The opening weekend of the NCAA tournament felt a little bit different than usual. While many refer to the tournament simply as “March Madness” the opening weekend felt to have lacked the “madness.”
There were a total of zero games that needed overtime over the first four days, there were no game-winning buzzer beaters, and there were no really appalling upsets. Only one double-digit seed advanced to the Sweet 16 (Xavier). A couple of games that would usually constitute as upsets (12 Middle Tennessee State over 5 Minnesota; 11 Rhode Island over 6 Creighton) saw the lower seeds being favorites in Vegas (MTSU -1.5, URI -2).
All in all, it wasn’t quite the weekend I, or many are used to when it comes to the tournament. But the Sweet 16 is now set, and after the first weekend, here is what we learned.
Lack of Madness in Round 1 Means Better Games in Round 2
I alluded to the lack of wild upsets that the tournament is known for. At first I was a little bummed out that Thursday and Friday was a lot of chalk. I quickly changed my tune on Saturday and Sunday.
Round 2 featured matchups between great teams from top conferences. It’s the best basketball the college game has to offer. Wisconsin and Villanova battled it out to the very end. St. Mary’s, who was the 17th best team in the country according to KenPom, gave the 2-seed Arizona Wildcats all they could handle. A feisty Northwestern team battled back against the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing (Gonzaga). Michigan, the hottest team in college basketball, avenged (somewhat) their 2013 championship game loss to Louisville in an extremely well-played game. Two top ten KenPom teams, Wichita State and Kentucky, went to a photo finish.
Good teams played each other in the 2nd round; no one had a cakewalk. It is the way the tournament is set up. The best teams should continue to play each other as the tournament progresses. While upsets are fun and a cornerstone of the tournament, I thoroughly enjoyed watching high-level basketball from high-level teams on Saturday and Sunday.
Maybe the Big Ten Wasn’t So Bad
This seems to be a popular talking point for the talking heads, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. The hate for the Big Ten was strong this season. It really hit home in February, when the tournament committee released their Top 16 seeds if the season were to end then. Wisconsin was ranked 7th nationally at the time, but did not crack the committee’s Top 16 seeds. It showed what the committee thought of the Big Ten, and it was nothing good.
Fast forward to today, and there is a different tune being sung. Maybe the Big Ten was deep competitively, and the reason teams were beating each other was that there were a lot of good teams rather than there being no good teams.
The Big Ten has showed out in the tournament. Conference teams went 5-2 in Round 1 with Maryland and Minnesota being the lone losers. In Round 2, Wisconsin (somehow an 8 seed) knocked off the number 1 overall seed, and defending champions, Villanova. Michigan, a 7 seed, defeated the number 2 seed in the Midwest region, Louisville, out of the vaunted ACC. With Purdue also beating Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16, the “awful” Big Ten has 3 teams in the Sweet 16. Tied with the Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC for the most. The difference between the Big Ten and those conferences, is that the Big Ten did not receive a seed higher than 4 throughout the whole field.
The Committee Did a Terrible Job of Seeding
Speaking of seeds, the seeding from the committee in this year’s tournament is even more laughable now than it was on Selection Sunday (and it was pretty laughable then).
Keeping going with the Big Ten, I have no idea what the thought process was from the committee when seeding these teams. Let’s start with Wisconsin.
Wisconsin might have the best resume of any team to have ever been given an 8 seed in tournament history. The Badgers went 27-9 overall, 12-6 in the Big Ten, and finished 2nd in the conference. They went to the Big Ten Tournament final. Their non-conference schedule left something to be desired, but did defeat Syracuse and Marquette. They also won at Assembly Hall, which isn’t easy to do. To give Wisconsin an 8 seed was criminal.
Somehow, Minnesota who was defeated twice by the Badgers, and finished 4th in the Big Ten, received a 5 (A FIVE) seed. Minnesota wasn’t even favored in their 5-12 matchup against Middle Tennessee State where they were completely outmatched.
Wichita State went 30-4 this season and received a 10 seed. Michigan had won 10 of their last 12, with their 2 losses coming on the road. One in overtime and the other by 2 on a one-in-a-million play. They just won the Big ten Tournament, and they were given a 7 seed.
When teams are mis-seeded, it not only hurts that team, but it hurts the team that are forced to play them in an early round. Wisconsin beat Villanova, the number 1 overall seed, in round 2. Louisville ran into a red-hot Wolverines team before the second weekend. Kentucky barely survived a great Wichita State team.
I’m not sure what went into the seeding this year, but it was an objectively poor job done by them.
NCAA Officials are Awful
I have, throughout my life, disagreed with basketball officials quite often. I can admit that. I may not give enough credit, even though I try, when an official makes a good call in a situation where it’s not easy to make a good call.
I say that, just to say this: I don’t know if I have ever seen officiating as bad as I have seen during this NCAA tournament.
NCAA officials are blowing call after call in key moments. There are so, so many examples that i could point to. In the Northwestern-Gonzaga game, with 5 minutes left and Northwestern down 5, Northwestern had a dunk attempt to make it a one possession game. As the Northwestern player went to dunk it, a Gonzaga defender put his hand through the hoop, which is illegal, and blocked the shot. It should have been called basket interference, and Northwestern should have been awarded 2 points. The officials didn’t call it. Northwestern coach Chris Collins got upset it wasn’t called, and the official compounded his incompetence and gave Collins a technical foul. Northwestern couldn’t recover, and eventually fell to Gonzaga.
This was called a foul in a crucial moment late in the first half of the Michigan-Louisville game:
With under 50 seconds to play in the North Carolina-Arkansas game, and UNC leading by one, UNC’s Joel Berry drove on the right side, ran over a planted Arkansas defender, then traveled, and then threw the ball at the backboard. Nothing was called, Berry missed the shot but teammate Kennedy Meeks was there for the put back. It should have been either a charge or a travel. Either way, there Razorbacks should have gotten the ball back down 1 with 46 seconds remaining in the game.
There are many more examples of poor officiating thus far in the tournament. Not all officiating crews are doing poorly, but the ones that are, are making NCAA officiating look terrible. Officials need to be held accountable for their performances the same was coaches and players are for theirs. Don’t let anyone tell you officials cannot dictate the outcome of a game, because they most certainly can.
That’s what we learned in the first four days. The first weekend of the tournament is now in the books. There are some great matchups coming in the second weekend. Buckle up, and bring on the Sweet 16!