Tuesday, March 29, 2011

VCU proves experts wrong; Final Four: underdog/good guy divisions vs. not-so-good-guy/overdog division

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.


SMar said...

Loved this column. Given all the pundits/experts on ESPN/other sports shows, it would be great if someone would start a website tracking every single prediction made by these talking heads (re:NFL,NBA,NHL,NCAA,& MLB)and post the percentage of time they are right/wrong. I suspect it would be no better than the average joe watching from home.

Mr. X said...

Which team gets the gallantry medal, Butler or VCU?

Gunnar said...

I will be rooting for the good guy division. Calipari is an excellent in-game coach, but his programs do not smell right. He has done a good job of keeping himself from being directly involved/caught in payouts/loans/cheating on tests/etc.

case said...

well for the second year in a row, there will be a team in the final to root for with youthful enthusiasm--even greater since the evil duo of calhoun/calipari is much easier to root against than duke
enjoy shelter island
i live on the north fork
did you take time out for restaurant week ?
is the new book on hoops ?--hopefully not golf

John from Indiana said...

OK, the book waiting to be written is about how and when "nice guys," like Brad Stevens, become "nice guys with baggage,"... like Jim Calhoun and John Calipari.

Is it when they say to themselves, "If I can just get this one guy, I can get over the hump and won't have to sell my soul all the time."? Or is it when they say, "I'm so close to the _______ title, if I can just get one more player, we're there." Once Pandora's box is open, is it just that much easier to go dip into the well of grime?

As a reporter, can you not get access to slimy guys unless you've written SOMETHING, somewhere, that says, "Nice guy, I like him, BUT....." The psychology of that book is the one I'm waiting to read. The thought occurred to me that it is much easier to write about the Patriot League than it is to turn your head to the truth about the marquee programs and the compromised people that have to run them.

Michael said...

You work for CBS College Sports Network, so you may know the answer to this question. Why didn't CBS put the NCAA tournament on CBS College Sports instead of TruTV? The only reasons I can think if are that CBS College Sports isn't in as many homes as TruTV or that Turner insisted on TruTV getting games as part of the deal.

case said...

well-said, john
hope your fellow indiana native brad does not become a cal

TB said...

Legitimate question from a Memphis Fan. What is worse--again, this is legitimate--Memphis playing Derrick Rose (after he was cleared 3x by the NCAA clearinghouse) or Duke playing Corey Maggette after he took cash from an agent?

Is Coach K as liable Coach Cal? (who I personally like) Awaiting your answer....but not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

Duke lost - sour grapes there John - get over it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah John, we know this has nothing to do with your hatred for UK or love for the Dookies because your such an unbiased journalist. But your nonsensical rantings and ravings are entertaining, so I'll be back to check you out after Kentucky cuts down the nets in Houston.

Anonymous said...

JF's complaining about sanctimony and self-righteousness in others is like Larry King's criticizing Jay Leno for conducting shallow interviews. JF leads the field in sanctimony and self-righteousness. It might be that the NCAA is staffed by folks with those vices, but I'll bet that one of them, one time, cracked a joke. And that it was funny. JF? Don't think so.