Is there any event that so consistently lives up to its reputation as the NCAA Tournament?
With all the buildup, you'd think the thing would have to disappoint more often than not. There are years when the would-be buzzer-beaters all seem to clank off the rim and the underdogs all seem to fall short, but not many of them.
And certainly not this year. This year, the Tournament had six first-round upsets, not counting 9-over-8 or 10-over-7 wins.
Two 11-seeds beat 6-seeds, George Mason over Michigan State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee over Oklahoma. Two 12s beat 5s, Montana over Nevada and Texas A&M over Syracuse. No. 13 Bradley beat No. 4 Kansas and, in a classic Tournament moment, No. 14 Northwestern State stunned No. 3 Iowa on a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
But it didn't stop there.
The second round is usually the beat-down round, where order is restored and Cinderella runs come skidding to a halt. But there was Bradley, doing it again, this time to No. 5 Pittsburgh. George Mason pulled off a shocker, beating 3-seed North Carolina.
And the Shockers did it too, No. 7 Wichita State beating No. 2 Tennessee, though the way Tennessee has been playing lately, especially in its first-round escape against No. 15 Winthrop, that Shockers shocker was hardly shocking.
Georgetown, a seventh seed, knocked off No. 2 Ohio State with what looked like relative ease.
And with that, the Big Ten was gone, its half-dozen teams winning three games, six fewer than they were supposed to win, based on seeding. Meanwhile, the much-maligned Missouri Valley Conference, seeded to win one game, won four.
It was a grand four days of basketball. And the great thing is the next round won't be the beat-down round either. Two of the four living underdogs, George Mason and Wichita State, play each other, so at least one will get to the Elite Eight. Georgetown gets Florida, which is hardly an overwhelming matchup for the Hoyas, though Bradley will have its hands full against Memphis.
In honor of the Sweet 16 teams that have emerged from these great first four days, here are a Sweet 16 thoughts on the Tournament so far.
One: Dumbest thought about sports fandom: A car commercial with a Tournament tie-in begins with the voice-over announcer saying, "For true fans, the whole year comes down to just one weekend, the 2006 NCAA men's Final Four."
I'd say that's the exact opposite of how "true fans" feel. True fans are glued to their TV sets at midnight on a December Tuesday as UC-Santa Barbara and Long Beach State tussle in the ESPN2 late game. It's dilettantes and casual fans for whom "the whole year comes down to just one weekend."
Two: In George Washington's second-round loss to Duke, coach Karl Hobbs sat Pops Mensah-Bonsu when he got his second foul with 4:25 to go in the first half, with Duke on a run and leading 35-20. Mensah-Bonsu isn't as good a player as his publicity would have you believe, but he's an important guy for the Colonials, their third leading scorer, second leading rebounder and most dynamic player.
Mensah-Bonsu sat the rest of the half.
This is college coaching 101. Hobbs didn't want Mensah-Bonsu to get his third foul before halftime. Without that second foul, Mensah-Bonsu had been one of the guys Hobbs wanted on the floor. But now he had to go. Falling behind by 20 is apparently OK, but getting a third foul before halftime would really be bad.
As it happened, G.W. rallied with Mensah-Bonsu on the bench and trailed by only 11 at the half on the way to losing by 13, and Mensah-Bonsu returned for the start of the second half. So once again, the college coaching strategy is clear: You should risk falling farther behind to avoid a guy getting his third foul in the 20th minute, but not the 21st. That doesn't make sense to me.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski sat J.J. Redick a few seconds later when he got his second foul. Redick isn't susceptible to foul trouble, and could go 24 games, never mind 24 minutes, without picking up a foul if he wanted to. But at least Duke had a 15-point cushion to get all conservative with.
Three: More on foul trouble: With 4:10 to go in UCLA's second-round win over Alabama, Jordan Farmar committed his fourth foul. Out of the game he came.
If he'd committed his fourth foul with 10 minutes remaining, he'd have come back in to the game at about the four-minute mark. Coaches operate on reflex. Get your fourth foul, out you go.
Four fouls after 36 minutes is not foul trouble. It means you're committing one every nine minutes. The game is 40 minutes long. Do the math.
Of course, if Farmar does commit that fifth foul, he has to go sit on the bench. So in order to avoid Farmar possibly having to sit on the bench, coach Ben Howland definitely sits him on the bench. That doesn't make sense to me.
Four: CBS's No. 1 announcing team is Jim Nantz and Billy Packer. I'm sure someone in the world without the last name Nantz or Packer is happy about this, but I've never heard from one of them. If you are a fan of Nantz and Packer, please post a letter at the end of this column.
Nantz is the sort of smooth, bland, golf-announcer type who doesn't really have fans, per se. He just doesn't have anybody who really dislikes him, except there are always those people who hate a person for being inoffensively good. Those people are kind of silly. I'm one of them.
Nantz joining in on Packer's tirade last week against the Missouri Valley Conference getting four bids, by the way, was the nearest he's ever come to real heat while I've been watching.
Packer we don't have to get into. He's a blowhard in love with his home conference, the ACC. I'm guessing he really does have fans, but I hear from nothing but people who can't stand him, and I hear from a lot of people about him. And he's a blowhard.
I'm ready for the Nantz-Packer era to end. I'd vote for Gus Johnson and Len Elmore, a good mix of excitable but not overstated play-by-play with sharp, schtick-free analysis.
But really, anybody.
Five: Having said all that, props to Nantz and Packer for admitting Sunday that they were wrong a week ago when they hammered the selection committee for including so many Missouri Valley Conference teams in the Tournament.
"Jim, I'm often wrong but never doubtful," Packer said before pointing out that the MVC has two teams going to the Sweet 16 and the Colonial Conference one, which matches the ACC and Big 12, also with two and one.
He could have said the MVC and Colonial had the same number of teams in the Sweet 16 as the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten.
But it's pretty big to flat-out admit you were wrong like Nantz and Packer did. No hedging, no qualifying. Just an admission that the Missouri Valley Conference teams got the job done and proved they belong. Nicely done.
Six: And having said that, I have to say I disagree with Nantz's and Packer's reasoning.
I thought they were wrong a week ago when they said the MVC didn't deserve four bids, but I don't think Wichita State and Bradley winning two games each proves they were wrong.
Almost any team can get hot or lucky and win two games in a row. That doesn't say anything about the strength of a whole conference. If the Missouri Valley Conference is so good now that Bradley and WSU are in the Sweet 16, how come Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa both got bounced in the first round?
Nantz and Packer would have been just as wrong last week even if the MVC had gone 0-4. They just wouldn't have been shamed into admitting it.
Seven: The wife has been ignoring the Tournament, even when her Indiana Hoosiers were playing, but she came to attention during the Bradley vs. Pittsburgh game Sunday when she saw the score bug and said, "Hey, Brad Pitt."
Nantz also pointed that out during a later game.
I thought the wife would be interested in the next game too, Bucknell vs. Memphis, but I guess she missed the score bug's sly shout-out to silent-movie cowboy Buck Mem.
Eight: Bradley over Pittsburgh, a 13-seed over a 5, did not look like an upset to me. Bradley was just more athletic. What's funny is that not only did Bradley's win over Kansas in the first round look like an upset, but so did its win over Wichita State in the MVC tournament.
Nine: That "NCAA 100 Years" decal at center court in Philadelphia read, "Celebrating the Student-Athlete." I kept reading it as "Celebrating Free Student-Athletes." My mistake.
10: Someone please hear me about the timeout rule. Please, can we change this rule where you can call timeout in the middle of action?
Players diving out of bounds, getting one finger on the ball and calling timeout. Players diving for loose balls and calling timeout before they even get possession, hoping for the best. Players unable to inbounds the ball calling timeout. It's ridiculous. Good defense is neutralized not by offensive ability but by the ability to turn to the ref and say, "Help!"
Maybe I'll get an ally in Arizona coach Lute Olson. He called timeout as his team ran a fast break against Villanova Sunday. The whistle blew just as Hassan Adams canned a jumper that would have brought Arizona to within two with 1:55 to play. Olson looked at the refs as if to say, "What are you doing giving me the timeout?"
Lute, get with me on this one. No timeouts allowed while the action is going. You cannot escape a trap with a timeout. You cannot keep yourself from going out of bounds with a timeout. Let's borrow a rule from some of the more obscure sports, like baseball, football and hockey.
If you want to call timeout, it has to be during a pause in the action. In the case of basketball, I'd say the clock should already be stopped, like in hockey, but I'm willing to allow a timeout if a player has possession of the ball, is not being actively guarded, and is in no danger of losing possession.
Right, Lute? Right? The Wildcats did get two points on the possession, but it took another 18 seconds. Arizona ended up losing by four.
11: Dick Enberg talking to partner Jay "Thurston Howell III" Bilas about his years calling UCLA basketball: "Nine years, two losses at home. Only eight championships in nine years. Boy, was I a good announcer!"
He was too, not that that helped the California Angels, whose games he also called.
I'd be OK with Enberg and Bilas as the No. 1 team at CBS. Enberg still does good work on college basketball, and Bilas is better as a game analyst than he is in the studio. He's quite good at both, but at the studio desk he comes across as stodgy.
12: As long as we're changing the rules around here, you know how when the defense knocks the ball away and it goes into the backcourt it's not a backcourt violation, as long as the defense touched it last?
That should be a backcourt violation.
Why should the offense be rewarded for having had the ball knocked away? It seems to me the rule should be that once you've crossed the 10-second line, the 10-second line becomes an endline. Ball crosses it again without possession changing and it's a turnover.
13: If only every major sporting event could be broadcast by fusty old CBS.
The Eye keeps its lens on the ball, shuns artistic camera angles and does very little other than broadcast one game after another, with a minimum of studio commentary and no high jinks in between. Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis do the damnedest thing in that studio: They talk about basketball.
Forty-eight basketball games in four days, and not a sideline reporter in sight. Heaven.
People in the TV industry must hate CBS's sports broadcasts. There's nothing innovative about them, nothing interesting at all from a production standpoint.
I can think of no higher praise.
14: with 15 seconds to go in Washington's second-round win over Illinois, the Huskies, up by two, inbounded under their own basket. Illinois had to foul, of course, and after the inbounds pass Dee Brown fouled Bobby Jones, who flung the ball 90 feet toward the Illinois basket. It came reasonably close to going in, though it wouldn't have counted.
But it made me think. Why don't players do that more often? When you know you're going to get fouled, why not anticipate the contact, time it just right and put up a shot just as you get hit? That way you get three free throws instead of one-and-one or two shots.
Or at least, you should get three free throws. The referees might be hesitant to call it that way. If Brown's foul on Jones had happened within 15 feet of the basket, Jones' shot attempt might have counted. But he wasn't going to get that call in the backcourt.
I think it'd be worth a try. Lute, you still listening?
15: As usual, my bracket for the women's Tournament, unburdened by any pretensions that I know what I'm talking about, is doing better than my bracket for the men's Tournament.
On the men's side, I got 20 of 32 first-round games right. With the women, I pegged 22 correctly, including No. 11 New Mexico over No. 6 Florida in the Albuquerque Region, which I picked on the theory that it's rarely a terrible idea to go against Florida in the NCAA Tournament.
I didn't call any of the other upsets, though, No. 11 TCU over No. 6 Texas A&M in the Cleveland Region, No. 11 Hartford over No. 6 Temple in the Bridgeport, and No. 12 Tulsa over No. 5 North Carolina State in the San Antonio.
The only real upset I have in the second round is No. 6 Florida State over No. 3 Stanford in the San Antonio bracket. I did have Temple going to the Sweet 16 with a win over No. 3 Georgia, but Hartford took care of that.
16: You may have seen Tennessee's Candace Parker dunking on a breakaway against Army Sunday. It was the first dunk by a woman in NCAA Tournament history, and it seemed to propel Tennessee, which shook off Army with a 24-4 run after the slam.
Three other women have dunked in a college game. Parker later did it again, becoming the first woman to dunk twice in one game.
It'll be nice when dunks in women's basketball don't make news anymore. It's kind of a dumb subject, don't you think?
I think the big deal made over dunking reflects poorly on the women's game. Fetishizing slam dunks is saying, "Look, we can do the things men can do." It invites direct comparisons with the men's game, and the women's game suffers under direct comparison. Men run faster and jump higher. We all know that.
Women's basketball has a charm and a dynamic all its own. It doesn't need to pretend to be more like men's basketball. I understand why individual players get excited about dunking. If I could dunk into anything taller than a coffee cup I'd get excited too. But the sport doesn't need such a fuss made over it.
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