There are several intriguing things about the NCAA tournament. We’ve got a possible Duke-Villanova pairing in the East Regional Final in Madison Square Garden. We’ve got the pairing of resident SEC Eggheads Vanderbilt with resident Big 10 resident Eggheads Northwestern, famously participating in their very first NCAA tournament.
There is Wichita State steaming at their strangely under seeded 10th spot, and then more than likely playing Kentucky in the second round. This would be a rematch of the great game three years ago, when the Shockers entered the tournament undefeated, and the Wildcats won by 2.
But the one topping it all for me is the convergence of three NCAA blue bloods in the South. How cool it that UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina, with a combined 24 championships and 48 Final Four appearances, are all there? Let’s take it farther. Will we see a rematch of the 1964 Finals (UCLA-Duke)? Will we see a rematch of the 1975 Finals (UCLA-Kentucky)? Will we see a rematch of the 1978 Finals (Kentucky-Duke)? Or even the 1966 semifinals (Kentucky-Duke)? I’m sure none of them are happy about the situation, but we, the fans, will be the winners no matter what happens.
Of course, it’s always Whining Season when the tournament teams are announced. Not for the first time, the most vocal coach has been Jim Boheim, who is staunchly defending the honor of his 18-14 team that defeated the likes of Duke, Virginia and Miami, and which lost to the likes of UConn, Georgetown and Pitt, not to mention my sad alma mater, Boston College (by 15! But, yes, they won the rematch by 23). As usual, Coach Boheim avoided the true heavy lifting prior to conference play. The Cuse’s best non-conference win was probably a 71-50 conquest of Monmouth. Seriously.
Had Syracuse gotten in, their RPI rating of 84 would have been the highest (or lowest) one ever. Boheim made a legitimate point that only a year ago his team was a controversial tournament inclusion and then played its way to the Final Four. He said they could win some games in the tournament and no doubt he’s correct. But this is always an interesting question for the committee. Do they lean on overall body of work to the exclusion of a reality that the Syracuse zone is bothersome to people who have never seen it and thus Syracuse is always a threat to win a game or two, or in last year’s case, four. Bohemia claims there is another inconsistency on the art of the committee, saying that last year they appeared to value wins and this year they are penalizing losses. And he naturally cites playing in the ACC as sort of a tiebreaker.
So, do you sympathize with him?
I don’t. Not this year. Have I mentioned they were 2-11 away from the Carrier Dome?
The other much-discussed exclusion was Illinois State from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Redbirds finished at 27-6 and had a 17-1 regular season in what was generally acknowledged to be the best mid-major league in the country. But I think their cause would have been stronger had their last two losses, each to Wichita State, not been by (gulp) 41 and 20. This allowed the committee to reason that there was significant separation between themselves and league champ Wichita State. And the fact that the 30-4 Shockers could only bag a 10 seed tells you what the committee thought about the best mid-major conference in relation to the Power 5.
Illinois State coach Dan Muller went very public, explaining that he has sure tried to upgrade his non-conference schedule, but, as has been the overall mid-major case for decades, his mid-major has had difficulty finding a Big Boy who will give him a home-and-home series, or even a 2-for-1. He took to Twitter, advertising his request, and he did secure a Power 5 deal with Mississippi. The Rebs are hardly a basketball power broker, but it’s a start.
Back to the Bluebloods. Look how many of the usual suspects we have in true contention this year. We’ve got UCLA, Kentucky, Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Louisville all with a legit shot. We’ve got two-time, and defending, champion Villanova, who, incidentally, were among the last four teams in the inaugural tournament 78 years ago, long before anyone coined the phrase “Final Four.” But it goes to show the basketball heritage on the Main Line. I was forced into a pick by my friend Tony Kornheiser on his Podcast, and I gave him Duke. They are hot and they are finally more whole than they’ve been all year. We are seeing why Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles were such touted prospects. But I told him, and I wasn’t making it up, that no matter who is cutting down the nets the night of April 3, if we were to replay the tournament 6 or 7 times, we’d have 6 or 7 different champions. I really believe it’s that kind of year.
The disturbing reality of the women’s game is that there just isn’t enough interest in the sport among the nations’s generic basketball fans to allow a proper geographically balanced tournament to be played. Box office is very important, and thus mighty UConn has a chance to extend its 107-game winning streak and get to the Final Four in Dallas without leaving the friendly confines of the Nutmeg State. They Huskies begin play at home — yes, at home in Storrs — and then advance to the regional in Bridgeport, about an hour or so away (maybe). Gene Auriemma is trying to pretend this may actually be a problem. “I worry sometimes about being at home,” he claims. “I worry about the distractions that kids have. When you are on the road you can just cuddle everybody up and you can eliminate a lot of distractions. Sometimes the officials get funny against the home team in the NCAA tournament.”
Good try, Geno. You know and I know that your team could play first round foe Albany 4-on-5, get no calls, and still win the game.
It’s always fun to think which 5 seed or lower has an honest chance to reach the Final Four. I’m going with Iowa State. They’ve already beaten Kansas, you know.
Shameless Plug Dept. I have a new Podcast: “Bob Ryan’s Boston Podcast.” But I can talk about anything. Also known as the “Bobcast.” It’s being dropped, as they say, each Friday at 12 noon, Eastern, and it’s available on all the normal outlets such as iTunes, GooglePlay and Stitcher. Do check it out. This week I chat with all-time legend Bob Cousy, someone with whom I go back a long way. I think you’ll like it.