We’re 20 days from Selection Sunday, 22 days from the beginning of an NCAA tournament. By the Ides of March, we’ll know where Georgia’s going to play in the Big Dance, and we’ll know if Georgia Tech is in the hunt for a new coach. And if you read on, you might even have some inkling as to who’s going to win it all in Houston.
Best team at full strength: Duke, with a caveat. The Devils haven’t been at full strength for 2 1/2 months and mightn’t be again. They lost point guard Kyrie Irving to a toe injury, and coach Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t expect the freshman to return this season. (And if Irving doesn’t return to Duke this season, he won’t. Toe or no, he’ll be among the first five players drafted in June.) Duke can get to the Final Four without Irving, but winning an NCAA title without his biggest talent might be beyond even the great Krzyzewski.
Best team if Irving doesn’t return: Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes have lost two of their past three games. Ohio State entered the 2010 NCAA as the best No. 2 seed but flopped in the Sweet Sixteen because it had scads of guard but no inside presence. In freshman Jared Sullinger, it now has the best inside presence in the land. The Buckeyes lost Evan Turner, the guard who was the 2010 college player of the year, to the NBA a year early and have actually gotten better.
Teams that are tempting me: Kansas and Pittsburgh. I have picked these two to reach the Final Four and been wrong so many times I have sworn never to pick them again. And I won’t. (This time I will not succumb to the siren song of the Jayhawk!) But they’re both really good. Which is the point. KU and Pitt always look good right up until the time they get beat.
The most admirable team that won’t win the NCAA title: Purdue was positioned to be a No. 1 seed last season but lost leading scorer Robbie Hummel to a knee injury. He tore the same ligament again on the second day of practice, and still the Boilermakers are 22-5 and jockeying for a No. 2 seed. Matt Painter is your coach of the year.
The Jimmer Factor: He’ll surely be the college player of the year, and he’s projected as a top 10 pick by nbadraft.net. He’s Jimmer Fredette, and he’s best BYU guard (or player) since Danny Ainge. And we Atlantans have cause to recall Ainge leaving a major imprint on an NCAA tournament — against Notre Dame in 1981 at the old Omni. Ask Digger Phelps about it.
This year’s Butler: It’s George Mason, which was the original Butler. Mason has won 13 in a row and handled Northern Iowa, which felled Kansas in Round 2 last March, on the road on BracketBuster weekend. And if you’re interested in scouting the Patriots, they play at Georgia State on Feb. 26.
A scary low seed, provided it gets in: Morehead State has a good young coach in Donnie Tyndall and a good big man in Kenneth Faried and has won nine in a row. At issue: The Eagles will have to win the Ohio Valley Conference to merit an invitation. If they do, they’ll be one tough 15th seed.
This year’s Big Hype: I bought into the Big East blather the last couple of seasons. I don’t this time. Joe Lunardi of ESPN has 11 Big East teams making the NCAA, but I’m not sure any will make the Final Four. I’m not sure Florida isn’t as good as the best team in the Big East. That said …
Georgia could have big fun before the Big Dance: Last week we wondered if the Bulldogs might miss the NCAA tournament, but winning at Tennessee all but puts them in. And once in, Georgia figures to be a tough out. But the regular season isn’t done: Florida leads the East by two games over Vanderbilt and by three over UGA and Kentucky, but the Gators must play the Bulldogs, then at Kentucky, then Alabama, then at Vandy. And forward Chandler Parsons has a bruised thigh and might miss the Georgia game Thursday. A race that doesn’t appear tight could get that way.
Tech’s day of decision: The ACC championship game will be played March 13. The Institute is obliged to notify Paul Hewitt 30 days before April 15 — by my count, March 16 is the cutoff — if it doesn’t plan to roll over his contract. The belief here is that the only way he returns next season is by reaching the NCAA tournament, which means Tech must win the ACC. And before you say, “Fat chance,” note that Georgia similarly saved Dennis Felton by winning the SEC over four tornado-tossed days in 2008.
Promotional note: Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco will, you’ll be sorry to learn, return this March, and the 24th edition will be bigger than the 23rd, which was the biggest ever. You again will be entered to win cash money through our Upickem affiliation, and the Fiasco champion will receive, in addition to the low-tech Final Four Sweatshirt, a 32GB iPad with Wifi and 3G capability, plus a case for said iPad. The second- and third-place winners will receive a 32GB iPod Touch.
And, just for entering, you’ll receive my heartfelt gratitude, which I’d like to think has a value beyond compare.
By Mark Bradley