March 9, 2012

1. Good teams are left out.

With the tournament expanding to 68 teams in 2011, not only do all the “good” teams make the field, but so do several mediocre ones, including some with losing conference records. “The cutoff line for making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team is as weak as it’s ever been,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas has said.

Certainly, capable teams may miss the cut. But the selection committee, which picks the best 37 at-large teams (31 slots are automatically taken by conference champions), is in the business of assessing past performance, not projecting future results. Remember, two teams from the lightly regarded Colonial Athletic Association — George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 — barely made the tournament yet reached the Final Four.

The teams contending for the final at-large slots usually have some big flaws. There are those that played few tough opponents all season (and beat even fewer), those that essentially played a preseason exhibition schedule and those that want to hang their hat on one marquee victory. In the end, the committee has to hold its nose and choose.

2. There’s always a Cinderella.

This will again be the most misused moniker of the tournament. A true Cinderella team is an off-the-radar, double-digit seed that triumphs over a heavyweight in an outcome that forever baffles fans.

It’s cherub-faced Bryce Drew of Valparaiso making a buzzer-beating, 23-foot three-pointer to sink fourth-seeded Mississippi in 1998. It’s Princeton’s Steve Goodrich finding Gabe Lewullis for a backdoor layup to topple defending national champion UCLA in 1996. And it’s George Mason slaying the nation’s most talented team, Connecticut, in a 2006 regional final as the GMU band played “Livin’ on a Prayer,” an apt soundtrack.

But other underdogs hailed as Cinderellas did not really need help from a fairy godmother: Sinewy Stephen Curry, one of the nation’s best scorers, ran figure eights around defenders and swished long jumpers while carrying 10th-seeded Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008. Butler came within a half-court shot of the national title in 2010 with a future NBA lottery draft pick, Gordon Hayward. VCU pummeled four power-conference teams on its way to last season’s Final Four.

And whatever you do, never call Gonzaga, one of the nation’s most successful programs since 1999, a Cinderella. They’ve long ago shattered that glass slipper.

3. The most powerful conferences get more slots than they deserve.

Consider this: The Big Ten is widely regarded as the nation’s strongest conference this season, but it isn’t expected to be the league that earns the most berths. And none of its teams may earn a No. 1 seed. Why?

The selection committee never sets out to take a certain number of schools from specific conferences, and it doesn’t look at conference rankings while examining teams. Impressing the panel’s 10members boils down to: Who’d you play? Where’d you play? How’d you do?

“We don’t use the term ‘mid-major’ or ‘power conference’ in the room,” committee Chairman Jeff Hathaway said. “We compare all the teams irregardless of what conference they come from.”

Not everyone believes that, of course. Six years ago, then-Maryland coach Gary Williams was steaming after the less-recognized Missouri Valley Conference earned as many tournament bids (four) as the Atlantic Coast Conference. MVC officials were equally perturbed that the committee excluded another of its teams, Missouri State, which had an impressive computer ranking. Some coaches and league officials will feel the same way Sunday night.

4. The 1979 Larry Bird-Magic Johnson title game was the greatest game in tournament history.

That game was a seminal moment for the tournament. As the highest-rated televised college basketball game ever, the Larry-Magic matchup attracted casual viewers and ushered in a new era for the sport, which soared in popularity during the 1980s. It was also the first chapter in an epic NBA rivalry that captivated fans for more than a decade.

But it was not a great game. Missing two-thirds of his field goal attempts, Bird was not at his best. The Indiana State Sycamores missed more than half of their free throws. Johnson’s Michigan State, the better team, won by 11 points.

Fast-forward 13 years for what most consider the greatest college game: Duke’s 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final. Wipe away the final 2.1 seconds, and it would still be remembered as one of the all-time best tournament games.

But in those seconds, Kentucky’s Sean Woods went from exalted — his 13-foot bank shot had given his team a one-point lead — to devastated, collapsing to the court when the buzzer sounded after Grant Hill fired a 75-foot pass to Christian Laettner, who dribbled, turned and made the 17-footer that echoes through history.

5. The competitive gap between the best teams and the rest has closed.

Because of elite summer-league basketball, there are more good players than ever before. And because more college games are televised and more programs are investing resources, more talent is dispersed across the country.

But there are at least two ways to maintain a sizable competitive gap. What North Carolina did during its national championship season of 2009 and again this season is build a powerhouse as multiple underclassmen decided to wait one more season before turning pro. The return of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson made the Tar Heels a favorite to win it all this year.

What Kentucky coach John Calipari has done is created “One-and-Done U.” He secures the nation’s best recruiting class each year, lets the stars shine, then watches — and often encourages — them to jump to the NBA after their freshman seasons. Then he reloads with new top talent.

Scotty Thurman, a former star from Arkansas’ 1994 national championship team, believes that this year’s 30-1 Kentucky squad could go down as one of the best in history. Calipari would love his chances if the tournament was a best-of-seven game format. But with single elimination, “luck and fate” get involved, the coach said.

And that’s no myth.

prisbelle@washpost.com

Eric Prisbell covers college basketball for The Washington Post.

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It’s time for bracket-busters and buzzer-beaters, net-cutting and “One Shining Moment.” Yes, it’s time for March Madness. Every year, the three-week college basketball tournament captivates America’s homes and workplaces, with school pride and office pools hanging in the balance. The insanity begins Sunday, when the NCAA selection committee chooses and seeds the teams. Its choices and the tournament itself elicit passionate debates — many of which rely on old myths about the NCAA and college hoops.