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TGS COLLEGE HOOPS...FINAL BRACKETOLOGY UPDATE!

                                     by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Where did the college hoops season go? It seems like only yesterday that we were doing our first “Bracketology” update of the campaign before New Year’s. Now, with conference tourneys having commenced and championship week upon us, this will be our last full update prior to Selection Sunday. (Though next week we’ll have daily updates on our seed projections and a review of daily conference tourney action, beginning Wednesday, at goldsheet.com).

A potential storyline that we’ll be following into next week is the many possible “bubble thieves” that are lurking. While most winners of conference tourneys from the power leagues are already bound for the Dance, that’s not always the case in the mid-major ranks. This year, for example, the likes of Nevada (Mountain West), VCU (Atlantic 10), Buffalo (MAC) and Wofford (SoCon) all have at-large bids secure. But upsets in those tournaments would not likely budge the aforementioned teams in those loops; rather, the ones at risk would likely be those hovering at the cut-line, mostly from the power conferences. Two legit bubble thieves (San Diego State from the Mountain West and Davidson from the A-10) emerged last March to steal a couple of auto bids and knock a couple of teams off the bubble. Similar upsets in the four leagues noted above could have the same impact next week.

Remember, for all of our “bracketology” updates, the term “protected seed” refers to seeds 1 thru 4 in each region, and likely favorable geographic placement in the sub-regional round.

As usual, we break down the projected matchups by each region; this season, things start a week later than a year ago. The Dayton “First Four” games will be played March 19-20; sub-regional action commences on March 21, with the Final Four pushed to April 6-8. Straight-up records, and NET numbers, thru March 5. Selection Sunday looms...barely more than a week away, on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.

(Note that in next week’s TGS Hoops we will be including past results of all of the “non-major” loops in Big Dance action for the past 24 years!)

EAST REGIONAL (Washington, D.C.-Cap One Arena)

At Jacksonville...

1 Virginia (SUR 27-2, NET-2) vs. 16 Colgate (21-10, 38)...Get ready for more attention than usual for a 16 vs. 1 matchup after Virginia’s loss to UMBC a year ago, the first-ever time a top regional seed was dumped in the opening round. And yes, we’re pretty sure the Cavs are going to wind up again on the top line. Less sure about Colgate emerging from the combative Patriot, whose tournament has already gotten underway. But the Red Raiders will have home edge throughout, with dangerous Bucknell and Lehigh expected to provide the toughest challenges.

8 Baylor (19-10, 36) vs. 9 Minnesota (19-11, 54)...We’re thinking the Big 12 is going to get plenty of respect from the Selection Committee and that Baylor is going to derive some benefit from that association. Having said that, the Bears did their seeding prospects no favors by the Wednesday home loss to Oklahoma State, one of the two teams in the loop likely not headed to the postseason, though they’ve been playing better in recent weeks. (West Virginia also expected to stay home). Meanwhile the Gophers have moved away from the cut-line with their Tuesday win over Purdue, which along with an earlier win at Wisconsin gives Richard Pitino’s team a couple of nice ornaments from Big 10 play.

At Hartford...

4 Villanova (22-8, 25) vs. 13 Hofstra (25-6, 67)...We jumped the gun a bit in an earlier Bracketology report when projecting ‘Nova to end up on the 2-line. A subsequent February slump ended those thoughts but a couple of wins in a row into this weekend vs. Seton Hall, plus Marquette’s recent fade, means Jay Wright’s team probably will be the top seed in the Big East Tourney. And a win at Madison Square Garden should get the Cats their protected seed. They have tipped things off for the Colonial Tourney with Joe Mihalich’s go-go Hofstra as the top seed. With nation’s second-leading scorer G Justin Wright-Foreman as the main attraction, the Pride would add some excitement to the Dance, but first must get past some expected hearty challenges in the next few days at Charleston, with Northeastern and defending tourney champ hometown C of C Cougars expected to offer stiff challenges.

5 Buffalo (27-3, 16) vs. 12 Clemson (17-12, 40)/Temple (21-8, 57)...Most knowledgeable observers understand that the Mid-American, with several banana peels, is no picnic this season, and will excuse Buffalo for its couple of slips on a deceptively treacherous conference trail. The 5-line is probably the ceiling for the Bulls, but a win in next week’s MAC Tourney at Cleveland could land them here. Already Buffalo has been ranked longer in the top 25 in a single season than any previous MAC team. Clemson has only recently moved to the bubble and might still need to do some work at the ACC Tourney in Charlotte to further prop up its credentials. The midweek escape at Notre Dame was a gut-check win to keep the Tigers in the mix, though a best-case scenario for Brad Brownell’s men might be an at-large play-in game. We admit to a sentimental preference for Temple to make the final cut with vet HC Fran Dunphy hanging ‘em up at the end of the season. A win over UCF in the regular-season finale would give the Owls a bit more breathing room.

At Salt Lake City...

2 Texas Tech (25-5, 10) vs. 15 Radford (20-10, 132)...By virtue of the 8-game SU win streak that it takes into the regular-season finale on Saturday vs. Iowa State, and a chance to win the Big 12 regular-season title and top seed in the conference tourney next week in Kansas City, Texas Tech’s move to the 2-line is justified. Especially with some other contenders (such as Michigan State and Houston) suffering recent upset losses. The Big South Tourney is underway and Radford will have the home-court edge as long as it continues to win. Remember, the Highlanders won at Notre Dame and Texas in pre-league play. Though more than a few observers might rather see the Campbell Fighting Camels and the nation’s leading scorer, 5-9 G Chris Clemons, emerge from the loop tourney.

7 Auburn (21-9, 20) vs. 10 Iowa (21-8, 41)...Though probably not quite as consistent as HC Bruce Pearl would have liked, Auburn should still land in the upper half of the brackets, especially as the Tigers should not be hurt too much by their many “quality” losses (among those vs. Duke, Kentucky, and Mississippi State). Meanwhile, there’s good and bad news for Iowa. The good news is that the Hawkeyes have already done enough to land safely away from the cut line. The bad news is that Iowa is not playing like it is going to last beyond the first round, with rumors out of Hawkeye-land that HC Fran McCaffery (finishing his 2-game suspension on Thursday vs. Wisconsin) could be putting himself in some jeopardy if the fade continues.

At Jacksonville...

3 LSU (24-5, 13) vs. 14 Yale (19-6, 86)...Thanks to a late-season uptick, LSU has slowly moved up the seeding ladder to the point most project Will Wade’s team on the 3-line. Keep an eye on the Baton Rouge bunch, which has proven a) it can win on the road and b) it can win close games. Both of those attributes can come in very handy in March. Meanwhile, whether or not Yale finishes ahead of Harvard and wins the Ivy regular-season crown, the Eli will stil host the 4-team conference tourney next week in the John J. Lee Amphitheater at historic Payne Whitney Gym. Remember the last time Yale made the Dance, it upset Baylor and nearly knocked off Duke in 2016.

6 Maryland (21-9, 28) vs. 11 Belmont (25-4, 45)...As recently as a week ago we might have had Maryland as high as the 5-line, but the thumping loss at Penn State, plus a second loss to Michigan in two weeks, has likely dropped the Terps a line. To prevent any more slippage, Mark Turgeon’s team will want to win its regular-season finale vs. Minnesota this weekend. Rick Byrd’s Belmont has been dancing many times before and heads into this weekend’s Ohio Valley Tourney as the top seed. Only this year the event has been moved from the Bruins’ hometown in Nashville up to Evansville, where Murray State, Jacksonville State, and Austin Peay are expected to provide the top challenges.

                               SOUTH REGIONAL (Louisville-KFC Yum! Center)

At Columbia, SC...

1 North Carolina (25-5, 7) vs. 16 Norfolk State (19-11, 244)/Fairleigh Dickinson (18-13, 219)...With its recent rousing romp at Duke (in the game Zion Williamson was injured) as the catalyst, Roy Williams has his latest Tar Heel edition on a late-season ascent that will likely land it on the top line come Selection Sunday, as long as the Blue Devils don’t rise up and either beat the Heels on Saturday or win the ACC Tourney (in which case Duke likely bumps UNC off of the top line). In 16 vs. 16 play-in land, the MEAC champ as usual looks a likely entrant, with Norfolk State having locked up the top seed along with the hometown edge in the conference tourney, held across town at the Scope, one-time home of the ABA Virginia Squires during the Julius Erving era (the Squires, by the way, had several home bases in the Commonwealth). Suddenly looking the team to beat in the Northeast Tourney, which has begun, is top seed Fairleigh Dickinson. Seth Greenberg’s alma mater opened those festivities with an 84-46 romp past Wagner, and will have home court as long as it advances throughout the tourney.

8 Wofford (26-4, 14) vs. 9 Arizona State (20-9, 68)...Wofford’s prowess might end up costing the Terriers, who would probably prefer a 10 or 11 seed and the chance to miss a regional top seed in the second round. Still, the Terriers figure to the highest-seeded SoCon rep in recent memory, and they’d be thrilled to get this home-state assignment in Columbia. Count us among those who believe ASU has done enough to get a call from the Selection Committee. Though the Sun Devils own the odd distinction of losing to teams from all four “Quads” this season, they also have quality non-Pac-12 wins over Kansas, Mississippi State, and Utah State (the latter two on neutral floors), and did hand Washington one of its two conference defeats. With a “soft” bubble this March, ASU should land on the safe side of the cut line.

At Des Moines...

4 Marquette (23-6, 26) vs. 13 Lipscomb (24-6, 46)... Three losses on the spin heading into Saturday’s game at Butler, plus apparently relinquishing the top seed in the Big East Tourney to Villanova, has probably cost Marquette a line in the last week. Any further stumbles into next week at MSG and Wojo’s Golden Eagles could see their protected seed in some jeopardy. Lipscomb might be worth avoiding, as its rapid-fire offense scored a notable win in non-conference play at TCU, and won in the regular season at Liberty, which has home edge in the A-Sun Tourney, which has commenced. The Nashville-based Bison also advanced to the Dance out of the Sun last March.

5 Cincinnati (25-4, 22) vs. 12 Florida (17-12, 34)...Cincy might be thinking it could storm protected-seed status if it can a) beat Houston in the regular-season finale on Saturday, and b) win next week’s American Tourney in Memphis. Do both of those, and we might move the Bearcats to the 4-line. For now, however, we think Mick “The Ghost” Cronin is a better fit at 5. Florida’s status with the Selection Committee is likely far more precarious, with last week’s loss to Georgia a potentially-damaging blow. The Gators could probably have locked up their bid on Wednesday night if they beat LSU for the second time this season, but instead they lost in OT. Florida gets one more chance to take some pressure off of itself in next week’s SEC Tourney with a Saturday matchup vs. Kentucky.

At Columbus...

2 Kentucky (25-5, 5) vs. 15 Georgia State (21-9, 36)...With a likely rubber match vs. Tennessee looming in the SEC Tourney finals next week at Nashville, Kentucky still probably has a chance to land on the top line. Which is where we had the Cats until they lost last weekend vs. revenge-minded Vols. But we’re sure John Calipari would not be terribly annoyed at a 2-seed. The Sun Belt Tourney gets underway next week in New Orleans and it looks a real cavalry charge, with Georgia Southern, Texas State, and Georgia State all tied for the top spot into this weekend. A measured vote to emerge for Ron Hunter’s Panthers, who have made a bit of a habit of qualifying for the Dance.

7 Wisconsin (20-9, 15) vs. 10 Texas (16-14, 35)... Still time for Wiscy to perhaps do a bit better than a spot on the 7-line; beat Iowa and Ohio State to close the regular season, and advance to, at least, the semis of next week’s Big Ten Tourney in Chicago, and the Badgers might move as high as the 5-line. Stay tuned. The test case that is Texas will be a much-watched storyline on Selection Sunday; even with 14 losses, the Horns are being projected into most of the brackets because of strength of schedule numbers and Quad 1 wins, of which there are plenty available in the Big 12. Still, we wonder how the Committee reacts if Texas ends at 16-16, and key cog Kerwin Roach stays suspended? Stay tuned.

At Tulsa...

3 Purdue (22-8, 11) vs. 14 Vermont (34-6, 78)... We admit we might be putting Purdue a bit high here, especially after the loss earlier in the week to Minnesota. Though the Boilermakers should still stay in protected seed territory (no lower than a 4) even if they don’t win in next week’s Big Ten Tourney. The America East Tourney has gotten underway and Vermont enters as the favorite. Which it also was last year, when the home-court edge didn’t help the Catamounts in the finale vs. UMBC...and we all remember what the Retrievers did once they got to the Dance.

6 VCU (24-6, 36) vs. 11 NC State (20-9, 31)...A team on the ascent has been VCU, which has been rolling in General Sherman-like fashion thru the A-10 and has wrapped up an at-large well before the league tourney next week in Brooklyn. Not so sure anymore about NC State after the shock loss to a shorthanded Georgia Tech at midweek. Then there’s the matter of that 24-point effort a while back vs. Virginia Tech. The Wolfpack are advised to win their regular-season finale at Boston College (no sure thing) and then avoid an early ouster at the ACC Tourney to stay clear of the cut line.

                               MIDWEST REGIONAL (Kansas City-Sprint Center)

At Hartford...

1 Tennessee (27-3, 4) vs. 16 Prairie View (17-12, 221)/Iona (14-15/213)...We’ve been yo-yo-ing the Vols and Kentucky on the top line the past few weeks and suspect the final determining factor will be at the SEC Tourney. Where, if the form chart holds, they’ll have a rubber match for the title next week in Nashville. In no event would UT figure to fall lower than a 2. Tourneys in the SWAC and Metro-Atlantic look very wide open this season, with winners in each likely ticketed for the First Four in Dayton. At the moment, measured votes for Prairie View (SWAC, starts next week) and Iona (MAAC, which has already gotten underway with its tourney in Albany), though hardly anything could be considered an upset out of those two events.

8 Louisville (19-11, 24) vs. 9 St. John’s (20-10, 61)...A couple of hoops blue-bloods here. Some brackets are putting St. John’s a bit lower, which we can understand because of the many blemishes on the Red Storm’s profile. But Chris Mullin’s team is also 3-1 vs. Big East leaders Villanova and Marquette and the only team in the country with more success in Quad 1 games than Quad 2 games. Though form has been erratic, we suspect the Johnnies make the cut with room to spare. No worries, either, with Louisville, which has compiled more losses than HC Chris Mack would have liked, but few of those are tru;y damaging against one of the nation’s toughest slates.

At San Jose...

4 Kansas (22-8, 16) vs. 13 Old Dominion (23-6, 75)...Time to acknowledge that it’s not a vintage year for the Jayhawks, who will fail to win the Big 12 regular-season crown for the first time since 2003-04 (a year KU reached the Elite 8, by the way) amid several injuries. We’re not even sure KU should stay as a protected seed, though that November win over Michigan State helps. At the moment, ODU looks the favorite for next week’s C-USA Tourney at the Dallas Cowboys “Star” in modern Frisco, but the event appears wide open. Keep an eye on last year’s surprise winner Marshall, which appears to be revived after the recent schedule break in the loops’ new-fangled calendar.

5 Nevada (27-3, 21) vs. 12 Seton Hall (16-12, 33)...After loading up vs. Big 12 foes in non-conference action a year ago, Eric Musselman decided to upgrade the non-league part of the Wolf Pack schedule vs. the Pac-12 this season. Bad idea, as the likes of USC and Utah are not helping the strength of schedule numbers the way TCU and Texas Tech did a year ago, which might be a reason Nevada is being projected on the 5-line. As for the Hall, we suspect the Pirates helped their cause immeasurably by outscoring Marquette 18-0 down the stretch to win a crucial game on Wednesday. The Pirates also have wins over Kentucky (on a neutral floor) and at Maryland, and can really put themselves in good shape with a win over Villanova on Saturday before the Big East Tourney commences next week.

At Hartford...

2 Duke (26-4, 3) vs. 15 Northern Kentucky (24-8, 117)...Can Duke move back onto the top line? Most definitely, but probably not if the Blue Devils can’t avenge their earlier defeat vs. North Carolina when the teams meet on Saturday at Chapel Hill, or win the ACC Tourney. Zion Williamson could possibly return for that one, but one thing is certain; Coach K’s team has not looked like a top seed since Zion went down with his knee injury. They’ve already started the Horizon Tourney and NKU won its opening round game on Wednesday vs. Detroit. Which means the top-seeded Norse have already advanced to the semifinal final round which moves to Little Caesars Arena in Detroit next Monday.

7 Iowa State (20-9, 17) vs. 10 Ole Miss (19-11, 37)...ISU has been projected anywhere from the 5 to the 7-line since the first brackets were posted before New Year’s and nothing has changed during Big 12 play to alter those forecasts. Steve Prohm’s explosive Cyclones might be a bit under-seeded here, however, and could easily move up a line, or perhaps two, with a strong finish and a win or two at the Big 12 Tourney next week in Kansas City. As for Ole Miss, the Rebs have turned into must-see TV after a succession of heart-stoppers the past couple of weeks. Problem is the Rebs are losing most of those, and they’ve probably slipped into double-digit seed territory after losing 4 of 5, close as the losses have been. Might be a good idea for ole Miss to avoid an upset at Mizzou on Saturday, or else things could get a little nervous for the Rebs in the SEC Tourney at Nashville next week.

At Columbus...

3 Michigan State (24-6, 8) vs. 14 Loyola-Chicago (19-12, 128)... We suppose there’s time for Michigan State to move back up to the 2-line; beat Michigan (for a second time) this weekend, and win the Big Ten Tourney next week in Chicago and Sparty lands no worse than a 2. But the recent pair of losses to Indiana and another to Illinois have probably cost Tom Izzo a line. In the Missouri Valley, it hasn’t been the same roll through the conference as it was last year for Loyola-Chicago, but here the Ramblers are again, with Sister Jean along for the ride once more, as the top seed in the Valley’s Arch Madness, which has gotten underway in St. Louis.

6 UCF (22-6, 29) vs. 11 Oklahoma (19-11, 38)...UCF got the marquee win it needed to jump up to the 6-line with last week’s rousing road win at Houston. As long as the Knights can advance deep in next week’s American Tourney at Memphis, we think they might not drop any from this spot. True, entering this weekend, Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma is only 7-10 in Big 12 play, but the trendline is up after wins in 4 of 5 and a romp at Lloyd Noble vs. Kansas on Big Monday, which has likely moved the Sooners clear of the cut line.

                                  WEST REGIONAL (Anaheim-Honda Center)

at Salt Lake City...

1 Gonzaga (29-2, 2) vs. 16 Sam Houston (20-9, 167)...As the heavy favorite in this weekend’s WCC Tourney at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the Zags not only appear ticketed for the top line but also in pole position for number one seed in the entire Dance. After all, they’re number one in the polls, too! We’re not so sure about Sam Houston emerging out of the Southland after a couple of bumpy weeks and a loss to double-digit dog Central Arkansas on Wednesday. The Bearkats will have to fend off SE Louisiana, New Orleans, Abilene Christian, and Lamar in what looks like a competitive conference tourney in the Houston suburb of Katy next week.

8 Washington (23-6, 33) vs. 9 Syracuse (19-11, 42)...U-Dub has apparently picked up the thrill mantle that has been passed from Iowa thru Ole Miss to now, apparently, Seattle, with a couple of harrowing recent escapes (a 1-point win at Stanford last Sunday and an OT escape vs. Oregon State at Alaska Airlines Arena on Wednesday). Though we were tempted to dump the Huskies out of the bracket entirely for the recent loss at Cal, breaking the Golden Bears’ 23-game Pac-12 drought. The Committee sometimes has a devilish streak about it and matching up U-Dub HC Mike Hopkins with mentor Jim Boeheim would be one such example. It could happen, as the Orange look ticketed for a 9 or 10-seed, and far enough away from the cut line to likely not have to sweat Selection Sunday as in some recent years.

At Tulsa...

4 Kansas State (23-7, 21) vs. 13 UC Irvine (25-5, 82)...Keep in mind that Bruce Weber got his K-State into the Elite 8 out of a 9-seed last season, and without that span around the holidays when key F Dean Wade missed action, the Cats might have been able to land even high on the seed line. One of the acknowledged sleepers of the Dance could be UC Irvine, as HC Russell Turner runs almost everything through his numerous bigs. The Anteaters’ size could be a potential problem for various foes in the sub-regionals.

5 Florida State (24-6, 19) vs. 12 Creighton (16-13, 48)/Indiana (15-14, 55)...Thanks to a rousing OT win earlier this week vs. Virginia Tech, Florida State is in position to move up as high as the 5-line with a strong finish. Keep in mind that Leonard Hamilton’s Noles reached the Elite 8 (also out of the West) last March. On this side of the bracket in the at-large play-in game, we’ve been shuffling a lot of possibilities the past few weeks, though we have recently moved both a surging Creighton (on a 6-game win streak into the weekend) and 14-loss Indiana onto the stage. The Hoosiers have the potential to be perhaps the most-controversial at-large storyline, but if the Selection Committee values Quad 1 wins (as it is likely to do), IU’s collection of scalps (Marquette, Louisville, Wisconsin, and Michigan State twice) gives the Hoosiers a chance.

At Des Moines...

2 Michigan (26-4, 9) vs. 15 Montana (22-7, 115)...Not long ago we had Michigan on the top line, and while getting back to a 1-seed might be a tall order, the Wolverines appear a solid bet for the 2-line, especially if, this weekend, they can avenge an earlier home loss to Michigan State. If this clash materializes vs. Montana it would be a rematch of last season’s opening round game that proved a bit uncomfy for Michigan until a late surge stretched the final margin to 61-47. The Grizzlies will be the top seed for next week’s Big Sky Tourney, this year moved to Boise after a 3-year run in Reno.

7 Mississippi State (21-9, 23) vs. 10 Utah State (25-6, 30)...It has been apparent since before midseason that Ben Howland’s patient rebuild at Mississippi State would finally pay off with a Big Dance invite on Selection Sunday. They’re still in line for a 6-7 seed. Utah State’s power numbers and recent electrifying home win over Nevada suggests the Utags are not going to have to win next week’s Mountain West Tourney in Vegas to advance to the Dance...they appear safe as an at-large after avoiding a banana peel earlier this week at Colorado State.

At San Jose...

3 Houston (27-2, 6) vs. 14 South Dakota State (24-7, 101)...There was talk as recently as a week ago that Houston could move up to the 2-line, but the home loss last weekend vs. UCF probably scuttled that notion. Still, can’t envision the Cougs dropping further than the 3-line, even if they lose in next week’s American Tourney at Memphis. A team that might want to be avoided is South Dakota State, a Big Dance regular and having come pretty close to an upset of Ohio State in the first round last March. Likely one last chance to see 6-9 sr. F Mike Daum, now a top ten all-time NCAA scorer, in action for the Jackrabbits, heavy favorites in the Summit Tourney, which begins this weekend in hoops-mad Sioux Falls.

6 Virginia Tech (22-7, 12) vs. 11 New Mexico State (26-4, 48)...Credit Buzz Williams for keeping VPI afloat after the foot injury to key G Justin Robinson; had the Hokies been able to prevail at midweek vs. Florida State we would have probably put them on the 5-line, but an OT loss keeps VPI at a 6 for now. New Mexico State and its collection of athletes are a familiar Big Dance rep from the WAC, and one of these years the Ags are going to surprise someone in the Dance. They’ll be favored in next week’s WAC Tourney at Vegas, where Grand Canyon could provide the most interesting challenge.

Last four byes: Seton Hall, Florida, NC State, Oklahoma

Last four in: Temple, Clemson, Creighton, Indiana

Last four out: Alabama, Ohio State, Furman, TCU

Next four out: Xavier, Murray State, Saint Mary’s, Davidson


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