LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 12: Isaiah Thomas #2 of the Washington Huskies reacts after making a last-second shot in overtime to defeat the Arizona Wildcats 77-75 in the championship game of the 2011 Pacific Life Pac-10 Men's Basketball Tournament at Staples Center on March 12, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The NCAA Tournament bracket has been set, and as usual, the NCAA's Selection Committee has been the target of criticism from all sides. But that's the real genius of March Madness; not even the NCAA's biggest idiots can screw it up.
There are very few things in sports or in life that are absolutely perfect, but every year the NCAA Tournament comes at the same time, and it still feels too good to be true. Here were again, and March Madness in 2011 is no different.
So just for a second today, let's take a moment to give thanks for what the NCAA Tournament represents. The seeds don't matter, the snubs don't matter, and even the matchups don't really matter. Whatever happens, let's all remember that it's the ultimate sports meritocracy in an NCAA that's otherwise ruled by haves and have-nots. It's a siren for spring after a cold, boring winter without football. I mean, it was still miserable coming into work this morning, but as I shivered my way in the door, I could take solace. Skirt season is near, because March Madness is here.
And obviously, best of all: Basketball! Basketball basketball basketball basketball.
In the morning, at lunchtime, for dinner, for dessert. For the next month, we can enjoy basketball anytime! And if you think that's not a Bagel Bites reference, then you clearly don't know me well enough.
I live across from a CVS, and among other things, that means I've become something of an expert on Microwavable pizzas over the past eighteen months, and nothing beats bagel bites. I mean it's pure genius. Who needs grocery shopping when you can pick up dinner AND breakfast for the low price of $3.50? It's not healthy, but it never ever disappoints.
That's how I feel about the NCAA Tournament. It's never perfect, but it always hits the spot. You can nitpick the selection committee's annual abortion of logic, you can bemoan all the people who become college hoops experts overnight, and you can even become one of those NBA hipsters that becomes too cool for all of it. But in the end, if you can't enjoy the NCAA Tournament's fundamental genius for what it is, it's your loss.
With that said, here's a few initial thoughts on the 2011 NCAA Tournament. We'll let Gus Johnson and Isaiah Thomas set the mood, since that UW-Arizona game was probably the most March Madness-y game in history that wasn't actually part of the NCAA Tournament:
1. Yeah, About That Washington Team... They're officially my sleeper of 2011, and I say this for two reasons. First, because I'm actively trying to jinx them should they play my Tar Heels in the second round (more on this in a second). But also because Washington is pretty much the prototype of a team that's built to surprise people in March. Came into the year with big expectations? Stumbled through the regular season? Experienced team? A go-to guy in the clutch? An experienced point guard that's terrifying to bet against? A seed that's about three slots too low? Let's see how Washington measures up...
They entered the 2010-11 season as preseason Pac-10 champs, including a wonderfully swaggerific controversy surrounding PG Isaiah Thomas. He insulted just about every team in the Pac-10, obviously ruffling some feathers along the way, and responded like so:
Does that seem like someone you'd like to bet against in March?
Anyway, Washington had an up-and-down regular season and wound up losing the Pac-10 to a surprisingly excellent Arizona team, but rectified the loss by winning the Pac-10 tournament. The NCAA shafted them with a seven seed, but it shouldn't really matter. They still have four guys that can score, a coach that's taken teams deep in the tournament before, and most of all, with Thomas on board, they've got the two things that help most in March--a great upperclassmen point guard, and a go-to guy in crunch time. So Washington's my sleeper in 2011, and if you're looking for more surprises, look for other teams that fit this mold (Kansas State, Georgetown, Louisville, Missouri) and bet against the higher seeds that don't (Kentucky, Florida, Texas, Kansas).
2. Carolina Got Screwed. I promised myself I wouldn't use this space to go on a homer's rant over how badly UNC got jobbed by the selection committee, BUT... Since January 1, the Tar Heels have lost twice, both to the no. 1 seeded Blue Devils. They may cost themselves a chance at a one-seed by losing to Duke in the ACC Tournament title game, but did they really deserve to get stuck playing A) the best seven seed in the field B) The second-best three seed in the field and C) The number one overall seed (if they get that far)? Florida lost to a four-seed in the SEC Title game and got rewarded with the easiest draw for any two seed in the field? But yeah, that all makes sense because... God damnit. (Okay, the bitterness ends there).
3. Colorado Got Screwed Worse Than Anyone. This point is obvious, so there's no need to elaborate. It makes ZERO sense that Colorado got snubbed by the selection committee, but you know what was even worse? CBS had a camera crew set up with the Buffaloes yesterday, and after watching teams celebrate their selections for the entire show, we never got to see what it looks like when a team doesn't get in.
I mean, I love watching bubble teams celebrate as much as anyone, but why can't we see the teams like Colorado and St. Mary's after they get totally screwed by the committee? Is this so much to ask? It would be the exact opposite of this picture, and damnit, that's interesting to me.
4. Other Than Colorado Fans, People Need To Relax About Selection Screwups. People flipping out about the inclusion of VCU and UAB should all take a nice, long sanity break before the hyperbole kills someone. This includes everyone on ESPN who went apoplectic over the selection committee's mistakes, and especially Dick Vitale, who called for the Jay Bilas to be put in charge of college hoops. You know why this is crazy?
No matter what happens, there will never be a perfect bracket, and there will always be legitimate cause for criticism. Please, Dick. Put Jay Bilas in charge, and see if anything changes. I'm not saying we shouldn't criticize anyone, obviously, but let's keep it in perspective.
The selection committee didn't do a very good job, but they never do a very good job, and the tournament hasn't suffered so far. If anything, complaining about crappy brackets is as much a tradition as the brackets, themselves. Four days from now, will anybody care that UAB got in over Virginia Tech? No. So just sit back, relax, and stop yelling about this.
5. The Selection Committee DID Miss One Thing, Though... While it's true that nobody should care who they let in as the 67th and 68th teams, and I appreciate the comedy of pitting Pitino against Morehead, how hard would it have been to make UConn a two seed instead of a three, put them in BYU's region, and let the whole world salivate over a potential Jimmer-Kemba matchup for the next two weeks?
The world deserves Jimmer-Kemba, and if the committee had any sense at all, they would have given it to us, if only so that we all could have said "Jimmer-Kemba" over and over again for two weeks. It would have been a dream come true for all of us.
6. Finally, A Word About CBS And Barkley In 2011. We've already established that no matter how hard the selection committee tries, the NCAA Tournament is impossible to screwup. The only variable for the NCAAs is how much better it can get each year; in 2011, that revolves around the new TV format, and the new analyst team for CBS, starring Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. I have high hopes for this arrangement, and not just because Charles has already called Billy Packer a jackass and talked openly about college players deserving salary.
Sunday, though, Barkley and Kenny looked a little uptight. I don't know whether it's Seth Davis' suffocating expertise or Greg Gumbel playing the role of Ernie Johnson, but they just looked a little... Off. Not bad, but just not as good as they could be in the long run.
It'll take time for them to get comfortable, and here's to hoping it happens before CBS execs panic and decide to pull the plug. Because as clueless as they may seem sometimes, they know the game better than anybody on the panel. For instance, Kenny Smith said on Sunday's selection show that the first weekend is dominated by players and matchups, but after that, the games revolve around coaching, because everyone that makes it to the second weekend is equally good.
And that's totally true. Seeds only matter so much, and while the selection committee may have an inordinate amount of influence on what happens during the first weekend, by the time the Sweet 16 rolls around, it's all about coaching and superstars, and who can separate themselves from the pack against great teams. Nothing earth-shattering about that analysis, but it's great perspective while most college hoops experts focus on who did or didn't get helped by the seeding in 2011.
That's why March is great. No matter what happens, in four days, we get a weekend of crazy upsets, and after that, it's just pure basketball, where coaching and superstars matter more than ever, and seeds and records are completely meaningless. It's impossible to screw up. The NCAA Tournament is not complicated, it's not sophisticated, it's not new, everyone can enjoy it, and it always hits the spot. So grab like six boxes of bagel bites and a spot on the couch, and enjoy another year of genius that even the NCAA's biggest idiots couldn't screw up.