Could we have a Final Four 2023 without number 1?
- March 19, 2023
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The 2023 NCAA Men’s Tournament was already a grueling experience for top seeds.
Kansas played without their head coach and were eliminated in the Round of 32 by Arkansas and Eric Musselman (who promptly removed his jersey).
Houston was down 10 at the half against Auburn (in Birmingham!) before the Cougars rallied for the win.
And Purdue… well, you know all about Purdue.
What’s happening? Is this a game change, random coincidence, a betting error, or a little bit of everything? Or do we all overreact to a few days of basketball? ESPN varsity basketball pundits Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway have been watching and thinking hard. You have some theories. -John Gasaway
What went wrong with Kansas?
Jeff Borzello: Basically Devo Davis. A Big 12 head coach told me before the tournament that Kansas’ small size left them vulnerable at the basket because they couldn’t protect the rim. On paper, Arkansas thought it was unlikely to test because the Razorbacks don’t have a go-to post player. But Arkansas benefited in other ways. Davis and his teammates were absolutely relentless as they attacked the rim in the second half, driving away the impact and ending up in traffic — especially after Kansas’ KJ Adams Jr. and Ernest Udeh Jr. faced nasty troubles. The Razorbacks also snagged 15 offensive rebounds and had 15 second-chance points.
Another quote from the aforementioned Big 12 coach caught my eye Saturday night: “Gradey [Dick] and jalen [Wilson] have to take pictures. One of them isn’t enough.” Wilson went to work, but Dick had seven points in 3-on-9 shooting. Davis was simply elite on both ends of the stage.
Myron Medcalf: Well, I tend to think it’s more about what went right with an Arkansas team that didn’t play that consistently all season. The Razorbacks – who have never had questions about their athletic ability – defend, control the offensive glass and make key plays on the track in the most important chapter of the season. But Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. fouled late, and Gradey Dick was finally looking like a freshman, putting even more pressure on Jalen Wilson to do it all late; and the Jayhawks didn’t have a head coach either.
Norm Roberts did a good job of getting this Kansas team into the second round. In those pivotal moments, however, Hall of Famer Bill Self wasn’t on the sidelines to reassure his players when Arkansas had them on the ropes. I think that was an important element in all of this, despite what anyone said about it.
John Gasaway: Where did you go David McCormack? Arkansas started 15 tries from beyond the arc (and only made three) but also got inside against Kansas. This is where Eric Musselman’s team really got the job done. After the Hogs grabbed 15 offensive boards and scored 21 points at the line, the Jayhawks were sent home after just two games. Both the quick exit and its style are a surprise. KU’s central defense was pretty good in the Big 12 game, but that didn’t help against Arkansas when it mattered most.
Marcus Sasser, who was a big ask for Houston in the tournament, returned to help his team gain promotion to the Sweet 16. Is his recovery hurting Houston’s chances of progressing? Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Houston survived. How far can this 1 seed go?
Medcalf: I think Houston can become the first team in NCAA history to both host and participate in the Final Four and win a national title. (Yes, Butler made the Final Four at Indianapolis in 2010, but Butler wasn’t the host school.)
For Houston I just had to see if Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser could play at a high level despite both struggling with injuries. Shead had his struggles but he played 34 minutes. And Sasser scored 22 points (7-of-14 shooting) in 31 minutes despite having to fight his way through foul play.
That’s not the only evidence. When healthy — or at their best — that team has depth that increases their odds. Tramon Mark (26 points) reminded everyone that this team is bigger than Sasser. I don’t know if Houston is 100 percent. But it’s close enough to make his national title dreams within reach. Plus, the Cougars have plenty of time to rest and prepare for their next opponent.
Borzello: I’d be more worried about Houston if it didn’t just go to Auburn’s home state and beat the Tigers at 17. The Cougars were terrible in the first half, trailing 10 at the break after both Sasser and Shead batted and in dire trouble – yet still beat Auburn in convincing fashion. Kelvin Sampson’s team is still at an incredibly high level.
The Cougars can ramp up defensively like few other teams in the country, they slam into offensive glass at high speed, and they have so many weapons offensively. Sasser looked good lying on the floor, Shead looked good lying on the floor, Mark took a big step forward – and that didn’t even mention her lottery picks in Jarace Walker. Houston is still the favorite to reach the Final Four.
Gasaway: Say this about Houston’s injury woes: your injured boys are actually playing. That’s a deal UCLA (Jaylen Clark) or Tennessee (Zakai Zeigler) would make right away. Come to think of it, a year ago the Cougars themselves wouldn’t have objected to this arrangement. Kelvin Sampson’s team was forced to play the 2022 tournament without Sasser and Mark due to season-ending injuries. Despite this, UH made the Elite Eight. Something tells me Houston’s ceiling is still pretty high under the current circumstances.
Alabama is also struggling with injuries. What are the odds of losing at least one more #1 seed before the Final Four?
John Gasaway: The odds are a lot better than they’ve been in a while because we already have two top seeds left. We’ve also seen that the two remaining No. 1 seeds have looked beatable in the recent past. The first half, Houston versus Auburn, left the Cougars 10 points behind (although Sampson’s team ended up winning easily). Alabama appears to have gotten over its late-season malaise, which included an overtime win at South Carolina and a loss at Texas A&M. We could have a Final Four without a top seed for the first time since 2011, but the odds are against it at the moment.
Myron Medcalf: After seeing Arizona, Purdue and Kansas lose, I’m not sure anything will surprise me. But I also believe that there are tiers among the top seeds. Houston and Alabama have played at a level above the field. I would put Kansas in that group, but the Jayhawks didn’t have a head coach, which I thought was important. Purdue faced questions about his depth throughout the season.
Alabama recorded 132 points per 100 possessions in a 21-point win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, despite Brandon Miller remaining scoreless in 19 minutes. I think Alabama and Houston — assuming the Cougars can stay as healthy as possible — will be tough to beat going into the Final Four. Nothing is impossible but I think they are in a different class.
Jeff Borzello: Alabama and Houston were the only two 1-seeds I had past the Sweet 16, so I felt like Kansas and Purdue were vulnerable for a while. And I still think both the Crimson Tide and the Cougars will find themselves in the Final Four. However, it wouldn’t be a big shock if one of them fell.
Houston will have a difficult Sweet 16 matchup against either Miami or Indiana, two teams that can really score. And then Texas, which blew up Kansas twice in eight days earlier this month, could be waiting for you in the Elite Eight. I’m less worried about Alabama since Arizona is already out with two seeds. But San Diego State will present a different breed of defense than the Crimson Tide has seen in weeks, and neither Baylor nor Creighton would be a pushover in the Elite Eight.
Considering the past few days, who do you have for the Final Four?
Jeff Borzello: I had Alabama, Marquette, Houston and UConn before the tournament started. After three days of action, I’m going with Alabama, Marquette, Houston and UConn. There is no hesitation here!
John Gasaway: I ride my original four and they’re all still here! (During this writing.) Give me Houston, UCLA, Marquette and Alabama. Fingers crossed.
Myron Medcalf: Alabama, Marquette, UConn, Xavier