In defense of irrationality: The NCAA Tournament has lost its mind

By REED NELSON

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Two weeks ago, as Oregon was wrapping up their Round of 32 blowout over the fourth-seeded St. Louis Billikens, I wrote this in a running live blog:

“The biggest story of the day is going to be Oregon, the leprous 12-seed attached to their name and the inability of the NCAA to get these kind of things right. I’m pumped. The NCAA is going (to) say, “That’s the best part about this tournament! You never know what’s going to happen!” Yeah. Unless you are a 5-seed. Then you’re going to be forced into playing a catastrophically underrated 12-seed, sometimes the champion of a big conference… cough… SEC and Pac-12… cough… and it’s going to crush you even worse than if you had been properly slated at 8. The other four 4-seeds? Michigan, Syracuse and Kansas State. I know Kansas State lost, but who actually thought that St. Louis should have been the fourth name on that list? Someone wouldn’t belong. The NCAA selection committee has the aptitude of a small, shelled pistachio when it comes to accurately assessing talent. It’s a recent trend, too, but a troubling one. One team beat Arizona, UCLA twice and UNLV this season, on their way to winning a BCS conference championship. The other team’s key wins came over Butler, New Mexico and VCU. Against Kansas, they lost by 14. They did win the A-10 championship, however, and apparently that means way more than the Pac-12 title. I hope I don’t have to verify which team is which, but this sort of thing would’ve never happened 15 years ago. Good conferences were good until proven otherwise, a process (that) used to take decades. Now it takes five years. Forget history, forget power recruiting tactics, if you’re the NCAA. Let’s trust the little guy. Yo, NCAA! New Mexico keeps losing.”

I wasn’t frustrated, I wasn’t miffed. I wasn’t even confused. And I certainly wasn’t surprised. The NCAA runs itself like a fly runs into a window, and it happens to be something that makes for particularly gripping television.

This week’s events notwithstanding1, the NCAA has put out an incredibly entertaining, engaging and headline-grabbing product over the past month. The conference tournaments were fantastic, the first 17 rounds of the Tournament have been thrilling, and a team named the Shockers made it to the Final Four, instantly making the Sports Section Slot Editor the easiest job in America2.

But something looks wrong this year, far more wrong than a Final Four featuring Syracuse, Michigan and Louisville ever should, at least. Wichita State is a wonderful story — the Jordan Brand-sponsored school with a strange mascot, hailing from Nowhere, Kansas rides the athletic play of combo guards/forwards and a farm hand to the Final Four — but the other three schools don’t feel like they belong so much as they feel like they were on the list that says “VIP” at the top.

Syracuse and Louisville don’t even get name-checked at the door, they glide right into the party and do the appropriate nod to the bouncer they’ve known for years. The bartenders know Boeheim and Pitino by name and they never have to wait for a cab, and for good reason. Not only have these two squads combined for four Final Four appearances in the last decade, but also they were both consistently and prominently featured in the Top 10 of this year’s rankings.

Michigan was no slouch either, winning their first 16 games, then 30 on the season, in what has been considered the toughest Big 10 in the history of the conference and claiming the Nation’s Number One ranking for a week. The Wolverines have only won 30 games in a season two other times, and when they did it in the past they had cool nicknames, flashy socks and paradigm-shattering tailoring jobs. This iteration of the 30-Win Wolverines only came armed with, you know, the AP Player of the Year/Wooden Award winner Trey Burke, enough backcourt athleticism to wrangle a Saber Tooth Tiger and a three-piece frontcourt that sacrifices size to absolutely no one. They were within a ridge on a basketball from winning the regular season conference title and that fortuitous ridge ended up costing them four spots in conference and maybe the same number when Tourney time came3.Yet somehow, their season was downgraded to a Top-16 type season, right in the mix with St. Louis, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Butler and Wisconsin — a Big 10 foe that finished 23-12 overall, 12-6 in conference play. They might have beat Michigan twice during the season, but if we applied the transitive property to sports, TCU would’ve earned a No. 1 seed, the Wizards have a case for being the Best Team in the NBA and LeBron James would be the greatest football player in the history of the NFL. So why did Michigan’s wins not count like they used to? Because we love Mid-Major’s and the jigga-watt bright blast of inspiration they provide.

Syracuse might have been their own worst enemy when it came to valuation, dropping eight regular season contests after starting the season 18-1. They climbed as high as #3 before losing to Villanova, but they came on strong to finish the season. But Syracuse is Syracuse, and if any coach with a phonetically pronounceable name (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Krzyzewski) deserves to be slightly overvalued come tourney time, it’s Jim Boeheim. But instead, the NCAA said, ‘You know what? Let’s just dumb down the system, ruin the Elite 8 and make Syracuse a 4-seed just for the hell of it.’ Well, maybe they didn’t but it feels like it.

So Louisville, a team that came on late after losing three straight in January (once to Syracuse) was somehow the only team immune to the underrating. The Cardinal came into the tournament as the number one overall seed, and has justly blown out every opponent they’ve crossed by 20 or more. That’s good evaluation. But to have the sum total of the other three Final Four participants come to 17? That’s catastrophically bad evaluation. It would be one thing if this was a Mid-Major-laden finale — Cinderella’s happen every once in a while, but as Butler has proven, they don’t happen by accident. Cinderella teams are usually pretty good. — but it isn’t. If Michigan, Syracuse and Louisville were playing in the Final Four, based on record alone, most people would say that the board must have stayed relatively close to chalk. The fact that the Elite 8 spat out the worst four games we’ve seen thus far in the 2013 NCAA Tournament (two 20-point blowouts, a 10-point smothering and predictably tight Wichita State win), should be a sign.

The Elite 8 was a disaster, even if the Sweet 16 was fun and full of surprise and finite wonderment. But am I the only one who finds this years tournament as contrived as Saw? Does anyone else yearn for the days of 12 seeds that didn’t win BCS-conference championships?

Ole Miss beating Wisconsin was not an accident. Neither was Oregon’s Sweet 16 run. Both teams had come off conference tournament wins in which they had to rattle off multiple “good” games in a row. And they were rewarded with 12-seeds. I understand that the RPI  might say one thing, but the RPI still relies on the notion of valuation, and that’s where the NCAA has lost its friggin’ mind.

If the NCAA Tournament is designed to give every team a chance, but not an equal one (thus the seeding) than the seeds all contain value. The most valuable seed is the No. 1 overall (Louisville) and the least valuable is No. 64 (North Carolina A&T), which makes sense — if one were to reward a team for excellent effort in the regular season, then the best way to do that seems to be by making their route to the true goal, the Championship, as easy as possible. And when it came to the best and the worst, the selection committee knocked it out of the park. But everywhere else they struck out, and most of the time it was looking, with their belts undone and their helmets on backwards.

In the course of half-a-decade, the NCAA has managed to make the 12-seed a more valuable position than the 5-seed. They’ve allowed three 15-seed’s to win in the past two seasons, sent No. 12’s, 13’s and 14’s through to the Round of 32 like they paid based on referrals and have hacked and carved away at the notion of “the Cinderella” to the point where it feels like the legend is no more than a lamb on spit. This tournament alone, there were six legitimate contenders for that title after the Round of 64. Six. That’s stupid. I’ve read Cinderella, and I know there wasn’t six of her.

But it isn’t the Cinderella’s fault. It’s the fault of the coffee table who must have been assigned the task of evaluating teams’ performance. In two years alone, three 15-seeds have won, reversing a trend that dated back to the expansion of the tournament. It’s nonsense. If lightening struck daily, we’d call it coffee. If the NCAA’s design looks like the real practice, something has gone seriously wrong.

That brings us back to this year’s Patient Zero, the St. Louis Billikens. A small, Catholic A-10 team, named after a fictional doll, with no track record of Tournament success was given a 4-seed this year. That’s like giving Cinderella a stretch limo, a VIP booth at Tao in Vegas and a 6 a.m. curfew. With all of that at her disposal, watching her win Prince Charming becomes less endearing, especially when she runs off with some overly-rhinestone’d guy that’s drinking vodka-Red Bull, whom she met sometime around 4 a.m. that also happens to be “a really, really nice guy!” When Charming starts begging her to just, “Come back to the castle!” the magic has worn off. When St. Louis was favored over the Pac-12 champion by four-points, it was the March Madness equivalent of watching Cinderella go home with a dude named Chet, which, as far as I’m concerned means the beginning of the end of for Cinderella.

It’s not that the NCAA doesn’t know what they’re doing — they must. It all seems more calculated than a CBS sitcom, but what’s being calculated is a formula trying to mass-produce special-ness. We love the Tournament because of Wichita State, but we love Wichita State because we love the Tournament. It’s possibilities are infinite, and because of those odds it makes hopelessness that much more difficult to believe. Everyone theoretically has a chance, but once “Everyone” starts to win, it’s no fun.

Wichita State’s Final Four run should be the story of the decade4, but it doesn’t seem that way. Not yet. Not since the Atlantic-10 earned six bids (6-0 in the first round, however) to the tournament this year. Not since the nation talked itself into giving Gonzaga a No. 1 seed. Not since George Mason and Davidson and Butler and Ohio and LaSalle and Florida Gulf Coast and Cornell. Remember when Ali Farohkmanesh took that “Oh man, oh man, oh man, OH MAN, OH MAN, OH MANNN!!!!!!!!!” three-pointer to knock off Kansas in 2010? Yeah, me neither. Because since then, we’ve seen it over and over again.

I think of it like a retro t-shirt. If you find a cool one at a thrift store, it’s awesome. It’s different, it’s loud and it has character. But once you see the same shirt at Urban Outfitters, it’s just not the same. Something organic has been replaced with something wholly artificial.

You can’t manufacture cool; cool just is. The Cinderella Story is cool because of its inherent improbability, among other things, like David slaying Goliath in 1080p. But if David takes down Goliath every week, at what point do their roles transpose? It feels like they might have already.

Footnotes

  • Apparently something happened at Rutgers, Auburn was accused of cheating again and Mark Emmert now requires Depends “just in case that damned phone rings again.”Jump
  • If Vegas isn’t listing a line on the use of the word “Shockers” in headline following a Wichita State win this Saturday (and they don’t) someone should lose their job. It isn’t every year you get an over under that can top 1,000.Jump
  • One could argue that their 23-point loss to Michigan State in East Lansing cost them dearly as well, but every college team has a bad game. Michigan’s just came at a weird time. Need proof? They took down Sparty three weeks later.Jump
  • Why Wichita State? They feel way more like a complete team than any of the other Cinderella stories in the past. I trust just about everyone on that team who gets playing time, and for a smaller program, that says a lot. Even Davidson, complete with Steph Curry, was just Steph Curry. Wichita State is so much more than Malcolm Armstead. And if you don’t love Ron Baker, you are not a real person and have a gaping hole where your heart should exist.Jump


Categories: Basketball, Features

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