Bucket List: The Big Dance would benefit from having Notre Dame play its way in
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It’s the Bucket List — 10 observations on college basketball as we ramp up toward Selection Sunday:
1. How big is Notre Dame’s game against Virginia Tech (Wednesday, 6 p.m., ESPN2) on Day 2 of the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, New York? It’s must-win big. The Irish (19-13) need to beat the NCAA Tournament-bound Hokies to strengthen their own chances to get into the March Madness picture.
Would one more victory be enough for Mike Brey’s hard-luck team? Perhaps not — it might take topping some team called Duke on Thursday — but there’s no arguing this: The NCAA tourney would be better for having the Irish in it.
A provincial sentiment? One could argue that, though really it’s about quality basketball — something few programs bring to the table as routinely as Brey’s does. If not for having been staggered by injuries, the Irish surely would be in the NCAA field for the 13th time in Brey’s 18 seasons and in position to make a run.
Senior Bonzie Colson, as valuable and productive a player as there is in college basketball, missed half the regular season after a foot injury and surgery. Senior point guard Matt Farrell missed five games and was less than 100 percent in several others. But the team’s best two players are back, and — though key freshman reserve D.J. Harvey is lost for the season — the Irish are poised to play their best basketball. If only they get the chance on the NCAA stage, that is.
“We feel we’ve come through more adversity than anybody in the country,” said Brey, “but our guys have fought all year and I think it’s made us mentally tough.”
Heightened roles have meant major improvement for sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs and senior big man Martinas Geben. Junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore John Mooney have had their moments, too. This is now a team that — well rounded and, for the most part, healthy — can beat any opponent in typical Notre Dame fashion: with high-efficiency offense and a knack for making clutch plays in tight games, especially in March.
It would be great to get to see it unfold.
2. The top four ACC seeds — Virginia, Duke, Miami and Clemson, in that order — open league tourney play on Thursday. Virginia is ranked No. 1 in the country, won the regular-season title with a giant four-game cushion and beat Duke on the road in the only meeting between the teams, and yet — is it even a surprise? — it’s the Blue Devils who are the oddsmakers’ favorites to cut down the nets at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Tell you what: You can have Virginia and Duke. I’ll take the field.
3. Another top-seeded team that won’t win its league tourney: Xavier in the Big East. Look, the Musketeers, who open play at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, are a tremendous team with Final Four potential. But I’ve got to ride with second-seeded Villanova, which I believe it the best team in the country. OK, so I’m not exactly sticking my neck out with that one.
4. The Big 12 is ranked No. 1 in conference RPI and will have a boatload of teams in the Big Dance, yet it’s not as impressive at the top as the ACC, the Big East or even the Big Ten. Still, the league tourney in Kansas City will be a riot — especially if top-seeded Kansas and fourth-seeded Kansas State square off in Friday’s semifinals. But my title pick: third-seeded West Virginia.
5. By the way, Kansas now has won 14 straight Big 12 regular-season titles, the last five (and nine of the last 10) outright. Come at me with a better streak in all of sports if you dare.
6. Developing theme alert: Another No. 1 seed that won’t, can’t, wouldn’t dare win its league tourney is Auburn in the SEC. Is the better pick second-seeded Tennessee? Third-seeded Florida? Come on, you and I both know it’s fourth-seeded Kentucky. If you want to bet against John Calipari and the ’Cats, who open play in St. Louis on Friday, good luck with that.
7. I can’t be the only one who’s dying to find out if Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. — the former No. 1 recruit in the country — will join the Tigers on the court for their Thursday opener in the SEC. Porter, who has been extra-careful in returning from a back injury, hasn’t played since the season opener. Imagine what adding a high-lottery pick to a 20-win team could do. It could be instant magic … or a total dud. Either way, fascinating.
8. If you had to pick a Big Ten team to advance furthest in the Big Dance right now, would you go with Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State or league tourney winner Michigan? Hey, I’m asking you. I don’t have the answer.
9. Quietly excellent — and Final Four-capable — again: Gonzaga. The Zags have won 14 straight and went 20-1 against West Coast Conference competition. Their only non-conference losses: to Florida in double-overtime on a neutral court, to Villanova on a neutral court and at San Diego State by a bucket. People, this team beat Ohio State by 27. Former Simeon star Zach Norvell Jr. is flourishing in Spokane, and remember the name Rui Hachimura.
10. Both ESPN and CBS have Loyola projected as a 12 seed. Fun fact: There’ve been at least two 12-vs.-5 upsets in six of the last 10 years. Both ESPN and CBS have the Ramblers opening in Boise, Idaho, but the former has them facing Clemson and the latter has them facing — uh-oh — Gonzaga. You don’t need me to tell you which matchup would be preferable.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.