1. The perception of the Big East
One of the most prevalent reactions to the unveiling of the bracket on Selection Sunday by both college basketball fans and national media members was the assertion that multiple teams from the Big East were over-seeded. The focal points of this discontent would seem to be fourth-seeded Georgetown and sixth-seeded Xavier and Butler. As you might have expected, fans of the conference have punched back in the days since, relentlessly pointing out the league's stellar RPI (second only to the Big 12) and winning record against the ACC.
Realtime Bracket Game
Realtime Bracket Game
The arguments from both sides using the data that's been collected over the past four months is all fine, but the fact of the matter is that, fairly or unfairly, none of that is going to speak as loudly as whatever takes place over the next 14 days. First impressions are every bit as important in sports as they are in every other walk of life, and a year ago, the "new" Big East failed to advance a team to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend. It was especially damning given that the conference had both a No. 2 and a No. 3 seed get manhandled in the round of 32. People haven't forgotten that, and the 2014 postseason will only resonate more if the league puts forth a similar effort this year.
The best and worst thing about March in college basketball is how much of an impact it has on the sport for the other 11 months of the year. Seasons can be made, careers can be launched, and perceptions can be changed all in the span of two or three days. If the Big East wants to squash all this "Power 5" conference talk before it crosses over from football to basketball even more than it already has, then the league needs Villanova to prove it was worthy of a No. 1 seed, and it needs at least one or two other teams to accompany the Wildcats into the tournament's second weekend.
2. Which previously unheard of coach is going to earn a new gig?
Two years ago on this day, only college basketball diehards had any idea who Andy Enfield was. A week after that, everyone knew his name, his background in business, his coaching history, and what his wife looked like. A week after that, Enfield was the new head coach at USC.
It seems unfair that a person can spend decades clawing their way up the career ladder to get to a point where whether or not they get to realize the dream of coaching in a major conference is decided by a single 40-minute game, but it happens. Every single year it happens.
Maybe Eastern Washington becomes the latest member of the ever-growing "double-digit seeds that beat Georgetown" club, and Jim Hayford goes from a guy without a Wikipedia page to a top candidate for a major opening on the West Coast. Maybe Bill Coen, who spent 20 years as an assistant before landing the head coaching gig at Northeastern, becomes a household name in the blink of an eye.
The possibilities are immense at this moment, but we know that at least one head coach is about to have the best week or weeks of their professional life. We see it every March, and it still never gets old.
3. Notre Dame's reputation
Everyone talks about Gonzaga's struggles to "get over the hump" in the big dance, and that's certainly a major storyline in its own right, but I'm not sure there's a program out there with more on the line this month in terms of its overall perception than Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish have spent the bulk of the season ranked in the top 15, they have one of the nation's best players in Jerian Grant, and they just won the ACC Tournament. And yet, a quick Twitter search of Mike Brey's team at any hour of the day still pulls up an endless amount of stuff like this:
Notre Dame always finds ways to choke in the big dance.— Nader (@ThaPersianKid) March 15, 2015
Really want to see Notre Dame in the elite eight but they always choke so— Nolan (@That_WhiteDude) March 15, 2015
They went semi easy on Kentucky. I'm pretty shocked. Notre Dame has a walk to the Elite 8, but they're a proven tournament choke.— Joseph Landini (@Landini_says) March 15, 2015
Of course, there's a reason.
Despite fielding several highly-ranked teams over the past decade, Notre Dame has won just two total games in the NCAA Tournament since 2003. All but one of the Irish's six tournament losses over that span have come to a double-digit seed. The one outlier was a 20-point beatdown in 2008 at the hands of a Washington State team seeded just one line above fourth-seeded ND. Outside of that, the Irish have been bounced by 11th-seeded Winthrop (2007), 11th-seeded Old Dominion (2010), 10th-seeded Xavier (2012), 10th-seeded Iowa State and perhaps most painfully of all, an embarrassing 71-57 defeat at the hands of 10th-seeded Florida State when the 2011 Irish were a No. 2 seed some thought had the potential to win it all.
Winning the ACC Tournament and earning a No. 3 seed is a terrific achievement for Notre Dame, but it's also made the fall in perception that much steeper if the Irish again give an out-of-character performance in the big dance. On the flip side, a deep run would do wonders to rid the program of a stigma it's been attached to for seemingly the entirety of the Mike Brey era in South Bend.
4. Which star builds on his legacy, and which player creates one
Coaches making and breaking their careers during the tournament garner a ton of headlines, but these three weeks will also see a handful of players change their lives forever.
Some guys will solidify the reputations they built for themselves in the preceding years or months (Shabazz Napier/Kemba Walker), some guys will perform so well on the biggest of stages that they'll be able to parlay the run into a professional career that starts sooner than anyone had predicted (Gordon Hayward/Kyle O'Quinn), and others will simply become March legends forever (Bryce Drew/Marvin O'Connor).
5. Will we get a blockbuster Final Four?
Everyone loves the early-round upsets, but recent history has also shown that everyone also loves a Final Four loaded with blue blood powerhouses. This may be a tournament which gives us both.
The disparity between the top six or seven teams and the rest of the country has been unusually large all season long, and it would almost feel wrong for at three of those teams not to make it to Indianapolis and give us an all-time great Final Four. On the other hand, there has been so much parity among the teams that are now seeded 3-14 that this feels like the perfect setup for an opening Thursday and Friday loaded with double-digit seeds advancing.
The answers will all start flooding in soon enough.