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Selection Sunday: Three Days Out
by Larry Ness - 03/12/2010
When the 2010 NCAA tournament field is announced on Sunday it will be missing some pretty familiar names. U Conn and North Carolina both played in last year's Final 4 (Tar Heels notched the school's fifth title) but the Huskies bowed out of at-large consideration with an embarrassing 73-51 loss to St John's on Tuesday and the Tar Heels' ACC tournament ended Thursday night with a 62-58 loss to Georgia Tech. Indiana, which like North Carolina owns five national championships, lost to Northwestern 73-58 on Thursday, ending its season at 10-21. Tom Crean has a lot of work left to do, as his first season at Indiana ended with a 6-25 mark. UCLA, the all-time leader with 11 championships, beat Arizona 75-69 on Thursday afternoon ending the Wildcats run of 25 consecutive NCAA appearances (second-longest of all-time to North Carolina's 27 in a row from ) but the 14-17 Bruins will have to win two more games to earn a bid to this year's Big Dance.
I read on ESPN.com the other day that the last time that Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana, North Carolina and UCLA all missed the NCAA tournament in the same season occurred back in 1966, when only 22 schools were in the field. The first four are guaranteed to be left out of this year's Big Dance, while the Bruins can only qualify by winning the the Pac 10 tourney. If UCLA was do that, the Bruins would be 'dancing' with a 16-17 record. However, that's not to say that this year's field will be devoid of big names.
Duke, Kansas and Kentucky are all alive for No. 1 seeds. Those schools have combined for 13 national championships with Kentucky owning seven of them (2nd-most next to UCLA). Duke's been a No. 1 seed 10 times, the second-most of all time (North Carolina leads with 13), and it's chance for a No. 1 seed greatly improved with Syracuse losing its first Big East tourney game to Georgetown on Thursday afternoon. Kansas and Kentucky are near 'locks' to get No. 1 seeds come Sunday, which would give Kentucky its 10th and Kansas its ninth. Kansas will be making its 21st straight NCAA appearance, which is now the longest active streak with Arizona missing out this year.
Staying with Kentucky for a minute, John Calipari could be making some big news with his "first Wildcats team." Calipari owns an impressive postseason record, although he's yet to win an national championship. He's 21-9 (.714) in the NCAA tournament and 15–5 (.750) in the NIT. His teams have made eleven NCAA tournament appearances, including reaching the Sweet Sixteen seven times, the Elite Eight five times, the Final Four two times. He has coached five teams to the NIT, winning the NIT championship at Memphis in 2002.
Calipari is currently one of only four coaches in NCAA Division I history to lead two different schools to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament; North Carolina coach Roy Williams, Kansas coach Bill Self, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino are the others. As mentioned, Kentucky seems almost assured of getting a No. 1 seed this year, which means Calipari will move past Pitino, Self and Williams by leading a third school to a No. 1 seed. Pitino is the only head coach to have taken three different schools to the Final 4 (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) but Calipari could match his rival this season by guiding the Wildcats to a Final 4 appearance this year at Lucas Stadium come April 3.
There are 347 teams in Division I and with more and more schools proving themselves capable of competing against schools from the "Big Six" conferences (ACC, Big East, Big 10. Big 12, Pac 10 and SEC), recent talk has centered on increasing the field to 96 teams. The NCAA tournament expanded from 48 teams to 64 in 1985 and added a play-in game (65 teams) in 2001 when the number of automatic bids was increased from 30 to 31. Is a major expansion on the horizon? NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen was quoted earlier this week as saying, "it's pure speculation at this point," regarding that possibility.
The Big Six conferences typically grab the majority of the 34 at-large bids but this year the Pac 10 will be lucky to get even one at-large bid, the SEC figures to get no more than three at-large bids (four at the most) and the Big 10 could be limited to just three at-large bids as well, although four would be more likely. The Mountain West hates to be called a mid-major and this year San Diego St and UNLV could join tourney 'locks' BYU and New Mexico to give the MWC four teams in the Big Dance. The A-10 had hopes of placing five teams in the tourney about a month ago but heading into Friday's games, its looks like just Richmond, Temple and Xavier are getting in.
Prospective bubble teams have "played lucky" so far in the conference tourneys and will continue to "keep their fingers crossed" this weekend. Northern Iowa has won the MVC, Old Dominion the CAA and Butler the Horizon already, keeping those three conference champions from 'stealing' an at-large bid. St Mary's did upset Gonzaga in the WCC (Gaels first WCC tourney title since 1997) but most bracketology experts had the Gaels getting an at-large bid anyway. Therefore, Gonzaga's at-large bid just takes the place of the one slotted for St Mary's (no harm/no foul).
Most feel that UTEP (C-USA) and Utah State (WAC) both deserve at-large bids regardless of their respective conference tourney results, so any number of schools fate may very likely depend on the success of the Miners and Aggies, who both easily advanced with wins on Thursday to their respective conference semifinals. With both Memphis and UAB losing on Thursday, C-USA's only chance for an at-large bid now lies with regular season champ UTEP (15-1), if the Miners fail to win the tourney. The WAC has no viable at-large possibility other than regular season champ Utah State (14-2).
Big 10 co-champions Michigan St, Ohio St and Purdue are clearly NCAA locks, as is Wisconsin. Illinois (18-13), which plays Wisconsin on Friday, Minnesota (19-12) which takes on Purdue and Northwestern (20-12) which faces Michigan St, are all at-large possibilities. Illinois rates a slight edge heading into Friday's play because of its 10-8 league mark, as Minnesota finished 9-9 in the Big 10 and Northwestern with an almost too much to overcome 7-11 conference record. I'll mention again here that the Wildcats are the only school from one of the nation's "Big Six" conferences to have never made an NCAA appearance.
Billy Donovan led a veteran-laden Florida team to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and '07 but his Gators have been regulated to the NIT in each of the last two years. Florida's 78-69 win over Auburn on Thursday sets up what could be called an "NCAA elimination game" on Friday for the Gators (21-11/9-7) with Mississippi St (21-10/9-7). Ole Miss (21-9/9-7) likely needs to beat Tennessee (24-7/11-5) on Friday to have any at-large hopes. The Big East will likely send eight teams to the Big Dance and the Big 12 figures to get seven bids (Missouri's probably in, even after its 75-60 loss to Nebraska).
The ACC is an interesting case, as less than three weeks ago, Duke was the lone school ranked in the AP's top-25 poll (that last occurred back in December of 1977, when it was only a top-20). Maryland wound up tying Duke (both went 13-3) for the ACC's regular season title and has joined the Blue Devils in the top-25 these last two weeks, giving the ACC two ranked teams. However, most experts have the league getting seven bids. That seems way too many, as Georgia Tech finished just 7-9 in the ACC during the regular season plus Wake and Clemson were just awful on Thursday. The Demon Deacons lost 83-62 to last-place Miami-Fl (4-12) and the Tigers were beaten 59-57 by NC State (5-11). Do the Yellow Jackets really get credit for edging pathetic North Carolina, 62-58? We'll see.
Cal won the weakest Pac 10 league in decades with a 13-5 mark and its 90-74 win over Oregon on Thursday ups the Bears record to 22-9 on the season. ASU's at-large chances are gone with Thursday's 70-61 loss to Stanford but Washington (22-9/11-7) beat Oregon State and now plays 14-17 Stanford on Friday for the right to advance to Saturday's title game. I guess the "state of the Pac 10" can best be described by the fact that two 14-17 teams are in the league's conference semifinals. The winner of the Washington/Stanford game will meet the winner of Cal/UCLA.
Cal and Washington were top-15 teams in both preseason polls but the Bears dropped out of the rankings by late-November with Washington falling out in early-January. No Pac 10 team was anywhere to be found in the AP rankings by January 11, marking the first time that had happened since the final AP poll of the 1986-87 season. The last time the Pac 10 placed just one team in the NCAA field was 1978 (when the tourney featured just 32 teams) and since the NCAA field was expanded to 64 teams, no Big Six conference has failed to place at least two schools in every tournament. One would think the committee couldn't possibly not take the Pac 10's regular season champ, regardless of its fate in this week's tourney, but the Pac 10 has very little support this year.
I'll be back on Monday afternoon with my "Tournament by the Numbers" column.
Good luck, Larry