By Billy Witz
When the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament committee members hunkered down in Indianapolis over the weekend, they pored over spreadsheets, stared at a bank of televisions, sharpened their pencils and massaged their temples to figure out how to best seed the 68-team tournament field.
They might have saved themselves all that time — and anguish — by picking names out of a hat.
This year’s tournament, which was announced Sunday night, has an on-any-given-Sunday feel, where blue bloods don’t feel so rich, mid-majors don’t feel so middling and every team enters with questions — even at the very top.
At Alabama, those begin off the court.
Alabama, the top overall seed, is in an unprecedented situation: trying to win a national championship while a now-ex-player is in jail on murder charges and two current players, including the team’s star, Brandon Miller, are witnesses in the case.
Alabama coach Nate Oats has come under withering criticism, beginning last month when he characterized Miller’s involvement as being in the “wrong spot at the wrong time” and continuing with persistent questions about whether Miller, who police said transported a gun to the scene of the crime, and Jaden Bradley, who was also at the scene, should even be playing. Neither Miller nor Bradley has been charged with a crime.
On the court, Alabama looked the part of a favorite in rolling to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship with an 82-63 victory over Texas A&M on Sunday.
“This one right here, this one’s very special, considering everything that’s gone on this year,” said Alabama senior guard Jahvon Quinerly.
The Crimson Tide won Sunday behind a hugely supportive crowd in Nashville, Tennessee, and will have more of the same Thursday when they play less than an hour’s drive from their campus against the victor of a play-in game between Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Southeast Missouri State. The next weekend, if they advance, they wouldn’t be much farther away from home, at the South regional in Louisville, Kentucky.
As much as the Crimson Tide are showered with affection by their own fans, the murder case involving one of their now former players, Darius Miles, is all but certain to make them the tournament heel for the vast majority of the audience as long as they remain playing.
Oats was asked what his message would be to his team as it enters the tournament.
“Obviously, we never lose sight of the tragedy that’s kind of marked our season,” he said. “It’s always there. But today with the team, we’re going to celebrate this win without losing sight of that. Moving forward, we’re going to keep the team focused on the task at hand, just like we have without ever losing sight of the fact that it’s an unbelievably sad situation. Our guys have done a pretty good job of that.”
If the sight of Alabama cutting down the nets in Houston is discomfiting for NCAA officials, it was hard to make a case for anyone else to be the top overall seed.
Start with Kansas, the reigning national champion seeded No. 1 in the West region, which has an impressive resume but this weekend was without its coach, Bill Self, who sat out the Big 12 Conference Tournament after being hospitalized with chest tightness and balance issues. The Jayhawks were blown out Saturday by Texas in the conference title game but were still given a No. 1 seed.
So was Midwest No. 1 seed Houston, which has a sparkling 31-3 record but lost to Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game Sunday. Houston’s best win was over Virginia, a No. 4 seed, and the Cougars also lost to Alabama earlier this season. And Purdue, seeded first in the East region, looked like the best team in the country for more than three months with 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey but had a run in February that included four losses in six games. The Boilermakers won the Big Ten Tournament Sunday, but not before nearly collapsing in the final minute against unranked Penn State.
A week ago, UCLA had a strong case for the top overall seed.
But the Bruins, who won the Pac-12 regular-season title by four games, lost to Arizona in the conference tournament final without their two best defenders, forward Adem Bona and guard Jaylen Clark, the latter seemingly unlikely to return this season. The Bruins, who had a 12-game winning streak snapped Saturday night, were becoming a popular pick as favorite before Clark suffered a lower-body injury in the regular-season finale.
Houston played Sunday without one of its best players, Marcus Sasser, who injured his groin Friday. But he is likely to return soon as Houston is trying to become the first hometown team to play in a Final Four since Butler lost the 2010 title game in Indianapolis to Duke.
The Blue Devils’ captain that night, Jon Scheyer, is now their coach, replacing the retired Mike Krzyzewski after last season’s national semifinal loss. Duke, along with another nationally branded program, Gonzaga, is entering the tournament without the usual Final Four-or-bust expectations — Gonzaga is a No. 3 seed and Duke is a No. 5. But they are playing the type of basketball that often makes them fearsome in March. The Zags blew out St. Mary’s to win the West Coast Conference Tournament and the Blue Devils rolled to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title.