The Week That Was: NCAA Tournament EditionPosted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 2011
David Ely is an RTC Contributor
What We Learned
The Big East is not overrated; it’s just not as good as it was made out to be. The conference sent an NCAA record 11 teams into the field of 68 and Vegas set the over/under of total wins for the conference at 15.5. This year’s March Madness was supposed to be the cherry on top of an historic season, but instead the tournament has been a complete and utter disaster. Only two teams from the Big East will be playing next weekend (Connecticut and Marquette), and the only reason there are two teams remaining is because each squad beat a conference foe to advance to the Sweet 16. But let’s not jump the gun and label the Big East as the most overrated conference in the nation. For one thing, assessing the merits of a conference over a single weekend slate of games is somewhat foolish. That’s a ridiculously small sample size, especially considering during the regular season the conference posted a 34-19 record against tournament teams, according to the New York Times’ Nate Silver, who’s been spot-on with his analysis this month. The Big East was justified in getting 11 teams in the field — after all, Marquette made the Sweet 16 — but it was just a good conference, not an especially great one. If anything, we’re guilty of overlooking the fact that most of the teams in the Big East lacked NBA talent on their rosters (a key ingredient to any successful Final Four run). When Kemba Walker is your conference’s top NBA prospect, you know you have a talent deficit.
Speaking of the Big East and disappointment, it seems as though we have a new March tradition: Pittsburgh choking away a game against a lower-seeded team. For the fourth straight year the Panthers were upset in the Tournament, and they’ve now been beaten by lower seeds five times in coach Jamie Dixon’s eight trips to the Dance. This loss was perhaps the worst, though. There was finally a clear path to the Final Four as the Panthers were a #1 seed in what was considered the weakest bracket of the Tournament. But Pitt quickly fell behind Butler on Saturday, failed to ever take control of the game, and Nasir Robinson committed an all-time blunder with his foul in the final seconds. Somehow, though, Dixon seems to escape this latest letdown without many people suggesting he could be on the hot seat. There were few anti-Dixon comments on Twitter following the loss, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a column titled, “Don’t give up on Dixon.” Now, we’re not implying that Dixon deserves the Rick Barnes treatment (no one would ever confuse the talent on Pitt’s roster with that of Texas’) but we do wonder if the program has plateaued. Dixon hasn’t produced a single first round pick in his time with the Panthers. Is it really reasonable to expect him to lead a team to a national title without more than one next-level player? Dixon usually can get you to the Sweet 16, but who knows if he’s the man to get you one weekend further.
What say you now, Jay Bilas? The unworthy VCU Rams have gone from bastard child of the tournament to Cinderella story in just a couple of days. The Rams waxed USC by 13, dismantled Georgetown in Round Two by 18 and then routed Purdue 94-76 to advance to the Sweet 16. Truth be told, the Rams should give Bilas thanks for doubting their NCAA bona fides on national TV. Nothing can focus and motivate a squad like a high-profile diss, and VCU played the nobody-believes-in-us card for three straight games, all won on the defensive end. The Rams held USC and G’town to under 40 percent from the field and then limited E’Twaun Moore to only 10 points on 5-15 shooting. Up next for VCU is #10 Florida State (ranked 126th in offensive efficiency), and few people will be shocked should the Rams pull off another upset. But here’s the thing: can the Rams channel their anger from last week now that people are giving them their due props? The Rams can continue to sell the underappreciated storyline if that’s what gets them ready to play, but they should just know that no one is buying it anymore.
Hero(es) of the Week
Terry Wymer and Antonio Petty. It’s so easy (and tempting) to swallow your whistle in the final seconds of a game. As fans that’s often what we want from our referees: let the players decide the game on the court, on their terms, without your interference. That’s why the general support for the calls made at the end of the Pitt-Butler game was so surprising. Across the board, it seemed that everyone agreed that the fouls on Shelvin Mack and Robinson were fouls, and they should have been called. TWTW also applauds Wymer and Petty for not being afraid to make both calls, which were blatant and right on camera. And for those who want to complain that the officials decided Saturday’s game — just stop. The officials didn’t determine the outcome. The players did when they committed those stupid fouls.
Goat of the Week
What was Mike Hamilton thinking? Hamilton told WNML-XM in Knoxville last Wednesday that “the jury was still out (on Bruce Pearl’s job status).” We’re not here to argue that Pearl deserved to keep his job after he misled NCAA investigators last year; plus, what we think doesn’t matter, considering that Pearl got the axe Monday. But we are confused as to what Hamilton gained when he dropped that bomb on radio. In throwing Pearl under the bus just two days before the Vols’ second round matchup against Michigan, Hamilton manufactured a needless distraction. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, players had to endure hours of speculation of whether or not Pearl would be back next year. Pearl and his players were obviously not focused on Michigan leading up to that game. It’s not surprising that Tennessee lost to the Wolverines on Friday – in its near-upset of Duke, Michigan showed it’s a legit squad – but the way the Vols mailed in the second half proves that Hamilton’s statement affected their preparation. Words like “quit” and “unraveled” were used inside the Tennessee locker room to describe the loss, and Melvin Goins admitted that it was a distraction. With Pearl gone (we doubt a win over Michigan would have saved his job, anyway), we think it would be apropos of Hamilton if he tendered his resignation this week, as well.
What We’re Looking Forward To
#5 Arizona vs. #1 Duke. The nightcap in Anaheim on Thursday has the makings for a classic. You have two history-laden programs in the Wildcats and Blue Devils. You have the two of the top players in the nation in Derrick Williams and Nolan Smith. If that’s not enough to get you watching, you also have an Arizona squad that we think matches up well against Duke. Yes, the Wildcats are a squad that eked out wins over Memphis and Texas this weekend, but it wouldn’t be a shocker if they found a way to beat Duke. Kyle Singler or one of the Plumlees shouldn’t give Williams nearly the same problems that Tristan Thompson and his 7’2 wingspan did. Arizona also boasts plenty of perimeter firepower (freshman Jordin Mayes went 5-5 from three over the weekend) to free up space for Williams to operateon the inside. Also keep in mind the Blue Devils didn’t look overly impressive Sunday against Michigan, and they’re still trying to figure out how to best utilize a backcourt with Smith and Kyrie Irving. Anyone who saw Smith fail to touch the ball during a crucial late possession Sunday knows Irving’s reintegration into the lineup is still a work in progress.
Will the Butler magic continue? The Bulldogs provided the most excitement of the weekend, winning their first game in buzzer-beating fashion and then surviving one of the most bizarre finishes in college basketball history to topple #1 Pitt. Could Butler mount another run to the Final Four? We think…Yes. Wisconsin (now ranked #4 in KenPom’s ratings) should certainly be the Bulldogs’ toughest challenge in New Orleans, but the Badgers are definitely beatable. Wisconsin doesn’t defend the three particularly well, allowing opponents to make 37.3% of their shots from downtown. And while Butler isn’t an elite shooting team at 36.2%, the Bulldogs are plenty capable of getting hot from downtown (see their 12 treys against Pitt). To upset Wisconsin, Butler will have to harass Jordan Taylor into his second straight woeful shooting night, and force someone aside from Jon Leuer to beat them. One other thing working in Butler’s favor is that Gus Johnson will be in the booth for the New Orleans regional. Remember: Johnson was on hand for Butler’s wins over Syracuse and Kansas State last year.
More of Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. The highlight of the weekend for TWTW was Smith and Barkley providing some much-needed entertainment to the Tournament’s studio show, which had become stale the past few years. Watching Kenny and Chuck jaw with Greg Anthony after UNLV got bounced by Illinois was great TV (loved the “Walking” Rebels comment), but that paled in comparison to the job the two did on the Big East — right in front of Rick Pitino, no less! On Saturday after another Big East flameout, they riffed for about a minute on different variations of “The Big Least,” as Pitino sat there fuming. Barkley, in particular, has been a blessing to the TV coverage, and some of his insight has been perfect. Barkley was one of the first to say that the Big East was not as good as advertised, and the conference’s meek showing last weekend proved Chuck knows enough about college hoops. So what if he can’t provide analysis on every single team in the tournament? How many people honestly want hard-core insight and Xs and Os during a halftime show, anyway? TWTW prefers a combination of interesting tidbits and humorous back and forth banter, and Barkley and Smith certainly delivered that. We just hope Billy Packer was watching.