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NCAA Tournament second weekend notes: Newcomers give us an attractive Final Four

March 27, 2017 Columns No Comments

For an event that started with a relative thud by its lofty standards, the 79th NCAA Tournament sure has made up some ground as it hits the homestretch.

Sputtering out of the gate with a largely uneventful first round, this year’s tourney has picked up steam since in the categories of close games, upsets and storylines. It will culminate this coming weekend with one of the more fascinating Final Four quartets in some time, and certainly its most unlikely since the 2011 event included Butler, Connecticut, Kentucky and VCU.

Gonzaga and South Carolina will both make their first-ever national semifinals appearances, and it just so happens they will face each other in the Final Four, meaning one of the two will appear in the national championship game. Oregon, meanwhile, is a comparable regular, making its second semifinal trip-but first since 1939, when the Ducks and their Tall Firs won the first-ever NCAA championship.

Those three comprise the most inexperienced trio in the Final Four since the famed 1979 tourney, when Indiana State and Pennsylvania were making their first trips, DePaul was on its second and Michigan State and Magic Johnson eventually defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the title game. Of course, the fourth participant this year is no stranger to the national semis whatsoever, as North Carolina will make its record 20th trip this far in the tournament.

The four teams left offer something for everyone. Gonzaga, of course, is the underdog-made-good, once a little-known, solid-to-middle West Coast Conference program that had one NCAA Tournament appearance in its history before a stunning Elite Eight run in 1999 that was followed by it quickly and improbably becoming a regular national power.

South Carolina is the one-time Atlantic Coast Conference power that in the early 1970s chose independence over the ACC (imagine that now) and before this year hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973. Such was the Gamecocks’ lack of success in the NCAAs that they were knocked out in the first round in back-to-back years in 1997 and 1998-as a 2 seed one year and a 3 seed the next.

Oregon is the ultimate modern-day mix of underdog and heavyweight. The Ducks won that first NCAA tourney, but went 34 years between appearances at one point and 42 years without a win until an Elite Eight run in 2002. Of course, the heavy investment in the school’s athletic program by alumnus and Nike poohbah Phil Knight has helped build a national athletic behemoth now, but wise coaching hires have had quite a bit to do with it, too.

North Carolina, of course, is the heavyweight, the school of Dean Smith and Michael Jordan. The school that once had 37 winning seasons in a row and made 13 consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. It’s also the school with an NCAA investigation into an academic fraud scandal still going on after so many years. In every way, the Tar Heels are the bully, the black hat in this year’s Final Four. But they’re also the most talented team left, when one considers talent as defined by not just athleticism and skill but also depth and experience.

The four teams remaining cover a spectrum of the sport. Four different conferences are represented, in the ACC, Pac-12, SEC and WCC. The ACC is regularly among the best leagues; the Pac-12 was arguably the best last year. The SEC has been struggling for years to keep up with powerful Kentucky, while the WCC is a league of private schools that has regularly been deemed as insufficient in preparing Gonzaga for the postseason and will furnish its first team going this deep since San Francisco made three straight trips from 1955-57.

The variety in them goes further. Obviously there are the seeds-two 1 seeds, a 3 and a 7-but there also were their paths in the NCAA Tournament. All four teams still standing had serious scares at some point in their run. Gonzaga trailed by three points late before rallying for a three-point win over West Virginia. Arkansas had North Carolina on the ropes in the second round. Oregon trailed Rhode Island by 10 in the second half and by three with less than two minutes left. South Carolina, meanwhile, trailed at the half in three of its four East Regional games.

Their paths throughout the season have been winding, too. Gonzaga went undefeated into late February, and can anyone imagine the hysteria around the Zags right now if they were still without that blemish against BYU? Oregon lost star forward Chris Boucher just before the tournament. North Carolina looked dominant at many times, but also lost to a Georgia Tech team that barely made the NIT and an Indiana that exited that tourney quickly.

South Carolina’s journey is perhaps the most fascinating. The Gamecocks looked like a legitimate top 20 team in early December, with wins over Michigan, Monmouth and Syracuse, plus an easy roll past what turned out to be an excellent Vermont team. Then came some losses that weren’t bad at the time, looked questionable in retrospect, but most concerning was the team’s regular season finish, losing six of its final nine before the NCAA Tournament, including twice to Alabama. Even if the SEC really was better than we all though, that was a discouraging trend that didn’t give one much hope for its staying power in March.

Momentum-or lack of it-can be measured in any number of ways, and while it does deserve to be considered some in the selections for the tournament, maybe the moral of this year has been this: you can’t put a price tag on the rejuvenating effects of a team reaching the NCAA tourney. South Carolina has simply become a better team in March, with some sizzling shooting performances, its usual excellent defense and a player in Sindarius Thornwell who just might’ve been missed in not receiving more All-America recognition this year.

The Gamecocks also benefited from a friendly location for its first two games of the tourney, but their wins in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden had zilch to do with location, everything to do with a team playing its best right now. Which is exactly what every team aspires to do. One has to give credit to coach Frank Martin for that, and it’s not a bad thing that the USC coach has become one of the breakout stars of the tournament.

Coach worship in this sport often gets unbearable, but in the case of this week, a fair amount of the discussion of the coaches will be deserved. Three of the four head coaches are leading teams to the Final Four for the first time, and all three of them are north of age 50 and have toiled in the profession for at least 25 years.

As coaches, teams and programs, the three schools here for the first time are providing new blood, and they’re doing so after putting in a whole lot of work to get there. There’s a whole lot to like about them, and add in a North Carolina team that will play the heavy and just might be the best team of them all, and it’s a terrific Final Four for those who enjoy the variety that college basketball always provides.

Increasingly more stat-minded people think the only shots in a basketball game that should be taken are drives to the basket or three-pointers (a decidedly boring game to watch, from our perspective). And while we understand the percentages, there will always be something to be said about balance, and the danger of leaning too much on the three-pointer was shown multiple times in the regionals. Kansas was an awful 5 of 25 from deep in its Midwest Regional final loss to Oregon. Butler was an efficient 16 of 34 (47.1%) from long range in its first two NCAA Tournament games, but made just 8 of 28 in losing to North Carolina in the South semis. And no team illustrated the dangers of relying on long shots more than Florida, which was 7 of 12 in the first half of the East final against South Carolina, but then went 0 for 14 in the second half. No doubt there are plenty of teams that made considerable hay from outside, but the point being here that it’s best-still-to have a backup plan when those shots aren’t falling.

Xavier became the seventh 11 seed to advance to a regional final since the NCAA went to seeding in 1979. CBS posted a graphic during Saturday’s Gonzaga/Xavier West Regional final game, and we had to take notice. The Musketeers’ appearance in a regional final was the eighth ever by a team seeded 11th or lower. The list of previous teams to get there: LSU (1986), Loyola Marymount (1990), Temple (2001), Missouri (2002), George Mason (2006), VCU (2011), Dayton (2014), Xavier (2017). If that doesn’t make the case that teams from outside the Big Football conferences deserve heavier consideration and the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the final at-large bids to the tourney, what does?

Wisconsin’s senior class of Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter will always have a special place in the history of that program. The four were part of both of the Badgers’ back-to-back Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015 (Showalter was a redshirt in 2014) and in all played on four consecutive teams reaching at least the Sweet 16. You can’t say the team didn’t live a lot in that time, too. In addition to the many wins, all four of Wisconsin’s NCAA Tournament exits were of the rather heartbreaking variety, from the one-point loss to Kentucky in the Final Four in 2014 to a solid second-half lead evaporating in the title game loss to Duke the following year, to last year falling apart late against Notre Dame after leading virtually the entire game, and now this year being eliminated by Chris Chiozza’s incredible buzzer-beater for Florida.

By the way, we felt it during the season, and the NCAA Tournament sure seemed to reinforce it: Chiozza was one of the most all-around valuable reserve players in the country this year, and was highly underrated. What a tournament he had, and one that won’t be forgotten.

We noted the close shaves that all four of the teams remaining went through while getting to the ultimate big stage, and just a reminder: Arizona, Kentucky, Michigan, West Virginia and Wisconsin are just a few of the teams who could be playing this weekend if the bounce of the ball had gone just a little bit differently. All lost by a single possession in the regional semifinals or finals.

We’ve seen a whole lot of discussion of and umbrage taken in regards to tournament officiating this year, more than we can remember. And not just partisans distressed about a call that didn’t help their team-that we expect. Even respected members of the media in print and on television, though, seem they can’t get enough of this topic.

Maybe that’s a sign of spending too much time reading social media (if so, shame on us). We can assure we’re not living under a rock-we do know officiating will always be a hot topic as long as there are sports and especially as long as there is social media-but it still has been curious.

The funny part here is, honestly, from this end we’ve noticed the officiating less in this tourney than most in the past 30 years. The number of blatantly bad calls affecting games down the stretch has been minimal (perhaps because so few games have gone down to the final seconds). That’s not to say it’s been perfect by any means-there have been misses. But there are misses in every game, no matter the teams, level or time of season.

In fairness to officials, in many cases they’re only doing what they’ve been ordered to do. We’ve been told time and again that people want more offense and less defense in college basketball. For offensive players to have room to maneuver, though, it requires officials calling fouls. We saw for many years just how many liberties coaches will teach their defenders to take when officials aren’t calling handchecks and armbars. And while fans may not notice those things making a difference in the flow of action, they do notice when the scores are low and shooting percentages are bad.

If people don’t like fouls being called, though, then they need to speak up when the NCAA basketball rules committee continues its never-ending tweaks, inspired by TV personalities constantly whining that the sport doesn’t resemble the NBA enough. From our view, we don’t have problems with officials calling fouls, which we believe has been almost solely responsible for the large upticks in scoring. We do have issues with other recent rule changes such as shortening the shot clock that have all but mandated styles of play (see: endless ball screens and isolations) and eliminating the five-second closely guarded rule, which has given teams less incentive to play perimeter defense. But if one likes offense, then they must be amenable to the fact that there will always be a few more fouls called in this sport than we were used to for a number of years.

We always enjoy making historical comparisons of the most recent NCAA Tournament with past ones. And when comparing this year’s tourney by the numbers with its recent predecessors, this year so far is doing…about average.

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 13 such games so far, three more than last year’s entire event and four more than the nine from a year ago going into the Final Four.

Despite the dearth of games going down to the wire (Florida/Wisconsin, North Carolina/Kentucky and a couple others notwithstanding), this year’s event has had five games decided by one point, four decided by two points and four more decided by three points. The five one-point games is two shy of the record seven set in 1982 and tied in 1995, 1997 and 2014. The 13 total games by three points or less is already two more than last year and ranks tied for 18th over the last 37 years, since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 48 teams in 1981.

A total of 32 games have been decided by single digits, a number that is up from last year at this time when just 27 games had been decided by nine points or less. Nineteen games so far have been decided by five points or less. The average margin of victory for the tourney is 11.22, well below last year’s average of 13.07 that was the 10th-highest in the history of the event.

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