We hear it every year at this time. The NCAA Tournament Committee doesn’t know what they are doing. The most vocal critics are former coaches who whine and moan that there must be “basketball” people on the committee in order for the best teams to get into the field. It’s a tired old argument pushed by retired coaches who are probably still lamenting the year they were passed over.
I’m not trying to defend the tournament committee because they don’t really need defending. They do the job the way they see fit and frankly probably work a lot harder at selecting and seeding the field that we will ever know. If you look at this year’s tournament field, in the Final 4, we have the overall number 2 seed, the overall number 6 seed, the overall number 7 seed and then the 44th seed in Syracuse. That translates into one number one seed in North Carolina, two number 2’s in Villanova and Oklahoma and a 10 seed in Syracuse which became the first ever 10 seed to advance to the Final 4. The lowest to ever advance is an 11 seed which has happened three times…LSU, George Mason and Wichita State. But, while Syracuse has advanced, the odds are long that they will actually win the title since the lowest seed to ever win is a 6 seed which has happened twice with Villanova in 1985 and Kansas in 1988, which became the National Champion with the most loses at 11. In the National Title game in 1988, Kansas beat Oklahoma and for a while this year it looked like those two Big 12 teams would be meeting in the Semi-Finals, but then Villanova got in the way.
North Carolina is appearing in a record 19th Final 4 but return to college basketball’s grandest stage for the first time in 7 years. Their last appearance was in 2009, when they were clearly the best team and beat Michigan State for the school’s 5th Championship. North Carolina has never won the NCAA title without being a number one seed. Syracuse is appearing in just its 6th Final 4 and to say this one is a surprise is an understatement. Better to be lucky than good and Syracuse did not have to play Michigan State in the second round (thanks to Middle Tennessee), but they didn’t exactly back their way into this spot. It’s not easy wiping out a 16 point second half deficit like they did against Virginia on Sunday, but they did and earned this position.
You may have been reading things this week about these two schools and their NCAA problems and why this match-up is a nightmare for the NCAA. I’m convinced that some of that is just a writer needing something to talk about. It’s a fact that North Carolina is waiting on the NCAA to lower the boom on its charges of providing impermissible academic benefits and lack of institutional control for some of its student-athletes (in all sports) taking what are termed as “paper classes” for an easy grade in order to stay eligible. It is also a fact that Syracuse imposed a post-season ban last year, was placed on probation and had their coach suspended for 9 games this season for systematic academic cheating, but the other two schools in the Final 4 have had their own NCAA issues. Oklahoma was hammered twice by the NCAA for former coach Kelvin Sampson making over 550 illegal recruiting calls and again in 2011 under the watch of former coach Jeff Capel for providing improper benefits and using ineligible players, which caused the school to completely wipe off the books its 2009 – 2010 season. Villanova has the distinction of vacating a runner-up finish in 1971 when their best player Howard Porter – who became the Most Outstanding Player of the Final 4 from a losing team was found to have signed a professional contract during his Senior year with the Pittsburgh Condors of the old American Basketball Association.
As for Oklahoma and Villanova, while North Carolina makes its record 19th Final 4 appearance, Oklahoma and Villanova have combined for just 10 appearances, five apiece. Oklahoma appeared in the first Final 4 in 1939 in Evanston, Illinois and then again in 1947, but then didn’t appear again until 1988. Sampson took the Sooners to the Final 4 in 2002 and now they return for the first time in 14 years. Villanova last went to the Final 4 in 2009 under its current head coach Jay Wright. Villanova also has the distinction of being one of the few – and maybe only – schools to never fire a basketball coach. Current coach Jay Wright can probably stay at the school as long as he wants. First, he wins. Second, he’s likeable, and finally he’s annually named by GQ Magazine as the best dressed coach in College Basketball. The man can wear a suit. His counterpart in the semi-final Lon Kruger likewise appears to be a likeable person, not to mention one hell of a basketball coach. His only issue has been the wandering eye. His career has taken him from Texas Pan-American, to Kansas State, to Florida, to Illinois, to the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, back to college at UNLV and now to Oklahoma. He’s in his 60s and maybe he’s finally content at Oklahoma, but I’m not going to be surprised if he moves again. Contrast those two with the very unlikeable Jim Boeheim, and Roy Williams who is probably a very likeable person, but I swear some of the things he says sound like they come right out of the “Hee Haw Handbook for Head Coaches.” I think it’s part of his persona to play like he’s dump and then stick a knife in your back while you are not looking.
If everything goes according to plan, then North Carolina will probably celebrate a championship on Monday night. But, what about this year has gone according to plan and in this era of one-and-done players, this tournament is an example of what we are likely to see in the future. After all, it is March Mad-ness.