The bubble takes on a different meaning this week as 68 teams prepare to play the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. Instead of referring to teams whose every game pushes them in or out of the projected tournament field, everybody is in their own COVID-19 bubble.
Two schools that have already been affected by the pandemic this month have been Virginia and Virginia Tech. While the Cavaliers had to withdraw from the ACC Tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program last Friday, the Hokies have played only three games since Feb. 6 due to cancellations (they’re 1-2 in those games).
But at least Coach Mike Young’s team is in Indianapolis. The Cavaliers have been isolating and won’t get to Indy until later this week. While Virginia is in the East as a No. 4 seed and gets a First Round matchup with MAC winner Ohio (led by guard Jason Preston — no relation — and his 17 points / seven rebounds / seven assists per game), Virginia Tech is a No. 10 seed in the South and faces a Florida that is 1-3 so far in March. If the Hokies survive the Gators, their likely reward is Big Ten Tournament runner-up Ohio State.
But at least both are dancing, unlike George Mason.
The Patriots finished 13-9 after falling to Davidson in the Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals. And the school announced Wednesday that they would be “parting ways” with Coach Dave Paulsen after six years and a 95-91 record.
Paulsen never led the Patriots to the NCAA or NIT (they did make the 2017 CBI) while in Fairfax but did help stabilize a program in transition from the CAA to the A-10. Mason won a combined nine league games in the two seasons before he arrived, and Paulsen had them going 9-9 in the conference during his second year at the helm.
It looked as if they might be turning the corner after an 11-1 start in 2019 (the only loss coming at No. 6 Maryland). Unfortunately, injuries (specifically to senior Justin Kier) helped torpedo the great beginning and the Patriots were back to playing on the first day of the Conference Tournament. After another exit before the Conference Semifinals, the school has to find Paulsen’s replacement while figuring out what their expectations should be.
The former Bucknell coach appeared to be the right hire in 2015 and the program has posted three straight winning overall records while finishing .500 or above in four of the last five years. We’ve seen the ceiling (five NCAA appearances plus three NIT bids in 14 years under Jim Larranaga), but winning isn’t a birthright anywhere in Division I hoops, least of all in an annually competitive league like the Atlantic 10. Let’s see who they hire.
The South Regional features a top seed in Baylor smarting from their Big 12 semifinal loss to Oklahoma State, with the North Carolina-Wisconsin awaiting the Bears in the Second Round (UNC is 14-0 in the First Round under Coach Roy Williams). My favorite matchup involves No. 3 Arkansas and Colgate: the Razorbacks’ 82.4 points per game ranks seventh in Division I while the Patriot League champs’ 86.3 points per game is second-most in the country behind Gonzaga. Other notables include Utah State snaring a No. 11 seed as an at-large mid-major; nice to see the committee give credit to a non-Power Five guy.
No. 6 seed Texas Tech draws the Aggies in the First Round and they reached the championship game the last time the tournament was played in 2019. Coach Chris Beard’s Raiders’ have consistently overperformed their seeding, and their sticky defense has been their hallmark since he arrived in Lubbock. This March, Beard gets a boost from a pair of transfers you may have heard of: former Georgetown guard Mac McClung is leading Tech with 15.7 points per game and ex-VCU forward Marcos Santos-Silva paces them in rebounding (6.5 boards per game) and blocks (1.2).
No. 5 seed Villanova’s skid down the stretch was a byproduct of losing guards Collin Gillespie to a torn ACL and Justin Moore to a sprained ankle. Will Moore be able to return, and if so, how good will he be? They’ve also been in boom-or-bust mode since 2007, either advancing to the Final Four or exiting during the first weekend. This is not a Final four team. They draw 23-1 Winthrop, and this year’s Eagles are led by 6-foot-7 senior guard Chandler Vaudrin (12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game) but it’s a roster that goes 10 deep (nine average 14+ minutes per game while a tenth clocks in at 13.6).
No. 1 seed Baylor can run you out of the gym: the Bears rank fourth nationally in scoring (84.4 points per game), first in three-point shooting (41.8%) and 11th in steals (8.96 per game). All-American guards Jalen Butler and Davion Mitchell each shoot better than 42% from outside the arc, and the rust from the two-week pandemic pause for the program in early February (a close win over last-place Iowa State and a loss to Kansas) has abated. They’re also battle-tested, having played six of their last seven games against ranked foes. They’ll have at least five more games on their schedule.
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