Seeding the NCAA basketball tournament is an inexact science, if not out-and-out voodoo. So it’s wasted breath to second-guess the committee too much. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.
Still, you have to wonder about the wisdom of Thursday’s first-round pairing between Butler and Old Dominion at Verizon Center. The deck, after all, is already so stacked against mid-major programs that you hate to see them pitted against each other in the first round – thereby guaranteeing that one will be eliminated. Would it have killed the Powers That Be to juggle the pairings so that the eighth-seeded Bulldogs opened against a 9-seed like Tennessee and the 9th-seeded Monarchs met an 8-seed like Michigan?
It’s hard to believe a minor tweak like that would have disrupted the tourney’s delicate “calculus.” And it would have given both mid-majors a chance to advance – and both power-conference schools, for that matter. (Instead, the Wolverines and Volunteers will stage their own death match Friday in Charlotte.)
The Butler-ODU pairing became increasingly regrettable as the game unfolded. These are two very good teams, in case you didn’t know – smart, experienced and tournament tough. The Bulldogs, of course, went all the way to the NCAA final last year, and the Monarchs’ senior class has won 97 games (along with the last two CAA tourneys).
But only one could move on to the second round in the Southeast Region, and Butler prevailed, 60-58, on a fluky last-second play that could just as easily have led to overtime. As the clock wound down, Bulldogs guard Shawn Vanzant penetrated the ODU defense, lost his footing and threw up a crazy shot that got tipped by center Andrew Smith; forward Matt Howard, standing just to the left of the basket, grabbed the loose ball and banked it in as buzzer sounded.
“It didn’t look pretty, and that’s not necessarily the way you want [it] to end by any means,” coach Brad Stevens said. “But they were in the right spots and made a great play.”
Or as Old Dominon’s Frank Hassell, whose 20 points topped all scorers, put it: “Just a lucky bounce for a good player [Howard, a shooting/rebounding/passing/pick-setting virtuoso].”
The game couldn’t have been much tighter. Butler’s biggest lead was six (49-43), and Old Dominion’s biggest was five (18-13). For a while, it looked like fouls might undo the Bulldogs. Smith, their tallest player at 6-foot-11, picked up No. 4 with nearly 16 minutes left (and had to spend some time on the bench), and Howard, their second-tallest player at 6-8, got whistled for his third even earlier in the second half. But the Monarchs weren’t able to exploit the situation, and it came back to bite them.
“I’m always going to wonder – and they’re always going to wonder – if we couldn’t have advanced even further,” coach Blaine Taylor said. “But they’ve all got bright futures. They all have degrees. They’ll be just fine… . If this is the worst thing that happens to them in their life, they’re going to have a hell of a life.”
You wonder about a lot of things after a game like this, a game that, for 40 minutes, oozed competitiveness. Both teams seemed worthy of the Round of 32 – and perhaps beyond – but only one, Butler, got that far. ODU merely got a trip home (to be followed by a torturous weekend of watching Howard’s winning basket in a seemingly endless loop on TV).
It didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t.