Monday January 5th, 2015

The new year has arrived, bringing with it the start of full-fledged conference play. That means it’s time to unveil our first 68-team NCAA tournament field for the 2014-15 season.

A few name brand teams are noticeably absent in our initial field (looking at you, Florida, Michigan and UCLA). Check back in on Tuesday for the first Bubble Watch of the season to find out exactly where those teams stand.

South Region

1. Kentucky (13-0, Last week: South 1): The Wildcats were off last week after wrapping up their dominant non-conference schedule, and they kick off SEC play with games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M this week. Their slimmest margin of victory this year is eight points.

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2. Arizona (13-1, LW: MW2): The Wildcats nearly flipped spots with Utah in this week’s bracket, though that’s more of a reflection of how well the Utes have been playing than any indictment of 'Zona, which opened Pac-12 play by routing in-state rival Arizona State on Sunday. The Wildcats are playing at the two Oregon schools this week and should be able to roll through the Ducks and Beavers, respectively.​

3. Notre Dame (14-1, LW: S4): The Irish needed two overtimes to get past Georgia Tech at home on Saturday, and now things get really interesting for them in the ACC. They play North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Monday and host Virginia on Saturday. Even a split would be a good showing.

4. Texas (12-2, LW: S3): The good news for the Longhorns is that point guard Isaiah Taylor returned from injury and played 30 minutes in Saturday's win over Texas Tech. The bad news is he shot just 2-of-10 from the floor. That he was able to play and emerge unscathed was more important, however.

East Region

1. Duke (13-0, LW: East 1): Freshman phenom Jahlil Okafor scored a career-high 28 points in a shellacking of Boston College on Saturday to kickstart the Blue Devils' conference slate. Three more matchups with unranked teams await before their first real test: a Jan. 17 matchup at Louisville. That game begins a daunting stretch of five contests against currently ranked opponents over a seven-game stretch from Jan. 17 to Feb. 7.

2. Villanova (13-1, LW: E2): Seton Hall knocked the Wildcats from the ranks of the unbeaten with a five-point overtime win last Saturday, but their resume to this point (five KenPom top-60 wins) keeps them as a 2-seed for now.

3. Utah (12-2, LW: West 3): After destroying UCLA by 32 points on Sunday to go with an overtime win on Dec. 3 against Wichita State, the Utes can lay claim to being the most surprisingly impressive team thus far. They’re up to 11th on KenPom, thanks largely to a defense that ranks seventh in adjusted efficiency.

4. West Virginia (13-1, LW: W4): The Mountaineers are 13th overall on KenPom, though they haven't been challenged much, going just 1-1 against that formula's top 50 this season. They can make a statement with a win over Iowa State (No. 19 on KenPom) on Saturday.

Midwest Region

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1. Wisconsin (14-1, LW: Midwest 1): The Badgers destroyed Penn State and Northwestern to begin Big Ten play at 2-0. Sunday's 81-58 win in Evanston was vintage Wisconsin: Four players scored in double figures and the team made 12 of its 25 three-point attempts.

2. Louisville (13-1, LW: W2): If senior guard Chris Jones can consistently play the way he did against Wake Forest, the Cardinals’ offense could start catching up to their defense. He had 22 points -- nearly double his average of 11.3 entering the game -- and 10 assists while playing all but four minutes. Perhaps most importantly, he didn’t even attempt a three-pointer for the second straight game, not a bad idea considering he's made only 29.8 percent from deep on the season.

3. Kansas (11-2, LW: E3): Some may take issue with this seeding, but despite blowout losses to Kentucky (by 32) and Temple (by 25) the Jayhawks still have five KenPom top-50 wins. They can pick up another against No, 16 Baylor on Wednesday.

4. North Carolina (11-3, LW: MW4): The Tar Heels have won five straight since losing to Kentucky on Dec. 13, though just one of those victims (Ohio State) is inside the top 100 on KenPom. After routing a mediocre Clemson team last Saturday, Carolina will face far tougher competition this week in home games against Notre Dame (No. 21) and Louisville (No. 6).

West Region

1. Virginia (13-0, LW: West 1): The Cavaliers eked out a double-overtime win against Miami last Saturday to start ACC play with a win. Their defense may get all the attention, but they're actually the only team in the country in the top five of both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, ranking fourth in both categories on KenPom.

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2. Gonzaga (14-1, LW: S2): The Bulldogs have opened West Coast Conference play by winning three straight road games, beating BYU by seven on Dec. 27 and then cruising to wins over San Diego and Portland last week. They’re the No. 5 team in the country on KenPom, and have at least a 78-percent chance of winning each of their remaining 16 games.

3. Maryland (14-1, LW: E3): The Terrapins have cemented themselves as the second-best team in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin, notching victories over Michigan State (on the road) and Minnesota last week. They play the Badgers just once this season, and that doesn’t occur until Feb. 24. Luckily for Mark Turgeon’s bunch, the game is in College Park.

4. Iowa State (10-2, LW: MW3): The Cyclones just barely held onto their spot in the top 16 this week after losing to South Carolina in Brooklyn, N.Y., last Saturday. Their best wins this year are over Iowa and Arkansas, and they’re 0-2 against the current KenPom top 30.

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