Starting 5: March Madness Extravaganza
Welcome back to the Starting 5. The Starting 5 is written multiple times per week by Adam Spencer to keep you up-to-date on all the news and events in the world of college hoops. You can follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamSpencer4 and @BlueChipGrit.
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1. Opening tipoff
Conference tournaments are supposed to matter. Quad 1 wins are supposed to matter. NET rankings are supposed to matter. Head-to-head results are supposed to matter.
Apparently, none of that actually does matter, though – at least not in the eyes of this year’s NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
It’s tough to find anything new to say about what happened on Selection Sunday, but Tennessee coach Rick Barnes had some interesting thoughts on Monday. First, he suggested the NCAA Selection Committee chairperson should be forced to answer questions about the bracket after the bracket is released (via 247Sports):
“I do believe after Selection Sunday the (NCAA Tournament) chairman or the committee should have a national day of press conferences,” Barnes said, “where you all can ask questions. Not just for three minutes or two minutes. For people that have really covered college basketball throughout.”
Barnes continued, saying teams that have secured March Madness spots should opt out of conference tournaments if they can’t improve their seed by playing:
“If conference tournaments don’t mean anything,” Barnes said, “if the teams are already slotted to be in the tournament can’t improve their seeding, we should stay at home and let the teams that are trying to get in the tournament fight for that (automatic) bid. Give our league a chance to get more (teams in the NCAA Tournament).
“Those are the questions that should really be asked and answered. There are people out there much more thorough than I am in terms of looking at resumes and all that. But from a coach’s standpoint, we’re not going (focus on it). This is what we have and we’re going to go from here.”
Honestly, I think Barnes is on the right track here, but entire teams can’t opt out. There is an answer, though, and college basketball needs to look to college football for the answer.
What if top players opted out instead? For example, if the Vols felt they couldn’t improve from a 3-seed by winning the SEC Tournament, they could have left Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James behind in Knoxville with Barnes while a top assistant and the rest of the team went to Tampa to play.
That could become a trend in college hoops if teams like Texas A&M and Tennessee feel they’re being disrespected by the Selection Committee. Imagine if the Vols hadn’t played those 4 guys mentioned above in Sunday’s championship game. The Aggies surely would have won and forced the committee’s hand for a spot in the field of 68.
As it stands, the Aggies have to deal with the fact that they’re out of the field, while a team they beat head-to-head in Notre Dame and had better metrics than the Fighting Irish. Simply put, the Aggies should have been in over Notre Dame:
Texas A&M got absolutely screwed. Unbelievable.
Texas A&M: 22-11
Notre Dame: 21-10
A&M: 4-9 in Quad 1
A&M: 42 in NET
A&M: SEC tourney finalist
ND: lost in quarterfinals
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 13, 2022
And, the Vols should have been 1 of the top 2 No. 2 seeds instead of being slotted in as a 3-seed:
This chart lol pic.twitter.com/NNaFSlEiTH
— gmannVOLS (@gmannVOLS) March 14, 2022
If things the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee says matter (Quad 1 wins, head-to-head victories, NET rankings, conference tournament results, etc.) don’t actually start mattering, and soon, Barnes’ scenario could become reality. And that should scare the heck out of the NCAA.
2. Potential Cinderellas
The beauty of March Madness is that, every single year, without fail, there are unexpected teams that make it through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and put scares into top teams. This year, there’s no shortage of teams that are 10-seeds or higher that can cause some drama.
Here are my 3 potential Cinderella squads in this year’s bracket:
1. South Dakota State – The Jackrabbits lead the nation, making 44.9% of their 3-pointers this year. They don’t exactly fit the “live by the 3, die by the 3” mold, though, as they only rank No. 137 in 3-pointers taken this season. This is a really good team that went 18-0 in Summit League action and cruised to the conference tournament championship.
Douglas Wilson (16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) and Baylor Scheierman (16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists per game) are as good of a combo as you’ll find in the mid-major ranks. And, as I’ll mention later in this column, I think No. 4 seed Providence is vulnerable. The Jackrabbits are a very interesting team in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
2. San Francisco – People love to criticize Gonzaga for playing in a “weak” West Coast Conference. But, the WCC has never been stronger than it was this year. In KenPom’s rankings, Gonzaga is No. 1. Saint Mary’s, a 5-seed, is No. 16. And, the Dons, led by Todd Golden, are ranked No. 21 overall. They sport the No. 45 offense and No. 19 defense in the country. Golden is red-hot as a coaching candidate for major-conference programs.
I’ve been banging the drum for Jamaree Bouyea (16.7 points per game) and Khalil Shabazz (14 points per game) for a few weeks now. That’s a guard combo that can make some noise in March Madness. I think they’ll stop Murray State, the 7-seed that is having a magical season. Can they beat Kentucky in Round 2? That’s a tough task, but it’s not out of the question if the Dons’ defense keeps the Wildcats in their 3-point shooting slump.
3. UAB – The Blazers are a No. 12 seed after winning the Conference USA Tournament in epic fashion over Louisiana Tech. Andy Kennedy is a great coach who might be moving on to another major conference school during this coaching carousel.
UAB has a guy who averages 20.4 points per game in Jordan “Jelly” Walker – one of the best nicknames in the NCAA Tournament. And the Blazers are in a vulnerable portion of the bracket. They play No. 5 seed Houston in Round 1. The Cougars are banged up in a big way. No. 4 seed Illinois lost in last year’s second round as a No. 1 seed. This is absolutely a team that could make a Sweet 16 run before bowing out against a truly great Arizona team.
Next, let’s take a look at some teams that are overrated entering the NCAA Tournament.
We just took a look at 3 mid-major squads that could make some noise. Next, let’s take a look at 3 major-conference programs that could be heading for a pre-Sweet 16 exit based on this year’s bracket.
Here are the 3 teams I think are overrated in this year’s March Madness:
1. Duke – Duke is only a 2-seed because this is Coach K’s last season as its coach, right? Look at this comparison of Duke’s resume vs. Tennessee’s and tell me the Blue Devils did anything to deserve a 2-seed over the Vols:
This is the one. This is the worst I've seen of it. Damning as hell for the committee. The more I see, the more I think Tennessee is one of the worst mis-seedings in tournament history. https://t.co/fFV3MvKW7z
— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 14, 2022
You can’t do it. It’s impossible to make that case. But, as I mentioned in the first section, that’s what Rick Barnes was saying about the conference tournaments clearly not mattering this year. Duke doesn’t belong on the 2-seed line. I have the Blue Devils losing to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they lost to Davidson in the Round of 32, either.
2. Michigan State – The Spartans wouldn’t be a 7-seed if Tom Izzo wasn’t their coach and it didn’t say “Michigan State” on the front of their jerseys. This is a team that finished the regular season on a 3-7 run before winning 2 games in the B1G Tournament.
Michigan State doesn’t have a star player. It has several good players, but I simply haven’t been impressed with them at all this year. If North Carolina is an 8-seed, then the Spartans are an 8-seed at best. Probably a 9-seed, if the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee knew what it was doing (which, as we established earlier, it does not). I have the Spartans losing to Davidson in Round 1.
3. Alabama – I’m sorry, Tide fans. I really like this team. I love watching Jaden Shackelford play. But, a No. 6 seed? The way they ended the season, I’d have had them as a 7-seed, maybe even an 8-seed. I am out on the Tide after they lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament.
Now, if Notre Dame wins the First Four game against Rutgers? Sure, I’ll pick the Tide to advance to the second round. But, I think Rutgers is a bad matchup for Nate Oats’ squad. So, if the Scarlet Knights win, I’ll pick them past the Tide, too.
I still think Nate Oats is a heck of a coach. This team just has something off about it. I expect him to adjust this offseason and get things turned around ahead of the 2022-23 season.
Next up, let’s discuss the 4 No. 1 seeds in this year’s tournament.
4. Ranking No. 1 seeds
Nearly every season that the NCAA Tournament has been played, at least 1 No. 1 seed has made it to the Final Four. I fully expect that to be the case this time around, with 3 No. 1 seeds having serious potential to head to New Orleans.
So, in this section, I’ll give you a percentage for how confident I am that each No. 1 seed will win its region and head to the Final Four in the Big Easy.
Gonzaga – 90%
Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme are the best front-court tandem in the nation. Duke is an overrated No. 2 seed, as I mentioned above. I think, outside of Arkansas, this sets up as a favorable bracket for the Bulldogs. Arkansas has elite talent, but I don’t think the Hogs quite have the depth to pull off the upset.
And, while I love Texas Tech, the Red Raiders don’t have the bigs to match up with Timme and Holmgren. I think the Bulldogs have the easiest route of any No. 1 seed to the Final Four. I’d be shocked if Mark Few didn’t lead this team to New Orleans.
Arizona – 80%
I love this Arizona team. Benn Mathurin can do anything on the basketball court. Azuolas Tubelis is a versatile forward. Christian Koloko’s ceiling is Kofi Cockburn (the Illinois big man). Even if Kerr Kriisa can’t come back until the Final Four after an ankle injury, I like the Wildcats to advance. I’m not worried about them until the Elite Eight, when a deep (and red-hot) Tennessee team or a veteran Villanova team could give them trouble. But, I’m confident the Wildcats will be a Final Four squad this year.
Kansas – 50%
Here, I will formally announce my bias. I simply will never pick Kansas to make the Final Four in my bracket, because I’m afraid I’ll lose my Mizzou alumni card. But, I can objectively acknowledge that the Jayhawks have a talented team this year. However, it seems the Jayhawks are more likely to underperform as a top seed than they are to win it all.
I could see a defensive stalwart like San Diego State (No. 2 defensively in KenPom’s rankings) giving them problems in Round 2. I have them losing to a red-hot Iowa team and superstar Keegan Murray in the Sweet 16. The Hawkeyes impressed me with their Big Ten Tournament run. Give me the Hawkeyes over the Jayhawks.
Baylor – 33%
I think the Bears, when healthy, are perhaps the best team in the entire nation. The problem? They haven’t been fully healthy down the stretch, and won’t be for March Madness. Add into that the fact that the toughest 2-seed in the tournament, Kentucky, is in their region, and we have a recipe for disaster. Scott Drew is a heck of a coach and I believe in his ability under normal circumstances to lead a team this talented to the Final Four (especially after Baylor won the title last year).
But, I have the Bears losing to North Carolina in the second round. The Tar Heels are playing some solid basketball lately, and they have some elite talent in their starting lineup. We’ll see if the Bears can prove me wrong!
Now, let’s look ahead to the best games on Thursday’s slate of NCAA Tournament action.
5. Games to watch
Well, folks, it’s that time of year again – the time of year where we all scramble to remember what channel “truTV” is on. Thursday’s schedule features 16 games. Since I’ll be writing another column for Friday, today’s “games to watch” section will include only games from Thursday’s schedule. It’s absolutely loaded, though, so here are the 5 matchups I can’t wait to see:
- No. 4 Providence vs. No. 13 South Dakota State (Thursday at 12:40 p.m. ET on truTV) – The Jackrabbits are going to be a very popular upset pick, as we discussed above. Providence is a suspect No. 4 seed, especially with the way it played down the stretch and in the Big East Tournament. Will the Friars manage to pull off another miraculous win? This game should provide plenty of drama.
- No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Marquette (Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET on TBS) – This is a huge game, as the winner will get to face No. 1 seed Baylor on Saturday. The Bears are the reigning champions and a team that was ranked No. 1 for a portion of this season, but Scott Drew’s squad is so banged up right now that it is very susceptible to an early upset.
- No. 7 Murray State vs. No. 10 San Francisco (Thursday at 9:40 p.m. ET on CBS) – Murray State is coached by Matt McMahon. San Francisco is coached by Todd Golden. Those sentences might only be true for another week or so. Both guys will have plenty of eyes on them on Thursday night as teams with coaching vacancies watch closely. Additionally, these 2 squads are very talented and play exciting brands of basketball. This could be one of the best games of Round 1.
- No. 6 Colorado State vs. No. 11 Michigan (Thursday at 12:15 p.m. ET on CBS) – Michigan’s 17-14 overall record had many questioning why the Wolverines even made the NCAA Tournament. It’s wild that they aren’t even in the First Four. But, Michigan has wins over Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa this year. Colorado State is an elite mid-major squad, but the Wolverines should give them a fight as they try to prove they belonged in the field of 68.
- No. 8 San Diego State vs. No. 9 Creighton (Thursday at 7:27 p.m. ET on truTV) – You know I’m no Kansas fan. Whoever wins this game will have the first realistic shot to knock off the No. 1 seed Jayhawks. These are also 2 defensive juggernauts, as San Diego State has the No. 2 defense in the nation and Creighton checks in at No. 18, according to KenPom’s system. Points might be at a premium in this one.
It’s the best time of year to be a sports fan. The first weekend of March Madness always delivers. There are sure to be upsets galore on Thursday and Friday. We’ll also see which teams look like title contenders and which are simply pretenders. Move every TV in your house into the same room, y’all. It’s tourney time!
Enjoy the Starting 5? Have a question? Want to yell at me about something? Follow me on Twitter @AdamSpencer4 or email me at ASpencer@SaturdayDownSouth.com.