The field of 68 is set and First Four games in Dayton are underway. Here are five observations I made about the field heading into the big dance.
Bubble decisions: Before getting into who is in the field, it’s worth mentioning who is not. Notre Dame was the most obvious exclusion this year with Oklahoma State being another team that belonged in the field. The Irish went to Syracuse, a bubble team that made the field, without Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell and won, yet Syracuse is playing in the big dance while Notre Dame was sent to the NIT. Oklahoma State also has two wins over Kansas while Arizona State finished eighth in an average Pac 12 and Oklahoma played nothing like an NCAA Tournament team down the stretch. The committee had more decisions to make regarding the bubble this year than it did last year, and it’s hard to agree with what they settled on.
Seeding mistakes: On top of some poor bubble calls, there were some clear seeding errors within the four regions. Arizona is entering the tourney off winning the Pac 12 tournament and has the best player in the country on its roster in DeAndre Ayton so coming in as a four seed in the South region was surprising for sure. On top of that, we could be in for an all-Wildcats matchup in the round of 32 with Kentucky falling on the five line and being sent to the same region as Arizona. John Calipari’s squad finished the regular season strong and won the SEC Tournament and that momentum figured to have Kentucky as a top four seed in its region but that wasn’t meant to be. It’s hard to sell me on Purdue having a better season than Michigan State yet the Boilermakers found themselves on the two line while Michigan State is a three seed in the Midwest region and could see Duke in the Sweet 16. In the West, North Carolina seemed to draw a two seed largely off its pedigree. The Tar Heels finished sixth in the regular season in the ACC and while they did make it to the final of the ACC Tournament, they’re another team that Michigan State had a better resume than.
Beware of the 5-12: The more you think about the way the committee seeds, the easier it gets to see why a 12 seed beats a five seed almost every year. This year the four teams on the 12 line are Davidson, South Dakota State, New Mexico State and Murray State. All four teams are automatic bids from mid-major conferences. Davidson stole a bid by beating Rhode Island in the A-10 championship game on Sunday and South Dakota State, New Mexico State and Murray State enter the big dance having all won at least 26 games. These are good teams that could all wind playing into the second weekend. When you win that many games, regardless of your schedule or your conference, winning a game or two in the tournament isn’t an unrealistic goal. Most of the time, 12 seeds profile the way these four do and they’re a dangerous draw for the five seed from the high-major league. To be honest, I’d be mildly surprised if New Mexico State didn’t beat Clemson in its first tournament game and like Murray State’s chances against West Virginia as well as South Dakota State’s odds to take down Ohio State.
Finding this year’s South Carolina: It wouldn’t be March without trying to take a stab at who might be the surprise team to get to the Elite Eight or Final Four. For five straight seasons, a team seeded seventh or lower has won its respective region and advanced to the final four. Last year it was Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks that shocked the world. South Carolina’s region opened in a big way when top-seeded Villanova lost in the round of 32 to Wisconsin. So really what this comes down to each year is which region has some high seeds that are vulnerable and which lower seed will take advantage. Predicting the latter is nearly impossible which is the beauty of this tournament, but every year there is a region or two that is a little more open than the others and could lend itself to chaos. This year, the East and the West regions could be set up that way. I already mentioned how Purdue’s slightly over-seeded as a two in the East and Texas Tech is the three seed in the East and is making just its second tournament appearance in the last 10 years. Out West, the consensus seems to be that Xavier is the softest number one seed and I also mentioned I thought North Carolina was over-seeded as the two in that region. If we get a surprise regional finalist or national semifinalist this year, my guess is it’s a result of chaos in the East or West.
The upset of all upsets: Hear me out. There was next to no consistency at the top of college basketball this year. Penn is the automatic bid out of the Ivy League and won 24 games this year and usually the Ivy League representative is shown a little more respect. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the 16 seeds this year, or necessarily say that Penn beating Kansas is the one, but throughout the regular season, as more teams ranked in the top five continued to lose, I felt like it might be possible to see a 16 seed pull it off this year. Of course, I may not be at all close here, but let’s just say I’ll be watching the 1-16 games a little closer this year.