This is the age of 24/7 cable sports, the Internet, the Blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook and the like, so some people apparently feel they have to shout to be heard. It is no longer enough to say -- as I did on the CBS Selection Show -- that you think some of the choices made by the 10 members of the NCAA's men's basketball selection committee were wrong. You have to assault the members' competence, impugn their integrity and question their motives.
Not every commentator has stooped to using these tactics, but far too many have. There was Bob Knight on ESPN Sunday after the brackets were revealed, saying that "the committee members are not capable of judging basketball." And there was Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star/FoxSports.com, writing that the reason the committee gave Duke a No. 1 seed and an easy draw was because it would mean better TV ratings. Another blogger at a major sports site ripped the committee for giving overly favorable treatment to the BCS teams by pairing so many non-BCS teams against each other in the first round. Dick Vitale tweeted Sunday night that Virginia Tech got "a raw deal" by being denied an at-large bid.
Look, I have pointed disagreements with some of the decisions the committee made. However, many of these charges of bias and incompetence are baseless and unfair, especially since they're often made without a real understanding of how the process works.
Let's start with my main point of contention: the decision to seed Duke ahead of both Syracuse and West Virginia on the top line. From a standpoint of the overall body of work, Duke versus Syracuse is really not a close contest. Syracuse had one less loss; won the regular season title in a better conference by two games while Duke was ACC co-champs with Maryland; had four more wins against teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI; and owned a far superior road record (8-1 vs. 5-5). The only reasons to rank Duke ahead of Syracuse are because of the way the teams finished (the Orange lost their last two while Duke won its last four and the ACC tournament), and because of the injury to Orange center Arinze Onuaku. I did not find out until after the Selection Show that Onuaku would likely miss the first week of the tournament. Had I known that, I would still have taken issue with where Syracuse was seeded, but I might have turned down my volume a notch.
Still, both Duke and Syracuse were 1 seeds, and the impact of the decision is tempered by the fact that Syracuse is not eligible to compete in the East region because that regional is being held at the Carrier Dome. The larger point is, I believe the committee came by its decision honestly and fairly. I just think they were wrong.
I also believe that West Virginia should have been a 1 seed instead of Duke, but that argument is not quite as clear-cut. ESPN's Joe Lunardi also had Duke as a 1 seed over West Virginia, so there is at least a plausible case to be made there. You don't have to be biased or incompetent to make Duke a 1 seed. You just have to disagree with me.
Let me turn next to two of the other things that have been indignantly floated since the bracket was revealed -- namely, that Duke has the easiest road to the Final Four and Kansas the hardest, which is grossly unfair considering Kansas is the No. 1 overall seed. (Bias! TV ratings! Conspiracy alert!) First of all, the top No. 2 seed in the tournament is West Virginia, not Ohio State, so by that definition Kentucky has the hardest road to Indianapolis. Yes, Kansas' region includes Tennessee, Georgetown and Ohio State, but because those three teams are on the same half of the Midwest bracket, the Jayhawks will only have to play one of them if they reach the regional final.
I doubt Duke will feel its road to Indianapolis is so easy if it has to play a second-round game against a Louisville team that beat Syracuse twice. Duke's two most likely regional final opponents are Villanova, which beat Duke by 23 points in last year's Sweet 16, or Baylor, which would be playing a de facto home game in Houston. (Anyone want to float a pro-Baylor conspiracy theory?) That aside, I do agree that the South is the weakest region for one simple reason: Purdue is the 4 seed.
The question of where to seed Purdue had to be one of the toughest the committee has ever faced. With a healthy Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers might warrant a 2 seed, or a 3 at worst. (Not to mention that if Hummel hadn't gotten hurt in the first place, the Boilers may have been headed for a No. 1 seed.) So how much do you drop them because of how they have played since Hummel went out? Hard to say, but the committee came down exactly where I did and gave Purdue a 4. Oh, and just because they agreed with me doesn't mean they were right, either.
Many of the Duke conspiracy theories espoused by Whitlock and others are so ludicrous they are hardly worth addressing. And of course, I went to Duke, so if you disagree with me you can just assail my integrity and charge me with bias (though you'd have to ignore my comments on the Selection Show). But Whitlock's argument is undermined by the inconvenient truth that Duke is not nearly the TV ratings juggernaut it once was. It is a small private school with a limited alumni base, it is located in a lightly populated area of the country, and it hasn't been to a Final Four in six years. In fact, if you were to put together an all-ratings Final Four, Duke would not even be in it. Schools like Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina and UCLA draw more eyeballs than the Blue Devils do at this point. Besides, if the committee really wanted to help TV ratings, it would have given Illinois an at-large bid. Believe me when I tell you that not having Illinois in the field is a big loss for CBS. You think Utah State and UTEP are going to be the same kind of draw?
Why put West Virginia in the same region as Kentucky, and Purdue in the same region with Duke? The answer is geography. A lot of folks think that the committee goes for competitive balance by adhering to a strict S-curve where the first 2 seed is paired with the last 1 seed, the second 2 seed with the third 1 seed, and down the line. But that's not true. West Virginia was the top 2 seed, so the Mountaineers are playing closest to home in the East. The committee can make adjustments for competitive balance, but those tweaks are minor. They prioritize geography because the NCAA wants to reward the best teams and their fans by keeping them as close to home as possible. If people don't like the way the regions are being laid out, they should criticize the process, not the men and women who implement it. Unfortunately, that doesn't make for such a catchy headline.
I'll end on two quick points. First of all, the vast majority of the hand-wringing over the bracket involves the seeding, but nobody besides Vitale seems outraged on the issue that really matters: who is in and who is out. That should tell you the committee did a good job in this area. There is only one teamthat had a worse nonconference schedule than Virginia Tech. Leaving the Hokies out was debatable, but it was no raw deal.
Finally, regarding Knight's assertion that the committee is not "capable of judging basketball," I might ask, who is -- besides Bob Knight of course? In Knight's world, only former coaches are capable of selecting and seeding this event. But is it fair to ask whether coaches are capable of harboring biases, as well? I mean, can you imagine Knight sitting on a committee that gets to decide whether Indiana is in or out?
I have enormous respect for Knight and I think he is excellent on television. But on this one, I am going to respectfully -- and I hope, agreeably -- disagree.
And now, my thoughts on the bracket.
• Part of good strategy for filling out your bracket is knowing where to take chances. If you pick a big upset in the first or second round, and the team you picked to lose goes on to the Final Four, that could hurt. So the two upsets to look for here are Houston over Maryland and San Diego State over Tennessee. I picked Maryland to win its first game, but I do like the Aztecs to pull off the upset over the Volunteers. San Diego State is good at controlling tempo and is especially strong on the glass, whereas Tennessee's guards have been a little too helter-skelter for my liking this season.
• There are two very talented but inconsistent teams in this region: Michigan State and Georgetown. During a commercial break in the studio on Sunday, Greg Anthony asked me, "Who do you like, Ohio State or Georgetown?" My answer was, "You have to tell me which Georgetown will show up." The Hoyas lost a few bad games in February, but they were dealing with lots of health issues, and not just regarding Austin Freeman (who ended up being diagnosed with diabetes). I think those issues are behind them now. Michigan State is getting better production from Raymar Morgan, but between those teams I do think Georgetown is the better bet. The Hoyas at their best are better than Ohio State, but the Spartans at their best are still not better than Kansas.
• If Louisville-Duke is the juiciest potential second-round matchup, then Syracuse-Gonzaga is a close second, especially since Arinze Onuaku apparently won't be playing. This Gonzaga team is stronger up front than in years past, and Matt Bouldin is the most effective versatile player in America this side of Evan Turner. Although most of the attention on Syracuse is focused on that tough zone defense, the Orange are even better at the offensive end. They lead the nation in field goal percentage and their transition game is lethal. Gonzaga's defense has been suspect all season, and while the Bulldogs lost very few games, they had some pretty bad losses -- to Loyola Marymount and San Francisco, and they got waxed by Duke and St. Mary's. I think the 'Cuse holds on, and when they get Onuaku back that should push them to Indy.
• The 12-5 matchup is where most of the classic upsets happen, but while it's tempting to go with UTEP, I think the Miners' lack of discipline on offense will do them in against a Butler team that rarely turns the ball over. The better potential for a shocker is 13th-seeded Murray State over Vanderbilt. I'm not taking that one, but again, Vandy probably won't get past the Sweet 16 anyway, so that's a good chance to take. I believe winning is a habit, and the Racers won all but four games this season and at one point reeled off 17 straight wins.
• I was tempted to pick BYU over Kansas State, so if you want to try that one I'm not going to talk you out it. I went with the Wildcats because they are strong and tough defensively, and that is not something BYU sees a lot of in the Mountain West. The one chance I did take here was picking Xavier over Pitt in the second round. Xavier can match Pitt's size inside, but even though the Musketeers' guards are inconsistent, at their best they are better than the Panthers' perimeter players.
• If I had to pay to watch one game in the first round, it would be Temple-Cornell. The Big Red are the No. 1 three-point shooting team in the nation, while the Owls are ranked in the top 10 nationally in both field goal defense and three-point defense. Both teams also both have big, mobile centers in Cornell's Jeff Foote and Temple's Lavoy Allen. In the end, I think Temple's defense wins out in this one, and the Owls' guards (Juan Fernandez and Ryan Brooks) are more than capable of knocking down shots of their own.
• It's funny, I've been saying for the last two weeks that Wisconsin was one of my Final Four sleepers, but the NCAA tournament always comes down to matchups. And when I saw the potential matchup between the Badgers and Temple, I instinctively believed Temple would win the game. Same thing for New Mexico. I've liked the Lobos all season, but I really believe Marquette is a tough matchup for both New Mexico and Washington because of the way the Golden Eagles defend. East coast media types like myself are always talking about how much tougher the teams are on this side of the country. Here is a chance for either Washington or New Mexico to prove us wrong.
• Four weeks ago on my Courtside show on CBS College Sports, I named West Virginia as the top-15 team most likely to lose an early-round game because of poor point guard play. And if Da'Sean Butler's desperation heave against Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament had rattled out instead of accidentally banking in, I'm sure my perception of the Mountaineers would be different. But as much as I've loved Kentucky all season, I've grown increasingly weary of these Wildcats over the last few weeks. It's not just that they're young -- these guys are young for their age. In the end, I think West Virginia's toughness, experience and, perhaps, good luck will be the difference in a gripping regional final. It also goes to show that if you're a professional TV commentator and writer, the best strategy is to say everything at least once during the course of the season. That way, no matter what happens, you can say, "I told you so!"
• It appears I have aroused a good bit of righteous indignation from Cal nation. (And I thought y'all were a bunch of flower-sniffing hippies!) As you may know, I did not believe the Bears deserved an at-large bid, but I don't have much problem with their inclusion. It is, however, laughable that they got an 8-seed considering they had one win against a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, and that was at home against Washington. I mean, William and Mary had three top-50 wins. At any rate, the Bears are fully capable of beating Louisville, but I think the Cardinals' defense will be too much for the Bears, and Louisville will also have by far the best big man on the floor in Samardo Samuels.
• Going back to my strategy of taking early-round chances in games where the winner will probably not advance far regardless, you've got two really good possibilities in 12th-seeded Utah State and 13th-seeded Siena. I'm sure Siena is going to be the hot pick in that first-round game against Purdue, and you can count me among those who are going with the Saints. I'm picking the Aggies to make the Sweet 16 because the first two games are being played in Spokane. I'm sure you remember Siena's exciting upset of Ohio State in the first round last year, but the Aggies nearly pulled off an upset of their own before falling to Marquette by one. Utah State is also ranked in the top five nationally in three-point percentage.
• That 10-7 game between Saint Mary's and Richmond is a doozy. I think the Gaels can hang with Richmond's terrific backcourt of David Gonzalvez and Kevin Anderson far better than the Spiders can deal with big Omar Samhan down low. So chalk up a win there for Saint Mary's. I also think Baylor is just too physical inside for either Notre Dame or Villanova, and as I mentioned the game is in Houston, so there should be a nice green-and-yellow crowd in the building. If Baylor and Villanova do play in the Sweet 16, it will feature a scintillating matchup at the point between Scottie Reynolds and Tweety Carter.
• You could make the argument that Duke will potentially face a tougher opponent in the second round than in the Sweet 16 -- although playing Texas A&M in Houston will be no picnic. For all that has been said about the Blue Devils' Big Three, there have been very few occasions when Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler have played well at the same time. Smith has been up and down for much of the season; Singler couldn't buy a bucket the first three months and now he can't miss; and Scheyer has struggled offensively the last three weeks. Once they get to the regional semifinal there will be much less margin for error, but the difference between this Duke team and in years past is its ability to overcome a bad shooting night with tough defense and rebounding. Baylor is one of the few teams in the country that is bigger than Duke inside, but the Bears also rely on playing a zone defense that allows for open jump shots. The Blue Devils can't have two of their Big Three firing, but if they all three bring their A game, then Duke's best is better than Baylor or Villanova's best. Heading into Selection Sunday, I would not have anticipated picking Duke to go to the Final Four, but after looking at the matchups, that's where my pen took me.