NCAA Tournament: Injuries to Watch

NCAA Tournament: Injuries to Watch

This article is part of our NCAA Tournament Preview series.

The NCAA Tournament committee has the challenging task each year of placing a 68-team field into four regions and seeding them 1-16. To do this, a series of metrics – with the NET rating being one – are used to determine those seeds. An entire season of games is taken into account when evaluating each program's resume, but like any pro sports, a late-season injury can change the entire landscape of a team. KenPom makes outstanding predictive metrics, but even his great algorithms won't factor in key player injuries. A 5-seed might have been rolling early on, but an injury in the conference tournament can completely alter the outlook. The focus of this column will be identifying those situations, and using this information to fill out your bracket before Thursday's play-in games tip off.

Let's start with the obvious – COVID-19 afflicted programs. The Kansas Jayhawks are at the forefront after withdrawing from the Big 12 tournament due to health and safety protocol. Neither Jalen Wilson or David McCormack (and to a lesser extent Tristan Enaruna) will be traveling for the opening-round game against Eastern Washington. McCormack didn't travel for the Big 12 tournament game, and Kansas was out-rebounded 33-to-27 by the Sooners despite picking up the victory. Now Wilson – a stud freshman who grabbed nine boards in that game – is out against for the 3 vs. 14 matchup against Eastern Washington. As a result, Kansas has moved from (-13) favorites to (-10.5) favorites. Can Kansas still get

The NCAA Tournament committee has the challenging task each year of placing a 68-team field into four regions and seeding them 1-16. To do this, a series of metrics – with the NET rating being one – are used to determine those seeds. An entire season of games is taken into account when evaluating each program's resume, but like any pro sports, a late-season injury can change the entire landscape of a team. KenPom makes outstanding predictive metrics, but even his great algorithms won't factor in key player injuries. A 5-seed might have been rolling early on, but an injury in the conference tournament can completely alter the outlook. The focus of this column will be identifying those situations, and using this information to fill out your bracket before Thursday's play-in games tip off.

Let's start with the obvious – COVID-19 afflicted programs. The Kansas Jayhawks are at the forefront after withdrawing from the Big 12 tournament due to health and safety protocol. Neither Jalen Wilson or David McCormack (and to a lesser extent Tristan Enaruna) will be traveling for the opening-round game against Eastern Washington. McCormack didn't travel for the Big 12 tournament game, and Kansas was out-rebounded 33-to-27 by the Sooners despite picking up the victory. Now Wilson – a stud freshman who grabbed nine boards in that game – is out against for the 3 vs. 14 matchup against Eastern Washington. As a result, Kansas has moved from (-13) favorites to (-10.5) favorites. Can Kansas still get past the Eagles with 14.3 rpg missing from its starting lineup? I think so, but I have them falling to USC in the Round of 32 in my bracket. There's little indication if or when the frontcourt duo will be able to return.

Update (3/17): Per Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, McCormack will indeed arrive in Indianapolis on Friday and be available for Saturday's matchup against Eastern Washington. Wilson, however, will not be available until a possible Round of 32 game Monday, at the earliest. Enaruna did, in fact, test positive and will likely be out for the foreseeable future.

Virginia is the next team currently dealing with COVID-related issues. After getting past Syracuse on a buzzer-beater in the ACC tournament, the Cavaliers withdrew and had to forfeit against Georgia Tech. Unlike the Jayhawks, we don't know exactly which players (or how many) may be afflicted with the virus. We do know that Virginia will have at least a week straight of virtual-only practices before arriving in Indianapolis on Friday for a Saturday game against Ohio. Out of the MAC conference, the Bobcats are DANGEROUS. They went toe-to-toe with Illinois down the wire back in December, and only fell due to the heroics of Ayo Dosunmu. Can Ohio knock off a rusty Virginia team? That's what my bracket says. But it's also possible that Ohio instead draws Louisville or Colorado State – all the more reason to roll the dice on the upset.

What else do Kansas and Virginia have in common? Both are in the West region, and both have fallen to Gonzaga – the No. 1 seed in the West – by double figures this year. Give me the Zags to easily march their way to the Final Four.

Despite these concerns, however, it doesn't appear as if we'll need any alternates:

With the big guns out of the way, let's take a look at some of the other individual player injuries causing seeding to not quite match up with the team's current outlook.

Collin Gillespie, G, Villanova

Villanova ranks 12 on KenPom and 16  in the NET, but that's a resume built with co-Big East Player of the Year and senior point guard Gillespie in the starting lineup. In two games without Gillespie after he suffered a torn MCL, the Wildcats were beaten by Providence (a team under .500 in Big East play) before going one-and-done to Georgetown in the Big East tournament. That being said, Jay Wright is an elite coach, and I think with eight days to plan, he can figure out a way to get past Winthrop. Picking Villanova to go one-and-done is the trendy upset, but I think there's enough firepower here with Jeremiah Robinson-Early and Jermaine Samuels to get it done. I still think Villanova falls to Purdue in the next round, though.

Isaiah Livers, F, Michigan

Michigan deserves its No. 1 seed after an excellent year in college basketball's toughest contest, but the Wolverines appear likely not to have Livers, who is dealing with a foot injury that has been called all sorts of different things. That's 13.1 points (2.2 3PM) and 6.0 rebounds from a senior who started every game for them this year. He's a big enough piece that this news makes Michigan the No. 1 seed most in danger of an early exit. Potential matchups against LSU/St. Bonaventure or Colorado/FSU are two games I can easily see Michigan dropping.

Roman Penn/ShanQuan Hemphill, Drake

Drake started the season 18-0 and ultimately earned an at-large bid despite falling to Loyola-Chicago in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill (14.1 ppg) is expected to return to the First Four after missing the last nine games following foot surgery. How effective he'll be and how many minutes he'll play are anyone's guess. Penn, on the other hand, is out for the year with a foot injury of his own. He was the senior point guard averaging 11.2 points and 5.5 assists. The Bulldogs wouldn't have even touched the at-large bid conversation without these two, and even though the Shockers are a fringe tournament team at best, I'm picking they beat Drake as one-point favorites. Whoever wins will ultimately fall to USC, however, according to my bracket.

RJ Cole, G, Connecticut

Cole suffered a concussion in UConn's Big East tournament exit to Creighton and remains in concussion protocol in advance of Saturday's showdown with Maryland. If he can't go, the Huskies will be limited at point guard. James Bouknight already has a lot to carry, plus he'll draw a matchup with Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Darryl Morsell. I was already wary of the hype behind UConn, but even if they do win the first game, I don't see them getting through Alabama.

Update (3/17):

John Fulkerson, F, Tennessee

Fulkerson took one of the most vicious elbows you'll ever see in a matchup against Florida in the SEC Tournament that saw an instant ejection for Omar Payne.

Now his face looks like this, in addition to a likely concussion:

The Vols are officially calling him day-to-day, and while I still like Tennessee to advance against the bid-stealing Beavers without Fulkerson's 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, I have them falling to Oklahoma State.

Kyle Young, F, Ohio State

Young is another player in concussion protocol with an uncertain status. He had 18 points in 19 minutes of the Big Ten semifinal game against Purdue before exiting in the second half, and things got dicey for the Buckeyes after that. Young is the closest OSU has to a true center, with zero rotation players standing above 6-foot-8. Even without Young, I feel like the Buckeyes win a shootout against Oral Roberts before hopefully getting him back for a matchup against the Florida/Virginia Tech winner. Both of those teams have a quality big, so having Young for extra depth will be key. The Buckeyes are in my Final Four, and that's based on my assumption they eventually get back to full strength.

Josh Primo, G, Alabama

Nate Oats and the Tide run deep enough that they should be able to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, even if they are without the services of the freshman wing. Primo (8.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg) has been solid, but look for Keon Ellis and John Petty to pick up the slack, with perhaps a sprinkle of Juwan Gary. This is a well-coached Alabama team that is fired up and has several scorers capable of taking over a game. With my aforementioned concerns about Michigan taken into account, give me the Tide to take the East region. No longer just a football school.

Update (3/17): 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jake Letarski
RotoWire Editor for College Basketball and MMA. Frequent podcaster, plus radio and video guest. Follow Jake on Twitter at @RotoJake.
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