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2014 NCAA tournament: What we learned

4/9/2014


Another NCAA tournament is in the books, and before we get too sad over saying goodbye to college basketball for six months, let's review what we just witnessed:

One player can carry a team: It's particularly true if that player happens to be a guard. UConn's Shabazz Napier proved that point -- like Kemba Walker before him -- by leading the Huskies to the national championship.

One player can't carry a team: Particularly if his team relies on outscoring its opponents. For all the scoring records Creighton's Doug McDermott broke, the Blue Jays defense was ultimately picked apart by Baylor, and one of the great college basketball careers of the past decade ended in the first weekend of the tournament.

Freshmen can carry a team: Kentucky was only the second team to start five freshmen in the title game. After many stumbles during the regular season, the youthful Wildcats put it together at the right time.

Freshmen can’t carry a team: Kansas played without its talented freshman center Joel Embiid in the tournament. Its other highly touted freshmen starters, Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden Jr., combined to shoot 2-for-11 and score six points as the Jayhawks were eliminated by Stanford. Wiggins might still prove to have Carmelo Anthony-type talent in the NBA, but he didn’t come close to matching Anthony's NCAA tournament legacy.

Seeding is an inexact science: Louisville as a 4? Kentucky as an 8? The selection committee’s favorite phrase is "whole body of work," which is understandable, but it doesn’t take into account a team that's playing its best late, such as the Cardinals; or a team clearly better than its record, such as the Wildcats.

Brackets aren't fair, but such is life: The biggest example was having No. 1 seed Wichita State pitted against No. 8 Kentucky in the round of 32. The game had an Elite Eight feel for a reason -- it probably should have been played in the later rounds.

A 12-seed beating a 5-seed is no longer an upset: The 12-seeds nearly -- and probably should have -- completed a full sweep of the 5-seeds. No. 12 seeds Harvard, Steven F. Austin and North Dakota State all advanced and North Carolina State was positioned to join them but missed 9 of 17 free throws before blowing a late eight-point lead to Saint Louis. It was the second game in three days for the Wolfpack, who had to play their way in by beating Xavier.

The 16-seeds are getting closer (incrementally, maybe, but closer): For those counting, the No. 1 seed is 120-0 against No. 16 seeds, but the gap is closing. Coastal Carolina led Virginia by 10 in the first half and by five at halftime before losing. Albany and Weber State also gave Florida and Arizona tougher than expected games.

Four-point plays do exist: And for Stephen F. Austin it happened at the best possible moment. Desmond Haymon drew a foul on VCU's JeQuan Lewis and his four-point play tied the score with three seconds left in regulation before the Lumberjacks won in overtime.

Big shots: Whether true buzzer-beaters such as Cameron Ridley's putback in Texas' win over Arizona State or simply big shots in closing seconds such as North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander forcing overtime against Oklahoma with a 3-pointer, we love seeing a game-changer. Kentucky's Aaron Harrison made the most of his big shots, taking down Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in the process.

Shots not fired: With 2.3 seconds left, Arizona's Nick Johnson took one dribble too many and failed to get a shot off before time expired. The Wildcats' loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight proved the shot that's not taken hurts most.

Check the monitor (Shots not fired Part II): Then again, it might hurt more to lose the game after an officials' conference. Officials didn't see North Carolina coach Roy Williams signaling for a timeout with 1.6 seconds left immediately after Iowa State's DeAndre Kane scored the go-ahead basket. The ball was inbounded but the clock operator started it late, allowing Carolina a timeout after the ball was advanced to half court. The officials checked the monitor, huddled and determined that time had expired before the timeout was granted.

We still never figured out the block/charge call: It didn’t outright decide the outcome of any game, but it came close. Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes was called for a charge with six seconds left in a one-point game. Michigan's Jordan Morgan sold the call and the Wolverines advanced.

Location. Location! Location? Wisconsin doesn’t rally to beat Oregon had the partisan crowd in Milwaukee not helped turn the momentum of that game. UConn might not get past Michigan State had it not been in the familiar confines of Madison Square Garden. Then again, Syracuse lost to Dayton in Buffalo, N.Y., and Duke lost to Mercer in Raleigh, N.C. Maybe location doesn’t matter as much as we think.

Conferences might want to rethink who earns the automatic bid: Milwaukee had a losing record in the Horizon, yet beat regular-season champ Green Bay in the league tournament en route to earning their NCAA bid. Cal Poly had a losing record overall and finished tied for sixth in the Big West, yet earned the bid and beat Texas Southern before getting pummeled by Wichita State. Mount St. Mary's also had a losing record overall before winning the Northeast tournament title. All those upsets, of course, led to NCAA tournament seeds.

Seniors matter: Obviously the shining example was Napier carrying UConn to the title and Florida reaching the Final Four by starting four seniors. But the common thread in nearly every early-round upset was that schools such as North Dakota State, which had five seniors in its rotation, and Mercer, which had seven seniors, played a lot of experienced players.

Conference affiliation doesn't: The Big 12 had the most teams in the tournament with seven, but they flamed early. Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma lost their first games, only Baylor and Iowa State made it to the Sweet 16.

Michigan State starting over: One of the best streaks came to an end this season when the Spartans lost to UConn. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are the first players who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo but did not play in a Final Four.

Pay more attention to the Atlantic Sun: From the conference that gave us Florida Gulf Coast last season, Mercer came out of the league this year. The Bears beat Duke in a game they were positively poised and confident they would win.

THE University of Dayton made a statement: A headline in the Dayton Daily News poked a little fun at Ohio State, but the way the Flyers were embraced after beating the Buckeyes, Syracuse and Stanford showed just how much March can unite a community.

Kevin Canevari can dance: Moments after Mercer topped Duke in the tournament’s biggest upset, Canevari provided arguably the tournament’s best celebration dance by doing the Nae Nae in front of the Bears' fan section.

Grudges last: Napier blasted the NCAA for keeping the Huskies out of the tournament last season because of their APR. That means SMU, which beat UConn twice, is on the clock for next season with some hard feelings of its own. The Mustangs missed the NCAA tournament and finished runners-up in the NIT. With most of their starters back, and adding arguably the best point guard from the 2014 recruiting class, Larry Brown's crew will be a force next season.