ten in mid-January. Four of the A-10's 14 members are in this projection, though Xavier's performance since the brawl with Cincinnati has damaged its stock significantly. While the Big East may not repeat its 11-bid total of 2011, it has nine right now, thanks to the late addition of Notre Dame to the First Four, after the Fighting Irish won at Louisville Saturday. With eight teams, the Big Ten has a higher percentage of its teams in this field than any other conference, though Northwestern is hanging on by a thread after its home loss to Illinois on Wednesday.

LSU, who I had written off completely back in mid-December, is the sixth SEC team in this field‒with the former East and West Divisions each providing three teams, quite a change from recent seasons. That total is an increase of one from November. Conference USA and the Mountain West also added teams this time around, though the MWC's long-term prospects may be a bit higher than its future football (and other sport?) partner's, thanks to the weakness of the bottom of C-USA. This is a simple numbers game. With 12 teams in C-USA, and many of them struggling, including stalwarts like Tulsa and UAB, there are more possibilities for low-RPI wins and the always dreaded bad loss. Making matters worse, all of C-USA's teams are on line 10 or below, with two teams, Marshall and UCF, currently slated for Dayton.

However, there is plenty of basketball to be played before things are set in stone, or computerized graphics in our case. With that in mind, I'm going to close each of these weekly posts with a dozen or so games to track during the coming week. These are contests that may just provide the quality win a team needs to move into the field or boost its seeding‒or a loss that gives the Selection Committee pause on the weekend of March 11th.

Monday, January 9
West Virginia at Connecticut, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2) and Cincinnati at Georgetown, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Football game? What football game? Four of the nine Big East teams in this projection are in action tonight, with the Mountaineers, Huskies, and Hoyas looking to improve their seeding and the Bearcats in need of another quality win.

Tuesday, January 10
Florida State at Virginia Tech, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
The Seminoles have been a disappointment through two months, while the Hokies look to be in a familiar spot‒on the wrong side of the bubble.

Baylor at Kansas State, 8 p.m. ET (FS Kansas City/FS Southwest/FS Houston/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Wildcats ended Missouri's unbeaten run without much trouble on Saturday, but they'll have to contend with Perry Jones III in this one.

Northern Iowa at Creighton, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN3)
The Panthers are knocking on the door, though I have to wonder if the Selection Committee will take three or four Missouri Valley teams with three or four (or more) conference losses.

Wednesday, January 11
Northwestern at Michigan, 6:30 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)
If the Wildcats want to find themselves in the field for the first time ever, they need to grab a surprise win or two on the road.

LSU at Alabama, 9 p.m. ET (CSS/CST/CSN Bay Area/Bright House Sports Network/Full Court/ESPN3)
The Tigers can make a statement to the rest of the SEC with a win in Tuscaloosa.

Thursday, January 12
Virginia at Duke, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Cavaliers' profile lacks something that makes it protected seed-worthy. They can rectify that in Durham.

Gonzaga at St. Mary's, 11 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Is this the first of three meetings we will see this season between the Bulldogs and the Gaels? Possibly, but don't discount the WCC's newest addition, BYU.

Friday, January 13
Cleveland State at Butler, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Last season, the Vikings entered Hinkle Fieldhouse with a 15-1 record and left with a 23-point defeat at the hands of a Bulldog squad that was struggling a bit. This season, Gary Waters' team is 14-3 and Brad Stevens' club is having more serious issues.

Saturday, January 14
Connecticut at Notre Dame, 11 a.m. ET (ESPN2)
The Huskies face a morning tip-off against a Fighting Irish team that seems to be getting its game together at the right time.

UNLV at San Diego State, 4 p.m. ET (NBC Sports Network)
Mountain West play finally tips off with a potential conference championship game preview.

Sunday, January 15
Indiana at Ohio State, 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Buckeyes will look to avenge a New Year's Eve loss in Bloomington.

My next update will come on Monday, January 16th. In the meantime, be sure to keep up with my bracketology musings on Twitter.