The late Jim Valvano was the ultimate tournament coach.
I don’t mean he was the BEST tournament coach (although he was pretty good), only that he came alive at tournament time. In his 10 seasons at N.C. State, Valvano won 65 percent of his regular season games. He won 70 percent in the NCAA Tournament.
Valvano’s catchphrase was “Survive and advance.”
For the most part, he lived up to that. With one exception.
In 1988, his Wolfpack was seeded No. 3 in the Midwest Region. Valvano didn’t mind that – what he objected to was a bracket that had him playing a very underseeded Kansas team in the second round.
I can still recall the press conference that Monday at Reynolds Coliseum. Valvano, usually the most relaxed and amiable of coaches, spent almost an hour bitching about the Selection Committee and N.C. State’s seeding. He pointed out that State and Kansas played frequently during that period – including an Elite Eight game in Kansas City that kept the Pack out of the 1986 Final Four.
Well, as it turned out, Valvano didn’t have to face Kansas after all.
N.C. State lost its first NCAA game to Murray State.
Kansas beat Murray State en route to Danny Manning’s improbable national title.
Since then, I’ve always maintained that coaches – or teams – that bitch about their brackets are going to go down. Dean Smith fell into that trap in 1989, when he loudly complained that Duke got the No. 2 seed in the East, while UNC was given the No. 2 in the South. You know what happened – UNC lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16, while Duke upset Georgetown and made it to the Final Four.
The only time I ever heard Mike Krzyzewski complain about his seeding was 1998, when Duke got a No. 1 seed for winning the ACC regular season title and had to start its tourney path in Lexington, Ky. The Devils didn’t lose in front of hostile Kentucky fans, but did come up short against Kentucky in St. Petersburg.
I was happy to see Coach K’s reaction to this year’s bracket – no complaints, no problems. When asked about the prospect of facing Oklahoma’s Trae Young in the second round, he claimed a total focus on first-round foe Iona.
That was in sharp contrast to Kentucky coach John Calipari, who took to twitter soon after the pairings announcement to rip the committee for matching his Wildcats against Arizona in the second round (with a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 1 Virginia looming).
He’s not wrong – but he was wrong to say it.
You can criticize any bracket. In his 34 NCAA trips, Coach K has gotten some favorable draws and some difficult and unfair draws. This year?
Well, let’s start by looking at the teams with a real chance to win the NCAA title. Understand, any of these teams can lose early and there are literally dozens of teams capable of winning a game or two – even against a tough team. But winning six games in a row?
I like these seven/eight teams (in no particular order):
- North Carolina
- Michigan State
I know I’m leaving off Xavier, Cincinnati, Purdue, Tennessee, Auburn, but that’s how I see it.
Frankly, I don’t understand how Michigan State is a No. 3 and Arizona is a No. 4.
The Spartans were 29-4, losing to Duke, Ohio State and Michigan twice. They beat North Carolina by about a million, Notre Dame (with Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell healthy) by another million and were on a 13-game winning streak before losing to Michigan in the Big 10 semifinals.
Arizona won 27 games and was the regular season and tournament champion in the Pac 12. A Kentucky fan pointed out that three of the six Power 6 champions are in the same half of the South bracket.
Time out for me to point out that Arizona is the scariest team in the field for the NCAA. Be clear about this – the allegations that ESPN made against head coach Sean Miller are NOT enough to warrant any penalties – not on a second-hand story on a network famous for getting the facts wrong. But, if the FBI does have a tape of Miller talking about paying a player and that tape comes out in the future – after, say, Arizona wins the national title – how will that look?
It would be two years in a row that the NCAA title went to a cheating program and the NCAA couldn’t do anything about it.
Back to topic.
Overall, I think Duke’s seed is fair – even if the Blue Devils do have to take on Trae Young in the second round. If the Blue Devils play well, they should beat Iona and either Seton Hall or Oklahoma. If they play poorly they could lose (probably not to Iona).
As for a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State, it may not happen (both teams have to go 2-0) and if it does, balance two factors: the Spartans are criminally underseeded; but Coach K owns Tom Izzo – 11-1 (including a win earlier this season).
But worry about that matchup – if it happens – a week from now.
Other tournament thoughts:
- Villanova has by far the easiest bracket. Oh, Collin Sexton could go bonkers in the second round, while West Virginia and No. 2 Purdue are dangerous teams, but compared to what the other No. 1s face, their path is easy.
- Virginia will be in real danger in the Sweet 16 against Arizona or Kentucky (luckily not both). But otherwise the bracket breaks clear for them.
- Xavier is toast. Either Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 or UNC-Michigan (whichever survives the bottom of the bracket) will come out of the West.
- Kansas has a cakewalk to the Elite Eight, where the Jayhawks are likely to face Duke or Michigan State. The showdown will come in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Kansas crowd in Omaha, but that doesn’t bother me as much as South Carolina’s homecourt edge a year ago. The Jayhawks EARNED the top seed – and the homecourt edge – unlike South Carolina, which was the poorer seeded team.
- The Midwest contains three of the top nine Kenpom teams, but not in the right order – No. 3 Duke, No. 6 Michigan State and No. 9 Kansas. Those are also the three teams with the longest active NCAA streaks – Kansas has been in the field 29 straight years (breaking the record held by UNC of 29 straight years between 1975 and 2001). Duke has 23 straight and Michigan State 21 straight.
- BTW: Coach K has led all 23 teams in Duke’s streak. That ties him with Dean Smith for the longest streak of NCAA appearances by a coach (Dean set the record between 1975 and 1997).
- The ACC got nine teams in the field – matching the conference record set a year ago. It might have been 10, but Notre Dame was the first team out. The Irish would have been in had Davidson not stolen a bid by edging Rhode Island in the A-10 title game.
- North Carolina got six teams in – Duke, N.C. State, UNC, Davidson, North Carolina Central and UNC Greensboro. That matches the most ever for the Old North State.
The NIT field was announced later Sunday night. It contains three ACC teams.
Notre Dame in the top seed in one region. That means the Irish will play three home games if they keep winning before going to New York for the semifinals. They open against Hampton.
Louisville is the No. 2 seed in another region. That means they get at least two home games. If top seed Baylor wins twice, the Cardinals will have to go to Texas for the quarterfinals. Louisville opens against Northern Kentucky.
Boston College is the No. 5 seed in a third region. The Eagles open on the road against Western Kentucky. If they win, they probably go to LA to face top seed Southern Cal. The only way BC can get a home games is if there are a lot of upsets in its bracket.
That means that 12 of the 15 ACC teams got postseason bids. Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Pitt missed.