PHILADELPHIA, PA – MARCH 24: Christophe Varidel #5 of the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles reacts in the second half while taking on the San Diego State Aztecs during the third round of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Center on March 24, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Championship Week kicks off in earnest tonight. Here are the six story lines to follow over the course of the next 12 days.
1. Can Gonzaga get to Selection Sunday with just one loss?: Because at this point, that’s probably the only way the Zags can get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Barring something fluky happening over the course of the next 12 days, Kansas, Villanova and North Carolina have pretty much locked up their spots on the top line of the bracket in the Midwest, East and South, respectively.
But the West has yet to be won.
As of today, the Zags are probably the leaders for that spot, but what you have to remember is that the winner of the Pac-12 tournament, if it is Arizona, Oregon or UCLA, could very well add two more top 10 wins to their profile during that run. Let’s say it ends up being UCLA that wins the tournament, and they beat both Oregon and Arizona to cut down those nets. That would give them five top ten wins on the season — only one of which came at home — with wins at Arizona and Kentucky. In total, they would have at least 13 top 100 wins and their only three losses on the season would be at Oregon, at USC and Arizona at home.
I’m all for Gonzaga getting a No. 1 seed. I don’t think I could give Gonzaga a No. 1 seed over that résumé even if they do have a 32-1 record.
2. Will the Missouri Valley be a two-bid league?: This one of our only hopes for an at-large bid coming out of the mid-major ranks, and regardless of who wins the league’s automatic bid — Wichita State or Illinois State — there is going to be some controversy on Selection Sunday.
The Shockers are 27-4 on the season. If they lose in the final of the MVC tournament to Illinois State, they’ll be 29-5 on the year with no sub-50 RPI losses. They rank No. 10 on KenPom, which is largely considered the best site for determining how good teams are, and they have a roster laden with top 100 prospects and coached by one of the best in the business in Gregg Marshall. Logic suggests they should be in the tournament.
The problem, however, is that they have just one RPI top 75 win on the season, and that win came against Illinois State. The Redbirds are in an even worse situation, as they have three sub-100 losses and just one top 85 win which … came against Wichita State. Logic only gets you so far when you don’t have the results to back it up.
One, if not both, of those teams are going to be sweating out Selection Sunday, hoping that they see their names called. And frankly, given the decisions the Selection Committee has made in past seasons and the value they gave big wins during the bracket reveal on Feb. 11th, I’m not sure we’ll see both teams in the tournament this season.
3. First Ivy league tournament: For the first time ever, the Ivy League will be determining their league’s automatic bid by holding a tournament. They were previously the only conference that still awarded their bid to the winner of the league’s regular season title. The tournament will take place on March 11th and 12th at the Palestra in Philly, and it will be a four-team event.
And if you are Princeton, this terrifies you. The Tigers are currently sitting at 12-0 in the conference standings, all alone with a two-game lead with just two regular season games left. But, depending on how things shake out during the final week of the season, there is a good chance that Princeton will have to play a first round Ivy League tournament game against Penn … on Penn’s home floor.
That would be a hell of a way to lose out on an NCAA tournament bid.
4. Will Middle Tennessee State be back in the dance?: The Blue Raiders orchestrated one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament last season, knocking off the popular pick to win the national title in No. 2 Michigan State in the first round. Kermit Davis brought back a team good enough to make a run against this season, highlighted by the fact that his group has beaten UNC Wilmington on a neutral, Vanderbilt at home and won at Ole Miss and at Belmont. The problem they have is that three of their four losses are considered bad losses, and one of them — at UTEP — only recently climbed inside the RPI top 250. If they don’t win the CUSA tournament title they’ll add another sub-100 loss into that equation.
After what this team did in last year’s tournament, it would be a shame if they missed out on doing it again. But if they don’t get their league’s automatic bid, they may have to watch the likes of TCU or Georgia Tech play in the tournament during their off days in the NIT.
5. Which dominant mid-majors lose in league tournament?: Middle Tennessee and Princeton are the two easiest to identify, but they aren’t the only teams that have stormed to a conference regular season title and will not have to play a tournament to prove their league record is worthy of a tournament bid. Vermont went 16-0 in the America East and gets to host every game of the league tournament on their home floor, but that’s hardly a guarantee. UNC Wilmington won the CAA and earned the league’s automatic bid last season, but it won’t be easy to defend their title in that league tournament. UT-Arlington owns, at worst, a share of the Sun Belt title and a win at Saint Mary’s, but they’re anything but a lock for the tournament. Belmont won the OVC by a full five games while Monmouth won the MAAC by four and Bucknell won the Patriot League by three. Akron, at 13-3, is the only team in the MAC with less than six league losses.
My guess is that at least five of the nine teams that I just mentioned will lose in their league tournament, meaning that the NCAA tournament will feature a team that isn’t the best team from at least five mid-major leagues.
Is this really the best way to do things?
6. Which coach earns themselves a bigger job?: The easiest way to move up the ranks of the coaching industry is to get your team to an NCAA tournament and to get a win in that NCAA tournament.
Who are the guys that might be able to parlay postseason success into a bigger job? UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts is a hot name. He’s a former Rick Pitino assistant that coached in the prep school ranks before he made the jump to Division I. He’s turned the Seahawks into the flagship program of the CAA in just three years. MTSU’s Kermit Davis will also likely have some big-name suitors, as the stench of NCAA violations from nearly three decades ago are starting to wear away. Illinois State’s Dan Muller will likely being getting phone calls.
Chattanooga’s Matt McCall and ETSU’s Steve Forbes were hot names entering the season, but Furman’s Niko Medved went out and won himself a share of the SoCon regular season title. Vermont’s John Becker may have a chance to make a move, while Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey, Princeton’s Mitch Henderson, UT-Arlington’s Scott Cross and Monmouth’s King Rice all have their name mentioned with bigger openings.
Two more names to keep an eye on: UNC Asheville’s Nick McDevitt, who has kept that program at the top of the Big South despite losing two star freshmen to transfer to Louisville and Arizona last season, and Mount St. Mary’s Jamion Christian, who led the Mount to a NEC title. Both of those coaches are alums of the program they are currently coaching at.
1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: Mason capped off his career in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in fitting fashion on Monday night, scoring 23 points and handing out six assists as he led the Jayhawks back from a 12-point second half deficit in a win over Oklahoma. At this point, Mason is the clear-cut favorite for National Player of the Year, and barring some insanity in the final week of the season, I just don’t see that changing.
He leads the Big 12 in scoring at 20.3 points while also averaging 4.9 assists and 4.0 boards. He’s still shooting 50 percent from three. He’s the leader, the heart and soul of a team that is going to win the Big 12 regular season title by at least two and probably three full games. The Big 12, if you didn’t know, is rated as the best conference in the country, according to KenPom.
He’s sparked comebacks this season. He’s make game-winning shots. He’s played his best in the biggest games. I just can’t see how you would lean another direction.
2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Villanova is right back in the mix for a national title this season despite losing Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu to graduation, Phil Booth to injury and Omari Spellman to an academic issue. They start Darryl Reynolds at center and might repeat as national champs. Hart is the reason why, and this quote from a Sports Illustrated story on Hart sums up what he means to this team:
“Now that I’m the guy at the top of the scouting report,” Hart said, “the guy every team wants to stop, I have to make sure that I make the right play. It’s not just about scoring. It’s about making sure my teammates are getting the ball. Trying to minimize the tough shots that I take. It’s about who is dialed into the details.”
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball is coming off of an 11-point, eight-assist performance on Saturday as UCLA landed their second elite road win of the season, going into the McKale Center and picking off Arizona to keep themselves in the running for a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday. We’ve talked plenty about what Ball has done to change the culture and the dynamic of this UCLA roster, and I think it is also worth noting that he doesn’t chase stats. He’s averaging 14.8 points, 7.6 assists and 6.2 boards on the year, and there are games where it feels like he is happy to simply be a distributor when the Bruins are comfortably ahead.
4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: As good as Swanigan has been this season, I just cannot pick a player from the Big Ten as the National Player of the Year this season. The league is just not that good, and while Purdue is probably the best team in the league, they’ve been anything-but dominant down the stretch.
5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: I’m not ready to drop Williams-Goss out of the range of first-team all-american, but it was concerning about, in Gonzaga’s loss to BYU on Saturday night, he was unable to create against a set BYU defense down the stretch.
6. Justin Jackson, North Carolina: His performance against Virginia aside, Jackson has been the star for the Tar Heels this season, the ACC Player of the Year and one of the biggest reasons they’re a win against Duke away from being the outright ACC regular season champs.
7. Luke Kennard, Duke: With Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson once again battling injuries that might hold them out this week, don’t be surprised Kennard has to start putting up numbers that he did at the start of the season again. Duke closes the regular season with Florida State at home and at North Carolina.
8. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The Bears have struggled a bit down the stretch of the season, but it’s not Motley’s fault, as he’s been playing some of his best basketball of late. In his last three games, Motley is averaging 23.3 points, 11.7 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.7 blocks.
9. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State has one of the nation’s top two offenses despite having just one guy with anywhere near the talent to play in the NBA, and that’s Evans. The Pokes lost their first six Big 12 games, but have since reeled off nine wins in their last 10 games and are comfortably in the NCAA tournament in Brad Underwood’s first season.
10. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ has struggled late in the year as teams start to focus in on him more. As a team, Wisconsin has now lost four of their last five and look like they will not be winning the Big Ten title.
JUST MISSED THE CUT
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
Monte’ Morris, Iowa State
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Frank Mason III scored 23 points in his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, Devonte Graham hit a series of crucial 3-pointers in the second half and top-ranked Kansas rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat Oklahoma 73-63 on Monday night.
Graham finished with 16 points and Josh Jackson had 11 points and 12 rebounds for the Big 12 champion Jayhawks (27-3, 15-2), who trailed 54-42 before finishing the game on a 31-11 run.
The Sooners (10-19, 4-13) were poised to spring a big upset on the day the Jayhawks ascended to No. 1 for the first time this season. But after they took their biggest lead with just over 10 minutes to go, Mason got the comeback started with a nifty basket inside.
He added a steal moments later to set up Lagerald Vick’s 3-pointer, and Jackson scored before Graham hit back-to-back shots from beyond the arc. And when Mason added another basket moments later, the Jayhawks had put together a 17-2 charge that gave them a 64-58 lead with about 5 minutes left.
Kansas slowly drew away to make senior night memorable for Mason, big man Landen Lucas and reserve guard Tyler Self, whose father – Kansas coach Bill Self – called him “my favorite Jayhawk of all time.”
There are few things more exciting in sports than a player dunking on a fast break.
There are few things funnier than a player flubbing that dunk.
Kansas’ Carlton Bragg proved that second point Monday in the second half of the No. 1 Jayhawks’ game at Allen Fieldhouse against Oklahoma.
There’s a strange beauty in that, isn’t there?