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…
In the spirit of March, congratulations to the Monmouth Hawks, the first NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball team to clinch a regular-season conference title (MAAC). By do so, the Hawks guarantee themselves a post-season berth. They narrowly missed the NCAA tournament last year as an at-large team. Motivation will be high at the MAAC tournament with another Dance card at stake.
Quick Takes from Thursday:
- Michigan grabbed a critical home win against Wisconsin. The Wolverines close with 4 of 5 on the road, where they’ve managed a 1-6 record.
- Wisconsin likely needs to find wins over Maryland and Purdue down the stretch (including B10 tourney) to secure a Top 5 seed. Otherwise, the Badgers’ top-end profile could relegate them to a slightly lesser seed on Selection Sunday.
- Smooth night out West as Gonzaga, Oregon, and Arizona all roll to wins.
I don’t know if Villanova is the best team in college basketball, but they’re a tough out. When needed most, against a more-than-game Irish group from Notre Dame, senior guard Josh Hart rallied his troops from an 11-point deficit with a career-high 37 points. Villanova will lose this year, but someone will have to beat them – for 40 minutes. Because the reigning National Champions still have heart (and Hart). Satisfied with last year’s journey? It doesn’t appear that way. Despite shooting just 25 percent from beyond the arc, ‘Nova dug in and held Notre Dame to 27 percent. Then promptly outscored the Irish 20-6 at the free throw line. There are a lot of ways to win basketball games and Villanova has a knack for knowing what it takes. Read more…
It’s not easy being green, but it has its benefits. Tom Izzo pushes, prods, and produces tournament-ready teams. And his current collection of cast members in East Lansing is no exception. The Spartans are pushing the top line – hard. When you factor in injuries to Denzel Valentine and others, it took a while for Izzo’s full unit to develop. As of today – with March knocking on the door – not only is MSU healthy, they are playing like one of the best teams in the country.
Kansas remains the No. 1 overall seed, with Virginia, Oklahoma, and Villanova closing out the group. The Jayhawks are likely to stay; the other three lines remain open for debate. Aforementioned MSU is next, with Miami-FL, Xavier, and North Carolina still in the mix. We’ll see if any additional teams emerge.
At the other end of the bracket, Florida and Michigan are running on fumes. If the Gators fail to beat Kentucky and Michigan loses to Iowa, both will likely be on the outside looking in as Championship Week begins. The depth of the bubble is thin outside the bracket, but most of the teams seeded on the seven line or lower today still has work to do. Of course, the cutline could change if teams like Wichita State, Monmouth, Valparaiso, San Diego State, or even Little Rock lose in their conference tourneys. Such scenarios would send those teams into the at-large pool.
On a final note, Wisconsin has engineered one of the best turnarounds in recent history. In December, the Badgers were dropped on the curb, hoping that maybe an NIT bid would be forthcoming. They have now won 10 of 11 games and are squarely in the Field of 68. Assuming they don’t lose to Minnesota, Purdue, and a Big Ten tourney opener to another triple-digit RPI team, the Badgers should be safe.
You have to give Wisconsin credit. Left on the curb after early losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee, and the departure of longtime coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers have found a way to navigate some additional bumps and bruises on their way to seven straight wins and an 8-4 mark in Big Ten play. In the past three weeks, Wisconsin has toppled Michigan State, Indiana, and now Maryland, the last of those Saturday in impressive fashion on the road. Given the current landscape, it was enough to boost the Badgers back in the Field of 68. We’ll see if they have enough left in the tank to stay.
On the flip side, Gonzaga and Wichita State have seen their respective at-large profiles fall into further question. With Fred VanVleet back, the Shockers were rolling through the Missouri Valley and distancing themselves from early losses without him. That was before losing at Illinois State and then at home to Northern Iowa. And while neither of those is a horrible miscue, the Shockers profile now has a couple of dings it didn’t need. Will a home win over Utah be enough to carry the Shockers if they lose in the MVC tourney? As for Gonzaga, the Bulldogs missed a golden opportunity to beat SMU and add a nice non-conference victory to an otherwise iffy resume. The Zags best wins are Connecticut (November) and bubbly Washington. A 2-6 mark vs. Top 100 teams could be problematic. Of Gonzaga’s 19 DI wins, 14 are against teams currently ranked 150 or below in the RPI.
This morning, there are questions – to varying degrees – about teams seeded 23 and below on the seed list. A new bracket is coming tomorrow. Enjoy your Valentine’s Day.
Although not as a media member, I attended open practices on Final Four Friday in Indianapolis. Indy is a great host city. As many have noted, everything surrounding Lucas Oil Stadium is close by; and considering the large crowds (over 25,000 in attendance, per the NCAA), local fans embrace the event.
Here are a few quick notes and takeaways:
- Kentucky has a forest of trees. When all four teams come out to practice – one after another – you notice certain things. UK’s size is one of those things. Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is mammoth, but as an overall team, the Blue Devils aren’t that big
- Tom Izzo loves March Madness. Not only is the Spartans’ head coach wildly successful this time of year, he seems to relish the experience. Michigan State had the most energetic practice, with Izzo directing the fun while smiling and waving to the crowd. He allowed his players to go through a slam dunk event in the final minutes, bringing the crowd to its feet when they finished.
- Bo Ryan of Wisconsin also made it a fun affair; as two sets of Badgers squared off in a half-court shot contest to wind up UW’s session. Each squad made at least five; so if Saturday’s semifinal comes down to a 50-foot heave, you’ve been forewarned.
- Based on the above two notes, Michigan State and Wisconsin appeared to be the most “relaxed” teams at the open practices.
- Duke ran some rather intense full-court drills and has obvious speed on the wings. The Blue Devils will be one of the smaller teams on the floor, so you have to think they will try to speed up the game, score in transition, and create open space for shooters.
- Kentucky kept its practice short. Despite having the largest contingent of fans on Friday, the Wildcats only practiced for about 30 of their allotted 50 minutes, and a good five minutes or so was free-throw rotations. It was a very business-like approach. Maybe that’s what John Calipari believes is best for his team on the verge of history. At 38-0, they are trying to become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to complete an undefeated season.
- On an ironic note, unbeaten UNLV arrived in Indianapolis for the 1991 Final Four (at the former Hoosier Dome). That was the year Duke upset the Rebels in the national semifinals
It’s been a topic of discussion for several weeks. What would happen if Gonzaga lost? Would they fall? Who would take their place as a No. 1 seed? Following the ‘Zags home loss to BYU – which also vaulted the Cougars into a First Four game in today’s bracket – we have an answer: Villanova, at least for now.
The Wildcats – there are two of them (Kentucky) on the top line – slide into the West Region; following UK, Virginia, and Duke. We say for now, because Wisconsin and Arizona also continue to push for that final spot. And it’s conceivable we could see a shift among spots 2-6 on the Seed List between now and Selection Sunday. We know that either Virginia or Duke will lose at least one more game – both play in the ACC tournament. If Wisconsin, Villanova, and Arizona all win out it’ll be interesting to see how the Committee dissects that group of profiles.
With just under two weeks until Selection Sunday, we have several unclaimed spots in the bracket. Perhaps more than ever, conference tournament games could prove decisive . It’ll be even more interesting should we have an upset winner or two. The Atlantic 10 race is a good example – as of this posting, there are three teams tied atop the standings. There are another three teams – VCU, Richmond, and Massachusetts – all within a game or two of the top. It’s perfectly conceivable that anyone of those teams could grab the automatic bid.
It’s March. The Madness is almost here.