by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

December Bracketology?

Why not!

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...even early in the season.

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 conference have yet to begin league play, where the strength-of-schedule component invariably benefits the “major” entries. 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 18) for our first installment. The term “protected seed” refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and usual favorable geographic placement in the sub-regional round.

In the meantime, we present our first full-fledged Bracketology of this publishing season. As usual, we break down the projected matchups by each region, beginning with the sub-regionals, which this season will begin on Thursday, March 20, with the Dayton “First Four” games played on March 18 and 19. Staright-up records are thru December 18. We’ll update our projections periodically through the season all of the way up to Selection Sunday...about 12 weeks away (but who’s counting?).


At Buffalo...

1 Syracuse (SUR 10-0) vs. 16 Norfolk State (8-3)/Bryant (7-5)...We’ll find out soon enough how Syracuse will adapt to its new ACC surroundings, but now that touted frosh G Tyler Ennis has asserted himself and soph G Trevor Cooney has emerged as a dangerous 3-point threat, Jim Boeheim should not have too much trouble adjusting to the Orange’s new neighborhood. We recall what MEAC Norfolk State did in the Dance two years ago; the Spartans might have a chance to get back as they look the clear favorite in that loop. As for the Northeast, (Emmette) Bryant looks to be the early favorite, although the race appears to be a toss-up, with the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, likely to be involved somewhere in the title mix once more. The MEAC and Northeast reps have often been involved in the 16 vs. 16 play-in games before.

8 Saint Mary’s (8-0) vs. 9 Virginia (7-3)...Perhaps we dismissed Saint Mary’s a bit too early; underestimate Galloping Gaels HC Randy Bennett at your own risk. So far, SMC has adjusted to the graduation of the heart-and-soul of recent Moraga editions, G Matthew Dellavedova (now with the NBA Cavs), with F Brad Waldow & G Stephen Holt assuming go-to scoring roles. Tony Bennett’s Virginia has a few early losses, but as long as it stays above water in the ACC, should not be too damaged by setbacks vs. likely Big Dance participants VCU, Wisconsin, and Green Bay. Getting key G Joe Harris untracked, however, is a dilemma that Bennett was not expecting.

At San Antonio...

4 Kentucky (8-3) vs. 13 IPFW (9-4)...There is plenty of time for John Calipari’s newest collection of diaper dandies to hit stride and give the Wildcats an even better seed. Until UK starts to win some of those big games, however, we are reluctant to place the Cats higher than a 4. The Summit race is shaping up a real cavalry charge, though perhaps the best team of the lot, Marlin Briscoe’s alma mater UN-Omaha, is still in transition phase to D-I and will not be eligible to participate in the postseason. Of the others, we have probably been most impressed by the Mastodons of IPFW, who have quickly adjusted to the graduation of top scorer Frank Gaines with a big, versatile, and well-balanced lineup. Near-misses at Dayton and Illinois have alerted that this is a team to watch.

5 Oregon (10-0) vs. 12 UAB (8-2)...As of mid-December, Oregon might justify a protected seed, and non-conference wins over Georgetown and Illinois will come in handy, but a top-heavy Pac-12 could eventually knock the Ducks to a 5 or 6 seed. The Selection Committee sure didn’t have a lot of respect for the Pac last season, when the Ducks were seeded as a 12 even after winning the conference tourney. Transfers Joseph Young (Houston) and Mike Moser (UNLV) have certainly hit the ground running for Dana Altman. Now that Memphis has moved to the American, other C-USA contenders have a clearer path to the Big Dance. We’re still not sure the league gets an extra bid, but by virtue of its win over North Carolina, we at the moment rate UAB with a slight edge over Southern Miss and Charlotte.

At Milwaukee...

2 Michigan State (9-1) vs. 15 Elon (5-6)...It would seem a pretty safe bet to put Tom Izzo’s Michigan State in protected seed territory. Expected to be one of the Big Ten’s top contenders, and with plenty of upperclassmen with postseason experience (including punishing frontliner and likely NBA Lottery pick Adreian Payne), we can safely project a favorable slot for the Spartans. With no SoCon entries above .500 as of mid-December and recent loop heavyweight Charleston having moved to the Colonial, a measured vote for the battle-tested Elon Fighting Phoenix (having fared decently vs. a rugged pre-league slate), featuring a veteran lineup headlined by bombs-away 6-8 German import Sebastian Koch, as the team to beat in the loop.

7 UMass (10-0) vs. 10 Boise State (8-2)...This might be a tad low for UMass, which had yet to lose into mid-December and won the competitive Charleston Tourney in late November. The A-10 usually beats itself up, however, and we don’t expect any conference rep to end up as a protected seed. We’re not convinced the Mountain West is going to be more than a 2-bid league in March, and even that might be asking a bit much from a loop that has delivered few impressive non-league wins to date. Boise’s experienced lineup, led by explosive G Derrick Marks, however, should fare well enough in league play to give Leon Rice’s Broncos a shot at a return trip to the Dance.

At Raleigh...

3 UConn (9-1) vs. 14 Manhattan (8-2)...Eligible again for the Big Dance, UConn has looked ready for March since the beginning of the season. One of the top backourts in the country has been aided by George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah, hitting 58% from the floor and emerging as a valued sixth man. The Huskies’ new address in the American, while still formidable, figures to have a few less hurdles than the old Big East. One of the best of the mid-majors could be Steve Masiello’s Manhattan (which is in The Bronx, not Manhattan!), especially since star 6-4 sr. swingman George Beamon (21.2 ppg) is available against after missing almost all of last season due to injury. The Jaspers have looked the best of the Metro-Atlantic.

6 Iowa State (8-0) vs. 11 Minnesota (9-2)...Despite some graduation losses, Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State looks formidable once again. Remember how close the Cyclones came to knocking off Ohio State in the sub-regionals a year ago? After a bumpy ride in Maui, Minnesota and new HC Richard Pitino have recovered to post some nice wins, including over Florida State at The Barn. Led by the Hollins boys, the Gophers can probably get to the Dance if they can play .500 or better in the Big Ten.


At St. Louis...

1 Ohio State (10-0) vs. 16 Stony Brook (7-4)...We’re projecting three Big Ten protected seeds (Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State) and all three ending up as No. 1 or 2 seeds. For the moment, Ohio State gets a regional top seed, but expect this projection to slide around considerably in the next ten weeks. The America East has endured a tough first month of the season, with Steve Pickell’s Stony Brook the only side to post a winning record to date. Preseason favorite Vermont has been an early disappointment.

8 Georgetown (7-2) vs. 9 Virginia Commonwealth (8-3)...Most Big East observers expect Georgetown to be in involved in the race for the crown of the restructured league, although the Hoyas have not looked as menacing as they did a year ago, before Otto Porter took his act to the NBA. Keep an eye on VCU, as the Rams are suddenly having trouble putting much distance between themselves and foes, as their recent pointspread problems suggest. Are teams figuring out how to deal with “Shaka Ball” these days? Remember, this will be the second season that A-10 foes have had a chance to look at the Rams, who might not prove to be as unnerving to those foes as they diod a year ago.

At Spokane...

4 Kansas (7-3) vs. 13 Belmont (8-3)...We’ve seen signs in the past couple of weeks that the pieces might finally be starting to fit together for Kansas, which hit some bumps in the first few weeks of the season. Most Big 12 observers believe that the Jayhawks might benefit from their early-season troubles, as wonder frosh Andrew Wiggins now seems to be serious about the college game after playing as if he were daydreaming about the NBA (especially in the Paradise Jam in the Bahamas., where he was mostly ineffective). By virtue of its pedigree and early-season win at North Carolina, we slot Rick Byrd’s Big Dance familiar face Belmont as our early choice to represent the Ohio Valley, though regional sources alert to keep an eye on Eastern Kentucky and SE Missouri State as well.

5 Gonzaga (10-1) vs. 12 Toledo (10-0)...Once in a while the Selection Committee throws a bit of a curveball and effectively gives a sub-regional advantage to a five seed such as Gonzaga, which qualifies for Spokane because it plays home games on campus at McCarthey Center and not at the Spokane Arena, which sits about a mile from campus. Whatever, Mark Few’s Zags, who have not missed the departed Kelly Olynyk too much, figure to make the Dance once again. It has been a while since the MAC was a multi-bid league and we’re not sure things will be any different this season. Though not having faced a terrible difficult pre-league slate, Ted Kowalczyk’s unbeaten Toledo appears the team to beat.

At Buffalo...

2 Villanova (10-0) vs. 15 Stephen F. Austin (9-2)...Jay Wright is well on his way to earning consideration for Coach of the Year as his ‘Nova side has proven one of the surprises in the early season with its spotless 10-0 mark, including its win in the loaded Paradise Jam at the Bahamas. SFA has a new coach (Brad Underwood) after Danny Kaspar left for Texas State following last year’s 27-8win season and NIT berth, but the Lumberjacks have impressed in pre-conference play despite losing three starters form last year’s accomplished squad.

7 UCLA (10-2) vs. 10 LSU (7-3)...Steve Alford has been an NCAA regular in his coaching career but only once has gotten as far as the Sweet 16; eventually, he’ll need to do better than that to satisfy the demanding UCLA fan base. The early Pac-12 handicap has the Bruins fighting with Colorado and Oregon behind Arizona, though all four are likely Big Dance-bound. So to should be LSU, which has added a couple of intriguing frosh frontliners (Jordan Mickey & Jarell Martin) to join punishing 6-9 jr. Johnny O’Bryant. By the way, is there another team with a Hickey (Anthony) and Mickey (Jordan) on the roster?

At St. Louis...

3 Wichita State (11-0) vs. 14 Green Bay (6-3)...Any non-believers in Wichita State after last year’s surprise run to the Final Four should be long since silenced after the Shockers have picked up where they left off in March, still unbeaten and victims including BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee, and Alabama. Many of the key components from last season have returned for HC Gregg Marshall, with soph Gs Fred VanVleet and Ron baker assuming a greater offensive burden. With Butler having departed for the Big East, a power vacuum exists in the Horizon League. Brian Wardle’s Green Bay looks most likely to fill it, as the Fighting Phoenix also boast one of the region’s most exciting players in G Keifer Sykes. Milwaukee, Youngstown, and Cleveland State look to be the other contenders.

6 Michigan (6-4) vs. 11 Texas (10-1)..Michigan has a handful of losses already, but setbacks vs. Iowa State, Duke, and Arizona are not exactly in the “bad loss” category. Although missing a couple of key pieces (Gs Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, jr., in particular) from last year’s Final Four team, most Big ten observers still have a healthy respect for John Beilein’s troops. Maybe it is also time to start taking Texas seriously again after this week’s win at North Carolina. Rick Barnes appears to have reconfigured the Longhorns in quick order, with frosh G Isaiah Taylor one of the budding stars of the Big 12.


At San Antonio...

1 Louisville (10-1) vs. 16 Alabama State (4-3)/Winthrop (6-2)...No one expected Louisville to run the table this season, and the loss to North Carolina is not exactly going to damage the Cards’ hopes of another high seed (perhaps a number one seed). It’s usually safe to assume that SWAC and Big South teams will be involved ion one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games; as for SWAC Alabama State, note that the Hornets are the only league rep above .500 (and no others are even close) as of mid-December.

8 Creighton (7-2) vs. 9 Dayton (8-2)...We’ll find out soon enough how Creighton is going to handle the jump from the Missouri Valley to the Big East. So far, mostly so good for the Bluejays, who figure to get back to the Dancer as long as Doug McDermott stays healthy. Dayton impressed in the early season, especially with a strong showing in Maui, and has a couple of nice non-league wins (including Gonzaga) that will come in handy on Selection Sunday.

At Spokane...

4 Memphis (7-2) vs. 13 Drexel (7-3)...A tough loss for Memphis this week against Florida, but this looks to be the best Josh Pastner Tiger edition, and the win at the Orlando Old Spice Classic (which including toppling Oklahoma State) during Thanksgiving week leads us to believe Memphis can be at or near the top of the American and end up in protected seed territory (although a sub-regional trip to Spokane might not sit well). Now that the Colonial has been effectively stripped of its heavyweight sides like VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion, it looks to be a one-bid league until further notice. At the moment, a slight nod to Bruiser Flint’s Drexel as the team to beat, though Towson, Delaware, Northeastern, and William & Mary (still looking for its first-ever Big Dance bid!) figure to be in the mix.

5 Colorado (10-1) vs. 12 Florida State (8-3)...Tad Boyle has taken his first two Buff teams to the Big Dance and this version might be better than either of the first two, with most of the key parts back from last season along with a collection of impact newcomers. CU will have a case to make for a protected seed, too, with non-league wins over Kansas and Harvard looking good on the resume’. There figure to be several ACC squads on the bubble heading into March, including Florida State. This week’s blowout win over a capable Charlotte side suggests Leonard Hamilton’s Noles might finally be figuring some things out on the attack end.

At Orlando...

2 Duke (8-2) vs. 15 Mercer (7-4)...Duke fans know they have to enjoy frosh sensation Jabari Parker while they can, because it would be a shock if he’s not a “one-and-done” special. After reaching the Elite Eight last season, Coach K should have another shot at a similar or deeper run in March. Mercer, pipped by Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Tourney last season, has plenty of postseason experience (NIT second round last season; CIT champion the year before) and was the only loop rep above .500 as of mid-December

7 Harvard (9-1) vs. 10 Indiana (8-3)...A lot of college hoops insiders believe Tommy Amaker’s Harvard can go at least a step further than last season when it reached the round of 32; this might be a Sweet 16 team, especially with a veteran backcourt and 6-7 F Kyle Casey reinstated after last season’s suspension. Tom Crean’s Indiana has had a bit bumpy ride in the first month after losing Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller to the NBA, but 6-10 frosh Noah Vonleh is coming on in a hurry, and by March the Hoosiers might be a team everyone wants to avoid.

At San Diego...

3 Oklahoma State (9-1) vs. 14 UCSB (5-3)...A lot of insiders believe Ok State could be a Final Four threat, with Marcus Smart on a short list for Player of the Year honors. Whatever, this might be the Cowboys’ best chance at the Final Four since their last visit under Eddie Sutton a decade ago (in 2004). Meanwhile, no early stick-outs in the Big West, especially with last season’s Dance qualifier Pacific now in the WCC, and 2012 entrant Long Beach State in rebuild mode. Shrewd HC Bob Williams has steered UCSB to the Dance before and might do so again with one of the top frontline threats on the coast, 6-7 PF and rebound machine Alan Williams.

6 Iowa (10-2) vs. 11 George Washington (9-1)/Arizona State (9-2)...Fran McCaffery’s Iowa has been building toward a breakout year the past couple of seasons, and this looks to be it, with 6-4 Roy Devyn Marble one of the Big Ten’s top threats, and former Wisconsin F Jarrod Uthoff providing an added dimension. We project an at-large play-in game winner opposite the Hawkeyes; keep an eye on HC Mike Lonergan’s under-the-radar George Washington, which has added now-healthy Indiana transfer G Maurice Creek. Also, we make room for Herb Sendek’s Arizona State, led by explosive soph G Jahii Carson, as our fifth team out of the Pac-12.


at San Diego...

1 Arizona (11-0) vs. 16 Weber State (2-4)...Right now, top-ranked Arizona would probably be the number one seed in the entire tourney. Already with wins over San Diego State, Duke and Michigan (none of those at home in Tucson, by the way), this might be the best Wildcat team since the Lute Olson years. Don’t just look at Weber State’s record; the Wildcats have simply played fewer games than other Big Sky reps, but losses to BYU, Utah State, and Colorado State are not demerits, and Weber still has the Big Sky’s best player in G Davion Berry. Northern Colorado and Montana are likely to provide the greatest challenges to the Wildcats.

8 Missouri (10-0) vs. 9 Saint Louis (10-2)...Though unbeaten into mid-December, we need a little more evidence before pushing Mizzou into the protected seed discussion. The Tigers’ schedule will start getting tougher right about now, as challenging non-conference dates vs. Illinois & NC State are on deck before SEC action begins. Many of the parts that Rick Majerus assembled a couple of years ago are still on hand at Saint Louis, which made a nice run last season under now full-time HC and Bob Knight disciple Jim Crews. The Bills are one of five A-10 reps we currently project into the field.

At Orlando...

4 Florida (8-2) vs. 13 New Mexico State (9-5)...After some early-season injury issues and a couple of bitter losses, Florida needed that midweek win over Memphis to re-establish its credentials as a potential elite team. That win over the Tigers will come in handy for the protected seed debates leading up to Selection Sunday. About all that is recognizable from recent versions of the WAC is New Mexico State. The league still has an automatic bid, and the Aggies are overwhelming favorites to return to the Dance for a third straight year under HC Marvin Menzies. If you have a chance, watch skywalking 6-4 jr. Daniel Mullings, one of the nation’s most exciting performers in fullcourt.

5 Baylor (8-1) vs. 12 NC State (8-2)/Illinois (9-2)...Baylor served notice that it once again means business with a recent win over Kentucky at Arlington. And there is no shame in the Bears’ only loss (vs. Syracuse in the Maui finals). But the Big 12 is looking to be an extremely deep and dangerous league this season, so we expect Baylor to take some hits along the way. Several ACC teams figure to be on the bubble, but we are intrigued by the upside at NC State, especially with soph G T.J. Warren scoring 23.3 ppg, and the backcourt bolstered by frosh hotshot Anthony Barber and LSU transfer Ralston Turner. Illinois sneaks into pour early projections as the Wolfpack’s opponent in an at-large play-in game. Drake transfer G Rayvonte Rice looks as if he can run roughshod through the Big Ten as he did the Missouri Valley.

At Milwaukee...

2 Wisconsin (10-0) vs. 15 Loyola-Maryland (5-3)...It’s about time that we start considering Wisconsin HC Bo Ryan a genius; we’re not sure if any other coach could win as consistently with the sort of talent on the Badger roster. We’re tempted to give Wiscy a top seed, but another tough big Ten race will likely inflict enough losses to push the Badgers down a seed or two. Meanwhile, Baltimore-based Loyola has a new HC (G.G. Smith, Tubby’s son) after Dancin’ Jimmy Patsos moved to Siena. It also has a new league, the Patriot, which seems a bit less daunting this season now that CBS head honcho Les Moonves’ alma mater Bucknell is is semi-rebuild mode. The Greyhounds will likely battle the Bison and Boston U. in what figures to be a wild league race.

7 Pitt (10-1) vs. 10 Oklahoma (10-1)...We suppose that we could give the Panthers a better seed, but the ugly midweek loss vs. Cincinnati suggests to us that Jamie Dixon’s Panthers might not have an easy time of it when the schedule gets a bit tougher in their new ACC neighborhood. Meanwhile, Lon Kruger can usually be counted upon to get whatever team he is coaching into sub-regional action. His OU only has a loss to Michigan State, but the early victim list is not necessarily impressive, so we’ll see how the Sooners fare once the tough Big 12 portion of the schedule commences.

At Raleigh...

3 North Carolina (7-3) vs. 14 Western Kentucky (6-4)...Sure, UNC has three losses already, but it also has arguably more big wins (Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky) than any team in the country, and G Leslie McDonald has just been reinstated. (P.J. Hairston’s status still to be determined). Until proven otherwise, we will continue to back WKU to emerge from the Sun Belt, as HC Ray Harper has waved the magic wand in the conference tourney each of the past two seasons. A midweek win over Southern Miss confirms the Tops as a top belt contender once more.

6 San Diego State (8-1) vs. 11 Cincinnati (8-2)...As mentioned earlier, we are not too bullish on the Mountain West save perhaps Steve Fisher’s Aztecs, who have most all of the semi-impressive wins (Creighton, Marquette, Washington) recorded by loop members to date. SDSU is the only Mountain rep we are relatively sure will make the field of 68. Cincy was victimized by New Mexico in the Mountain’s other impressive early win, but the Bearcats bounced back this week to beat Pitt in a 44-43 grinder, which could be an important chit for Mick “The Ghost” Cronin to cash on Selection Sunday.

Last four in: George Washington, Arizona State, NC State, Illinois.

Last four out: Maryland, New Mexico, Stanford, Butler.

Next four out: Providence, Utah, Southern Miss, Xavier.

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