Thursday, May 15, 2008

NCAA Posterity: Same coin, two sides

As I said: I know no one cares at this point, if they cared ever. But when the Internet archaeologists from the year 4031 find the JCCW, I don't want them to think I didn't have anything to say on this year's NCAAs. Next post is 100% Auburn content, guaranteed.

Era of the Supermids

For the first 14 years of the modern NCAA Tournament (i.e. 1985-1998), Cinderella was pretty good in the first round, relatively speaking: 3's fell with regularity, 12's took home at least one victory every single year save '88, etc. They could have been better in the second round, maybe, but 13 double-digit-seeded mid-majors made the Sweet 16 in that period of time--almost one a year.

But Round 3 was a wasteland. Precisely one of those 13 teams pulled the upset and found their way into the Elite 8--the justifiably legendary Bo Kimble-led Loyola-Marymount team that (now here is something that should be remembered more often) blitzed defending champion Michigan 145-115 in the second round before surviving Wimp Sanderson's slowdown tactics in the Sweet 16. (A victory that says something as well. As an aside, that team might have been Wimp's best: Robert Horry, Latrell Sprewell, an SEC tournament championship, and a dreadful shafting as the seventh seed out West. They crushed the 2-seed, Arizona, by 22.) Still, 1-for-13-- a winning percentage of 7.6%.

Then in 1999, things changed. Gonzaga took down Florida on Casey Calvary's tip-in to become just the second Cinderella to survive the Sweet 16. (Navy also made the Round of 8 in 1986, but did so as a 7 seed, had only to beat 14-seed Cleveland St. in the third round, and had David Freaking Robinson manning the middle. They weren't Cinderella.) Since then, we've had three more: Trevor Huffman and Antonio Gates' Kent. St. team survived Ok. St., Alabama, and then Pitt in 2002; George Mason (duh) toppled Michigan St. and UNC before winning the all-mid clash against Wichita St. in 2006; and just a few short weeks ago now, Stephen Curry strapped Davidson to his back and marched them past Georgetown and Wisconsin, improving Cindy's record in Sweet 16 matchups since 1999 to 4-14, or 29 percent.

In other words, we have entered the era of the Supermid. For 14 years, Cinderella couldn't manage to win even one Sweet 16 game in 10; for the last 10, they've won nearly one in three. From one Cindy in the Elite 8 in those first 14 years, we've had two in the last three.

Why? Hell if I know. All four of these teams essentially won in different ways--the Zags with the 3-point gunning of Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo, Kent with their MAC-honed ruggedness, Mason with their half-court precision, Davidson with Curry's all-encompassing brilliance. Faced with this same question I suspect John Q. Columnist would jerk his knee, scream Parity! and blither about more talent being available in The Game Today, but the unprecedented levels of chalk in the bracket the past two years suggests the opposite. High-seed power conference teams are better than they've ever been at seeing off third-round challenges from their power-conference brethren (or highly-seeded mids like SIU '07 or various late-era Gonzaga squads); but for whatever reason, they've gotten much worse at doing the same to Cinderellas.

It should also be noted that none of these Supermids made their runs via a "collapsed bracket" fluke. All four did so by beating three straight higher seeds, at least two of which hailed from power conferences. They were--are--legit.

And I think it's highly possible Davidson was, for lack of a better word, the legitest of the four. Consider that they first beat a Gonzaga team (still) laden with NBA prospects playing likely just about as well as they could play. The Wildcats then overturned a 17-point second-half deficit against the Big East's regular season champion, a team whose defense and slow tempo should have made them impregnable--and did so in no more than 12 or 13 minutes. And then they faced the Big 10's double-champion, a Wisconsin team that 100-percent deserved a second seed and had the efficiency margin of a 1-seed.

The result was a bona fide woodshed beating even George Mason never matched, a delirious runaway train of a middle finger extended to any one who said in the weeks approaching Selection Sunday the Wildcats might not deserve a bid. I'm not usually one for savoring a blowout, but in this case I had to make an exception; it wasn't just that Davidson won, it's that they flat flattened the Badgers.

They scored at will. They rebounded over guys a half-foot taller. They made them look slow and silly and hopelessly--um--Big 10. They toyed with Wisconsin--for what was Curry's iconic pump fake-flyby-and-swish three that Davidson fans are going to see in their dreams 50 years from now if not Team A playing cat to Team B's point-and-laugh mouse?

Me, I loved that second half every bit as much as I did Mason's shock-the-world moment against UConn two years previous. Because by that time, it was already painfully obvious that chalk was ruling the bracket again; that at least three if not all four 1-seeds were going to the Final Four; that the chaos we've depended on the NCAAs to provide is at its all-time lowest ebb; that it may never come back.

But all is not lost. We will still have Jason Richards channeling Steve Nash, still have Andrew Lovedale and Boris Meno out-rebounding NBA studs, still have Curry firing away with the kind of stroke J.J. Redick only dreams of.

Even in this period of money and Goliath and predictability, Davidson reminded us, we will still have Supermids and we will, in fact, even have them more often. Someone will still carry the flag. Always.

The Doomsday Scenario

That was the name Ken Pomeroy coined for the potential ascension of all four 1-seeds to the Final Four, which as most sea urchins, pine trees, and anaroebic bacteria living on asteroids circling Jupiter could have told you, had never happened before this year.

I like the term for a few reasons. First, I appreciate that Pomeroy agrees with me that this lethal a level of chalk is, Verily, A Portent That The End Times Hath Descended Upon Us All, like statues weeping blood or horses breaking out of their stalls or ESPN devoting SportsCenter exclusively to the coverage of actual sports. After so many years spent believing that "All four 1-seeds in the Final Four will never happen" with the fervor of your neighborhood cult's most recent convert (true story, I actually spent a summer passing out pamphlets at the airport a few years back that said "All four 1-seeds in the Final Four will never happen") seeing it come to pass doesn't seem so far removed from Apocalypse.

Second, the minute UCLA and Memphis survived their second-round assassination attempts from Texas A&M and Mississippi St., it seemed like you could pretty much set up a countdown clock 'til the (dooms)day arrived--with UCLA's region gutted, UNC just steamrolling people, no one remotely matching up with Memphis, and Kansas facing back-to-back double-digit seeds, there wasn't a whole lot of "tension" or "doubt" or "drama" in those Regionals, was there? (As an aside, I hope Texas, Xavier, and Louisville were appropriately shamed that the only Elite 8 opponent who put up a halfway serious fight was the 10th-seeded interloper from the SoCon.)

But most importantly, it works as the Doomsday Scenario because in a sense, I do think--provided there's no change in the laughably misguided NBA age limit or scholarship rules--this is the end of the 64-team NCAA Tournament giving us the same level of delirium and chaos as it's historically given us. 2007 was chalkier than antacid aftertaste, but it was just one year. Now it's two. Bleah. The presence of Supermids, hope springing eternal, sheer bloody-minded love of the sport, etc. mean I'll still be watching just as closely next year and the one after and the one after. I'm just not expecting things to be much different than they were these last two years.

I'm not sure why this bothers me so much. After all, again, in the overwhelming majority of cases it's not mids these 1 seeds are trampling in their Sweet 16/Elite 8 rush to the semis--it's their power-conference siblings. And though 2007 was less than thrilling, there was a reasonable amount of chaos in this year's first two rounds. Two 13 seeds won. Two 12's won. Two Cinderellas crashed the Sweet 16. And we were one Belmont shot, one Butler stop, one call in Texas A&M's favor from even more high-seed turnover. I feel like I should maybe quit all this complainin' and whinin' and embrace the Davidsons and Sienas and San Diegos we've got. Why should I care so much if 3-seed Louisville beats 1-seed North Carolina when I'd be rooting just as hard the other direction if the seeds were reversed? If UNC was battling, say, Southern Illinois, there's a perfectly good good-and-evil-based reason. Otherwise, it seems like it's just silly little numbers attached to the teams when you print the bracket out, right?

Maybe it should be, but it's not. Some of that, I can admit, is pure and undiluted snobbery; I've looked down my nose at the Digger Phelpses and Andy Katzes and That One Guy In Your Pool's of the world for years for their gutlessness and sheep-like tendencies in picking all four 1-seeds to make the Final Four, and I despise the idea of them finally being able to say they were right and the folks out on the limbs were wrong. Damn them damn them damn them.

But a large chunk of it is a straight-up need for unpredictability no matter its agent, mid-major or not. I get enough predictability everywhere else; I know what I'm having for lunch when I get up in the morning, I know I'm going to have X and Y done for work by the end of the week but not before then, I know I'm going to have to feed the cat when I get home from the office. I know those things will happen. Not to put too fine a point on it ("Way too late," you say, and I hear you), but one of the great big giant reasons I watch any sport is because there, I don't know what's going to happen.

So when it gets to the point that I know those teams with the 1 or maybe the 2 attached to their name are off to the Final Four before the first NCAA ball even tips, something's very, very lacking.

No comments: