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Bonnies open as No. 12 seed

Chris LaGrow

Welcome back to another season of bracketology. Instead of looking back at the lost tournament and the other struggles of 2020, let’s look ahead to what’s (hopefully) coming in 2021.

College hoops has had an uneven and unpredictable season so far, but true to preseason expectations Gonzaga and Baylor have shown themselves to be head and shoulders above the rest. COVID has caused many postponements, so teams have played a varying number of games. The Ivy League canceled play altogether, and even some top power-conference teams have had to postpone games. Locally, Canisius is 3-3 (all conference games), but hasn’t played since Jan. 2, and Niagara is 5-7 (4-6 in the MAAC). UB is 6-5, and at 4-3 in MAC games, they’re in fifth place. And St. Bonaventure is off to an 8-1 start (5-1 in the Atlantic 10), with sole possession of first place and a 12-seed in this week’s bracket. Our Western New York teams probably have to win their conference tournaments to get into the tournament, though the Bonnies could play their way into at-large consideration.

The choppy start to the season has had surprising consequences for some traditional powerhouse programs. Kentucky, Duke, and Michigan State, tournament staples for the last 25-30 years, are not in this week’s bracket. How often do you see North Carolina as a double-digit seed? Right now they’re hanging by a thread as an 11-seed. Hard to imagine a tournament without at least one or two of those teams, but we could be without all four in March.

The chaos has opened up some opportunities for the mid-range power conference teams. Alabama, led by former UB coach Nate Oats, is having a great season and comes in as a 2-seed at the moment. Slumping Kansas falls to a 4-seed, while Texas, usually a middle of the pack Big 12 team, has risen to a 2-seed. With Kentucky down, their SEC rival Missouri is picking up the slack and taking the Wildcats’ usual slot as a top-4 seed. With no Michigan State in the bracket, Minnesota comes in this week as a 5-seed.

You’d think that some of those mid-major schools might be able to make some noise this year, but so far it’s not happening. There’s not a team out there right now like UB’s from two years ago. The loss of so much of the nonconference season for many mid-major conference teams cost them their shots at the stronger programs, and therefore their shot to improve their strength of schedule. Even so, I’m keeping an eye on unbeaten Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference as a team whose seed could rise quickly if they keep winning. There could be some shockers in March, as even more mid-major conference teams than usual may well be under-seeded and take a high seed by surprise.

In response to COVID, the tournament has been relocated entirely to the state of Indiana, with most games to be played in or near Indianapolis, where the Final Four was already scheduled to be held at Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the Colts). It’s still unclear whether there will be fans in the seats, but right now it looks doubtful. Any geographic advantage that Indiana, Purdue, or other nearby teams might have will probably be negated without fans (and regardless, they won’t be at their home arenas). If this change enables the games to be played safely, though, then I’m all for it. It also looks like they expect to have the usual 68-team tournament, so the speculation about a 48- or 80-team tournament can be tabled for now. The biggest change so far is that the First Four games (sometimes referred to as the “play-in” games) will all be played on Thursday (as opposed to being split between Tuesday and Wednesday), which means that the first and second rounds will be played between Friday and Monday instead of Thursday and Sunday. Mark your calendars for March 18-22.

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