It's only right that Selection Sunday arrives a month after Valentine's Day. There's so much love in February. But that fateful evening in March will crush men and women who, along with their favorite teams, suffer in uncertain times.
The bubble touches all in 2015-16. It's vast. But those who have escaped its great reach do not rest peacefully on a hammock positioned between today and Selection Sunday. They worry and wonder because "safe" just isn't a word we've heard much this season. The bubble squad and the nation's best? Well, they're all close -- like first cousins. In leagues such as the SEC and Pac-12, they're twins too similar to separate.
The ink will dry on the final bracket in the coming weeks but not before the game delivers its final dramatic act and more chaos comes.
We don't have any answers yet. We have only questions, so many questions.
Questions one month before Selection Sunday
Since 2007, four of the No. 1 picks in the NBA draft (Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony-Towns) have played in the Final Four. Rose and Davis played in the national title game. Davis won the championship with Kentucky in 2012. It's the expectation in the one-and-done era that the best pro prospects will entertain in the NCAA tournament each season in a nationally televised send-off and audition for the next level. But Simmons, the projected No. 1 pick in 2016, could end that trend. Name the most recent time you thought LSU looked like a tournament team. We'll wait.
A squad with five sub-80 losses per the RPI and crucial missed chances (see Oklahoma, South Carolina) left the Tigers with an RPI in the high 60s entering this week. The win Saturday would have meant more if they had faced the Texas A&M squad that beat Iowa State and Baylor, instead of the Aggies team that has lost five of its past six games. The Tigers' best chance to boost their résumé -- assuming they avoid a loss in a dangerous home game against Alabama this week -- is a season-ending matchup at Kentucky.
A victory there, however, seems unlikely, and so a trip to the NIT is possible for Simmons and LSU. Still, a late run through LSU's final stretch of the SEC and into the NCAA tournament -- quantity can help in a slate that lacks an abundance of quality -- could change that. Maybe.
Which team will enter Selection Sunday as the top overall seed?
The Jayhawks overcame the most challenging game on their schedule when they topped Oklahoma 76-72 on Saturday in Norman. Yes, they will travel to Baylor (where Texas Tech won Saturday) and Texas (where North Carolina lost in December) before they host Iowa State in the season finale. But they proved a point when they focused in the final minutes of Saturday's matchup, after they lost Frank Mason to foul trouble.
If the Jayhawks maintain that edge, they could end the season as one of America's hottest and most dominant teams. That possibility, coupled with their two wins over Oklahoma, could lead to a No. 1 overall seed for Kansas and a regional hub in Chicago or Louisville, both a drive of about eight hours from Lawrence, Kansas.
Why aren't more people talking about Villanova as a national title contender?
Two reasons: The image of that 23-point loss to Oklahoma in December remains, and the perception of the Wildcats has been shaped by their early exits in recent NCAA tourneys. They haven't reached the second weekend of the tournament since 2009, the team's latest Final Four appearance. But KenPom.com's No. 1 team is a top-five defensive group led by underrated stars such as Josh Hart. This is a fierce crew talented enough to win a national title. Even so, they won't sway the naysayers unless they bring that dominance into March.
Which team could get hot in the next month and crash brackets?
Without Caris LeVert, who missed 11 games due to a lower leg injury, Michigan finished 7-4. The Wolverines will still travel to Maryland and Wisconsin, and they host Iowa in their final Big Ten game. But LeVert is back. He played 11 minutes in Saturday's win over Purdue. If he can log more time for the Wolverines in the near future, he can help his team secure an at-large berth and enter March Madness as an improved unit. They're shooting 40.5 percent from the 3-point line, they're top 10 in turnover percentage, and their projected first-round pick is healthy again. That's all significant and, potentially, the concoction that could up Michigan's stock before March Madness.
Which team could get cold in the next month?
Oklahoma. At its best, Lon Kruger's team can throttle any opponent in America. But in their past three games, the Sooners have looked like mortals -- not like the program shooting more than 44 percent from the 3-point line, No. 1 in the nation. A 6-for-24 effort from the 3-point line in a loss at Kansas State and a 31 percent outing from beyond the arc in a loss to Kansas on Saturday sandwiched a home win over Texas, a game that demanded a Buddy Hield game-winner.
Oklahoma's marksmanship from the 3-point line and its reliance on those shots (39.2 percent of its offense) could keep the Sooners in the hunt for the Big 12 title and the conversation for a top-2 seed. With pending road matchups against West Virginia and Texas, however, they also could struggle as the Big Dance approaches if the 3s stop falling.
Will Kentucky win the SEC and evolve into one of the scariest teams in the field?
Yes and maybe.
You don't want your favorite squad to play the Kentucky crew that wrecked South Carolina in that 89-62 whipping Saturday. But we don't know if that team will come to play in March. Maybe we'll see the squad that lost at Auburn; maybe we'll see the group that blew a 21-point lead and lost by seven points at Tennessee (ugh). Days like Saturday make you wonder if John Calipari can squeeze the potential from this program in the next month.
We know they have Tyler Ulis, the best pure point guard in America. They have a born scorer in Jamal Murray. If they just defend (opponents are shooting 42.1 percent inside the arc, 17th per KenPom.com), Kentucky can handle any team it will see in the SEC and beyond in the final weeks of the year.
We expect to see Kentucky the Beast again before Selection Sunday. We're just not sure if that version of the Wildcats will come to the NCAA tournament.
Does the Pac-12 have a team that will reach the second weekend?
We don't know. You don't know. Entering Sunday, three Pac-12 teams had four losses (Arizona, Oregon and USC) and three teams had five losses (Colorado, Utah and California). Oregon, the previous league leader, suffered a 20-point loss at California, a bubble team, on Thursday, and then the Ducks lost at Stanford, a team in the bottom half of the league's standings, two days later. We don't know what any of this means.
But we're convinced the Pac-12 could be the big winner on Selection Sunday by leading the nation in bids, and it could be the big disappointment the following weekend -- Google the past season's Big 12 -- if the conference fails to send multiple teams to the second weekend of the tourney.
Can the West Coast Conference get two teams into the field?
That's unlikely. Gonzaga's best chance to boost its 60s-ish RPI unfolded Saturday, when it traveled to Dallas to face SMU. The Zags lost that game 69-60. If you take a hard look at their résumé, you'll see their best wins were against Connecticut and Washington in November. Plus, they'll face Saint Mary's and BYU (road), two teams that defeated them in their first meetings, before season's end. Saint Mary's is the WCC's next-best at-large contender, but the Gaels were swept by Pepperdine this season. Not happening. We think the West Coast Conference tournament next month in Las Vegas might feature the league's lone ticket to the NCAA tournament.
Which conference race will offer the most excitement?
The Big 12. Kansas wants to maintain its reign over the Big 12 (11 consecutive league titles), and it is positioned to do that, but the Jayhawks are tied with West Virginia in the standings (9-3), and crazy things could thrust Oklahoma back into the race. The excitement will center on whatever occurs in Lawrence. Bill Self's remarkable streak of dominance is unrivaled in power conference basketball in the post-John Wooden Era. And it could continue.
Is this North Carolina's last chance to win the ACC and compete for a national title under Roy Williams?
It feels that way. Williams dismissed concerns about his health following a recent bout with vertigo, but the incident reminded us all that the veteran coach is 65, a member of an experienced collection of leaders who could all retire from their posts at powerhouse programs in the coming years.
Williams recently told reporters that the ongoing NCAA infractions case against North Carolina's athletics program, a case that could affect men's basketball, has been "very frustrating."
Plus, the Tar Heels will lose projected All-American forward Brice Johnson and senior leader Marcus Paige after this season. A top-10 incoming recruiting class that includes Seventh Woods (No. 59 prospect in 2016, according to RecruitingNation) will help North Carolina reboot. But Williams has a special group this season in a year that feels wide open.
I'm not sure North Carolina will have a better chance to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2009 and win its third national championship under Williams.
What does Wichita State have to do to secure an at-large berth?
Pray. Those at-large aims might have disappeared Saturday, when the Shockers suffered a home loss to Northern Iowa. Wichita State's entire case for an at-large bid was based on the idea that Gregg Marshall's program became a new team once Fred VanVleet returned from a hamstring injury earlier this season. The Shockers confirmed those claims when they started conference play by winning 11 consecutive Missouri Valley Conference games -- 10 by double digits. Losses to Illinois State and UNI complicated that argument, though. What if Wichita State is just a solid squad this season, one with a win over Utah as the only meaningful victory on its resume? If the NCAA's selection committee says yes to that question, Arch Madness will dictate Wichita State's postseason destination.
How will Maryland's turnover challenges impact its Big Ten title hopes and tourney aspirations?
If you were a captain of a pickup squad in a gym packed with every Division I team, you'd probably pick Maryland first. The Terps look like a Final Four team. But some of their flaws are so pronounced that it's not clear if they'll reach their ceiling, especially if their issues with turnovers persist. Right now, they're essentially committing a turnover once every five possessions (19.3 percent turnover rate, 245th nationally).
Sure, they play Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota in their final five Big Ten games, along with road games at Purdue and Indiana. They could win those matchups. But a team that is eighth in offensive efficiency in league play, per KenPom.com, will continue to lose tight games if its sloppy ballhandling continues.
Will Barry Alvarez give Greg Gard the Wisconsin job?
We'll see. Alvarez, former Wisconsin football coach and current athletic director, might entertain interest from other candidates, especially if Virginia's Tony Bennett is intrigued. But Gard has taken a Wisconsin team that lost four of its first five Big Ten games and led the Badgers on a seven-game, bubble-worthy run that has included wins over Indiana, Michigan State and Maryland in College Park, Maryland.
If Gard's squad maintains this swagger over the next month, how can Alvarez overlook him in the search for the next coach? He has done more than enough to prove he's qualified for the gig. But the next month could solidify his standing for Alvarez.
How dangerous will Michigan State be on Selection Sunday?
Scary. Denzel Valentine might be the best player in America right now. No, he's not the player of the year. Buddy Hield gets that honor. But Valentine, the only player in America averaging 19/6/6 (19.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 6.9 APG), has been a beast in recent weeks. He's healthy again. The Spartans have won five of their past six. Sure, they have five losses and the Big Ten title seems like a fantasy now, but in 2005 and 2015, Tom Izzo led his team to the Final Four, even though Michigan State failed to win the Big Ten tourney or regular season title. He could do it again in 2016.
The only thing we questioned about the nation's most efficient offense (1.20 points per possession) was its questionable defense earlier this season. It was hard to hype a Duke team that gave up 95 points to Notre Dame and 80 points to Miami in January losses.
But the Blue Devils held Louisville to 65 and Virginia to 62 in back-to-back wins last week. Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram comprise a potent combo, and they're demonstrating the chemistry that Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow maintained the past season.
Duke's upcoming schedule is daunting (two games against North Carolina and a road game Saturday at Louisville). Still, it seems the Blue Devils, along with 20 or more teams in college basketball, could compete for a national championship in Houston after another deep run.