Tuesday March 10th, 2009

You got questions, man? Then you need answers, man.

Actually, you need the Answer Man. Fortunately he's on the line, ready to solve all your selection week mysteries:

Is the NCAA tournament going to be as wide open as everybody says?

Nope. We may have had a do-si-do at the top of the polls, but the four who have shared the No. 1 ranking the most (Pitt, North Carolina, UConn and Oklahoma) have been a pretty solid first tier. So I'll go on record and say I think there's a 57.1 percent chance that the national champ will come from that quartet. Why? Because over the last 28 years, a No. 1-seeded team has won the tourney 16 times. And 20 of those 28 champs have been one or two seeds. (Stop trying to do math in your head. It's 71.4 percent.) The teams seeded lower than No. 2 who won it all during that span were Florida '06 (3), Syracuse '03 (3), Arizona '97 (4), Michigan '89 (3), Kansas '88 (6), Villanova '85 (8), NC State '83 (6) and Indiana '81 (3).

(By the way, I'd like to credit Wayne Fidelman of CBS for providing me with that info. You didn't think the Answer Man did his own research, did you?)

OK, so the chances are against it, but among the teams likely to be seeded below the two line, who is most likely to win the whole thing?

The one team that leaps to mind is Wake Forest, which is arguably the most talented team (based on future NBA players) in the country. Right now, the Deacs are a three seed on my board. Otherwise, when I'm looking for upsets I look for teams with great guard play, which has me looking at Villanova, LSU and Washington.

Who are your No. 1 seeds at this point?

The Answer Man would like to ask his own question: Is there any topic in all of sports that generates more conversation for less reason than who the No. 1 seeds are? If you're good enough to win the tournament, you're good enough to win it from anywhere. Yes, the percentages favor the No. 1 seeds, but that's not because of where they're seeded. It's because you have to be one of the best four teams in the country to get there.

Anyway, to answer your question, I still like that top quartet of Pitt, UConn, North Carolina and Oklahoma. I see some people are already sticking Louisville on the top line based on their outright regular-season Big East championship, but while that is a worthy accomplishment, keep in mind that the Cardinals did not have to play either UConn or Pitt on the road. (They split those two games at home.) Also, their losses are worse than Oklahoma's. Louisville lost at home to UNLV (when the Rebels were without their most important player, Wink Adams), and they lost on a neutral court to Minnesota and Western Kentucky. Meanwhile, Oklahoma lost true road games at Arkansas and Missouri. Their other two losses were at Texas and at home against Kansas when Blake Griffin was hurt. Now, if Oklahoma fails to win the Big 12 tournament and Louisville wins the Big East tournament, then it will be a no brainer to move Louisville up. But those are two mighty big ifs.

Is it possible Louisville would be better off as a two seed than a one?

Actually, it is quite possible. Keep in mind the Selection Committee seeds the entire field 1 through 65. So if Louisville is No. 4 overall on the board, then the Cardinals will likely be sent out west to Glendale, Arizona. If, however, Louisville is the No. 5 overall team on the board, it would have first dibs among the two seeds on the regional sites among the two seeds (as long as another Big East team isn't the No. 1 seed there). Thus, they could very well end up in Memphis opposite North Carolina or Indianapolis opposite Oklahoma. At that point in the tournament, it's especially critical to get as many of your own fans into the building as you can. Louisville knows this well, having lost to UNC last year in the East Regional Final in Charlotte.

Which team that you haven't mentioned yet is the most likely to jump to the one line?

You might think the answer is Memphis, which is ranked fourth in this week's AP Poll, but you'd be wrong. I know John Calipari hates to hear this (stop reading the Internet, Cal!), but though his Tigers may be of Final Four timber, they don't have nearly the résumé required to earn a No. 1 seed. They have just four wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. There are bubble teams who won't make the tournament who have more than that.

The reason Memphis doesn't have more significant wins isn't just because it plays in Conference USA. Its three most important nonconference games were against Xavier on a neutral court, at Georgetown and at home against a Syracuse team that was playing without Eric Devendorf. It lost all three. It did earn tough road wins at Gonzaga and Tennessee, but that will not be enough to earn them a one seed. In fact, Memphis (stop reading here, Cal, I beg you!) right now is closer to being a three seed than a one.

The team that really has a chance to ascend to that top line is Michigan State, which is 12-2 against teams ranked in the top 50 and won the Big Ten regular season by four games. If the Spartans win the Big Ten tournament and enough teams currently ahead of them falter, they'll be a No. 1 seed.

For a guy who says the No. 1 seed question is unimportant, why are you taking so many questions about the number one seeds?

You're right. Next question.

We all know the ACC and the Big East have been by far the best two conferences in the country. So why do you say the Big Ten could end up getting as many teams, if not more, into the tournament? Just because league A gets more bids than league B, it doesn't mean that league A is better. The Big East and the ACC are probably going to account for at least three of the four No. 1 seeds, and at least seven of the top 16 overall. The Big Ten's RPI profile is such that the league will benefit in much the same way the Missouri Valley Conference did in 2006, when it sent four teams into the tournament. Seven of the Big Ten's 11 teams are ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, so its schools had ample opportunities to get quality wins. Right now there are nine teams who have a very real shot to get into the tournament. It's highly unlikely that all nine will get in -- for example, Minnesota's game against Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament is probably an elimination game -- but seven is the minimum. Many of them will be seeded nine or lower.

Wait a minute, did you just say Northwestern? This is a column about the NCAA tournament, right?

Indeed, the Wildcats have never reached the NCAA tournament. As astounding as it seems, Northwestern could be on the verge of doing just that. I seem to be the only one who is touting their candidacy to this extent, but think of it this way. Heading into the Big Ten tournament, Northwestern is 6-9 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. Compare that with other bubble teams like South Carolina (0-4), Florida (2-6), Rhode Island (3-5) and Virginia Tech (3-7). Not only that, but two of Northwestern's top 50 wins came on the road against Michigan State and Purdue. Plus, Northwestern beat Florida State, which looks to be headed for a 4 or 5 seed. Yes, the Wildcats are 17-12 and they're ranked 71st in the RPI (which is a killer), but only one of their losses came against teams ranked below 100. So don't count 'em out.

What are some other bubble teams that have a better chance to make it than people realize? And what are some teams that are in worse shape than we think?

It is really hard to like any bubble team right now, but this is nothing new. (Now you see why I'm vehemently opposed to expansion.) I'm still seeing a lot of Internet brackets that have South Carolina in the tourney, but for the life of me I can't figure out why. Yes, South Carolina swept Kentucky. That plus $2 gets you a ride on a New York City subway. Besides that, the Gamecocks' best win was at home by one point over fellow bubble boy Florida. (And even that one took a miraculous full-court touchdown pass for a layup at the buzzer.) I might be more favorable toward the Gamecocks if they had played a decent nonconference schedule, but they are ranked 278th in the country in that category. That won't cut it with the Answer Man.

As for a bubble team that is in better shape than you think, I realize that Virginia Tech has lost six of its last seven games, so that probably has the Hokies on the outside looking in. But they do have three quality road wins at Wake Forest, Clemson and Miami. Plus, for what it's worth, remember this team lost two tough nonconference games at the buzzer -- at home against Wisconsin, and on a neutral court against Xavier, which beat the Hokies on a buzzer-beating half-court shot. I know we can't get too deep into the weeds of how teams lost, but come on, a half-court shot? At least let that creep into your thinking.

Who will be the most difficult team for the committee to assess?

Hands down, the answer is Saint Mary's. On the one hand, if Patty Mills didn't get hurt, this was not only one of the best 34 at-large candidates, it was also one of the best 25 teams in the country. But the fact is, Mills did get hurt, and while the Gaels played reasonably well without him (they lost four of six but then ran off five straight, including a rout at home over then No. 23 Utah State), he looked like a shell of his former self during their two West Coast Conference tournament games, scoring a combined 17 points on 5-for-28 shooting. Saint Mary's needed to make a statement during the tourney final Monday night, but lost by 25 to Gonzaga. The reality is, Saint Mary's is left with just two wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI and an overall RPI ranking of 46. If Mills looked the way he had before his injury, this would be a no-brainer. Now ... well, it's a brainer.

Who is this year's Davidson?

Alas, we know it won't be Davidson. It's hard to contemplate an NCAA tournament without Stephen Curry, but that's what we're headed for after the Wildcats lost in the semifinals of the Southern Conference tournament. Curry did all he could, but their failure to win the league underscores just how valuable point guard Jason Richards was to the squad last season.

I've been saying all season that Saint Mary's would be this year's Davidson, but in light of Mills's injury I'll go with Siena. Much like Davidson last year, Siena played a very tough nonconference schedule this season. Yes, it lost all the big games, but it still got better by playing them, and as you saw by the way it routed a very good Niagara team Monday night, it has great poise and experience, and it can score from lots of different places. Remember now, this team returned all five starters from the team that blitzed Vanderbilt in the first round of last year's tournament.

We know there will be a couple of shockers on Selection Sunday. So who could be this year's Syracuse '07?

This is the Orange team that was left out despite going 22-10 (10-6 Big East) and being ranked 50th in the RPI. So if there is a team out there that is bound to be shocked, my vote would go to Ohio State. The Buckeyes went 10-8 in the Big Ten, but their best road win was at Michigan. Their second-best road win came at Miami, which played most of the game without leading scorer Jack McClinton, who was ejected for a flagrant foul.

On the flip side, who could be this year's Air Force '06?

Well, I'm pretty sure it won't be Air Force, considering the Falcons were winless in the Mountain West. But if you recall, very few experts even considered having Air Force in the field that year, yet the committee, in a blatant act of sentimentality, gave the Falcons an at-large bid. (After this happened, the committee subtly changed its mission from finding the "most deserving" teams for at-large bids to the "best" 34.)

So if you're looking for a shock this weekend, look out for Auburn. At a time when just about every bubble team has been stringing together embarrassing losses, the Tigers were winning eight of their last nine games, including road wins at Mississippi State and Alabama and home wins over Tennessee and LSU. Auburn is ranked 64th in the RPI and went 5-7 on the road. If they win two games in the SEC tournament, things could get really interesting.

All right, let's cut to the chase here. Who is going to win this thing?

I like to save my official pick for the Selection Show. If I spoiled the suspense here, what reason would you have to watch? While I always reserve the right to wait until the last possible moment to make up my mind, let's just say it's pretty unusual for a city to celebrate both a Super Bowl championship and an NCAA championship in the same year. This is feeling like one of those years.

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