ATB: Selected Thoughts From an Epic First WeekendPosted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 2010
How’s Your Bracket? Of the sixteen top seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament, eight are now gone — one #1 seed, one #2 seed and three each of the #3s and #4s. The last time that half of the top sixteen didn’t make the Sweets? 2005 (8). Before that? 2000 (9). So maybe this is a cyclical thing of around twice a decade, but we’ll take it. It makes for a wild attention-getting opening weekend, and builds a buzz about the Dance that had been lacking in the last couple of years during the early rounds. In addition to that, we have a #9 (Northern Iowa), #10 (St. Mary’s), #11 (Washington) and #12 (Cornell) crashing the rarefied air of the regionals, the most teams from the lower half of the bracket to make it since 1999 when five double-digit seeds made it to the second weekend. To the players on those four teams, they don’t care about any of that — the unlikelihood of its occurrence is lost on their youth; all they know is that they’re still playing and they believe they can continue to advance in this tournament. And why shouldn’t they? None of the four teams above fit the definition of an overmatched Cinderella that just happened to catch a favorite looking ahead or on a very off night. No, these four teams have combined to win 113 games this year, and each has shown the ability to win convincingly over quality competition. Cornell’s 13-point victory over Temple was one thing; but an 18-point pasting over Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin while scoring 87 points is quite another. St. Mary’s knocking out a strong Richmond team was impressive; but holding Big Shot Scottie Reynolds to 2-11 from the field is a different story. Same thing for Washington dominating a 30-win New Mexico team, and well, we’re still in astonishment over the UNI victory over Kansas on Saturday afternoon (more on this below). It was a bracket-busting kind of weekend, and it provided more thrills and memorable moments than the last few NCAA Tournaments combined. It’s the reason we all love this sport, and it provides additional evidence (although none is needed) that the Tourney is already in its sweet spot in terms of the right number of teams allowed to participate. If #9 seed Northern Iowa had to play an additional game to get to #8 UNLV before a chance to take on #1 Kansas on Saturday, would they have had the legs to get past the overall top seed? Would any of the above teams still be dancing?
Un-Farokhing-Believable. We were among the biggest supporters of top overall seed Kansas as a dominant team that had a great shot at steamrolling to this year’s title, but Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa had other ideas. It wasn’t enough that the Iowan with the Persian name that no major college wanted drilled a 25-foot game winner during Thursday’s first round game versus UNLV; no, he one-upped that shot with another three (“a dagger,” according to Bill Self) on a 1-on-2 fast break opportunity where the ‘smart’ play appeared to be pulling things out and running clock. His platinum-balls three from the right wing was all net, giving UNI a four-point lead with around thirty seconds to go. After KU’s Tyrel Reed charged on the ensuing possession, the upset was in the books, and it will go down as one of the greatest in NCAA Tournament history. No matter what the revisionist historians will try to argue, Kansas was the prohibitive favorite to win the NCAA Tournament this season, and in the 64/65-team era, there has never been a bigger Second Round upset. Bigger than Stanford and Kentucky in 2004, Stanford again in 2000, and yes, even Kansas’ loss to UTEP in 1993. The difference between those teams and this one is that 2009-10 Kansas was considerably better than all of those other #1 seeds. If you disagree that they weren’t the prohibitive favorite, send us a screen shot of where you had the Jayhawks losing. 42% of America in the ESPN Tournament Challenge had the ‘Hawks winning it all, and nearly 75% had them in the Final Four. We would agree that it was the biggest overall upset since George Mason over #1 UConn back in 2006, but at least by that point in time we had a decent idea of what the Patriots were made of (with wins over UNC and Michigan State already). Here, we had no idea that Ali and his Magic Panthers had in store.
Color Us Impressed…
- Cornell. Mentioned above, but we have to give the Big Red their props separately for picking apart two very good teams in Temple and Wisconsin. Their offensive efficiency in these two games was astronomical, which makes sense when you realize that they shot 59% over two games. Louis Dale and Ryan Wittman are playing great, but they’ll find a different level of athlete guarding them in the next game vs. Kentucky.
- Korie Lucious. Lucious was able to come in off the bench for Michigan State when Kalin Lucas left the game with an apparent Achilles injury, and for the most part, kept his team playing at a high level. When Maryland made their run late in the second half, it was Lucious who saved the day with a three as time expired from the top of the key. Tom Izzo is doing right by somebody, as MSU and Lucious have a good shot at returning to the Final Four even without Lucas next week.
- Xavier. Despite losing their coach and three of their best players, Xavier is back in the Sweet Sixteen for the third consecutive year (and it would have been four if Greg Oden had been called for an intentional foul in 2007). The only other school to have achieved such a feat? Izzo’s Michigan State. This program is so consistently good that we all just take for granted that the Muskies will be a March fixture.
- Kentucky and Syracuse. With Kansas out of the picture, these two teams put on twin dominating performances to announce that they expect to be on a collision course for a showdown on April 5 in Indy. The difference in talent between these two teams and the rest of the field is significant. Doesn’t mean they’ll both make it there, but that’s the smart bet.
- Omar Samhan. The St. Mary’s big man who played in the shadows of Patty Mills and Diamon Simpson in the past few years in Moraga has come into his own this year and is one of the best big men in the country. In two games against Richmond and Villanova, he’s averaging 30/10 on a ridiculous 75% shooting, repeatedly coming up big for his team when the opponent was making a run. Samhan against Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh will be a tremendous battle next week.
- Middie Conferences. Five of the Sweet Sixteen teams come from mid-major conferences. While we hesitate to call Xavier and Butler mid-major programs, there’s no doubt about Northern Iowa, Cornell and St. Mary’s are. It’s interesting to note that the top mid-major league this year — the Mountain West — put four teams into the Dance but none advanced past the second round. Having these teams move into the second weekend is great for the Tournament and is something that enriches the entire experience.
- Big Ten, Purdue specifically. The league that many of us thought would be one of the best coming into the season didn’t look quite as strong at the end. But with three teams in the Sweets, more than any other conference (the Big 12, Big East and SEC have two each), and a very good shot at two in the Elite Eight (Ohio State and Michigan State), the league should be proud of its performance this year. Purdue, of course, is the team that nobody was giving much of a chance to advance one round, much less two, due to the loss of Robbie Hummel, but the Boilermakers came through in a big way behind their gritty defense and unsung hero Chris Kramer this afternoon.
Here We Are Now, Underwhelm Us…
- Big East. This was a running theme all weekend, but yeah, when you get 12.5% of the teams into the field, people expect more than two teams in the Sweet Sixteen. Georgetown was a complete shocker, and Villanova right behind the Hoyas in the tanking department, but Marquette blew a 15-point lead to Washington, Louisville got embarrassed by California and Notre Dame laid an egg against ODU. Not the league’s best weekend. The good news is that Syracuse and WVU are poised to continue to advance with the way they’re playing.
- Texas vs. Wake Forest. This abomination of a game was a race to the bottom of the deck in terms of both teams trying to find ways to lose the game. Ultimately, it was Rick Barnes’ Texas team who missed seemingly every free throw under pressure to blow an 8-point overtime lead and allow the Deacons to move into the next round. Most times this weekend, players made great plays to win games; in this game, the opposite occurred (with the sole exception of Ish Smith’s buzzer-beater, of course).
- Scottie Reynolds. We love Scottie around here at RTC, but a 4-26 shooting performance over two games isn’t going to earn you any cred this year even if you were superb for most of your career. Reynolds picked a really tough time to have two of his worst shooting performances of the year. For a player who shot a smooth 46% from the field this year, it was especially troubling.
- ACC minus Duke. Remember when you used to be able to count on the ACC for three or four teams in the Sweets every year? Check these numbers: 1, 2, 1, 1, 2. In the last five seasons, those are the yearly numbers of ACC teams that advanced to the second weekend — a total of seven teams in that period. Most of those were obviously Duke or North Carolina. At what point do we start questioning the coaching talent in this league beyond the twin steeples in RTP and in some years, in College Park?
- New Mexico. For a team that won 30 games and presented a solid resume coming into the Tournament, this #3 seed barely got past Montana prior to getting completely smoked by an #11 seed, Washington. Realistically, the Lobos were more in line with a #7 seed than the rather lofty one that they received from the Selection Committee.