One month before Selection Sunday, and now the plot thickens. A lot of questions need to be answered in the next four weeks, so where to begin?
The Bulldogs haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1962, when a Harvard man – John Kennedy -- was in the White House. But they have won 10 in a row to lead the Ivy League, and with no conference tournament, the golden ticket to March must be secured largely in February. So is Yale’s time now?This 15-5 team is no fluke. Over four days in November, the Bulldogs pushed SMU before losing 71-69, and led Duke 9-0 in Durham before reality set in and the score ended up 80-61. They’re no softies, leading the nation at the moment in rebound margin. They have stormed through their first six Ivy League games, but now face four in a row on the road. That starts Friday with Dartmouth, the trouble-makers who upset them on a last-second shot last year on the final day of the regular season, just when Yale was close enough to the NCAA tournament to hear the dance music. It forced the Bulldogs into an Ivy League playoff with Harvard, which they lost by two points, a game watched on TV in a Florida restaurant by Brandon Sherrod.
Brandon Sherrod? He’s one of Yale’s main men, and just set an NCAA record by making 30 consecutive shots. "I feel very blessed and very fortunate to be a part of that. But I can’t really celebrate it too much because we have to take care of business."
Gifted with a great singing voice, Sherrod sat out last season to tour with the Yale Whiffenpoofs, a famed a cappella group. They warbled in 26 countries and dozens of states, so it was the chance of a lifetime. But there he was in Fort Lauderdale last March, miserably watching Yale lose that playoff game to Harvard, wishing he could help.
"It was very tough to watch," he said. "But it also gave me the motivation to come back this year. I think the decision I made was the right one obviously, because of the experiences I was able to have. I also gained a great deal of perspective, which was paramount in going back to the team."
Now he wants that to lead to the NCAA tournament, as one of four senior starters.
“It’s really difficult, especially when you’re a college basketball player, to watch other teams that you’ve played against getting in the tournament. And you’re asking yourself, why aren’t we there?’’ he said. “It would mean the world to be a part of that. It’s been a long overdue celebration in New Haven. I think the determination is even bigger now after last year."
And here are six other intriguing questions the next month should resolve.
1. Who will be No. 1 going into the NCAA tournament?That depends on who is the last to come through the revolving door. Villanova is the sixth team to be there this season, and the first five have all had trying moments. It’s illuminating to see what some of them have been going through since.
Roy Williams had a vertigo attack Tuesday night, as North Carolina had to claw to barely get past Boston College, who came into the game 0-10 in the ACC. John Calipari has had a full plate trying to get Kentucky right. Kansas is in a Big 12 dogfight. Michigan State lost three in a row, recovered, but dropped a tough one Tuesday night at Purdue in overtime.
In other words, everyone is still a work in process.
“It doesn’t faze me if people count us in, and it certainly doesn’t faze me if people count us out,’’ Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said. “This is a good basketball team. It’s still not in sync, but it’s the middle of February and it’s about time we started getting there. And we have been. We’ll be around.’’
Then again, maybe nobody wants to be No. 1. Only twice in the past 20 years has the top ranked team ended up national champion.
2. The four No. 1 seeds will be . . . ?This could be an entertaining mess. Villanova, Maryland, Oklahoma, Kansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Virginia. You could make a case for all of them at the moment. And Oregon, No. 3 in the RPI with a glowing schedule. The Ducks have never been seeded higher than No. 3 in their history.
A batch of big games the last month will have to sort it out. The Oklahoma-Kansas rematch Saturday for one. North Carolina and Duke still have to play twice.
3. Speaking of Duke, could the Blue Devils actually end up on the bubble?Probably not. The boot from the top 25 naturally inspired wondering, but the win over Louisville eased any immediate thoughts of crisis. Now comes the Virginia-North Carolina-Louisville triple jump, where Duke could reassert its stature. Or not. Mike Krzyzewski is still trying to get by with basically a six-man rotation until Amile Jefferson returns, and searching for the identity of this bunch. “We’ve just got to keep mucking about, keep getting better, keep earning it, and be this Duke team,’’ he said “And they’re becoming this Duke team, whatever that is. It’s good. Just trying to keep going.’’
4. What of Kansas’ delve for twelve?If the Jayhawks want to push their remarkable Big 12 season title streak to an even dozen years, they’ll have to do it the hard way the next month. They’re at Oklahoma Saturday, at Baylor and Texas later. It’s true fratricide in that conference, with lots of contenders, and nobody to be taken lightly. “With all due respect to Kansas,’’ West Virginia’s Bob Huggins said, “I don’t think anybody in this league sits around and thinks about Kansas all the time.’’ But the Jayhawks do seem to be warming to the occasion. They haven’t trailed in nearly 103 game minutes.
5. Will Max Hooper take a 2-point shot this season?Time is running out for the Oakland bombardier, who has taken all 195 shots from beyond the 3-point line. You wonder what happens if he is ever at the end of a Grizzlies fast break.
6. Who will be the most intriguing bubble teams a month from now?Start with LSU, currently managing the rare feat of leading the SEC and owning a spot in bubble-dom at the same time. Eight losses can do that for a team, especially when it zig-zags like the Tigers. They could use a good weekend against South Carolina and Texas A&M coming up, and some deft road work at places such as Tennessee and Arkansas. The last regular season game is at Kentucky, and we all know how that will turn out.
Syracuse, 16-8, can only keep padding its resume and hope the selection committee gives due recognition to the fact the Orange are 12-3 with Jim Boeheim, and 4-5 without him. Syracuse will go to Louisville and North Carolina the last month, and play dangerous Florida State twice.
Then there’s Monmouth. The presumption is the 20-5 Hawks will win the MAAC tournament and make it easy. But what if they come down with a bad case of the Ionas or something, and require an at-large invitation?
So the stretch run is officially on. Consider this from Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine Tuesday night, after the Spartans came from 18 points behind to force overtime, but lost at Purdue. “I think we showed a little fight, but at the same time, we’ve just got to come out and be more of an aggressive team and realize that there’s six games now left, and we can’t afford another loss.’’
Urgency. They’ll begin to feel it now, including at Yale. One month to go.