Analysis | March is here. Let’s answer some questions about the upcoming Madness.

Analysis | March is here. Let’s answer some questions about the upcoming Madness.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

The zaniness and unpredictability of March has arrived. Division I men’s conference tournaments begin Monday (hello, Atlantic Sun). The first automatic bid will be allocated March 9 (shout out to the Ohio Valley). And the 68-team NCAA tournament field will be announced eight days after that.

The sprint to the finish is here, and here are 17 questions — one for every day between now and Selection Sunday — that need to be answered in the interim.

1. Are the No. 1 seeds set? Considering many of the best teams in Division I still have another five or six games left, no. But it’s going to take quite a bit to dislodge Connecticut, Purdue and even Houston from the top line. There’s a good mix of teams that could still make a run at a No. 1 seed: Arizona, Iowa State, Kansas, Marquette, North Carolina and Tennessee all come to mind.

2. Will the Atlantic 10 get back to multi-bid territory this season? It’s probably going to require Dayton to lose in the conference tournament. But it would be interesting to see how the committee treated Richmond if it got to 26-8 with a regular season title and a loss to Dayton in the league final.

3. Is this the first time the American Athletic is a one-bid league? If Florida Atlantic wins the league tournament, it probably will be. Memphis is on the periphery of the at-large conversation, and AAC leader South Florida simply doesn’t have much heft at the top of its profile. The American has produced 16 at-large selections over the past nine tournaments, including one each the past three seasons.

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4. Any other bid-snatchers out there? In addition to Dayton and Florida Atlantic, slightly-better-than-mediocre power conference teams will be rooting for Indiana State to win the Missouri Valley and either Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s to claim the West Coast Conference. The most obvious threats to squeezing the at-large field are Drake (Missouri Valley) and either San Francisco or Santa Clara (WCC).

5. Speaking of Gonzaga, there’s no chance it misses the tournament, right? Wrong. The Bulldogs (23-6) didn’t have much on their résumé before a win at Kentucky last month (and tacked on a victory at San Francisco late Thursday). But they also haven’t done anything particularly wrong, either, so they’re firmly in the hunt to extend an NCAA tournament streak that began in 1999. They’d help their cause a lot if they won at Saint Mary’s on Saturday.

6. Is St. John’s peaking at the right time? That’s going to be a popular thought, and credit to the Red Storm for dispatching Creighton (which was coming off a euphoric victory over Connecticut) and fading Butler. Don’t read too much into the Red Storm’s next three games: A trip to woeful DePaul, a home game against next-to-last-in-the-Big East Georgetown, and probably one of those two in the first round of the league tournament.

7. Any chance James Madison lands an at-large berth? The Dukes made an opening-night splash with their victory at Michigan State, and they sit at 27-3 entering their regular season finale Friday. If Mark Byington’s team is 30-4 with three losses to Appalachian State — a distinct possibility if the Mountaineers win the Sun Belt — James Madison could wind up getting a lottery ticket to Dayton from the committee.

8. Are all six of those Mountain West at-large candidates going to land in the field of 68? It’s too early to say, but given the individual team profiles, six is more likely than four at this point. San Diego State and Utah State can probably afford to lose out and still get in, and Boise State and Nevada are getting close to that point. New Mexico and reeling Colorado State probably have the most work to do, but both remain firmly on the right side of things entering March.

9. Who owns the weirdest résumé as March begins? A week ago, it was definitely Texas A&M, but the Aggies (15-13) have lost five in a row and now own five Quadrant 3 losses to match their five Quadrant 1 victories. But Wake Forest — which is in the top 30 of the NET rankings and the two predictive metrics but has just one Quad 1 victory — has the look of a candidate to be shipped to Dayton.

10. Can Kansas fall out of a top-four seed? The Jayhawks are the sport’s most recession-proof program, landing a No. 4 seed or better in every tournament since 2001. They’ve beaten Connecticut, Houston, Tennessee, Baylor and Kentucky, and even if they lost out, two of the four defeats would be on the road against Baylor and Houston. The streak is likely to see another year.

11. Can someone join Arizona and Washington State in the current iteration of the Pac-12’s final tournament contingent? Colorado is getting close, although it has the same lack of high-end heft as Wake Forest. Utah has a path if it can finish the regular season strong. So does Oregon — if it wins Saturday at Arizona.

12. Will a poor nonconference strength of schedule trip up any at-large candidates? This used to be a dealbreaker for teams at the edge of the field, but the inclusion of teams such as 2019 Iowa and 2021 Drake as at-large selections with double-digit seeds and nonconference schedules ranked in the 300s provides some exceptions to the trend. Among the teams that could be tripped up: Cincinnati, James Madison, Mississippi and Pitt.

13. Which conference tournament will be the most entertaining? For quality of play, it’s likely to be the Big 12 (though the prospect of Connecticut, Marquette and Creighton in the Big East semifinals is appealing). For up-tempo enthusiasts, it might be the Western Athletic. And for those seeking maximum carnage and the potential of something like a 5-vs.-7 final, the Metro Atlantic has plenty of parity.

14. What’s the deal with Michigan State? The Spartans are going to get into the field barring a spectacular collapse, they’re not as good as nearly everyone thought they would be, and they’ll be a complete handful for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed if they can make it out of the first round. So, basically, just like last year.

15. Who will be the buzzy No. 12 seed come Selection Sunday? How about Southland front-runner McNeese State, which hired Will Wade after a one-season exile from coaching and is 25-3 and seeking its first NCAA berth since 2002. The Cowboys won’t be afraid; they won at Michigan, UAB and VCU this season.

16. What’s a historical trend that could be tested? No team has ever won 29 or more games and not made the field. (The 28-win teams to be left out are 2010 and 2011 Coastal Carolina, 2018 Saint Mary’s and 2019 UNC Greensboro). James Madison could get to 30 wins and still end up in the at-large pool, while McNeese State could get to 29.

17. Is this the last 68-team tournament? There does seem to be a lot of chatter suggesting further expansion could happen. And if there’s anything college sports has taught us over the decades — especially the past two — it’s that everyone should have complete faith its primary decision-makers will place short-term financial gain over logic and long-term interests and stability. The NCAA tournament hasn’t been messed up, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be.

The plan for Norfolk State heading into this season could be boiled down to two words: Restore order.

The Spartans have spent more than a decade at or near the top of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the past 11 seasons under Coach Robert Jones. Yet coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament trips in 2021 and 2022 and with most of its rotation back, Norfolk State tied for third in the regular season last year and then lost a lead in the final minute of the league title game against Howard.

With a two-game lead in the MEAC with three games left, the Spartans (19-9, 9-2) are back in familiar territory entering Saturday’s trip to Delaware State.

“We still have some work to do,” Jones said. “Sitting at home last year, that didn’t sit well with me. It’s the first time I sat home since 2018 — not including the covid year when everybody sat home. Everyone’s been like, ‘Get back to the tournament, get back to the tournament.’”

It says something about the job Jones has done that simply landing the MEAC’s automatic bid is the baseline level of success some expect. He succeeded Anthony Evans, who led the Spartans to a 15-over-2 upset of Missouri in the first round of the 2012 tournament and left for Florida International the next year, and started stacking victories immediately.

Jones surpassed the 200-win plateau in January, and he has endured only one sub-.500 season overall — no small feat when the Spartans’ nonconference schedule usually features plenty of road games.

This might be his best job yet. After losing four starters, he picked up Jamarii Thomas (UNC Wilmington) and Allen Betrand (Rider) as transfers and both are averaging double figures in points. Guard Christian Ings, whose minutes were limited early as he returned from a knee injury, is coming off a 17-point game at Morgan State on Monday.

“It’s been tough,” Jones said. “Somebody asked me the other day who should be coach of the year. And sometimes, with the success that you have, people overlook what you did. Because we lost four out of our top five scorers, and now we’re in position to do something we didn’t do last year. We didn’t get the regular season title last year. So I told them, ‘I should be.’

“Honestly. That’s not to be too egotistical. Sometimes when you stay up there, they think it’s easy and they look past anything that you did. They look past the eight newcomers. They look past losing four of the top five. They just think ‘Norfolk State is always going to be okay.’”

These Spartans are better than merely okay, and like many of Jones’s past teams, they do a fine job of channeling the charismatic, confident nature of their coach. Winners of four in a row and nine of 10, Norfolk State has reason to feel good entering March — though it knows its postseason fate comes down to winning three games in the MEAC tournament.

“You have to have a little swagger,” Jones said. “Anybody’s who good, you have to at least know you’re good. But also there’s a responsibility of being good.”

One the Spartans take as seriously as anyone.

Kansas at Baylor (Saturday, 1, ABC): Kevin McCullar has missed the past two games and four of the past five for the Jayhawks (21-7, 9-6 Big 12), who are tied for third in the conference with Baylor (20-8, 9-6). The Bears lost the first meeting but have beaten Kansas at least once in each of the past four seasons.

Marquette at Creighton (Saturday, 2:30, Fox): Marquette won the first meeting by five on Dec. 30, but now Tyler Kolek and the Golden Eagles (22-6, 13-4 Big East) make the return trip to Omaha. The Bluejays (21-8, 12-6) shrugged off a loss at St. John’s by blasting Seton Hall by 21 on Wednesday as Trey Alexander recorded a career-high 10 assists.

Michigan State at Purdue (Saturday, 8, Fox): Neither team has played since Sunday, so they should be well rested entering what figured to be the marquee game of the Big Ten season. Zach Edey and Purdue (25-3, 14-3) did their part, and the Boilermakers can clinch at least a share of the regular season title with a victory. The Spartans (17-11, 9-8) are coming off home losses to Iowa and Ohio State.

Tennessee at Alabama (Saturday, 8, ESPN): First place in the SEC is at stake as the Volunteers (22-6, 12-3) head to Tuscaloosa to attempt a season sweep of the Crimson Tide (20-8, 12-3). Dalton Knecht, who dropped 39 points on Auburn on Wednesday, had 25 in Tennessee’s 91-71 defeat of Alabama on Jan. 20

Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (Saturday, 10, ESPN): The host Gaels (24-6, 15-0 West Coast) go for the unblemished conference record as Gonzaga (23-6, 13-2) arrives. Saint Mary’s has won 16 in a row, including a 64-62 defeat of the Bulldogs in Spokane on Feb. 3. Gonzaga has won seven in a row since that meeting, with all six of its WCC victories in that span by at least 13 points.

Seton Hall at Connecticut (Sunday, noon, CBS): It’s a tough week for the Pirates (18-10, 11-6 Big East), whose road trip took them to Creighton and now the defending national champs. Tristen Newton and the Huskies (25-3, 15-2) lost their conference opener at Seton Hall on Dec. 20 and have won 15 of 16 since.

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