The 2023 NCAA men’s tournament has already been a bruising experience for top seeds. Kansas played without its head coach and was eliminated in the round of 32 by Arkansas and Eric Musselman (who promptly celebrated by taking off his shirt).
The Midwest’s No. 1 seed 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 is happening here? Is this a change in the game, random chance, seeding error or a little of all of the above? Or are we all overreacting to a couple of days of basketball? ESPN’s men’s college basketball experts Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway have been watching closely and thinking deeply. They have some theories. — John Gasaway
What went wrong with Kansas?
Jeff Borzello: Devo Davis, basically. One Big 12 head coach told me before the tournament that Kansas’ lack of size made it susceptible at the basket due to its inability to protect the rim. On paper, Arkansas felt unlikely to test that because the Razorbacks don’t have a go-to post player. But Arkansas took advantage in other ways. Davis and his teammates were absolutely relentless attacking the rim in the second half, driving off the bounce and finishing in traffic — especially after K.J. Adams Jr. and Ernest Udeh Jr. were saddled with foul trouble. They 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 make shots. One of them making them isn’t enough.” Wilson went to work, but Dick had seven points on 3-for-9 shooting. Davis was simply elite at both ends of the floor.
Myron Medcalf: Well, I tend to think it’s more about what went right with an Arkansas team that hasn’t played like this in a consistent stretch all season. But the Razorbacks, who never had any questions about their athletic capabilities, are defending, controlling the offensive glass and making key plays down the stretch in the most crucial chapter of the season. But Kevin McCullar Jr. fouled out late and Gradey Dick finally looked like a freshman, which put even more pressure on Jalen Wilson to do it all late. But they also didn’t have their head coach.
Norm Roberts did a good job getting this team to the second round. In those crucial moments, however, the Hall of Famer wasn’t on the sideline to steady his players when Arkansas had them on the ropes. I think that was a significant element in all of this, despite what anyone said about it.
John Gasaway: Where have you gone, David McCormack? Arkansas launched 15 attempts from beyond the arc (and made just three), but also got into the interior against Kansas. That’s where Eric Musselman’s team really got the job done. After allowing the Hogs to grab 15 offensive boards and score 21 points at the line, the Jayhawks were sent home after just two games. Both the quick exit and its nature are a surprise. KU’s interior defense in Big 12 play was quite good, but that was no 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 both host and participate in the Final Four and win a national title. (Yes, Butler reached the Final Four in Indianapolis in 2010, but Butler was not 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 dealing with injuries. Shead had his struggles, but he played 34 minutes. And Sasser scored 22 points (7-for-14) in 31 minutes, even though he had to play through foul trouble.
That’s not the only evidence. When healthy — or most healthy — this team has a depth that boosts its chances. Tramon Mark (26 points) reminded all that this team is bigger than Sasser. I don’t know if Houston is 100%. But it’s close enough to make its national title dreams seem tangible. Plus, the Cougars get a lot of time to rest and get ready for their next opponent.
Borzello: I would be more concerned about Houston if it didn’t just go into Auburn’s home state and beat the Tigers by 17. The Cougars were awful in the first half, trailed by 10 at the break, had both Sasser and Shead banged up and in foul trouble — and still beat Auburn in convincing fashion. 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 crash the offensive glass at a high rate and they have so many weapons offensively. Sasser looked fine when he was on the floor, Shead looked fine when he was on the floor, Mark stepped up in a big way — and that’s not even mentioning their lottery pick in Jarace Walker. Houston is still the favorite to get to the Final Four.
Gasaway: Say this for Houston’s injury worries: Their injured guys are actually playing. That’s a deal UCLA (Jaylen Clark) or Tennessee (Zakai Zeigler) would take in a heartbeat. Come to think of it, the Cougars wouldn’t have minded that arrangement themselves one year ago. Kelvin Sampson’s team had to play the 2022 tournament without both Sasser and Mark due to season-ending injuries. Nevertheless, UH reached the Elite Eight. Something tells me Houston’s ceiling in its present circumstances is still pretty high.
Alabama is also dealing with injuries. What are the chances we could lose at least one more No. 1 seed before the Final Four?
John Gasaway: The chances are much better than they’ve been in a while because we’re already down to just two top seeds left. We’ve also seen both of the remaining No. 1 seeds look beatable in the recent past. The first half Houston played against Auburn left the Cougars trailing by 10 points (though Sampson’s team did end up winning easily). Alabama seems 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 a FInal Four without a top seed for the first time since 2011, but right now the odds are against it.
Myron Medcalf: After watching Arizona, Purdue and Kansas lose, I’m not sure anything will surprise me. But I also believe there are tiers among the top seeds. Houston and Alabama have played at a level above the field. I’d put Kansas in that group, but the Jayhawks didn’t have their head coach, which I think mattered. Purdue faced questions about its depth all season.
Alabama registered 132 points per 100 possessions in a 21-point win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, even with Brandon Miller going scoreless in 19 minutes. I think Alabama and Houston, if the Cougars can stay as close to healthy as possible, will be tough to knock off before the Final Four. Nothing is impossible, but I think they’re in a different class.
Jeff Borzello: Alabama and Houston were the only two 1-seeds I had advancing past the Sweet 16, so I’ve felt Kansas and Purdue were vulnerable for a while. And I still think both the Crimson Tide and Cougars will find themselves in the Final Four. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see one of them fall, however.
Houston will have a difficult Sweet 16 matchup against either Miami or Indiana, two teams that can really score. And then Texas, which blew out Kansas twice in eight days earlier this month, could await in the Elite Eight. I’m less concerned about Alabama, with 2-seed Arizona already knocked out. But San Diego State is going to be a different type of defense than the Crimson Tide have seen in weeks, and neither Baylor nor Creighton would be a pushover in the Elite Eight.
Taking into account the last couple days, who do you have going to the Final Four?
Jeff Borzello: I had Alabama, Marquette, Houston and UConn before the tournament started. After three days of action, I’ll go with Alabama, Marquette, Houston and UConn. No wavering over here!
John Gasaway: I’m riding with my original four, and they’re all still here! (At this writing.) Give me Houston, UCLA, Marquette and Alabama. Fingers crossed.
Myron Medcalf: Alabama, Marquette, UConn, Xavier