Full-Court Press: Tourney Time
Philadelphia, PA – The NCAA Tournament selection committee did both a great and terrible job in picking the 68 teams that make up the field of this year's annual event.
Luckily, it got the important part right as there are very few gripes to be made about the teams that are both included and left out of this year's Big Dance. The biggest snubs were Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Baylor. Although all four would have been capable of winning an NCAA Tournament game had their names been called, each did plenty to dissuade the committee from selecting them, and instead picking a solid mid-major program to fill the final four open slots.
John Calipari's Wildcats became the 20th team to fail to make the field a season after cutting down the nets as national champs.
Clearly it would have been a more popular decision to include the Wildcats over the likes of Boise State, Middle Tennessee or Saint Mary's. The Broncos inclusion is a testament to how tough the Mountain West Conference was this season. They had to duel the likes of Colorado State, UNLV, Air Force, New Mexico and Wyoming, yet still reached 20 wins.
Middle Tennessee didn't have a very tough conference slate, but it dominated the Sun Belt with just two losses, including a semifinal-round setback in the SBC Tournament. The Blue Raiders also knocked off SEC foes Ole Miss and Vanderbilt in non-conference play.
It's difficult to understand Saint Mary's being left out of the tourney after Gonzaga earned a No. 1 seed. The Gaels were perfect in West Coast Conference play outside of two losses to the Bulldogs, and they lost just four other games all season.
For the most part, the committee got it right when it came to who to invite and who to leave out, but some of the seedings are certainly questionable. The biggest travesty is Oregon's No. 12 seed. The Ducks coasted to the Pac-12 Tournament title only to be given a tougher road than conference rivals Colorado (10), UCLA (6) and Arizona (6). Dana Altman's Ducks were definitely handed the short end of the stick on Selection Sunday, as they finished at 28-6 overall in one of the better conferences in the nation, and three of their losses came during a stretch while starting point guard Dominic Artis was sidelined with an injury.
While Oregon enters the tourney as a 12 seed, Villanova somehow earned a No. 9 seed despite barely reaching 20 wins. The placement of Jay Wright's Wildcats indicates how much emphasis the committee puts on big wins compared to bad losses. Villanova defeated Syracuse, Georgetown, Marquette and Louisville, but suffered setbacks to Columbia, Alabama by 22, and to Providence twice. Villanova will have a chance to prove it was worthy of its seeding as the team's first game in the tourney is a rematch of the 2005 Sweet 16 matchup it had against North Carolina.
At the end of the day, the seedings are really irrelevant. The matchups may end up hurting a team here or a team there, but every team will have tough games on the road to the Final Four. The best usually does not win in a one and done format, but it is a fair system to all participants nonetheless.
The top seeds usually have the edge, but it would hardly be a shock if none of them made it to the Final Four this year. All four will face tough tests in the third round, assuming each fends off the upset-minded 16-seeds they take on to open up action.
The second round has plenty of exciting matchups. In the South Region, the once No. 1 ranked Michigan Wolverines will have their hands full with Nate Wolters and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Despite being hidden in the Summit League, Wolters has NBA-level talent and has plenty of confidence leading his team into a bout against the Blue and Maize.
The East Region houses a few of the stronger mid-major programs, as Butler and Bucknell will clash on Thursday. Brad Stevens' Bulldogs are tough to bet against in the NCAA Tournament, but their No. 6 seed seems a little high, and the Bison will certainly rally around the Patriot League's Player of the Year, Mike Muscala.
In the West, Arizona was dealt a tough opening foe in Belmont. The Bruins are capable of destroying their opponents from beyond the arc, which could be a double-edged sword in this tournament. Murray State managed to advance last year out of the Ohio Valley Conference, and the Wildcats could be on upset alert if Belmont's Ian Clark comes out firing.
The Midwest has more than one game that could go down to the wire. The Creighton/Cincinnati matchup should provide a great deal of excitement. The Bluejays' Doug McDermott is without question one of the top offensive players in the country, but he will be tested by a feisty Bearcats squad led by Sean Kilpatrick. Cincinnati's ability to take down Creighton will likely hinge on the play of point guard Cashmere Wright, as the Bearcats seem to always perform well when he shows up.
One team understandably not included in the field is Northwestern, which was unable to cope with countless injuries this season. Head coach Bill Carmody was fired after 13 seasons, despite elevating the program to new heights during his tenure. However, the administration's decision to end the relationship is understandable. The Wildcats are still the only power conference school to have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament. There is plenty of speculation as to who the new coach in Evanston will be, and VCU's Shaka Smart, Valparaiso's Bryce Drew, Harvard's Tommy Amaker and Duke assistant Chris Collins are all thought to be candidates.
Northwestern will not be dancing this season as it watches many of its top coaching candidates on college basketball's grandest stage. As a flurry of changes to conferences, coaching staffs and rosters are certain to follow at season's end, the NCAA Tournament will be the last chance for basketball fans to enjoy the college game as they presently know it.