The Dons’ quest for an NCAA Tournament bid came to a heartbreaking end on Monday, Mar. 10 as they dropped a 79-77 overtime decision to BYU in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev. The loss was as disappointing as they come for the Dons, but the pain was eased considerably on Sunday when USF was named a No. 4 seed in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
Examining USF’s NCAA Tournament Chances
After winning their final two games of the season against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, the Dons will enter the West Coast Conference (WCC) Championships seeded at number three. Coming off of a season in which they exceeded expectations, San Francisco is poised to make a splash in the conference tournament. However, WCC powerhouses such as Brigham Young and Gonzaga stand in the way of USF winning a conference championship and earning a ticket to the big dance.
The Dons are seeded in front of fourth-seeded St. Mary’s even though the Gaels possess a 21-10 record that bests the Dons 20-10 mark. St. Mary’s may have a better overall record, but the Dons’ five-game winning streak helped them surpass St. Mary’s in the conference standings.
Ranked in front of USF is Brigham Young, which ended the regular season at 21-10. BYU is behind top-seeded Gonzaga, which went 15-3 in conference play and 25-6 overall. No WCC team is currently ranked top 25 in the NCAA, but Gonzaga has been in and out of the rankings throughout the season.
Gonzaga is currently the defending WCC Champion, and has won 15 of the last 17 conference championships. Grabbing the number one seed gives them a significant advantage, and they are favored to win this year as well.
The tournament will start on Thursday, Mar. 6 with the ninth-seeded Pacific Tigers facing the eighth-seeded Santa Clara Broncos, and the seventh-seeded Portland Pilots facing the tenth- seeded LMU Tigers. The winners of those games will move on to the quarter finals on Mar. 8, where they will be paired against Gonzaga and BYU.
The Dons will also make their first appearance of the tournament in the quarterfinals, where they will play the San Diego Toreros, who are the sixth seed. If they win that game, they will move on to the semifinals, where they will most likely face off against BYU.
San Francisco won both of its regular season games against the Toreros, who went just 7-11 in conference play. However, the Dons but had a much tougher time facing BYU. They dropped both of their games against them, losing by five the first time and seven the second.
Despite this, it is still possible that USF will be able to pull off an upset and beat BYU, which means that they would move on to the conference finals where they would almost certainly have to play Gonzaga for the title. Getting past these two squads will be no easy task for the Dons, but USF is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time, and they head into the tournament looking to notch their first conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
Raise your hand if you had Kentucky, Connecticut, VCU and Butler as your Final Four teams?
….still waiting. Even if you told me that your correctly picked the Final Four before the tournament started, I still wouldn’t believe you. That’s because of the 5.9 million brackets submitted on ESPN.com only two people correctly picked the Final Four and 1,093 correctly had three of the four final four finalists. Pretty much every one’s bracket was completely busted, especially after this past weekend’s games when Ohio St., Kansas and North Carolina, three popular picks to win it all, were eliminated in stunning fashion.
The lack of bracket success points to the fact that this year’s tournament may be the maddest one ever. Don’t believe me? This year’s final four set the record for the highest combined seed number with 26 (add up the seeds of each team Uconn 3, Kentucky 4, VCU 11 and Butler 8) the previous high occurred in 2000 when the combined seed was 22. What’s even more surprising is that this is the first year that there is not a no.1 or no.2 seed. This tournament is bound to get even wilder, especially if VCU or Butler ends up cutting down the nets, which at this point isn’t unlikely at all. And if that happens the big winners in this tournament is the NCAA selection committee.
In fact, the NCAA selection committee is already the biggest winner of the tournament. Before the tournament and season started, the committee expanded the field of entrants to 68, adding three more teams; one of those “extra” teams was VCU. VCU wasn’t even supposed to be in the tournament according the bracket experts at CBS and ESPN. On selection Sunday, TV analysts from each network ripped the committee for putting VCU into the tournament ahead of teams like Colorado and St. Mary’s. No one was attacking the committee more than Jay Bilas, who has been made to look stupid now after VCU’s final four run. I’m sure VCU is actually happy that Bilas ripped their team; it provided bulletin board material and extra motivation to already talented team that had nothing to lose going into the tournament. VCU’s ability to turn their critics into motivation is salute to a tremendous performance from their head coach Shaka Smart. Smart as well as Butler head coach Brad Stevens are the other huge winners in this tournament.
To show you how well Smart has done in the tournament, lets look at the teams VCU has beaten on the way to the Final Four- USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida St. and Kansas. That is an impressive list. Each team is from a power conference, Purdue was a trendy elite eight pick and Kansas was the favorite to win it all. Smart has made a lot of fans and opened up many attractive coaching opportunities with his coaching performance, and he is only 33. Don’t be surprised if he gets a big-time coaching gig sometime soon. Or he can choose to stay and do what Brad Stevens has done at Butler.
Stevens has quietly built a power program at Butler, similar to what Mark Few has accomplished at Gonzaga. Butler nearly won the national championship last year; they were only a Gordon Hayward shot away from knocking out Duke and yet they are back again in the final four. That’s an extremely tough accomplishment and for a young coach like Stevens, who is only 34, it’s an even greater accomplishment. Big props to the young coaches getting it done with small conference schools. Stevens is sure to have his name out there for big-school coaching jobs at well, but I don’t think he’s leaving Butler anytime soon. Why should he? He has already proved that he can build a championship level program at a small school, why leave that program for a more recognizable big-name school? Butler has to be considered a big-time program now with what Stevens has done, don’t be surprised if they start hauling in highly touted recruits.
Regardless of the coaching future of these two, their teams’ final four match up is sure to be a gritty, intense battle. Whoever wins that game is who I will be rooting for to win it all, the Cinderella story of the tournament wouldn’t be perfect unless one of those teams is cutting down the net when its all said and done.
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