Wiedmer: Vols can finally reach Final Four; Bama can win entire NCAA tourney

AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Tennessee's Santiago Vescovi, left, guards Alabama's Herbert Jones during an SEC tournament semifinal Saturday in Nashville. Alabama beat the Vols and went on to defeat LSU in the league title game Sunday, but both teams are in the NCAA tournament, with the Crimson Tide a No. 2 seed and Tennessee a No. 5 seed.

It was getting late in CBS's "NCAA Tournament Selection Show" on Sunday evening when studio analyst Clark Kellogg made the following observation regarding the Tennessee Volunteers, seeded fifth in the Midwest Region.

"Tennessee is my dark-horse team," he said. "They've been up and down, but when they've been good, they've been really good."

Take undefeated and overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga out of the mix, and every team in college basketball has been up and down for one reason or another this season. COVID-19 issues. Injuries. Opponents canceling games because of their COVID-19 issues.

But to have watched the Vols' Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinal win over Florida on Friday, and then their narrow loss to league regular-season and tourney champ Alabama on Saturday - a loss suffered without John Fulkerson, UT's own Energizer Bunny, due to a wretched cheap-shot elbow by the Gators' Omar Payne - is to believe the Big Orange have the ability to validate Kellogg's faith.

Does this mean they could ultimately reach the Final Four by knocking off, should the Midwest's seeds hold, No. 12 seed and Pac-12 tourney champ Oregon State in their opener, followed by No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 1 Illinois, then No. 2 Houston or No. 3 West Virginia in succession? Yes, the Vols have that much potential.

On the other hand, if Fulkerson can't play and Oregon State hits the kind of shots it did in its Pac-12 tourney final win against Colorado (a team the Vols beat by 11 points to open the season), Tennessee could also go home after one game.

But to look at this entire 68-team bracket - a field that won't become official until 6 p.m. Tuesday due to COVID-19 protocols - is to say the same thing about more than half of the teams, excluding, perhaps, Gonzaga.

For instance, briefly returning to the coronavirus cloud hanging over all of this, even as the NCAA tries to create a perfect "bubble" in its arenas of choice in and near Indianapolis, any positive COVID1-9 test less than seven days from competition would rule individuals out, and possibly teams, depending on how many players were infected or contact traced.

The NCAA is allowing any team to play with only five healthy players, but unless those five play for Gonzaga, fellow No. 1 seeds Baylor, Illinois and Michigan, and maybe No. 2 seeds Alabama and Ohio State, that would seem pointless. Better to bow out gracefully and give a competitive standby team such as Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis or Ole Miss, who all still have a chance to dance, in that order, if teams in the field have to withdraw before the Tuesday deadline.

After that, the tourney is set and any team dropping out will give its opponent a walkover to the next round.

So can anyone keep Gonzaga from becoming the first team since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976 from finishing a season unbeaten?

Within the Zags' West Region, probably not. On nights they shoot it well, No. 8 seed Oklahoma and No. 9 seed Missouri - the winner would almost certainly face Gonzaga in the round of 32 - could hang for a time, especially Mizzou.

Second-seeded Iowa also has the firepower but probably not the defense. No. 3 seed Kansas has the defense but possibly not the offense, which means Gonzaga should reach the Final Four.

As for who else gets there, let's try North Carolina shocking the world as an eighth seed in the South, Tennessee doing the same in the Midwest to reach its first-ever Final Four and Alabama capturing the East.

Then look for Alabama to hit 18 triples against the Zags in the Final Four and 15 more against the Vols in the title game to complete something that Florida did in 2007 - win both the football and men's basketball national championships in the same school year.

But before that happens, it should also be noted that Rick Pitino - who was fired from his Louisville gig a few years ago for recruiting wrongs - became the third coach in NCAA history to guide five schools to the tourney, joining Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith, when Iona won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tourney. Of supreme satisfaction to Slick Rick must be that neither Louisville nor Kentucky, programs he guided to national championships, made this year's field.

Unfortunately for Iona, it faces Bama in the opening round.

The best early-round game may even be a First Four play-in encounter between No. 11 seeds Michigan State and UCLA.

Said selection committee chair and Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart of that pairing, "Heck of a way to start the tournament off."

But what most needs to be started as March Madness begins is the embracing of Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner's voicemail message, which ESPN divulged Saturday night as the Yellow Jackets were winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tourney to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2010.

"Life is short," the message begins. "We spend so much time sweating the small stuff. Worrying, wishing, wanting, waiting for something bigger, instead of focusing on the simple blessings that surround us every day. Life is so fragile, and it takes a single moment to change everything you take for granted. Focus on what's important and be grateful and live your life with no regrets. Have a great day, a positive day and a day filled with gratitude."

After watching a single, sinister virus these past 12 months change everything we've ever previously taken for granted, can anyone think of better advice than that?

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.