Grind-it-out coaches have local teams on verge of rare NCAA Tournament feat
Abandoning Big East has become a disaster for one-time powerhouses
There is one part of March Madness that sadly can't happen this year
Gonzaga and Baylor being Final Four locks is just silly
College Football Playoff committee isn't the problem
The ACC was supposed to be a superleague. The additions of Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami, Boston College and Pittsburgh were going to create a behemoth, every bit as good — if not better — than the old Big East.
The early returns were encouraging. It produced the national champion in 2015, 2017 and 2019. In 2018, the league sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament and four of them reached the Sweet 16. When it played its conference tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn that same year, it relegated the new Big East to little brother status. The other tournament in town was playing at the Garden.
But now, big brother stopped growing, his development stunted.
Only one ACC program — Virginia — was included in the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s made-for-television, top-16 reveal on Saturday. Only two other schools, Florida State and Virginia Tech, look capable of reaching the second weekend. Virginia and Florida State are the lone programs ranked in the top 30 by KenPom.
The same can be said for the NET rankings. Duke needs to win the ACC Tournament to avoid missing the Dance for the first time in 26 years. North Carolina is a bubble team the year after compiling its first losing record in 18 seasons. Miami is looking at its third straight losing season. Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse are mediocre.
Don’t call this an anomaly either. It could be the start of a trend. It is the second straight season the league has disappointed.
Last year’s final Associated Press top 25 featured just three ACC teams — Duke, Florida State and Virginia. Before the tournament was canceled, it was projected to send four dancing.
The issue for the league is two-fold. The newcomers, as I detailed in this space a few weeks ago, have scuffled. And the holdovers, at least recently, have fallen off.
Part of it is coaching. Even the best get old and their prowess declines, except of course for Tom Brady. Roy Williams is 70. Jim Boeheim is 75. Jim Larranaga is 71. Mike Krzyzewski is 74. That factor cannot be dismissed.
The best power conferences are loaded with young, in-their-prime coaches. The ACC does have some bright young coaches, guys such as Jeff Capel at Pittsburgh, Chris Mack at Louisville and Kevin Keatts at N.C. State. That’s not to say the game has passed by the likes of Williams, Boeheim, Larranaga and Krzyzewski.
It would be foolish to think Duke and North Carolina struggle again next year. Both programs will add elite talent. Florida State and Louisville have top-five classes coming in. Virginia has become the picture of consistency. Success can be cyclical. So much can change in one year.
But for the second straight season, the ACC is underperforming. It is nowhere near the super conference that was predicted years ago.
Benefit of the out
The NCAA Tournament selection committee gave Texas the benefit of the doubt. It didn’t punish the Longhorns for their uneven schedule, that they have played just four of their 18 games on the road, and four of their 11 league games away from Austin. It gave them a four-seed anyway in Saturday’s top-16 reveal.
Hopefully this isn’t a preview of what’s to come in a month. Unbalanced schedules must be taken into account. If two teams have similar résumés, but one has played more games, and as a result played a tougher schedule, that team needs to be rewarded.
Take a look at Xavier. The Musketeers, due to multiple COVID-19 pauses, have played only three of their 14 games on the road. They are unlikely to have to play Villanova, the league’s premier team, at all. They won’t travel to Seton Hall, either.
There are others. San Diego State has played five of 18 away from home. Florida State has played three of 14. Saint Louis has played three of 13. Michigan has played just five of 15 away, although of its 10 conference games, only five have been at home.
Home-court advantage is obviously not the same this year. There are either limited or no crowds. It still matters. According to KenPom, home teams are winning 57.1 percent of its games. That number is down from 61 percent last year and 59 percent the year before. But it clearly still matters. The committee cannot ignore scheduling differences.
Game of the Week
No. 3 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State, Sunday, 1 p.m.
“The Game,” the annual college football rivalry between the two Big Ten schools, is hardly worth mentioning anymore. But the two programs aren’t only on equal footing in basketball — they are Final Four contenders and potential No. 1 seeds. Michigan returned to the court on Sunday after a three-week pause due to COVID-19, while Ohio State is one of the hottest programs in the country, having won six straight games and nine of 10 in the loaded Big Ten.
1. Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Ohio State
2. Texas Tech, Illinois, Villanova, Alabama
3. Oklahoma, West Virginia, Houston, Virginia
4. Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, USC
Stock Watch Up
The Sooners were picked sixth in the Big 12. They didn’t receive a single vote in the Associated Press top 25 preseason poll. Low expectations haven’t mattered to coach Lon Kruger, star guard Austin Reaves and company. Oklahoma has made a mockery of them, likely moving into the top 10 on Monday following Saturday’s double-overtime win at West Virginia. It is all alone in second place in the rugged Big 12. That shouldn’t really be a surprise. Kruger has won everywhere he’s been and the Sooners are deep and experienced, which has become a signature of top teams.
The gap between Division I and Division II isn’t as wide as some believe. You’ve heard of players making the transition — former DePaul star Max Strus is one — and Bellarmine of the Atlantic Sun is the latest example of a program thriving immediately after making the jump. With 10 wins in a row, the Kentucky school has the fifth-longest active winning streak in the sport, trailing Gonzaga (20), Belmont (19), Baylor (17) and Loyola Chicago (11). It also leads its conference by two games in its first year in Division I.
Stock Watch Down
Over a 10-day span, the Wildcats were overwhelmed by St. John’s, crushed on Saturday by Creighton and nearly lost at home to Georgetown. Villanova is still almost certainly going to win the Big East. It would be a stunner if it doesn’t land a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament. But right now, it doesn’t look like an elite team. Athletic opponents capable of defending one through five on the perimeter bother Jay Wright’s group. Limit point guard Collin Gillespie, as St. John’s and Creighton were able to do, and the Wildcats become far less scary. His teammates struggle to create their own offense.
Duke and Kentucky’s problems have overshadowed what has been a miserable season in East Lansing. The Spartans are in the bottom third of the Big Ten, just lost by 30 at home to Iowa and are in danger of missing the tournament for the first time since 1997. Michigan State is trending in the wrong direction, having lost five of its last seven games — the two wins were over Big Ten doormats Penn State and Nebraska — and has a brutal close to the regular season. Its NET of 91 is no accident.
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