So now we have the NCAA tournament bracket, after an unstable season in an unpredictable world at an unprecedented time. You were expecting normal?
No, this is the tournament that can be seen on one gallon of gas, played in one state and with one basic hope — nothing but a long line of negative test results. Anything after that is gravy. Strange is the theme of this March, so let’s go looking for odd things in the bracket. Hint: They ain’t that hard to find.
Michigan State and UCLA have 28 Final Four appearances between them. Michigan State beat two of the four No. 1 seeds this season, and UCLA finished only 1½ games out of first place in the Pac-12. But the Spartans and Bruins will be facing each other Thursday in the most glamorous First Four game ever created.
Oregon State was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 this season. Georgetown was picked to finish last in the Big East. They’re both in the tournament.
Louisville is in the bullpen staying loose. The NCAA tournament never had a relief pitcher before, but if any team from a multi-bid league must pull out by Tuesday night at 6 p.m., the Cardinals are in. So they’ll be interested in any news from Virginia or Kansas. If that doesn’t happen, neither Louisville nor Kentucky will be in the tournament, and that hasn’t happened in 30 years.
No Duke, either. Gerald Ford was president the last time an NCAA tournament went Duke-less and Kentucky-less. That was 1976, and Mike Krzyzewski was in his 20s.
The fieriest first-round shootout could be . . . Colgate vs. Arkansas? Colgate is second in the nation in scoring — and ninth in the NET rankings ahead of such glittering names as Virginia, Kansas and Villanova. Arkansas is seventh in scoring. This one likely won’t end 57-55.
There are 31 conference tournaments champions in the bracket. Only 10 of them were No. 1 seeds in their leagues.
Oregon State had never won the Pac-12 tournament, Texas had never won the Big 12. It had been 30 years since the last SEC tournament title for Alabama, 28 years for Georgia Tech in the ACC, 16 for Illinois in the Big Ten, 14 for Georgetown in the Big East. Some of their paths have been a little uneven. Georgia Tech started the season 0-2 against Georgia State and Mercer. Between defeat and COVID pauses, Georgetown went 47 days without a victory at mid-season, and only five minutes ago, it seems, was 9-12. Oregon State lost to Portland, who went 6-15. Get the idea that things are a tad . . . unusual?
This tournament will have 67 games played in the state of Indiana, but has only one team from the state of Indiana. Take a bow, Purdue. “We’ll do our best to carry the flag,” said athletic director Mike Bobinski, who is also on the NCAA selection committee. But there are seven teams from the state of Texas, meaning 10.3 percent of the bracket is Lone Star. There are so many teams that they are bound to run into one another, which Texas and Abilene Christian will do in the first round.
Rutgers is in the tournament for the first time in 30 years. The Scarlet Knights had the longest doubt of any school in the Power 5 conferences, but now on the clock is Washington State, who hasn’t been since 2008.
In case anyone has forgotten, Virginia is still the reigning national champion, nearly 24 months after the fact. But that’s not the most important number with the Cavaliers right now, nor is their annually impressive defensive percentages. It’s how many players are in quarantine and testing negative. That is always the big stat of 2021. If there are five healthy Cavaliers, Virginia will show up in Indianapolis, but it could be a most trying week, which is why opponent Ohio is about to get circled in a lot of brackets.
Same for Winthrop, 23-1, going against a Villanova team that is 0-2 since losing point guard Collin Gillespie.
Nine Big Ten teams are in the field, which is more than the entire NCAA tournament had in its first 12 years. Four Big Ten teams are in the top seven of the NET rankings. The Big Ten national conference streak is 21 years, which nearly gets mentioned as often in March as the weather report. Maybe. It’s. Time. Or maybe not.
Only three coaches in history have led five different schools into the NCAA tournament. Two of them are coaching their fifth teams in this tournament — Lon Kruger at Oklahoma and, just new to the club, Rick Pitino at Iona. The third is Tubby Smith.
Colgate’s only loss is by two points. So is Winthrop’s. That’s how close this tournament is to having three unbeaten teams.
Only in 2021: Colgate is in the tournament having played only 15 games, fewer than any team in the history of the tournament. When Villanova won the title in 2018, the Wildcats played 40.
Only in 2021: Isaac Brown went from interim at troubled Wichita State to American Athletic Conference coach of the year in under four months.
Only in 2021: Oklahoma State had a postseason ban, but was appealing the decision. The next, the Cowboys were fourth seeded in the Midwest.
Only in 2021: Drexel is in the bracket as the Colonial champion. The Dragons’ last home game was Jan. 17.
There’s one team in the tournament that is close to Gonzaga — maybe not in firepower, but on a map. Eastern Washington is but 16 miles away from Gonzaga. They’ve played 35 times and Gonzaga has won 30 of them, including 25 in a row.
Loyola Chicago is back in the tournament, three years removed from its Cinderella Final Four run, which introduced the world to Sister Jean, who took the month by gentle storm. Cameron Krutwig was on that team and scored 17 points against Michigan as a freshman. Now he’s a senior with more than 1,500 points, 800 rebounds and 300 assists in his career, and to get an idea of what a big deal that is, consider the only other three players from the Missouri Valley Conference who ever managed to do it: Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Hersey Hawkins. Imagine if the Ramblers get past Georgia Tech. Next would probably be Illinois.
Add this to the list of most important questions for the tournament: Is she coming or not? Sister Jean. That might be a tad dicey, since there is no page in the NCAA medical COVID protocol about what to do with a 101-year-old nun.
Bryce Drew is in the bracket. That name might ring a bell. On March 13, 1998, Valparaiso guard Drew buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to upset Mississippi in what has become one of the NCAA tournament’s most enduring highlights. On the exact date 23 years later, he coached Grand Canyon to its first tournament berth. He might want to buy a Powerball ticket next March 13.
And finally, about Gonzaga. If the Zags win it all, they’ll be only the second No. 1 team to become champion in 18 years. Kentucky in 2012 was the other.
They would also be only the third team to both lead the nation in scoring and win the title in 68 years. Move over, North Carolina 2005 and Villanova 2018.
Anything else? Oh, yeah. If Gonzaga wins, the Zags will cut in front of Indiana to be most recent perfect national champion. The Hoosiers have owned that identity for 45 years. For it to end in Indianapolis, well, why should this tournament have any limit on possibilities. Only in 2021 might be mentioned a lot the next three weeks.