Part I: Instability Atop the Mountain
The defending champion (Kentucky) will not even make the tournament. Whoever they are, the 1-seeds will be beatable and flawed. Butler will be a factor. You could make a case for 15 teams winning the whole thing – and that’s a conservative estimate. We have a fun March ahead of us.
Even Joe Lunardi may have a tough time this year, starting with the perpetual motion among his projected 1-seeds.
The 1-Seeds (For Now)
As of right now, Lunardi has Indiana, Miami, Duke, and Florida as his 1-seeds. All four of these teams already have 3 losses, including Miami beating Duke handily (with another showdown coming March 2nd), and both Miami and Florida falling short against Arizona.
Indiana will have a tough time making it through the next few weeks unscathed, with Michigan and Ohio State awaiting them in the next two weeks as well as what is sure to be a chaotic Big Ten Tournament. The Hoosiers have elite talent and primetime players in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo (absolute X-Factor in tonight’s victory over Michigan State), but we could see them fall from the top line of the bracket, as 2-3 losses before the tournament are not out of the question. All three of Indiana’s losses have come by five points or less, and the Hoosiers are certainly primed for tournament atmospheres due to their brutal conference schedule (in opposition to a team like Florida, see below), but watch out for a slow finish for the Fighting Creans. That being said, Indiana’s inside-outside combinations allow them to match up favorably against perhaps every team in the country.
The passion of Victor Oladipo may be the key to an Indiana Final Four run.
Miami represents a great but unpredictable story. From unranked to receiving significant first-place votes in both polls this week, the Hurricanes have stormed through the depleted ACC, 12-0 in conference to this point. A matchup with Duke on March 2nd (quite the day for watching some ball, evidently) seems to be the Canes’ only challenge before the ACC Tournament, but even if this team makes it to the Big Dance with only their current 3 losses, questions remain. Miami wasn’t even in the tourney a year ago, and their incredible growth this season begs the question: can they sustain their level of play without reverting back to their old ways? These “old ways” include a double-digit lost to Florida Gulf Coast in November and back to back losses to Arizona (a 19-point shellacking) and Indiana State at Christmas. Miami seems to have the talent to beat anyone in the country, but their lack of experience and the mediocrity of the ACC except for—or maybe including—Duke leave us wondering how the Hurricanes will fare come March.
Jim Larranaga has everyone around the U smiling this year, as his Canes have journeyed from unranked to projected 1-seed.
Duke has only lost twice since Ryan Kelly’s mid-January injury, but their performance has left a lot to be desired for Cameron Crazies. Besides the annihilation at the hands of Miami, Duke lost Saturday to an inspired Maryland team and has struggled against the unimpressive likes of Wake Forest (W 75-70 on Jan. 30th) and Boston College (W 62-61 Feb. 10th in a game they did not deserve to win). The Blue Devils have experience at the coaching level (Duh), and Mason Plumlee was a freshman when they won the title in 2010, but no other contributor has been past the Sweet Sixteen. Plumlee, Seth Curry, and Quinn Cook make up a strong nucleus, but the team has yet to find its chemistry following Kelly’s injury. With the March 2nd rematch against Miami as their only true pre-tourney test (maybe another rematch in the ACC Tournament Championship Game as well), look for Duke to enter the Big Dance as a 1 or 2-seed but as an unknown nevertheless. I don’t expect another Lehigh incident, but watch out for a 7-10 seed knocking the Blue Devils off in Duke’s second game. Just looking at Lunardi’s current projections, one has to wonder how Duke would handle Creighton and game-changer Doug McDermott.
Can these two stars get Duke playing at its peak in time for a deep tourney run? They’ve yet to provide a definitive answer.
Florida has probably received the least attention of these top teams, partially due to the overwhelming coverage of conference foe Kentucky’s underwhelming season.
Florida went to the Elite Eight as a 7-seed last year, further than any of the other three projected 1-seeds. Besides respectable early losses to Arizona and Kansas State and tonight’s battle defeat at the hands of Phil Pressey and Missouri, Florida does have a perplexing double-digit loss to Arkansas, but the Gators have won their other 11 SEC games by an average of 25.9 points! Theoretically, Florida can and should win every game remaining on their schedule, barring struggles with Arkansas at home or at Kentucky to finish the regular season on March 9th. Like the ACC teams above, Florida’s lackluster conference leaves much up to the imagination, but their complete dominance in the SEC deserves more love. With a coach who has in fact WON TWO NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS, and a versatile core of Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, and Patric Young (senior, senior, junior), Florida has the potential to go even deeper than their overachieving squad did a year ago. They may be in the best shape of any of these four to make a run.
Don’t underestimate the King of the Receding Hairline, also known as 2-time national champion Billy Donovan.
My money was on Michigan State beating Indiana in East Lansing hours ago and supplanting the Hoosiers as a 1-seed. Whoops. MSU could still make a run at a top seed with a Big Ten Tournament Championship. Gonzaga may be challenged in the coming weeks, but expect them to run the table to the tournament and replace one of the ACC squads (or Florida if the Gators’ struggles continue) as a 1-seed. All that said, the winner of Michigan-Indiana on March 10th will secure 1-seed position, and I’d expect whichever two of the MSU-IU-UM Big Ten Triangle finish strongest to secure two of the top seeds, with Gonzaga and the stronger finisher of Duke-Miami (my guess is Miami) filling out the remaining two spots.
Including all of these contenders, there are, as of February 18th, already 34 NCAA teams with 20 wins as of February 18th and 21 more teams have 19 wins! That means about 16% of all NCAA teams already have 19 wins. Now not all of these teams are threats to win the whole thing (sorry, Stony Brook, Akron, etc.), but with teams like Kansas, Kansas State, Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, half of the Big Ten, and Arizona out there playing well, chances are the aforementioned one seeds will not be the top 4 come selection Sunday. Furthermore, there’s a good chance a 1-seed will not be cutting down the nets at the Georgia Dome on April 8th considering the amount of good teams and lack of great teams, considering the likes of lesser-known sleepers like VCU, Creighton, Memphis, Wichita State, and Oregon, to name only a few.
She has as good a guess as anyone for what team will emerge in Georgia come early April. She likes Indiana’s completeness but made sure to tell me to watch out for runs by Butler and Georgetown.
Maybe these four projected 1-seeds will all hold their spots. Maybe none of them will. Only time will tell. March Madness has come early this year, so start enjoying now.
To be continued…