March Madness Final Thoughts + Early Top 25
Shabazz Napier. Just like Kemba Walker’s UConn Huskies before him, the 2014 NCAA Tournament will be forever known in casual conversation as “the Shabazz year.” Sitting on my couch eagerly anticipating the NCAA’s annual “One Shining Moment” montage, I couldn’t help but wonder if they could fill it entirely with Napier step back jumpers and off balance layups. What an incredible run to watch, a run that I would argue was more impressive and unlikely than that of Walker’s UConn team in 2011. I mean think about this, Shabazz lead his team in rebounding, points, and assists. That’s ridiculous. This team had less around Napier than what was around Kemba in 2011 and went through the A-10 tournament champ in round 1, #2 seed and Big East regular season champ Nova, #3 seed and Big 12 Tournament champ Iowa State, preseason #1 and second most popular pick to win it all Michigan State, #1 overall seed Florida and tournament favorite who had a 30 game winning streak on the line, AND “the best recruiting class in the history of recruiting classes.” They were favored in ZERO games after beating St. Joe’s in the first round. I have to imagine that’s a record for a champion. Additionally, UConn became only the second team since the McDonald’s All American game started in 1978 to win it all without a member of that prestigious high school showcase on its team – 2002 Maryland was the other. Oh yeah, Kentucky had 7 of those. Like I said impressive.
When all the dust settled, it was one of the more entertaining tournaments in recent memory and as a fan of college basketball it was great to see veterans like Napier, Wilbekin, and Kaminsky dominate the tournament instead of a much ballyhooed 2014 freshman class. Although Kentucky did carry that banner farther than anyone expected. Let’s take a look back and look at the anatomy of a successful tournament team. The easiest way to do that? Unsuccessful tournament teams. First, you need to play some defense. Great offense might get you past the first weekend, but if you’re not in say KenPom’s top 100 for defensive efficiency, history shows you’re almost definitely not cutting down the nets. Duke and Creighton both had top 3 offenses and top 3 seeds, but defenses that feels short of the top 100. Neither came close to the sweet sixteen. The only exception this year? Michigan who boasted the top offense, but a poor defense and still managed to get to the Elite 8 before falling to Kentucky who came in at number 10. Top 10 defensive teams performed better with Florida, Arizona, Virginia, Louisville, San Diego St, and UConn all making runs to at least the second weekend. However, VCU, Ohio State, Cincy, and St. Louis were all foiled by offenses that were severely lacking. Best bets, not surprisingly, were teams that have balance. UConn, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan State, and Florida were all in the top 50 both offensively and defensively, and represented 6 of the Elite Eight.
Backcourts ruled the day again. We already covered Napier and Boatright, whose clutch shooting and defense ruled March of 2014. Senior PG Scotty Wilbekin led Florida as he did all season until the Final Four matchup with UConn. While Julius Randle and Kentucky’s ultra-big and ultra-athletic frontline kept them in games playing volleyball on the offensive glass, there’s no question that the Harrison twins delivered the victories against Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, and to a lesser extent Wisconsin before being derailed by well you know who! Obviously, the “Big Exception” here plays for Wisconsin, stands about 6 feet 11 inches tall, and I’m pretty sure is still giving Arizona’s Sean Miller nightmares. You know who didn’t rule the day? Conference tournament champions. The “hot” teams going into the tournament for the most part rode that momentum into the second weekend, but Louisville, Michigan St, UCLA, Iowa State, and Virginia all faltered there. Florida was the only conference champion, regular season or tournament, to make it to North Texas. That’s atypical, but when in doubt look to Izzo. This year being an exception due to players returning from injury, the Michigan State coach and tournament guru has never put much influence on winning the conference tournament. That says all I need to know. While I don’t think it hurts, I don’t think it helps as much as others think. Just ask 7 seeded New Mexico who knocked off 4 seeded San Diego State on the eve of Selection Sunday to hoist the MWC crown.
There’s no exact science to the Madness of March, that’s obvious, or Ken Pomeroy would have a billion dollars courtesy of Warren Buffet, but that’s why we love it and gravitate to our brackets every year. In a year with such parity each matchup hung in such a delicate balance, many analysts were saying it was almost impossible to predict what would happen once from the sweet sixteen onward. They were right. I’m still in awe that UConn, a team that lost to Louisville three times by double digits, cut down the nets. What a run. I already can’t wait until next year.
Speaking of next year! Here’s my way too early top 25 as transfers, early entries, coaching changes, and Myles Turner’s college decision are still looming.
9. Wichita State
11. Iowa State
20. Michigan State
23. Kansas State