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Pre-Conference Play Bracket: December 28

It's almost the New Year. The time of holiday tournaments in sunny destinations, made for TV power program matchups and guarantee games is in the rearview for most teams. It seems like a good time for a bracket projection. (seed listtrends)

Late December and early January brings the start of the conference grind-- 14 to 18 games against your biggest rivals played amidst the rigors of a busy semester and a sometimes unpredictable travel schedule. (It is winter after all.) Over the next two and a half months, we'll have a better idea of who can live up to the expectations set during the non-conference portion of the campaign.

The race at the top of the bracket should be a great one, as there is no shortage of teams worthy of number one seeds. Currently, I have the two Big 12 powers, Texas and KansasSyracuse from the Big East, and Kentucky of the SEC on the top line. None of these four can be considered locks at the moment, not by a long shot. That's because all will face significant competition within their own leagues and beyond for these four spots.

Not only do the Longhorns and Jayhawks have to face each other, but Kansas State, a three seed this week, hosts Texas and plays their traditional home-and-home with Kansas, so they have a shot. Two seeds West Virginia and Villanova both face Syracuse, with the Mountaineers hosting the Orange. Third-seeded Tennessee gets to play Kentucky twice in the SEC.

You also can't write off ACC powers Duke (a #2 this week), North Carolina (a 3) or the Big Ten tandem of Purdue (a 2) and Michigan State (a 3) either, especially with the strength of those conferences.

Before I break the field down any further, here are the ground rules for selecting the 31 conference automatic bids.

  1. If conference play has started, the team with the best conference winning percentage gets the bid. If there's a tie, conference games won is the first tiebreaker, overall record is the second.
  2. If a conference has yet to begin league play, the team with the best overall winning percentage gets the bid. If there's a tie, the team with the most wins gets the slot.

No such restrictions apply to the selection of the 34 at-large teams. There has been quite a bit of tumult in this pool over the first seven weeks of the season, as 13 teams I placed in my preseason bracket are out this time around.

Many of these teams (CalIllinois, Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt) just need a few more wins to make their way back in. Others, like UCLA and Michigan, will have to significantly improve during the conference season to make it.

Here's a quick look at this week's top seeds and the race at the bottom of the bracket. Teams are ordered based on their place on the S-curve (the 1 to 65 ranking of the team's in the field).

Top Seeds: Texas, Syracuse, Kentucky, Kansas
Last Four In: Butler, Minnesota, St. John's, Florida
First Four Out: Missouri, Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt, Old Dominion
Next Four Out: California, Illinois, Wake Forest, Seton Hall

Conference Breakdown
Big East: 7
ACC: 6
Big Ten: 6
Big 12: 5
SEC: 5
Atlantic 10: 4
Mountain West: 3
Pacific 10: 3
Horizon: 2
Missouri Valley: 2
West Coast: 2

A total of 11 conferences have multiple teams in this week's bracket, though the Horizon League and Missouri Valley's second bids are courtesy of bid thieves -- teams who wouldn't have made the field as at-larges, but hold the auto bid through one of the rules I mentioned above. That means 20 conferences have only one entrant. Of these, 16 conferences are represented by a different team than in the preseason bracket.

After the jump, I'll have a breakdown of where each conference currently stands.

Here's the breakdown by conference (or group of conferences). You'll first find the list of teams who made this week's bracket in S-curve order. Since this is my first bracket since preseason, I'm also going to do something a bit different with this rundown. I've also listed my pick as league or group's surprise team, disappointment and a few other teams who still have March hopes. 

Big East (7)
IN: SyracuseWest Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown, Connecticut, Cincinnati, St. John's
Surprise: Syracuse, not really for selection purposes, but for seeding. After losing three key players off last year's Sweet 16 team and falling to LeMoyne in an exhibition, the Orange have been a force, especially as Wes Johnson has emerged as a national player of fhe year candidate.
Disappointment: Louisville, as the Cards have again gone through the Thanksgiving-early December swoon, falling at UNLV and dropping back-to-back home games against Charlotte and Western Carolina. They'll need to make the most of the Big East slate and their January 2 date with Kentucky.
Keep An Eye On: Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall 

ACC (6)
Duke, North CarolinaFlorida StateClemsonGeorgia TechMiami
Surprise: Miami, a team who was picked to finish near the bottom of the league, is again attempting to prove the experts wrong. The Hurricanes won the Charleston Classic over South Carolina in impressive fashion and earned an impressive home win over fellow bubble boys Minnesota.
Disappointment: Maryland went 1-2 in Maui, with the win coming against Division 2 Chaminade, couple that with a loss to Villanova in DC and a whole lot of wins over Division 1 weaklings, and the Terps will need a lot of good ACC wins to make it back to the Dance.
Keep An Eye On: Boston College, Maryland, Virginia TechWake Forest 

Big Ten (6)
 PurdueMichigan StateOhio StateWisconsinNorthwesternMinnesota
Surprise: Northwestern, a team that's playing well even without Kevin Coble. The Wildcats have rattled off nine straight after a home loss to Butler, thanks to the contributions of John Shurna and Michael Thompson.
Disappointment: Michigan, since their best win in a tough schedule is against Creighton, in overtime.
Keep An Eye On: Illinois, Michigan, Penn State

Big 12 (5)
TexasKansasKansas StateTexas A&MTexas Tech
Surprise: Texas Tech, who Bob Knight said had a good chance at winning the Pac 10 because of their three biggest wins (Washington, Oregon State and Stanford -- all in Lubbock). The Red Raiders face another huge test Tuesday, as they visit another surprise team, New Mexico. They already dropped a road game to Wichita State.
Disappointment: Oklahoma, who evidently misses the Griffin brothers quite a bit. Willie Warren hasn't quite provided the necessary leadership to a team that's already lost to San Diego, Houston, UTEP and VCU and barely survived a visit from Northern Colorado.
Keep An Eye On: Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma State

SEC (5)
KentuckyTennesseeMississippiMississippi StateFlorida
Surprise: Florida, though the Gators are rapidly headed into the disappointment category after three straight losses. For a time, it looked as if this was a team that fully bought into Billy Donovan's system. Maybe they can be again.
Disappointment: Vanderbilt, a team that I would have put in this week, if not for a few bid thieves who I'll talk about in a few moments. They own wins over St. Mary's and Missouri, but back-to-back losses to Illinois and Western Kentucky hurt. 
Keep An Eye On: AlabamaSouth Carolina, Vanderbilt

Atlantic 10 (4)
Temple, Dayton, Richmond, Rhode Island The Rams are a bid thief, as they have the A-10's auto bid because they have the conference's best winning percentage.
Surprise: Temple, who no one thought would be anywhere close to this good without Dionte Christmas. The Owls have wins over Villanova, Seton Hall, Virginia Tech, Penn State and Siena. They also have improved greatly since their dour one-point loss at Georgetown on November 17.
Disappointment: Duquesne, a team who hasn't built on its A-10 final appearance last season. They didn't have enough in the tank to beat Pitt in overtime. They also lost at Western Carolina, but ask Louisville how tough the Catamounts are.
Keep An Eye On: Charlotte, Xavier

Mountain West (3)
 BYU, New Mexico, UNLV
Surprise: New Mexico, even if the loss to Oral Roberts took a little bit of shine from the cherry. The Lobos already knocked off Texas A&M in Houston and Cal in The Pit.
Disappointment: Utah, who is admittedly rebuilding, has already dropped home games to Idaho, Seattle and Pepperdine. But they did beat Michigan.
Keep An Eye On: San Diego State

Pacific 10 (3)
 WashingtonUSCWashington State The Cougars are a bid thief, as they hold the Pac 10 auto bid since they have the conference's best winning percentage.
Surprise: USC, who's been a breath of fresh air for those of us who thought the Pac 10 was dead. The Trojans have been a completely different team since Mike Gerrity and Leonard Washington became eligible. USC built on their demolition of Tennessee by sweeping through the Diamond Head Classic this week.
Disappointment: UCLA,as 5-7 with losses to two Big West teams should serve as enough explanation.
Keep An Eye On: Arizona StateCalifornia

Two-Bid Leagues (6) 
West Coast: 
Gonzaga, St. Mary's
Missouri Valley: UNI, Wichita State 
Horizon:  Butler, Green Bay 
Wichita State and Green Bay are both bid thieves this week. The Shockers have the best overall winning percentage in the MVC, while the Phoenix has the best conference record in the Horizon.
Surprise: St. Mary's, as Omar Samhan and a new crop of Australians, led by Jorden Page and Matthew Dellavedova, are making people forget about Patty Mills.
Disappointment: Portland, who looked to be a surprise after my trip to the 76 Classic over Thanksgiving. The Pilots couldn't build on it, however, as they dropped a close one to Portland State and got blown out by Idaho and Washington since. (They have since blown out the Vandals to close the home-and-home out.)
Keep An Eye On: Illinois State, Missouri State, Portland

One Bid Leagues (20)
America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Conference USA, Ivy League, Metro Atlantic, Mid-American, MEAC, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, SWAC, Summit, Sun Belt, WAC
Surprise: UAB, who already has home wins against Cincinnati and Butler to their credit, despite losing a lot of talent after last year's disappointing campaign. Elijah Millsap's 15.4 points and nearly 10 boards a game are a big reason why the Blazers are making noise.
Disappointment: Tulsa, the preseason "it" team in C-USA, just went 0-2 in the Las Vegas Classic, dropping a four-point decision to an average Nebraska squad before getting blasted by Nevada in the third-place game.
Keep An Eye On: Harvard, Memphis, Old Dominion, Utah State, UTEP, VCU 
While 20 conferences earned only one bid this week, the CAA, Conference USA, WAC and, shockingly, the Ivy League all have teams with at-large hopes

Games To Watch

While Monday is quiet this week, things really get cooking on Tuesday, as conference play starts in the Big Ten and ramps up in the Big East. I'll have more on these games as the week goes on in my recap and TV preview posts.

I'll have a list of weekend games to watch on Friday.

Marquette at West Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET (Big East/Full Court)
Penn State at Minnesota, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Texas Tech at New Mexico, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET (CBS College)
Syracuse at Seton Hall, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET (Big East/Full Court)

Connecticut at Cincinnati, Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
William and Mary at Maryland, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET (CSN Washington)
South Carolina at Boston College, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Northwestern at Illinois, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET (Big Ten)

Ohio State at Wisconsin, Thursday, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Tennessee at Memphis, Thursday, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Richmond at Wake Forest, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Green Bay at Butler, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET (Horizon League Network online)
Arizona at USC, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET (FSN/Comcast SportsNet)
St. John's at Georgetown, Thursday, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Oklahoma at Gonzaga, Thursday, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

West Virginia at Purdue, Friday, 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Dayton at New Mexico, Friday, 9 p.m. ET (the mtn./CBS College)