Bob Ford: Upset losses? It's the tournament

Villanova's Scottie Reynolds tries to respond to a question after the Cats' season ended with a loss to St. Mary's
Villanova's Scottie Reynolds tries to respond to a question after the Cats' season ended with a loss to St. Mary's
Posted: March 22, 2010

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Even if just a little bit, and even if only for a moment, those inside the Villanova basketball program had to feel slightly better about themselves Saturday evening when - four hours after their own season ended with what the seedings would call an upset loss in the NCAA tournament - the Kansas Jayhawks were unable to solve the previously overlooked mystery of the Northern Iowa Panthers.

That combination of outcomes won't stop the anti-Cats contingent holding to the belief that Villanova was far overvalued by the tournament committee and, when you come right down to it, was a sham compared with the team that went to the Final Four a season ago.

A lot of that is true, or the Wildcats wouldn't have struggled to beat Robert Morris in the tournament opener and wouldn't have lost to very capable 10th-seeded St. Mary's College in the second round. That's what happened, though, and the box scores are ugly tombstones to the end of the season.

But does that mean Kansas shouldn't have been a No. 1 seed, or that Georgetown and New Mexico shouldn't have been No. 3 seeds? Of course not. It means that the NCAA tournament - this just in - is sometimes more exciting than fair, and that's what makes it unique.

It can be argued right now that Kansas is the best college basketball team in the country this season. The Jayhawks won't win the championship, but their body of work still makes the case.

This isn't a body-of-work time of year in college hoops, however. That ends on Selection Sunday when the committee chisels the bracket into its stone tablets and sets the thing in motion. After that, good luck and hope you don't look up to find Omar Samhan or Ali Farokhmanesh standing in your way. You have no idea who he is, you can't spell his name, but he can play.

If Kansas played Northern Iowa 10 times, the Jayhawks would probably win nine of the games. If Villanova and St. Mary's played 10 times, it would probably be 5-5. It was just bad luck for the Wildcats that the coin came up tails.

For all the upsets and the unpredictability, this is still a cooked game that favors the big conferences every season. Really good mid-majors - teams that could jump up and do what Northern Iowa and St. Mary's are doing - aren't even invited in order to make sure the seventh- and eighth-best teams from the power conferences are served. Then you have the business of the seedings and the pairings.

Every year, you see first-round games between teams that the big boys would rather avoid. Temple vs. Cornell was an example of that this season, as was Richmond vs. St. Mary's. Schedule it that way and the major conferences are protected a little bit.

Still, it's a clean show compared with the corrupt, cynical way college football champions are chosen. The NCAA has no control of that one, having lost its hold on the BCS conferences a long time ago.

So, you live with the uncertainty of the basketball tournament, whether you are Kansas, which was deserving of a championship, or Villanova, which was just trying to stay near a chair when the music stopped.

The end of the Wildcats' season can be dissected for a while - there was plenty of fodder there - but if you really want to know when Villanova lost to St. Mary's, it was probably when freshman center Mouphtaou Yarou was diagnosed with hepatitis B and missed more than a month of games.

He never caught up physically, and never recovered, in a basketball sense, from that missed experience. Yarou wouldn't have been able to shut down Samhan, the goofy giant from St. Mary's, but maybe he would have smiled and nodded when Samhan offered him a pre-tip-off chest bump and said, "Let's go." Fifth-year seniors are made for that kind of moment. Half-year freshmen aren't. Yarou declined the offer.

Jay Wright, because coaches think this way, put the loss on the Cats' inability to stop Samhan and on their general defensive performance. Actually, despite the 50 percent shooting of St. Mary's, it wasn't that bad. Villanova forced more turnovers and rebounded well. For all the talk of Samhan, who did have 32 points, his last field goal came with 7 minutes, 4 seconds to play and his last points, at the line, with 5:04 left. The score was still tied at 61.

No, this loss was on the offense, and that's really where Wright will have to rebuild. St. Mary's did score 75 points, but 12 of Villanova's 14 wins since the conference season began Jan. 1 saw the opponent score at least 70.

All season long, the understanding was that the Wildcats would do what Scottie Reynolds did. In the last four games, he was 13 for 52 (25 percent) from the field and Villanova had three losses and an overtime win over a 15th seed.

You get what you get. Villanova and Reynolds scurried to catch up all season and finished up on fumes. Was it a success? Was it a failure?

It was a college basketball season that ended a couple of shots away from the Sweet 16. It was madness, it was exhilarating. It was all that. It was a fun ride.

In Lawrence, Kan., it will take a while to be as philosophical, though.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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