Between Thursday and Friday, three eleven seeds won. We also had the usual 12 over 5-seed. And yet, the first two days of the 2017 NCAA tournament feel rather chalky. Maybe that’s because the twelve seed, Middle Tennessee State, was actually favored to win its matchup with Minnesota. Also, were we surprised to see Xavier beat Maryland? Or Rhode Island trip up a less-than-healthy Creighton? If there was a surprise, it’s USC. The Trojans rallied from double-digit deficits twice, beating Providence in the First Four, and then SMU on Friday.
While the results might leave us a little hungry, the Round of 32 looks might tasty. My Quick Takes on the weekend’s top five matchups …
Gonzaga vs. Northwestern – We could rename this game: Ultimate Underdog vs. New Kids on the Block. While Gonzaga is respected for its consistent excellence, the Bulldogs have never reached a Final Four and remain many people’s pick as first No. 1 seed to lose. Thus, the pressure is squarely on the Zags, who struggled to score against South Dakota State (shooting 39 percent overall and 27 percent from 3). The good news: Gonzaga no longer relies on its offense to carry the day. Flipping the page, Northwestern might be the feel good story of the year. They survived a late rally by Vanderbilt to win their first-ever NCAA tournament game in their first-ever appearance. And who doesn’t enjoy those sidelines shots of Doug Collins and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, right? Read more…
As the final seconds ticked away in Brooklyn on Friday night, Duke celebrated a victory over rival North Carolina. With it, the Blue Devils may also have secured the No. 2 seed in the East Region behind Villanova. They certainly look dangerous. Arizona tripped UCLA in the Pac-12, setting up a rematch with Oregon. The winner will likely be the No. 2 seed out West.
Vanderbilt continues its climb and could become the first at-large team with 15 losses, assuming they fall short in the SEC tourney. Elsewhere on the bubble, teams like Kansas State, Wake Forest, USC, and Illinois State must sit and watch; their resumes complete. Pay special attention to the Atlantic 10 semifinals. Rhode Island is close to grabbing a spot, and two potential bid thieves lurk opposite the sets of Rams (URI, VCU). Today, it’ll be time to re-scrub the seed list again as more resumes fill up.
Wichita State took care of business Sunday in St. Louis, locking up the Missouri Valley’s automatic bid, and with it, a ticket to the Big Dance. Winners of 15 straight, the Shockers enter the 2017 tournament on quite a roll. Advanced metric models like their profile more than the RPI. We’ll know more about how the Selection Committee views them when seeding is revealed on Sunday. Regardless of where they fall, the Shockers will be a dangerous opponent.
Meanwhile, Illinois State begins a long, arduous wait. The Redbirds’ body of work is complete. All they can do is watch what unfolds in places like the Big 12, Big Ten, Atlantic 10, SEC, and even the Pac-12. They’ll be rooting for league favorites to advance.
March is here. Madness awaits. The next ten days will be filled with hope, excitement, and anxiety as teams and fans await their 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket on Selection Sunday. Between now and then, we still have several things to sort out. Here’s what we know: Kansas, fresh off yet another Big 12 title, sits atop the bracket, followed closely by Villanova. Both the Jayhawks and Wildcats look fairly entrenched on the top line. The other two spots remain in play. Will Gonzaga hold on? Will a Pac-12 team make a jump to the one line? Can North Carolina survive the ACC tournament and keep its perch in the South?
Each of those story lines should be fun to watch. And we haven’t even talked about the bubble. Illinois, Wake Forest, and Kansas State all helped themselves Wednesday. USC and California are trying to hold on and state their case. Xavier continues to struggle, its NCAA outlook now unclear. Next week’s conference tournaments loom large for final seeding and selection. If a few bid stealers emerge, hold on.
If today were Selection Sunday, and North Carolina was the ACC champion, the Selection Committee would likely be inclined to reward the Tar Heels with a No. 1 seed over a very good Baylor team whose profile is equally impressive but lacks a conference title. In the world of splitting hairs, we just did. On that note, two interesting twists await. First, UNC hosts Louisville on Wednesday, and the Cardinals are No. 6 on the Seed List. If Louisville wins in Chapel Hill, the Cards could make a strong case for the top line on Thursday. Second, the Tar Heels close with an incredibly tough slate, going to Pittsburgh and Virginia before finishing at home with Duke. Baylor can easily play its way back up.
In the race for No. 1 seeds, Villanova and Kansas are sitting in strong positions as the regular season comes to a close. Should Gonzaga finish unbeaten, it would hard to drop the Zags from their No. 1 perch in the West. Which leaves, at least for now, one top seed up for grabs, and it could go any number of ways.
Another meh and blah weekend along the cutline. Should we lose solid mid-major programs like Middle Tennessee State, UNC Wilmington, and say, Monmouth or Illinois State during their conference championships, the Committee will have to heavily weigh a bunch of mediocre power teams versus some solid programs who have fewer chances for marquee wins.
If we learned anything after Saturday’s sneak peak into the 2017 Selection Committee’s thinking – at least in mid-February – it’s this: Quality RPI wins still matter and the Atlantic Coast Conference is the top game in town. The road to Selection Sunday is far from over, but as of Noon this past Saturday, ACC teams gobbled up five of the 16 seed lines released (31 percent). The Big 12 and Pac-12 each took three (19 percent each). The Big East and SEC two each (12.5 percent). The Big Ten? A discussion point, but not worthy, and that was before Wisconsin lost at home Sunday night to Northwestern; a huge win for the Wildcats, by the way, who are poised to make their first-ever appearance in March Madness. Cincinnati and SMU (American) were also on the outside looking in at the top four lines.
Now, take a breath. If college basketball has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Although the very top of the bracket is certainly taking shape, nothing is set in stone. Based upon the Committee’s seeding, three ACC teams (North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State) are still in play for a No. 1 seed. One could say the same for an eventual Pac-12 champion, especially if say Oregon or Arizona wins the regular season and P12 tourney titles. As for Gonzaga? With their trip to Saint Mary’s in the rearview mirror, it’s looking more and more likely the Bulldogs will wrap-up a perfect season. If they do, a No. 1 seed awaits. If they were to stumble, we’ll see. The Committee is not as enamored with their perfect record as compared to the number of power wins by say a team like Kansas or Baylor.
There’s nothing new to report along the bubble. It’s as messy as ever. Stay tuned.
It’s a busy week on the Bubble. For Rhode Island, it’s a double-dip of fun. The Rams, a member of Monday’s First Four OUT, travels to Massachusetts tonight (Tuesday) and hosts Dayton on Friday. If URI can handle UMass, it sets up an important resume building opportunity against the Flyers. The Rams lost a close one at Dayton in early January. Heading into the week, Rhode Island was 3-7 vs. Top 100 teams, with one NCAA-level (at-large) win: Cincinnati (in November). It won’t be easy, but a 2-0 week would certainly help the Rams’ positioning.
More of this week’s biggest Bubble games (Bubble teams in Bold): Read more…