NCAA Tournament, Day 1 — live!

If you want to understand America, you don't have to watch all this basketball. But it helps.

Topics: Basketball, College basketball,

4:10 p.m. PDT Not much to recommend that Washington-Mississippi State game that just ended except a 10-point, 15-rebound, one-spectacular fall performance by Jon Brockman. The Huskies won by 13, which is about how much they led by for the entire second half.

Not much in the way of upsets so far. I refuse to consider a 9-over-8 an upset, so Texas A&M over BYU doesn’t count. Tenth-seed Maryland beat No. 7 Cal, which is officially an upset but didn’t much look like one, and 10-over-7 usually isn’t really one anyway.

I can drag out my well-worn theory here that a difference of three or four seeds in the middle of the bracket, a 7 vs. a 10 or an 8 vs. a 12, that sort of thing, is nothing. It has more to do with the biases of the Selection Committee and the small sample size of a season than the actual quality of the teams.

But I’m not going to do that.

The evening games offer some upset chances. A lot of people have Western Kentucky over Illinois in the South as their token 12-over-5 upset, and a few have No. 13 Akron, also in the South, over No. 4 Gonzaga.

While you’re waiting for the third set of games to get going, read this terrific post by my friend Jonah Keri, “The Legacy of Gonzaga, Adam Morrison, and Gus Johnson.” By way of reviewing Gonzaga’s decade-long run as a major Tournament player, he pays cockeyed tribute to my favorite announcer. With clips. Oh, baby!

I’ll take my leave of you for now. We’ll talk about the evening games later.

3:10 p.m. PDT I asked if it’s my imagination or if 1-vs.-16 games have become less competitive in recent years. After a quick look at the last 10 Tournaments, I have to say it’s not my imagination. In the last three years, those 1-16 games have been a lot more lopsided than they had been.

But they only had been less lopsided for two years, 2005 and 2006. What was a figment of my imagination was that the top seeds’ opening games had been fairly competitive for most of this decade. Not true. It’s been blowout city all along, except in ’05 and ’06.

Today’s 1-16 games had victory margins of 43 and 56 points. North Carolina’s 103-47 win over Chattanooga, by the way, was the first 50-point win by a No. 1 seed over a 16 since 1998, when Kansas beat Prairie View 110-52.



That means this will be the third straight year in which at least two of the 1-16 games had margins of 20 or more points, and it still could be the third straight year with 20-point margins in all four games. In both 2005 and ’06, only one of the four 1-16 games had a 20-point margin. Those were the only years since 1999 when fewer than two of these games were decided by 20 or more, and there was only one other year, 2002, when as few as two games were so lopsided.

The average margin of victory in 1-vs.-16 games from 1999 to 2003 was at least 24.25 points every year, and twice it was more than 30 points. In 2004 it fell to 22.5 points, then to 15.5 in 2005 and 16.5 in 2006. But it was back up to 31.25 in 2007 and 32 points last year. This year, it’ll be at least 30 points unless the total margin of victory in the remaining two games is fewer than 21 points. There have been 42 1-vs.-16 games played since 1999, and no two of them have a combined margin of victory fewer than 21 points.

The last time a No. 1 failed to win its opening game by at double figures was in 1997, when North Carolina beat Fairfield 82-74.

So what does all that mean?

It means that Mike Montgomery is part of a devious Stanford conspiracy against my Golden Bears.

In the only game going right now, Washington is pulling away from Mississippi State early in the second half. Washington’s a good team.

2:10 p.m. PDT So I’ve been off playing fanboy, watching my sturdy Golden Bears play the Terps, and it’s been a pretty dismal affair. That’s partly because Maryland just closed out a solid win and mostly because it was kind of a dreary ballgame.

Now here’s another way the NCAA Tournament is just like America: I’m looking around for someone to blame. Give me a few minutes here and I’ll have a conspiracy theory worked up that has to do with Cal’s coach, Mike Montgomery, still being loyal to his old employer, Stanford.

Chattanooga’s early surge against UConn didn’t exactly sustain itself. At this writing, the Huskies lead by 54. North Carolina struggled to a 101-58 win over Radford. That game was over so quickly I didn’t even have time to look up where Radford is. Virginia, is what I would have found.

Is it my imagination, or are 1-vs.-16 games becoming less competitive in recent years? I don’t remember so many 40- and 50-point games in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but lately they’ve become common.

Maybe I’ll do a little research on that question while I watch this West region game between No. 4 Washington, champs of my home conference, the Pac 10, and No. 13 Mississippi State.

See? We work even while we’re watching basketball, we Americans. That’s productivity.

12:15 p.m. PDT Thanks mostly to Roburt Sallie’s 35 points, Memphis held off Northridge State 81-70, so the big upset didn’t materialize in the first flight of games.

Butler over LSU in a 9-over-8 in the South wouldn’t have been an upset, but it always feels like one when a smaller conference team beats a BCS school, even when they’re evenly matched. That didn’t happen either, the Tigers hanging on for the 75-71 win. BYU never got its act together against Texas A&M and lost 79-66. That one was a BCS 9 over a smaller conference 8, but it felt a little more like an upset because who expected BYU to look so overmatched in that game?

So we soldier on to the next run of games, in search of our first upset. This is what we do during the first two days of the Tournament. We watch for upsets and any other close, exciting games. Upsets are almost always close and exciting.

We also watch our own team play, if we’re lucky, and this column’s lucky this year. The real alma mater, California, seeded seventh in the West, goes up against No. 10 Maryland in this set of games. The others are 5 Purdue vs. 12 Northern Iowa in the West, an upset pick for me but going the Boilermakers’ way early; and the first two 1-vs.-16 games of the Tourney, North Carolina-Radford in the South and UConn-Chattanooga in the West.

The Huskies announced shortly before game time that coach Jim Calhoun would miss this game because of a health issue. He’s reportedly at the team hotel, but the school isn’t saying exactly what’s wrong. He’s had some gastric issues for several years and sometimes misses games.

In 1954 an academic named Jacques Barzun famously wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” and we baseball fans love to quote that, even though for all we know Barzun was a complete idiot and while this country’s heart and soul might or might not be a constant since 1954 its leisure interests have most certainly changed, and if baseball knowledge were necessary to know the heart and soul of America in 1954 — a dubious idea — it’s almost certainly not necessary today.

“American Idol” maybe. The NFL perhaps. But not baseball.

And maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better pay attention to the NCAA Tournament.

Which is nonsense, of course. Complete doo-doo, as a favorite history professor of mine at Cal — there’s the tip! Go Bears! — used to say abouut some theory or other. But I wonder if there’s something to the idea that you can learn a little something, or a lot something, about our heart and soul, maybe even our liver, by cozying up to the NCAA Tournament, especially the first round.

We love our underdogs, of course. Have I mentioned Andrew Leonard’s great “National underdog days” in Salon in 2001? We love our underdogs, but we mostly bet on the favorites. And we don’t really squawk much when the deck is stacked in their favor, which the NCAA Tournament does by letting high seeds play early-round games close to home.

We bet a lot.

We become absolutely fascinated by something because it’s right in front of us. All of a sudden, we’re huge fans of … Cal State Northridge! We don’t know where it is! We mix it up with Fullerton, or is it San Luis Obispo! But we’re living and — oh! He fouled him! The refs are in the bag! — these guys for an hour or so if they get up in the grill of some high seed. We become experts on them. That No. 3 guy. He’s got to stop going to his left like that. He can’t go left! Why doesn’t he know that?

Of course we’ve never seen No. 3 before in our lives and for all we know his friends call him “Lefty” because he goes to his left so well. But we saw him go to his left twice and not score, and we know. He should listen to us.

And we’re going to forget No. 3′s name 10 minutes after this game’s over and never give him another thought. We don’t much care what you used to do. We care about what you’re doing right now.

We use the Tournament as an excuse to get together, to party, to sluff off at work. But we also work really hard. We work extra hours to make up for our — ahem — lost productivity. Maybe we check in on a few basketball games we shouldn’t on Thursday and Friday, but how many of us are trying to catch up on Saturday and Sunday, doing a little work on the side when, goshdarnit, we should be concentrating on basketball.?

Our hearts and our souls are a little too complicated to be boiled down to how you’d best get to know this or that game to understand them. But maybe you don’t get the full picture without knowing a little bit about baseball, about “American Idol” and the NFL, and certainly about the NCAA Tournament.

I could go further with this theory, but Cal has rallied from a bad start, Radford is hanging in against Carolina, and — Chattanooga! The Mocs! I didn’t even have to look that up! They’ve got the lead! It’s 6-4!

10:55 a.m. PDT Matadors! Northridge — my alma mater! OK, shut up — have pulled ahead of Memphis in the middle of the second half. Mark Hill’s 3-pointer put the Matadors on top 44-43. Following a Memphis timeout, a Hill assist led to a bucket that gave Northridge a 46-43 lead.

What would it do to your bracket if we got the first 15 over 2 since Hampton beat Iowa State in 2001?

10:30 a.m. Halftime times three. Why don’t they stagger those starts by more than five minutes? There are 16 games going on today. Why should there ever be down time?

Northridge is hanging in there against Memphis, though I’m not confident for my alma mater. They trail by three. BYU, outside my vision because I got tired of shielding my eyes, has semi-rallied to pull within 12 of Texas A&M. LSU leads Butler by six.

I should mention that I’m not going to try to fool you into thinking I have any expertise on the 2008-09 college basketball season. This season has largely passed me by. I was shocked to find out that UNLV didn’t make the Tournament. Don’t they win the championship every year?

Just kidding. But I’m approaching the Tournament the same way most people do — as a person suddenly paying a radical amount of attention to college basketball after having been no more than a casual fan all year.

This moment of full disclosure dispensed with, can we start those second halves please?

10 a.m. PDT Cal-State Northridge is giving Memphis hell in Kansas City. The No. 15 Matadors jumped off to a big lead but the No. 2 Tigers pulled even before I could even do any crowing: My alma mater!

That was a little personal in-joke anyway. I’m not a Northridge alum. I just like to say that because I went to a weekend journalism seminar there when I was in high school. But the joke’s on me: That seminar was at Cal State-Fullerton, not Northridge. Who can tell the difference?

Memphis has a 26-22 lead with about eight minutes to go after a big dunk by Matador Kenny Daniels — from St. Louis. Hey, he’s my homeboy, sort of. I’m just looking for connections wherever I can find them.

Butler has righted the ship somewhat but still trails LSU 22-18. BYU is getting blown out by Texas A&M, and it’s not looking flukey. The Cougars are playing terrible ball.

9:25 a.m. PDT Sweet Bud Light commercial there with the skier crashing down the slope, thanks to the tree that the Bud Light guy drew onto the mountainside with his finger.

It’s not like one of the biggest news stories in the country today is a famous actress having died after a ski accident or anything.

So one of my few “upset” picks — not that a 9 over an 8 is an upset — is off to a great start. LSU 9, Butler 0.

9:10 a.m. PDT This column is ready for duty, primed to watch Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament so you don’t have to, though let’s face it: You’re going to.

So let’s get a few things taken care of right off the bat. The most true thing ever written by anybody about anything, and yes I’m including all those old Greek dudes and Thomas Jefferson and whoever came up with that thing about beans being the magical fruit, was Andrew Leonard’s 2001 piece in Salon headlined “National underdog days,” in which Leonard argued that the first two days of the Tournament should be holidays in the United States. I link to it every year, so there you go.

“It’s an insult to working men and women to have one of the most exciting 48-hour stretches of sports off-limits to us poor sods who have to pay fealty to evil capitalist overlords,” Leonard wrote.

Put that man in charge of the Fed. Or at least make him president.

Another thing I like to do is point out the absurdity of the annual publicity-stunt claim by a Chicago consulting firm that the NCAA Tournament costs American business some tremendous and entirely fictional amount of money. Challenger Gray & Christmas gets its name in the paper — sorry, its name in the blogosphere nowdays — with this stuff every year, and good for Challenger Gray. I admire the ability to get mentioned and am happy to support it.

The main thing this publicity does for Challenger Gray is let potential clients know that the firm is comfortable with shoddy analysis based on faulty assumptions, and that’s giving the company the benefit of the doubt that it doesn’t just invent facts to lead to the conclusions it thinks will best benefit Challenger Gray.

Hire away, American corporations! These guys can really help.

The short version of what Challenger Gray does: It uses some old survey to guess at how many college basketball fans there are and how much time per Tournament day basketball fans say they devote to the Tournament. Then it multiplies that number by the number of days men’s and women’s Tournament games are played on, even though there are only two days in the whole thing when games are played during normal business hours. And then it multiplies that absurdly inflated number by the average hourly wage and, presto, a figure for the amount of money lost by American business.

Oh, by the way, this calculation assumes that no American worker ever wastes a single minute, all year, except on the NCAA Tournament.

OK, that wasn’t short. Challenger Gray’s lost productivity figure swung from $889.6 million to $3.8 billion and back down to $1.2 billion in the space of three consecutive years from 2005 to 2007. Just to give you an idea of the rigor here.

But never mind that. We’re ready for basketball. I’ve decided to go with a boring bracket this season. My son Buster, the coin-flippinest 6-year-old who ever thought he was a rock star, has a much more interesting bracket than mine, though we both come to the same conclusion: Pittsburgh over Louisville in the Championship Game.

Here’s what I have. In the Midwest, my only first-round upset is 11 Dayton over 6 West Virginia. In the second round I have all favorites except 7 Boston College over 2 Michigan State. Louisville over Kansas in the regional final.

In the West I have my token 12-5 upset, Northern Iowa over Purdue. I also have 11 Utah State over 6 Marquette, but then the bracket resolves to the top four teams making the Sweet 16. How could I resist the Huskies vs. the Huskies and the Tigers vs. the Tigers in the regional semis? I’ve got No. 2 Memphis beating the top seed, UConn, in the final.

In the East I’m taking 11 Virginia Commonwealth over 6 UCLA, only because I always pick against UCLA if a Bruins loss is plausible. I was born there. Paging Dr. Freud. I have 10 Minnesota beating 7 Texas. A minor upset in the second round, 5 Florida State over 4 Xavier, and then 3 Villanova over 2 Duke in the regional semi before Pitt takes the region.

In the South I’ve got 9 Butler over 8 LSU and 10 Michigan over 7 Clemson. I’m going with a 6-3 upset in the second round, Arizona State over Syracuse. And then North Carolina over Oklahoma in the final.

So my Final Four is Louisville over Memphis and Pitt over UNC, with Pitt winning the title. If I’m not entered in your pool, just send me the money.

Buster has Missouri, his home-state team, making a Final Four run out of the West, where he had them beating Cal in the Sweet 16. Dad has his own alma mater losing in the second round. Even better than that, though, he has Clemson making a shocker of a run out of the South, knocking off Gonzaga in the regional final.

Butler-LSU, Cal State Northridge-Memphis and Texas A&M-BYU are all bouncing balls around, about to tip off. Let’s go.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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