4 seed, Denver, vs. Winthrop
My love of the NCAA tournament stems from a love for the underdogs. And it’s exceptionally hard to root against Winthrop, who defeated Notre Dame last season in a similar matchup and lost De’Andre Adams to a car accident last spring. My first glimpse of the Eagles came from a first-round game against Gonzaga, one of those losing-but-play-your-heart-out efforts that everyone loves to see from the little guys in the Big Dance. This isn’t cinderella; it’s an established program and a team with plenty of tournament experience.
With that in mind it will be hard to fault the Cougs for dropping a first round game to this particular 13-seed. Digger Phelps and other analysts are probably lining up (yet again) to predict an upset of WSU in the first and/or second rounds.
However, this isn’t last year. This year WSU has only lost games to four other teams all season (UCLA, Arizona, California, Stanford). Three of those are tournament teams. Some of the supposedly “weak” teams in the Cougs’ non-conference schedule suddenly find themselves dancing this week (Portland State, Boise State, Baylor). And the experience is there – this will be a hungrier, more seasoned ball club led by three seniors instead of one. Not only that, there won’t be a major shift in style of play like there was last season. The final games of 2007 saw Ivory Clark sit on the bench in favor of a three-guard lineup and a suddenly increased reliance on Aron Baynes. This year, the Cougs have used the same starting lineup every game, save one (senior night). If they play their game and hold their seed, the Sweet Sixteen is a very realistic possibility.
Kudos to the selection committee for recognizing the strength of this year’s Pac-10, not only in number of selections (6), but also in seeding. UCLA a 1, Stanford a 3, WSU a 4, USC a 6, Oregon a 9, and Arizona a 10. WSU at 4 in Denver was a best-case scenario for this years’ team, and boy did it pan out. It’s fortunate in a way, but unfortunate in that there is a quality first-round opponent looming (better than last year’s Oral Roberts team), and a potential Sweet 16 date with a 1 seed playing what amounts to a home game (UNC in Charlotte).
(Edit: I should address Arizona State being left out of the field of 64. It’s not right, but the reason has everything to do with the computer numbers: an atrocious RPI (83rd) and one of the worst non-conference schedule strengths (296th) you’ll ever see from a power conference team. Yes, they beat Arizona twice. But the committee has too many teams and too many variables to look entirely at head-to-head matchups. For example, ASU lost to Nebraska and Illinois. Should those teams be taken ahead of ASU in consideration? You open up a whole Pandora’s box if you start doing that. In my opinion, ASU should be in based on conference record and overall record. But I’m not on the committee.)
Looking at the Cougs’ bracket, here’s what the situation is in the top half of the East bracket:
16 Play-in game winner
1 North Carolina
5 Notre Dame
12 George Mason
4 Washington State
Again, I think the Sweet Sixteen and avoidance of the first-round upset are the Cougs’ goals here. The third round game would be in Charlotte, against North Carolina if the seeds hold. I don’t think anyone is touching the Heels in this bracket, so anything beyond the field of 16 would be phenomenal for the Cougs.
The second round poses a potential problem in upstart George Mason or Luke Harangody and Notre Dame. Notre Dame in particular is a threat because of their ability to shoot the 3. But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. We’ll see how the first round plays out.
The hardest part of Selection Sunday for me was turning down a chance to buy student tickets for the first round games in Denver. Between classes and a lack of money for the trinity of costs associated with tourney games (airfare, hotel, tickets), I just couldn’t do it. I knew I could sell the tickets too for a mark-up on StubHub or any number of sites, but it goes against all my morals as a fan. Better to just let the tickets slip by and go to another deserving member of the ZZU CRU.
It’s a great day, though – the Cougars are in the tournament for the second straight year. What seemed impossible four years ago was a sure thing today. That’s a pretty good feeling.