Thursday, March 16, 2006

Some thoughts on the NCAA tournament

I love the NCAA tournament, I love hearing the pairings and studying the bracket--but I think the whole pool craze has gotten completely out of hand.Yes, I was a fan of picking brackets before picking brackets was cool--when the tournament still had 48 teams I would bring the sports section into the Hebrew school carpool so that everyone could make picks (I'm not even sure we wrote them down, I just thought the whole idea of picking a bracket was fun.) But now, for three and a half days, you can't go anywhere without hearing people picking their brackets, telling you their Final Four teams, bragging about which 5-12 upset they have this year. I heard a couple minutes of the Tony Kornheiser radio show Monday, and he said that until the tournament starts, all he'd be doing was inviting guests on to pick brackets. First of all, are there that many people sitting out there going "I was wavering on the Seton Hall-Wichita State game, but James Carville said go with Wichita, so I guess I will." Or "Wilbon said pick LSU, and I had them going out in the first round. I guess I'm changing my bracket"? (Frighteningly, there probably are.) I love hearing people talk about the games in the tournament, what region is toughest, what are the good matchups in the first round and the potential matchups down the road--but listening to someone just rattle off their bracket picks holds about the same excitement as listening to a fortune teller reveal strangers' fortunes.

Please, don't let the tournament become all about your picks. The tournament is about buzzer-beating shots, upsets and great basketball games. Do I really care that I picked Arizona last year and Illinois beat them in the Elite Eight? (I was probably eliminated from my pool already anyway, but still...) No, what I remember is I saw Illinois come back from 15 points down in about two minutes, one of the most unbelievable comebacks I've ever seen in a sporting event. So root for your favorite team this weekend, but don't sit there and get grumpy if one of your picks gets upset on an incredible last second shot. Enjoy the basketball, and check to see who you picked when the game is over.

Having said that, one trend I've observed with the selection committee in the tournament--not every year but fairly frequently in the last 20 years. There is often a team from one of the major conferences (usually the SEC) that is not a traditional basketball power but gets a surprisingly high 2 or 3 seed. And they usually go down to defeat, if not in a first round upset then certainly in round two. There was Stanford in 1989 (in the years since they've become a much more regular participant in the tournament), which got a three seed and lost to Siena in the first round; there was the University of Southern California with Harold Miner, which got a much too high two seed and lost in the second round to Georgia Tech on a last second three-pointer by James Forrest that CBS still replays; there was South Carolina in 1997, I believe, which came out of nowhere to get a number two seed and promptly lost in round one; and there was Mississippi the following year, which has never been all that good at basketball and got beat by Valparaiso and Bryce Drew on another last-second shot that CBS has replayed every March since. It's not too hard to figure out who that team would be this year: Tennessee. So be careful with them.

One more thing before the tournament starts: Even though all the bracket talk may be annoying me, it's far preferable to the "bracketologists" on TV and the Internet telling you who's going to be in the tournament. What I can't stand is their overconfidence in predicting who's in and who's out, acting like they really know. I realize much of it is about putting on a show for the viewers watching TV, but there are a lot of dumb people out there who might hear someone saying their team is in the tournament a week before the pairings are announced and really think that Digger Phelps knows what he's talking about. Which brings me to Seth Davis on CBS (Full disclosure: Seth and I were in the same class in college, and he never returned a videotape he borrowed from me with tributes to late Washington, D.C. sportscaster Glenn Brenner.) As CBS was signing off from their college basketball coverage the last Saturday of the regular season, Greg Gumbel asked Seth, "What was the most important development today?" Seth responded, "Cincinnati beating West Virginia and clinching a tournament bid." I thought, "Wow, I didn't know Seth was on the selection committee. No, that can't be right. Oh, maybe Cincinnati won the Big East tournament today. No, that's not until next week. Hmm, I wonder how Seth knows that."

So I was immensely satisfied to see Seth very upset on Sunday when Cincinnati was left out of the field. Sure, maybe he felt they were genuinely snubbed (and maybe they were, but if you finish eighth in your league, don't complain--win a couple more games during the regular season), but I couldn't help thinking part of that anger was because the committee made him look kind of silly.

In Seth's defense, I will add that he's actually not bad in the college basketball studio show--I'd much rather listen to him talk about the games than sit through too much of Clark Kellogg yelling about "stat sheet stuffers." Seth's prediction of six Missouri Valley Conference teams in the tournament Sunday, though, makes me wonder what they're drinking in the CBS studio. And if Billy Packer had been there, he probably would have strangled Seth with his bare hands.


Anonymous Mark said...

Your full disclosure bit about Glenn Brenner (??!!) was the funniest thing I've read in a long time...

3/16/06, 12:29 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

that was a great column!!! I am forwarded that one...I agree with so many aspects of that!

3/16/06, 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Arlene (aka Mom) said...

Eric, one day we're going after Seth Davis for that tape!!! Great column!

3/17/06, 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bit harsh on Davis, and wrong too. You make a big deal about his Cincy pick, even though EVERY SINGLE ANALYST THOUGHT CINCY GOT SNUBBED, including Vitale, Katz, Bilas, Packer, Nantz and anyone who's anyone. Seth had the balls to pick a bunch of Missouri Valley teams and he has been shown to be right (to the point where Nantz/Packer apologized on national TV a few days ago about it). I think you're a little harsh (and jealous) of a guy who sucked it up, writing high school sports for the New Haven Register for years, then fact-checking at S.I. for years before becoming a top NCAA guy there, and then making it big on CBS. Maybe if you helped him host Cameron Corner at Duke instead of partying and watching Brenner tapes, you'd be where he is and he'd be the one with 3 responses to your blog (2 not including family).

3/22/06, 9:50 AM  
Blogger Eric Fingerhut said...

To anonymous--
I think you misunderstood my post. I didn't criticize Seth for saying Cincinnati should be in the tournament--although I can't get worked up much about an eighth place team not getting in. I just criticized him for stating it like it was fact. Sure, he only gets a few seconds, but can't he say, "I think Cincinnati should have clinched a bid today," not "Cincinnati wrapped up a bid" like he's on the selection committee. All the announcers do it, but Seth was just the clearest, best example to illustrate my point. Fine, maybe I was a bit harsh in saying I enjoyed him looking silly--as I said, I can't believe anyone could be that upset about a mediocre team like Cincinnati missing the field--but Packer looked much sillier that afternoon, so no one would remember anyway. I even said Seth was pretty good on TV, and I read his column on the SI Website.

And I didn't criticize Seth for picking Missouri Valley teams to go to the tournament, I said picking six was a bit much.

3/22/06, 1:10 PM  
Blogger Eric Fingerhut said...

And Anonymous--
Did Seth really host a show called Cameron Corner? Is that what he was doing when he challenged Dennis Scott to a half-court shot--because that was great...

3/22/06, 1:51 PM  

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