It’s a done deal: Duke, Indiana, Florida and Miami are locks as No. 1 seeds for next month’s NCAA Tournament ... at least for the next few days. By this time next week it could be Syracuse, Michigan State, Gonzaga or Michigan.
It gets weirder: North Carolina is on the bubble and the Heels aren’t alone. Traditional shoe ins Temple and Villanova are on the verge of hearing that pop. The Mountain West — not exactly a beast among college basketball’s elite — could get as many teams in the NCAAs as the SEC. Connecticut is not eligible for the postseason but the Huskies are as good a pick as any to win the Big East.
The NCAA Tournament is four weeks away, which means there’s time to sort out this mess in what should be the most wide-open field in recent memory.
“There have been a number of extraordinary games, upsets, shake‑ups in the polls,” NCAA Tournament chairman Mike Bobinski said this week. “It seems like the worst thing that can happen to you is you ascend to the top spot because you’re bound to get beaten quickly thereafter. Amazing number of last‑possession games, overtime games, a five‑overtime game the other day and a number of double‑overtime games, just an incredibly competitive field out there at this point in time.”
What makes the committee’s job even more burdensome is the lack of a dominant team like last year’s national championship team at Kentucky. The Wildcats lost twice — one was a buzzer beater on the road at Indiana — and finished 38-2. This year there’s good teams, but ones loaded with questions.
Indiana is dominant, you say? The same team that’s tied with Michigan State in the Big Ten standings? Duke? Good team but one that got punished by Miami by 27 points when the Blue Devils were the top-ranked team in the nation. Florida? There was talk of the Gators running the table in the SEC until Arkansas — unranked and bubble free — knocked it off last week. Miami? Great story and the Hurricanes are playing as well as anyone in the land, but can you really trust a team that lost to Florida Gulf Coast?
In four weeks we could see things more clearly but there’s a sense there will be more upsets and Madness than usual.
“I think our job will be as challenging, maybe even a little bit more so than years gone by from a seeding perspective, as it appears that we’re going to have a lot of teams that look and feel alike,” Bobinski said. “But that’s OK. You know, it’s a challenge that we’ll be prepared for as a committee, and we’re at work on that right now.”
This week, Duke’s Seth Curry and former Davidson All-American Stephen Curry became the highest-scoring pair of brothers in the history of college ball. Stephen, now with the Golden State Warriors, scored 2,635 points in just three seasons at Davidson while Seth has 1,869 points in his career at Liberty and Duke for a combined 4,504 points. The top five includes: Tyler (North Carolina) and Ben (Mississippi State, Notre Dame) Hansbrough, 4,485 points; Larry (Indiana State) and Eddie (Indiana State) Bird, 4,405; Chuck (Auburn) and Wesley (Auburn) Person, 4,377 points; and Greg (Utah State) and Josh (Utah State) Grant, 4,124 points.
James Southerland is coming back at the right time for Syracuse to make a late season push to the Final Four. Southerland missed six games because of an eligibility matter and the Orange went 4-2 without their third leading scorer.
Late season distractions hindered Syracuse’s chances of a national championship twice in the last four seasons. In 2009, an injury to Arinze Onuaku in the Big East Tournament stripped the Orange of their top interior player and they were bounced by Butler in the Sweet 16. They were poised again to make a run last year when Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for academic reasons. The Orange didn’t have anyone to deal with Jared Sullinger in the Elite Eight and Ohio State advanced to the Final Four. Syracuse would like to avoid a repeat.
One player who needs to step up for Kentucky in the absence of Nerlens Noel is Willie Cauley-Stein, the son of Willie Cauley, who starred for Niagara Falls in the early ’90s. It also might mean Cauley-Stein’s career at Kentucky will be short-lived.
Now that Noel is out for the season with a torn ACL, Cauley-Stein’s minutes will increase and NBA scouts will be able to see more of his already expanding game. He was heavily recruited out of Olathe, Kan., but he wasn’t expected to make the same impact as Noel, Archie Goodwin or Alex Poythress. But he’s 7-foot, 245-pounds and athletic and seeing how the NBA has drafted on potential for years, Cauley-Stein could be a lottery pick. Besides, watching Noel, the projected top pick in June, being carried off the court, could accelerate his desire to turn pro. NBADraft.net has Cauley-Stein as the No. 10 pick.
As for Kentucky (17-7, 8-3 SEC), it’s almost as if the Wildcats are 0-0 in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament committee. The 24 games with Noel in the lineup are essentially off the books because the Wildcats are considered a different team moving forward.
“The reality is we have about 4½ weeks of basketball left to be able to watch Kentucky play and to see how they perform without him in the lineup now, and that will really tell the story, I think, of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky,” Bobinski said. “It’s way too early to consider them in, out, or in between. We don’t do that with anybody at this point in time. But we’ll clearly be watching them closely to see how they’re able to play without a young man that’s clearly been an important part of their success to this point.”
Weep not for Kentucky because even if they lose Noel, Cauley-Stein and others, John Calipari reloads quicker than the Sons of Anarchy. When the rosters for the McDonald’s All-American Game were released on Thursday, it revealed a record five Wildcat recruits made the team.
Four recruits — 6-5 guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison from Fort Bend, Texas, 6-9 forward Marcus Lee of Antioch, Calif., and 6-6 guard James Young from Rochester Hills, Mich. — are on the West squad, and 6-10 center Dakari Johnson from Montverde, Fla., is on the East. And John Calipari is still in the hunt for 6-7 forward Andrew Wiggins from Huntington, W.Va., and 6-8 San Jose forward Aaron Gordon. All seven are ranked in rivals.com’s top 20.