By Chris Dufrense
Members of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee meet in Indianapolis this week for a mock tournament trial run that will mostly involve throwing up their hands in advance of this year’s free-for-all.
What a coincidence that the format expands in a year the championship appears so wide open.
Selection Sunday is March 13, which is Daylight Saving Time this year, meaning an hour’s sleep will be lost the same day the NCAA tournament gains three teams.
Fear not, Northwestern fans, it appears you will be able to sleep in (again).
The field is bulging from 65 to 68 teams, which gives fans three weeks to figure out the new brackets.
Time for a refresher course; it’s not that complicated.
Instead of one “play-in” game, there will be four “first-round” games. The last four at-large schools in the field will play, as will the four lowest-regarded conference champions. The four winners from Tuesday-Wednesday – those games will be at Dayton, Ohio – will be placed into the 64-team field for second-round games on Thursday and Friday.
The selection committee gloated in 2008 when the four top-seeded teams – North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and Memphis – advanced to the Final Four.
The odds of that happening this year are closing in on forget-about-it.
“I think this year will be a lot more unpredictable,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, chair of this year’s Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, said Wednesday on a conference call.
Michigan State and Kansas State, which opened the year at 2-3 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, opened the week unranked and playing for tournament survival.
Kansas State (17-9) pleaded its case Monday with a rousing home win over newly top-ranked Kansas but is still only 5-6 in Big 12 play. Michigan State (14-11, 6-7) missed out on a testimonial Tuesday chance when it lost by 10 at Ohio State.
The sport is about to usher in its third No. 1 . . . in a week.
Ohio State was undefeated and top ranked Saturday, when it blew a 15-point lead at Wisconsin.
“The goal of this basketball team as we set out was not to go undefeated,” Coach Thad Matta said after the game.
No team has gone undefeated since Indiana in 1976, so losing now was maybe the best thing that could have happened.
The Buckeyes’ bobble somehow convinced voters in the meaningless weekly polls to prop up flimsy Kansas, which basked in the top spot for several hours before it allowed Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen to become player of the week.
Kansas Coach Bill Self had a firm grip on the situation when he accessed Pullen’s performance: “He had 38 points on national TV against a team that did not deserve to be ranked No.1 in the country.”
Self did not answer the question: Who does?
Not knowing what’s going to happen next is actually the fun part, to the point where you almost wonder if it’s even worth being a top-seeded team this year. The top-liners have to play the 8-vs.-9 winner in round three, which this year could include one of 11 Big East teams or any number of buzz saws.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s expert “bracketologist,” right now has Pittsburgh as a regional No. 1 meeting the winner of UCLA-George Mason.
The reward for Texas, another projected regional No. 1, could be … St. Mary’s.
Smith, asked what impact the expanded tournament format would have on selection and seeding, summoned his years of experience on the committee to provide an intellectual answer.
“It eventually all shakes out,” he said.
The same NCAA that renamed Division I-A the Football Bowl Subdivision and Division I-AA the Football Championship Subdivision is messing with your NCAA brackets. The South Regional this year will be the Southeast Regional because it’s in New Orleans and the Midwest with be the Southwest because the regional is in San Antonio. Anaheim will stay in the “West” and Newark, N.J., the “East.”
The designations will return to East-West-South-Midwest format next year when the regional sites are Boston, Phoenix, Atlanta and St. Louis.
Tournament school names that may ring a bell: UCLA, Arizona and North Carolina, storied programs that missed last season’s field, are all tracking strongly toward March. Ben Howland’s UCLA Bruins, after a 3-4 start, have won nine of 10 and are 18-7 entering this weekend’s Bay Area swing.
Pac-10 leader Arizona (21-4, 10-2) is tournament bound after having its 26-year tournament streak snapped last year.
North Carolina, two years removed from a national title but only one year removed from the NIT, may be the team you least want to face in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels (19-6), who have found their footing following the mid-semester exodus of guard Larry Drew, have won 12 of 14 after a 7-4 start.
Harvard, coached by former Duke star Tommy Amaker, is 18-4 overall and 7-1 in conference headed into this week’s road swing against Cornell and Columbia.