The racket bracket: 6-11, 7-10, and 8-9 games through the prism of coaches

When the bracket for the 2016 NCAA Tournament was unveiled (leaked, more precisely) on Sunday afternoon, you went through the round of 64 wondering which team would win.

Before the round of 64 begins, we’re going to engage in a slightly different exercise: identifying which coaches need to win more in the 6-11, 7-10, and 8-9 games.

When you get into the 5-12 matchups and the even bigger gaps between seeds, there’s no debate about the coaches that need to win more than others. Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell will face no heat at all for failing to beat Kentucky (unless he makes a gaffe which centrally affects the final outcome). If John Calipari loses to Stony Brook, on the other hand…

well, you know.

So, we’re focusing only on 6-11, 7-10, and 8-9 games.

Let’s go to the bracket.

In the South Region, the 6-11 game is Arizona-Wichita State. Since Wichita State won an NCAA tournament game against Vanderbilt in the First Four, Gregg Marshall can say his team validated its inclusion into the tournament. Arizona, caught between recruiting classes and NBA departures, wasn’t built for top-tier success this season, but the Wildcats do need to nab one March Madness win to feel they’ve achieved something in 2016. Arizona needs this win a little more.

The South’s 7-10 game is Iowa versus Temple. Given the way Iowa cratered at the end of the 2014 season, failing to even escape the First Four after being viewed as a possible No. 3 seed in January of that year, the Hawkeyes need to get out of the round of 64 for Fran McCaffery to attach a measure of satisfaction to this season’s journey. Temple can really use a win after being fortunate to make the tournament (and being shafted in the 2015 selection process), but McCaffery is the Fran who needs this win more than Dunphy of Temple.

The South’s 8-9 game is a blowout in terms of “Who needs it more?”

At Colorado, we’ve written about the expectations and standards set by the Buffaloes. They’re modest — and reasonably so. At UConn, national titles are the expectation. Kevin Ollie needs to stack at least one win on top of the AAC Tournament escape to feel he’s moved the program into an appreciably stronger position.

Let’s go to the West, since the South and the West winners will meet in the Final Four national semifinals.

Texas Smart Basketball

The 6-11 game in the West features Shaka Smart and Texas against Ben Jacobson and Northern Iowa, one of the best coaching matchups you’ll see in the round of 64. At first glance, this is an easy call. Shaka Smart has been asked to establish consistent greatness at Texas. This is only his first season, but an early exit would not set the right tone for his tenure.

However, Northern Iowa was an up-and-down team all season, and the Panthers might legitimately feel they need to win this game in order to confirm the notion they belonged in this tournament. Jacobson might want to stay at Northern Iowa for the long haul, but if he ever wanted to move up the ranks — the Minnesota job (he played there, remember) could be open one year from now if Richard Pitino can’t succeed in 2017 — beating Shaka in the Dance would help his cause.

Yet, this still goes to Texas. The Longhorns do not want to lose in round one while Texas A&M moves to round two. Bevo needs to play the Aggies.

The 7-10 game involves Smart’s former employer, VCU, as the 10 seed against No. 7 Oregon State. The winner here is easy: VCU, having made a Final Four five years ago, expects to advance in opening-round games. Oregon State has already won its victory this season, returning to the tournament for the first time since 1990. Wayne Tinkle doesn’t have to win this game. Will Wade of VCU needs to follow in Shaka’s footsteps and grab a dubya.

The 8-9 game pits Saint Joseph’s against Cincinnati. If you have followed Cincinnati all season, you know Bearcat fans have grumbled (not without cause) at all the late leads this team has blown. If Cincinnati crashes out, Mick Cronin will hear it from his fan base — hence the term “racket bracket.”

Let’s move to the East and the other side of the bracket (where the East winner plays Midwest champion in the Final Four national semifinals).

The 6-11 game has not yet been decided. Notre Dame is the 6, and the Irish will face Michigan or Tulsa on Friday. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey finally made his first Elite Eight last season, so he’s not in a hugely urgent situation, but he’s like to at least make the round of 32. Michigan coach John Beilein has had to endure all sorts of injuries to his roster this season (again), so if he gets past Tulsa, he would be able to own a Dance victory this season. Frank Haith of Tulsa MUST beat Michigan in order to feel he’s done a credible job this season. If he faces Notre Dame, he simply wouldn’t feel as much pressure.

Notre Dame gets the slight nod due to being seeded five notches higher.


The 7-10 game in the East is Wisconsin versus Pittsburgh. Wisconsin’s Greg Gard has already pulled off one of the best coaching jobs in the country, and he just got retained as the permanent head coach after serving in an interim capacity following the departure of Bo Ryan. He’s fine.

Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon would quiet a lot of noise from his fan base if he can win this game. Dixon needs this game more than Gard, to a considerable extent.

The 8-9 game is USC and Providence. USC head coach Andy Enfield has completed a successful season by leading the Trojans back to the tournament. A win here is gravy. Providence, with Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn, needs to make use of two dynamic players and win a game being played in the Friars’ Eastern time zone. Providence coach Ed Cooley needs this game more, even though he’s done very well to lead the Friars to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Now, let’s head to the Midwest.


The 6-11 game is Seton Hall versus Gonzaga in Denver. The location matters because Seton Hall, after winning the Big East Tournament in New York, has had to travel a long distance to a high-altitude city. The Pirates are the 6 seed, but Gonzaga should have a partisan crowd on hand, and the Zags should also be able to adjust to the conditions a little better — playing BYU every year helps them play at altitude. Both coaches have done great work this season; Mark Few of Gonzaga had to keep his team together after big man Przemek Karnowski got injured in late December. Neither coach urgently needs to win this game; again, tip the scales to the 6 seed against the 11.

The 7-10 game involves the easiest call on the board. Syracuse’s inclusion in the field created a firestorm (not as much as Tulsa’s inclusion, but it was close). Jim Boeheim has to win this game on several levels. Archie Miller of Dayton could surely use a win, but not as much as Jimmy B.

The 8-9 game features Texas Tech and Butler. Tubby Smith has already triumphed by leading the Red Raiders back to Bracketville. Butler coach Chris Holtmann needs this one more, if only because he wants to keep alive the career of Roosevelt Jones, who has seemingly been at Butler for the past nine seasons.


About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.