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NCAA Tournament first week review: few upsets, but history-rich programs remain

March 23, 2015 Columns No Comments
glatczak

The first week of the 2015 NCAA Tournament has brought us a little of everything, much of nothing. Like the beer commercial, you might say it is up for whatever.

We started with a boatload of close games, but the number and intensity of those games has petered out over the past three days, taking this year”s tourney from historic to almost pedestrian. The Sweet 16 will include three 1 seeds, but otherwise is a buffet of differing squads and resumes. The last 16 remaining includes teams from eight different conferences and seeded 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11.

What do we have left is a field of teams that is loaded with history, whether it be recent or distant. In fact, every single team left falls into at least one of the categories, if not both.

Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina and UCLA are all-time blue bloods of the sport. Over the past 30-40 years, Arizona, Michigan State, North Carolina State and Notre Dame are right there on the next level-if they don’t crack that top list already.

Gonzaga and Xavier have consistently distinguished themselves over the last 15-20 years to earn the right to be among the sport’s elite. Utah, West Virginia and Wichita State are all rich in tradition dating back to the early years of the NCAA Tournament. And while Oklahoma and Wisconsin both had long, long NCAA Tournament droughts-32 years for the Sooners, 47 years for the Badgers-OU has been a consistent winner through a number of changes for the past 35 years, while the Badgers have been among the sport’s very best over the last 20.

Add it up and you have 107 Final Four appearances between them all. Fourteen of the 16 have made at least one Final Four before, while Xavier is tied for second on the all-time list for schools with most appearances (25) without one. And Gonzaga (18) is tied for eighth on that list.

There have been just enough surprises for this tourney to live up to its unpredictable nature, if not necessarily enough to produce seismic activity. In fact, other than a pair of plucky 14 seeds winning early on Thursday, it’s hard to find a genuine, knock-your-socks-off upset. In that way, so far the 2015 NCAA Tournament is going down as the year of the upset that really is not.

Michigan State’s win over Virginia was as predictable as they come. The Spartans always seem to turn it on in March (this is the same team that gave up 96 points in a loss to Minnesota at the end of February???). And the Cavaliers never seemed to find their flow again after the injury to Justin Anderson.

N.C. State defeating Villanova is what the Wolfpack does-beats top teams while losing to far inferior ones. If N.C. State ever played against the likes of Boston College and Wake Forest this year the way it does against teams like Duke and Louisville, the Wolfpack would be a top five team.

Wichita State beating Kansas might’ve been a mild surprise if only because the Shockers’ shooting has been hot and cold this year. Wichita State was already underseeded, though, and there are few more battle-tested backcourts in March than the law firm of Baker, Cotton and VanVleet. There also was very little about Kansas this year to suggest the Jayhawks wouldn’t be vulnerable to an early loss in the tourney.

And yes, even UCLA’s appearance in the regional semifinals qualifies. Look, we’ve said plenty about the Bruins not deserving their spot in this tourney, and nothing will change that. UCLA was certainly capable of a couple wins with the right draw (which makes the Bruins no different than at least half of the NIT field). And facing an offensively challenged 6 seed and then a 14 seed is a path to the Sweet 16 that a whole lot of teams seeded higher than the Bruins would’ve crawled on their knees for.

The real upsets in this year’s tournament are largely missing, and that’s ok. What makes the tourney the lovable, all-encompassing event that it is are not just the upsets, but the near upsets. It’s the way it consistently settles (or at least should settle) arguments that the champion of the Big West or Horizon League can’t compete with middling teams from the ACC or Big Ten, much less top 25 squads from those conferences.

No, teams like Buffalo, Harvard, Northeastern, UC Irvine, Valparaiso and Wofford didn’t win their first round games. But they were right there down to the final minute and literally came within a possession or two of pulling off wins. The bottom line is the bottom line, but if one peels the onion back even a little, they know the truth. Every one of those teams belonged, and all of them provided exciting moments, even if they didn’t give many the ultimate sugar high of a surprising win.

Some other takeaways from the first week of games:

1) Rebounding matters-a lot. A number of close games-or games that should’ve been close-have been influenced considerably by which teams win the rebounding battle.

Gonzaga drilled Iowa on the boards and Arizona did the same to Ohio State. N.C. State hammered Villanova on the glass. UCLA dominated UAB in that area, two days after the Blazers pummeled Iowa State 51-34 on the boards. Wisconsin easily out-rebounded a Coastal Carolina team that ranked among the nation’s leaders in rebound margin. Many may not know that Butler, everyone’s favorite underdog a few years ago, actually has built a brawny frontline that was in the top 25 nationally in rebound margin. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has a negative rebound margin on the season-and allowed Northeastern to stick around in part due to being on the wrong end of a 33-17 rebounding comparison in their first round game-but the Irish were a plus-five in their overtime win over the Bulldogs on Saturday.

Rebounding is a category that even less physically gifted teams can hold at least their own in. As much as teams’ rebounding may be limited by their height or girth, though, what’s been notable in the tourney is the teams struggling to rebound due to taking care of the basics. Fundamentally speaking, it has driven us bonkers watching the number of teams victimizing themselves on the boards because of not boxing out, especially after second and third attempts. Too much standing and watching the ball and not enough finding a body is a sure way to give up not just second chances, but third and fourth ones too.

2) When turnovers make a difference, it’s almost certainly not in a good way. Buffalo may well have pulled off the first round upset of West Virginia had the Bulls not committed 17 turnovers. While those numbers are hardly a shock against the Mountaineers’ press, what really hurt were more than a couple unforced turnovers that seemed to pop up whenever Buffalo started to get close. Northeastern also may well have beaten Notre Dame if the Huskies hadn’t thrown it away 16 times. And an example of this that will likely live on for years was provided by Baylor, which shot 45.2% and dominated the glass but coughed it up 21 times, surrendering a 12-point lead with just three minutes left in its loss to Georgia State.

3) Sometimes, teams just get hot-or go cold. Ultimately, so much of the tournament comes down to the simplest fundamental of all: you have to hit shots to win games.

All of this season, Louisville has been one of the very worst jump-shooting teams in the country. Entering Sunday, the Cardinals were ranked 309th of 345 Division I schools in three-point shooting. Yet in a second round matchup with Northern Iowa, Louisville suddenly put on a clinic from outside for the first 28 minutes, shooting 57.6% to that point with only 14 of its points in the paint. That effectiveness put the Panthers into an uncomfortable trail mode the entire second half that they were never able to overcome even when the Cardinals cooled off slightly down the stretch.

Xavier shot a steamy 67.6% against Georgia State (which allowed the Musketeers to overcome the Panthers’ own 56.5% marksmanship). Utah shot 57.9% against a Georgetown team that was allowing 40% shooting on the season. UCLA hit 60.3% of its shots against UAB. North Carolina needed to shoot 55.1% to nip Harvard by two.

Meanwhile, Iowa State shot 36.9% against UAB, more than 11 points below its season average. Villanova shot a putrid 31.1% against N.C. State and couldn’t make a layup. Stephen F. Austin ranked among the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage entering the tourney but made just 17 of 51 shots (33.3%) against Utah. Georgia shot that same poor percentage against Michigan State. Virginia shot even worse (29.8%) against the Spartans. San Diego State never had a chance against Duke when it shot 32.8%. Providence made just 33.9% of its shots against Dayton (and also turned it over 16 times).

The reasons for it are certainly multiple, a combination of the opponent and circumstance, but it’s just a simple fact that sometimes teams just play well in March. And sometimes they don’t.

More far-reaching tournament notes:

Thought our understanding of the NCAA Tournament was such that we were past this point by now, but this is the topic that never dies after the first weekend of the tourney. Much like arguing over top 25 rankings, it’s harmless, but just to review a couple things:
1) Tournament results do not validate teams receiving bids.
2) Nor do they determine which conferences were the best throughout the season.

The first should be common sense because, as mentioned above, there are plenty of teams left in the NIT who were capable of winning several games in the NCAA Tournament. That does not change from year to year. Nor does it change because of another point that can be added to the list:
3) The tournament is ALL about matchups.

Many a team has taken advantage of or been plundered by matchups in the NCAA Tournament. Ask Cincinnati fans if they would’ve rather played Kentucky or Villanova (or any other team) in the second round. Ask Georgetown if it would’ve liked to be rewarded better by the “pod system” with a game in, say, Pittsburgh or Charlotte (as the pod system supposedly rewards teams with) rather than going across country, and to play a Pac-12 school in the heart of Pac-12 country. And you can be sure Michigan State felt better about a second round game against Virginia than it would have against Arizona, or perhaps Gonzaga in the Zags’ home state.

The buzz after the first rounds is that the ACC has “proven” it was the best conference, while the Big 12 and Big East were “overrated.” Don’t bother those folks with the fact that the ACC lost seven of nine games to the Big East in the regular season. Or that the Big 12 finished considerably above .500 (12-8) against top 50 teams in the regular season, while the ACC was below it (17-20).

The “best” conference is determined from top to bottom, not from a convenience sample of best teams or a couple games. If the ACC wanted to be the best conference this year, all it had to do was shed about five teams. Losses to the likes of Appalachian State, Delaware State, Eastern Kentucky, Gardner-Webb, Radford, Rutgers, USC and Winthrop are not the work of the No. 1 overall conference. Undoubtedly, the league was strong at the top and capable of good work in March. And that’s all that has been proven.

 

Television coverage of the early rounds of the tournament took a substantial step forward a couple years ago when the NCAA, CBS and other networks made the move to better stagger tip times. In the past, a separation of a half hour in a time window was considered a stagger, and those games seemed to inevitably find a way to finish all at the same time. That no longer is a problem.

CBS’s coverage (and its partner networks’ too) still has room for improvement. For one thing, games tipping at 10 or 11 p.m. Eastern time-the way San Diego State-St. John’s and Providence-Dayton did Friday and Butler-Notre Dame did Saturday-flat out should not happen. It’s unfair to teams playing, it’s unfair to fans, and it’s 100% avoidable. It’s very simple common sense logic-if any games are tipping late, they should be games at West regional sites. Whether that is a TV decision or an NCAA decision, it’s something that needs to be addressed immediately, because it is hurting the tournament experience for a lot of people.

CBS also would do well to create a better national presence with the first and second rounds. Developing stories and making fans aware of the magnitude of results is something the network has been lacking in almost since it took over the first round in 1991. One of the most memorable cases of this was in 1999, when Wally Szczerbiak scored 43 of his team’s 59 points in Miami (Ohio)’s 59-58 win over Washington in the first round, yet if you were watching CBS there was hardly a peep about one of the great individual performances in the tournament’s history.

Improved storytelling in the first round includes more emphasis on studio work, but also even more work with staggering tip times. Back in the 1980’s when ESPN televised the first round, CBS televised a single first round game from the West Region on Thursday and Friday at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, a game that stood alone in its time slot. Would like to see the network return to this or something similar to it (again, with a game in the west, NOT east), as a bone to West Coast fans (who may not want to watch games at 8 a.m.) but also as a way to feature a single game that all fans who choose to watch can focus on, without 2-3 other games going on at the same time. Us diehards are already watching for about 12 hours already, so what’s another hour, right?

Some terrific first round games were played in that time slot in the 1980s (most notably Loyola Marymount’s 1990 tourney opener against New Mexico State, as well as Wyoming’s 1987 upset of Virginia) and it would be a great way to showcase the tourney on a national basis. Fans have more avenues than ever to watch games now, but while every first round game is now televised, estimates still range that a quarter of the country’s homes do not have cable. Wide visibility of an event is the way to get everyone talking about it (see: last year’s Kentucky-Wichita State second round game) and when everyone can watch a single game and their attention isn’t diverted to others going on at the same time, that’s the way legends are born. National matters.

 

Completely understand and agree with the frustration over Dayton’s seeding and placement resulting in the Flyers receiving essentially three home games in the tourney. Don’t mean to be contrarian, though, but not sure why it was such a story this year when it hasn’t been in the past.

Home game distribution is regularly uneven in the NCAA Tournament. Among the pod system, there are teams that benefit from it and teams that don’t. The same has happened with lower seeds fairly routinely in the past. Baylor as a sixth seed played third-seeded Creighton in San Antonio last year. In 2013, twelfth-seeded Oregon took on No. 5 Oklahoma State while fellow Pac-12 No. 12 California hosted 5 seed UNLV, with both in the heart of Pac-12 country in San Jose, and both benefited from the same arrangement again in the next round when they played Saint Louis and Syracuse, respectively (Oregon won; Cal lost by six). No. 6 Murray State played 3 seed Marquette in Louisville in 2012.

What happened is not a rare occurrence; it happens way too often. It absolutely is wrong. But again, this is another problem with the pod system and tourney bracketing as a whole.

The answer is that home games should be limited in the tourney as much as possible, and the committee needs to stop with the idea that teams seeded 1-4 “deserve” to play near home. Clearly we cannot award the privilege fairly to teams even seeded on the third and fourth lines, so perhaps only top seeds should qualify, if any at all.

There is no perfect bracketing, but as much as possible, the tourney should be played on neutral courts. As far as trying to save on travel and reward teams, our preference is that priority for teams being seeded closest to home should go to conference champions-in fact, this was a pretty basic bracket principle years ago, that the committee tried to keep conference champs in their region. At-large teams should always be the teams on the move first. This way travel costs are reduced, and teams are also rewarded for winning something in the regular season. As it should be.

 

Just have to say: the offensive execution at the end of a number of games so far has been dreadful, and a number of the overtime games also were notably ugly at the end of regulation. At least 3-4 first round upsets might’ve materialized if the team trailing in those games had handled their last possession or two better. The effects of coaches strangling their offenses throughout the sport really shows through at the end of games. You would think it’s basic common sense that when a team is trailing that it needs to score first, and then worry about playing defense on the other end, yet it’s almost universal now that players on teams trailing run the clock down and are more worried about scoring at the buzzer-in order to keep the other team from getting the ball back-than they are about just scoring to tie or take the lead. You have to run offense in these situations, teams have to give themselves more than one chance at a shot and have to aim to get not just any shot, but a good shot. Again, the inefficiencies on offense in college basketball right now are many, and coaches are the ones who will have to change that.

 

Twenty-eight of the tourney’s 52 games so far have been decided by single digits, though only seven were in the round of 32, which kind of goes against that theory that as the tourney goes on and the underdogs are weeded out that the games get better.

Scoring rebounded some after a very low-scoring Thursday set of games. Through 52 games in this year’s tournament, teams are averaging 67.79 points per game, which is nearly a point ahead of the per-team scoring average during the regular season. That also includes Thursday’s games, which carried a scary-low average of 60.88 points per team per game, which was concerning but we’re happy to report was an outlier at this point.

As expected and noted on Thursday, when games are close they are almost certainly low-scoring-of the 17 games decided by five points or less, only five of them have reached into the 70s, and one of them (Ohio State-VCU) went to overtime. We do still have a fair amount of variety-more than predicted after those Thursday games, as teams are topping 75 points 26.9% of the time. Overall, we’ll say it again: the sport is not in a crisis. A state of concern, certainly. But it’s nothing that a few slight changes can’t improve, and last year’s tweaks that resulted in scoring five points per game higher than this year should prove that.

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