The following column appears in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal March 26, 2009 edition. Give your opinion below.
TUPELO – The first week of the NCAA men’s tournament is all about Cinderella.
The second week is all about Big Brand Names.
And that’s just about all that’s left as the Sweet 16 tips off tonight.
The Sienas and Western Kentuckys are all gone and what’s left are teams such as North Carolina, Duke, Connecticut, Kansas and Louisville- teams that have all been there and done that.
Other teams in the mix, like Xavier and Gonzaga, have been building their NCAA resumes with a sustained run of success in recent years.
Look at the four regionals and any one of them would make a fine Final Four.
If the two games on Friday at Memphis -Oklahoma-Syracuse and North Carolina-Gonazga – were national semifinals, would any average fan be disappointed? And yet, you have that times four.
Here are some things we’ve learned in the past week:
– Coaches matter. An old railbird once told me to bet the jockey, not the horse. With that in mind, look at the coaches who are still around – seven of whom already have NCAA championships on their resumes.
That includes Bill Self of Kansas, who got my vote as the Associated Press coach of the year after thoroughly rebuilding last year’s national championship roster.
– Numbers matter. I assumed, before looking, that the most efficient defensive teams would still be in the hunt.
Indeed, six of the 10 most efficient defensive teams, according to a formula worked out by stats guru Ken Pomeroy, made the Sweet 16.
That includes Memphis (1), Louisville (2), Connecticut (3) and Purdue (5).
But seven of the 10 most efficient offensive teams, including North Carolina (1), Pittsburgh (2), Gonzaga (4), Duke (5) and Arizona (7), are also still standing.
I wonder if blowout wins could skew those offensive numbers. There’s no way to pad your defensive stats, it seems to me, except to keep playing hard.
– Tough schedules can help. Arizona (21-13) is the surprise of the field after barely making it into the 65-team bracket, but the Wildcats played one of the nation’s tougher schedules.
And that may pay additional dividends in terms of toughness.
If you remember the chart the Journal ran the other day of the teams that had to make the longest trips for their first-round matchups, Arizona (1,901 miles to Miami) and Purdue (1,827 miles to Portland, Ore.) were among the teams going the distance.
Both teams played schedules that were tougher than average -and both teams are still playing.
– Short trips can’t hurt. Villanova, which played its first two games in its hometown of Philadelphia, is the best example. Other Sweet 16 teams making short trips to regional “pods” included North Carolina (42) and Duke (42), Louisville (136), Connecticut (202) and Pittsburgh (224).
– Elite players matter. Of the 15 players on my AP All-American ballot, nine have made the Sweet 16, including the likely national player of the year, Blake Griffin of Oklahoma.
The Charlotte Observer reported this week that 15 of the 16 remaining teams have at least one McDonald’s All-American on their rosters. Remarkably, the tourney started with 62 such players on team rosters -and 29 of them are still playing.
Add it all up, and I still like my Final Four -North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Memphis and Louisville.
Would it surprise me if none of them made it? Nope.
John L. Pitts (firstname.lastname@example.org) is sports editor of the Journal.
John L. Pitts/Daily Journal