Teams We Hate
Duke, Eric Devendorf, and five more odious things about this year's NCAA Tournament.
In the run-up to Selection Sunday, ESPN's Joe Lunardi appeared on the network by the hour to dispense his bracketological wisdom: who's in, who's out, and where everyone should be seeded. Lunardi, the longtime editor of the hyper-detailed hoops preview magazine Blue Ribbon, worked hard to earn his perch. (He did not, as alleged in his Wikipedia entry, win the role on a reality show called Dream Job: Bracketology Edition.)
If only he were up to the job of being the nation's bracket sage. This year, Lunardi predicted 64 of the tournament's 65 teams correctly—OK, more like 33 of 34 considering that 31 spots are taken by automatic qualifiers. Not bad, right? Well, according to the site the Bracket Project—which collected the picks of 61 March Madness prognosticators—92 percent of the bracketeers agreed on 32 of the 34 at-large teams, and a healthy 82 percent agreed on 33 of 34. Bracketology, you see, isn't very hard. Joe Lunardi's entire job this year was to identify a single team. He went 0 for 1: Creighton out, Arizona in. Lunardi also whiffed on the one No. 1 seed for which there wasn't an iron-clad consensus, guessing Memphis instead of UConn.
Perhaps it's unfair to ding him for these slip-ups, as the selection committee doesn't necessarily behave consistently year-to-year. Then again, he's the one who's selling the idea that bracket predicting is a science. If bracketology is indeed a skill, then Joe Lunardi hasn't mastered it. The Bracket Project has ranked the 12 tourney scholars who've been publishing guesses for at least four years, grading them based on how many teams they pick correctly and the accuracy of their seeding forecasts. Lunardi is 10th out of 12. My early bubble picks for 2010: Bracketology 101 in, Joe Lunardi out.
University of Dayton
In sports, the saying goes, the breaks even out. Unlike most athletic clichés, this one turns out to be kind of true. College hoops genius Ken Pomeroy tracks a statistic called "luck"—to oversimplify things, a team is considered "lucky" (subscription required) if it pulls out an unexpectedly high number of close victories, whereas a squad is "unlucky" if it absorbs a lot of close defeats. In college basketball, luck doesn't last: Last year's six most-fortunate teams have all regressed substantially in 2009. Conversely, three of Pomeroy's four unluckiest teams in 2008 were Illinois, Utah, and Missouri. All three missed out on March Madness last season, and all three earned surprisingly good seeds to this year's tourney.
This year's luckiest—in other words, least deserving—at-large NCAA Tournament team is the University of Dayton. Of the Flyers' 26 victories, 12 came by an average of 3.25 points, including five decided by 1 or 2 points. By contrast, Dayton earned its seven defeats, losing by an average of 11.7 points. If those fluky Ohioans didn't get a tournament bid on merit, then somebody must've been jobbed. It wasn't St. Mary's or Penn State or Creighton or San Diego State—each of those teams had above-average luck, too. Of all the legitimate at-large candidates, Florida (luck ranking: 324 of 344) got most screwed over by the fates. Gators fans should find some solace in the fact that next year can't possibly be as bad. The reverse is true for Dayton: Savor that first-round loss to West Virginia, Flyers. Next year's going to be a lot worse.
With Billy Packer now yelling at the TV from home, you might think that the NCAA Tournament would be free from the scourge of the know-it-all in a network blazer. Tune in on Thursday, though, and you'll hear Packer's heir, a color commentator who never misses a chance to point out that he's the smartest guy in the arena.
Judging by his performance on Selection Sunday, Jay Bilas is already in postseason form. During an ESPN studio show (Bilas does most of his work for ESPN but moonlights for CBS during the tourney), the hoops analyst smugly rolled his eyes at Dick Vitale's argument that Arizona's selection over St. Mary's was a defeat for the "little Davids." Bilas, a sometime litigator and erstwhile actor, won the debate less because of the substance of what he said—condescendingly conceding that Vitale's point that big schools won't schedule mid-majors might have been correct "30 years ago"—than with the fact he was dueling with a man who tends to punctuate every statement with, "It's awesome, baby!"
Examine Bilas' words in a non-Vitale context and it's hard to find anything enlightening. The biggest accomplishment of the Duke grad's announcing career is bringing the word bouncy into the basketball lexicon. His most frequent announcerly flourish is to call someone "a man" without further explication. (Which leads one to wonder: If Bilas called a WNBA game, would he declare that "Candace Parker is a woman"?) Bilas' twin hobby horses this year, though, have been the scourge of elbow-throwing—except when the elbow throwers go to Duke—and the concept of "toughness." In a 3,000-word piece for ESPN.com, Bilas articulated his belief that "people [don't] really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize 'toughness' in basketball." So what does it mean, smart basketball man? Setting a good screen, talking on defense, and taking a charge—that is, the same exact stuff that every coach and announcer has extolled for 100 years. Billy Packer would be proud.