NCAA Tournament: Lessons Learned

NCAA Tournament: Lessons Learned
Mar 31, 2006, 12:04 am
In four days, life resumes its dreary pace. Brackets get thrown away and the American workforce becomes productive again, as we slowly start forgetting the drama and glory of the NCAA tournament. On your slow roll back towards normalcy and away from basketball heaven, I encourage you all to remember what the Tournament has taught you about college basketball these past two weeks. Here are some Tournament lessons about players, teams, coaches, and conferences to keep in mind for next year and beyond.

1. Conference tournaments don’t tell us how good teams are, they tell us where teams will get seeded.

What’s the matter with Kansas? They were the hottest team in the country, storming through the Big 12, intimidating teams with ferocious athleticism on offense and defense, and then they wet the bed at the dance. The problem with the conference tournaments is that we get to see the teams that win over and over again, and we become convinced that the successful teams are peaking at the right time, or they’ve got destiny on their side. There was magic in Madison Square Garden as Syracuse walked through hell to gain the automatic bid and a five seed. Gerry McNamara’s folk hero status was bolstered and justified by a savvy coach with plenty of experience, and it seemed crazy to pick against them in a 5-12 game that screamed upset. But Texas A&M didn’t care about what happened in the Big East, and the Cuse’s rhythm didn’t carry over into Jacksonville.

It’s easy to say that the success of Florida and UCLA gave those two teams momentum going into the Tourney. But if Florida wasn’t at the top of its game in the SEC finals (they only beat the Gamecocks by 2), and if they had lost to South Carolina, the Gators and LSU both fall a couple of seeds. South Carolina would have had the automatic bid, and it’s possible that George Mason doesn’t even make the field. Considering who they’ve beaten along the way, it’s pretty obvious that Florida and LSU are two of the country’s best, and should they meet again in the finals, I promise the spread will be fewer than the 16 points the Gators beat the Tigers by a few weeks ago.

2. Senior leadership and tournament experience are overrated.

Duke, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and West Virginia were monumental disappointments in this Tournament, but a couple of things explain the collapse of teams with a bunch of guys who have been there before. First and foremost, the players you face in the tournament don’t give a rat’s ass about personal history, no matter how glorious it is. When ACC players go up against Duke, they all know that Redick is the best scorer in conference history, and they remember him hitting all kinds of clutch shots for the Blue Devils against their own team and other conference opponents. When LSU played Duke last week, Garrett Temple and Tyrus Thomas had no personal experience with the Chronicles of Redick. They did have personal experience with spot up shooters they are longer and quicker than, and with that knowledge, they pressured arguably the best shooter in the history of college basketball into a John Starks-esque 3 for a million shooting performance when it mattered.

The second reason to discount experience is the new rule that prevents high schoolers from jumping straight to the pros. Talent wins titles, and Carmelo Anthony’s carrying Syracuse to a title shows that there will be some, not many, but some exceptional NBA-ready players who are forced to go to school and play the role of man among boys for a year or two before making the jump. Next year, Greg Oden leads a recruiting class at Ohio State that is going to take the Big Ten by storm and play deep into the NCAA Tournament. Don’t listen to anyone who warns you that the pressure is too much for freshmen and sophomores to handle.

3. If your bracket has a team from the Big 12 winning it all, rip it up and start over.

I’ve officially sworn off of this conference, despite the fact that Kansas and Texas could be top 5 teams for the duration of next season. Forget winning the championship, the Big 12/Big 8 has had only two teams make it to the final game (Kansas in ’03 and ’91), and both times they fell short. Quality of play in the Big 12 is severely lacking, and it’s only going to get worse in the next 2-3 years with Missouri, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Kansas State going through transitional phases. The immediate future will bring some quality teams from non-traditional places, as programs like Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Nebraska are all on their way up, but the painful late-round tournament history of Kansas and company is too much to ignore.

4. Guard play has to be good, not great, to make a run, and guards don’t win championships by themselves.

One of the more popular maxims about the NCAA Tournament and college basketball in general is that it’s a guard’s game to win or lose. There are not enough skilled big men to dictate the pace of games, and especially in close games, if you can’t handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter, especially from the reduced three point line, you can’t win. All of these things are true, but it’s a short and stupid step from this sort of logic to a rule that says the team with the best guards will win, or a team whose strength is at guard is better than a team whose strength is at forward. The five best guards in the country all year were Redick, Randy Foye, Brandon Roy, Rodney Carney, and Dee Brown. None of them are in the Final Four. Last year, Illinois featured three starting guards, each of whom is or will be in the NBA, and UNC’s front line wore them down. This year, Villanova features three starting guards, each of whom will be in the NBA, and Florida’s front line wore them down. Coincidence? I think not.

That said, the guards left aren’t slouches, whether they’re NBA players or not. With all the talk about Tyrus Thomas and Big Baby, Darrell Mitchell’s game winning shot against Texas A&M has been all but forgotten. Joakim Noah’s life story and draft stock have flooded the airways, overshadowing Taurean Green’s steady ball handling and 18-19 free throw shooting through three games. Greg Paulus killed Duke’s chances by failing to get the ball to Shelden Williams, and Boston College got nothing from Louis Hinnant and Tyrese Rice against ‘Nova in the Elite Eight. So you need something from your backcourt, especially late in games, but guard play alone won’t get it done.

5. Never listen to a pundit who refers to himself in the third person.

The Volume Shooter had a hitch in his stroke this tournament season, picking zero of the finalists, one of the Final Four, and two of the Elite Eight. He mistakenly believed that J.J. Redick would shoot better than 17% with Duke’s season and his legacy on the line, and that someone would tell Rudy Gay that these games are important. Consider this an apology to all the fans out there who took The Volumes Shooter’s words to heart. All he can do now is extend the olive branch, by personally guaranteeing the outcome of the Final Four:

UCLA over LSU – Okay, okay, Glen Davis is jolly, graceful, funny and charismatic. Since CBS refuses to take the microphone away from him and actually tell us something about his game, allow me: he’s a 320 pound power forward who plays like a shooting guard, and shoots more fade away jumpers than dunks. He can’t defend at all, and picks up foolish fouls around the basket. Fortunately, most of Big Baby’s shortcomings get erased by Tyrus Thomas, who has been the MVP of the Tournament so far, so stopping the Tigers comes down to containing T-Time. UCLA will be able to do exactly that, primarily by boxing him out on the offensive glass, and forcing him to take fouls at the rim with strong drives by Afflalo, Farmar, and Bozeman, all of whom finish better than Redick, Paulus, Kenton Paulino, and Daniel Gibson. Because both teams are so long and athletic on defense, and so patient on offense, this game has the potential to be uglier than sin. But Ben Howland loves it ugly, and Afflalo and Farmar will hit a shot or two down the stretch to ensure a win.

Florida over George Mason – There are no words for what George Mason has done, beating two Final Four teams from last year and this year’s Tournament favorite on the road to the Final Four. They space the floor and give opponents fits with their ability to share the ball exploit cracks in the defense, no matter where they may be. The Patriots are living proof that parody is more than just a catch phrase or talking point in college basketball, as Coach Larranga has taken a roster full of local heroes and turned them into national symbols of underdog glory. With a swagger that won’t wash off, GMU seems to have completely forgotten the fact that they hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent before March, and lost twice to Hofstra, among other average teams. I, however, have not forgotten.

UConn’s problem is that they don’t give consistent effort for 40 minutes, and Florida has the same talent, but no such motivational shortcoming. If the Gators play their best, they’ll win by 15. If they’re a bit off, they’ll still win by 5. Despite a roster full of future pros, Donovan and company see themselves as underdogs in their own right, a psychological edge that none of George Mason’s previous opponents can claim. Horford and Noah are going to beat up the Patriots, just like they beat up Villanova, and the Gators will eat well on April 1.

Championship Game: Florida over UCLA – This is going to be a war. My take on UCLA is basically that they’ve punched all their opponents in the mouth, and only Gonzaga has really stood up to them yet. I think they’ll punch LSU in the mouth and the Tigers will fold. But when they punch Florida in the mouth, the Gators will smile and punch back harder. The backcourt battle is a wash, with Afflalo, Bozeman, and Farmar evening out with Green, Humphrey, and Brewer. In the frontcourt, UCLA isn’t nearly as talented or skilled as the Gators, and Hollings will get in serious foul trouble without putting defensive pressure on Noah or Horford. In the end, the forwards will win it for Florida, just like they did against Villanova.

Two other factors have me leaning the Gators’ way. First, I’m still not sure who the Alpha Dog is on offense for UCLA, and sometimes Farmar overestimates his one on one ability a bit too much instead of setting up Afflalo and Bozeman. I think the Bruin guards, and Farmar in particular, will be a bit too quick to panic if things aren’t going their way, because they rightfully feel the pressure to get it done by themselves without the luxury of throwing the ball down to the block for a bucket or two. Second, Billy Donovan is more ready to win this game than Ben Howland is. Donovan has been deep into the tournament before and he’ll be coaching with no added pressure. Howland is charged (by others and himself) with resurrecting UCLA, and he is a bit erratic with his substitutions and rotations at times, pulling the trigger when someone misses a switch or fails to box out. Coach Wooden should be proud of this group, and the program in Westwood has pride again, but Howland needs another year or two to close the deal.

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