- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

From the tongue-swallowing, mouthwash-chugging realm of We Can’t Believe We’re Actually Saying This, we bring you the following NCAA tournament update:

Billy Packer was right.

Not about Saint Joseph’s, of course. The plucky Hawks deserve their No.1 seed, at least more than spring break-bound Stanford and Kentucky. In fact, Phil Martelli’s crew might even be the second-best A-10 team left in the bracket, undoubtedly the top squad not named for a Jesuit saint and/or the telepathic leader of the X-Men.

But to get to Packer’s larger (if largely ignored) point — that the top-seeded power conferences still rule college basketball with a clenched fist, believed to originate with Dean Smith’s substitution patterns — well, there’s really no arguing with CBS’ pug-faced purveyor of bah humbug. Yap about madness and Cinderella’s parity-laced slippers all you want; fact is, March remains a showcase for the sport’s wicked stepsisters.

And no, we’re not just talking about Duke.

When the tournament selection committee emerged from Dick Cheney’s undisclosed bunker two Sundays ago to deliver the seedings, Packer blasted the one-loss Hawks, bemoaning that Saint Joe’s doesn’t play in the ACC, SEC, Big East or ACC. Not to mention the ACC.

Packer’s uncharitable harangue didn’t go unnoticed. Martelli was profanely livid. Hoops pundits dissed the CBS analyst for dissing the game’s small fries. And following a wild opening weekend that saw two No.1 seeds bow out, tournament talk now centers around altered landscapes and widespread equality, as if college basketball suddenly resembles the chumps today, champs tomorrow NFL.

Taking umbrage with both Packer’s words and decided lack of hair, one Philadelphia columnist even gloated that the “mongrels” are taking over the brackets — a nice sentiment, to be sure. And wholly, indisputably boneheaded. Except for the part about Packer’s wax-worthy dome. Which is more like gleam-headed.

For one, the knee-jerk tournament analysis — and in the “PTI” era, can there be any other kind? — ignores the obvious: The NCAAs have never been a completely fair barometer of team quality. To the contrary, the tournament’s single-elimination format encourages bedlam. So do bracket-busting staples like hodgepodge officiating crews, wacky travel schedules and “neutral” courts where the crowd usually pulls for the lower-seeded team. Good teams play poorly. Underdogs get hot from behind the arc. Flukes happen. So it goes.

In a 1985 field featuring powerhouse squads from Georgetown and St. John’s, No.8 seed Villanova defeated top-seeded Michigan and the tournament favorite Hoyas en route to a surprise national title. Joining the Wildcats in the Sweet 16? Two No.11 seeds, Boston College and Auburn. One year later, three double-digit seeds advanced to the round of 16, and one of them — No.11 LSU — made it all the way to the Final Four.

In fact, since the tournament field expanded to 64 and later 65 teams, at least one double-digit seed has made it to the Sweet 16 every year save 1995. Party crashers include Cleveland State (1986), Wyoming (1987), Ball State (1990), Chattanooga (1997), Eastern Michigan (1991) and Southwest Missouri State (1999).

The upshot? “Parity” is nothing new. And frankly, it isn’t even parity.

Move past the shock of Stanford and Kentucky falling in the second round of this year’s tournament — a feat matched by top-seeded Arizona and Stanford in 2000, by the way — and a different picture emerges. Of the 16 schools still competing, 12 are from major conferences, and all are single-digit seeds. That’s remarkably similar to 1998 (13 majors), 1994 (12), 1988 (12) and 1985 (13).

Nevada and UAB are feel-good stories, just as Richmond (1988) and Valparaiso (1998) were before them. But they’re hardly the shock troops of a college basketball revolution. To the contrary, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule — what statisticians term outliers and the rest of us call Loyola Marymounts (1990).

Parity pushers like to argue that early defections to the NBA have closed the gap between big conference bullies and small conference scrappers. In a certain sense, this is true: Defending champion Syracuse undoubtedly would be better with Carmelo Anthony, just as pivot-hungry Florida could use Kwame Brown in the paint. On the other hand, seasoned vets don’t make a team impervious to upsets, as defending champ North Carolina discovered in a stunning second-round loss to Boston College in the 1994 tournament.

Besides, it’s not as though the likes of Kansas and Kentucky are now player-poor. Far from it. Check out a few high school all-star games: the major conference powers haul in as many blue-chip prospects as they always have. When a prep phenom such as LeBron James turns pro, it makes the overall recruiting pool slightly smaller and less talented; it doesn’t mean the top schools aren’t getting the pick of the remaining litter.

Consider Duke. After the Blue Devils fell in the 1999 title game, underclassmen Will Avery, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette jumped ship. Did Coach K’s special, special kids take a tournament nosedive, becoming upset fodder for a mid-major program stocked with fifth-year seniors? Not exactly.

Duke added Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy, then won the 2001 title. A season later, all three were playing in the League. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils of Luol Deng and J.J. Redick are once again a tournament favorite. For that matter, so is ‘99 championship game opponent Connecticut, another big-time program mysteriously immune to the equivalency virus supposedly sweeping through the college ranks.

Is the NCAA tournament unpredictable? Predictably so. Mayhem is the draw. Otherwise, CBS wouldn’t fork over $6billion for broadcasting rights. And the rest of us might have a fighting chance in our office pools.

That said, don’t confuse a few upsets with a college basketball sea change. Or even Rick Majerus jumping into a bathtub. Powerball still prevails. Cinderella’s carriage ends up a midnight pumpkin. And unlike the fairy tale, there’s no princely kiss for the small-conference losers — let alone a wet’n’ sloppy trophy presentation from Packer. Which, come to think of it, might be a good thing. But still.

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