You can hear the thumping getting louder each day, like the sound of a ball pounding on the floor as the dribbler gets closer. Two teams from a non-power conference on a collision course to a big game with enormous implications -- in the conference, in the polls, and most importantly, in the NCAA tournament bracket.
San Diego State and BYU will meet Saturday in San Diego. It is the second time they're playing this season, but if the hoop gods are kind to us it won't be the last, because that would mean they will meet again in the final of the Mountain West Conference tournament. BYU won the first meeting in Provo behind 43 points from The Jimmer. That was the Aztecs' only loss this season, while the Cougars have lost twice -- to UCLA in Anaheim and New Mexico on the road. It's not unusual that a team from outside the Big Six makes a mad dash to the top end of the rankings, but to have two teams do it from the same conference is truly a special treat. With the big game now just three days away, it's only fitting to begin the mailbag with a few queries about the Treasured Two.
Chris and Kendall have asked questions that are interesting but ultimately meaningless. Shawn's question is more significant, but the meaning is still vastly overstated. At the end of the day, the No. 1 seed is more of an honor than a tangible advantage. Yes, it gives a team a slightly better matchup in the first round, but from there the difference is marginal. And obviously the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds face each other in the regional final if they both advance that far, so who cares which is which?
Still, if you're San Diego State or BYU, the opportunity to garner that top seed will most likely not pass this way again. So I can understand why it would be so important. The answer, then, to Shawn's question is simple: Win the rest of their games. That is especially true of BYU, which lost those two games but still has seven top-50 wins over teams like Arizona, Utah State and UNLV (twice). San Diego State has a great shot at a 1 seed if it wins out because that would mean a) the Aztecs would likely have beaten BYU twice, and b) they will enter selection weekend as the only team in the country with just one loss. If that's the case, it will be all but impossible to keep them off the top line.
As I wrote in
I would never make a hard and fast rule, but I can honestly say that unless the teams ranked ahead of them lose a couple more games, it's going to be hard for me to put San Diego State or BYU in my top five. Again, that's different than saying I wouldn't consider them for a No. 1 seed, but even with some power conferences (specifically the ACC) having down years, I do not believe those teams have played a comparable schedule. In terms of the poll, San Diego State is actually in a weaker position than BYU because its best wins outside the conference were over Saint Mary's at home and Gonzaga on the road.
Frankly, it's amazing to me that so much time is spent dissecting things that decide so little. Where a team is ranked in the polls, or whether it's a 1 seed or a 3, will not do much to determine whether it will ultimately play for a national championship. These questions do, however, make for great conversation in late February and early March. No matter who wins the big game on Saturday, that conversation is sure to kick into higher gear.
Now on to the rest of the 'Bag.
My take is I like Blake's starting point. The CAA this year has been highly impressive, nobody more so than George Mason. The Patriots have reeled off 13 consecutive wins, including a riveting six-point win at Northern Iowa during the BracketBusters weekend. (And by the way, a tip of the hat to my friends at ESPN for another great BracketBusters. You can say what you want about that place, but they do an incredible job promoting college basketball.) This George Mason team will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2006 squad that reached the Final Four, but this edition is much more perimeter-oriented than that one was. The Patriots are ranked 13th in the nation in percentage of points they get on three-pointers and they have five players who are making better than 40 percent from behind the arc. That's a great formula for success in the tournament, because even if a couple of those guys have cold shooting nights it's unlikely that all five will.
Elsewhere in mid-majordom, I've been pimping -- er, pumping up -- Utah State all season, so I'll direct your attention to the Aggies' comeback win at Saint Mary's, which was punctuated by Brady Jardine's emphatic dunk in the final minute. Elsewhere, when I look for mid-major sleepers I like to see NCAA tournament experience, which is why I would not want to face Butler. The Bulldogs sputtered for the first three months of the season, but now have found their stride with six straight wins. If they do make the NCAA tournament, that late surge plus the good vibrations from last year will make them a very tough out.
Suffice to say, it will take a lot longer than it took Ed to write that question. I'd argue Purnell is already resurrecting DePaul. As I noted in
It's hard to glean a lot of optimism from Purnell's first recruiting class. Shane Larkin, a 5-foot-11 guard from Orlando, is the only high school senior ranked in the top 150 nationally by Rivals.com who has committed to DePaul. It is instructive, however, that Larkin hails from Florida, not Chicago. I just don't buy into the idea that just because you coach at DePaul you have to bring in kids from Chicago. On the contrary, often times it's better to bring in kids from outside the area because there are fewer distractions. Steve Lavin's top-rated class at St. John's is filled with kids from out west, not New York City. At any rate, to give Ed a specific answer, I think this program is so moribund that you can't fairly judge Purnell until he has been on the job for five full years. So settle in and enjoy the games, Ed. Check back with me in 2016.
Actually, let me correct Jack on one thing. Tennessee did not start the season like a house afire. It started the season with an NCAA investigation and an exhibition loss to a Division II team. Yes, those wins over Pitt and Villanova were impressive, but if you look at Tennessee's entire season, those games look like anomalies. That has been especially true lately as Tennessee had dropped four out of five games heading into last night's game at Vanderbilt.
However, the Volunteers did get a huge road win in Nashville last night, and I love the way they did it. The Vols were down by 11 points with just under 13 minutes to play, but they came back through defense, toughness and foul shooting. It has taken some time, but Bruce Pearl has managed to re-create his team's identity around those elements. Consider that Tennessee got the big win despite scoring just 60 points. This team's point guard play is so bad that it has a very hard time scoring in the half court. The Vols have to rely on their defense to create transition opportunities, and they must continually attack the basket. That's a good sign for them moving forward.
First of all, I realize it's easier to believe that your team didn't make the tournament because of a nefarious bias, but the fact is that Virginia Tech did not earn an at-large bid the last three years. That's not to say that every team that gets a bid earned or deserved it, but if you've played your way onto the bubble, you forfeit the right to complain. Yes, Virginia Tech went 10-6 in the ACC regular season last year, but the Hokies also had just three top-50 wins and one of the worst nonconference schedules in the country. They also lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament to a bad Miami team. We have to remember that the imbalanced schedules make conference records deceiving. You'll recall that in 2008 when the Hokies went 9-7 in the ACC but only had to play the top three teams (Duke, North Carolina and Clemson) once each -- and they lost all three.
What will be their fate this year? Let's just say Saturday's home game against Duke is going to be huge. If the Hokies win that game, they're virtually assured of getting a bid. If they lose, they'll probably have to win their remaining two (home vs. Boston College, at Clemson) to have a chance at an at-large, provided they don't suffer another pratfall in the ACC tournament. Virginia Tech's only top-50 win came at home against Florida State. The Hokies' best road win was at No. 91 Maryland. Plus they got swept by Virginia. I'm sure the committee will take into account all the injuries this team has suffered, but the bottom line is, if they don't win some games, they ain't dancing.
If that's the blueprint to beat Ohio State, the Buckeyes are in pretty good shape because they don't have to play any true road games during the NCAA tournament. The fact that the teams Brian mentioned are in Ohio State's region in a few bracket projections does not mean they're likely to end up there. That said, I do think Brian touched on the word that will be a recurring theme during the tournament: upperclassmen. In a year when there is so much parity (and mediocrity), older is definitely better.
That is especially true against Ohio State, because the main thing required to beat this team is defensive discipline. Very few teams have players who can defend Jared Sullinger one-on-one, but it's dangerous to double team him because he's such a good passer and the Buckeyes have so many great three-point shooters. The only answer is to help on him only when it's absolutely necessary, and to do so in a way that still allows you to close out on the shooters. That takes a lot of teamwork and experience to pull off. And as Wisconsin and Purdue demonstrated, it helps to have a talented guard with a red-hot hand.
Finally, we'll end with a pair of questions about Syracuse.
First of all, let me say in full disclosure that I really like Jim Boeheim. I think he's a brilliant coach, and he tells hilarious stories over dinner. Nor do I have a problem with a coach or anyone else taking issue with my work. If I'm going to criticize them in public, then they have every right to do the same. I've been on the receiving end of a few Boeheim phone calls over the years, and while the conversations can be unpleasant, they never get personal.
That said, I thought Boeheim's mini diatribe against
Two days later, Boeheim was a guest on my CBS College Sports show
Having said all that, I will now say something that could prompt one of those tetchy phone calls: I think Boeheim has absolutely destroyed Fab Melo's confidence. Maybe part of the kid's problem is that had so little confidence to begin with, but Boeheim has done him no favors by starting him almost every game, and then yanking him after a couple of minutes and leaving him on the bench. Against Rutgers last Saturday, Boeheim pulled Melo after just seconds -- four seconds! -- because the kid committed a silly foul. I can only imagine how mortified Melo must have felt as he trotted back to the bench. Boeheim later said his mistake wasn't pulling Melo out, it was putting him into the game in the first place. If that's the case, it's a mistake Boeheim has made too often this season.