The 2016 NCAA Tournament needed its signature game, and it got one in no better place-in its final game.
Villanova’s 77-74 win over North Carolina is not just one of the great championship games of all-time, it’s one of the great NCAA tourney games ever in any round. It was played at a high level from start to finish, and while it didn’t have the back-and-forth down the stretch of Duke-Kentucky in 1992 or, say, Kansas State-Xavier in 2010, the star power of Georgetown-North Carolina in 1982 or Houston-N.C. State the next year, and may not carry the transformational significance of Michigan State-Indiana State in 1979, it had a finish that will lead to discussions from now until the end of time about its place as possibly the greatest ending to a title game ever.
The Wildcats will be a fondly remembered champion, one that won with relatively few stars and what appears to be-at least at the moment-little in professional talent. And while North Carolina undoubtedly was portrayed as the black hat in the final, with possible NCAA sanctions looming, it was impossible not to feel for the Tar Heels after fighting so much in defeat and then watching classy senior Marcus Paige answer questions after the game with tears in his eyes.
In winning, Villanova defied a trend that in some ways defined this year’s tourney, and only after the Wildcats themselves nearly fell victim to it.
In a way, the national championship game was completely fitting for this year’s tournament, at least right up until the tourney’s final second. Like a number of teams in this year’s tourney, Villanova held a sizeable lead late, ahead 10 points with less than five minutes remaining. And like so many-too many-teams, the Wildcats lost all of it down the stretch.
In truth, the Wildcats’ didn’t “collapse” so much as Carolina took it, making some great plays to get back in it, but the leaders did miss the front end of a one-and-one, missed another free throw, and then committed a careless turnover up three with just over a minute left. Had they lost, there undoubtedly would’ve been a sinking feeling just west of Philadelphia for a long, long time of one getting away.
The Kris Jenkins 3-pointer at the buzzer, though, was just the antidote Villanova needed, though. And if there was ever a tourney that needed a game like this, it just might’ve been this one.
As we were left with such a wonderful final game and will bask in the glow of it this entire offseason, this conclusion won’t be a popular one, nor is it one that is come to with any joy. But when looking at it from a broad view, even taking into account the remarkable final act, to call this year’s tourney average by historical standards just might be being very charitable.
It started with a disappointing Selection Sunday, when the selection committee chose to generally ignore the balance across the sport in this wide-open year and gave us a vanilla bracket, overflowing with mediocre major conference teams when there were any other number of better selections.
We’ve harped on it since the tourney bracket came out, but this is an issue that shouldn’t be allowed to go away, and should be revisited in summer when boredom sets in and the next tired discussion pops up about someone’s dream conference realignment. There was a lot of frustration after Selection Sunday this year, but if nothing changes, then what good did it do?
For the good of this event, but also out of fairness for all schools in NCAA Division I-not just the 100ish who play top level football-the committee must do a better job. The current method of choosing teams by eye test/name brand, and then supporting it with a few convenient statistics chosen from any number of sources, is unacceptable.
As usual, most of those middling majors were out of the tournament quickly, and their presence provided little energy or excitement to the event. Neither of those outcomes isolated on their own should be enough to encourage change, but the combination of both, plus a history indicating these are not irregular outcomes, should be.
Syracuse would quickly be presented as evidence against that, and while the Orange proved they were good enough to be in the tourney, they also were anything but a team that most fans would wrap their arms around. For many, there’s a sinking feeling that they never should’ve been in this tourney in the first place, if only 1) NCAA sanctions actually had any teeth and 2) the selection committee hadn’t rewarded the whole of a season that, in the RPI, ranked behind teams such as Georgia Tech, William & Mary and IPFW.
Like the selections itself, the issue of teams seemingly being unaffected by sanctions is one that needs to be addressed for the integrity of the tourney. The top layer conferences may view North Carolina and Syracuse as the cost of doing business, or might even think in some arrogance that fans will quickly forget them. That would be a very bad assumption, and the TV ratings for the final game should show just how fragile national interest in this sport can be.
Of course, there’s not a lot a selection committee or committee on infractions can do about the quality of games. This year’s event had less great finishes than we’re used to, more games settled by decisive margins. Of the 67 games played this year, 39 were decided by double-digit scoring margins, up considerably from the 31 a year ago. The distribution of those games was close to equal-22 came in the 36 games including the play-ins/first round, while the other 17 came from the remaining 31 games from the second round onward.
The average margin of victory in a tournament game was 13.07, the highest since 2008 and the 10th-highest in the 78-year history of the tourney. That can be taken with a grain of salt-the sport and tournament both have gone through a number of changes over that time-shot clocks introduced, larger fields, periods with more emphasis on offense than defense and vice versa. But even if restricting this comparison to the 64+ team field era since 1985 (and the shot clock era that followed the following year), this year’s average margin was the sixth-highest in 32 years.
Ten games were decided by three points or less or in overtime, a number tied for the fourth-lowest since 1977. The average in a tourney since then is 14; last year’s tourney had 13, while the 2014 event had 18.
Now, it should be obvious that there are limitations to using margin of victory alone as a judge of anything due to fluctuations in the final minute of games. These numbers do feel like they match the eye test, though. And if games weren’t being decided by comfortable margins, they were showcasing teams in the lead falling apart late, blowing a tire with the checkered flag not far from sight.
Most famously it was Northern Iowa, but you can add Gonzaga, Purdue, Saint Joseph’s, Stephen F. Austin, Virginia and Xavier among the others who had games in control late but couldn’t close the deal. In some cases it was painful to watch, and while the winning teams and their fans won’t remember that part, it left us with a bitter taste on a number of occasions.
All of that said, when evaluating the event as a whole, numbers really only mean so much. What really counts is whether fans enjoyed it and went away from the event with a good feeling and anticipating next year’s event. On that note, this year’s final was a slam-dunk success, and again was just what this year’s tourney needed. If an all-time great championship game is enough to make fans forget about any negatives? Nothing wrong with that.
More tournament notes:
Here is our pick for a top 10 list of the most memorable games from this year’s NCAA Tournament:
1) Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 National Final. Really no other words need to be said.
2) Notre Dame 76, Stephen F. Austin 75 East Region 2nd Round. Until the NCAA final, no game was played at a higher level than this one, and it also added a dramatic finish to boot.
3) Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72 West Region 1st Round. Paul Jesperson’s halfcourt shot to win it is an all-timer, and the back-and-forth in this game-UNI racing out to a big lead, Texas coming back and taking control, then the Panthers coming back themselves-was terrific.
4) Middle Tennessee State 90 Michigan State 81 Midwest Region 1st Round. It was a 15 over a 2, but it was more than that. The Spartans didn’t play bad; the Blue Raiders simply played tremendous.
5) Saint Joseph’s 78, Cincinnati 76 West Region 1st Round. Few likely saw this one because the UNI-Texas game was going on at the same time, and that’s too bad. This game is a prime example of why tip times need even more staggering than they already have.
6) Villanova 64 Kansas 59 South Region Final. Pure, quality basketball between the team perhaps considered the best coming into the tournament and the one that eventually was.
7) Arkansas-Little Rock 85 Purdue 83 (2 OT) Midwest Region 1st Round. A fascinating matchup coming in with the Boilermakers’ height against the Trojans’ grit appeared set to go the way of the Big Ten team. Josh Hagins and Little Rock simply wouldn’t be denied, though, and it was something to watch the much smaller Trojans dictate this one late.
8) Texas A&M 92 Northern Iowa 88 (2 OT) West Region 2nd Round. If this list was measuring “all-time painful finishes,” this would be top 3. Easily.
9) Yale 79 Baylor 75 West Region 1st Round. The sight of the Bulldogs pounding the rangy Bears on the glass is one that will not go away.
10) Miami (Fla.) 65 Wichita State 57 South 2nd Round. It got off to a bizarre start, with the tired Shockers looking like they would get run out of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. WSU fought all the way back from 21 points down, though-a fitting final impression by seniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet-but Angel Rodriguez was even better this day.
Once again, we list the regionals here as an attempt at perspective, but the pod system that emphasizes allowing high seeds to play close to home over order continues to make regionals ridiculously confusing. A few might remember this year’s Final Four was held in Houston; other than those who were there, no one will recall that Texas A&M/Northern Iowa was played in Oklahoma City. As long as East Region games take place in Spokane and West games are in Providence, it almost is pointless to even have regionals anymore.
It wasn’t the ACC/Big East Challenge, but it felt like old times with these two long-time rival conferences the dominant ones in this year’s tournament. The Big East furnished the champion, while the ACC had the most success, with the most wins (19), most in the Final Four (2), Elite 8 (4) and Sweet 16 (6) as well as the highest winning percentage (.731).
While most will measure league success based on a league’s collective record in the tournament, we prefer to look at how leagues performed in comparison to how their seedings said they should have performed. The following presents numbers documenting which leagues outperformed their seeds and which did not. For example: American Athletic Conference teams were seeded 9, 9, 10 and 11 this year, therefore by seeding the AAC should’ve been expected to go 0-4 in its tourney games. Even play-in games are taken into account, based on the NCAA’s seed list before the event (Ex.: the NCAA had Michigan seeded higher than Tulsa, therefore the Wolverines were predicted by seeding to beat the Golden Hurricane):
|Conference||Expected record by seed before tourney||Actual tourney record||Wins +/- Expected|
Takeaways: Obviously the ACC did the best by this measure as well, even as noted earlier in the tourney that its teams received some fortuitous draws in the early rounds. Not much more to say-the conference had an excellent tourney… The Missouri Valley Conference was the next-best league outperforming its seedings, with Northern Iowa and Wichita State combining to go 3-2 after being seeded to go 0-2, showing once again the MVC is a more-than solid league that should not go unnoticed on the periphery of the top layer of conferences… The Big East tied the WCC for third at plus-2, though Villanova did most of that work-the rest of the Big East was a combined 2-4, below the 4-4 mark those teams should’ve accumulated by seeding… The SEC was a minus-2 for the second straight year, while the Big 12 did even worse than its tough showing a year ago (minus-5, going 5-7 when its was seeded to finish 10-7)… The Big Ten had a significant swing, going minus-1 this year after being the best with a plus-4 last year (finishing 12-7 when seeded to go 8-7), but none had as bad of a swing as the Pac-12, which was a plus-3 a year ago (finishing 8-4 after seeded to go 5-4) but was a minus-8 this year… Despite very low seeds over the past two years (a 12, two 14s and a 15), Conference USA and the Sun Belt both have won single games in the tourney the last two years.
Finally, we can’t let the postseason go by without saying some words about the other postseason tournaments-the NIT, CBI, CIT and Vegas 16.
Getting a chance to watch these more closely this year for the first time, we were impressed with the level of competition and-in quite a few cases at least-fan support in these events. Most notably, the CBI championship series between Nevada and Morehead State was terrific, three very well-played games between two even teams, the last two played in front of rabid crowds in Reno. All three games were decided by single digits, two of them by three points each, and the final game went to overtime before Nevada’s Wolf Pack outlasted the Eagles 85-82.
George Washington played superb basketball in winning the NIT, while Valparaiso’s run to the final also was a remarkable accomplishment. Columbia’s CIT championship was another statement that the Ivy League this year was really pretty darn good, as Yale affirmed in the NCAA Tournament, and UC Irvine’s run on the road to get to the final (four straight wins while criss-crossing the country) was memorable.
Even the Vegas 16, while providing comedy (16-team field reduced to eight due to lack of teams interested; miniscule crowds) also debuted with a worthy concept with every team playing at the same site, plus eight solid teams. A tournament could do a lot worse than Old Dominion and Oakland in its final, and ODU’s 68-67 win was a good game that was worthwhile viewing.
To be clear: these events are not a fitting substitute for the NCAA Tournament for the participants that deserved to be there, the same way a trip to the Bahamas Bowl is not the same as a trip to the Fiesta Bowl or even the Peach Bowl or Holiday Bowl, if that’s what a team deserved. While Valparaiso should’ve enjoyed its opportunity (the NIT in particular is still an event that carries prestige, with a trip to New York City and Madison Square Garden a big deal for many players), it still doesn’t change the fact that the Crusaders from this view should’ve been in the NCAA tourney, if the selection committee is really trying to do what it always claims about finding the “best” at-large teams.
This year proved, though, that just because a team isn’t in the NCAA tourney that it doesn’t mean it can’t play hard and put on quality games in the postseason. College basketball doesn’t necessarily need any more of these tournaments (postseason should still be a reward for some kind of excellence), but much like so-called minor bowl games, the presence of these events isn’t a bad one, either.