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The College Basketball Mailbag: Zion, Top NCAA Tournament Seeds, and Coaching Predictions

With less than two weeks until the start of March Madness, it’s time to answer some reader questions

Zion Williamson, Sean Miller and Shaka Smart Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been a weird college basketball season. There are three great teams, four or five good ones, and about two dozen who mistakenly think they belong in either of those groups. Kansas’s run of 14 consecutive Big 12 titles has ended, Zion Williamson wrapped up the National Player of the Year race before Christmas, and people are seriously thinking things like, “I’m not sure I trust John Beilein’s offense,” and “Rick Barnes has what it takes to win a national title.” Indiana, which lost 12 of 13 games at one point this season, still has a shot at making the NCAA tournament despite a 16-14 record, while UNC Greensboro is 26-5, with no bad losses, and has virtually no shot at an at-large berth. Virginia lost twice to Duke and will still probably win at least a share of the ACC regular-season title. Michigan State will probably do the same in the Big Ten despite being swept by Indiana. The Pac-12 could have abandoned its games and simulated its entire season, and nobody would have noticed. Teams from the Pacific and Mountain time zones have been so bad that I wouldn’t bet a penny on any of them to make the Sweet 16—but I do believe in Gonzaga, which is probably the best team in the country.

West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall have won 41 combined games; their teams are so irrelevant that you won’t even bother checking whether that statistic is accurate. Texas’s Shaka Smart and Maryland’s Mark Turgeon can’t decide whether they want to keep their jobs or get fired. Arizona’s Sean Miller and Nebraska’s Tim Miles are going through the motions. Northwestern’s Chris Collins wants the focus to be on the one time he went to the NCAA tournament, rather than the $3 million salary he’s receiving as his program turns into the new Rutgers. UCLA, the school with the most national titles, fired its coach in December and is no closer to hiring a replacement. For God’s sake, the biggest college basketball story of the year, by a significant margin, has been an exploding shoe.

But none of that matters anymore, because March is here!

In a few weeks, many of you will have had your hearts ripped out of your chests for one reason or another. Seriously, isn’t that wild? Something will happen to at least one team that will make the general public think, “Man, I would hate to be a fan of those guys right now.” We’re all just crossing our fingers that it won’t end up happening to the team we love.

In celebration of the best month of the year, I’m busting out my first mailbag column of the season. Here are your emails.

What. Month. Is. This? —Jeff

THIS. IS. TRADEMARK INFRINGEMENT.

Have you reached an official verdict on whether you think Zion is fat or thick? —Brett

If you added Zion to Chicago State’s roster, would it make the NCAA tournament? —Jeff

Do you think Zion could dunk on a giraffe? (I mean a literal giraffe. The dunk on Jay Huff doesn’t count.) Like, if a giraffe was standing right underneath the basket, and Zion tried to dunk, what do you think would happen? —Casey

Would Zion win EuroLeague MVP? —Greg

ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION ZION —Kyle

Point taken. No more Zion emails!

(But my answers: Not fat. Yes. I suppose he could, but you are vastly underestimating how big giraffes are and their capacity to bring the ruckus, so I’m saying no to the dunk, but yes to Zion drawing a flagrant-2 foul. And absolutely not, which is why I have Mike James and Jan Vesely above Zion and R.J. Barrett in my 2019 mock draft.)

What do you think the next round of coaching changes will look like? —Hayden

I have no idea how it happened and, I know it comes across as cocky, but I’ve become a savant at predicting how a coaching carousel will shake out despite having no inside information. The best example of this came last year, when I called Tom Crean to UConn. Sure, haters will say that prediction doesn’t count because Crean ended up at Georgia, not UConn, but those same haters are suspiciously silent when I show them this tweet from last February:

There it is in all its glory, folks: “Chris Mack to Louisville.” Nailed it.

Here’s my version of that tweet for this year:

Fred Hoiberg to Nebraska. Buzz Williams to Texas A&M. Ryan Odom to Virginia Tech. Jason Kidd to Cal. Mark Jackson to St. John’s. Muggsy Bogues to Wake Forest. Tony Bennett to UCLA. Dave Leitao back to Virginia. Sister Jean to DePaul. Rick Pitino to UNLV. Rick Pitino to the Bunny Ranch that same day. Rick Pitino back to Greece three months later. Will Wade and Sean Miller also to Greece. Luke Walton to Arizona. Mike Krzyzewski to the Lakers. Billy Donovan to Duke. Brad Stevens to Indiana.

Who do you think is getting the fourth 1-seed (assuming Gonzaga, Virginia, and Duke are locks for the other three)? —Lawrence

With the way Duke is limping toward the NCAA tournament without Zion, it seems weird to call the Blue Devils a lock for a 1-seed, especially if North Carolina beats them again Saturday and they get bounced in their first ACC tournament game (which will likely be against Louisville or Syracuse). But it makes a lot more sense when you consider their résumé: a sweep of Virginia (whose only losses are to Duke), a massacre of Kentucky on a neutral floor, a double-digit win over Texas Tech on a neutral floor, and road wins at Florida State and Louisville. Also, Duke’s only loss while at full strength came away from home by two points against the current no. 1 team in the country. So yeah, I think it’s safe to assume Gonzaga, Virginia, and Duke are 1-seed locks.

There are three realistic candidates for the fourth 1-seed: Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The Volunteers have been the most consistent team throughout the season. I think the Tar Heels have the highest ceiling and are currently playing the best out of the three. But Kentucky beat Carolina on a neutral court, and the Wildcats have better wins than Tennessee (vs. Kansas, vs. North Carolina, at Louisville), so I’m giving them the nod as of this moment. However, if North Carolina beats Duke on Saturday and then again in the ACC tournament, there won’t be a damn thing Kentucky or Tennessee can do to keep the Heels from being the fourth 1-seed.

Virginia, right? —Kendall

No team in NCAA history has ever lost to a 16-seed two years in a row. Keep that in mind when it comes time to fill out your bracket, folks.

One of my biggest gripes in sports is when a ref makes a bad call, and an announcer bends over backward to defend it. —John

This is an epidemic across all sports, and I have no idea how or why it started. I understand why former officials who appear on NFL broadcasts might want to stick up for their buddies when analyzing a call. But it makes no sense why anyone else would go out of their way to defend officials. We know officiating is not a full-time job for most college basketball refs—we kind of embrace it. Bitching about horrendous officiating is what unites fan bases across the country, so I’m not sure why announcers are so hell-bent on keeping it a secret that college basketball refs are not very good. BREAKING: Middle-aged men wearing slacks and running with whistles in their mouths can’t always keep up with 18- to 23-year-old athletes. There, now we can stop pretending.

Which conference would you trust to produce a national championship sooner: Pac-12 or WCC? —Connor

Let’s be honest: This question is really “Do you think Gonzaga is going to win the 2019 NCAA tournament?” Because if the Zags don’t do it this year —when they have their best team in school history and there are only a handful of title-caliber teams in the country—there’s no telling when it will happen. And as bad as the Pac-12 is, I still trust Cal or Washington State to win a national title before any non-Gonzaga WCC team. Because I think Gonzaga is the best team in the country, and because the best team in the country ALWAYS wins the NCAA tournament, without exception, I’m picking the WCC to get it done before the Pac-12.

If you were 18 years old today and looking to walk on at one ACC team, which one would it be and why? —Frank

Great question. We have to filter through the schools by process of elimination, so let’s consider three key questions. (To make it clear: I’m assuming that my parents are rich and they are going to pay my tuition, so the cost of attending each school is irrelevant for this exercise.)

  • How can I leverage the opportunity to help my career/life?

This is the most important question. Remember, kids: It’s not just about the four years you spend in college; it’s about the rest of your life. When you’re 45 years old and say the words, “I played basketball at [insert school here],” at a cocktail party, how many people in the room will flock to you? The same goes for “I graduated from [insert school here].” It also helps if the college allows you to become friends with future NBA players and/or classmates who go on to start their own tech companies or become senators. A successful walk-on knows how to ride coattails, and the key to being great at that is knowing which coattails to jump on. Every ACC school checks at least one box in this category, but only the elite ones check all of them.

ELIMINATED: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, NC State, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech

  • How good is the team?

Now that we’ve got the future out of the way, let’s focus on the present. There’s nothing worse than being a walk-on for a shitty team. It’s hard enough to accept the fact that you’re riding the bench. On a good team, a tiny part of your brain can convince you that you’d be playing substantial minutes if only the team wasn’t so loaded. Plus, you can make a deep NCAA tournament run. As someone who went to the 2007 Final Four, trust me when I say that being on a team that made a memorable tourney run is something you’ll never get sick of bringing up in conversation.

ELIMINATED: Notre Dame, Miami, Wake Forest

  • What is a walk-on’s role within the program?

All right, I’ll make this last one easy. We have Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia left. North Carolina is immediately out because Roy Williams isn’t afraid to pull his starters and throw five walk-ons into the game at a moment’s notice, and I want no part of that. Everything else about Carolina is great, but the 0.000000001 percent chance of having to play first-half minutes in Cameron Indoor Stadium with an ACC title on the line and millions of people watching is nightmare fuel. Meanwhile, every glimpse I’ve seen into the life of a Duke manager involves behavior like sprinting into the locker room at halftime or holding up towels to block TV cameras, so I can only imagine what Coach K asks of his walk-ons. Thus, I’m going with Virginia. Final answer.

Kevin Stallings went 0-18 in conference play in 2017-18. This year, his old team (my poor, beloved Vanderbilt) is about to go 0-18 in conference play. I don’t even have a question. I just don’t think this is a coincidence. —Coleman

Now hang on just a second. Let’s focus on the positives. Not enough people are talking about how Stallings has no team to work with and he’s still won as many ACC games as he did last season. If Tony Bennett did the same thing, they’d build a statue for him. But for some reason, Stallings is getting no love from the national media. The hypocrisy makes me sick.

If you got the soon-to-be-open job in Athens, Ohio, would you promise to live in student rental housing and throw big parties? —Jon

Absolutely. In fact, not only do I want to throw on-campus house parties while also serving as the head coach of a Division I school, I think I would be obligated to do so. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but the college basketball coaching community is becoming homogeneous. Gone are the days when this sport was like the WWE and coaches had their own gimmicks, like chewing on towels, or throwing chairs, or intimidating drug dealers. It seems like every coach under 50 has the same crew cut and tweets out motivational quotes and praises his “fine young men” for graduating or doing volunteer work or blah, blah, blah. WHO THE HELL CARES?

We need some more characters on the sidelines, and I don’t mean the histrionics from the Hurley brothers or the bag-dropping slimeballs with fake “leader of men” personas. I’ve used different strategies to get a Division I head coaching job the past two years, and I haven’t even gotten a courtesy call with either of my campaigns. So I’m shifting gears and going with a new plan: I’m taking the Old School approach. My promise to the American people if I get a job will be to use 80 percent of my salary to finance kick-ass parties with frequent celebrity cameos. Just picture what John Calipari becomes during Big Blue Madness mixed with how badass Asher Roth thought he was in the “I Love College” video. Then throw in a dash of Penny Hardaway’s vibe at Memphis and sprinkle on top whatever the hell it is Dan Majerle is doing that makes the Grand Canyon student section so wild every game. Now tell me with a straight face that’s not what you would want from the man coaching your favorite college basketball team.

Here’s the genius of my plan, though: I’m never actually going to be at these parties. I’m going to be the guy who hosts and finances them, but as they’re going on, I’ll be at my other house in the suburbs falling asleep at 10 p.m. as Netflix asks me whether I’m still watching Planet Earth. My approval rating will be through the roof as I build my brand as the bad-boy coach who knows how to give the students a good time, but when shit hits the fan, I’ll be nowhere to be found and will have every coach’s two favorite words to protect me: “plausible deniability.”

Enjoy the final weekend of the regular season! March Madness is here!!!