Monday, March 27, 2006

George Mason Florida UCLA LSU

We sensed from the beginning of the March Madness this year that the NCAA collegiate basketball championship would be a tough tournament to call, and the results have definitely proven that. College basketball is much more balanced around the country than it used to be. See e.g. the Massey Ratings. Predicting the winners of games has thus become more difficult.

In the NCAA tournament now headed to Indianapolis (NCAA headquarters) to determine the national champion, not a single Number 1 regional seed has advanced to the Final Four.

In fact, one of the teams, the Patriots of George Mason, is living up to the year's top headline at Sports Illustrated regarding the Patriots' win over top-ranked Connecticut. That headline reads simply:

CINDERALLA LIVES

The Patriots, strong underdogs from the CAA (Colonial Athletic Conference), have knocked off Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut on their way to nationwide stardom as perhaps the greatest NCAA Cinderella Team of all time. This march is all the more improbable as George Mason ended the regular season with a CAA tournament loss to Hofstra, a team that beat them twice in their own Colonial Athletic Conference. Hofstra, however, was relegated to the NIT, because, as was reported in the New York Post in "Pride and Prejudice" by Mike Vaccaro prior to the NCAA selection of teams:

"There has been much hand-wringing among the college hoops cognoscenti whether Hofsta should get in, because the Pride play in the Colonial Athletic Association, and both the regular-season winner (George Mason) and tournament winner (UNC-Wilmington) are almost certain to get bids, leaving Hofstra - with 24 victories, including two over Mason, and a thrilling near-miss comeback against Wilmington in its most recent games - sweating, because the thoughts of the Colonial getting three bids and the Big East left with seven is enough to throw Mike Tranghese into a coughing fit."

You can be sure, next year the CAA will get three bids.

At Indianapolis, Florida looks like the clear favorite on paper. The Gators convincingly beat LSU, one of the remaining Final Four, twice within the last two months, winning 71-62 at home on February 11 and then trouncing the Tigers 81-65 on the road on March 11. However, in spite of what are now a total of 31 wins, the team can be beaten, and, indeed was beaten twice this year by both Tennessee and South Carolina (the Gators then beat the Gamecocks in the SEC championship game 49-47), in addition to single losses by Florida to Alabama and Arkansas. Florida has had trouble with scrappy teams having good perimeter shooting and they may thus have trouble with George Mason, which has excelled on this score.

The most recent Massey Ratings - including the NCAA regional games - based on the won-lost record and the strength of schedule rank Florida 5, LSU 8 and UCLA 9, so that, theoretically, and indeed, in reality, any team can win. Note that in terms of the RPI Index used to make selections for this year's NCAA tournament, only UCLA was ranked in the top 10 (in fact, as Number 10). None of the first nine RPI regular-season top-ranked teams made it to the final four (Duke, Villanova, Connecticut, Memphis, Ohio State, Tennessee, Iowa, Texas, Gonzaga). Prior to the tournament, in the RPI Index, LSU was ranked 13th, Florida 15th and George Mason 26th.

Here's what read about the Final Four at Yahoo Sports from Seth Davis at Sports Illustrated:

"We caught up with SI.com's Seth Davis -- who is serving as a studio analyst for CBS during the NCAA tournament -- to talk about the NCAA tournament after Sunday night's action.

SI.com: How many brackets in all of America do you think had these teams in the Final Four?


Davis: Well, nobody had George Mason obviously. I would be surprised if anyone had three of these teams. I think that we can expect tournaments like this in the future. We were all kind of speculating, Is it possible that four No. 1 seeds can make it, and now it's the first time in 26 years that all four ones don't make it. This is just where the game is at. Obviously you're surprised that George Mason gets there. The other three teams may be unlikely, but they're not longshots. They all have been playing great basketball for a couple of months now. George Mason is obviously a longshot. I just want to know how good Hofstra is. Hofstra has to be like the best team in the country. They beat Mason twice. So, I think if Mason wins both games in Indianapolis, then they should have to play Hofstra on Tuesday. We'll settle this thing once and for all.


SI.com: So basically, you're saying parity rules college basketball these days?



Davis: Yeah. You can't get a better demonstration of that. I don't know how often it's going to be that no No. 1 seeds get [to the Final Four], but this is truly the character of the game. This is not an anomaly -- this is where college basketball is. And it's so unbelievably entertaining to watch."

By the way, it is not true that no one had George Mason in their brackets. If you look at the Yahoo Fantasy Sports Tournament Pick'Em brackets, a certain Tim McKenna in fact picked all four teams in the Final Four, including George Mason. He picks UCLA and Florida to win the semi-final games and UCLA to win the championship.

We don't have a clue, finding George Mason to be the Cinderalla pick, UCLA the nostalgic "era of Wooden" pick, Florida to be arguably the best if also most inexperienced team, and LSU to be a rough and ready opponent which no one should underestimate after their conquest of Iona, Texas A&M, Duke and Texas.

We most certainly would not bet any money on any of these games.

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