This NCAA tournament is a major break with tradition – LA Times

By Chris Dufresne
Los Angeles Times

Something was missing from Selection Sunday, televised one week after the Academy Awards, and it wasn’t Illinois or Billy Packer.

It was an “in memoriam” montage to performers no longer with us.

Filling out an NCAA tournament bracket without UCLA, North Carolina and Indiana is tantamount to pulling the carload of kids up to Mt. Rushmore and seeing tarps draped over the faces of Washington, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

Think about this: Three schools with a total of 21 NCAA championships will be on the couch next weekend, eating popcorn, wondering what in the Sam Houston State (auto bid from the Southland Conference) is going on.

Add two-time champions Connecticut and Cincinnati to the no-show list and you might detect a trend.

“It is strange,” NCAA men’s basketball committee Chairman Dan Guerrero, the athletic director for one of the missing schools, said Sunday. “Because, obviously, those are formidable teams, with great traditions. But I think it is reflective of the culture of college basketball this year. Believe me, every one of those teams would have loved to have been represented in this tournament, but it didn’t happen. . . . That’s why this tournament is so fantastic. . . .”

Not for UCLA or its athletic director, it isn’t.

It seems like only last April that North Carolina won a national title (true), a few years since UCLA made three straight Final Four appearances (true again) and Bob Knight walked back to the hotel in Winston-Salem, N.C., down the middle of a highway, in the pouring rain, after his Indiana team was first-round ousted by Colorado (true, in 1997).

The rumored expansion of the tournament to 96 teams, perhaps, may open up opportunities for woebegone former champions not in this year’s field, including Arizona, Michigan, Oregon and Stanford.

And let’s not forget Holy Cross, or that, in 1954, gee that old La Salle ran great en route to the title (those were the days).

Arizona this year had its string of 25 straight tournament appearances snapped and, just to keep it square in the state, the NCAA also left Arizona State at home.

Imagine a tournament (this one) in which UCLA, North Carolina, Indiana, Connecticut and Arizona all failed to make the field; that hasn’t happened since 1966.

It is definitely weird when the Pacific 10 Conference may have needed Washington to defeat California at Staples Center on Saturday to qualify two teams for the tournament.

Remember when the Pac-10 got six?

“There was no way in the world we thought only one team would be in the NCAA tournament,” Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said.

That sounds like something a coach from Conference USA should say.

Hosting the Pac-10 tournament, it turned out, was the closest Los Angeles was going to get to the field of 65. Long Beach gave the city of NCAA chirping crickets a semifinal thrill ride in the Big West tournament, but came up short in the final, leaving L.A. no choice but to put in adoption papers for San Diego State and UC Santa Barbara.

If only, for daylight savings time, USC could have turned the clock back to before O.J. Mayo and UCLA to, say, 2006.

For those still interested in this year’s tournament, thank goodness three peach-basket pillars have powered on: Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, which all drew top-line seeding positions.

Mark this down on a gum wrapper: one of these three schools is going to win the national title, and we’ll make it easier for you by eliminating Duke (early) and Kentucky (late). And while we’re all sitting around the table, toss out Syracuse, the other No.1.

Why? The tea-leaf reader down at “Madame Boeheim’s” informed us no school that lost the first game of its conference tournament has ever gone on to win the national title. Syracuse lost in the first round of this year’s Big East tournament to Georgetown and also is dealing with an injury to big man Arinze Onuaku.

It may be the reason Syracuse slipped to the fourth-rated No. 1 behind Duke (Kansas and Kentucky were 1-2 among the four top-seeded teams).

Guerrero said Duke was rewarded for winning the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles and mentioned Syracuse “did lose their last two games.”

Duke is a shoot hoot to watch but vulnerable in recent NCAA tournaments to any game in which the basket shrinks. Exhibit 2009: The Blue Devils connected on only 16 of 60 shots in last year’s East Regional semifinal loss to Villanova.

Injuries, as Syracuse found out, factor into the process. Purdue also got relegated to a No. 4 seeding in the South because of the season-ending injury to Robbie Hummel.

“We obviously felt that they weren’t the same team without him,” Guerrero said. “Purdue did slip. There’s no question about that.”

These things happen. In 2000, Cincinnati was dropped from a No. 1 to a No. 2 after national player of the year Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the conference tournament. But the committee had it right because the Bearcats went out in the second round to Tulsa.

The deck is purposely stacked to reward the best teams at the time the tournament starts, which is why Kansas was put on the top line.

And, as you’re plotting bracket projections and even perhaps cheering for expansion to 96 schools, consider that No. 1 is 100-0 against No. 16 since the field was expanded in 1985. And that No. 2 is 96-4 against No. 15.

Also, the chances of your picking a perfect bracket are one in 9 quintillion.

You’ve got a full-blown conspiracy beef if you allege the NCAA tournament is rigged for the best teams to win, because it is, and they usually do.

Last year, all 12 of the teams seeded 1,2 and 3 advanced to the Sweet 16.

That’s why, with so many blue-blood programs sitting this dance out, Kansas of the Midwest and Kentucky of the East were positioned not to meet until the title game on April 5 in Indianapolis.

You’d like to think something odd might happen, but UCLA and North Carolina not being among the 65 schools involved might just be strange enough this year.

March 15, 2010