Selection Sunday is finally here.
Growing up a Lawrence, Kansas kid this day, for me, was second only to Christmas in over hyped anticipation. I'd get up early, snag the paper off the door step before my dad could, and then cut that beautiful, spider web looking, NCAA Tournament Bracket out of the sports' page.
After a day of watching the conference tournaments round to a close, I'd pencil the names of all the schools as they were announced like some sort of old timey reporter hot on a scoop. There's no other sporting event - in the U.S. at least - that is this all inclusive, bringing in fan bases from all corners of the continent. I remember hearing of schools like "Northeast Southern Midwestern State College," and in my child's mind imagining that campus located as far away as the moon or on some barren hell scape like, you know, El Paso, Texas.
Then I'd look at Kansas' route to the Final Four and run a dozen different scenarios through my head on whether or not the team had would it took to make it, and if not, what their best match-ups would be to luck their way there.
In 1988, the Kansas Jayhawks had the best player in the country, but were so ravaged by injuries that Coach Larry Brown had to raid the football team for spare parts. The '88 Jayhawks went 4-3 over their final seven games and were coming off a beat down in the Big 8 Tournament to their in state rivals, Kansas State, when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee granted them a 6 seed - a slot many pundits felt Kansas earned on name recognition alone, feeling the ‘Hawks an NIT caliber squad.
Three weeks later the Jayhawks won the National Title, to this day remaining as the NCAA men's basketball champion with the most losses (11) and the only 6 seed in the tournament history to win it all.
That 1988 squad is one of the most historically indicative reasons of why the NCAA Tournament is a crap shoot, and by extension one of the most exciting sports events in the world. A single elimination tournament doesn't always result in the best team winning it all, just the best team over a 6 game stretch.
A few years ago the NBA tried to advertise their playoffs with a tag line "Win or go home!" With four rounds of crushingly tedious seven games series, that tag line should have been "Win or comeback the next couple of days and try again!"
Seven game series after 82 NBA basketball games, or worse 162 MLB baseball games is obscene, but playing it out that way truly does filter out the best team in the field.
The NFL has a single elimination tournament after their season, obviously because of the physical demands of the sport. However, after each round the seeding is reset as a way to reward the #1 seeds by making sure they are matched up against the lowest surviving seeds left in the playoffs. In the NCAA Tournament, due to scheduling impossibilities with 68 teams participating, the subsequent rounds don't reset like the NFL playoffs. So if a 15 or a 14 seed wins their first game, the 1 seed in a bracket doesn't get to play them. We've seen brackets absolutely disintegrate in the middle and the biggest winners of this disintegration isn't always the 1 and 2 seeds. Like you'll hear more than 5 dozen times today, the NCAA Tournament is all about the matchups.
The 1988 Jayhawks were the epitome of this sports cliché. As the 6 seed they were matched up with the 11 seed Xavier in the Round of 64 and they advanced. That same round though, the Midwest region began to implode in epic fashion. In the Round of 32, instead of facing Jim Valvano's loaded North Carolina State squad as the 3 seed, the Jayhawks got the 14 seed Murray State Racers who had pulled the huge first round upset over the Wolfpack.
A lot of people forget that it was actually this game against the little Racers that would prove to be the '88 Jayhawks hardest game of the entire tournament. With Kansas clinging to a 59-58 lead in the dying seconds of the game, Murray State had the ball and drove into the paint for a go ahead layup that should have gone in, but it seemed to roll across the rim as if there was a lid on the basket. The miss rolled right into Danny Manning's waiting hands, he was fouled, and then iced the game with two made free throws.
Surviving that game put the ‘Hawks in the Sweet 16, the round everyone predicted would showcase Valvano's Wolfpack versus the talent rich Big East Conference champion Pitt Panthers. Yet, just like N.C. State, Pitt found itself bounced from the tournament, going down to the 7 seed Vanderbilt in the Round of 32. Kansas had no problem roughing up the Commodores before moving onto the Elite 8 where they wouldn't find the 1 seed Purdue waiting for them, but their own in-state rivals in 4 seed Kansas State. It would be the 4th meeting between the schools that year, and Kansas would repay their final loss of the season by hammering the Wildcats and punching their ticket to the Final Four which was to be played in K.C. Essentially, the ‘Hawks were now riding a wave of momentum right into a home atmosphere. They responded by rolling right over 2 seed Duke and then running with 1 seed Oklahoma before knocking them out in the second half to win the title.
I bring up the '88 Jayhawks team not just as a way to inspire hope for any Kansas fans who may feel down this afternoon, but more so because that '88 squad and its ridiculous run to a championship represents the playing out of Murphy's Law as applied to the NCAA Tournament. "Anything that can happen, will happen," or better known by its more pessimist flavored definition, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
Let's face it. The 2015 NCAA Tournament is Kentucky's to lose. And any Coach Cal or Wildcat hater who hopes that won't happen, you better be rooting for the Wildcats to beat Arkansas today. Because if Arkansas somehow takes Kentucky down, it will most likely be the last time Kentucky will lose this season. If Kentucky finishes the perfect pre-NCAA Tournament season, then they are ripe for Murphy's Law to wreck a lot of people's bracket. 40 games is a long-ass stretch over which not to trip. And this ain't 1976 where the Hoosiers completed the last perfect season by having to play a total of 32 games in an era of restricted college basketball talent. The talent has never been more widespread. If Cal can complete the perfect 40 this season, even his haters will have to acknowledge that he is hands down the best coach in the country.
The dominance of this year's Kentucky team is, however, an indication of just how college basketball is a bit down nationally this season. Is this Kentucky team better than their title team of 2012? In my honest opinion, no. Anthony Davis was not only a beast he was an outstanding teammate and captain for that squad. While I feel that Kentucky is better than everybody else this season, I think below them is a staggering amount of parity and inconsistency. Which, again, hints at Murphy's Law taking a baseball bat right to the bracket.
As in 1988, whether you're trying to gauge Kansas' possible run, or trying to fill out your bracket to actually win a contest, when you're looking at your bracket this evening look for two things:
1. Which region has the greatest potential to implode? That's where you'll most likely find your surprise Final Four team.
2. And just as Danny Manning put the '88 Jayhawks on his back, look for the team with a player capable of leading an unlikely team to the Final Four like the following: Glenn Rice for Michigan in 1989; John Wallace for Syracuse in 1996; Miles Simon for Arizona in 1997; Carmello Anthony for Syracuse in 2003; Gordon Hayward for Butler in 2010; Kimba Walker for UCONN in 2011; Cleanthony Early for Wichita State in 2013; and Shabazz Napier for UCONN in 2014. None of those schools were seeded higher than a 3 when their stars got to shine on a national stage by taking their teams on a ride for the ages.
Who are some likely candidates this year? Well, seeing as how UConn had two guards go on Most Outstanding Player (MOP) runs that resulted in the Huskies winning National Titles twice in the last four tournaments, UConn's senior guard, Ryan Boatright, might be a good pick. Just a few weeks ago the Huskies looked like they might not even make it to the NCAA Tournament and get a chance to defend their title. Back in 2011, Kemba Walker led the Huskies on that sick run through the old Big East Conference that had 52 members, which required UConn to win 5 games in 5 days to make it to the Tournament. It appears Boatright is about to do the same thing this year. Kid averages 17.7 points a game, has gone over 30 once this season, and over 25 many more times. Most importantly for UConn though, he seems to be playing his best ball right now.
Another possible candidate to take his team on a surprise deep run is Wichita State guard Ron Baker. This Kansas boy emerged as a star freshman during Wichita State's 2013 Final Four run. Now as a 15 points per game junior armed with a shooting touch that may land him in the NBA next year, if he gets going the Shockers might be a team no big school wants to play.
Also out of the Missouri Valley Conference is Northern Iowa's senior forward Seth Tuttle. Kid is a 6-8, 240 pound load who scores 15.3 points a game and has produced some huge outings this season. As a result, the Panthers were a little less reliant on the jump shot as their conference mates, the Shockers.
Then there's Gonzaga's junior forward, Kyle Wiltjer. Lots of people know Gonzaga's name as they've become an NCAA Tournament mainstay over the last two decades, but few people actually get to see many of their games if they live east of the Rockies. I try and watch them anytime they play a game on the Watch ESPN app, most of those games starting around 10 o'clock Kansas time, but I clearly have a problem and appreciate the fact that normal people who make better use of their time exist in the world. I've seen a lot of Gonzaga's games. This is the best team that program and Mark Few has ever had. Forget that Adam Morrison freak from the 2006 season, Wiltjer is the real deal. This 6-10 kid was a 5 star recruit coming out of high school, recruited and eventually signed by Coach Cal at Kentucky. As we've seen, Cal will load up his teams and let the best players rise to the top. As a result the bench at Kentucky is crowded with 5 star talent and Wiltjer found himself buried on the depth chart. He transferred to the Zags before last season, is finally eligible to play this season, giving an already strong Zags team a true division one big man in the low post. He led the Zags in scoring with 16.7 points and has gone for 30 multiple times and even threw down 45 against Pepperdine a few weeks ago.
Lastly, don't look now, but Kansas' own Mark Turgeon has resurrected the Maryland basketball program and has them at #8 in the country and led his team to a second place finish in the program's first season in the vaunted Big 10 conference. A big reason for the Terrapins' resurgence is freshman guard Melo Trimble. Trimble led Maryland in scoring with 16.3 points a game and his emergence, in joining with senior guard Dez Wells and junior wing man Jake Layman gave Mark Turgeon one of the most salty scoring trios in the nation.
All of these guys are capable of leading their teams through the inevitable wreckage of higher seeds' broken dreams.
Here's hoping Kansas can contribute to some of the insanity.
God, it's great to have March back!
Best of luck to you and your brackets.
And of course...