Predictions a month before Selection Sunday
Exactly one month from now the full NCAA field will be official, the bracket in your hand ready for analysis. A lot can happen between now and then. Teams can get hot. Teams can get cold. Players could get hurt or go on a roll for the ages.
So we gathered around some of our experts and made them decide what the world will look like the day after Selection Sunday. Some predictions they feel pretty good about. Some, well, try not to hold those against them.
Down with Jayhawks ... I think
Prediction I feel good about: Arizona, despite holding the No. 1 ranking for most of the season, will not receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats' loss of forward Brandon Ashley was more devastating and makes them more vulnerable than previously thought. Their bench was never that deep to begin with, but without Ashley and his 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has moved into the starting lineup.
That leaves Matt Korcheck as the most experienced frontcourt reserve, and he's only played in 12 games.
Their starting five now has more pressure on it than ever -- each played at least 45 minutes in their double-overtime loss to Arizona State on Friday.
Fatigue will set in, especially with Arizona playing four of its final six games to close the regular season on the road. Utah, Colorado and Oregon are prime road venues to get upset. The Wildcats needed a late collapse by the Ducks in Tucson to escape with a 67-65 win. They won't be so lucky when they close out the season in Eugene.
Its two remaining home games are against California, which ended its unbeaten streak, and Stanford, which it beat by only three. The Wildcats will potentially take three losses in their final six games, which will bump them out of contention for a No. 1 seed and make way for the Big Ten or Big 12 champion to claim it.
Prediction that will make me look stupid: Texas will win the Big 12 and position itself for as high as a No. 2 seed in the tournament.
Side note: Picking the Longhorns in and of itself isn't what could possibly make me look stupid. It's the fact that I'm picking against Kansas, winners of roughly the past 9,000 Big 12 regular-season titles.)
The Longhorns easily handled a West Virginia team that was playing as well as any team in the Big 12 on Saturday. The Horns welcomed back leading scorer Jonathan Holmes, who had missed the win over Oklahoma State with a knee injury.
Meanwhile Kansas, which currently owns a one-game lead over Texas, is hoping center Joel Embiid can nurse back to good health. Embiid sat out Saturday's win over TCU while battling knee and back injuries. In his last game appearance he played 18 minutes in the overtime loss to Kansas State, but he was physically not the same and was noticeably absent during the game's deciding minutes.
Texas handily won its first meeting with the Jayhawks 81-69 and won't lose the rematch Feb. 22 if Embiid isn't at full strength. And with a season sweep of Kansas, the Longhorns are poised to capture the league title -- provided they avoid potential road traps at Iowa State and Oklahoma.
The committee will get this thing right
Prediction I feel good about: The selection committee will draft a better, more sensible bracket than ever before.
There are two essential parts to the construction of the NCAA tournament bracket: selection and seeding. The former gets almost all of the attention. Our emotions are all tied up in whether a team is in or out of the field, for understandable reasons. If you're in, you've got a shot -- you might pull a VCU! It could happen! But if you're out? Your dream, like Hannah Horvath's e-book, is dead.
The seeding process tends to get a bit less attention, then, but it shouldn't -- a seed line or two is often the difference in a season. The seeding half of the equation is also the one most plagued with needless cruft -- rules and guidelines that seem to serve little purpose other than to make the committee members' lives more difficult.
Back in August, the committee made a small but profound change to its bracketing guidelines, one that last week's mock selection committee exercise highlighted in real time. No longer must the committee avoid early conference rematches at all costs; no longer will it trade teams up and down several seed lines just to avoid doing so. Now, members of the same leagues that have played only once to date can meet as early as the round of 32.
It's a minor thing, yes, but just as the 68 team-expansion forever made the bubble disproportionately soft, the committee's newfound freedom should lead to a smarter bracket with seeds that more accurately reflect teams' performance. A calmer, more sensible bracket awaits.
Prediction that will make me look stupid: Wichita State will get a No. 1 seed.
Don't get me wrong: I think Wichita State *should* get a No. 1 seed. I think what selection committee chairman Ron Wellman said last week about schedule intent -- that the committee might actually consider what a schedule looked like in the preseason, when a coach put it together, as opposed to what it eventually became -- might end up working in the Shockers' favor. I don't think there are four teams obviously better than Wichita State, I don't think there are more than a couple of teams that could win at Saint Louis in the nonconference, and I am immediately sympathetic to their cause, because nothing is more annoying than the bleating "they haven't played anyone and their conference stinks" whining major-conference fans do about quality mid-majors. Gonzaga suffered the same fate last season, and it was always a losing battle.
That said: If Wichita State loses once before Selection Sunday, their chances of earning a No. 1 seed might plummet. That has as much to do with their own quasi-weak schedule -- they Shockers have played just two top-50 opponents -- as it does the sheer mathematical strength of Kansas, Arizona, Syracuse and Florida. There are five teams that deserve a No. 1 seed right now, and the Shockers have the thinnest margin for error. Deserved or not.
Take notice of the champs ... and Oregon State
Prediction I feel good about: Louisville will finish the season 14-4 in American play and draw a No. 4 seed.
No one will be talking about Rick Pitino's club, everyone will be focusing on the usual suspects: Syracuse, Wichita State, etc. And, a little like the Orange last season, the Cardinals will be the most dangerous No. 4 seed you can imagine.
I'm not sure if fans are picking up on this yet, but this is the most accurate group of shooters that Pitino's had in nearly a decade. Russ Smith, Wayne Blackshear and Terry Rozier have combined to make nearly 50 percent of their 3s in American play, and Montrezl Harrell has been a 2-point scoring machine all season long. The Cards hit their shots and force you to miss yours. That's a pretty good method for winning games.
The only concern with this group is rebounding -- at both ends of the floor. But if Pitino's guys can just hold their own on the boards, I feel really good about this prediction: Louisville can definitely give a No. 1 seed a game in the Sweet 16.
Prediction that will make me look stupid: The headlines on March 15 will read: "LEAVE IT TO (THE) BEAVER(S)!" Oregon State (yes, Oregon State) will shock the world and win the Pac-12's automatic bid with a thrilling 88-86 title game victory in overtime against UCLA.
"We just couldn't stop Nelson," a despondent Steve Alford will say afterward. "Give Oregon State credit. Those guys played like their season was on the line, which it was."
A jubliant Collier will climb down from the ladder at the MGM Grand Garden Arena with the net still around his neck and tell reporters: "We knew we could do it. Everyone said we'd have a letdown after beating Arizona in the semis, but we were on a mission to get that bid."
Craig Robinson's men comprise the best 3-point shooting team we've seen in major-conference play in years, and all those makes from beyond the arc will be enough -- barely -- to offset a very weak defense. Where earlier in the season OSU negated its accuracy from the floor by committing too many turnovers, Robinson will cut down on the giveaways and demonstrate the true power of the 3-point shot.
It's OK to believe in the Spartans ... really, it is
Prediction I feel good about: Michigan State will get Keith Appling back from his wrist injury, will get Branden Dawson back from his broken hand for the last couple of games of the season, and the Spartans will wind up winning the Big Ten tournament and entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed and the co-favorite (along with Florida).
The Spartans already have Adreian Payne back from his foot injury, should get Appling back soon, and Dawson is expected to have the pins removed from his hand in the next week or so.
Michigan State, despite all the injuries, is 21-5 and 10-3 in the league thus far -- and Tom Izzo hasn't had a complete and healthy team since December.
Prediction that will make me look stupid: Wichita State will lose two games between now and Selection Sunday and there will be no debate whether the Shockers are deserving of a No. 1 seed.
Gregg Marshall's team will drop one in the regular season -- I'll say on the road against Bradley -- and then get knocked off in the Missouri Valley tourney and, with a lackluster nonleague schedule, there will be no question as to whether Wichita is in the equation for a top seed.
The winner of the ACC is ... Virginia
Prediction I feel good about: Virginia will win the ACC.
This is one of the most well-coached, well-balanced teams in the country. The Cavaliers control the pace of the game with both their offense and defense. This is a deep, talented team that can play through foul trouble. London Perrantes is emerging as a solid floor leader; he has 18 assists and only three over his past five games.
The Cavaliers have two of the best hybrid guards no one is talking about in Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon. Harris does a tremendous job of playing off the ball and uses his size to curl off screens and get in the lane, while Brogdon is a big, physical "ball guard" who uses his size to get to the basket and has improved his range. Justin Anderson is an elite athlete and a lockdown defender. Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill give coach Tony Bennett three skilled frontcourt players. Virginia has the size and skill to handle the Syracuse zone and that win will put them in position to win the ACC.
Prediction that will make me look stupid: The Atlantic 10 will get as many -- or more -- teams in the NCAA tournament than the ACC.
The A-10 is positioned to potentially get six teams to the tournament. The ACC has four solid teams and a Pitt team that most feel will get in, but a closer look at the Panthers' body of work reveals a team that is 1-6 against the BPI top 50 and 8-6 against the top 100. The Panthers have work to do. If you compare that to the A-10 ... Saint Louis and VCU are solid.
Massachusetts is 3-1 against the top 50 and 11-4 against the top 100, with a win versus New Mexico (BPI: 38). George Washington is 2-3 against the BPI top 50 and 7-5 against the top 100, with its best wins against Creighton (BPI: 14)and VCU (BPI: 26). The Colonials should be in. The "bubble" teams in the Atlantic-10 -- Saint Joseph's, Richmond and even Dayton -- have as many wins or more wins versus the top 50 as a team like Pitt does. But sure, they have work to do in the final four weeks of the season.
Don't bury Oklahoma State just yet
Prediction I feel good about: A third SEC team will make the NCAA tournament, but finish one or two spots behind a team in the SEC standings that doesn't come close to the tournament.
Missouri's sweep of Arkansas and Tennessee at home, coupled with the Tigers' win over UCLA in nonconference play, will put the Tigers in position to get a bid.
But the Tigers, who lost at home to Georgia in the SEC, may not be able to finish ahead of the Bulldogs. Georgia doesn't get Kentucky or Florida at home in the SEC. The Bulldogs get another crack at Missouri at home in Athens. The NCAA tournament selection committee judges every team individually, regardless of conference affiliation or record. This also will work in seeding teams. Virginia could win the ACC regular-season title and ACC tournament title and still be seeded below Duke and Syracuse because of the overall body of work.
Prediction that could make me look stupid: Oklahoma State will make the NCAA tournament.
The Cowboys have lost six in a row and still have to go to Baylor without Marcus Smart.
But Oklahoma State will have opportunities that most schools don't have at this point in the season. The Cowboys get Kansas and Kansas State at home and could have multiple chances in the Big 12 to get quality wins. Smart has a lot at stake when he returns. He has to show leadership when he is back. Leading the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament would be a tremendous cap for him in rehabbing his image. The Cowboys don't look like an NCAA team now. But there is hope and time for them to turn it around.
The SEC as the Jackson family
Prediction I feel good about: The SEC will be a two-bid league on Selection Sunday.
On Saturday, I had the opportunity to watch Florida and Kentucky, the SEC's only appealing representatives and NCAA tournament locks, compete at Rupp Arena. Florida is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, and Kentucky, if it gets focused, could still end the year as a superb program.
But the SEC is a lot like the Jackson family. Florida (Michael) and Kentucky (Janet) are intriguing and talented. Then, there's Tito (Tennessee), Jermaine (Ole Miss), Jackie (LSU) and Marlon (Missouri). There's nothing to see in the SEC, a conference with just three top-50 squads in the RPI, outside Lexington and Gainesville. Sure, Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU and Missouri all have a shot to make the field. But there are multiple Pac-12, American and Atlantic 10 teams surging late and positioning themselves for those limited at-large slots. Meanwhile, the SEC's potential NCAA tourney invitees are stumbling, and they'll all finish the year with road games against SEC opponents who can do more harm than good to their résumés.
Prediction that will make me look stupid: Eighty percent of the Big 12 will be represented in the NCAA tournament.
This is not crazy. Well, maybe it is. It's certainly possible, but unlikely. Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology features six of the Big 12's 10 members. Seven teams from the conference are in the RPI's top 50. And West Virginia (67th) has won four of its past six.
But this prediction demands some developments that all must occur down the stretch to make the Big 12 an eight-bid league. Oklahoma State, 1-7 over its past eight games, must cease this slide. Baylor has been disappointing for the past two months and has a 4-7 record against the RPI's top 50. A victory over Kansas State Saturday helped its cause but upcoming road games against Texas, West Virginia and Kansas State might not. Plus, West Virginia still has work to do, too. Sure, Iowa State and Kansas are locked into at-large bids. But there's still some mystery throughout the rest of the conference. So securing eight bids would be a stunning finish for the Big 12. Guessing this prediction will make me look silly in a month.
The committee will reward Wichita State
Prediction I feel good about: That the selection committee will do the right thing, and by that I mean it will reward Wichita State -- even if the Shockers lose a game between now and March 16.
Yes, even if the Shockers lose a game between now and March 16. I worked in Philadelphia when Saint Joseph's went undefeated in the regular season, lost to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals and still earned a top seed. Then-CBS analyst Billy Packer went on a rant for the ages immediately after, arguing that the school simply didn't play enough good teams.
The last I checked the numbers that really matter aren't RPI, BPI or SOS. It's the final score. Winning is still the goal, so shouldn't a team that wins more be rewarded for it?
Yes, Wichita State isn't going to have the eye-popping schedule that some of its BCS brethren can boast, but how is that Wichita State's responsibility? The Shockers can no more control the quality of the Missouri Valley than they can be responsible for U.S. speedskating's troubled suits. Wichita built a schedule and beat all comers. And as Ron Wellman, the chair of the selection committee, said on a teleconference last week, teams ought to be rewarded for "the attempt of what they tried to do as well."
"Oftentimes schools will develop a schedule thinking that it is a very strong schedule only to have their opponents fall on their face and the schedule isn't nearly as strong as what they thought it might be originally,'' Wellman said. So is it Wichita's fault that BYU and Alabama didn't reach their worth? That Creighton bolted for the Big East?
And for those who say the Shockers have played "nobody?" Where does that leave Saint Louis, currently steamrolling along with two losses? Or Tennessee, an NCAA tournament team? As for the one-loss scenario, the current school of thought is that should Wichita State drop even one game, the top seed line is bye-bye, too. The question, then, is who takes it over? Michigan State, with five losses including the most recent dud to Nebraska? Kansas, with six L's? The only legit argument would be for Villanova, and the Big East isn't exactly what it used to be, either.
So I'm banking on the selection committee using common sense to do the right thing.
Prediction that will make me look stupid: Shabazz Napier will channel his inner Kemba Walker and UConn will streak into the NCAA tournament by winning its last nine regular-season games and the inaugural American tournament. Napier will be in the player of the year conversation and hard to keep off All-American ballots. And help four old ladies safely cross an intersection.
Yeah, this is totally a prisoner of the moment thing.
Napier just about single-handedly beat Memphis on Saturday afternoon, so indulge the frenzy.
The reality is, the surrounding cast of Huskies aren't nearly as good as the ones Walker had around him. There is no Alex Oriakhi here or Roscoe Smith, and Ryan Boatright isn't as reliable a backcourt mate as Jeremy Lamb.
Napier has carried UConn for virtually the entire year, asked to do more longer even than Walker did back in 2011.
And Napier won't play his conference tourney in Madison Square Garden, where UConn fans can turn it into a home court. The Huskies will go to Memphis, the Tigers' legit home court.
So logically and realistically this is silly, totally knee-jerk, ride the hot hand kind of hysteria.
However ... the American isn't the Big East. It's not even half of it. It's a five-team conference with a bunch of drivel.
And the schedule breaks nicely for UConn. The Huskies have six regular-season games left. Three are against Temple, South Florida and Rutgers. Napier could hop on one foot and UConn would win those.
Two of the three remaining trickier ones, against SMU (who'd a thunk we'd ever say tricky and SMU in the same sentence?) and Cincinnati are at home; the other at Louisville to finish up the season. The Cards are nearly as interior-challenged as the Huskies and Napier can go mano-a-mano with Russ Smith any day (he did, after all, have 30 against UL earlier this year).
And then it's on to the conference tournament, where the Huskies will get a bye at least to the quarterfinals. So I'm saying there's a chance.
Andy Katz's Weekly Honors
Monday's Game Plan
Game Plan is our Monday morning primer, designed to give you everything you need to know about games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.
Doug McDermott ties season-high 39 as Creighton dominates Villanova again, this time 101-80. The line: 39 points, 13-of-17 shooting, 4-of-6 from 3, 9-of-9 from the free throw line.
The milestone: Those 39 points pushed McDermott above Larry Bird -- Larry Bleeping Bird -- to 13th on the all-time scoring list. The upshot: Creighton is now in the Big East driver's seat in its first season in something called the Big East, its first not as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. That's all impressive. The conference change, the Bluejays' bonkers offense, and especially the 6-foot-8 Iowan at its center, whose statistical brilliance and locked-in national player of the year status offers us a chance to sit back, relax and savor it all. So, you know, do that. Savor it. Even Jay Wright is on board.
Wisconsin locks up its tournament bid with 75-62 home win over Michigan.
Our own Chantel Jennings had the story on Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky, who put up a McDermott-esque night: "Kaminsky was the difference in the Badgers' 13-point win. He scored 25 points on 16 field goal attempts, shot 11-of-16 from the floor, and picked up 11 rebounds, one block and one steal in just 29 minutes of play against Michigan. Defensively, he held the Wolverines in check. With strong perimeter defense not giving up anything easy from the outside, Kaminsky stayed solid inside, holding the Michigan post combo of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan to just eight points and 11 rebounds combined.
Temple upsets SMU. Let's pause for a moment and consider how upside-down that headline is.
How strange a college basketball world we live in when Temple beating SMU in its own gym is considered an upset? But it really was an upset. Temple, 7-17 and 2-10 in the American, playing without Anthony Lee, knocked off Larry Brown's No. 23-ranked Mustangs 71-64 on Saturday afternoon. The win has more than just catharsis for Temple, or a letdown for SMU. It was also a really bad loss where the Mustangs' NCAA tournament hopes are concerned. For one thing, Temple's RPI is down in the 200-ish range. For another, it cements the notion that SMU -- which played a bad nonconference schedule and hasn't beaten a good team on the road all season -- can't replicate the high-level stuff it does on its own floor elsewhere in the country. The Mustangs' profile is still much better than most of the bubble teams you'll see in the next few weeks, but the schedule/road knocks are key selection committee pet peeves to be avoided at all costs.
• Wednesday at Utah, 10 ET, FS1
• Saturday at Colorado, 9 ET, ESPN
• Tuesday at Georgia Tech, 9 ET, ESPN3
• Thursday at North Carolina, 9 ET, ESPN
• Saturday vs. Syracuse, 7 ET, ESPN
• Tuesday at Texas Tech, 8 ET, ESPN3
• Saturday vs. Texas, 7:30 ET, ESPNU
• Tuesday at Ole Miss, 7 ET, ESPN
• Saturday vs. LSU, 4 ET, ESPN
• Wednesday vs. Boston College, 7 ET, ESPN2
• Saturday at Duke, 7 ET, ESPN
Each week we release the Freshman Tracker, and each week there are new names and movement.
Despite the heroics from Tyler Ennis in Pittsburgh, the Syracuse pure point guard remains No. 2 in the latest rankings behind a player who appears to have his legs back after going through a rough stretch at the outset of league play.
Check back each week as we'll have updates on how the top freshmen did on the floor and give you the rundown on the top first-year players in the country in a season in which the young guys wasted little time taking center stage.
Here is our updated ranking of the 10 best freshmen in college basketball.
The Blue Devils' game at North Carolina was postponed, and Parker finished with 23 points and eight boards in a close win against Maryland at Cameron. Parker ranks second in the ACC in scoring, and first in the league in rebounding.
This week: Tuesday at Georgia Tech; Thursday at North Carolina; Saturday vs. Syracuse
Stats: 19.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 48 percent FG, 37 percent 3-pointers | Previous rank: 1
Ennis didn't put up huge numbers in three games this past week, but he sank the game winner as time expired to beat Pittsburgh on the road, and then had the key pass in the final seconds against NC State to keep the Orange unbeaten. Ennis had 13 points and five assists against Pittsburgh and nine points and five assists in the win over NC State. Ennis leads the ACC in assists and has an impressive assist-turnover ratio of nearly 4-1.
This week: Wednesday vs. Boston College; Saturday at Duke
Stats: 11.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 2.1 SPG | Previous rank: 2
Randle had a couple of more double-doubles. He went for 12 points and 12 boards in a win against Auburn, then totaled 13 points and 13 rebounds in a home loss to Florida. Randle has 13 double-doubles thus far this season, three behind the NCAA leaders.
This week: Tuesday at Ole Miss; Saturday vs. LSU
Stats: 15.7 PPG, 10 RPG, 53 percent FG | Previous rank: 3
• North Carolina at Florida State, 7 ET, ESPN
• Oklahoma State at Baylor, 9 ET, ESPN
• Texas at Iowa State, 7 ET, ESPN2
• Kentucky at Ole Mis, 7 ET, ESPN
• NC State at Clemson 7 ET, ESPNU
• Wake Forest at Maryland, 7 ET, ESPN3
• Kansas at Texas Tech, 8 ET, ESPN3
• Duke at Georgia Tech, 9 ET, ESPN3
• Iowa at Indiana, 9 ET, ESPN
• Virginia at Virginia Tech, 9 ET, ESPN3
• Georgia at Tennessee, 9 ET, ESPNU
• Utah State at San Diego State, 11 ET, ESPNU
• Boston College at Syracuse, 7 ET, ESPN2
• Auburn at Florida, 7 ET, ESPN3
• Cincinnati at UCF, 7 ET, ESPNU
• TCU at Kansas State, 9 ET, ESPNU
• Washington at Oregon, 9 ET, ESPN2
• Arizona State at Colorado, 11 ET, ESPNU
• New Mexico at UNLV, 11:05 ET, ESPN2
• Michigan State at Purdue, 7 ET, ESPN
• Alabama at Texas A&M, 7 ET
• Penn State at Nebraska, 7 ET, ESPNU
• Duke at North Carolina, 9 ET, ESPN
• Connecticut at Temple, 9 ET
• Toledo at Bowling Green, 9 ET, ESPNU
• Gonzaga at BYU, 11 ET, ESPN2
• Pepperdine at Loyola, 11 ET, ESPNU
• Mercer at FGCU, 6 ET, ESPNU
• VCU at UMass, 7 ET, ESPN2
• Iona at Rider, 8 ET, ESPNU
• Detroit at Wright State, 10 ET, ESPNU
• Wake Forest at North Carolina, noon ET, ESPN3
• Wisconsin at Iowa, noon ET, ESPN2
• Indiana State at Missouri State, 1 ET, ESPNU
• Notre Dame at Virginia, 2 ET, ESPN2
• Tennessee at Texas A&M, 3 ET, ESPNU
• LSU at Kentucky, 4 ET, ESPN
• Iowa State at TCU, 4 ET, ESPN2
• Duke at Syracuse, 7 ET, ESPN
• UCLA at Stanford, 6 ET, ESPN2
• Texas at Kansas, 7:30 ET, ESPNU
• Texas at Kansas, 7:30 ET, ESPNU
• Missouri at Alabama, 8 ET, ESPN2
• Arizona at Colorado, 9 ET, ESPN
• Temple at Memphis, 9:30 ET, ESPNU
• San Diego State at N. Mexico, 10 ET, ESPN2
• Florida State at Pitt, 6 ET, ESPNU
• Arizona State at Utah, 8 ET, ESPNU