Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Sheer Madness

WARNING: Explicit College Basketball Content To Follow.

We wonder how different this tournament would look if Gonzaga could hold a lead against UCLA. If Corey Brewer hadn't thrown in a prayer while being pulled to the floor against Georgetown. If Denham Brown's final 3 hits net against Mason. If Darrel Mitchell's final 3 draws iron against Texas A&M.

"When you get into the NCAA Tournament, if you restarted the program over again, you would have four different teams [in the Final Four]," Florida coach Billy Donovan said Sunday night. "That's what happens when you play a one-shot deal."

Pat Forde is a genius, wrapping up the essence of the tournament in one minute paragraph, then backing it up with the Gator coach’s sage wisdom. Every champion has that what-if game. What if they hadn’t called that traveling on Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen against UNC last year? Or if UConn hadn’t come back from the double-digit second half deficit against Duke in the Final Four in ’04? Or if a bloodied Gerry McNamara hadn’t returned to lead his Orange over Auburn in the second round when they won the title?

Nobody blows through the tournament anymore, and this year the only team close to doing that is Florida, who’s handled all their tests – including beating Georgetown at its own game – with a reptilian efficiency. But parity, along with the three, has kicked in, and now even the most talented team in the tournament, UConn, lost to an eleven seed in George Mason. But the thing is, if you didn’t have announcers telling you how much better UConn was supposed to be than the ultimate underdog, you wouldn’t have known the monumental upset they were achieving. Sure, Rudy Gay had is 7-0 run of excellence, but UConn’s vaunted front line could do nothing against Jai Lewis and Will Thomas.

And that’s the thing that stuck out most this tournament. Save for the Penn/Texas game, in all of the upsets and near-upsets, the teams looked incredibly equal. George Mason, as it knocked off three teams who have been national champions this decade, didn’t ever look like they were playing way out of their element. While they hit a high percentage of threes, while teams like Memphis, UConn and Villanova couldn’t, but they also ran as effective of a two-man, inside-out game as you can. To say this was “the hottest team”, maybe, but they looked like a team that was top-rated defensively and earned their spot in the tournament.

Also, contrary to my solemn vow that guard play dominates all, it was the big men that reigned supreme. Sure, Darrel Mitchell, Taurean Green, Jordan Farmar and Tony Skinn all played well for their teams, but it’s been the big men who’ve controlled this tournament. Joakim Noah was a wrecking ball through the Midwest bracket, while Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas burst onto the national stage as freaks of nature this past weekend. Big Baby for his force inside mixed with a 2-guard mentality, Thomas for his leaping ability no mortal man should have. Jai Lewis is second in girth only to Davis, while UCLA’s mix of youth and experience proved them well on the frontline.

The best thing about this tournament is the same aspect that make some people say it fails at crowning the correct champion: A single-elimination system in which one cold shooting night or a series of incredibly hot shooting nights can decide the fate of the most talented, or the most undeserving team, isn’t a solid representation of the season that was held. I firmly disagree. Yes, by hitting the “Reset” button, you shift everything back, but tell me a postseason that wouldn’t most-likely change things in? Hit it in football, and Carson Palmer is maybe leading the Bengals to victory in XL. Hit it in the NBA, and the Pistons repeat because Robert Horry doesn’t turn in an all-time performance in Game Five. Hit it in baseball, and maybe a few bounces don’t go the White Sox way and they’re knocked out by the Red Sox in the first round as opposed to steam-rolling through. (Okay, the baseball analogy is straining, because Chicago really did beat down on some people, but you get my point.)

While the tournament is an imperfect system, this is a tournament that has brought us fantastic games from the start of Day One to the overtime thriller between Mason and UConn on Day Eight. The WVU/Texas and Texas/LSU endings to regulation will go down as some of the wildest ever. Morrison and Redick’s reaction will be branded forever into the skulls of those who loved, hated or simply enjoyed watching them. And it’s not that either of the four teams remaining would be an unworthy champion, they would simply be a champion most of us didn’t expect at the beginning of March (although I know plenty of people who thought UCLA and Florida had a chance, and one man – Shane – who actually dreamed they’d be playing in the championship on the second day of the tournament). George Mason has proven, through this system that some call flawed and some call flawless, that they deserve to be here. LSU knocked off two of ESPN’s favorites. UCLA has taken HowlandBall to a level Pitt never could. Florida’s turnover from last year’s team has resulted in an athletic, tough-inside team that can shoot the three who’s probably the favorite in this whole thing.

This tournament is beautiful for the fact it gives you a game where any five guys playing as a team against any other five guys not doing so can win on any given night. Slip up for an instant, like an Iowa or a Gonzaga, and you’re gone. Rise to the occasion, like Darrell Mitchell and Corey Brewer did, and you’re crowned heroes. It’s March Madness, and we have three Shining Moments left before it’s all said and done. There's so precious few every year, be sure not to waste them.

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