There is no other sporting event quite like March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Thus, there is really no other day like Selection Sunday in the sporting world. Well, I suppose that soccer has something similar when its World Cup draws are announced, but I’m talking about real sports, not tryin’ to be the best at exercising. Sure, you sometimes see playoff races go down to the wire, a la MLB this past season, but Selection Sunday doesn’t simply decide the fate of two or three teams, it effectively determines how far you can go in the tourney based on your seeding and the bracket built around you. If you won your conference tournament, you already know you’re in, whether you’re 15-18 Western Kentucky or 30-1 Murray State. It’s just a matter of where you’ll play. For example, it’s highly likely that the WKU Hilltoppers will need to win a play-in game to make the round of 64, whereas it will be interesting to see where the ninth-ranked Racers will be seeded after their romp through a not-so-fearsome Ohio Valley Conference this season.
Mind you, winning your conference tourney isn’t the only way to punch your ticket to the Big Dance. Although Kentucky and North Carolina lost in their respective finals today, there’s no question they’ll be in the tournament–and both could very likely be number one seeds, although winning their conferences would’ve sealed the deal. Ditto Duke and Syracuse, who lost in earlier rounds of their conference tourneys, but should still go deep in the NCAAs. And while Gonzaga also came up short in the WCC final, there’s little doubt that they’ll be dancing, having hung around the edge of the Top 25 for most of the year by playing a strong non-conference schedule. For the Zags, however, the goal will be to avoid facing one of those number one seeds, especially in the second round.
The Bracket Project’s Bracket Matrix currently has Gonzaga as an eight seed, with most respected bracketologists placing them as a 7 or an 8. In this case, the difference between a seven- and an eight-seed is instrumental. Not only does the eight-seed face a tougher opponent in the first round–in fact, the ninth seed has won the 8-9 matchup 54 per cent of the time–but they also get a second-round date with a number-one seed, generally one of the top-five teams in the country. In 2010, the eighth-seeded Bulldogs got past FSU in the first round, only to be absolutely clobbered by Syracuse in the round of 32. (In hindsight, I’m sure glad I didn’t make the trip down to Buffalo…) In fact, since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams back in ’85, only 12 top seeds have lost in the second round.
Statistically speaking, a seventh seed gives a team a much better shot. Not only have they won the 7-10 matchup 63 per cent of the time, but they’ve also had a 30 per cent success rate in the second round of the tournament–not too bad considering that they’re typically up against a two-seed. Mind you, first-round success for a seven is far from guaranteed, and the Zags know this all too well. In the 2008 tournament, Gonzaga had to travel all the way out to Raleigh, North Carolina as a seven to take on the 10th-seeded Davidson Wildcats from nearby Davidson, NC. The Southern Conference squad boasting future NBA star Stephen Curry bested the Zags 82-76 en route to the Elite Eight.
As it stands, a seventh-seeded Gonzaga squad could potentially face a big-conference foe in ACC members Virgina, the Big East’s Virginia Tech, or even Ivy League champs Harvard, themselves a team that hung around the bottom of the Top 25 for most of the season. Xavier, who the Bulldogs beat on New Year’s Eve, was also hovering around that 10-11 spot–although a loss in the A-10 championship game today will surely drop them down in the bracket, if not out of the tournament altogether. On the other hand, an eighth-seeded squad likely faces a BCS school in Purdue (Big 10), Alabama (SEC) or Connecticut (Big East), though The Bracket Project also has the A-10’s Saint Louis Billikens, a team that lost to WCC fourth-place finishers Loyola Marymount, in that ninth spot. It seems that a WCC-A10 first-round matchup could be Gonzaga’s best bet.
But even if they do beat the Billikens, the Musketeers, the Harvard Crimson or even a big-name program, the second round is going to be a tough test. Potential second-round opponents include Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan State, Missouri, Ohio State and Duke. Not a single softie in that bunch, although Kansas does have a history of choking in the tournament. If there’s one team the Zags want to see there, other than the Jayhawks, it would have to be MSU. The two teams played a tightly-contested game back on December 10th, albeit one in which Sparty prevailed 74-67 on Gonzaga’s home court. Still, that early near-miss has to give the losers some confidence that they can compete with State–they just need to step it up come tourney time.
As far as I’m concerned, if GU plays like they did in their WCC semi-final win over BYU, they have the chance to pull off an upset and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. If, however, they come out like they did against Saint Mary’s in the final, and fade down the stretch, I think they’re probably one-and-done in a close game against a respectable first-round opponent. Here’s hoping we see more shades of 2003 (the Zags lost to one-seed Arizona in double OT, but very nearly pulled off the 9-1 upset) than 2008 in 2012.
As for BYU and St. Mary’s, the Gaels are pretty much in the same boat as Gonzaga, staring down a seven-seed, while the Cougs are very much on the bubble, a possible 11 or 12–if they even get in. For what it’s worth, I’d love to see three WCC teams in the tourney, and would probably advance them all into the second round–but let’s wait till they announce the matchups before I even think about my bracket.
UPDATE 8:50 PM: Well, Gonzaga got a seven seed, avoiding the dreaded 8-1 matchup, but there are definitely shades of 2008 in their first-round opponent. In order to advance to a tough second-round game against Big 10 co-champs Ohio State, the Zags must defeat the West Virginia Mountaineers in Pittsburgh, a mere 90-minute drive from WVU’s campus. This is, for all intents and purposes, a home game for the lower-seeded team. How does that work!?
Meanwhile, Saint Mary’s has Purdue in the first round and most likely Kansas in the second, should they beat the Boilermakers. Hey, if there’s ever a two seed you wanna see, it’s Kansas, though I’m not quite ready to advance the Gaels into the Sweet 16. BYU just barely punched their ticket, as they’ll face Iona in a play-in game for a chance to meet Marquette as a 14-seed. The six on that side of the bracket is none other than Murray State. Don’t look now, but BYU might have the best chance of any WCC team to make it to the Sweet 16. They would hafta win an extra game to get there, however…
I’m gonna take a couple extra days to do my homework before making my picks, but I’m not sure that we’ll have three WCC teams in the second round after all.