By Eric Prisbell
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 7:05 PM
IN LAS VEGAS After five days of critiquing, evaluating and debating the merits of college basketball teams across the country, the 10-member NCAA tournament selection committee will emerge from a luxury bunker at an Indianapolis hotel on Sunday ready to unveil this season's 68-team NCAA tournament bracket.
This season has been defined by the dearth of can't-miss NBA prospects and by the parity - or mediocrity - that has been prevalent in several prestigious conferences that have seen better days. The pool of so-called bubble teams - those contending for some of the last of the 37 at-large berths - has been deemed as weak as ever.
"I don't understand why some teams are in the picture," New Mexico Coach Steve Alford said.
An expanded field - three additional teams will play in the tournament this season - means a handful of teams that typically would not be in the picture are now in strong contention to sneak into the field. Just which schools will make the cut is one of the many pressing questions that will be answered Sunday night.
1) Will the Big East get a record 11 bids?
The Big East, the nation's deepest and largest conference, is expected to break its own record (eight bids) by sending 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. And eight of those 11 are likely to earn top-six seeds in the NCAAs.
The weakest link is Villanova, which has been in free fall this month. The other 10 teams are well deserving of invites. Because the teams play one another, four Big East teams rank among the nation's top 10 in schedule strength. And there's enough parity throughout the top three-quarters of the league that all 11 managed at least .500 conference records.
"It is not outrageous," ESPN's Joe Lunardi said of the 11 expected bids, "but it could feel outrageous to some people Monday."
2) Are all the No. 1 seeds secured?
Ohio State, likely to be the tournament's top overall seed, and Kansas are well positioned to earn No. 1 seeds. Pittsburgh is likely to earn a No. 1 seed, as well. The fourth remains in question.
Notre Dame, which has six wins against teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI, a measure of teams' strength used by the committee, had been in the driver's seat until a loss to Louisville in the Big East tournament semifinals opened the door for two other schools, Duke and North Carolina, to have a chance to squeeze in if one can beat the other in Sunday's ACC tournament final.
3) Which teams are most likely to play at Verizon Center this week?
Verizon Center is one of eight first- and second-round sites this season. The selection committee makes a concerted effort to place high seeds as close to home as possible. While there is no guarantee, Syracuse and Wisconsin or Purdue - whichever Big Ten team is not sent to Chicago, another first-round site - are most likely to play Thursday and, if they advance, Saturday games at Verizon Center.
4) Where will Georgetown be seeded?
Seeding the Hoyas is among the most significant challenges for the committee this weekend. At full strength, Georgetown was a solid No. 3 seed. But since point guard Chris Wright broke a bone in his non-shooting hand, Georgetown has been a shell of its former self, losing four straight and looking out of sorts offensively.
Wright was cleared to play Saturday. The question that is impossible to answer is how effective he will be. As expected, the committee has communicated with Georgetown regarding Wright's prognosis, a person with knowledge of the situation said. The Hoyas should not be surprised with a No. 7 seed, but playing in the 8-9 game is not out of the question.
5) Will George Mason and Old Dominion earn single-digit seeds?
The only time either team ever received one was in 1980, when Old Dominion was a No. 9 seed in the West Region. But it could very well occur this season.
George Mason, which for the most part dominated opponents during a late-season 16-game winning streak, and Old Dominion, which is 14-5 against top 100 RPI teams, have pieced together impressive tournament profiles.
6) How much does finishing strong or poorly matter?
Gene Smith, the chairman of the tournament selection committee, said teams' records in their last 10 to 12 games were eliminated from the "nitty-gritty sheets," the easily digestible team reports that committee members study. But he acknowledged that each committee member can assess a team's finish in his own way.
Villanova is poised to become the first team in the modern era to earn an at-large berth after closing the season with a five-game losing streak. Illinois finished by losing five of its last eight. Missouri finished the season by losing four of its last five. All three could earn double-digit seeds if the committee values a team's play in March.
Conversely, Butler and Gonzaga - two teams on nine-game winning streaks - are among the teams that would like to be rewarded for strong finishes with single-digit seeds.
7) Where will Brigham Young and San Diego State be seeded?
The Cougars were positioned to earn a No. 1 seed before the school suspended Brandon Davies, its third-leading scorer and leading rebounder, two weeks ago because of an honor code violation. His absence compromised BYU's interior play and, overall, its Final Four hopes. Despite the scoring prowess of guard Jimmer Fredette, BYU is most likely destined for a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
"It's just so hard to tell because of the situation," BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe said. "You can't lobby. We'll have our chances" to play.
San Diego State has won more than 30 games and its only losses have come against one team (BYU). But the Aztecs will likely be slotted as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
"They let teams back in games too much," former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "But they are really good."
8) Which at-large teams are most likely to play in Dayton, Ohio?
The final four at-large teams to receive bids will head to Dayton for a game either on Tuesday or Wednesday. The winners of those two games will either be No. 11 or No. 12 seeds.
Virginia Tech, Penn State, Saint Mary's, Virginia Commonwealth, Alabama, Georgia, Michigan State and Colorado are among the teams that could be destined for Dayton.
9) Will there be any surprises?
It's always possible, especially when the committee is dealing with an expanded bracket for the first time. The 2006 Air Force at-large selection is among the most memorable head-scratchers: The Falcons had 24 victories, but none of them were over strong teams and they lost in the first round of their conference tournament. And most basketball aficionados felt Cornell deserved better than the No. 12 seed it received in 2010.
If you're looking for a controversial at-large pick this season, keep an eye on Alabama-Birmingham, Southern California or Missouri State. All appear on the outside looking in, but the committee makes the only decisions that count.
10) Will any team have a reason to gripe about not being selected?
No way. If you're No. 69, no one wants to hear from you this year. The pool of bubble teams is historically weak. A team such as Saint Mary's, with all of three top 100 wins, could earn an at-large berth. Enigmatic teams such as Michigan State and Tennessee are likely to join 2008 Arizona as the only teams with 14 losses ever to earn at-large berths.
Penn State bolstered its chances Friday with an unsightly 36-33 win over Wisconsin, which analyst Jerry Palm deemed the "worst quality win in the history of quality wins."
But it could be worse. As Lunardi concluded, "I think we should all be thankful we are not at 96 teams."
Staff writer Steve Yanda contributed to this report.