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2014 NCAA Tournament: Early thoughts

March 17, 2014 Columns No Comments

The NCAA Tournament selection committee has spoken. The 68 teams are set to begin the tournament on Tuesday with two of the First Four games. With that, the fun is about to begin.

Before that, here are some random thoughts on the selection, seeding and potential matchups, as well as reaction to some early chatter about the field.

  • Virginia got the much-debated fourth number one seed, and in the end they had the best case. The Cavaliers won the ACC both in the regular season and the ACC Tournament, and the only real knock on them is the lack of a signature non-conference win as they whiffed in their best chances there. Still, they were deserving and will be a tough team to beat.
  • The Midwest is certainly the strongest region. Wichita State is sure to have to run a gauntlet to get out of there. No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Duke and No. 4 Louisville are all very good, while UMass is a dangerous No. 6 seed and No. 8 Kentucky and No. 9 Kansas State are both capable of beating Wichita State in the third round, though it will be hard to do. As if that’s not enough, Saint Louis and Iowa will be very tough to beat, and Mercer should make like difficult for Duke in the second round.
  • The weakest region? I give the nod to the West. It is full of teams that under-achieved and are best looked at as potential surprise teams than anything else. No. 5 Oklahoma is good, but has lost a couple of head-scratchers and will probably be a trendy pick to get knocked off right away by a good North Dakota State team. No. 6 Baylor could make a run as they have played great basketball to come back from the dead, as has No. 7 Oregon. Gonzaga was a bit of a surprise as a No. 8 seed, as that implies they might not have needed to win the West Coast Conference Tournament. I’d say No. 9 Oklahoma State could make a run, except that they’ll see Arizona if they beat Gonzaga. Brigham Young had a debatable case for a bid, especially without Kyle Collinsworth.
  • A No. 8 seed for Kentucky is perhaps fitting for this team. They could suddenly make a run, including a win over the top-seeded Wichita State, but they could also lose right away to Kansas State. The Wildcats have been tough to figure out, but I don’t think shocking the world (pardon the pun) by knocking off Wichita State is going to be part of their story. Getting there and losing a game they’re never quite out of seems much more likely.
  • The old Big East, while a little ridiculous at the end with the variety of schools and its geographic footprint, was a great conference on the hardwood. The new Big East and the American Athletic Conference are both good, not great. Coaches in the Big East are talking the usual hyperbole about it as if nothing has changed. The reality is that this year, the conference got about what it deserved. It was decidedly down, helped by the fact that Butler was in a down year thanks in part to injuries. Down the road it will be better, as Butler is more like Butler again and schools on the rise like Providence get better, but this wasn’t a banner year at all.
  • The American Athletic Conference, on the other hand, has two teams that there was much buzz about: Louisville and SMU. The feeling is that the Cardinals are under-seeded, while SMU is being talked up as a blatant snub. The reality is that neither team’s resume dictates any better. Louisville’s best non-conference win was over Southern Miss, who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, and other than Connecticut (3 wins) and a win over Cincinnati, they generally feasted on teams they should beat and lost to teams of substance. That’s not the formula for a higher seed than that. SMU feasted on cupcakes in non-conference play and had losses to the likes of Houston, South Florida and Temple, and didn’t beat a single NCAA Tournament team in non-conference – not even an automatic qualifier from a smaller conference.
  • Meanwhile, the Atlantic 10 got six teams in. Notable among them is George Washington, with Mike Lonergan’s great rebuilding job, and Saint Joseph’s, a team that was expected to get there last year. Dayton also made it and should give Ohio State fits, especially since Ohio State is not a good offensive team.
  • Matchups of No. 2 vs. No. 15 typically aren’t the subject of much conversation, but one may be of interest in the West region. American could give Wisconsin some trouble since their offense has been very consistent this year, as they run the Princeton offense very well. They’re a good defensive team, too, and while not as athletic, this figures to be a low-possession game and the Eagles can win one of those.
  • Expect Harvard over Cincinnati to be the most trendy second round upset pick. It’s a tough one to make because the Bearcats have had a terrific season, led by Sean Kilpatrick, and have become a team that knows how to win. Harvard is terrific, too, and they play tremendous team basketball. This one could go either way, and the only thing that would surprise me is a blowout.
  • Providence getting a No. 11 seed after beating Creighton to win the Big East Tournament implies that the Friars were right there on the bubble up to the end, and would have really sweated it out had they lost on Saturday night. Had they lost, they would have had just one win over an NCAA Tournament lock, which was their win over Creighton in January.
  • One other idle thought: remember when there were some who questioned Gregg Marshall leaving Winthrop for Wichita State instead of a BCS conference job? Remember when some thought he blew his chance at a “better job” by not leaving Wichita State a few years back?

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