Monday, March 23, 2009

Round the Second, and its chalky aftertaste

I've fretted more than once over the past couple of years about having to say good-bye to the NCAA Tournament I've loved for so long, the one where anything can happen and Cinderella lives and no one saw this coming and all that beautiful, beautiful jazz. And I'm fretting again.

Because for three years running now, we've set new records for chalk. Before 2007, no tourney had had a Sweet 16 with no team seeded lower than sixth or an Elite Eight with no team seeded lower than third. Before 2008, no Final Four had ever featured nothing but four No. 1 seeds. And never before 2009 have the top 12 seeds all advanced to the Sweet 16, never before have 14 of the 16 protected seeds survived the first weekend. It's been enough to make me wonder if 2006 and its George Mason/Northwestern St.-fueled awesomeness was the last hurrah, a tournament so spectacular from the point-of-view of mid-major fans like yours truly we'd have to pay for it for a decade to come.

But even after watching Cinderella check out early for just the sixth time in 25 years (and second in the past three), I'm not despairing. Not quite. Instead I've been taking a close look at the 1996 bracket, the tournament that closed a three-year stretch with just one Cinderella (12th-seeded Tulsa in 1994) and just 14 protected seeds eliminated before the Sweet 16--the previous record for a three-year span until the current span's 12. 1996 saw just one team (Princeton, in their classic UCLA upset) seeded 13th or lower win a game--like this year. 1996 had two 12 seeds win a game, one of them a slumming "Big Six" team that would eventually make the Sweet 16, but the other a mid-major--just like this year. 1996 saw two other mid-majors go on to the second round from slightly higher seeds--No. 10 Santa Clara and No. 9 Eastern Michigan--in a similar fashion to No. 11 Dayton and No. 9 Siena from ... wait for it ... this year. In some ways even this year's bracket is more exciting than '96's--that Sweet 16 had just two teams outside the big six conferences and one of those was Massachusetts, the Calipari-coached Memphis of the late '90s. This one at least has Xavier, who even Kyle Whelliston can embrace, and a Gonzaga team I still can't help but have a soft spot for.

So things could be worse, especially when you look at what happened in 1997--Coppin St. pulled off the third-ever upset by a 15 seed and 14th-seeded UT-Chattanooga knocked off first Georgia and then Illinois to become the last 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16. And just two years after that 1996 bracket, this happened:

So I'm going to wait until at least next year to give up on the thing. If 2010 is as boring as this year, then we'll talk.

You suck. With every year, the growing national obsession with bracket-building rubs the unrepentant snob in me more and more the wrong way and closer to Whelliston's viewpoint on the issue. Not the act of filling out a bracket itself, mind you--anybody who just has a good time tossing some names onto a print-out or an Internet site, ponying up 5 bucks, and then getting that extra little bit of a kick from Tournament Game X is fine by me.

But then you get guys like the tool sitting a table in front of me at the bar last Friday, wearing no Kansas paraphernalia or showing any particular affection for Kansas over any of the other eight teams playing at the time ... and nonetheless frequently turning to clap and cheer the Jayhawks and 7-foot behemoth center Cole Aldrich as they desperately held off North Dakota St. and the legitimately spectacular and yet not quite 7-foot Ben Woodside. Why? I'm assuming--because this has been the logic of similar tools over the years--because he had Kansas in his bracket.

Attention, tools: if you would rather win your pool than see North Dakota St. upset Kansas, you are not a sports fan. You are a fan of something else: a Brackets fan, a You fan maybe. But not college basketball.

This point was driven even further home watching Siena do everything they possibly could to defeat Louisville Sunday afternoon. But there's only so much 6-9 spindly white kid Ryan Rossiter and 6-5 Alex Franklin--fantastic players as they are--can do against 6-9 supermen/megaliths like Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels. Over and over again Rossiter would do exactly what he had to do on a defensive rebound--find Clark, set his feet, body up, and leap ... only to find that Clark has already launched himself a foot higher and snatched the board already. The Cardinals' decisive advantage on the offensive glass--seriously, without the offensive boards, Siena's ball-control wins this game for them--didn't come about because Siena wasn't better prepared or their players don't understand positioning or because--vomit--Louisville's guys "wanted it more." Louisville was better on the glass because they're athletic freaks, and that's it.

For all I know Louisville's guys may do anonymous charity work in the slums of Sao Paulo in the offseason. But when they're on the basketball court, I'm not cheering for the freaks. Hoping Louisville beats Siena or Kansas beats NDSU because you stand an ever-so-slightly improved chance of winning a few bucks is like rooting for U2 to outsell the New Pornographers because your second cousin got Bono's autograph outside a coffee shop in South Beach once. Don't do it.

Gonzaga. I'll say this up front: I wanted Western Kentucky to win that second-round game, because Orlando Mendez-Valdez is such a player, because Cort at the Bracket Board is a WKU fan and kicks ass, because the 'Toppers are mid-major in a way the Zags really can't claim to be any more.

But I can't begrudge the Bulldogs their place in the world of college basketball the way Kyle can, either. Gonzaga is Gonzaga because they earned it--going to the Sweet 16 for three straight seasons as a 10, 10, and 12 seed and beating Stanford, Florida, Louisville, St. John's, and Virginia along the way ... that's an unbelievable run, something even Butler hasn't come close to matching. And the WCC is still the WCC. This isn't Memphis ruling over the C-USA or even UNLV hanging out in the old Big West. (As for Xavier, they're a cash-laden team in a major metropolitan area in the same conference that's given us three No. 1 seeds in the last 15 years. They're better than anyone from the Big Six, but ....)

I think in the end there's something to be said for letting someone carry the mid-major banner who's got a real chance to carry it all the way to the final, too; despite their defensive struggles against WKU, their offense is still humming along as smoothly as ever. I've got to hop on someone's bandwagon at this point--might as well be the Zags.

Ummmmm..... There's not a lot else to say when you're a blogger who focuses on mid-majors, and they played just four or five games in the second round, depending on your definition, and just two of those was competitive. A quick nod to Cleveland St., though--the Vikings were closer than the score indicated and would have made a real run had all those uncharacteristic made threes going back to the butler game caught up with them. They went 3-of-23 from deep against Arizona instead; regression to the mean is, as always, a cruel mistress.

1 comment:

SEC Homer said...

I feel some of your pain, but there were a good many first round upsets by mid majors: Cleve St, WKU, Siena, Dayton. Utah St should have won, VCU had a good chance, NDSt could have won if Kansas wasn't playing its best. American, Cal St, ETSU were right in it until the last few minutes. However, the first round successes didn't correlate to the 2nd round which is strange. One thing that might be hurting the mid majors, especially the lower seeded ones, is the 1 year elegibility rule by the NBA. Jrue Holliday, Tyreke Evans and others would otherwise probably be in the NBA this year. Now the biggest schools are getting the added skills of an elite NBA prospect that in the past may have done a LeBron or Kobe.