One month into the season and so many questions have been answered: Indiana really is that good, but so are Duke and Florida. The Big Ten, thought to be deeper than ever, is even more so with the emergence of Minnesota and Illinois. And two traditional blue bloods -- North Carolina and Kentucky -- have been more like youngbloods as they play through the inconsistencies of their newcomers.
I'm even more intrigued by the unexpected questions that have arisen: How good is Louisville without Gorgui Dieng? "Very..." Will Georgetown ever score enough to be an elite team? "Probably not..." Is the Mountain West better than the Atlantic 10 among non-BCS leagues? "At the top, yes..." What's happening to UCLA and Texas? "Don't ask, I'm not that smart..."
While answering questions and questioning answers, we've also promised to revisit the full Top 100 rankings throughout the season. So here is our one-month recap of the S-curve that also sits behind today's updated Bracketology. The only change in methodology is we're using KenPom.com rankings, not RPI, to identify leaders in the majority of conferences that have yet to begin league play.
Here's how the Top 100 arithmetic works:
• 31 teams are included as projected conference winners (ALL CAPS)
• the next best 37 teams make up the projected NCAA tournament at-large pool
• the next 28 teams take us to 96 altogether, or what the NCAA tournament might one day look like
• add four more teams to reach an even 100, or the combined total of NCAA and NIT teams for 2013
We start with the NCAA top seeds (in order), along with a "Bracket Byte" comment for each team on the board:
CATEGORY NOTES: On my board, the top three teams -- Indiana, Duke and Florida -- have separated themselves from the rest. Michigan leads a handful of contenders for the fourth No. 1 seed position. Looking down the line, I would expect one of the Big East heavyweights (or perhaps Kansas) to emerge in that spot. There figures to be too much cannibalization within the Big Ten for a second member of the league to build a top-seed profile.
Here are the remaining NCAA "protected seeds" (2 through 5), in order:
CATEGORY NOTES: Kudos to Illinois for climbing all the way from "Next Four Out" a month ago to No. 10 in both major polls. I have the Illini a tad lower than that, but the point is the same: John Groce's team is the nation's most pleasant surprise. And to think Illinois might not crack the top four of its own conference; yes, the Big Ten is loaded. Out west, Arizona might be unchallenged in the Pac-12, and the Mountain West is far and away the better league right now. You could make an argument that the MWC is closer to being the No. 5 conference (a spot currently held by the SEC) than falling behind the Pac-12 at No. 7.
Here are the remaining NCAA "single-digit" seeds (6 through 9), in order:
CATEGORY NOTES: The best story on this list is Wichita State, which lost so much of its 27-win team from last season that the Shockers barely registered (No. 91) on the November S-curve. Instead, Wichita has emerged as a legitimate challenger to Creighton in the Missouri Valley and a near-lock second bid for the conference. I'm not sure the Shockers can go much higher, but there are others in this group -- NC State, San Diego State, Notre Dame and Pitt -- that should contend for protected seeds in the new year.
This is where the NCAA bubble begins (seeds 10-13), with one projected conference champion sprinkled in:
CATEGORY NOTES: I had Maryland's weekend win over South Carolina State on ESPN3 and will see the Terps again Wednesday against Monmouth. Mark Turgeon has this program on the fast track, but the current stretch of "buy" games -- S.C. State, Monmouth, Stony Brook, Delaware State, IUPUI -- is going to kill Maryland's nonconference schedule strength. The Terps are going to need 11-12 wins in the expanded ACC schedule to keep themselves on the right side of the bubble.
This is where the NCAA bubble bursts and the projected NIT field begins, with the exception of ALL CAPS conference champions:
CATEGORY NOTES: The true mid-major most likely to sneak into the NCAAs as an at-large team (and win) is Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders (1-0, Sun Belt) should already be in our field as the conference AQ, but an early-season scheduling quirk has them a half-game back of Western Kentucky (2-0). Rules are rules, so the Hilltoppers gain a spot in the latest bracket as the current conference leader. Meanwhile, MTSU joins Bucknell, Davidson, Boise State, Murray State and Ohio as "mids" that can win elimination games in March.
We're down to the most likely NIT bubble teams:
CATEGORY NOTES: The most surprising members of this group are Saint Mary's (losses to Pacific and Georgia Tech at an Anaheim Classic the Gaels should have won) and Northern Iowa, which came oh-so-close to knocking off Louisville and Memphis at the Old Spice Classic. That's the bad news; the good is that the teams play a BracketBusters return game at UNI a week from Saturday. It's the final pre-conference game for the Panthers, who have three more chances for a breakthrough win -- versus Iowa, at UNLV, versus Saint Mary's -- before their Missouri Valley opener at Wichita State.
Last but not least are the final (and lowest-ranked) NCAA automatic qualifiers:
CATEGORY NOTES: This final group has nearly completely turned over in the first month of the season. That's far from unusual given the wide disparity in nonconference schedules among them. I think the teams with the most staying power here are Robert Morris (NEC), Valparaiso (Horizon) and Norfolk State (MEAC). It's a crap shoot for the rest, especially Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Western Illinois (Summit) and William & Mary (CAA). Those three lead leagues that have played less than a handful of conference games and almost certainly will be replaced by early January.