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It’s Time to Fear Duke Again

The selection committee’s preliminary rankings bode well for the ACC — including the suddenly resurgent Blue Devils. Plus, sizing up best- and worst-case seeding scenarios for each of top 12 teams.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Last Saturday, the NCAA tournament selection committee threw some bread crumbs at those of us with an insatiable appetite for March Madness by releasing its list of what would have been the top four seeds in each region if the tournament had started this week. It was an entirely irrelevant exercise that has zero bearing on how teams will be seeded in the actual tourney, which is why I planned on ridiculing it and every sucker who was conned into caring about it. But I forgot one tiny detail: I am one of those suckers. In what should have come as no surprise, I got pretty heated when I saw that Gonzaga barely got a no. 1 seed, no Big Ten teams made the top 16 (to be fair, I was more upset at the Big Ten than the committee over that one), and Duke — whose players-only meeting a month ago should have been enough to warrant the no. 1 overall seed — was slotted at no. 16. I’ve since calmed down after remembering that none of this matters, but the NCAA had already achieved its goal: to get people like me to care about March Madness much sooner than necessary.

Since I find myself focused less on the basketball being played right now and more on the madness soon to come, the most powerful power rankings in college basketball will take on a different feel this week. I’ll highlight the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team in my top 12, as well as how much each looks like a legitimate national title threat.

Let’s get to it.

12. Florida (21–5)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: In December, Florida seemed destined to be the Xavier of the SEC — good enough to be considered a significant win for all the top teams it played, but not good enough to actually beat those teams. That’s since changed, as the Gators have won seven straight by an average of 24 points and control the SEC race thanks to — you guessed it — a players-only meeting. With matchups remaining against South Carolina and Kentucky, and with the SEC tournament looming, the no. 2 seed in the South is within reach.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: The only thing that could really hurt Florida’s résumé, which currently includes no indefensible losses, would be falling to Mississippi State on Saturday or getting upset in the first round of the SEC tournament. Assuming neither of those things happens, this season’s landscape suggests that Florida could lose all its other games until Selection Sunday and still comfortably be a no. 5 seed.

Current national-title-threat status: Stronger than Corey Brewer, but not as strong as Patric Young.

11. West Virginia (20–6)

Jevon Carter (Getty Images)
Jevon Carter (Getty Images)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that West Virginia would have helped its résumé had it not blown a 14-point lead in the final three minutes at Kansas on Monday. Still, the Mountaineers have wins over Kansas (at home), Baylor, and Virginia, and every one of their losses has come by seven points or fewer. A no. 1 seed seems out of reach, but with a game at Baylor and the Big 12 tournament on the horizon, West Virginia playing into a no. 2 seed isn’t out of the question.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: The committee had the Mountaineers pegged as a no. 4 seed (at no. 14 overall) before their loss to Kansas, so it’s anyone’s guess where they stand now. Will they get rewarded for kicking the Jayhawks’ asses for 37 minutes? Punished for how badly they choked that game away? Or some combination of both? If we’re to assume losing in any capacity means falling in the committee’s standings, West Virginia is probably a no. 5 seed at the moment, meaning a mini-slump to end the season may bring a slide down to a no. 6 seed.

Current national-title-threat status: Dan Dakich’s West Virginia tenure. It technically exists and I don’t mind acknowledging it, but you can’t make me take it seriously.

10. North Carolina (22–5)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: The committee clearly thinks highly of the ACC (and rightfully so), including five of its teams in last weekend’s top 16. With North Carolina in the conference’s driver’s seat, it stands to reason that the Tar Heels are in a great spot to secure a no. 1 seed should they stay on their current trajectory. That’s probably where the smart money is with regard to who’ll be the no. 1 seeds: Gonzaga, Villanova, Kansas (or possibly Baylor), and the winner of the ACC (assuming it doesn’t lose to a shitty team in the first round of the conference tournament).

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: Carolina hasn’t exactly played its best basketball of late, and it has games against Virginia (twice), Louisville, and Duke in the next 15 days. Optimistic Tar Heels fans will say that stretch brings a lot of opportunities to pad the résumé for a no. 1 seed. Pessimists will say that gauntlet, along with the ACC tourney, could easily result in the Heels entering the NCAA tournament with eight losses, which would likely put them in 4-seed (or maybe 5-seed) range. So, yeah, this is a huge upcoming stretch for Carolina.

Current national-title-threat status: Eating a chicken cheddar biscuit at Time-Out while sober. There’s no denying it’s great, but something definitely feels off.

9. Arizona (24–3)

Kobi Simmons (Getty Images)
Kobi Simmons (Getty Images)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg did a great job going in-depth on why the race for the Pac-12 title is so important. Here’s the gist: Whichever team among Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA wins the Pac-12 will likely become the no. 2 seed in the West regional played in San Jose, where Gonzaga will presumably be the no. 1 seed. Since the selection committee prefers to avoid putting highly seeded teams from the same conference in the same region, the other two teams will probably be sent at least two time zones to the east. Here’s the kicker: If no ACC team emerges as a worthy no. 1 seed, the Pac-12 champion could end up with the fourth no. 1 seed (i.e. the no. 1 seed in the South), which is arguably a worse landing spot than the no. 2 seed in the West.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: Wisconsin. Arizona’s seed is ultimately irrelevant, as is the regional in which the Wildcats are assigned. All that matters it that those goddamn Buzzcuts from Madison aren’t standing in Arizona’s path to a Final Four.

Current national-title-threat status: More unpredictable than a Friday night in Coronado.

8. Baylor (22–4)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: Baylor has dropped three of its last five games following Monday’s 84–78 loss at Texas Tech. Still, a no. 1 seed is attainable since the Bears have upcoming rematches with both Kansas and West Virginia. Adding wins in those games and a potential Big 12 tournament title to a résumé loaded with marquee nonconference results would make Baylor a top-seed lock.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: The Bears’ only victory over a ranked team since December 3 came at then–no. 25 Kansas State on January 14, which is why beating Kansas and/or West Virginia is a must for their no. 1 seed chances. Lose both, throw in another upset or two, and Baylor could be looking at a no. 3 seed, which would still be pretty great given the program’s expectations coming into this season.

Current national-title-threat status: “Is Baylor a national title contender?” is as much of a no-brainer as “Is Scott Drew a good coach?”

7. UCLA (23–3)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: The Bruins are in the same boat as Arizona. Establishing themselves as the cream of the Pac-12 crop would put them in position to secure the no. 2 seed in the West … but could also land them the (weirdly unappealing) no. 1 seed in the South. So, like the Wildcats, UCLA’s best-case scenario has more to do with location than seeding. If the Bruins can play every game in California before the Final Four (which is in nearby Phoenix), UCLA fans should be thrilled.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: The committee had the Bruins as a no. 4 seed last weekend, even after their thrilling comeback win over Oregon. Considering that UCLA has lost only three games and that its worst defeat came on the road against a good USC team, the committee is clearly waiting for it to secure another signature win before adjusting the Bruins’ ranking. If UCLA fails to get that on February 25 at Arizona — and if it loses another game that it shouldn’t (like Saturday’s matchup with USC) before the Pac-12 tournament — the team’s stock could drop into more of a free fall than John Wooden’s earlobes. Even so, anyone with one functional eye can tell that the Bruins are one of the best teams in America. I refuse to live in a world where they get anything worse than a no. 5 seed.

Current national-title-threat status: As legitimate as Sam Gilbert’s role as a UCLA booster.

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to it.

During Wednesday’s Cleveland Cavaliers–Indiana Pacers game, how did Dick Vitale and Bill Walton end up talking about San Diego?

A. LeBron James rolls his ankle in the second quarter and immediately exits the game, prompting ESPN to cut to Lisa Salters on the sideline. Salters says she believes that James will be fine and return, an assessment that Dave Pasch, the play-by-play broadcaster, agrees with because he noticed that James didn’t hobble as he made his way to the bench. Walton, who is sharing the color-commentary duties with Vitale, tells Pasch that assuming James isn’t hurt is easy for someone sitting on the sidelines in attire that Walton can’t find the words to describe. Pasch reminds Walton that his clothing is called a “suit” and that once upon a time Walton, who is clad in a tie-dye T-shirt, used to wear one. This prompts Walton to discuss the wardrobe displays he saw earlier in the day at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which showcased the clothing of Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Steven Tyler, and Alice Cooper. For reasons I’m not quite sure of but of which I can make a reasonable guess, Vitale finally joins the conversation and asks if Dolly Parton’s clothes were on display. Walton responds that Parton’s weren’t but Madonna’s clothes were, leading Vitale to claim that Lady Gaga is “blowing Madonna away” and that Gaga was the only person at the Super Bowl who outperformed Tom Brady. Pasch thanks Dickie V. for being there to argue music with Walton so that he doesn’t have to, a comment Vitale takes in earnest as he mentions that he’s a “Lionel Richie guy, a Smokey Robinson guy, and a Motowns guy.” Walton notes that he just saw Smokey Robinson at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and that he also saw him in concert over the summer, at the Sycuan Casino in San Diego.

Congratulations, I’m giving everyone a freebie this week. I had an idea of what to expect going into this game, and Vitale and Walton joining forces was still too much for me to handle. I can’t even scratch the surface of what it would take to come up with fake answers in the same stratosphere as what you just read, so I’m not even going to try. Let’s just move on.

6. Oregon (23–4)

Dillon Brooks (Getty Images)
Dillon Brooks (Getty Images)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: Same as Arizona and UCLA. Oregon’s primary concern is staying out West, where its path to a national title would go through Sacramento, San Jose, and Phoenix.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: The committee had Oregon ranked seven spots ahead of the Bruins last weekend, even after UCLA beat the Ducks. This is likely because Oregon has six RPI top-50 wins to UCLA’s three, suggesting that the committee is more concerned with a team’s marquee wins rather than its bad losses. This bodes well for the Ducks. Assuming that Oregon avoids a catastrophic losing streak during these next few weeks, the Ducks won’t fall below the no. 3 seed line.

Current national-title-threat status: Stronger than the names on the Ducks’ 2001–02 Elite Eight team. Seriously, look at this roster. There are the two Lukes that everyone remembers (Jackson and Ridnour). There is a Helquist and a Lindquist. Best of all, there’s a Chris Christoffersen … and a Kristian Christensen! Before revisiting this squad, I thought nothing topped the 2011–12 St. John’s tag team of Sir’Dominic Pointer and God’sgift Achiuwa. But here we are.

5. Duke (21–5)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the same Duke team that lost three of four games in January (including to NC State at home) could conceivably get a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And that’s not just because the committee always gives the Blue Devils a break. Duke has a real chance to win the ACC title, and a championship in one of the strongest conferences in college basketball history paired with “peaking at the right time” would be tough for the committee to ignore. That’s to say nothing of the intangibles working in Duke’s favor, such as the eye test, the abundance of NBA talent, the Grayson Allen–redemption story line, and the threat of Coach K taking away each committee member’s wardrobe full of Duke gear if they don’t give the Blue Devils a no. 1 seed.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: Duke was a no. 4 seed in the committee’s initial rankings, but that’s pretty clearly a smoke screen. With five regular-season games and at least one ACC tournament game left, Duke can probably afford to lose twice and keep its no. 4 seed, especially since the games played during Mike Krzyzewski’s absence don’t count.

Current national-title-threat status: More terrifying than Scheyer Face.

4. Louisville (21–5)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: Like every other ACC contender, Louisville is still in the running for the no. 1 seed in the South, although I’m not sure I’d want that if I were the Cards. Louisville would be my pick to win the national title if the NCAA tournament started today, but something about this team feels like it’s better suited flying under the radar. If I’m a Louisville fan, I’m hoping for a no. 2 or a no. 3 seed so the Cardinals can head into the Elite Eight as an underdog and face a no. 1 seed that has only one day to prepare for their lockdown defense. Specifically, I’m hoping for a spot in the Midwest region, with the no. 1 seed being a Kansas squad that Louisville matches up with perfectly.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: Louisville could just as easily finish sixth in the ACC as win the league, but I’m not sure how much that ultimately matters. The committee holds the ACC in such high regard that any Louisville losses from here on out would be semi-defensible. I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Cards get anything worse than a no. 4 seed.

Current national-title-threat status: As white hot as Rick Pitino’s face when he’s operating on 30 minutes of sleep and sucking down coconut water on the sideline.

3. Kansas (23–3)

Frank Mason III (Getty Images)
Frank Mason III (Getty Images)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: The Jayhawks’ nonconference strength of schedule and dominance in the deepest conference in college basketball make them a 1-seed lock right now, even if the eye test suggests they peaked a month ago. Potential good news on Selection Sunday, then, will hinge on which other top teams end up in Kansas’s region. The Jayhawks are destined to be sent to the Midwest regional in Kansas City, and it’s feasible that Louisville could end up there with them. Given the committee’s stance on putting top teams from the same conference in the same region, Kansas should hope that Louisville gets sent to the South regional in Memphis, Duke goes to the East, and the ACC team it gets stuck with is either Florida State (still great but not as dangerous as those other two) or North Carolina (Roy Williams’s moral compass won’t allow him to beat Kansas).

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: Baylor beats Kansas on Saturday and then again in the Big 12 tournament, giving the Bears the Midwest’s no. 1 seed and leaving the committee no choice but to send the Jayhawks away from Kansas City. Bill Self’s program goes on to lose to Villanova in the Elite Eight for the second straight year, this time in New York City. Grant Hill and Jim Nantz combine to say the phrase, “It looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore,” no less than five times throughout that game.

Current national-title-threat status: College Markieff Morris. Good enough to be a serious threat, but not the best possible version that could exist.

2. Villanova (25–2)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: Villanova losing its grip on a no. 1 seed would require a disaster along the lines of a Josh Hart injury or Kris Jenkins becoming so addicted to pump-faking that the Wildcats get called for a shot clock violation every time down the court because he can’t stop thrusting the ball up and down in front of his body. I’m not much of a bracketologist, but there are two things I can all but guarantee about the 2017 NCAA tournament: Oregon State will not be included, and Villanova will be the no. 1 seed in the East.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: Anything is possible, so I guess Villanova could lose three games in the next few weeks and fall to the no. 2 seed line. Realistically, though, the Wildcats’ worst-case scenario would involve losing the no. 1 overall seed, but even that wouldn’t be a big deal since the only benefits to getting the no. 1 overall seed are location priority and facing the worst no. 1 seed if all of the top seeds make the Final Four. The latter has been relevant only once (in 2008), while the former is irrelevant since neither Gonzaga nor Kansas would be sent to the New York City regional if they leapfrogged Villanova anyway. The only way the Cats could get a no. 1 seed and not go to New York City is if it makes more sense to send the ACC champion to the Big Apple instead of Memphis. Yet with the primary ACC contenders consisting of North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, and Duke, that won’t be the case. So basically Villanova, which has a three-game lead in the Big East standings, has nothing to play for until the conference tourney begins. This begs the question: Is Villanova’s dominance good for women’s basketball?

Current national-title-threat status: HOTTER THAN JAY WRIGHT IN A $5,000 SUIT.

1. Gonzaga (27–0)

Selection Sunday best-case scenario: If the undefeated Zags aren’t a lock for a no. 1 seed after being in total control for all 40 minutes of last Saturday’s 74–64 win at St. Mary’s, I swear to God I will press send on at least three angry tweets about the NCAA. I know the selection committee gave Gonzaga the fourth no. 1 seed in its initial rankings, but if it were up to me, I’d give the Zags a no. 1 seed even if they lose a game — literally any game — between now and Selection Sunday. Thus, the best-case scenario for Gonzaga is to maintain the status quo and lock up the top seed in the West.

Selection Sunday worst-case scenario: The committee made it clear that it hates Gonzaga, which shouldn’t matter if the Zags take care of business and finish undefeated. It could become problematic, though, if the Bulldogs drop a game or two. If Gonzaga slips up in one of its four final regular-season contests (not likely) and then loses during the conference tournament to St. Mary’s (also not likely, but at least feasible), the Zags could get a no. 3 seed and have to play Duke or Louisville in the Sweet 16. That would be what we in the business like to refer to as “not good.”

Current national-title-threat status: On a scale from Adam Morrison’s mustache to Kevin Pangos’s luxurious flow, I give Gonzaga’s title chances “Przemek Karnowski’s beard.” It should be the favorite, but the added pressure of being undefeated and trying to reach the program’s first Final Four does worry me a little. And just to be clear: I don’t think the Zags are the best team in the country just because they are undefeated. I think they’re undefeated because they’re the best team in the country.

The Fired Coach of the Week

Head coach Mark Gottfried had a rough go at NC State this season. The Wolfpack weren’t expected to make the Final Four entering the year, but the additions of point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and center Omer Yurtseven gave State fans hope that their team would at least compete and/or be fun to watch. Outside of NC State’s 84–82 win at Duke on January 23 that gets more inexplicable by the day, though, that certainly hasn’t been the case. Heading into Wednesday’s showdown with North Carolina, NC State was 14–12 and had lost six of its last seven. The game against the Tar Heels figured to be a great opportunity for Gottfried to dig deep and show NC State officials the kind of coach he truly is. And that’s exactly what happened! Gottfried is officially off the hot seat, folks!

I guess I should clarify: NC State lost to Carolina by a million for the second time in two months, and Gottfried was subsequently fired. If you feel like this all happened way too fast and you didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye, don’t worry. Gottfried is apparently sticking around for the rest of the season, which I’m sure will result in a miraculous turnaround and a run to an ACC tournament title and a Final Four berth. (What if I told you … that sometimes it takes a lone wolf to lead the Pack?) But just in case that doesn’t happen, here’s a little something to remember his tenure by.

If you find yourself in times of sorrow, just think back on those Gottfried words that will endure forever: “THEY GOTTA GUARD US TOO, PAL!”

See you next week.