Saturday, March 22, 2008

Round the First

I wouldn't say I was giving up, exactly. But by the end of Thursday night, I was wondering, somewhat seriously, if the NCAA Tournament I knew and loved was gone.

The NCAA tournament I grew up with and loved was a place where the Coppin St.'s and Valparaiso's of the world rising up to dethrone the money-conference bullies wasn't just a frequent occurence, it could be outright expected. In the 16-year stretch between 1986 and 2001, 30 different protected seeds lost in the first round, an average of 1.875 a year--in other words, it was just about as likely three 2, 3, or 4 seeds was lose as just one. 12's were shut out just twice in those 16 years, and one of those years was 2000, in which 10 of 16 second-round games went to the underdog. Outside of a weird two-year stretch in '95-'96, at least one Cinderella (a double-digit seeded mid-major) had carried the torch into the Sweet 16 18 of the other 20 years entering 2007's tournament.

But the three years between 2002 and 2004 were off the usual mid-major pace (just two protected seeds suffered first-round upsets, both of them 4's, and 2004 was just the second time since '86 at least one 11-or-lower didn't make the Sweet 16). 2005 and 2006 (the latter particularly, obviously) were pretty sweet, but goodness did we mid-major fans pay for it last year: for just the second time no one seeded lower than 11th won a game, and unlike in the other instance (2000) the chalk mostly went right ahead and held from there. Butler and SIU were there, but there was no Cinderella to speak of. The lowest-seeded team in the Elite Eight was a 3. Ugh.

Then came Thursday, and, well, double ugh. The only legit "upset" of the day pulled off not by a mid-major but by a Big 12 team toting the No. 1 pick in the draft and a sleazebag coach who likes calling his players 13-year-olds. Mid-majors weren't just losing, they were getting ground into dust: George Mason by 18, Winthrop by 31, Cornell by 24. Kent St. scored 10 points in a half. Mississippi Valley scored 29 for the game.

The exception to that rule was, of course, Belmont. The Bruins, to ironically borrow a pet phrase from their opponent's biggest media supporter, were sensational. But with us all having gone so long without the catharsis of upset, I didn't want another agonizing close call--I wanted a victory, dammit, and all they needed was one more basket. Just one. They had four chances: possession 1 with the lead, possession 2 with the lead, possession 3 behind by a point, and the inbounds with four seconds left. None of those four chances even came close; in fact, the shot that looked like it had the best odds of falling through was the heave from halfcourt. They lost by a point, and like K-Dub (once again writing he sort of thing I'd write, but a hundred times better) I spent the rest of the night in something resembling mourning. It seemed a reasonable question to ask at that stage--was this the end of upsets and mid-majors and these ifrst two rounds being reliably, you know, fun?

Then came yesterday, and it all suddenly felt like such useless melodrama. This is still the NCAA Tournament. Of course Davidson and Gonzaga were going to play the best game of the tournament. Of course a team like American--that on paper should have easily gone the way of O-Rob and GMU--was going to scratch and claw UT every step of the way. Of course San Diego was going to become the only WCC school of the three to advance, mostly on the broad shoulders of the wonderfully-named Gyno Pomare. Of course Siena would win--though I'd have never expected them to crush Vandy's throats like that. And of course--though it was hard to out-and-out celebrate Western Kentucky's victory, given that it came at the expense of a team as absurdly fun and absurdly likable as Drake--the day finished with a guaranteed ticket for Cinderella to be re-admitted to the Sweet 16.

All, in short, is right with the world--and there's still plenty of time for that "seismic" thing I thought might be coming in the last post (Butler in the Final Four? WKU over UCLA? Siena vs. Davidson in the Elite Eight?) to still arrive.

Other scattered tourney thoughts before Duke loses to West Virginia in a few moments:

--If Butler shoots even close to the way they did yesterday, is there any way Tennessee wins their second-round game? The Vols got absolutely abused on the boards by American, they don't shoot as well as the Bulldogs, they're not going to be able to turn Butler over, Butler's pace might throw them off a bit ... I think as long as Green and Graves keep their heads and Lofton doesn't go Stephen Curry on us, the Bulldogs should be more than fine.

--I guess all that talk about how UCLA got the Slip-N'-Slide path to the Final Four turned out to be pretty much dead on target. They're getting either a 12 or 13 seed in the Sweet 16 and both the 2 and 3 seeds in their bracket (Duke, Xavier) looked like the sort of teams that don't survive their second-round matchup against better opposition. I hate when media analysis actually turns out to be accurate. (As do Vandy fans, of course.)

--Let me take a moment to say I can sympathize with the frustration Vandy fans must be going through at the moment. Back in 1999, the universal consensus was that Chris Porter's miracle Auburn team was the weakest of the four top seeds, that their series of runaway blowouts in the regular season against a weak schedule meant that they'd choke in any tight game against a decent team, and that if Oklahoma St. didn't get them in the second round, Ohio St. definitely would in the regional semis. I told everyone I knew that was crap, that Ellis would have them seething at the slaps in the face, that Doc Robinson would hold everything together.

So what happened? Well, the best Tiger team since Chris Morris left the Plains survived OK St. but fell apart, just as predicted, when Ohio St. took the lead late in the Sweet 16. I felt betrayed, bewildered--how could all these stupid national media types have known my team better than me? So I don't blame the 'Dore supporters for feeling supremely let down at the moment. (That said? I doubt I'd be quite confident about Auburn's chances if the same season happened today and the numbers suggested they were vulnerable ... and all the "Why don't people believe in us?" talk out of Nashville in response to the doubters missed that there was a very good reason to doubt the 'Dores: the numbers suggested they were basically a luckier version of Kentucky.)

--I've overheard a lot of stupid, stupid things said very, very loudly in sports bars in my time, but this pair of guys sitting at a booth across from yours truly at A2's Arena (the phrase "Restaurant of Champions" cracks me up) yesterday took the cake. San Diego-UConn is on, and as some Torero gets stuffed inside, Guy A yells "Roy Hibbert with the rejection!" Which is totally understandable ... I mean, who can ever tell all these Big East 7-footers apart, right? UConn, Georgetown, what's the diff?

Guy B corrected him, at least, but Guy B also later excitedly says, as UConn brings up the ball down three with less than 25 seconds to play, "Are they going to hold for the last shot?" Yes, because a frequent tactic of teams down by three with the shot clock off is to create a best-case scenario wherein a low-percentage shot could possibly, maybe, if everything goes according to plan, send them to overtime. Cripes.

I was griping about this later to the Soon-to-be-Mrs. JCCW, who accused me of snobbery, and she's sorta right: yes, I do tend to look down my nose at people like Guy A and Guy B when it comes to Hypothetical Basketball Knowledge, and on just that point I shouldn't. But that's not really my issue: if you don't know what you're talking about, don't talk so freaking loud. Trust me, I'm not about to inform the whole bar of my thoughts if we're watching a Red Wings or Tigers game. It's incidents like this that make me feel like endorsing Kyle's No-Brackets policy": at some point, this whole "For these couple of weeks, Everyone pretend to be a basketball expert!" has simply gotten out of hand.



X said...

Thanks for the link. You were right about Vanderbilt-Siena of course. And I remember that 1999 Auburn team well -- thanks for reminding me. Actually I was pulling hard for your team for largely the reason you cited, because I knew that SEC teams don't just end up with regular season 3-loss records on a fluke. So yes, you do know more than most how I feel. Certainly you, Drake fans, and Clemson fans can understand more than say UConn fans. :)

When I have a clearer head about all this I'd like to ask your opinion on luck metrics. I've been aware that all season, for the second straight season, VU shows up as a very lucky team on KP's metrics. I've also taken an immense amount of flak on for suggesting that outscoring your SEC r/s opponents by 8 points TOTAL and finishing 10-6 is not sustainable. I don't care that Stallings is a good tactical coach, I don't care if our team is mentally tough, that's just not sustainable.

At the same time, I've come to see that KP's "luck" really is an unfortunate term. For example, I'm pretty sure FT% really will correlate highly with luck, because teams that win close games at the line are considered "lucky". (If that's not true, please educate me.) So I'm never sure whether I'm throwing out baby or bathwater.

PhilipVU94 said...

Oops -- last comment was mine.

-- PhilipVU94