The NCAA tournament is comprised of 67 games over 20 days and, unlike the college bowl season, all 67 matter. Some, however, will matter more than others. Today we offer a list of the 10 games in this Big Dance — some scheduled, others projected — that rise to the level of truly significant.
Round 1, West Regional, 9:10 p.m. Tuesday: BYU versus Iona. Nobody paid much attention when VCU met Southern Cal in the First Four last year. Then VCU, whose mere presence in the field was a source of some ridicule, took down five teams from BCS leagues in 11 days. VCU is back this season — more about the Rams in a bit — but the mid-major at-large selection triggering the most buzz is Iona.
The Gaels, who are 25-7, were upset in the Metro Atlantic tournament semis by Fairfield, and their worksheet wasn’t without holes. (They’d beaten Maryland but had lost to Hofstra, which finished 11th in the 12-team Colonial, which is VCU’s league.) The belief was that Drexel, which won 27 games and finished first in the Colonial, was the most deserving of the mid-majors, but Iona, with a far better non-conference strength of schedule, got the nod. Now Iona gets to prove it belongs, and it isn’t as if the Gaels have never produced a major basketball figure: Before he moved to North Carolina State, Jim Valvano coached Iona.
Round 2, East Regional, 4:45 p.m. Thursday: Vanderbilt versus Harvard. Is this the NCAA tournament or the GE College Bowl? (Sorry. Obligatory smart-school joke.) Harvard’s only previous appearance in the Big Dance came in 1946, and back then the NIT was actually considered the bigger dance. Vandy is coming off its first SEC tournament championship since 1951, and it had to beat No. 1 Kentucky to do it. But did the giddiness expressed after that victory — coach Kevin Stallings wept — presage yet another comedown?
Vandy hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2007, and its past three defeats were administered by Siena, Murray State and Richmond. (Siena was a No. 12 seed; the other two were No. 13’s.) And Harvard is no slouch as a No. 12: It was 3-1 against teams from the Big Six conferences, losing to Connecticut but beating Florida State.
Round 2, South Regional, 7:15 p.m. Thursday: Wichita State versus VCU. Just when you think the NCAA committee would have cause — Butler and VCU did make the 2011 Final Four — to be kind to mid-majors, they schedule a game like this. Before being upset by Illinois State in the Missouri Valley semis, Wichita State had won 17 of 18. VCU has itself won 17 of 18, and the loss was on a last-second shot at George Mason.
The Rams aren’t believed to be as good as they were a year ago, but their No. 12 seed did them no favors. (VCU has six losses. Texas, which has 13 losses, is a No. 11 seed.) Either Wichita State or VCU is fully capable of beating fourth-seeded Indiana in Round 3 — that’s assuming the Hoosiers get past New Mexico State in Round 2 — but one worthy mid-major is guaranteed to be gone on the first full night of tournament play. This is awful bracketing. But it should be one heck of a game.
Round 2, Midwest Regional, 3:15 p.m. Friday: Georgetown versus Belmont. This matchup was seen in the 2007 NCAA tournament, and the Hoyas won 80-55. But Georgetown had Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green and was en route to the Final Four, and that was before we started taking Belmont seriously. One game the next March changed that: The 15th-seeded Bruins led second-seeded Duke inside the final 20 seconds, whereupon Gerald Henderson swooped through the lane to save the Blue Devils.
The recent history of Belmont basketball has been of such “almosts.” The Bruins lost by two points at Tennessee in December 2008, by one point in Knoxville in December 2010, by one point to Duke in Cameron last November. Belmont just won the Atlantic Sun in its farewell lap — it joins the Ohio Valley Conference next season — and rallied from 13 points behind in the final to beat Florida Gulf Coast. Rick Byrd and his plucky Bruins are going to unhorse some high-falutin’ team someday. Friday might be that day.
Round 3, South Regional (projected): Kentucky versus UConn. It’s often said that the committee doesn’t like rematches. Don’t believe it. These teams met in the 2011 Final Four, the Huskies winning by a point. (If the seedings hold in the South, Duke and Kentucky would play in the regional final 20 years after playing in a rather memorable regional final.) A UK-UConn game in Louisville would become the focal point of Saturday programming, wouldn’t you say?
The variable here is UConn. The reigning champ is overseeded at No. 9, having gone 20-13 and 8-10 in the Big East. Jim Calhoun missed three games due to NCAA suspension and eight more dealing with spinal stenosis, and there’s growing sentiment that this is it for the man who has taken three national titles. Calhoun turns 70 in May, and UConn is ineligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament due to its failure to meet academic progress standards. It’s hard to imagine Calhoun slogging through next season without hope of a turn in the Big Dance.
Round 3, East Regional (projected), Sunday: Florida State versus Cincinnati. The Seminoles had their weekend of deliverance in Philips Arena, beating Duke in the semis and North Carolina in the finals to claim their first ACC tournament title. If you can beat Duke and Carolina — and FSU is 4-1 against those two this season — you’ve become basketball royalty.
FSU has finally found an offense to match its defense, but Cincinnati would put that discovery to the test. The Bearcats beat Georgetown and Syracuse en route to the Big East final, where they managed only 14 first-half points against Louisville. As tough as FSU is, Cincy has shown some steel of its own. The fallout from its December brawl with Xavier would have crushed some teams, but coach Mick Cronin sounded the absolute right tone — he offered no excuses — and his Bearcats responded. This wouldn’t be a pretty game to watch, but it would reward watching.
West Regional semifinal (projected), March 22: Michigan State versus New Mexico. The cornerstone of Tom Izzo’s program is toughness, and these Spartans are tough enough to reach the Final Four. But Steve Alford’s Lobos closed fast — they’ve won 12 of 14 — to tie for first in the Mountain West and then beat UNLV and San Diego State to claim the tournament title. They’ve got a good big man in Drew Gordon, one of many who signed with UCLA and then left, and their defense, as coordinated by Georgia Tech grad Craig Neal, is unyielding. This could be the first game that truly shakes the 2012 NCAA tournament.
Midwest Regional final (projected), March 25: North Carolina versus Kansas. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Roy Williams used to work in Lawrence. When last the teams met in the NCAA tournament, Ol’ Roy and his gifted Heels trailed 40-12 in the 2008 Final Four en route to an 84-66 loss. These Jayhawks are the best of the No. 2 seeds, and they could beat the Heels again if John Henson’s wrist hasn’t healed. And maybe even if it has.
Final Four semi (projected), March 31: North Carolina versus Syracuse. The draw did the Orange no favors. Syracuse could face Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16 and either Ohio State or Florida State in the regional final, and it’s not as if the ‘Cuse has been a March lock of late. Since Carmelo Anthony and Co. won six NCAA games to take the 2003 title, Syracuse is 7-6 in the Big Dance. But this was the nation’s second-best team over the four-month regular season, and a matchup with ACC-brother-to-be Carolina would be delicious.
National championship (projected), April 2: Kentucky versus North Carolina. These are the nation’s two winningest programs, and they were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in preseason polls. (Carolina was first.) When they met Dec. 3 in Rupp Arena, UK’s Anthony Davis blocked Henson’s shot to preserve a one-point victory. There could be no better final pairing than this.
By Mark Bradley