March arrives Saturday. Selection Sunday comes 17 days hence. That’s when the college basketball regular season — and this regular season has been pretty darn good — yields to the only part of the college season that has come to matter. Today we offer a look ahead to the NCAA tournament, which will culminate April 7 in Jerry Jones’ palace in Arlington, Texas.
Who’s the favorite? Florida, and not just because it’s unbeaten in the SEC and ranked No. 1 in the land. The Gators have enough manpower — though coach Billy Donovan noted after Tuesday’s win at Vanderbilt that his is “not a very talented team” — to hang with those rosters that will stock the NBA lottery (meaning Kansas and Kentucky) and a mesh that sets them above such assemblages. The only question: Has the SEC’s weakness inflated the Gators’ worth?
What about those one-and-done crews? Kentucky could reach the Final Four, but it’s hard to imagine this collection of talent — that’s opposed to the NCAA-champion Wildcats of 2011-12, who had the nation’s best players but were a team in the fullest sense — winning six elimination games. Kansas is the better bet by far. It’s just as gifted, and it has already clinched a share of the regular-season title (for the 10th year running!) in the Big 12, whose RPI ranks as the nation’s best conference.
Should Wichita State be a No. 1 seed? Are the Shockers a true title contender? Yes to the first. A 30-0 record and an RPI of 9 is enough to secure a top seed, although the debate will intensify should Wichita lose in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. (The Valley, usually among the best mid-majors, ranks only 11th-highest in conference RPI.) But the Shockers’ best chance to win it all came last season, when they wasted a 12-point lead against Louisville in the Final Four. The absence of Carl Hall, the big man from Cochran, cannot be overstated.
So what about Louisville? Can it repeat? No. The Cardinals are tough enough to reach the Elite Eight, but the losses of Chane Behanan (kicked off the squad) and Kevin Ware of Rockdale County (needed a redshirt season after his famous broken leg) have pared Louisville’s talent. The Cards needed until Saturday to win a game of consequence — on the road against Cincinnati — and their season of purgatory in the American Athletic Conference before moving to the ACC has done nothing to toughen them for another March.
About the ACC: Who’s the real threat there? Syracuse? Virginia? Duke? Resurgent North Carolina? Not the latter. The Tar Heels don’t shoot the 3-pointer well (10th in the ACC) or make free throws (334th in the nation). Probably not the Cavaliers, even though they’re positioned to win the regular-season title; they don’t score enough, although that’s mostly by design. (They lost 48-38 to Wisconsin and beat Pitt 48-45.) Syracuse typically flatters to deceive: It’s in line for its fourth 30-win season over the past five, but the first three of those yielded only one Final Four appearance. That leaves Duke, and not by default. Freshman Jabari Parker is at worst the nation’s second-best player (behind Creighton’s Doug McDermott), and Mike Krzyzewski is the second-best coach there ever was.
Can Georgia State win a game in the Big Dance? Provided the Panthers take the Sun Belt tournament and draw a favorable first-game opponent, absolutely. They have seasoned guards who can control the pace, make their 3-pointers and their free throws. But much would depend on GSU’s NCAA seeding. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Panthers as a 15th seed playing No. 2 Duke in his latest bracketology. That’s not a winnable game. But No. 14 Georgia State against No. 3 Wisconsin might be.
Does Georgia, alone in third place in the SEC, have any chance to wangle an at-large bid? Alas, no. Even after that second victory over Missouri, which is widely viewed as a top-of-the-bubble team, the Bulldogs’ RPI is 82, eighth-best among SEC schools. The NCAA committee pays scant attention to league standings and much to RPI, and with so little of the season left there’s no way for Georgia to get enough of a ratings bump to register. The Bulldogs will have to win the SEC tournament, which will be staged in Atlanta, or settle for the NIT.
So who’s your Final Four? I always hate answering this until I see the pairings — and once I do, Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco will return for its 27th run — but I’ll play along. For now, it’s Florida, Kansas, Duke and Iowa State.
Iowa State? Seriously? Yes. Seriously.