Ten thoughts at the end of a debate-worthy night in college basketball:
1. Before we get to the bracket that is, let’s talk about the bracket that should be. In other words, let’s talk about Colorado. How can I put this nicely? The Buffaloes got jobbed. OK, so that isn’t putting it nicely at all. It’s kind of rude, actually. But it’s 100 percent true. CU’s exclusion from this 68-team field -- and UAB’s inclusion in it -- is baffling.
If you’re interested in this little thing called “wins,” the two résumés don’t really compare. Colorado has six top-50 RPI victories; UAB has none. Colorado beat No. 5 seed Kansas State three times and No. 4 seed Texas once. UAB beat ... um, whom exactly? VCU? Kent State? UTEP? Both teams had ugly nonconference schedules, so the only explanation for the committee’s decision is RPI. Colorado’s RPI is 66, while UAB’s is 31. If that’s the committee’s reason, that’s a pretty bad reason.
It’s nice to know that in two days all this selection fervor will die down and we’ll get to the business of enjoying the greatest competition in basketball live and in living color. We’ll forget all about this soft bubble. We’ll remember that not one of the teams on the cut line was all that good in the first place. But until then, there’s no denying it: Colorado got jobbed, and the selection committee can’t give us a good reason why.
2. Speaking of which, selection committee chair Gene Smith did not do a very good job of explaining his committee’s decisions on Sunday night. Meeting with the media mere minutes after the four-day selection haze is the most unenviable responsibility the committee chairman must handle, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do it. But in interviews on ESPN and CBS, as well as in his post-selection show teleconference, Smith practically refused to answer the media’s questions about the committee’s various seeding and selection decisions. Instead, he gave polite nonanswers. In the first question of his teleconference, Smith was asked why Virginia Tech -- the night’s only other surprising snub -- didn’t make the tournament. His response:
“Virginia Tech is a very good ballclub, a well-coached team,” Smith said. “When we looked at them, considering all the other criteria we look at, the committee looks at about 15 different quantifiable criteria, then we have advice from our regional coaches advisory committee, a lot of different things. At the end of the day when we stacked Virginia Tech's résumé up against all the other teams, we just didn't feel like they were a team that should be in the at-large field.”
When pressed a second and third time for specific reasons why the Hokes were left out, Smith responded:
“I would just tell you to look at their overall résumé, look at their schedule, look at how they did relative to their competition that they scheduled in the nonconference schedule.”
These aren’t reasons why Virginia Tech was kept out of the tournament. They’re skeletal explanations of the selection process itself.
They were par for the course for Smith, as chronicled by our own Andy Katz on Sunday night. Smith used the phrase “well-coached” to describe nearly every team he was asked specifically about. He also said there were “10 people in the room and everyone in the room has different emphasis on different criteria.” (Perhaps one criterion would be a good place to start?)
Look: No one expects the committee to get everything right -- it often does a marvelous job under difficult time constraints -- and no one expects the committee chairman to make the entire process an open book. But as the NCAA strives to increase transparency in the selection process and rid fans of the notion that the process is shrouded in secrecy, Smith’s nonanswers only made a frustrating night that much more so.
Anyway, with that whinge out of the way, let’s take a look at the bracket itself:
3. Which No. 1 seed has the toughest route to the tournament? Surprisingly, that team is No. 1 overall seed Ohio State. If seeds hold, the Buckeyes -- who went 32-2 this season -- have the privilege of playing George Mason in the second round, an underseeded Kentucky team in the Sweet 16, and either Syracuse or North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Throw in the rest of this region’s tough outs -- Xavier, Washington, West Virginia and Villanova are all lurking here -- and you can make a rather convincing case that this is the toughest region of them all.
4. Which No. 1 seed has the easiest path? That honor probably goes to Pittsburgh. The Panthers don’t have a friendly second-round matchup; Butler and Old Dominion are both well-coached (that one’s for you, Gene!), experienced tournament teams with unique styles and plenty of talent to boot. But after that, Pitt’s high-seeded competitors (Florida, BYU and Wisconsin) all have their share of potentially fatal flaws.
5. Don’t say the committee favors Duke. That was a common complaint last season, when the Blue Devils were gifted with a wide-open bracket whose toughest challengers -- Baylor and a Robbie Hummel-less Purdue team -- couldn’t stay on the floor with the dominant Dukies in the regional round. This year, however, is different. Duke got Michigan-Tennessee as its No. 8/No.9 matchup, and the Vols have proved capable of playing up or down to any team’s level this season. Duke got a bit of a break with San Diego State and Connecticut at the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, but either team could present problems for Duke on the interior. But the toughest seed came at the No. 4 spot, where an underseeded Texas team -- the Longhorns were very much in the No. 2-seed discussion this week -- could present massive matchup problems for the Blue Devils. If Duke gets past the Sweet 16, it should return to the Final Four. But the toughest matchup of the Devils’ tournament could come earlier than anticipated.
6. The No. 5-versus-No. 12 matchups are always prone to upsets -- if there’s a cardinal rule of bracket-picking, it’s that -- but this year’s matchups should prove to be especially intriguing. Kansas State will play Utah State, a 30-3 team that dominated its conference, beat Saint Mary’s in Moraga, and could be much more dangerous than anyone realizes. In the Southwest, Vanderbilt got the underseeded Spiders as its No. 12 matchup; Richmond has one of the best guards in the country in Kevin Anderson and an emerging (and hyper-efficient) star in Justin Harper. In the West, Arizona will play Memphis in the battle of Josh Pastner, who was a walk-on at Arizona and spent years there as an assistant. And in the East, West Virginia will play the First Four winner of UAB-Clemson. The Tigers are enticingly athletic. The Blazers are playing for respect after schlubs like me spent all night telling people why they don’t belong in the tournament. All of these games are interesting, and for reasons beyond the usual 5-12 intrigue.
7. Speaking of interesting middle-seed matchups, how about these two 6-versus-11 matchups. In the East, it’s Xavier versus Marquette. In the West, it’s Cincinnati versus Missouri. One could argue that Missouri is a bit underseeded given its entire body of work, but the Tigers did notably struggle on the road this season and fell flat in a blowout loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 tournament. But the Tigers’ style -- up-tempo, frenetic and pressing -- is much harder to prepare for in a single-elimination format than in the familiar rigors of conference play. Meanwhile, Xavier-Marquette will showcase two of the nation’s best and perhaps most underrated players in Xavier’s Tu Holloway and Marquette’s Jimmy Butler.
8. If there’s anything the No. 9 seeds have in common, it’s talent, inconsistency and disappointment. The one team excepted from this theme is Old Dominion. The Monarchs have plenty of the first quality, but none of the second or third. But Illinois, Villanova and Tennessee are this season's poster children for teams that should be much, much better than they are. All three have elite-level talent. All three showed promise throughout the season. All three got their biggest wins in November and December. And all three have been frustratingly incoherent since.
9. Beware the injuries and suspensions. Unfortunately, some NCAA tournament teams don’t get the benefit of coming to the tournament at full strength. Georgetown’s Chris Wright is cleared to play, but will likely have a protective cast on his broken hand. Florida State’s Chris Singleton is questionable for the Seminoles. And in the Southeast, two teams missing key players -- BYU (suspended forward Brandon Davies) and St. John’s (lost guard D.J. Kennedy to a torn ACL this week) -- could meet in the second round Friday. All things to consider as you peruse the field and start filling in your bracket.
10. Need proof this was the softest tournament field ever? OK, probably not. You probably reached this conclusion months ago. But in case you’re holding out, check these numbers from ESPN Stats & Information: Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, five at-large teams made the tournament with 14 losses. There are five at-large teams this season alone with 14 losses. There are seven teams with 13 losses, and 13 teams with 11 losses. That’s a whole lot of losing for the NCAA tournament, but that’s what happens when (a) you expand the field by three bids and (b) you have to fill that expanded field from a pool of candidates that can be described only as the decidedly muddled, mediocre middle.