Answering some key questions as Selection Sunday approaches
Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse the prohibitive favorites; Jayhawks are the pick
Who will get the fourth No. 1 seed? Duke has best shot, but it could be W. Virginia
Illinois presents a complex case; don't be surprised if William & Mary makes it
You got questions, I got answers. Selection Sunday is only three days away, so here's a primer on what you can expect:
Are Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse all going to be No. 1 seeds even if they lose their first game in their conference tournaments?
Not necessarily. You'll recall that back in 2007, UCLA entered the Pac-10 tournament as everybody's overall No. 1 seed. The Bruins lost to California in the quarterfinals and ended up as a 2 seed. It obviously didn't cause much of a problem for them as they still reached the national championship game (where they lost to Florida), but if any of the Big Three repeat that feat, I'd say there's a better chance than not they would fall to the 2 line.
Does Duke have the inside track to a No. 1 seed if it wins the ACC tournament?
Not necessarily. Kansas State could ring a few bells if it upsets Kansas en route to the Big 12 title, but the real threat to Duke's claim to a No. 1 is West Virginia. My colleague Andy Glockner is the only bracket expert I've seen to peg West Virginia as a 1 seed right now, but while I disagree with that assessment as things stand today, the Mountaineers would almost assuredly vault to a 1 seed if they win the Big East tournament, especially if it includes a victory over Syracuse. Heading into their respective conference tourneys, Duke is 7-4 against the top 50 of the RPI and 15-4 against the top 100, while West Virginia is 6-4 and 15-6. Duke's worst loss is at No. 104 N.C. State while West Virginia's is at home against No. 61 UConn. Throw in a win over Syracuse and the Mountaineers would -- and should -- come out on top.
Incidentally, the other candidate, Villanova, would probably not vault over Duke if the Wildcats win the Big East tournament. Villanova is 5-5 against the top 50 and 13-6 against the top 100.
Why do we pay so much attention to the No. 1 seed chase anyway? Is there really that much of an advantage?
Not necessarily. You can connect the dots between earning a one seed and having success in the tournament, but since the best teams get to be 1 seeds, we should expect them to do well in the tournament, right? There are two main advantages to getting a top spot. The first is geographic, since the one seeds get top priority when it comes to site selection. The second is competitive. A 15-seed has beaten a 2-seed four times, but a 16 has never beaten a 1. So the advantage is marginal, but it's there.
Will we ever see a 16 beat a 1?
I've always thought it was only a matter of time, but if the tournament expands, and thus eliminates the 16 versus 1 game for all eternity, then time will have run out. Sorry, Cinderella.
If I am searching out teams who will get a geographic advantage in the bracket, where should I look?
Go west, young man. Our friends west of the Mississippi are already at an advantage because there are so many more teams in the east (although this does not help when it comes to media coverage). That advantage will be especially pronounced this year because of the dearth of tourney teams coming out of the Pac-10.
One of the more interesting cases will be New Mexico. The Lobos have a chance to be a No. 2 seed if they win the Mountain West Conference tournament. That should give them first crack at being sent to the West regional in Salt Lake City. However, the final No. 1 seed will also likely be sent out West, and if New Mexico is a No. 2 seed then it will probably be the lowest-ranked No. 2. Would the committee pair the lowest No. 1 seed with the lowest No. 2? My sense is they would, but it will be a close call.
We heard all season long that Gonzaga could be sent to its hometown of Spokane for the first two rounds. What are the chances that will come to pass?
At this point, not likely. The Zags would need to be a top-4 seed to get that kind of priority. They were already a 5 or 6 at best heading into their conference tournament, so their loss in the final to St. Mary's has obviously not helped.
Even so, why would Gonzaga be allowed to play in Spokane while Syracuse is not allowed to be sent to the East region, which will be decided in the Carrier Dome?
Two reasons. First, Gonzaga is not the official host school in Spokane. Washington State is. Second, those games will be played in Spokane Arena, not in the McCarthy Athletic Center, the on-campus arena where Gonzaga plays most of its home games. The committee's rules preclude a team from being sent to a site only if it has played more than three of its games in that arena. Syracuse, on the other hand, is the official host school in the East, and the Orange play all their games in the Dome. So their fans will have to travel, but knowing them I'm sure they will do so in plentiful numbers.
Which bubble team is going to be the most vexing for the committee?
I'll go with Illinois. Where you stand with the Illini depends on where you sit. As a wannabe committee member, what do you value more? Is it more important that a team has good wins, or that it has avoided bad losses? Does the way a team finished the season matter to you? How much emphasis do you put on road games?
If you're looking for good wins -- and good road wins -- Illinois is the bubble team for you. The Illini have four wins against the top 30. Two were on the road at Wisconsin and Clemson. The others were at home against Vanderbilt and Michigan State. That is impressive, although it must be mentioned that Wisconsin was without Jon Leuer and Michigan State was missing Kalin Lucas. But the Illini have just a 5-10 record against the top 100.
The take on their performance down the stretch is also very subjective. On the one hand, if Illinois loses to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on Friday, then that will mean it ended its season with six losses in its final seven games. On the other hand, two of those losses were to Ohio State, two would be to Wisconsin, and one was on the road at Purdue. (The sixth was at home against Minnesota.) It's kind of hard to punish a team for losing those games.
Likewise, if you had Seton Hall in the bracket going into its game against Notre Dame (which I didn't), then I don't see how you can drop the Pirates out for losing to a team that is clearly in the tournament. Seton Hall has three wins over the top 50 and is 6-12 against the top 100, but unlike Illinois it has no losses against teams ranked below 100.
If there is going to be a big surprise on Sunday, for better or worse, who will it be?
The benchmarks for recent Selection Sunday shockers are Air Force's inclusion in 2006 and Syracuse's omission in 2007. For the Air Force scenario, my choice would be William and Mary. Yes, the Tribe has three losses outside the top 100, but they also have three terrific top-50 wins: at Maryland, at Wake Forest, and at home against Richmond. They are ranked 61st in the RPI, they played the 27th-ranked nonconference strength of schedule, they're 6-7 against the top 100, and they made the final of the CAA tournament before falling to Old Dominion for the third time. You at least have to give William and Mary a nice long look.
My choice for the Syracuse scenario is Louisville. This is a somewhat ironic choice because the Cardinals beat Syracuse twice this season, but you know what? Those are Louisville's only two top-50 wins. They have a losing record (9-11) against the top 100, lost at home to No. 121 West Carolina, and they were knocked off by Cincinnati in their first Big East tournament game. Fortunately for Louisville, those two wins against Syracuse are probably going to be enough, but upon closer inspection their case for an at-large is not as strong as many people think.
Why does everybody keep saying this tournament is wide open with no dominant team like North Carolina last year?
Because they have short memories. Yes, the Tar Heels were one of the favorites entering the 2009 NCAA tournament, but they were not prohibitive favorites. They entered the final week of the regular season ranked fourth in the AP poll. They were No. 1 in the poll going into the ACC tournament, but they only had two more first-place votes than No. 2 Pittsburgh. North Carolina then lost in the semifinals of the ACC tournament to Florida State and played its first game in the NCAA tournament without Ty Lawson, who had an injured toe.
In fact, I would argue that all three of the main favorites in this tournament have had more dominating seasons than the Tar Heels had last year. That doesn't mean that they will close the tournament in the same dominant fashion, but this notion that this things is more wide-open tournament than it has been in a long time is just not true.
You mentioned the big three favorites. Can anyone else win this tournament?
Sure, but it won't happen. For starters, last year North Carolina became the 17th No. 1 seed in the last 29 years to win the title, and I see no reason to expect this tournament to go against that trend. There are a large handful of teams that can get to a Final Four, but other than Kansas, Syracuse and Kentucky, I don't think there are any other teams who can win two games once they get to Indianapolis. Maybe one or two of the Big Three will play a bad game at some point, but can you imagine all three of them playing poorly in this thing? Neither can I.
So who are you picking?
I consider the pick I make at the end of the CBS Selection Show as my official prediction, so I reserve the right to change my mind over the weekend based on the conference tournament results. But barring a major injury, I can't imagine picking anyone but Kansas. The main difference between the Jayhawks and their two primary competitors is at the point guard position. Kansas starts a senior in Sherron Collins, while Syracuse and Kentucky both start freshmen in Brandon Triche and John Wall, respectively. Moreover, Kansas has more ways to win than the other two have. The Jayhawks can play small, quick lineups, or they can go big and slog it out in the halfcourt. They can mix in zone defense with man-to-man or turn up the fullcourt pressure. In short, they are more capable of playing poorly and still winning than the other two. That an invaluable asset will carry the Jayhawks to the 2010 NCAA championship.
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