The NCAA tournament again defied convention in its opening rounds
Nobody knows anything. Isn't it wonderful?
If there's one thing the NCAA tournament has taught us over the last seven decades, it's that every prediction, storyline and piece of conventional wisdom will be pounded into the floor, spun on a finger and slammed through the hoop of reality. Here are just a few of the top storylines that were debunked during the opening week:
1. Old > Young
I was among the most vociferous folks who touted the idea that the greenhorns would struggle against the upperclassmen. And given the early exits suffered by Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Tyler Ennis, there was some validity to our argument. That is, until the much-maligned "Kiddie Cats" of Kentucky got the last laugh by scoring the biggest win of the week over previously undefeated Wichita State.
Twice now in the last eight days, the Wildcats have been put into the role of the underdog -- in the SEC tournament final against Florida and on Sunday against the Shockers -- and both times they responded. It's a good look for them. They wear it well.
Too often we equate poor play with character defects. Many people complained that the Kentucky freshman were only using this season as a pit stop on their way to greater glory, that they were not truly invested in their collegiate experience. I disagree. These guys could have gone anywhere, but they chose to go to Kentucky because they want to accomplish something special. They might not know how to go about it, but they're trying their best under the most intense scrutiny imaginable. Their shot selection and ability to take care of the ball -- no turnovers in the last eight-and-a-half minutes! -- was at its very best against the Shockers. If they play with the same kind of poise against Louisville on Friday night, they could have at least one more win in them. After all, they're going into that game as the underdogs -- again.
2. So-and-so can't coach. So-and-so is on the hot seat.
It is fitting that one quarter of the men still coaching have either popped up on "hot seat" lists or been roundly criticized for having underachieving teams. The best example is Stanford's Johnny Dawkins, who might well have lost his job had the Cardinal missed out on the NCAA tournament. Now they're in the Sweet 16, and Dawkins' job is safe, for a few years at least.
Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin, who has been feeling plenty of heat from his fan base, had quite a week. Not only did he take his team from the First Four to the Sweet Sixteen, but he also saw his predecessor, Bruce Pearl, get hired at Auburn. I guess someone will have to start a different Twitter feed for Martin's replacement next season. Meanwhile, Steve Alford heard plenty about his checkered NCAA tournament past after he took the UCLA job, but his team is still in this thing, too. It was moving to see him get choked up after UCLA's win over Stephen F. Austin in the third round. You could see how much it meant to him.
Then there's Baylor's Scott Drew. He gets a lot of flak from fans and coaches alike for his chronically cheeky, Eddie Haskell routine, but he has pulled off arguably the greatest rebuilding job in the history of college basketball. Heck, you can't even call it a rebuild. It was a build. Before Drew came to Baylor in 2003, the school had been to four NCAA tournaments, and only one since 1950. He also took the job in the wake of one of the ugliest scandals in the history of college sports, which led to the NCAA taking away Baylor's entire nonconference schedule in Drew's third season. Yet, over the last seven years, Drew has now been to three Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights. And this is the most unlikely of the three, since at one point the Bears were 2-8 in the Big 12. If you're keeping score at home, Baylor has won 12 of its last 14. It's been a rough month for the Scott-Drew-Can't-Coach crowd.
While these guys are coaching in the Sweet 16, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Bill Self, with eight NCAA titles between them, will be at home this weekend watching. Ain't that America.
3. The tournament doesn't start until Thursday.
I was not a fan of expanding the field to 68 teams, but now that the First Four is a reality, I find it to be must-see TV. Yet, many people remain dismissive of the Tuesday and Wednesday doubleheaders. I don't get it.
First of all, the games between the automatic qualifiers have produced some of the best drama of the tournament. It's a great setup for the kids in those games. Instead of sending them like lambs to slaughter against a No. 1 seed, they get the stage to themselves, with no other games taking place, and a legitimate chance at a win. If you think those games are not part of the tournament, you should see the emotion on these kids' faces. They know the games matter. They don't need your validation.
As for the at-large teams, ask them how they felt on Selection Sunday when they heard their names called. I don't think a single player or coach was disappointed he wasn't in the "real" first round. Besides, we've seen that they are capable of doing real damage. In each of the four years of the First Four, one of the at-large teams has won at least one more game, and Tennessee is the third to go to the Sweet Sixteen. And of course, in 2011, VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four.
So go ahead and skip out on Tuesday and Wednesday if you want during next year's tournament. It's your loss.
4. Tournament results determine whether the selection committee did a good job.
As Louisville entered the closing minutes of its second-game against Manhattan, you could hear the snark peddlers start to pile into the starting gate. The script was about to be flipped on those of us who griped that the Cardinals got robbed with a No. 4 seed. In their eyes, an upset win by the Jaspers would validate the selection committee's decision.
Set aside for a moment the backwards logic -- giving Louisville a No. 4 seed meant pairing it against a tougher opponent, which increased its likelihood of losing -- and let's just agree that tournament results don't validate or invalidate the committee's work. These committee folks are constantly reminding us that it is not their job to predict results. They assess the regular season. Once the tournament begins, everything is reset, and nobody knows anything.
That goes double for any attempted linkage between Wichita State's loss to Kentucky and the debate over whether the Shockers' strength of schedule warranted a No. 1 seed. Did Kansas not deserve a 2 because it lost? Were Duke and Syracuse overseeded as 3s? Balderdash. Teams lose. March happens.
While we're at it, can we also squelch all the chatter about comparing conferences? Just because the SEC's three teams went 7-0 doesn't mean the league was suddenly a juggernaut. There's a reason only three SEC teams got in. And just because Virginia is the only ACC team still standing, that doesn't mean that conference was suddenly lousy. That stuff makes fine fodder for radio shows, so by all means, indulge. But let's pretend it means anything.
5. College basketball is in trouble.
Yes, the offense can be offensive, and players are not as fundamentally sound as we'd like them to be. But any talk that the so-called one-and-done culture or any of the other off-court challenges are sinking the game was once again made to look small. The NCAA tournament is bullet proof. There were 52 games played last week, and two-thirds of them were forgettable. But the ones that weren't are now part of tournament lore. This was a particularly good week given that there were six games that went to overtime, but the greatest thing about last week is that it was not all that unusual. I say it every March: This is the best NCAA tournament ... since last year. Best of all, there's going to be another one next year.
First, however, we've got some more games to play. How lucky are we?
Other Hoop Thoughts
• If you take the two games together, then the most impressive team last week was Michigan, which beat Wofford and Texas by a combined 31 points. Needless to say, the Wolverines' guards performed well, but the guy who needs more love on this team is senior forward Jordan Morgan. He had two double-doubles, including a workmanlike 15-point, 10-rebound performance against the Longhorns' big front line. He is the biggest reason why the Wolverines did not unravel after they lost sophomore forward Mitch McGary to a back injury.
• Best individual performance of the first week: Michigan State's Adreian Payne, who had 41 points on 15 shots in the Spartans' second-round win over Delaware. I didn't think that was mathematically possible. Runner up was San Diego State senior guard Xavier Thames' 30-point, five-assist effort over North Dakota State.
• Most heartbreaking performance: VCU freshman guard JeQuan Lewis, who committed the foul that awarded Stephen F. Austin a four-point play in the closing seconds of regulation, and then missed a three-pointer in overtime that could have won it. Basketball can be very cruel.
• One of the keys to going deep in the NCAA tournament is the ability to win by playing different styles. The team that best exemplifies that is Wisconsin. The Badgers scored 85 points in their comeback win over Oregon, and all eight of the guys who played scored. All but one had at least one assist. At this point in the tournament, the ability to score a lot of points is a major differentiator. Take note.
• I realize Michigan State is a hot pick right now, but it gnaws at me that Keith Appling, the senior guard who is nursing a wrist injury on his shooting hand, still isn't taking shots, much less making them. At some point, the Spartans will need Appling to deliver, and frankly I'm not sure if he's physically capable at this point.
• I don't have an explanation for Syracuse's late-season meltdown and neither does Jim Boeheim. But if you want to surmise that this team's lack of depth led to the players' legs getting tired, which robbed the Orange of a legit offense, then I won't try to talk you out of it. Incidentally, I understand why Tyler Ennis pulled up for a three-point try in an effort to win the game over Dayton, but that lane looked wide open. I bet he wishes he drove it.
• Yes, Virginia's defense is terrific, maybe the best in the tournament, but don't let the Cavaliers' offensive efficiency go unnoticed. The Cavs shot 56 percent in their win over Memphis, made 5 of their 11 three-point shots, and got points from eight different players. They don't have a superstar scorer, but they do have great balance.
• According to kempom.com, Florida was ranked 314th in the country in tempo this season. Just making sure you knew.
• Is Shabazz going Kemba on us?
• The end of that Iowa State-North Carolina was untidy, but the refs got it right. I give Roy Williams a lot of credit in how he reacted to their decision to end the game because of a clock error. Not only did he not protest when they gave him the news on the court, but he did not blame the refs after the game for the loss. That sequence underscores why coaches should not be able to call timeouts in college basketball. It's too confusing.
• I'm also not crazy about the way coaches call timeout when their team is facing an end-of-game possession. Wichita State's Gregg Marshall did the same thing on the Shockers' last try. If a coach teaches his players what to do in practice, then they can take advantage of an open-floor scramble and wind up with a much better shot. Most of the time, whatever the coach draws up in the huddle is going to break down anyway, and you're just giving the other coach the opportunity to substitute and set his defense.
• Louisville v. Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. I mean really, what did we do to deserve that?
• What kind of action would you have taken on the prospect that Doug McDermott would not make a single three-pointer against a team that plays zone? Tough way to go out, but he gave us some wonderful memories.
• How good was Arizona's defense against Gonzaga? The normally sure-handed Zags committed 21 turnovers, and six Arizona players got steals. Now they get to face another outstanding defensive team in San Diego State. I'm worried that nobody is going to get a shot off.
• Kansas doesn't need me to make excuses for them, but without Joel Embiid, the Jayhawks are just another good team. It's striking how many of KU's players regressed during the final month of the season. Naadir Tharpe, Wayne Selden and Frank Mason basically disappeared as perimeter scorers.
• One more KU thought: That game against Stanford was a great example of why we use the word "matchups" so much when analyzing the NCAA tournament. There are many teams that are as good if not better than Stanford that would have provided a more comfortable matchup for Kansas. That's because KU's main asset -- its size -- was not a factor because Stanford has such a big front line.
• Duke's early exit to Mercer shows the perils of a team relying too much on three-point shooting. One of the reasons is because it robs that team of a chance to do damage at the foul line. Mercer outscored the Blue Devils 23-12 on free throws. I never quite understood why Mike Krzyzewski didn't develop 7-foot sophomore center Marshall Plumlee during the regular season. I don't know if he would have saved the Blue Devils from losing, but it would have been nice to have him as an option.
• I think next year I'm just gonna pick every 12 to beat every 5.
• Tough to see Aaron Craft's career end with him lying on his back. But it's fitting, too. That kid gave everything he had, every time. I understand rivalries and competition and wanting to see certain teams lose, but if you really consider yourself a Craft "hater," then you've got serious problems.
• Worst meltdown of the opening week has to go to N.C. State, which blew a 14-point lead to Saint Louis over last five minutes of regulation and lost in overtime by three. The most shocking part was that T.J. Warren is a 71 percent foul shooter, yet he made just 6 of his 14 attempts from the line, and many of those misses came down the stretch.