Sorry Rick, a No. 5 or better seed may not be in the Cards. (USAT)
Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …
Too often casual college basketball fans take a team at face value. From their perspective, historical performance and recent trends have established an identifiable brand, a viewpoint that leads people to believe a team transcends actuality. All it takes is a flashy record, a ranking in a meaningless regular season poll and a few nationally televised games, and … POOF! … School X is a legitimate Final Four contender, a club deserving of a favorable NCAA tournament seed.
But peel back the curtain and, often times, looks are very deceiving.
Currently, a handful of high-profile teams appear quite flavorful. On first bite, they possess the necessary characteristics to make any mouth water – plentiful wins, respectable standing in an admired league, seemingly tough schedule. However, flip over the box and they provide little to no nutritional content, the Girl Scout cookies of college basketball.
Less than a month away from Selection Sunday, here are five acclaimed clubs packing empty calories which could attract unsavory seeds in the Big Dance:
Louisville Cardinals (22-4, RPI: 35, SOS: 109, Vs. RPI Top-50: 3-4)
The Cards' top-12 national ranking is precisely why the AP/USA Today polls are nothing more than discussion starters, worthless measurements the Selection Committee doesn't utilize when picking the field. Outwardly, most would consider the reigning national champ a muscle car, but it features only golf-cart horsepower. Despite an eye-popping 21-4 overall record, 11-2 mark in conference play and 21.3 points per game margin of victory, Rick Pitino's bunch only own a pair of wins against teams ranked inside the KenPom top-70 (vs. SMU and at UConn). That's it. By comparison, Bubbleville denizens Tennessee, BYU, Nebraska and Baylor boast more. Heck, even the mighty LA Tech Bulldogs can claim the same. In terms of efficiency data, Louisville is almost as good as last year's trophy-hoisting team. Still, with three tough road games remaining (at Cincy, Memphis and SMU), it could tumble down the mountain in a hurry, eventually bottoming out on the No. 7 line. You better stock up on Schicks, Grizzly Pitino.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-4, RPI: 23, SOS: 92, Vs. RPI Top-50: 1-2)
The 'Zags are the Kansas City Chiefs of college basketball. They played an unusually soft non-conference slate, beat up on below average competition in and out of WCC action and racked the wins. Similar to their NFL comparison, when push comes to shove, they will flounder, exiting the tournament early for the second straight year. Of course, that's assuming they punch a ticket for the Dance. It's completely possible Gonzaga won't have a single win against a tournament team on its resume. BYU and West Virginia sit squarely on the bubble and New Mexico St. is still chasing Utah Valley in a weakened WAC. Gary Bell's absence will be taken into account – they suffered a bad loss to Portland with the guard in street clothes – but if the 'Zags were eliminated early in the WCC tournament they would be in quite a pickle, presumably drawing a 10-11 NCAA tournament seed. Even if they win out, a No. 8 could be their ceiling.
SMU Mustangs (21-6, RPI: 44, SOS: 128, Vs. RPI Top-50: 3-3)
Promoted in this space four weeks ago, the Mustangs have cashed in on their potential. They dispatched Memphis and Cincinnati, netting their first top-10 win since the days when Member's Only jackets were fashionable (1987). Larry Brown has done a magnificent job placing his stamp on a program which hasn't reached the tourney in nearly a quarter century, but Nic Moore and company continue to struggle away from Moody Coliseum, evident in their seven-point defeat at the hands of seven-win Temple. No doubt, they'll grab an at-large spot, but with a non-conference SOS north of 300, landing anywhere from No. 8-No. 10 seems highly probable. Still, with road tilts against UConn and Memphis along with a home tussle against Louisville on the docket, SMU has opportunities to beef up its profile.
San Diego St. Aztecs (23-2, RPI: 20, SOS: 101, Vs. RPI Top-50: 2-1)
Aztec fans have made their disdain for a certain balding loudmouth prognosticator well known. Their excessive chest-thumping and explicit javelins thrown in my general direction may be somewhat justified, but their arguments Team A beat Team B and Team C, meaning it deserves a higher standing, simply don't hold water. Xavier Thames and friends do own arguably the two most impressive non-conference wins of any team (at Kansas and Creighton on a neutral floor). Those triumphs will certainly earn brownie points in the Selection Committee room. However, the Committee scrutinizes a team's entire profile. Because the Mountain West, likely only a two-bid league, is a shell of its former self, SDSU's overall strength of schedule and quality wins are lacking. How could a rational person place it ahead of a Wisconsin (No. 2 SOS, seven RPI top-50 wins) or St. Louis (near identical record but much tougher league)? You can't. Drop another game in the regular season (At New Mexico Saturday?) and a No. 4 seed or worse is practically a guarantee.
Pittsburgh Panthers (20-6, RPI: 33, SOS: 52, Vs. RPI Top-50: 1-6)
Unequivocally, the Panthers are the hardest team to decipher on this list. Largely due to Jamie Dixon's suspect end-game management in tight contests, they've suffered unfortunate missteps against marquee opponents, including Syracuse, Cincinnati, Virginia and North Carolina. But close calls only count in horseshoes and hand grenades. Possessing only one noteworthy win (vs. Stanford) and a 300-plus non-conference strength of schedule, Pitt, despite its 20 wins, has plenty of work left to do. Because of its hollow resume, it's entirely possible it could be forced to sweat out Selection Sunday even with 11 or 12 ACC wins. Substance simply isn't there. Recall last year, Mississippi, which went 12-6 in league play and needed a stirring SEC tournament run to earn a bid (12-seed). To solidify their place in the NCAA tournament field, the Panthers, crazily enough, may need to do the same.
Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …
Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:
DA BULLS (MOVING UP)
Villanova fans, and everyone else in the Big East for that matter, can't wait for Doug McDermott to turn the tassel. Running away with the Wooden Award, McDAMN, who just passed Larry Bird on the Division I all-time scoring list, has eviscerated the competition, converting 44.8 percent behind the arc, 55.3 percent from two and 89.8 percent at the charity stripe. And nonbelievers continue to doubt his game will translate to the next level (The Adam Morrison/Jimmer Fredette comparisons are plain lazy). Due in large part to the senior's play, Creighton is the most potent offense in the country netting an insane 1.269 points per possession. Alongside McDermott, sharpshooters Ethan Wragge, Jahnnes Manigat and Austin Chatman have drilled a combined 45.6 percent from downtown. Overlooked by most, the Jays have also improved defensively, increasing their standing in defensive efficiency by 15 spots compared to last year. A demanding non-conference schedule and inside track on the Big East regular season title, they are in position to garner a No. 3 seed at a minimum and still have an outside shot at a No. 1. Because they share the ball extremely well, commit few turnovers and defend the glass, they're poised to make a deep run. Amazingly, the last time Creighton tasted sweetness was in 1974.
If you bumped into Tim Miles on the street you would probably guess on first glance he had a cushy job in the financial industry or possibly as a professional matchmaker. His outward appearance screams Charles Schwab. But the 47-year-old head coach is a rising star who is quickly changing the perception Nebraska is a football-only school. Just a month ago, the 'Huskers were wallowing in the Big Ten dungeon. At 0-4 and 8-8 overall, they would be lucky to make a run to the NIT. However, starting with an upset home win over Ohio St. and capped by last Sunday's shocking victory in East Lansing, they've reeled off six wins in their last eight, greatly increasing their odds of making the NCAA tournament. Defense is the 'Huskers' driving force. They slow tempo, stretch opponents and body up. On the year, they've given up just 0.964 points per possession. Projected NBA first-rounder Terrance Pettaway along with Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford carry the offense. The trio combined for 48 points and eight threes against Michigan St. Nebraska must carry a hard hat and lunch pail down the stretch to earn an at-large. However, with several winnable games upcoming (Penn St., Purdue, at Illinois, Northwestern and at Indiana), they should enter Selection Sunday with at least 10-11 conference wins. Do that, and they should be in for the first time in 16 years.
It's a bit stunning a school with a rich basketball tradition located in the second-largest market in North America is still flying under the radar. However, that's the case with UCLA. When Steve Alford was hired last spring, many ardent supporters groaned. Though the head coach had a tremendous amount of regular season success at New Mexico, his underwhelming postseason record wasn't as palatable. Still, the former Boy Wonder not only has his club nipping at Arizona's heels, he has is primed to survive the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament and possibly beyond. Led by sophomore sensations Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, the Bruins are one of five teams nationally that ranks inside the top-15 in adjusted offensive efficiency and top-25 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Well-rounded, unselfish, cautious with the ball and long, they possess few weaknesses. Drilling Cal by 20 Wednesday, they trail Arizona, which squeaked by Utah, by only one game. Finish strong and a No. 4 or better seed would be reachable.
Also Flaming: Baylor, Missouri, Colorado
DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)
The Fighting Charlottes have spun quite the sticky web. Served up a golden opportunity to solidify their tournament standing against George Washington, they spoiled the chance, falling 73-65 at the Smith Center. Richmond still sports a commendable 8-4 mark in the A-10 and has critical wins against tourney-bound UMass and St. Joe's, but without a signature out-of-conference victory and sans top scorer Cedrick Lindsay (knee) and key bench contributor Derrick Williams (personal reasons) for the rest of the season, it will likely remain on the outside looking in. Lindsay and Williams were the only seniors on roster, leaving a major leadership void. ShawnDre' Jones has really come alive off the bench topping 13-plus points in four straight games. However, the Spiders' lagging defense (1.080 points per possession allowed in conference play) and shrunken depth are issues they likely won't overcome.
It's been a decade since the Friars, once a NCAA tournament staple in the 1990s, have had their name called on Selection Sunday. After years of tepidness under Tim Welsh and Keno Davis, current head coach Ed Cooley has done an admirable job rebuilding the program in less than three years. Unfortunately, an appearance in the Big Dance will likely remain elusive. Against visiting Villanova Tuesday, the Friars left it all on the floor. In double-overtime, warrior Bryce Cotton stuffed the stat sheet totaling 22 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Kadeem Batts and Tyler Harris were equally brilliant, each chipping in double-doubles. Sadly, it wasn't enough. LeDontae Henton's desperation three at the final buzzer barely drew iron. Now at .500 in the Big East, the Friars' tourney hopes are on life support. Triumphs over Georgetown, St. John's, Creighton and Xavier are attention-grabbing, but on the losing end in five of their last seven and with three road matchups remaining, including a daunting rematch at Creighton, an invitation to the NIT for the second straight year seems probable.
On the wrong side of the ledger in three of its past five games, including a lopsided home loss to resurgent Wisconsin, Big Blue has blown. Offensively, the Wolverines continue to be one of the nation's best. Surgical in a half-court setting, they've tallied the third-highest points per possession mark in college basketball. Though a steady producer in the category, Nik Stauskas and company must execute at a near elite level every game to mask their defensive inadequacies. In their recent three losses, they surrendered 1.246 points per possession. Teams with a strong interior presence have especially given them fits. The Badgers' Frank Kaminsky, for example, lit Michigan up for 25 points and 11 boards, many of those conversions on lay-ups and dunks. With Mitch McGary's a likely postseason casualty (back surgery), Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford need to step up while Stauskas, GRIII, Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin must help out on double teams. Based on their recent slide, how they respond in Sunday's matchup against intrastate rival Michigan St. will be interesting to say the least.
Also Laming: Oklahoma St., Minnesota, California
This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing.
1. Syracuse at Duke
The last time these ACC behemoths squared off, 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome went home with ringing ears, scratchy voices and jubilant thoughts. In the rematch, however, the much smaller Cameron Indoor crowd may leave with similar euphoric feelings. Prior to it's jaw-dropping home loss to Boston College, 'Cuse played with fire skirting by Pittsburgh and NC State in low-scoring affairs. Because the Devils, unlike the Panthers and Wolfpack, have the gunners, slashers and mid-range shooters needed to soften the 2-3 zone, they have fantastic odds of exacting revenge. Count on Jabari Parker, who logged just 26 minutes due to foul trouble Game 1, Rodney Hood and Andre Dawkins going nuts. That happens and the Orange, who still have a date with Virginia in Charlottesville upcoming, will be far from a No. 1 seed lock.
Prediction: Duke 77 Syracuse 67
2. San Diego St. at New Mexico
Achtung overly combative Aztec fans, here is your team's chance to silence the Noise. If SDSU has any dream of earning a No. 2 seed it must win in one of the most difficult environments in all of college basketball, The Pit. Earlier this season, the Lobos experienced an identity crisis under new head coach Craig Neal. Their defense, its calling card under Steve Alford, waned. But allowing just under the D-1 average for points per possession in MWC play (1.029), they've made significant strides. Match that with the high-low combo of Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk and all-around threat Cameron Bairstow, and New Mexico is quite lethal. If this contest comes down to freebies (SDSU FT%: 66.7, NM: 70.3), bet on the home team holding court.
Prediction: New Mexico 68 San Diego St. 65
3. Louisville at Cincinnati
In the first do-si-do between the two AAC frontrunners at the Yum! Center Cincinnati stole a W with a strong second-half charge. The Bearcats attacked the rim, cashed in at the line and pounded the defensive glass. Sean Kilpatrick, quite possibly the most underrated player in the country, scored 28 points in 37 minutes, a perfect 11-for-11 from the charity stripe. Since the loss, the Cardinals have steamrolled over fools winning by an average margin of 26.0 points per game. If the Bearcats can limit turnovers and transition baskets and crash the offensive glass, they will sweep the season series.
Prediction: Cincinnati 67 Louisville 66
4. Michigan St. at Michigan
Stitches are loose in the Mitten. The state's basketball darlings are trending in the wrong direction. It's impossible to know what Spartans team shows up in Ann Arbor. Battered by injuries, they are impossible to predict. Keith Appling, greatly limited by a tender wrist, vows he will play Saturday, but it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how effective he'll be. If the rust accumulated stymies his game like it did against Nebraska, the Wolverines take the cake. If not, and a punch-throwing exchange of Big Ten heavyweights will commence. Michigan defeated Sparty 80-75 in East Lansing January 25. In the second go-round, Tom Izzo returns the favor.
Prediction: Michigan St. 72 Michigan 69
5. Xavier at Georgetown
Chew on this, there is no more Bubblicious game on this weekend's slate than Musketeers/Hoyas. Chris Mack's club may have the shinier conference record, but Georgetown owns the better at-large profile. In their first meeting, the Musketeers blasted the Hoyas by 13, outscoring them 26-8 over the final 10 minutes. G'Town paint patrollers Nate Lubick, Mikael Hopkins and Moses Ayegba combined for more fouls (13) than points (8). Thanks to the dynamite play of Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas have won four out of their last five. Stay out of foul trouble down low and take advantage of Xavier's turnover vulnerability and they should add another RPI top-50 notch on the collar.
Prediction: Georgetown 71 Xavier 64
Last week record: 4-1
Overall record: 13-2
Other Notable Games: VCU at UMass, Wisconsin at Iowa, SMU at UConn, Kansas St. at Oklahoma, UCLA at Stanford, Arizona at Colorado, Baylor at West Virginia, George Washington at St. Louis, Texas at Kansas, Minnesota at Ohio St., St. John's at Villanova, UNLV at Boise St.
What underrated player earned his bust?
What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?
Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Ron Wellman.
In the past, the Selection Committee has made it clear when a team loses a irreplaceable player to significant injury it will take it into account when vetting the field. Three years ago, Duke, without Kyrie Irving for almost the entire regular season, were still awarded a No. 1 seed, largely because the future Cleveland Caviler was cleared to return for the postseason. Of course, the Buffs will not have that luxury. Spencer Dinwiddie, the club's leading scorer over the first 16 games of the year, blew out his knee January 12 at Washington. Colorado has tread water since going 6-4 in Pac-12 games. However, most of those victories were against the lightweights of the league.
Its true colors will be revealed down the homestretch. It got off on the right foot against Arizona St. Wednesday, but Tad Boyle's group faces a veritable murderer's row with remaining matchups against Arizona, at Stanford and at Cal. Brutal. Xavier Johnson has played brilliantly since Dinwiddie's departure averaging 14.8 points per game. He and All-Pac-12 candidate Askia Booker must keep the engine running for the Buffs to accelerate into the NCAA tournament.
Bottom line: Finish the conference season at 10-8 and the Committee will be hard-pressed to deny them. In that scenario, Colorado would surely draw a No. 8 or No. 9 seed. By comparison, most of the teams fighting for the last few spots have upchuck-worthy resumes.
Follow the Bracket Noise on Twitter @YahooNoise
- Sports & Recreation