The annual vacuous exercise accompanying the NCAA tournament cycles through a couple times each March. It operates independent of buzzer-beaters, wacky mascots and NBA draft stock, and somewhat separate from other seasonal staples like the 12-5 upset and coaches improving their careers with a single victory.
It is the inane exercise of judging entire conferences on two weeks worth of games, a seemingly irresistible topic for those who (a) only begin paying attention to college basketball in mid-March; (b) can’t help but pick low-lying fruit to provide the basis for their analysis or (c) are a welcome sight to the guy running the ring toss stand at your local carnival.
The first weekend of the tournament prompted those unwilling to apply much critical thinking that the Atlantic Coast Conference was a fraud based on a 15-game sample size for nine teams. Meanwhile, the Big Ten was lauded for its showing after an uneven regular season for most of its teams.
Then came Friday, when three Southeastern Conference teams stormed into the Elite Eight. “OMG! The SEC was underrated!” come the shouts.
Let’s consider this calmly for a minute.
Kentucky handled UCLA in impressive fashion. And while Coach John Calipari deserves more credit than he probably receives for getting his NBA-bound talent to care about defense by the time most seasons end, the Wildcats are the No. 2 seed in the South Region. They were supposed to survive to this point.
Florida outlasted Wisconsin in overtime to reach the East Region final as a No. 4 seed. Mike White’s team got some help last weekend when the Badgers ousted defending national champion Villanova, but the Gators were a stout defensive team all year and their presence in the Elite Eight shouldn’t constitute a major shock.
South Carolina was one of the easiest teams in the field to dismiss entering the tournament. They dropped six of nine entering the postseason, played unremarkable offense and were seemingly gifted a No. 7 seed. But they averaged 90.5 points last weekend against Marquette and Duke before suffocating Baylor (another outfit that struggled down the stretch) in the other East Region semifinal. This is a surprise run for the Gamecocks, and Coach Frank Martin and star Sindarius Thornwell deserve plenty of credit.
To summarize those last three paragraphs, it was about the teams.
For all of the nitpicking to be done at the expense of the NCAA tournament selection committee, there’s one thing its members have gotten right on an annual basis. Their task is to select and seed teams, not conferences. Over and over, committee chairmen are trotted out and offer a variation on that general theme. And over and over, they are ignored.
(Whether their selection criteria inherently helps power conference teams is another matter, but there isn’t a quota system for individual leagues).
Entering Saturday, the West Coast Conference’s two entrants in the field (Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s) have stitched together a 4-1 record in this year’s tournament. Pretty good, though no one seems to want to boast of the great power of a basketball-centric league filled with private schools on the West Coast. Funny how it works.
It would, of course, be ludicrous to suggest the WCC is a powerhouse solely on less than a half-dozen games. Rationally, it’s easy to separate Gonzaga from Pacific, Pepperdine and Portland, each a loser of 20 games this season. None of them got better in the last two weeks, at least not for anything that happened in this year’s NCAA tournament.
So why should the SEC (or anyone else) be any different? It shouldn’t.
Moreover, what’s changed? Not much, other than South Carolina turning things around. Louisiana State and Missouri are still bad enough that they lost 20 games and fired their respective coaches. More than half of the league’s programs piled up at least 15 losses this year. Kentucky’s success in March shouldn’t — and doesn’t — mean Mississippi State was good.
Let’s go back to last weekend’s cause celebres in the tournament. The Big Ten’s three remaining teams all lost the last two nights. Guess that means the conference isn’t good anymore. Or, more accurately, Purdue (blown out by Kansas), Michigan (edged by Oregon) and Wisconsin (OT losers to Florida) ran into better teams.
As for the ACC, its teams went 166-49 (.772) against nonconference opponents last year and 167-46 (.784) and counting this season. Those 15 schools averaged a nonconference schedule strength of 150.4 on Selection Sunday last year and 148.5 on that same date this year. That’s pretty even.
Of course, six of its schools advanced to the second weekend last year (three without beating a single-digit seed) to prompt a ton of chest-thumping. When only North Carolina advanced to the regional round this year, there was an eruption of ridicule.
Both reactions were silly. The college basketball season stretches four-and-a-half months, providing plenty of data points beyond a handful of matchup-driven pairings. What occurs in three weeks in March and April determines a champion, but what happens over a longer stretch is a better way to analyze relative conference strength.
For those who disagree, here’s some good news: The carnival will be back in town before you know it.