THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


SHALL WE (BIG) DANCE?

by by Miguel Morales

illustration by by Emma Price & Galen Broderick

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Sixty-five teams.
Single elimination.
Last team standing wins.

This is the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The sweat, the sneakers, the stars, the upsets and the gambling: imagine they've collided and the meteor that has formed is headed straight at you. That's March Madness. Maybe it's the time of the year the Big Dance occurs--the fact that much of America has finally thawed--but something about the tourney makes us forget our problems and marvel at sweet baby hooks or a particularly savage loose ball scramble. The NBA never mesmerizes us in the same way, and it's probably because we know that the NBA's slogan "I love this game" needs minor tweaking. "I love this money" fits the bill better. We watch the NCAA champs because we see the pride these athletes take in representing their schools, the sacrifices they've made to play day-in, day-out and the unassailable fact that everyone on the hardwood wouldn't have it any other way. They really do love this game. In honor of the NCAA basketball tourney, and the players who make it worth watching every year, the Indy has focused on a couple of the more compelling, contentious and confusing phenomena that make March Madness just that, be it the ridiculously talented Ty Lawson, the candidates for this year's Cinderella or the bias of the Ratings Percentage Index. So take a minute and soak it all in before Dick Vitale's nasal, Italian rasp of a voice ruins the whole kit and caboodle.

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WHAT IS THE RPI, AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Also known as the Ratings Percentage Index, the RPI is one of the most important tools the NCAA Tournament's Selection Committee uses to decide the 34 at-large teams who will make it to the Big Dance. The NCAA looks at three factors to determine RPI: a team's winning percentage, its opponents' winning percentage and its opponents' opponents' winning percentage (these three criteria are weighted 25 percent, 50 percent and 25 percent respectively). The exact formula is RPI = (WPx.25) + (OWPx.50) + (OOWPx.25). Sound confusing? Well, it gets worse. Starting in 2004, the NCAA began to weigh home and away games differently when tabulating the winning percentage. That is, home wins were weighed less compared to away wins whereas home losses were weighed more heavily when compared to away losses.
It might be surprising that the Holy Grail of college sports is decided by mathematics, traditionally a jock's kryptonite. But for the Selection Committee, such reliance on this equation makes sense. Dig past all the numbers, and it becomes apparent that strength of schedule accounts for about 50 percent of the RPI (more, if one factors in the correlation between OWP and OOWP). Why would the Selection Committee create a formula that basically says, as long as your opponents are strong, and they have strong opponents, you're in. Simple. Traditionally, the power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) have the best strength of schedule. They also happen to have the largest profiles, the most fans and the most money. It's in the Selection Committee's best interests (if best = lucrative), then, to ensure these conferences are well-represented within the tournament. Having an opaque formula to obscure blatant greed and favoritism legitimizes the Selection Committee's biased decision-making while making them look professional at the same time. And if someone ever calls them out on their flawed equation, they can merely state that other factors went into their choices.
Last year, 28 out of the 34 at-large bids were given to power conference teams, and this year will be no different. RPI was established in 1981 to evaluate teams' qualifications for the NCAA tournament in a detached, statistical manner. The truth is that the RPI is nothing more than a parlor trick the Selection Committee uses to continue giving precedence to major conferences, conferences that have the fans and fortune to cement the NCAA tournament as the ultra-commerical sports extravaganze it has become. The tournament is supposed to be about the underdog, the Cinderella, but if the Selection Committee continues to have its way, we'll have fewer upsets to cheer for in the future.
IF THE SLIPPER FITS
So, who will be this year's Cinderella? It's a time-honored tradition, the Cinderella. Every year one team no one has heard of shocks the baskeball world with a thrilling upset. Here are a few underdogs the North Carolinas and UConns of the world do not want to face in the first round.

VCU (24-9, COLONIAL CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS)

Though they lack a win against an elite squad this season, VCU has several things going for them that bode well for tournament play. They have one of the great young coaches in Division I b-ball in Eric Capel, who has guided the Rams to two CAA championships, and a star player in senior guard Eric Maynor, who averages 22 points per game. They also place a premium on tough defensive play. Come tournament time, defense becomes all the more important because a team can't expect to enjoy lights-out shooting every night. In their conference tournament, the Rams trounced the opposition, holding opponents to just over 50 points while averaging about 63 themselves. Most of all, VCU knows what it takes to be Cinderella. In the 2007 tournament, then-sophomore Maynor hit the game-winning shot to beat Duke in the first round, ending Duke's streak of nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances at the Big Dance. It'll take a similar effort to beat a team of Duke's caliber again.
CLEVELAND STATE (25-10, HORIZON LEAGUE CHAMPIONS)
The surprise Horizon titlists overcame Top-25 ranked Butler, a Butler who had beaten them two times previously this season (both games were decided by two points). And though you should never get in the habit of calling any loss a 'good' loss, they did keep it close against West Virginia and Kansas State. Less so against Washington, but that's mainly because Cleveland State is a poor man's Washington--smashmouth, relentless defense by players who have bought into a team-first mentality.
SIENA (26-7, METRO ATLANTIC
ATHLETIC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS)

It doesn't get much more obvious than Siena when it comes to Cinderella conversations. Just last year, as the 13th seed, Siena knocked hugely talented Vanderbilt from the tourney. And nearly all of the players from that upset are back for more. Coach Fran McCaffery put together an extremely unforgiving nonconference schedule, and while the team has three losses to Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Kansas to show for it, each game with these elite squads was competitive, to say nothing of the preparation it gave. Look for Siena to disrupt their opponents' perimeter shooting like they did against Vandy last year.
GET A LOAD OF THIS GUY
No one's arguing that basketball isn't a team sport, especially with the win-or-go-home format of the NCAA Tournament. But we've all seen it: one player making like Atlas and putting his team on his shoulders. It might be a couple of stops on the defensive end, or a quick three here and there. It doesn't really matter what brings the übermensch-cum-basketball into being. The point is, there's no stopping him once he's on the court. Call him what you want, the hot hand, the Dude, whatever. Here are three fellows who have the talent, and based on their regular season stats, will likely have you shaking your head when they erupt for 30 points or 10 blocks in the second round.
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TY LAWSON, University of North Carolina
If you cared to tune in to the ACC tournament while UNC was still in it, the only thing that looked familiar about the Heels was their powder blue uniforms. That's because assist machine Ty Lawson was sitting on the bench, resting a jammed toe. Ty Lawson is for all intents and purposes the heart of the Tar Heels. Not only does the point guard infuse the team with much needed tenaciousness, he also sets the superfast tempo that UNC has been known for in recent years. Without him, UNC looked a little punch-drunk on the court with Florida State, as if this season of mega-expectations had finally taken its toll. Lawson gives UNC the fast break, the ball handling and the offensive options they sorely need in the final minutes of close games. Without him, they looked nothing like the top-ranked team in the nation. With him, every team respects the quickest first step in the country, and the vaunted UNC offense just flows. Just watch Ty some time. He dribbles once, the defender drops back a bit and then the step comes, and in less than a second, he's finished at the rim. It's the sweetest thing in college hoops right now.
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BLAKE GRIFFIN, Oklahoma
This guy is a beast, and there's no better way to put it. He's currently projected as the NBA's number one draft pick and it's easy to see why. He shoots a staggering 63 percent from the field. He's a walking double-double, averaging 21.9 points and 14.3 rebounds a game. Give him enough time and he'll probably cure cancer. Seriously though, despite all the hype, this guy just keeps getting better. His dribble's improved, along with his jumpshot, and while he does get a bit impatient when guarding, he's shoring up that area as well. The best part about Griffin is that he's unselfish. Even though his numbers are gaudy, he really only cares about whether his team wins. One need only look at Oklahoma's season to see how much Griffin means to the team's success: 25-1 when Griffin was concussed in the game against Texas, Oklahoma lost four of the next six games with him at less than 100 percent. Hopefully he's all better. With his skill set and size, he can make the tournament his personal playground.
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HASHEEM THABEET, UConn
Finally, a center (and a name) we can get excited about. Hasheem Thabeet! Just try to say it without smiling. Coming in at 7'3", Hasheem--no surprise here--is a blocking machine. He averages 4.6 per game, yet his major contributions to UConn go mostly unnoticed by statlines. Sure, the blocks are nice, but what's more, after seeing a couple of Thabeet's ultraviolent swats, opposing teams second guess any ideas about driving to the basket. Simply put, he's the reason why UConn has such tough interior defense, which can be an issue if he ever gets into foul trouble. During the six overtime epic with Syracuse, Thabeet played for 53 minutes before fouling out, whereupon Syracuse's guards attacked the paint with abandon. It wasn't as if the Huskies' defense fell apart, but there was a noticeable absence with that 7'3" presence missing. Syracuse went on to win it and while the loss cannot be blamed solely on a lack of Thabeet, it most certainly made things easier on Syracuse's offense without him. Teams will look to get Hasheem in foul trouble early on in the tournament, and without him, UConn will find it tough to win it all.
BRACKET ATTACK
Never heard of Blake Griffin? Not sure if Michael Jordan is playing in this year's NCAA Tournament or not? Perfect! Grab a bracket! Each year in March, millions of people across the country take a little bit of time out of their busy lives to fill out a NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket. Some have not watched a single game all season, know nothing about college basketball except that UNC wears light blue jerseys and take five minutes to fill out a bracket in which either the higher seed or the team with cooler sounding name wins every game.
Others follow the sport religiously from November on and spend hours agonizing over strength of schedule, RPI and other obscure indicators of potential performance before reluctantly turning in their sheet, hoping desperately that they picked the right 12-5 upset so they can gloat to their friends at the gym about their prophetic capabilities. Once they fill out their sheets, participants hand five bucks to their office, classroom or group of friend's resident sports geek who takes great pride in collecting the cash, organizing the sheets and updating the players on how badly their picks are doing each week.
The FBI estimates that the public gambles more than 2.5 billion dollars annually on the NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament, with only 3 percent of that legally channeled through the Las Vegas books. Most of that cash is caught up in a technically illegal (though no one would ever bother to stop it) influx of five-dollar bills changing hands between Selection Sunday and the first game's tip-off on Thursday morning. Of late the phenomenon has taken to the Internet. Last year ESPN's Tournament Challenge attracted 3.5 million online participants who played for free, with a ten thousand dollar payout from advertising. CBS has collaborated with Facebook to combine bracket competition with social networking. Users who install the CBS Sports Brackets Facebook application can organize into closed-access pool groups with friends or enter into large open access pools with random online players.
Perhaps we don't feel the Madness as strongly here at Brown as the average US citizen or even ourselves back in high school. We can no longer count on the US History teacher/JV basketball coach to leave his TV on during free periods and preface every class with an update on the day's games. But don't let your or anyone else's indifference to sports stop you from participating in this time-honored tradition. Filling out a bracket comes in just behind watching the Super Bowl for the commercials and the Bruce Springsteen halftime performance in the list of the best ways for people who think sports are silly to engage the massive population of Americans who don't. So no matter where you stand on sports, grab your pens, log into Facebook (ESPN if you must): Brackets are for everyone!
EMMETT FITZGERALD B'10 and MIGUEL MORALES B'10 are stuntin' like their daddies.
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YOU SURE KNOW HOW TO PICK 'EM
Having trouble filling out your bracket? You might not be using the right method...
MASCOT WARS:
Forget size matchups, star presence and hard-nosed defense. The winning team shall be the team with the better mascot. Better, of course, is a vague term.
What we really mean is cuter.
DON'T PICK DUKE
First posted by jayhawk88 on fark.com:
'Cus They Suck
NCAA SCHOLAR-ATHLETE TOURNAMENT:
Look at each school's academic profile before deciding who goes to the next round. Wake Forest has 100 percent graduation rate? Pencil them in to the Final
Four. Just don't blame them if they lose early. Studies first.
OH THE PLACES YOU WILL SEE
Or you could make the tournament a matchup of college towns. Some picks are self-evident (Las Vegas > Lawrence, Kansas, even in a down economy) but there'll inevitably be mouthwatering matchups between places like Seattle and D.C. So
we may not be able to settle the argument of the better coast, but at least we can agree: Philly sucks.