by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Bracketology? In December?

Why not? Hey, we’re already a third of the way into the regular season. And for college hoops junkies, it can never be too soon to look forward to March.

We’ve always believed that having an idea of the broader picture of the college hoops landscape allows us to view the current season in better context. And being conscious of how teams fit, or might fit, into the postseason puzzle is a useful component in the daily handicapping exercise.

There is one significant problem with December “Bracketology” updates, however, and that regards the “RPI” (Ratings Percentage index) numbers, whose pre-New Year’s rankings will often bear little resemblance to what they’ll look like at the end of the regular season. That’s usually because the big conferences have yet to begin league play, where the strength-of-schedule component invariably benefits the “major” entries. There is no chance that a side such as Stephen F. Austin, impressive as it has been in the early going of the current campaign, will maintain the current 14th-ranked RPI number into January, even if the Lumberjacks keep winning in the Southland Conference. Entries such as Big East Pitt (currently 50th in RPI) and Big 12 Baylor (currently 63rd in RPI) and other contenders in major conferences will be flipping spots with Stephen F. Austin, Illinois-Chicago (current RPI 27), and Bucknell (current RPI 28) before long.

Which is why, until we get into January, we won’t bother to list the RPI numbers in our Bracketology calculation, going with only straight-up records (thru December 19) for our first installment.

In the meantime, we present our first full-fledged Bracketology of this publishing season. The term “protected seed” refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and usual favorable geographic placement in the sub-regional round. As usual, we break down the projected matchups by each region, beginning with the sub-regionals, which this season will begin on Thursday, March 21. We’ll update our projections periodically through the season all of the way up to March Madness...which isn’t that far away.

EAST REGIONAL (Washington, D.C.)

At Philadelphia...

1 Syracuse (SUR 10-0) vs. 16 Robert Morris (8-4)...At this stage, Syracuse looks to be the best of the Big East lot, which is usually good for a top regional seed. Could this be Jim Boeheim’s best shot at a national title since the Carmelo Anthony-led team of 2003? We’ll see. The home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, has looked the best of the lot in the Northeast Conference, and had won 7 of its last 8 heading into Thursday’s matchup at Arkansas. The Claire Bees, er, Blackbirds from Long Island and the Bryant Bulldogs look to be the other top NEC contenders.

8 UCLA (8-3) vs. 9 Wisconsin (7-4)...UCLA has endured a turbulent first month of the season, complete with suspensions and transfers, but by the time conference play rolls around, ballyhooed frosh stars Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams, and Kyle Anderson should have smoothed out most of the rough spots. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 hardly looks overwhelming, so we expect the Bruins to steadily improve throughout conference play. This doesn’t look to be a vintage Bo Ryan edition at Wisconsin, which lacks a shot creator in the mold of the graduated Jordan Taylor, but we expect the Badgers to bump and grind their way back into the Dance, as usual.

At Kansas City...

4 Creighton (11-1) vs. 13 Davidson (6-4)...We anticipate multiple bids out of the Missouri Valley this season, with Doug McDermott-led Creighton looking a good bet for a protected seed. The Bluejays have recorded five wins in a row since their shock home loss vs. Boise State a few weeks ago. Davidson has suffered a few bruises vs. a challenging early slate (though the loss vs. UW-Milwaukee is hard to explain), but the Wildcats won the SoCon last season and returns much of the same team that gave Louisville a good scare in the sub-regionals last March.

5 UNLV (10-1) vs. 12 Saint Mary’s (8-2)/Ole Miss (8-1)...UNLV has only stumbled once in the early going (at home vs. Oregon), and another touted transfer (6’9 ex-Pitt C Khem Birch) has just become eligible for Dave Rice’s young Rebels. But remember the problems UNLV had on the Mountain West road last season, which makes us reluctant to put them into protected seed territory. One of our at-large play-in games has WCC rep Saint Mary’s, which has recovered well after a shaky showing in the Anaheim Thanksgiving Classic, and Ole Miss, which has impressed with former Utah G Marshall Henderson emerging as a go-to threat. No terribly impressive wins yet for the Rebels, but we’ll find out more in the next week at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu where the likes of San Diego St., Arizona, Miami-Florida, and host Hawaii await.

At Dayton...

2 Indiana (9-1) vs. 15 Harvard (5-4)...Plenty of time for Indiana to get back onto the top line, although for the moment we move the Hoosiers to a 2 seed after last Saturday’s upset loss in Indianapolis vs. Butler. By our current projections, the loaded Big Ten could have as many as five protected seeds. Harvard lost a lot of firepower from last year’s Ivy champs, though Tommy Amaker returns key G Laurent Rivard. Meanwhile, soph swingman Wesley Saunders and frosh G Syani Chambers appear to be stars on the rise for what still appears to be the Ivy’s most-talented contingent.

7 NC State (7-2) vs. 10 Temple (8-2)...Plenty of time for NC State to work its way into a protected seed, especially with frosh G Rodney Purvis and F T.J. Warren making an immediate impact. The Wolfpack has mostly played to the level of its opposition thus far, however, and is docked a few seeds for its one-sided loss vs. Oklahoma State in the San Juan, Puerto Rico tourney. We’re not quite sure what to make of Fran Dunphy’s Temple, which seems to have lost some traction after a quick start, and was dealt a disturbing midweek home loss vs. Canisius. Dunphy did lose three starters from last year’s team, but did get F Scootie Randall back from injury, and Dunphy’s first five Owls teams have made it to the Dance.

At Kansas City...

3 Kansas (9-1) vs. 14 Albany (9-2)...Still plenty of time for Kansas to make its case for a spot on the top line, but it’s a good bet nonetheless that the Jayhawks will be a protected seed and be assigned to the nearby Kansas City Sprint Center sub-regional, hardly a neutral site but not off limits to KU in the first weekend since it is not its official homecourt. At the moment, Albany looks to be the favorite in the America East. The Great Danes have scored handy wins over Duquesne and Washington and were hardly embarrassed in their game at Ohio State. Stony Brook looks to be the other top contender in the A-E.

6 Pitt (10-1) vs. 11 Texas A&M (8-1)...Looks like another typical, rough-and-tumble Jamie Dixon Pitt side this season, although like past Dixon and Ben Howland Panther editions, we’re not sure these Panthers can make it to the Final Four, either. As for A&M, remember the SEC is not quite as strong in hoops as it is in football, and the Ags didn’t do too badly on the gridiron in their conference debut this fall, either. No "Johnny Basketballs" on the hardwood at College Station, but plenty of functional senior weaponry in the Turners (G Elston & F Ray).


At Philadelphia...

1 Duke (10-0) vs. 16 Western Illinois (7-3)...It’s strange that Duke won’t have a sub-regional in its backyard as usual (Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, etc.) this season, so Coach K and the Blue Devil backers are going to probably have to settle for an opening weekend assignment in Philadelphia. We’d be stunned if Duke doesn’t remains a protected seed, and probably on the top line, all of the way into March. More intrigue lies in the Summit League, where the Western Illinois Leathernecks have impressed. But they’ll have to beat out the likes of North Dakota State and last year’s loop winner South Dakota State to make it to the Dance.

8 Colorado (8-2) vs. 9 Baylor (7-3)...Talk about some of the vagaries associated with the December versions of the RPI; Colorado ranked second as of midweek. While the Buffs figure to make a return to the Dance (especially with true frosh F Josh Scott making such a big impact), we doubt they’ll be better than a mid-level seed from somewhat-suspect Pac-12. Scott Drew’s Baylor might have trouble getting back to the Elite Eight after losing so much firepower from last season, but the Bears have become used to the Big Dance and should return.

At Austin....

4 Missouri (9-1) vs. 13 Bucknell (10-1)...Frank Haith’s Mizzou has had all year to stew over its shock KO in the sub-regional courtesy Norfolk State last March. Expect the Tigers to return, perhaps as a protected seed; unlike in football, where gridiron Mizzou struggled in its new SEC home this fall, the hardwood Tigers should temporarily benefit escaping the Big 12 for the SEC. As for CBS head honcho Les Moonves’ alma mater Bucknell, it returns most of the components from last year’s NIT qualifier that was pipped for a Big Dance berth by Lehigh, which proceeded to upset Duke in the Dance. We’re thinking the roles reverse this season, and note how Patriot reps such as the Bison and Engineers have scored early-round upset wins in recent Dances.

5 Butler (8-2) vs. 12 BYU (8-3)/Illinois State (8-3)...Butler has new digs (the A-10...maybe for only this year if the Big East hoop defectors come calling, as we envision) and a couple of marquee wins already vs. North Carolina and Indiana that could have the Bulldogs in the mix for a protected seed come March. Butler’s RPI should also be helped in the long run by its association with the A-10 after campaigning in the lower-profile Horizon in recent years. BYU won a play-in game vs. Iona last season and figures to be somewhere in the bubble mix again come March. As might Illinois State, which scored what could eventually be a huge win at midweek over Dayton, the sort of result that could be a decider among a couple of likely bubble teams in March.

At Dayton...

2 Ohio State (9-1) vs. 15 Western Michigan (7-4)...Ohio State looks to be one of several Big Ten sides capable of landing on the top line in some region. Whatever, we expect the Buckeyes to be a protected seed and play their first weekend of the Dance in nearby Dayton. As for the MAC, it’s anyone’s guess after early-season favorites Ohio and Akron have slipped on a few banana peels. Western Michigan has the strongest RPI (64) of loop teams at the moment, but the league race looks to be wide open.

7 Maryland (9-1) vs. 10 Wyoming (11-0)...We believe Mark Turgeon can get Maryland back into the Dance, as the improved Terps figure to be one of the teams to emerge from a slightly-disappointing ACC. There’s been nothing disappointing about Larry Shyatt’s unbeaten Wyoming, one of the pleasant surprises of the first six weeks of the college season. The defense-tough Cowboys already have a couple of potentially-useful chips to cash on Selection Sunday with very good non-conference wins over Colorado and Illinois State, and remember that the Selection Committee took four MWC reps last season.

At Lexington...

3 Louisville (10-1) vs. 14 Illinois-Chicago (7-2)...Louisville might not have to travel far in the sub-regionals, as nearby Lexington is a likely destination, although it might be a strange sight to see so many Cardinals fans at Rupp Arena. But that’s where we suspect Rick Pitino’s troops will begin their Big Dance journey as they try to return to the Final Four. Meanwhile, Butler’s jump to the A-10 has created a bit of a power vacuum in the Horizon, and in the early going it looks to be Bo Ryan disciple Howard Moore and his UIC Flames and perhaps defending conference tourney champ Detroit (overscheduled in the early going) as the teams to beat.

6 Michigan State (10-2) vs. 11 Wichita State (9-1)...We’re pretty sure that Tom Izzo’s MSU will return to the Big Dance (what’s new?), but we’re not yet convinced the Spartans will qualify as a protected seed, especially with the Big Ten appearing so top-heavy this season. Wichita might have hurt its at-large chances somewhat in a recent loss at Tennessee, but the MVC has several good non-conference wins already, and we suspect the Selection Committee could go three deep in the Valley and a return trip to the Dance for the Shockers.


At Auburn Hills...

1 Michigan (11-0) vs. 16 Prairie View (5-6)/Gardner-Webb (7-6)...How convenient for the Wolverines to have a sub-regional close by at the NBA Pistons’ Palace of Auburn Hills! What looks to be John Beilein’s best Michigan team (and Beilein’s best-ever shot at a Final Four) has been fortified by frosh sharpshooters Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. Not sure if the Wolverines stay on the top line, but it’s a good bet they’ll be playing at the Palce on the first weekend. We can almost guarantee that SWAC and Big South entries will be involved in the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; right now, a measured vote for the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs from Boiling Springs, North Carolina against the Prairie View Panthers, who we can only hope could somehow take their dynamite marching band (often featured in Atlanta’s “Battle of the Bands” each January) to Dayton for the play-in game.

8 North Carolina (8-3) vs. 9 Charlotte (10-1)...We’re not too sure what to make of Roy Williams’ latest UNC edition other than it is downgraded from last year’s team that saw four of its players taken in the first round of the NBA Draft. The new Tar Heels lack similar athleticism (especially in the paint) and remain a work in progress, although after an ugly midweek loss at Texas, we have to start wondering if this might be Roy’s worst team at Chapel Hill . This certainly isn’t Alan Major’s worst Charlotte team, which has streaked to a 10-1 record and looks to be another contender in a deep A-10 race.

At Austin...

4 Notre Dame (11-1) vs. 13 George Mason (6-4)...With its rugged frontline and solid defense, Notre Dame has a real Big East look about it this season, although enjoy the Big East connection while you can before the Fighting Irish move to the ACC. We think Notre Dame looks a likely 3-4-5 seed, so we split the difference in late December. Meanwhile, Paul Hewitt’s George Mason might win the CAA by default after VCU moved to the A-10, Drexel is hampered by an injury to star G Chris Fouch, Georgia State is ineligible due to its pending move to the Sun Belt, and Old Dominion is in major rebuild mode. But this doesn’t look to be as strong a Patriots’ team as the many 20+-win sides of recent years.

5 San Diego State (9-1) vs. 12 Murray State (9-1)...Steve Fisher’s SDSU is unbeaten indoors this season (opening loss vs. Syracuse outdoors on an aircraft carrier in November while dealing with wind and sun in their eyes) and we still believe the best of several Big Dance-worthy MWC entries. Murray State returns star G Isaiah Canaan from last year’s Big Dance rep, although the OVC looks tougher than usual this season now that Rick Byrd’s former Big South heavyweight Belmont has moved into the neighborhood. Rest assured those two will be featured in the final installment of the ESPN Bracket Busters in February.

At Lexington...

2 Florida (7-1) vs. 15 Montana (5-4)...Much as it could be for Louisville if the Cards get assigned to the Lexington sub-regional, it could be odd to see Florida with many of its fans at Rupp Arena, where the Gators are always the visiting enemies against Kentucky. And with Coach Cal’s Cats in rebuild mode, Florida could be the team to beat in the SEC. As might Montana now be in the Big Sky with star G Will Cherry having returned to active duty following a foot injury. Weber State, even minus departed star G Damian Lillard, will also believe it has a chance in the Sky.

7 Virginia Commonwealth (8-3) vs. 10 Marquette (7-3)...“Shaka Ball” has taken its act from the CAA to the A-10, where VCU figures to unnerve a whole new set of opponents with its full-court pressure style. Despite graduation-loss problems, the Rams have sent recent warning shots with dominant home wins over Alabama and Western Kentucky. We’re still not sure about Marquette, which suffered a damaging midweek loss to Green Bay. Replacing last year’s stars Jae Crowder and Darius Jonson-Odom is turning out to be a bit tougher than Buzz Williams realized.

At San Jose...

3 Minnesota (11-1) vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin (8-1)...With several likely protected seeds from the Big Ten and only a couple of sub-regional sites in the Midwest, some team is going to have to travel a bit farther than anticipated in the opening weekend, and it might be Minnesota. But Tubby Smith might have his best team since taking the Gophers’ job in 2007, especially with frontliner Trevor Mbakwe now back in action after last year’s serious knee injury. We’ve already mentioned SFA and its heavyweight RPI, although its only win of note is a 1-point decision vs. Oklahoma. The Lumberjacks likely battle McNeese State and recent Summit defector Oral Roberts for the league’s Big Dance bid; good news for them is that we suspect the Southland likely misses the play-in game sentence in March.

6 Oklahoma State (8-1) vs. 11 Oregon (9-2)...This would be a great football game, no? Travis Ford’s Ok State has been one of the nation’s pleasant surprises in the early going and served notice with its romp past NC State in Puerto Rico that it means business. Frosh-laden Oregon figures to ride the bubble into March, and Dana Altman’s side remains in learning mode after the midweek triple-OT loss at UTEP. But the Pac-12 should provide plenty of opportunities for the Ducks to win and improve.


at Salt Lake City...

1 Arizona (9-0) vs. 16 Norfolk State (6-7)/Florida Gulf Coast 8-4)...Arizona’s spot on the top line is very provisional and courtesy of its miracle win last Saturday vs. Florida. But with the Pac-12 appearing a bit soft, there’s no reason Sean Miller’s Wildcats can’t stay on pace for a protected seed in March. By the way, is anyone in Tucson complaining any longer about the Miller hire, the last significant move at UA for shrewd former AD Jim Livengood before he took the same job at UNLV? Norfolk State made noise in the Dance last year with its shock upset over Missouri, but there’s no more Kyle O’Quinn to dominate in the paint. Still, the Spartans might be the best in the MEAC, while the Eagles from Ft. Myers-based Florida Gulf Coast (with all starters back from last year) look to be the team to beat in the Atlantic Sun after Belmont’s move to the OVC.

8 Kentucky (7-3) vs. 9 Iowa (9-2)...Those who believed Kentucky would just reload after Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and most of last year’s NCAA title winners all left Lexington have had a rude awakening, as Coach Cal’s new version of diaper dandies look a far cry from last year’s edition. And frosh C Nerlens Noel is no Anthony Davis (at least not yet). Maybe the Cats become formidable by March, but for now we project them as only a mid-level seed. With so many heavyweights in the Big Ten, Fran McCaffery is going to have his work cut out at Iowa, but from what we have seen the Hawkeyes might have enough to get back to the Dance.

At San Jose...

4 Gonzaga (11-1) vs. 13 Canisius (8-2)...Gonzaga’s recent home setback vs. undefeated Illinois is hardly a bad loss and not enough to knock the Zags out of a protected seed. This could be Mark Few’s best team yet in Spokane, with plenty of scoring balance, sharpshooters, active bigs, and depth. But no one might want to face Canisius, perhaps the most pleasant-surprise of the season for respected new HC Jim Baron, most recently at Rhode Island. A couple of transfers, including Gs son Billy (from URI) and dagger-thrower Isaac Sosa (from UCF) have combined with holdover G Harold “The Mayor” Washington to form one of the best mid-major backcourts in the country. The Griffs, 5-25 a year ago, might now be the team to beat in the Metro-Atlantic after Wednesday’s win at Temple, when Canisius rallied from an 8-point halftime deficit to win going away.

5 Georgetown (9-1) vs. 12 Virginia (9-2)...After losing two of its first three, Tony Bennett’s Virginia has rallied to win eight in a row, including important intersectional wins over Wisconsin and Tennessee as the Cavs seem to be coping nicely with the departure of last year’s key cogs F Mike Scott & G Sammy Zeglinski. And with the ACC looking manageable, UVa could make a return visit to the Dance. As should JT III’s Georgetown, which could be in the mix for a protected seed on Selection Sunday.

At Auburn Hills...

2 Illinois (12-0) vs. 15 Hawaii (5-3)...Raise your hand if you thought Illinois would start 12-0 under new HC John Groce, especially after C Meyers Leonard left early for the NBA. But with Brandon Paul emerging as one of the nation’s best guards, and a deep and athletic roster, the Illini haven’t just been winning games, they’ve been dominating. Which, along with the emergence of Michigan and Minnesota plus expected powers Indiana and Ohio State has made the Big Ten perhaps the toughest-looking league in the country. Gib Arnold’s Hawaii picked a good year to move into the Big West with the rest of the league appearing down, and likely NBA draftee C Vander Joaquim should be quite a force vs. the mostly-smaller frontlines in the Warriors’ new conference.

7 Miami-Florida (7-1) vs. 10 Alabama (7-3)...Looking for a surprise team? Check out Miami-Florida, which has looked scary good in recent weeks, whipping all comers (including Michigan State). Those who wondered how much HC Jim Larranaga could accomplish with some big-time talent on his roster (such as G Durand Scott and C Reggie Johnson) could be getting their answer this season. Some SEC observers were starting to wonder about Bama after a recent 3-game skid, but the Tide’s win at Texas Tech on Wednesday temporarily stopped the bleeding. But it would help if star G Trevor Releford (just 33% from floor last three games) regains his shooting eye...and fast.

At Salt Lake City....

3 Cincinnati (11-0) vs. 14 Louisiana Tech (9-1)...Even with last year’s Cincy team reaching as far as the Sweet 16, this could be the best Bearcat squad under HC Mick “The Ghost” Cronin. This year’s Cincy could have the best backcourt in the Big East, if not the nation, featuring holdovers Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright, and JaQuon Parker, although the key to a deep March run could be juco F Titus Rubles, from Cam Newton’s Blinn JC in Texas. Before abandoning the WAC for Conference USA next season, don’t be surprised if La Tech and soph G Raheem Appleby slip into the Dance for young HC Michael White, one of the up-and-comers in the business.

6 New Mexico (12-0) vs. 11 Memphis (6-3)...Maybe we should be seeding New Mexico a bit higher, but we remain unconvinced about the Lobos as a potential protected seed despite their unbeaten record. We’re still not sure the Lobos are better than they were a year ago when frontliner Drew Gordon was still around, although Steve Alford has been mixing and matching nicely vs. a manageable early slate. Despite a few early losses vs. tough opposition, Josh Pastner’s Memphis still looks the best in C-USA, which might be a one-bid league before it undergoes massive change (including the departure of the Tigers) next season.

Last four in: BYU, Illinois State, Saint Mary’s, Ole Miss.

Last four out: St. John’s, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Tennessee.

Next four out: Dayton, Florida State, Arizona State, Providence.

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