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Ben Billman’s NCAA Basketball Mailbag No. 3

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NC State head coach Mark Gottfried was fired this week but will finish out the season. Photo: SI.com

Selection Sunday continues to creep closer, and most teams only have a handful of conference games remaining before the conference tournaments begin. The time is running short for struggling teams to turn their seasons around. Teams at the top have a few more games to play well in order to draw high seeds in the NCAA Tournament. I once again field questions pertaining to NCAA basketball and the main storylines in the game. If you have any questions for the next mailbag, email me or leave a message at the bottom of this article.

Mark Gottfried was fired by North Carolina State this week but will coach the remainder of the season. What are your thoughts?

I have always been a fan of Mark Gottfried. He has had success at Murray State, Alabama, and NC State. This is his sixth year with the Wolfpack, and they are having a rough year, but that shouldn’t overshadow what Gottfried accomplished during his first four years at the helm. NC State finished seventh or higher in the ACC standings and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in each of those four seasons. In 2012 and 2015, the team advanced to the sweet sixteen. The program took a dip last season, but from my perspective, that was more about a group of players who were selfish and had bad attitudes more than poor coaching. Sure, Gottfried should take the blame, but every program in America has an off year every once in a while (other than Kansas). The team is struggling this year, but the ACC is as tough as any conference ever.

If NC State wants to move on and truly feels that they can find a better coach who can lead them to greater heights, then that is their prerogative. I just don’t see them finding a coach who wants to step into a hostile situation with the pressure to immediately get the program back to the top.

The other part of the story is that Gottfried will remain as the head coach through the end of the season. While there is not much time to turn things around, it is not out of the question that NC State could make a run and either sneak into the NCAA Tournament or make the NIT Tournament. What happens if they advance deep into either of those tournaments? It will be awkward for everyone if they have great success in the final stretch and then have to locate a new coach. Gottfried will land on his feet, and I expect him to have success very quickly wherever he ends up. NC State on the other hand will probably struggle to find stability, especially when Duke and North Carolina are playing and recruiting at such a high level right now.

Villanova’s Josh Hart. Photo: Sports Illustrated

What are your thoughts on the top 16 released last weekend?

The committee did a nice job on the initial rankings. I completely agree with the four No. 1 seeds in Villanova, Kansas, Baylor, and Gonzaga. It looks as if strength of schedule and wins against teams in the top 50 of the RPI will be important factors in building the final bracket. Those are the main reasons why no Big Ten teams were in this top 16. Wisconsin appears to be the best team in the conference, but they only have two top 50 wins right now. This will hurt the conference overall.

The committee also likes the ACC. Four teams appear in the top 16. This is a good hint that the conference could get as many as ten teams into the NCAA Tournament based on the strength of their schedules.  \UCLA feels a little low in the rankings as a No. 4 seed, but the committee is looking more at their lack of big wins than their performance on the court. Using the “eye test”, I think UCLA is a top 10 team in the nation. Overall, I like the concept of releasing a sneak peek in February, and I hope it becomes an annual event.

Which teams are rising at the right time?

Oklahoma State is playing really good basketball right now. After starting 0-6 in the Big 12, they have gone 7-1 in their past eight games, including wins over Arkansas and West Virginia. They have played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and that should help with their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan is also getting hot with about a month to play in the regular season. After a 4-6 start in the Big Ten, the Wolverines have beaten Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin. In my opinion, they have gone from a team squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble to a solid lock to get in as an at-large team.

SMU has found its footing after an ugly 4-3 start to the season.  They have won 19 of their past 20 games, and their only loss in that span was at Cincinnati in a two-point loss. They earned some redemption by beating the Bearcats earlier this week. The two teams are now tied at the top of the conference.

Finally, Minnesota has played much better in recent weeks.  The Golden Gophers started the season 15-2 and looked like an absolute lock to get a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. They then faced a rough stretch in the Big Ten where they lost five straight games to fall to 3-6 in conference play. The team has rebounded with four straight victories, including wins over Iowa and Indiana. A strong strength of schedule has Minnesota in good position to once again earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

How many conference wins do teams need in major conferences to feel good about their at-large chances?

This question really comes down to how strong the conference is as a whole. Every major conference is different, but it is fairly easy to gauge how many conference wins a team needs in its respective conference. Any team in the ACC that can finish 9-9 or better should be a lock this season. Teams in the ACC with a conference record of 8-10 or worse will need a deep conference tournament run to make up for a lack of success in the regular season.

The Big 12 is so strong this season that a conference record of 8-10 may be enough to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Teams such as Texas Tech and Kansas State, who both sit at 5-8 in conference play, should both feel good if they can go 3-2 down the stretch.

In the Big East, teams probably need to finish 10-8 or better to feel good about an at-large bid. Teams under this mark will need to play well in the conference tournament. In a Big Ten Conference that lacks depth, a team should only feel comfortable with an 11-7 record or better. There are a couple teams such as Iowa, Penn State, and Nebraska which could finish 10-8 in conference play and still not be a strong candidate for the NCAA Tournament.

The Pac 12 is similar in that an 11-7 record is needed to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday. Utah is a prime example. They are 8-6 in conference play, but a weak strength of schedule means they need to accumulate wins during the last month of the season.

In the SEC, the weakest of the major conferences, a record of 12-6 or better is needed. Arkansas at 8-5, Alabama at 8-5, and Ole Miss at 7-6 can all attain this mark if they finish strong. Anything worse than 12-6, and they will need to win a couple conference tournament games to get an at-large bid.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu

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