Monday, March 23, 2009

What happened to March Madness?

March Madness has always been my favorite sports tournament (slightly ahead of the Stanley Cup Playoffs) because of two main formulas: Buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas. I got hooked at age 8 when Tyus Edney ran cross court and hit a layup which gave UCLA a win over an upset-minded Missouri team. The rest of that year, I remember rooting for UCLA to win the national championship which they ended up doing. The next year, I filled out my first bracket and proved to be such a novice at doing it that I actually picked San Jose St., a 16 seed, to beat a Kentucky team that would win because I didn't like them (neither did my father, probably influenced my thinking).

Ever since, I made sure to tune in to CBS's selection show, see who's in the tournament and start filling out bracket, as I'm sure everyone of you have done. Some of my highlights include: nailing the 2001 Final Four, having Duke, Maryland, Michigan St., and Arizona; memorable upsets I nailed, like Manhattan over Florida in 04, Siena over Vandy last year and winning the Xavier Hall pool when I had LSU and UCLA in the final four when I'm sure no one else had the Tigers. Of course I've had my share of busted brackets, most famously, Syracuse losing to Vermont and Kansas losing to Bucknell on the same night wiped out half my Final Four in the 1st round.

Aside from my personal successes and failures, the tournament for most of its history has seen 1's, 2's and 3's regularly losing early. Back in 2000, 5 top 2 seeds were knocked out in round 2, with two regions not having a seed higher than 4 in the sweet 16. 2004 we lost 4 top 2 teams early. Since then, a 1-seed has always made the Sweet 16 and this year no 2-seed lost early for the 1st time since 1996. Another factor of March Madness that is a staple is the buzzer beater. We all remember Bryce Drew beating Ole Miss and Mike Miller propelling Florida over Butler, leading them to the championship game. Last year's Western Kentucky-Butler game was the last game-winner buzzer beater which the game ended on the shot.

Which brings us to this year's tournament, where the best game we watched was Ohio St.-Siena; an 8-9 game which was a terrific game in its own right, for some reason had the feel of a mammoth upset. This was because people know Ohio St. and don't know anything about Siena. However, Siena beat Vandy last year as a 13, dominating much like Cleveland St. did against Wake Forest and gave my championship pick Louisville all it can handle. But if you take a look at the remaining teams, none of them are a surprise (even Arizona). The only way you have a busted bracket is if you took Wake, a team wouldn't have been a bad pick, or definitively lesser team. Now we go into a Sweet 16 with anyone who knows nothing about college basketball or anyone who never takes a chance and picks chalk at the top of leaderboard in pools across the country.

Look at my bracket; I could just as easily taken Michigan St, Kansas, Syracuse and Oklahoma because they have the higher seeds (of course, I would of had Kansas over Dayton) but I like to try to find the upsets and take chances. This year? No real upsets, aside from Cleveland St and even if Arizona would of beat Wake, I wouldn't think of it as a real upset. As for the games themselves, we are having way to many games that have potential of going down to the wire. Both Pitt games, Siena-Louisville, Memphis-Northridge, USC-Michigan St., Kansas-ND State just to name a few all could of been great games, but somewhere before the last minute, the team expected to win took control. Thus, the only good games were Siena-Ohio St., OK State-Tennessee, Gonzaga-Western KY and Wisconsin-FSU (and Wisconsin is so boring to watch, it negates it's goodness).

So the real question: Is this a one year aberration or are we starting to see a trend? Last year, we saw all the 1-seeds reach the Final Four, but the Sweet 16, although had all four 3's, had only two 2's, a 7 and 3 double digit teams. 2007 was arguably worse than this year with the only Cinderella being an 11-seeded VCU team who beat a lesser Duke team in round 1. For God sake, there wasn't even a 12-5 upset that year, much less anyone lower. However, what 2007 did have is quite a few legitimately good games: Ohio St.-Xavier, Duke-VCU, Vandy-Gtown, Gtown-UNC, Ohio St.-Tennessee to name a few. It's still too early to claim this is the end of March Madness as we knew it because we can always end up with the most busted bracket ever in next year's tournament, especially if Stephon Curry and Patty Mills stay in school another year.

There is one good thing in this tourney, now we will be treated to some terrific regional final games since there really is no clear team to beat. Pitt-Xavier, Nova-Duke, UNC-Gonzaga, Syracuse-Oklahoma, Missouri-Memphis and Kansas-Michigan St. are great matchups and we could have the best regional final in years if UConn-Memphis happens. Hopefully the games will be as good as the matchups.

And most importantly, the Final Four better end up being Louisville, UNC, Nova and Memphis.

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