It took 13 minutes of TBS’s annoying “Price Is Right”-style selection show to “unveil” the 68-team NCAA tournament field Sunday night, during which several messages became clear.
First, mid-majors need not bother playing difficult schedules early in the season because if you are from a so-called one-bid conference, a tough schedule and a first-place regular-season finish will get you nothing more than a home game in the NIT unless you win your conference tournament.
Second, even though the West Coast Conference produced a team that played for the national title last season, the selection committee still considers it a one-bid league – unless Gonzaga fails to win the conference tournament. St. Mary’s won 28 games and won at Gonzaga – and is headed to the NIT.
Third, if there is any way at all to get Syracuse into the tournament, the committee will find it. Few fan bases travel better. Orange fans will even go to Dayton, Ohio.
Notre Dame, Mike Brey and Bonzie Colson.
Then, finally, they got to the brackets.
There will be plenty of enjoyable games here, but the last snip of net will end up in Tony Bennett’s hands. This is Virginia’s year — finally — to go back to the Final Four for the first time since 1984, the year after Ralph Sampson graduated. The Cavaliers teased a lot of teams during the regular season because their style will allow a good team to stay close. But you have to play a full 40 minutes; not even 39:59 will do, as Louisville can tell you in detail as it prepares for the NIT.
The Cavaliers will open Friday in Charlotte against UMBC, one of the best stories in the tournament. The Retrievers are coached by Ryan Odom, who spent much of his boyhood in Charlottesville where his dad, Dave, was a Virginia assistant during the Sampson era. Odom took over at UMBC before last season, after the Retrievers had won 41 games in seven seasons combined. They have now won 45 in the past two, including Saturday’s stunning upset of Vermont in the America East final. Jairus Lyles can score from anywhere, and 5-foot-6 point guard
K.J. Maura is an absolute pest. If the Retrievers can make three-pointers, they can hang with the Cavaliers — just not for 40 minutes. The Cavaliers will get the Creighton-Kansas State winner, and that game won’t be close. Sorry, Bluejays. At least you’ll win a round.
The matchups in Boise, Idaho, are fascinating. Kentucky may blow out Davidson or, if Peyton Aldridge and mates can somehow control the pace, they could make John Calipari’s future NBA draft picks nervous. The winner almost certainly gets Arizona, although Buffalo’s Nate Oats is a terrific coach. The selection committee was in wildcat mode when it put four in the same region: Kentucky, Davidson, Arizona, Kansas State.
Cincinnati opens against Georgia State in Nashville and no doubt will pull for Nevada to beat Texas there. A Shaka Smart team in March can be very dangerous. Ask Kansas circa 2011. If there’s one team Virginia might not want to play coming from the bottom of the bracket, it is Tennessee. The Volunteers are as athletic as Kentucky, and Rick Barnes has been an underrated coach for most of 30 years. It’s sheer coincidence that the Vols are in the same region with Texas, where Barnes coached for 17 years.
Miami against Loyola is a terrific first-round matchup and will be a popular upset pick. The Ramblers are in the tournament for the first time in 33 years, but it’s tough to pick against Jim Larranaga facing a lower-seeded team with several days to prepare. Either team is capable of upsetting Tennessee after the Vols take care of Wright State.
Who goes to Atlanta? Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. Kentucky’s speed and size against Virginia’s discipline will be fascinating to watch – so would Arizona vs. Virginia if those Wildcats advance – and the winner of that game will go to San Antonio.
The committee did Virginia no favors with this bracket but this is their time. I think.