Think about this: The 2002 Duke Blue Devils – the best collegiate basketball team I’ve ever seen – won their games by an average margin of 19.5 points. This year’s top overall seed, the Louisville Cardinals, have an average victory margin of 12.3 points. That’s a staggering 37% decrease. Teams just can’t dominate wall-to-wall anymore.
For better or worse, the 2008-09 college basketball season is one of extreme parity, and while that might make for some competitive contests, it also signifies the lack of an Upper Crust – a truly elite group of teams that is all but guaranteed to dominate in the postseason.
I can’t decide if this phenomenon is good or bad. On one hand, it’s exciting in that, in almost every game from the second round on, the winner is far from a sure thing. Sure, North Carolina might win the whole thing, but given how they played against Virginia Tech and Florida State last week, they also might lose to Butler. The second round of the NCAA tournament is always my favorite basketball weekend of the year, and this year it’s going to be more enjoyably chaotic than ever.
On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that the presence of such parity is less a result of the inferior teams catching up than the superior teams getting worse. The NBA’s infuriatingly unfair 19-year age limit is partly to blame – schools are desperately recruiting stud prospects as one-year rentals, obliterating any chance at developing team chemistry over a multi-year span. (The exception is the ’07 Ohio State squad, but that team had multiple freshmen who had been playing together in high school for years.)
But more than that, the level of play in college basketball this year just seems lackluster. Between poor shot selection, weak benches, and high turnover rates, even the most talented teams don’t execute at a consistently high level. And that’s why the tournament field is so wide-open this year – not because anyone can win, but because everyone can lose.
Of course, this is really just convenient camouflage for my main point, namely that I have absolutely zero confidence in my March Madness picks this year. Look, it’s not like I’m a total novice at this: Last year I dominated my office pool, largely because I was smart enough to pick all four #1 seeds to make the Final Four, which happened for the first time in the tournament’s history (Mario Chalmers’ Jimmy Chitwood impersonation didn’t hurt). Some people criticized me for taking straight chalk, which would have been viable if the point of a March Madness pool is to fill out as inventive a bracket as possible instead of just picking the fucking winners. But this year, the top teams aren’t separating the way they have in the past, and the middle-tier teams all have fatal flaws. It’s hopeless.
There’s a great scene in the underrated war movie We Were Soldiers when Mel Gibson is about to begin an invasion, and he asks how many enemies he can expect, and this snotty intelligence officer says, “We appraise their numbers as manageable”. Gibson immediately sees through the bullshit, looks him dead in the eye, and says, “You have no idea”.
So it goes with this year’s NCAA tournament. Experts can analyze as much statistical data as they want – RPI, strength of schedule, performance in the last 10 games, etc. – but when it comes down to it, no one has any idea.
But fuck it, that just makes it more fun. The Manifesto lives to serve, and though publishing my picks may leave me open to ridicule, I am undaunted. Sound off in the Comments with your own thoughts – here’s the Manifesto’s region-by-region breakdown of the 2009 NCAA Tournament (here’s a blank bracket if you need to follow along):
The top seed: With the exception of a healthy North Carolina, Louisville is probably the most complete team in the tournament. They have athletic bigs, they can knock down perimeter shots, and they play tough pressure defense. Earl Clark is one of the most talented players in the country (provided he’s more interested in playing basketball than scanning the crowd for hot chicks), and Terrence Williams combines skill with toughness. In addition to winning the Big East regular season crown outright, the Cardinals cruised through the postseason tournament, winning each game by double digits, and it still felt like they were holding back. If Rick Pitino (say what you want about the asshole, but he can coach) can motivate his squad, they’ll be tough to top.
The fall guy: Not only did Kansas lose to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament, but they got smoked by a dismal Texas Tech team two weeks ago, meaning they haven’t won a big game since beating Missouri back on March 1. The Jayhawks are talented, but I see them bowing out to a well-coached West Virginia squad in the second round.
The fall guy (pt. 2): I have limited respect for the Big 10, and I have even less respect for a team that lost to Penn State at home. If Al Skinner can just stay out of the way, Boston College can take out Michigan State.
The matchup casualty: Wake Forest is an athletic team with a number of highly skilled players. Sadly, so is Louisville. The Demon Deacons are too young and reckless with the ball to hold up against the Cardinals’ pressure D.
The sleeper: Over the past two weeks, West Virginia played Louisville to within three points, beat Pittsburgh handily, and took Syracuse to overtime. Devin Ebanks is a complete player, and Bob Huggins is getting his players to listen at the right time. Expect to see this underrated #6 seed in the Elite Eight.
Sweet 16: Louisville over Ohio State, Wake Forest over Utah, West Virginia over Kansas, Boston College over Michigan State.
Regional Final: LOUISVILLE over West Virginia.
The top seed: I’m wary of this Uconn team because they only have one guard who’s worth a damn (A.J. Price), and there’s some bullshit adage about how guard play is essential to win in March. Still, if you throw out an inexplicable early-season defeat at home against Georgetown, their only losses are to Pittsburgh (twice) and Syracuse (in six freaking overtimes). They’re insanely athletic, they play tremendous defense, and they execute on the fast break. That’s a Final Four team.
The fall guy: I just can’t respect Memphis when their last win over a top-25 team came against Gonzaga on February 7. They only played two other games against top 25 teams all year, and they lost both (at Georgetown and at home against Syracuse). I’d look for frisky Maryland to give them some trouble in the second round, but either way, they don’t get past Missouri.
The first-round upset: Jerel McNeal is a terrific player, but Marquette is incomplete without Dominic James. Eleventh-seeded Utah State takes out the Golden Eagles.
The yawner: I’ll be honest: If there’s a choice between watching a second-round matchup between Purdue and Washington and a rerun of “Coed Confidential”, I am absolutely flicking over to Cinemax.
Sweet 16: Uconn over BYU, Washington over Purdue, Missouri over Utah St., Memphis over Maryland.
Regional Final: UCONN over Missouri.
The top seed: The Panthers of Pitt appear the be the trendy pick to win the championship, which makes sense in a way – they’re dominant inside and can outmuscle any team in the tournament. But with Levance Fields hurt, their perimeter play is a serious question mark; I can see a tough defensive team like Florida State giving them serious problems. With Fields’ injury, if DeJuan Blair gets in foul trouble, Pitt’s toast.
The sleeper: Their football program may be embroiled in another scandal, but Florida State’s roundball team is a legit squad. They can knock down perimeter shots, they’re very tough to score on, and they’re led by one of the most complete players in America in Toney Douglas. If a #1 seed is going to fall prior to the Elite Eight, it’ll be Pitt at the hands of the Seminoles.
The fall guy: Every Duke fan remembers Eric Maynor of VCU, and not in a good way. Well, now he’s a senior, and he’s averaging 22.4 points and 6.2 assists. And that is bad news for UCLA.
The enigma: This Villanova team scares the hell out of me. On the plus side, Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds form a tremendous inside-outside combination. On the down side, I don’t trust Corey Fisher, and as my buddy Mike points out, Reynolds can just as easily shoot them out of a game – he’s always capable of pulling a John Starks in the ’94 Finals and going 2-18 from the field. Villanova beat Syracuse twice and also defeated Pittsburgh, but they also lost to Georgetown at home, barely held off DePaul, and needed a last-second backdoor layup to hold off an undermanned Marquette team. I have no idea what to make of them.
The sad truth: I want to believe in this Duke team. I really do. They have two legit NBA players in Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson, they play tough defense on the perimeter, they have great perimeter shooting, and they’re even starting to show some depth with the emergence of Elliot Williams and the reemergence of Nolan Smith. When they’re shooting the ball well, they can beat anyone in the country.
The problem is that they can also lose to anyone. In a sense, Duke epitomizes the problem with college basketball this season – they’re a very talented, very flawed team, and you never know whether their angels or demons will emerge during any random five-minute stretch of play. They can bury six three-pointers in a row and build a 25-point lead, and then they can go five straight possessions without getting a quality shot while getting smoked on their offensive glass. It’s exhilarating and maddening.
But here’s the simple truth: Duke can’t rebound, and if they aren’t forcing turnovers or hitting threes, they can’t manufacture easy points. You can’t win six straight games in March with those flaws. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see them beating Villanova.
Sweet 16: Pitt over Oklahoma State, Florida State over Xavier, Villanova over VCU, Duke over Texas.
Regional Final: FLORIDA STATE over Villanova.
The top seed: What … the fuck … is the status of Ty Lawson’s toe?
That’s really the only question worth asking in this tournament. With a healthy Lawson, North Carolina is clearly the best team in the country. They can just score at will. For the most part, they can succeed by pounding the ball inside to Tyler Hansbrough, Deion Thompson, and Ed Davis (provided Danny Green isn’t busy jacking up threes), but when that doesn’t work, they can always just kick the ball out to Lawson, who will either A) Bury an open three (he’s shooting 47% from downtown), B) Drive the lane and score (because no one can stay in front of him), or C) Make the right pass to an open shooter (he’s averaging 6.5 assists to just 2.0 turnovers). He’s the difference-maker.
And his toe is hurt. That might not sound like a big deal, but for a guy like Lawson – whose game is predicated on blazing speed – it’s absolutely critical. If he’s healthy, the Tar Heels are champs. If he’s hurt, Carolina is just another good team (as we saw in the ACC Tournament, where they squeaked out a victory against Virginia Tech before losing to Florida State). It all comes down to Lawson’s toe. Nothing else matters.
The fall guy: They may have the best player in the country, but Oklahoma is 2-4 in their last six games. Assuming a well-coached Michigan team can get past an enigmatic Clemson squad, the Wolverines could give the Sooners serious problems.
The fall guy (pt. 2): I haven’t picked a #12 seed to upset a #5 seed yet, and I hate the Big 10. Sorry Illinois, nothing personal.
The kickass game: A second-round matchup between Syracuse and Arizona State could be absolutely phenomenal. Will James Harden solve Syracuse’s 2-3 zone? Will Jonny Flynn give Derek Glasser nightmares? Will Jeff Pendergraph dunk on Arinze Onuaku’s head? Will Eric Devendorf kill someone? This could easily be the game of the tournament, and I haven’t even mentioned Andy Rautins yet.
Sweet 16: North Carolina over Butler, Gonzaga over Western Kentucky, Syracuse over Arizona State, Michigan over Oklahoma.
Regional Final: NORTH CAROLINA over Syracuse.
Obviously, I’m giving Ty Lawson the benefit of the doubt. Naturally, we have no idea how healthy he actually is, but he hasn’t played since March 8, so I’m just saying fuck it and assuming the rest has served its purpose. Besides, if I had Syracuse in the Final Four instead, then I’d really have no idea what to do.
Matchup #1: Louisville over Uconn in a revenge game for the Huskies’ thrashing earlier in the year that I couldn’t watch because my damn bowling league assigned our team to the one lane in the fucking alley whose TV wasn’t working. Not that I’m bitter.
Matchup #2: North Carolina over Florida State. And handily.
Championship: NORTH CAROLINA over Louisville, with Jim Nantz verbally fellating Tyler Hansbrough while Earl Clark skips out on the second half to go watch a Pistons game and hang out with role model Rasheed Wallace. Fucking Tar Heels. If I’m wrong about this – and I probably will be – trust me, I won’t be sorry.