It All Went According to Plan ... Sort of
Two weeks in the life of the NCAA Selection Committee -- or, if you prefer the alternate title, “Blind Luck Should Never Be Underestimated”:
March 16: Across the land, the NCAA Selection Committee is ridiculed for its decision to put Brigham Young in a bracket that would require the Mormon school to play a Sunday game if the Cougars managed to advance to the Elite Eight. What could they be thinking?
March 20: Connecticut 58, BYU 53. Crisis, and coast-to-coast office-pool chaos, averted.
March 16: Big East supporters and certain overheated basketball analysts rail against the NCAA Selection Committee’s decision to include “soft” Auburn (8-8 conference record, weak nonconference schedule) in the field of 64 ahead of Boston College or Seton Hall. What could they be thinking?
March 21-28: Auburn defeats St. Joseph’s and Wake Forest to advance to the Sweet 16, where the Tigers scare the arrogance out of the Big East’s last remaining banner-carrier in a 79-78 loss to Syracuse.
March 16: The NCAA Selection Committee is lambasted for regional bracketing that sets up Arizona and Kentucky -- a.k.a. “The Real National Championship Game” -- for a measly NCAA semifinal. What could they be thinking?
March 29: OK, so they had Arizona and Kentucky overrated.
That’s the great thing about the NCAA tournament. After the loudmouths and the know-it-alls work the thing out in their minds and on their photocopied bracket sheets, they let the kids go out and play the games.
Once again, in a never-ending streak, the 20-year-olds bailed out the 50-year-olds.
The NCAA tournament in a nutshell:
* Kentucky enters its Midwest Regional final against Marquette with a 26-game winning streak, achieved with no superstar on the roster, totally reliant on a whole-is-greater-than-the-parts ethics. The Wildcats lose one of those parts -- a fully fit Keith Bogans -- and everything else falls apart. Marquette 83, Kentucky 69.
* Kansas enters its West Regional final against Arizona after having barely staved off Duke in spite of a one-for-nine, two-point performance by All-American guard Kirk Hinrich. After a day and a half of emotional rehabilitation, Hinrich bounces back to score 28 points Saturday at the Pond. Kansas 78, Arizona 75.
To put it another way: Kids are resilient, teamwork is fragile, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament remains the most unpredictable sporting competition on the planet ... give or take the 2002 NFL season. (That one was an aberration, right?)
Tradition is supposed to mean something in college basketball, but even that was unreliable Saturday.
Kentucky was bidding for its 14th trip to the Final Four, most recently having won the whole thing in 1996 and 1998, whereas Marquette hadn’t been to the Final Four since 1977, Al McGuire’s final season as a coach.
Roy Williams, according to the scouting report, can’t win the big one, which hasn’t been a problem for Arizona, champion in 1997.
Marquette, faced with a gantlet run through possibly the two best defensive teams in the country, put up 77 points against Pittsburgh on Thursday, then shot 56% against Kentucky. The Wildcats, who have shut down some of the best scorers in the nation, had no clue what to do with Dwyane Wade, the guard with the double-take first name and, against Kentucky, numbers to match: 29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists.
Tom Crean, Marquette’s 36-year-old coach, risked banishment from the Coaches Cliche Society by refusing to not to take it one game at a time, by being so brash as to (gasp) look ahead to a game not next on the schedule.
Crean’s players wear “AL” patches on their jerseys to remind them of what once was at Marquette, but, really, none of them know. Psychologically speaking, Crean was playing catch-up with his players, needing to get them in a mind-set capable of taking on the Kentuckys and Arizonas of the world.
So, when he saw the pairings and noticed Marquette would probably need to beat Kentucky and Arizona to get to the national final, he had his team practice against the offenses Kentucky and Arizona normally run.
This, of course, is coaching heresy. But what about Holy Cross in the first round?
Another good thing about college basketball: There is no single “right” way to do things, no matter what Bob Knight says. Championships have been won by looking brazenly ahead, far, far down the schedule, as UCLA fans might recall. During a Pacific 10 trip to Washington in 1995, Jim Harrick arranged a team field trip to the Kingdome, site of that year’s Final Four. The pitch: This is what you’re playing for, this is your future.
A month later, the Bruins took to the Kingdome as if it were their annual time share.
Mind games. Whatever gets you through the regional. Crean worked it smartly -- and got a little lucky, finally meeting up with Kentucky after Bogans had suffered a high ankle sprain in the regional semifinal.
Arizona-Kentucky? Wildcat fans, there’s always next year.
The NCAA Selection Committee? The esteemed members will be back at it again next spring, defying logic and conventional wisdom and getting by, as usual, by the seat of their pants.