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Once again, NCAA Tournament early rounds show how even the teams are

March 25, 2014 Columns No Comments

They say history repeats itself, and few would argue that. As it pertains to college basketball, we’ve seen it with the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and the teams that have advanced in all rounds. It was the case last year, and now this year as well: we’re seeing that there’s not much difference between many of the teams in the field.

Many were surprised by a lot of the results, and in some cases that’s understandable while in others there wasn’t much to be surprised by. The seeds alone don’t tell the whole story for many of the teams.

Look at some of what happened this weekend:

  • Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse are all out.
  • Duke lost to a veteran Mercer team in the second round.
  • VCU lost to Stephen F. Austin.
  • UMass, at one time the top team in RPI, was never really in the game against Tennessee as the Volunteers scored a convincing win.
  • Dayton is in the Sweet 16 with wins over Ohio State and Syracuse.
  • A double-digit seed is guaranteed to be in the Elite Eight since Dayton and Stanford will meet in one regional semifinal.
  • Connecticut beat Villanova, a No. 2 seed.
  • Harvard was a No. 12 and won another second round game, this time beating Cincinnati.
  • Wichita State lost their only game of the season to a Kentucky team that is loaded with talent but has played like a young team all season.
  • North Carolina lost to an under-manned Iowa State team in a dramatic finish.
  • Creighton got manhandled by a Baylor team that had a Creighton-esque shooting night from long range (11-18) on Sunday.
  • The SEC was largely regarded as a weak conference, but ties the Pac-12 and Big Ten with three teams in the Sweet 16.

There are many reasons why so many of these results have happened. There’s the basic reality that anything can happen in one game, as opposed to a series, and a team has to be better than the opponent in just one game. Some of these results are not really upsets; Iowa State over North Carolina is being widely proclaimed as an upset, but isn’t even an upset on the seed line as the Cyclones were a No. 3 seed and the Tar Heels were a No. 6.

In the case of the four powers that were mentioned early, each had plenty of flaws that explain their early exits. Duke was more flawed than many of their recent teams, as they lack a rim protector and also didn’t have an elite point guard. Kansas was without Joel Embiid and was young, and on Sunday they were matched up against a team that did have a rim protector. North Carolina had a good season without their best player, but didn’t have a good frontcourt. Syracuse was not a very good offensive team this season, and their 25-0 start hid that reality as they pulled rabbits out of their hat a number of times late in games.

Looking further, you have teams seeded low because they weren’t healthy at times during the regular season and thus lost a few games a healthy team might not have (such as Michigan State), as well as some like Kentucky who have lots of talent but also showed inexperience at times and lost games because of it. All of this creates matchups that in some cases favor the lower seeds because of how teams are trending come NCAA Tournament time.

Another theory was espoused by Jerry Palm of CBS Sports on a radio show on Sunday night. The regular season is a marathon, while the NCAA Tournament is a sprint. Simply put, some teams are built for a marathon and some are built for a sprint. Teams that fit the latter can surprise some people in the NCAA Tournament, even if they disappoint or underachieve in the regular season.

Underlying all of this is that the college game at all levels has become watered down because of the sheer number of schools. At a deeper level, high-major conferences have become watered down as well because there are more schools that are in the power conferences. There is simply not enough talent to go around, so not only do you see teams being more even from a talent standpoint and experience being a factor perhaps more than before, but you also see conferences like the American Athletic Conference where there is a big drop-off from the top teams to the bottom teams.

At the end of the day, it might just come down to the simplest explanation of all – the first one. A team only has to be one point better than their opponent on that particular day, and all of the teams that won these games were very capable of doing that even if they did have less room for error in trying to pull that off.

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