I know it has been a while and I apologize to those who look for this blog on a regular basis. I went underground last week, retreating at the suggestion of my remarkably patient wife to Shelter Island to dig in and try to finish a book. The good news is I got a remarkable amount of work done in six days. The bad news is I still haven’t quite reached the finish line.
Choosing not to go to a regional site was a mixed blessing. Not having to try to file at ridiculous hours of the night thanks to the NCAA’s selling of its soul to TV was something I didn’t miss. Not dealing with the constant feeling that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that you are in a police state when you are in the arena also wasn’t missed. And not having to deal with more internet problems—the NCAA is the only major organization that CHARGES for internet and then most of the time it doesn’t work—was also a very good thing.
So, I stretched out in front of the TV in the evenings and watched the games. Let me begin by patting myself on the back (something I’m pretty good at as most people know) for saying—and writing—on Selection Sunday that VCU belonged in the field. I advocated all season for the CAA getting three bids because I believed the quality of play in the league merited three bids. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in recent days that include the phrase, “all the experts said VCU didn’t merit a bid.”
Okay, I’m happy not to be lumped in with the talking heads, especially those on ESPN. My friend Jay Bilas needs to swallow hard, drop the lawyer-line about, “just because they got a chance and played well doesn’t mean they deserved the chance.”
YES THEY DID. They have proven more than definitively that they deserved the chance and you Jay—and others—just had it wrong. How about saying this: “You know I probably didn’t see VCU play enough to fairly judge them. They’re better than I thought they were.”
Heck, they’re certainly better than I thought they were. Did I believe they should be in the field? Absolutely. Did I think they’d be in The Final Four? Of course not. Beating USC didn’t surprise me nor did beating Georgetown—because the Hoyas did their collapse act again. I’ve said before and I will say again, I think John Thompson III is a good coach and a good guy. But in the last four years—or since Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, both recruited by Craig Esherick—left the program (actually Hibbert was still there in ’08) Georgetown has won ONE NCAA Tournament game, against a No. 15 seed UMBC back in ’08. Since then: NIT; first round blowout loss to Ohio University; first round blowout loss to VCU. (The round of 64 is still the first round no matter what the NCAA euphemists call it).
Something’s wrong inside that locker room. Georgetown is the most secret society this side of The CIA so we may never know exactly what went wrong but if you read body language you know those kids weren’t very excited about being together on the court against VCU.
I thought the Rams run would probably end against Purdue. They crushed the Boilermakers too. I thought the Florida State game was a tossup and it was: teams of destiny win those games. And Kansas? No way was Kansas going to lose to another mid-major after the Northern Iowa debacle a year ago, right? Wrong. The Jayhawks played as if they thought this was a pre-season game. Then when they realized how good VCU was they panicked and started firing bricks that could have rebuilt The Berlin Wall.
Wow. Good for Shaka Smart and good for those kids and for that school and, by the way, for the CAA. I might have been wrong: maybe the league deserved four bids: Hofstra was pretty damn good too.
The committee got it right with VCU. For the most part it got just about everything else wrong. I’m not going to go the Charles Barkley route and declare The Big East overrated. It wasn’t—it was very good with a lot of good to very good teams. But Villanova should have played its way out of the field with its monumental February-March collapse. The committee—as always—just looked at numbers. Hey, anyone WATCH the South Florida game? Talk about a team in disarray. Did we need seven Big Ten teams? No. UAB got in for one reason: Steve Orsini, committee member from SMU, got his conference an extra bid. The tournament would have been fine without USC. Oh, and one more nitpick: Clearly if you were seeding the last four No. 16 seeds based on records and RPI and perhaps even—God Forbid—watching them play, UNC-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock would have been 1-2 and clearly ahead of UT-San Antonio and Alabama State, by far the lowest ranked team in the field. And yet, the first two played one another while UT-San Antonio got to play Alabama State. Hmmm, how could that have happened? Does the name Lynn Hickey ring a bell? Committee member; AD at….you guessed it…UT-San Antonio.
You know what? I may be wrong when I say the committee isn’t transparent. In truth, it is VERY transparent. If you’re paying attention.
But, fine, whatever. As I’ve said before it doesn’t bother me that much that the committee gets it wrong because it is made up of people who don’t know much about basketball. (okay, it bothers me). But what REALLY bothers me is the sanctimony and the self-righteousness. They get everything wrong and sit there and claim they got everything right. My cats could seed the tournament better than these guys and do it for a lot less and with a lot less self-congratulations or discussions of ‘student-athletes.’
Anyway, The Final Four has two clear divisions: There is the underdog/good guy division: Butler-VCU. What Butler has done is completely amazing. Honestly, if I was starting a college basketball program tomorrow and could hire one coach it would be Brad Stevens. He is very much the real deal. He’s smart, he understands the game and he understands life. His kids trust him implicitly and he NEVER panics. So, they never panic. That’s why they keep winning close games. Back-to-back Final Fours at Butler? My God. Put that guy in the Hall of Fame NOW.
Then there is the not-so-good-guy/overdog division: U-Conn and Kentucky. As it happens, I like both Jim Calhoun and John Calipari. I think they’re both superb coaches. They get kids who have one eye on the doorway to the NBA—if not two—to play hard all the time. But the fact is Calhoun and Connecticut have just been convicted by the NCAA of major recruiting violations and got off with a wrist-slap because they’re a big-time TV program. That’s how it works and we all know it.
The other fact is this—although you will never hear it mentioned on CBS or ESPN— Calipari has overseen two programs that have had Final Four appearances vacated.
PLEASE don’t give me the morning pitchmen line from today: “Well, um, Calipari had two programs that, um, had some problems, HE didn’t have problems, the programs did…” Right, he was an innocent bystander. COME ON! And we all know Kentucky’s history. (Go ahead Kentucky fans, explain how your program has NEVER done anything wrong and this is all about me not liking Kentucky.).
So, the final will match a true Cinderella—and Butler is STILL Cinderella no matter how good it has become—against one school on probation and one that’s been there before coached by a guy who has twice been vacated. Talk about good vs. evil.
Anyway, regardless of the outcome you can be sure of two things: the game won’t be over until close to midnight and the committee blowhards will be patting themselves on the back for great job the minute that buzzer finally goes off.
Yeah, great job. Sort of like the Mets owners have done the past few years.