NCAA Tournament -- Four Winners, Four Losers
Well, if a Final Four of a three, four, eight and 11 seed wasn't a metaphor for Houston sports in 2011, then Connecticut and Butler establishing a watchability bar that the women's final may actually surpass tonight (okay, I am totally joking, but still...) most certainly was.
Jim Calhoun reboots once again.
How bad was the offensive basketball last night (and really in the Final Four as a whole)? Well, consider the following:
-- One team shot over 40 percent from the field all weekend, UConn on Saturday night, and they still only shot one of 12 from three-point range.
-- Butler scored three two-point field goals in the entire championship game.
-- Matt Howard was one for 13 from the field in the championship game -- and he made the All-Final Four team. And shockingly, no one has a problem with this.
Yes, in addition to people who had the under last night, there were winners, and other than human beings with working eyeballs and a television last night, there were losers. It goes like this....
1. 68-Team Format
The so-called "First Four" were generally relevant heading into the tournament because of how universally panned the inclusions of UAB and VCU in the field were. Now with VCU making a run all the way to the Final Four, we're going to be reminded for roughly the next 50 years how "anything can happen" and to "remember VCU." Damn you, VCU.
2. Jim Calhoun
During the assembly of last year's recruiting class (the group that would become this year's freshman nucleus of Jim Calhoun's third national championship team), Calhoun told assistant coach Andre LaFleur that they needed to find kids who would listen to their message, coachable kids. The 2009-2010 season had been a grind in so many ways for the Connecticut coach/institution -- on the court, off the court -- he wanted to make sure that at age 68, if he was going to go through another refresh of the UConn program (something he's had to do about every five or six years during his tenure in Storrs), he was going to do it his way with players who would adhere to said way. Um, I guess it worked.
One (inane) argument that defenders of college football's bowl system make for the superiority of their way of doing things is that "35 teams end the season on a winning note." Never mind the fact of the stark reminder of the "participation ribbon" mentality that pervades our athletics far too often these days, I would argue that college basketball, even with 67 of the teams in the Big Dance ending the season with a loss, sends just as many teams home for the offseason feeling like they accomplished something significant, and they still do so within the framework of a "winner takes all" format.
Take Butler, for example. They've made it to the Finals two years in a row and lost each time, once to Duke and last night to Connecticut. The mere fact that they've been in that game is somewhat miraculous, and I would say that for teams in the big conferences as well. The math alone makes it remarkable; the talent pool from which Butler recruits makes it otherworldly. It's hard to argue that kids playing for any of the bowl winners outside of the BCS bowls feel better about themselves than the kids from Butler. In fact, I would argue that....
4. Little Guys
....kids from the following schools in this year's tournament all have a greater sense of accomplishment than players who won bowls played in December: Kentucky (a year early on a 2012 Final Four run), Arizona (a missed three-pointer away from the Final Four from a five seed), Richmond (Sweet Sixteen berth from a 12 seed), Florida State (ditto from a 10 seed), Morehead State (second round win over Big East power Louisville) and Virginia Commonwealth (the 2010 Butler of this year's tournament).
There have been many times over the last couple years when I pondered quitting fantasy football. With the proliferation of backfields by committee and the huge dropoffs from starting quarterbacks to wretched backups, fantasy football drafts may as well be conducted via ping pong balls like the NBA lottery. (By the way, the auction night alone in my league is enough for me to still keep playing every year. Good group.) Well, the brackets now feel that way. Nothing like having your entire Final Four gone before the Elite Eight tips off, or three of the four gone by the end of the first weekend. And I actually watch college basketball. Why bother?
2. Bill Self
Another year, another tournament ouster to a much, MUCH lower-seeded foe for the Kansas head coach. This year it was 11th-seeded VCU doing the honors in the Elite Eight, in a game where VCU was never really threatened. As generally underachieving as most Self-coached teams are in March, Bill Self will always have a 2008 title to fall back on, unlike....
3. Mike Brey
The Notre Dame head man is a tough coach to judge. Should he be lauded for doing more with two- and three-star recruits than most coaches in the country? Should he be criticized for not getting more high-profile recruits? Should he be lauded for continually overachieving against preseason Big East expectations (consistently picked before most seasons in the 7th through 11th range)? Should he be criticized for going to one Sweet Sixteen in a decade at the Irish helm? The fact of the matter is Brey is not in nearly the pressure cooker guys like Self are. If Notre Dame football were winning ten games per season, people would barely notice the basketball program. But with each second round loss to a lower seed, Brey gives himself less and less wiggle room in the event that the "precipitous dropoff season or two" that most have been expecting eventually happens.
4. Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley is a must-view on TNT doing NBA analysis because (a) he is insightful thanks to his nearly two decades as a player and his continued study of the game and (b) he's entertaining because he's not afraid to put any NBA player, coach, or referee on blast. This college analysis stint exposed the obvious fact Barkley watched almost no college basketball (signed, "Just repeat that the Big East is overrated over and over again") and subsequently neutered him because he was either afraid to or was asked not to heavily criticize college kids. Ultimately, CBS managed to do what I thought was the impossible -- they made Charles Barkley uninteresting.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.