Could we have a 2023 Final Four without any No. 1 seeds?
The 2023 NCAA Men’s Tournament has already been a killer experience for the top seeds.
Kansas played without their head coach and were knocked out in the Round of 16 by Arkansas and Eric Musselman (who quickly celebrated by removing his jersey).
Houston was down 10 points at halftime against Auburn (at Birmingham!) before the Cougars rallied for the win.
And Purdue… well, you know all about Purdue.
What is happening here? Is it an in-game change, random luck, placement error, or a bit of all of the above? Or are we all overreacting to a few days of basketball? ESPN men’s college basketball experts Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway watched closely and thought deeply. They have theories. –John Gasway
What was wrong with Kansas?
Jeff Borzello: Devo Davis, basically. A Big 12 head coach told me before the tournament that Kansas’ lack of size left him vulnerable to the basket due to his inability to protect the rim. On paper, Arkansas felt unlikely to test that because the Razorbacks don’t have a go-to position player. But Arkansas has benefited in other ways. Davis and his teammates were absolutely relentless attacking the rim in the second half, fending off the rebound and finishing in traffic – especially after KJ Adams Jr. and Ernest Udeh Jr. of Kansas were in big trouble . The Razorbacks also grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and had 15 second-chance points.
Another quote from the aforementioned Big 12 coach struck me on Saturday night: “Gradey [Dick] and Jalen [Wilson] have to hit. One of them is not enough. Wilson went to work, but Dick had seven points on 3-for-9 shooting. Davis was simply the elite at both ends of the court.
Myron Medcalf: Well, I tend to think it’s more about what went well with an Arkansas team that didn’t play like that consistently all season. The Razorbacks – who have never had questions about their athletic ability – defend, control the offensive glass and make key plays in the most crucial chapter of the season. But Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. fouls late and Gradey Dick finally looks like a freshman, which puts even more pressure on Jalen Wilson to do everything late; nor did the Jayhawks have their head coach.
Norm Roberts did a good job of getting this Kansas team to the second round. In those crucial moments, however, Hall of Famer Bill Self wasn’t on the sidelines to stabilize his players when Arkansas had them on the ropes. I think that was an important element in all of this, despite what people said about it.
John Gasaway: Where have you been, David McCormack? Arkansas threw 15 attempts from beyond the arc (and only made it three) but also went inside against Kansas. This is where Eric Musselman’s team really got the job done. After allowing the Hogs to grab 15 offensive boards and score 21 points on the line, the Jayhawks were sent home after just two games. The quick release and its nature are a surprise. KU’s home defense in the Big 12 game was pretty good, but it didn’t help against Arkansas when it mattered most.
Houston survived. How far can this 1 seed go?
Medcalf: I think Houston can become the first team in NCAA history to host and make the Final Four and win a national title. (Yes, Butler made it to 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, even though they’re both injured. Shead struggled, but he played 34 minutes. And Sasser scored 22 points (7 on 14 shots) in 31 minutes, even though he had to play through fouls.
This is not the only proof. When healthy – or the healthiest – this 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%. But he’s close enough that his national title dreams seem tangible. Plus, the Cougars have plenty of time to rest and prepare for their next opponent.
Borzello: I’d be more concerned about Houston if they didn’t just go into home state Auburn and beat the Tigers by 17. The Cougars were horrible in the first half, trailed by 10 at the break, had both Sasser and Shead banged up and in big trouble – and still beat Auburn convincingly. Kelvin Sampson’s team still has an incredibly high floor.
The Cougars can turn up the heat defensively like few other teams in the country, they crush the offensive glass at a high rate and they have so many weapons offensively. Sasser looked good when he was down, Shead looked good when he was down, Mark got a big lift – and that’s not even mentioning their lottery pick in Jarace Walker. Houston is still the favorite to advance to the Final Four.
Gasaway: Say this for Houston’s injury worries: their injured guys are actually playing. It’s a deal UCLA (Jaylen Clark) or Tennessee (Zakai Zeigler) would agree to in the blink of an eye. Come to think of it, the Cougars wouldn’t have bothered that arrangement a year ago. Kelvin Sampson’s side had to play the 2022 tournament without Sasser and Mark due to season-ending injuries. Nonetheless, UH made it to the Elite Eight. Something tells me that Houston’s ceiling in its current circumstances is still quite high.
Alabama is also dealing with injuries. What are the odds we’ll lose at least one more No. 1 seed before the Final Four?
John Gasaway: The odds are much better than they have been in a while as we are down to just two seeds left. We’ve also seen the two remaining No. 1 seeds look beatable in the recent past. Houston’s first half against Auburn left the Cougars trailing by 10 points (although Sampson’s team ended up winning easily). Alabama appears to have overcome its late-season malaise that included an overtime win at South Carolina and a loss at Texas A&M. We could have an unseeded Final Four for the first time since 2011, but at the moment the odds are against it.
Myron Medcalf: After watching Arizona, Purdue and Kansas lose, I’m not sure anything surprises me. But I also believe that there are levels among the top seeds. Houston and Alabama played one level above the court. I put Kansas in that group, but the Jayhawks didn’t have a head coach, which I think counted. Purdue has faced questions about his depth all season.
Alabama recorded 132 points on 100 possessions in a 21-point win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, even with Brandon Miller scoreless in 19 minutes. I think Alabama and Houston — provided the Cougars can stay as healthy as possible — will be tough to knock out heading 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 No. 1 seeds I passed in the Sweet 16, so I felt Kansas and Purdue were vulnerable for a while. And I still think Crimson Tide and the Cougars will meet in the Final Four. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see one of them go down, though.
Houston will have a tough game for the Sweet 16 against either Miami or Indiana, two teams that can really score. And then Texas, which knocked out Kansas twice in eight days earlier this month, could wait in the Elite Eight. I’m less concerned about Alabama, with 2-seeded Arizona already eliminated. But San Diego State is going to feature a different kind of defense than the Crimson Tide has seen in weeks, and neither Baylor nor Creighton would be a breeze in the Elite Eight.
Considering the last two 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 will go with Alabama, Marquette, Houston and UConn. No hesitation here!
John Gasaway: I ride with my original four, and they are all still there! (As of this writing.) Give me Houston, UCLA, Marquette and Alabama. Crossed fingers.
Myron Medcalf: Alabama, Marquette, UConn, Xavier