'Weak field' produces excellent NCAA tournament

Good-humored broadcaster Dick Vitale signs a large mural after saying he would eat crow if VCU advanced to the Final Four.
Good-humored broadcaster Dick Vitale signs a large mural after saying he would eat crow if VCU advanced to the Final Four.
Posted: April 04, 2011

Roseanne Barr disappeared for a while, but she's back now. The last month has gone exceedingly well for her. She won a beauty contest - though it was of the metaphorical variety. (Keep at it, Roseanne. You'll get there.)

Before the NCAA tournament began, lots of well-paid and over-caffeinated college hoops experts evaluated the field by screaming into television cameras. Many disapproving fingers were wagged.

One of those hyper-animated analysts was Dick Vitale. This will surprise you, but Dicky V was pretty worked up about the NCAA selection committee. He was talking so fast that his face turned red. It looked like he wasn't getting enough oxygen, and it sounded like he was speaking in tongues. I kept waiting for him to projectile vomit on Digger Phelps right before Max von Sydow appeared.

"I mean, give me a break! It makes no logic whatsoever! . . . Look at Colorado's resumé, look at UAB, and look at VCU, it'd be a mismatch, man," Vitale ranted. "It would be like a beauty contest with Roseanne Barr walking in vs. Scarlett Johansson. No shot. None whatsoever."

Naturally, VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four. The Rams lost to Butler and won't appear in Monday's championship game, but their implausible and impressive run served as a credit to the program and the tournament - and a slap to Vitale. A group called Venture Richmond ordered a giant banner - 30 feet tall, 20 feet across - with Vitale's likeness and the words "Eat Crow, Baby!" It hung outside the Richmond airport for a while, then made various stops around town.

Vitale wasn't the only one who looked bad. When the bracket was announced, Vitale's colleague at ESPN, Jay Bilas, was every bit as dismissive and condescending.

"I wonder whether some people on the committee know whether the ball is round," said Bilas, who then added that this tournament featured "the weakest field we've ever had."

If that's the case, then I'd like the selection committee to dilute the tournament every year. The old concentrated version - dense with dominant teams and few upsets - that Bilas apparently pines for paled in comparison to the wild tournament we've witnessed over the last month.

In brief defense of Vitale and Bilas, no one had VCU reaching the Final Four. But I also didn't think it was a capital crime to include the Rams. As I've stated in this space before, the more borderline teams that are included in the tournament, the better. It increases the chaos and, with it, the possibility of drama and unforeseen upsets. Distilled further, it makes March even madder.

And what a mad and wonderful March it was. With the field expanded to 68 teams for the first time, we've been treated to one of the truly exceptional tournaments in college hoops history. This is just the third time since 1979 that no No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. Even better: It was the first time ever that no No. 1 or No. 2 seeds reached the national semifinals.

Meanwhile, "the weakest field we've ever had" conspired for plenty of close games and stunning finishes. The first five games of the tournament were decided by a combined 15 points. For the entire tournament, there were two games decided by five points, four decided by four points, four decided by three points, eight decided by two points and five more - including the Final Four clash between Connecticut and Kentucky - decided by one point. That's a total of 23 games in which the winners and losers were separated by five points or fewer.

That makes for spectacular theater, and it's exactly why the NCAA tournament is so riveting. And yet you get the sense that next year, despite all the quality games we've seen, the usual knuckleheads will complain about the same things again: Teams that shouldn't have made the field, players who aren't NBA-ready, etc. I know a few of those knuckleheads.

One of them is Noah Coslov from CineSport. We do a weekly video chat together for Philly.com. I like him, even though he reminds me of the teacher from Charlie Brown. When he talks, all I hear is wawawawawawawa.

I have to be careful here, because Coslov is a smart guy, but he's also sensitive. He accused me of misrepresenting his position on college hoops. So let me consult my notes. Ah yes, here they are: Coslov, like Bilas and others, believes the talent in this year's field was "inferior," and that "it's not good basketball." He also said most of the players aren't ready to graduate to the pro level. That last part is true, though I'm not sure why that matters if the games are close and compelling. Also, according to my notes, he's advocating a socialized version of the sport in which two teams would share half a ball, but only after tending to the communal garden to yield enough organic beets for the pregame meal. I think that was a direct quote, but you can never be sure.

The point here is that this tournament has been exceptional - one of the best ever. The screamers and the mentally unstable should quiet down and enjoy Monday's championship. They should also up their meds before tipoff - in the interest of their sanity and ours.


Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillnews.com.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/gonzophilly

 

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