Charles Barkley’s bracket is a crime scene pic.twitter.com/ata7WdkgiW
— Danny (@recordsANDradio) March 18, 2018
Those of you who’ve been around here for a while might remember that I normally do an NCAA bracket competition around this time of the year. This year, I took one look at the bracket and said, “Eff that.” Not only did I not feel confident in any one team, I couldn’t even feel confident in selecting the top four teams. Make that eight. Actually, make that sixteen.
In the bracket that I did do for my annual “friends and family” competition, I was only able to correctly pick six of the final sixteen squads—and that includes Loyola Chicago, whom I actually picked to make the Sweet 16 on a hunch. Without them, I’d be batting about 31 percent. Three of my Final Four are already out, including my two finalists and eventual champ, North Carolina. Two #1 seeds are out before the Sweet 16 for only the third time ever. The South region’s four survivors are the 5, 7, 9, and 11 seeds—1-4 are gonzo. The “people’s bracket” in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge had Virginia as the overall winner, which would be fine except for the fact that they lost in the very first round by twenty points to something called a “UMBC,” becoming the first #1 seed to ever lose to a #16 seed.
So it’s not just that I suck at picking college basketball games, it’s that everybody sucks this year—the overall leader in ESPN’s bracket only has 560 of a possible 640. To get into the top 50 (out of about 20 million entries) you only need 520 points. What the hell is going on?
What’s going on is that the college game is forever and irrevocably damaged at its core. Depending on whom you ask, that’s either terrible, or wonderful.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen lower seeds disrupt the tournament, (Wichita State in 2013, Butler in 2010 and 2011, VCU in 2010, George Mason in 2006, Loyola Marymount in 1990, even Villanova in 1985, etc.) but it’s the first time that the entire bracket appears to have gone haywire in this fashion. What’s causing it?
One and done. When Steve Fisher started five freshmen on his Michigan squad in 1992, he probably had no idea that he was starting a trend that would change the game forever. Kentucky starts five freshmen, and nobody cares. Kentucky will probably always start five freshmen—that’s what happens when nearly your entire starting lineup (and even some backups) gets drafted every year. But while Kentucky has had several strong teams since John Calipari’s arriva, including a national championship and two other Final Four appearances, they’ve also been bounced in early rounds, and they even missed the tournament altogether once.
The kids who come to Lexington every year didn’t grow up dreaming of playing for the Wildcats—only three Calipari recruits in his nine years were Kentuckians, and none of those three played significant minutes in blue and white. No, these kids are mercenaries who only came to Kentucky with one goal—getting to the NBA as quickly as possible.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with that. If the system exists for these kids, most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to make 7 figures at the age of 19, who am I to tell them they can’t or they shouldn’t?
But what it does cause is completely unpredictable basketball outcomes. It’s impossible to know how 18 and 19 year old kids will perform under the pressure of March’s bright lights—some of them will undeniably rise to the occasion, and others will shoot airballs.
It’s also impossible to know how a team of freshmen will progress over the course of the season. In 2012, Kentucky’s lone championship under Calipari, the squad entered as a #1 seed and played as predicted, facing few challenges along the way to their ultimate result. However, the 2013 team entered as a #9 seed, and “upset” several higher ranked teams on the way to a close loss to Connecticut in the championship game. Were they really deserving of a 9 seed? Of course not. They were a young team that lost four games in a row in conference play while figuring out who and what they were. That seeding was based on their record, not their ability.
Of course, having a team of young, talented freshmen is no guarantee of success. Kentucky was, yet again, the youngest team in the nation this year. The second, third, fourth, and fifth youngest teams in the nation? None of them even made the tournament.
Which means that great future pro players don’t necessarily make great college players now, and vice versa. An above-average, potential end-of-round-2-or-free-agent senior might be a better collegiate player in this moment than a 18-year-old lottery pick freshman is.
That’s why you see a lot of schools from the middle tier of the top conferences in this Sweet 16 right now—Purdue, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Florida State, Clemson, Texas A&M, and West Virginia rarely, if ever, get 5 star recruits, yet here they are because they often get the 3 star recruit who stays four years and matures and improves. Loyola Chicago’s top four scorers are all seniors and juniors. Conversely, Kentucky has 11 kids playing in the NBA right now who would still have college eligibility remaining if they hadn’t left early—literally an entire roster of NBA talent left early. So Kentucky is a five seed with five freshmen, but they might be the greatest team in NCAA history if they were able to keep their talent all four years.
Naturally, this leads to reduced quality of play. That veteran Loyola Chicago squad shoots over 50% from the floor, the second highest percentage in the country. Kentucky’s fab frosh squad? They’re ranked 36th. They’re long, quick, and athletic, but they can’t shoot. In other words, they’re just not very good at basketball yet—and why would they be? They’re one year removed from being a high school team.
And defense? Psshhhh. Forget it. Nobody plays defense anymore, because in the tournament, scoring (not shooting percentage, but volume scoring) is what wins games, not defense. Don’t believe me? The top three defensive teams in the country—Michigan State, Cincinnati, and Virginia—are all gone from this tournament. Only one top ten defensive team remains (Syracuse). Three of the top seven scoring teams are still in the Sweet 16 (Villanova, Duke, Gonzaga).
The net result is that college basketball has evolved from a team game with complex offensive sets working to get a good shot against hard-nosed defensive squads to an individual-oriented game based on athleticism and volume 3-point shooting. If a team gets hot from behind the three-point line (see: UMBC vs. Virginia), they can beat a better, more talented team. If a team gets cold from behind the three-point line (see: North Carolina vs. Texas A&M), they’ll lose to an inferior team.
I used to bet on coaches, not players, because you could count on good coaches to outwork and outscheme opponents. Now, I think that you have to bet on one of three things, and hope for a little bit of luck, too:
- Gifted individual scorers
- 3-point shooting
- Veteran teams
But, in all honesty, nobody has a good feel for how this tournament—and future tournaments—are going to go. It’s still very possible that we could end up with a blue-blood Final Four (Kentucky, Villanova, Duke, Michigan) or we could end up with utter chaos (Florida State, Clemson, West Virginia, and…Nevada? Loyola?), but I’m guessing we’ll get some combination of the two. However, for the first time ever, I think it’s extremely possible that any of these 16 teams could win it all—and Vegas agrees with me. There’s only one game with a spread bigger than 5 points this weekend, and that’s the one game with two traditional powers (Duke over Syracuse). Either Nevada or Loyola Chicago will be in the Elite Eight. Think about that.
If you like chaos, unpredictability, and frantic play, then March Madness will be for you for the foreseeable future. However, if you like good basketball…well, there’s a good chance that there’s a high school state championship happening near you. Go see those 5’11” kids fight and scrap for a medal, instead.