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Post Two reasons why the NCAA Tournaments were down this year

Tuesday April 4, 2006

After watching most of the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments, two disappointing themes run through both tournaments.

Where were the stars?

Look at the finalists for the Naismith Award. Rudy Gay (UConn), Adam Morrison (Gonzaga), J.J. Redick (Duke), and Allan Ray (Villanova). None made it to the Final Four. Zero. Redick and Morrison fell flat in the Sweet 16, and Ray and Gay couldn’t lead their teams past the regional finals. The tournament allowed other players like Davis, Skinn, Noah, and Farmar to step forward, but honestly none except maybe Noah had the impact on the game that one of the Naismith finalists could have.

It was a good story to see George Mason and three other semi-surprise teams in the Final Four, but when you combine the lack of the superstars with the absence of some traditional powers made for a Final Four that didn’t interest many people, and you saw that in some low ratings for the final. Oh, I know UCLA is a big name, but this program had been on the back burner for so long that the name doesn’t pack quite the same punch. There was no traditional East Coast or Midwest power in Indy, so there wasn’t much interest.

On the women’s side, you had Ivory Latta (UNC), Seimone Augustus (LSU), Courtney Paris (Oklahoma), Cappie Pondexter (Rutgers). Might as well count UT’s Parker there also. Pondexter and Paris bowed out in the regionals. Parker and her “dunk” also didn’t play in Boston. (Cue ESPN slitting their wrists over no UConn or UT in the Final Four.) Latta and Augustus made it to the Final Four where they didn’t play like Player of the Year candidates. Latta, fighting through injury, was out of control and ineffective. For all the showmanship and the love affair she claims to have with the camera, that camera showed her coming apart and her teammate Larkins looking much more like the leader. Augustus couldn’t get open because her teammates couldn’t hit open shots and gave Duke no reason to discontinue a double-team on Augustus. As with the men, the absence of the Naismith finalists give some exposure to deserving players like Duke’s Currie or Maryland’s Langhorne. Still, the absence of some stars and the others falling flat makes for a tough Final Four to follow.

Where was the offense?

Don’t tell me it’s good defense. There has been some dreadful offense right up to and including the Final Four. It started with South Carolina and Florida setting offensive basketball back 40 years in the SEC Tournament final. LSU’s upset of Duke featured long scoreless stretches for both teams and a poor shooting night for Redick. LSU made it into the Final Four scoring 50-60 points. UCLA made it to the Final Four with spotty offense and only a late collapse by Gonzaga kept them from paying for it sooner. Villanova’s Player of the Year candidate Allan Ray shot 5-for-19 in the regional final as that team’s explosive guard-led offense sputtered to 62 points.

It doesn’t get much better for the women. LSU stayed in the top five and made it to their third-straight Final Four with only two scoring threats and zero outside game. Tennessee became vulnerable on offense as their point guard situation deteriorated. UConn had a great tournament from Turner, a bit less from Strother, and very limited help elsewhere. Even Carolina’s loaded offense sputtered from outside and nearly cost them as early as the Sweet 16. Maryland is in the national title game with freshmen and sophomores because they can score. Duke might be the deepest team in the tournament, and they need it as their players – even Currie – show up on offense inconsistently.

Put it all together, and these tournaments have been a lot more about coming up short than they have been about excellence. The battle last year between superstar-packed Illinois and UNC seems a world away. The limited stories of excellence like Noah and Langhorne shine brightly as a result.

As an aside, there’s a lot of sniping, mainly from college football snobs, that this year’s tournament is a good example of the downside of the playoff format. Maybe so – this was a down year and for the first time since 1980 no #1 seed made the Final Four. There were serious flaws in the quality of play and players as I note above. But it’s a bit like judging the BCS on 2001 where Nebraska made the national title game without even winning its conference. Every game counts, indeed. College basketball will be back, and there is still nothing in sports like the entire month of March which unfortunately went out more like a lamb this year.

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