“So you know a lot about college basketball, right?”
I thought I did.
After watching the top teams play all season, in the top conferences, I thought I had it all figured out. Yes, there wasn’t really a true No. 1 team all season in college basketball, but it was pretty easy to see the top teams from the lower teams.
I followed the 2016 NCAA tournament closer than I ever have, and tried to figure out who the best teams were after each round. I looked at all the stats, watched a good amount of the games, and picked off of what teams I thought had been playing the best at the time.
More than half of the time I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Even if a team had played better all year than their opponent, and played in a stronger conference, it doesn’t matter. Why?
Because in March anything can happen, and if you play as a team, believe in your teammates and your coach’s system, beating any team no matter what seed isn’t unlikely.
Ask Villanova, they know a thing or two about it.
They beat Miami, Kansas, and Oklahoma who were all top conference competitors. They are not the only team.
Middle Tennessee showed everyone that if you can put together a complete game, it doesn’t matter who your opponent is, you can pull out a win.
These are just a few examples of the madness that happened all throughout March this year in college basketball, and it leaves me with a couple questions. What did we learn about the 2016 basketball season, and what can we expect in the future?
All season long the top spot in college basketball was changing. Kansas, Michigan State, Oklahoma and many others fought over that top ranking but would lose it with weekly upsets to teams in their respective conferences. This led me to believe going into the tournament that even a team with a few more losses than their opponent could win a game because of the conference they played in being more challenging.
Wrong. It didn’t matter at all. In March if your team gets hot and gains momentum they can be impossible to stop. Syracuse is the best example. The Orange were a bubble team on Selection Sunday that many bracketologists thought didn’t deserve a spot in the field of 64. They caught fire with timely shooting and fooled teams with a zone that created enough turnovers to push them into the Final Four. Teams like Yale, Northern Iowa, Middle Tennessee, and Stephen F. Austin proved that no matter what conference you are a part of, you can beat any given team on any given day. It leaves teams like Michigan State, Purdue, and West Virginia wondering what could’ve been.
Now don’t get me wrong, every season has its Cinderella stories, and it’s not like this is the first time the tournament has had a lot of shockers. What makes this year different however, is that in a season when you expected a lot of upsets in the early rounds, by the sweet 16 it was all teams that anyone who follows college basketball has heard of. Syracuse was a 10 seed and Gonzaga was an 11 seed but they are both teams that have made plenty of noise in the past years. So for as much parity as there was all season in the standings, it wasn’t anything you didn’t expect when it came down to the final teams.
Nevertheless when it came to making predictions, it got harder every week because even though a team could be playing solid throughout, not just the tournament, but all season long, they’d run into a team with undoubtable confidence and get stopped right in their tracks until they were run off the road and sent back home.
College basketball truly is a fickle thing that is tricky to figure out. So after looking at all the numbers and season stats and the overall play of teams, I found the one key point that I didn’t take into account as much as I should have.
If you look at the teams that made it to the Final Four (Oklahoma, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Villanova), all of them were led by at least two or more upperclassmen, besides Oklahoma due to Buddy Hield simply outscoring teams to get that far. But even Hield couldn’t compete with a team as fundamentally sound as Villanova and didn’t stand a chance in the second half of their game.
Why was it so hard for Hield to slow the game down to stay in it? Experience. How did North Carolina figure out a zone from Syracuse which shut down teams all tournament long? Experience. How did the Tar Heels slow down a game on the biggest stage to tie Villanova and watch senior guard Marcus Paige hit the most clutch shot of his life to tie it with 4.7 seconds to go? Experience. The most important point of them all, why did senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono pass up the shot of a lifetime to find wide open trailing teammate Kris Jenkins for the game winning 3-pointer as time expired?
You guessed it. Experience.
In past years we’ve seen teams like Kentucky go 32-0 while starting five freshmen, or the fab five at Michigan look like the best team for two years. The “one and done” has become the norm in college basketball, but this year it wasn’t that way. The teams that made deep runs in the tournament had senior leaders, and it showed right up to the final shot of the whole season. This season, we learned that who you play or who you beat didn’t matter. It was teams having players that have been together for three to four years to make it to the finish line, and truly showed to be the difference in the 2016 college basketball tournament.
In the future, it’s almost impossible to predict. There will be teams with multiple freshman that run the table, more upset stories going into the final four, or senior leaders leaving their journey off riding into the sunset. What I do know is this:
March brings out the best leaders in the sport. Younger or experienced, they make the difference for their teams run through the season and into the tournament. If there is one thing that is certain for the future, college basketball will always have it’s great teams and programs do good in the tournament, but every now and then something can put an end to that team’s success.