Apparently Everyone At ESPN Favors the Spartans

GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 14: Rasheed Sulaimon #14 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts against the Clemson Tigers during the quarterfinals of the 2014 Men's ACC Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 14, 2014 in Greensboro, North Carolina - Streeter Lecka

In the stock market and in sports that usually means get the hell out of the way.

I see that the talking heads at ESPN have already awarded the 2014 NCAA championship to Michigan State.

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And I'm not just talking about one talking head … I'm talking about all of them -- from Jay Bilas to Dick Vitale to Seth Greenberg to Digger Phelps to Jason Williams. Listening to the post-bracket show Sunday night, I did not hear one dissenting or skeptical voice. Every single ESPN "expert" picked Michigan State to win the tournament.

I haven't heard that kind of unanimity since UNLV entered the 1992 tournament unbeaten, untested and seemingly invincible.

How'd that work out for the Runnin' Rebels?

There have been years when certain teams have appeared to be head and shoulders above the rest of the field. North Carolina was clearly the nation's best team in 2009, although there were pre-tourney concerns about Ty Lawson's toe injury. Just last season, Louisville appeared to be a notch above everybody else after a few bumps early in the season. I can remember Roy Williams' best Kansas team in 1997 entering the tournament as a strong favorite. Kentucky in '95. Duke in '99. Duke in '92.

A fair percentage of those favorites ended up winning it all, although it was often very, very close (remember Duke's narrow victory over Kentucky in '92?). Of course, there were stumbles too - Kansas in '97 didn't make the Final Four … Duke in '99 lost a heartbreaker to UConn in the title game.

But one thing all those strong pre-tourney favorites had in common - they were all No. 1 seeds. In fact, all of the teams I mentioned were also No. 1 both major polls entering the tournament.

Michigan State is a No. 4 seed. And the Spartans are not top 10 in either major poll. They are not even top 10 in the RPI.

Yet, that's the prohibitive pre-tournament favorite?

Look, don't get me wrong. I think Michigan State -- despite its seeding, its 26-8 record (exactly the same as Duke), its modest rankings (11 in the AP and 13 by the coaches) and so-so RPI (No. 18) -- is a Final Four and even a championship contender. Obviously, the record (and with it the seed and the rankings) is somewhat shaped by the rash of injuries. And with the team now healthy, Tom Izzo's veteran squad is in position to make a deep tournament run.

But does that make the Spartans the pre-tourney favorite over a Florida team that has been unbeaten for the last three months? I can understand the skepticism about unbeaten Wichita State (since I share it), but I think Arizona and maybe even Louisville (another No. 4 seed) have better chances than Michigan State. Heck, if Kansas has a healthy Joel Embid back by the Sweet 16 (although that seems like a longshot), I'd prefer the Jayhawks.

Part of the MSU hysteria is the love for Tom Izzo and the widespread perception that he's a master postseason coach. His admirers focus on his six Final Fours since his rise to prominence in 1998. That is an impressive stat and Izzo is an excellent postseason coach.

But you know what? Over the same span, Coach K has more NCAA wins (42 to 40), a better NCAA winning percentage (75.0 percent to 72.7 percent), more Sweet 16 appearances 13 to 11) and, of course, more titles - two (2001 and 2010) to one (2000).

Of course, that's just since 1998. If we take the whole career, K has two extra titles and seven extra Final Fours from the pre-1998 era.

K also has a 7-1 head-to-head record against Michigan State's Izzo, including a relatively decisive 71-61 victory over the Spartans in last year's Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.

As good as K's record is against Izzo, it's not quite as good as Roy Williams' 7-0 mark - which includes a lopsided 79-65 victory early this season in East Lansing … when the Spartans were 100 percent healthy.

So, while I respect Michigan State's chances and consider them a contender for the national title, forgive me if I don't anoint the Spartans as champions - or even favorites - before the tournament begins.

STICK WITH THE NO. 1 SEEDS

So who should be the favorite for the 2014 championship?

I would suggest sticking with the No. 1 seeds, although it might be worth looking for a dark horse in the No. 3 seeds.

A lot is made of the fact that in recent years less than half of the No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four. That's true - over the last four years, just three No. 1s have become Final Four teams. Just 20 of the 56 Final Four teams in this century have been No. 1 seeds.

But what you don't often hear talked about is how many champions are No. 1 seeds.

Those three No. 1 seeds from the last four years to make the Final Four? Every one of them won the championship (Duke in 2010, Kentucky in 2012 and Louisville in 2013). Would you believe that six of the last seven champions were No. 1 seeds? It's also 10 of the last 14 champions.

The most recent exceptions were No. 3 UConn in 2012, No. 3 Florida in 2006, No. 2 UConn in 2004 and No. 3 Syracuse in 2003.

That's three No. 3 seeds with championships in this century - maybe a good sign for No. 3 seed Duke?

Still, the evidence suggests that the champion will be a No. 1 seed.

The trick is picking the right No. 1.

Don't pick Wichita State.

I'm sorry. The Shockers are a great story and deserve considerable credit for their unbeaten regular season, but you can't ignore that it came against one of the weakest schedules any contender has ever played. I know that Wichita State reached the Final Four last year, but that was a different team (Gregg Marshall had to replace three starters and a top sub). If Wichita State gets past the Sweet 16 I'll be (wheat) shocked … and I promise to apologize on this forum.

I feel a little better about Virginia. The Cavs are a tough, smart team playing great defense. Plus, they play a slow tempo and a halfcourt game that usually works well in the NCAA. I'm a little worried about their lack of tournament experience - not one player on this team has appeared in an NCAA Tournament game.

I feel better still about Arizona. I think the Wildcats were the best team in the country before losing power forward Brandon Ashley. Since then they've been a bit vulnerable. I love Nick Johnson and we all know that Aaron Gordon is a great freshman. They also have an odd bracket - maybe the toughest second game of any legitimate contender, but smooth sailing after that. So I could see them losing to Oklahoma State in the Round of 32, but if they get by that one, I think they are a lock for the Final Four.

Then there is Florida. Has there ever been a No. 1 team getting less respect?

These guys lost a close game at Wisconsin in November and a one-point game at UConn Dec. 2 - and have won 26 straight since then. Okay, a lot of that was against the weak SEC, but the streak started with victories over Kansas and Memphis and included wins over eight NCAA tournament teams. Keep in mind that SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin didn't play at Wisconsin (he was suspended for the first five games for off-court issues). He had just rejoined the team for the UConn loss.

This is a wonderfully balanced team with firepower from Wilbekin and Michael Frazier on the perimeter, strength down low with Patric Young and Virginia Tech transfer Dorien Finney-Smith and All-American caliber play on the wing by 6-6 Casey Prather. Plus they have a coach who's been there before - Billy Donovan has two titles (2006, 2007) and a runnerup (2000) on his resume.

If you put a gun to my head and demanded I project the 2014 national champion, I'd pick Florida.

But while I think they are the favorite, I don't think they are the prohibitive favorite. Lots of teams could win it, including several that aren't top seeds.

You'd think that with all the basketball expertise on the ESPN set, at least one guy would have picked Florida as the favorite.

THE SHAPE OF THE TOURNAMENT

This year's NCAA Tournament is weird because of some oddly seeded powerhouse teams.

That's not a knock on the selection committee. It's just an unusual season.

Michigan State, as we mentioned, could have been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but because of injuries fell to a No. 4 seed. Oklahoma State is good enough to be a No. 2 or a No. 3, but they lost seven straight games at midseason and wound up with a well-deserved No. 9.

Okie State reminds me of Maryland in 2001. The Terps went into a midseason tailspin after losing the "Gone in 55 seconds" game to Duke. They entered the tournament with 10 losses and a very generous No. 3 seed … then reached the Final Four.

There's preseason No. 1 Kentucky with its dreams of going 40-0. The young Wildcats stumbled to a No. 8 seed, but still possess as much talent as any team in the country. There's North Carolina with a road victory over a healthy Michigan State, a neutral court victory over Louisville and home wins over Duke and Kentucky. But the Heels also have homecourt losses to Belmont and Miami. UNC's No. 6 seed seems about right, but they've proved they can beat anybody on a given night.

Again, I'm not saying those seedings are wrong, based on body of work-- just that those are some awfully dangerous teams lurking lower in the brackets.

Allow me to examine the two greatest post-announcement seeding controversies - Louisville at No. 4 and SMU's exclusion from the field.

The answer to what happened in both cases is an old one: Strength of schedule.

Match each of those two teams with its more fortunate counterpart.

Let's look at Louisville … and Virginia.

Most experts expected a No. 2 seed for the Cards … maybe a No. 1. On Sunday morning, Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm, the two most prominent bracketologists, both had Virginia as a No. 3 seed. Neither was talking about the Cavs getting a No. 1 … and certainly not ahead of Louisville.

But look at the two resumes closely. The records are similar and so are the top 50 and top 100 wins. Neither has a bad loss. But Virginia's overall strength of schedule was No. 26 and the Cavs' non-conference strength of schedule (the infamous "Who you choose to play") was No. 28. Louisville's strength of schedule was No. 95 and its non-conference strength of schedule was a pedestrian No. 161.

The same thing happens when you match SMU, projected by most bracketologists to be in the field, with N.C. State, projected by almost nobody to make the tournament.

SMU (23-9) had a slightly better record than N.C. State (21-13) and was one spot higher in the RPI rankings. But the Mustangs had just four top 100 wins and a 135 SOS … and a dreadful 303 non-conference strength of schedule. N.C. State's SOS was 23 and its non-conference SOS a solid 87.

True, the Pack had just three top 50 wins (although all were away from home), but with six top 100 wins, N.C. State had more good wins than SMU.

It's clear that whatever inconsistencies mar the committee's work, the 10 executives who draw up the field have held relatively firm to the principle of demanding a strong strength of schedule. A year ago, Virginia missed the field despite 21 win wins on Selection Sunday and an 11-7 ACC record. The culprit was a non-conference strength of schedule near 300.

That's a lesson that Seth Greenberg would never learn - even though I know that all during the era when his Virginia Tech teams barely missed the field, for year after year, ACC officials were begging him to strength his non-conference schedule.

It seems like this year at least, the professional bracketologists were as boneheaded as Mr. Greenberg.

THE ACC VS. THE ATLANTIC 10

Mike Krzyzewski stirred up a small controversy Saturday when he suggested that the ACC deserved more bids than the A-10.

At the time, it looked like the ACC would get five bids and the A-10 would get six. As it turned out, both leagues got six bids. On paper, that looks fair - considering that the ACC and A-10 split 16 head-to-head matchups this season evenly. In the RPI report, the ACC is the fifth-rated conference and the A-10 is sixth.

But that's an illusion, just as the Mountain West benefited from a similar illusion a year ago. I wrote about it at the time, about how the mid-major league had inflated its status with some clever scheduling. The conference managed to get a lot of its teams ranked in the RPI top 50 - therefore, a lot of Mountain West teams ended up with a lot of top 50 wins. Of course, the MWC did almost nothing outside the conference to justify its status.

The Mountain West got five bids last season. Those five NCAA teams combined for a 2-5 tournament record. The league's best team, New Mexico (a No. 3 seed) was eliminated by No. 14 seed Harvard in its opening game. The league's second-best team -- San Diego State - won its first game, but was eliminated in the round of 32 by No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast. No. 5 seed UNLV lost to No. 12 California. Boise State lost a play-in game to LaSalle. Only Colorado State got crushed by a better seed, losing to No. 1 Louisville.

The Mountain West was a fraud in 2013.

And the Atlantic 10 is a fraud this season.

I actually think the top three teams - St. Louis, VCU and UMass - are solid teams. But it's funny that most commentators are predicting that N.C. State, the fifth team from the ACC, will beat St. Louis, the best team from the A-10, when the two teams meet Thursday in Orlando.

But, frankly, I have no problem with St. Louis, VCU and UMass in the tournament.

My problem - and I suspect Coach K's problem as well - is with Dayton, St. Joseph's and George Washington in the field ahead of ACC bubble teams Florida State and Clemson.

Forget for a moment that FSU routed VCU in Puerto Rico and defeated UMass on a semi-neutral court in Sunrise, Fla. The A-10 could counter with VCU's win at Virginia (a game the Cavs choked away) and UMass' victory over Clemson in Charleston, S.C.

The A-10 is like the 2013 Mountain West in that the league piled up a lot of top 50 wins by beating each other. The 13 teams of the A-10 have combined for exactly seven top 50 wins outside the league. UMass has four such wins - the other 12 teams have three between them.

According to the brackets, the A-10 should be favored to win three of its six opening games - No. 5 St. Louis over No. 12 N.C. State; No. 5 VCU over No. 12 Stephen F. Austin; No. 6 UMass over No. 11 Tennessee or Iowa. No. 9 George Washington has a toss-up game with No. 8 Memphis, while No. 10 St. Joseph's (vs. No. 7 UConn) and No. 12 Dayton (vs. No. 5 Ohio State) are underdogs.

According to the seedings, the A-10 should do no worse than 3-3 in its first games, maybe 4-2.

Let's see how they really do.

Just to be clear, it's not that I think Florida State and Clemson deserved at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament - just that the Seminoles and Tigers are, in my humble opinion, significantly stronger teams than the last three A-10 entries. I think if Florida State played in the A-10, the 'Noles would have run away with the league. And if Dayton, S. Joseph's and/or George Washington played in the ACC, they would have been playing in Wednesday's round of the ACC Tournament.

TOMORROW: THE ACC PROSPECTS

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