With most mid-major conference champions already crowned, and other “contenders” and “pretenders” starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack, the four NCAA Tournament brackets are beginning to take shape.

With three of the four No. 1 seeds already reserved for Kansas, Maryland and Duke, the only top billing which remains up for grabs appears to be in the West. Several qualified teams are vying for this final spot, including Alabama, Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Oregon.

Alabama had previously been in the hunt for the top spot, but a rout at the hands of Mississippi last week put a dent into the hopes of a top seeding for the Crimson Tide. If they manage to bring home the SEC tournament crown this week they could rekindle their chances for a top seed.

Cincinnati has already captured its seventh consecutive Conference USA regular season title and is the favorite to win the conference tournament at the end of the week. If the top-seeded Bearcats can avoid an upset, they will likely claim the top spot in the West. But they must be on the lookout for upset-minded Louisville. Rick Pitino has finally secured the reins of this team and they could pull an upset in the C-USA tourney.

Oklahoma has looked strong all year, and owns several quality wins, including an early-season home victory over Maryland.

Unfortunately for Oklahoma, it has yet to solve Kansas, dropping both regular season match-ups to its Big 12 rival. Unless the Sooners can somehow defeat the Jayhawks (who are 16-0 in conference play) in the Big 12 Tournament this week, they will likely find themselves as a two seed.

Only two teams have been granted a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeding after failing to win either their conference regular season or tournament title (Indiana in 1987 and Michigan in 1993). Of note, Duke may also be added to that list this year if they do not take home the ACC Tournament title.

Pittsburgh has surprised everyone this year, running out to a stellar 25-4 mark. But with the Big East not the powerhouse it once was, and playing a less than impressive non-conference schedule, the Panthers must win the Big East Tournament and pray for some help from other teams before they can even think about claiming the final No. 1 seed.

And add Oregon to the list. If they can add a post-season conference title to their regular season crown in the strong and balanced PAC-10, the Ducks may get the top nod, as they would be a true West coast team naturally seeded first in the West.

Beyond the locks for at-large bids, who else is likely to celebrate on Selection Sunday? Perhaps this year more than ever, deserving mid-major teams that may have been ignored in the past will be recognized by the Selection Committee.

Teams like Pepperdine (WCC) and Butler (Horizon) ? and eventually Kent State or Ball State (MAC) and Hawaii or Tulsa (WAC) ? all failed to win their conference tournaments, yet with solid regular season records and some key victories over bigger schools, these teams will receive more than a glance from the Tournament committee.

No longer will schools with sub-par conference and overall records get the nod over mid-majors simply because they are from traditionally stronger conferences such as the Big East or Big Ten.

This year’s season has also produced its share of “bubble” teams. A team whose NCAA Tournament status is uncertain is said to be a “bubble” team. Schools such as Memphis, St. John’s, Minnesota, Missouri, Georgetown and Virginia are all quality teams with potential.

Yet, due to a combination of poor conference records, bad losing streaks and low RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) rankings, many of these squads will likely be counted out of the field of 64. Conference tournament success is their only shot at improving their RPI and getting an invitation to the ball.

RPI has become to the NCAA Tournament what SAT has become to college admissions. It’s the score that counts. To discover an RPI, take the strength of a team’s schedule, add their winning percentage against that schedule and then toss in the winning percentage of their opponents plus some super secret selection committee ingredients, and you get the picture. Reducing the quality or success of a team’s season to a single number will leave some deserving squads at home without a dance partner.

So who has the potential to outlast some of the Tournament favorites on the “Dance Floor?” To answer this, we must recognize the phenomenon of the “sleeper” team. A “sleeper” is a team that many may not be expected to go far, but has the potential to wreak havoc on the opposition and go deep into the Tournament.

The Texas Longhorns fit the bill. After losing senior forward Chris Owens for the year to a knee injury, many wrote off the young team. But Texas did anything but throw in the towel, and went on to give top-tier schools such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State a run for their money when they faced off in Big 12 action.

Guided by freshman point guard T.J. Ford, the Longhorns have endured an exhausting schedule in arguably the nation’s toughest conference. They have been gearing up for NCAA Tournament action all season. If Ford

(who will become the first freshman to lead the country in assists) can continue to spark his teammates, the Longhorns could play their way deep into their region.

Another team that could do some major damage in its bracket is Illinois. Picked as high as No. 2 in many pre-season polls, the Illini dropped fast, both in the national rankings and Big Ten standings. But, directed by the resurgent play of junior point guard Frank Williams, Illinois is now one of the hottest teams around, riding an eight game win streak into the Big Ten Tournament.

Coach Bill Self’s squad also possesses two essential tournament intangibles ? veteran leadership and postseason experience. Seniors Cory Bradford, Robert Archibald and Lucas Johnson and junior Brian Cook all provide depth and versatility, and have played in a combined 24 NCAA Tournament games.

Depending on how they fare in the Big Ten Tournament, the Illini should earn between a two and a four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Led by a talented core of experienced players, Illinois will be looking to prove that their critics were wrong to jump off the bandwagon.

This may be the year of the mid-major. It would seem customary to throw Gonzaga into the mix, but, with a ranking as high as seven, they just don’t seem to be a good fit for the category this year.

Thus, a shift to the Sun Belt Conference reveals that Western Kentucky seems to have some of the necessary pieces. Led by their relatively unknown superstar, 7’1” center Chris Marcus, the Hilltoppers are hungry to prove that their early season win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena was not a fluke.

While this year’s tournament will undoubtedly see its share of upsets, buzzer beaters and Cinderella stories, it seems highly unlikely that anyone will step in the paths of Kansas, Maryland or Duke on their way to the Final Four in Atlanta.

The only question that remains, then, is which of these three elite teams will emerge as the national champion.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.

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