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NCAA Basketball Coverage

The college basketball regular season moves to center stage at TheSportsNotebook now that the Super Bowl is finished. Here’s the 16 teams who currently occupy the 1 thru 4 seed lines in the projected NCAA Tournament bracket of ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi,  updated on Friday, February 1…

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THE SEED LINES (as of February 1)
#1: Duke-Virginia-Michigan-Tennessee
#2: Kentucky-Michigan State-Gonzaga-North Carolina
#3: Purdue-Marquette-Louisville-Kansas
#4: Villanova-Virginia Tech-Nevada-Houston

It’s not their shared membership in the ACC that leads me to lump Duke and Virginia together. It’s the fact that for both teams, there’s not a lot of point in doing evaluations until we have actual NCAA Tournament opponents to compare them with.

The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country. They’re the best-coached. They will be the favorite to win it all. It doesn’t mean they’re a lock (ask the Alabama football team). But it does mean we shouldn’t be reading too much into any random loss (or even multiple random losses) in the regular season or conference tournament. Just wait until the NCAAs.

The Cavaliers aren’t on that same level of play, but there’s a similar dynamic. We know they can succeed in the regular season. We know they can beat elite teams in the regular season. We know they can win ACC championships, both regular season and tournament. There is nothing Tony Bennett’s team can possibly accomplish between now and Selection Sunday that we haven’t seen them do already.

What we need to see them do is win games in the NCAA Tournament and make a Final Four. I’m a big Tony Bennett fan and love what the UVA program has accomplished. I suspect that their March problems have been less about choking and more about the fact that the overachiever often gets exposed on the biggest stage But whatever your theory is, let’s just wait until we have an actual opponent in an NCAA Tournament game to compare the Cavs to.

Michigan State-Gonzaga
These are the teams that I’ve given the best chance to match up with Duke. Michigan State because of the combo of Cassius Winston at point guard, Nick Ward down low and Tom Izzo on the sidelines. Gonzaga because…well, because they actually have beaten Duke, back in the Maui in November.

But I have my doubts in both cases. Gonzaga nearly blew a big lead in that win over Duke and if the game goes even another minute, the Zags probably lose. That doesn’t look promising for a rematch. And Michigan State’s home loss to Indiana is just not the work of a team that should be in the same conversation with the Dookies.

I don’t see Michigan faring very well in a head-to-head matchup with Duke. I think the Wolverines are well-coached and play to their potential on a very consistent basis. That also means the upside potential is limited and that’s what it’s going to take for anyone to knock off the Blue Devils.

But what if Duke loses a shocker somewhere else in the draw. That shifts our focus away from the team with the high upside, to the one that can string together some steady basketball in March. Over the past couple years, no one has fit that description better than John Beilein’s Wolverines.

They’re having a great year—even a historic one by Vol standards. But the lack of defensive consistency makes me skeptical.

North Carolina-Kentucky-Kansas
The BlueBlood powers. UNC and Kentucky are quietly sneaking up on the top seed line. Kansas is lurking. All three will be factors in the NCAA Tournament.

Part II of BlueBloods. Neither team is going to win it all. But both are gaining momentum and in the right set of circumstances, could reach a Final Four.