Wild, Wacky NCAA Tournament
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 21, 2005

THOSE WHO want a football playoff to determine the national champion always point at the NCAA basketball tournament, but itís a bad example. The basketball tournament is great fun, but itís hardly the best way to determine the top team.

The problem with the tournament is the very reason itís so entertaining: its unpredictability. This year is an especially good example, mirroring a season which was full of surprises.

Here, for instance, are the eight teams Sports Illustrated predicted would still be alive in the Western half of the bracket: Illinois, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Gonzaga and Wake Forest.

Only the first four are still there. Washington, Louisville, Texas Tech and West Virginia have replaced the other four. Pittsburgh, which SI thought would beat Washington in the second round, didnít even get there, having lost to UOP in the first round.

Itís the same story in the Eastern bracket, with SI choices North Carolina, Villanova, Duke and Kentucky still alive, along with Wisconsin, North Carolina State, Michigan State and Utah. SI picks Kansas and Syracuse lost in the first round, to Bucknell and Vermont, respectively.

This is not to poke fun at SI because Iím sure other predictors had the same problem. Of the ďSweet 16Ē teams, three of them were only No. 6 seeds, and thereís a No. 10 seed (North Carolina State) and No. 12 (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) among the 16.

That kind of unpredictability means that it makes as much sense to pick teams at random in office pools as to try to really dope it out. One of my readers, Janice Hough, said she picked teams with feline names. ďThatís the kind of thing that drives the men crazy,Ē she said. Even her teenaged son scorned her Ė until Syracuse, his pick for an ďElite 8Ē spot, was upset in the first round by the Vermont Catamounts. For those of you who donít know, a catamount is a large wild cat, such as a cougar or lynx. I donít know what a Vermont is.

WHY THIS unpredictability? In part, itís because itís a single-elimination tournament. Especially since the three-point line (which is too close in college ball) was put in, itís been possible for a team to get really hot and put away a superior team. I would imagine that, if Syracuse and Vermont played 10 times, Syracuse would win eight of the games Ė but they only played the one game.

The brackets are important, too. In every NCAA tournament, there are a couple of unknowns, teams which are capable of lighting it up in any given game. These teams seldom go very far in the tournament, but they are capable of putting away a good team before they go. A top team which is put into a bracket that does not include one of these teams has a much better shot.

Geography is important, too. One reason many ďexpertsĒ (for this tournament, that has to be in quotes) think Illinois will win this tournament is that the Illini never have to get on a plane. They played in Indianapolis for the subregional and go to Chicago for the Regional. The Finals are in St. Louis.

Conversely, Stanford had to go across country to Charlotte, N.C. The Cardinal was never going to go anywhere in this tournament. Coach Trent Johnson, who probably had a better team at Nevada Reno last year, did a great job in holding an injury-riddled team together, but the blowout by a much more talented Mississippi State team was inevitable. Still, it was cruel to send Stanford across the country to lose.

Not unusual, however. West coast teams often get the short end of the stick in the NCAA. Itís a self-fulfilling prophecy: Easterners downgrade basketball in the West, in part because they see so few games on television because of the time difference, so Western teams get unfavorable placements in the Regionals. And then, they lose, which confirms the Eastern bias.

That brings up an old gripe of mine: that the old system of making Regionals specific to their regions has been abandoned. It makes much more sense to me to have teams from the West in a Western Regional, for instance, which would cut down on the traveling, so athletes would miss fewer classes Ė not that that seems to be much of a concern to most involved in college basketball.

THE CLOCK is not going to be turned back, so we will continue to see Western teams playing in strange locations. The tournament is still great fun, though, three weeks of unpredictable basketball which is, to me, much more exciting than the NBA playoffs.

Just donít think that it determines a true national champion, though.

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