We’re down to the Four. Here are some of the thoughts we had about the last couple of days of games while looking ahead to next weekend in Indy…
Forget the Seedings, These Teams Are Good. With a #1, #2 and two #5 seeds making the Final Four this year, the immediate reaction is that we’ve got a wide-open bracket with the potential for a true Cinderella to cut down the nets this year. Closer examination, however, reveals that all of the four teams left standing were thought pretty highly of in the preseason. In both the AP and Coaches Polls, Michigan State was ranked #2 behind Kansas, while Duke, West Virginia and Butler all populated the top ten as well (Butler was #11 in the AP). So while it may have taken some time for Izzo’s Spartans to get it together (like seemingly every year), they eventually did and they’re playing well enought to be a worthy Final Four participant; the same is definitely true for Butler, penalized by the pollsters and Selection Committee for early losses in November and December, but who is playing as well as anyone left right now. It’s difficult to lose the mindset that a team is a Cinderella or not based on its Tourney seed, but the truth is that these four teams are all playing like #1 and #2 seeds and they have the talent to back it up.
Izzo the Stray Cat. Tom Izzo is like the stray cat in your neighborhood that you can’t get to stay off your front stoop no matter how hard you try. Just when you think he’s out of your hair for good, he shows up again with that Cheshire grin belying his belief that he’s the luckiest dude alive. Six Final Fours in twelve years is one better than it was last year (five in eleven), and yet everyone acts completely shocked and amazed that he’s back in the Four with much the same group of players. How weak are people’s memories? This is what Izzo does — this trip will make the second time that his team has reached the final weekend as a #5 seed — and it’s not a mere coincidence. Everyone knew that he had the talent this season (see above re: preseason ranking), but all of the turmoil surrounding player roles and injuries led people (including us) to believe he wasn’t going to be able to find the combinations to get it done again. Here’s a bracketing lesson for all of us next year and the years beyond that: Wherever Michigan State is seeded, just put the Spartans in the Final Four and don’t look back. Your odds are much better doing it that way than actually trying to analyze the matchups and break down the games. Izzo is a March master, and how anyone can doubt this guy’s abilities is beyond comprehension.
Butler is No George Mason. To a casual fan, he sees that Butler is in the Final Four this weekend and he’s thinking George Mason all over again. This lazy thinking is a serious mistake. Mason was an #11 seed who benefited from catching two teams by surprise in the first two rounds, followed by veritable home games in DC against another Cindy Wichita State in the regional semis and an uber-talented but frustratingly underachieving UConn team in the regional finals. They deserve all the credit they can muster for winning those games, without question, but things broke well for them to make the run possible. Butler had to play and beat the top two seeds in its region to make the Final Four this year, and they did it by forcing both Syracuse and Kansas State to bend to their style of play and make numerous atypical mistakes. Butler’s defense subjugated two of the most efficient offenses in America into their worst performances of the year, and that’s no more a coincidence than Izzo above still having games to play. Andy Rautins, Scoop Jardine, Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen (combined 20-52 FGs) are undoubtedly still having nightmares of Butler defenders securing temporary eminent domain over their jockstraps. The key takeaway here is that Butler will defend Michigan State just like the others, and if they can find enough offense themselves through Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and friends, they are plenty good enough to continue to advance.
Bob Huggins, White Knight. One thing we noticed traveling around over the weekend was that every hoophead around the country was unilaterally rooting for West Virginia to take out John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night. In the sports bar we were in during that game, Syracuse, Butler, K-State and Xavier fans were teamed up pulling for the Mountaineers. We’ve picked up similar anecdotes from around the country since then — nobody wanted Kentucky to win that game. We believe that this sentiment derives from a general feeling that Calipari is a dirty coach who cheats to get his players, but the irony of everyone outside of the Bluegrass backing Bob Huggins wasn’t lost on us. Since when is tHuggins Huggins the white knight here to save college basketball from agents, cheaters and bags full of money? Surely people remember his endless problems at Cincinnati with players failing to graduate, numerous asundry brushes with the law, and failing to exert institutional control? No? Look, we get that people don’t like Calipari and, by proxy, Kentucky; but isn’t Huggins quite possibly worse given the history of lawlessness on his teams?