What We Learned: Selection Sunday Eve
NEW YORK -- What we learned on Selection Sunday Eve, from our home base at Madison Square Garden and beyond ...
1. The Big Ten tournament champ -- be it Michigan State or Ohio State -- should get a No. 1 seed. As Spartans star Draymond Green said of the Big Ten on Saturday, "It's been the best conference in the nation all year," and you can't share its regular-season title and win its tourney without getting a No. 1 seed, can you? The selection committee has typically used that logic for the top line of the S-Curve.
By throttling Iowa (92-75) and Wisconsin (65-52) over the past two days, the Spartans have erased concerns that losing freshman starter Branden Dawson would seriously hurt their frontcourt or affect their seeding. Senior bruiser Derrick Nix has delivered in an expanded role, and Green was a monster on the boards against the Badgers, grabbing 16 rebounds while scoring 14 points. If Ohio State wins, it'll be entering the NCAAs on a five-game winning streak that includes two victories over the Spartans and a rout of Michigan -- pretty strong resumé material.
2. The secret to getting hot in March, to reinventing yourself from a team so offensively bad at offense that many of your fans had given up on your chances of winning more than one NCAA tournament game (if that) ... to a team that scores 84 points against Marquette, shoots 56 percent against Notre Dame, and then scores just enough in a dogfight with Cincinnati to win the Big East tournament as a No. 7 seed ... is what, exactly? How did Louisville pull this off and put itself in position to earn a No. 3 or 4 seed, after being left for dead because it failed to score even 0.90 points per possession in any of its final four regular-season games?
There were a few theories bouncing around Madison Square Garden on Saturday. One of them is, to change your fate, you let your shoe-and-apparel sponsor, Adidas, hand you the most comically bad jerseys imaginable, with tiger-striping on the shorts despite your nickname being the Cardinals, ignore the fact that they are orangish-pink neon and embrace their branding as "InfraRED" ... and heat up beyond belief. The new rule of basketball jerseys is that the worse the design is, the more skill-enhancing power it has, because this was the best version of Louisville anyone had seen all season. "We have to keep the jerseys [for the NCAAs]," sophomore guard Russ Smith said. "I want these jerseys every game."
Another, more believable theory, is that Rick Pitino's Cardinals are finally healthy, and playing the style that he originally intended before everyone got hurt. "When we started out, we had a very difficult time practicing," Pitino said. "We've had three knee surgeries, Peyton Siva was out a month, we've had five concussions, multiple concussions, Kyle [Kuric] missed two, three weeks. ... We never had any continuity." With a base rotation of seven players than can extend to nine, the Cardinals can press and play at any tempo they desire. The injury theory also allows them to excuse -- and forget about -- the numerous ugly games they had in the previous weeks.
Before they left for the Big East tournament, Pitino jokingly told Siva, "You go to New York and be MVP and nobody will even remember you played a regular season." Well, the junior point guard went to New York and won the MVP, capping it off with a 10-point, five-assist game on Saturday. No one's going to entirely forget a trying regular season, but no one's calling Louisville prime first-round upset material anymore, either.
3. Even with its Big 12 tourney title, Missouri seems destined to join Duke on the No. 2 line. The Tigers didn't lose a non-conference game, but they didn't play a difficult enough slate to justify a No. 1. Their only wins over NCAA tournament teams outside the league came against Notre Dame and Cal, and their non-conference schedule's RPI rank was 308 on Saturday. My best guesses for the committee's 1/2 seed combinations are Kentucky/Duke in the Midwest (St. Louis), Syracuse/the Ohio State-Michigan State loser in the East (Boston), North Carolina/Missouri in the South (Atlanta) and the Michigan State-Ohio State winner/Kansas in the West (Phoenix).
4. It was only fitting that the worst of the major conferences would stage a tournament that leaves all three of its bubble candidates -- Cal (which is probably in), Washington and Arizona -- sweating, and results in 23-11 Colorado stealing a bid by upsetting the Wildcats in Saturday's final. The Buffs were snubbed last year when they had first-round pick Alec Burks in their backcourt and a reasonable case for one of the final at-large spots ... and now their surprise run through the Pac-12 tourney likely turned it into a two-bid league.
There have been remarkably few bid thieves this week -- the last one left is St. Bonaventure, which faces bubble team Xavier in Sunday's Atlantic 10 final. The Bonnies will have the best frontcourt player on the floor in senior center Andrew Nicholson, a legitimate NBA prospect who I assumed would never appear in the NCAAs. This season's A-10 player of the year is making an impressive, late push to go dancing.
5. Of the 11 non-bid-stealing conference tourney winners from Saturday (Louisville, Missouri, Memphis, Norfolk State, New Mexico, Vermont, Mississippi Valley State, Long Beach State, New Mexico State, Ohio and Lamar), Lamar is the one with the most controversial storyline. Ever since first-year coach Pat Knight went on his now-famous "rant" after a loss to Stephen F. Austin on Feb. 22, humiliating his team's seniors by saying they had drug problems and were "stealing money by being on scholarship," Lamar has yet to lose a game and is headed to the NCAA tournament. I pray that Knight doesn't get praised for using that holding-his-kids-accountable press conference as a motivational tactic, because at the time it seemed like he was serving up an excuse for their season falling apart, and insinuating that until the previous coaching staff's problems were gone, the culture wouldn't change. They've gone on a heartwarming run to the NCAAs, but public humiliation shouldn't catch on as a blueprint for a turnaround. Knight should take lessons from his notoriously cheerful father, who knows how to kick back with an ice cream cone -- as he did during Sunday's Baylor-Missouri battle -- and enjoy a basketball game without bringing anyone down: