By Ken Davis
Athlon Sports Contributor
The NCAA Tournament always arrives with the promise of surprises. Some come in the form of upsets on the court. Others develop into stories behind the scenes. The 2010 version has yet to begin and already there has been an unexpected development. Not a full-blown controversy, but certainly a matter of intrigue for one No. 1 seed.
Last week at this time, who knew that a major focal point for NCAA fans would be the injured right quadriceps of Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku? The injury didn’t happen until Thursday night when Syracuse lost to Georgetown 91-84 in the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference tournament. Onuaku received intensive medical treatment all weekend and Syracuse reportedly kept the NCAA basketball committee informed on his condition.
Sunday night the Orange received the No. 1 seed in the West Regional. Essentially, the committee stated that Syracuse dropped to the fourth No. 1 overall because of the uncertainty over Onuaku’s status. Not a major seismic shift on the S-curve. Still, the impression was that the center would be ready to play.
But less than 18 hours after the field was announced, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim went on ESPN and said Onuaku won’t play Friday against Vermont in the first round and probably would be on the bench if the Orange advance to the second round.
“We’re not counting on him this weekend,” Boeheim said on ESPN. “He’s made good progress, but I’m not overly optimistic [about Friday].”
By then, the question was who knew what -- and when. During a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, NCAA committee chair Dan Guerrero said he didn’t feel misled by Syracuse.
“I believe they provided the information they felt was appropriate at the time,” Guerrero said. “There’s no reason for us to question anyone’s integrity in that circumstance. They made the decision that they made to sit him.”
On Sunday, Guerrero had said with an injury of that magnitude, the committee tries to get as much information as possible. “We feel that he’s going to be able to come back, based on the information that we have. They’ve earned a No. 1 seed,” he said.
Injuries are an interesting element in seeding. The committee had much more time to evaluate Purdue without Robbie Hummel and the Boilermakers clearly paid a price for that. Purdue, at one time a possible No. 1 seed, was given a No. 4 and sent to the South.
Syracuse (28-4) did have an incredible season, but Onuaku’s injury is just one doubt surrounding the Orange heading into the tournament. Before the loss to Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, Syracuse lost its regular season finale at Louisville. No team has ever won the national championship after failing to win at least one game in its conference tournament. Certainly that can be overcome, but Syracuse has a rotation of just seven players with Onuaku. Boeheim said Kris Joseph, the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year, will move into the starting lineup.
Syracuse, which features its 2-3 zone defense and has been an excellent transition team this season, has had excellent chemistry. Onuaku is Syracuse’s career field-goal percentage leader (64.9) and is averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds. Joseph is averaging 11 points but that chemistry could change and the minutes for the other Syracuse players will have to be adjusted by Boeheim.
“He’s a key part of our team,” Boeheim said after the injury.
Vermont defeated Syracuse in the first round of the 2005 tournament when Syracuse was a No. 4 seed. History isn’t likely to repeat itself. But Syracuse’s problems could increase the longer Onuaku is out and his effectiveness could be a question the entire tournament.
Vermont has one of the most explosive players in the tournament in Marqus Blakely, the two-time America East player of the year. The Catamounts also have Maurice Joseph, a Michigan State transfer and older brother of Syracuse’s Joseph.
Coaching Carousel Set In Motion
If Monday was any indication, it appears there will be many coaching jobs opening up -- and soon.
It came as little surprise that Iowa parted company with coach Todd Lickliter after only three seasons. Hawkeye fans had been unhappy with Lickliter and 22 losses made it impossible for athletic director Gary Barta to bring him back for a fourth season. The school has an exceptional passion for basketball but all the losing had resulted in home games being played before a half-empty arena.
Lickliter had four years left on a seven-year contract worth $1.2 million a year but Iowa will pay him only about $2.4 million total, Barta said. Lickliter did not attend the press conference announcing his firing.
Two other coaches fired Monday had much longer tenures than Lickliter. Charlotte fired Bobby Lutz, who had been at his alma mater for 12 seasons and is the school’s all-time winningest coach with a 218-158 record. Kirk Speraw also was the winningest coach at UCF but he is now unemployed after 17 years. UCF finished 15-17 this season but Speraw’s mark there was 279-233 with four NCAA bids. Hard to believe either would stay without jobs for too long.
One coach who isn’t going anywhere right now is UConn’s Jim Calhoun. Despite a report before the Big East tournament that Calhoun was retiring, he announced last week he had reached an agreement on a contract extension with the school he has led to two national championships. Calhoun still has to finalize everything by signing the new deal but he told reporters Monday the announcement was necessary because rumors of his retirement were hurting UConn in recruiting.
Planting The Seeds
Considering the overall weak perception of this year’s field, it had to be easier for the tournament committee to select the at-large bids that it was to put the pieces of the bracket together. There was plenty of evidence of that across the top two lines. Kansas and Kentucky were assigned the top No. 1 seeds but their path to the Final Four clearly is tougher than that of Duke or Syracuse.
Kansas, the overall No. 1 seed, is in the Midwest with No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Georgetown, No. 4 Maryland and No. 5 Michigan State. Throw in Oklahoma State and Tennessee, the only two teams to beat the Jayhawks this season, and it promises to be an eventful ride for Kansas.
The general consensus is that the Midwest is the toughest of the four brackets.
“There’s lots of challenges,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I look at the bracket, and I know the committee does a fabulous job, I don’t think they did us any favors. But I’m sure every coach in the field probably feels the same way.”
Think of the all-regional team that could be put together in the Midwest. Along with Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich at Kansas, you’ve got Ohio State’s Evan Turner, Georgetown’s Greg Monroe, Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez and Oklahoma State’s James Anderson. Houston, in the tournament for the first time since 1992, is in the Midwest as well. Aubrey Coleman, the nation’s leading scorer, leads the Cougars.
Joining Kentucky in the East is No. 2 West Virginia, the winner of the Big East tournament. Some would say New Mexico is seeded too high at No. 3 but Steve Alford’s team is tough. Wisconsin, Temple and Marquette are also in the East. There are teams there that can run with Kentucky and there are physical teams that could push around the Wildcats more than they want to be.
When Ohio State came up on the Selection Show as the No. 2 in the Midwest, Calipari told his players: “We wanted Ohio State.” Really? How strange. Maybe Coach Cal should call Self and work on a swap. Not sure how that would settle with West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who didn’t think his Big East tournament champions got enough respect with a No. 2 seed -- especially lumped in Kentucky’s region. And when you look at Villanova’s No. 2 seed in the South with No. 1 Duke, you’ve really got to agree with Huggins.
Spotlight on NIT
Still trying to figure out the top four teams that just missed the NCAA? The bracket for the National Invitation Tournament provides a pretty good clue. Illinois, Arizona State, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State received the four No. 1 seeds in the NIT.
It will be interesting to watch the attendance figures and the television ratings from the NIT with those four schools and some other traditional powers, such as North Carolina, Connecticut, NC State, Memphis and Seton Hall in the field.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber must feel like the coach with the worst luck in the nation. After the Illini (19-14) missed out on an at-large bid to the NCAA it would seem a No. 1 seed for the NIT would be good news. Instead, Cirque du Soleil is booked to start a run of shows at Assembly Hall on Wednesday. That means the Illini will open NIT play on the road, at No. 8 seed Stony Brook.
Stony Brook (22-9) won the America East regular season championship but lost in the semifinals of the conference tourney. Coach Steve Pikiell’s team is pumped up about the school’s first postseason experience.
“For us, this is just a huge opportunity, nothing our community has ever felt,” Pikiell told The Chicago Tribune. “The students are lined up outside my office now, getting their student lottery tickets.”
It's not likely Stony Brook will make it, but Madison Square Garden would welcome the Long Island entry, along with UConn, North Carolina, and either St. John's or Seton Hall to the NIT Final Four on March 30. Lost in all the discussion of NCAA Tournament expansion is the future of the NIT, which is now run by the NCAA.
The NIT has to be part of the equation.
“We’ve had a very good experience with the NIT. The question is how can these two events coexist and coincide?” Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies, said in December.
Best NCAA Tournament First-Round Games
Midwest: No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 Georgia Tech
West: No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Florida State
East: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Wofford
South: No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Old Dominion
Pick Your Upset (5 vs. 12)
Midwest: No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 12 New Mexico State
West: No. 5 Butler vs. No. 12 UTEP
East: No. 5 Temple vs. No. 12 Cornell
South: No. 5 Texas A&M vs. No. 12 Utah State
(Our choice: UTEP over Butler)
Second-Round Games We Want To See
Midwest: No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 4 Maryland
West: No. 7 BYU vs. No. 2 Kansas State
East: No. 3 New Mexico vs. No. 6 Marquette
South: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 9 Louisville
(Upset special: BYU over K-State)
Final Four Predictions
Kansas over Syracuse; Kentucky over Villanova
Kansas 79, Kentucky 73