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The 10 Stories That Defined The 2014 NCAA Tournament

It’s easy to allow the Final Four to become the last word on the college basketball season, but as my colleague Steve Fetch reminded us a week ago, the whole of a season ought to matter, not just March. There’s a balance to be struck in which four months receive due recognition alongside the three weekends of the Big Dance. This tension always has to be wrestled with in college hoops. A reflexive dismissal of the regular season is never helpful.

Yet, for all the ways in which the regular season shapes a substantial part of the college basketball landscape, it remains true that legacies and memories are forged in March. It’s also true that elite status in college basketball is based on making Final Fours, not the round of 32 after winning a conference championship. When an NCAA tournament ends, where do teams, conferences and coaches stand? Which Selection Sunday stories maintained relevance, resonance, or both? Which patterns held up against the weight of history, and which ones buckled? These kinds of questions will be tackled in today’s season-ending list.

10 – THE PAC-12, BIG TEN, AND ESPECIALLY THE SEC DELIVERED STRONG TOURNAMENT PERFORMANCES… BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THEY’RE EQUAL

Most conferences underperformed in the tournament, relative to the regular season, but three went in the other direction.

Stanford defeated two strong teams, and it did so in St. Louis, far removed from its home base in central California. Placing three teams in the Sweet 16 represented a clear success for the Pac-12. One week before the NCAA tournament, it figured to have only one team in the second weekend of the Dance. The key development for the Pac-12 was that UCLA, ticketed for a 6 or 7 seed following an ugly loss to Washington State in the regular season finale, got hot in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Bruins earned both a 4 seed and a favorable geographical location for their subregional pod (in San Diego).

The Big Ten did not have the top-end quality it possessed in 2013, when Indiana was a 1 seed and Ohio State was a 2 with a loaded Michigan squad — the eventual national runner-up — being a 4. Yet, Jim Delany’s league covered three-eighths of the Elite Eight in 2014, a marvelous tournament showing that should not be overlooked. It’s true that Michigan State and Michigan both lost their regional finals, making the Big Ten’s presence at the Final Four much smaller than it could have been. Still, three teams in the Elite Eight gave the Big Ten more centrality in March than it had a right to expect at the beginning of the month.

The SEC’s March successes were profound, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. Had Connecticut not morphed into a defensive juggernaut, an all-SEC championship game could have emerged.

These three conferences all enjoyed productive March Madness runs, gaining more NCAA tournament win shares for their coffers. Yet, each performance represented something different in relationship to the four-month-long regular season. The Pac-12 and Big Ten both owned a measure of depth, but the Big Ten had more top-tier tournament threats. The SEC had one team which transcended the league (Florida) and another team (Kentucky) whose evident talent sat in hibernation for almost the whole season. A third team (Tennessee) was a poor man’s version of Kentucky.

The Pac-12, Big Ten, and SEC all overachieved in March, but those stories of success should all lead to different (and carefully measured) verdicts about each conference over the course of the regular season. This is how one must balance a regular season and a postseason when the games are all done.

9 – THE ACC AND BIG EAST DIDN’T APPEAR TO BE VERY GOOD OVER FOUR MONTHS… AND AFFIRMED EVERYONE’S OPINION IN MARCH

It’s harder to make sense of a season when struggling conferences overachieve or seemingly strong conferences underachieve in March. The easy verdicts emerge when everything you’ve seen for four months is promptly confirmed in the NCAA tournament. Such was the case for the ACC and the Big East, which combined to put one team in the Sweet 16 (Virginia). The ACC should be fine, especially with the addition of Louisville next season. The Big East needs Georgetown and St. John’s to bounce back — both next season and on a sustained long-term basis.

8 – THE BIG 12 WAS OVERRATED, PLAIN AND SIMPLE

No power conference tournament had a better set of quarterfinals than the Big 12. Oklahoma State-Kansas — with ample NBA talent in the building — was as good an 8-versus-1 quarterfinal as you’re ever going to see in a conference tournament. The Pokes and Jayhawks produced a high-level game full of athletically impressive above-the-rim plays. The Kansas State-Iowa State (5-versus-4) quarterfinal wasn’t chopped liver. The 7-versus-2 quarterfinal (Baylor-Oklahoma) offered a situation in which the 7 was the much more talented team. The 2 was clearly outclassed, but that contest showed how much quality depth the Big 12 appeared to possess when the NCAAs began.

However, one by one, Big 12 teams were quickly picked off on the first weekend, so much so that only two were able to make the Sweet 16 (Iowa State and Baylor). The Big 12′s fall in March was so decisive that it made it quite fair to label the league as overrated. The Big 12′s March resume wasn’t mixed or vague enough to lead to a more uncertain conclusion. Had Oklahoma State defeated Gonzaga and pushed Arizona, the Big 12 could have been seen in a different light. Had Kansas made it through to the Elite Eight despite the lack of Joel Embiid, the Big 12 wouldn’t have suffered its most crushing blow of the tournament. Kansas didn’t have to beat Florida in the South Region to prove it was a special team; it did have to get past Stanford in a geographically favorable location. That wasn’t too much to ask, even without Embiid; KU couldn’t come through, however, and the Big 12 has to own that.

7 – DAYTON AND ITS SUSTAINABLE MODEL

The Flyers didn’t merely make the Elite Eight; they did so by beating brand-name teams from Ohio State and Syracuse before catching a “bracket break” by avoiding Kansas in the Sweet 16. What stands out about the way Dayton played is that it offered a portrait of sustainable success. This was not a team built around one or even two players. Dayton shared the ball, but that doesn’t even tell the whole story. The Flyers moved the ball so rapidly that opposing defenses were often a step or two behind. If Dayton’s style of play carries over into future seasons, Archie Miller’s team should become a second-weekend regular at the Big Dance.

6 – BO KNOWS FINAL FOURS

Whenever an accomplished coach with a spotty March record finally produces the big tournament run that had eluded him in the past, it’s a very big story. Bo Ryan’s higher-seeded Wisconsin teams had not handled the Sweet 16 well in past years. This time, the Badgers — equipped with a better offense due to the emergence of Frank Kaminsky — were able to get Ryan to his first Final Four (in Division I competition). Wisconsin played really well in its national semifinal, only for a low-percentage hoist by Aaron Harrison to deny Bo’s boys a spot in Monday’s national title tilt. Wisconsin has a very realistic chance of being one of the four number one seeds in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, too. It’s a great time to be a Badger basketball fan.

Wichita State cannot allow itself to feel that it turned in a disappointing NCAA tournament performance... because such a notion would not mesh with reality. The Shockers engaged Kentucky in the best game of this entire tournament.

Wichita State cannot allow itself to feel that it turned in a disappointing NCAA tournament performance… because such a notion would not mesh with reality. The Shockers engaged Kentucky in the best game of this entire tournament.

5 – WICHITA STATE AND THE CLASSIC AGAINST KENTUCKY

It’s true that Kentucky produced a series of great games in this tournament, but the round-of-32 duel with Wichita State will probably remain the best one when the history of the 2014 NCAA Tournament is written. Kentucky-Michigan was a more imbalanced game in terms of offense-versus-defense (the offenses held such clear advantages for different reasons), and Kentucky-Wisconsin featured lulls on both sides. Moreover, against Wichita State, Kentucky had not yet shown that it could answer adversity, marking the Wildcats’ comeback as a particularly impressive feat in a larger context.

Do remember, as you move into the college basketball offseason, that Wichita State played a great game — not merely a good one — in defeat. The Shockers stuck around for only one of the NCAA tournament’s three weekends, but that doesn’t mean they were somehow “exposed.” Kentucky had to play its very best to nudge Gregg Marshall’s team by one score in St. Louis.

4 – GREAT COACHES CAN AND DO MAKE SPECTACULAR MISTAKES

It is easy to expect excellence from great coaches, to the extent that massive blunders completely short-circuit the brain. Last year, John Beilein of Michigan failed to get his team to foul Louisville quickly in the final minute of the national championship game, when trailing by four points (78-74). Michigan lost 23 seconds — 0:52 to 0:29 — in the process, a hugely significant development for which a coach must take responsibility. Beilein’s work with Michigan this season confirmed how brilliant he is, making his lapse in Atlanta that much more shocking.

It seemed highly unlikely that this year’s national title game would produce a similar gaffe, but life is full of surprises. Kentucky also trailed its opponent by four (58-54) in the final minute of regulation. John Calipari needed to foul Connecticut, even though the Huskies were a terrific foul shooting team during the whole NCAA tournament. Yet, after fouling with 54 seconds left in the game and 23 on the shot clock (not fouling with 29-31 seconds on the shot clock cost Kentucky several seconds right then and there), Kentucky had still not sent UConn to the line for a front end of a one-and-one.

The obvious play, down by four — as opposed to only two points — was to foul and extend the game, hoping for multiple 3-for-2 point exchanges (or 2-for-1 point exchanges) in the final 54 seconds. Yet, Calipari opted not to foul, and UConn was able to burn 29 of those remaining 54 seconds on its next possession, scoring two points at the end. Kentucky didn’t extend the game; it shortened it instead. Calipari lost his mind, lamentably producing the kind of mistake that will lead many to overlook the tremendous work he did in Kentucky’s five NCAA tournament wins.

Great coaches — Calipari and Beilein unquestionably merit the distinction — can make huge mistakes.

They’re just as human as you and I. Always remember that these are men, not gods.

3 – HISTORY IS STILL UNDEFEATED SINCE 1976… BUT FLORIDA’S SEASON REMAINS SPECIAL

A fact mentioned here and also here was affirmed in this year’s tournament. It remains the case that teams with unusually long winning streaks do not win NCAA tournament titles in the era of the seeded tournament with a field of at least 40 teams.

The NCAA field was reshaped in two fundamental ways in 1979. First, the field was seeded for the first time. Second, the field was expanded to 40 teams (from 32 in 1978) and has only grown ever since. In 1979, Indiana State brought a winning streak of 29 games into the NCAAs but lost in the championship game to Michigan State. In subsequent seasons, UNLV (1991) and Duke (1999) brought winning streaks at or near 30 games into the NCAA tournament. They didn’t win the title, either.

Florida and Wichita State both tried to test the modern notion that you can’t win it all unless you pick up a late-season loss to cleanse the competitive palate. Wichita State, as said above, did not play poorly, but it nevertheless caught bad luck in the form of an A-plus performance by a Kentucky team that had underachieved through February. Florida made the Final Four, but like UNLV in 1991, its long winning streak died in the national semifinals. History remains unbeaten since Indiana forged its perfect season in 1976.

Let this much be said about Florida, though: It’s one thing for a team like Kentucky to underachieve for four months and then emerge for three weeks in March and early April; it’s quite another matter when a team overachieves from early December through early April, going 21-0 in its league and stacking a Final Four appearance on top of regular season and tournament titles in its own conference.

A complete college basketball season blends regular season and postseason success. Florida did this; Kentucky didn’t. If you think Kentucky had the better season just because it won its Final Four semifinal, you’re discarding what Florida achieved from start to finish.

If you’re not sure about all this, please use the offseason wisely and realize that while there are times when individual game outcomes matter in March, there are also times when a complete body of work must be taken into consideration.

2 – IT’S NOT SEEDING, FOLKS; BRACKETING IS THE BIGGER SELECTION SUNDAY PROBLEM

It’s understandable that fans get caught up in discussions about seeding when Selection Sunday evening arrives. Seeds always get tossed around when Team A overachieves as an 8 seed or Team B spectacularly underachieves as a 2 seed. Yet, tournament performance and tournament seedings often represent entirely different realities, for reasons discussed here and especially here.

Few college basketball thinker-writers are more mindful of the big picture than Andy Glockner, who is an advocate for improving and vetting the process of bracketing. Seeds generate the heated discussions before and during the Big Dance, but bracketing — the larger process of placing teams in various pods and regions within a context of specific matchups and clusters of opponents — is the true task of the selection committee.

It is extremely important that a bracket reflects the seedings assigned to its teams. If you’re a top seed, you ought to have a comparatively easier path. You’ve earned that top seed, which is supposed to bring with it the right to expect to face comparatively weaker opponents in the earlier rounds. If higher seeds don’t lead to weaker opponents, a bracket is fundamentally imbalanced. This is why an Andy Glockner views the bracketing process as so critically important.

The committee made three unforced and entirely preventable bracketing errors on Selection Sunday, and they all carried quite a lot of weight when all was said and done. Forget the debate about Kentucky’s (or Louisville’s, or Michigan State’s) seed. Bracketing, not seeding, mattered most in this tournament.

Teams deserve all the credit in the world for what they achieved, but that doesn’t change the reality of an unforced bracketing mistake, the kind of error a better vetting process would weed out and ultimately prevent.

First, Wichita State was not the weakest 1 seed. Virginia was. If someone was going to have to face Kentucky as an 8 seed, Virginia should have been that team, period. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that the selection committee has no power or ability to manipulate matchups. It flies in the face of common sense to think that the committee has to place Team A at 31 on its seeding list and Team B at 32, thereby hewing to a rigid system of matchups in its four-region brackets.

Anyone with an eye toward sound bracketing principles would have shifted Kentucky to Virginia’s region as an 8 seed. Moreover, any expert bracket-crafter would not have stacked Wichita State’s region with the toughest members of several seed lines. Michigan was arguably the toughest 2 seed heading into the tournament. Duke was probably the toughest 3, though Iowa State had a reasonable case to make. Louisville was quite possibly the toughest 4 seed, though Michigan State had an argument to make. Kentucky was obviously the toughest 8 seed.

For those who think Wichita State deserved to play a tougher 8 seed, I would say only this: If the committee wanted to be rigorous in honoring strength of schedule (the very reason why it excluded SMU from the field, by the way…), it should have then made Wichita State a 2 seed. Since the committee chose to give Wichita a 1 seed, though, the Shockers were plainly not the weakest 1 seed on the board. Yet, they were given the toughest 8 in the field. That’s lazy and errant bracketing, and it mattered a great deal.

The other two huge bracketing errors by the committee were as follows:

First, Connecticut — though unquestionably a team that played great basketball over the past few weeks — was given an improbable assist on Selection Sunday. Seventh seeds are always supposed to be shipped out of their geographical regions, at least in the subregional pod if not in the region itself. Oregon went to Milwaukee as a 7. New Mexico went to St. Louis as a 7. Texas went to Milwaukee as a 7.

UConn, though, went to Buffalo as a 7, followed by New York for the regionals. One 7 seed was not treated like the others. It mattered a lot.

Interestingly enough, one of the big bracketing stories of early March concerned the race for a placement in the East Region involving Villanova, Syracuse and Duke. Syracuse, had it been placed in the East Region, could have benefited from a Madison Square Garden home-court advantage in the regionals. It’s true that Syracuse didn’t make it out of the first weekend, but it must still steam Syracuse fans that UConn, as a 7 seed, received what was denied the Cuse as a 3: a Buffalo-New York path to the Final Four. UConn kicked butt at this tournament. The Huskies took down heavyweights, and with great authoritativeness. Yet, one can acknowledge that and still say that Connecticut was given an undeserved bracket break.

Second, in a bracketing mistake that has emerged before, a lower seed was given favorable geographical placement against a higher seed in a subregional pod, as sixth-seeded Baylor played third-seeded Creighton in San Antonio. In 2004, sixth-seeded Wisconsin played third-seeded Pittsburgh in Milwaukee. That’s just one of several examples in which higher seeds played de facto road games against lower seeds. That’s an unpardonable bracketing error, and it’s exactly why a vetting or veto-based mechanism must be introduced into future bracketing processes.

Bracketing, not seeding. That’s where Selection Sunday needs to be fixed. Seedings should be discussion points only if a seeding is two or more lines away from where it should be. If a seed is no more than one line off, it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

1 – CONNECTICUT: THE CLOSER

It is truly remarkable that one program has risen so much in such a short span of time. Connecticut was a nothingball of a program 25 years ago. Now, it stands among the giants, as written about here on Monday night.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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