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Is The Playing Field Level?

I heard the argument this year from several talking heads that it was apparent the mid majors have caught up to the big boys, and that the success of Butler and VCU, coupled with the ongoing prominence of schools like Gonzaga is proof that a new day has dawned.  To which I say…..not quite.  Butler and VCU should be commended for their runs, but both of them owe as much to their opponents’ stupidity as they do their own efforts.

Let’s go to the Florida-Butler game first.  In the second half, the score was tied at 39 with just over minutes left.  Then Florida used a combination of inside scoring, short jumpers, and free throws to go up 51-40 with nine and a half minutes left.  Usually, this is when the bigger name school drops the hammer and puts away the upstart mid-major.  But this did not happen here.  Here’s what Florida did instead:  foul, foul, made jumper, turnover on an offensive foul, missed jumper, turnover on an offensive foul, layup, missed jumper, two made free throws, missed three pointer, missed three pointer, missed jumper, one made free throw, one missed free throw, dunk, foul, missed three pointer.  That’s nine points over the remaining nine minutes of regulation, scored on three foul shots and three of nine shooting (including zero for three from beyond the arc).  The result was that Butler outscored them 20-9 to tie the game and send it to overtime.  When they were up 57-53, they fired up back to back missed three pointers, which is just unacceptable.  And to make matter worse, they were killing Butler inside.  Center Vernon Macklin had scored 25 points on 11 of 14 shooting, almost all in the paint.  Had they continued to pound it inside when they were up, they could have probably blown the game open in the second half.  But  instead, they pissed  it away with turnovers and bad shooting decisions.

Now let’s look at VCU vs. Kansas.  Like Florida, Kansas had a major advantage in the paint.  The Jayhawks have twin 6-10 players, the Morris brothers, who VCU could not stop.  Yet, Kansas finished the game shooting a horrendous 35.5 percent from the field and 9.5 percent from three point range.  Yikes.  But get this: you take way the three pointers and Kansas shot 20 for 41, roughly 50 percent.  At the same time VCU was shooting 39 percent from the field, but went 48 percent from three point range; they actually made more three point baskets (twelve) than two pointers (nine)!  Down 43-27 at the half, Kansas rattled off twelve straight points on inside baskets and free throws to cut the lead down to 43-39 with 15 minutes left, then they whittled it down to two with 13:13 left in the game.  So what did they do after closing a 16 point gap down to two?  Turnover, foul, foul, turnover, two made free throws, missed three pointer, missed layup, missed three pointer, missed jumper, missed free throw, missed three pointer, missed free throw, made free throw, dunk, missed three pointer, turnover, missed jumper, missed FT, made FT, layup, missed three pointer, missed three pointer.  At that point they were down by eight, and never got closer than six before the game ended.  And they missed four more three pointers along the way.  So if you’re counting they cut the lead to two and then went 6 for 29 in the second half and 0 for 10 from three point range.  That’s pretty disgusting, especially when you consider that they had a considerable advantage inside and shot well for most of the game from inside the arc.  But like the Gators, they gave away their advantage and went down for it.

By contrast, UConn did not fall into the three point abyss in the championship game.  Yes, they shot a horrible percentage from the field, but the shots they did make were largely on drives and short jumpers.  It was to their advantage; Butler could not score inside and was unable to close the gap with three point shooting.  UConn won by double digits, and they didn’t have anyone on their roster as good on the blocks as the Morris twins or Macklin.   The big name schools still have a huge edge over the mid majors is in the paint; even the best mid major schools have to go with somebody like Butler’s Matt Howard: 6-foot 9-ish, looks good against 6-6 guys but can’t do much against taller defenders.  Almost every significant player in the tournament standing 6-10 or taller was from a BCS conference school, and the majority of the starting centers in the NBA who went to college went to BCS schools.  You get the occasional Chris Kaman or Andrew Bogut who stars at a smaller school and goes to NBA success, but that’s largely by accident, not design.  A school like UNC, on the other hand, If they refuse to use their obvious advantage down low, we’re bound to see even more upsets in the future.

So what am I getting at here?  Here it is.  We’ve been told that the mid-major programs have caught up to the big schools, that the gap has been closed, etc.  It hasn’t.  Yes, Butler, VCU, and George Mason  have made deep runs into the tournament.  And yes, they did beat big time programs along the way.  But each time there was an easy explanation behind the run.  On their way to the Final Four in 2006, Mason beat a UNC team that had lost six major players from its 2005 title team and a UConn team that was still rebuilding from losing its own championship nucleus from 2004.  When they faced a fully stocked Florida team in the national semifinal, complete with NBA-caliber big men Joakim Noah and Al Horford, their goose was cooked.  Butler and VCU vanquished superior teams that made stupid tactical errors in crunch time, but each one fell in turn when they faced an opponent that stuck with their game plan and didn’t get brain cramps when it mattered.  Yes, the lower and middle tiers of the BCS schools aren’t what they used to be but the top tier still rules the roost, provided they stick to the script.  The field isn’t really even if the mid major schools have to rely on gimmicks (volume shooting from three point land) and oppositional ineptitude (like the kind Kansas and Florida displayed) to get victories.   Until a mid major school can come out with two NBA-caliber big men at one time, and another off the bench, then it’s still David vs. Goliath.  Don’t get it twisted.