NEW YORK — A visit with the Division I men’s basketball committee Saturday morning made one thing crystal clear: This year’s NCAA tournament field might not have too many surprises.
A few prominent bubble teams, such as Vanderbilt and Xavier, played their way into the field of 68 during their conference tournaments.
Others played their way out. Clarity along the bubble is nice — and not always common — and means we can instead shift our attention to the top, where there’s more uncertainty.
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. Who will be the No. 1 overall seed?
Villanova. For a while, it was neck-and-neck between the Wildcats and Kansas … until conference tournament results made this fairly straightforward. With its win vs. Creighton in the Big East tournament final, Villanova not only looked the part of a No. 1 overall seed, but it also secured its 11th win of the season against RPI top-50 opponents, which is three more wins of that caliber than Kansas has.
It’s kind of crazy how under the radar Villanova has been flying, despite being the defending national champion, winning the Big East regular-season title for the fourth consecutive year and having guys named Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson on the roster.
The Wildcats have hit a couple of bumps along the way this season — most notably two losses to Butler and injuries that thinned the rotation — but remain better positioned than anyone since Billy Donovan’s Florida teams in 2006 and 2007 to win back-to-back national titles. And their run to the Big East tournament title, which happened while Kansas sat at home after being knocked out in the Big 12 quarterfinals, should have boosted their résumé enough to let them start their title defense with the best possible position: the No. 1 overall seed.
2. Will Gonzaga end up on the top seed line?
Moving past Villanova and Kansas — who are No. 1 seed locks — the Zags did all they could to put themselves in position to land a top seed. They scheduled and played a tough non-conference schedule, picking up wins against Florida, Iowa State and Arizona, and went unbeaten in non-league play for the first time.
Gonzaga’s only loss came to Brigham Young in its regular-season finale, which the team rebounded well from to win yet another West Coast Conference tournament title. It’s a strong résumé, which includes six RPI top-50 wins, which the committee will likely compare to that of North Carolina (27-7 overall, with 11 top-50 wins) and Duke (27-8, with 13 top-50 wins and three top-25 wins this week alone). You have to like Gonzaga’s chances in this scenario. (We think.)
3. Should we trust the Zags?
Yes. There is an outdated perception that Gonzaga is a perennial underachiever in the NCAA tournament, a sentiment that seems to ignore a Sweet 16 appearance last season and the Elite Eight the year before that.
But, again, there are doubters, despite this being a talented, deep and balanced team. Five players average double figures in scoring. Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss has been one of the best players in college basketball all season. And Przemek Karnowski remains, quietly, one of the best bigs in the sport now that he’s healthy.
Sure, Gonzaga has never reached a Final Four. But that’s no reason to think it never will.
Why not this year, and this team?
4. What will the selection committee do with Duke?
The Blue Devils are one of the most polarizing teams in the country, and it’s only partly because of Grayson Allen. You have a coaching absence — because of Mike Krzyzewski’s back surgery — during which time Duke went 4-3 under associate head coach Jeff Capel. You have a series of injuries that affected some outcomes (for example, Kansas) and overall player availability, which is something the selection committee takes into consideration when it is determining a team’s seeding.
Will the committee give the Blue Devils a boost since they finally look dominant now that they’re as healthy as they’ve been, during their run to the ACC tournament title? Could Duke climb all the way up to the No. 1 seed line? It’s going to be fascinating to see how the committee answers these questions.
5. Which league will get the most bids?
The Atlantic Coast Conference. But it will likely get only nine bids, down from the 10 or 11 the league had a shot to land before a few bubble teams fell out of consideration.
As many as 13 teams were considered at various points this season, but seven were on the bubble, meaning the league’s strength is not necessarily at the top but rather in the middle.
You’ll likely hear a lot about the depth of this conference as the NCAA tournament begins, but it will be very hard to replicate the ACC’s success a season ago: Seven teams made the Big Dance, with six advancing to the Sweet 16. No conference had ever sent so many through the first weekend before. So, sure, there likely will be nine dancing this year.
But does regular-season depth necessarily lead to deep runs?
Time will tell.
6. Which Pac-12 team will be the league’s highest seed?
The answer is Arizona, the Pac-12 tournament champion and co-champ of the regular season. But, in reality, the Wildcats are one of three legitimate Final Four contenders — along with Oregon and UCLA — and the only significant point regarding which team finishes with the best seed is because it affects which team gets assigned to the West regional (in San Jose).
Travel always is a factor and potential issue in the NCAA tournament, and this could end up mattering quite a bit. Or it won't. It's too soon to know, especially since the Bruins still have Lonzo Ball, and Oregon (even in its first game since Chris Boucher's season-ending injury) still nearly knocked off the Allonzo Trier-led Wildcats, who are peaking at exactly the right time. Perhaps all three will end up in Phoenix after all.
7. How low will the highest-seeded Big Ten team land?
It’s probably Purdue, and the absolute highest seed the Boilermakers could land looks like a No. 4. We got a glimpse of the selection committee’s disinterest in the top of the Big Ten last month with its bracket preview show — which had zero Big Ten teams among the top four seed lines with a month remaining in the regular season.
What that means is the league is kind of the opposite of the ACC this year; there were few opportunities for top-25 wins in league play, and in some cases, fewer opportunities for top-50 wins than the Big Ten is used to. Purdue lost twice to Michigan in its last four games heading into Selection Sunday, and Maryland lost four of its last six games.
Wisconsin lost five of six to close out February and start March, though the Badgers appear to have righted the ship during their run to the Big Ten tournament final. Still, seeding is affected by all of those rough patches — and the Big Ten will feel that come Sunday evening.
8. Northwestern will make its first-ever NCAA tournament. Now what?
It’s one of the great stories of the season — a team doing something it’s never done before. And that’s why Sunday will be extra special: Northwestern will hear its named called as an NCAA tournament participant for the first time in program history. The Wildcats are the lone power-conference team never to have made the NCAA tournament, a speck of infamy that will fall away Sunday evening.
And while making the Big Dance certainly is an accomplishment to celebrate on its own, Northwestern coach Chris Collins and the players that carried the program to this point won’t be satisfied with just showing up. They believe they can win big games, and as evidenced by the memorable win vs. Michigan that likely clinched the bid and, later, the program’s first run to the Big Ten tournament semifinals, they’re capable of doing just that.
9. Which mid-majors could become Cinderellas this year?
Per usual, there was some carnage in the smaller conference tournaments, meaning we lost a few mid-majors who were dominant throughout league play but ran into a hot team in the league tournament, costing them the league’s automatic bid. So, unfortunately, we don’t have teams such as Belmont, Monmouth, Texas-Arlington and Oakland as potential tournament darlings.
So, of the teams who will be in the field … let’s go with Middle Tennessee State — you’ll recall the Blue Raiders pulled off a big 15-2 upset of Michigan State a year ago — as well as Vermont, Nevada and Iona as this year’s most likely double-digit seed Cinderellas.
10. Is this the last year we’ll be hearing about the RPI?
It’s possible. There was a bit of fanfare over the NCAA hosting a metrics summit with some of college basketball’s most innovative information-sorters this season.
And though nothing definitive came out of it, NCAA vice president for men’s basketball championships Dan Gavitt said there could be possible final recommendations presented and considered at the group’s summer meeting.
The idea — and it might not take effect in time for next season, especially since schools would be almost completely finished with scheduling by the time it could be adopted — is that there is some composite analytic tool or third-party analytic system that exists (KPI, KenPom, etc.) that could replace the Rating Percentage Index, which is how the selection committee sorts and ranks every team in college basketball.
Gavitt described the process of figuring out which way to go in the future, at this point, as “a work in progress.”