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A March of Madness

April 2, 2003 Columns No Comments



A Can’t Miss March of Madness

by Phil Kasiecki

March Madness has descended upon America once again, and if you haven’t been watching, you’ve missed out on some great action. And this isn’t just about the NCAA Tournament, though that is unquestionably the focus. The games have been exciting, we’ve seen surprises while the top teams have made it far, there are some changes happening, there are the usual great stories with teams and players, and above all, we can see that college basketball is in pretty good shape.

March Madness is always a time of close games, and this year has certainly been no different. Thus far, 22 of the 61 games played have been decided by five points or fewer, and there have been five overtime games thus far. Just this weekend we saw great finishes in several games, which we should expect as teams battle to reach the Final Four. Kansas had to hold off both Duke and Arizona in late comebacks; Texas needed a big defensive play late to hold off Connecticut on Friday; Michigan State lost a lead, then got a big shot with under five seconds to play to beat Maryland on Friday night. For good measure, 12 of the 36 games in the NIT have been decided by five points or less, including two overtime games.

This season, we haven’t seen quite as many big upsets as in past years, especially in the later rounds. Only two double-digit seeds made it to the Sweet 16, no number 8 or 9 seeds made it, and the Final Four consists entirely of teens seeded 1 through 3. Seven of the eight Elite Eight teams were one of those seeds, with Michigan State (No. 7 in the South) the lone exception. So without the big upsets, the close, well-played games have kept up the excitement.

The Big East made headlines last weekend, as all four teams advanced to the Sweet 16 to lead the way. That came one week after the NCAA selection committee left out Boston College and Seton Hall, leaving many to feel that the Big East got no respect; the success led Georgetown head coach Craig Esherick to comment on it after the Hoyas advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT, calling it “the best conference in the country” and not backing off when a writer chided him about it. Instead, he simply elaborated, “I just had a supposition before, I have proof now.”

But this weekend, it was all about the Big 12. Only one Big East team advanced to the Elite Eight, and that was Syracuse (the Orangemen would then advance to the Final Four), while all three Big 12 teams in the Sweet 16 made it to the regional finals. The Big 12 is the only conference to place multiple teams in the Elite Eight, and became the only one to place more than one team in the Final Four when Kansas and Texas both won over the weekend to earn trips to New Orleans.

This year also marked some changes amongst the teams making it to the later rounds. This year marked the first time since 1979 that no ACC team made the Elite Eight. We’ll also see one head coach win a national championship for the first time, as all four coaches in the Final Four have never won one. Is this the year Roy Williams finally does it? Jim Boeheim will be a sentimental favorite in one respect, as he has the most NCAA Tournament wins without a national championship, as Sunday’s win over Oklahoma was his 36th. And Marquette made its first Final Four since their national championship in 1977.

When the tournament field was announced two weeks ago, one of the first questions asked was why Kentucky and Arizona were in the bracket such that they would have met in the national semifinal instead of the national championship, the matchup never materialized. That doesn’t take away the fact that the selection committee has given an inconsistent message as far as being forward-looking (recalling what happened with Cincinnati in 2000), though the committee was certainly bailed out when Connecticut knocked off Brigham Young to prevent a nightmare scenario where two teams would have had to swap regions because of a colossal mistake the selection committee made. But the absence of Arizona and Kentucky from the Final Four, after being the clear top two teams in the regular season, is just another example of how great the NCAA Tournament is.

There are the usual great stories, some of which we’ve talked about. From teams just getting there, like Vermont, to teams reaching the Final Four, like Marquette, this year has plenty of them. We saw Keith Bogans, who nearly left for the NBA Draft two years ago but came back, gut it out on Saturday only for his team to fall short. We saw Jason Gardner, another who nearly left school two years ago, come back to finish two great years just short of another Final Four. Kansas got huge games from their two key seniors, but also get a big contribution in the regional final from Jeff Graves, who has been in foul trouble often this season but has been a key contributor after needing a lot of conditioning work when he first got to Lawrence. Butler lost three key starters from last year’s team that was snubbed from the NCAA Tournament, then made a run to the Sweet 16 this season with an at-large bid.

The game’s brightest young stars – players like Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade – are thought to be off to the NBA after this season. We’re enjoying them while we know we still have them, but we’re also seeing that college basketball is in good shape with some of the younger players that have shined.

• Oklahoma freshman DeAngelo Alexander started 11 of the last 14 games and led the Sooners in scoring in the NCAA Tournament with just under 12 points per game, and fellow frosh Kevin Bookout was right behind him.

• Michigan State received key contributions from freshmen Paul Davis (who hit the winning shot against Maryland), Erazem Lorbek and Maurice Ager, while led all season by sophomore shooter Chris Hill.

• Torin Francis ended his freshman season with a terrific effort against Arizona, showing all of his offensive skills.

• Connecticut reached the Sweet 16 and nearly went further with just two seniors playing significant minutes, sophomores Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor as their leading scorers, and four freshmen averaging double-digit minutes.

• Freshmen Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala played well for Arizona, as did sophomore Channing Frye.

• Duke has plenty of young talent with freshmen like Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick.

• Syracuse got to the Final Four with big contributions from freshmen Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin along with Anthony, and sophomore Hakim Warrick has been a key cog as well.

• Of the Final Four teams, three start a sophomore point guard and Syracuse has a freshman running the show.

The Final Four is ahead of us. It will make the already busy coaching carousel take off even more given the coaching vacancies that already exist. It will bring us more stories, more great games, and send the season off appropriately, in a way that shows the excitement of college basketball, the things we come to see even with the scandals that have hit the sport in recent times.

Right now, the world has events more important than college basketball, so our attention is understandably on other things most of the time. College basketball isn’t so much a diversion from it as much as life going on in the meantime, and it is a great attraction at this time of year as always. If you’ve missed the NCAA Tournament thus far, make sure you at least don’t miss the Final Four.

     

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