Welcome to Selection Sunday, college basketball fans.
This season has been noteworthy for a variety of reasons, including featuring a star-studded freshman class, the play of distinguished seniors across the nation and the season-long pursuit of perfection by that juggernaut in Lexington, Ky., …err, we mean Wichita.
All of the excitement and anticipation reaches a pinnacle Sunday night when the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket is finally unveiled after weeks of speculation and debate about seeding and at-large berths.
Unlike last season, when Louisville entered the NCAA tournament as the clear front-runner, this tournament appears very much wide open. Top-ranked Florida likely will enter as a slight favorite, but there are at least a dozen more teams with realistic hopes of winning the national title.
BRACKETOLOGY: Projecting the field of 68
NCAA TOURNAMENT: Teams that earned automatic bids
Here are 10 important questions to keep in mind as the countdown to the bracket unveiling continues on this Sunday, one of the most maddening days of the year in sports:
1. Which conference will earn the most NCAA tournament bids?
The answer, barring something unforeseen, will be the Big 12. The league has been stout from top to (almost) bottom all season, probably the toughest it has been in at least a decade. The committee never strives to take a certain number of teams from any league. Teams are rewarded after the committee compares their résumé to every other at-large candidate's profile. And these seven Big 12 teams should all earn single-digit seeds: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. This should be the fifth time that a conference saw at least 70% of its teams make the field. An impressive year for arguably the nation's strongest league.
2. Which team will earn the final No. 1 seed?
Expect Florida (South), Wichita State (Midwest) and Arizona (West) to all earn No. 1 seeds. The fourth No. 1 seed has been a mystery ever since Syracuse began its regression. Villanova had a chance at it, but then came the Seton Hall loss in the Big East tournament. Wisconsin had its chance, before losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan appears in prime position to grab it with a win against Michigan State on Sunday afternoon.
The problem for the selection committee is that the Big Ten championship ends so late. Does the committee give the Wolverines the final No. 1 seed in the East even with a loss in Sunday's game? It could happen, which rightly may raise more questions about the tip-off time of the Big Ten title game.
3. Will unbeaten Wichita State be rewarded or punished?
Let's be clear, the Shockers, the first undefeated NCAA tournament team since mighty UNLV in 1991, should and will earn a No. 1 seed. They are expected to play their first two games in St. Louis, where they just won their first Missouri Valley Conference tournament title in more than two decades. If they advance to the Sweet 16, they should play that in Indianapolis.
The question that coaches and media members discuss privately is whether the committee will place the Shockers in a particularly tough bracket: a so-called Region of Death. If the committee wants to be unkind to Wichita State, it could give it a path of (8) Oklahoma State, (4) Louisville and (2) Kansas en route to a return trip to the Final Four. But that would be unfair to all involved. Regardless, the Shockers are the sport's most compelling story.
4. Will Larry Brown's SMU team make the NCAA tournament?
Speaking of compelling story lines, this seemed like a foregone conclusion just a couple weeks ago. The only issue was seeding for SMU, which is hoping to reach its first NCAA tournament since 1993. This, Larry Brown's second season, has been an historic season for the long dormant Dallas program. The fan base has been stirred, the home court atmosphere has been superb, attracting luminaries including two former presidents, and the team was consistently very solid … until the last couple weeks.
SMU has lost three consecutive games: Louisville, Memphis and a costly loss to Houston (RPI 143) in the AAC tournament. SMU has four wins over top 50 teams — UConn twice, Memphis and Cincinnati — but it has not beaten another top 100 team. Bottom line, if SMU does not make the field — and it will be a very close call — it will be because of a non-league strength of schedule that ranks 303rd nationally. Almost every year the selection committee makes a strong statement about the importance of playing a strong non-league schedule. It should not surprise anyone if the committee uses SMU and 73-year-old Larry Brown to make that point this season. The last team to play a non-league schedule worse than 250th and earn anything between a No. 9 and No. 16 seed was 2006 Air Force, according to Patrick Stevens of Syracuse.com.
5. Which team has the résumé most difficult to assess?
Easy answer: Brigham Young. This is one of the most confounding résumés and most difficult decisions for the committee in recent years. BYU (23-11) has a strong RPI of 33, but there's a lot more to this profile. It's a résumé of extremes. It has four losses to teams worse than 100 in the RPI, a major stain. But it has played the nation's third-toughest non-league schedule, something the selection committee regularly rewards. And if that's not enough for the committee, how about the fact that second-leading scorer Kyle Collinsworth is out now with an ACL tear? BYU is not the same team that amassed respectable credentials through the course of the season. This one could go either way. Don't be surprised if BYU is the last team in or the first team out.
6. Where will Louisville and Kentucky land in the field?
It has been interest seasons for both rivals. Louisville's résumé is pretty good and may be worthy of a No. 4 seed. But rely on something else when evaluating this team: your eyes. This team is better than a No. 4 seed and it would not be fair to a No. 1 seed to have to play the surging defending national champs in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals, who are an impressive 13-3 away from Louisville, are not just beating opponents now, they are demolishing them. Expect the Cardinals to earn a solid No. 3 seed and be a popular pick to advance to another Final Four.
Just a steady, drama-free season for Kentucky, right? Well, maybe not. The 40-0 chatter was dead on, but it should have been directed at a team from Wichita perhaps, not the star-studded, freshmen-laden team at Kentucky. The Wildcats have been a monumental disappointment based on a national title-or-bust mindset from the start of the season. Granted, Kentucky still has an SEC title game to play against top-ranked Florida on Sunday. But expect the Wildcats to likely earn a No. 6 or 7 seed. They have played the nation's eighth-toughest schedule, which will help. This much is certain: Kentucky will remain a fascinating study regardless of the seed or outcome in this tournament.
7. How many teams will earn bids from the mediocre SEC?
Three SEC teams é Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee é should earn bids from this less-than-stellar league. Commissioner Mike Slive said it was unacceptable that the league earned just three bids last year. He tapped Mark Whitworth to be in charge of men's basketball and brought in longtime NCAA guru Greg Shaheen to help with non-conference scheduling. But the league is back in much the same spot it was in last season in terms of number of bids.
Georgia hurt the SEC's hopes by playing poorly in non-league play and then beating a variety of NCAA tournament hopefuls during a strong regular season run. What's more, Missouri struggled at season's end and Arkansas proved to be a major disappointment, leaving its fan base shaking its collective head.
8. How will the committee handle the Joel Embiid issue?
The health of Embiid, the 7-foot Kansas freshman, could be the biggest X-factor in the entire tournament. Embiid suffered a stress fracture to his lower back in the loss at Oklahoma State on March 1. He missed the final two regular-season games and Kansas' two games in the Big 12 tournament. Coach Bill Self said Embiid is unlikely to play in the first two games of the NCAA tournament. The committee has monitored the injury and it will be interesting to see how much weight it puts on games Kansas has played without Embiid.
Kansas has nine losses but has beaten 12 top 50 RPI teams. It has not only played the toughest non-conference schedule this year but really one of the toughest schedules overall in recent years. Even after Embiid was injured, it looked as if Kansas would earn a No. 2 seed and play its first two games in St. Louis. But now it appears as if Iowa State, the Big 12 tournament champs who beat the Jayhawks in the tournament, could be ahead of the Jayhawks in the seeding picture. That would move Kansas to the 3 line and perhaps send it to San Antonio. The bottom line is that if Kansas returns to the Sweet 16 and Embiid returns healthy and rested, the Jayhawks are a strong Final Four contender regardless of seed.
9. Will Oklahoma State be seeded appropriately?
Cowboys coach Travis Ford is still steamed about being a No. 5 seed last year and being sent out to San Jose to play an Oregon team that was much better than its No. 12 seed suggested. This season, the Cowboys have authored a stellar turnaround after losing forward Michael Cobbins to a season-ending injury in late December, seeing Marcus Smart suspended for three games for shoving a Texas Tech fan and suffering a seven-game losing streak. Only one other team has earned an at-large bid after suffering a seven-game losing streak.
Oklahoma State lost all three games without Smart in the lineup. With the sophomore back, the Cowboys have won five of seven games, losing only to Iowa State and Kansas, both in overtime. But overall they have just four top 50 wins and an 8-11 record against top 100 teams. Watching this team play, the do not appear like a team that should play in an 8/9 game. And coaches privately say that Oklahoma State is one of the teams they least want to play. But their resume could well send the to an 8/9 game, which potentially could set up a challenging game for a No. 1 seed next weekend.
10. If there's a surprise at-large selection, which team could be rewarded?
Consider Nebraska, North Carolina State and Wisconsin-Green Bay. One of those teams will probably barely make the cut and wind up in Dayton as part of the "First Four." Nebraska has a better record against top 100 teams than Oklahoma State and has been especially hot since the start of February. Problem is a 4-11 record outside of Lincoln, Neb. The committee frowns upon that.
Everyone is on pins and needles in Raleigh over North Carolina State. The Wolfpack is 8-7 in road and neutral court games. The rest of their credentials look middling, but that could be enough to sneak in because its non-league strength of schedule isn't bad. And then there is Wisconsin-Green Bay, which beat Virginia early in the season and nearly beat Wisconsin. It has a winning record (4-3) against top 100 teams, an 11-4 record in road/neutral court games and has played a non-league schedule rated 56th nationally. That could be the formula to barely make the tournament field this season.