Kevin McNamara, Providence (R.I.) Journal
Published 8:11 a.m. ET Feb. 11, 2020 | Updated 12:05 p.m. ET Feb. 11, 2020
USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson breaks down the latest USA TODAY Sports men’s basketball poll.
Unlike the half dozen updates that the College Football Playoff gurus spoon-feed their sport’s rabid followers, college basketball’s tournament committees pulls the curtain back only once.
That sneak peek came Saturday and told us all we really need to know about the state of the sport this season.
There is a pulse out on the West Coast, two big dogs lie in the Big 12, it’s time to welcome plenty of new faces and a remarkable balance exists where no one is afraid of anyone else. Reports of a wide open, free-for-all NCAA tournament should be taken quite seriously.
A look at the No. 1 seeds is important. In the first three seasons of this process, nine of the 12 top seeds in February remained as No. 1’s on Selection Sunday. That should be the case again this time around. The picks were, in order, Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State.
While the Bears and Jayhawks still have to (thankfully) play a second time Feb. 22 in Waco and potentially again in the Big 12 tournament, two of the four number one seeds hail from mid-major conferences. Toss in No. 2 seed Dayton and three of the top six teams will play only a handful of games against top 50 opponents between now and Selection Sunday.
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Put another way, while Baylor has six Quad 1 games remaining on its schedule, Dayton (2), Gonzaga (1) and San Diego State (zippo) shouldn’t have to sweat very much. The Aztecs (23-0) toughest game the rest of the way looks like a trip to Reno to play a Nevada team that is currently 87th in the NET. These teams may slip but even with one loss they aren’t destined to fall very far down the food chain.
“It was unanimous,” selection committee chair Kevin White said of the top four teams. “There was a bit of a separation between numbers four and five (Duke, Dayton), quite frankly. We clearly delineated those as the top four.”
The NCAA leaders are understandably proud that schools from nine different conferences made up their top 16. While the overwhelming majority of at-large teams will come from the Big East and Power Five leagues (FEEL FREE to make this POWER SIX, but NOT POWER FIVE!) , it is refreshing to see teams from the Mountain West (San Diego State) and Atlantic 10 (Dayton) join perennial power Gonzaga (West Coast) atop the food chain.
That’s not to say that the traditional big dogs are off the map. Don’t listen to the narrative about the ACC, for example. Yes, the 15-school behemoth won’t grab its customary eight or so bids. It might be lucky to earn four, which is inexcusable considering the money, history, money, coaching and money those schools invest in this sport. But while the NCAA’s basketball units system awards conferences that earn the most bids and win the most tournament games, the teams that advance to the Final Four and cut down the nets are the ones we remember most.
The ACC is in re-tooling mode after filling three-fourths of the top seed line and cutting down the nets – thank you, Virginia’s Kyle Guy – last season. Yet in this wide-open season, the ACC owns three legit Final Four candidates in Duke, Louisville and Florida State. That’s more than the Big Ten and Big East, the two leagues that appear poised to secure the most bids into the field.
If there is one league that’s on the clock this March it will be the Big Ten. While it will be tough to crack the record 11 (out of 16 teams) bids that the Big East grabbed in 2011, the Big Ten will certainly push double figures. That’s a good thing because the conference that stuffs the largest TV checks into its pockets had better increase its odds if it hopes to get the winning part of this whole deal down.
The Big Ten has cut the nets down just one time in the last 30 years. That would be Tom Izzo’s Flintstones at Michigan State in 2000. Truth be told, none of the bevy of Big Ten teams in the mix this time around owns that champion’s sheen either.
Then again, who does? Do you really believe in San Diego State, whose best win came at Brigham Young? Baylor has won 20 straight and is deserving of the top overall seed but, quick, name one player on the Bears’ roster?
It was pretty funny when White ended the bracket preview show on CBS revealing that Kentucky, Iowa and LSU were other teams the committee discussed as potential top 16 outfits. That’s the same Iowa team that lost by 36 points last week and the same LSU squad that let Vanderbilt snap a 26-game Southeastern Conference losing streak.
If that doesn’t tell you how wide open things are in college basketball right now, nothing will.