Ten lingering questions as Selection Sunday approaches
UConn, Pitt, UNC are favored for the top seeds but who should get the fourth?
Can Duke make it past the Sweet 16 this year or even earn a No. 1 seed?
Willie Warren could upstage Tyreke Evans as the freshman with the biggest impact
1. Does Memphis deserve a No. 1 seed? This could be the debate that dominates Selection Sunday. Three of the No. 1s -- UConn, Pitt and North Carolina -- are close to being locked in. But the fourth spot is still up for grabs, and a majority of bracketologists consider Oklahoma to be the best candidate, partly under the assumption that the NCAA selection committee will cut the Sooners slack for the two losses they suffered while Blake Griffin was out with a concussion (and blazered up). If OU doesn't win the Big 12 tournament, though, it opens the door for Memphis, Michigan State, Louisville or even Duke to hop up to a No. 1. The Tigers have the weakest nonconference résumé of that crew -- Tennessee and Gonzaga are their only decent wins -- and the Spartans, Cardinals or Blue Devils would, in my mind, have a more rightful claim to a top seed if they were to win out from now 'til the brackets are built. Memphis' case would be built mostly on momentum; it hasn't lost since Dec. 20, and that kind of streak is hard to ignore, even if most of it was built by playing in a conference ranked 10th in the RPI.
(If the committee considered efficiency numbers, especially the ones that show Memphis' defense is the best in the country, the Tigers would be a shoo-in for a No. 1 seed. Alas, Tigers fans, efficiency is not among the criteria considered in creating the bracket.)
2. Will Stephen Curry even get to the dance? As unsatisfying as the prospect of a Curry-less dance is ... the sad truth is Davidson hasn't done enough to earn an at-large berth. The 'Cats have an RPI of 67, only one win over a top-50 RPI team (West Virginia, on Dec. 9), and bad losses to Charleston and The Citadel. Now Curry & Co. need to win Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the Southern Conference Tournament in Chattanooga to seal a bid. The problem? The other No. 1 seed in that tourney happens to be the host -- Chattanooga.
3. Is there a dangerous mid-major still flying under the radar? You've heard plenty about Davidson, thanks to Curry; you've heard about St. Mary's, thanks to now-healed Aussie star Patty Mills; even Siena is a known commodity, thanks to its upset of Vanderbilt in last year's NCAA tournament. But you should start keeping an eye on Creighton, which won 10 straight to close the regular season in a tie (with Northern Iowa) for the Missouri Valley title. The Bluejays are an elite scoring team with guards that could appear in plenty of BCS-conference backcourts. And their two headliners, P'Allen Stinnett and Booker Woodfox, have names with serious tourney-legend potential.
4. Are you a Pitt person, a UConn person or a Carolina person? Those are the only three teams I'd advise picking to win the national championship in your bracket. Vegas still views it as the Tar Heels' title to lose -- it likes them more than three times as much it as it likes the Panthers -- but all three are viable options. Which one you pick is a matter of taste: Pitt is a tough, offensive-rebounding monster that can look vulnerable if DeJuan Blair gets in foul trouble; UConn is an athletic, shot-blocking force that's the stingiest team of the three, but is missing its best perimeter defender, Jerome Dyson; Carolina is a high-octane scoring machine that's prone to huge lapses in its perimeter D. As of now I'm a UConn person, because I tend to side with the superior defense ... but I reserve the right to change tastes before my bracket is filled.
5. Do you believe in Duke? Picking the Blue Devils to bow out of the Dance early has become almost standard practice; they haven't been past the Sweet 16 since 2004, and have developed a pattern of late-season slumps. In 2007-08, Duke seemed to peak in early February, around the time it beat Carolina in Chapel Hill, and then within a few weeks began a slow slide that finished with a second-round exit from the dance. This season, the Blue Devils began slumping on Jan. 28, when a heartbreaking loss at Wake Forest opened up a 2-4 stretch in the ACC. But there's reason to believe that '08-09 may be different: Duke has actually been surging into March after inserting freshman Elliott Williams into its starting lineup, igniting a four-game winning streak. Picking the Devils to bow out in the tourney's first weekend might not be smart this time around.
6. Do you believe in anyone from the Pac-10? Washington, Arizona State and UCLA are all on a similar level -- they're decent, but not dominant teams who'd have to get really hot and catch a few breaks in order to reach the Final Four. If you have to pick one to make a deep run, the Bruins are probably the best bet. Tournament experience matters, and most of UCLA's primary players have only been to Final Fours during their careers in Westwood. Point guard Darren Collison is a clutch performer who'll be looking to make amends for his flop against Derrick Rose in last year's semifinal.
7. Can Marquette salvage something out of the post-Dominic James portion of its season? James, the senior point guard who broke his left foot on Feb. 25 against UConn, said on Monday, "I'm living my dream through Maurice Acker." Acker is the junior backup who has taken over the reins since James has been out. He has two years' seasoning as James' relief and was a 31-minute-a-game floor general at Ball State in '05-06, and at the very least should be able to improve on James' production from the charity stripe (where he was shooting 46.1 percent) and three-point line (28.4 percent). But where Acker won't be able to make up for James' absence is on the defensive end; while James' offensive numbers dropped off as a senior, he was turning in a brilliant season as a lockdown defender against the Big East's best guards. Acker has quickness, but he's three inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than James, and won't have nearly the same impact. A team that once looked like a Final Four dark horse now has a much lower tournament ceiling.
8. Which freshman will have the biggest impact on the dance? Memphis' Tyreke Evans, who will be running the show for a No. 1-2 seed, will have the biggest chance. The Tigers are going to live or die with the ball in his hands, and, as the Memphis Commercial Appeal recently pointed out, Evans' numbers as a rookie actually compare well to Derrick Rose's. The freshman who could upstage Evans, though, is Oklahoma's Willie Warren, who has been rising up NBA draft boards lately and has a lethal combination of shooting range and ability to get to the rim at will. Whereas Evans will be the focal point of opposing defenses in the NCAA tournament, Warren will be the beneficiary of all the junk schemes thrown at Blake Griffin, and will get plenty of prime scoring opportunities.
9. What will the selection committee make of LSU? Getting slotted as a five (or four) seed and shipped off to Boise after winning the SEC seems like harsh treatment, but it's what might happen to the Tigers. Between the SEC having a down year (it's clearly the worst major conference, ranking sixth in the RPI) and LSU not winning any big nonconference games (it beat Washington State, and that's it), the committee has justification to keep a host of teams that didn't win league titles ahead of the Tigers on the s-curve. This doesn't mean they can't win in the tournament; they have a solid veteran core of Tasmin Mitchell, Garrett Temple and Marcus Thornton that could pose a tough matchup for a less-athletic four (or five) seed in the second round.
10. Will Kentucky sneak in ... or will its fans go into nuclear meltdown mode? The Wildcats must win at Florida on Saturday to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 -- when they were finishing up a two-year ban from the Dance. Given the fact that the Gators are in an equally desperate bubble situation, and aren't likely to roll over at home, the odds are that UK is NIT-bound. The odds are much higher that the reaction of its fan base won't be pretty. Coach Billy Gillispie's job isn't in jeopardy, but judging from the comments left on a recent Lexington Herald-Leader feature about his sprawling mansion -- "I hope he's only renting" being one of the nicer ones -- the faithful aren't ready to cut him much slack.