Burning Questions for Selection Sunday
NEW YORK -- West Virginia's coaches trust Da'Sean Butler with every last-second shot in every big game, but they don't trust him with scissors. As their 6-foot-7 senior star stood on a ladder on Saturday night, contemplating which strand of net to cut as a prize for winning the Big East tournament, assistant coach Erik Martin yelled up to him, "Hey! Don't cut your finger or something! Then we'll all be crying."
Their concern (or mock concern) is understandable. The Mountaineers wouldn't have made it out of the Big East quarterfinals without Butler, much less won the tournament for the first time in school history. He beat Cincinnati on a last-second, banked-in three in the quarterfinals; beat Notre Dame by scoring 25 of WVU's 53 points in the semis; and beat Georgetown by banking in a runner with 4.2 seconds left to break a 58-58 tie. Point guard Darryl Bryant grabbed Butler on the floor during the post-game celebration, and yelled to anyone within earshot, "This is the man right here! This is the man!"
Butler is not just the man in West Virginia; he's the biggest star in the nation so far in March. When Ohio State's Evan Turner, Butler's old World University Games teammate and the likely Naismith and Wooden award winner, one-upped Thursday's Cincinnati buzzer-beater by hitting a longer three to beat Michigan on Friday, he texted Turner to say, I hope you know I'm going to match it the next time I play. And Butler actually went and did it, too. Put the game in his hands, and he always delivers.
The only situation he can't control this weekend is whether or not the Mountaineers get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- something they deserve, but may lose out on to Duke. Butler can plead for one, though: "We took care of business every time," he said on Saturday. "So please let us in for a No. 1 seed. Please."
Will the committee holed up in an Indianapolis conference room succumb to Butler's charm while they're filling out the Field of 65? That's one of the 10 burning questions on Selection Sunday:
1. West Virginia or Duke for the final No. 1? I asked that to Mountaineers guard Joe Mazzulla on the floor here Saturday night, and he said, "We just beat Georgetown, and Georgetown smacked Duke, so I think we should get a No. 1 seed."
If only it were that easy. West Virginia has an absurdly better résumé of wins than Duke does, both in and out of conference. But if the Blue Devils beat Georgia Tech in Sunday's ACC final, does that sweep of ACC titles trump all the peripheral data and make them a No. 1 lock? It shouldn't. The Big East is so much better than the ACC that Syracuse and West Virginia should both be No. 1s. I can't guarantee that'll happen, though.
2. But what about Ohio State as a No. 1? If the Buckeyes win Sunday's Big Ten tournament final, they merit being in the No. 1 discussion. But here are their issues: The committee has made it clear (in past years) that the Big Ten final ends too late for it to have a major impact on the bracket ... and Ohio State also lost, with Evan Turner, in head-to-head competition against West Virginia. I can't see Ohio State being tabbed for a No. 1 ahead of the Mountaineers, and I can't see the committee letting two teams leapfrog Duke on the S-Curve. So the Buckeyes' seed ceiling appears to be a No. 2.
3. What's the pecking order of No. 2 seeds? This is of major importance, because no one wants to be paired in a region with Kansas. Kentucky is more upset-vulnerable than the Jayhawks, but I don't think anyone wants to be paired with the Wildcats, either. The most fair situation would be for West Virginia and Duke to get matched in the West, as the Mountaineers' reward for winning the Big East tourney, and then for Ohio State and Syracuse to get matched in the South, as the Buckeyes' reward for winning the Big Ten tourney. The Orange earned a No. 1, but they slumped to the finish line, and while starting power forward Arinze Onuaku is expected to play in the NCAA tournament, no one knows if he'll be back at 100 percent.
That leaves Kansas State paired with Kentucky in the East, since Frank Martin's club can't be paired with Kansas -- and then the fourth No. 2 matched up with the Jayhawks (if the selection committee is being fair, that is).
4. Who is that fourth No. 2? Coming into the weekend, I would have said Purdue, but now I fear the Robbie Hummel-less Boilers have no shot at that line in the bracket. Georgetown, Villanova, Temple (if it wins the Atlantic 10 tournament on Sunday) and New Mexico are the most logical choices. My strong preference would be the Hoyas: They were within a bucket of winning the Big East tourney, have an RPI of 7, a strength-of-schedule rating of 1, and quality wins over Butler, Duke, Temple, Pittsburgh, Villanova and Syracuse. No one else's wins come close.
5. How hard will the selection committee come down on Purdue? The Boilermakers had a nice year -- they're 27-5, No. 9 in the RPI, and tied for first in the Big Ten regular season -- that would normally warrant a No. 2 seed. But since losing Hummel, they're not the same team, playing poorly in wins over Penn State and Northwestern, and getting annihilated by Minnesota in Saturday's conference tournament semifinals. The committee was surely watching that game from Indy and weighing the degree of Purdue's demotion. Its nightmare scenario would be a No. 4 or 5 seed, and a pairing with a scary mid-major like Murray State in the first round.
6. Did Illinois really do enough this weekend to make it in the dance as an at-large? The Illini beat Wisconsin and then took Ohio State to overtime in the Big Ten tournament ... but with Minnesota and Mississippi State still fighting for automatic bids on Sunday, there isn't much room on the bubble.
Illinois is one of the weirdest cases for the committee: It lost six of its final eight games, and its RPI (at 72) is terrible. But it has a killer resume of quality wins -- Clemson and Wisconsin on the road, Wisconsin again on a neutral floor, and Michigan State and Vanderbilt in Champaign. I'd put the Illini in the field, but I feel like their real chances are 50-50.
7. How scared should Cal be of getting relegated to the NIT? In no other year would a Pac-10 regular-season champ with an RPI of 19 be sweating out Selection Sunday. But the Pac-10 is that bad this season, and Cal is no lock after losing its tourney title game to Washington. No team with a top-20 RPI has ever been excluded from the field, but the Bears have only beaten two NCAA tournament teams all year: Washington at home on Feb. 11, and Murray State at home on Nov. 9. That game against the Racers didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but without it, Cal wouldn't have a single, decent out-of-league victory.
When you match Cal up with a bubble team such as Illinois or Florida (which has beaten Florida State, Michigan State and Tennessee), the résumés aren't even close. We're going to find out just how much stock the selection committee puts into winning a BCS conference -- even if it might have been the worst BCS conference in history.
8. Could Virginia Tech get snubbed again? Over the past three years, the Hokies have been the nation's most tortured team on Selection Sunday, watching their bubble burst in both 2007 and 2008 despite having 20-plus wins and an above-.500 record in the ACC. They're in a similar position this time, at 10-6 and third place in the league, but with an RPI of 56 and nary a non-conference win over an NCAA tournament team. Losing to Miami in their first ACC tournament game put them in a precarious situation, and that was before Houston (the C-USA tourney winner) and New Mexico State (the WAC tourney winner) stole spots from the bubble. I'll feel bad if Virginia Tech gets left out, but I think that's what's going to happen.
9. Is Utah State in danger after losing in the WAC title game? UTEP, which is in a similar situation after losing the C-USA final, is on safer footing than the Aggies, but I still say they're going dancing. They won 17 straight leading up to that loss to New Mexico State, finished 14-2 in the WAC, and beat BYU (a potential four-seed) in December. They're the class of the WAC, and were good enough to finish second in the Pac-10 this season, so it wouldn't be wasteful to give them a bid.
10. If Minnesota and Mississippi State both lose on Sunday, and there's only one spot left in the bracket, which team would you choose? The Gophers, and it's not even close. Just put the two teams' marquee wins side-by-side: Minnesota has beaten Butler, Ohio State (with Evan Turner), Wisconsin, Illinois (in Champaign), Michigan State and Purdue. That's a trio of top-four seeds, and a total of five or six NCAA tournament teams, depending on what you think of the Illini. Mississippi State has beaten Old Dominion, Houston, Florida and Vanderbilt. That's either three or four NCAA tournament teams, depending on what you think of Florida, and only Vandy is near the top-four-seed range. The Bulldogs' only way into the dance is by upsetting Kentucky -- something that hasn't happened to the Wildcats in a non-road setting all season. I bid Jarvis Varnado & Co. good luck with that.