Championship Week

by Joseph Declan Moran

The NCAA Tournament is less than a week away, but the madness has already started during Championship Week, as nine No. 1 seeds were ousted from the conference tournaments coast to coast.

This week is usually the tease before Selection Sunday (which is on St. Patrick’s Day), the calm before the storm breaks out at Las Vegas sports books packed to the gills with hoops junkies on the first Thursday of the tournament, hoping to get a fix for their basketball jones.

Campbell (Big South), Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun), Belmont (Ohio Valley), Hofstra (Colonial Athletic), Wright State (Horizon), St. Francis (PA) (Northeast), South Dakota State (Summit), Loyola (Missouri Valley) and Gonzaga (West Coast). All lost their chances to go dancing, except Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the country and a likely No. 1 seed in the tournament.

The news of these upsets not only ginned up media speculation from ESPN, SI, AP, CNN, USA Today and the pundits, prognosticators, prevaricators and imposters who populate online sites all over the web, but also from the fans of colleges everywhere hoping that good old State U. will make the field of 68.

The so-called experts pontificate on who’s in and who’s out in the myriad mock brackets that run almost year round now. Teams get moved in and out of the way-too-early brackets, regions and up-and-down seed lines. From the first four in to the first four out, and from the last four in to the last four out, is it any wonder fans get dazed and confused.

And yet, all of this speculation piques the interest of fan bases everywhere, starting conversations and arguments about strength of schedule, quadrant wins (1 AND 2) and the NCAA’s new NET metric as their teams play themselves in and out of good seeds and on and off the ubiquitous bubble.

As a result of this week’s upsets, fans will be deprived of seeing some of the nation’s most prolific scorers, including the top five in the country, a development not likely to please the higher-ups at CBS, TBS, TNT and TRU TV, the alphabet soup of networks that will try to write the story lines to attract the most viewers during the three-week tournament.

Chris Clemons (30 ppg) of Campbell, Justin Wright-Foreman (27 ppg) of Hofstra, Antoine Davis (26.1 ppg) of Detroit Mercy, Jermaine Marrow (25.3) of Hampton and Mike Daum (25.3) of South Dakota State will be sitting at home waiting and wondering if they will be playing in some other tournament this month.

While Clemons was leading his Fighting Camels this season, he moved past Danny Manning and Oscar Robertson into fourth place on the all-time scoring list (3,193 points). Daum moved into ninth place all time, having finished his career with 3,042 points.

Campbell lost to Gardner-Webb in the Big South, which earned the Bulldogs their first-ever NCAA berth. Wright-Foreman led the Hofstra Pride during a 16-game winning streak en route to a 27-7 record in the Colonial Athletic Conference. And the Wofford Terriers of the Southern Conference were ranked in the top 25 for the first time in school history, led by another dynamic player and possible member of the NCAA’s All-Name Team, Fletcher Magee.

Fans this year also will miss last year’s tournament darling, 99-year-old Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the Loyola team mascot who captivated the nation on the Ramblers’ run to the Final Four. Loyola was knocked out of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament by former Marquette star Brian Wardle’s fifth-seeded Bradley Braves.

And speaking of Marquette, Markus Howard (No. 6, 25 ppg) will be dancing next week, along with Ja Morant (No. 8, 24.6 ppg) of Murray State and R.J. Barrett (No. 11, 23.4 ppg) of Duke and, of course, his teammate Zion Williamson, who is back after his five-game sojourn.

Howard, the Big East Player of the Year, is one of the most exciting scorers in the nation. A candidate for the Wooden and Cousy awards as well as National Player of the Year honors, the 5’11” guard has scored 30 or more points 10 times this season, including a record-setting 53-point explosion against Creighton and 45 points against Buffalo (40 in the second half alone!) earlier this season. An AP 2nd Team All-America, Howard went off for 30 on March 14 to lead Marquette past St. John’s into the Big East Conference Tournament semi-finals for just the third time since Marquette joined the conference.

Prior to the Big East Tournament, MU ended the season on a four-game losing streak, including its last two home games. The result was a drop in the AP and Coaches polls to No. 23 and No. 22, respectively. MU also fell from a potential No. 3 seed to a No. 5 seed, according to USA Today’s most recent bracketology. Still, Jay Bilas had the team at No. 17 in his listing of 68 NCAA Tournament teams. The team could conceivably improve its seeding on Selection Sunday.

Apart from the upsets that have taken place this week is the cloud hanging over college basketball from the FBI’s investigation. In addition to being a distraction to coaches and teams in the Big Dance, it could very well jump start the coaching carousel.

Already, two of Sean Miller’s assistants were forced to leave the Arizona basketball program. At Arizona’s final home game in the McKale Center recently, Miller sounded like a lame duck coach saying farewell to the school and its fans. Miller’s future remains uncertain after a disappointing 17-15 overall record (8-10 in the Pac 12) and a rare no-show in the NCAA Tournament.

Auburn’s Associate Head Coach Chuck Person will not be on the sidelines helping Bruce Pearl coach the Tigers next week. Various media are reporting that he will plead guilty Tuesday to conspiracy charges related to the investigation. Another possible casualty is LSU coach Will Wade who has been suspended indefinitely by the school and will likely not coach the Tigers next week.

And in an unrelated coaching move, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy was informed by the school that he will not be coaching after the SEC Tournament after eight years and just two NCAA appearances. Since that announcement, speculation has run rampant that the next coach in College Station, Texas, will be Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, who is busy trying to prepare his team for the postseason.

Unless any other shoes drop in the investigation, it could very well be that this becomes nothing more than a distraction to the fans and the story lines the networks would prefer to report next week when the first ball is tipped.

All of this has contributed to a premature madness where March has come in like a lion and may leave like a lamb.

Stay tuned. The real Madness is about to begin.

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