Today is Groundhog Day, and with much of the nation under snow, ice and feeling a lot like the inside of a commercial freezer, it may seem very hard to believe, but Punxsatawney Phil actually predicted an early spring this year. Whether his prediction about March comes to pass is debatable, but it got us thinking that the celebration of his day makes for a good assessment point to see if what we think we know at this point of the season passes muster in less than six weeks. Generally speaking, do the teams ranked highly on February 2 do well in March? How predictive are the major polls today compared with what ultimately happens next month? We’re not sophisticated enough to run high-level regressions on this stuff, but we were able to eyeball some of the numbers and come to some basic conclusions below.
He Can Predict Weather, But Can He Predict Hoops?
The first thing we did was look at the AP, ESPN/USA Today and the RPI ratings on or about Groundhog Day for the last three seasons. Notably absent are the Pomeroy ratings, but to our knowledge, he doesn’t keep historical daily archives available for public consumption. So we’ll deal with what we have. We then averaged the top sixteen teams using those three metrics and then compared them with their ultimate season outcomes (NCAA Tournament seed; Sweet Sixteen appearance; Final Four appearance). It’s a rudimentary analysis, but as you can see, below, Groundhog Day seems to be a fair to good predictor of March outcomes. Here are the last three years worth of data:
As you can see above, eleven of the sixteen teams ranked in the aggregate top sixteen ended up getting a top four NCAA seed, and a full half of these teams made it to the Sweet Sixteen. This year was the only incident in the three-year window where a Final Four team (Butler) came from outside the Groundhog Day top 16. On to 2008-09:
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences and an occasional contributor.
The NCAA got around to announcing “The Decision” regarding the layout of the now 68-team tournament and specifically the makeup of the competitors in the four “play-in games” today, and the end result? Punt.
Getting the terminology out of the way first, these games are officially no longer part of the Opening Round, nor are they “play-in games” (not that they ever were). They now make up the entirety of the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, otherwise known as the First Four. Those games that get played on Thursday and Friday? Those are now the Second Round, with the weekend games now the Third Round, with the winners there still advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.
We knew before today that there were three main options that the NCAA was considering: the final eight at-large teams matching up, the lowest eight automatic qualifiers matching up, or some combination of the two. That last one, that’s what we got. And you know what? That’s probably the best decision.
The NCAA dropped back and punted, here -- but the resulting field position isn't that bad.
If the NCAA had chosen to send only the lowest eight qualifiers to these games, there would have been numerous problems, not the least of which would be a continuation of the idea that those first four games aren’t really part of the NCAA Tournament. The teams that advance from one-bid conferences like the MEAC, SWAC, American East and Big Sky (to name just a few of the usual suspects) would battle it out in Dayton in relative anonymity for the right to advance to their chance to get killed by a one-seed, while your typical college basketball fan would ignore the whole thing. In the process, sure, the teams involved would have a better chance at winning a game in the NCAA Tournament and thereby earning themselves an extra share of the proceeds from the tournament, but once the “actual” tournament started, there would be four less automatic qualifiers sticking around for their chance to get on national television and test out their slingshot against Goliath. Then there’s also the fact that after spending $10.8 billion on the rights to the tournament, the first four games of the package would be a total wash for the television networks, stuck broadcasting games like Mississippi Valley State against Northern Arizona to a national television audience of almost four digits.
It’s here. We’ve endured the three-day layoff and it’s time for more hoops. We know you already know, but here’s our lineup for today in the order in which they’ll be showing up on our screens:
#1 Syracuse vs #5 Butler
#2 West Virginia vs #11 Washington
#2 Kansas State vs #6 Xavier
#1 Kentucky vs #12 Cornell
Everyone’s been talking about Cornell (and Northern Iowa in the Midwest) — and well they should — but we doubt Butler, Xavier, and Washington will go quietly. That’s how great this tournament has been; because of the achievements of teams like Cornell and Northern Iowa, we’ve heard next to nothing about what Xavier and Washington have done! Syracuse will not have Arinze Onuaku and you’ve heard about the Darryl Bryant injury by now, so we expect the Huskies will try to make life difficult for Joe Mazzulla. It should be an amazing four games tonight, to say the least, and we’ll crank up the live window (located after the jump) about 15 minutes before the first tip. We hope that as you watch the games you’ll join us for some live discussion, as well. It’s Sweet Sixteen time!
First Weekend Storylines. Like most of you guys, we figure we watched approximately 38 hours of basketball last weekend over the first four days of the NCAA Tournament. Since we were in Vegas taking advantage of the sportsbooks’ multiple huge-screen tvs, we pretty much saw pieces of every game on the dance card. Here are some of our thoughts and observations based on the sensory overload (speaking of sensory, that chick making bedroom eyes at the burger in the McDonald’s commercial is ridiculously difficult to remove from the internal hard drive).
Coach K, Your Filet o’ Sole Has Arrived. From our point of view, at least in terms of the elite teams of each conference, there was never any question that the Big East was much stronger than that of the ACC this year. The fact that anyone was even questioning this seemed odd. This year, the Big East had six teams (of seven bids) with a reasonable shot to make a run at the F4 – UConn, Pitt, Syracuse, Louisville, Villanova and Marquette, and the first five of that group is still standing (the most ever by a single conference in the Sweets, btw); the ACC had three (of seven bids) - Duke, UNC and Wake Forest, but only the twin towers of Tobacco Road royalty are left dancing. The simple fact of the matter is that the ACC’s middle – comprised of Clemson, Florida St., Maryland, BC and Virginia Tech (NIT) – were only “solid” teams that had significant weaknesses due to personnel or other issues. Conversely, the equivalent caliber teams from the Big East (with the notable exception of WVU) were left out of the Big Dance. This group includes Providence, Cincinnati, Georgetown and Notre Dame, and there shouldn’t be any dissent as to the fact that each of these teams would have competed for the middle of the ACC with the above group and several would have also earned bids on the basis of the occasional upset (see: Maryland and BC). Sitting where we are now, with five Big East teams a mere two wins away from the F4, it wouldn’t shock us to see all four slots filled by a BE team. This is still an unlikely scenario, but keep in mind that only Villanova is considered an underdog to reach the next round (Syracuse is a pick’em against Oklahoma), and all five of these teams are more than capable.
#1 Seeds. UConn looked absolutely dominant in its two games, and while not much can be discerned from a 56-pt dismantling of Chattanooga, the 92-66 beatdown of a Texas A&M team that was coming on strong must be viewed with awe. The Huskies will get the best team in the Big Ten next – Purdue – but we have trouble believing that the Boilers will challenge Jim Calhoun’s team at this point. Suddenly a #1/#2 matchup against Memphis in the regional finals looks very appealing. UNC bombed Radford in its first round game before riding a partisan crowd’s energy and Ty Lawson’s toe to a breakaway win over LSU in the second round, 84-70. The Heels should put away Gonzaga easily in the next round (we doubt Heytvelt will dominate Hansbrough this time around), but a regional final against either Oklahoma or Syracuse could present all kinds of problems for the Tar Heels. Louisville and Pittsburgh both struggled to put opponents away in both their first and second round games. Both of these teams sometimes have trouble scoring, and we have to wonder when a prolonged scoring drought against a good team will be enough to end their run to the title. Pitt should have a relatively easy go of it with its next game against Xavier, but we’re looking at Louisville’s next game against Arizona and wondering what might happen if the trio of Budinger, Wise and Hill are all making shots.
RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory, something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today. Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month. We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Growing up I always thought of myself as a big time college basketball fan. I remember feeling very fortunate that my school always held half-days on the first Thursday-Friday of March Madness. Sure, it was pure coincidence, but I liked to think that it was somehow a sign that we were supposed to be watching the games, and that’s exactly what I did. It wasn’t until I went to college at Butler that I learned what March Madness was truly all about. After having collected 25 wins in 2001-2002, and falling victim to a rage-tastic NCAA snub, the Bulldogs responded the following season with 25 more wins, and this time an at-large bid into the Big Dance. Birmingham, Alabama was the site, Mississippi State was the draw, and there was no question I’d be attending. The first step was figuring out “how” and the second step was figuring out “when” – as many of my friends and I had a fraternity formal scheduled for the exact same weekend. It didn’t take long for the plans to come together, however. We’d leave Friday morning, and 8 hours later we’d be in Birmingham, just in time to be able to watch a potential 2nd-round opponent, the Louisville Cardinals. After the game, we’d drive straight back and attend our formal the next night on a few hours of sleep. Just another day in the life of a college kid, right?
Butler Rode Cornette & Co. to the Second Weekend (photo credit: enquirer.com)
All went as planned. Myself and 3 others drove all day on Friday, constantly going over why we thought our Bulldogs (not Mississippi State’s) would be victorious. We tried to convince ourselves all afternoon that we’d be marching on, but none of us really believed it. We were just happy to be able to escape the cold air of Indianapolis for a day. Soon enough we arrived, and caught a glimpse of why Louisville was so feared that season (02-03). They hammered Austin Peay in the first game of the night session, ending the Governors’ season. As that game ended, the butterflies really started to build. I was at an NCAA Tournament game, and not to just watch and enjoy the action. I was there for MY team. And I can tell you, win or lose, there’s nothing like being able to root for your team at the NCAA Tournament. When you’re a heavy underdog, playing a team from the SEC, in SEC country, there’s something about feeling that momentum build as David is taking its best shots at Goliath.
As tip-time neared, everything that had been absorbed from watching Butler for an entire season began racing through my brain. They needed to shoot well from the perimeter, stay out of foul trouble, and most importantly – control the tempo. That Butler squad enjoyed grinding out possessions, and they were damn good at it. At the same time, everything that had been absorbed from that entire week – pundits predicting a massive Mississippi State victory for being seeded too low as a #5 – also came rushing to the front of my brain. It was a different, unsettling feeling, one that I haven’t felt about any Butler basketball team ever since. The game took shape – painfully slow – just the type that Butler wanted. There were punches, counter-punches, and counter-counter-punches, all spread VERY far and wide across both 20-minute halves. Slowly, the “neutral” fans began to get on Butler’s bandwagon, and before anyone knew it, the game was still up for grabs with just seconds remaining. Then this happened…
That feeling is one that I’ll never, ever forget. They had done it, and David had advanced to the Round of 32. Other friends of mine stayed in Birmingham. They called their dates to our fraternity formal and cancelled on them, but it was understandable given the circumstances. Our small crew of four hopped back in the car and drove all night up I-65 back to Indianapolis. It was the fastest eight hours I’ve ever spent in a car. We went to our formal on Saturday night, and of course the victory was all anyone could talk about. A fun time was had by all, but I don’t remember all that much of it. I was already thinking about Sunday’s showdown with Louisville. Combine that with the lack of sleep and an excessive amount of malted hops, and, well, you get the picture. Everyone woke up early Sunday morning and headed back to campus to see if our classmates had one more unthinkable performance in them. This is what we saw…
Needless to say, the scene on campus was unreal. Everyone ran out of their housing units as soon as the final buzzer sounded, and it was pandemonium in the streets. Sure, there were only a couple-thousand out there, but that was easily over half the campus! To this day, I think about that 48-hour period every time March rolls around. And, honestly, I usually end up telling this story to someone, whether they’ve heard it already or not. I’ve been to several of Butler’s NCAA Tournament games since that weekend, but the sequel is never, EVER as good as the original. That is, unless the latest sequel involves a run to the Elite 8 (or beyond) in the next couple weeks…