This year’s NCAA Tournament Final Four is set. By almost all accounts, it’s not a foursome many expected to be here collectively, and for a season and a tournament that has carried a double major in inexplicable and bizarre, that might be the best sign we have that it’s as appropriate of a group as we could’ve asked for.
This year’s group of participants-North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse and Villanova-doesn’t quite carry the history or star coaching power of last year’s group, but it is not a lightweight foursome by any means. With their appearances this year, the four will have combined for 35 Final Four trips, which isn’t that far off the 46 by last year’s quartet of Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Wisconsin. In fact, all four members of this year’s class have been this far at least five times now.
If last year’s Final Four was one lauded for its coaching power, this year’s group makes a pretty good second team. Jim Boeheim, Lon Kruger, Roy Williams and Jay Wright have combined for 17 trips to the national semifinals-not quite the 27 trips of last year’s quartet of John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzyewski and Bo Ryan, but not bad at all. All four are making at least their second trip.
All four teams have earned their way here in different ways. Oklahoma has ridden its backcourt further than many thought possible. Villanova is the consummate team, but also better than it’s getting credit for (we could care less if Ryan Arcidiacono will be in the NBA-he’s one heck of a college player). North Carolina is deep and talented, and used both traits to power past opponents by an average of 16 ppg. Syracuse rode a gift draw to the regional final but still had to rally to beat Gonzaga and then came back to win its regional final, rattling a top seed (Virginia) that most everyone thought could not be rattled.
All teams were able to buck the trends that started with the first weekend of the tourney continued through the regional semifinals and finals. All four have shot the ball well-UNC, Oklahoma and Villanova consistently, Syracuse not so much but in spurts when needed-especially in the second half. In a tourney where teams in the lead usually could not hold a lead, all four have had no such issues.
Of course, this year’s semifinalists are going to be painted repeatedly this week in white hat/black hat fashion, and not because of any ACC-vs.-everyone else dynamic. Oklahoma and Villanova are on one side, North Carolina and Syracuse are on the other, and if following college basketball at all you know why.
On the court, all four of these teams are enjoyable to watch-even Syracuse’s zone is a clinic on how to play a zone defense. Make no mistake, though: there won’t be a lot of feel-good going on about North Carolina and Syracuse getting this far.
There’s no escaping it: one school is in the midst of probation, and it’s pretty obvious already that those sanctions have barely made a dent in the program. The other likely will be on probation soon, though it’s quite possible the public will feel that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. And if the punishment does, it’s almost certainly just a matter of time before the defendant (and its alumni/fanbase) fights back kicking-and-screaming, until the sanctions are greatly loosened up, Penn State-style.
What we have isn’t unprecedented; Connecticut in 2011 was another team that came in under something of a dark shadow, but that storyline was probably less of a deal to most because it was just one team. When there are two, though, and one is already here in controversial fashion (Syracuse was one of the most debated tourney at-large selections), it’s no surprise that this is heating up.
A number of those in the media and elsewhere have already opined that Carolina/Syracuse is the NCAA’s nightmare scenario, for all the talk it will generate of the schools’ transgressions.
But what if it’s not?
Based on how soft the NCAA went on Syracuse (a 1-year tourney ban chosen by the school at its convenience; a 9-game suspension for Boeheim that the selection committee then used as a reason to excuse half of their losses and as an excuse to put them in the field) it looks like the NCAA is getting exactly what it wants. And as far as North Carolina goes, there’s no guarantee the Tar Heels are going to get hit anywhere nearly as hard as many expect. The NCAA has a very convenient excuse any time academic issues pop up, claiming such issues are a local matter and that the organization isn’t in the business of telling schools how to run their academics.
It’s quite possible this is going to become normal behavior in the current college athletics landscape. When schools like Syracuse and Carolina held up the rest of Division I for autonomy, under the threat that they might take their ball and go somewhere else if they didn’t get it, it was made abundantly clear: these are the schools running the NCAA now, and the NCAA merely does their bidding.
For schools like these, and perhaps the NCAA as a whole now, the presence of schools such as Carolina and Syracuse (and, most notably of recent, Connecticut in 2011) in the Final Four is just the cost of doing business. Just another crisis that must be managed and allowed to blow over.
It’s too bad, because while this is an event that is supposedly about the student-athletes, the NCAA and its member schools made the choice that this year’s Final Four at times will not be. Don’t blame the players on the participating teams for that, but don’t blame fans who might feel a little queasy about those teams’ presence either.
Having followed this event for nearly 30 years, we always enjoy looking at statistical comparisons when comparing the current NCAA Tournament to past ones. With just three games left in this year’s tourney in historical terms, though, this year’s comparisons so far don’t paint a pretty picture.
Last year’s NCAA tourney had six games decided by one point (all in the first round), one shy of the record of seven set in 1982 and tied in 1995, 1997 and 2014. This year’s tourney has had just two games decided by one point (also both in the first round), and while that’s a very narrow comparison, it sets the stage for understanding just how underwhelming many of the numbers currently are for 2016.
So far, 27 games have been decided by single digits, well below a year ago when 34 games had been decided by single digits through the regional finals. Fifteen games have been decided by five points or less, also below last year’s total of 19 at this time.
In the NCAA’s tournament records book, “close games” are defined as contests decided by three points or less or in overtime. This year’s event has had just nine such games so far, way off the pace of last year’s 15 at this time. In fact, if that number were to hold through the Final Four, it would tie the 2002 and 2009 tourneys for the second-fewest close games since 1983, when the tournament expanded to 52 teams and which was the first year where at least 50 games were played. Only the 1994 NCAA Tournament had fewer “close games,” with just eight that year.
In fact, the current number would be tied for the second-lowest since 1977, when the tourney had eight “close games” but just 32 teams and 32 games. Meaning: of the last 39 NCAA tourneys played (including this year), this season’s total of nine “close games” ranks tied for 36th.
Three games have been decided by two points, and three more have been decided by three points. Combined, it’s the fewest games decided by one, two or three points since 2008, though again, there are still three games left to possibly add to it.
More numbers: time and again we’re told that when more high seeds advance to the Sweet 16 that it all but guarantees we’ll have better games in the regional semifinals and finals than we would have if there were some lower seeds advancing. This year’s final 16 included 12 teams seeded fifth or better and just three teams seeded lower than sixth. Yet of the 12 games played this past weekend, nine of them were decided by 12 points or more.
Of the four games decided by single digits, three were marked by painful meltdowns by lead teams (or dramatic comebacks by the eventual winners, in the view of some). The result was very similar to the 2009 tourney, when 15 of the final 16 were seeded on the top five lines yet just four games total from the regional semifinals and finals were decided by single digits, or 2008, a year when 12 teams seeded first through fifth advanced, yet just two games in the regionals were decided by single digits. Think we can put that myth to bed now.
By the way…the average margin of victory by round so far is: play-in games, 15.0 points per game; first round, 13.8 ppg; second round, 10.9 ppg; regional semifinals, 12.9 ppg; regional finals, 9.3 ppg. In other words, the closest games are the regional finals (not surprising), the widest spread has been the play-in games (despite teams playing each other having the same seed as their opponent), and the first round and regional semifinals have very similar margins, even with the first round being clouded by blowouts of 26, 36 and 39 games in 1 vs. 16 matchups.
Syracuse broke the string. The Orange is the first at-large team from a BCS conference to be seeded ninth or lower and make the Final Four since LSU in 1986.
For a low seed, Syracuse had an almost impossibly comfortable path to the regional final, beating sputtering Dayton, a 15 seed in Middle Tennessee State that came down after playing its best game of the season one round earlier, and then a Gonzaga team that all season was known for losing leads late against the best teams it played and, not surprisingly, did exactly that again. Even after beating top seed Virginia in the regional final, the Cuse’s path is still the second-easiest path seed-wise for a team seeded sixth or lower to make the Final Four (No. 6 seed Kansas in 1988 had an even cushier one, while the vast majority of the easiest paths historically have gone to No. 1 seeds).
So what can we take from Syracuse’s run? As many note in good and bad, tournament performance does not automatically justify nor refute whether a team actually deserved its bid. An argument that it does is typically based more on emotion than reason (did California not deserve a bid because it lost to Hawaii?). Unfortunately, with as much as the current selection committee is relying on brand name bias and fudging its criteria depending on what a team’s name or conference affiliation is, it wouldn’t surprise us in the least if committee members were some of those crowing that the Orange’s Final Four verifies their choice.
Undoubtedly some will (or already have) use it as evidence that more middling major teams like the Orange should be in the NCAA Tournament. We, Joe Lunardi and others would point to historical evidence showing otherwise. For instance: the ACC now has one team seeded ninth or lower in the Final Four in its history; the CAA has two of them in the last 10 years.
In the case of the Orange, we were OK with their selection (not thrilled, but OK with it). We were not fine with their seeding (should’ve certainly been in a play-in game) or the selection committee repeatedly claiming they deserved special consideration for a suspension their coach earned as part of NCAA sanctions.
We would suggest that Syracuse’s success does show the value of putting in teams that have proven they can consistently win against top-level competition (even as this particular team sputtered badly down the stretch of the regular season, and probably should not have been in the tourney because of it).
Say what you want about Syracuse’s regular season-and there’s a lot to say-but the Orange did go 5-6 vs. the RPI top 50. From the start of the season to the end, we have seen that Boeheim’s team is capable of beating top teams more than on occasion. On the other hand, teams like Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt both proved they lost seven of their nine chances against such teams. If you’re going to put in middling major teams, a Syracuse is the type that should be in. A Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt or Michigan (4-11 vs. the top 50) is not.
Has there ever been a team that seemed to play well yet lost by so much as Miami did against Villanova in the South regional semis? The Hurricanes shot 53.2% against the Wildcats, made 10 of 17 from three-point range-and lost by 23 points. The reason is because Villanova shot an even hotter 62.7%, hit 10 of 15 from three-point range, 18 of 19 from the foul line and committed just seven turnovers. Also, while Miami committed a reasonable 12 turnovers, the Wildcats’ defensive pressure was enough to be a nuisance. Still, this result should not take away from the fact that the Hurricanes had a very nice season. A Sweet 16 year is nothing to be ashamed of, especially at a school like Miami which has never been further.
Similar sentiments go for teams such as Notre Dame, Oregon, Wisconsin and even Kansas. In the case of the former, all three accomplished far more than could’ve been reasonably expected of them before the season. Ask an Oregon fan before the season if they would’ve taken a trip to the Elite Eight-they would have in a heartbeat. The Fighting Irish and Badgers also reloaded and have nothing to be ashamed of. Even Kansas and UVA have plenty to be proud of, though the Cavaliers in particular will rue an opportunity missed, holding a 15-point lead with less than 10 minutes to play. The Jayhawks won the Maui Invitational, its 12th consecutive Big 12 title, the Big 12 tourney championship, a No. 1 ranking for part of the year and a trip to the Elite Eight. Kansas was one of the best teams this season, but was not a dominant team. Even at a school with such a rich history where expectations are so high, there is no shame in a season that ended just shy of the Final Four.
It’s interesting how little we hear about TV ratings from the NCAA or its main television partners when those ratings are not out of this world. Perhaps it’s because of this. Or this. Most notably, the ratings for the Easter Sunday regional final games on TBS-in prime time, with supposed big draws such as Notre Dame, North Carolina and Syracuse, on a night when there was very little competition on TV-were poor.
Chalk this up to the choices NCAA leadership made when it went along with the current NCAA tourney TV deal, which puts more regional final, national semifinal and national championship games on cable instead of over the air, and also is jerking around fans in certain regions with ridiculous and unnecessarily late starting times. This is the trade-off the NCAA chose; it’s not incorrect at all to say the organization is getting exactly what it asked for. Of course, some might say annoying viewers and starting games at terribly late hours would be short-sighted. Like so many entities, though (see: NFL), to the NCAA a decision like this one is always good if it makes money in the short term, and the long-term can be put off until later because a product can never depreciate. Unfortunately, the NCAA may be finding out what it should have already known: that there is a such thing as a point of diminishing returns. It doesn’t have to happen, though, and giving up just a little more in the short term to protect the long term might well have delayed its arrival.