The opening act of the NCAA tournament — four months of pent-up drama squeezed into a four-day marathon — delivered the chaos it set out to create. If you haven’t yet digested what you fought through strained eyes to see, here are the key tidbits to remember from the hellacious week that was.
Officiating was bad. And not just at the end of games when each play is micro-analyzed. Bad calls confined to late-game situations– the Illinois/Miami missed out of bounds call, the Ohio State/Iowa State controversial charge call and the Cal/UNLV missed intentional foul — drew the lion’s share of criticism, but other officiating gaffes shouldn’t go overlooked. The Duke-Creighton foul-athon was called too tightly. Georgetown-Florida Gulf Coast and Marquette-Davidson weren’t called tightly enough. Victor Oladipo got away with harassing Khalif Wyatt in the second half of Indiana’s comeback win over Temple. After dropping 20 points in the first half, Wyatt was limited in the second by Oladipo’s no-holds-barred defense. Star treatment is real, not imagined.
The flagrant-one elbow call was excessively enforced throughout the week, applied according to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Reform is in order for this defect in the rulebook. While the rules committee sorts out that hiccup, it may as well revisit its policies on video review. That the pivotal Illinois-Miami out of bounds call was not reviewable with less than a minute to play underscores the absurd, draconian limitations of video replay. An expansion of its application is long overdue.
Seeding was worse. The selection committee should be ashamed. Here’s an exposé of everything the panel flubbed.
Louisville IS the team to beat. If you weren’t sold on the Cards as a favorite before the tournament (I, for one, wasn’t), you should be now. Louisville decimated an experienced, balanced and underrated Colorado State team that shot the ball exceptionally well in the first half. Russ-diculous is playing the most consistent ball of his career, Montrezl Harrell has emerged as an unsung beast and Peyton Siva looks comfortable back in his homely tournament environment.
Do note, however, the Cardinals have a habit of looking better in their wins than everybody else because of their unmatched ability to rack up style points. Louisville’s A-game is better than all others — owed largely to the team’s dynamic full-court press and the ‘spurt-ability’ it generates — but that’s not say Rick Pitino’s squad is any less likely than the other top seeds to slip up playing its C-game. Louisville’s A-game cannot be beat, but will we see it four more games in a row?
Guards matter. Short of Wichita State, an inside-oriented team, Sweet 16 participants are all set-up in the backcourt. Without capable guards, you don’t get to this point. Of the 16 teams still standing, 13 have been led in scoring by their guards. One-size-fits-all philosophies that attempt to universally explain how to win in the tournament — like “defense wins championships” — are generally hogwash, but the importance of guard play is valid. Four of the seven highest scoring backcourts in college basketball this season (Duke, La Salle, Louisville and Michigan) are Sweet 16 bound, and not by chance.
Kansas and Indiana have work to do. Of the four No. 1 seeds, only Louisville has looked the part. Kansas wallowed to an underwhelming win over Western Kentucky on Friday, then its sluggish offense stumbled out of the gates again in the first half of Sunday’s third-round game against North Carolina. The Jayhawks must find a way to reignite their silent star. Ben McLemore has fallen into a rut, low-lighted by an 0-of-9 shooting performance against the Tar Heels. For a team light on scoring, KU can ill-afford another no-show from its freshman phenom with a high-powered Michigan attack next on the docket. The Wolverines won’t be so forgiving.
Indiana, meanwhile, rode its defense past an athletic, physically imposing, but shooting defunct Temple team. A viable remedy on Sunday given the Owls’ scoring woes, the Hoosiers cannot continue to rely exclusively upon a defensive-centric formula moving forward. Cody Zeller has struggled scoring when he catches the ball on the lower block, particularly against bigger and more athletic pivots. He’ll see more of those against Syracuse and potentially Miami, which places the burden on him to figure out a creative way to score. IU received just five points from the combination of Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls over the weekend. Suffice to say, that won’t pass muster against beefier competition.
Arizona should be the favorite in the West. No team in the region is more rested than the talented bunch from Tuscon. Arizona has yet to break a sweat in the tournament, cruising to never-in-doubt wins over Belmont and physically over-matched Harvard. Mark Lyons is playing at an ace level, Brandon Ashley’s peerless talent is showing through, Kaleb Tarczewski is growing up fast and Solomon Hill, as usual, is quietly going about business. The Zona engine is nearing its top gear, at which point nobody in the West — not even Ohio State — will have the capacity to slow it down.
Forget regions. The Wildcats are the most underrated team in the field, long forgotten as an athletically superior team with upside in the frontcourt rivaled by few. If not for three losses to UCLA — chalk that up to an unfavorable match-up — the Cats would have been in contention for a 2-seed. Doesn’t that change the perception quite a bit? Whether Sean Miller’s Cardiac Cats are ready for Ohio State’s stifling D remains the only question separating the team from Cat-lanta. Zona hasn’t played a D like the Buckeyes’ since facing Florida in mid-December.
Florida Gulf Coast can make a Final Four. But its journey has become markedly tougher. Florida is a huge step-up in match-up formidability from each of Gulf Coast’s previous two opponents. Unlike Georgetown, Florida can exploit size and athleticism advantages at almost every spot on the floor. Above all, the Gators tote an inside presence — multiple, in fact — that neither Georgetown nor San Diego State had at its disposal. The way to beat the Eagles is to bully them inside, as Duke’s Mason Plumlee did earlier in the season. Patric Young and Will Yeguete can victimize FGCU’s frail front line if given the opportunity. Will Florida’s jump-shot-happy guards give them enough touches though? Will Erik Murphy get back to banging on the block or remain married to the 3-point line? Bill Donovan should hope for the former.
So can La Salle. If not for Florida Gulf Coast’s scintillating story, La Salle would be the darling of the dance. Ramon Galloway has shined, Tyrone Garland has showed off his Philly-welded game and Jerrell Wright is proof that the lone A-10 survivor isn’t backcourt-or-bust. If Tyreek Duren picks up from where he left off on Sunday — Duren had a rough run in his first two tournament games — these Explorers may find themselves in Atlanta in short time. The West Region is ripe for the picking, which gives La Salle a leg up on Gulf Coast as the likeliest Cinderella to extend its fairytale another week.
Big Ten still rules. The B1G is 10-3 in the tournament and victims of only one upset (Ole Miss over Wisconsin) by seed. So much for speculation that the Big Ten may go the way of the Big East — that is, squandering an artificially lofty reputation come tournament time because of the toll each team took during the rough-and-tumble conference play.
Mountain West Conference is still full of pretenders. This was supposed to be the year the Mountain West altered its reputation for the better, the year when the league shed its choking label for good. One week later, no team from the RPI’s No. 1 conference is left dancing. Since its formation in 1999, the MWC has received 38 bids, but has only four Sweet 16 berths to show for it. The MWC has been on the unpleasant end of more upsets by seed (3) than any other conference in the tournament, owning losses to No. 12, 13 and 15 seeds. In all, three different league members — No. 3 New Mexico, No. 5 UNLV and No. 7 San Diego State — bowed out against teams seeded at least seven spots lower, the first such time that’s happened to one conference in tournament history. Concisely put, there isn’t a more duplicitous, fraudulent league in the college game today.
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