It’s been an exciting first week of the NCAA Tournament – to the point where a controversial Selection Sunday is now firmly in the rearview mirror. With the Sweet 16 upon us, let’s take a look back on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the Big Dance.
So, about that “Billion Dollar Bracket” … Well, it turns out that the tournament’s moniker “March Madness” seems to hold its own every year, and 2014 is certainly no exception. I mean, let’s take a look at the remaining field: We have three double-digit seeds (No. 10 Stanford, South Region; No. 11 Dayton, South Region; No. 11 Tennessee, Midwest Region), and we lost a few heavily-favored teams along the way (No. 2 Kansas, South Region; No. 3 Duke, Midwest Region; No. 3 Creighton, West Region; No. 1 Wichita State, Midwest Region). It’s the reason Warren Buffett propped up the “Billion Dollar Bracket” Challenge in the first place – because the tournament is so unpredictable, picking a perfect tournament bracket is, quite simply, impossible. (That, and the odds are actually 9.2 quintillion to one.) Amazingly enough, however, there was one perfect bracket after the second round – that of one Brad Binder, who picked all 32 second-round games correctly. Two problems, though: 1) He didn’t enter the Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, and 2) He actually lost his perfect bracket with upset victories by Dayton (over Syracuse) and Stanford (over Kansas).
I believe a word on Cal Poly is in order. The fact that a team under .500 making the NCAA Tournament was already crazy enough. After all, the Cal Poly Mustangs (not to be confused with Cal Poly Pomona, as media outlets had been doing of late) furiously played their way into the Dance by making an improbable run to the Big West Conference Tournament title. They finished with a 12-19 record – one of the worst to make the NCAAs in tournament history. Yet, there they were, in a play-in game against, surprisingly enough (for me, anyway), Texas Southern and head coach Mike Davis – the same Mike Davis that coached the Indiana Hoosiers shortly after Bob Knight was let go. Apparently, name recognition didn’t matter – the Mustangs dominated from the perimeter to advance to a date with Wichita State. Sure, the little engine that could came crashing to a halt against the Shockers, but the fact that they made it as far as they did really personifies March Madness. And that deserves a word.
Quite a few teams that you can’t help but ask, “Seriously – What are YOU doing in the Sweet 16?” Every year, there seem to be a handful of teams that you simply write off when constructing your version of the “perfect bracket” (which is one of the reasons why no one ever has one). Whether it was wishful thinking, or bias towards a heavy favorite, no one will ever see a Mercer upset over tournament favorite Duke in the second round coming – not until it happens, anyway. Nonetheless, these teams come to mind (to varying extents, of course):
- Stanford Cardinal: I honestly thought that Stanford’s second round game vs. New Mexico would be their undoing – especially going up against MWC Player of the Year Candidate Cameron Bairstow. Boy, was I wrong. Alright – well, who would’ve thought they would get past No. 2 Kansas, with or without C Joel Embiid? Unfortunately for most that overlooked the 10-seed, the bracket-busting Cardinal had size on their side (three starters over 6-foot-7) and a winning gameplan vs. both UNM and KU.
- Dayton Flyers: Another victim of their second-round matchup, the Flyers were simply overlooked because they were playing 6-seed Ohio State. According to ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, less than 20 percent of their 11 million brackets took a Dayton upset. Interestingly enough, I thought their upset of struggling 3-seeded Syracuse was LESS surprising, considering the Orange were ripe for an upset since the end of the regular season. By all accounts, they are a scrappy, opportunistic bunch who bang defensive boards enough to win.
Baylor Bears: Considering how much of a Dark Horse favorite 3-seeded Creighton was on their side of the bracket – seeing as they had senior scoring phenom Doug McDermott – it was easy to write off Baylor, especially since they made little noise during the regular season (starting conference play at 2-8 certainly didn’t help). I guess no one noticed them winning seven of their last eight regular season games, and making a run to the Big 12 Tournament final vs. Iowa State (another Sweet 16 team). Two easy tourney wins later – more notably, an 85-55 demolishing of the aforementioned Bluejays – and they are as dangerous as any team left.
- Tennessee Volunteers: I think it’s easy to write off any First Four team – which is probably why many didn’t see this coming. The Vols’ resume as an at-large selection, additionally, wasn’t very impressive (swept by Texas A&M, losing to Vanderbilt in SEC play). Then again, no one accounted for their toughness inside, and the fact that the team put everything together at just the right time for a Sweet 16 run. Were they helped in the third round by playing 14-seed Mercer? Probably. But Tennessee annihilated them, just as they did in their previous matchup against favored UMass.
- Kentucky Wildcats: “But wait,” you ask. “Why are you asking this of Kentucky?” Well, simply put, for two reasons: 1) Their highly-touted, Preseason No. 1 class of players never lived up to their full potential during the 2014 season, and 2) I, personally, figured either Marcus Smart (and 9-seeded Oklahoma State) or Wichita State’s experience would put the young ‘Cats in their place. And I was almost right on the latter. I underestimated how far freshman Julius Randle and the UK defense had come along. It will be interesting to see how far Calipari’s bunch can go from here, especially with a highly-anticipated matchup with in-state rival Louisville coming up.
Speaking of Wichita State … I just wanted to get this out there, because I figured it would come up, following what many consider an instant classic in their third-round loss to Kentucky. The fact is, while I would’ve really liked to have seen them make a deep run in the tournament, there are a number of reasons to take the best away from the season. After all, despite playing in a weak Missouri Valley Conferernce, they proved that they belonged on the national stage as an undefeated No. 1 seed.
After all, they didn’t complain when others believed their Midwest Bracket was stacked against them. Even then, they were only a few points worse than the preseason favorite to win it all. They had a solid team with players who could have competed with the best in the country. Cleanthony Early, who had 30 points in the loss, is a solid NBA prospect. And anyone who pointed at this game as de facto “proof” they didn’t belong among the elite teams in the country either don’t know basketball, or are trolling – the fact remains, this was a squad who was in the Final Four this time last year, and won an NCAA record 35 games in a row to start the season. Something tells me the touted young pups at Kentucky and Duke couldn’t do that – even in the MVC.
And one last thing – those San Diego State Aztecs. I find it thoroughly refreshing that Steve Fisher has taken SDSU to the Sweet 16 for only the second time in school history, but also the second time in four years. While it seems that it’s been Mountain West Player of the Year Candidate Xavier Thames and no one else, the fact remains that this is one of the best defensive teams in the country – it’s mostly the reason they are at 31-4, as MWC regular season champs.
They may face a daunting task against top-seeded Arizona on Thursday, Thames remains the X-Factor (in more ways than one). He’s obviously capable of a big offensive performance – just take a look at his 32-point third round game vs. North Dakota State. and if they can find a second reliable scorer – possibly Dwayne Polee II – they can avenge their regular season loss to the Wildcats.
After all, in a tournament like this, anything can happen.