Four Thoughts from Nashville …Posted by David Changas on March 18th, 2012
Here are few thoughts on Friday’s NCAA Tournament action in Nashville, and a look ahead to Sunday’s action.
1) The first thing that stood out in watching the eight teams in the NCAA Tournament pod in Nashville was the level of parity that was on display, and which is prevalent throughout college basketball. In the first half of the day’s first game, the East Region’s #11 seed, Texas, took futility to a new level, hitting 4 of 25 shots on its way to a 31-17 halftime deficit against #6 seed Cincinnati. After falling behind by 19 early in the second half, the Longhorns eventually tied the game, which wasn’t decided until the final minutes. In the nightcap, South Florida, the #12 seed in the Midwest Region, made Texas look efficient by going 3 for 27 and scoring 15 points in the first half. Somehow they trailed Temple by only four, and the Bulls came out of the locker room on fire and shot 60% for the second half on their way to a 58-44 win over #5 seed Temple. That was the largest spread of any of the final scores here. Each of the day’s games was up for grabs going into the final minutes.
Beyond the obvious – that #12 and #13 seeds won here on Friday, and that two #15 seeds won elsewhere on the same day – it is apparent that the disparity in talent between the mid-majors and the BCS schools continues to narrow. In watching teams in a pod in which there were no 1-16 or 2-15 matchups, it was clear that parity abounds. St. Bonaventure, the East Region’s #14 seed and the lowest-seeded team here, played ACC Tournament Champion Florida State to the wire and easily could have won the game. The Bonnies were the fourth-best team in what many consider the best mid-major league – Atlantic 10 – and they were able to control most of their battle with arguably the ACC’s best squad. And while it would have been an upset, no one here would have been shocked if it had happened. St. Bonaventure had good players, including the sensational Andrew Nicholson, and the overall difference in talent levels between the two squads was not as vast as it may have been in the past.
Transfers are also an important part of this equation. Case in point is Ohio forward Walter Offutt, who left after two years at Ohio State in which he rarely saw the floor. Offutt, a top-100 player coming out of high school, is one of many former high-major players we have seen over the years make a difference at the mid-major level. He is flourishing in Coach John Groce’s system and is the team’s second leading scorer. While he couldn’t get into the rotation in two years in Columbus, Offutt has flourished in relative obscurity in Athens. He is the type of player that allows a team like Ohio to compete when it faces better competition in March.
Upsets have long been a part of March Madness, but as we see more of them, we should be less surprised. The George Masons, Butlers, and VCUs of the world have shown us that there is plenty of talent outside the BCS leagues, and the parity on display in Nashville on Friday typified that.
2) If you like small guards, Sunday’s Ohio-South Florida matchup is for you. D.J. Cooper, a 5’11″ junior from Chicago, has experience in the NCAA Tournament, having led #14 seed Ohio in scoring as a freshman in its 2010 NCAA Tournament run that included an upset of #3 seed Georgetown. Even though he was going up against a stellar and better-known Michigan backcourt that included Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Zack Novak, Cooper was the best player on the floor in Ohio’s 65-60 upset of the Wolverines on Friday night. He controlled the Bobcats’ offense, leading to consistent good looks for the Bobcats. This allowed Ohio to shoot 52% from the floor.
Like Ohio, South Florida runs best when its floor general, freshman Anthony Collins, is in control. The 6’1” Houston native is the team’s assist leader and third-leading scorer. He takes care of the ball, and when the Bulls made their run in the second half to wrest control of the game in which they had struggled so mightily in the first half, it was Collins who took over, setting up his teammates and leading South Florida with 17 points and 5 assists.
Sunday’s contrast in styles should be fun to watch. The Bobcats like to push the ball and score in transition, while South Florida plays relentless defense and looks to play a grind-it-out game in the half court. Which team gets its way in the tempo department will be determined largely by which of these dynamite point guards has his way.
3) In 2010, Ohio finished 7-9 in the MAC, good for ninth in the league, before an unexpected run to the conference tournament championship and the league’s automatic bid. Nothing was expected of that team in the NCAA Tournament, and its first-round upset of Georgetown was a surprise. This year’s team appears to be approaching its run differently. The #13 seed Bobcats, who are 28-7 and contended for the MAC title, genuinely expected to beat Michigan, and it did not take long for them to move on from that win. Cooper acknowledged the difference in approach that this more mature Ohio team has taken. “We’re just more focused, just moving on to the next game plan. Thinking about preparing for South Florida – we’re not stuck on Michigan anymore.” Cooper also notices a difference in his coach. He thinks Groce has gotten “smarter” with experience. “The mentality is different. He wants us to win as bad as we do and he’s getting us prepared,” Cooper said. Ohio opened as a four-point underdog against South Florida, but no one who saw the Bobcats take down Michigan would be surprised by if they repeat that performance and move on to their first Sweet Sixteen since 1964.
4) While the teams sent to Nashville for the NCAA Tournament weren’t necessarily ones that would get the casual fans excited, the games here have been compelling. The basketball on Friday was not always great, but after suffering through Thursday’s duds, the four games here were competitive. Symbolic of that was the fact that the game with the largest differential in the final score was the one in which the winner made three shots in the first half. And while the eight schools present have had success over the years in basketball, besides Cincinnati and Temple, none generally are considered “basketball schools.” This meant smaller crowds than have been seen here on the two prior occasions the tournament has visited Bridgestone Arena, but those 2003 and 2005 visits to Nashville brought Bluegrass powerhouses Kentucky and Louisville, respectively. Because of its location – and because Louisville hosted its own set of Second and Third Round Games – Nashville was destined to be a spot that did not draw a regional team with prowess. Not surprisingly, large portions of the upper deck were vacant for both sessions. Still, when the games became interesting, the crowds were plenty loud. The best fan base of the day belonged to the lowest seed and the smallest school here, St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies were the most creative group, and the loudest. An eleven-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, as well as an academic scandal that rocked the school in 2003 and led the program to ruins, created a fan base that was hungry for postseason basketball, and that showed in the presence and passion that was on display.