Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 19, 2017

The Most Frantic Long Weekend Has Been Anything But

“The odds are good that by Sunday evening at least one giant will have been humbled, and in one of the eight arenas hosting this annual onslaught of basketball, an unlikely team will celebrate advancing to the regionals even as fans and pundits alike bestow upon it the honorific of being this year’s Cinderella.” One need not go far to find the source of those words. They appeared in this very space, just three days ago, as what was described as “the most frantic long weekend in college sports” was just getting underway. Which just goes to show that, as they say in the commercials for various investment products, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

It’s not that the prediction was literally wrong. As this is written the last two games of the NCAA Division I Men’s basketball tournament’s first weekend have yet to begin, and two more are still in progress. In the forty-four games that have been completed there have certainly been upsets; based purely on the seeding nine to be exact. Maybe by the end of the night that number will reach double digits.

The biggest giant of all, the overall #1 seed Villanova, was humbled by Wisconsin on Saturday. Xavier, seeded 11th in the West Region, is through to the Sweet Sixteen after beating #6 Maryland handily and trouncing #3 Florida State by twenty-five points. So there will be at least one squad that can be called a Cinderella playing in the next round, even if Xavier’s pumpkin coach rolled in from the mighty Big East and the Musketeers’ place in the bracket looks very much like a bad case of under seeding. Two other teams seeded in the bottom half of the draw are in the late games, so perhaps that number will increase.

But in comparison to past tournaments this year’s first weekend has been decidedly lacking in drama. Just last year the first two rounds produced fifteen upsets, and eleven teams seeded 9th or lower advanced to the second half of the weekend. This year that number was seven, and three #11 seeds, Southern Cal and Rhode Island along with Xavier, were the lowest ranked teams winning their first game. This is the first time in a decade that the second round lacked a single team seeded 13th or lower. Implicit in that fact is that at the other end of the bracket the top four teams in each region went a perfect 16-0 on Thursday and Friday.

One measure of the relative predictability of the tournament so far is the length of time it took to break all the brackets of the millions of fans who filled them out online. NCAA.com tracks not only its own results, but those at Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports and Yahoo as well. The last perfect bracket, filled out by a fan on Yahoo.com, went bust Saturday night when 4th seed Purdue beat 5th seed Iowa State 80-76. But that was the fortieth game of the tournament, giving that fan the distinction of having the longest perfect run in online bracket history, with his or her 39-0 mark topping the previous record of 36-0 set in 2014.

Complaints about a boring tournament have sprung up all over the Internet, and while that term seems a bit strong many have correctly noted that the problem is not just the fewer than normal upsets, but the lack of games going down to the wire. The Thursday and Friday slate of thirty-two opening round games included just four decided by two points or less, and none of the twelve second round games in the books at this point have been that close. A year after the opening round featured four games won on last second shots, only three games so far this year have seen a would-be buzzer-beater lofted as time expired, and all three sadly missed their mark. The grousing from fans and sportswriters has grown loud enough that David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination lashed out at the complainers on Twitter in a post that he later had the good sense to delete.

The most unfortunate aspect of the lack of drama is that it has allowed the spotlight to shine on mistakes, two of which profoundly shifted the course of games. With Vanderbilt holding a one point lead over Northwestern and less than 20 seconds remaining in their first round game, the Commodores’ Matthew Fisher-Davis intentionally fouled Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh, something normally done by trailing teams. Given two unmolested chances from the penalty stripe, McIntosh made them both and Northwestern held on to win. Fisher-Davis later admitted that he had lost track of the score.

After benefitting from a mistake on Thursday, Northwestern was victimized by one on Saturday. After trailing #1 seed Gonzaga all game, often by double digits, the Wildcats had closed to five with 4:54 to play. Derek Pardon’s attempted layup was rejected by Gonzaga’s Zach Collins, but the officials completely missed the fact that Collins had done so by reaching up through the hoop. The call should have been goaltending and the lead down to three. Instead, when Northwestern coach Chris Collins ran on the court to protest, he was called for a technical. With Gonzaga converting both free throws the error produced a four point swing in a game the Bulldogs eventually won 79-73.

Perhaps Northwestern would have made a game winning field goal on their final possession without benefit of a trip to the free throw line. Perhaps with their lead down to three Gonzaga would have stiffened and turned back the upset challenge.  We’ll never know.  What we can say for certain as this year’s edition of March Madness approaches the end of its first weekend is that while it is definitely March, the Madness has gone missing.

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