It took 13 minutes of TBS’s annoying “Price Is Right”-style selection show to “unveil” the 68-team NCAA tournament field Sunday night, during which several messages became clear.
First, mid-majors need not bother playing difficult schedules early in the season because if you are from a so-called one-bid conference, a tough schedule and a first-place regular season finish will get you nothing more than a home game in the NIT unless you win your conference tournament.
Second, even though the West Coast Conference produced a team that played for the national title last season, the selection committee still considers it a one-bid league — unless Gonzaga fails to win the conference tournament. St. Mary’s won 28 games and won at Gonzaga — and is headed to the NIT.
Third, if there is any way at all to get Syracuse into the tournament, the committee will find it. Few fan bases travel better. Orange fans will even go to Dayton, Ohio.
And fourth, the notion that losing a star player for a large chunk of the season but getting him back is taken into account is a myth. Ask Notre Dame, Mike Brey and Bonzie Colson.
Then, finally, the committee got to the brackets.
There will be plenty of enjoyable games here, but the last snip of net will end up in Tony Bennett’s hands. This is Virginia’s year — finally — to go back to the Final Four for the first time since 1984, the year after Ralph Sampson graduated. The Cavaliers teased a lot of teams during the regular season because their style will allow a good team to stay close. But you have to play a full 40 minutes; not even 39:59 will do, as Louisville can tell you in detail as it prepares for the NIT.
The Cavaliers will open Friday in Charlotte against UMBC, one of the best stories in the tournament. The Retrievers are coached by Ryan Odom, who spent much of his boyhood in Charlottesville where his dad, Dave, was a Virginia assistant during the Sampson era. Odom took over at UMBC before last season, after the Retrievers had won 41 games in seven seasons combined. They have now won 45 in the past two, including Saturday’s stunning upset of Vermont in the America East final. Jairus Lyles can score from anywhere, and 5-foot-6 point guard K.J. Maura is an absolute pest. If the Retrievers can make three-pointers, they can hang with the Cavaliers — just not for 40 minutes. The Cavaliers will get the Creighton-Kansas State winner, and that game won’t be close. Sorry, Bluejays. At least you’ll win a round.
The matchups in Boise, Idaho, are fascinating. Kentucky may blow out Davidson, or, if Peyton Aldridge and mates can somehow control the pace, they could make John Calipari’s future NBA draft picks nervous. The winner almost certainly gets Arizona, although Buffalo’s Nate Oats is a terrific coach. The selection committee was in wildcat mode when it put four in the same region: Kentucky, Davidson, Arizona, Kansas State.
Cincinnati opens against Georgia State in Nashville and no doubt will pull for Nevada to beat Texas there. A Shaka Smart team in March can be very dangerous. Ask Kansas circa 2011. If there’s one team Virginia might not want to play coming from the bottom of the bracket, it is Tennessee. The Volunteers are as athletic as Kentucky, and Rick Barnes has been an underrated coach for most of 30 years. It’s sheer coincidence that the Vols are in the same region with Texas, where Barnes coached for 17 years.
Miami against Loyola Chicago is a terrific first-round matchup and will be a popular upset pick. The Ramblers are in the tournament for the first time in 33 years, but it’s tough to pick against Jim Larranaga facing a lower-seeded team with several days to prepare. Either team is capable of upsetting Tennessee after the Vols take care of Wright State.
Who goes to Atlanta? Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas. Kentucky’s speed and size against Virginia’s discipline will be fascinating to watch — so would Arizona vs. Virginia if those Wildcats advance — and the winner of that game will go to San Antonio.
The committee did the Cavaliers no favors with this bracket, but this is their time. I think.
One of the first questions asked on Selection Sunday is always this: Which of the No. 1 seeds is most vulnerable to an early upset? Usually everyone gets it wrong. This year’s pick is Xavier, which probably bodes well for the Musketeers, who play with fire on an almost nightly basis. The final score is all that matters, and Xavier was 28-5. But the Musketeers do appear beatable, no matter how good Trevon Bluiett may be. Plus, North Carolina may be the toughest No. 2 seed in the field. Carolina is 11-1 in the past two tournaments and is loaded with experience and a three-time national championship coach.
Xavier gets the North Carolina Central-Texas Southern winner in its opener in Nashville. The selection committee broke with precedent by sending both champions from the conferences composed of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to Dayton. Typically, it has been one or the other. Now they have to face each other. Xavier should handle the winner.
Xavier will face the Florida State-Missouri winner in the second round. The Seminoles have been less than sterling away from home, but Missouri is the tournament’s mystery team because no one knows how Michael Porter Jr. will play in his second, and perhaps last, full college game. He has had quite a career so far.
North Carolina will open against Lipscomb, which is in the tournament for the first time. The Tar Heels should handle either Texas A&M or Providence in the second round, although if you let the Friars hang around they can make your life miserable. The hottest team in this region is Michigan, which again won four games to win the Big Ten tournament and closed on a hot streak even before then. The Wolverines should handle Montana and Houston, a good team that ought to beat surprise Mountain West winner San Diego State.
Michigan-North Carolina in the Sweet 16 would be a rematch of a long ago region semifinal game in which the Wolverines took out the Tar Heels. The year was 1989. Michigan went on to win the national title. It hasn’t happened since.
Xavier should make it to Los Angeles, if only because of a favorable draw. Waiting there will be Gonzaga or Ohio State. The Buckeyes were the surprise team in the Big Ten this season and probably were delighted when Penn State didn’t make the field, because the Nittany Lions were responsible for three of their eight losses. The Buckeyes probably will have to get past Gonzaga — if the Zags can beat UNC Greensboro (coached by Carolina alum Wes Miller).
Gonzaga’s Mark Few lost two underclassmen to the NBA and two key seniors from last year’s national finalist and is still 30-4. The man can coach. Either one of those teams will be tough for Xavier in the round of 16, but it says here the winner of the region will come out of the Michigan-Carolina matchup. That skeptical prediction should make Chris Mack sleep much better this week.
Villanova deservedly got the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament and a trip to Pittsburgh on the way to Boston as the top seed the East. Once they get through the Radford-LIU Brooklyn winner Thursday, the Wildcats will face the winner of Virginia Tech-Alabama. The Hokies beat Duke late in the season but almost no one else down the stretch, which is why they dropped to a No. 8 seed. Alabama didn’t deserve to be in the field until it beat Auburn in the SEC tournament. The Crimson Tide’s Collin Sexton is a star, but Virginia Tech’s the better team.
Wichita State, which never got much respect from the committee while in the Missouri Valley Conference, got a lot more coming out of the American Athletic Conference, getting the No. 4 seed. It should get past Marshall and then have a donnybrook against No. 5 seed West Virginia, which has one of the most underrated players in the country in Jevon Carter. He can guard almost anyone.
Dallas also will be a fun place to be because whoever wins the UCLA-St. Bonaventure game in Dayton — The Bonnies are in Dayton, but not Oklahoma? Seriously? — will make for an entertaining game against No. 6 seed Florida, a hot-and-cold team with the kind of guards a team needs to win in March. No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin is another school with tournament chops, and it will bring plenty of fans to Dallas to see it play No. 3 seed Texas Tech. Arkansas and Butler meet in Detroit to play No. 2 seed Purdue, which will handle Cal State Fullerton and should reach the round of 16 if only because Isaac Haas may be the world’s largest human and he can play.
Villanova has to be the favorite in Boston — the Wildcats reached Jay Wright’s first Final Four coming out of there in 2009 — but a game against West Virginia in the round of 16 would be memorable. Florida is the sleeper. It reached a regional final a year ago and has those guards and a good young coach in Mike White. The Gators are either very good or very bad. Purdue is just the opposite: solid and consistent.
No doubt many would love to see Kansas and Duke meet in the Midwest Region final: two blue-blood programs, two Hall of Fame coaches and, of course, college basketball’s favorite villain, Grayson Allen. It’s not going to happen.
Kansas will play its first two games in Wichita, which isn’t Allen Fieldhouse but might feel like it to Penn on Thursday. The Quakers will run on the court, look around and say, “Toto, we’re not in the Palestra anymore.” Instead, they’ll be in Kansas — playing Kansas. Not good. But having not played in the tournament since 2007, Penn will be very happy to be there — even if it will be for just a couple of hours. Kansas also should get past the winner of North Carolina State-Seton Hall in the second round. The Wolfpack is more dangerous but is also more apt to no-show against the Pirates.
Duke gets to go to Pittsburgh to play Iona, and, believe me, Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski is happy to be somewhere other than Charlotte, where North Carolina fans show up to root against the Blue Devils. The selection committee apparently mixed up its Hurleys because the second-round matchup potentially will feature Rhode Island’s Danny instead of Arizona State’s Bobby, who helped Krzyzewski win two national titles a quarter-century ago.
Rhode Island gets Trae Young in the first round. He will bring the rest of his Oklahoma teammates with him to Pittsburgh, though that hardly seems necessary. The Sooners are in the tournament for one reason: Young, who led the country in scoring and assists.
The TV types can’t lose in Pittsburgh’s second round: It will either get Young vs. Duke’s Marvin Bagley III or Krzyzewski vs. Bobby Hurley’s younger brother. Bobby Hurley himself, whose team faded badly after a soaring start, goes to Dayton to play Syracuse with the winner likely to beat TCU.
Michigan State gets to go to Detroit, but one wonders what Tom Izzo did to the committee. The Spartans were 29-4 and won the Big Ten regular season title. They should have been in play for a No. 1 seed but instead got dropped to a No. 3 and a first-round match against a veteran, well-coached Bucknell team. That game is not a walkover.
If MSU reaches Omaha, it might run into Duke. Krzyzewski is 11-1 against his good friend Izzo. Still, this just doesn’t feel like a Duke team that’s going deep. There’s the zone; there’s the inconsistency; there’s all that swirls around Allen, fairly or unfairly.
Auburn has the talent to challenge Kansas if it gets past Clemson or New Mexico State in the second round. The Tigers are back in the tournament for the first time in seven years but were done no favors with a first-round game against the 28-win Aggies. Dark horse in the region? Rhode Island, which could take out Duke out in the second round.
This feels like a Kansas-Michigan State final. Says here the Spartans are undervalued.
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