The 2019 NCAA tournament bracket is officially out, so we can all spend the next three or four days poring over matchups, choosing upsets and making picks for Minneapolis. But before we get there, let’s finish digesting the bracket with one last look at the NCAA tournament field. Who were the winners and losers from Selection Sunday?
For the first time since 2009, one conference received three 1-seeds to the NCAA tournament. Not only did Duke, Virginia and North Carolina all get placed on a region’s top line, they were also the top three teams in the field. The signs were there for this to happen once Gonzaga lost in the WCC title game and neither Kentucky nor Tennessee won the SEC tournament title.
Duke secured its spot atop the bracket after Zion Williamson returned and the Blue Devils won the ACC tournament; Virginia was a lock 1-seed entering Champ Week, and North Carolina owned two wins over Duke and a victory over Gonzaga. The ACC wasn’t the best conference in the country, but it had the three best teams in the country — and it could have multiple Final Four teams in a few weeks.
Markus Howard vs. Ja Morant
I don’t know if there’s a true winner for this one, but it counts because we as a society are winners. Marquette’s Howard and Murray State’s Morant are two of the most exciting players in college basketball, with both players capable of going for 40-plus points on a given night.
They go about it in different ways. Howard looks to get hot from 3-point range and can fire in a barrage of a deep, contested jumpers. Morant is a freak athlete who gets into the lane and either scores on his own or finds a teammate. He was one of the nation’s top scorers and led the country in assists. It’s unclear whether Howard will actually guard Morant, but this will be arguably the most entertaining individual matchup of the first round.
The Red Storm were the last team in the field, according to the committee. Chris Mullin’s team overcame a horrible NET ranking, poor efficiency metrics and a below-average nonconference schedule to get a bid. For the Red Storm, it likely came down to the fact that they beat Marquette twice and knocked off Villanova once. This was once a team expected to be a lock come Selection Sunday, but it lost four of five down the stretch, including a 32-point pummeling by Marquette in the Big East tournament. It’s now a clean slate for St. John’s, though, and the team has the talent to win a game or two.
Most of the bubble talk over the past several days surrounded the quartet of quality mid-majors that were bounced from their conference tournaments: Belmont, UNC Greensboro, Lipscomb and Furman. We’ll get to UNCG in a bit, but Belmont ended up making the field — and one has to wonder whether the Bruins’ missing starting center Nick Muszynski for the Ohio Valley title game played a factor. Belmont’s best wins came over Lipscomb (twice) and Murray State, but the Bruins lost just five games all season and tested themselves in nonconference play. Rick Byrd’s team may be in Dayton for the First Four, but at least it’s dancing. (For the record, Joe Lunardi had Belmont out and TCU in for the lone miss in this season’s version of ESPN Bracketology.)
In his final season as head coach at Temple, Dunphy and the Owls are going to the NCAA tournament. Temple’s losing to Wichita State in the quarterfinals of the AAC tournament left the Owls sweating on Selection Sunday, but wins over Houston and UCF were enough to get them to Dayton to face Belmont. Heck of a way to go out after 13 seasons on North Broad Street in Philadelphia.
This is something of an honorable mention, but Minnesota’s Richard Pitino facing Louisville — the school that fired his father less than 18 months ago — is a noteworthy thing to watch. The committee can say it doesn’t pay attention to potential storylines when making first-round pairings, but I’m going to call its bluff on this one.
According to the committee, UNCG was the first team left out of the field — getting bumped after Oregon won the Pac-12 title game over Washington on Saturday night. That’s a heartbreaker for coach Wes Miller and the Spartans, who lost just six games all season. Those six losses came against Wofford (three times), Kentucky, LSU and at Furman. They didn’t have a single loss outside Quadrant 1. For housekeeping purposes, the next three teams out of the field were Alabama, TCU and Indiana.
The bracket as a whole read a lot like a bracket that would have come out on Friday afternoon. Power-conference champions Villanova (6), Iowa State (6), Auburn (5) and Cincinnati (7) didn’t seem to benefit much from their runs. Runners-up Florida State (4) and Seton Hall (10) essentially received the seeds they were expected to get going into the conference tournament.
Meanwhile, VCU (8) lost in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament and did not seem to get penalized. Marquette (5) lost for the fifth time in six games and was seeded higher than Villanova, which won both the regular-season and conference tournaments. And Michigan State won the Big Ten conference tournament — and regular season — and was seeded as the 2-seed in overall top seed Duke’s region. The Spartans completed a three-game sweep of Michigan, but the Wolverines — also a 2-seed, but in Gonzaga’s region — arguably received an easier draw.
Top three seeds in the Midwest
North Carolina was probably thrilled to get a 1-seed … until it saw Kansas as the 4-seed in its region. Not that the Jayhawks didn’t deserve a 4-seed or are going to be favored over the Tar Heels, but if the two teams face each other in the Sweet 16, it will take place in Kansas City, less than an hour from Kansas’ campus. The Jayhawks have been poor on the road this season, but this is about as close to a home game as Bill Self can get in the NCAA tournament. The other top-three seeds in this region, Kentucky and Houston, won’t be happy if they have to play the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight. And as for the Tar Heels, this might be the cost of that loss to Duke in the ACC semifinals.
Along those same lines, if Tennessee and Cincinnati win their first-round games, the Volunteers will likely be unhappy to face the Bearcats in Columbus, Ohio. That won’t be fun for Rick Barnes’ team.
Dreadful nonconference schedules
We’re looking at you, NC State. The committee made a clear statement about the Wolfpack’s nonconference schedule, not even including them among the first four teams left out of the field. NC State had the No. 353-ranked nonconference strength of schedule, last in the country. The Wolfpack looked like they would overcome the poor non-league slate earlier in the season, but combine it with a lack of impressive wins and a 9-9 ACC record, and Kevin Keatts’ team was left out.
This isn’t a first for the committee. Time and time again, it has sent messages by leaving out teams that played weak nonconference schedules. Despite NC State’s impressive NET — it was the highest-ranked team in the NET not to make the field — it did not hear its name called on Selection Sunday.
Expanded conference schedules
Power conferences are playing more games than ever nowadays, and it might have cost them some bids on Selection Sunday. Texas went 16-16 after finishing below .500 in Big 12 play; Indiana was left out after losing 15 games overall and 12 in the Big Ten; Alabama had 15 losses overall and 10 in the SEC; TCU went 7-11 and didn’t hear its name called, either. Had those teams replaced a couple of league games with two wins in nonconference play, they might be in the field. It’s easy to see why conference administrators want their members to play each other often: more chances at quality wins, fewer chances at bad losses. But the committee showed that at some point, the sheer number of losses a team suffers has to be a factor.
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