- Joe Lunardi, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
The next full bracket is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 15, with weekly projections beginning Monday, Jan. 2. In the meantime, we can see quite a few patterns taking shape across the country. While none may be as newsworthy as our call from last December -- that the Big East was about to shatter every record for NCAA bids in a single season -- I'm willing to go out on a small limb with the following extended forecasts:
• Wild Cats: Not only is Kentucky going to be a No. 1 seed, it is going to be the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday. According to Ken Pomeroy's peerless projections, the Wildcats will be favorites in every game for the balance of the regular season. That doesn't mean they'll win every time, obviously, but it does mean they're not likely to suffer more than 2-3 losses. No other major conference team will have a record quite like that. Kentucky's road to New Orleans figures to wind its way through both Louisville and St. Louis as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.
• Not far behind: With Kentucky's odds for a No. 1 seed at about 65 percent (which is an extraordinarily high number for early December), Ohio State is next on the board at a little under 50 percent. The two teams are comparable in a number of metrics so far this year, but the Buckeyes figure to lose a few more times in the deeper Big Ten. I think we'll see Ohio State with a better RPI than Kentucky on Selection Sunday, but that doesn't change the reality that the Buckeyes have a harder road to the bracket's top line.
• ACC champion: It seems fair to say that North Carolina, the consensus preseason No. 1, is not going to run away and hide in the ACC. Duke is going to be a much larger presence in Carolina's rearview mirror than most expected, meaning that a No. 1 seed could very well come down to a rubber game between the two rivals in the ACC tournament. I still believe the Tar Heels are a shade better than Duke, but not by enough to sweep the Blue Devils in three potential meetings. At the end of the day, whichever team wins that series has the inside track to a No. 1 seed.
• Big East: We said in the summer that you could throw a blanket over the top tier of the Big East and still need a bit of luck to predict its 2012 champion. With six teams -- Syracuse, Marquette, Louisville, Georgetown, Connecticut and Pittsburgh -- already sitting a combined 47-3, that statement looks downright clairvoyant. If forced to bet, then or now, my money would be on Syracuse. However, as UConn demonstrated in March (and April), you don't have to be the top team in the league to finish as the top team in the country. But you usually have to win the league to be a No. 1 seed, so the fourth spot on the top line is a placeholder for the least wounded Big East survivor.
• Other contenders: By force of conference coattails and/or a potentially staggering won-loss record, a handful of other teams are at least worthy of discussion as possible No. 1 seeds. We'll be closely monitoring the top of the Big 12 -- Missouri, Baylor and Kansas -- as top-seed candidates, along with darker horses such as Xavier, UNLV and Gonzaga. All are capable of running the table in good leagues and making themselves very hard for the selection committee to ignore.
• Overachievers: What do the following teams have in common? None were better than borderline NCAA candidates in our preseason evaluations, yet all have positioned themselves for more serious at-large consideration through their first 8-10 games. Let's give it up, then, for Georgetown (currently projecting as a No. 4 seed), Indiana (No. 6 seed), Saint Louis (No. 6), Stanford (No. 6), Virginia (No. 8), Northern Iowa (No. 8), Mississippi State (No. 9) and San Diego State (No. 10).
• Underachievers: All of these teams were solidly within our preseason NCAA field, but each has stumbled into bubble territory (or worse) as we near the back end of the nonconference slate. You should worry if you're a fan of Villanova, Cincinnati, Texas, West Virginia, New Mexico or Temple, as the early numbers aren't going your way.
• Bracket bytes: If we were doing an NCAA bracket today, the protected seeds would look like this:
Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. He also teaches "Fundamentals of Bracketology" online at Saint Joseph's University. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Lunardi examines the early bracket picture and finds the Kentucky Wildcats heavy favorites to lock up the NCAA tournament's No. 1 seed. Plus, could Mizzou also claim a No. 1? Where does Ohio State fit? And early bubble movement.