7 key NCAA bracket questions: Where does Zion-less Duke fit in?
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Zavier Simpson point guard hook shot instructional video sold separately):
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7 QUESTIONS AT THE TOP OF THE BRACKET
It's March, the final week of the regular season, and the field of 68 is starting to coalesce. But plenty of unknowns remain for the NCAA tournament selection committee, at both the top and bottom of the bracket. In an attempt to set the March Madness table, The Minutes asks and answers some pertinent questions:
Which two sprained knees (1) could shape the entire bracket?
They belong to Zion Williamson of Duke and Reid Travis of Kentucky, two guys with little in common.
Williamson is an 18-year-old freshman who has become a cultural phenomenon thanks to a dazzling athleticism that is at odds to his offensive lineman frame. Travis is a 23-year-old graduate transfer who has played 123 college games (97 more than Zion), a ground-bound banger whose interior toughness and savvy has anchored the Wildcats' defense. Neither has played the last three games, and the struggles without them have been real: Duke has lost two of its past four; Kentucky was blown out by Tennessee and barely escaped a bad Arkansas team at home.
When they return, how they look and how their teams perform will be huge elements for the selection committee to consider when weighing who gets No. 1 seeds, and where they play. Both Duke and Kentucky could lock down top seeds if they return to the form they displayed before Williamson and Travis were injured.
Who is the biggest lock No. 1 seed?
That would be Gonzaga (2). The Zags may or may not end up the overall No. 1, but they have by far the easiest conference tournament road and literally no geographic competition for the West Region top spot. Gonzaga's complete annihilation of the West Coast Conference is unlikely to end in two tourney games in Las Vegas next week. To refresh a recent Minutes stat, the Bulldogs beat teams that finished second through fifth in the WCC by an average margin of 30.2 points. So go ahead and write in the Zags at 31-2 and No. 1 in the West.
What's the probability of two teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference (3) on the top seed line?
Sixty percent. Duke and Virginia are both there now in virtually every mock bracket, and with good reason. The Blue Devils have lost just once with all their best players available, and they swept Virginia. The Cavaliers are undefeated against everyone not named Duke. But don't discount North Carolina from the mix — the Tar Heels (24-5, 14-2) have a chance to sweep Duke, could still win or share the ACC regular-season title, and if they add an ACC tourney title to the résumé that would likely mandate a No. 1 seed. All three ACC teams are in the top seven of the NCAA NET rankings.
What does the Southeastern Conference (4) have to say about the potential for ACC seeding hegemony?
Plenty. As of now, the fourth No. 1 is either Kentucky or Tennessee, depending which homecourt blowout of the other gets more weight. (It should be Kentucky's. See the Travis information above.) But as with the ACC, there is a third team in the mix — LSU (24-5, 14-2) is two wins away from claiming at least a share of the league title and the No. 1 tourney seed, since it owns the tiebreaker over both Kentucky and Tennessee. The Tigers' overall résumé doesn't stack up to that of the Wildcats or Volunteers — but if they win both SEC titles, that would necessitate a re-examination.
(One potential drawback to an LSU No. 1 seed: A big part of the March discussion of the Tigers will include coach Will Wade being subpoenaed to appear at the April trial in the federal corruption investigation, not to mention the famous "shut the door" wiretap transcript of Wade.)
Can the Big Ten (5) put a team on the top line?
Highly unlikely. Too many flaws. Michigan State has the best overall résumé (including a convincing win in Ann Arbor), but also has been weakened by injury and swept by a bad Indiana team. Michigan will argue that its rout of North Carolina should put the Wolverines ahead of the Tar Heels, but Michigan's overall strength of schedule pales in comparison. What about Purdue? The Boilermakers already have seven losses, and nobody has ever been a No. 1 seed with eight. Maybe if they run the table through the Big Ten tourney, but even then it would require some help elsewhere, plus overlooking a neutral-floor loss to a very bad Notre Dame team.
How about the best of the Big 12 (6)?
It looks like the champion could get a No. 2 seed, but that could still be advantageous based on location, location, location. Heading into a Monday night home game against Texas, Texas Tech has become the standard bearer at 24-5, 12-4 in the league. The Red Raiders have won seven straight, six of them by 12 points or more, and are No. 10 in the NET. Their lack of non-conference heft precludes serious No. 1 seed consideration. Then there is co-leader Kansas State (only No. 28 in the NET) and eternal defending champion Kansas (No. 16). The top Big 12 team would love to be placed in the Midwest region in Kansas City, since the No. 1 in that region is likely to be shipped in from outside the geographic footprint.
Where is the ideal NCAA tournament real estate, and who gets it?
Columbia, South Carolina (7), the first weekend, then Washington D.C. and Louisville. Four of the top seven teams in the current NET rankings are closest to the Columbia subregional than any other site: Duke, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. A maximum of two of them can be sent to Columbia — so who gets those spots, and where do the others go? Columbus, Ohio, seems to be a logical choice for one of the castoffs, although that team almost certainly would be sharing an arena with a horde of Kentucky fans. Jacksonville is another option, and Hartford a third.
Kentucky would dearly love to be tracked to the South region in Louisville, a city that is home to hundreds of thousands of Big Blue fans. Tennessee probably would like Louisville as well, a short drive for Volunteers fans in both Nashville and Knoxville. The ACC Big Three would all love a shot at the East region in D.C. But in order to achieve bracket balance, some of those teams are likely to be dispersed to the Midwest and West.
DEFEND YOUR SORRY RÉSUMÉ
In 2016, the NCAA basketball folks took their first step toward adding some College Football Playoff-style infotainment to the selection process by releasing their early top 16 seeds about a month ahead of Selection Sunday. It's been a good addition, better than the excessive, weekly incrementalism of the CFP rankings.
But if college hoops wants to jazz it up a little more, here's a suggestion: Invite reps of 10 bubble teams in to visit the selection committee and make their pitch for a bid on live TV, with rebuttals from a staff of haters (Yes, The Minutes would fit in well on such a staff). Given the wretched current state of the bubble, this year's show could really be entertaining. Lights, camera, action:
Indiana (8): We swept Michigan State, which is something no other team in America can say. We have six Quadrant 1 wins, including victories over tourney teams Wisconsin, Marquette and Louisville. We're a national name brand with five championship banners and candy-striped warmup pants. And we haven't been to the Big Dance since 2016 — admit it, you miss us.
Staff Hater: We don't miss anyone with a 15-14 overall record and a 6-12 league mark. Those six Quad 1 wins are nice, but you failed to mention the nine Quad 1 losses — not to mention the 1-5 Quad 2 record. You're the last team Northwestern beat. You lost at home to Nebraska. You lost to Rutgers. You went 54 days between home wins. The pants are nice, but seriously: Win the Big Ten tournament or enjoy the NIT.
Arizona State (9): We have hit the high notes. We beat Kansas for the second straight season, beat Mississippi State, beat Utah State, beat Pac-12 champ Washington — all teams that will be in the field of 68. For those complaining about teams with sub-.500 conference records, ours is 11-6. And we've got Bobby Hurley, a March icon.
Staff Hater: So there are four wins over NCAA tournament teams — what about the eight losses to teams that won't be anywhere near the tourney? Vanderbilt is 0-16 in the SEC, but beat you guys by 16 points. Princeton is third in the Ivy League, but beat you in Tempe. Utah also won in Tempe. An 11-18 Washington State team on a five-game losing streak won by 21 in Tempe. Just last week you lost by 28 to a disappointing Oregon team. That's a lot of lousy losses.
ASU: To be fair, the Vandy loss was the second half of Saturday-Monday road swing in the SEC. Tough grind.
Staff Hater: You mean the kind of two-games-in-three-days trips that mid-majors make about four times a year? Yeah, nobody cuts them any slack when they lose those games. Don't go expecting any.
Murray State (10): Ja Morant, ladies and gentlemen.
Staff Hater: That's it?
Murray: That's it. Ja Morant.
Staff Hater: Next.
Clemson (11): We are so close to being good. So, so, so close. We are the first team to lose back-to-back ACC games by one point: 65-64 at Miami, 56-55 at Louisville. We lost to North Carolina and North Carolina State by two. We lost to Nebraska by two. We're maybe five possessions away from being a lock. We've also beaten Virginia Tech and Lipscomb — keep that latter one in mind for all the Lipscomb at-large lobbyists out there.
Staff Hater: Close only counts in horseshoes and triggering election recounts. That's a really short list of quality wins — and it should be noted that Virginia Tech was missing guard Justin Robinson when you beat the Hokies.
Clemson: As an added incentive, we can make sure Trevor Lawrence is in the crowd for our NCAA tournament opener.
Staff Hater: In case you haven't noticed, we have football envy around here. So that would not be viewed as a positive.
Florida (12): We hit our stride in mid-February — five straight wins, including a rout of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and an overtime upset of LSU in Baton Rouge.
Staff Hater: And then what happened?
Florida: Well, we hit a minor complication at home against Georgia.
Staff Hater: Nothing minor about being Georgia's only SEC road win of the season. Or a home loss to South Carolina. Or 12 losses overall. A 3-9 record against Quad 1 opponents leaves a lot to be desired.
Alabama (13): Let it forever be etched into the history books, and into the minds of the committee members, that on Jan. 5, 2019, Alabama defeated the Kentucky Wildcats.
Staff Hater: And two days later, Clemson beat Alabama, 44-16. Not much good has happened to the Crimson Tide since then.
Alabama: Actually, later that very same month, we defeated Mississippi and Mississippi State. Roll Tide.
Staff Hater: Wise of you not to bring up February — 4-5, with zero wins over NCAA tourney teams and three losses by 18 or more points. Send John Calipari a fruit basket if you get in, because winning that game would be the sole reason. Roll NIT.
North Carolina State (14): We got a good non-conference win over Auburn, and we beat Clemson. We're .500 in the almighty ACC.
Staff Hater: Care to discuss a non-conference schedule that includes eight games against the bottom 100 teams in the Pomeroy Ratings?
N.C. State: Not particularly. It was a long time ago.
Staff Hater: OK, fine. More recently there was the 24-point performance that will live in infamy at home against Virginia Tech. The last thing this tournament needs is a team that just may fail to break 25 in a nationally televised First Four game. Next.
Furman (15): We are the plucky mid-major darlings who defeated defending national champion Villanova in Philadelphia. We also beat another 2018 Final Four team, Loyola Chicago, on the road. We are from the ascendant Southern Conference. Plus, video of our scenic campus would be a nice addition to your Selection Sunday show, and fans will be curious to learn what a Paladin is. Please love us.
Staff Hater: I believe Paladin is French for "NIT team." Look, it would be nice to see a school crash the Dance for the first time since 1980 — and the SoCon is legit this year at the top. But any SoCon team that doesn't at least make the semifinals of the league tourney will be left out.
Georgetown (16): We're 8-8 in the Big East, and if we win this week at DePaul and Marquette we will be at 20 wins for the season. That will include a beatdown of Villanova, and wins over at least two other Big East teams on the bubble, St. John's and Seton Hall. Plus our coach is Patrick Ewing, who played in three Final Fours and won a national title 35 years ago. He would make a nice anniversary story.
Staff Hater: Unless Patrick is suiting up, interest is limited. You're a classic schedule-manipulating high-major program: 18 home games, just nine on the road. Losing in Jamaica to Loyola Marymount, the fifth-place team in the West Coast Conference, also does not help. Call us back if you win twice this week and we'll talk.
Saint Mary's (17): We've got 20 wins and we beat New Mexico State in Las Cruces — that counts for something. We're 11-5 in an underrated league. Yeah, we have a Gonzaga problem — so does everyone else. Ask Duke about Gonzaga. We've won seven straight against Not Gonzaga.
Staff Hater: Um, you lost by 48 to Gonzaga. Congrats on keeping it under 50, I guess. And then there are the losses at home to Harvard and UC Irvine. Hard pass.
WHO SNAPPED WORSE?
It's that pressurized time of year when tempers are shorter than Kevin Hart, and losses can lead to meltdowns. Last week there were three doozies. The Minutes decides which display of anger was the worst:
Fran McCaffery (18). The Iowa coach has a history of irrational game-related anger, but he outdid himself after a blowout loss to Ohio State on Feb. 26. McCaffery was heard in a hallway chasing down an official calling him a "cheating m-f—" and a "f— disgrace." Blaming a ref after a 20-point loss is the height of loser behavior, and it earned Fran a two-game suspension from the school and a fine from the Big Ten. But this sort of behavior is widely tolerated by timid administrators in the sport, and has been since Bob Knight made unhinged anger a lifestyle at Indiana.
Jordan Caroline (19). The Nevada star lost it after a close loss and a chaotic court storming at Utah State on Saturday night. With the court overrun by students, the Wolf Pack players were herded off the court in a different direction from their locker room, which led them by the Utah State locker room instead. Words reportedly were exchanged between assistant coaches, and Caroline escalated the situation by punching the glass covering a fire extinguisher in the hallway and having to be restrained. Then it got worse, when an overly aggressive police officer came flying in like a kickoff wedge buster and started shoving Nevada staffers and telling them to get to their locker room. It was a bad way for the Mountain West Game of the Year to end.
John Calipari (20). The Kentucky coach got T'd up in the first half of the rout at Tennessee and kept hammering the officials, but saved his real vitriol for freshman guard Tyler Herro. During a timeout, Calipari stood up to scream directly at Herro, pointing and gesturing. It might not have been the "selfish m----f—" bomb Cal once bellowed at Terrence Jones during a game at Alabama -- but for a guy who talks a lot about empowering players, this was closer to disemboweling a player.
Worst snap of the week: McCaffery.
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