The NCAA tournament is the greatest spectacle in college sports and still the best way we have to determine a champion. Witness the games from last night and think about what the tournament asks of its eventual champions.
The Butler Bulldogs (does anyone still consider them a Cinderella?) continued their second improbable run to the final, utilizing their superior experience, teamwork, and skills of some players like Shelvin Mack, who somehow made it out of Kentucky, to take down VCU, who had ridden torrid shooting and a redwood-sized chip on their shoulders to the Final Four. In the second game, UConn, who remains undefeated outside of the Big East, outlasted a Kentucky squad that had seen talented freshmen begin to mature and veterans begin to step up into leadership roles. The margins for each were razor thin. But for a few “leaners” and “rim outs,” we could be breaking down UK/VCU right now. Such is the difference between victory and defeat.
The NCAA tournament demands not just a pedigree (UK made it, but UNC, Duke, UCLA, and Kansas fell short). It asks to see your resume to be considered, as the selection committee analyzes each team’s RPI, last 10 games, and just about every other performance quotient save cumulative WPM. None of the #1 seeds with the sterling records made it to Houston. These things can produce “fool’s gold,” the type of coronation we see in college football where each year Notre Dame is ranked in the preseason top 25 because of their name, and the BCS formula, and exercise in circular reasoning if their ever was one, magically spits out two teams it deems worthy to play for the “championship.” The problem is, never is the winner of that game worthy of being called a “champion.” What has it won, save for a game for which it was selected by outside factors? Sadly, in college football, we don’t have a process worthy of declaring a champion.
In college basketball, the NCAA tournament asks those with pedigrees to reprove it on the court. Even the UKs and North Carolinas have been relegated to the NIT in recent years. It gives credit for those with impressive regular season performances by giving them relatively easier paths (presuming the seeds hold). Even that is inexact though, as Ohio State fans can attest to this season. Still, in the end, the champion must weather 6 games against other championship caliber squads. It must withstand the torrid shooting of a VCU (Kansas couldn’t). It must be able to hold on when their own shots aren’t falling (OSU and UK went down this way). The unforgiving NCAA tournament rewards those teams who can step up to the challenge and defy stiff rims, iffy calls, difficult draws, and any other excuse an also-ran might offer up for not winning it all. The winner Monday night will have survived a gauntlet.
If it’s Butler, they will have overcome their own stagnant performances during conference season. They will have dug deep down into a place some call “character” to have found a way to move forward. Matt Howard’s buzzer beater against ODU in round one wasn’t luck. It was hustle putting him in the right place at the right time. The next game, there was a little luck with Pitt missing that second free throw, but Howard secured the rebound and hit his free throws to send his team forward. Again, pluck and execution are the real reasons for victory. They dominated a lackluster Wisconsin squad, pulled out another OT win against Florida, and then ended VCU’s dream season. If Butler can put together 40 minutes on Monday night, they will deserve to be called champions.
The same for UConn. They were all but counted out in the preseason. Too young, the pundits said. Somebody forgot to tell Kemba Walker, who has taken this team on his back. The Huskies too took big punches from some Wildcats, first Arizona, which had just torched #1 seed Duke, and then Kentucky, which stormed back from a 10 point half-time deficit to take the lead before the first TV timeout of the second half. At any point, a weaker team could have folded, could have started to believe the naysayers. If UConn wins Monday night, they will have gone undefeated outside of conference play, quite a feat. They will have won the Maui Invitational, the Big East tournament, and the NCAA.
I have no problem with calling either team that comes out ahead Monday “national champion.” Unlike their coronated brethren in college football, they more than deserve the title.