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2017 NCAA Tournament first week review: unpredictability light so far

March 21, 2017 Columns No Comments

The NCAA Tournament never fails to deliver. Some years, it just delivers a little bit less than others.

It provided us some memorable moments good and bad (defending national champion Villanova exiting early; Iowa State rallying from a 19-point second-half deficit before running out of steam; Vanderbilt losing in part because of a highly publicized mental error in the final seconds). Overall, though, the first week of the 2017 NCAA tourney was marked first and foremost by its lack of surprises, as well as the typical end-of-game thrills we’re so used to.

It wasn’t a bad six days. There were a good share of solid games coming down the stretch, especially in the second round. But competitive games are basically a minimum standard in the tourney. We crave unpredictability, yet this year’s tourney is lacking it.

In 30 years of watching this event, there have been few NCAA tourneys so devoid of upsets to this stage as this year’s has been. (2007 is probably the closest comparison). Five double-digit seeds got out of first round (for comparison, there were 10 last year). One double-digit seed is still left.

Twelve of the top 16 overall seeds are still in, and of those four departed it wasn’t that hard to imagine any of them out already. One (Duke) had to play a road game in the second round; another (Villanova) faced an 8 seed that waited until March to play like the 3 or 4 seed most expected it to be all year; another had been proven very vulnerable in the latter stages of the season (Florida State) and a fourth was vulnerable and probably overachieved all year, period (Louisville).

And don’t be misled by there still being two 7 seeds, an 8 and an 11 left. Of the final 16 teams remaining, the three biggest underdogs by seeding are a team that is making its sixth regional semifinal appearance in 10 years (Xavier), another that was national runners up and coming off its second straight Final Four two years ago (Wisconsin), and a third that played basically two home games to start the tourney (South Carolina). And the fourth (Michigan) comes from merely one of the five richest athletic departments in the country.

It’s been an odd mix, ‘predictable unpredictability’ one supposes it could be called. Even now, there’s almost nothing that would surprise us the rest of the way. Maybe Xavier or South Carolina winning it all would be a shocker considering how both played in February. Otherwise, it’s not hard to imagine any of the teams left cutting down the nets.

If there were stunners, they were ultra battle-tested Villanova going down so early, as well as Duke being eliminated by a South Carolina team that barely looked like an NIT team in its recent games before the NCAA tourney.

As good as Villanova was all year, it was ripe for the pickings if Wisconsin could ever bring its best. There was considerable chirping about the Badgers being underseeded, but it’s hard to have sympathy for a team that 1) was overseeded a year ago and 2) down the stretch this year lost to Ohio State and Iowa (the latter at home) and also struggled to eek by Nebraska and Rutgers. Still, it’s a veteran team with as much experience in March as anyone, and the Badgers displayed all of it in coming back from a late seven-point deficit to sting the Wildcats.

South Carolina beating Duke would be unquestionably the upset of the tourney, except for the little fact that the Gamecocks benefitted tremendously from an advantage they shouldn’t have had, playing their first two games of the tourney on what was virtually a home court. Between home state faithful rooting for them and North Carolina fans rooting against Duke, it is undeniable that the location made this anything but a neutral court game, and it shouldn’t happen. Not for any team (with the possible exception of maybe a top seed), and certainly not for one that was overseeded as a 7 and probably really deserved a 9 or 10 seed.

Whatever one believes of the advantage it received from the location, it is inarguable that South Carolina suddenly generated two smoking-hot second-half performances to win its first two games. The Gamecocks shot 55.6% in the second half of their 93-73 win over Marquette, and then hit an incredible 20 of 28 (71.4%) in scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes against Duke. Frank Martin is one of the real gems among coaches in the sport, an old-school, tough-love type whose teams are fun to watch on defense, and if they keep up such shooting it’s not inconceivable that they could go on a VCU 2011-like roll.

Other than that, for those who enjoy March because of the unpredictability, they didn’t get much. Of course, part of the reason for that is the selection committee’s refusal the last few years to select teams from outside the top 5-6 leagues with late at-large bids. Teams capable of a second weekend run like Valparaiso last year or Illinois State and Texas-Arlington this year have been sent to the NIT, while others that lose two-thirds of the time or more in ample chances against top 50 foes are being selected, and in what should surprise absolutely no one, they are losing early in the NCAAs. As they pretty much always do.

Just in recent years, teams like VCU (2011), Wichita State (2013) and Dayton (2014) proved those outside the Big Football/Big East structure are capable of not just winning a game or two, but making very deep runs in the tourney from some of the last at-large spots. Why the selection committee has forsaken those teams the last three years continues to make zero sense.

There’s not near enough evidence, though, to say a reduction in upsets is anything more than a blip-to this point. It is certainly fair to question the effects of college basketball free agency and ever more players transferring ‘up,’ as well as rule changes including a shorter shot clock that makes it easier for teams with the most athletes to turn them loose and harder for less athletic teams to control tempo, run offense and work for the best shot they can get. And anyone who is a fan of free agency for all or the recent rule changes but also claims to be a fan of the Cinderella aspect of tourney should consider heavily the effects of both on this sport.

Perhaps they are taking a toll, and only will continue to, but we don’t know that for sure yet. At this point, it’s best to just chalk it up to this: sometimes the tourney just has more upsets than others, and this isn’t one of those years.

More concerning than a lack of sugar-high upsets is the shortage of great finishes. There were plenty of close games, but the finishes to several of them were less than satisfying.

Statistically, there hasn’t been a lot of change. Comparing this year’s early rounds with recent tourneys, the first week saw 27 games decided by single digits, three more than last year and one less than two years ago. Fourteen games were decided by five points or less, which is one more than last year at this time and three less than two years ago. Eight games have been decided by three points or less, one more than last year.

It should be noted that these numbers are inflated some by play-in games, all four of which were decided by seven points or less, as they should be but haven’t always been in the past. A deeper look beyond the numbers also reveals, though, that there was not a single buzzer-beater, not one game in overtime, and, to be frank, most of those single-possession games are going to be remembered more for teams’ miscues or poor execution than by excellence, if remembered at all.

Purdue-Iowa State was terrific. Kentucky-Wichita State was, too, as was the Shockers’ game against Dayton. Michigan and Oklahoma State was entertaining the whole way.

Northwestern’s win over Vanderbilt, though, was marked by the bizarre circumstance of a Commodores’ player being confused about the score and fouling while up one point. USC defeated SMU 66-65 after the Mustangs committed a turnover and missed the front end of a one-and-one in the final minute. Rhode Island sputtered late in its 75-72 second-round come-from-ahead loss to Oregon. Even Wisconsin’s win over Villanova seemed to be a contest of who could miss less free throws by the end.

Many of the other close games were instances of a leader being chased much of the game but just coming up short. That’s a credit to the teams that won and to the losing teams not going away. Again, it’s just not the same as two teams going neck-and-neck down the stretch, matching shot for shot or stop for stop, as Kentucky and Wichita State did.

Again, the irony is real, and it’s delicious. We were told the sport just needed more scoring, any way possible. Now the rules all but mandate scoring…and yet the great finishes the NCAA Tournament has been famous for are lacking this year.

Going forward, favorites Villanova and Duke are already out. North Carolina and Kentucky very nearly were. Kansas is talented but thin and could lose any time going forward. Gonzaga will be a prove-it team to some people until it wins a national championship.

Arizona seems to have a path grooving it to at least the Elite Eight…maybe it’s the Wildcats’ year? Perhaps we’re going to get Arizona-UCLA Part IV in the final?

Or perhaps this is one of those years like 2014, where seventh-seeded Connecticut trucked all the way through to a national title.  That might be surprising some years. This one it would not be.
One might think attending the NCAA Tournament would bring out the jaded, cynical side, what with the obvious corporate influence the NCAA has allowed to become a part of March Madness. Or perhaps it would just reinforce that watching the first rounds on TV is really the place to be, as comfortable as it is and the consistent theater it has produced for decades.

Instead, when we worked at the Milwaukee sub-regional games site this past weekend on Thursday and Saturday, it was the opposite. Having watched early rounds for so many years on TV and comparing it to being at the games in person, we’re happy to say it’s still better to be there.

Get by the too-long and too many timeouts and the game experience is enjoyable. The NCAA does a nice job entertaining without being bombastic, letting the games do the talking, giving the games almost an old-school feel. And now that it has gotten past its silly requirement that arenas be stripped of banners, signs or anything that remotely might resemble character, and also has at least added some color to the still-unnecessary official courts it brings in to every site, the entire environment feels homier.

The buzz in the building is what makes this event, though. You feel it as soon as a lower seed starts to make a run, the good amount of neutrals on hand starting to get excited. You also certainly felt it Saturday night when Iowa State roared back from a huge deficit to take the lead late against Purdue, Cyclone fans dominating a good share of the arena even in Big Ten territory. This is exactly what March basketball at a neutral site is supposed to be.

This is a wonderful event, and the NCAA needs to take care of it. In that regard, we feel better about being so strong in our comments about the men’s basketball committee’s selections. Not because we take joy in taking shots at the committee-we don’t. Those on it work hard and put a lot of time into it. But because there is a responsibility to make sure this continues to be the incredible event it has been for so many years, and the balance between big schools and Cinderellas needs to remain right.

One can feel like they’re losing brain cells at an alarming rate by the end of the second round of the tournament, when the inevitable flaming wars begin on social media about which conferences are best/worst based on the first two rounds of the tourney. The thought was fans had become smarter than that by now and understood that 1) the tournament is ALL about matchups and 2) tourney performance in 1-2 games doesn’t prove or disprove anything about how teams/conferences performed in 30-35 previous games. But so it goes.

Of course, the hot takes by Sunday were that the Big Ten and SEC were underrated/disrespected/you name it and that the ACC was overrated. On the contrary, the Big Ten and SEC are still the same conferences they were all year, the former having a slightly down year at the top, the latter not much different than it’s been for a couple years now. The SEC is slowly improving, but you’d have had a hard time selling that two weeks ago as South Carolina backslid late in the season after a nice run in non-conference play.

As far as the ACC goes, maybe it was overrated by the end of the season. Still, the league won more than 80% of its non-conference games, its 7-11 mark out of conference against the RPI top 25 blew away that of a league like the Big Ten (6-23) or SEC (3-21), and it was almost immune to the bad losses that virtually every other league had more than a few of. A number of its teams showed vulnerability as the year went on (see: Florida State) while others underperformed in March (Duke, Miami). It happens, just as inevitably as teams like South Carolina or Wisconsin that sputtered for well over a month can suddenly warm back up too for a couple games.
It’s a long way from the Vegas 16 to the NCAA Tournament. One team-East Tennessee State-made the rise all the way from there to the NCAAs this year. So did Debbie Antonelli, a longtime veteran basketball analyst who teamed with Carter Blackburn and Mike Gminski calling first and second round games for CBS/Turner and was the first woman to call NCAA men’s tourney games since Ann Meyers more than 20 years ago.

While some will instantly associate the move as a publicity stunt or social posturing by CBS (and we wouldn’t disagree for a second that networks sometimes do exactly that), it would not be accurate here. For one, CBS’s NCAA tourney coverage has regularly been professional throughout the years (though we could do without its use of NBA analysts from Turner suddenly sliding over to become ‘experts’ on the college game in March). The network’s use of women to call first round games also dates back to the early 1990s, when Meyers and Mimi Griffin called games, well before there was an internet wearing some out with talk of social issues every day.

Furthermore, Antonelli has been all over, calling women’s and men’s games for nearly 30 years now, and on almost any channel or for any conference you can imagine. Whether it’s the ACC, MVC or a number of other leagues and teams, she’s been a workaholic, even working the Vegas 16 games last year as a sideline reporter for CBS Sports Network while she was also on the tournament’s committee. This is a veteran getting a deserved assignment based on a long career of hard work, and that’s the best way to think of it.

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College Basketball Tonight

We hope you enjoyed COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT during the 2016 NCAA Tournament. COLLEGE BASKETBALL TONIGHT is a comprehensive look at the NCAA Tournament hosted by veteran college basketball broadcaster Ted Sarandis, along with co-hosts Mike Jarvis and Terry O'Connor, both former Division I coaches. It also included many great guests, including Hoopville's own Phil Kasiecki.

The show aired on AM 710 WOR in New York City on Sunday evenings starting with Selection Sunday and running through the NCAA Tournament.

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