This NCAA is a plunge into the deep unknown

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado holds the winners trophy as he and his teammates celebrate their 80-75 win over Florida State in the ACC championship game Saturday, March 13, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Credit: Gerry Broome

Credit: Gerry Broome

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado holds the winners trophy as he and his teammates celebrate their 80-75 win over Florida State in the ACC championship game Saturday, March 13, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

For those of a certain age, the charm of the World Series was that it matched teams that hadn’t played one another until October. Thus was the Fall Classic different from a weekend series in June. It was the only time we saw guys in these uniforms play against guys in those pinstripes. (The Yankees invariably won the American League.) Interleague play changed that, not necessarily for the worse. And now we turn — nice segue, huh? — to the Big Dance.

This NCAA Tournament is different from previous editions in many ways, not least being that it will be staged in its entirety in one state. It’s also different in teams that have arrived at March without the usual regimen. When Georgia Tech played for the national championship in 2004, it worked 37 games. This team can play no more than 31.

COVID-19 trimmed non-conference schedules and cut down on travel, thereby giving us fewer data points to process. Tech played only two games against teams from a major conference other than its own. Those were against Kentucky and Nebraska in December. Those teams finished an aggregate 16-36.

There are years when the ACC is indeed the nation’s best conference. According to Ken Pomeroy’s invaluable rankings, the ACC was fifth-best this time — behind the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Big East, ahead of the Pac-12. Illinois, which won the Big Ten Tournament, could meet Tech, which won the ACC tournament, in Round 2. The Illini are a No. 1 seed; Tech is a No. 9.

Since you asked, it’s the second-lowest seeding for any ACC champ, trailing North Carolina State’s No. 11 in 1987. That State team finished 20-15. Tech isn’t thrilled with its placement, but it largely was a function of conference rankings and those season-opening losses to Georgia State and Mercer, which finished 153rd and 129th in KenPom. And don’t just blame the NCAA committee: Even now, the newly crowned ACC champ isn’t ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

But here we ask: Were the Big Ten and the Big 12, each of which has five teams seeded No. 4 or better, good because they played each other or good because they didn’t play as many out-of-league games as usual? Illinois’ best non-league win was over Duke, which finished 13-11 and went nowhere. Michigan’s best was over Toledo, which lost in the MAC semifinals. West Virginia’s best was over Virginia Commonwealth at a neutral site on Thanksgiving.

Gonzaga celebrates after defeating BYU for the West Coast Conference men's tournament championship Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Las Vegas. (David Becker/AP)

Credit: David Becker

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Credit: David Becker

The slippage of Duke and, to a lesser degree, North Carolina changed how we perceived the ACC. KenPom has only two ACC teams — Virginia at No. 11, Florida State at No. 15 — in its top 20. The Tar Heels sought to burnish a middling record by scheduling, on four days’ notice, Marquette in February. Carolina lost at home to a team that finished 13-14, prompting Roy Williams to say: “If you told me we were going to lose, hell yeah, we wouldn’t have played the game.”

Games scheduled and postponed and canceled and rescheduled were the story of the regular season. Gonzaga and Baylor, which were 1-2 in the polls in preseason and are 1-3 today, were supposed to meet in November. They never did. The Zags played and beat Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia and Virginia — all top four seeds — in November and December. Since then, they’ve faced one team that would make the tournament — BYU, winning all three times. Would Gonzaga be unbeaten in the Big Ten? The SEC? The American Athletic?

This isn’t to say the Zags are a fluke. They’re good every year. They played North Carolina for the title in 2018. They could well become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go unbeaten. As good as Gonzaga has been, it’s still a bit of an unknown. The 2021 NCAA Tournament will commence with far more unknowns than knowns.

Would Baylor have stayed undefeated if it hadn’t had to stop for three weeks in February? The Bears have played only 24 games; Wisconsin has played 31. Is Alabama, which went 19-2 against SEC opposition, a legitimate threat? It lost to Stanford, Clemson, Western Kentucky and Oklahoma. What of Iowa, which played five times against teams ranked in the AP top 10 and won only once? Is such a schedule apt to yield deferred fruit?

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics

Georgia Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner explains the team's mitigating efforts when it discovered it had a positive COVID test among its travel party to Indy

The greatest unknown, duh, remains COVID. Georgia Tech did everything in its power to stay isolated during the ACC Tournament, but one of its traveling party — we assume it’s a player — has tested positive and been ruled out of this weekend’s games. With 68 teams to house and feed and transport, will the NCAA’s Indianapolis bubble hold? Kansas is sure it will be without at least one player this week; Virginia, which forfeited its ACC semi against Tech, isn’t sure how many it will have.

We’re past the deadline for standby teams to be summoned. These are the 68 that will play in Indiana. The NCAA Tournament begins Thursday night and runs through April 5. That’s a long time for everyone, especially those not yet of age to be vaccinated, to stay healthy. Then again, the NBA’s bubble held for three months. Fingers crossed, we watch and wait.