Backdoor Cuts: True madness

March 25, 2010

By the second night of the NCAA tournament, my bracket was busted worse than the Irish property bubble. By the close of night three, I was nearing a disaster of Greek credit default swap proportions. Obviously there’s a lot more basketball to play, but with favorites Kansas, Pitt, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Marquette, New Mexico, Notre Dame, and Villanova falling to the likes of Northern Iowa, St. Mary’s, and Murray State, this tournament is shaping up like no other. Almost every game—our slaughter at the hands of Ohio University being one notable exception—has been decided by ten points or less, and the seedings, which usually predict the winner with an accuracy of about 80 percent, seem to be about as trustworthy as a Nigerian prince trying to recover his family fortune. This makes for great basketball, right? Shouldn’t this be the point of March Madness?

Well, depending on who you ask, not exactly. As an extension of the for-profit NCAA, which has a yearly budget of just under six billion dollars and a staff of around 300, the NCAA selection committee has a vested interest in producing exciting championship basketball. This means keeping big name schools like Duke, Syracuse, and Kansas around until late in the tournament, and, more importantly, capturing the massive television audiences to which these programs appeal. Hence (some paranoid Hoya fans would say), Duke’s perennially high seed—they have been a No. 1 seed nine times in the past 13 years—is suspicious. Especially this year, when Duke garnered the last No. 1 seed over West Virginia. Despite the fact that both schools won their conference championships and had similar records, the committee’s choice seems to be tied more to commercial viability than athletic records. Duke fans buy the things they see advertised on TV. WVU fans just buy more batteries.

As Georgetown sadly showed, however, seeding isn’t everything. A single bad game can sink a brilliant season—or, in the Hoyas’ case, a season that was alternately brilliant and exasperating. Georgetown’s sorry tourney showing highlighted the weakness that brought down a few of the major contenders last week: experience. Between the high transfer rate and high number of Hoya players entering the NBA Draft in the past few years, there were no players on this year’s squad who could remember the 2007 Final Four run, and only two players who took part in the subsequent year’s early loss to Davidson. It’s a similar story with Kansas, which fielded only one four-year senior this year.

Part of the beauty of March Madness is that, seeding aside, it often favors the mid-majors and less well-known teams that are responsible for most of the upsets. Whereas larger programs like Georgetown suffer from constant turnover to the draft, players from outside the BCS are far more likely to stay for all four years. While they might not be as talented individually, the players on these teams have more experience functioning cohesively as a unit. They’re also harder to prepare for—I’ll be the first to admit that before last Thursday, I wasn’t quite sure that Ohio University even had a basketball team.

This year’s upsets have set a lot of college basketball fans on edge. They wanted to see marquee matchups: Kentucky versus Kansas, Duke versus Villanova. But why shouldn’t we root for mid-major teams down the stretch? It’s a sad comment on college basketball when fans value the opportunity to see next year’s NBA Draft busts play each other one-on-one with eight supporting players in the background,  rather than five men drawing on experience playing as a team to put together complex offensive and defensive schemes. It’s a lesson the Hoyas would do well to learn.


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