- Joe Lunardi, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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In honor of Thursday's BCS title game, I gave serious consideration to abandoning bracket projections altogether and simply nominating two teams to play for the NCAA basketball championship. Just kidding (mostly)
I always consider the first Monday in January the "official" beginning of Bracketology season. This bracket, although in no way final, gives a pretty good indication of the state of the land at the end of the nonconference schedule. Significant nonleague games are still to come, of course, but the vast majority of what we'll see the rest of the way is head-to-head conference action.
With that (and with full credit to Sonny Vaccaro, who once coined the term in print), here are "things I think I think" about the next 10 weeks:
Top seeds: Unlike last season, when Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA almost couldn't avoid being No. 1 seeds, this season figures to embrace the more typical scramble at the top of the bracket. North Carolina -- upset loss to Boston College notwithstanding -- will be on the top line and very likely will be the No. 1 overall seed. Count on at least one Big East team to be a 1-seed, too, although the identity of that team is anyone's guess. That leaves two spots to be split among (in order of probability) the Big 12 champion, the Big Ten champion, a second ACC team, a second Big East team, the Pac-10 champion and a third Big East team. I'm betting on Carolina, Pitt, Duke and Georgetown at this point.
Bulk rate: The Big East (obviously), ACC and Big Ten will be very pleased with their respective number of NCAA teams. They currently project nine, seven and seven NCAA bids, but all three are more likely to fall than rise once the annual conference cannibalizing begins in earnest.
"Major" leagues? Go ahead and give me more than eight combined teams from the Pac-10 and SEC. With the West Division a complete mess and no one in the East truly distinguishing itself, the SEC is especially off. In the Pac-10, it's up to the likes of Cal and Stanford if the league wants to even come close to last season's level of success.
For real: The resurgent Big Ten is absolutely legit. Preseason afterthoughts Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota would have to collapse to miss the NCAA tournament at this point, and even Northwestern is in the mix. Who knew?
Undefeated: Illinois State, one of four unbeaten teams in Division I, figures to be the last one standing now that North Carolina has removed itself from the mix. ISU's competition -- Pitt, Wake Forest and Clemson -- are all better teams, to be sure, but none has an easy path to remain undefeated. If the Redbirds win Tuesday at Bradley, this mini-honor will be theirs for 2008-09.
Where did you go? Gonzaga (7-4) scheduled like a potential Final Four team and may yet be. But the Zags have lost four of their past five and face a rare in-season rematch Wednesday at Tennessee. This is not what the doctor ordered heading into what figures to be a highly competitive West Coast Conference season.
Thanks for coming: Butler (No. 2), Miami of Ohio (No. 12), Temple (No. 23) and Evansville (No. 24) are making unexpected appearances in the InsideRPI Top 25. As proof of the volatility of too-early RPI data, none is an NCAA tournament "lock" at this point. Butler is close, obviously, but two or three bad losses in a solid Horizon League could change the picture rapidly.
Bubbling up: Syracuse, which missed the tournament the past two seasons, will not be a bubble team in 2009. The nonconference schedule and performance were too good, and the Donte Greene-less Orange are a half-court heave away from entering Big East play unbeaten.
Bubbling down: Coaching transition notwithstanding, Arizona has too much talent to be unranked and (more importantly) unbracketed. There is plenty of time to recover in a softer Pac-10, but an 0-2 start to the conference season isn't what the higher-ups had in mind when accepting Lute Olson's resignation.
Still waiting: Give it up for North Carolina Central (0-16), NJIT (0-14), Texas Southern (0-14), Mississippi Valley State (0-14), Alcorn State (0-11), Eastern Michigan (0-11), UNC Greensboro (0-10) and Furman (0-9), all of whom still await their first Division I victories of the season. That's the wrong kind of perfection: 0-99 (and counting!) to be exact.
Joe Lunardi is the resident bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our resident Bracketologist has plenty on his mind as he delivers his first bracket projection of the calendar year.