Sixteen Teams, Sixteen Thoughts

Unfortunately I didn’t get a bracket prediction up in time last week, as I was way busier than I wanted to be. You’ll just have to trust me that my bracket is perfect so far.

I’ll do my best to make up for the lack of a post with a rambling post loosely based on the sixteen remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament:

1. Ohio State was the only high seed that looked like a national champion last weekend. They were flat-out unstoppable in a fairly impressive 75-46 victory over Texas San Antonio and an incredibly impressive 98-66 victory over George Mason. The 98 points shattered the record for most points by a Big Ten team in NCAA history, previously held by Michigan, which scored 81 points in a triple overtime game against Coastal Carolina back in 1983 [citation needed].

The bad news for the remaining 15 NCAA teams is that if the Buckeyes play like they did against George Mason they will beat every team by double digits en route to the most dominant run in March Madness history. The good news is that they can’t possibly play that good for the rest of the tournament. The Buckeyes fell behind 11-2 early in the game before they proceeded to outscore the Patriots by forty-seven points over the next thirty minutes. That would be unsustainable against Division II competition, let alone the remaining Sweet Sixteen teams. But still, they were the most impressive team over the first weekend – that has to make them feel confident heading into next weekend’s games.

2. I picked Kentucky to win the National Championship in my bracket…and that wasn’t even close to my most questionable decision. Things got carried away pretty fast. In possibly related news, I am currently sitting in 419th place out of 494 teams in my pool.

Anyway, Kentucky showed the toughness that was missing from last year’s more talented team with a gutty last-second win over Princeton in the first round and a win over West Virginia in the second round after trailing by eight at the half. I actually like the Wildcats’ chances if they can somehow get past the Buckeye buzzsaw because the rest of that half of the bracket looks so unimpressive. Unfortunately, I don’t like the Wildcats’ chances against the Buckeye buzzsaw.

3. Raise your hand if you had Marquette as one of the last two Big East teams standing. Not that the Golden Eagles were all that impressive – it just turns out that the Big East kinda sucks. I am actually a bit annoyed by this. Going into the tournament, I assumed along with everyone else that the Big East was good because they got eleven teams into the dance. They were not. Looking back, most of their quality wins came against each other. Ironically, the Big East’s only two teams into the Sweet Sixteen got there by beating other Big East teams.

St. John’s couldn’t slow down Gonzaga. Notre Dame couldn’t score on Notre Dame. Pittsburgh and Louisville were baffled by the likes of Butler and Morehead State. Just an embarrassing, embarrassing weekend.

4. North Carolina might beat Marquette but they will lose to the winner of Ohio State and Kentucky. I know this because I watched the last three seconds of the Tar Heels’ win over Washington. In those three seconds, North Carolina forward John Henson managed to make two of the stupidest plays I have ever seen. After the Huskies’ Venoy Overton decided to shoot the ball from half court down three with four seconds still on the clock, Henson touched the ball as it went out of bounds for reasons that remain unclear.* Then, Henson came oh-so-close to goaltending on Isaiah Thomas’s desperation shot as time expired. Turns out that it didn’t matter, since Thomas actually took the shot with a foot over the three-point line, but still…why would he even jump at the ball? Maybe it’s unfair to generalize based on two plays, but I’ve seen enough: UNC is bound for disappointment.

* Overton’s shot was so far off line that Henson was actually credited with a steal and a turnover when he touched the ball before it hit out of bounds.

5. Speaking of highly ranked ACC teams that won’t win the tournament, we come to Duke. The Blue Devils will not repeat as champions. Unlike last year’s team, this year’s squad is prone to lapses in judgment. For proof of this, look no further than Sunday’s narrow victory over eighth-seeded Michigan in a game that the Wolverines had no business being in. The Wolverines were one inch away from sending the game to overtime despite trailing for double digits for much of the second half.

Which brings me to my next point: if you are Michigan, don’t you have to go for the three-pointer and the win on that last possession? I feel like that is the equivalent of a major underdog going for a two-point conversion in the closing seconds of a football game rather than going to overtime. If you have the chance to knock off Goliath, you take it, right? You don’t keep trading blows with a better team. Maybe I’m just bitter because a last second three-pointer is far more exciting than a short shot to send the game to overtime.

6. Prior to the tournament I wrote that Rick Barnes was not a good tournament coach and Texas will go down early. I couldn’t even follow my own advice on this one and picked the Longhorns to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. I do not know why. I do know that in typical Rick Barnes fashion, a poor decision by a player cost the Longhorns a win on Sunday.

I also know that the Big 12 did not help the case of Colorado, which was widely viewed as the selection committee’s biggest snub. The committee clearly was not impressed by Colorado’s three wins over Kansas State, one win over Missouri, and one win over Texas, which were pretty much the entire basis of the Buffaloes’ case. Turns out they were right – the Big 12 had the most embarrassing performance of any conference this side of the Big East. Five teams made it in and only #1 seed Kansas made it to the Sweet Sixteen. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the tournament didn’t really miss the sixth best team in the Big 12.

This paragraph was supposed to be about Arizona. I remember a time not so long ago when Pac-10 basketball mattered. This season, I don’t know a thing about the Wildcats even after watching both of their tournament games. Seriously, I have no opinion on this team and I’m not even entirely sure how they won two games by three total points. And that’s the BEST team in the Pac-10. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

7. Connecticut was the only other Big East team to make the Sweet Sixteen. The Huskies are one of the easiest teams to figure out in the tournament. As Kemba Walker goes, so goes Connecticut. End of story. They could cruise to the National Championship or lose by twenty points to San Diego State in their next game and I would not be surprised.

Probably not a good sign for the Big East that I wouldn’t be surprised if the conference’s sole remaining title threat lost by twenty in the Sweet Sixteen. Not exactly a banner year.

8. I like San Diego State. I don’t know why, but something about the Aztecs impresses me. Sure it took double overtime to knock off Temple, but let me make a semi-plausible argument that differentiates between Duke and San Diego State. Duke dominated the Michigan game and still found a way to let the Wolverines come an inch away from sending the game into overtime. The Aztecs, on the other hand, did not come close to playing their best game against Temple. But they got the job done.

Did I just jinx San Diego State? Absolutely. I have no doubt that they will get hammered by UConn in their next game. Just wanted to get it on the record that I picked the Aztecs to reach the Final Four in case I manage to get lucky,

9. Kansas is the runaway favorite to win the tournament. This is partly because they have the easiest road out of a regional of any #1 seed since UNLV in 1990.* Should they make it to the Final Four, they will become the only team to ever make it there without beating a single team higher a #9 seed. Coincidentally, their regional is shaping up uncannily like the Jayhawks’ 2008 title run, when they beat the #16, #8, #12, and #10 seeds to survive the Midwest Regional.

* The Runnin’ Rebels beat #16 seed Arkansas Little Rock, #8 seed Ohio State, #12 seed Ball State, and #11 seed Loyola Marymount en route to the Final Four and eventual championship.

That’s a decent reason to like the Jayhawks, but by far the biggest reason Kansas will win the title is because I didn’t pick them. Last season, I picked them to win it all. They responded by losing to Northern Iowa in the second round. It was my first time back on the Jayhawk train since they burned me in 2005 by losing to Bucknell in the first round. In that season, I was something like 26 of 28 heading into the last games on Friday before my champion pick Kansas ruined that by losing.

When Kansas won the title in 2008, I had them going out in the Elite Eight. Clearly, I have some sort of mystical power over the Jayhawks; there is really no other plausible explanation. This season I drew up my brackets and originally had Kansas winning it all. I was mildly terrified at hitching my bracket to the Jayhawks again, so I quickly changed took Louisville over them in the Sweet Sixteen (that worked out well). Naturally, Kansas will now win the tournament.

10. In 1991, I was only six but I distinctly recall watching Dick Vitale break down Richmond‘s NCAA Tournament chances in a selection show special that year. Richmond, a #15 seed out of the Colonial Athletic Association, squared off against #2 seed Syracuse in the first round. Vitale squealed in his trademark voice, “watch out for them Spiders, baby!” Sure enough, the Spiders became the first #15 seed to win a game in the tournament, knocking off Syracuse 73-69.

Here’s a ridiculous stat. Richmond has made nine tournaments since 1984. Their results based on their seed:

#7 seed: 0–1
#11 seed: 0–1
#12 seed: 4–1
#13 seed: 2–1
#14 seed: 1–2
#15 seed: 1–1

Crazy stuff. In other words, watch out for them Spiders, baby!

11. How predictable was VCU‘s tournament run? Put it this way: I may or may not have made a decent amount of money betting the Rams straight up in their three games (depending on how legal gambling is, of course). VCU is a really good team. They can play any style of basketball. They can slow it down, as they did when they beat USC 59-46 in the first round. They can dominate the inside, as they did when they beat Georgetown 74-56 in the second round. And they have the shooters to win from the outside, as they did when they beat Purdue 94-76 in the third round. None of those games were particularly close. Only USC even hung around for part of the second half against the Rams.

Approximately 14,679 writers that couldn’t come up with a better angle turned in columns on Monday that talked about how VCU vindicated the selection committee. I argued last week that in the big scheme of things, no one really should care that VCU got selected over weak teams like Virginia Tech and Colorado. I stand by that, but I admit that those teams had better resumes than VCU. Yet I saw both of those teams play a couple games each this season. I also saw VCU’s first three games. VCU is a way better team than either of those two teams, plain and simple.

So what are we seeing here? The BCS meets March Madness, that’s what! Virginia Tech and Colorado only have better resumes because they play in tougher conferences. The Hokies’ best non-conference win was over Penn State. The Buffaloes’ only non-conference win over a team with a winning record was in overtime at home against 19-13 Colorado State. These teams simply got more cracks at better teams than VCU. In my mind, the Rams are clearly better than both and I love that the selection committee saw this, rather than just looking at statistical resumes.

12. The Rams’ matchup with Florida State might be the most fascinating of the Sweet Sixteen. VCU looked like the most unstoppable offensive force in the tournament last weekend. Florida State was the best defensive team by far, allowing only 107 points in two games.

I picked the Seminoles to reach the Sweet Sixteen in my only underdog pick that actually came through for the very reason I picked them. In the past several seasons, Florida State has been a great defensive squad but made too many mistakes on offense to advance. I wasn’t sure that they were any better on offense this year (I still have no idea), but I did know that they had favorable matchups in the first two rounds. Texas A&M simply wasn’t good enough to exploit Florida State’s mistake-prone offense in the first round. In the second round, the Seminoles went up against Notre Dame’s burn offense. Coach Mike Brey keeps his guys in motion constantly and shuns the pick and roll. That just wasn’t going to cut it against the athletic Seminole defense.

So what will happen when VCU’s offense meets the Seminoles’ athleticism on defense? No idea, but it should be exciting.

13. If you’ve stuck with my column this long, you know that Butler is next. You surely expect me to talk about the refs in the Butler/Pittsburgh Round of 32 game. But that would be boring since NO ONE has shut up about it. Why does everyone insist on blaming refs for everything without even being consistent about it? On one hand, analysts ripped refs for falling asleep at the end of recent games like UNC/Washington and St. John’s/Rutgers. On the other, analysts rip refs for calling the game tight at the end of the Butler/Pitt game. Which is it?

Of course I already know the answer: we like blaming other people for our own problems. Sometimes our problem is as simple as wanting a great finish to a game that we watched. Refs are the faceless bogeymen that we can blame.

As for the Bulldogs, there isn’t much I can say about them that hasn’t already been said. A Horizon League team puts together a ridiculously magical run to the title game. They lose their best player and still reach the Sweet Sixteen the next season.* Just a ridiculous accomplishment.

* FYI: It took Indiana State twenty-one years to even make it back to the NCAA Tournament after Larry Bird led the Sycamores to the 1979 NCAA title gameThey have won one total tournament game since their title run.

14. Speaking of blaming other people for my own problems, I picked Belmont to beat Wisconsin and Utah State to beat Kansas State in the first round because I drank the Kool-Aid that was ESPN’s Giant Killer blog. Both of these picks failed miserably and I place full blame on the blog. Lucky for them, they already deferred blame to the teams themselves for blowing their chances. Fantastic.

The real reason I missed Wisconsin is because they are impossible to pick. Just complete guesswork. Here are their results in the NCAA Tournament since 2000:

2000: #8 seed – lost in Final Four
2001: #6 seed – lost in First Round
2002: #8 seed – lost in Second Round
2003: #5 seed – lost in Sweet Sixteen
2004: #6 seed – lost in Second Round
2005: #6 seed – lost in Elite Eight
2006: #9 seed – lost in First Round
2007: #2 seed – lost in Second Round
2008: #3 seed – lost in Sweet Sixteen
2009: #12 seed – lost in Second Round
2010: #4 seed – lost in Second Round

Eleven chances and they have only done what they were supposed to do four times. Three times they over- or under-achieved by two whole rounds. Apparently they either outperform expectations or do not perform to expectations. On the plus side for them, that bodes well for their chances against Butler this weekend.

15. A few weeks ago I ripped on Doug Gottlieb for how quickly he dismissed BYU as a legitimate contender while lauding Texas as a potential favorite to win the national title. A big swing and a miss for Doug on that one. The funny part is that I get several hits a day with some combination of the words “doug gottlieb hates byu.” I don’t think I was alone in laughing at Doug this weekend when BYU dominated and yet another Rick Barnes-coached team came up short in the tournament.

Rooting for the Cougars is the right move here because we need to stretch out Jimmer-mania as long as possible. In ten years, when Jimmer is dominating the Turkish League, we will look back fondly on the 2011 March Madness and the dazzling array of finger rolls that would get knocked into the fifteenth row in the NBA. Long live the Jimmer!

16. Last but maybe not least is Florida. Like Duke, the Gators slipped by into the Sweet Sixteen after they hung on to beat a team (UCLA) that had no business being in the game at all. I tried to come up with a reason why they weren’t a less talented Duke. I failed.

The one thing the Gators have going for them is the bracket. As unimpressive as the Gators are, BYU and the Wisconsin/Butler winner aren’t exactly the best remaining competition. They are one upset of Kansas away from one of the easier roads to the final in recent memory. So there’s that. But looking at Florida’s schedule, I can’t fathom how they are even a #2 seed, let alone a true contender.

Note to bettors: it’s probably a good idea to put some money on the Gators.

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