CHARLOTTE — NCAA tournament selection weekend advances to the fateful Selection Sunday with a chance of upholding some of the most timeless American sports traditions: resentment, class envy and caterwauling.
Those grievances might get a good airing in some precincts because it seemed, as of late Saturday, that the ACC might snare three of the four No. 1 seeds in the 68-team bracket: Virginia, Duke and North Carolina. Such laurels would make the ACC only the second conference ever so acknowledged and place the basketball-rich league at risk of advanced haughtiness.
Other places might just resent it.
BracketMatrix.com as of Saturday night had recorded a frightening 124 projected brackets around the addled country, with Virginia (29-3) named as a No. 1 seed in all of them, even after an ACC tournament semifinal loss to Florida State on Friday. Duke (29-5) placed second with a horde of No. 1s and a sprinkling of No. 2s in the changing dynamic, while Gonzaga (30-3) and Kentucky (27-6) filled out the top four, at least until Kentucky saw a late eight-point lead erode to defeat in a hothouse of an SEC semifinal Saturday against Tennessee (29-4), which had ranked seventh in the aggregate.
While the selection committee will announce its decision Sunday evening, North Carolina (27-6) stood fifth in the taut tangle of teams, and had it scored on its final possession Friday night against Duke in a 74-73 semifinal loss here at Spectrum Center, it would have become a clear No. 1 seed right then, with Duke a clear No. 2.
Jay Bilas, for one prominent voice, went ahead Saturday and advocated three No. 1s for the ACC. Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s bracket geometrician, pegged Duke and Virginia as “locks” for No. 1s on Saturday midafternoon and then by late afternoon, after Kentucky’s loss, saw North Carolina and Gonzaga as the other No. 1s. Of the three-ACC motif, he said, “Duke has made it so, mostly by getting Zion Williamson back.”
Ultimately, Williamson, the phenomenon from Spartanburg, S.C., would return from injury and turn the ACC tournament into a feast for human eyeballs, making 33 of 43 shots in three games, snaring 30 rebounds and even plucking seven steals, some intensely memorable. Duke beat Florida State later Saturday night in the ACC final, 73-63, with Williamson winning MVP honors for the event.
If Williamson’s resumption and Kentucky’s capitulation give the ACC the three No. 1 seeds — barring a disruption from Tennessee or Michigan State (27-6), both of which could make a case with a conference championship victory Sunday afternoon — the 15-team ACC would follow upon the 16-team Big East from 2009. That year, Louisville became the No. 1 overall seed and No. 1 in the Midwest Region, while Connecticut became No. 1 in the West and Pittsburgh in the East. Of those three, only Connecticut reached the Final Four, but so did another Big East team, Villanova, which as a No. 3 seed toppled Pitt in the East Region final.
North Carolina, bounced in an ACC tournament semifinal that year, was granted the fourth No. 1 seed, then stormed to the title.
Ten years on, Bilas, the attorney, ESPN basketball analyst and former Duke player, said, “I don’t think you even have to build the case” for three ACC No. 1s. He said: “What are the best four teams? That’s the 1 line.” He rejected drowning in particulars such as, “I really don’t like North Carolina’s late-game ball-screen defense, so they look like a 2 seed to me.”
He pegged Gonzaga as his fourth No. 1 seed and also the fourth-rated of his four, noting that while the Bulldogs befuddled basketball addicts by losing, 60-47, against Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference championship game Tuesday, they had defeated Saint Mary’s by 48 and 14 in February and early March.
The same goes for North Carolina, which took a lashing from Louisville in January but beat the Cardinals twice thereafter. The Tar Heels figure into a baffling mix around the back end of the No. 1 seeds because they beat Duke twice (sans Williamson) and just about did it a third time (with Williamson) and beat Gonzaga, which lost to Tennessee, which went 2-1 against Kentucky, which lost, 118-84, to Duke, which lost to Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational tournament.
“But this is the problem with the committee and stuff: The longer you get into it, the further you get into the weeds,” Bilas said. Referring to all the newfangled charts and graphs, he said: “But we’re adding these weeds. It’s just not this hard. There is no way you can look at a bunch of paper and determine who’s better between [for example] TCU and Belmont.”
Basketball-minded people, he said, just have to decide.
Seeding, Bilas said, “is more important than selection.” He remembered the 2014 tournament, in which a team unbeaten all season, Wichita State, got a No. 1 seed yet got saddled in a quadrant with a No. 8 that deserved a No. 4 in his judgment. That team, Kentucky, shooed Wichita State in the second round, then went dramatically to the final in an event in which, Bilas said, “The whole tournament was mis-seeded.” For a No. 1, he said, it matters who turns up at Nos. 8 or 9 or 4 or 5.
Yet “number one seeds,” he said, “are not that hard to decide upon. They’re just not that hard.” Of having three from one league, he said, “I don’t care what league they’re in.” And: “If you’ve seen Duke play healthy this year, how could anybody not think they’re among the four best teams? I just don’t think any reasonable basketball person will sit and say, ‘I think Michigan State and Kentucky are better than Duke’ ” with Williamson.
Asked about the possible trio on the top line, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said: “I really never get into that kind of thing. I really don’t. I can’t tell you right now more than one location for the rounds next week. I really just try to coach my team today to play the best that we possibly could today. . . . I have no idea. I don’t even know what the hell NET means. Okay.”
(Note: NET means the NCAA’s new system to rank teams to aid in selection and seeding.)
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim felt optimistic about his team in the NCAA tournament because, he said, “I think that this league, you’re playing the 1 and 2 and 4, 5 teams in the country, and I think that helps you get ready.”
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “Our league is as good as any . . .” then broke off that and said: “It’s just, I think it’s better, you know, and so this has been a heck of a thing for us. I watched a little bit of Florida State, and their defense is outstanding today. Virginia’s as good a team as there is in the country. We have some really good teams,” his familiar voice emphasizing the word “really.”