April 9, 2014 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
On Tuesday morning, the basketball world woke up to center itself on Storrs, Connecticut once again. For the second time in four years, and the fourth time in 16 seasons, the Huskies became the rulers of men's college basketball (only to be joined by the women's team Tuesday night). Just like all other NCAA tournaments, this one left us with a gaggle of moments to relive and analyze. Media outlets throughout the stratosphere are taking their own lessons from this year's Field of 68. I'm here to do the same. There are five items that I'll take away from the past three weeks and will hold me over until November, when we all get to go through it again.
1) The Region of Redonkulousness
As I sat down to watch the Selection Show on March 17th, I wondered what gifts the tournament committee had wrapped for us fans. Who would be the fourth 1-seed? What were the 5-12 matchups? Where would the potential dark horses line up? You know ... typical stuff. Then, halfway through the program, the Midwest Region was unveiled. My jaw tumbled to the floor as school after school popped up on the screen. I said to myself, "This is the most loaded region I can ever remember seeing."
Now, granted, I've only been following college basketball for about 20 years. But even in that time, I can't recall seeing a region that included the defending champion, the defending national runner-up, a national semifinalist from the previous year, and the preseason number one team all in the same quadrant. And, to be honest, it played like a region of doom. The fact that Kentucky got out of it only prepared them to play in Dallas all the more.
2) Mid-Major Love
With the continued fracturing of the conferences we all grew up knowing, it's inevitable that more teams from mid-major, basketball-first conferences will find ways to grab more spots in the tournament field (and yes, I'm putting the new Big East Conference in that category again). But it wasn't the fact that these leagues got more bids than in recent years past (they didn't), it was the amount of respect that they were shown.
The Big East received three at-large bids to go along with surprising auto-bid Providence. The Atlantic-10 got as many at-large bids as the ACC, Pac-12, and Big Ten (5). In that specific grouping, Massachusetts received a six-seed (even with some struggles in the second half of the year) and Dayton got in without having to play in Dayton (the 11-seed got one of the last byes into the field despite many wondering about their resume).
3) Don't Go Westward, Young Men
A pattern continued to show itself in the NCAA champion. In the first 36 NCAA tournaments (1939-1974), 10 colleges located west of the Mississippi River won 20 of the awarded trophies. And yes, I understand that UCLA's nine titles during that stretch must be included in those numbers. However, since 1975, when the NCAA allowed more than one team pre conference to enter the bracket, 5 schools have accumulated just 7 of the 40 championships available.
It wasn't just that the western half of the country couldn't manage to win a title this year. That side of the country only had one chance to reach the Final Four (Arizona). I realize that the vast majority of conferences, schools, and players reside in the eastern third of the U.S., but I'm pleading for the Left Coast, Rockies, and Plains to step your game up. Right now, if you want a shot at a banner, you've got to stay or head East.
4) Blast From the Past
I may not have thought it before the tournament. It may sound like sour grapes at this point (because I had this team out in their second game). This season's Kentucky Wildcats, at its core, turned out to be the 1991-1992 Michigan Wolverines in all but four ways. First, their seedings didn't quite match up (UM was a 6-seed compared to the UK 8-seed). Second, the hype in the rankings didn't follow the same path, either (UM was preseason #20 in 1991, UK was preseason No. 1 this past November). However, both teams shared a common thread.
The Fab Five and the "Big Blue Boys" (as I will now call them) got off to very promising starts in the non-conference before struggling in the slog of conference play (UM finished 11-7 in the Big Ten in '91-'92, while UK was 12-6 in the SEC this season). The rigors of those seasons, though, took hold when the pressure of the tournament ramped up. The infamous Wolverines won four of their five victories by 7 points or less. This year's Wildcats got all of their wins by seven points or fewer (including the Aaron Harrison parade of clutch game-winners). But, in the end, both teams wound up one victory short of an historic feat.
Oh, and as for those other big differences? I don't believe the Big Blue Boys will have their Final Four run vacated by the NCAA. I also don't think that this group of frosh will stick together to make another Fab Five-style run to the national title game.
5) Redefining Royalty
Three months ago, I tried to take a look at the world of conference realignment through the eyes of Connecticut men's basketball. To be honest, I wasn't too high on their future and still think that they're getting the short end of the stick. But they also did the one thing that could help the conference as a whole ... win a national title. This could and should help keep the overall profile of the AAC at the forefront of everyone's minds for a little while.
This is also a huge boost to UConn's brand. After winning the 2011 championship, I saw some articles discussing how the Huskies' program had joined the blueblood ranks of college hoops. Now, with a fourth title in 16 years, I think it's time to readjust our thinking even more.
The royal court of this game is fairly evident. The mainstays include UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Indiana. My newcomers would be Duke, Louisville, and Connecticut. The mainstays are rich and deep in the history and roots of the sport, while the newcomers have dug their own path over the last 35 years of so. But the game, along with how a champion is crowned, has changed quite a bit since the late 1930s.
Going back to that impact point of 1975 (the first tournament which allowed multiples teams from the same conference into the field), your outlook really changes. Four schools have won four championships in that 40-year timespan. Two are "historical" bluebloods (Kentucky and North Carolina). The others are "new school" bluebloods (Duke and, now, Connecticut). As it sits now, this fact alone should put Storrs as one of the top two or three locations to be for men's college basketball. And if coach Kevin Ollie doesn't spurn his alma mater for the NBA, UConn might just close the title gap on other members of the royal court sooner rather than later.