An imperfect NCAA Tournament | Magic Basketball

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Apr 06

An imperfect NCAA Tournament

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Now that the national championship game has been played, is it okay to admit that this year’s NCAA Tournament, including the championship, wasn’t really all that great?

Whenever I throw accusations around about “March Madness,” all my friends who call themselves “purists”—and who are convinced that the NCAA Tournament is perfect—chastise me and quickly explain how this latest tournament has been the best tournament ever.

I’m going to take a few moments to address the most common arguments for “why this year’s tournament proves March Madness is the best!”

Not a single number-one-seed is in the Final Four
This is by far the biggest “selling point” for anyone defending this year’s tournament, and is by far the most ridiculous. How does eliminating the best teams in the tournament make it better?  Similarly, how is it possibly more enjoyable to watch VCU play against Butler than it would be to watch Duke play Ohio State?

For me, a good tournament ends with the most elite and skilled players going head-to-head, not mediocre mid-major squads looking sheepish and trying their hardest to appear as if they somehow belong at the big dance. Yes, Butler and VCU proved that on any given day, a good team can get beat. So what? If I want to figure out who the best NBA team is, I don’t force the Lakers to play a one-game neutral-site playoff against the Nuggets to figure out who’s better. I play them off in a series, and the battle reveals the winner, and the “best team.”

Upsets are always fun to watch, but when it comes down to it, a big part of what was missing in the Final Four, and more specifically in the championship game, was the presence of an elite team. Ugly basketball isn’t fun to watch.

There were so many great games
This is just not true. There were early round games that shocked the world, like Morehead State offing Louisville, but to go with every nail-biting upset in the first two rounds came an unwatchable blowout in the rounds thereafter.

Just look at the numbers. In the Sweet Sixteen the average winning spread was ten points. Of those games, only two were decided by two points or less, and three games were decided by more than sixteen points.

That’s not what I’m looking for in a “trim the fat” tournament like March Madness. My thought was that as the tournament progressed, games got closer, because the bad teams get eliminated, causing the margin of defeat to get smaller and smaller. Not the case this year, at least not in that third round.

Again, there were absolutely some great moments and games, but with each great game came a forgettable game. The UNC blowout and Arizona beating Duke by 20, to name a few.

Nothing wrong with an eight seed against a three seed in the finals
Maybe in theory this is a good thing, because it demonstrates the unpredictability of March Madness perfectly, but I can’t see how it’s surprising to anyone that this was one of the most unwatchable championship games in the history of the NCAA.

You have two teams who each lost nine games this season, only one premier, outstanding player in Kemba Walker, and the most compelling aspect of either team was the fact that Butler seemed to have a really good defense.

It’s perplexing to hear people rejoicing that we don’t have to watch two number one seeds square off in the championship. Why not? It would be a game that not only had twice the magnitude, but four times the intrigue based on star power and ability.

As an NBA guy, I try to imagine a championship series between Atlanta and New Orleans, or even worse Indiana against Oklahoma City. It just wouldn’t be fun, and regardless of the differences in style of play between college and the Association, I think the same is true of the NCAA tournament.

Too many people default to the position of “it’s fun to watch lower seeds play against each other.”  I don’t like that idea, because put another way, it’s just like saying “it’s more fun to watch worse teams play against each other.” But when the basketball gets ugly, it’s not more fun. It’s less fun! This year’s title game was brutal, and made the regular season feel like a waste of time.

Low seeds triumphing … it’s a Cinderella story finish
The idea that this is Butler’s redemption from last year’s championship is a little bit silly to me. Here’s why. Last year was their Cinderella story. This year is a bit of an anomaly. You take a significantly less skilled team without Gordon Hayward, have them lose nine games, enter the tournament playing good defense, and get some big wins to get back to the Final Four. That’s great, but given the mediocrity of the field this year, it’s not the same type of Cinderella story that it was in 2010.

When Brad Stevens gets first pick on every player in Indiana the year after a championship game berth, you have to stop thinking of Butler as a Cinderella story, and start saying that their second trip to the championship is not surprising at all.

The most important thing you have to do in properly evaluating their “Cinderellability” is to stop looking at the number next to the school. In my mind, the eight seed meant nothing. They were really more like a three or four seed coming in. Yes, they beat Pittsburgh, who was the most overrated team coming out of the most overrated conference. Then they beat a streaky Wisconsin team on an off night, and climaxed against Florida, who was playing mediocre basketball ever since the SEC tournament.

The point is not to discredit Butler in their run to the championship. It is simply to put it in perspective. A team with an excellent coach, prime recruiting in basketball country, and championship experience is not a Cinderella story. Thus, their presence in the Final Four and championship did not somehow make this tournament better.

The defense was incredible in the championship game
I loved watching the back and fourth conversations on Twitter about the way this game was played. Every time there is a low scoring game in college hoops it immediately and easily gets chalked up to being a defensive battle.

My rule of thumb is that you can’t have good defense and be credited for it unless you are stopping a good offense. In this case, we would expect a good defense to be squaring off against an elite offense, but quite the opposite happened.

You know the numbers. Butler shot 18 percent from the field for the entire game, and UConn, though putting together some second half buckets en route to the win, didn’t really shoot all that well either.

Butler actually led at halftime with six field goals in the first half.  Six! Guys were dribbling the ball off their feet, throwing errant passes into the stands, and struggling to do much of anything with the ball.

Here’s the other thing, Butler made UConn’s defense look a ton better than they actually are. The story on the Huskies is that they are big and tall, so you have to figure out a way to avoid the paint and getting your shot blocked. Can someone explain why, then, the Bulldogs tried relentlessly in the second half to drive the ball to the hole? I made a comment after the game that, despite the poor shooting, I think Brad Stevens got out coached in one area—he had no idea what to do with his “non-takeover-guy” styled offense.  With Matt Howard lunging around the painted area bricking tough shots (Butler didn’t score in the paint until midway through the second half), Butler looked lost because they didn’t have anybody to turn to.

This championship game was not a defensive battle, and anyone who wants to tell you that wasn’t looking closely enough. It was a game between two mediocre teams that found themselves in the championship due to a dry year in the NCAA men’s basketball department.

The result was a terrible championship game against two teams who in most other years would not be anywhere close to Houston on championship night.

7 comments
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Wundervogel
Wundervogel

You want to see the Dukes and Ohio States of college basketball every year? Please, you are probably one of those guys who think that Boise State shouldn't have a shot at the BCS. Am I right?

IAND
IAND

The seeding system itself is questionable in that it's based on how many "quality" wins and losses you have - but that's based on the assumption that a "quality" win is one against a team that the voters say is better than others. So when they say that Butler is an 8 seed, what does that mean anyway? But goodness sake, what a horrible final game! And you're right Nate, some of those Sweet Sixteen games were close to boring in terms of the score.

Hjkaufmann
Hjkaufmann

So would you have rather seen an overrated Pitt in the championship game? They were a number 1 seed, after all.

For the record, even though I didn't see all of it, the women's Final Four was probably better than the men's this year. Danielle Adams and Skylar Diggins are ballers.

Dannyiglesias
Dannyiglesias

You sound like an angry Ohio State fan or something. The beauty of the NCAA tournament lies in the uncertainty. It is what makes it so interesting to watch, not knowing on any given night what might happen to the powerhouse favorite or the lowly underdog. By your logic it would be more fun to watch the Lakers face the Celtics over.... and over.... and over... and over? Now I would HARDLY consider UCONN as the equivalent to an Atlanta Hawks or New Orleans Hornets, thats ubsurd. They had an on and off season, but they proved that when the games mattered they could win against anyone, sounds a lot like the Lakers or the Celtics to me. Theres no pressure to perform in the NBA, you have an off night, so what, come back and win tomorrow. Not in March, you have an off night and your season is over. So the intensity is always high, much like the college football season. If anything, professional sports should take note. The NBA could use something that spices it up, because at this point they have nothing to lose.

DaveH
DaveH

I certainly don't want to ever see Butler vs. UConn again. Do I even have to quote stats from the game? It was a snooze-fest.

In a high-pressure environment, I want to see quality performance. It doesn't have to be Duke vs. Ohio state, but can we at least see something more than "heart and intensity?" No one cares about those things if it's not accompanied by skill, unless you just want hype. Cue Rebecca Black.