Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Ranking the NCAA Men’s, Women’s Tournament teams; Justin Fields traded to Steelers

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🏀 Good morning to everyone but especially …

THE MEN’S NCAA TOURNAMENT FIELD

It’s here, and it’s beautiful. It’s chaotic, overwhelming, maddening and in some places questionable at best (more on that in a bit), but the men’s NCAA Tournament bracket has arrived in all of its glory. Let’s start at the top.

Of course the committee doesn’t always get it right, either in its selections or the order of them. “Right” is impossible to define, too. But who are actually the best teams? Matt Norlander ranked the entire field, 1-68, and UConn, Houston and Purdue are an easy 1-2-3. The real debate begins at No. 4.

  • Norlander:4. Iowa State — I lean Iowa State because it rates as the No. 1 defense in college basketball. There’s not a lot of star power here, but coach T.J. Otzelberger hasn’t much cared about that. The Cyclones win through dogged, rugged play and are maniacs at turning teams over. One in every four possessions, they force a giveaway. The Cyclones are guided by 6-1 guard Tamin Lipsey (12.3 points, 4.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds), who ranks among the most undervalued players in the sport at this point.”

Matt’s rankings are an excellent starting point as you weigh your bracket. Our experts, meanwhile, have already made their picks, complete with analysis.

We’ll have plenty more in the coming days, but for now …

👍 Honorable mentions

😓 And not such a good morning for …

THE TEAMS THAT JUST MISSED THE NCAA TOURNAMENT

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The line between March Madness and March sadness is tiny. And there’s no real solace for the teams that get left out, especially when controversy is involved. But the fact is that anytime teams are selected by a committee, there are going to be grievances. It’s the nature of the beast.

So let’s air some grievances. Here’s the “First 4 Out.”

  1. Oklahoma missed the Tournament in heartbreaking fashion. The Sooners lost Rivaldo Soares and John Hugley to injuries, and neither quite made it back for their Big 12 Tournament opener, which Porter Moser‘s bunch lost to TCU.
  2. Seton Hall is the first Big East team to miss the Tournament after finishing at least five games above .500 in league play. The Pirates beat top overall seed UConn in December and No. 2 seed Marquette in January.
  3. At 28th, Indiana State has the highest NET ranking ever by a team that missed the Tournament. The Sycamores were one of the feel-good stories of the year but, like so many other mid-major bubble teams before, feel awful after Selection Sunday.
  4. Pittsburgh was also on the wrong side despite wins at Duke and Virginia — the Cavaliers, meanwhile, were an extremely controversial inclusion — and over fellow bubble team Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament. The Panthers’ weak non-conference schedule, including a home loss to Missouri (0-18 in SEC play), doomed them.

I’m not even sure the committee did a good job with the order of the wrong side of the bubble. St. John’s, at 32nd, owns the second-highest NET ranking by a team to miss the Tournament. Providence was nowhere to be seen; the Friars were one of 18 teams with at least six Quad 1 wins, and all other 17 made it.

The Big East somehow wound up with only three teams — its fewest since 1993 — even though kenpom.com rated it the country’s second-best conference. The Pirates and Johnnies ended up on the wrong side of Chip Patterson’s Selection Sunday winners and losers.

👎 Not so honorable mentions

🏀 Women’s NCAA Tournament: South Carolina No. 1 overall, star power abounds

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The women’s bracket has also arrived, and you’d better believe I’m getting in on our women’s Bracket Games, too.

Much like on the men’s side, there was no question who’d be No. 1 overall. That honor belongs to undefeated South Carolina. The Gamecocks are awesome — depth, senior leadership, freshman talent and the excellent Dawn Staley directing it all — and an easy pick atop Isabel Gonzalez’s full 1-68 rankings.

There’s star power all over the rest of the No. 1 seed line, with Iowa (Caitlin Clark), USC (JuJu Watkins) and Texas (Madison Booker). Defending champion LSU, meanwhile, earned a No. 3 seed in the same region as Iowa, making for a potential Elite Eight rematch of last year’s title game. Jack Maloney notes that the streak of not having a repeat showdown in the championship game will continue for an eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

Fellow No. 3 seed UConn, meanwhile, cruised to another Big East Tournament title but ended up on the wrong side of Isabel’s winners and losers.

  • Gonzalez: Loser: UConn misses No. 2 seed — Albany is about a two-hour drive from Storrs, Conn., but if the Huskies make it to the Sweet 16, they will have to fly across the country to Portland, Ore. … The No. 3-seeded Huskies have made it to the Sweet 16 every year since 1994, so fans probably won’t mind the location as long as their team keeps the streak going.”

🏌 Scottie Scheffler repeats at the Players Championship

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A historic comeback. A historic repeat. If you thought what Scottie Scheffler was doing before was impressive, we’re going to have to find new adjectives for what he’s doing now. The world No. 1 came back from five strokes down entering Sunday to become the first player ever to repeat at the Players Championship.

It was an absolutely thrilling finish, with Scheffler finishing a stroke ahead of Xander Schauffele, Wyndham Clark and Brian Harman — all top-10 players worldwide. Clark came excruciatingly close, too, with a brutal lip-out on the 72nd hole.

Scheffler pockets a cool $4.5 million one week after winning $4 million for his triumph at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, making him the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001 to win the Players after winning a PGA Tour event a week earlier. Not only is he great, but he’s as tough as they come, winning after nearly withdrawing with a neck strain, Kyle Porter writes.

  • Porter: “You can’t do any of that if you don’t have the gifts. But to have this in the arsenal, too? The doggedness to figure out how to not just stave off a withdrawal but keep oneself in contention while feeling terrible — knowing it would be easy to pack up the $4 million you won last week and head home? That is an embarrassment of riches. … Scheffler is the greatest in the world by a wide margin, yet he might be even better than we realized.”

🏈 Bears trade Justin Fields to Steelers: Why, and what’s next?

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With the Caleb Williams era expected to officially start in Chicago in just a few weeks, the Justin Fields era came to a strange and underwhelming end. The Bears traded Fields to the Steelers for a 2025 sixth-round pick that can become a fourth-round pick if Fields plays at least 51% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps this season.

The move came one day after the Steelers traded Kenny Pickett to the Eagles (Pickett notably omitted the Steelers from his goodbye message) and nearly a week after Russell Wilson announced he’d be signing with the Steelers.

First things first: Wilson will be the starter in Pittsburgh. But is that the right choice? Bryan DeArdo broke down a fascinating situation (but not a position battle, apparently!) in Pittsburgh. Bryan also says the Steelers fleeced the Bears, and Garrett Podell improved Pittsburgh’s standing in his team-by-team free agent grades.

Listen: If the Bears had a better option, they would have taken it. While Fields has undeniable physical talent, he’s also been hurt, inconsistent and ultimately just not that good. I get the underwhelming circumstances, support, luck, etc., but Fields was 24th in expected points added per dropback last year. Seven of the eight quarterbacks below him (including Wilson) are on a new team or no longer a starter. Bryce Young is the only exception.

Jared Dubin explained why a unique set of circumstances lowered the Fields market.

To me, there’s a range of four outcomes:

  1. Wilson plays well and stays healthy, meaning Fields doesn’t play much, and the Steelers paid a sixth-round pick for a backup who might be gone after this year anyway.
  2. Wilson gets benched/hurt, and Fields plays well. If so, great! The Steelers have their guy, and they’ll happily pay up for it.
  3. Wilson gets benched/hurt, and Fields plays poorly. There’s a chance Pittsburgh gave up a fourth-round pick for a guy who didn’t help you win and leaves after one season.
  4. Wilson gets benched/hurt, and Fields plays … OK. Based on his career so far, this seems reasonable. Then the Steelers are left in the tough commit-or-don’t quandary zone the Bears just left.

Only time will tell.

📺 What we’re watching Monday

🏀 Heat at 76ers, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Knicks at Warriors, 10 p.m. on ESPN

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