The NCAA basketball tournament is about as close to the perfect sporting event there is. There have been 11 different formats played over the years, but the tourney found its sweet spot from 1985-2000 when it embraced the 64 team format. But then, inexplicably, it went with 65 teams beginning in 2001. The stated reason was the inclusion of the Mountain West in the automatic bid category, but the real reason was cash money. A play-in game generated an extra day's revenue. Naturally, in 2011, the number of teams was increased to 68, and there's no doubting further expansion of the bracket.
What this does is create 16-seed on 16-seed matchups where two teams who won "bids" have to compete to see which one actually gets to participate in the field of 64. This doesn't happen for the 11-13 seed game, as automatic qualifiers who are better than 15-seeds are exempt from having to play a play-in game. Got it?
It's ridiculous. The NCAA needs to grow a sack and have a true 64 team tournament with actual brackets. Or suck it up and go 128. Play-in games are dumb. It's something football would do, or European volleyball. The beauty of the NCAA tourney from 1985-2000 was that all teams played under the same rules. But that is no longer the case due to a money grab.
But they're still basketball games, and this is still the dance, so of course I will be watching and be just as interested on Tuesday as I will when the "2nd round" kicks off the tourney on Thursday (and thereby reinforcing that the 64+ format will never go away).
So what do we have on Tuesday?
Middle Tennessee (11) vs St. Mary's (11)
These two are battling for the right to play Memphis – the 6-seed – which is odd. The Vegas line and kenpom.com almost always mirror each other (to within a point) and Pomeroy has St. Mary's at No. 22, MTSU at No. 32 and Memphis at No. 39. So the winner will advance to play a 6-seed over whom they'll almost certainly be favored.
How they got here: MTSU dominated the Sun Belt and won the regular season by five games over South Alabama. But in the tournament they were taken down by Florida International and had to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. The Gaels finished second in the WCC, and their only conference losses were to No. 1 seed Gonzaga. Unfortunately, for them, they were beaten by the Zags three times.
Statistical footprint: Who will control the tempo?!! Oh wait, Saint Mary's in 204th nationally in tempo, and MTSU is 205th. It might be the only game in the entire tournament which plays out that way. The more important note is that MTSU is a very experienced team (No. 2 in the nation) who get it done on defense. They have the 20th best defense in the country and do it by creating havoc. They are No. 19 at forcing turnovers, No. 51 in 2-pt defense, and No. 14 in 3-pt defense.
St. Mary's, meanwhile, is an experienced team (No. 72 nationally) who get it done on offense. They are 13th in the nation in 2-pt%, and 41st in 3-pt%. And when they don't have the ball, they are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the nation (No. 5) which counters the strongest point of MTSU's offense which is crashing the offensive glass (No. 30).
In other words, this is a true strength vs strength matchup virtually across the board.
Six degrees of separation: The Middle Tennessee head coach (Kermit Davis Jr.) and St. Mary's head coach (Randy Bennett) were on the same staff at Idaho for three years from 1986-88.
MTSU players to watch:
1. Marcos Knight, 6-2 senior
Knight doesn't have gaudy numbers because of MTSU's tempo and depth, but he's the only player in double figures (12.5 per game) and he leads the team in rebounding (5.8). In their five losses Knight made just 40% of his 2s and 15% of his 3s. In their wins he made 49% of his 2s and 37% of his 3s. If he's efficient, they win.
2. Raymond Cintron, 6-0 senior
MTSU only scores 23% of their points from beyond the arc, which is 285th nationally. In attempts, they are 311th. The player to watch is Cinton who has taken twice as many 3s as any other Blue Raider and made 44% of his attempts. 79% of his shots are 3s, and he enters having made 53% in the past eight games.
SMC players to watch:
1. Matthew Dellavedova, 6-4, senior
Coach Bennett runs almost everything through high-ball screens, and utilizes his all-world point guard Matthew Dellavedova to great effect. On senior night, Dellavedova passed Daniel Kickert as the all time leading scorer in school history. Plus he leads the program in assists as well as a number of other categories. If you want to be in the know then you call him 'Delly', and Delly might be the best point guard in the nation at using his body. He plays slow to play fast, uses his size and strength to ward off defenders, and is a wizard at seeing the game at all three levels – he can bounce pass, hit your numbers, or go for the alley oop and he's always always right in his decisions. He'll also have to play virtually the entire game (he usually does anyway) as Jorden Page, a junior starter who helps handle some minutes at the point, went down with a nasty knee injury in the WCC tournament and is doubtful on Tuesday.
2. Beau Levesque, 6-6 junior,
Levesque (pronounced 'Le Veck') is one of the top 6th men in the nation. His back story is interesting as it involves double hip surgery, but the former walk on is a lot more than just a good story. He has a deadly set shot 3-pointer which he converts on 47% of his attempts, and he made 5-11 in the WCC tournament. He averages 18.2 points per 40 minutes, which is just behind Delly's 18.4 pts/40.
This very well could be one of the more entertaining games of the entire tournament. Both teams are experienced, both are deep, and both went into Sunday questioning whether or not they were in. I'm taking the Gaels to win, as Delly's international experience (was a starter for the Australian Olympic team) means that he'll come out focused and won't be too hyped up. The game might be a tie for the final 36 minutes, but I think SMC gets the advantage early.