The Washington Times - January 16, 2012, 10:49AM

Time for two thoroughly candid admissions before delving into the first serious bracket projection of this season (the one that ran in last week’s dead-tree edition was about as much of a dry run as there could be).

1. It’s way, way, way too early for this with barely half the season in the books.

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2. Weeks with two wins or two losses can still net wild fluctuations at this time of the season.

So, at the risk of sounding selfish, any attempt to construct a bracket right now does more for me (in terms of becoming more and more familiar with every team’s profile (and what first-round matchups to avoid because opponents have already played) than anyone wanting to know how their team stacks up.

The reality is it’s pretty easy to tell who many (if not all) of the elite teams are. It’s also extremely difficult to differentiate the final at-large teams.

It is, however, already clear that Cincinnati will be an interesting team to keep an eye on thanks to its dreadful nonconference strength of schedule, its handful of useful victories to date and losses to Presbyterian and St. John’s that don’t look particularly good.

The Bearcats aren’t included in this projection, a direct byproduct of an annual lesson imparted again last year (courtesy of Colorado and, to a lesser extent, Alabama): When teams are borderline NCAA tournament candidates and their nonconference schedule is terrible, they will be left out. Cincinnati will have to earn its way in through a strong conference showing – sort of like last year, actually. It’s certainly more than possible, especially with a signature road victory (Georgetown) already in hand.

As for the full bracket. …

EAST REGION

Pittsburgh

(1) BIG EAST/Syracuse vs. (16) SWAC/Texas Southern-NORTHEAST/Long Island
(8) WEST COAST/Saint Mary’s vs. (9) Wichita State

Albuquerque

(4) UNLV vs. (13) METRO ATLANTIC/Iona
(5) Virginia vs. (12) Purdue

Omaha

(3) Kansas vs. (14) ATLANTIC SUN/Belmont
(6) Mississippi State vs. (11) MOUNTAIN WEST/Colorado State

Columbus

(2) Illinois vs. (15) COLONIAL/George Mason
(7) Louisville vs. Marshall

SOUTH REGION

Louisville

(1) SEC/Kentucky vs. (16) BIG SOUTH/UNC Asheville
(8) Xavier vs. (9) Northwestern

Portland

(4) MISSOURI VALLEY/Creighton vs. (13) Stanford/Minnesota
(5) Seton Hall vs. (12) SOUTHERN/Davidson

Louisville

(3) Indiana vs. (14) SUN BELT/Middle Tennessee
(6) Gonzaga vs. (11) New Mexico

Greensboro

(2) North Carolina vs. (15) BIG SKY/Weber State
(7) Kansas State vs. (10) CONFERENCE USA/Memphis

MIDWEST REGION

Albuquerque

(1) BIG 12/Baylor vs. (16) PATRIOT/Bucknell
(8) Marquette vs. (9) PAC-12/California

Portland

(4) Michigan vs. (13) BIG WEST/Long Beach State
(5) Vanderbilt vs. (12) IVY/Harvard

Nashville

(3) Connecticut vs. (14) BIG WEST/New Mexico State
(6) OHIO VALLEY/Murray State vs. (11) Texas

Columbus

(2) BIG TEN/Michigan State vs. (15) MID-AMERICAN/Akron
(7) Florida vs. (10) ATLANTIC 10/Dayton

WEST REGION

Greensboro

(1) ACC/Duke vs. (16) AMERICA EAST/Albany-SOUTHLAND/Texas-Arlington
(8) Wisconsin vs. (9) Temple

Nashville

(4) Georgetown vs. (13) HORIZON/Cleveland State
(5) San Diego State vs. (12) Southern Mississippi/Oregon

Omaha

(3) Missouri vs. (14) SUMMIT/Oral Roberts
(6) West Virginia vs. (11) Florida State

Pittsburgh

(2) Ohio State vs. (15) MEAC/Norfolk State
(7) Alabama vs. (10) Brigham Young

Conference call: Big Ten (9), Big East (7), Big 12 (5), SEC (5), ACC (4), Mountain West (4), A-10 (3), Conference USA (3), Pac-12 (3), West Coast (3), Missouri Valley (2)

Patrick Stevens