The best month on the sports calendar is here. The NCAA basketball tournament. Opening Day. The Masters. Finally. For those on the East Coast who are snow blind after this record-setting winter, Selection Sunday heralds both the promise of spring and the unmatched excitement that accompanies college basketball’s marquee event.
For a few days after Selection Sunday, each of the 68 teams has a chance. For some teams that chance is infinitesimal, but that doesn’t keep everyone from dreaming about what, theoretically, is possible. College basketball’s increasing parity has given rise to a higher number of upsets in recent years. A 15 seed has beaten a 2 seed just seven times, but the pace of high seed upsets has increased dramatically in recent years. Last year 14 seed Mercer destroyed at least 99% of the nation’s brackets on the second day of the tournament when it stunned Duke 78-71. Last year 11 seed Dayton made the Elite Eight. Virginia Commonwealth accomplished the same feat in 2011, losing to 8 seed Butler for a spot in the championship game! There’s a reason that Warren Buffett can offer $1,000,000 for a perfect bracket. There has never been one and there never will be. He should offer a grabazillion dollars. It’s a safer bet than the sunrise.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing certain about March Madness, however. Excitement is certain. Heartbreak is certain. Heck, even uncertainty is certain. There certainly will be some mid-major or small conference school that beats the odds to win a game or three. Or four. However, for the first time that I know of the odds makers have made one team the even-money favorite to win the title. That team of course is Kentucky. Even money. Bet a buck to win a buck. The sharps in Vegas have a better feel for Kentucky’s chances than just about anyone else, so this betting line tells you all you really need to know about the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats and their national title hopes. This team of teenaged marauders and future lottery picks has cold-cocked the rest of college basketball this year and now stands just six games away from immortality. The Wildcats had a few close calls early but now are playing at a level that likely makes pretenders of every other tournament team.Even money might seem preposterous given the incalculable number of scenarios yet to play out, but the odds makers are signaling that only long shot lovers should bother to put any team but Kentucky on the champion’s line.
It’s unfortunate that newly-ascendant teams like Northern Iowa and Virginia are having great seasons in a year in which Kentucky is having a historically great one because when a team makes history by going undefeated, that’s all anyone remembers. What else do we remember about Indiana’s undefeated 1976 season besides the Bicentennial and Elton John singing “Philadelphia Freedom” to honor his friend Billie Jean King? Okay, I might be the only person to remember that but does anyone remember that Rutgers also was undefeated going into the Final Four? Maybe if you went to Rutgers. History, as they say, is written by the winners.
The selection committee’s job never is easy and always is subject to ridicule. Geography mandates the placement of the higher seeds, with but one exception. Teams from the same conference that have already played twice in the regular season cannot be among the top four seeds in the same region. Larger schools from power conferences undoubtedly get the benefit of the doubt over smaller schools from lesser conferences, as is the case with UCLA this year. The Bruins posted a 2-8 record against teams in this year’s field, but passed the “eyeball test” according to selection committee chair Scott Barnes. Was UCLA more deserving than a Colorado State team that reeled off 15 straight wins to start the season and had a better record against the RPI top 100 than did the Bruins? The selection committee determined that it did. With so much emphasis placed on quantifiable metrics, the eyeball test seems like a very unscientific methodology.
Despite that, the committee always manages to create some compelling matchups with interesting storylines. Virginia opens the tournament against Belmont, which features Virginia transfer Taylor Barnette. Belmont shoots the hell out of the three, which is a shot that Virginia grudgingly concedes in order to better defend the basket. It is not unthinkable that Belmont could shoot Virginia right out of the tournament. Should Virginia prevail, an even more stern test likely awaits the Cavaliers. Michigan State. The Spartans ended Virginia’s season last year in an epic tournament game at Madison Square Garden and this year are Dick Vitale’s sleeper pick to make the Final Four. Additionally, Tom Izzo is a great tournament coach and has the record to prove it. According to Jared Andrews, since becoming the Spartans’ coach in 1995, Izzo is 19-4 in the round of 32 game. Michigan State looks horribly under seeded at the seven spot, but I am sure that the committee felt like a Virginia-Michigan State rematch would make for good television. Virginia fans are feeling hosed.
Why? Because Duke. In filling our my own brackets and doing my research, Duke’s path to Elite Eight seems absurdly easy. Of course, that’s what we thought last year before Mercer messed everything up. However, Duke’s path most likely looks like this: San Diego State, S.F. Austin. Yes, I am picking S.F. Austin to win two games. They are the trendy 12 pick in the first round against Utah and should they triumph, they most likely will get a game against an overseeded Georgetown squad that has gone 7-5 in its last 12 games and got knocked out of the Big East semifinals by Xavier, the 6 seed over in the West bracket. Prior to the ACC Tournament, both Virginia and Duke looked good for 1 seeds. Then both teams lost in the tournament semifinals, Virginia to a UNC team that played its best game of the year and Duke to a Notre Dame team that had already beaten the Blue Devils earlier in conference play. Duke’s loss had no apparent effect on its seeding while Virginia, getting a marginal contribution from vital cog and twice-injured Justin Anderson, was bumped to the 2 line for its loss. And people wonder why it seems like Duke gets preferential treatment? Selection Committee chairman Scott Barnes said Duke got the higher seed by virtue of its win at Virginia in January, ignoring that Duke had some inexplicable losses and Virginia didn’t. Splitting hairs, I know.
Having now lost two of its last three, Virginia does appear wobbly. A healthy Justin Anderson may be just what Virginia needs to go along with the motivation provided by the perceived seeding slight. Virginia coach Tony Bennett, diplomatic as ever, waved it off, stating that every team will need to win six games to be national champion and that his team will play whoever is on the schedule. Tony Bennett, unflappable as always.
Some paths to the Final Four undoubtedly look easier than others, but then a funny thing happens. The refs throw the ball up and the players play, often with unexpected–but never boring–results. March Madness baby!
Oh, and I still hate Christian Laettner, even if he is resting in a hammock made of his own laurels.