Saturday afternoon brought a tempting first look at a bracket. Then a number of those teams that were seeded by the selection committee went on to lose hours later. Hey, that’s the fluid nature of college basketball’s season and a reminder that a lot will change between now and Selection Sunday, which is exactly one month away.
Here are my top 10 takeaways from a lovely Valentine’s Day weekend in college hoops.
What to know: Bracket reveal
The Division I Basketball Selection Committee’s top 16 reveal from Saturday afternoon offers up a few tidbits to keep in mind. As a refresher, here was the top 16. Twelve of these 16 teams played over the weekend, going a combined 8-4.
1. Gonzaga 2. Baylor 3. Michigan 4. Ohio State 5. Illinois 6. Villanova 7. Alabama 8. Houston 9. Virginia 10. West Virginia 11. Tennessee 12. Oklahoma 13. Iowa 14. Texas Tech 15. Texas 16. Missouri
Although the committee is using S-curve principles to build the bracket this season (geography isn’t a factor because the entire tournament will be in Indiana), it’s vital to remember that there are bracketing procedures that preclude high-end conference opponents from meeting prior to the Sweet 16. And if two teams from the same league have met three times prior to the Big Dance, they’re not allowed to meet prior to the Elite Eight. So the committee had to split up five Big 12 teams, four Big Ten teams and three SEC teams into different regions because teams across the top four seed lines cannot be in the same region — that’s an NCAA rule — unless a league has more teams than regions in the top 16. That’s why the Big 12 (five teams) was forced to have two in the same region (No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 4 Texas in Region 2).
The highest-ranked team on average across all six NCAA metrics that did not make the list: USC, now 13th at KenPom and 15th in the NET.
Consider that the Big Ten had three of the top five seeds. With Villanova’s loss on Saturday, it’s looking all the more likely that the conference can have two No. 1s next month.
Great news for Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and Ohio State fans: In the previous three years of the February bracket reveal that later had an NCAA Tournament (2017-19), three of the four No. 1 seeds in February held the top line in March. (While there was no 2020 NCAA Tournament, the projections last year also kept this pattern.) And in the three previous years we did have a tournament, one of the four No. 1 seeds in February went on to win the national title: North Carolina in 2017, Villanova in 2018, Virginia in 2019.
If the top 16 looked strange to you, well, you wouldn’t be wrong. It was undeniably lacking big-brand presence. Only four schools seeded have won an NCAA Tournament: Michigan, Ohio State, Villanova, Virginia.
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Michigan capsizes Wisconsin
The No. 3 Wolverines waited 23 days between games, got down by 14 on the road against a ranked team and then managed to double-up No. 21 Wisconsin 40-20 in the second half en route to a 67-59 win. That was impressive. In fact, it’s probably Michigan’s most impressive win this season, which it closed with a 13-2 run. Juwan Howard’s team didn’t make the committee look bullish for slotting them No. 3 overall. Considering this was a standalone Sunday game, it only enhances the Wolverines’ profile overall as well. This is objectively the third-best team in college basketball.
Allow me to gush about that second half performance, as the collective defensive showing sliced away at a double-digit Wisconsin lead (Brad Davison’s flagrant for an inadvertent elbow didn’t help Bucky). Hunter Dickinson, Isaiah Livers, Chaundee Brown, Franz Wagner and Eli Brooks held UW to just under 0.62 points per possession in the second half. Totally turned off Wisconsin’s water. The Badgers fell off a cliff in the second half, shooting 25% and scoring a mere 20 points while shooting 1 of 13 from 3-point range.
Dickinson had 11 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. He’s a top-five freshman in the nation. Livers had a game-high 20 points, but Dickinson’s play signified why Michigan can win a national title. He is special. One last thing: As much as I’d like to credit Dickinson’s play entirely, the fact is there’s no excuse for Wisconsin bigs Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers to finish with zero rebounds. That should never happen.
Two-bid Valley? It’s still alive
If you’re the type to root for small conferences to earn at-large bids, then the Missouri Valley is the league for you this year. No. 22 Loyola Chicago and Drake wound up splitting their series this weekend, boosting both teams’ at-large cases in the process. It was the best possible situation for the Valley. On Saturday, Loyola Chicago steamrolled its way to an 81-54 road win over the Bulldogs. On Sunday, Drake again was at home and won a slugfest, holding on 51-50 in overtime to improve to 20-2 and notch its first Quadrant 1 win.
Here’s why it’s so meaningful for Drake: The Bulldogs got this win despite not having their best player. Tank Hemphill is Drake’s leading scorer and rebounder. He recently had surgery on his left foot. He’ll be out, minimally, until the start of the NCAA Tournament. So this was huge. Loyola Chicago and Drake are now both 1-1 in the top quadrant with both those results having coming against the other. The Ramblers sit at 18-4. They started the day 10th in the NET, while Drake was 40th. I’d venture Loyola-Chicago will still be among the top 20 on Monday morning, while Drake will move back into the top 35. It’s vital both of these teams don’t lose again prior to the Missouri Valley Tournament, which will start in just over two weeks’ time.
A new Creighton emerges?
Creighton’s insistent 86-70-win over No. 5 Villanova was the Bluejays’ best win this season and an emphatic proclamation. When we discussed the Jays in the preseason as a potential equal to Villanova in the Big East, this is the team we had in mind. Turns out being an underdog on their home floor is all the motivation the team needed.
“We’ve been the hunted, really, for a month,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said Saturday night. “We’ve been probably the favorite in every game we’ve been ranked. So everybody has a little extra motivation — during a year where it’s kind of tough to find motivation — to play us. Today, we got to play a top-five team in the country and it gave, I think, us a little more juice.”
Star guard Marcus Zegarowski also finally had his statement game. The preseason Big East Player of the Year had knee surgery last spring, then was out again for six weeks in October and November. In January, another short setback (hamstring) hampered him. Zegarowski’s just about healthy now, and lookie here: a season-high 25 points. If this is what Creighton can bank on more nights than not going forward, this team has a Final Four ceiling.
As for Villanova, you take the bruising loss and move on. The biggest impact the game had on the Wildcats, as far as I can tell, is that they will probably have to win out in order to have a shot at a No. 1 seed.
Weekend’s best game: Oklahoma-West Virginia
Just because a mid-February game between two ranked teams doesn’t have either 1-seed or bubble-type consequences doesn’t mean it can’t be significant. No. 12 Oklahoma went into No. 14 West Virginia and pulled off a 91-90 double-overtime win to improve to 13-5 and take sole possession of second place in the feisty Big 12. Five Sooners, led by Austin Reaves, scored in double figures. Reaves posted 28 points along with nine rebounds and seven assists. For OU to overcome 29 points from WVU’s Derek Culver — in addition to five 3-pointers from Sean McNeil — and to do this on the road? Great sign. So remember this one month from today (Selection Sunday): Oklahoma has tasty potential to be a premier Final Four sleeper.
Ayo Dosunmu’s building an intriguing case vs. Luka Garza for player of the year.
Can Ayo catch Luka?
We’ve reached a stage where this needs to, at the very least, be a friendly debate. Luka Garza was the near-consensus pick for college hoops’ best player in the preseason. And it’s true he’s still the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. But he’s got at least two players chasing him, one of those guys also being someone nipping at Garza’s heels in his own league: Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu. The No. 5 Illini needed OT to win 77-72 at Nebraska on Friday night. If not for Dosunmu, Illinois takes its worst loss of the season. He scored the team’s final 10 points in regulation and its first five in OT to almost-single handedly beat Nebraska and keep Illinois as the highest-rated No. 2 seed, according to the selection committee.
Dosunmu’s a stud, the kind of player great enough to lift his team to a national title. He’s also averaging better than 20/5/5, and if he keeps those averages he’ll be the first Big Ten player to do that since Ohio State’s Evan Turner pulled it off 11 years ago. (When Turner did it he won National Player of the Year.)
Dosunmu’s heroic effort came a night before Garza had a fairly quiet day in Iowa’s 30-point win at mediocre Michigan State: eight points, eight rebounds, three assists. Illinois is 14-5 and alone in second place in the Big Ten. Iowa is 15-6 and tied for fourth. Statistically, here’s how the two match up. Garza is the pick right now, but it’s a legitimate race with three weeks of regular season ball remaining.
Virginia quietly entering 1-seed territory
Saturday closed with another intriguing matchup as we waited to see whether bubbly North Carolina could keep it close vs. No. 9 Virginia. Nope. For the fourth time this season UVA held an opponent under 50 points: Cavaliers 60, Tar Heels 48. Virginia has played UNC more times than any opponent (144) and has never won seven straight games against the Tar Heels — until now.
The Wahoos were a No. 3 seed as of Saturday morning, per the committee. But at 15-3 (11-1 ACC) and clearly standing as the best team in that conference, Tony Bennett’s club has a shot to get a No. 1 seed should it get to Selection Sunday with no more than four losses. It’s looking possible.
For 12-7 North Carolina, it’s on a game-by-game basis going forward with its tournament fate. The Tar Heels had their upcoming Tuesday game vs. Virginia Tech postponed, so the ACC will try to shift things around for the Heels if it can. Otherwise, UNC won’t play again until next Saturday vs. Louisville.
Weekend’s most cherished power win: UConn
UConn has been hampered by significant injuries all season long. Akok Akok is the team’s best defender; he’s played four games. Highly touted freshman Andre Jackson has missed seven. The biggest blow has been James Bouknight’s absence since Jan. 5. The future NBA pick is UConn’s most valuable player. Entering the weekend, UConn was 5-1 with him and 3-4 without him. He wasn’t available for the roadie against 10-2 Xavier on Saturday, either.
Somewhat amazingly, that wound up not mattering as Dan Hurley’s team won 80-72 and landed its second Quad 1 victory of the season. The 9-5 Huskies are still on the outside of the bracket and looking in as of now. But if Bouknight can return for next Saturday’s game against Villanova (as I think he will), then UConn has a healthy shot at not just playing itself back into the NCAA Tournament convo but also becoming a dark horse to win the Big East Tournament title.
Tennessee, Mizzou too shaky to trust
Tennessee no longer gets to use the “undefeated with Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson healthy” line. The Volunteers were never in it on the road vs. LSU, losing 78-65 and enabling the Tigers to make 20 of their 31 shots from 2-point range (64.5%), which is an affront to a team that for weeks has held the top ranking in defense at KenPom. Tennessee’s offense failed to average at least 1.0 points per possession for the eighth game this season. (Troubling.)
Elsewhere in the SEC, Arkansas knocked off Missouri on the road. It was the Razorbacks’ first win over an NCAA Tournament-level team. For Mizzou, more reason to fade the Tigers. It was their third loss in six games. The Tigers were projected as a No. 4 seed two hours before this game began, but obviously that would not have been the case had this game been decided prior to Saturday. Mizzou is a 5 at best now. Odd but true: Alabama is the only SEC team worth trusting in your bracket next month.
At least Hogs coach Eric Musselman finally had another reason to take off his shirt again.
Another team voluntarily ends its season
Let’s close with this because we’re going to see more of it. Maine quietly ended its season Saturday after having played just nine games in almost three months. As I mentioned recently on the Eye on College Basketball podcast, sources around college hoops in recent weeks have told me they expect a handful of opt-outs before we get to March. We’ve had a few in Division I women’s basketball already (with more potentially to come), and now on the men’s side there are three: Maine, Howard and Chicago State. New Mexico debated it as well before choosing to continue. As more teams with bad records struggle to hit the finish line, don’t be surprised if the number of teams that bail on the season do so before their last scheduled game.