Picking an NCAA tournament bracket in 68 seconds

3 Comments

The idea here is to let go of everything you know, every theory that kicks around in your mind, every bit of college basketball knowledge you picked up along the way. The Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett once offered a hitting lesson. He asked a group of us to say a number between one and 5. And while thinking of that number we were to raise one hand and hold up a DIFFERENT number with our fingers. In other words, shout the number 3, but hold up two fingers. Then shout 5 while holding up one finger.

Then do it again. And again. And again. Faster, Faster. No, you can’t repeat the same numbers; you have to keep changing. Faster. Faster. No you are not allowed to use a pattern. Faster. What inevitably happens – and usually very quickly – is that the number you shout and the number of fingers you hold up will match or you will fail to think of a number in time or you will have some other embarrassing mental breakdown.

Follow along: Printable NCAA tournament bracket

Brett’s point: The mind isn’t very good at thinking two contrasting things at once. And so, when hitting, Brett said, the times he was successful were when he could make his mind a complete blank and just react to the moment. If he found himself burdened by different thoughts (Curveball? Fastball? Where are we eating after the game? What’s the score? Can’t believe I missed that throw last inning. I think that guy owes me money!) he would inevitably crumple and fail.

So it goes with our annual “Pick the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 68 seconds.”

It used to be 64 seconds back when there were 64 teams, but there are now those four extra teams in the play-in round, and they give us four valuable seconds.

You may ask: Does this pick-basketball-games-without-thinking system really work?  Well, it depends what you mean by “work.” If by “work” you mean — “is this system successful in picking winners?” well, results are mixed. Last year, this system did pick Louisville as national champ, and one year the system was good enough to win an office pool. In other words: No, the system doesn’t work.

But if by “work” you mean – does this system give you a cheap column you can rehash every single year, then yes, this system has never failed me.

Bracket Challenge: Run the table to win $1 billion

First round (3 seconds): I’m picking Mount St. Mary’s, Xavier, Cal Poly and Iowa while making my annual protest that (1) This is NOT a first round no matter what the NCAA calls it, these are four play-in games; and (2) There should not be four play-in games.

The reason the “first round” naming bothers me is that it inspires the NCAA to call Thursday’s and Friday’ games SECOND ROUND games. And they are most definitely NOT second-round games. They are first-round games. Everybody knows this. The NCAA is most definitely NOT giving 60 teams byes into the second round. That is ridiculous and wrong and gives us yet another reason to despise the NCAA.

The reason I’m opposed to the play-in games at all is that they represent a further watering down of the sport. No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed. Ever. There is no reason to add more teams; we already have reached critical mass.

Second round (31 seconds): I picked the games a little faster this year than I did last year in order to give me some extra time in later rounds.

First thing, I advanced all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The No. 1 seeds are easy to advance – as mentioned — but every three or four years, a No. 2 seed will lose. Last year, No. 2 Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast, and those Eagles promptly went on a fun, dunky little run that made the first couple of rounds of the tournament more exciting and fulfilling than the last couple of rounds. I’m betting it doesn’t happen again.

We usually have a No. 3 seed that loses – last year, it was Harvard beating No. 3 New Mexico – and I’m picking Western Michigan to beat Syracuse because … I don’t know. I don’t have time to think about reasons. Syracuse seems to be in freefall and it just seems like Jim Boeheim is due for a shocking early round exit.  There you go.

There is usually at least one No. 4 seed that goes down – I’m picking Tulsa to upset UCLA because Tulsa is coached by Danny Manning, who had “and the Miracles” attached to his name when he led Kansas to the 1988 national championship. UCLA is, of course, coached by Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the 1987 national championship. So I’m actually predicting the game goes into quintuple overtime and is then decided by a one-on-one matchup between the two coaches, a game Manning wins decisively.

I suspect a lot of people will go with the New Mexico State over No. 4 San Diego State upset because that just sort of SOUNDS like it should happen. This silly reasoning is … actually excellent. This could happen. But San Diego State is really good from what I can tell, so I’m avoiding it.

The NCAA 5-12 match-up is the best in sports. Every year it provides us with awesome pseudo upsets – in reality the No. 12 seed is really not much worse and often better than the No. 5 seed. Anyway, I love the 5-12, and again, it irritates me that the NCAA is mucking it up with these play-in games. There is nothing good about these play-in games.

Last year the 12 seed won three of four matchups; the 12 seed tends to win one or two ever year. I’m picking just one 12-5 upset this year, Harvard over Cincinnati, though I have to admit that I might regret not taking North Dakota State over Oklahoma.

Regional previews: South | East | Midwest | West

On the 6-11 line, I spend an extra second or two pondering the mystery that is Roy Williams’ North Carolina team. I have never seen such a baffling team. There are times that team looks like a legitimate national championship contender. And there are times that it seems you could get four others from your local YMCA and beat the Tar Heels by 20. North Carolina absolutely, positively, unquestionably could lose to Providence in the first round. Or North Carolina could make a long run. I’ll move the Tar Heels into the next round and pick it up from there.

I am picking No. 11 Dayton to beat Ohio State in the “You didn’t recruit me” revenge game, and I’m also picking No. 11 Nebraska to upset Baylor because I really want to see that Nebraska-Creighton match-up in the next round. This was a mistake, by the way; you should never look ahead when making picks. But my time was running out and I panicked.

Nothing after the 6-11 line is really an upset. The lower seeds I picked are: No. 10 Stanford over New Mexico, No. 10 St. Joe’s over Connecticut, No. 10 BYU over Oregon, No. 9 George Washington over Memphis, No. 9 Oklahoma State over Gonzaga and No. 9 Kansas State over Kentucky.

MORE: Must-watch games from the round of 64

The last of these reminds me: When John Calipari won his national championship at Kentucky two years ago, there were a lot of people who believed he would build a one-and-done dynasty there by bringing in the best recruits year after year and leading them to title after title. Since then, Kentucky missed the tournament entirely and now is a No. 8 seed. Calipari did not seem happy at all with the seeding … and I can’t help that this is the sort of fragile team that already has No. 1 Wichita State in their plans. And that’s how they lose to a gritty Kansas State team.

* * *

Second round … oh, wait, I mean third round (18 seconds): To me, this is always the toughest round to pick. Sometimes a No. 1 seed loses (last year, Gonzaga lost to Wichita State) and on average you will usually have at least one No. 2 seed lose.

I’m guessing a lot of brackets will have Kentucky beating Wichita State, but since I didn’t even pick Kentucky to win the first round, that will not be my choice. Anyway, I think Wichita State is really, really good. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but I really do think that Wichita State, small conference and all, might be the best team in America.

More: How to run the perfect NCAA tourney pool

The one game that troubles me is Oklahoma State against No. 1 Arizona. That upset sounds really good to me. But if I pick it, then I lose Arizona, and Arizona is REALLY good. I could get burned. Trouble is, when you have 18 seconds to pick 16 games, you don’t really get to think too much about the consequences. I instinctively write down Oklahoma State and will live with it. All the other No. 1s get through.

My No. 2 line upset – St. Joe’s over Villanova in the second installment of the “you didn’t recruit me” revenge game.

Other lower seed picks: No. 14 Western Michigan over Dayton (the Broncos ride on!); No. 6 North Carolina over Iowa State (I just know these Tar Heels are going to blow my entire bracket); No. 5 Oklahoma over San Diego State (setting up the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game that may blow up the Sooner State).

* * *

Sweet 16 (5 seconds): No time to look back on what is clearly a terrible bracket I have to just keep going.

Oklahoma State over Oklahoma and Wisconsin over Creighton in the West.

Wichita State over Louisville and Duke over Michigan in the Midwest.

More: The eight best crunch-time players in the tourney

VCU over Florida (Shaka Smart upset!) and Kansas over Western Michigan in the South. Bill Self quietly getting his team healthy and dangerous.

Michigan State over Virginia (upset!) and North Carolina over St. Joe’s in the East.

I thoroughly loathe my bracket.

* * *

Elite 8 (4 seconds): The Duke-Wichita State game is one worth pondering. But there’s no time for that, so I’m taking the Shockers to knock off Duke and go to their second consecutive Final Four.

My other Final Four choices: Wisconsin (after holding Oklahoma State to, like, 13 points), Kansas (barely preventing Shaka Smart from his second Final Four at VCU) and Michigan State (pounding a North Carolina team that I had no business sending all the way to the Elite Eight in the first place).

* * *

Final Four (3 seconds): I have given myself an extra second to ponder this. It is not impossible that I have set up my entire bracket just to get the Kansas-Wichita State final that I really want to see. For one thing, this would be the greatest thing to happen to Kansas in forever, and I love the state of Kansas. Two, this would make my in-laws —who have lived in Kansas all their lives and who love both teams — extremely happy and conflicted. This also would greatly please my friend Bill James, who loves Kansas basketball about as much as he loves piercing through baseball idiocy.

So, what the heck, the momentum is too strong. Kansas against Wichita State in the final.

* * *

Championship game (1 second): Every NBA mock draft I have seen has Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embid going in the first three picks. Many have them as the Top 2. In NBA Draft history, the top two picks have been from the same team only 1 time.

2012: Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

More: The eight teams that can win it all

Of course, that Kentucky team rolled to the national title. My sense is that this Kansas team is the most talented in the country. When healthy – and Embid has not been healthy – it might be the most talented team Bill Self has ever coached. They have been wildly inconsistent, often frustrating and confusing and sometimes dreadful. The Jayhawks have also for stretches been about as good as any team I’ve seen. The Jayhawks might be the team that makes or breaks your ballot – pick them to keep winning and they could lose in the first round, pick them to lose early and they might win it all.

That’s what I’m going with. I’m picking Kansas to beat Wichita State in the national championship game. And while this will never happen, I do have three seconds to spare on the clock.

Team of the Week: North Carolina Tar Heels

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

No. 7 North Carolina went into Knoxville on Sunday afternoon and picked off a good, scrappy No. 20 Tennessee team in front of a raucous crowd in a game where they did not even play all that well.

The win pushed the Tar Heels to 10-1 on the season, and it easily their most impressive victory to date.

There are a lot of things about this North Carolina team that I don’t like. They really only have one proven offensive weapon, depending on how you view Luke Maye. They are a program built on having a frontline that is better than their opponent’s frontline, but this year have to rely on a stretchy-four in Maye and a trio of freshmen that may or may not actually be ready to play at this level. I’m not convinced they have the three-point shooting they need, either.

But here we are, nearly six weeks into the season, and the Tar Heels have just a single loss to their name – which came against Michigan State – and just picked up a win at Tennessee. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks appear to be growing into the roles that they are being asked to play. Maye has looked like an all-american for the most part. They’re shooting 40 percent from three on the season. They’re defending.

And, as a result, they’re winning.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Rutgers: Saturday could not have gone much better for the Rutgers program. They erased a 13-point deficit and came back from nine points down with six minutes left as they won for the first time in four games against in-state rival and No. 15 Seton Hall. They closed the game on a 17-2 run to land the biggest win of the Steve Pikiell era, and they did it in front of a packed house at the RAC. They picked a good day to prove too their fan base that their is something to be excited about with this team.
  • Oklahoma: The Sooners made a statement on Saturday, going into Wichita and knocking off the Shockers in impressive fashion. They were up by 15 points at halftime and never were truly threatened in the second half.
  • Kentucky: For the first time since the fifth day of the season, Kentucky played a game against a team that was actually relevant, beating Virginia Tech, 93-86, in what turned out to be a shootout in Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon. The most important part of that win wasn’t the win itself; it was the fact that Kentucky went 11-for-22 from three in the process. Their ability to make perimeter shots has, clearly, been the major question mark with this group, and while they still need to prove they can be consistent, making it clear that they are at least capable of shooting like this matters.
  • Indiana: Archie Miller landed the first marquee win of his tenure, as his Indiana team overcame a 14-point first half deficit and an eight-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining to knock off No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Performances like this is why Miller was hired for this job.
  • Cincinnati: After losing two straight, capped by a loss to Florida in the Never Forget Classic last weekend, the Bearcats bounced back with a pair of solid wins this week. They handed Mississippi State their first loss of the season on Tuesday and followed that up with a win over UCLA in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.

Player of the Week: Juwan Morgan, Indiana

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Juwan Morgan made Bankers Life Fieldhouse his home on Saturday afternoon.

Not only did he post a career-high 34 points to go along with his 11 rebounds against No. 18 Notre Dame, but he did the majority of his damage in crunch time. Morgan scored the final 12 points in regulation for Indiana, points that came as the Hoosiers erased an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes and change. Morgan then scored eight of Indiana’s 15 points in overtime, including four points in the final 11 seconds.

Indiana trailed by three with 11 seconds left on the clock when Morgan was fouled on a layup. He missed the free throw, but Indiana grabbed an offensive rebound and it wound up in Morgan’s hands, whose dunk was the game-winning basket.

There was more meaning to this win than simply beating a top 20 in-state rival.

Archie Miller is still in the process of building a program in Bloomington. He’s developing a brand, so to speak, and while his team is still going to be at a talent-deficit more often than not, this is tangible evidence that things are trending in the right direction. Miller’s Dayton programs were built around versatile and under-sized forwards and tough defense.

That’s what we saw on Saturday from Indiana.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Young continued what has been a sensational season to date, scoring 21 of his 29 points and handing out seven of his 10 assists in the first half as the Sooners paid a visit to No. 3 Wichita State and left with a statement victory. The Sooners were up by 15 at halftime and threw it into cruise control in the second half.
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: After a week full of criticisms for the inability of this Kansas team to find a way to get the ball into the paint, the Jayhawks finally did. Azubuike finished with 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting to go along with 10 boards and a game-saving block as the Jayhawks escaped a trip to Nebraska with a 73-72 win.
  • RAWLE ALKINS, Arizona: We finally got a glimpse of what Arizona was missing without Alkins in the lineup, as he went for 26 points on 11 field goal attempts to go along with five boards and a pair of assists. Arizona cruised to a win at New Mexico despite the fact that Allonzo Trier took just nine shots and Deandre Ayton scored just 14 points.
  • OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: Brissett set a pair of career-highs in Syracuse come-from-behind win over arch-rival Georgetown on Saturday. The Orange were down by 13 points in the second half. Brissett scored 24 of his 25 points and grabbed 10 of his 14 rebounds in the second half and overtime.
  • COREY SANDERS, Rutgers: Sanders finished with 22 points – including a huge jumper with a minute left to put the Scarlet Knights up 67-63 – as Steve Pikiell and Rutgers landed their biggest win, coming from nine down with six minutes left to beat their biggest in-state rival, No. 15 Seton Hall.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Wichita State’s loss, Oklahoma’s gain, and ‘why Arizona?’

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Leave a comment

It seemed like this was going to be a pretty straight-forward week for the Power Rankings … until Saturday happened, and five top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents.

The toughest one to figure out what to do with was Wichita State, who dropped all the way down to No. 16 from No. 3. They currently sit one spot behind Oklahoma, who beat them in Wichita on Saturday. Ranking the Shockers is a difficult thing to do at this point in the schedule, mainly because what we see on the floor from them doesn’t exactly jibe with what we assume that program to be.

They have not been themselves defensively through the first six weeks of the season. Or maybe they have and they just aren’t as good on that end of the floor as we assumed they would be. However you slice, the bottom-line is this: If Wichita State is not among the nation’s elite defensively they are not going to be in the conversation with Villanova, Michigan State and Duke as one of college basketball’s best. They just don’t have the horsepower on the other end of the floor.

The ranking that I got the most push-back on last week was putting Arizona at No. 6. They’re at No. 5 this week, up a spot after Wichita State dropped out. My reasoning is this: I am generally going to bet on talent, and rare will be the night when Arizona is not the most talented team on the floor. How many teams in the country will they play where Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton are not the two-best players on the floor? Maybe five? Ten, tops? And of those five-to-ten teams, I don’t think a single one of them can claim that they have two of the three best players on the floor.

And now they have Rawle Alkins back, who just went for 26 points on 11 shots at New Mexico.

Since the disaster in the Bahamas, Arizona has won five straight. They won at UNLV. They won a semi-home game against a very good Texas A&M team. They beat Alabama. They handled New Mexico fairly easily in The Pit. In a year where everyone has warts, I’m fine being the first one to say that those three games in Atlantis were just one of those weird things that happen in college basketball.

Anyway, here are this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Villanova, 10-0 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Michigan State, 10-1 (2)
3. Miami, 9-0 (3)
4. Duke, 11-1 (5)
5. Arizona, 8-3 (6)
6. Arizona State, 10-0 (7)
7. Texas A&M, 9-1 (8)
8. North Carolina, 10-1 (12)
9. Xavier, 10-1 (9)
10. West Virginia, 9-1 (10)
11. Purdue, 11-2 (16)
12. Gonzaga, 9-2 (14)
13. Kansas, 7-2 (13)
14. Kentucky, 9-1 (17)
15. Oklahoma, 8-1 (19)
16. Wichita State, 8-2 (3)
17. Seton Hall, 9-2 (11)
18. Virginia, 9-1 (18)
19. TCU, 10-0 (25)
20. Notre Dame, 8-3 (15)
21. Cincinnati, 9-2 (23)
22. Tennessee, 7-2 (20)
23. Texas Tech, 9-1 (24)
24. Baylor, 9-2 (NR)
25. Arkansas, 8-2 (NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: 24. Baylor, 25. Arkansas

DROPPED OUT: 21. Florida State, 22. Florida

No. 5 Arizona State rallies to beat Vanderbilt 76-64

David Becker/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State came out flat, missing shots, tossing balls into the stands, allowing open 3-pointers.

The No. 5 team in the country? The Sun Devils looked more like they should be unranked, not among college basketball’s elite.

In a matter of minutes, it all changed. Arizona State forced turnovers, got out on the break and dropped in 3-pointers to keep the crowd on its feet.

Once the Sun Devils get rolling like this, there’s no stopping them.

Tra Holder scored 25 points, Shannon Evans II added 15 and No. 5 Arizona State overcame a dismal start with a massive halftime-spanning run to beat Vanderbilt 76-64 on Sunday. The Sun Devils improved to 10-0 for the first time in their history.

“We had the bursts and it’s great we took the game from a one-two possession game and all of a sudden it’s mid-doubles,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “It happens fast.”

Arizona State built a national buzz with last week’s road win over Kansas and its highest ranking in 36 years.

The Sun Devils looked nothing like the team that won at Allen Fieldhouse early against Vanderbilt (3-7), falling into a 13-0 hole. Once one of the nation’s most explosive teams finally came to life, Vanderbilt had no chance.

Sharp at both ends, Arizona State used a 26-3 run spanning halftime to turn what started out as an embarrassing performance into a runaway that had Wells Fargo Arena the loudest it’s been all season.

Mickey Mitchell provided the Sun Devils a spark off the bench, playing solid defense while grabbing 13 rebounds. Arizona State hit 14 of 28 shots in the second half to remain one of the nation’s four undefeated teams.

Saben Lee had 24 points to lead Vanderbilt, which shot 4 of 30 from 3-point range.

“We’re a small team, like ASU, and we have to make 3s,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said.

Following last Sunday’s 10-point win over then-No. 2 Kansas, the Sun Devils moved up to No. 5, their highest ranking since being No. 3 in 1980-81, and received five first-place votes in the Top 25, a program first.

Suddenly, they were a trendy pick to make a Final Four. Hurley was being touted as a national coach of the year candidate by the coach of Arizona State’s biggest rival. A buzz spread across the Valley of the Sun and beyond about the program being touted as “Guard U.”

The spotlight appeared to be too bright for the Sun Devils early against Vanderbilt.

Disjointed and struggling with double teams in the post, Arizona State had five turnovers in the game’s opening five minutes. The Sun Devils didn’t score until Romello White’s layup at 14:49, and the fans who were rowdy long before tipoff groaned with each miscue.

“We were knocking down shots and they were missing at the beginning,” Lee said.

Then Arizona State got back to playing the way it had to open the season.

The Sun Devils harassed the Commodores into difficult shots late in the shot clock and jumped into passing lanes to create turnovers. Shots missed earlier at the rim started going in, and they made a couple of late 3-pointers after missing their first nine.

Holder had one of those 3s, dropping a deep one at the halftime buzzer that put Arizona State up 30-29.

The Sun Devils kept the engine revving in the second half, scoring 12 straight points to push the lead to 49-31. Vanderbilt made one push, but got no closer than 12.

“We were just a little rusty. We had a long week off,” said Holder, who made all 11 of his free throws. “But we got back to our groove.”

BIG PICTURE

Vanderbilt showed it can play with highly-ranked teams in the opening 10 minutes. The final 30 showed the Commodores still have plenty of work to do before the SEC season starts.

Arizona State looked like the No. 5 team in the country after its shaky start and could move up in Monday’s poll after No. 3 Wichita State lost.

LEE’S HOMECOMING

Lee grew up in Arizona and played at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, so Sunday’s game was a homecoming of sorts.

The freshman guard is Vanderbilt’s assist leader with 34 and made 9 of 14 shots to set a career high in points.

“It was pretty weird, knowing that I watched a lot of games here and now I’m going against them,” Lee said. “But it was a good experience..”

UP NEXT

Vanderbilt hosts Houston Baptist on Wednesday.

Arizona State hosts Longwood on Tuesday.

Illinois State’s Dan Muller pleaded for a tougher schedule on Twitter and got it

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Finishing the regular season at 27-6 wasn’t good enough to get Illinois State into last season’s NCAA tournament.

Although the Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley Conference title with Wichita State and split a regular-season series against the nationally-ranked Shockers, the NCAA tournament selection committee left Illinois State in the cold for an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.

The major reason: schools from power conferences continually refuse to schedule quality mid-major opponents like Illinois State. The Redbirds only played TCU from a “Power 5” conference during non-conference play last season. A road loss to the Horned Frogs didn’t do Illinois State much good in the eyes of the committee.

So Illinois State head coach Dan Muller took an interesting approach to generating a more respectable non-conference schedule. Muller took to Twitter and fully utilized his bitmoji game to call out programs from bigger conferences. His goal was to get the NCAA tournament selection committee’s attention with how tough it is for mid-major programs to schedule bigger schools. Muller also hoped the Redbirds could secure a home-and-home series against legitimate, power-conference competition.

“It got a lot of play. I thought it would go national. I didn’t think it would get as big as it got,” Muller said to NBCSports.com. “I got interviews across the country, some TV stuff, and a lot of responses from coaches, friends. A lot of them said it was hilarious. A lot of them said it was great. My point was to emphasize the difficulty in how the selection committee wants schools like us to do [things].”

Muller’s plea quickly went viral. More importantly, Muller’s plea actually worked.

Ole Miss was interested in making a home-and-home deal with the Redbirds. The two programs literally started the series with a very public back-and-forth on Twitter. There was a previous connection between the schools as Torrey Ward had been an assistant coach with both programs. Ward was tragically killed in a plane crash after the 2015 Final Four while he was the associate head coach of the Redbirds.

“It was all public, to be honest. What you saw is how it started,” Muller said of the series. “Rob Bjork, the AD at Ole Miss, tweeted back to me and I hit him back. I’ve known Andy Kennedy for a long time. Obviously there’s a very close acquaintance and friend we’ve got in Torrey Ward — so we had a connection there. That’s why AK wanted to do it. So, we’re grateful and appreciative.”

The two programs started the home-and-home series in Oxford on Saturday as Ward was honored with a video tribute from Ole Miss before the game. Ward’s family was also in attendance — including his mother, ex-wife and two children.

“It was great to see [Ward’s family],” Muller said. “We honored Torrey before the game and I know that was a big part of what Andy wanted to do.”

Besides for the heartwarming gesture in honoring a fallen friend, the game was also beneficial for Illinois State because they earned an overtime win, on the road, against an SEC opponent. Muller’s plan actually worked. The Redbirds have tried to answer the committee this season by playing a top-20 non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, Illinois State isn’t currently in position to earn a potential at-large bid after a sluggish 5-6 start.

But the Valley appears to be wide open now that Wichita State has ascended into the American Athletic Conference. Illinois State has been missing two key members of its rotation for nearly the entire season. Muller is optimistic that the tough non-conference schedule has properly prepared the Redbirds for the conference slate. The race for the Valley’s at-large bid is still going to be tight.

“We’re getting better; we have a lot of talent. We’re building our depth. But we’ve got to be healthy,” Muller said. “If, and when, we’re healthy, I really do think we’ll have a chance to be right there in the end.”

Even if Illinois State falls short of the NCAA tournament this season, Muller has laid the groundwork for another competitive non-conference schedule for next season. Always an aggressive coach when it comes to scheduling, Muller and the Redbirds have some solid opponents like Ole Miss, BYU and Florida Gulf Coast coming to campus next season. Arizona State also called to show interest in a potential home-and-home series with Illinois State. The two programs couldn’t figure out a date to make things work but it served as a reminder that Muller’s tweet was working.

What started as a plea to the NCAA tournament selection committee has turned into an unexpected boon to Illinois State’s scheduling practices. Muller acknowledged that he doesn’t prefer to use Twitter. But Muller might have to bring out his popular bitmoji character more often if it continues to lead to results like this.