Selection Sunday: Eight burning questions

March, 15, 2009
03/15/09
2:39
AM ET
Sharpen your pencils and get out your NCAA tournament bracket (only one, please).

Selection Sunday is finally here.

After a Championship Week chock full of upsets and buzzer-beaters, four more conference tournament finals will be played Sunday, with automatic NCAA tournament bids on the line.

Nearly a dozen bubble teams will be anxiously waiting to see whether they made the 65-team field, and five of the country's best teams are in contention for No. 1 seeds.

Here's an NCAA tournament primer, which addresses many of the burning questions heading into Selection Sunday:

1. Which teams are the No. 1 seeds?
After winning the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, Louisville might very well deserve the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. North Carolina lost to Florida State 73-70 in the ACC tournament semifinals Saturday, but the Tar Heels played without injured point guard Ty Lawson. After winning the ACC regular-season title, UNC certainly will be another No. 1 seed.

A second Big East team, Pittsburgh, is another safe bet for a top line in the NCAA bracket. The Panthers rank No. 1 in the RPI ratings and twice beat Connecticut when the Huskies were ranked No. 1 in the country.

Memphis, which won its fourth consecutive Conference USA tournament title by beating Tulsa 64-39 on Saturday, might be the big winner from Championship Week's carnage. After Kansas and Oklahoma lost in the Big 12 quarterfinals, Michigan State fell in the Big Ten semis and Connecticut lost in the Big East quarters, the Tigers could be in line for the last No. 1 seed. No team this decade has entered the NCAA tournament with a longer winning streak (25 games).

2. Is Connecticut better off as a No. 2 seed?
As long as the NCAA selection committee pencils the Huskies in as the No. 2 seed in the East Regional, Jim Calhoun's team might be in a pretty enviable position. That could allow Connecticut to play for a trip to the Final Four in front of a closer-to-home crowd in Boston.

Some have assumed North Carolina would be a natural fit in the South Regional (Memphis), but why exactly? Believe it or not, UNC's campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., is actually approximately 15 miles closer to Boston than it is to Memphis, although the ribs aren't nearly as tasty in Beantown.

Don't dismiss the chances of Louisville's being sent to the Bluff City, which could set up a partial road atmosphere at the FedExForum. Fans of the hometown Memphis Tigers have a seething dislike of the Cardinals from their days as a bitter conference rival. John Calipari's team, as you probably know, cannot be placed in the South Regional.

3. Which conference will send the most teams to the NCAA tournament?
No league has ever sent more than eight teams to the NCAA tournament, and that record appears to be safe for another season.

The Big Ten could tie the Big East's record (set in 2006 and '08) if Minnesota and Penn State both receive at-large bids. Four Big Ten teams -- Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue and Ohio State -- are safe bets to make the 65-team field, and Michigan and Wisconsin seem to be in very good shape, too. The Gophers probably would make the field before the Nittany Lions, but both could go.

The Big East could send eight teams to the NCAA tournament again this season, but only if Providence receives an at-large bid. But that doesn't seem likely heading into Selection Sunday.

4. Will the SEC really put only two of its teams into the NCAA field?
Unless Mississippi State beats Tennessee in Sunday's SEC tournament championship game in Tampa, Fla., there's a pretty good chance the Volunteers and LSU will be the only SEC teams playing in the NCAA tournament.

Auburn probably needed to beat the Vols in the SEC semis on Saturday, but Tennessee pulled away for a 94-85 victory. Florida and SEC East co-champion South Carolina are both on the bubble, but neither seems to have a very good chance of earning an at-large bid.

If LSU and Tennessee are the SEC's only participants, it would be the first time in 21 years that a major conference had only two teams in the NCAA field (1988, Pac-10). In fact, in the past 15 seasons, only three times has a "big six" conference sent only three teams to the NCAA tournament.

The SEC hasn't had fewer than five teams in the NCAA field since sending four in 1996, which might be good news for LSU and Tennessee. Kentucky won the '96 national championship, Mississippi State reached the Final Four and Arkansas and Georgia made it to the Sweet 16.

5. Will Arizona's 24-year bid streak finally end?
There seems to be a pretty good chance of that happening, especially after USC upset Arizona State 66-63 to win Saturday's Pac-10 tournament championship in Los Angeles.

The Trojans probably weren't going to make the NCAA tournament field unless they beat the Sun Devils. So USC took away an elusive at-large spot from another team, which might very well end up being the Wildcats -- thanks to ASU's blowing a 15-point lead.

Just what Arizona fans needed: another reason to hate their school's archrival.

Arizona still has a chance to make the NCAA tournament field, especially because it's one of the sport's traditional blue bloods. But its 1-5 slide at season's end and 2-9 record in road games puts its 24-year streak in serious jeopardy.

6. Which teams will be seeded higher than you think?
Three teams from outside the BCS football-playing leagues could earn more respect from the selection committee than the casual fan would believe.

Siena won eight of its past nine games and is in position for a seed in the 8-9 range. The Saints have an RPI rating of 19 and were fairly competitive in three games against teams from the power conferences, losing to Tennessee by 14, Pittsburgh by 13 and Kansas by seven. Of course, Siena proved its mettle by upsetting No. 4 seed Vanderbilt 83-62 in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tourney. Nearly everyone from that team is still playing for the Saints.

Gonzaga has become a regular in the NCAA tournament, but many fans' lasting impression of the Bulldogs was their blowout loss to Memphis back in February. Still, Gonzaga won 26 games and finished 14-0 in the West Coast Conference. It also beat Oklahoma State, Tennessee (twice) and Maryland. Expect Gonzaga to grab a seed as high as No. 4.

7. Which teams will be seeded lower than you think?
A few weeks ago, Oklahoma had its sights set on the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed. But then All-American forward Blake Griffin suffered a concussion in a loss at Texas. The Sooners haven't been the same since, losing four of their past six games. Even with a No. 5 RPI rating, Oklahoma might be only a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

LSU was the SEC regular-season champion and finished 13-3 against league foes. But the Tigers might not be seeded higher than No. 6 in the NCAA tournament, which is a further indictment of the SEC's mediocrity this season.

Xavier is another team that swooned late in the season, losing at Charlotte, at Richmond and against Temple in the Atlantic 10 tournament semis Friday. Even after winning the A-10 regular-season championship and climbing into the top 10 earlier this season, the Musketeers aren't likely to be seeded higher than No. 5 on Sunday.

8. Which mid-major teams will the big boys hope to avoid in the first round?
Along with the usual suspects -- Butler, Siena, Virginia Commonwealth and Western Kentucky -- a handful of smaller schools might spell trouble for the big boys in the first round.

Keep an eye on Cleveland State and North Dakota State when the brackets are announced. With the right matchup, each team is capable of producing a first-round upset.

The Vikings finished third in the Horizon League standings, behind Butler and Green Bay, which are two pretty good teams. Cleveland State won 12 of its past 14 games, including a 57-54 upset of Butler on the Bulldogs' home floor in the Horizon League tourney finals. The Vikings defend like crazy, and we all remember the 72-69 buzzer-beater win at Syracuse on Dec. 15.

The Bison became the first team since Louisiana-Lafayette in 1972 to make the NCAA tournament in its first season of eligibility. The Bison won 18 of their last 19 games and lost at USC 61-57 on Dec. 20. North Dakota State averages more than 80 points per game and has one of the country's better 3-point shooters in guard Ben Woodside, who averages 22.8 points per game.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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