Thursday, March 28, 2013

2013 Sweet Sixteen Preview: The Overvalue Of March Madness


How’s your bracket?  Yeah, mine’s screwed, too.

My double-digit teams in the Sweet 16 were Oklahoma, Belmont and Cal.  No, they were not Oregon, La Salle, and Florida Gulf Coast.  For once in my damn life I want to get the upsets right, you know?

But I cannot begrudge these Cinderella teams.  This is the one time when I bet that if I lose, I don’t really mind (at least not for awhile) because this is what the tournament is all about.

Now, having said that, underdogs and we fans of these underdogs both need to understand reality.  Not just that odds are the miracle ride is going to end this weekend (even though, fair enough, seed-wise the miracle ride wasn’t even supposed to start last weekend), but the inherent overvalue we place on March Madness games compared to the ones that built these teams from November on.  This is not hating on The Greatest Three Weeks in American Sport, far from it.  I certainly cannot and will not take away all the achievements the Ducks and (in particular) the Explorers and Eagles have accomplished last week.  But we need to put the games here in perspective.

Let’s look, for example, at The Disappointment Bowl, also known as the first second-round game between UCLA and Minnesota.  Ben Howland indeed was fired as coach of the Bruins after they were battered by the Gophers Friday, although I was wrong in the timing; I thought he would be fired almost immediately, but instead it took till Monday night to make that official after a flurry of leaks said it was inevitable.  Meanwhile, Minnesota Coach Tubby Smith saw his team subsequently get pummeled in their next game to Florida Sunday evening, and the very next day, like I thought, he was canned.

What you might not know, however, is that Smith was one win away from saving his job.  This was a talented, senior-laden group whose expectation before this season began was the Sweet Sixteen.  And after six years of underwhelming results and a dispiriting lack of developing players, it was either this or his ass was gone.

So think about it: As tough as it was to imagine Minnesota beating Florida, if they did upset the Gators and reach the regional semifinals, Tubby Smith, despite protestations from those who have both the big picture and Smith’s 46-62 record in Big Ten play in mind, probably would be the coach at Minnesota next year.  One game.  One game is all that stood between a job and a pink slip.  That’s the power of the NCAA Tournament.  But it also seems crazy.

So what to make of Florida Gulf Coast then?  This is a team that went 24-10, was 126th in Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free statistics and had the 93rd-best RPI before the tourney began, and were swept by 12-18 Lipscomb.  The Eagles had to upset Mercer to claim the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid, otherwise no one would have heard, let alone cared, who these people are.  But they got to the tourney, and not only did they notch wins over Georgetown and San Diego St., they looked pretty damn good while doing it.  Welcome to Dunk City:

Now everybody’s talking about Florida Gulf Coast, a program that was only eligible for the postseason two years ago, a university that didn’t even exist until 1991, and a head coach, Andy Enfield, who made a fortune on Wall Street and so had the financial cushion to pursue his passion of coaching.  Oh, and have you heard from the media that the coach has an ex-model wife?  And that the campus has a beach (“Mom, Dad, the best way for me to study is while tanning”)?  You do now.  Why?  Because of two games.  Just two games separate the spotlight from the shadows.

It does seem kind of odd that we put more weight into tournament games while completely abandoning the regular season as better proof of a team’s talent and success.  Is Florida Gulf Coast a better team than, say, Kentucky, which got bounced in the first round of the NIT?  Probably not.  Does it matter?  For the purposes of this beautiful tournament, where FGCU is now the first 15-seed ever to reach the second weekend, not really.  All I know is Mr. Enfield will never have a better chance to move to a better, higher-funded program ever again in his career.  And the university will see applications spike to an all-time high.  Oh, and the team probably won’t make the NCAAs next year … and the university probably will fade back into sports obscurity behind Floridas International and Atlantic … and Enfield will probably wash out at, oh, Minnesota within five years and wind up as an assistant coach somewhere.  But hey, so what?  The team, the coach and the university are all doing what they have to do: Capture lightning in a bottle.

By the way, I feel bad for La Salle.  The Explorers are only the second 13-seed to be one of the last 16 standing since 2007 (although the other one, Ohio, happened last year).  This too is a hell of a story.  La Salle hasn’t been in the Big Dance since ’92 but has won three tournament games for the first time since the university won the title in 1954 and lost to San Francisco in the ’55 championship (even though everybody else in the Sweet Sixteen has won only two games because the Explorers were in that play-in game … stupid damn play-in games).  They are coached by Dr. John Giannini, who probably is the only true doctor in the Division I coaching ranks (the doctorate’s in kinesiology, by the way).  They would be the feel-good story of the tournament … if it wasn’t for those two wins by Florida Gulf Coast, which has a lower seed.  (A quick shout-out, by the by, to truly underseeded Oregon, who is the annual double-digit seed from the BcS Six-Soon-To-Be-Five – I guessed the Cal Bears.)

And if La Salle loses its next game, there still will be a good underdog story in the tournament because they would have lost to eighth-seeded Wichita St., which may have singlehandedly brought down the Gonzaga basketball program by stunning the Bulldogs in their Round of 32 matchup last weekend.  In 29 of the past 34 tourneys a member of the Elite Eight has been seeded sixth or lower.  (My pick: North Carolina.  Shows how much I know.)  La Salle would be an excellent story – Florida Gulf Coast too, if they can play with as much confidence as they did last weekend (and if Florida starts bricking from three) – but either way there will be at least one true Cinderella for the regional finals on Saturday and Sunday.

However, and despite the recent track record of interlopers such as Butler, VCU and George Mason, the second weekend is usually where the big programs of college basketball take Cinderella’s glass slipper and smash it to bits on the heels of their Nikes, Adidas or Under Armours.  I would welcome more evidence that the college basketball world is indeed flat.  But I need to see it to believe it.  Also, all of my Final Four teams (Louisville, Ohio St., Florida and Indiana) are still alive, and I’m still betting on them, and that is the only reason I haven’t used my bracket to wipe my ass yet.

The wildcard for all the remaining teams is the four-to-five-day layoff teams have had to rest, scout and prepare – for the worst in some cases.  The Hoosiers, fresh off a 10-0 rally to defeat Temple, might be vulnerable to the zone of Syracuse.  Miami center Reggie Johnson is out for this weekend; with his team facing living-on-the-edge Marquette and powerful Indiana in Washington, will the Hurricanes be out for good?  Could the hated Duke Blue Devils run through the strongest gauntlet in recent tournament history, taking out Tom Izzo and Michigan St. in the Sweet Sixteen and proverbial kings of the hill Louisville in the regional final?  And could the Spartans and Michigan come out of their respective quadrants and join Indiana and Ohio St. to form the first All-Big Ten Final Four in history?

And is there any chance the Ducks, the Shockers, the Explorers, or even the tiny, adolescent Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles pull off two more mammoth upsets – just two more games – and reach the ultimate stage?  If they do, I wouldn’t be happy because that would mean my bracket would be totally ruined.  But on the other hand, I would be happy, you know?

Posted by WilliamSou at 12:11 AM

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