March Madness: No Wisconsin? No Notre Dame? Here are the surprising tournament hopefuls in their place
The season has been full of odd sights, why should next month be any different? A Sweet 16 of unusual things this March might bring us, starting with the NCAA tournament hopeful who owns maybe the most unique incentive of all.
1. Savannah State in the field, before it disappears from Division I.
You want to see a place where the clock is ticking? It’s almost now-or-never for the Tigers to get the school’s first-ever bid to the NCAA tournament. They reclassify to Division II after next season. They’re one of four teams in a virtual tie for the lead in the MEAC and recently won nine games in a row. Who knows if they’ll ever have this good of a chance again?
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The conference tournament should be lively. Things always are around Savannah State, which leads the nation by firing up 41 3-pointers a game, and has broken 100 points nine times (alas, the opponents have done it 13 times). If only more of those long-range missiles hit the target. The Tigers are 339th in the nation in shooting percentage.
They’re also 13-15 overall, but consider the non-conference gauntlet they ran — Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Cincinnati and Wichita State. Otherwise known as the Nos. 1, 2, 6, 11 and 13 teams in this week’s Associated Press poll.
If the coach’s name rings a bell, he was one of John Thompson’s national champions at Georgetown back in 1984, when the Hoyas ruled the world with defense. Wonder what Thompson thinks when he gets a load of Savannah State’s fire-away style?
“Initially, he said that I was crazy,” Broadnax said. “But the one thing about Coach Thompson, he was very high IQ basketball-wise, and he wanted to win.
“You have to try to figure things out, and that’s basically what I’m trying to do. How can I win here? We take a lot of shots, we take a lot of 3s, we just don’t make them. If we were a little bit more efficient, we could be successful. Teams have played slow against bigger programs and got killed, so why not have fun?”
The fun will really start for the Tigers if they win the league tournament and pull off a first-ever NCAA bid — while they still can. But it'll be hard work, in a balanced conference that offers one bid only.
“I always make the analogy of 13 wild dogs chasing one bone,” Broadnax said. “A lot of people are going to get hurt, and eventually one will come out. But it’s going to be ugly.”
2. No Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament.
The Badgers have been as reliable as tide tables, making four consecutive Sweet 16 trips — longest streak in the nation — and earning a spot in 19 NCAA ournaments in a row. They haven't missed one this century. But youth's led to inconsistency in 2018, as youth tends to do, and only a miracle run in the Big Ten tournament can save 13-16 Wisconsin, which at last check was 12th in the conference in field goal defense. That seems as out of place in a Madison winter as water skis.
3. Auburn as a high seed.
The Tigers haven’t been seen in the bracket as an anything seed in 15 years.
4. Loyola of Chicago — the Cinderella of ’63 — an invitee.
The Ramblers haven’t been in the tournament since 1985. But with a 23-5 record and the lead in the Missouri Valley Conference, they could end the wait – 55 years after the school won an unlikely national championship.
5. Notre Dame missing.
The Irish were No. 5 in the nation with a player of the year candidate in Bonzie Colson and carried the confidence of three consecutive NCAA tournaments and nine in the past 11 years. Then the injuries began. Colson . . . floor leader Matt Farrell . . . freshman D.J. Harvey. The ACC is not noted for its mercy, even for a team losing three of its top six players. The Irish are 16-12 and 12th in the league.
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6. And VCU.
Remember the stirring March of 2011, when the Rams went from the First Four to the Final Four? That started a seven-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances. The only other programs to be in the last seven are Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Gonzaga, Cincinnati, North Carolina and Wisconsin, so VCU has been running with a fast crowd. But given a 15-12 record, that streak is in imminent danger.
7. And Iowa State.
The Cyclones have been in the NCAA tournament six years in a row, but they’re still paying for losing 82 percent of their scoring from last season’s conference tournament champions. This was a bad year to be short on experience in the brutal Big 12. Iowa State, 13-13, has beaten Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma — all ranked when they played — and thumped 21-6 Boise State by 11 points. That makes the Cyclones probably the best last place team in America.
8. And maybe half of last year’s Final Four.
At 17-10, Oregon needs a very fast finish to get off the bubble. At 14-13 and tied for 12th in the SEC, South Carolina needs a lot more than that. It could be the third time in the past four years that half the Final Four missed the next season's tournament.
9. None of the blue-blooded trio of Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina as a No. 1 seed.
That’s happened only twice in 27 years — 2013 and ’14. But it could again, though Duke is having a late resurgence.
10. Nick Saban’s school in the bracket.
Depending upon how Alabama wants to measure time, it’s been six years — or two football national championships — since the Tide last appeared in the tournament.
11. Houston in the field.
The Cougars haven’t made it since 2010. And if they would happen to win a game, it would be their first tournament victory since the 1984 Final Four.
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12. TCU with an invitation.
The Horned Frogs have never been given one this century.
13. The nation’s top scoring team in the NCAA tournament.
Since Villanova, Duke and Oklahoma are 1-2-3 at the moment, that’s a pretty safe bet. It’s happened only twice in the past 12 years — both times Iona.
14. Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky among the 68.
Have two teams sharing the same home court ever both showed up in the tournament? Cincinnati is using Northern Kentucky’s place while its arena is under renovation. The Bearcats are a lock. Northern Kentucky will have to win the Horizon tournament.
15. Texas Tech making noise.
The Red Raiders have been in one NCAA tournament this decade — last March — and haven’t won a tournament game in 13 years. But they’re no idle threat, with a 22-5 record and fighting Kansas for the Big 12 title.
16. The Final Four in San Antonio.
It’s been 10 years, but everyone loves the place, so it’ll be nice to be back. The last overtime national championship game was played there. Matter of fact, four of the nine Final Four games played in San Antonio were decided by one or two points, or in overtime. The way this season has gone, it seems the perfect place to finish.