March 17, 2009

Yes, it's that time of year again when the blowhards saddle up their high horses and parade through town, hollering about which teams will make a run in this year's NCAA Tournament. Standard practice for these talking heads is to invoke regular season records in an attempt to justify postseason predictions.

Really? How reliably can you base NCAA tournament picks on the regular season performances of amateur basketball teams? Sure, sometimes this tactic will work, but by no means is it a foolproof strategy. (Initially, I wanted to write that regular-season records determine NCAA tournament success just as tongue length influences piano skill. But that would be hyperbole at the expense of accuracy, which is the crab dribble of sports writing.)

Obviously, a team's record entering the tournament is a good indicator of how well it played during the regular season. However, the mere tally of wins and losses is too general and fails to take into account how a team's skill and cohesion fluctuate as the season progresses.

College basketball players are not professionals. Even if they look like 40-year-old men -- i.e. Pittsburgh's Sam Young -- they are still relatively young and their game develops as the season wears on. A college basketball team is therefore constantly in flux, their mastery of the game ebbing and flowing with each contest.

It is not unheard of for a team to play poorly during November and December, or even January and February, and then really raise its level of play come March. Sometimes, it takes the entire course of a season for a team to transform itself into a championship caliber squad, especially if the squad is unseasoned or injury plagued.

Last season, Villanova entered the first round of the tournament with a pedestrian 20-12 record. At one point in early February, the Wildcats lost five straight games, four to Big East opponents and one to St. Joe's in "The Holy War". But, like a fine wine, Jay Wright's squad took time to mature and, after sneaking into the NCAA Tournament with a No. 12 seed, the Wildcats went on a surprising run to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion Kansas.

This season, Mississippi State boasts a meager 23-12 record (9-7 SEC). But a quick glance at the Bulldogs' wins and losses doesn't tell the whole story. Their regular season record fails to point out the fact that Rick Stansbury's boys won their last six games, including four straight in an impressive run through the SEC Tournament. Despite being a No. 13 seed, Mississippi State is much more dangerous than No. 7 California, which had a better regular season record than the Bulldogs', but limp into the NCAA Tournament having lost four out of the last six games.

In fact, teams with less-then-stellar regular season records have proven that they can not only advance far in the NCAA tournament, they have the ability to win it all. The 1985 Villanova team that knocked off Patrick Ewing and the mighty Georgetown Hoyas in the NCAA Tournament Finals remains the most famous underdog team to win a national title. Villanova entered the tournament with a mediocre 19-10 record, having lost its final game of the season by 23 points to Georgetown. But the NCAA Tournament changed everything for the Wildcats, who used a stingy match-up zone to beat three out of the top seven teams in the nation before knocking off the heavily favored Hoyas in the championship game.

While Villanova is the most famous example of a middling team discovering the winning touch in the NCAA Tournament, it is by no means the only example. In 1983 Jim Valvano guided his No. 6 seeded N.C. State Wolfpack, which had finished fourth in the ACC in no small part due to injuries, to a national championship. In 1988, Kansas became the only other No. 6 seed to capture a national title. The Jayhawks started off the season 12-8 and 1-4 in the Big 8, before the incomparable Danny Manning took over and led Kansas to the promise land.

It is true that the top seeds have recently prevailed in the postseason. The odds are, after all, in their favor. Last year, for the first time ever, all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four. And a No. 1 seed has won the national championship 14 times since 1985. But that's not to say a team that struggled during the regular season CAN'T pull it together and make a solid run in the NCAA Tournament. After all, despite what the talking heads proclaim, anything is possible with March Madness. Which is why we wait with bated breath for the first round to kick off on Thursday.

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