Don't underestimate the potential dominance of tourney's top seeds
For all the talk of parity, Ohio State, Kansas, Duke, Pitt are a cut above the rest
Bubble teams weren't snubbed; there were a lot of bad teams fighting for spots
Best draw, matchups and picks in each region; Final Four and national champ
In 2010-11, college basketball suffered from a recession. The talent level was down across the board. (NBA execs are already lamenting the worst draft pool in years.) Injuries sidelined potential All-Americas (Duke's Kyrie Irving, Purdue's Robbie Hummel) before they could even get going. Young, but talented teams struggled to get their acts together. Coaches and referees made stupefying late-game decisions. Michigan State went 19-14 -- and still made the Dance.
Fortunately, March Madness is recession-proof. Put together a bracket, roll out the ball and you're going to get drama, as we saw throughout conference tourney week. From Kemba Walker's ridiculous five-game run to Jimmer Fredette's 52-point explosion, from Tyler Zeller's game-winning layup to Derwin Kitchen's waved-off game-winner, right up through Isaiah Thomas and Doug Davis' title-clinching buzzer-beaters, this March feels no less satisfying than any other.
If anything, the spell of mediocrity that befell much of college basketball this season could work in favor of the NCAA tournament. Take a look at your freshly printed bracket. Pore over the teams seeded roughly between third and 10th. The fact is, there's very little separating any of the teams. Which could make for a messy early few rounds.
There will be upsets mainly because, in many cases, they'll hardly qualify as upsets. Will anyone really be stunned if No. 13 seed Belmont beats No. 4 seed Wisconsin after the Badgers scored 33 points in their last game? Give UConn all the credit for its historic Big East tournament title, which helped boost the Huskies to a No. 3 seed, but they were still a 9-9 team in conference play that could easily lose to yet another Big East foe, Cincinnati, in the second round.
But lest we get carried away, this also seems like a year when order will be restored by the time we get to Houston. For most of the season, talking heads, bloggers and columnists alike have repeated the mantra that "there are no great teams in college basketball this season." Not true.
Ohio State finished the regular season 32-2, its only losses coming on the road to two teams (Wisconsin and Purdue) that went undefeated at home. The Buckeyes have all the elements you could hope for in a national-title contender: a veteran nucleus, an elite post player (Jared Sullinger), lethal perimeter shooters (Jon Diebler, William Buford and David Lighty). What's not to like?
Kansas enters the tournament 32-2 as well, having avenged its sole home loss by annihilating Texas in Saturday's Big 12 tourney final. The Jayhawks are the rare team to field two dominant big men (Marcus and Markieff Morris), and all but three of their 14 regular-season conference wins were by 12 points or more. That's pretty dominant.
Pittsburgh went 15-3 in a conference that produced 11 tournament teams, winning the regular season title. The Panthers start three seniors (Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee) and two juniors (Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson) that have played in a combined 36 career tourney games. A whole bunch of teams would kill for that level of experience.
And Duke, lest we forget, is the defending national champion, led by a sure-fire first team All-America (Nolan Smith). The Blue Devils' every misstep is inevitably magnified due to their national spotlight, but they just finished 30-4, clobbering rival North Carolina in their ACC championship rubber match. And heaven help the rest of the West region if Irving makes a much-rumored return.
These teams might not to be "great" in a historical context -- i.e. they're not dripping with lottery picks like the Joakim Noah/Al Horford-led Florida teams of 2006-'07 or the Jay Williams-Shane Battier-Carlos Boozer Duke teams from a decade ago. But the 2011 Blue Devils don't have to beat the 2001 Blue Devils to win this year's title. Nor does Ohio State, Kansas or Pitt. The tourney's top seeds just have to beat this year's field, which drops off quickly after the No. 1 and 2 seeds, and which most agree is the weakest of the modern era. Illinois, 19-13 and 9-9 in the Big Ten, didn't just make the field, it garnered a No. 9 seed. Enough said.
The good news for those trying to make sense of all the clutter is there are more people compiling smart, advanced college basketball metrics than ever before. When filling out your bracket, one no longer need rely on vague, outdated March platitudes like picking "the teams with the best guard play" or the ones Digger Phelps says are "tough on the glass.".
Definitely peruse Ken Pomeroy's efficiency ratings and tempo stats when assessing certain matchups. You'll find, for example, that No. 2 seed North Carolina and No. 7 seed Washington -- potential Round of 32 opponents -- are almost equally efficient and play nearly an identical pace.
If it hasn't already, Basketball Prospectus will soon publish Pomeroy's log5 probabilities for all 68 teams. They proved more prophetic than actual seeds during this week's conference tournaments.
And noted political statistician Nate Silver of The New York Times has recently focused on the NCAA tournament with two pristinely researched pieces from last week about the tourney fates of teams that greatly exceed preseason expectations (summation: Notre Dame's probably not going to the Final Four) and the advantages for teams playing closer to home.
Or, you can just turn to my more rudimentary, off-the-cuff reaction to Sunday night's bracket.