With conference play going full throttle this week, it's about time we published a projected bracket based on the first two months of the 2013-14 college basketball season.
A sneak peek of what lies ahead: Arizona is the No. 1 team in the country according to the polls, but the Wildcats wouldn't be earning the top seed if the tournament started today.
Love it or hate it, RPI is still one of the primary metrics used by the selection committee. Even though the numbers are wonkier in January than they will be in March, they are provided on the following slides—if only to help you get re-accustomed to hearing about them for the next two months.
We'll start out with looking at the last five teams to make it into the Field of 68, as well as the first five teams on the outside looking in. After that, it's a snapshot of the pairings and host sites in each region along with some commentary on each. Then we'll explain which No. 1 seed is the overall No. 1 seed.
Last but not least, there is a summary of the entire field broken out on one slide by conference. Hopefully, this will save you the trouble of flipping back and forth between four slides before angrily asking why your favorite team isn't included.
Win-loss records on the following slides exclude games played against opponents not in D-I. All records and RPI rankings (via ESPN) are current through the start of play on Thursday, January 2.
Michigan (8-4, RPI: 93)
Of Michigan's four losses, only the two-point loss to Charlotte (RPI: 119) would ever be considered a bad one. Unfortunately, however, the Wolverines only have neutral-court wins over Florida State and Stanford that are even worth mentioning. They will have more than ample opportunity to prove themselves in conference play—beginning on Thursday at Minnesota—but they are just barely in the tournament field for now.
North Carolina State (10-3, RPI: 68)
That early season loss to North Carolina Central is only going to get worse as the Eagles play their MEAC conference schedule. Coupled with a lack of quality wins thus far, the Wolfpack will really need to do some damage in ACC play to have a shot at staying here.
Oklahoma (11-2, RPI: 29)
The Sooners better start playing defense, or they're going to give up 90 points per game against quality Big 12 opponents and completely disappear from the bracket.
Georgetown (9-3, RPI: 40)
It's a good thing the Hoyas bounced back from their bad loss to Northeastern with back-to-back neutral-court victories over Kansas State and VCU. Otherwise, this team would be a distant memory right now. They should finish in the top three in the Big East, but opening conference play with a seven-point home win over DePaul wasn't exactly a great way to instill confidence.
Indiana (10-4, RPI: 75)
No bad losses and nothing even remotely resembling a good win, but I have faith in the Hoosiers. Aside from that 10-minute stretch in which they were blown out of the water by Syracuse, they have at least looked good in their losses. In the next 20 days, they play Michigan State twice and Wisconsin once. Win one of those three games, and they'll be in good shape.
Dayton (11-3, RPI: 60)
It seems like ages ago, but the Flyers made a brief appearance in the Top 25 back in early December. Unfortunately, they are 4-2 since December 4 despite playing five of those six games against teams outside the RPI Top 150.
Southern Methodist (10-3, RPI: 58)
It was a narrow loss to Virginia that first put SMU on our radar, but neither team has done much of anything since then. The Mustangs lost to Cincinnati on New Year's Day and play their next two conference games against Connecticut and Louisville. If they're going to compete in the American conference, we'll know in a hurry.
Arizona State (11-2, RPI: 79)
Death, taxes and the Sun Devils on the bubble. Before closing the 2012-13 regular season with four consecutive losses, they spent at least five straight weeks oscillating between being in and out of the field. It only seems fitting that they should be here again.
Wins over UNLV and Marquette should get better with time—as should the loss to Creighton. It's too early to say how the loss to Miami holds up, but if Arizona State loses at home to either Washington or Washington State in the next three days, it probably won't matter what that Miami loss does to its computer profile.
UNLV (10-4, RPI: 86)
To say that UNLV didn't exactly start out the season with a bang would be an understatement. Losses to UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State and Illinois in the first five games was not what the Rebels had in mind. They have been markedly improved since then, though. Save for a narrow loss at Arizona, they have won every game since Thanksgiving by at least 13 points.
Kansas State (10-3, RPI: 87)
If Long Beach State (RPI: 107) ever cracks into the Top 100, Kansas State will have six non-conference wins against the RPI Top 100. The Wildcats almost certainly won't finish in the top three in the Big 12, but those six wins could be enough for them to get into the tournament with a sixth or seventh-place finish in arguably the best conference in the country.
No. 1 Syracuse (13-0, RPI: 2) vs. No. 16 Radford (Big South auto bid, RPI: 190) / Northern Colorado (Big West auto bid, RPI: 161)
No. 8 Gonzaga (11-2, RPI: 24) vs. No. 9 Minnesota (10-2, RPI: 26)
San Diego, CA
No. 4 Baylor (9-1, RPI: 14) vs. No. 13 North Dakota State (Summit auto bid, RPI: 37)
No. 5 Massachusetts (11-1, RPI: 1) vs. No. 12 Georgetown / Michigan (Last Five In)
No. 3 Villanova (12-1, RPI: 5) vs. No. 14 Belmont (OVC auto bid, RPI: 66)
No. 6 Missouri (11-1, RPI: 17) vs. No. 11 Southern Miss (C-USA auto bid, RPI: 47)
No. 2 Ohio State (14-0, RPI: 7) vs. No. 15 Lehigh (Patriot auto bid, RPI: 163)
No. 7 UCLA (11-2, RPI: 50) vs. No. 10 Boise State (8-3, RPI: 30)
Who could have guessed before the season began that Massachusetts would project in early January as the seed favorite in a No. 5 vs. No. 12 pairing with either Georgetown or Michigan? The Minutemen have ascended to the top spot in the RPI rankings behind seven wins against the RPI Top 90 and zero games against teams outside the RPI Top 170.
Elsewhere, if the top five teams in the country stay as strong as they are today, someone in the Big Ten is going to get royally screwed.
At the moment, we're projecting Ohio State as the odd man out behind Wisconsin and Michigan State (for reasons to be explained on the No. 1 seeds slide). Not only do the Buckeyes miss out on a first overall spot, but they also can't be in the South or Midwest regions since those are already occupied by the Badgers and Spartans. Thus, they either get the No. 2 seed in New York City against Syracuse or in San Diego against Arizona.
Aside from preferential geographical treatment, though, there's hardly any difference between being a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed at this point in the year. All of the teams in the 7-10 range are equally terrifying to face in the third round, which is particularly evident in the East region. The winner of UCLA vs. Boise State would be a difficult draw for anyone.
No. 1 Wisconsin (13-0, RPI: 3) vs. No. 16 Alabama State (SWAC auto bid, RPI: 223) / Stony Brook (America East auto bid, RPI: 218)
No. 8 Creighton (11-2, RPI: 55) vs. No. 9 LSU (9-2, RPI: 39)
No. 4 Oregon (12-0, RPI: 12) vs. No. 13 Drexel (Colonial auto bid, RPI: 91)
No. 5 Memphis (10-2, RPI: 21) vs. No. 12 Oklahoma / North Carolina State (Last Five In)
St. Louis, MO
No. 3 Louisville (12-2, RPI: 28) vs. No. 14 Mercer (Atlantic Sun auto bid, RPI: 82)
No. 6 Pittsburgh (12-1, RPI: 18) vs. No. 11 George Washington (11-2, RPI: 22)
No. 2 Iowa State (12-0, RPI: 6) vs. No. 15 Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt auto bid, RPI: 77)
No. 7 Illinois (12-2, RPI: 9) vs. No. 10 Arkansas (10-2, RPI: 41)
In their bracketing principles, the NCAA states that teams who win in the opening round in Dayton will not be required to travel an inordinate distance if at all possible. Unfortunately, there's quite a disparity between the number of second- and third-round host sites which are at least 900 miles from Dayton and the number of highly rated teams who would actually prefer to play there.
As a result, the No. 4 seeds will almost certainly end up being placed in some combination of Spokane, San Diego and Orlando, taking all of the No. 12 and No. 13 seeds with them. Even though I currently have both of the at-large play-in games as No. 12 seeds, don't be surprised if they get bumped to No. 14 or No. 11 in order to significantly reduce travel distance.
As far as this particular region is concerned, I'm anticipating a lot of grumbling over Louisville being a No. 3 seed while Oregon is No. 4. My rationale there is that Louisville plays in a substantially less difficult conference than the Ducks and will almost certainly win the American's regular-season championship.
Meanwhile, Oregon hasn't really played any great teams. A narrow home win over Illinois (No. 7 seed) and a narrow neutral-court win over Georgetown (last five in) are the Ducks' only games against teams currently in the tournament field. However, if they win at Colorado on Sunday, it would likely vault them to a No. 2 seed.
St. Louis, MO
No. 1 Michigan State (12-1, RPI: 13) vs. No. 16 Bryant (NEC auto bid, RPI: 110)
No. 8 Florida State (9-3, RPI: 38) vs. No. 9 Cincinnati (12-2, RPI: 34)
No. 4 Duke (11-2, RPI: 35) vs. No. 13 New Mexico State (WAC auto bid, RPI: 54)
No. 5 Colorado (11-2, RPI: 8) vs. No. 12 Toledo (MAC auto bid, RPI: 44)
No. 3 Florida (10-2, RPI: 15) vs. No. 14 Wisconsin-Green Bay (Horizon auto bid, RPI: 76)
No. 6 Iowa (12-2, RPI: 19) vs. No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth (11-3, RPI: 69)
San Antonio, TX
No. 2 Oklahoma State (12-1, RPI: 11) vs. No. 15 Stephen F. Austin (Southland auto bid, RPI: 67)
No. 7 San Diego State (9-1, RPI: 32) vs. No. 10 Butler (9-3, RPI: 45)
From an RPI standpoint, this region is nothing special. Colorado is the only team rated in the Top 10, and the Buffaloes are a No. 5 seed.
However, most of the teams in this region are just now hitting their stride.
Michigan State struggled at times throughout the past month, but is finally starting to look healthy. That goes double for Florida, which is likely underrated as a No. 3 seed if it can stay healthy and win the SEC.
Duke is still trying to find its identity, but it has looked much better in the process against UCLA and Michigan. If the Blue Devils didn't have such sorry computer numbers, losses on neutral courts to Arizona and Kansas would hardly be grounds for keeping them off the top three lines.
A little further down the list, Cincinnati is still struggling to find consistent offensive production, but the Bearcats have yet to allow any of their 14 opponents to score more than 67 points against them in a game this season. And speaking of defense, VCU is starting to put it all together, forcing 50 turnovers in its last two games.
The biggest wild card here is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys recently lost Michael Cobbins for the season. On Wednesday, Stevie Clark was arrested for possession of marijuana, as reported by NewsOK.com's John Helsley. How will they respond?
San Diego, CA
No. 1 Arizona (13-0, RPI: 10) vs. No. 16 North Carolina Central (MEAC auto bid, RPI: 98)
No. 8 New Mexico (9-3, RPI: 56) vs. No. 9 Saint Louis (11-2, RPI: 43)
No. 4 Wichita State (12-0, RPI: 16) vs. No. 13 Manhattan (MAAC auto bid, RPI: 59)
No. 5 North Carolina (10-3, RPI: 34) vs. No. 12 Indiana (10-4, RPI: 75)
No. 3 Kentucky (10-3, RPI: 19) vs. No. 14 UC Santa Barbara (Big West auto bid, RPI: 23)
No. 6 Connecticut (11-2, RPI: 33) vs. No. 11 Texas (11-2, RPI: 42)
San Antonio, TX
No. 2 Kansas (9-3, RPI: 4) vs. No. 15 Elon (Southern auto bid, RPI: 140)
No. 7 Xavier (11-3, RPI: 25) vs. No. 10 Harvard (Ivy auto bid, RPI: 31)
It wasn't until after I finished building the bracket that I noticed how stacked this region is with traditional powerhouses. There are 11 teams with 50 or more tournament wins in school history, and six of them are in this region—Kentucky (111), North Carolina (109), Kansas (95), Indiana (64), Connecticut (52) and Arizona (50).
As far as the 2013-14 season is concerned, though, just about all of those teams are complete wild cards. It's tough to say whether it's more likely that Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina all reach the Sweet 16 or that they all lose their first game.
Lost amid all the shuffle—as they have been all season—the Wichita State Shockers just might be one of the favorites to come out of this region. We'll see if they can "pull a Gonzaga" and just keep climbing up the S-curve by playing against a weak conference while everyone else falls by the wayside, but an undefeated season and a spot on the top line isn't completely out of the question.
I'm probably higher than most bracketologists on Xavier, but keep in mind that the Musketeers absolutely had Iowa beaten in Puerto Rico until they lost Semaj Christon to leg cramps. He certainly wasn't feeling 100 percent in their losses to Tennessee or USC the following nights, either. If not for that rough three-day stretch, the X-Men would theoretically be undefeated.
No. 4: Michigan State (12-1, RPI: 13)
It was a toss-up between Michigan State and Ohio State for this final spot on the top line. Whichever team wins when they face off on January 7 will obviously move ahead of the other. With that game being played at Michigan State, one has to assume the Spartans will be the favorite to win.
Despite the loss to North Carolina, Michigan State has had an incredible season. The road win over Texas and the neutral-court win over Kentucky in the Champion's Classic are better than any win Ohio State has to date. In fact, the Buckeyes' only wins over teams in the projected field were against North Dakota State (No. 13 seed) and Bryant (No. 16 seed).
No. 3: Arizona (13-0, RPI: 10)
No. 2: Wisconsin (13-0, RPI: 3)
No. 1: Syracuse (13-0, RPI: 2)
How in the world does one rank a trio a 13-0 teams that are all in the Top 10 in RPI?
For me, Syracuse has to be No. 1 right now. The Orange have seven wins against the RPI Top 75 and three wins against the RPI Top 30.
Save for Wisconsin's six-point home win over Florida back in early November when the Gators weren't even remotely the same team that they are today, neither Arizona nor Wisconsin has any wins against the RPI Top 30. Wisconsin has five wins against the RPI Top 75 while Arizona has just three such wins.
We could split hairs for hours between Wisconsin and Arizona for the second and third spots, but does it really matter? They would be slated to play each other in the Final Four, and they certainly wouldn't be fighting with each other over regions or host sites.
I'm giving the edge to Wisconsin, though, if only because the top seed from the Big Ten arguably deserves to be ahead of the top seed from the PAC-12.
One-bid conferences: 23
America East (Stony Brook), Atlantic Sun (Mercer), Big Sky (Northern Colorado), Big South (Radford), Big West (UC Santa Barbara), C-USA (Southern Miss), Colonial (Drexel), Horizon (Wisconsin-Green Bay), Ivy (Harvard), MAAC (Manhattan), MAC (Toledo), MEAC (North Carolina Central), Missouri Valley (Wichita State), NEC (Bryant), OVC (Belmont), Patriot (Lehigh), Southern (Elon), Southland (Stephen F. Austin), Summit (North Dakota State), Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette), SWAC (Alabama State), WAC (New Mexico State), WCC (Gonzaga)
Multi-bid conferences: 9
American: Louisville (3), Memphis (5), Connecticut (6), Cincinnati (9), Southern Methodist (First five out)
Atlantic 10: Massachusetts (5), Saint Louis (9), VCU (11), George Washington (11), Dayton (First five out)
ACC: Syracuse (1), Duke (4), North Carolina (5), Pittsburgh (6), Florida State (8), North Carolina State (Last five in)
Big East: Villanova (3), Xavier (7), Creighton (8), Butler (10), Georgetown (Last five in)
Big 10: Wisconsin (1), Michigan State (1), Ohio State (2), Iowa (6), Illinois (7), Minnesota (9), Indiana (Last five in), Michigan (Last five in)
Big 12: Oklahoma State (2), Kansas (2), Iowa State (2), Baylor (4), Texas (11), Oklahoma (Last five in), Kansas State (First five out)
Mountain West: San Diego State (7), New Mexico (8), Boise State (10), UNLV (First five out)
PAC-12: Arizona (1), Oregon (4), Colorado (5), UCLA (7), Arizona State (First five out)
SEC: Florida (3), Kentucky (3), Missouri (6), LSU (9), Arkansas (10)
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.