March Madness

Patrick J. Garrity

March 1, 2007

All over corporate and academic America this week, copying machines and printers fired up. Your tax and business dollars were not hard at work, however. Ladies and gentlemen, start your brackets. The new national pastime and extravaganza known as March Madness has officially begun.

I can’t tell with any confidence you who will win. Sorry. Set aside the fact that the NCAA tournament is a single-elimination event—one slip-up and you go home. Officials make strange calls. Desperate half-court shots go in. More important, who can possibly know what goes on the mind of a 19-year old male, no matter how athletically gifted he is? He may have had a fight with his girlfriend over the weekend. His mother may be upset because he couldn’t get tickets for their third cousin. His posse may be arguing over how to spend the money he’ll be getting from his big shoe contact once he declares for the NBA draft a few weeks hence. Life can be very complicated for the student athlete. And not all of them are stars. The fourth man off the bench—who actually plans on becoming a doctor—may be the one to shoot the critical free throw, in front of thousands of screaming fans and millions of TV viewers.

In short, your office pool will probably go to someone’s wife or daughter who filled out the bracket on the basis of team colors or mascots. So, fill out your sheets and then set them aside. Unless you have a major rooting interest, just enjoy the games. Or learn to tolerate them if you think colleges should be for education; but you just can’t escape the media saturation. The pre and post-game chatter has become as important to the fans as the games themselves.

You’ll have to get past the whining of coaches and fans of “bubble” teams who believe they were excluded unfairly by the dark wizards of the NCAA selection committee. Each year five to ten teams make such a case. Syracuse, Drexel, Florida State and Kansas State lead the current list. Syracuse’s exclusion caught almost everyone off guard as did the inclusion of Arkansas. The selection process indeed is more than a bit opaque and, dare one say, political? Standards applied one year seem to shift the next. My own view is: if you want in, Win. Win your conference tournament and receive the automatic bid. Or at least play such dominant basketball that Congress would order an investigation if you were sent packing to the NIT. Well, maybe that’s not the best means of enforcement but you get my meaning. I’m also an advocate for the “small” schools—the mid-majors, whose enrollment of real students may well surpass those of the “big” schools, like Duke. Here Drexel would have received my vote. The big schools dominate TV coverage and the revenue streams. I don’t see why they should be rewarded by allowing teams with mediocre seasons in the power conferences to move ahead of an outstanding mid-major that may have been tripped up in its conference tournament. I’m a Jacksonian democrat when it comes to college basketball—although not so much as to favor a limited expansion of the size of the tournament, because I fear the extra slots would actually go to the big schools.

That’s my prejudice. It’s also true that at the end of day, aristocracy rules. Last year’s George Mason, a mid-major and an 11-seed, was a wonderful and partial exception to the rule. The eventual national champion will come from a power conference and it will probably feature a program that has been here, done that, before. We all leak a little oil, as Lee Trevino once said about playing under pressure. Blue bloods like North Carolina and Kansas leak it a little less not just because they have premium players but because they are less likely to be distracted by all the peripherals that go along with this traveling circus. Tradition and experiences are something like Jung’s collective unconscious. It travels with a program even if the players and coaches are new. There will probably be a Cinderella in the Final Four—but it will most likely be a lower seed from a power conference than a working-class upstart like Nevada or a Winthrop.

For the most part, don’t worry about seeding and sites. For months we’ve watched the hand-wringing about who will be seeded Number 1 in each region. Once you get past the first round, however, it really doesn’t matter at the top end. Over the last five years, only six number one seeds have made the Final Four. In any case, seeding is insignificant much below the first couple of bracket lines. There will be at least one 5-12 upset, as there always is. It’s not so much a matter of the growing parity of talent; or of chance. Playing styles and difficult match-ups drive upsets. Here Ohio State may well struggle at times during the tournament. Having played for some months in the dreadfully-paced Big Ten, can they now readjust to up-tempo offensive basketball against a team whose “bigs” can draw Greg Oden away from the lane? I’m an Oden fan and Ohio State certainly can win it all. The more probable scenarios, however, are an early upset, or a loss in the championship game.

It has long been said that college basketball is the guards’ game. You can take a great post player out of the action through defensive structure and tempo, but not so with great guards. True, up to a point. Great guard play will get you through two rounds. Beyond that, you must have legitimate big men who are a threat to score as well as defend and rebound. This does not augur well for my University of Virginia Cavaliers, seeded #4, which has two excellent guards (one of whom is now playing despite an injury) but which has no real offensive post presence.

Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships. Well, yes. But you have to score to win. Many defense-oriented teams struggle offensively, despite having talented offensive players, because of the energy that defense requires. Defense-oriented teams play in many close games, even against inferior teams, which increase the odds that a bad bounce or whistle will decide the game. UCLA and Pittsburgh come to mind. A better criterion perhaps, is can you make key defensive stops at the end of games? Coach K’s great Duke teams did this consistently. This criterion is perhaps my one concern about North Carolina, as talented and deep as it. I’m not sure Coach Roy Williams has a defensive unit he can trust at the end of the game against top-flight offensive talent.

It is very difficult to pick against Florida, which returns all five starters from the national championship team and which is now playing well again after an understandable period of boredom late in the regular season. Florida is remarkably well balanced, with quality versatile players inside and outside. But recent history indicates that it is extremely difficult to repeat as champion. Other than Duke (1991-2), you have to go back to the days of John Wooden at UCLA. Florida plays with great emotion; they are a cocky, us-against-the world team—a good thing when one is an underdog but perhaps not so much when one is the favorite and center of media attention. Picking Florida is like playing two aces in no-limit Texas Hold ’em. It is easily the best starting hand but will it hold up six times two years in a row? The odds say no.

Free throws. Don’t forget free throws, especially in critical, end of game situations. Syracuse might have won five national championships if it could shoot free throws. Memphis, a #2 seed that is almost off the national radar because it is in exile in Conference USA, is a poor free throw shooting team (61%). More than one legitimate national championship contender will play a great game in this tournament, only to lose because they went 10 for 23 at the stripe.

And there are injuries, lingering and new, some of which you will never hear about.

This leaves us several interesting teams to consider, which are not No. 1 seeds. Georgetown, above all. Texas A&M. Oregon, a team with a profile very similar to that of last year’s Florida. Texas—although I don’t think they’ll win, you have to watch Kevin Durant play. I’m not buying into Maryland, a popular hot team, which assessment has nothing to do with the fact I’m at UVA.

None of this helps you create the winning bracket. For that, look to the mascots. Much wisdom, common or otherwise, applies only in the long run. But it’s always fun to try to beat the system.

Patrick J. Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.