Welcome to March. The nation’s conference tournaments have finally concluded after an expectantly hectic few days and many teams have finally, and dramatically, stamped their ticket to the Big Dance. Here are the Blue Zone’s thoughts on Selection Sunday:
Duke at No. 2, other ACC teams squeak in
A difficult and dejecting last couple of weeks for the Blue Devils have seen their title-contending stock plummet and a concerning inability to pull through when it counts once again surface. These intangibles didn’t seem to matter for the selection committee, though, who clocked the Durham outfit as a No. 2 seed in the West Region. The ACC tournament ultimately ended in disappointment for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his team via a 15-point loss to Virginia Tech, but it still possesses one of the nation’s most stacked rosters and highest ceilings on a good day. Paolo Banchero is a phenom, Wendell Moore Jr. is quietly excellent and Mark Williams is a demon on the glass, but the Blue Devils no longer have the fear factor they did in November after beating Kentucky and Gonzaga. They’re no longer even favorites to win their region–let alone the whole tournament–but still occupy one of March’s top seeds, irrespective of a concerning recent dip in form.
Speaking of the Hokies, talk about a Cinderella story. Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was Virginia Tech’s playground for the entire weekend despite possessing a mere No. 7 seed in the conference tournament. Its big win over Duke brought it from bubble pretenders to proper contenders. Head coach Mike Young’s team switched into gear as the season erred toward conclusion, winning 13 of its last 15 games including a first-ever conference championship. Without sounding too hyperbolic, these Hokies may be in some of the country’s hottest form right now and were rewarded, justly, with a tournament berth and a No. 11 seed. Joining them from the ACC are North Carolina as a No. 9 seed, Miami as an No. 11 seed and Notre Dame in the First Four, while Wake Forest narrowly missed out after a poor conference tournament showing.
Big dogs at the Big Dance
If Duke was one of the unlucky few to see its March prospects dwindle after last weekend, Gonzaga, Kansas and Arizona all saw theirs rise. Each team won its conference tournament and did so convincingly; the Zags stomped Saint Mary’s by 13 in the WCC, the Jayhawks put down a strong Texas Tech team by nine in the Big 12 and the Wildcats got their second win of the season over preseason No. 2 UCLA in the Pac-12.
And unsurprisingly as a result, all possess No. 1 seeds. Baylor is the only team to have not won its conference championship to hold the same seed, but it benefited heavily from convincing wins against Kansas, Villanova and Texas earlier in the season and remains among the favorites to cut down the nets in New Orleans. It feels like the four premier teams in the country have been recognized as such on Selection Sunday, and each enters the Big Dance with hopes–substantiated hopes, at that–of a title in front of mind.
Shake ups in the SEC and Big Ten
Without a doubt, the SEC and Big Ten tournaments saw the most drama and the most stories over the last few days. Auburn and Kentucky both dropped before the final in Tampa, Fla., falling to eventual champion runner-up Texas A&M and champion Tennessee, respectively. Auburn, similar to Duke, has seen the swashbuckling bombasticism and ruthlessness of its early season stifled in recent weeks and fell from national No. 1 to a No.2 seed in March after a slew of disappointing away defeats.
Meanwhile, Kentucky still possesses National Player of the Year favorite Oscar Tshiebwe, the ever-dynamic TyTy Washington and an excellent coach in John Calipari, but it similarly saw some of its January stock fall and similarly occupies a No. 2 seed. For their efforts in the conference tournament and prior, Tennessee was rewarded with a No. 3 seed, but the Aggies found themselves without a tournament berth despite their own impressive showing due to early season woes.
It wouldn’t be March if there wasn’t a bit of madness, and we saw plenty of it in the Big Ten. Top-seed Illinois and Kofi Cockburn couldn’t hold back a resurgent Indiana squad, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State knocked off national No. 12 Wisconsin and the semifinals didn’t see a seed higher than No. 3-seeded Purdue, who took on No. 5 seed Iowa in a tense final that Iowa narrowly edged out. The results in the conference tournament brought the Badgers from a projected No. 2 seed to a No. 3 seed in March, while the Boilermakers nabbed a No. 2 seed, the Spartans a No. 7 seed, the Fighting Illini a No. 4 seed and Michigan a No. 11 seed. The Hoosiers meanwhile made it into the First Four as a No. 12 seed.
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