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2016 NCAA Tournament first week review: ups and downs-in every way

March 22, 2016 Columns No Comments

What to make of the first weekend of the 2016 NCAA Tournament?

If there is one thing we from those four days (six including the play-in games) that can come close to being a fair generalization, it is that this year’s tourney has no one-size-fits-all quality to it. Maybe the only conclusion one can come to is there is no conclusion.

Indeed, there were big game-winning shots. (Providence’s Rodney Bullock, Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson, Saint Joseph’s Deandre Bembry, Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig) There were terrific team performances. (Indiana on Thursday, almost every winning team on Saturday) Friday was a whole lot of fun.

On the other hand, was it unpredictable? Well, on Friday, yes. But the seeds of the final 16 teams remaining generally says no.

Was it always well-played? Was it always well-officiated in key moments?

Ummm…

As much as it was wild and we would love to jump into the “best first weekend ever” debates, it doesn’t feel right. The numbers don’t necessarily support that and-as much as it’s absolutely no fun to mention and we don’t enjoy saying it-the quality of play at times didn’t either.

It was certainly one of the most bizarre and wide-ranging first weekends we have ever had. There have been some awesome games and plays and a fair share of close games. But there also have been more than a couple cringe-worthy moments.

There were extremes in quality of play at the highest and lowest levels. There were a number of moments of historic proportions, but not all of them were good.

By the numbers, this year’s tourney so far in many ways is the greatest since…last year. In sheer comparison of closeness of games, 2016’s early rounds don’t hold a candle to last season’s. The 24 games decided by single digits to this point is four less than a year ago, and the 13 games decided by five points or less is well below last year’s 17 in that category.

Last season’s first week also featured 13 games decided by three points or fewer, compared to a fairly measly seven this year. One perhaps can call it a draw if they take into account the increased number of double-digit seeds advancing early this year, with 10 moving to the second round compared to five in 215. This year, we still have two teams seeded 10th or lower remaining, whereas last year there was one.

The group we have left is a rather familiar one. Six of the 16 teams were here a year ago, and seven others have been this far in the past three years. Twelve of the 16 were seeded fifth or better in their regions. And it must be noted just how well so many of these teams played to get this far-Saturday’s winners especially were super-efficient on offense, and only three of the 16 winning teams on the weekend shot less than 46% in their wins.

All four No. 1 seeds remain, or five of the six 1 seeds if one considers how close Michigan State and Villanova were. Before one goes about making claims of the “cream rising to the top,” though, as some pundits have, take a stroll down memory lane back to the regular season, which reveals the 16 teams remaining have a combined 22 losses against teams outside the final regular season RPI top 100.

That’s a lot of losses against CBI and CIT-level teams. If anything, perhaps the greatest “upset” of all is that so many top seeds are left in a season when so many top teams proved to be so beatable.

As far as the upsets on the court that are so much the mark of the tourney’s first week, it’s been a mixed bag. Thursday’s almost followed a script. There was the almost-annual Ivy League team winning its opener (Yale’s win over Baylor marked the Ivy’s fourth first-round win in seven years). There was the play-in team getting into the bracket and winning (Wichita State over Arizona). There was the 11 seed upending a 6 seed short on tournament experience for the third straight year (this time Gonzaga over Seton Hall).

Friday was one of the bigger single days of bracket chaos ever, as the winners included teams seeded 10, 11, 13, 14 and 15, and never before have a 13, 14 and 15 won on the same day. It included one of the all-time true stunners the tourney has ever seen, with Middle Tennessee State shocking title favorite Michigan State.

However, 13th-seeded Hawaii beating banged-up California was hardly a surprise, and Stephen F. Austin clearly proved that in quality it was at least 3-4 seed lines better than a 14 seed. And no one should ever be surprised anymore if an 11 seed beats a 6, considering matchups between these two are just about split evenly over the past 11 tourneys.

Regardless, Friday night was indeed something to behold. For whatever reason-perhaps fatigue from watching two full days of basketball, perhaps just blind luck-it feels like the end of the first round games deep into the night on Fridays almost annually furnishes some duds. There was no such worry this year, with what was very likely the best collective finish of a first round ever.

Jesperson’s halfcourt shot for Northern Iowa to stun Texas 75-72 will go down as one of the great buzzer-beaters in tournament history. For halfcourters, it’s the equal of U.S. Reed’s shot for Arkansas in the second round of the 1981 tourney to beat Louisville (check it on Youtube if you’ve never seen it). Unfortunately for them, the Panthers would be making history again just two days later, this time in a bad way.

Just minutes after Jesperson’s shot, though, St. Joseph’s escaped with a 78-76 win over Cincinnati after Bembry hit a go-ahead three-pointer with nine seconds left, and then a dunk by Cincy’s Octavius Ellis was correctly ruled late because it wasn’t out of his hand until just after the buzzer. The ball was literally in the cylinder of the hoop, but hadn’t left Ellis’s hand-that’s how close the Bearcats were to forcing overtime.

The endings of these games as well as some others (Providence-USC, Arkansas-Little Rock-Purdue) were pure March. On the other hand, the close finishes Sunday may just belong in a classified file, for it might take an investigation to figure out exactly what really happened in them.

Were they comebacks or collapses? Again, it’s painful to say, it’s no fun to say and inevitably it doesn’t give enough credit to the winning teams, but while some will look at Sunday’s games and see amazing, spirited rallies-as is perfectly within their right-from here it’s hard to shake the feeling many of those contests were marked as much or more by losing teams’ misplays down the stretch as by excellence by the winners.

There’s no other way to describe Northern Iowa’s eventual double-overtime loss to Texas A&M-the end of regulation was one of the all-time meltdowns in basketball history. There is absolutely no joy in saying that, but there’s no escaping it, either.

The Panthers-statistically one of the very best teams in the country at taking care of the ball-committed two turnovers under their own basket resulting in direct layups, plus a third in their frontcourt leading to another layup (plus a fourth in the backcourt out of bounds that quickly led to a three-pointer). Texas A&M’s pressure on defense was good, but hardly suffocating, but UNI kept getting into bad situations and then handing out baskets like Easter candy.

There were other factors involved-a lack of timeouts; an injury to Jason Bohannon, the Panthers’ regular inbounder, a dreadful foul call that directly impacted both of the Aggies’ final two baskets in regulation (watch on replay how fearful Jesperson was of challenging A&M’s tying layup, after he had been whistled for a phantom call just before). Ultimately, though, there’s no way a team should ever lose a 12-point lead with 35 seconds left, much less in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Earlier in the day, Stephen F. Austin and Notre Dame made a play for the best game of the tournament with a high-level, back-and-forth contest reminiscent of the classic between Kentucky and Wichita State in the second round two years ago. Two of the most beautiful offensive teams to watch in the country lived up to every bit of their billing in front of a national TV audience.

Finally, SFA took control late and built a five-point lead with three minutes left. Rather than sticking with its highly effective continuity motion offense, though, the one that had given the Irish fits all day, the Lumberjacks went into a prevent, with the terrific Thomas Walkup dribbling the clock down for 25 seconds 40 feet from the basket before taking contested shots at the end.

Like the UNI-Texas A&M game, this one also had some more-than-a-little-curious foul calls in favor of the higher seed late, but like Northern Iowa, Stephen F. Austin made its own precarious bed. In the end, Notre Dame got a final shot and after a miss and some volleying the ball was tipped in by Rex Pflueger with just over a second left for the 76-75 win.

What Stephen F. Austin did with having its best player dribble away time with the lead was hardly unique-numerous teams have done it late in games this year after the extremely misguided decision by the NCAA rules committee to get rid of the five-second closely guarded rule, which encourages ball-stopping on offense. (Remember: this is what the TV heads directly or indirectly told us college basketball should be-shorter shot clocks, more emphasis on star players and less on teams) It didn’t work, and the Lumberjacks’ season is done in part because of it.

These two were hardly the only ones to falter in the final minutes on Sunday. Xavier was in complete control against Wisconsin, up eight with just over five minutes left, but the Musketeers scored six points in the final seven minutes. Such offensive futility isn’t supposed to happen in our allegedly enlightened era with a 30-second shot clock. VCU-playing a complete road game against Oklahoma-might’ve had a chance to still beat the Sooners if it doesn’t commit two unforced turnovers late in a close game.

Given the way so many of Sunday’s games ended up, by the final game of the second round Sunday night the outcome seemed inevitable when St. Joseph’s took a seven-point lead over Oregon with 5 1/2 minutes to play-the Ducks would rally, while the Hawks would suddenly misplace their offense and lose all mojo down the stretch. Indeed, Oregon came alive, while St. Joe’s scored all of six points the rest of the way, particularly bungling several offensive possessions in the final minute in painful fashion, and the Ducks moved on with a 69-64 win.

Again, noting the negative hardly gives enough credit to the teams that won-Pflueger’s winning basket for Notre Dame was his first field goal in five games; Wisconsin’s Koenig hit a winning shot with a man right in his face; Oregon showed a toughness in winning while well off its high-powered offensive game; Texas A&M pressured on defense and…still had to convert all those layups.

Normally in March, though, we’re used to one team’s great plays topping another’s. The end of Sunday felt like watching trailing teams saunter by after the leaders stumbled repeatedly with the finish line in sight. We hate to see that with teams that have played so well all season and for so much time earlier in a game, so in that regard it’s hard not to have at least a slightly bad aftertaste after an otherwise solid first weekend.

More than anything, though, it says a lot about the ultra-high standards the NCAA Tournament has set, always providing us an event so good that even in average years it still beats almost any other annual sporting event out there. And this year’s tourney has been anything but average.

 

For the rest of this week, you will hear the crowing about the ACC getting six teams in the Sweet 16, since the mainstream college basketball media is absolutely dominated by ACC alums and former coaches. Pride is understandable and we don’t want to be a wet blanket, but a little perspective is in order.

In its 13 NCAA Tournament games so far, the ACC team has been the higher seed 11 times, and almost every time by a significant margin. The average seed of the six ACC teams remaining is 4.2 The average seed of the teams they’ve beaten to get to the Sweet 16? An almost impossibly poor 12.3.

Syracuse faced a 7 seed and a 15; Duke played a 12 and a 13; Notre Dame faced an 11 and a 14, Miami took on an 11 (albeit an underseeded one in Wichita State) and a 14. In every single second-round matchup for an ACC team, whether it was a 1 seed or a 10 seed, it faced the lower seed of the two it could have drawn for its next matchup. So, while unquestionably teams like North Carolina, Virginia, Duke and even Miami would be worthy regional semifinalists in any scenario, let’s also not pretend there hasn’t been a heavy dose of good fortune for the league.

 

Middle Tennessee State’s win over Michigan State in the first round is not quite the biggest upset in the tourney’s history from this view. In quality, the Blue Raiders were far more a 13 seed than a 15 (MTSU played South Dakota State this year in a virtual road game and it went down to the wire). And let’s also not forget: Michigan State did lose to Nebraska this year. When it comes to evaluating the difference in teams at the time, Syracuse’s win over Richmond in 1991, Santa Clara’s against Arizona in 1993-even 14th-seeded Bucknell over Kansas in 2005-are among games that were bigger stunners in these eyes.

That said, the Blue Raiders’ performance was absolutely one of the greatest by a heavy underdog in tourney history from the standpoint of pure quality of play. Few will understand it because few saw the team play, but this was truly MTSU’s magnum opus in every way. A decent but unspectacular offensive team shooting 45% entering the game, Middle Tennessee State shot 55.9% from the field-its second-best mark of the season, and against one of the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage defense. The Blue Raiders’ 11 three-pointers and 57.9% mark from long range also were the team’s second-best showings of the season. It can sound trite, but it’s true: MTSU played far & away its best game of the season against Michigan State, and as enjoyable as it was to watch, it also was little surprise at all when the Blue Raiders were unable to replicate it against a lesser opponent in the next round.

 

The Big 12 and Big East are both taking some beating for their relative lack of tourney success (though not as much as the Pac-12-some of which is valid, some of which is not). When it comes to the most impressive teams of the first two rounds, though, there are really only two candidates-it has to be Kansas and Villanova.

The Jayhawks blew out Austin Peay as expected, but most impressive was their second-round demolition of what looked like it would be a feisty Connecticut team. Kansas never let the Huskies in the game, building a 20-point halftime lead and cruising. UConn did make it respectable in the second half, getting within nine with 9 1/2 minutes to play, but the Jayhawks kept a working margin to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time in three years.

Villanova, meanwhile, used its stifling defense and smoking-hot shooting to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time in (incredibly) seven years. It’s great to see for Jay Wright, who has handled questions of the Wildcats’ previous March stumbles with utmost class and forthrightness, and it’s also enjoyable to see a time win with so few stars. Villanova’s South Region semifinal against Miami (Fla.) is one of the most appealing of the round of 16, with a pair of veteran teams that play outstanding defense ready to go.

 

About the Pac-12, we will point out what always must be said in good and bad-tournament results alone do not justify or refute bid or seed controversies. In the conference’s defense, too, there was some bad luck (Arizona received a horrible draw against tourney-tested Wichita State; USC stumbled late in the year; Cal and Oregon State both had significant injuries entering the NCAAs). That said, it’s readily clear that what we said after Selection Sunday was true: when a league like the Pac-12 builds up glossy RPI numbers-and therefore conference mates’ RPI top 50 win totals balloon because of it-the selection committee asks absolutely no questions and takes them as gospel, contrary to the skepticism it has of those numbers when they’re in leagues such as the Atlantic 10 or Mountain West.

The Pac-12 had a fantastic year out of conference, but it didn’t take a lot of looking at the content of non-conference results to see that California was not a 4 seed, Oregon State was not a 7 seed and even Colorado at an 8 seed was questionable. Overall, the Pac-12 this year had a lower percentage of sub-100 opponents on its schedules than the ACC, Big 10 or SEC (the league didn’t “game” the RPI-it simply scheduled smarter and got a little lucky, as no athletic director or coach in the country is so clairvoyant to know exactly where in the power ratings their non-conference opponents are going to finish). That’s totally fine-it just requires some perspective when considering them.

 

The distribution of tip-off times for second round games is an issue that needs to start being squeaked about more so it gets a little oil. Wichita State and Miami playing the game at noon Eastern time on Saturday was ridiculous, considering both played in the evening session Thursday night and the Shockers just played in a late play-in game on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Duke and Yale played in the day session on Thursday (Duke’s was the first game of the tourney) and then got to play the second game on Saturday in Providence. Then there was the case of Providence and North Carolina playing a game in Raleigh, N.C., that tipped off at 9:37 p.m. Eastern time, and got done not much before midnight on the East Coast. Roy Williams was incensed about it, and he had every right to be.

The point that “TV sets the start times and that’s how it goes” is one that gets glossed over repeatedly with cynicism, and it shouldn’t be. There’s no reason why the NCAA can’t address this in its TV contracts if it is really trying to appear worried about not just “student-athlete well-being” but also simply the fan experience. The games in the West are the ones that should be starting latest at night, not the ones in the East. It’s that simple. The TV networks will survive. The NCAA Tournament will survive. And a lot of stakeholders will be just a little bit happier and have a little more respect for the NCAA and the TV networks for it.

 

One more TV note: the terrific game between Notre Dame and Stephen F. Austin showed yet again the value of getting a few more tourney games in standalone, national time slots whenever possible. Like the Kentucky-Wichita State game two years ago, this was the only game going on at the time, meaning eyeballs were not divided as they are during the entire first two days of the tourney.

We will continue to campaign for the return of the late-night time slot standalone game CBS once had in the West Region on Thursday and Friday night of the first round, as an opportunity to showcase at least 1-2 excellent matchups those days, and wouldn’t even be opposed to starting a game an hour earlier on Thursday (11 a.m. Eastern time) if it could provide another window for a national broadcast. The ability to watch every game is wonderful, of course, and will never go away, but there is no substitute for the buzz created by a single national game in the spotlight at one time.

 

Once again the pod system accomplished its unofficial goals, which seem to be creating a more confusing bracket (West Region games in Providence? South Region in Spokane?) and also needlessly putting some teams at a distinct competitive disadvantage in what is supposed to be a neutral site tournament, while giving others an advantage solely because they were fortunate enough to have a sub-regional bid on and won near them. This year’s victims were Providence, VCU and (to a lesser extent) Butler, who all played what were very clearly road games in the second round and, not surprisingly, lost. It just shouldn’t happen. There’s no reason East Region top seed North Carolina can’t play in Providence or Brooklyn while South top seed Virginia plays in St. Louis or Oklahoma City (one of which was apparently considered a southern site, somehow). Unfortunately, once this move was made for 2002, the question became: does the NCAA-or the schools pulling the strings in the NCAA-really want a neutral tournament?

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