Who doesnt enjoy hating Billy Packer? Every year about this time, Packer manages to get on the air and spout off something so absurd that everybody cant help but talk about it. He always ends up being wrong, but this year he really crashed and burned.
You would think after decades in the business that Packer would have figured out that Mid-Majors actually do win their fair share of games. That if they didnt, everything would go as planned and that the tournament would never have earned the moniker March Madness.
But that didnt stop Packer from bashing Craig Littlepage during the selection show in one of the most poorly conducted interviews I have ever witnessed, essentially claiming that since high seeded power conference teams always win the tournament, they should get the lower seeds as well. Huh?
Weve all heard how remarkable it is that Bradley, George Mason, and Wichita State are still playing, and that this is the year of the Mid-Major. Im really not sure it is anything that out of the ordinary. Just last year, UW-Milwaukee made the sweet 16, and the MVC had a great tourney. Southern Illinois won a game, while UNI and Creighton gave big scares to eventual Elite Eight teams. Kent State made the Elite Eight in 2002, and Tulsa did the same in 2000.
And of course, this is why we watch hoops in March. Maybe Packer tunes in to watch Duke beat Belmont 140-32, but I think everybody else enjoyed watching a previously anonymous Northwestern State team shock Iowa at the buzzer. In no other sporting event do we see completely overmatched underdogs come out the winner so often.
So is 2006 the year of the Mid-Major, or is this simply the year that Billy Packer said something so unjustifiably ridiculous that it is sticking in peoples heads after a 4 day marathon of outstanding basketball?
On Sunday, I heard the topic of Mid-Major success get brought up twice while Billy Packer was in the booth. The first time, he simply ignored the subject. The second time, he mustered up a half-hearted, Thats what makes March March. Anybody can beat anybody. You could tell how much it irked him to say it.
Or maybe, just maybe, the better teams just happened to win? There is a team element to basketball, and college hoops is much more than just McDonalds All-Americans and RPIs.
Bradley is a very, very good basketball team. They completely destroyed some other very, very good basketball teams down the stretch in the MVC. Jim Les, Patrick OBryant and company beat the odds to rise out of mid-major anonymity. Does anybody think Michigan, a team that was given every possible opportunity to make its case for a bid and still came up short, would have made the least bit of noise this past weekend?
Big Time Center Prospects Emerge
If there was a draft-related theme to the first round of the tourney, it was the emergence of a trio of big men as legitimate 2006 first round prospects. Joakim Noah dazzled the scouts with a blend of size, skill, athleticism, and intensity. Patrick OBryant, almost completely untested against legitimate size, passed with flying colors against several NBA-sized prospects. Roy Hibbert, helplessly unathletic and unskilled as a high schooler, proved once and for all just how far he has come in two short years.
Each player displayed different attributes that scream NBA. Noah put on a professional skills exhibition against UW-Milwaukee, relentlessly attacking the glass, running the floor and hitting midrange jumpers, all the while displaying that trademark intensity that makes him a virtual surefire success at the next level. OBryant took fellow 7-footer Aaron Gray and Pittsburgh to school, using his prototypical NBA frame to score at will in the paint. OBryant doesnt stand out in one particular area, but has a remarkably well-rounded game for a player that was supposed to be quite raw. Hibbert is another big man that has clearly gone from project to game-changer. His footwork is improving, and teams without much size in the paint cant contain him anymore.
Of course, becoming a successful NBA big man is an entirely different animal. OBryant will face Gray-sized big men on a nightly basis, ones with a lot more bounce in their step. Hibbert isnt going to be matched up against borderline NBA power forwards (at best) the way that he was in the first two rounds if this tournament. Will the upsides of these three be enough to carry them into the first round of 2006?
In all three cases, the matchups get much tougher from here. Noah and Hibbert will face off on Friday night, in a fascinating matchup of athleticism versus brute force. Hibbert is going to be able to challenge Noahs vicious finishes around the basket and keep him from getting ideal position close to the basket. Hibbert will not only have to deal with Noah, but also with help from Al Horford, Chris Richard, and Adrian Moss. This is no one trick pony frontcourt, like Ohio States. OBryant will be matched up against Memphis Joey Dorsey, an athletic freak in every sense of the term. Dorsey is compact, tough and explosive; an amped-up version of a player that gave OBryant fits in the MVC Championship Game, Southern Illinois Randal Falker.
If they build on their early-round successes, it would be surprising not to see Noah and OBryant in the upcoming draft. Another big game for Hibbert, and he could also be in the picture.
Parity and a Truly Wide Open Tourney
It seems like everybody picked Connecticut or Duke this year, but Im not so sure it is because either team has the look of a champion. Usually a couple of teams have emerged well before selection Sunday, consistently walloping their conference foes and giving off that aura of invincibility that means an early upset isnt likely. We have seen this from Duke, Connecticut and even Texas, but only at times.
No team has really put together a streak of games that sticks out as Championship Material. Texas can look like two completely different teams, depending on which day you watch them. Connecticut has been letting teams stick around all season, and that caught up to them in the Big East Tournament. Duke has gotten downright lucky on several occasions. The reason we all picked the Blue Devils and the Huskies is that the rest of the field is equally as baffling. Villanova and Memphis dont fit the profile of champions, and this is the worst group of two seeds I have seen in a long time.
After the first weekend, I dont believe a favorite has emerged. Duke handed it to George Washington pretty hard, but that felt more like the Colonials missing quite a few shots that they would normally convert than anything Duke did. Connecticut looks nothing like a championship team at the moment, seeming to lollygag through too-close-for-comfort wins over Albany and Kentucky. Do they really want to play George Mason in DC? Villanova continues to win closely, while Texas was up and down until a dominant second half against a so-so NC State squad.
Florida seems to be the sentimental sleeper pick at the moment, and they have looked good. But keep in mind that they really havent been tested at this point. Georgetown should be an interesting matchup, and the Gators dont always look the best in the halfcourt game that John Thompson III will inevitably try to create.
Im going to go as far as to say that this tournament is as murky as it was on Selection Sunday. Duke is probably playing the best basketball, but has two big tests in LSU and either Texas or West Virginia coming. Connecticut continues to sleepwalk through this season, but has a relatively easy road from here until the Final Four. I dont doubt that Jim Calhouns club is capable of turning up the intensity when it is necessary, but it definitely will be necessary if that Duke-Connecticut dream Final does end up taking place.
- It is pretty obvious how meaningless conference RPI is after the Big Tens catastrophic failure this March. In watching the conference all season, I never once got the impression that this was the top conference in America. This was a conference full of decent teams, but completely lacking the type of power that the Big East put out there in its top five or so teams. Ohio State had a chance, but Thad Mattas shooters lost their legs at exactly the wrong time. Many have talked about the free throw disadvantage that several Big Ten teams received in their losses, and how the Big Tens physical style of play had a lot to do with it. My hope is that the conference will have learned a lesson and that we end up with a better product next year. The presence of Greg Oden is going to automatically provide some of that, but most games in the Big Ten this year were very, very hard to watch.
- One of the first lessons I ever learned in filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket was to always bet on experience. With a few notable exceptions every now and then, it is almost always the players that have been their before that lead their teams to success in March. With this rule in mind, I turn to the example of Kansas. The young Jayhawks struggled in Maui, largely their first D1 basketball experience. They struggled to start Big XII play, their first time facing intensely hostile crowds on the road. Why wouldnt they struggle in their first NCAA Tournament? Somehow, they still ended up in the Final Four of nearly every bracket I filled out, completely destroying would have been very successful weekend of bracket picking. If you see me hyping up Ohio State at this time next year, make sure and slap me.
- Is anybody else excited to see what Adam Morrison can do against UCLAs stable of athletes? This one could be a matchup for the ages. Gonzaga has given several of the best teams in the country severe tests and looked quite mediocre against some very lousy ones. At any rate, I dont think they have played a team like the Bruins yet. Ryan Hollins has the size and quickness to give JP Batista fits, and there are all sorts of bodies to stick on Adam Morrison. At the same time, one gets the feeling that Ben Howlands crew needs to be effective defensively to beat good teams. And when Adam Morrison is hitting from the outside, you might as well throw defense out of the equation
- On an NCAA Tournament sidenote, was anybody else surprised to see how quickly former Iowa State head man Wayne Morgan fell out of favor? A season ago he was a rising star, leading the Cyclones to an NCAA Tournament win while returning his star backcourt. A disappointing year and a still-developing recruiting scandal later, and Morgan is out. I wouldnt be surprised if the sudden emergence of so many eligible coaches out of the Missouri Valley had something do with this. It is more than just a little ironic that in the same season where numerous high-major Midwest coaching jobs open up, the MVC is suddenly brimming with so many rising stars. There was fierce debate about how many Valley teams would get into the Tournament, but now the question is how many coaches could the conference lose?