With apologies to Andy Williams, this is the "most wonderful time of the year." Or, to be more specific, this is the beginning of the year's most wonderful time.
Serious college basketball is being played once again (if you don't believe me, find a recording of Tuesday night's Ohio State-Indiana game). It may not always be the prettiest thing, but the games are more intense starting in January. With it comes speculation -- already -- of what March will bring.
And that's where we come in. Bracketology returns for a new season -- on a new day -- with more projections and "suggestions" than ever before. In the meantime, with apologies to longtime readers, let's review the basics:
• The first rule of bracketology is both simple and easily forgotten: The basis of these projections isn't necessarily what I think will happen this season, but what I believe the NCAA men's basketball committee would do if the season ended today. There are plenty of experts at ESPN who can tell you who will win what and why; my job is to take snapshots at given points of the season and turn these pages into an NCAA Tournament selection show.
• What's the difference between what I think and what the committee would do? Take the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference as an example. As of this projection, Siena (6-5) "leads" the MAAC with a 2-0 record and would thus be the committee's choice for an automatic bid if the season ended today. Now I think (and many would probably agree) that Marist is rightfully favored to win the MAAC's actual NCAA bid when the time comes, but today the Red Foxes are placed into the at-large pool -- because the committee would be forced to do so.
• In leagues such as the Southern Conference (where both Appalachian State and Davidson have 3-0 league records), I break the tie on the basis of ESPN's upcoming "InsideRPI" rankings. So Appalachian State is in the bracket this week; Davidson is not, although the Wildcats got a long look as a possible at-large. Later on in the season, these and other ties can be broken on the basis of head-to-head competition -- as is typically the case for conference tournament seeding.
• The toughest decisions are found, of course, within and among the multiple-bid conferences. The line separating the sixth-best ACC team and fifth-best Big Ten entry may be awfully thin, and it is our job to make those calls and seed the projected field accordingly. We really earn our stripes at the so-called "cut line" between at-large entry into the Big Dance or relegation into the now NCAA-owned National Invitation Tournament. Our track record here had been one miss on Selection Sunday (either 63 of 64 or 64 of 65 teams correct, depending on the year) for six consecutive seasons. Last year, we missed two teams, but learned some new lessons along the way (more on that next week).
• If you don't like your team's selection (or omission), or perhaps its seed and geographic placement, just wait. The projected field is extremely fluid at this early stage of conference play and will continue to shift a great deal until at least early February. Then we can seriously discuss bubble teams and the inevitable "where should I book my hotel" questions.
Finally, please remember to check our FAQ page for other procedural news and notes. This is where we go over things like "who can't play where" and "what the heck is a play-in game?"
In the meantime, enjoy the games. We'll be back each week to tell you what we think it means.
Joe Lunardi is the resident bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.