Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sweet Nothings

It's taken 31 years, but an Ivy League team plays tonight in the NCAA's Sweet 16 round for the first time since a Chuck-Daly-recruited (yes, that Chuck Daly) UPenn class crashed (albeit briefly) the Magic-Bird Final Four party in 1979.

A few thoughts:

* Domes: Tough shooting background? Cornell and Kentucky will play tonight at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, one of the few "true" domes used regularly in the college game (UNC's Dean-Dome, while a large facility, is not a true "dome" with a pressurized roof.)

We'll probably hear the CBS announcers claim more than once that the Dome hurts outside shooters, because of the lack of a 'shooting background' and/or different wind currents in the building. And such a difficult shooting environment is thought to hurt Cornell, with its three-point specialists, much more than slashing Kentucky.

Unfortunately (or for Cornell, fortunately), the facts don't seem to support this theory. The NCAA Final Fours have regularly been held in domes, beginning in 1982 with the historic UNC-Georgetown final. Between 1982 and 2000(*), seven national title games were held in non-dome stadiums, and eleven inside domes.

(*-With increased interest in attending the Final Four games, the NCAA has moved all Final Fours to domes, or in the case of Dallas in 2013, ginormous stadiums that might as well be domes.)

The difference in shooting percentage between the two environments?

00.2% (47.1% in non-dome; 46.9% in domes)

Cornell may have a tough time shooting the ball tonight, but that will have to do with the Kentucky pressure, not the shooting environment.

* Expanding the pool. The NCAA seems likely to expand the pool to 96 teams starting next year, which will mean the demise of the NCAA-owned National Invitational Tournament (NIT) after 72 years. (Presumably the women's tournament will also have to expand to 96; although after watching the UConn women hang 50+ point losses on the #16 and #8 seeds in the last week, one wonders why a #24 seed would fair any better.)

Yes, there is parity in college basketball. Unlike the NBA, where the best, healthiest, teams generally prevail over an 82-game regular season and best-of-seven playoff format, college basketball is famously quirky. Indeed, the NBA's size and strength requires a materially different set of skills than college basketball. Some of these skills do translate -- Davidson's Stephen Curry easily stepped back to the NBA three-point line -- while others, like last year's college-player-of-the-year Tyler Hansbrough has (unsurprisingly) had difficultly getting his power game to earn him minutes in the pros. (Although in Hansbrough's defense, when he has played, he's been reasonably effective, scoring at 17 ppg for every 36 minutes played.)

While having first-round NBA draft picks on your college team undoubtedly helps, it is far from a sure thing. And the charm of the NCAA tournament remains the mid-majors showing the "big boys" how to play. Northern Iowa will have no players in the Green Room in New York in June, but you won't get Kansas to tell you that.

So on to expansion: would more Tournament games be good for college basketball? Perhaps, if the result would more more Mid-Major/BCS matchups like Northern Iowa vs. Kansas. (Or, Ohio-Georgetown or Purdue-Siena.)

So if the expansion of the pool means more mid-major teams getting a chance in the Big Dance, AP is all for it. But it also requires a future Tournament Committee to give us Mid-Major/BCS matchups.

Instead, this year's Committee gave us swing games that pitted BCS vs. BCS and Mid-Major vs. Mid-Major. Here are the #8/#9 games: Texas vs. Wake Forest (BCS vs. BCS); UNLV vs. Northern Iowa (MM vs. MM); Louisville vs. Cal (BCS vs. BCS); and Gonzaga (MM) vs. Florida State (BCS conference, but basketball is a distant third at FSU to football and spring football in fan interest.) The Committee could have easily juggled the regions to give us three or four compelling games in that group, instead of one (UNLV vs. NIU was an exciting game, and one that Bill Self might have thought about before waiting 36 minutes to press NIU for 94 feet.)

Expansion could mean rewarding all the Mid-major teams that win their regular season title, but get bumped out of their conference tournaments, like Memphis. But the reality will be more marginal BCS teams getting in; and with expansion, what we'll probably get is more of the same: #8 in the Big Ten vs. #10 in the Big East (by the way, that match-up this year would have been Michigan vs. Seton Hall, in the midst of a basketball meltdown. That's a game that barely has any interest (outside of Ann Arbor and West Orange) in December, before we know that both teams are mediocre.)

Finally, we have been using the term "BCS" in this section even though in college basketball, there is no a "Bowl Championship Series"; it's a proxy for big-time, big-budget, big-TV conferences and their schools. But it raises the question of a Division I college football playoff.

College Presidents and Athletic Directors have resisted instituting a D-I football playoff for various reasons, including upsetting the current bowl structure, and (most unconvincingly) not disrupting academic schedules. And yet bowl season occurs at the tail-end of first semester for an overwhelming majority of colleges and universities. March Madness, in contrast, spills well over the single week of Spring Break, and the 96-team expansion means that the NCAA Tournament will cover another weekend, and effect an additional 500 student-athletes (32 teams x 15 players per team).

In a world where athletic budgets are being stretch both by the economy and non-revenue sports, it makes all the sense in the world why the Tournament is expanding.

But why is college football different? And why is that decision (not to institute a plus-one playoff system) driven by academics rather than dollars?

* Dis-R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Speaking of mid-major teams, Cornell's Big Red has represented the Ivy League well in this tournament, knocking off A-10 champ Temple, and humiliating the Big 10 by hanging 87 points and emptying the bench on defensive-minded Wisconsin.

But the untold story about Cornell is just that -- the untold story. Despite returning six seniors from a two-time defending champ team, Cornell was an also-ran in the national media to the Harvard basketball story. Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine both ran full-length features on the Crimson. Former Harvard hooper Arne Duncan also made a splash in his new gig as Secretary of Education. Cornell was lucky to get front-page mention in the Daily Sun despite playing then-No. 1 Kansas to the final minute in Phog Allen.

Do Ivy League teams generally expect national media coverage?

Of course not. But if you think the Big Red didn't notice, check out the score the first time that Harvard played Cornell this year.