The March Madness Narrative: About More than the Champion

The NCAA Tournament is known as March Madness for its fast-paced, unforgiving mad rush to the cutting of the nets over an abbreviated three weekend period. There is so much more to the story than just the one team rushing the court and lifting the trophy. Each weekend hits teams like a hurricane. Within moments of their celebrations ending coaches must have players turn on a dime for the next game less than 48 hours away.

At the end of the tournament, we are left with one winner. This year, that is the North Carolina Tar Heels. However, that is nowhere near the full story. The tournament produces things that can supersede even the Final Four or the champion of the season.  This type of environment forges stronger memories that last. It produces magical runs, heart-pounding and tense action as well as singular moments that capture our hearts. What is made in March lasts forever.

Bryce Drew hit one of the more memorable shots in tournament history. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Throughout the years, many things have surpassed the champions in our memories, but certain moments continue to captivate us. Many people could not name the 1998 Final Four of Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah and Stanford but the vast majority of basketball fans know the phrase “Drew, for the win!” and the Ole Miss loss to Valparaiso that accompanies it. This is now a moment etched in stone. It speaks to the fact that the chaos of March Madness can create a generational memory that lasts far beyond winning a game or the championship.

There are countless examples of this. For small schools, moments such as these can define a program.  They can be the thing that coaches point to when attempting to recruit against bigger schools. Need a better example of this? Look no further than the legendary Davidson run to the Elite 8 with now NBA All-Star, Steph Curry. Big moments for small schools are part of what defines March.

Even Blue Blood programs, however, can also see their drama elevate fan folklore to a higher level. Take what is arguably the most iconic moment in NCAA history: Christian Laettner hits his shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 championship game…the championship game for the region that is. Duke and Kentucky each have amazing programs in their own respects but every time these two share the court together, this is brought up by fans and broadcasters alike. Laettner had a less than stellar career in the NBA and was a forgotten part of the 1992 NBA Olympic “Dream Team” but he is forever immortalized for one shot in a game that was only to make the Final Four. Making the Final Four is certainly something to be remembered, but that game is referenced far more than the Blue Devils championship victory over the Michigan Wolverine’s “Fab Five.”

It is not just moments that capture our hearts, but runs as well. The 1983 run by Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack is a true story that moves far beyond the 40 minutes on the game clock. That year’s title run was capped by one of the more inconceivable upsets of the Houston “Phi Slamma Jamma” team that featured future hall of famers Hakeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler. This Memory of March moved beyond 1983 into the life of the late Valvano and seemed to mirror his outlook on the impossible battle for his life.

March Madness is just prone to stories such as this. With the tense nature of the one and out tournament, drama is sure to elevate the intensity. Yet, time and time again teams put together seemingly impossible roads to the Final Four. Shaka Smart and VCU became the first team to go from the NCAA’s First Four play in game to the Final Four. Though they were unable to bring home the title, this is remembered just as fondly. George Mason’s historic run to the Final Four in 2006 made a career path for Jim Larrañaga much easier to achieve.

Chris Chiozza (11) lets a prayer fly. (Photo courtesy of fansided.com)

This year’s tournament is no exception in either case. Several moments have grabbed our attention. Thus far there are two points in time that stand out the most. The first is The Wisconsin-Florida ending. The game came down to the final second of regulation and eventually led to overtime.  With Wisconsin leading by two points, Florida had one final chance. Enter Chris Chiozza. Going the length of the floor, Chiozza let a leaning, running, impossible shot fly. Buckets. This gives Florida fans that, “Hey, remember when…?” for years to come.

Luke Maye’s shot to beat Kentucky is an example of just how the tournament can become something wholly other than itself. Maye originally was to be a walk on at North Carolina. With some roster shifting, Roy Williams found one for him and he has torn it up in the NCAA tournament. This season he averages 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. In these past four NCAA Tournament games he sits at 12.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest. This includes arguably the most important shot in the tournament thus far.

The Kentucky and North Carolina game was marred by officiating woes but did not lack in end of game drama. The Wildcats surged back from a nearly double digit deficit with two minutes to go. Freshman Malik Monk’s three tied the game with under 8 seconds to go. Roy Williams commented that the team knows to push the ball with this amount of time left.  It worked. Forward Theo Pinson took the ball 80 feet and used his body to create separation for Maye who drained a mid range jumper with Minimal time left.  He showed up to an early class the next morning and received a standing ovation.

In addition to these brief stops in time, there have been more lengthy runs in this tournament that were less than expected. The South Carolina Gamecocks reached the Sweet 16 this year for the first time in school history,  Then they made the Elite Eight. No reason to stop there, so they made the Final Four. This is a team that was off the radar for so many. South Carolina was picked in 0.6% of brackets to reach the last weekend.

Michigan made do with their practice jerseys. (Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com)

There is one more storied run in this tournament that will go down in the history books. The Michigan Wolverines are the epitome of what March Madness is supposed to be. They got hot coming in to the tournament. Considering the fact that they almost did not make their conference tournament, they are a surprise. The Wolverines plane from campus to the Big 10 tournament skidded off the runway and caused some minor injuries. Due to the nature of the investigation, John Beilein’s squad were forced to play in practice jerseys. Their regular equipment remained on the scene of the incident. They did  not just play well, they won the whole thing. They rode that momentum all the way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Their last win was over a Louisville team that many experts believed talented enough to make the Final Four.

Now, the Wolverines went on to lose in fantastic fashion to the eventual champion of the region, the Oregon Ducks. Even though they were just inches away from continuing the magic, there is still plenty to rejoice in here. You see, faced with a less than ideal situation the team found a way to put a string of wins together and make something out of it. This is nothing short of the stories that March creates each and every year. This year it happened to be Michigan.

For some schools, just making the tournament is the ultimate goal. So when a school like Lehigh takes down Duke there is more magic present than the powerhouse making it all the way. March is beautiful because of things within it, not just because of the last team left standing’s victory. College sports entail a high level of passion whether it is a family tradition or an alma mater. That is why reaching a little higher than expectations or completing that wonderful play at the end of the game often gets remembered longer.

On title night, there is a reason that it does not end with the presentation of the trophy. There is still one last piece of business to attend to. When “One Shining Moment” plays it is different every year.  New images are now engraved in our minds of that year’s tournament. March is the time when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.  Every moment has the potential to become something eternal, and that is what this month is all about.

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National Championship

North Carolina vs. Gonzaga: The Game That We Wanted and Needed to See

This year’s national championship may not feature Kansas, Duke or Kentucky. It may not have the potential top pick in the NBA draft and it may not be the championship that sports fans wanted to see. However, it’s the championship that we needed to see.

National Championship

UNC looks to avenge their lose in last years National Championship game afer a last second shot by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins (Photo/Greg Nelson).

It’s the championship that we as kids all dream of playing in. We may not be participating in it, but we get to witness it. Two teams with everything to prove, chasing their dreams of being a national champion.

Granted, both teams are in two very different scenarios. On one side you have UNC coming off of potentially the most devastating loss in national championship history last year. On the other hand you have a Gonzaga team looking to make school history and solidify themselves in college basketball history.

UNC is largely the same team that understandably went sobbing into the locker room after last year’s national championship. After Kris Jenkins of Villanova hit what many to believe to be the most iconic shot in NCAA championship game history, UNC was left devastated. We saw Villanova cutting down the nets, not UNC.

They’re not the only one’s who believe they have something to prove.

Gonzaga’s basketball program has been criticized for not playing in a tough conference. Those on the east coast, who don’t get to see them play on a normal basis, believe the program could be bad for basketball. Now after years and years of Gonzaga disappointment in the NCAA tournament, they are finally here.

A league dominated by the Duke’s and Kentucky’s one-and-done players, UNC and Gonzaga tend to do it a little bit differently.

UNC has six returning key players, all upperclassmen, and all apart of last year’s team. Instead of dwelling on the past, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson continue to look forward.

When asked about last year’s national championship, Pinson said, “It keeps giving us ammo, it makes us want to get here again and again.”

National Championship

Gonzaga players celebrate after their Final Four victory over South Carolina Saturday (Photo/ David J. Phillip).

Gonzaga, on the other hand, has their own motivation factor. Despite the motivation of making school history, the Bulldogs look to their own past for a little motivation.

Gonzaga has players from all over the globe, including Przemek Karnowski from Poland, freshman Rui Hachimura from Japan and Killian Tillie, who is a freshman from France. In order to stay in contact, what else would a bunch of young men in this day in age do? Start a group chat.

Some of it’s inside jokes most people wouldn’t understand. Other times it’s just to stay in touch. It is also for motivation. For instance, junior guard and the leader of this Bulldog team, Nigel Williams-Goss, posted the infamous video of sobbing Adam Morrison after Gonzaga’s loss to UCLA in the Sweet 16 in 2006 and simply wrote “Not this year fellas.”

The tiny Jesuit school versus an all powerful college basketball franchise, it sounds like a David and Goliath scenario. But it’s not.

These are the two best teams in college basketball, and we get it for the last game of college basketball this year. North Carolina is 40 minutes away from redemption. Gonzaga is 40 minutes away from program history. We can’t ask for anything better than that.

 

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Final Four

A Preview to the Final Four

The Final Four, one of the most celebrated and loved sports events of the year, is finally here. It’s safe to say this year is going to be just as good, if not better, than previous years. It might also be safe to say that not many people actually believed that these four teams would be here.

Out of the 18,797,085 brackets that were filled out for the ESPN bracket challenge, only 657 had Oregon, UNC, Gonzaga and South Carolina in the Final Four. That’s just 0.00003 percent.

South Carolina and Gonzaga are making their first Final Four appearances in program history. Oregon is also making their first since 1939.

Needless to say, UNC has the upper hand in terms of participation and experience. Roy Williams has coached a total of 520 minutes in the Final Four while Mark Few (Gonzaga), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and Dana Altman (Oregon) all have zero minutes.

Let’s take a closer look at the upcoming Final Four matchups for this weekend.

UNC vs. Oregon

UNC is clearly favored by many to win this game and the championship because of their experience.

Final Four

North Carolina forward Luke Maye celebrates his game winning shot against Kentucky this past Sunday (Photo/ Brandon Dill).

The Tar Heels are led by coach Roy Williams and ACC player of the year Justin Jackson. They will look to capitalize after their last-second victory over second-seeded Kentucky in the previous round.

The Ducks are led by senior Pac-12 player of the year Dillon Brooks and coach Dana Altman. They will look to keep their hot streak going after a dominant win against first seeded Kansas.

These two teams are very similar on paper. Each rank in the top 20 in offense and defense. UNC has one of the best transition offenses in the NCAA and the Ducks have one of the best transition defenses.

The one thing that may define this game is on the glass. UNC is the best offensive rebounding team in the NCAA. That doesn’t bode well for Oregon, who is one of the worst rebounding teams in the NCAA.

UNC may be the favorite here, but don’t be surprised if the Ducks make something magical happen. It could go either way.

Gonzaga vs. South Carolina

Well this is a first for both teams. It is a tale of two completely different stories: the underdog vs. the favorite.

Final Four

South Carolina players celebrate their victory over Florida this past weekend to advance to the Final Four (Photo/ Maddie Meyer).

Gonzaga was a heavy favorite coming into the tournament as they are most years. They are led by head coach Mark Few, who became the third fastest coach to reach 500 wins in Division I history early in the tournament.

This game is going to be interesting because the Gamecocks and the Bulldogs preach defense. The Gamecocks defense ranks second in defensive efficiency in the country, and Gonzaga is first.

What many believe to be the deciding factor in this matchup is the offensive efficiency. Gonzaga is top 20 in the country while South Carolina ranks in the bottom portion of the country.

Gonzaga may have the best chance to win on paper. However, if we’ve learned anything from the history of March Madness, it’s that anything can happen.

 

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Tournament Madness for UNC: Luke Maye's Game-Winner

A Closer Look at Luke Maye: North Carolina’s Hero

One name: Luke Maye.

This isn’t the first name that comes to mind when talking about North Carolina basketball. However, it has been for the past 48 hours. Maye made the game-winning shot to send UNC to the Final Four, while simultaneously ending Kentucky’s season.

If you missed the last shot, you can watch it here. It’s well worth watching.

A quick recap: Kentucky comes down the court and Malik Monk hits a 3-pointer in Maye’s face to tie the game. Then Theo Pinson gets the ball up the court for UNC and pitches it to Maye for the last-second jumper. Rarely do you see two miraculous plays back-to-back like that, but it happened on Sunday.

There is normally discussion about Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks or Justin Jackson when talking about UNC. The avid watcher might recognize Kenny Williams or Theo Pinson as well, but not Luke Maye.

Maye madness

Luke Maye isn’t your standout player. The sophomore averaged four rebounds and 1.2 assists in 14.4 minutes per game this season. He averaged 5.6 minutes per game as a freshman.

He might be average at the Division I level. However, he joined Christian Laettner and Scottie Reynolds on Sunday as the only players since 1985 to hit a game-winning shot to get into the Final Four. The kid even got a standing ovation at his 8 a.m. class on Monday.

Tournament Madness for UNC: Luke Maye's Game-Winner

Luke Maye shoots the game-winner for the Tar Heels on Sunday (Photo Courtesy of The Comeback)

His best game prior to the tournament was against NC State on Feb 15 when he scored 13 points and made 6 of his 11 shots from the floor. In other words, he hasn’t been consistently “killing it” for the Tar Heels.

However, he has picked the right games to show up for. Maye had a season high of 16 points against Butler and a new season high of 17 against Kentucky.

He might seem like the most unexpected player to win it for the Tar Heels, but Coach Roy Williams had him in for a reason. He shoots 41 percent from 3-point land (the highest on the team). He has only attempted 39 on the season, but he has made those count. He also shoots the fourth highest field goal percentage on the team.

It’s no accident he was on the court. It also isn’t a miracle he made the shot. Nonetheless, he is still a hero.

the tar heels are right where they need to be

As a team, this moment is everything that North Carolina has been working for. Marcus Paige hit a 3-pointer to tie the championship game last year, only for Kris Jenkins to come down and hit a buzzer beater to win it all for Villanova.

The Tar Heels are simply good at what they do. The are ranked first in rebounds per game (they pull down 43.7 per game). They also average 85 points per game (ninth overall) and dish out 18.2 assists per game (ranked third in Division I).

Roy Williams is confident in his team because they have the experience and the talent. This is their 20th Final Four, and they have all the reason to fight.

Isaiah Hicks was asked about their loss to Villanova last season, and he said: “We [were] four seconds away from that. Just to see your dream taken away right in front of you, that’s all the motivation you need. Of course nobody likes to lose, but that one, when you’re right there, all of us, we just need that second chance.”

Hicks and the rest of his teammates want that second chance. At this point, it is in their hands. Only Oregon stands in their way. The guys are playing some quality basketball and unexpected players like Luke Maye are peaking at the right time.

Catch all the action on April 1, 2017 at 8:49 PM ET on CBS.

 

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Oregon

The Oregon Ducks Reach Their First Final Four Since 1939

Quack quack, the Oregon Ducks are going to Glendale, Arizona to play in the Final Four.

If this feels a little bit weird, it’s because it is. It’s not weird in the fact that Oregon is this far along in the tournament.  They’re definitely a good enough team to be here. People may find it weird because the last time the Ducks made the Final Four was before World War II.

Oregon

Oregon seniors Dillon Brooks and Dylan Ennis celebrate their victory over Kansas Saturday night. (Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The last time Oregon was in the Final Four was in the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1939. You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that 1939 was a long time ago.

The University of Oregon, which has predominately been a football school, seems to have switched into a basketball-dominate school. The football program still continues to be the main breadwinner of Oregon athletics with their flashy uniforms and electrifying athletes.  However, the basketball program has been high above the football program these past couple years in terms of success.

How did this happen? How did Oregon basketball, a rather quiet program up until the 2000s, become such a powerhouse?

It all starts with the coach Dana Altman, who has a program record of 187-69. The Ducks have made five straight NCAA tournament appearances in the last seven years since Altman became head coach. That includes an Elite Eight last year and a Final Four this year. The Ducks have also won two straight regular season Pac-12 titles.

Oregon

Since Altman took over in 2010 Oregon has made the tournament five out of seven years, including five straigh apperances. (Photo/USA Today)

Ernie Kent was Oregon’s coach before Altman. The Ducks only made the NCAA tournament five times in Kent’s thirteen years with only one regular season conference championship. The Ducks have become supreme under Altman in the ranks of college basketball.

Gonzaga is also making program history with their first Final Four apperance.  So what makes Oregon’s run different? Oregon wasn’t picked by many to be here despite their three seed.

Gonzaga was expected to be here as they are almost every year now. Oregon’s road to Arizona was seen as more difficult than most.

The trouble started before the tournament for the Ducks.  It was announced before the tournament that senior forward Chris Boucher would be out the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. What was seen as a huge blow to Oregon’s championship chances turned out to be just a bump in their road to the Final Four.

Oregon cruised past their first round opponent Iona 93-77 under the leadership of senior and Pac-12 player of the year Dillon Brooks. The clutch play from junior Jordan Bell and sophomore Tyler Dorsey helped the Ducks squeak by their next opponents. Oregon won their next games against Rhode Island and Michigan by a combined four points. Next in the Elite Eight was the gauntlet: Kansas.

The Ducks handled Kansas 74-60, who many thought to be the tournament favorite rather dominantly Saturday night.

Now the Ducks are in the Final Four, which is an incredible accomplishment for any basketball program. With a rather unusual Final four, the Ducks look to win their first championship since the inaugural tournament in 1939.

 

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How to Win A National Championship: Gonzaga Edition

There is no question that the Gonzaga basketball program has been outright dominate in the past ten years. They have appeared in 18 consecutive NCAA tournaments and 19 total dating back to 1995. In those 18 tournaments, they have been a top-five seed six times and a one seed once. This year they will most likely be a number one seed again.

They have made the NCAA championship round of 32 15 times, the sweet 16 seven times and the elite eight twice. They have not gotten past the elite eight in their 19 tournament appearances.

What’s the problem? How come a team so consistent and so dominate cannot even put themselves in a position to truly compete for a national championship?

The answer is actually pretty simple and it doesn’t have anything to do with what they’re doing on the court. In order to compete for a national championship and put themselves in a position to have a real chance year after year, they need to switch conferences.

Gonzaga Basketball

Sophomore guard Nick Emery reacts to handing Gonzaga their first lost of the season (Photo: Sports Ilustrated)

Changing conferences sounds simple, but it’s actually not. If we have learned anything from the major changes in teams going to different conferences these past few years, it’s that football is the dominant force in these decisions. College football is a massive industry in the United States and for most schools is the biggest sport and makes the school the most money.

Unfortunately for Gonzaga, they do not have a football team. The last time Gonzaga’s football team played a game was in 1941. If history truly repeats itself, then there are no signs of the program coming back anytime soon.

The problem with Gonzaga’s conference (West Coast Conference) is that it is not competitive. Since 1995, Gonzaga has won the regular season conference championship 19 times, including this year. They have also won the conference tournament 15 times since 1995, and are the heavy favorite to win it again this year.

Their success in their conference can be compared to the likes of Kansas. They have won an absurd 13 straight regular season conference championships, including one this year. The main difference is that Kansas has three national championships, six runner-up finishes and 14 final four appearances.

Granted, Kansas is a bigger school than Gonzaga, which does help them with things like recruiting and scholarships. What Kansas mainly has that Gonzaga doesn’t is regular season competition.

San Francisco does have two national championships but haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 1998. Another notable team would be BYU, who makes the tournament pretty consistently. However, BYU has never made a final four and hasn’t made an elite eight since 1981. The last team, St. Mary’s, has only gotten as far as the elite eight once in 1959.

If Gonzaga wants to compete for a national championship, they need consistent competition throughout the entire regular season. Every now and then they will play a decent team from a power five conference like Arizona, who they played earlier t

Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski (24) drives against Southern Utah (AP Photo/Jed Conklin) ORG XMIT: WAJC109

his year and beat 69-62. After that, the competition stops.

We have seen it time and time again how big of favorites the Bulldogs are when it comes to tournament time. Yet, they always fall flat and one must assume it’s because they aren’t ready. Gonzaga has had some really great teams recently. Teams that probably could have made a late tournament run and maybe even have won the national championship.

Duke, UNC and Kansas all win national championships because they play big games every year throughout the season. They know how to handle the magnitude of what March Madness brings.

If Gonzaga wants to ever win a national championship, they need to do the same. That doesn’t come with waiting for the WCC to become a stronger conference. It comes with switching to a power five conference.

In this upcoming tournament, the Bulldogs will most likely earn another number one seed and be a heavy favorite in every one of its games. Watch for yourself, and see what happens.

 

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2017 College Basketball Bracketology January 18

The NCAA Tournament is just two months away, which means teams are starting to make their final push to be invited. There is still a lot of basketball left to be played, but as it stands now, here is the latest college basketball bracketology:

College Basketball Bracketology

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Why the AP Preseason Poll Deserves More Attention

The Associated Press’ NCAA Basketball Preseason Poll has a dual nature in that, it is both meaningful and not meaningful simultaneously. Every year the poll comes out creating a buzz about who should be higher and who should be lower. As with any preseason poll, power ranking or vote basis is complete speculation. So why should you care? Aside from bringing attention and excitement at the approaching season what does it provide us with? History shows that the AP Preseason Poll provides us with a gaze into the future and that we should give it significantly more attention.

Every year in the NCAA tournament brings with it new surprises, bigger upsets and more underdogs advancing. However, the trends found between the AP Preseason Poll and the NCAA Tournament can’t be ignored.

Despite Ben Simmons choosing LSU, the Tigers were the only team ranked in the preseason not to make the 2016 NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of thebiglead.com)

To begin, a high volume of teams appearing in AP Preseason Poll make the NCAA tournament.  The 2015-16 season preached having no definitive power. Still, only one team in the preseason Top 25, LSU, did not make the Big Dance. Over the past ten years, an astounding 85 percent (214/250) of teams in the preseason poll make it to March Madness.  In addition, two teams counted against the percentage were Syracuse in 2014-15 and Connecticut in 2012-13.  Syracuse made a self-imposed ban so they became ineligible. UConn became ineligible due to Academic Progress Reports. Removing those two blemishes moves the 10-year average to 86 percent. Even the most inaccurate year, 2009-10, was still extremely predictable before the season began. Essentially, the Associated Press is able to make an educated guess about one-third of the NCAA field before the season begins.

Percentage of Teams in AP Preseason Poll to Make Tournament
Year Percentage
2015-16 96%  (24/25)
2014-15* 84% (21/25)
2013-14 92% (23/25)
2012-13^ 84% (21/25)
2011-12 84% (21/25)
2010-11 92% (23/25)
2009-10 72% (18/25)
2008-09 80% (20/25)
2007-08 92% (23/25)
2006-07 80% (20/25)
*=Syracuse self-imposed ban.
^=Uconn APR ban.

Not only do they predict who the teams who will be in the tournament well, but in general they are able to identify the very best teams in the tournament. At the end of the year, out of 350-plus teams, we watch four play in April. The majority of those teams are included on the AP’s radar.

Shaka Smart and the 2011 VCU Rams were one of the biggest surprises in the past decade. (Photo courtesy of csmonitor.com)

Over the past decade of basketball, an average of 90 percent of the Final Four has appeared in the poll. Only four teams in the decade were not in the poll, but made the Final Four. Two of them were the surprising runs of VCU and Wichita State to the Final Four in 2011. The poll of the 2007-08 preseason contains a nice surprise.  The top four teams in the poll are the four teams that made the Final Four. That was also the only year since tournament expansion that all four Number One seeds made the Final Four.

Moreover, 81 percent of the teams in the Elite Eight and 68 percent of teams in the Sweet 16 made appearances in the poll. Every year, of course, there are schools like Davidson that make a run. It is difficult to predict those runs during your bracket challenge in March, but the point is, the AP has their finger on the best teams in October.

Teams in Each Round that Appeared in AP Preseason Poll
Year Final Four Elite 8 Sweet 16
2015-16 75% (3/4) 75% (6/8) 75% (12/16)
2014-15 100% (4/4) 87% (7/8) 68% (11/16)
2013-14 100% (4/4) 87% (7/8) 68% (11/16)
2012-13 75% (3/4) 75% (6/8) 62% (10/16)
2011-12 100% (4/4) 100% (8/8) 87% (14/16)
2010-11 50% (2/4) 62% (5/8) 62% (10/16)
2009-10 100% (4/4) 75% (6/8) 62% (10/16)
2008-09 100% (4/4) 87% (7/8) 75% (12/16)
2007-08 100% (4/4) 75% (6/8) 62% (10/16)
2006-07 100% (4/4) 87% (7/8) 62% (10/16)

Not only does the AP know about the best teams, but also about the best team. In the past decade, only three champions began the year outside the top ten. Only one began the year unranked. Having the champion ranked at the top spot twice shows that the writers have a deep insight. The average rank for the champion in the preseason, not including the unranked Huskies in 2011, is 5.7.

Preseason Ranking for Champion
Year Team Rank
2016 Villanova 11
2015 Duke 4
2014 Connecticut 18
2013 Louisville 2
2012 Kentucky 2
2011 Connecticut NR
2010 Duke 9
2009 North Caroilna 1
2008 Kansas 4
2007 Florida 1

While the Associated Press may not always rank the Final Four as the top four teams, this is still impressive. The AP shows the ability to weed out the teams not up to par before teams play their first game. This is weeks before teams have even scrimmaged or had an exhibition.

In the next month or so, the AP will release the 2016-17 Preseason Poll. This ranking should be given serious consideration. Remember that history proves this ranking to be quite informative.

 

Coach Cal’s Crazy Idea: So Crazy It Just Might Work

Kentucky Coach John Calipari was blasted by several outlets last week for his ideas on changes to conference championship tournaments. Coach Cal proposed holding a pre-season or early season event in which each team was guaranteed a certain number of games in place of the end of season tournament.

Kentucky coach John Calipari thinks that the Conference Tournaments could use some major reworking. (Photo courtesy of hoopshabit.com)

Many columnists made this out to be that Calipari wanted the NCAA bid to be determined at the beginning of the season. Calipari was egregiously misrepresented in what he was proposing on several occasions. Therefore, before exploring the details and logistics of the idea, it is important to quickly hash out exactly what Cal’s idea entailed: a gathering in which each team was guaranteed three games.  This figure was not set in stone, just an example to get the ball rolling. The meeting would not determine the automatic bid, but rather each conference would follow the Ivy League structure in which the regular season champ won the trip to the dance.

Now, before everyone’s heads spin, it is important to note what Coach Cal was generating: an idea.  This was not a formal proposal to the SEC, nor was it something that the NCAA cabinet members will have on their desk next week in a 700-page document. It is an idea that Calipari put out there that is worth exploring as to whether or not it could actually work, or would be beneficial for college basketball, even though a proposal like this could help the Selection Committee become more consistent in choosing post season teams. But, before a subcommittee is put together to explore whether or not it is good for the NCAA, there needs to be discussion about whether or not it could even work.

When considering a change this major, the logistics should be the first thing that comes to mind. Can the schools commit to this? Can the venues be reserved? With the power that college basketball has, this should not be very difficult.  Changing the date should not eliminate the school’s ability to make the trip. Having a few guaranteed early regular season games in one place would in all likelihood cut the cost of travel for many programs.

There are other things to consider, though, such as the additional early season events that are already in place. There is nothing preventing a team from doing the preseason conference tournament and then going out to the Maui Invitational in late November.

Another detail would be the deciding of the automatic bid to the Big Dance.  The NCAA Currently gives one automatic bid to each conference.  For most smaller conferences, this is the only chance to get in. Two things could be done: the regular season champion could get the bid or there could be a Conference Championship game between the top two. These are each outcomes that could be put together with relative ease.  For the sake of argument, it could even be a conference by conference decision. At current point, the NCAA seems to fluctuate as to what it values in the selection process, so the elimination of the tournament could possibly eliminate some grey area of the criteria they use.

Now, the question becomes, would this be beneficial for the NCAA? Is this something that would elevate college basketball to a new plane as far as viewership and integrity of the game and season? It is an extremely complex discussion to have that contains a wealth of issues both large and small. The biggest obstacles are the ones that would need to be discussed first and as with anything, money talks.

These changes have the power to greatly help or hinder the constant revenue stream that is College Basketball. Corporate Sponsorships come in wide varieties for the conference tournaments as they currently stand and are a great impetus to continuing the status quo. Changing the time of year would put these preseason tournaments in competition with the Goliath that is the NFL and its understudy in College football. This would affect corporate money being poured into the sport, but how much is lost would take a significant amount of research.

However, scheduling could eliminate this problem by keeping games to days that football is not on. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights have no NFL games and a few NCAA games here and there. These games could get ratings with not many other sports on. Big Monday and Super Tuesday could turn into early season conference encounters. With reasonable certainty it could be concluded, if done right, that the sponsorship money would be down in comparison to end of year tournaments. The other side to this thought is that it would be up form typical early season money, which could mean that the loss is counteracted in a way.

Right now, there is not much significance put on the beginning of the season in college basketball.  Teams face lesser opponents in hopes of being ready for the bigger fish in the sea.  However, wouldn’t a better warm up for young players be to see the competition at its highest level first? If the season were opened this way, teams could have a good gauge of where they are at within their conference and know how they need to prepare, further intensifying regular conference play a month or two down the road. Old rivalries at the beginning of the season could make the beginning of the season much more watchable as well.

In fact, packing healthier competition into the beginning of the season would be excellent for college basketball and team’s attempting to strengthen their schedule. The team’s strength off schedule would rise and with the additional games against conference opponents there would be more separation between teams and less grey area. Currently the NCAA is not consistent in what they value. This change would force them to value the same thing for the whole field: the regular season. And some teams would have drastically different looks to their schedule.

Let’s take a bubble team like Florida.  Their first ten games include “stellar” opponents such as North Carolina A&T, Vermont, Richmond, and Jacksonville among others. Replace one of those games with an extra game against Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and throw in some other SEC competition and we may be talking a different story about their tournament bid.

The same is true for Final Four participant and bubble team Syracuse. Many thought that this team should not have gotten into the tournament. Had they replaced games against Montana State, Colgate, Cornell, and Elon with something like Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Miami or even Louisville perhaps they would have been more than a shoe end into March Madness. This team would have greatly benefited from some changes in the early season format. These are just the possible benefits as scheduling relates to the beginning of the season.

In addition, when we begin to discuss the end of season issues, there are many coaches that complain about what the current structure says about the significance of the season as well as what the conference tournaments do to their teams. With the current structure, this undoes a whole body of work for those teams in smaller, one bid conferences. Teams in the MEAC, OVC and MVC could go undefeated or have great conference records and not reach the tournament.

Monmouth was a great case study for this. They went 17-3 in conference, 28-8 overall but they come from a conference that is typically one bid.  After Iona won the MAAC tournament there was significant discussion about Monmouth as an at large contender. They didn’t get in. They did not get in because they did not win the last game. They even scheduled and beat Power 5 opponents, such as Notre Dame.

Now, there is something to be said about the spirit of March Madness that exists in Conference Championship week. A team like Holy Cross never could have made it into the tournament. That is a true showing of what the spirit of March Madness is, but is that what is best for the players, coaches and the sport as a whole? Coaches like Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, and Calipari himself hate the conference tournaments because they are extremely stressful and draining right before the road to the Final Four begins. As insult to injury, sometimes the NCAA Selection Committee decided that the tournament doesn’t even matter. This was exemplified when a few hours after a decisive win over Texas A&M, Kentucky was seeded below the conference runner-up.

So right now it seems that the regular season is quite meaningless at times and the conference tournament doesn’t always help you either. So what’s the point? If money is the only thing keeping the current structure in place then it cannot be what’s best for the sport.  Sometimes changes have to be made that will negatively affect the bottom line if it is the right thing to do for the players and coaches.

So, there is some depth and reality to the crazy idea that Cal proposed. This could actually happen and big conference coaches would be on board with it.  But let us keep some drama at what would be conference tournament week. Let’s keep a Conference Championship game, much like college football. Send the top two teams in and reward them for their season of work but keep the integrity of the month of March. Heck, it could even be a conference by conference decision as opposed to an overall NCAA regulation.

Coach Calipari may not have solved the ongoing debate in college basketball that is conference post-season play. However, he has definitely created some much-needed attention to the idea and given college basketball fans as well as NCAA officials a realistic proposal to ponder.

Three Takeaways From the 2015-2016 College Basketball Season

This year’s college basketball season was one of the most interesting in recent memory.  Story lines poured out of the action on and off the court. Here’s what I consider the main themes of the 2015-2016 season:

  1. Senior Rebirth

Some of this year’s best teams featured multiple seniors. Many of the Naismith and Associated Press Player of the Year candidates were seniors, unlike in previous seasons. The star power was held by many players who have developed over their years at their respective schools. People still question why these players did not develop faster or declare for the draft earlier. Recent trends have shown, however, that perhaps it is better for players to delay the jump to the pros. No one would say that Buddy Hield is not a complete player at this point, yet many people can pick out the weaknesses in Ben Simmons’ game namely his inability to shoot the jumper.

Buddy Hield and Ryan Arcidiacono were two of this season’s most prolific seniors. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports)

This year, there was a plethora of entertaining seniors to watch. The more notable players included Denzel Valentine, Marcus Paige, and Jake Layman. The final four teams featured line-ups riddled with seniors. The Oklahoma Sooners had several seniors that saw the floor in addition to their Naismith Candidate in Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins. National Champion Villanova had two prominent seniors in Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono. Syracuse had an excellent example in player development with former Duke transfer Michael Gbinije. The Tar Heels had a number of seniors on the team in addition to Paige, the most entertaining being Brice Johnson.

The fact that these players stayed for their whole careers shows that the NBA is not completely killing the amateur game. While some players will still make the jump too early and many top recruits will make the obligated year long trip to play school before leaving to make their money, the landscape of college basketball still shows growth and life which is something we saw this year.

  1. Scandal

Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals missed the postseason due to scandal. (Photo courtesy of the LA Times)

Scandal is wreaking havoc on the game. Several schools were under the gloomy cloud of sanctions this year and some will carry this problem into the following season. An SMU team that started hot missed the tournament due to academic fraud. Likewise, two final four teams have dealt with their own problems. Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are still in muddy waters and North Carolina could be facing some loss of scholarships and postseason bans due to their school infractions.

The king of kings, however, is Louisville.  Rick Pitino’s future remains uncertain as does the team’s season to come. At this point it seems that academic progress failure and scandal are normal parts of NCAA culture. While the NCAA has gotten many things wrong in the past two decades, it does appear that these schools will face harsh discipline at the expense of the student-athletes.

  1. Parity

Many people indicated that this year’s domination of the final four, elite eight, and sweet sixteen by power conference teams was an indication of the lack of the so called “parity” in college basketball. Even ESPN’s Jay Bilas was in agreement with this train of thought. While I recognize the fact that the numbers show an inordinate amount of teams in the latter stages of the tournament, looking at the topic of parity from this one perspective oversimplifies the subject.

It is difficult to look at the season and tournament as a whole and not see the parity available in college basketball. In early season match-ups, Monmouth took down Notre Dame, an elite eight team, and Northern Iowa defeated North Carolina, the national runner-up. There was even a cry for Monmouth and St. Mary’s to make the tournament. Dick Vitale mentioned in his post season summary that there was no respect for the little guy.

Northern Iowa lost in a devastating manner when Texas A&M rallied from down double digits in the final minute of the second round (Photo courtesy of thegazette.com)

We saw, for the first time in history, a 12, 13, 14, and 15 seed win in the same weekend. Northern Iowa was 35 seconds from the sweet sixteen and Stephen F. Austin was a tip in away as well. We saw Middle Tennessee State take out a team that caused many brackets to be busted.  We saw Hawaii take down a very talented Cal team, Purdue get beat by Arkansas-Little Rock, and Yale take down Baylor. That being said, there was very little representation of the small conferences in the sweet sixteen. However, no one would say that just because Butler made the championship that this was an indication of parity. The opposite indication is represented here. The whole story is more complex and we were a few points away from having a year dominated by the little guy in the end chapters of March Madness, and the overall story includes this change in the winds of college basketball  that should continue to make the opening rounds of the tournament interesting for years to come.

Now as we put a wrap on 2015-2016 we look ahead. There are a few final commitments, a few loose ends to tie up and then it is on to the following season. Every indication is that it should be fantastic, with a host of powerful recruits coming in but some of the tale of this season could bleed into the next. At this point it is very difficult to see what is to come in the vastly changing arena of college basketball.

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