Monday, March 25, 2013

First Weekend Observations

This has been a wild first weekend of March Madness, with a ton of great games on pretty much every day except Saturday, when only two were much in doubt. I have watched a lot less basketball this year than I probably ever have in my life, so I haven't been nearly as informed as usual. But that won't stop me from having some opinions. There are three things in particular that I want to address.

First, one of the things I like about college basketball is the number of different styles of play. There is just a lot more variance than there is in the NBA, and it makes for more unpredictability. This doesn't mean I like every system. On the contrary, I loathe the slowdown, grind-it-out way that so many coaches seem to prefer because it: a) makes them seem more important than the players, b) is an effective way to level the playing field against more talented opponents, and c) is all but encouraged by sloppy, inconsistent officiating of the kind that you so often see in college games. But systems work, at least in the regular season.

Here's what I'm getting at; if you are a fan of, say, Wisconsin, or Georgetown, or any other team that relies almost entirely on one style of play, are you content with winning 20-28 games every year, knowing that you will never win a title under that coach (or at least, his system)? And you won't. System teams can't win titles unless everything, and I mean everything, breaks right for them. It has long been a cliche (and a fairly accurate one) that if you live by the three, you die by the three. Sooner or later, you will have a game where the shots aren't falling, and you have to adjust and get to the rack or the free throw line, or find points in some other way. Teams that play a slow, methodical style like Wisconsin or Georgetown simply cannot play catch-up. And in the tournament, when you're only playing good teams, sooner or later your opponent is going to execute, and is going to build a sizable lead on you during one of your games (unless you have a truly dominant team, like Kentucky a year ago). Basketball is a game of runs and momentum, and that's just the way it works.

I don't believe it's an accident that Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams have never made the Final Four, and have gotten to a regional final just once in his twelve years there, even though they have made the tournament every single year and won twenty games in eleven of those years. They're great in the regular season, having won two Big Ten titles outright and never finishing lower than fourth during Ryan's tenure. But they can't win a championship because of the degree to which they depend on their slowdown system. To be fair, Ryan uses that system because it helps him win more games with athletically challenged teams. The Buzzcuts have only had three NBA draft picks since Ryan became the coach (Devin Harris, Alando Tucker, and Jon Leuer), and three other NBA players (Kirk Penney, Marcus Landry, and Greg Stiemsma). Wisconsin is not a state full of basketball talent (its best NBA alum is either Latrell Sprewell or Caron Butler), nor is it a school with an amazing basketball tradition that will draw national recruiting attention. Ryan coaches the way he does because it's how he can win games and get into the tournament in the first place (it is worth noting that the Badgers had just seven NCAA appearances before Ryan showed up, although they did win the 1940-41 national championship). But once the Badgers do get to the tournament, they need a lot of long odds to go their way in order to advance past the Sweet 16.

Georgetown is an entirely different story. The Hoyas are a national name with a proud tradition that is fairly recent. They won the 1984 national championship, and have been to three other Final Fours, most recently in 2007 under current coach John Thompson III. The school is located in one of the best areas for producing basketball talent in the nation; powerhouse high schools DeMatha, Gonzaga, Georgetown Prep, and Montrose Christian are right in their backyard, and that's before you even consider nearby Baltimore or Philadelphia, plus the fact that they can recruit nationally. Sure, the school has higher academic standards, but that hasn't stopped them from getting top talent. Georgetown has a history of producing NBA players, particularly centers: Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Roy Hibbert, and Greg Monroe are all Hoya alums, as is Allen Iverson. Five of JTIII's players have been drafted (Hibbert, Monroe, Patrick Ewing, Jr., DaJuan Summers, and Jeff Green), with Chris Wright and Henry Sims also earning NBA paychecks. Current star Otto Porter is a lottery pick in waiting, ranked as the fourth-best prospect for this year's draft. Just like Wisconsin, however, Georgetown specializes in playing slow and winning ugly, despite not needing to play that way to succeed. More and more, that Final Four appearance looks like an aberration, the product of having four draft picks on the roster in Green, Hibbert, Summers, and Ewing, Jr. Their style is such (and they are so reliant on that style) that they can't come back from serious deficits, a major problem in a one-and-done format. So, Georgetown fans, how comfortable are you with being a good-but-not-great team for the foreseeable future?

My second observation is that the flagrant foul rule needs to be addressed and rewritten this summer. It's bad enough that every time someone gets poked in the face we have to endure three minutes of the referees looking at slow-motion replays to determine who hit whom, but the rule is written so that the refs are making a cal based on the result, not on the intent (as one of the announcers pointed out during a game). Basketball is a contact sport. I understand that the NCAA is trying to keep the players safe, but if even inadvertent elbows or hand swipes are earning teams two shots and the ball, two bad things are going to happen. For one, the game will slow down even more than it already has due to all the stoppages, reviews, and free throws. For another, defenders will be able to get in an offensive player's face with total impunity. Let me give you an example. Rebounders are taught to grab the ball and hold their elbows out as they pivot to clear space to make an outlet pass. Given the way the rule is written (where the refs have to follow the letter of the law), it would actually be advantageous for a small guard to get close enough to a rebounding big man to take an elbow in the chops, because it could mean as much as a five-point swing. I can easily imagine Duke's Tyler Thornton trying this multiple times per game. The rule needs to be rewritten in order to give the referees more leeway in handing out flagrant fouls.

My third observation has to do with Gonzaga, specifically with the narrative that they didn't deserve a top seed and that the doubters were validated because they lost to Wichita State. Bullshit. Gonzaga absolutely deserved a number one this year, both based on how they played throughout the course of the year, and how the other contenders played. The prime argument against Gonzaga is that "they don't play anybody." Well, let's see. Their league did have only one other tournament team, eleven-seed Saint Mary's, whom the Zags beat three times, including a thrashing on the Gaels' home floor and in the WCC tournament final, when Saint Mary's was squarely on the bubble and had plenty to play for. Brigham Young turned out to not be quite as good this year as in the past couple of seasons, but they're still a 22-win team, and the Bulldogs beat them twice.

Outside of their league, they played a difficult schedule: seven NCAA tournament teams, four other BCS schools (two of whom, West Virginia and Baylor, under-performed this season), and just four actual patsies: Southern Utah, South Dakota, Lewis and Clark State (an NAIA school), and Campbell. They lost just two of those games, once to Illinois at home when Brandon Paul went off for 35, and once at Butler (the other paragon of mid-major excellence) on a buzzer-beater. They waxed Oklahoma and Davidson at the Old Spice Classic, beat Kansas State in Seattle, Pacific at home, and Oklahoma State on the road. Their best player, Kelly Olynyk, would start for pretty much any team in America. Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos would start for 95% of them. The Zags were a good team, almost certainly Mark Few's best overall team in his fourteen seasons in Spokane. If you want to make an argument that someone else (like Miami) deserved a one-seed, sure, but don't discredit Gonzaga for winning all of the games that they were supposed to win, and most of those convincingly (just four of their nineteen league wins were by single digits).

Concerning their game against Wichita State, the Zags were, to some degree, a victim of random variance, which is what makes March Madness so much fun to begin with. Doug Gottlieb is typically not someone I enjoy agreeing with, but I think he summed it up well, saying that Gonzaga didn't play a bad game, Wichita State just happened to play a better one. The Shockers hit five big threes in a row at the end of the game, the last one an NBA-distance prayer that freshman Fred Van Vleet threw up with a second left on the shot clock and two defenders in his face after almost losing his dribble. Sometimes those things happen to top seeds, regardless of who they are. Gonzaga did play well down the stretch, but that run of threes combined with the one real brain fart of the day (Harris and David Stockton falling asleep on an out-of-bounds exchange and turning the ball over with no Shocker on their side of halfcourt) doomed them. Shit happens sometimes.

It is unfortunate because this was certainly Gonzaga's best chance to break through and reach the Final Four for the first time ever. Not only did they get a one-seed, had they beaten the Shockers they would have been facing twelfth-seeded Ole Miss or thirteenth-seeded LaSalle instead of Wisconsin or K-State (again). And on the other end of the bracket, third-seeded New Mexico had already been dispatched. Everything broke Gonzaga's way this year until Wichita State started raining threes.

Where can they go from here? Changing leagues is not really an option; even in the new Big East, their closest conference opponent would be Creighton, over 1100 miles away in Omaha. Their student body is small (about 4800 undergrads) and they don't play football, so joining the Pac-12 or the Mountain West are not on the table either. In any case, the WCC has gotten more competitive in recent years. For a while it was Gonzaga and one other team, first Pepperdine and now Saint Mary's, with a couple good years from San Diego thrown in there. BYU has given the league three consistently good teams, and Pacific (ten 20-win seasons over the past two decades with five NCAA tournament appearances) joins next year.

No, Gonzaga just has to keep plugging away as the gold standard of mid-major programs. It's an amazing accomplishment to make the NCAA tournament every year for the past fifteen, and to have more Sweet 16 appearances (five, counting the 1999 Elite 8 run) than first-round exits (three) during that span. Only Butler and Xavier among mid-majors can claim anything close to that sustained run of success. The school has national cachet, which is pretty sweet for them given that it's in freaking Spokane. Let's just say that serious basketball prospects weren't exactly beating down their doors before they started winning all the time, not even from the underrated basketball hotbed of Seattle. And they still aren't (Gonzaga doesn't compete for McDonald's All-Americans), but the team keeps on winning games with Canadians and overlooked gems like Adam Morrison and Casey Calvary.

Gonzaga will be back for more March Madness appearances in the future. Maybe not with a one-seed again, but then again, maybe. The program has built itself into a legitimate power in college basketball. Don't forget that more established programs have had long stretches where people have wondered if they can ever get over the hump. Duke before Christian Laettner's heroics. Kansas between 1988 and 2008. Indiana right now. Don't count Gonzaga out just yet.