Sunday, April 15, 2007

Five (late) mid-major Points of Emphasis

I covered the emotional fallout from the mid-majority’s collective struggles in this year’s NCAAs last time out, so it’s time (even if everyone else has moved on to bigger and better things) to look at some of the nuts and bolts of those struggles … or, in some cases, successes. Here’s five things you might have missed about this year’s mid-major performance:

1. All Southern Illinois needed was their usual—or even slightly worse than usual—three-point shooting performance, and they’d have beaten Kansas. For the season, the Salukis hit 36.9 percent of their threes. Against the Jayhawks? 6-25, 24 percent. In a 61-58 game. Dammit.

SIU played the defense they needed to (19 KU turnovers), didn’t get killed on the boards (28 rebounds to 22), got the second chances their offense relies on (14 offensive boards) … the end result being that SIU took 15 more shots than the Jayhawks, more than enoughto offset KU’s freakishly good two-point shooting (24-36, 66 friggin’ percent). But SIU took many more threes than usual—25 of their 57 shots, fully 44 percent of their attempts. Usually? 36.3.

So the Salukis not only took more threes that normal, they made a lower percentage. Some of that was Kansas’s D, which no less an authority than Big Ten Non-Affiliated Wonk proclaimed the best in the country heading in the tournament. But watching the game, a lot of it was just missed opne looks. Jamaal Tatum shot 40 percent from three during the season, Matt Shaw 36 percent. Against Kansas? A combined 2-13. Add that up with Tatum’s honked tip-in in the closing minutes, and you get what should have been the upset of the tournament.

2.It’s not your imagination: Underdogs got no luck this season. Listen to any serious stat guru, and they’ll tell you that when it comes to truly close games, luck is the biggest factor in determining a victor. The idea of “clutch” is, mostly, a crock: even the 1996 Bulls weren’t any better in close games than the league average. So low seeds and high seeds should win around the same number of close games, right? That’s not the way it works most of the time in the NCAAs, but it was especially true in 2007. After going 13-10 in one-possession and overtime games in 2004 and 2005, higher seeds (8-9 games excluded) went 8-4 in 2006 and up to 10-4 in 2007. And unlike 2006, where two of those four close-game upsets were mega-shocks from Northwestern St. (over Iowa) and George Mason (over UConn), the biggest in 2007 was 11 VCU over 6 Duke. And if you include four-point games as “close” as well, higher seeds’ success in 2007 balloons to a 12-4 record, the highest percentage in any tournament going back to 2003 at least (sorry, that’s as far back as I’m taking my research.)

The good news from this point is that the pendulum should swing back the other way next season--emphasis on "should."

3. Sure enough, Winthrop got their upset via defending the three. Part of the reason the JCCW was so confident in Winthrop’s upset chances over Tennessee in 2006 was their ability to defend the perimeter against a perimeter-based team. It was the same situation in 2007 going against Notre Dame, and whaddya know: the Eagles held Notre Dame to an anemic 4-22 performance (18 percent), and this time their opponent didn’t have Chris Lofton to answer their late-game prayers. (It helped, too, that unlike in 2006, when they went 7-24, the Eagles got over the 35 percent mark on their own threes, going 8-21.)

4.With Gonzaga’s demise, Butler is now the preeminent mid-major NCAA team. The Bulldogs’ last four NCAA appearances have resulted in 1) an eventual NCAA finalist taken to overtime and forced to hit a buzzer-beater to survive the first round 2) a win over an ACC team in which their opponent was held to an NCAA-record 10 points in the first half 3) a Sweet 16 appearance 4) another Sweet 16 appearance and a four-point second-half lead on the eventual champion—the largest second half deficit they faced the entire tournament. All despite Butler being the higher seed in precisely one of those games.

5. It’s a little surprising to see Dana Altman scrapped over by two schools, considering how lousy he’s been as an NCAA coach. Full credit to Altman for building the kind of program he has at Creighton and recognizing the Fayetteville circus for what it is in time. But his team is the anti-Butler. They’ve been seeded 10th or better five times this decade, giving them five winnable first-round games—and gone 0-5. Sure, they won the double-overtime thriller over Florida in 2003 as a 12, but those were the years when everyone was beating Florida in the first round.

And hey, speaking of the Gators, one more fun fact:

6. Jackson St. was as close to Florida at the half as UCLA and closer than Ohio St.. The Tigers trailed 41-35 at the break, the Bruins 29-23 and the Buckeyes 40-29. The moral of the story is that if college basketball games were 20 minutes long and Jackson was in UCLA or Ohio St.’s region, they’d have made the Final Four. At least, that’s the way I’m looking at it.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Beware: Philosophizing ahead.

Last Monday, April 2, Florida won the national title by beating Ohio St. by nine, bringing the 2007 NCAA Tournament to an end. The next day, April 3, Fountains of Wayne released their fourth studio album, Traffic and Weather.

The former has a lot to do with why I haven’t bought the latter. Fountains of Wayne is, hands-down, my favorite existing band. The NCAA Tournament is, hands-down, my favorite annual sporting event*.

But these NCAAs didn’t even come within shouting distance of my expectations. They weren’t awful. They’re never awful. But after the glory of George Mason? In the wake of those insane regional finals in 2005? They were a disappointment. They were never anything more than adequate, nothing more than, well, a whole bunch of college basketball games.

If it wasn’t for just a handful of moments, they wouldn’t have even been adequate. Seeing Brad Maynor send Dive, er, Duke home after 40 minutes was as cathartic for me as it was for everyone else. Winthrop shaking that ever-fattening first-round gorilla off its back was hella sweet for a guy who still feels the tug of the old Big South alliance. Watching a team as selfless and inherently likable as Florida take home the grand prize—after gambling the NBA’s gazillions they would do nothing less than exactly that—made for a hell of a story. Not to mention it continued to keep important NCAA championships out of the heathen hands of the Buckeyes and the Big 10.

But this mainstream acceptance, even glorification, of this year’s tournament because of the absence of big upsets and alleged quality of the teams remaining? That doesn’t cut it here. First, it’s not like that mile-high stack of high seeds ever produced a truly classic game. Georgetown’s battle with Vandy was excellent and yeah, yeah, yeah the G-town-UNC game wasn’t bad--but only thanks to the Heels’ Greg Norman-esque gag job. The best game in the tournament, for the JCCW’s money, was SIU-Kansas, pitting the Salukis' mind-blowing man-to-man against the Jayhawks’ mind-blowing (and, from this perspective, damn unfortunate) two-point shooting--and SIU doesn't have a single player who's clsoe to the NBA radar.

But more importantly, who the hell watches the NCAAs for the quality of the basketball? When I want to watch basketball for the sheer joy of watching the sport played well, I’ll turn on the Suns and Mavs, thanks.

What I watch the NCAAs for is the surprise, the drama, the story the tournament offers. And the story of one megalith full of NBA stars beating another megalith isn’t a story. That’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s what the entire rigged college basketball system of Bob Hugginses and Hummer-driving AAU recruits and antibacterial million-dollar locker rooms is intended to give us. I watch the NCAAs for a re-affirmation that what’s intended and what’s supposed to happen sometimes doesn’t--that all the money and prestige and status in the world still can’t keep Connecticut from losing to George Mason, it still can’t keep a bunch of Patriot League nerds from toppling Kansas. Now those are stories.

This year, though, money won. Status mattered. This year’s NCAA Tournament was one of those realistic turn-of-the-century British novels where the rich gentleman engaged to the snooty rich girl falls in love with the smart-but-poor country girl, then marries the rich girl anyway and they all live unhappily ever after. You finish a book like that, you understand the author’s choices. You admire the craft. You acknowledge the realism. In short, you respect it. But you never fall in love with it. And I never loved the 2007 NCAAs.

So now, one of these days, I am going to buy the new Fountains of Wayne album, which because of the crushing brilliance of their first three I have mountainous expectations for. The same expectations I have every year for the NCAAs. One of them has already been good-and-not-great. It would hurt a little too much this week to learn that both of them are.

A mid-major-centric tourney wrap up and some blog news coming this week.

*As I mentioned earlier, the Iron Bowl or the Auburn-LSU game or a juicy season-opener would rank right up there in good years. But then, occasionally, there are also bad years.