<
>

At the Watercooler: Bracket madness

Myron Medcalf: What's up, Eamonn? I'm glad we're both safe, man. That Louisville bandwagon has been abandoned. I think it's just rolling aimlessly throughout the country. Anyone can get hit if they're not careful.
But we're here to talk brackets … not a game, not a game … brackets.

Two names for you. Villanova and La Salle. Two programs that cracked Joe Lundardi's new bracket after outstanding performances over the past week. How do you feel about Nova (wins over Louisville and Syracuse) and La Salle (wins over Butler and VCU, barely) cracking the field?

Eamonn Brennan: Myron, believe it or not, the Louisville bandwagon actually just rolled by my coffee shop today. It just sort of sat there, waiting hopefully for someone to jump on. I almost did, but only because my coffee shop had just started playing one of the Mumford & Sons albums -- I don't know which one, because I can't even tell their songs apart, let alone their albums. I hoofed it instead. Eventually, the UL bandwagon sputtered off. Sad.

In all seriousness, (A) none of this happened (except for the Mumford & Sons; that was real, and it was terrible), and (B) I am not so readily abandoning Louisville. I'm not that worried.

But you're right; we can talk Louisville anytime. It's Tuesday morning, and we need to be talking about Lunardi's latest edition of Bracketology. And I think the two Philly Big 5 members getting the love from Joey isn't just a matter of the man's hometown and professional affiliations; those teams generally deserve it. La Salle got two really good wins; Villanova got two great wins. Plus, when you look at Nova's résumé thus far, the only really bad loss is that mysterious Columbia thing. There are a couple you'd like back in there (Alabama, at Providence), but there isn't a whole mess of really ugly games that would cause you to totally dismiss the Wildcats' tournament bona fides out of hand.

The Explorers are in a pretty similar position: Their big wins got them over the top, and their lone "bad" loss (a home defeat to Central Connecticut back on Nov. 18) is just that: alone. Neither team is safe, but after a week like this, I can totally get with the bracket love.

MM: Exactly, man. Both La Salle and Villanova have done enough to make the field. I can't blame Joe for those two. This is a very confusing field. We don't have many elite teams. And we have only a handful of squads that feel comfortable about their tournament statuses entering February. The rest should be uneasy right now. We're talking about teams such as Arizona State, Iowa State and Kentucky. At this point the race is so wide open that you have to at least keep these bubble teams in the conversation. And how many of those teams can match what Villanova and La Salle have done within the past week?

And Joe is my guy, for sure. But I'm not giving the fourth No. 1 seed to Duke. I'm not saying Gonzaga, Indiana or Arizona have Teflon arguments. But I don't think I will be able to shake that Miami loss from my mind for a long time. Once Ryan Kelly returns, Duke might regain its old form. But right now I think the Blue Devils are a 2-seed, and I really would elevate Arizona or even Indiana over that team right now. Probably Zona because of that Florida win. Am I wrong?

EB: Well, here's the thing (and I know you know this, but for the benefit of our readers): Like Bubble Watch, Joe is putting the bracket together as if the tournament started tomorrow. That's the only way to do it, obviously -- it's hard enough to process all of this stuff; forget trying to reasonably predict the future -- but it is worth taking into consideration what these teams have to do the rest of the way. Indiana is in the best conference in the country, and has two games remaining against Michigan, two against Ohio State, one against Michigan State and one against Minnesota. Theoretically, they could set up an unassailable record against top-50 RPI teams. Duke, on the other hand, got the majority of its tournament work done in November and December, when it ran the gamut against one of the most impressive groups of noncon fixtures we've seen in recent years.

Plus, the NCAA tournament selection committee doesn't look at winning margin (the better to prevent teams from running up the score) and it does take into consideration the differences in a team's ability before, during and after it loses a player to injury. (This will help Miami, as well, because its losses all happened when either Reggie Johnson or Durand Scott was out of the lineup.) Point is, no, Duke doesn't look particularly good right now. But I think Joe nailed the way the selection committee would rationalize the Blue Devils' No. 1 seed spot.

MM: You speak the truth. I can't say I have a strong argument against Duke at No. 1 because few teams have stepped up to counter with a better one. But I think the Miami and NC State losses prove that we're dealing with a team that's not competing at the same level as the one that tore through the Battle 4 Atlantis.

But it's not the only team in an uncertain position in Joe's bracket. It seems as though Gonzaga is stuck at No. 2. The WCC won't offer the Zags many opportunities for advancement even if they run the table. I think Gonzaga needs a lot of movement at the top to secure a spot.

And this is a huge week for Ole Miss, a 7-seed. Kentucky and Florida in the same week? Wow. Marshall Henderson & Co. could move way up or way down after this week, right?

EB: Yeah, it's hard for me to imagine how Gonzaga could get to that top line -- it seems unlikely at best. But then again, when you really think about it, a No. 2 seed is not too shabby for a tiny Jesuit school from the West Coast Conference. Perspective, right?

The Big Ten is in an interesting place right now. Illinois, which began the season in such solid shape, has almost played itself out of Lunardi's bracket with its horrific shooting in Big Ten play. The Illini are now an 11-seed thanks to a still-3-point-reliant attack that has, in seven Big Ten games, yielded a league-worst 3-point shooting percentage (24.5 percent). The good news? That'll probably improve in the next month and change. The bad news? The Illini are not defending well anyway.

It's entirely possible they could miss the tournament, and it would be a shame because they would have squandered a totally brilliant start from first-year coach John Groce. And it would be interesting because Iowa is already on the outside of the tournament looking in. Would the perception of the Big Ten change? Maybe that's a dumb question, but given how obviously the Big Ten's conference superiority has been this season, it would be kind of interesting to see them get only six of their 12 teams in the bracket.

MM: I think that perception would change. The Big Ten's ultimate perception will be dictated by its results in March Madness. But right now, the "best league in America" tag is largely based on the number of at-large squads the conference potentially possesses. And up until a month or so ago, it was easier to envision eight teams making the pool. But Illinois, as you've mentioned, does not look good. Iowa is a few quality wins from re-entering the conversation. And although it's safe now, Minnesota's four-game losing streak hasn't helped the league's cause, either.

But in the Big East, Villanova joins a vibrant crew representing the conference. If at-large bids determine status right now, at what point does that become the best league in the country? Yes, Cuse and Louisville have struggled. But the conference's midlevel squads have risen while the Big Ten's have confused because of inconsistency. Is the Big East the top dog now based on this bracket?

EB: It's an interesting thought … but nah. The Big East is definitely better than most people expected, and I think it's probably still a little underrated by your average casual fan. People don't realize how good Pittsburgh is, everyone's still warming up to Marquette, Villanova just burst onto the scene, Cincinnati is right there, Notre Dame and Georgetown are works in progress but have plenty of strengths, and then, obviously, Syracuse and Louisville have the look of national title contenders. But in terms of overall top-to-bottom strength -- and that's how we should evaluate conferences, not just based on NCAA tournament teams or Sweet 16 appearances or whatever other criteria -- I think it's pretty clear the Big Ten is the best.

After our UK freakout of two weeks ago, I think we made an unspoken pact to not discuss Kentucky until something definitive shakes loose, but you alluded to it earlier: Huge game for the Wildcats at Ole Miss tonight. Before we go, any bold predictions?

MM: Yes, one prediction. America will fall in love with the enigma known as Marshall Henderson as he leads the Rebels to a double-digit win over the Wildcats and an overtime win at Florida this weekend. Too bold?

EB: My, my … that is bold. But then, I would expect nothing less from a man so dedicated to the all-bold lifestyle. You're sort of similar to Henderson -- whose antics I admit I absolutely love. Still, a win at Florida? I'll be sure to revisit this next week. Until then, Myron.