Ohio State held a slight edge over Kansas in last week’s coaches’ poll (17 first-place votes to 14) but extended that margin in Monday’s new poll, getting 25 first-place votes to Kansas’ six (I guess some of them saw OSU’s 93-65 destruction of Wisconsin on Sunday). Ohio State owned a much bigger lead in the AP poll last week (45-14 in first-place votes with BYU getting five and Duke one). Ohio State extended its lead in the latest AP poll as well, getting 52 first-place votes with Kansas getting the other 13. Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Duke rank three, four and five in both polls. The final regular season polls will be taken after all schools have completed their respective conference tourneys and released late next Sunday or early Monday. However, does any school really want that final No. 1 ranking prior to the NCAA tournament?
The short answer is no. A look at the history book shows that teams entering the NCAA tournament No. 1 in the final AP poll have not fared well since the heyday of John Wooden's UCLA Bruins. UCLA won 10 of 12 titles from 1964-75, seven times entering the tournament as the nation's top-ranked team. Bob Knight's 1975-76 team, the last to finish a season unbeaten at 32-0, also entered that year's tourney as No. 1. However, since that season, just five schools have finished No. 1 in the AP's final regular poll and gone on to win the title. The most recent school to do so was Duke (2001) and the short list also includes UCLA (1995), Duke (1992), North Carolina (1982) and Kentucky (1978). Doing the math, that's just five in 34 years or 14.8 percent, not exactly making this year's AP's final regular season No. 1 an overwhelming favorite to "cut down the nets" at Reliant Stadium in Houston come April 4.
While the nation's top-ranked team at the end of the regular season is certainly no "sure thing," it's not as if too many teams have "come out of nowhere to win," either. Just three schools have entered the "Big Dance" unranked since Knight's legendary Hoosiers team of 1976 and gone on to win the national title. North Carolina State (26-10) won it all in 1983, Villanova (25-10) won the title in 1985 and Kansas (27-11) won the national championship in 1988. However, since Manning's 1988 Jayhawks team (a span of 22 years), just three schools have entered the NCAA tournament ranked higher than 10th and gone on to win it all.
That list includes Arizona in 1997 (ranked 15th and with a No. 4 seed), Syracuse in 2003 (ranked 13th and with a No. 3 seed) plus Florida in 2006 (ranked 11th and with a No. 3 seed). It should be noted that Arizona Wildcats of 1997 are the only school in tournament history to upset three No. 1 seeds on its way to winning a national championship. Arizona beat Kansas (No. 1 in the Southeast) in the Sweet 16, North Carolina (No. 1 in the East) in the national semifinals and Kentucky (No. 1 in the West) in the championship game. Note that last year, Butler was ranked 11th in the final AP poll and got a No. 5 seed, just missing out on becoming the fourth school to join to the previous list. You may just remember that the Bulldogs came within a half-court Hail Mary heave of beating Duke in last year’s title game (Blue Devils won 61-59).
Weekend update: “Selection Sunday” was still eight days away when UNC-Asheville became the first team this season to clinch an NCAA tourney bid when it won 60-47 at Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers lost the Big South championship game on their home court for the second straight season while the Bulldogs won their third Big South tournament (also winning the championship in 1989 and 2003), earning the school’s second-ever NCAA bid (2003). Belmont (30-4) was the second school to ‘punch its ticket,’ winning 87-46 over North Florida in Macon, Georgia (Mercer’s home court). It marks the Bruins’ fourth Atlantic Sun title in six years. Watch out for Belmont which has won 21 of its last 22 games with three of the team’s four losses this season coming at Tennessee (twice) and at Vandy. In its last NCAA appearance (2008), the Bruins nearly pulled off one of the tournament’s biggest upsets when the Bruins (a No. 15 seed) lost 71-70 to No. 2 seed Duke. Belmont is arguably the deepest team in college hoops with 11 players averaging 10 minutes or more (leading scorer Clark averages 12.4 PPG on 24.6 MPG). What’s more, the Bruins play great away from home. Belmont has 54 true road victories, which trails only Vermont among Division I teams since the 2005-0 season. The Bruins have 13 road wins and 18 road/neutral victories this season, more than any other team in the country!
Morehead St earned its fourth OVC tournament title later Saturday night (also won in 1983, 1984 and 2009), beating Tennessee Tech, 80-73. It marks Morehead State’s seventh all-time NCAA bid, the first two coming in 1956 and ‘57. The 1956 team featured Steve Hamilton, one of only two men to play in an NBA championship finals (1959 Lakers) and a World Series (1963 and ‘64 Yankees). Gene Conley (1957 Milwaukee Braves and the 1959-61 Boston Celtics) is the other. While Hamilton was on three losing teams, Conley was a perfect 4-0. Speaking of notable accomplishments, the Eagles’ 6-8 senior Kenneth Faried had 24 points and 15 rebounds in the championship game, his 27th double-double of the season, the most in the country. It marked his 84th career double-double, tying Ralph Sampson for the second-most all-time (Tim Duncan is the Division I leader with 87).
Sunday saw a fourth school earn a 2011 NCAA tourney bid, Larry Bird’s alma mater, Indiana St. The Sycamores were picked seventh in the MVC prior to the season but went 12-6 to earn the No. 3 seed. However, ISU beat No. 2 seed Wichita St on Saturday and then No. 1 seed Missouri St 60-56 on Sunday. All this comes under first-year head coach Greg Lansing, who stepped in when head coach Kevin McKenna left to be an assistant under Dana Altman at Oregon. For Indiana St, it’s the school’s fourth NCAA bid (1979, 2000 and 2001). More big news on Saturday was George Mason losing 79-63 to VCU in the CAA semis, ending the nation’s longest winning streak at 16 in a row. George Mason (26-6) lost for the first time since Jan 8 and fell to 0-5 in its history against VCU in CAA tournament play. However, the Patriots are still expected to be invited to the NCAA tournament as an at-large entry with a high RPI. Unlike George Mason, Missouri St (25-8 overall / 15-3 in the MVC) will likely not get an at-large bid.
Four more schools earned automatic bids on Monday. Old Dominion was the first to clinch Monday night, beating VU 70-65 in the CAA finals. The Monarchs became the first team to win back-to-back CAA tourney titles since UNC-Wilmington in 2002 and 2003 but also deprived the CAA from possibly getting three NCAA bids for the first time ever. GMU and ODU were seen as at-large teams regardless, while VCU has virtually no chance of receiving an at-large bid. Look who’s back. When Memphis beat Gonzaga back on Feb 5 in Spokane, the Bulldogs were just 15-9 and a modest 5-3 in the WCC. The Zags’ NCAA tourney chances were all but ‘cooked.’ However, nine consecutive wins later (two over St Mary’s, including Monday’s 75-63 win in the championship game) and the Bulldogs own their 11th West Coast Conference tourney title (the most of any school in the conference). Gonzaga advances to the NCAA tournament for the 13th straight season and 14th overall. St Mary's (24-8) was seen as an NCAA ‘lock’ but four losses in its last six games will surely have the Gaels ‘sweating’ come Sunday.
Next to sew up an NCAA berth on Monday was St Peter’s of the MAAC, which beat Iona 62-57, ending the Gaels nine-game winning streak. It’s marks the school’s third NCAA appearance and first since 1995 (also went in 1991). Talk about turnarounds. St Peter’s was 3-15 in MAAC play in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, with those teams winning five and six games, respectively. St Peter’s went 11-19 (8-10) in 2008-09 and then earned its first winning season since 2006 last year, going 16-14 (11-7). This year’s team was 11-7 again in the MAAC, entering as the tourney’s fourth seed and three wins later (including over No. 1 seed Fairfield), is 20-13 and ‘dancing.’ Wofford was the final school to earn an NCAA berth on Monday, beating the College of Charleston 77-67 in the Southern Conference championship game. The Terriers are back in the NCAAs for the second straight year, the only two appearances in school history. Head coach Mike Young is in his ninth year at Wofford. His first winning season (16-15) came in his seventh but he won 26 games last year including the conference tourney title, then almost upset Wisconsin. This year’s team is 21-12 and ready to ‘scare’ another first round opponent. As for Bobby Cremins of Charleston, he's won 20-plus games for four of his five of his seasons with the Cougars but note his team has now lost in this tourney's championship game in 2007, 2009 and now 2011.
The Big East, with a record-tying nine schools in the latest AP top-25 this week, is the first of the “power-six” conferences to open tourney play, starting on Tuesday. There is speculation that 11 Big East schools could reach this year’s expanded field of 68 teams. The A-10 and MAC also begin Tuesday and while the the A-10 should receive three bids (Xavier, Temple and Richmond), the MAC hasn’t earned an at-large bid since 1999 (that streak won’t end this year). The Sun Belt tourney features its championship game on Tuesday with North Texas taking on Arkansas-Little Rock. North Texas (22-10) has won 20-plus games in each of the last five seasons and won the SBC tourney last year. The Mean Green Eagles are looking for their third NCAA appearance since 2007 (4th all-time). Arkansas-LR finished 7-9 in league play and entered the SBC tourney 15-16. Three wins later and the Trojans are looking to return to the “Big Dance” for the first time since 1990 (under Mike Newell, the school made five straight postseason trips from 1996-90, three to the NCAAs).
The The Horizon League final is also on Tuesday with Butler playing at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Panthers have beaten the Bulldogs in both regular season meetings this year but unless they win here, they’ll have to settle for the NIT. As for the Bulldogs, most seem to think last year’s national runners-up will get an at-large bid if they lose here. Butler has made four straight NCAA trips and nine since 1997. The third conference championship game is in the Summit League with No. 1 seed Oakland (24-9 / 17-1) taking on Oral Roberts (19-14 / 13-5) at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Golden Grizzlies are looking for their second straight NCAA appearance and third all-time. The Golden Eagles (this is an all-Golden final) won the first-ever Summit League title in 2008, the school’s third straight tourney title (league was previously called the Mid-Continent). Oral Roberts is looking for the school’s sixth NCAA trip. Not that many will notice but the MEAC also begins on Tuesday. Bethune-Cookman (13-3) is the No. 1 seed but No. 4 seed Morgan St (10-6) has won this tourney each of the last two years.
A fourth school could earn an NCAA bid Tuesday, even though it isn’t even playing. Harvard has completed its Ivy League season at 12-2. However, Princeton (11-2) plays at Penn on Tuesday night. A win by the Tigers will force a one-game playoff on Saturday at Yale's John J. Lee Amphitheater in New Haven, Conn. The Ivy League is the only Division I conference which doesn’t hold a postseason tourney, giving its automatic bid to the regular season champ. The Tigers own 27 Ivy League titles all-time and have made 23 NCAA appearances. As for Harvard, the Crimson made their lone NCAA tournament appearance way back in 1946 and had been the only Ivy League school to have not won a championship since the conference was formed in 1956-57 (will get credit for a conference championship, regardless of the outcome of the playoff, if needed). A playoff would be the seventh in Ivy history and the first since Yale, Penn and Princeton were tied at the end of the 2001-02 regular season, the only three-way tie in conference history.
The Big 12 opens Wednesday, as does the Pac 10 (among “power six” leagues). Also joining the fray on Wednesday will be C-USA (only the tourney champ is expected to get a bid), the WAC (same applies here, unless Utah St is upset) and the MWC (BYU and San Diego St are ‘locks’) with UNLV (likely) and New Mexico (long shot) holding at-large possibilities. The Big Sky championship game is also set for Wednesday with Tuesday’s semifinal winners meeting on the home court of Northern Colorado. The final three “power six” conferences begin tourney play on Thursday, the ACC, Big 10 and SEC.
This will be only column this week, as the schedule of games is overwhelming. I’ll be back Monday with my annual “Tournament by the Numbers” article.
Good luck...Larry .