Friday in Bracketland: Fifteen Dreams
One day after bitterness reigned over Bracketland, with the nation getting robbed of a 16-over-1, Asheville-over-Syracuse stunner, the Gods made amends.
Do you need to quantify what happened on Friday, March 16, 2012, in the NCAA tournament? Because there are ways. You could say that only four No. 15 seeds had previously beaten No. 2s, the last occurrence coming 4,019 days ago -- and then it happened twice in less than three hours, with Norfolk State, champions of the MEAC, unleashing a plague of threes on Missouri, and Lehigh, champions of the Patriot League, methodically dismantling Duke. You could say that the chances of those two upsets happening, according to kenpom.com's projections, was 0.72 percent, and if you add in No. 14 Ohio's ousting of Michigan, that drops to 0.21 percent. Two-tenths of one percent! You could say that $100 parlay bet of Norfolk State, Lehigh and Ohio would pay out around $100,000 in Vegas, or that it's the first time in tournament history that three teams seeded No. 13 or lower won on the same day.
Or you just rely on what you saw and what you felt: You got goosebumps when shot after shot kept falling for Norfolk State, and Mizzou coach Frank Haith's face petrified into an expression of futile disbelief. You started texting friends, urging them to get to a TV. You fell in love with Norfolk senior center Kyle O'Quinn, an African-American New Yorker with a name from County Cork, after he outworked the Tigers and admitted that the upset even "busted [his] own bracket." You praised the heavens for Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, whose last Tweet before game time was "Jesus said, 'Don't let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and trust in me." (Oh, did he trouble the hearts of Duke, with a 30-point tour de force.) And you may have cursed gleefully at Coach K and his Blue Devils, even though he was gracious in defeat, saying, "It's a beautiful game."
You welled up a little when a CBS camera settled on the Lehigh cheerleader crying tears of joy, and then cut back to her again -- she was the face of March Madness. And you shook your head when you considered that on a typical first Friday of the NCAA tournament, even on a decent first Friday, Ohio would have sufficed as America's darlings. But on this day? The Bobcats didn't even come close. You did not need numbers to know that you saw the greatest Round-of-64 day in the history of the tournament. Lehigh's clinical coolness could not do the moment justice, and so we leave it to Norfolk State to take it away, with full immunity for any use of hyperbole or cliché. We goin' shock the world, we done shock the world:
The Ranking Question
Which 15-over-2 registered as most significant on the seismometers? Well, to the Nantz-ian crowd and all the casual fans, it was Duke going down. The Blue Devils' brand identity is so big that the opponent, Lehigh, didn't matter to many viewers. But the right answer is Missouri's collapse. Lehigh actually had an 18 percent chance of beating Duke, according to kenpom.com, whereas Norfolk State had just a four percent chance of beating Missouri. NSU was the least efficient team in the entire tournament, ranking 212th in kenpom compared to Lehigh's 82nd. As we were reminded on multiple occasions Friday, when seven double-digit seeds were victorious, statistics don't always matter in single-elimination scenarios.
Norfolk State should credit the selection committee with an assist. When the Spartans gathered to watch the unveiling of the bracket on Sunday, their prayers contained a humble request. They were OK with being a No. 16 seed; in fact they figured they'd be a No. 16 seed. They just didn't want to get sent to the play-in game in Dayton. "When you go right into [a second-and-third-round site], you feel like you're more a part of the whole process," their coach, Anthony Evans, told The Virginian-Pilot on Sunday.
Instead, the Spartans were slotted as a No. 15 against Missouri, which was a dream outcome. Not just because they'd been bumped up a line, but because the Tigers were statistically the second-worst No. 2, after Duke. And O'Quinn, who apparently does triple duty as a center, scout and prophet, loved the matchup, telling the Virginian-Pilot:
"Missouri is a guard-oriented team with a quality big man in the middle, and they like to run. We're a guard-oriented team with big guards who can defend the perimeter. If it's not their night, this matchup plays to our favor. If we go in there and play hard and the ball drops our way, I think we can come out with a win."
Likewise, Lehigh and its Ph. D coach, Brett Reed, had to love the matchup with Duke, which ranked 61st in defensive efficiency and had been atrocious at containing quick guards. McCollum was liable to give the Blue Devils fits, and the 6-foot-3 junior was so good on Friday that Coach K lamented that Lehigh "had the best player on the floor." As a recruit, McCollum was a 6-foot nobody, and a week ago he was anonyous, but today, Coach K said that McCollum was better than future first-rounder Austin Rivers. And it was the truth.
The Gift of Red Flags
In Sunday's bracket-strategy post, under the heading "Can the all-offense teams defy the odds?", I wrote:
It’s my belief that you need a defense ranked in the top-25 range in efficiency to have a great shot at the Final Four or any real shot at winning a title. Historically, high-seeded teams with great offense/mediocre defense efficiency profiles -- the last two Adam Morrison Gonzaga squads, Chris Paul’s last Wake Forest team, and more recently, 2008 Drake, 2010 New Mexico and 2011 Notre Dame -- have failed to make deep tourney runs. This is relevant to the 2012 bracket because we have four top-five seeds who fit that profile.
The four highly seeded teams whose weak defenses raised red flags were Missouri, Duke, Indiana and Temple. My point then was that they weren't advisable picks for the Elite Eight or Final Four. Did I ever think that three of them would lose in the first round? Never. No. 12 South Florida beating the Owls was no shocker, but Lehigh and Norfolk State? No way. I will, in a sort of sadistic way, keep rooting for teams to fit this profile. Score so well that you rise up the polls and earn a reasonable seed, but guard so poorly that you set yourself up to be our favorite fall guys in March. Without the Red Flag Club's contributions, Friday would not have been historic.