68 story lines in March Madness

Posted: March 18, 2014

IF THE CONFERENCE tournaments are a guidepost, get ready for some serious NCAA chaos. The No. 1 seed in 14 of the 21 one-bid leagues with tournaments will be playing in the NIT, gone early in their tournament and/or beaten and sometimes badly beaten on their home floor in championship games. The Ivy League continues to avoid the craziness by the quaint notion that its best team all season should represent it in the NCAA Tournament. So Harvard is back in the NCAA for a third straight year.

It wasn't just the smaller leagues where the top seed was in trouble. Just three No. 1 seeds won a championship in the 10 multibid leagues - Gonzaga (West Coast Conference), Virginia (ACC) and Florida (SEC). Only four of the No. 1 seeds even made the championship game and Michigan lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten.

If you are counting, No. 1 seeds won just 10 of 31 conference tournaments. So, the Thursday through Sunday games have the potential to be quite unpredictable. After that, expect a few hot teams to emerge as the best threats to win the championship on April 7 at the Jerry Jones Dome.

The Selection Committee emerged from the 18th floor of the Conrad Hotel in downtown Indianapolis to reveal the 68-team field late yesterday afternoon. The biggest surprises: no SMU, North Carolina State getting to the First Four, and the No. 4 seed for defending national champion Louisville, clearly seeded on schedule and not performance. Not good news for Midwest No. 1 seed Wichita State for a potential Sweet 16 matchup.

There are 68 story lines in this tournament, including the two locals: Villanova, seeded No. 2 in the East, will start play on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y., against No. 15 seed Milwaukee and No. 10 seed Saint Joseph's is in the same Buffalo pod as 'Nova and will play No. 7 Connecticut. If they both win, yes, it will be Villanova-SJU in the third round on Saturday.

Four story lines are paramount to me.

Wichita State is 34-0. The Shockers kind of got lost in championship week after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament on March 9. Wichita still has not lost and resumes playing right where it left off in St. Louis' Scottrade Center, site of the MVC Tournament. Can the Shockers really go 40-0? Each time they win, their story will get just a little bit bigger. And, if they are still playing on that Monday night in April, the sporting world and the wider world will stop everything to watch.

No. 1 overall seed Florida has won 26 straight. The Gators' last loss was on Dec. 2 at Connecticut, where a fortunate bounce ended up in Shabazz Napier's hands and he hit a buzzer-beater. Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin missed the last 3 minutes with an injured ankle. Florida's other loss was at Wisconsin when Wilbekin and key rotation player Dorian Finney-Smith did not play. So the Gators are not that far from 34-0 themselves, while playing in the SEC.

Gators coach Billy Donovan goes for his third national title in 9 years with a group of seniors that has been one win shy of the Final Four each of the last 3 years. Florida is the favorite and will start play in Orlando.

For the third straight year, Louisville arrives at the tournament as hot as any team in the country after winning its three American Conference Tournament games by a combined 100 points. The Cardinals won the Big East Tournament in 2012 and '13 and parlayed that all the way to the Final Four, where they lost to eventual champion Kentucky in 2012 and won it all last year.

Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is absolutely like a horse trainer pointing for one big event. The early results are irrelevant. All that matters is the moment and, at this moment, absolutely nobody wants to see Louisville as its next game. The Cardinals have the fearless Russ Smith, the emerging force that is Montrezl Harrell, the 2013 Final Four Most Outstanding Player in Luke Hancock and a deep supporting cast that improves by the game. Hard to believe they are a No. 4 seed. That is just silly. Manhattan gets first look at this runaway train in Orlando.

Since Jan. 28, these are the point totals for Creighton's Doug McDermott: 39, 32, 25, 26, 39, 25, 29, 27, 22, 45, 35, 32 and 27, while shooting 55 percent. He now has 3,105 career points, fifth all-time.

Despite a brilliant game plan and even better execution of the zone defense/slowdown offense plan from Providence in Saturday night's Big East championship, McDermott, the first three-time first-team All-America since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale in 1985, was one more make from pulling off an impossible comeback. Still, nobody who was at Madison Square Garden or watching on television will forget what they saw. With his teammates seemingly overwrought by the moment, McDermott never flinched, just moving farther and farther from the rim until it was even too far for him.

One of the great individual careers in college history is a loss from being over. The final journey begins against Louisiana-Lafayette in San Antonio. We can only hope it lasts as long as possible.

It is over before it starts for hoops-mad Indiana. No Butler, Indiana, Purdue or Notre Dame. There will be one more team in the NCAA from North Dakota (Summit champ North Dakota State) than from Indiana. At least it has the Pacers.

Beyond Villanova, which has to be the most under-the-radar 28-4 NCAA team in recent history, and SJU, which earned its way in by playing every game as its own entity, there are no shortage of stories with local interest.

Delaware coach Monte Ross, the former SJU assistant and a Philly guy, built the Blue Hens program brick by brick until it was complete just in time to get the school's first Colonial Athletic Association championship. The Hens can really score and they will have to if they are going to beat Big Ten champion Michigan State in Spokane, Wash.

Jeff Neubauer, a freshman on the great 1989-90 La Salle team and the captain of the 1992-93 team, will coach in his first NCAA Tournament after his Eastern Kentucky team upset Murray State and Belmont to win the Ohio Valley. The Colonels get Kansas in Saint Louis.

Yes, that was Aaric Murray cutting down the nets Saturday night when Texas Southern won the SWAC. It did not work for him at La Salle or West Virginia. But he did get those 48 at Temple on Dec. 18 and averaged 21.0 points and 7.6 rebounds. He had 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in the SWAC title game.

There will be 67 games between now and that night in Texas. One team will win six, or possibly seven. The joy will be in finding out how and who.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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