It’s that time of year. Selection Sunday is a scant few days away. Yes, mere days until 68 college basketball teams from around the nation will hear their name called, punching their ticket to the big dance. Days until several teams and fans will explicitly exclaim their anger at not being selected, and will be forced to tune into the NIT. Days until you will obsessively fill out two dozen brackets, with Eastern Kentucky inexplicably making it to the Sweet Sixteen in one, and Wofford knocking off Florida in another.
But that’s the greatest part of March Madness – the unpredictable nature of the tournament provides endless Cinderella stories, buzzer beaters, and upsets. The anticipation that builds in college basketball fans is tremendous, and as the big day grows closer, it needs to be extolled or one may well explode. The natural way to do so is to speculate on the teams that will likely make the tournament, and where they will be seeded by the committee.
Now, this isn’t another “who’s in, who’s out” bubble watch article. This year, we have a rarity – a one seed that is completely wide open. There are several teams vying for this slot, and as the committee’s decision enters our viewfinder, we begin to get a better idea of where teams will land. However, depending on who you ask, there are a multitude of teams that could end up with the final top ranking. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that Florida, Wichita State, and Arizona receive the first three one seeds, as their resumes suggest. But who will join them atop the brackets? Let’s take a look.
The Favorite: Villanova
Villanova jumped on to the scene early this season following their claim of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament title, cemented by victories over Kansas and Iowa. Led by junior guard Darrun Hilliard III (14.4/3.7/2.8), the Wildcats have had an impressive season, losing only three times in the regular season. Their losses shouldn’t weigh heavily against their credentials, as they came against Syracuse (#2 at the time), and the Doug McDermott-led Creighton Bluejays twice. They are a very effective offensive team, with their 79 ppg registering at 28th in the country. They play very well as a team, ranking 17th in the country in assists (15.8/game).
However, if you watched any of the conference tournament games this weekend, you will have noticed that they fell to the Seton Hall Pirates in the first round of the Big East Tournament. This came as a stunning blow to the Wildcats, and would make one think that it sets them back several spots in the seeding (although, the conference tournament games should not be seen as a massive negative blow for teams). Seton Hall is playing for survival, and has a certain motivation that Villanova hadn’t seen all year. They proved themselves in the regular season, why should they be bumped off because of one bad game?
They’re currently the favorites, and are projected to get the spot by ESPN expert Joe Lunardi. Sitting at #3 in the current poll, you’d think that they’re a shoe-in. The loss to Seton Hall raised some flags and may end up costing Jay Wright’s squad the #1 seed, but they are still the safest pick.
The Runner-Up: Duke
Duke may end up getting some bonus points for being such a large and prestigious program. They are as talented as any team in the country, and coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of the men who can lead almost any team to a title. Whether or not they can put it together is the question that leaves them on the outside looking in when it comes to the top seeds.
The Blue Devils had 7 losses this year, three of which were “bad losses” – Notre Dame, Clemson, and Wake Forest, all on the road. The last one was the most shocking, as the Demon Deacons are currently hovering around .500. They have had several impressive wins, including bumping off the then #1 ranked Syracuse squad. The team is led by freshman sensation Jabari Parker and sophomore Mississippi State import Rodney Hood. The dynamic duo looks to lead the team into the deep rounds of the tournament with heavy scoring, before they likely leave for the NBA Draft in June.
If Duke has so much talent, an elite coach, and a decent resume, why aren’t they a #1? Simply put, they’ve not played as well this season as it takes to “clinch” such a spot. They certainly have had their fair share of impressive victories, but they have showed the sort of inconsistency that worries many of the decision makers when it comes to how they will perform in the tournament, which makes them an outsider.
The Question Mark: Virginia
The Virginia Cavaliers may be the most unknown top ten team of all-time. They have very quietly moved up the ranks, finishing 25-6 and #6 in the poll. They won 13 consecutive games prior to falling to Maryland last week, which amounts to a speed bump in the otherwise strong conference season. However, their non-conference schedule was a little shaky, including several losses that would make one wary of putting them at the top of a region.
The team’s precursor to ACC play was full of many slip-ups. An early loss to VCU can be exempted, as they are a solid team and were ranked 14th at the time. Following that, they fell to Wisconsin, a current top team in the land. The next two losses, however, raise some eyebrows. The team lost to Green Bay by three points – and, unlike their NFL team, the Phoenix are not a good team to fall to. Three weeks later, the Cavaliers were eviscerated by Tennessee, losing by 35. In addition to these bad losses, the team doesn’t have any gaudy stats, not placing in the top 100 in any of Points, Rebounds, Assists, or Field Goal % per game.
This is obviously a team that is unknown, and is littered with many things that would make the selection committee question their legitimacy as a one seed. They are a late riser, and have many good wins to show for it. But, when it comes to a tournament resume, they find themselves lacking in many categories, and would be better suited as a 2 or 3 seed.
The Long Shot: Kansas
I could have ended this article after Virginia, but chose to include the Jayhawks for a few reasons. They currently sit at 24-8, which isn’t an eye-popping record. However, they’ve played the hardest schedule in the country this season, and in recent memory. The eight teams that that they have fallen to are Villanova, Colorado, Florida, San Diego State, Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia. Save for West Virginia, these are all teams that are veritable locks for the big dance. Their record does not indicate what kind of team they are.
In addition to a lack of bad losses, this may be the most talented team in the country. You know Andrew Wiggins, the so-called second coming of Michael Jordan. Some foolishly said that he was under-performing this season, and he has proved recently that that is not the case. He has scored 71 points over his last two games, against West Virginia and Oklahoma State. A hot Wiggins, paired with junior point Naadir Tharpe and sophomore post Perry Ellis could make for some noise to be made in the tournament.
No conversation involving KU is complete without Joel Embiid, the man who many believe could be the #1 overall selection in the NBA Draft. However, Embiid is the reason why Bill Self’s club may not get a #1 seed. He has missed the Jayhawks’ last three games with a back injury, and, after receiving a second opinion from a specialist, was declared to be out until after the second round of the tournament. A healthy Embiid makes Kansas a scary team, but without him they are thinner inside and a bigger unknown. The vision of what the Jayhawks will look like in the tournament will sway the committee’s decision, and likely will route them out of a top spot.
The tournament this year is going to be great. We have the deepest team in the country in Florida sitting at the top, several threats to powerhouses like Oklahoma State in the middle, and many unknown low seeds looking to make a name for themselves on the biggest stage imaginable. While only one school will receive the honor of the final one seed, a case can be made for many, which will make for an entertaining March for every college basketball fan.