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2018 NCAA Tournament Final Review: Villanova, UMBC, Big 12 among big winners

April 4, 2018 Columns 2 Comments

It’s unfortunate but also plenty fair to say that the 2018 NCAA Tournament finished up with a couple games that were relative lemons. That shouldn’t obscure the fact that as a whole, an event that delivers annually did exactly that again this year.

The tourney has a way of salving over college basketball’s wounds, and it did as much yet again, making us all forget for a couple weeks about FBI scandals and the endless debate about rules changes (not that some Ronnie Rainclouds didn’t try their darndest to keep pushing their agendas on the latter). It was an enjoyable tourney-if one that slumped to the finish a little-that will be remembered for, among other things:

  • The University of Maryland-Baltimore County-UMBC-earning the right to be known by initials with the greatest upset in the tourney’s history. The Retrievers were the first 16 seed to knock off a 1 seed, and not just any 1, but THE No. 1 team in the country in Virginia;
  • Loyola Chicago making a storybook run to the Final Four with incredible team play that would’ve made John Wooden proud. For the many who love teams like them, the Ramblers made up for an event that otherwise was a little light on real Cinderellas after the second round;
  • A very likable Final Four overall, with veteran teams and highly respected coaches;
  • The entire left side of the bracket reduced to the rubble, with the regional semifinalists in the South and West regions consisting of a 3 seed, a 4, a 5, two 7s, two 9s and an 11;
  • Some herculean individual performances, from Houston’s Rob Gray and Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado early to Kansas’s Malik Newman on multiple occasions to Michigan’s Moritz Wagner in the Final Four, to a takeover performance by Villanova sixth man Donte DiVincenzo in the final;
  • It also deserves to be remembered for the class of several coaches in defeat. The way UVA coach Tony Bennett handled the loss to UMBC was exemplary, and Michigan coach John Beilein couldn’t have been more gracious to reporters after his team lost in the national title game.

Of course, the tourney will also be best remembered for Villanova. The Wildcats won the national title, but also did so in resounding fashion, winning all six of their games by double-digit margins.

In the end of a 2017-18 college basketball season that included almost unprecedented chaos throughout, turns out we really did have a truly great team in our midst.

There were times in the tourney when Villanova looked vulnerable. The first half against Alabama. Early in the second half against West Virginia. Briefly late against Texas Tech. For about 12 minutes vs. Michigan.

Much in the same manner as their overall season, though, when the Wildcats were whole, they were superb. Injuries played a part in regular season losses to Butler, Creighton, Providence and St. John’s, but in the postseason Villanova did not have a close call.

Nova’s second championship in three years and third overall now puts the school in true elite company as one of just nine to win at least three NCAA titles. It also was the second national championship in three years for the Big East, who scored another blow for non-football conferences.

Comparing numbers historically to previous NCAA Tournaments, this year’s tourney measured up solidly. A total of 14 games were decided by three points or less or in overtime, or “close games” as they are defined in the NCAA tournament records book. That is one less than a year ago, four more than two years ago, and overall ranks tied for 16th most in 36 years since the tourney expanded to 52 teams in 1983, the first year at least 50 games were played. (The record is 24, set in the superb 1990 tournament)

Three games were decided by exactly one point, four games were decided by two points, and four more by three points. Three more games were decided in overtime.

Incidentally, the number in the close games category was oh-so-close to being much higher, for this year’s tourney also included an incredible 11 games decided by four points or less. To put that in some perspective: the most games in a tourney ever decided by exactly one point, two or three, was the 1990 when 10 games were decided by two points. Only three other times were there as many as nine games in one of those three categories (1984 and 1985 both had nine games decided by two points, and 1988 had nine games decided by three points each).

In all, 31 of the tourney’s 67 games were decided by single digits. Of note: just six of the tourney’s final 15 games-from the regional semifinals through the national championship game-were decided by single digits, once again obliterating the assumption that games automatically get better the later the high seeds get into it. In fact, four of those six games decided by single digits included at least one team seeded ninth or worse.

More tournament notes:

Here is our pick for a top 10 list of most memorable games from the 2018 NCAA Tournament:

1) UMBC 74 Virginia 54 South Regional 1st Round. Even if it hadn’t been a 16 seed performing the oft-thought impossible feat of topping No. 1, the sight of the Retrievers carving up the Cavaliers’ defense to the tune of 53 second half points alone would’ve been stunning. Like Princeton’s near-miss against top seed Georgetown in 1989, a game that will be remembered in tourney lore forever.
2) Kansas 85 Duke 81 (OT) Midwest Regional Final. A game with 11 ties, 18 lead changes and neither team ever leading by more than seven points, this was competitively the game of the tourney. For being two bluebloods, it wasn’t the prettiest (neither shot better than 43.5%), but the final seven minutes of regulation were superb.
3) Loyola 69 Nevada 68 South Regional Semifinal. The Ramblers’ offensive display to start the second half-hitting 13 consecutive shots, many of them crafty drives for layups-was beautiful, and Marques Townes hitting a cold-blooded three at the end of the shot clock with just over six seconds left was as good as a buzzer-beater.
4) Gonzaga 68 UNC Greensboro 64 West Regional 1st Round. A terrific tug of war. The Spartans punched the Zags in the mouth early, then fought back from a deficit and even led with less than a minute to play. Zach Norvell hit a huge three-pointer for the winning points, though, and UNCG’s tying three in the final seconds honeycombed in and out.
5) Houston 67 San Diego State 65 West Regional 1st Round. Rob Gray’s 39 points and game-winner deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest individual performances in the tourney since Wally Szczerbiak scored 43 in Miami (Ohio)’s 59-58 first round win over Washington in 1999. It’s the shame of regional coverage and a stacked schedule that night that few in the country saw Gray’s game. Wouldn’t this have been an awesome showcase in a late-night standalone West Regional first round game?
6) Loyola 64 Miami (Fla.) 62 South Regional 1st Round. Donte Ingram’s three-pointer at the buzzer started the Ramblers’ run. In truth, almost any of Loyola’s wins could be on this list.
7) Rhode Island 83 Oklahoma 78 (OT) Midwest Regional 1st Round. The first game of First Round Thursday seems to have a knack for delivering, and this one lived up to that legacy. Trae Young was good, but Fatts Russell was, too, and E.C. Matthews delivered the dagger in overtime.
8) Texas Tech 69 Florida 66 East Regional 2nd Round. Quietly an excellent game with eight ties and 12 lead changes. Tech held a tense lead most of the final 11 minutes, but the Gators’ frantic attempts to tie in the final seconds were befitting of a heated battle all the way through.
9) Kansas 83 Seton Hall 79 Midwest Regional 2nd Round. Angel Delgado nearly willed the Pirates to what would’ve been practically a road win with a superhuman performance (24 points, 23 rebounds). The Jayhawks needed to be really good to win this one-and they were, turning back every SHU push late.
10) Marshall 81 Wichita State 75 East Regional 1st Round. This was a lot of fun, hotly contested and with 14 lead changes, but the Herd out-toughed Team Play Angry in the final minutes and took advantage of an icy shooting performance from long range by the Shockers.

We list the regionals for these games as an attempt at perspective, but honestly, between the unnecessary and confusing pod system and the cookie-cutter courts the NCAA insists on for the tourney, the only souls who will remember the regionals or where games were played are those who were there. That’s a shame, because it robs these games of some potential identifying characteristics. Also: in hindsight its notable how few of the tourney’s best games were after the first two rounds.

The big winners of this year’s tourney were the Big East, Big 12 and Missouri Valley Conference. The no-football Big East furnished the national champion, of course, for the second time in three years. The Big 12 tied the ACC for most collective wins (12), had the most teams remaining in the Elite Eight (3) and tied with the ACC for the most left in the Sweet 16 (4). It also tied for the most wins despite having “only” seven bids instead of the ACC’s nine or SEC’s eight.

More importantly for us, the Big 12 tied with the MVC (powered by Loyola Chicago’s run) for the most wins above what its teams’ seeds suggested they should achieve, finishing with four more wins than seeded for. While most will measure 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. The following presents numbers documenting which leagues outperformed their seeds and which did not. For example: Mountain West teams were seeded 7 and 11 this year, therefore by seeding the MWC should’ve been expected to go 1-2 in its tourney games. Even play-in games are taken into account, based on the NCAA’s seed list before the event. (Example: the NCAA had UCLA seeded higher than St. Bonaventure, therefore the Bruins were predicted by seeding to beat the Bonnies.)

Conference Expected record by seed before tourney Actual tourney record Wins +/- expected
Big 12 8-7 12-7 +4
Missouri Valley 0-1 4-1 +4
Big Ten 8-4 9-4 +1
Mountain West 1-2 2-2 +1
Atlantic 10 1-3 2-3 +1
America East 0-1 1-1 +1
Conference USA 0-1 1-1 +1
MAC 0-1 1-1 +1
SWAC 0-1 1-1 +1
WCC 2-1 2-1 Even
Big South 1-1 1-1 Even
SEC 9-8 8-8 -1
Big East 11-6 9-5 -2
ACC 15-8 12-9 -3
AAC 6-3 2-3 -4
Pac-12 4-3 0-3 -4

Takeaways: The Big 12 was buoyed especially by the long run by Kansas State. Of course, that was certainly helped by UMBC shocking Virginia, opening the way for the Wildcats to the Sweet 16, but a win over Kentucky was still a powerful statement… The MVC was obviously boosted by Loyola’s advancement from an 11 seed to the Final Four, but this is the fifth time in six years that the league has collectively outperformed its seed… Likewise, this is the fourth straight year where Conference USA has outperformed its seed, with four consecutive seasons winning a game as a 12 seed or lower. In both the MVC and C-USA’s cases, the selection committee has to start taking notice of this, no matter how much it (rightly, for the most part) claims that past performance has no bearing on future selection… The Big Ten had just four teams in the tourney, but all four were seeded fifth or higher, and three of the four were 3 seeds or higher. Despite the league’s relative struggles this year, it should’ve been little surprise that its representatives did well… Even with two of its three teams in play-in games, the Pac-12’s tourney was a flop. UCLA and Arizona State were still seeded above the teams they lost to, and ASU in particular was given the undeserved gift as the second-to-last at-large team of getting the last at-large team. Not mentioned as much, though, is just how much the American underachieved as well. Cincinnati was seeded for the Elite Eight, Wichita State the Sweet 16…and both were out of the tourney two rounds earlier than their seed. In almost every way, this year was a real disappointment for the AAC, which thought it had really loaded itself for bear when it added Wichita, but instead is still looking for sustained tourney success of any kind since Connecticut’s national title in 2014… In quite the irony, the Pac-12 was second on this list a year ago with a +3. But two years ago, the league also was an unsightly -8… Fourteen different leagues won first round games, three more than a year ago and just shy of the 15 from two years back.

It’s really funny watching TV analysts and media who barely give women’s basketball the time of day come out of the woodwork after an exciting Women’s Final Four, using it as their pulpit to tell all how bad men’s college basketball apparently is and how its rules need to mirror the women’s. The attention is deserved for the women’s tourney for three excellent games, but let’s also not pretend 1) three games is a large enough sample size to prove the superiority of anything, or that 2) many of those citing superiority have watched many more than three women’s games all season.

There’s not a thing wrong with people having their own preferences for rules, or voicing as much. Nor is there anything wrong with some constructive criticism. We’d prefer their opinions to at least be educated.

(For one thing: having worked courtside at women’s games for a number of years, including since their change to quarters, we’re not sure many understand just how tedious the end of a close game gets when coaches have hoarded timeouts so they can use them to advance the ball past midcourt time and again in the last minute-it’s far worse than timeout management in the men’s game now and every bit as frustrating as replay. And we also don’t know where the idea comes from that a break midway through a half improves ‘flow.’ For our money, ‘flow’-whatever that is to a given person-is improved when players are allowed freedom of movement and defenders stop fouling.)

But the overbearing, repeated beating over the head on rules for years now by a few very loud voices is making it clear that if some really dislike the men’s game so much and prefer women’s college hoops, or the NBA, or D-League, or FIBA, then that’s what they need to cover. Just as if some are so sore that college athletes aren’t paid or that boosters at the top 1% of schools aren’t allowed to legally buy players (which is exactly what name-image-likeness rights would quickly become all about, no matter how much some want to claim otherwise), then they should get out. It’s time for faces of this sport to be people who actually like college basketball, not ones who seem to take glee in tearing it down.

We say this because what should’ve been a very enjoyable lead-up to the Final Four with a number of great stories and admirable characters (Loyola’s run; John Beilein’s remarkable class; Villanova and Kansas having outstanding programs) instead was polluted with all-too-regular media/blogger bellyaching about how college basketball isn’t the NBA, how players are supposedly taken advantage of endlessly, why NIL payment is needed for these athletes, and just about anything else. (Except that FBI scandal, ironically)

Curiously, even in this age with platforms for one’s every thought, you rarely hear the sport’s participants complaining half as much as media. Far as we saw, there wasn’t one Loyola player whining about how they might’ve enjoyed their experience more if only they were paid or had an endorsement deal with Bob Rohrman auto dealerships in Chicago. All one heard from Loyola players-time and again-was what an unbelievable experience this tournament was, and they are beyond grateful for the opportunity.

It seems beyond obvious that participants for the large part haven’t been indoctrinated yet that they’re supposed to be angry about their collegiate experiences. Which also makes clear: complaints about supposed unfairness to players is the fight of the media and a select few ex-players, far more than it is the current players’.

It’s the same way that, as fans were watching the NCAA Tournament, not a soul out there was complaining that the tourney might actually be exciting if only it was played in quarters, or games would be enjoyable if the lane was wider. Other than a lack of recognizable stars (which will always be a problem going forward), casual fans are just fine with college basketball as it is. And of the hard-core fans, a good (and under-represented) number of them overwhelmingly enjoy college hoops just as it is, perhaps a few minor tweaks aside.

The beauty of the rules of college basketball always has been that teams are able to find different ways to win. If they want to play like an NBA team-they can! There’s just not a mandate to do so, which should be seen as a positive.

A team can play fast. It can play slow. It can play man-to-man defense. It can play zone. It can trap. It can play a two-man offensive game with three guys standing around, seeing if they can spot relatives or friends in the stands, or have five players in motion on offense. If it wants to jack up high degree-of-difficulty shots, it can do so any time-it doesn’t have to wait until the end of the shot clock.

The NBA has better, more skilled athletes, but for stylistic variety, college basketball is far superior to the NBA. For a good number of college basketball fans, it’s part of what makes the sport special. For some, they even like it because it’s not the NBA, a game known to some as much for uncalled travels and stand-around isolation plays as it is for star power.

It is notable that variety has been reduced a fair amount with the reduction of the shot clock from 45 seconds to 35 and recently to 30. With the firing of Marty Simmons at Evansville, the true motion offenses have sadly all but vanished, with teams only able to cut and move a little bit before having to get to end-of-shot-clock situations, which can be ugly as often as they excite. (For as many daggers as even Loyola delivered in this tourney, it also should be noted the Ramblers had their share of forces at the end of the clock that barely drew iron, if at all).

Still, college basketball doesn’t have nonsensical score-rigging like defensive three seconds (penalizing players for playing defense??) or advancing the ball past halfcourt just because they took a timeout. And as long as teams like Loyola can make the Final Four or UMBC can pull the long-awaited 16-over-1 upset, apparently the rule changes haven’t hurt schools like them too much yet.

Why some so desperately want to mess with that and agitate a significant (perhaps even majority) portion of the sport’s base? It sure looks to be solely for individual agenda purposes, and not in any way for concern for the betterment of the sport for all stakeholders.

In short, college basketball is fine. The FBI scandal still bears watching (and if it brings some down and cleans up the sport, then all the better), and there are way too many transfers increasingly going beyond the normal of just wanting more playing time or being unhappy with their environment. (When young adults are increasingly messing with happy at their current schools, it should ring alarm bells) That’s an issue that needs to get worked through at all levels of the sport, between AAU, high schools, colleges and the pros, because it starts well before college with all the AAU and high school team jumping.

The on-court product, though, is fine. It certainly doesn’t need still more drastic changes. Most supposed problems in game play are more myth than fact (other than West Virginia games, we’re not sure where the idea comes from that teams spent the last eight minutes of halves at the foul line, and we still don’t know how having five TV timeouts in a half improved ‘flow’ in the NIT).

College basketball has a great, great thing with the NCAA Tournament, and the overall product is pretty good, too. Debate is fine, but it does no good for this sport for people to continuously wish it be what it’s not.

Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Paul Borden says:

    Nice commentary. The only rule change I would like to see is perhaps moving the 3-point line back, but it stays, no big deal.

    What I didn’t understand in the NIT going to quarter is why they let the clock run at the end of the quarter except I guess for the fourth. Makes no sense.

    • Adam Glatczak says:

      Agreed. I’d be fine with moving the line back. Clearly the 3 has become too easy for some teams when they use it for 60% of their shots. Seems to me if a team is going to get an extra point for a shot, there should be more risk to it than there is now.

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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.

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