NCAA Tournament 2008: First Look at the Field of 65
Now that the college football season is behind us, hoops is kicking into high gear, as conference play is underway all around the nation.
Some teams are just hitting their stride, while others have been hitting on all cylinders since November.
The ultimate goal is to be one of the names in the Big Dance bracket on Selection Sunday in March, and while I’m stopping short of making a full field projection, here’s my analysis of the field based on the season thus far.
Who are the #1 seeds?
North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas, and UCLA are 1-2-3-4 in the polls, and barring any unforeseen slipups, should be the four #1 seeds come March.
It’s hard to see one of those teams slipping up, because they’re the class of their conferences. But, if one of them does, Duke or Georgetown would likely be the best bets to slip in and take their place.
Will any of the #1 seeds enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten?
North Carolina has had some close calls lately, and it’s hard to see them not slipping up at least once in the ACC.
Kansas had a couple of close calls in non-conference play against their toughest opponents (76-72 vs. Arizona, 59-55 vs. USC, 71-66 vs. Ga. Tech), but have been mercilessly obliterating their opponents lately. However, like in the ACC, it’s hard to see them going through the entire conference slate and the conference tournament unbeaten.
If one team’s going to do it, it’ll be Memphis. But, to make it happen, they’re going to have to win tough non-conference tilts against Gonzaga (Jan. 26) and Tennessee (Feb. 23).
Which conference will have the most bids?
Right now, it looks like the Big East. Marquette, Georgetown, Pitt, and Notre Dame are currently tied atop the conference with 3-1 marks, and look like pretty safe bets. Louisville stumbled along in non-conference play, but should be in, along with Villanova. Syracuse (13-5, 3-2), West Virginia (12-4, 2-2), and Connecticut (11-4, 2-2) could all get in and give the conference nine total bids, but can’t afford to drop too many along the way.
Watch out for Providence (11-5, 2-2), who has non-conference wins over Arkansas, Boston College, and Florida St. If they can back those wins up with some quality wins in Big East play, the Friars will be in at-large contention.
Which power conference will be the most disappointed come Selection Sunday?
The SEC wasn’t looking too pretty for a little while, but it appears to be a six-bid league, if Arkansas can develop some sort of consistency, which doesn‘t involve home losses to South Carolina.
The Big 12 could wind up getting as few as four bids, as Kansas, Texas, and Texas A&M look pretty set, with Baylor off to a surprising 14-2 (2-0 Big 12) start, which includes a non-conference win over Notre Dame. Past that, Kansas St., Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Missouri have their flaws that could block their path to a bid.
What about the ACC? Duke and UNC are locks, but considering Clemson’s (14-3, 2-1 ACC) nosedive last season, you have to be cautious about the Tigers and Miami (14-2, 1-1). Boston College (12-4) is off to a 3-0 start in ACC play, which has them on more solid ground right now after an unimpressive non-conference performance, which featured a 57-51 home loss to Northeast Conference member Robert Morris.
FSU, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Maryland, or Virginia need to step it up to give the conference more than five bids.
Which team on the outside looking in right now are likely to be dancing come March?
Mississippi State (12-5, 3-0 SEC) was expected to do big things this season, but only got off to a 5-5 start, where they couldn’t hold late leads in four of those losses. But, with a seven-game win streak, the Bulldogs are back on track, led by shot-blocking sensation Jarvis Varnado, who had a triple-double (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 blocks) against Kentucky in a 69-64 win, and All-America candidate Jamont Gordon, who‘s averaging more than 17 points per game.
It’s a little early to pencil MSU into your bracket right now, because their toughest games are coming up. But, while they’re not necessarily winning pretty right now, all that matters is the W’s, and if they keep coming, the ’Dogs will be dancing and dangerous.
Which teams who currently look good are on the most uncertain ground heading into the rest of the season?
Take your pick from any of a trio of Big 10 (Purdue, Minnesota, Ohio St.) or Big East (Syracuse, UConn, West Virginia) squads.
Also, if you’re Cal (11-4, 2-2 Pac-10) or Arizona (11-5, 1-2 Pac-10), falling short of 20 wins might mean the NIT. But, Arizona‘s one of those schools with a little more leeway than some.
Who’s the best non-power conference right now?
That one’s easy. It’s the Atlantic 10, with four top-25 caliber teams in Dayton, Rhode Island, Xavier, and UMass.
Five bids doesn’t sound like a stretch, if Charlotte (11-5, 2-0), Duquesne (12-4, 1-1), or St. Joseph’s (9-5, 2-1) can finish near the top or win the automatic bid. And when Temple (7-8, 1-1) upsets #20 Xavier by 19, you know you’ve got a deep league.
Who will be the highest-seeded mid-majors?
Butler (16-1, 5-1 Horizon) is pushing the top 10, and has wins over Ohio St., Florida St., and Texas Tech, who manhandled #9 Texas A&M this week. If the Bulldogs can keep it up and run through conference play relatively unscathed, they’ll be in contention for a #3 seed.Dayton (14-2, 2-1 A-10) was just upset at home by Massachusetts, but with their road wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh, look good as a #4 or #5 right now. The A-10 champion, if it’s Xavier, Rhode Island, Dayton, or even UMass, could end up anywhere between the #4 and #6 range.
Are there any mid-majors capable of making a run deep into the tournament?
Butler’s got the pedigree, having made the Sweet 16 last season, and look primed to do it again, or get even further.
One of those A-10 squads mentioned above could also make a run. Dayton (Louisville and Pitt), Rhode Island (Syracuse), Umass (Syracuse, Boston College), and Xavier (Indiana, Virginia, Kansas St.), all played and picked up wins against some pretty tough non-conference opposition.
That’s the kind of experience comes in handy in March, along with playing in one of the deepest conferences in the country.
What current one-bid league could wind up getting multiple bids?
Butler looks like a lock, unless they decide to forfeit the rest of their games, but if they slip up in the conference tournament, like last season, the Horizon League could be a two-bid league (apologies to the power conference bubble teams).
There’s an outside chance that Houston (12-3, 1-0 C-USA) could get an at-large bid, if they don’t pick up more than a couple of losses in league play. But, while they did pick up a win over Kentucky, they haven’t taken advantage of their best chances at resume builders, losing to UMass, Arizona, and Virginia Commonwealth
by Eddie Griffin
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