One of the simmering debates in college hoops these days — besides what to do about 19-13 halftime scores — is which schools deserve No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
The real quest, for seven or eight teams, can be more accurately phrased like this: Staying The Heck Away From Kentucky For As Long As Humanly Possible.
Obviously, if you can nail down a No. 1 seed, you’re guaranteed not to have to deal with the undefeated Wildcats until the Final Four, if then. But there are several candidates for a top seed out there who will end up as No. 2s who are going to be riveted to the TV on Selection Sunday, and it won’t be merely to see which No. 15 seed they’re drawing. They’re going to want to make sure Kentucky is far away, like in the Barcelona Regional.
These teams are in charge of their fate down the stretch. But losses are inevitable, and when it’s all sorted out, a lot of their position with regard to Kentucky will be an accident of geography.
This week, I ran a few scenarios by David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination and statistics. I attached some overall seeds to teams, which are hypothetical, but we can take his siting of those propositions to be eminently informed, since he’s part of the staff that oversees the bracketing process.
In all these, I conceded No. 1 seeds to Kentucky, Duke and Virginia, and that’s also open to question, at least for the last two. In one scenario, I gave him this order of overall seeds: 1, Kentucky. 2, Virginia. 3, Duke. 4, Wisconsin. 5, Villanova. 6, Arizona. 7, Kansas. 8, Gonzaga.
Here’s how that came back: Kentucky to Cleveland, Virginia to Syracuse, Duke to Houston, Wisconsin to Los Angeles. And Villanova to Syracuse, Arizona to LA, Kansas to Houston, Gonzaga to (gulp) Cleveland. It’s geography, placement of teams as close as possible to home without disadvantaging other deserving teams.
And another scenario: 1, Kentucky. 2, Virginia. 3, Duke. 4, Villanova. 5, Wisconsin. 6, Gonzaga. 7, Kansas. 8, Arizona.
Kentucky to Cleveland, Virginia to Syracuse, Duke to Houston, Villanova to LA. Here’s where it gets interesting: Wisconsin to Cleveland, Gonzaga to LA, Kansas to Houston, Arizona to Syracuse. What’s striking here is that Wisconsin would end up in Kentucky’s region — even though it’s a better No. 2 seed than the other three No. 2s. But seeding principles don’t account for an outfit (Kentucky) that some are beginning to compare to the best college teams in history.
The Gonzaga-Arizona dynamic is worth watching. If you’re the Zags and you don’t win a No. 1 seed, you want to make sure you’re positioned ahead of the Wildcats, so they’re traveling out of the region and not you. Gonzaga fans should either want Arizona to have a lights-out finish to be off the Zags’ seed line (probably not the optimum scenario, because it would likely bump GU out of a No. 1 seed) or root for the Wildcats to stumble enough to be clearly behind Gonzaga.
While we await all this, a thumbnail look at the main contenders for those top seeds outside Kentucky:
Duke (22-3): Road wins at Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia will knock the committee out, as well as its 10-2 mark versus the RPI top 50 (entering the North Carolina game Wednesday night).
Virginia (24-1): Has an 8-1 top-50 record and relatively easy finish until finale at home with Louisville March 7.
Villanova (24-2): It’s 9-1 against the top 50, with a seemingly cushy stretch schedule.
Kansas (21-5): Six wins against the RPI top 25, but also blowout losses to Kentucky and Temple. The testy Big 12 offers plenty of chances to be upwardly mobile.
Wisconsin (23-2): Ending run has plenty of punch, with roadies at Maryland and Ohio State and a home game with Michigan State. Badgers are 6-1 versus the top 50, but have a big blemish with a loss to No. 139 Rutgers.
Arizona (22-3): ‘Cats are 4-0 against the top 50, but most pundits have them trailing Gonzaga because of three dubious losses — against Oregon State (83), Arizona State (98) and UNLV (100). Utah, Feb. 28 in Salt Lake City, present a great opportunity.
Gonzaga (26-1): Zags are 4-1 against the top 50, but have just one top-25 win. It’s not helping that victims like St. John’s and Georgia have been fading, but the 15th-ranked non-conference strength of schedule will tell the committee that at least they’re trying. Winning out probably secures a No. 1 seed, but it’s no guarantee.
Missouri coach Kim Anderson reinstated Seattle point guard Tramaine Isabell this week from a five-game suspension. When Anderson made the move at the end of January, he cited Isabell’s “behavior and attitude toward coaches and teammates that has been unacceptable.”
Isabell, who played at Lakeside and Garfield as a prep, was benched for a half to start the Tennessee game Jan. 17 for what was described as a poor practice performance. He averages 15.5 minutes a game, 4.5 points and has 30 assists and 23 turnovers for a 7-18 team that had lost 11 straight entering a Wednesday-night game at Arkansas.
Isabell, who transferred to Garfield after playing three years at Lakeside, was an early commitment to former Washington State coach Ken Bone. When Bone was fired, Isabell wavered on the commitment, reaffirmed it, and then in May, it was announced that he had requested, and received, a release from his letter of intent. He ended up at Missouri.
Regarding WSU, I’m not sure that’s exactly how it went down. As I got it, during the feeling-out process, there was an incident that caused WSU to cool ultimately on Isabell, and it was the Cougars who cut bait.
But that’s almost neither here nor there. What does matter is that first-year WSU coach Ernie Kent has had a generally positive season, winning five league games, beating his arch-rival (Washington), plus two teams that have realistic NCAA-tournament aspirations in Oregon and Stanford. If you’re rebuilding, and you’re not going to win immediately anyway, the last thing you need is a malcontent on your roster.
When the Isabell-WSU tie was cut last May, it was written on the pages of the Times: “Losing Isabell is a big blow for the Cougars and new coach Ernie Kent.”
I don’t think so.
U.S. Basketball Writers Assn. announced the other day that Michigan freshman Austin Hatch has won its 2015 Most Courageous Award, and I can’t imagine anybody more deserving. Hatch is the player who lost both his parents and two siblings in separate crashes of private planes while he survived both accidents.
I’m biased in saying that this award is one of sport’s coolest, having been a part of helping select the recipient while an officer in the USBWA in the ’90s and also having seen the emotion and heard the stories of the winners as they’re recognized at the Final Four. Hatch’s presentation ought to be a show-stopper.
Behold Texas, which has a 33 RPI, but a 1-8 record against the top 50. It might want to start stockpiling quality wins in the Big 12, starting with visiting Iowa State (14th-ranked), at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN2. That night at 7, Gonzaga visits St. Mary’s with a lot on the line, also on ESPN2. The Zags need it to stay on course for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, while the Gaels, without much portfolio, desperately need a quality win to catch the committee’s eye.
Sunday is a big one in the Pac-12, with Oregon hosting ninth-ranked Utah at noon on FoxSports1. That would be a plum victory for the NCAA-seeking Ducks, while Utah tries to stay abreast of Arizona for the Pac-12 regular-season title.
Tuesday at 4 p.m. on ESPN is Wisconsin (No. 5) at Maryland (No. 16).
Players Who Averaged
20 Points, 20 Rebounds
Bill Russell, San Francisco (1954-56), 20.7/20.3
Paul Silas, Creighton (1962-64), 20.5/21.6
Julius Erving, UMass (1970-71), 26.3/20.2
Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville (1970-71), 24.3/22.7
Kermit Washington, American (1971-73), 20.1/20.2