During a recent phone conversation, Jud Heathcote, a former coach at Michigan State, provided a perfect summary of the college basketball season.
“March Madness began in January,” he said.
Heathcote was speaking of the Big Ten, the nation’s best conference. But he could have been talking about any league, anywhere, at anytime this season.
Now that we are beyond the ides of March, the question begs: What is beyond Madness?
The NCAA Tournament brackets were unveiled Sunday night, and figuring them is beyond Nate Silver, never mind Doug Gottlieb. This is one of those years when the office pool will be won by a crocheting enthusiast who picked her teams based on mascot colors.
The tournament always has offered surprises. It has become increasingly more volatile because of a talent vacuum. Elite programs live with the fact that their best recruits are destined to leave for the NBA as freshmen and sophomores. Midmajor powers — such as VCU, or whoever wins the MAC — gain an advantage in experience.
The court doesn’t tilt as much to the side of the heavyweights.This year, the vacuum was working on all floors.Five teams were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Seven times did the No. 1 team lose. There were weeks this year when the No. 1 team lost and remained No. 1 — because there was no better alternative.
Kentucky, the reigning NCAA champion, is bound for the NIT.
The University of Miami won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Atlantic Coast Conference and is a No. 2 seed.
The Atlantic-10 has more tournament bids than the ACC.
Gonzaga is the top-ranked team in the polls and the No. 1 seed in the West. The Zags have gone from bracket-killing darlings to committee favorites. Potentially, they must defeat No. 8 Pittsburgh, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State. What an interesting dynamic this is, the once-dainty feet of Cinderella now bloated.
For the love of Joe Lunardi, how do we analyze all of this? Bracketology has turned into an Internet cafe. Aside from séances, dart throwing and pulling names out of a hat, is there a way to parse through this parity?
There are two courses of action to consider.
One: Fill out as many brackets as possible, 20 or 30, and be sure that no two are alike.
Two: If you cannot afford to hedge your bets at such a scale, consider the Big Ten.
Tom Izzo, Heathcote’s successor at Michigan State, eloquently made such a case after his Spartans were dispatched last week (by OSU) from a semifinal of the conference tournament.
“I am really looking forward to playing somebody else, and I think all the Big Ten teams are,” Izzo said, adding: “I’d play the Lakers tomorrow instead of some of the teams I’ve played recently.”
The Big Ten was, by far, the best conference, fall to spring. It has, arguably, the most talented team in the nation in Indiana. It has four teams — IU, Michigan, MSU and OSU — ranked in the top 10 after the regular season. It has another team that was ranked in the top 25, Wisconsin, which made it to the conference tournament championship.
The Big Ten placed seven teams in the NCAA field. Each is coached by a veteran who has won multiple tournament games. They are all like Izzo in that they would gladly play the Lakers tomorrow. Think about that state of mind. They are ready to play anybody, and they fear no one.
Jerry Lucas, who stopped by Value City Arena last month, said: “I love college basketball, and I still enjoy watching it. The NCAA Tournament is the best sporting event, every year, in America.”
This year, it is something else altogether. Absent a crystal ball, bet on the Big Ten.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.