Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March Madness is Here

Well, what I was saying could happen on Friday actually happened over the weekend -- for the first time since the NCAA tournament was expanded to 64 teams, we have three of the four #1 seeds coming from the same conference, in this case the Big East. Although this is hard to swallow for many longtime college basketball fans out there, three Big East teams are firmly entrenched in the top 5 of the rankings, and the Big East in general this year is pretty widely accepted as being the greatest conference of all time in college basketball, with 6 teams in the top 20 at season's end, and with the conference having received three #1 seeds and another two #3 seeds, indicating roughly that 5 of the nation's top 12 squads originate from the conference. So even though three #1 seeds from one conference rubs some people the wrong way, I actually think it is very defensible given the way this year broke out and, more specifically, the kind of competition faced by these best of the best Big East teams all through the 2008-2009 season thus far.

Looking beyond the top seeds, the common wisdom here today seems to be that the Selection Committee for the NCAA tournament did a pretty unassailable job in choosing the teams and their respective seedings for this year's March Madness tournament. I, however, think they made some egregious errors, some general and some more specific to individual teams or leagues.

First and foremost, talking generally here, the Selection Committee in its infinite wisdom, awarded bids to seven teams from the Big East, seven from the Big 10, seven from the ACC and six from the Pac-10. This is bad for a number of reasons. First of all, as discussed above the Big East was far and away the best conference of this or any other season, and awarding the same number of tournament bids to all four of the major power conferences this year was a mistake from that front. The ACC is fairly solid near the top with UNC, Duke and Wake Forest, but the middle of that conference drops off dramatically, and in order to get seven ACC teams into the tournament, the Committee had to invite some teams that flat out do not belong (more on that later). Similarly, the Big 10 got at least one if not two or three bids that it simply did not deserve, and the Pac-10 received probably the biggest joke of a bid of any team in this year's tournament, also requiring shenanigans of some kind to find even six Pac-10 teams worthy of playing in the Big Dance this month.

The other general mistake made by the Selection Committee this weekend relates to the above: they completely forsook the mid-major conference in favor of the big power conference teams, even in very dubious situations. The mid-majors are where the teams have come from that have made this tournament so exciting over the past several years -- the Davidsons, the Valparaisos, the George Masons, originally even Gonzaga some years ago -- and as recently as 2004 saw 12 mid-major teams in the 65-team NCAA field, but this year, we're looking at just four at-large bids going to mid-major conference teams. That is a real bummer in general given what I have seen over my lifetime of watching March Madness, and also in terms of some of the specific comparisons to large power conference teams that did manage to find their way into the field.

Which leads to some of the more team-specific issues I have with this year's tournament selections. First, the ACC. The ACC, despite having a down year compared to most other years top-to-bottom, got 6 teams into the Big Dance, the most embarrassing and inexplicable of which was Maryland, who flat out stank this year. Maryland ended the season 7-9 in a weak ACC and 20-13 overall, presumably based almost exclusively on their early-season wins against Michigan State and Duke. But in putting this subpar team into the tournament, and thereby crushing the deserving hopes of several promising mid-major teams, the Committee overlooked Maryland's embarrassing loss to a shitty Georgetown team, 75-48 at a neutral site, as well as losses this season to Morgan State, at Miami and then at Virginia in the last game of the regular season when Maryland knew they needed to beat the abysmal 4-12, 10-18 Cavaliers to reach .500 in a down year in the ACC. They then won two games in the ACC tournament before succumbing to eventual tournament winner Duke, bringing their total conference record this season to 9-10. To think of all the teams that lost bids because of this gift from the Committee, it is just wrong. I mean, I like seeing Gary Williams sweat through his entire suit on the sidelines in a game as much as anyone, but that just does not make sense.

The Big 10 is another conference suffering a major down year -- only Michigan State was ever ranked anywhere near the top 10 through any significant portion of this season -- and yet who somehow managed to nab 7 NCAA tournament bids, many of them quite inexplicable. In a nutshell, the Committee ended up awarding bids to the top 3 teams in the conference, then shutting out the 4th and 5th place Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, and then awarding bids to the #6 Badgers, #7 Golden Gophers and even the #8 Wolverines despite scrooging the 4th and 5th place teams in the conference. Both Ohio State and Penn State, who failed to get bids, ended the season 10-8 in the Big 10 (22-10 and 22-11 overall, respectively), while Wisconsin did manage to sneak in with a 10-8 record despite having literally zero big wins on its entire schedule otherthan a couple of victories over a down Michigan team, a win on the road at NIT-bound Penn State and a win at home against Illinois. Even worse, Minnesota got a bid at 9-9, 22-10, seemingly solely on the strength of a big win over overall #1 seed Louisville a couple of months ago, and despite losing to Northwestern (8-10, 17-13) earlier in the year and especially despite losses at Ohio State, at Penn State, at Michigan, at Illinois, and then again vs. Michigan in going 4-6 in its last 10 games before this weekend. What ever happened to the Committee paying special attention to teams on streaks heading into March Madness, and to teams that can win big games on the road near the end of the season? Oh wait, who just took over as Minnesota's head coach a few years ago? Of that's right, Tubby Smith, a perennial Selection Committee favorite since back in his Kentucky days. So there you go, Minnesota got in because the Committee likes their coach, even though the team did essentially everything within its power to prove that it did not deserve a bid in the final few weeks of the regular season. Even Michigan nabbed a bid to the Big Dance this year, after posting a 9-9 Big 10 record and an embarrassing 20-13 overall, this including losses at Maryland, as well as defeats vs. Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State, at Penn State, at Ohio State, at Iowa (5-13, 15-17) and then again at Wisconsin in going 7-10 in its final 17 games, including 5-5 in its last 10. The Big 10 was probably only truly deserving of three bids this year -- Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois -- and to the extent that one or two more teams were going to get in, allowing squads like Minnesota and Michigan in given their paltry conference record in one of the worst seasons for the Big 10 in recent memory and all of those terrible losses in crunch time in their seasons is just sick and wrong.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the absolute worst example of the Committee catering to a historical favorite like I mentioned above with Tubby Smith -- Arizona. Coming in to this season, the Wildcats had the nation's longest streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances at 24 straight years, and we all saw that streak coming to an end after Arizona lost in the first game of the Pac-10 tournament for the third time this year to rival Arizona State, and then when USC, who would not have made the tournament otherwise, won the automatic bid from the Pac-10 tournament, people who understand shit knew there was no way Arizona could make it as a 6th team from the downtrodden Pac-10. 'Zona finished the year 9-9 in the Pac-10, and 19-13 overall, an abysmal record for any at-large team in any year, good for 6th place overall in their conference. Arizona lost at home against Conference-USA also-ran UAB, at Texas A&M, at UNLV, at Cal, at Stanford (6-12, 18-13), at USC (9-9, 21-12), and the only big wins I see on their schedule are over Gonzaga, and then conference opponents Washington and UCLA, and I already mentioned the three losses to state rival ASU including in the Pac-10 tournament. Even worse than this, the Wildcats lost 5 of their last 6 games heading into Selection Sunday, including a loss to Washington State (8-10, 17-15) during that stretch, as well as the loss in the opening round of the Pac-10 tournament. This team did everything you could possibly ask of them to prove they do not belong in the tournament, and the Committee decided to doff their caps to history and extend 'Zona's consecutive Big Dance streak to 25. Just sad.

As I mentioned, the teams that got the most burnt by the Committee's clear fuckups this year were the mid-major conference teams that in the past few years have gotten the bids and even won some games in the Big Dance. Creighton finished the season 14-4, 26-7 in the Missouri Valley Conference, won by Northern Iowa, whom Creigton beat in addition to sweeping recent March Madness fixture Southern Illinois on the season. Creighton did not have many significant out of conference wins, and losing 73-49 to Illinois State in the MVC tournament surely did not help their case, but if I'm in charge, Creighton is surely going in to the tournament with their #40 RPI ranking over the likes of Maryland, Arizona or Minnesota or Michigan. San Diego State, out of the Mountain West conference, is another mid-major team arguably deserving of an at-large bid, certainly moreso than the last few power conference teams to sneak in to the 65-team field. SDSU was 11-5, 23-9 on the season, including wins against tournament teams Utah (12-4, 23-9) and BYU (12-4, 25-7) plus bubble teams UNM (12-4, 21-11) and UNLV (9-7, 21-10) three separate times, plus an RPI of a whopping #34 in the country. I'll take them over the bottom half of the power conference teams any day of the week. St. Mary's in the West Coast Conference -- Gonzaga's stomping grounds -- is the team probably most often cited as the worst rooking among those teams not to make the Big Dance this year, as Randy Bennett's team missed the tournament despite an RPI of 47 and a final record in the WCC of 10-4, 26-6, even though Maryland's pathetic season left them with an RPI of 55, and Arizona put up a lowly 62 in nabbing their tournament bid.

But the team that I think got rooked most of all by the Selection Committee this weekend is one that you don't even hear mentioned on ESPN or any of the other major sites out there, and that is Big East upstart Providence. Now, as a Georgetown guy, I am no kind of Friars fan, but let's be fair here. PC went 10-8 in the Big East, 19-13 overall. Now I know that 19-13 is no great shakes, but apparently it was great enough to get Arizona into the tournament with a 9-9 record in a conference that couldn't hold a candle to the Big East this season. I'm not one of those guys who believes that a winning record in any major conference should mean an automatic tournament bid -- see my comments on the various Big 10, Pac-10 and ACC tournament teams above -- but in this case, this year, in this season's Big East, in my view anyone who even sniffs a winning record deserves a shot in the Big Dance. And it's not like Providence only beat up on the bad teams in the Big East but lost to every good team it played -- PC posted wins this year against URI (11-5, 22-10), a sweep against Cincinnati, and then in the latter stretch of the season vs #3 seeded Syracuse and then #1 seeded Pittsburgh. How Providence is kept out of the tournament while fonkteams like Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Maryland are in is simply beyond me.

All that said, I am seriously looking forward to what is pretty much always the best time of year for any serious sports fan, starting with Thursday's massive 16-game slate where I get to do almost no work. Get those NCAA March Madness On Demand logins working early and often this week!

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Blogger lightning36 said...

I live in Big Ten country and can't believe how so many conference teams got in after a year in which many teams were just average. Clearly, the mid-majors got screwed this year. And you are right ... would we rather see a great team from a non-name conference, or an average team from one of the biggies?

4:47 AM  
Blogger on_thg said...

Uh, Hoy:

Ohio State did get in. They're a #8 seed.

Michigan was the Big Ten's #7 team, Minnesota #8.

/end fact checking

Penn State fans may feel that they got jobbed, but they had zero good out of conference wins, resulting in a much lower SOS and RPI.

Michigan got in based on wins over UCLA and Dook, plus an 8 point loss @ UConn. Their only non-conference losses were Dook @ Madison Square Garden, by 5 at Maryland and @UConn. All tourney teams. Their only loss to a non-tournament team was @Iowa, in a game they lost in such a fluky fashion you wouldn't believe it if you'd seen it. LOL Big Ten officiating.

6:15 AM  
Blogger jjok said...

gigem Aggies! Haha

1:15 PM  
Blogger steeser said...

Unfortunately for them...and us...this was a very weak year for the mid-majors.

The only real change I would make is St Marys in ahead of Arizona, since they were without Pat Mills for a few of their losses down the stretch....though you make a good case for Providence.

11:57 PM  

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