Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (dancing shoes sold separately for Sister Jean and Loyola Chicago, the best story from the weekend):
FIVE PRESSING NCAA TOURNAMENT QUESTIONS
Where is the bubble debate hottest? The Atlantic Coast Conference (1), starting with Notre Dame but also including Louisville and Syracuse. The Fighting Irish are the single most intriguing and polarizing bubble team, given the return of star Bonzie Colson after missing 15 games with a broken foot. Notre Dame is 12-4 with Colson, 6-9 without him, and 1-4 without both Colson and guard Matt Farrell, who missed five games with an ankle injury. The Irish probably will need to win at least two games at the ACC tournament this week to have an argument for NCAA inclusion — but at full strength, that could happen.
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Louisville faces a must-win game against Florida State, then might need to win a quarterfinal against No. 1 seed and eternal nemesis Virginia. Syracuse must win a Tuesday game against Wake Forest and then might need to beat North Carolina as well on Wednesday. The catch for both the Cardinals and Orange: Neither has won an ACC tournament game since joining the league.
(Honorable mention goes to the Pac-12, which has USC, UCLA and Washington all clustered on or near the bubble.)
What team raised its stock most last week? That’s an easy one: Michigan (2) moved up in all mock brackets after storming through the Big Ten tournament (as predicted by The Minutes). This team is different from the classic John Beilein mold — better defensively and a bit more athletic, albeit less deadly shooting the ball. The Wolverines have positioned themselves for a top 16 seed, possibly top 12, and will be a very difficult matchup in the next tournament. Unless, of course, they develop a layer of rust sitting around for a week and a half waiting to play again.
What happened to the .500 conference record bellwether? There was a time when going .500 in a power conference was considered enough to make the NCAA tourney. Those days are gone, and at present there are teams finishing very high in power conferences who are on the bubble or out.
Start with USC (3), which went 12-6 and finished second in the Pac-12 but is assured of nothing at this point. Same with UCLA (11-7 and tied for third), Utah (11-7) and others in that league. Nebraska finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten at 13-5 but is almost certainly consigned to the NIT.
Why the shift? Because of unbalanced league schedules, and the relative weakness of both the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Per Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, Nebraska played the 13th-most difficult conference slate in the 14-team Big Ten — taking on top teams Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan just once each in the regular season. USC and UCLA played the Nos. 9 and 10 league schedules in the 12-team Pac-12, missing out on round-robin games with league-leading Arizona.
Meanwhile, at least a couple of teams with losing league records are considered safely in the field of 68: Arizona State (8-10 in the Pac-12) and Oklahoma (8-10 in the Big 12) scored so many big non-conference victories that it counterbalances the struggles since then.
An hour on bracketing? Really? When selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen (4) said Saturday that the group only spends “less than an hour” actually arranging the field of 68, it touched a nerve nationally. Because that is one area where the committee sometimes flubs its mission. For the most part, they get it right selecting the most deserving teams — which is the most important job. Seeding is tougher, and often more prone to error (ask Michigan State about playing a No. 15 seed Conference USA champion Middle Tennessee two years ago). But bracketing is important, too, and every year there are misfires that end up impacting the tournament — primarily when it comes to geography. The NCAA has handy software that calculates distances from each campus to each site, but sometimes concessions made for proximity can affect overall fairness and balance. One to watch this year: If Kentucky ends up with a No. 5 or 6 seed and is sent to Nashville, check in with the potential second-round opponent seeded third or fourth about facing the Wildcats in front of 15,000 Big Blue fans.