Why the NCAA tourney selection committee is facing its toughest job ever this season
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (dancing shoes sold separately — for the first time — in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, home of Gardner-Webb):
[More Minutes: Conference tourney picks, sleepers, bubble teams to watch]
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS TO THE SELECTION COMMITTEE
Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir is a smart and capable man who is leading a smart and capable group on the NCAA tournament selection committee. But no group of college basketball minds is smart and capable enough to handle what is being thrown at the committee this year.
Simply put: This is the hardest year ever to select and seed the field.
The minefield the committee must navigate between now and the bracket reveal Sunday is treacherous and in some places ridiculous. At least four teams in the mix for a No. 1 or 2 seed are missing a player or coach, with no definitive news on when those people may return. At least four bubble teams have suspended players or assistant coaches that must be factored either in or out of the equation. And then there is the wretched state of the bubble, and whether this is the year to revolutionize the at-large selection process with greater openness to mid-major candidates.
All that, and we haven't even factored in the customary upsets and bid thieves that will complicate matters in the final days and hours of the committee's work.
The hierarchy of problems as they stand now:
THE SCANDAL-SCARRED CONTENDER
What in the heck is the committee supposed to do with an LSU team that seems likely to be without head coach Will Wade (1)? The "strong-ass offer" that was caught on an FBI wiretap earned the coach of the Southeastern Conference champions a university-imposed suspension on the eve of the postseason. A top 10 team's coach being taken out of the mix in March — while his team plays on — just might be unprecedented.
There are two similar situations The Minutes could recall. The first was the Kelvin Sampson (2) fiasco at Indiana in 2008. The Hoosiers were 22-4 and ranked 12th in the country when Sampson was forced out in the wake of NCAA allegations in late February. Interim coach Dan Dakich stepped in and coached the rest of the way, winning his first two games but then losing four of his last five. When the Hoosiers were beaten in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, the NCAA greeted them with a No. 8 seed — which, for a 25-7 team, seemed quite low. But then Indiana lived down to it by losing in the first round to Arkansas, and a problematic NCAA storyline died a quick death.
The second came in 2003, when violations were uncovered at Georgia late in the season — but the Bulldogs took the onus off the selection committee with a self-imposed postseason ban just before the SEC tournament, and wound up firing Jim Harrick (3). As of Monday, LSU hasn't shown any indication that it will pull its team from the postseason.
Also up in the air: the status of guard Javonte Smart (4), the player Wade appears to have been discussing in the call intercepted by the FBI. Smart didn't play Saturday against Vanderbilt. Interim coach Tony Benford said LSU is hoping to have an update on Smart's status Tuesday. (LSU big man Naz Reid, another highly recruited LSU freshman, also did not play against Vandy but that was attributed to injuries sustained last Wednesday against Florida. Benford said he is hopeful that Reid will be ready when LSU opens SEC tourney play Friday.)
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The suspension of Wade was greeted with furor from LSU fans, who directed most of their anger at athletic director Joe Alleva — despite the fact that it seems likely Alleva was following the lead of LSU president F. King Alexander more than anything. Fans booed Alleva, chanted support for Wade and generally acted as if the Tigers were being wronged for absolutely no reason.
NOLA.com columnist Jeff Duncan described it thusly: "It was like no college atmosphere I'd ever seen. At times, it felt like a UFC fight – with Wade as the hometown hero and Alleva as the invading challenger, Public Enemy No. 1 to many in Tiger Nation."
What LSU shows in Nashville this week — and who participates — will be vital in shaping what the committee decides to do with the Tigers in terms of seeding. Wherever they are seeded and sent, the Tigers are the new lightning-rod team of this tournament.
The same thing goes for a trio of teams ticketed for high seeds but awaiting the return of key players this week. In order:
Zion Williamson (5) and Duke. With the best player in college basketball operating at a high level, the Blue Devils are 23-2 and the favorites to win it all. Without him, they are 3-3 and were owned twice by North Carolina. Williamson is expected to play Thursday in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament; if he shows in Charlotte that he's back and good as ever, where do they seed Duke? Can the Devils barge back onto the top seed line after three lackluster weeks? Or, perhaps even more problematic, do they become an unfairly talented No. 2 seed aligned opposite a No. 1 that deserved a better fate? No matter what the committee chooses, there will be backlash. Because Duke.
Reid Travis (6) and Kentucky. Nowhere near as impactful as Williamson, but Travis is a key part of the Wildcats lineup and they have not played as well without him since he sprained a knee against Missouri on Feb. 19. Especially defensively. Kentucky has lost only one game without him, but it was a blowout beatdown at Tennessee and there was a close escape at home against a bad Arkansas team. It's possible that the fourth NCAA No. 1 seed could come down to an SEC semifinal rubber match between the Volunteers and Wildcats on Saturday, and Kentucky seems much more likely to win that with Travis than without.
Charles Matthews (7) and Michigan. He injured an ankle in a loss to Michigan State on Feb. 24 and has missed three games since — including a second loss to the Spartans. Matthews should be good to go in the Big Ten tourney. The Wolverines may be destined for a No. 3 NCAA seed, but a title run in Chicago could at least give them a chance at moving up a line.
THE BUBBLE SUSPENSIONS
Kaleb Wesson (8) has missed the past three games for Ohio State for what the school has termed a "violation of athletic department policy," and wow has it been ugly without him. The Buckeyes have not led for a single second of those games, 125 minutes in total, while being routed by Purdue and Northwestern and seeing a late rally fall short against Wisconsin in overtime. Wesson is Ohio State's leading scorer and rebounder — with him, this is a sketchy bubble team, and without him there is no way the Buckeyes belong in the Big Dance.
Kerwin Roach (9) has missed five straight games for Texas for what was termed a violation of team rules. Longhorns coach Shaka Smart said Monday that Roach, the team's leading scorer, will be back for the Big 12 tourney — which will be make-or-break in terms of NCAA hopes. At 16-15, Texas absolutely has to win games in Kansas City or be left out. The Horns were 1-4 while Roach was sidelined.
And there are suspended assistant coaches at Creighton (10) and TCU (11), both caught up last week in the federal probe of college basketball. The absences of Preston Murphy at Creighton and Corey Barker at TCU may not materially affect the teams' performances at their conference tourneys, but it's not likely to help. Nor is this implication in the scandal that has gripped the sport going to help the résumé for two bubble teams — if it's a coin flip between a school dogged by controversy and a school without, which do you think the committee would rather include? Ask USC, Louisville and Oklahoma State — all implicated in the scandal, and all left out of last year's tourney as bubble teams.
THE MID-MAJOR STRIVERS VS. THE HIGH-MAJOR DRECK
This is where the committee has an opportunity to make a statement by including successful non-winners of the Ohio Valley, Atlantic Sun and Southern conference tournaments instead of taking teams that finish in the bottom half of power leagues. Will they do it? Of particular interest, how the committee handles the following teams:
Lipscomb (12). Record: 25-7, A-Sun co-champions. Conference record: 14-2. Road record: 11-4. NCAA NET ranking: 48. Quad 1 record: 2-3. Quad 2 record: 1-3. The Bisons lost a close and contentious A-Sun title game to Liberty, one of four Quad 1-2 losses by six points or less. If it comes down to a head-to-head comparison with fellow bubble team TCU, know this: Lipscomb beat the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth, leading the entire second half. (TCU, by the way, has played five fewer road games on the season than the Bisons.)
Belmont (13). Record: 26-5, OVC co-champions. Conference record: 16-2. Road record: 12-3. NCAA NET ranking: 45. Quad 1 record: 2-2. Quad 2 record: 3-1. The Bruins were Ja Morant-ed in the OVC final, but it should be noted that they won handily at Murray and swept Nashville rival Lipscomb — in addition to winning at UCLA. At one point Belmont won 14 in a row.
Furman (14). Record: 25-7, SoCon third place. Conference record: 13-5. Road record: 11-4. NCAA NET ranking: 41. Quad 1 record: 1-5. Quad 2 record: 3-1. The Paladins were eliminated in the SoCon semifinals by UNC-Greensboro by four points Sunday night, leaving them short of the conference title game but a firmly established part of the power elite in the nation’s No. 11 conference per Ken Pomeroy. Furman beat half the 2018 Final Four on the road — at Loyola and at Villanova — and also Big South tourney champion Gardner-Webb as part of a 12-0 start. There is a single bad loss, by two points to Samford on a 3-pointer with five seconds to play.
Clemson (15). Record: 19-12, ACC eighth place. Conference record: 9-9. Road record: 4-6. NCAA NET ranking: 35. Quad 1 record: 1-9. Quad 2 record: 6-3. The Tigers’ lone Quad 1 victory was at home by eight points against a Virginia Tech team that was without injured point guard Justin Robinson. Clemson does have a 17-point win over Lipscomb in a game which was, of course, played at Clemson.
Indiana (16). Record: 17-14, Big Ten eighth place. Conference record: 8-12. Road record: 3-9. NCAA NET ranking: 41. Quad 1 record: 6-9. Quad 2 record: 2-5. This is the résumé Michigan State built, by shockingly losing twice to the Hoosiers. Five of Indiana’s six Quad 1 wins are by a total of 10 points, with a lone blowout of Marquette. Five of the nine Quad 1 losses are by double digits. Despite playing 18 home games, the Hoosiers at one point went 54 days without a victory in Assembly Hall.
Alabama (17). Record: 17-14, SEC ninth place. Conference record: 8-10. Road record: 4-8. NCAA NET ranking: 58. Quad 1 record: 2-9. Quad 2 record: 7-3. The Crimson Tide’s argument for inclusion is a two-point home win over Kentucky on Jan. 5, buttressed by victories over conference tourney champions Murray State and Liberty. Alabama also has lost six of its last eight, been swept by a terrible Texas A&M team, lost by 16 to Northeastern and last beat an NCAA tourney team on Jan. 29.
For organizational purposes, The Minutes is moving some of the traditional end-of-column material to the end of the First Half this week. To whit:
UNDER THE RADAR LOVE
Each week, The Minutes spotlights a player from a non-power conference who is doing good things and deserves the attention. This week: DJ Laster (18) of Gardner-Webb.
The senior saved his best for Laster in the Big South championship game Sunday. Laster, who came in averaging 13.1 points, scored a career-high 32 points in an upset of Radford that delivered the Bulldogs their first NCAA tournament bid. An undersized postman at 6-foot-6, Laster also battled the taller Radford post players in the paint defensively, and used his quickness and shooting range to tear up the Highlanders on the offensive end. Laster had Gardner-Webb’s first eight points and 17 of its 27 in the first half. He had 30 before the game was 26 minutes old. It was the game of his life and the best individual performance of the first week of conference tournament play, at precisely the moment his team needed it.
Whoever draws the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament will have to deal with a post player who is currently shooting the lights out from the 3-point arc. Laster has made 11 of 14 threes in G-W’s current five-game winning streak.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Brian Wardle (19), Bradley. When he arrived in Peoria in 2015, the once-proud Braves had endured four 20-loss seasons in the previous five years. Then they would lose 27 Wardle’s first year, and 20 the next. Since then the turnaround has been on — Bradley went 20-13 last year, falling to eventual Final Four team Loyola Chicago in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals. This year the Braves turned the tables on Loyola in the semis, then roared from 18 points down with 15 minutes remaining in the Arch Madness final to beat Northern Iowa for their first NCAA bid since 2006 and first MVC title since 1988.
It’s gotta be the shoes — Bradley is undefeated when Wardle wears his red, size-14 loafers. He will certainly be wearing them next week when the Braves play in the NCAA tournament.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
T.J. Otzelberger (20), South Dakota State. His top-seeded Jackrabbits, winners of the Summit League regular-season title, faced eighth-seeded Western Illinois in the quarterfinals of the league tourney Saturday. SDSU previously had beaten the Leathernecks by 42 on the road and 20 at home. WIU was 1-7 since January. This was the walkover to end all walkovers — and yet, it wasn’t. Western Illinois pulled the shocking upset, 79-76, leading the entire way, and ending the 3,000-point career of South Dakota State star Mike Daum. Otzelberger, a former assistant coach at Iowa State who had taken SDSU to the Big Dance his first two years, now knows the hard reality of losing in a one-bid league tournament.
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