Basketball Around the Beltway: Bracket Racket II

Rutgers guard Corey Sanders shoots over Maryland defenders during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
WASHINGTON — Conference expansion has made Championship Week unwieldy at best and unwatchable at worst. For years, the ACC had to deal with the “Les Robinson Game” that pitted the 8th and 9th place teams…adding drama to the late season for the bottom-feeders. Everybody dreaded playing in the Les Robinson Game, even the NC State coach the game was named after (fittingly, his final win with the Wolfpack came in the Robinson game). The expansion of the SEC, Big East and creation of the Big XII meant that 12-team brackets would become commonplace. By the time the ACC had finished its first round of picking the bones of the Big East, the dozen felt natural — four first-round games to feed the back end of the quarterfinals.

But expansion to 14 (and, in the ACC, 15) schools mandates another round, and since we already have the “first round” that precedes the quarterfinals one wants to call the first day of these tournaments the “opening round” or “day of dreck.” Instead of a first round that gave you bubble teams fighting for bids, you have bottom-feeders playing for their coach’s contract. For a while, the 16-school Big East didn’t invite the 13th through 16th place teams to Madison Square Garden, if only to spare us from having to watch Rutgers or DePaul play one more time (if there’s any bonus to recent realignment, it’s that we will never have to see Rutgers-DePaul again in a conference tournament). Unfortunately, cooler heads did not prevail, thus creating a double-bye, a five-day tournament, and a bracket that is difficult to draw.

At least the current Big East with its 10-school membership is down to semi-workable numbers (I like the round-robin and the lack of double-bye). If you’re an ACC fan and want to see North Carolina, you’re going to have to wait until the third day of their tournament. Same case with Kentucky and the SEC. Maryland fans who are excited to be able to make the short trip to Verizon Center will have to wait until the 10th game of the Big Ten Tournament to see the Terps in action. The new first round features the usual suspects: a Boston College team that hasn’t won since mid-January, a Rutgers team that’s made the opening day in the Big Ten their home just like they did in the Big East, and a Duquesne squad that’s hosting the A-10 before being shown the quick door. Even in the SEC the first round is a bit of a drag, because at this point 12 of the 14 schools are all focused on spring football anyways. Actually, the day of dreck makes me yearn for spring football…

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

UNC Wilmington players, coaches and fans storm the court after defeating College of Charleston 78-69 at the end of an NCAA college championship basketball game in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, S.C., Monday, March 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Automatic Bids Consumed Monday

 

UNC Wilmington wins the CAA, East Tennessee State takes the Southern Conference and Iona captures the MAAC with a one-point overtime win over Siena.

Bids on the line Tuesday night

Northern Kentucky faces Milwaukee for the Horizon League title, Saint Francis (PA — not to be confused with the St. Francis that plays in Brooklyn and has yet to make the NCAA’s) plays Mount St. Mary’s in the Northeast Conference Final, Omaha takes on South Dakota State in the Summit League, and #4 Gonzaga plays 19th-ranked St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference finals.

(AP Photo/Mic Smith)

Wake Forest's Mitchell Wilbekin (10) reacts after making a basket against Louisville in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Wake Forest won 88-81. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
ACC Tournament (Barclays Center, Brooklyn)

 

You can’t get further away from the land of Bojangles than Brooklyn. The top-heavy league has 10 potential NCAA Tournament teams, with the usual bluebloods (North Carolina and Duke) expecting their annual coronation.

Matchup I want to see:  Louisville-Duke in the quarterfinals. Two schools playing for high seeds in the big dance. New ACC money against the old guard. Pitino back in the Big Apple…and don’t forget Coach K played at Army and the Blue Devils previously made the Meadowlands their home away from Durham. The winner likely faces North Carolina.

Bold pick (which school will surprise the experts): Wake Forest is playing in the opening round for the fourth straight year, but Danny Manning’s team boasts a big man extraordinaire in John Collins (3rd in ACC in scoring, 2nd in rebounds, 4th in blocked shots). Potential second-round foe Virginia Tech ranks 15th in the conference in rebounding and the Deacons are playing for an at-large bid.

Fold pick (which team will exit earlier than expected): Virginia may have won three straight to finish the regular season, but the team lacks offensive consistency outside of London Perrantes and can be beaten inside.

Gold pick (who cuts down the nets): During a season where North Carolina’s talent, Duke’s discipline, Syracuse’s last-second shots, NC State’s implosion, and Virginia Tech’s perspiring coach have hijacked the headlines nobody is talking about Florida State. Same case with the second-longest tenured coach in the league Leonard Hamilton and sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon. At a tournament played in New York’s “other” borough, shouldn’t an underdog shine?

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Rhode Island's Jared Terrell (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Providence Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Providence, R.I. Providence defeated Rhode Island, 63-60.(AP Photo/Stew Milne)
Atlantic 10 Tournament (PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh)

 

Somebody had to move to give the ACC their week in Brooklyn. One benefit from conference realignment is the A-10 is no longer being looked down upon by only the Big East.

Matchups I want to see: VCU-George Mason and Richmond-George Washington in the quarterfinals. If the 6th-seeded Colonials and #7 Patriots win as expected, we’d have a Friday doubleheader featuring the conference’s southern wing…heating up the Orange Line and I-95.

Bold pick: Rhode Island heads to Pittsburgh on a five-game winning streak and has lost its games to regular season champ Dayton by a combined three points. Danny Hurley’s team doesn’t dazzle you, but the steak far outweighs the sizzle.

Fold pick: Even with two of the league’s top four scorers and #1 assist man in Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure will draw a less-than-ideal matchup in round two…as both UMass and Saint Joseph’s have played them to two-possession games this winter.

Gold pick: VCU has dominated the Atlantic 10 Tournament since joining the league, playing for the championship each season. JeQuan Lewis and company have unfinished business with regular season champ Dayton.

(AP Photo/Stew Milne)

Villanova guard Josh Hart (3) reacts after he hit a 3-pointer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Georgetown, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Washington. Villanova won 81-55. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Big East Tournament (Madison Square Garden)

 

Finally, a tournament location where the league’s fans won’t get lost finding the arena. I’m still bummed they play Wednesday-Saturday as opposed to Thursday-Sunday, but I’ll take the tournament that only lasts three-and-a-half days.

Matchup I want to see: Villanova-Butler in the finals. Nobody has been as good this winter as the Wildcats…and nobody has their number like the Bulldogs.

Bold pick: Seton Hall. Angel Delgado leads the nation in rebounding, and in the conference of Patrick Ewing, Derrick Coleman and Walter Berry, that has to count for something — even in a perimeter-oriented 21st century game. The Pirates also beat Villanova last year at MSG.

Fold pick: Providence. The Friars are facing a Creighton team that may have finally recovered from losing Maurice Watson, Jr. to injury. They are also coming off wins against DePaul and St. John’s — and that is no way to prepare a team for the tournament.

Gold pick: Villanova is the best team in the league for the second straight year, plus they’ll have the extra motivation having lost in the championship game last March. And I don’t think this is a team that needs motivation.

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Iowa guard Peter Jok (14) celebrates with teammates Ahmad Wagner, left, and Isaiah Moss, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 90-79. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Big Ten Tournament (Verizon Center, Washington D.C.)

 

At least they don’t begin their expanded tournament until Wednesday. Fittingly, Rutgers plays in one first round game while Penn State plays in the other…I think eventually their first-day presence may be mandated.

Matchup I want to see: Maryland-Northwestern in the quarterfinals. Both schools have plenty to prove — the Terps want to fare better than their last conference tournament in D.C. (a first-round loss to Clemson) while the Wildcats look to cement their NCAA Tournament worthiness despite six losses in their last nine games. Their journalism schools like to brag as well…

Bold pick: Iowa wrapped up the regular season with four straight wins and they’re led by the conference’s leading scorer in Peter Jok. The senior’s supporting cast is finally growing up (only two other scholarship upperclassmen dot the roster) and Fran McCaffery’s team needs a win or two to plead its NCAA case. Plus, if they beat Indiana, they’ll draw a Wisconsin team that’s lost six-of-eight.

Fold pick:  Michigan State. It’s tough to sell Tom Izzo short when he’s led the Spartans to the Big Ten title three times this decade, but the Spartans’ fifth seed is the school’s lowest this decade. For whatever reason, MSU didn’t benefit from its rough pre-conference schedule and turned into a bubble team that probably needs two wins to be secure in the field.

Gold pick: Purdue has long languished in the shadow of Indiana University (one can still hear the Hoosier faithful chant “Banners!”). Not so this winter. The one-two inside punch of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas looks to be too formidable to stop.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Rutgers guard Corey Sanders shoots over Maryland defenders during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
UNC Wilmington players, coaches and fans storm the court after defeating College of Charleston 78-69 at the end of an NCAA college championship basketball game in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, S.C., Monday, March 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Wake Forest's Mitchell Wilbekin (10) reacts after making a basket against Louisville in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Wake Forest won 88-81. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Rhode Island's Jared Terrell (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Providence Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Providence, R.I. Providence defeated Rhode Island, 63-60.(AP Photo/Stew Milne)
Villanova guard Josh Hart (3) reacts after he hit a 3-pointer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Georgetown, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Washington. Villanova won 81-55. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Iowa guard Peter Jok (14) celebrates with teammates Ahmad Wagner, left, and Isaiah Moss, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 90-79. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Conference expansion has made tournaments bloated and unwieldy, but there are still some good early games to carry you through Championship Week.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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