Rick Pitino is in the NCAA Tournament and Kentucky is not.
It’s been that kind of season in college basketball.
A year after the NCAA Tournament was canceled by COVID-19, the 2021 bracket included Pitino’s Iona Gaels and no Big Blue Nation following a season of stops, starts and cancelations.
The truncated build-up to the season and the chaos within it took a toll on the Wildcats. Coach John Calipari had another team loaded with future-pro freshmen, but didn’t have the usual time to develop them into a cohesive team.
Kentucky finished 9-16 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the second time in Calipari’s 12 seasons.
Pitino, a former Kentucky coach, went from being fired by Louisville to coaching in Greece to becoming the third coach to lead five different teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Pitino needed just one season to take Iona into the bracket, leading the Gaels to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament title. He doesn’t expect a short stay, either, despite opening against Alabama, the No. 2 seed in the East Region.
“I told them I was packing eight suits,” he said. “We have a lot of dirty laundry, and we’re heading to Indianapolis.”
The NCAA Tournament was filled with plenty of star power the past few times it was played, from Trae to Ja to Zion.
This year’s bracket will be no different.
Iowa’s Luka Garza is an All-American, a front-runner for national player of the year and a dominating force.
Oklahoma State’s appeal on a NCAA-mandated postseason ban has not been been resolved, which means college basketball fans get to watch what Cade Cunningham can do in March. The dynamic freshman point guard was clutch during the regular season and could do something special in the NCAA Tournament.
Speaking of clutch, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs seems to play his best when the pressure’s on, like he did in the WCC Tournament final against BYU. The former high school quarterback doesn’t play like a freshman.
Put Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu in the same category. He’s confident, athletic and loves pressure situations.
Southern California’s Evan Mobley can dominate at both ends, a big reason the 7-foot freshman is projected as the No. 1 overall pick on some NBA draft boards.
FIRST FOUR SCORE
The First Four games are usually filled with small-conference teams playing against schools from larger conferences that sneaked into the bracket.
This year’s opening set of games includes two of college basketball’s marquee teams squaring off: Michigan State and UCLA.
The Spartans have played in eight Final Fours under coach Tom Izzo, but appeared to be headed for an NCAA Tournament-less offseason after a stretch of seven losses in nine games.
Michigan State (15-12) pulled it together just in time, capped by a win over East Region No. 1 seed Michigan to close out the regular season.
UCLA (17-9), the all-time leader with 11 national championships, appeared to be in good shape heading into the final month of the season, but closed it out with four straight losses to teeter on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The First Four is always fun and this one will be worth tuning in to.
The Michigan State-UCLA First Four game kicks things off right, but there are plenty of other must-watch games (aren’t they all this time of year?).
If you like fast-pace, high-scoring games with lots of 3s, be sure to tune in to the South Region opener between No. 3 Arkansas and No. 14 Colgate on Friday. Whatever the over is, take it.
Villanova is typically a favorite to make a deep run in March. Injuries, particularly a season-ender to point guard Collin Gillespie, have turned the Wildcats into a popular pick to be upset by Winthrop in the South Region. The Wildcats still have plenty of talent, but the Eagles lost just one game all season and have shooters all over the floor.
Clemson has the higher seed at No. 7 in the Midwest Region, but No. 10 Rutgers has been pegged as the betting favorite. Oddmakers are expecting the Scarlet Knights to make the most of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years, so that could be one worth keeping an eye on Friday.
SISTER JEAN RETURNS
Sister Jean became a fan favorite in 2018 when she followed Loyola Chicago all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.
Now she’s back and so are the Ramblers.
Loyola Chicago clinched its first spot in the field of 68 since that magical run with a 75-65 win over Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference title game.
Sister Jean would like to join the Ramblers in Indianapolis.
The 101-year-old team chaplain has already received the COVID-19 vaccine and, though she wasn’t allowed to attend MVC Tournament games, is hoping to get clearance from the NCAA.
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