by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We're still early enough in the college hoops season that "St. Joe's" Lunardi's name has yet to surface in the discussion. Once beyond new year's, however, rest assured we will start hearing about Lunardi and "bracketology" on a more-frequent basis as March Madness begins to loom on the horizon.

December is a bit early to make prognostications for the NCAA Tournament, but this time of year can be a barometer regarding where teams stand as we hit the holidays and prepare for the commencement of conference play. Obviously, our many "bracketology" updates will have a different look as we move into 2015, but as a measuring stick for the first month-and-a-half of the season, we believe it to be a worthwhile exercise in late December.

We at TGS will continue to provide our own Big Dance forecasts periodically into March. But we will wait until our January updates before including each team's "RPI" (Ratings Percentage index) number, a calculation that begins to become more illuminating as we get deeper into conference action. For now, we just offer our "seeding" as of December 24, along with straight-up records thru Christmas Eve.

Remember, for all of our "Bracketology" updates, the term "protected seed" refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and generally 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 19, with the Dayton "First Four" games played on March 17 and 18. Remember, Selection Sunday is less than 12 weeks away!


At Charlotte...

1 Duke (SUR 10-0) vs. 16 Army (8-2)...At the moment, the Dookies are a pretty easy call for a regional top seed; and Blue Devil backers are already making plans for the Charlotte sub-regional. There will be several challenges awaiting Coach K's troops in the ACC, but right now Duke appears the best of that lot, especially with the likelihood that monster frosh C Jahlil Okafor will continue to improve as the season progresses. How neat would it be for Coach K to have to go up against alma mater Army, where he was head coach before taking the Blue Devil job in 1979? It's the best West Point team in decades, and looks the team to beat in the Patriot League. Duke has already beaten the Black Knights by a 93-73 count on Nov. 20, an honorable result for HC Zach Spiker's team. Who would Bob Knight be pulling for in this matchup?

8 Penn State (12-1) vs. 9 LSU (9-2)...Some Big Ten observers believe Penn State will fall back to earth once conference play commences, but to this point Patrick Chambers is in the running for league Coach of the Year honors as the Nittany Lions have turned heads, even without graduated G Tim Frazier. Senior G D.J. Newbill (21.4 ppg) could be on his way to Big Ten MVP honors. The most eye-opening Penn State win to date was a dominant 64-51 hammering of a good George Washington team on Dec. 14. As for Johnny Jones' LSU, it served notice as a team to watch with a recent win at West Virginia. Although Jones will want to get electric juco PG Josh Gray (ankle sprain; missed last two games) back in the lineup ASAP. There is room for a team to emerge behind Kentucky in the number two spot in the SEC, and the Tigers appear a good candidate.

At Seattle...

4 Utah (9-2) vs. 13 Wofford (9-3)...Larry Krystowiak's Utah served notice with a recent win over Wichita State that it means business this season. Losses to ranked San Diego State and Kansas should not hurt the Utes' profile all that much, and we foresee a top-three Pac-12 finish for Krystowiak's team. Wofford has picked up where it left off late last season when it swooped to the SoCon Tourney crown and Big Dance bid and looks the team to beat in the loop once more behind sr. G Karl Cochran. The best Terrier win thus far is a 55-54 success vs. 10-3 NC State that suggests Mike Young's team could pose problems for "major" opposition in the Dance.

5 Kansas (9-2) vs. 12 Davidson (9-1)/Wyoming (11-2)...Kansas' lopsided losses to Kentucky and Temple have pushed the Jayhawks out of our protected seed category, at least for the time being. And Bill Self's team is also going to have plenty of tough dates upcoming when Big 12 play commences, so a high seed is no guarantee for Kansas, which also somewhat disappointed a year ago. For one of the play-in games, we currently reward two of the surprise teams in the early going, who do it different ways. Bob McKillop's go-go Davidson has moved from the SoCon to the A-10, but has been scoring close to 90 ppg in pre-league play. We'll see how the Wildcats adapt to moderately-upgraded competition in their new league. Larry Shyatt's Wyo is a surprising 11-2, and doing it, as usual, with defense. The Cowboys have suffered injuries that have derailed each of the last two campaigns, so keeping star F Larry Nance, Jr. healthy will be a key if Wyo is to sustain its Big Dance hopes into Mountain West play.

At Pittsburgh...

2 Villanova (12-0) vs. 15 Coastal Carolina (9-3)...Jay Wright has taken a team to the Final Four before (2009), so when Big East observers say that the current 'Nova edition could be the best in Wright's tenure, it means the Cats are a serious contender and the team to beat in the Big East. Wily old fox Cliff Ellis steered Coastal Carolina to the Dance last March and proceeded to scare the daylights out of top seed Virginia in an honorable loss. The Chants look to be the best bet to emerge from the Big South, with Scott Cherry's High Point and Tim Craft's Gardner-Webb (from Boiling Springs, NC), a recent upset winner over Purdue, appearing to be the top challengers.

7 Colorado State (12-0) vs. 10 George Washington (8-3)...Larry Eustachy has done a quick reload at CSU, with a bevy of transfers having hit the ground running in Fort Collins and emerging as solid contributors alongside holdovers F J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano. Mountain West observers like this Rams team as much as Eustachy's bunch that reached the third round of the Dance two years ago. As for GW, it has advanced to the finals of the Diamond Head Classic, where it will meet Wichita State on Christmas Day, with a chance to secure a valuable chip to be cashed on Selection Sunday. Mike Lonergan's Colonials also advanced to the Dance a year ago.

At Jacksonville...

3 Maryland (11-1) vs. 14 Iona (7-4)...Mark Turgeon's Maryland has already served notice that it should be able to handle the jump from the ACC to the Big Ten without too much difficulty. The Terps' recent win at Oklahoma State minus star F Dez Wells (due back from injury in time for Big Ten play to commence) was a warning shot to rest of their new league. Frosh G Melo Trimble looks like one of the breakout starts in the loop. No shame in the Terps' only loss to date (vs. Virginia). The Metro-Atlantic appears to have no clear favorite at this stage, with the overall quality of play in the loop perhaps a tick down after many star players graduated after last season. Tim Cluess' Iona always remains a safe bet to emerge; the Gaels and Canisius are the only MAAC reps sitting above .500 at Christmas.

6 Baylor (10-1) vs. 11 NC State (10-3)...With only one loss (vs. Illinois at a Thanksgiving week tourney in Las Vegas) entering the end of December, Baylor again has a satisfactory pre-league profile to impress the Selection Committee. As mentioned earlier, however, the Big 12 is loaded this term, so the Bears and other loop contenders could easily slip down the seeding scale as we get deeper into league play. Mark Gottfried's NC State has been a mild surprise in the ACC, not missing departed gunner T.J. Warren. Gottfried's all-SEC transfer backcourt of ex-LSU G Ralston Turner and ex-Bama G Trevor Lacey are among the best perimeter tandems in the ACC.


At Louisville...

1 Kentucky (12-0) vs. 16 Alabama State (3-5)/Stony Brook (7-6)...No surprise to see Coach Cal's UK at the top of a region. Already there is talk about the Cats going through the season undefeated (though a tough test awaits this Saturday at Louisville). Big Blue backers are already making plans for the Louisville sub-regional. The Cats will likely be facing a winner of one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games. Almost assuredly, the SWAC winner will be involved; at the moment we project that to be Alabama State, whose 3-5 non-league mark is by far the best in that loop. The America East is often at risk of a 16 vs. 16 play-in, too, and no team has stood out in pre-conference play. A measured December vote for the home team of Strat-o-Matic headquarters on Long Island, Stony Brook.

8 Minnesota (10-2) vs. 9 Seton Hall (9-2)...Richard Pitino's first season in the Twin Cities was a success as the Golden Gophers won the NIT last spring. With much of the same lineup back in tow, it would be no surprise for Pitino and the Gophers to proceed to the next step and qualify for the Dance this term. An early surprise package in the Big East has been Kevin Willard's Seton Hall, which won the Virgin Islands Tourney in November. Though a recent loss at Georgia might indicate that tougher times are ahead in the Big East.

At Jacksonville...

4 Texas (10-2) vs. 13 Murray State (9-4)...Texas drooped a notch after its midweek home OT loss vs. Stanford, but the Longhorns still land in protected seed territory. The Longhorns also look like one of the few teams likely able to stand up to Kentucky, which the Horns did pretty well a few weeks ago in Lexington before losing by 12. Regional observers are mostly taking await-and-see attitude in the Ohio Valley, but the majority of onlookers believe that Murray State is likely to be one of the teams involved in the race for the league's automatic Big Dance bid.

5 North Carolina vs. 12 SMU (8-3)...We were not planning on moving the Tar Heels as high as a 5 seed until last Saturday's win over Ohio State, which signaled that Roy Williams' team might finally be ready to come together. There's too much talent on the roster for UNC to continue to flounder. What a delicious matchup this would be in the sub-regional vs. SMU, with Mustang HC Larry Brown a long-ago Tar Heel alum. The Ponies were probably the highest-profile snub on the last Selection Sunday, and with PF Markus Kennedy having recently regained eligibility, expect SMU to make it into the field of 68 this coming March.

At Seattle...

2 Gonzaga (11-1) vs. 15 FGCU (9-3)...Insiders on the Pacific coast almost all believe that this is Mark Few's best Gonzaga edition and one of the few teams with a possible shot at Kentucky in March. The Zags will threaten for a number one seed in the West if they can march through the WCC. The last vestiges of Andy Enfield's "Dunk City" still remain at FGCU from the Sweet 16 run of two years ago. Now, the Eagles no longer surprise anyone, but they do appear to be the team to beat in the Atlantic Sun.

7 Northern Iowa (10-1) vs. 10 Stanford (7-3)...The Missouri Valley looks to be a multi-bid league again this season thanks to UNI, with all five starters back in the fold for HC Ben Jacobson. The Panthers' only setback has been in double OT at VCU, and a very impressive recent win vs. Iowa has solidified UNI's at-large status heading into January. Speaking of solidifying status, Stanford's rousing midweek upset win at Texas was a huge win for the Cardinal that could pay dividends on Selection Sunday. With some of last season's Pac-12 contenders such as UCLA, Arizona State, and Oregon down from a year ago, there is room for Stanford to emerge as a top-three team in the Pac.

At Columbus...

3 Notre Dame (12-1) vs. 14 Northeastern (7-4)...On the way back appears to be Notre Dame, as the Irish are now finding out how important it would have been for G Jerian Grant to stay eligible the entirety of last season. Now back in the fold, Grant is likely to make All-American teams at the end of this campaign. The Colonial has lost some luster in recent years with onetime flagship programs VCU, ODU, and George Mason leaving the league. The best of the rest this season might be Bill Coen's Northeastern.

6 Michigan State (9-4) vs. 11 Green Bay (9-3)...We admit that MSU's body of work to date might not warrant a No. 6 seed, especially after last weekend's shock loss to unheralded Texas Southern. But Tom Izzo's Spartans routinely peak in the second half of the season, and we allow ourselves to project a little in the case of MSU. The Horizon race could easily come down to a two-team dogfight between Brian Wardle's Green Bay and Bryce Drew's Valparaiso. For the moment, a measured vote for the Fighting Phoenix and their highlight-reel, mighty-mite guard, Keifer Sykes.


At Columbus...

1 Louisville (11-0) vs. 16 St. Francis, Pa. (6-4)/Norfolk State (9-5)...Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the sub-regional at their home KFC Yum! Center is off limits due to NCAA rules, so Rick Pitino's team will be on the road, perhaps to the next-closest site, Columbus. We're curious to see how the 'Ville reacts to its new surroundings in the ACC, though we're also as interested to see how the new conference foes deal with the Cards. Another of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games could feature the Northeast Conference, where Maurice Stokes' alma mater St. Francis (Pa.) is one of the few teams above .500 in pre-league play. As always, be aware of the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, as well as Clair Bee's former Long Island U. Blackbirds. The MEAC is often involved in 16 vs. 16 play-in games, too, and Norfolk State is a familiar Big Dance rep from that league in recent years.

8 Old Dominion (10-1) vs. 9 Miami-Fla. (9-3)...Pre-league play has suggested that Jeff Jones' resurgent ODU could be the team to beat in Conference USA, though some observers still believe La Tech, saddled with a tough early slate, or Tim Floyd's UTEP might eventually emerge. The league was competitive at the top last season, with Tulsa (now in the American) the surprise conference tourney winner. We are very tempted to drop Miami out of the field entirely after recent losses to Eastern Kentucky and Providence. For the moment, early-season work was good enough to keep Jim Larranaga's Canes in the field, but Miami risks banishment to the NIT with more efforts like the last two losses.

At Portland...

4 Washington (11-0) vs. 13 Central Michigan (9-1)...Perhaps the surprise team in the country has been U-Dub, as Lorenzo Romar appears ready to return to the Dance after a three-year hiatus. Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw has provided a fierce defensive presence in the paint, while G Nigel Goss-Williams has emerged as one of the Pac-12's stars. In the MAC, many are alerting to dramatic improvements from Keno Davis' CMU, with all five starters back from last season and only one loss (at Bradley) entering January.

5 West Virginia (11-1) vs. 12 Georgetown (7-3)...We suppose that West Virginia would have a case (at the moment) for a protected seed. Whatever. It looks as if Bob Huggins is back with a legit national contender, fortified with players who were ineligible last season such as F Jonathan Holton, and with G Juwan Staten the Big 12 scoring champ from a year ago. Admittedly, it got a bit dicey for us with the last teams to put in the field, so this is only a provisional recommendation for Georgetown, with the Hoyas getting the benefit of the doubt (for the moment) due to "good losses" to Wisconsin, Butler, and Kansas. We like the "old" Big East matchup between these sides.

At Omaha...

2 Wisconsin (11-1) vs. 15 South Dakota State (9-4)...Figure on Bo Ryan's Wisconsin being in the hunt for a top regional seed all of the way to Selection Sunday. If the Badgers end up winning the Big Ten, and the conference tourney, there's a good shot they'll be rewarded accordingly. In the sub-regional, Wiscy likely runs into a foe like South Dakota State, which is our early pick to emerge from the Summit under 19th-year HC Scott Nagy, who has been dancing before with the Jackrabbits. Scott Sutton's Oral Roberts, back in the league after a short stint in the Southland, is another Summit team to watch.

7 Butler (9-3) vs. 10 Cincinnati (8-3)...Butler endured a bumpy beginning to the season, as HC Brandon Miller took a medical leave of absence before fall practice, but interim HC Chris Holtmann has had the Bulldogs running, and effectively so. Though recent losses to Tennessee and Indiana have us wondering if we have seeded the Bulldogs too high. Cincinnati is another team with coaching health issues, as Mick Cronin has been sidelined due to aneurysm concerns. Prior to last Saturday's loss to VCU (Cronin's first missed game), the reconfigured Bearcats, minus graduated top scorer G Sean Kilpatrick, looked to be coming around. Watch this situation closely.

At Omaha...

3 Wichita State (10-1) vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin (9-3))...Wichita doesn't have the burden of staying unbeaten for the entire regular season as it did a year ago, as Utah has already dented the Shockers, but Gregg Marshall's team has not lost much, if anything, from a year ago and is still the heavy favorite in the Missouri Valley with vet Gs Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet leading the way. SFA scored one of the shockers of the Dance last March when toppling VCU in the sub-regionals, and HC Brad Underwood is back with three starters from a year ago. Expect Sam Houston to give chase in the league race. Note that another Southland rep, San Antonio-based Incarnate Word, which made news with a recent upset over Nebraska, is still in transition phase to D-I and will be ineligible for the postseason this term.

6 Oklahoma (8-3) vs. 11 Dayton (9-2)...Big 12 insiders believe this is Lon Kruger's best chance to advance beyond the sub-regionals with Oklahoma, which has been a "one and done" in the Big Dance hurdle the past two seasons. Houston transfer F TaShawn Thomas has added a new dimension to the Sooner attack. Dayton will not sneak up on anyone after last year's Elite Eight run, but Archie Miller's Flyers seem poised for another Big Dance bid. Though we do not much like the new "D" logo for the Flyers, much preferring the more-streamlined logo of recent years.


at Portland...

1 Arizona (12-1) vs. 16 New Mexico State (5-8)...Zona was knocked from the ranks of the unbeatens last Wednesday when stunned at UNLV, so we suppose this top seed should be under review. But an earlier win over Gonzaga would give the nod to the Cats over the Zags, at least for the time being. Sean Miller's team would not rather draw a 16 seed like New Mexico State, which is going to look a lot more menacing when star G, skywalker Daniel Mullings, returns from injury. When the Aggies get healthy, they should dominate the WAC.

8 TCU (12-0) vs. 9 Arkansas (9-2)...Maybe TCU deserves a better seed than 8, as the Frogs appear to be the top candidate for surprise team in the country with their rabbit-fast start from the gate. Trent Johnson's collection of transfers have quickly meshed around holdover PG Kyan Anderson to form an irresistible combination in Fort Worth...and make the Big 12 that much tougher. Mike Anderson's Arkansas has lost a couple of times, but would appear to be jockeying with LSU for the honor to be number two in the SEC behind Kentucky.

At Pittsburgh...

4 St. John's (10-1) vs. 13 Harvard (7-2)...St. John's is looking like a special sort of team this season, especially after rallying from 15 down at halftime to beat a good Saint Mary's team last week. Steve Lavin gets back to the Dance, as we rate only Villanova over the Red Storm in the Big East entering conference play. Despite being rudely dumped by Virginia last weekend (the Cavs led 39-8 at the break before coasting to a 76-27 win!), Tommy Amaker's Harvard, with wins in each of the last two Big Dances, still appears the team to beat in the Ivy League. Though Yale and Columbia might have something to say about the race. (Check out our Ivy retrospective, and preview of the current Ivy race, on these pages from two weeks ago).

5 Ohio State (10-2) vs. 12 Alabama (8-3)/Oregon (9-3)...We've got 75% of the football "Final Four" in this 5-12 group which includes one of the at-large play-in games. For the moment, we project Pac-12 Oregon and SEC Alabama to perhaps settle a school-vs.-school score that might have an earlier act in the CF Playoff title game. Stay tuned for those developments. We do think Ohio State will safely make the field of 68, as Thad Matta's collection of shooters should do just fine in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes were in the running for a protected seed prior to their loss last Saturday vs. North Carolina.

At Charlotte...

2 Virginia (11-0) vs. 15 UC Davis (9-1)...Tony Bennett's Virginia was a No. 1 regional seed last season after winning the ACC Tourney, and will be in the frame to do so again. Arguably the best defensive team in the country, we rate the Cavs as a co-favorite with Duke to win the loop, and cannot project anything lower than a 2 seed for the Wahoos. The Big West race could go in a variety of directions; remember that Cal Poly won the conference tourney last year with a losing overall mark. Dan Monson's Long Beach State might be the best team, although the 49ers are again taking their lumps with a brutal non-conference slate. UC Irvine is also a contender, though 7-6 C Mamamdou Ndiaye is currently out with injury. Also impressing early is Kimberly Guilfoyle's alma mater UC Davis, which (like Irvine) is looking for its first-ever Big Dance bid and spearheaded by former Arizona State G Corey Hawkins (20.1 ppg).

7 San Diego State (9-3) vs. 10 Providence (10-3)...While SDSU was in the frame for a protected seed a year ago, we don't project the Aztecs quite as highly this season. A series of unwatchable games has confirmed shooting concerns on Steve Fisher's squad, which still might be the team to beat in the Mountain West. But at the moment, we can't seed SDSU any higher than a 7. Providence, the surprise winner of the Big East Tourney last season, is hinting that it might be ready for back-to-back Dance visits under shrewd HC Ed Cooley. As of yet, the Friars do not miss departed star Bryce Cotton, with F LeDontae Henton taking over go-to scoring duties, and recent wins over UMass and Miami-Fla. have opened more eyes in the region.

At Louisville...

3 Iowa State (9-1) vs. 14 Eastern Washington (9-4)...Fred Hoiberg's ISU has become a Big Dance regular, and even a few graduation losses from last year's Sweet 16 team do not look to have slowed down the Cyclones, whose recent thumping win at state rival Iowa confirmed that ISU is more than ready to hold its own in the tough Big 12. Keep an eye on Jim Hayford's EWU, which appears to be the class of the Big Sky and owns a win at Indiana and a near-miss at Washington. The Eagles own the best 1-2 scoring punch in the Sky with G Tyler Harvey & PF Venky Jois.

6 VCU (9-3) vs. 11 BYU (10-3)...Give Shaka Smart and VCU some credit for tough pre-league scheduling; once the slate eased in the past two weeks, the Rams started to run up scores over decent opposition. We have no doubt "Shaka Ball" fares well again in the A-10 and gets the Rams on the safe side of the cut line well before Selection Sunday. As for BYU, it might not have an easy ride through the WCC, which has few soft spots this season, but enough firepower exists on Dave Rose's roster (especially with G Tyler Haws beyond his recent ankle injury) to avoid the banana peels and make it back to the Dance.

Last four in: Davidson, Wyoming, Oregon, Alabama.

Last four out: Xavier, Illinois, Ole Miss, Cal.

Next four out: UTEP, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Saint Mary's.

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