The conference tournaments are over, the selection committee has done its job — perhaps well, perhaps poorly, depending on what you value in your selection committees — and the brackets have all been set. March Madness is ready to begin.
Of course, it's tough to say a whole lot about the tournament that hasn't either already been said or will be said over the next few days. Actually, scratch that: already been said or will be hoarsely screamed over the next few days by Dick Vitale, whose voice continues to slowly collapse in on itself like a white dwarf star. I know the guy is a legend and all, but unless he gets an endorsement deal with Ricola in the very near future, I just don't think I can listen to him much longer.
First things first: The Missouri Tigers got dissed. Or, actually, maybe not dissed, but they definitely are feeling the pain so many other teams have felt over the years. The pain of Selection Committee Blues, a common affliction this time of year for teams whose records are ignored and whose RPI is either lionized or demonized, depending entirely on which Big East or ACC school is going to most profit from it.
The Tigers were in the running for a No. 1 seed. They ended up with a No. 2. A big steaming pile of No. 2 seed. Michigan State received the final No. 1 in the tournament, despite losing three more games than the Tigers, being ranked lower and playing in a conference that wasn't any stronger, if even as strong as the Big 12 was this season.
There were reasons given, of course. The Spartans won their conference tournament. Their RPI was better. Their non-conference schedule was better. The bottom line is this: Tom Izzo's genitals taste like sweet strawberry rhubarb pie, and everyone on the selection committee loves sweet strawberry rhubarb pie. They love it so much, in fact, they're just itching every single year to drop down on their knees and find some way to bump an Izzo team up high enough that they might receive a little taste.
Vulgar flavor metaphors aside, the fact is the selection committee doesn't go by rankings; they go by their own byzantine formulas and calculations, chief among them is RPI. In case you don't know what that is, it's a formula that's supposed to weigh strength of schedule and a host of other factors but was actually cooked up by a coven of witches at the height of the Salem witch trials in hopes of getting Jim Calhoun and his UConn Huskies a better seed than they deserve. If just the top 68 teams in the nation based on RPI were rounded up and plugged into the tournament brackets, I wouldn't have a complaint. Personally, I think the RPI as calculated has some huge flaws in it as well, but even a consistently flawed system is better than one which spits out random results year after year based largely on the whims of a roomful of what I can only imagine are shadowy, cloaked figures hunched around a conference table constructed of human bone.
Every year there are schools left out despite having much better RPI rankings than other schools that get in, and there is always some sort of bullshit justification spat out by the selection committee as to why that is. Missouri State was one of the most glaring examples a few years ago, when the Bears were left out of the tournament entirely despite an RPI ranking of 21, right between Kansas (20) and Boston College (22). Both the Jayhawks and BC pulled No. 4 seeds, while Missouri State stayed home.
Conference tournaments only matter when the committee wants them to. Michigan State gets extra credit for winning its conference tourney, but Missouri gets none for winning the Big 12 tournament? Meanwhile, North Carolina and Kentucky don't get penalized the slightest bit for losing theirs? You'll hear the argument that regular-season conference titles matter when a No. 6 seed beats Duke to win the ACC tourney, but when Connecticut goes on a run in the Big East tournament they're showing who they really are and get bumped up a couple seeding spots because of it. Again, we're talking about one of the great moving targets in modern society.
In other words, the selection process for the NCAA tournament is a huge crock of shit, and only slightly less pathetically corrupt that the BCS system in college football. But I digress.
The Tigers are a better team than Michigan State. But no one cares. Period. The Missouri Tigers ended the NCAA basketball season ranked No. 3 in the nation, but are ranked as the No. 8 overall team in the tournament. I'm just citing the facts.
I will concede one point: The Tigers do play a ridiculously soft non-conference schedule. The game against Illinois in St. Louis each year is a fantastic event, but that's often the only halfway decent team the Tigers play until they get into the Big 12 conference season. If you want to be a top team, you have to play better teams out of conference than the Tigers do. Playing St. Mary's School for the Blind and Hopelessly Uncoordinated three times a year in non-conference is a holdover from the Mike Anderson years; hopefully Frank Haith will take the program in a non-cupcake direction. It needs to happen.
Billikens: One and Done
On the other hand, the Billikens of SLU pulled a much better seed than I expected to see, being slotted No. 9 in the West region. Both Mizzou and SLU are headed out West, in fact, and probably drew the softest region in the tournament. The committee didn't really do Rick Majerus and his Billikens any favors, though, as they drew a nasty, nasty first-round game against University of Memphis. Still, a No. 9 seed carries with it a certain amount of cache anyway, and seeing SLU ranked that high would do the late Charlie Spoonhour's heart good.
It's the first invite to the Big Dance for the Billikens since 2000, and caps off a remarkable turnaround for the program, which saw its record dip all the way to 12-19 in 2010-2011 before rebounding to a robust 25-7 this year. The Billikens also made it all the way to the semi-finals of the Atlantic 10 conference tournament before bowing out to the Muskateers of Xavier. The message was clear: SLU is back on track as a program.
The Memphis Tigers, in my ever-so-humble opinion, are under-seeded, and should really be more like a No. 5 or 6 than a No. 8. The Tigers aren't quite the physical powerhouse they were under John Calipari, but the Tigers are still a remarkably athletic bunch, capable of playing with any team in the nation. They have length, they have speed, and they can run you out of the gym if you aren't careful. Marjerus' bunch cannot hang with the Tigers from a pure talent standpoint. What they can do, however, is play tough defense and slow Memphis down. Getting into a transition battle with Memphis is only going to end in tears from the Billikens. If they can keep the game in the 50s, though, they just might have a chance.
Unfortunately, the Billikens also have the rather large handicap of a terrible mascot, one completely incapable of helping them out in any way. Let's face it: A Billiken is basically a bleached-out Grinch, and while I'm sure it's very helpful in certain situation to be able to grow your heart three sizes at the drop of a hat, it isn't going to beat a Tiger. Memphis has the athletes, and Tigers eat Grinches, er, Billikens, pretty much any time they see one. SLU is most likely destined for a one-and-done in this tournament. I hate to say it, but I think that's where they’re headed.
Even if the Billikens do somehow manage to beat Memphis, they'll be facing top seed Michigan State in the second round. That's not a draw SLU can win.Final 4 Bound, All the Same
The Missouri Tigers just might have the best draw they could've hoped for, short of a No. 1 seed. They beat Baylor in the Big 12 conference final over the weekend, and I'm not sure they'll see another team that talented until they hit the third or fourth round of the tourney. The West Regional is very soft, and Mizzou's path through to at least the Elite Eight and a likely date with the Spartans looks to be imminently manageable.
The Tigers open up against Norfolk State out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Norfolk State is an historically black college in Virginia. Their mascot is the Spartans. They are making their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Congratulations to the students, faculty and alumni of Norfolk State. That being said, Mizzou should do to Norfolk State what No. 2 seeds typically do to No. 15 seeds.
Moving on, the Tigers will take on the winner of the Virginia/Florida game. If the Tigers are who we think they are, they should be able to handle either team.
Florida can score. They don't rebound particularly well, and they aren't the most efficient team offensively, but they can score in bunches all the same. They can also go four small and match up well against the Tigers' four-guard attack. Billy Donovan is an excellent coach, and the Gators could present a really tough draw for the Tigers in their second game. But I also think Florida is one of the most overrated teams in the nation.
The other possibility in the second round, Virginia, doesn't worry me nearly as much as the Gators do. The Cavaliers are a much better defensive team than Florida, and they'll do everything in their power to slow the Tigers down, grind it out and keep the game in the 60s. The only problem is Virginia can't score. They rank No. 274 in the nation in scoring, averaging just 63.1 points per game. Even with a stellar defensive performance, I'm not sure they could put enough points on the board to take down the Tigers. If Mizzou can make it to even 70 points, which they have failed to do just twice this season, the game could well be out of reach for the Cavaliers.
The first major challenge of the bracket for Mizzou looks to be in the third round when they could face Marquette, the West's No. 3 seed. The other strong possibility here is Murray State, the small conference powerhouse from Kentucky. Both teams feature outstanding guard play, and Marquette may be the one team in the nation more fond of playing transition basketball than Missouri. The Tigers and Golden Eagles play the same game, only Mizzou plays it better. It's a tough match-up, but Missouri is still the better team.
If Murray State is the opponent, well, do you remember the end of that one Zelda game, where Link had to fight his shadow as the last boss? It'll be kind of like that, only with basketball. Murray State is an extremely similar team to Missouri, with outstanding shooting guards, a four-out-one-in setup, an ability to knock down three-pointers all day long and a distinct lack of size down low.
Those possible Sweet Sixteen contests are down the road a bit, though. This week the Tigers need to handle their business in the first two rounds and prove they belong. Frank Haith has been tagged with the label of a choker in the past, incapable of winning The Big Game. From this point forward, every game is more than just a big game. Every game could be the last game of the season. If Haith can keep his Tigers on track, there could well be some very different labels in his future.