So what did college basketball accomplish this past weekend?
A flurry of conference playoffs, covered with reverence, that didn’t move the NCAA tournament needle much.
Kansas lost its first game in the Big Twelve tourney and was a No. 1 seed when the brackets were announced. North Carolina also lost its conference tournament and also claimed a No. 1 seed.
Louisville went into the weekend as a maybe 2 seed/maybe 3, lost to Duke, and grabbed a No. 2 seed nonetheless. Meanwhile, Duke ran the ACC tourney field and emerged as a 2 seed, with TV commentators picking them as the favorite to win the national title. This is a team that has lost eight times. Of course, it’s also Duke.
Those same commentators, by the way, had been saying previously that North Carolina was their favorite to win the national title. The Tarheels lost the experts’ loyalty, but not their No. 1 seed.
Michigan ran the table in the Big Ten, only to get a 7 seed in the tournament, whereas conference champ Purdue was seeded fourth and new darling Minnesota seeded fifth. (The Pitino name clearly means something in the college basketball world.) Michigan State, with a record of 19-14, was seeded ninth, apparently because nobody will take a mediocre Tom Izzo team at face value. (And also, just maybe, because the chairman of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee is Michigan State’s athletic director.)
The tournament committee’s buzzphrase — as hollow and meaningless as most buzzphrases — is “body of work.” And it’s true: Perhaps a single weekend — when each conference compresses an entire schedule into several days— shouldn’t overturn all the things teams have accomplished in the four months prior.
But according to a ludicrous conversation I heard on sports talk radio, past tournament play should be a factor. Specifically, they were debating whether Gonzaga, with a record of 32-1, deserved a No. 1 seed.
“No,” said one of the radio guys, “because they never do well in the tournament.”
So now we should be arranging the brackets backwards, looking at who has the best chance to win based on previous performance?
Based on that reasoning, the No. 1 seeds should have gone to UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and Indiana, and those teams’ 29 national championships. There’s no better record of “previous performance” than that? However, Kentucky was a 2 seed, so was Duke, UCLA a 3 seed, and Indiana didn’t make the tournament. How can the committee overlook the Hoosiers’ five national championships in the past?
So what about Kentucky? On Sunday morning, college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi had the streaking Wildcats as a No. 1 seed. This, by the way, was before UK even played for the SEC tournament championship. That afternoon, after the Cats had wrapped up the title, they fell to the two-line on the bracket. Even Lunardi backed away from them. Makes as much sense as anything else.
Taking away all the superfluity about who deserves to be where, against whom, Kentucky’s 2 seed is probably right. The Cats squandered their 1 seed chances with losses to UCLA and Kansas (to say nothing of Louisville, Tennessee and Florida). The SEC just doesn’t have enough respect around the country to have its five-loss champion among the four best teams. Whereas the ACC is formidable enough that Duke, with its eight losses, is a 2 seed and a pre-tournament favorite.
Here’s the thing, though. Regardless of seeds, brackets, potential second-round matchups and whatever Jay Bilas and Kara Lawson think, if you’re going to be a champion you have to beat the teams in front of you — no matter who they are or where you have to play them and in what round.
Big Blue Nation complained last year that it was unfair for Kentucky to have to play Indiana in the second round. It was unfair. But if Kentucky were to have been a Final Four contender (which that team clearly was not), it would have had to beat Indiana, and then Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Kansas, North Carolina and Villanova — whomever the Cats were matched against. That’s sort of the idea of the tournament. You play the games, and you have to win the games you play.
What are this Kentucky team’s chances? We’ll know more about that next week, after the Cats’ opening weekend two-set against Northern Kentucky and the winner of Wichita State-Dayton.
Kentucky has many of the necessary ingredients: a powerful big man, the fastest point guard in the nation and a knockdown, if streaky, shooter.
But does it have enough depth if Malik Monk is streaking the wrong way? Or if Bam Adebayo gets in foul trouble? Or if De’Aaron Fox gets shaky with the ball?
From the beginning of the school year, it was apparent that this team’s hopes rose and fell with this outstanding freshman trio. But what if it needs Isaiah Briscoe to step up? Or Derek Willis? Or Mychal Mulder? Or Isaac Humphries? Or Dominique Hawkins?
Hawkins is one of those solid, smart, athletic, competitive types who can play his best at just the right time of the season. Tell me there’s been a more satisfying moment for UK fans than seeing this kid from the Bluegrass get named to the all-tournament team.
But can the real Briscoe step forward — the one who gets opposing defenses on their heels, drives to the basket, gets his chance for and-ones and then makes his free throws? (Not the one who steps on the end line or gets his shots repeatedly blocked.)
Can Willis hit the boards and play defense underneath, and also hit some badly needed threes from the corner? Can Humphries, when called on, get more rebounds and soft jump shots than fouls and traveling violations? Can Wenyan Gabriel block shots and grab rebounds, not get brushed aside underneath?
This team has the ingredients, but the margin for error is oh so small.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Kentucky marched back to the Final Four, behind a flurry of Bam dunks, Fox layups and Monk three-balls. Nor would I be surprised if the Cats returned home on the second weekend (maybe even the first) with Bam on the bench in foul trouble and Monk doinking shots from all over the place.
“They’re freshmen,” says Coach John Calipari. “They’re not robots.”
About that, he certainly knows what he’s talking.