Now that Northern Iowa nuked just about every NCAA bracket I know, it’s appropriate to assess what happened.
Those thousands of pages one could access on line with all that well-research analysis of every team is about as worthless as Confederate money. Those carefully crafted chalk lines of seedings by the NCAA committee are obliterated.
People are talking, with some seriousness but more than a little fantasy, about a mid-major Final Four.
Most anything (short of Arkansas-Pine Bluff beating Duke) can happen in a one-and-done format at a neutral site.
There are a lot of good basketball players and you just need one or two playing well at the right time to pull an upset.
Upsets tend to breed upsets because when teams start seeing seeds from 14 on down win, it enhances confidence.
It used to be the 12-5 seeded game could be ripe for an upset. Now, that’s been extended to 14-3 or 13-4.
With the number of major college games on various television channels and with modern technology, scouting and preparation is easier than years ago. When Northern Iowa plays Kansas or Ohio plays Georgetown or Wofford plays Wisconsin, there is plenty of video material. It’s hard for a team in a major conference to hide.
Just because a conference is on television a lot and gets more exposure and the conference is balanced, it doesn’t mean that league’s representative is head and shoulders above everyone else on a given day.
And the coaching and players at the mid-major level are better than they used to be.
Just about every key player on every team in the tournament has played a lot of tournament basketball — from high school to various summer programs such as AAU. Players are used to playing tough games back-to-back, and they are used to tournament pressure.
Players on lower-seeded teams generally stay around longer, stay together throughout college. The major college coaches, when they sign the top-level athlete, know there’s a good chance that if he becomes a star in college, he will leave a year or two early for the pros. Kentucky freshman John Wall, for example, is likely gone after this year, and John Calipari will replace him with another high school superstar. That’s how he rolls.
Players on teams such as Northern Iowa, St. Mary’s and Cornell stay together their entire careers. They learn from collective experience. They develop chemistry. They know their coach’s system inside and out. They know each other’s game and who should have what roll at crunch time.
A team, such as Cornell or Northern Iowa, that is fundamentally sound and plays together well is a major threat to any high seed, particularly if the team with overall the best athletes is not at its best. Kansas, no doubt, wins a best-of-seven series with Northern Iowa. It’s not always going to win a best-of-one.
Most of those upstart teams have point guards who are three- or four-year starters. Some are not as multi-talented as a Sherron Collins of Kansas, but they are sound and reliable. They shoot and pass with confidence. The players feed off each other’s energy.
We are seeing that the gap is closing between teams with great players with tremendous individual skills and those with pretty good players who play together well.
The difference is the top teams in the mid-major conference rotate their upstart status depending on when a special group with a special player peaks and reaches prime seasoning. One year, it may be Davidson and George Mason. The next, it may be Southern Illinois and San Diego State. Another year, it could be Bradley and Western Kentucky.
It’s interesting that missing from the tournament this year were such usual Sweet 16 staples as UCLA. North Carolina, Arizona, UConn and Indiana. Strange how such tourney icons stumbled mightily in the same year.
The mid-major upstart thrust has started to appear on a smaller scale in the women’s tourney — the one in which no one can figure out how to beat Connecticut. Sixth-seeded Georgia Tech just found out what those of us in Arkansas have known for years — that Joe Foley is as sound of coach as have ever worked in this state and his teams, when his players learn his system, are as tough as any to beat.
As the men’s tournament goes into its second and third weeks, most of the upstarts generally run out of gas as combination of talent, depth and strength over the long haul takes over. It’ll be surprising if a team below a No. 4 seed wins it — unless it is coached by Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who seems to have mastered the survive-and-advance routine from any seeding.
Folks are waiting for normalcy to return to the tournament.
But many of us are unsure what normalcy really is anymore.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)