April 8, 2014

HOROWITZ | March Madness: Expect The Unexpected

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Looking from a fan’s perspective at this year’s March Madness tournament, I had a sense from the very beginning that unexpected results would unfold. The No. 1 seeds didn’t seem dominant, and that has the potential to drive unexpected teams into the Final Four. This year, it was Kentucky and UConn, two teams that underachieved during the regular season but finally figured out how to play their best when March Madness arrived. They steamrolled through the tournament, ruining many people’s brackets along the way. Then, both teams upset their final four opponents to set up the first 7 versus 8 seed championship game in the history of the tournament. In the end, UConn took advantage of Kentucky’s poor shooting to take home the title.

Really, though, the excitement of March started on day one. It seemed like almost every game was down to the wire, complete toss-ups for who would make the clutch bucket in the final seconds to win the game. This left me agonizing, as I picked almost all the wrong winners in those nail-biters, but these games were thrilling to watch nonetheless. North Dakota State, SF Austin and Harvard all beat the odds to win, but nothing was more surprising than seeing No. 2 seed Duke lose helplessly to Mercer in their first game. And perhaps nothing was more inspiring than seeing No. 11 Dayton beat their Ohio big brother, Ohio State, to kickstart their run to the elite 8.

I picked Wisconsin to win it all, a result of my attraction to this team’s unique combination of classic tough defense coupled with the most powerful offense that the program has seen over the Bo Ryan years. It was a great sight to see Bo Ryan finally land a Final Four spot after coaching top Wisconsin teams for over a decade. I was shell-shocked when they blew a 2 point lead with under 16 seconds to play in losing to Kentucky, but in truth this is part of what makes the tournament as thrilling as it is. There can’t be thrilling winners without stinging disappointments on the other side.

While only a miniscule fraction of fans predicted the outcome of this year’s tournament to be a No. 7 seed champion, the results show important truths about what it takes to win in March.

Perhaps most importantly, you need superb guards, and UConn had the best in the country. These guards not only have innate talent, but they’re able to facilitate their teammates to score in all possible ways. That way, if the shooting goes cold, creative driving can set up high quality chances for the big men. If one player is on a roll from deep, these guards will purposely draw away defenders to feed the hot shooting hand. In the Harrison brothers and the Napier-Boatright Uconn duo, Monday’s final might have been a contest between the top two sets of guards in the country, and Napier unequivocally proved who’s the best of them all.

Winning teams also need solid shooting. This is what doomed Arizona, and it eventually caught up with Kentucky in the title game. With so many games coming down to the wire, and with college games being as short as they are, it is very hard to keep games close and win at the end if a team can’t reliably shoot from the outside. Kentucky got away with mediocre shooting because Aaron Harrison hit huge three pointers in three consecutive games, but the luck only lasted so long.

Lastly, you need versatile big men. Frank Kaminsky was a huge part of Wisconsin’s run, puzzling defenses with the dual threat of outside shooting and skillful maneuvering around the basket. Kentucky’s seemingly endless stream of talented big men made some of their games look like dunk-fests, and Uconn’s determined rebounding was a huge part of their success.

I’m already looking forward to the excitement of March in 2015.