Who's this year's VCU? Prepare for a Cinderella-less First Four
The First Four is the province of heroes, fools, dreamers and guys named Momo. It is where the President of the United States will be Tuesday night, not to mention a player whose first name is Four.
The four games in Dayton, Tuesday and Wednesday, are a nice little gathering of strivers and shruggers. You can't believe California is as happy to be there as Mississippi Valley State. What these four games are not is a prelude to a repeat of what happened last year.
Who is this year's VCU? No one. How does no one work for you?
The First Four is a nice idea, in a Tee Ball League sort of way. Everyone plays an inning. Ice cream after the game. It earned immediate raves last year. Shaka Smart's upstarts played Pop-A-Shot from behind the three-point line and made it all the way to the Final Four. Maybe another VCU March is about to unfold. But more likely, the First Four will be a consolation prize for a season well played.
Unless, of course, you're Western Kentucky, which plays Mississippi Valley Tuesday. The Hilltoppers lost 18 times. They won 15, the last four of which happened to be in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. They had a week well played.
As parity surges, the Madness becomes a little more demented every year. This year, the selection committee abandoned some snobbishness, by awarding 11 at-large bids to teams from non-power conferences, four more than last year. Committee members preferred Iona's 25 wins to Washington's 21. The Gaels, who beat just one team that made the tournament (Long Island) are in; the Huskies, who won the Pac-12 regular season title, are playing Texas-Arlington in the first round of the NIT.
There are those who would argue that teams such as the Gaels sprinkle charm dust on the tournament. The first weekend is the best weekend for theatre, if not basketball. Maybe Momo Jones and the rest of the Gaels will become household names by Sunday night.
I doubt it.
These eight teams came in through the bathroom window for a reason. VCU was a fluke, not a trend.
Far more often, pedigrees win out. For every VCU or Butler, there are 10 Dukes. Let's judge the First Four, then, on the participants' ability to amuse us. Because none will be around long enough this year to get us bouncing to the beat of their basketball success.
Take Pat Knight, son of Bob, coach at Lamar. Two weeks ago, after a loss to Stephen F. Austin, Pat channeled his father during an eight-minute, 48-second rant in which he called his senior players everything but good. "The worst group of seniors I've ever been associated with,'' he said. Those seniors were also "a bunch of tin men'' and "an infestation of guys that are hard to coach'' who were "stealing money.''
"That's a problem with society,'' Knight added. "People don't make kids accountable.''
Some folks would apply that to the way the NCAA selects its field. If you want to add deserving teams to the event, fine. But this notion of an automatic bid to winners of conference tournaments?
If you want the tournament to remain a bloated 68, at least make it a representative 68. There is nothing representative about the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Mississippi Valley won 17 of its last 18 after having been 1-11 on Dec. 31. Nice story, except the Valley is the SWAC champion.
In the NCAA tournament, being the best in the SWAC is like being the best snowball in hell. Not counting a play-in game win by Arkansas-Pine Bluff two years ago, SWAC teams have lost 18 straight tournament games and 26 of 27 since 1985.
Vermont is also playing in Dayton, on Wednesday. The Catamounts won the America East Conference. So? Vermont lost to Quinnipiac, which lost to Sacred Heart, which lost to Lipscomb, which shouldn't be allowed.
Lamar played six games against Hyphens -- including one against something called Huston-Tillotson -- which, let's be honest, is at least three too many Hyphens to be considered for VCU-hood. Similarly, Cal's effort at VCU-ness is stained by playing an unacceptable five games against insignificant States: McNeese, San Jose, Jackson, Weber and Washington.
That leaves BYU and South Florida. The Cougars were Jimmer-less, but did win 25 games. Of their eight losses, six came to teams in the tournament. They've been to the Madness six years in a row. They start three seniors and a junior. They can't be VCU, though, because everyone's heard of BYU.
Your only hope for a repeat of last year is South Florida. The Bulls won 12 games in the Big East and 10 of their 13 losses came against teams in the field. They won at Cincinnati and Louisville in the same week. But you need to score to win in March. The Bulls don't, averaging 59 points a game. They've scored more than 60 once in the last month.
Honestly? The Bulls aren't VCU, either.
No one is. Parity isn't going away, but the America East should. And the SWAC, bless it, needs to give us a break. If you want to admit 68 teams to the party, make it as good a 68 as possible. Then, maybe we'd see more VCUs. As it is, Cinderella is staying home this year and renting a movie.