April madness

By Peter Steele

Back in March, anyone even vaguely connected with the sports world and their aunt filled out a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament (except you athletes, because the NCAA says that’s a no-no). You spent much of the past two weeks following your picks, swallowed hard when that upset you forecasted didn’t pan out, and prayed that No. 16 East Tennessee State would knock off No. 1 Pittsburgh (which almost happened) or that No. 16 Morehead State would do the same to Louisville (which was at least close at halftime). Oh well. For all you would-be 16 seeds out there, 0-100 against No. 1’s, the 101st time just might be the charm. Now that April has come and the tournament is on its last legs, here are some thoughts leading up to the Final Four:- cbssports.com and espn.com are the websites hosting the two largest bracket competitions. Both have confirmed that out of the millions upon millions of brackets submitted, nary a one survived even the first weekend in unblemished perfection.

– There were a lot of people up in arms about the lack of mid-major teams in the tournament this year. There were only four teams selected with at-large bids that fell in this medium-size school, non-power conference category, down from 12 in 2006. Defenders of the decision by the selection committee to favor bubble teams from the power conferences point to the fact that those teams play tougher schedules and have more quality wins than mid-majors do. However, the truth is that most mid-major teams can’t play tougher schedules than they already do. They’re obligated to play a full schedule in their conference, which takes up most of the season. For the strong mid-majors, such as St. Mary’s in California and Davidson in North Carolina, their conference opponents are weak competition. It’s also difficult to schedule strong non-conference opponents, because many coaches at power conference schools are reluctant to put smaller, theoretically weaker, mid-majors on the schedule. And because of the weaker schedule they’re forced to play, when a mid-major drops a bad game to Podunk U, it comes across as a damning loss. When a power conference team loses to Podunk U, chances are they also have a win over All-American U to balance it out. Just ask Creighton, who probably would have a spot in the Big Dance had they not lost by 20 to Illinois State. The bottom line is that mid-majors don’t have the same chances to prove themselves in the regular season, so they should be given some benefit of the doubt. This year, instead of having mid-majors in the tournament that potentially could have surprised us with a Final Four run, we had power conference teams like Arizona and Michigan that had already proven their mediocrity.

– With the field now down to four teams, my pick to win (drum roll please) is Villanova. Despite being undersized, they’re strong and can run the floor as well as any team still in the tournament. Anyone who saw the second half of the game against American or the game against UCLA knows that when they get on a roll, there is an air of inevitability around them winning. Lastly, one final advantage Villanova has is that their players share the workload evenly (despite Dante Cunningham’s 18 points against UCLA). The lack of a dominant star means that other teams will not have a specific person to key on defensively down the stretch, making them a far more dangerous opponent.