By Matt Straub
It’s been four dramatic, exciting and wild days of college basketball. The first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament (I refuse to call the play-in games the first round, and thankfully the NCAA will stop doing so next year) are my favorite days of the sports year, and this year’s first 48 games of the tournament lived up to everything March Madness should be.
We as fans were the big winners, since we got to enjoy the madness. By the end of the fourth day, I wanted to applaud and chant “This is awesome” like you would at a wrestling show. Whether you’re into heartwarming stories like the Hunter family at Georgia State, well-coached defensive struggles like Notre Dame-Butler, or fast-paced contests like North Carolina and Arkansas, the tournament has had something for you. There’s been controversial calls, buzzer-beaters and much more.
There were also a few things which stood out. For better or worse, these things have made their mark on the first four days of the tournament. Let’s break down the winners and losers of the best part of the tournament.
The Goliaths: I won’t use the term power conferences because Gonzaga comes from a traditional mid-major league, even if it is a major player in the sport. In a year where there were some interesting teams from the lesser-known leagues, it’s the “blue bloods” who get to keep dancing at the end of the week. This is even true of the lower seeds. Of the five teams seeded 6 or lower to make the Sweet 16, four are from power conferences (the Big East is a player in basketball still, so I’m counting Xavier) and the other is on its way to becoming a traditional power.
Defense: While many blame the downturn in scoring on youth, overcoaching and antiquated rules, the improved defenses deserve some credit. Sure, watching great shooting exhibitions and dunks can be fun, but I like watching disciplined, properly trained defensive squads as well.
John Calipari: I’m not a big fan, but it’s hard to argue with the work he’s done. He didn’t invent the one-and-done system which allows schools to become basketball factories and little more, but he has used it well. His kids are generally good ones on and off the court, who go on to do well in the NBA. This year’s team in particular seems like a bunch of good kids, has been selfless (which says a lot about a team with so many kids trying to improve their NBA draft stock at once) and has dominated when it had to. Yes, they have shaky moments, which they’ve shown in the tournament, but they have answered the call when challenged and put teams away when they threatened to end the unbeaten run.
Our rules: Yes they are general and you have to pick the right teams which fit them to advance, but our rules for making a good bracket held up quite well this year. Sure, we blew the “5-12” rule, but most of the others hit. We told you to pick a few upsets but to remember most of the good teams will be there toward the end, which is what is happening. We lost a one and two 2-seeds this weekend, but only one of the four regions looks like a tornado went through it, which is what we predicted. Las Vegas did well helping you find early upsets, and the ones most of the experts loved (Buffalo, Stephen F. Austin) didn’t pan out because the big teams they were playing got fired up to prove ESPN wrong. We also told you the lower seeds which make runs are often still big names, and it’s holding true with UCLA, N.C. State and Michigan State.
Wichita State: Of the 16 teams to win two games, the Shockers are the ones which made the biggest statement. After having a big lead cut to just eight with about five minutes left against Kansas, most mid-major programs would have folded. Instead, the Shockers answered with a run of their own and ended up putting Kansas away. It was the kind of response not made by a Cinderella. The Shockers showed themselves to be one of the big programs now.
The Big 12: Iowa State was out before dinner time on day one. Baylor, another 3-seed, didn’t last much longer. Kansas, which wins the league every year, is out. Texas wasted no time proving it didn’t really belong in the field. Oklahoma and West Virginia have looked good, but this wasn’t a banner year for the league.
Officiating: It’s maddeningly inconsistent in college, whether it’s from half to half or crew to crew. What one crew might call a foul is a no-call for another. The referees in the NBA might miss calls, but on most nights, all the teams are playing under the same rules. It’s a crapshoot for the tournament teams to know if they’re getting a tight crew or one which will let them play. Imagine if pass interference as called in the AFC East but not the NFC West. There are football crews which call more penalties than others, but the difference isn’t as big as it is in college basketball.
Television coverage: It’s a small thing, but I hate how much they’ve spaced the games out. The first four days were better when exciting finishes were coming every few minutes. Now we have to wait a half hour in some cases between endings. Also, I know Turner wants to put its stars on TV, but the Inside the NBA guys are a huge detriment to the NCAA coverage. It’s not their fault they know next to nothing about the teams, since they get dropped in after covering the NBA all year, but their ignorance isn’t charming, as Charles Barkley would want you to think. I love Kenny and Chuck on the NBA coverage, but they make the stretches between games infinitely worse during the tournament. That’s time which could be spent giving information, something Barkley and crew aren’t equipped to do.
Uniformity: The tournament used to be played on the building’s original courts, giving each site a unique feel. You knew the Boise State court and knew instantly you were watching a West regional game and it added to the neutral site feel. At the very least, it helped you remember which teams were set up to play each other. Now every game is played on the same, generic blue and black court which makes you forget what region you’re watching. Of course the NCAA helped that by putting first round games close to the top seed’s home regardless of region, which is how Gonzaga and Iowa can be in the South regional and play in Seattle, which also hosted Louisville and Northern Iowa in an East regional game. Regionalizing the tournament more would set up great games between neighboring teams like Wichita State and Kansas more frequently. Balancing the bracket requires some movement, but reemphasizing location for more than just the top seeds would help considerably. Gonzaga and Arizona in a West final, for instance, would be great.
Offense: While I don’t think it’s as bad as others, there are too many low-scoring games for the casual fan. Of course, I don’t mind a 1-0 baseball game while most would rather see a homerfest.