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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Final Four: Spoiling The Parity Party...

PURRIDY!
Charles Barkley.  He's a funny bastard, there's no doubt.  And while I know I've been ripping him for his uninformed and inept commentating performance during this year's NCAA Tournament, with the Final Four now set in stone, I can't help but think that it's eerily appropriate that he's involved.  Yup, you heard me.  And it was nothing to do with his God awful picks (mine ARE slightly better) or his ability to get CBS's Seth Davis somehow all but banished from the pre and post game analytical round table.  Nope, Chuck's connection to the 4 teams left in this year's Big Dance centers around one word.  The word I love to hear him say more than any other, and the one I so prophetically predicted he would be uttering dozens of times before the tourney was through...

That word, is "purridy".  Or for those of you that don't speak Chuck-ese, or just aren't used to listening to people that seemingly have a mouth full of wet tissues, "parity".  A word that Webster's defines as: the quality or state of being equal or equivalent. A word that, with no #1 or #2 seeds in the Final Four, and appearances by a #8 and a #11, seems more a factual statement than it is an opinion.  But is it true?  IS the college game experiencing more parity this year than ever before?  Have big program player defections to the pros really leveled the playing field?  Well, while that answer may seem obvious to most of you, shockingly, I've got a different take.  IS the tourney "rife with parity" or are those that are preaching that message "ripe for parody"?  A spectacular play on words, to be sure, but nonetheless an important question that should really be looked at... 

And that's exactly what I'm gonna do. IT's purridy, friends. Or is it? Well, there's only one way to find out. Read on, my damies. And enjoy...

A charge call?! No way!?!?
2011 Final Four

First, we'll start with the team that defined helped define "parity" a year ago, and is now doing it's best to do the unthinkable. Make the National Championship in consecutive years. An act that, in and of itself, would go against the argument for parity. But does it? Let's dig a little further...

Since both VCU and Butler punched their dance cards, I've been saying it: "You know what's sort of 'spoiling' VCU and Butler's Final Four runs? The fact that Butler just did it last year!" And it's kind of a shame for the Bulldogs, too, because this year's epic run has made last year's Championship near-miss look more like a stroll through an open field. Four wins, 3 nail-biters (including a buzzer beater in round 1), and all without the services of last year's team MVP, and eventual 1st round pick, Gordon Hayward. Truly impressive. But is it the epitome of parity? I think not. Like I said, when a team does something for the second year in a row, it does more to shoot down the theory of parity taking over than it does to make it's case. Doesn't it? I mean, it only makes sense, right?  If anything this moves Butler further away from their Horizon League brethren and more towards Gonzaga status, right?  A Mid Major that's clearly the class of their conference year in and year out?...

Then again, the fact that it took them 3 buzzer beating wins to even stake a claim to their 2nd straight Final Four appearance would definitely seem to point towards parity, wouldn't it?  Hmmmm. Let's investigate further, shall we? And what better place to look than the team that's gotten this ball rolling, the VCU Rams...

Throw up the Shaka, baby!

The VCU Rams.  This year's poster boys for parity, right?  Nah, think again...

More or less, and this is not meant to diminish their impressive play (notably their 44% shooting from 3), VCU has been able to benefit from rather accommodating circumstances on their march to Houston. They win a "winnable" play in game against USC, then got to face a Georgetown team that was just getting back to full strength AND a Purdue team that was dealing with injuries and suspensions. Then, in the Sweet 16, they get a Florida St. team that, no disrespect intended, probably shouldn't have been there. And, in the Elite 8, they beat Kansas. OK, that was a good win. And I won't even try to rip them for that one by saying Kansas always chokes in the tournament. Something I'm all too familiar with, by the way...

But seriously. If you told me that VCU was going to beat who they did, with those teams being in the state they were when they beat them, I'd really ONLY be surprised by the Elite 8 win over the Jayhawks. And yes, in all honesty, had you said they were going to beat Kansas, I probably would have told you that sounded crazy.  Yeah, I'm not tryin' to say we should have all seen this coming, but in hindsight, The Ram's chances of making the Final Four probably weren't as long as the 1,137 to 1 odds posted by Vegas may have suggested...
It happens....just not as often as you think
Listen, this team's been a great story. From poster boys to what the Selection Committee did "wrong" in the eyes of many analysts, all the way to the Final Four. Just like George Mason in 2006. But is this really parity rearing it's ugly head? Hardly. For me, it's a combination of 2 things: 1) Extra motivation due to all the experts saying the shouldn't be in (I should have known they were gonna do work when Bilas was against them!) AND 2) The fact that they were an #11 seed...in the Southwest. Take a look at your brackets. I know they've got more red on them than a Communist coloring book, but take a look. Or let me just tell you. Fact is, if VCU gets slotted as an #11 in the East or West, they probably play just as well and get sent packin' after, at best, a run to the Sweet 16. Take Georgetown, and swap 'em with Xavier or Cincy, see how that works. Or swap Purdue with UCONN or Syracuse. UNC? Kentucky? Arizona? Duke? I mean, I know we're all impressed with their run, and I'm not trying to diminish it, but the facts speak for themselves. Could they have made it out of those regions? Not bloody likely.  Of course we'll never know, but I'm willing to bet they wouldn't have, and I'm also willing to bet you agree...

Hey, you can only play who they put in front of you, and so far VCU has beaten all comers. I'll give them props for that. But to say their appearance in the Final Four helps prove there is parity in college basketball. Nah, I'm just not buyin it.  That would be saying that, given a regular schedule in one of the power conferences, they could regularly compete.  And there's no way one tournament run proves that.  All that says, is that for a few weeks, they were playing at the highest level.  A great achievement, to be sure, but not nearly as big of a statement as it may seem.  Remember, the tournament doesn't tell us who the best team was for the season, it tells who the best team was IN THE TOURNAMENT, and while VCU and Butler's inclusion may seem to signal that there are more teams out there capable of making a run, I just won't buy it until we see teams from these conferences in these games on a more regular basis.  No matter what seed they may be...

Parity? Luck? Nah, it's just THE TOURNAMENT!
And before I move on to Kentucky and UCONN, because Lord knows they have nothing to do with this parity discussion, allow me to just clarify what I've been saying.  IS there parity in college basketball right now?  Well, I would say there's more than there ever has been thanks to NBA defections, but no, for the most part I would still say there isn't.  There's still a clear separation of the haves and the have-nots, and while there may be more teams in the "haves" in college hoops than in any other amateur or professional sport, that doesn't make the separation of power any less evident...

IT's just that, in a tournament with so many teams, stuff like this is bound to happen from time to time.  In my mind, it would only truly be "parity" if we thought VCU was as good a program as Kentucky and UCONN, or even as good as Kansas, whom they just beat.  Which of course, none of us do.  And of course then there are the facts.  That in the last 5 years, including this one, when parity has apparently begun to reign supreme, only 4 times has a team outside of the major conferences, outside the top tier, made the Final Four.  Twice it's been Butler (who after 4 Sweet 16's and 2 Final Four's in the last 10 years is now part of that top tier) and once it was Memphis, who was in the top tier because of their coach at the time, but just not in a major conference.  So really, that just leaves VCU...

AMEN, my good sir.
So I ask you.  Is this an example of parity gone nuts, and expanding to encompass almost ALL of Division 1 basketball, or just the nature of the tournament?  If you ask me, I'm going with the latter.  This is something that, just due to the nature of the beast, is going to happen now and then.  Say, once every 5 years or so.  IT's NOT something that's going to become the norm.  The NCAA already has enough parity amongst it's top 100 or so teams, and that particular parity is probably closer than ever.  But that's not what this is about.  This is about, are the smaller and less established schools closing the gap and leveling the playing field?  My answer is no.  These results don't speak to parity, don't speak to the gap being closed.  To me, they speak to how freakin' great this tournament is.  A tournament that encourages the illusion of parity, even when it doesn't really exist.  A tournament where, year after year, shit goes down that nobody expects to go down!  Shit like, gee I don't know, freakin' VCU makin' the Final Four!...

Hey, it's why we love it.  Well that, and Gus Johnson...

As for Kentucky and UCONN, there's no confusing them with the team's fighting for National respect.  These are two of college basketball's best, year in and year out, and while not too many pegged them to still be dancing, it's not exactly a surprise to have either of them in Houston, either...

Hey, Woody! Where the Hell have you been?!?
In Kentucky, coach Calipari has gotten yet another group of young studs to a Final Four they'll soon probably have to vacate due to blatant recruiting violations.  But that's down the road.  Per usual for Cal's got a great team of youngsters, led by Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, playing great ball-hawking defense and attacking the glass, but it's been the emergence of senior big man, Josh Harrelson that's really propelled the Wildcats to the Final Four.  Harrelson, late on arrival due to struggles with weight issues, has a Hansbrough-like motor that's made an already tough and athletic front line for Kentucky all that more difficult to defend against.  If anyone's an X factor in this Final Four, it's Harrelson, and if he can keep up his tenacious play, there's no reason the Wildcats can't cut down the nets.  Something I actually think they're going to do, by the way.  Ya know, seeing as my original pick (Kansas) and the two teams I predicted had the best shot last week (Duke, Ohio St.) don't really have much of a shot, anymore...
This way, young fella...

The team they'll have to beat to get that title shot, is the UCONN Huskies.  Kemba Walker's supporting cast has finally shown up down the stretch of the season, and it's made the Huskies a dangerous out.  Their big inside, and they can kill you on the outside with both the 3 and the dribble drive.  Jeremy Lamb has emerged as a potential star in this league and a good prospect for the next level, and he'll need to have his best all around game for UCONN to have a chance to advance.  Kentucky's defense is going to be in his shorts from the word go, Kemba's too, and if those two can't shake free and make some things happen, it could be a long day for Huskie-Nation.  I mean, they should "get theirs", but it's how hard they will have to work to get it that should make the difference in the final minutes...

UCONN's had one Hell of a run to cap of their season, no matter how the Big East is now being perceived, I just think there run is due to come to an end.  Kentucky is more athletic, better on defense, and playing at just as high a level.  Could very well turn into an instant classic with Kemba lining up the final shot, I just think the Wildcats are primed to take what everyone thought was theirs to be had just one year ago.  That, of course, being the National Championship...

Put some bluegrass in your pipes, kids. 
So, the Kentucky Wildcats are gonna cut down the nets.  Does that sound like parity to you?  Yeah, I didn't think so.  Sounds more like the status quo.  A tournament that lived up to the hype, was chock full of upsets, but where at the end of the day, saw a traditional power walk away with the coveted hardware.  Quite simply, it sounds like it would have been one Hell of a tournament.  And per usual, that's something that's never even up for debate.  Even if you happen to be a round mound of sound...with a few moist tissues tucked in your cheeks...

Ha! PURRIDY!


Teddy Williams...
100...

#$>

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