March Madness 2013: First Weekend, Part II

South Dakota State v Michigan

I’m not sure what got a bigger workout this past weekend: the “recall” button on my remote control or the refresh button on my Twitter account. It was a brilliant 4 days of breathtaking basketball, complete with upsets and storylines for every sports fan’s liking. I don’t normally think too hard on weekends…but here are my thoughts from a marvelous first weekend of March Madness 2013:

The underlying theme of the weekend was…non-conference scheduling (or lack thereof). Throughout the entire college basketball season, we are inundated with countless ranking systems that each try to “accurately” depict the strength of each team. These rankings measure various factors from concrete numbers such as home and road splits to abstract calculations such as offensive and defensive efficiency. While I’m not too convinced that the selection committee really cares about any of those figures, I do firmly believe that they ask themselves one question about each and every team they’re considering for the tournament: who did they schedule out of their own conference this year? It can be home-home agreement, it can be an early-season tournament or even a neutral site matchup between schools that would not normally face each other within conference play. But the realization during the first weekend of March Madness 2013 was that non-conference scheduling isn’t only important for teams trying to get into the tournament…it is essential for performing once you’re already in! Case in point: Gonzaga. They only lost two games this year, dominated from beginning to end of the season and yet were still a disputed #1 seed due to the fact that they were perceivably untested by a nonexistent non-conference schedule and a weak Western Coast Conference. So when they found themselves in a dogfight against Wichita State, the Bulldogs couldn’t dig deep for something extra because they didn’t have any experience to draw from. In essence, they didn’t know how to shift into a higher gear because they hadn’t had to the entire season. On the contrary, teams like Oregon or Ole Miss, who play in more notable conferences, still played rugged non-conference schedules that prepared them for what the NCAA Tournament is all about: a battle. So for all you coaches out there, sit down with your Athletic Director and strike some deals with those bullies from your rival conference because it’s not just about getting into the tournament, it’s about actually get somewhere once you’re in (bye-bye Middle Tennessee State!).

It was no surprise that…another First Four team has made it to the Sweet Sixteen. The simple reality for every single tournament team is that all they need to do is go on a six-game winning streak in order to cut down the nets. But for such a common goal, every team that enters the tournament seems to be in a different position in their season than the next team. Some are healthy, some are injured. Some are peaking, some are declining. But again…any coach will tell you that regardless of where their team is, all they need to do is get hot at the right time. So for the record, I’m a huge fan of the First Four concept besides the fact that the NCAA wants us to call it the “First Round.” And if I were a team that snuck into the tournament as one of the last teams in, I would be ecstatic about playing in the First Four. Just like VCU in 2011, this LaSalle team found themselves having to win a game to even make onto people’s bracket predictions. Instead of bemoaning the chance they could be eliminated before the first weekend, they seized the opportunity to get the jitters out, to get their players in rhythm and re-focus on the task at hand. Keep in mind this was a LaSalle team coming off two straight tough losses to the end their regular season…but utilized the First Four game against Boise St. to generate momentum that has carried them into the second weekend of the tourney. Don’t be shocked if we continue to see teams use their First Four game as a springboard into the Sweet Sixteen for years to come.

This dude was in the Driver’s seat…Mitch McGary. I’ve gotten a chance to watch Michigan play a few different times this year as the result of the Big Ten having seemingly every team in the Top 25 at some point this year. Each game, the commentators note that McGary, a freshman, was highly touted out of high school and was one of the most sought after players on the prep market. But no matter how badly I wanted to be impressed, I always came away doubting that this guy was anything more than a hustle player who could give you a few minutes of energy off the bench. And then Saturday happened. Against a vaunted VCU press, the Wolverines sliced up the Rams defense like…well, Wolverine. As much as Trey Burke and Spike Albrecht brought deft handles the entire game, I think Shaka Smart didn’t account for how much of an impact McGary would have on both ends. He was completely in charge on the glass, he punished the Rams for over-helping on Burke’s penetration and he set several screens that made it look like the VCU defender ran into an electric fence. If he can add a toughness factor to the finesse of Burke and Hardaway Jr, the Wolverines are going to find themselves in the ATL very soon.

This dude got left in the dust…Shabazz Muhammad. There were two people I was deciding between here, Muhammad and Otto Porter Jr from Georgetown. But after really considering both of their performances (I was lucky enough to watch both games in their entirety), there was one deciding factor: Porter really cared, Muhammad did not. Porter missed a few easy layups and couldn’t seem to muster enough impact to overcome the magic of Florida Gulf Coast. As for Muhammad, I just do not understand the hype around this kid. He seems lazy. He seems selfish. He doesn’t seem nearly as athletic as people claim he is. He’s not a leader. He’s not charismatic. And with his coach on the hot seat and a fellow teammate missing the tournament, Muhammad flopped on the biggest stage. But in his mind, this was nothing but a mere stepping stone to the NBA, a place that rewards poor work ethic in the name of “potential.”

Check out Dan’s thoughts from the first weekend!

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