On Any Given Thursday

Let’s play the word game.

The NFL coined it, but college basketball best exemplifies it.

It’s what you got when 6-19 Boston College upends 25-0 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, when lowly Penn State beats Ohio State twice, and when Providence beats Creighton in the Big East conference tournament final seven days after being crushed by the Blue Jays.

It’s in the air when 16-0 Wisconsin and 15-0 Ohio State both lose five of six in Big Ten play before regrouping to land NCAA bids, and when Baylor and Oklahoma State fall to 2-8 and 4-9, respectively, in conference, before making late season surges.

The NFL mandated it, by its inverted draft system and by biased scheduling, but in the college game, it just came naturally.

During NCAA bracket time, which is right now, it’s the word on everybody’s lips. It’s the “P” word. It’s PARITY. You can’t just rely on chalk when completing your grid. You may actually have to know something.

In this year’s bracket, you can make the argument that the three seeds are better than the two seeds and that two of the four seeds – Louisville and Michigan State – have a better chance to win the tournament than three of the one seeds (Florida excluded). Curiously, the NCAA selection committee has underseeded several teams (New Mexico, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Michigan State) and overseeded others (Creighton, UMass, St. Louis).

In the old days, before conference re-alignment, a traditional basketball power in a Big Six conference could win half its games in conference play and be assured of an NCAA bid. Now, because of uneven scheduling in the re-aligned super conferences, one man’s 12-6 may be no more impressive than another’s 9-9. Virginia, for instance, played Duke, North Carolina, Pitt, and Syracuse only once each while fattening up twice on Maryland, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Florida State. The inequality of conference scheduling has forced the NCAA selection committee to place greater weight on other factors – strength of schedule, wins against top 50 opponents, and so-called “bad losses” to teams out of the top 100.

But the selection committee was not consistent in weighing these factors and in balancing recent performance versus year-long body of work. Despite Louisville’s paucity of top 50 wins, how could the committee ignore that it was steamrollering recent opponents? Ditto for resurgent Michigan State, which is healthy for the first time all season and dominated the Big Ten tourney. By way of cop-out, selection committee chairman Ron Wellman cited the “paper-thin” differences involved in seeding teams.

Just six years ago, in 2008, all four number one seeds made it to the Final Four. Now, you can’t tell a number one seed from a four seed. Where did all this parity come from?

Several factors have contributed to the leveling of the playing field in Division 1, notwithstanding the hogging of top freshman prospects by Kentucky and Kansas.

The pool of available talent has expanded. Teams are recruiting outside of the United States. Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis, Michigan’s Nick Stauskas, and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins all played high school ball in Canada; and New Mexico’s aspiring Lobos feature two Australians in their starting lineup.

Further, liberalization of the transfer rule has allowed players to more freely change teams. At least twenty transfers are playing major roles for NCAA-bound teams , including Arizona ‘s T.J. McConnell, Duke’s Rodney Hood, San Diego State’s Xavier Thames, and Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane.

DeAndre Kane celebrates Cyclone’s Big 12 Tournament Win

Players who stay are improving during their career. Notwithstanding Kentucky’s success in 2012 with one-and-dones Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd -Gilchrist, and Marcus Teague, coaches are coming to realize that bringing in five or six star recruits is not the formula to win championships. A blend of returning veterans is required to be successful. Of the sixteen top-seeded teams, only Arizona and Kansas start more than one freshman.

When Kentucky won in 2012, it relied heavily on the contributions of returning lettermen Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, and Doron Lamb. Starting four or five freshmen the past two years, Kentucky has played erratically and immaturely, losing 22 games. Barring a Wildcat run in this year’s tournament, the John Calipari model has been discredited. The feeling now is that coaches who can maintain continuity in their program have the advantage of fielding wiser, stronger players than high turnover teams in pursuit of the top recruits.

Another big equalizer has been the increasing importance of the three-point shot. A weaker team trailing for the entire game by 10-12 points can narrow the gap quickly by making a few three-balls, as Boston College so notably did against Syracuse. To succeed today, a college team must shoot the three, make the three, and defend the three better than its opponent. Duke and Creighton are living off the three pointer.

Conference play is so grueling, said former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, that among the toughest tasks in sports is to win a road game in conference in February. The intensity is heightened during the conference tournaments where teams are meeting for the second or third time in the season, sometimes only a week apart. Teams know each other. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” said Emerson, but in addition, it allows teams to formulate a new defensive approach for the re-match. This makes for even more parity.

Thus, Providence was able to better contain Creighton’s 3-point shooting and Kentucky, in its third try, was able to push Florida to the buzzer in the SEC championship.

The most competitive of the conference tournaments was the Big Twelve’s. It was parity on steroids. Seven of the eight teams in the quarterfinal round made the NCAA tournament. During the regular season, these teams beat each other up. Only Kansas lost less than six games in conference play. Iowa State, the conference tournament winner, was 15-0 outside the conference, and 11-7 in it. After enduring the rigors of conference play, Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and even Baylor are capable of making protracted runs in the NCAA tournament.

Number one seeds Florida and Arizona have relatively clear paths to the Final Four, particularly if Kansas’ center prodigy Joel Embiid does not return at full strength from a back injury for the round of eight match with the Gators; but Louisville and Michigan State pose huge obstacles to Wichita State and Virginia progressing beyond the round of sixteen. The pundits are almost uniform in the belief that these upstart number one seeds will fall early to the number fours with the big resumes.

But the Shockers and the Cavaliers did not earn their high ranking by guile and good fortune alone. Both are in the top five of the respected Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings.

“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect,” wrote Oscar Wilde.

In the topsy-turvy world of bracket completion, it would be wise to heed the words of the Old Aesthete.


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