Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sweet 16 Preview -- a second chance for sageness

First off: Congratulations to Jim Boeheim. For the first time, Boeheim has been named the winner of the Henry Iba Award by the United States Basketball Writers Association. It's Boeheim's first such award. The award has a distinguished list of winners (Wooden has 7) and an interesting list of non-winners (Krzyzewski, Calhoun, Donovan, Denny Crum, Pitino).

Iba was the legendary coach at Oklahoma A&M/Oklahoma State who won two national titles, coached two gold medal winners (1964, 1968 teams), mentored Bob Knight (not the temper), coached the 1972 Olympic team that was cheated out of a gold medal, and was named an assistant by Knight on the 1984 Olympic champions.

As for the rest of the Tournament, some observations.

(1) Don't bet Northern Iowa, St. Mary's, Washington or Cornell to win again. Cinderella can make it to the Sweet 16, but she rarely makes it to the Final Eight or beyond. When seeds outside the top 7 reach the Final Eight, it's usually major conference schools either on a good run, or with a diminished bracket. Only five teams seeded 9 or higher have made the Final Eight since 2000 (Temple in '01; Missouri, Kent St. in '02; George Mason in '06 and Davidson in '08). Northern Iowa has the diminished bracket (No. 5 Michigan State next), but St. Mary's, Washington and Cornell all play the teams that should be opposite them based on seeding

(2) Suddenly Syracuse is a favorite (with Kentucky) after being a half afterthought -- just ask Stewart Mandel and Luke Winn of SI. Mandel picked BYU to win the West; Winn picked K-State. Both said SU was hurting because of Onuaku's injury and its consecutive end-of-season losses. Now they're turning orange after the first weekend. Similarly, Kentucky was too young and inexperienced (what, like the '03 Syracuse team that won the Tournament?) to win just 10 days ago, now Calipari's one-and-done brigade is ready to cruise through to Indianapolis after resounding wins over a directional school and a weak Wake?

I'll admit that last weekend the Orange put together two beatdowns that showed why they received a #1 seed, but I have no real read on what that means for the Tourney as a whole. UNC turned the Tourney into an exhibition last year and blasted everyone, but UConn was just as impressive in the first two rounds before slowing down a bit in the regionals and then getting whacked by Michigan State. KU blew out its opponents in the first two rounds of 2008, but was the underdog of the Final Four after barely scraping by Davidson in the regional final. Thirteen minutes into its national semifinal, KU had a 40-12 lead on UNC, which had romped its way through the East that year too.

And I have no history with this. Until 1987, Syracuse hadn't won two games in any of its NCAA appearances under Boeheim -- he had a 7-8 NCAA record until SU's run to the final that year (Boeheim's now 44-26). Since then, SU has made 10 Sweet 16s but has not pasted consecutive opponents like it has this year -- not even in '94 or '96 when SU only had to beat a 13 and a 12 to make the second weekend because the #5 seed opposite it got bounced, and not even with the Douglas/Coleman/Thompson teams of the late 80s that could drub anyone on a given night. The national title team in '03? Won its opener by 11 and had to come back from 17 down to win in the second round. In '03, the Carmelo team won 14 games in the Big East, including the Big East tourney; it won 3 of them by 10+ points -- they didn't routinely dominate, they found ways to win.

Ultimately, the first two rounds should be a warm-up for the #1 seed because those teams are presumably just that good. That's why only about 14 #1 seeds have lost before the Sweet 16 since the tournament expanded to six rounds in 1985. (This site says #1 seeds have 18 combined losses to #8 and #9 seeds and four of those occurred before the expansion to six rounds for all teams). Contrast that with #3 seeds, who have 15 losses in the FIRST round or with #2 seeds, who have 19 losses to #10 seeds -- more losses than #1 seeds have to #8 and #9 seeds combined. Basically, a #1 seed is a pass to the Sweet 16, and then the real games begin.

No, I still cannot explain KU's failure.

(3) Speaking of real games, I'm sticking with my Final Four and admitting that I just plain honked with the KU pick. Me and 50% of the country. That is, I'm not revising other predictions: Kentucky, Dook and the SU/KSU winner.

And in a way, I should've known better than to pick KU. Very few overall #1 teams win the Tourney -- since seeding began in 1980 the top overall seeds that won are 1982 North Carolina, 1990 UNLV, 1992 Duke, 1994 Arkansas(?), 1995 UCLA, 2001 Duke. That's possibly six in 31 tournaments. And yes, sometimes the top overall seed isn't actually better than a different #1 seed that wins the whole thing (1984: Georgetown [won]/UNC [pre-Tourney #1]; 1996: Kentucky/UMass; 2000: Michigan State/Duke; 2002: Maryland/Duke; 2005: UNC/Illinois; 2007: Florida/Ohio State; 2009: UNC/Louisville), but the top seed of the Tournament always has won its conference tournament and lots of #1 seeds bonk in their conference tourneys before winning the top prize ('93 UNC, '94 Pigsooeys, '96 Kentucky, '02 Maryland, '05 UNC, '09 UNC).

(4) I'm also sticking with UConn to win the women's title. That team has allowed 75 points in two games, and scored at least 90 in each win. Yipes. It's called a no-brainer.

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