We found out on Sunday that it isn’t going to be the Kentucky or North Carolina Invitational.
If you prick these titans of college basketball, they will bleed. And if you outplay them - and Carolina was outplayed from the moment the ball was thrown up - they will lose. So there’s hope for, if not exactly everyone, at least a favored few.
But neither Kentucky’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC final nor Carolina’s loss to Florida State in the ACC final affected their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky emerged as the number one No. 1, while the Tar Heels came away as the third-ranked No. 1. A victory over Florida State wasn’t going to move them past Syracuse. The winner of the Michigan State-Ohio State Big Ten final was going to be the fourth-ranked No. 1, and that’s the way it turned out.
People are now going to scream, holler, and roll up their sleeves in an attempt to assess which is the toughest region. My judgment is that it’s certainly not the South, where Kentucky has been given minimal opposition en route to the Final Four. Duke is seeded No. 2, and the Blue Devils have proven themselves to be nothing special. Baylor’s raw talent suggests greatness, but the Bears will wind up beating themselves. Indiana will not be able to overcome the loss of guard Verdell Jones, who tore up a knee in the Big Ten tournament. UConn will put up a valiant effort in the second game. The most interesting foe might be Missouri Valley Conference champ Wichita State.
The other three regions aren’t so clear-cut. A Carolina-Kansas battle of ultra-establishments looms in the Midwest, where San Diego State and Creighton lurk as midmajor annoyances. The West has several conceivable minefields for the top seeds. It would hardly be a shock if anyone among New Mexico (5), Murray State (6), Florida (7), or Memphis (8) marched into the Round of 16. Murray State might be playing with a major fury. A sixth seed means the committee did not consider the 30-1 Racers one of the top 20 teams in the country. The pollsters certainly felt differently.
We have the East Regional right here at TD Garden starting March 22, and I believe the committee has given us a break. Presumably, we will see Syracuse, and we will very likely see Ohio State and Florida State.
The fourth team ought to be the winner between fourth-seeded Wisconsin and fifth-seeded Vanderbilt, the SEC team that took care of Kentucky on Sunday. This assumes that the Commodores win their 5-12 game against a certain team from Cambridge.
Any No. 5 seed would have been a challenge for the 12th-seeded Crimson, whom many prognosticators had penciled in as a 10 or 11. But Vanderbilt is positively nightmarish. Harvard could hardly have had a worse foe than one that trots out a 6-foot-11-inch center and that employs a 6-9 guy, a 6-8 guy, and a 6-7 guy. Harvard has many assets, but great size is not one of them. Harvard’s lone big man is Keith Wright, listed at 6-8, but actually a cheating 6-7.
And Vandy’s big fellows aren’t exactly plodders. Perhaps Harvard’s legion of 3-point shooters will be some sort of an equalizer. Perhaps. Did I say, “3-point shooters?’’ Vandy’s John Jenkins is as good a long-range marksman as anyone in the land.
All one needs to know about Vanderbilt is that it just beat Kentucky.
Now, what makes the NCAA Tournament so special is that there is an attainable goal for everyone involved. In theory, everyone wants to win the thing, but let’s get serious. The pool of conceivable winners is probably no bigger than six or seven. (Hey, going into Sunday most people thought it was no bigger than one or two.) So quite often the real fun of the tournament for you and me is what happens in the first weekend, where one little ol’ so-called upset W can make a season.
I said “so-called’’ because history has shown that once you get past the 2-15 games, victories by lower seeds are frequent. With that in mind, let’s examine the best upset possibilities among the 3-14, 4-13, and 5-12 games.
They are Baylor (3)-South Dakota State (14) in the South; Marquette (3) and the BYU-Iona (14) winner in the West; Florida State (3)-St. Bonaventure (14) in the East; and Georgetown (3)-Belmont (14) in the Midwest. I say beware of South Dakota State, a team with a definable style, a team that has broken 80 on 15 occasions and 90 on nine, and a team that has a dangerous player in 6-4 guard Nate Wolters, who averages 21 points and six assists a game. And, really, how can you not root for South Dakota State?
It’s Indiana (4)-New Mexico State (13) in the South; Louisville (4)-Davidson (13) in the West; Wisconsin (4)-Montana (13) in the East; and Michigan (4)-Ohio (13) in the Midwest. I say put a bob or two on the spunky Bobcats of Ohio, whose team is populated by Midwest kids spurned by the haughty Big Ten, and perhaps even the Missouri Valley. Keep your eye on point guard D.J. Cooper.
We’ve got Wichita State (5)-VCU (12) in the South; New Mexico (5)-Long Beach State (12) in the West; Vanderbilt (5)-Harvard (12) in the East; and Temple (5)– Cal/South Florida winner (12) in the Midwest. It’s Long Beach, with maybe its best team since Tark was chewing towels on the 49ers’ bench. Hope they wear their fluorescent yellow unis.
When you think about it, the committee was very accommodating in pitting Harvard with a school where the kids actually go to class. While he’s out there, perhaps Tommy Amaker can ask Vandy coach Kevin Stallings where he finds all those big men.