DENVER (AP) The only thing ”double-digits” about Wichita State and Gonzaga have been their margins of victory.
They are 11 seeds this year. They have played a combined three games. Nobody has come within 10 points of them.
That the Shockers and Bulldogs have moved past the first round of the NCAA Tournament is hardly anything new – surprises happen all the time in March Madness, as Michigan State will certainly attest.
The bigger questions are: Were these really upsets? And, given the most unpredictable regular season that just ended, did the selection committee have a fighting chance of getting this, or anything else, right this year?
”We don’t have basketball people in that group,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, during an entertaining rant after the brackets came out.
One of Calipari’s main complaints was that when teams get seeded improperly, they don’t suffer as much as the teams they have to play.
Arizona and Seton Hall, a pair of No. 6 seeds with decent resumes, would certainly agree. The Wildcats fell by 10 to Wichita State on Thursday, and the Pirates lost by 16 to Gonzaga. Vanderbilt also got the wrong end: Wichita State beat the Commodores, another 11 seed, 70-50 in the play-in game Tuesday.
”Typically, the talk is that teams that are in those play-in games shouldn’t be in the tournament,” said Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet, who was part of Shockers teams that went to the Final Four in 2013 and went undefeated the next regular season. ”So, we just take all of that as ammunition and just keep letting that chip on our shoulder get bigger and bigger.”
It wasn’t hard to see this coming.
This season included six changes atop The Associated Press poll, one short of the record. It gave us a season-ending Top 10 of teams that combined for 68 losses. It featured 31 conference tournaments, only 10 of which were won by the same team that earned top seeding in the regular season.
Gonzaga may have well have been the poster child for all this upheaval.
The Bulldogs started the season ranked ninth and considered, as always, a Final Four contender. But when center Przemek Karnowski went out with a season-ending back injury in December, everything changed. The Zags lost six games – a catastrophe by their standards – in December, January and February. They were considered a bubble team. All the while, their forward, Domantas Sabonis, was improving almost every day and their guards were turning into playmakers, not liabilities.
The Bulldogs won the West Coast Conference tournament to make March Madness. The program making its 18th straight trip to the tournament was rewarded with an 11 seed. The Zags didn’t fight it.
”In some ways, it’s going to be kind of nice to be a double-digit seed,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. ”We just haven’t done it in a while and it will be kind of fun to have to play that role.”
Fun, it was. Led by 21 points and 16 rebounds from Sabonis, Gonzaga rolled to a 68-52 win over Seton Hall on Thursday night.
There have been some other double-digit seeds moving on in this tournament, though their stories – including No. 15 Middle Tennessee’s shocker over No. 2 Michigan State – have more traditional feels to them.
-No. 12 seeds Yale and Little Rock had nothing to complain about their seedings. But their wins over Baylor and Purdue added to an already massive pile of evidence showing the ever-shrinking gap between small and big conferences.
-No. 10 seed Syracuse got lambasted after making the tournament but, much like UCLA did last year after it inexplicably got in, did everything it could to have the committee’s back. The Orange beat Dayton 70-51 on Friday. ”Anybody that said we didn’t deserve to be in obviously doesn’t know anything about basketball,” coach Jim Boeheim said.
-Nobody argued much about the seeding of either No. 13 Hawaii or No. 4 Cal before the Rainbow Warriors won that game 77-66. But Cal’s 10 losses this season despite having two potential lottery picks on the roster – Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb – raised red flags about the Bears.
-Finally, many experts thought Michigan State should’ve been a 1, not a 2. The Spartans’ loss goes as Exhibit A of how crazy this season has been.
”It’s all about the team that you’re playing, not the number in front of it,” said Gregg Marshall, the coach of Wichita State, which plays No. 3 seed Miami on Saturday. ”And that’s what I love about the NCAA Tournament.”