Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Reflections of... March Madness and what Louisville's title run's implications

Those who follow all three of my blogs know that I'm on a writing spree at the moment. Mostly it's a warm-up.

I've got three comics to review this week, Paramore's new CD (and possibly Kacey Musgraves' album as well), Impact Wrestling and the Ultimate Fighter's finale card on FX coming up, so I've got a crazy next few days in store for myself.

So with all that in mind, why am I adding in a very rare "Reflections of..." column on my General Blog when it's usually in the MMA section? Because I love March Madness.

Those who know me well understand that while MMA is my main sport 11 months of the year, come Championship Week in mid-March, I live and breathe college basketball. And this year's MADNESS was some of the most entertaining I've seen.

I'm going to take a minute to address a really irksome commentary Colin Cowherd spouts off on his show about how March Madness really is just a chalk-fest because the No. 1 overall seed Louisville beat a Big Ten power in Michigan for the title.

That's moronic on so many levels that for the first time ever I really did wonder if he defends college football's insane championship system simply to get a rise out of his listeners.

He himself has made the point that it's impractical to judge players and coaches on championships alone because titles are hard to win and simply being a factor should be a mark of accomplishment at the highest levels. March Madness is an absolute parallel.

Two 4-seeds made the Final Four for the first time ever. If this is a chalk tournament, then show me the people who had Harvard beating New Mexico, Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16 and Wichita State in the Final Four.

The tournament is, in fact, getting harder to call. Picking chalk will no longer allow victories in pools; you'll make the 85th percentile at best.

Winning the tournament is harder than ever because almost any team can be a threat. As such, it takes a mature team with a combination of skill, stamina and strategy to endure the MADNESS.

That's why I always say that college basketball gets a truer champion than football. A 68-team field pretty much guarantees the best overall team is in the field. The fierce debate on Selection Sunday is more about who deserves the 1-2 NCAA Tournament TV paydays they could make for their conference.

In my view, the team that survives the NCAA Tournament is the one who deserves the title. Look at the Final Four this year. Does anyone want to say that Syracuse wouldn't have deserved the title if they took out Indiana, Marquette, Michigan and Louisville in a two-week span? Or that Michigan didn't earn their spot when they knocked off Kansas and Florida? Or that Wichita State, despite being in the weakest region, didn't belong after they had to take out Gonzaga, Ohio State and the SEC tournament champion Ole Miss?

But let's not forget what happened on Monday. Louisville is champion, and that means Rick Pitino is now the first coach to win titles with two schools.

This led me to think about the fact that he's won with both ends of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry, which made me think about Kentucky's title last year. I think both schools show an interesting philosophical difference on how to approach college basketball teams.

John Calipari has proven a master recruiter, and his teams are filled with one-and-done players who will barely set foot in actual classes and just perform to impress NBA scouts. As such, his teams' understanding of basic things like free throw shooting are usually abysmal to the point that I genuinely fear what would happen if he tried to coach Dwight Howard.

Pitino has taken the route of recruiting high-level athletes, but not so high that they leave right away. They stay for two, three, and in the case of Peyton Siva, all four years. His squads are mature, play sound basketball and make much fewer mistakes.

Both teams now have one title in this post-'one year to the NBA' rule. But while Calipari may have gotten a head-to-head win on Pitino in his Final Four round (when Siva's less mature nature at the time hit the big lights and created what I felt was a subpar performance for him), I think Pitino's proven his method to be superior.

Smugness that can only come from multiple titles
(and controversial life choices.)
Need more proof? Pitino followed up a Final Four run by taking the same unit on a rampage to a title. Calipari followed his up with an NIT First Round blowout loss.

As I said, this new NCAA world requires a mixture of skill and maturity to get through the viper's den the tournament has become. Calipari had the advantage of having his major challengers fall flat on their face and playing in a weak conference that didn't burn them out, and even then, they didn't win impressively.

Louisville beat Michigan on Monday, but they did it in a game where both teams felt like they were at their best. Louisville rose to a challenge and became a champion.

In the time since the 'One and done' rule, the champions have been Florida twice, North Carolina, Kansas, Connecticut, Duke, Kentucky and Louisville. With the exception of Kentucky, all the teams follow a senior-heavy model. While they may have one or two one-and-dones, they prefer to develop a system.

Remember that Sweet 16 he played in? Oh wait...
The more I look at this tournament, the more I realize that teams that rely on one-and-dones will look more like the Michael Beasley Kansas State squads more than the Calipari Kentucky squad. While they may get close, the only way they make it through the final weekend is if it's like 2012 and the bracket collapses completely, letting them out-skill their opponents.

And before anyone notes that the seeds this year were lower than last year in the Final Four, I'd also note that the teams this year overall were stronger and deeper, Kentucky did in fact have a team far superior to any challenger that year, and that the top overall offense got to the title game to challenge Louisville, where no squad of consequence was really up to the task in 2012.

I firmly believe Calipari's title team is the exception to the rule and that we won't be seeing One-and-done-heavy teams actually finishing the job that often. The skill level has to be overwhelming in order to overcome the maturity gap, and that takes such a recruiting effort that it's almost impossible to maintain consistently.

NBA talent appears to be dropping because so many immature players are going in before they're ready, and if the Association is smart, they'll move to a three-year minimum rule like the NBA sooner than later. But until they do, men like Pitino are going to be feasting on titles because they can bring in skill players and turn them into a force. And a real team.

Congrats to Louisville. I look forward to next year's MADNESS.

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