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Starting five for the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 15, 2011 08:00 AM

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Bubbles have burst, brackets are being brandished (for recreational purposes only of course) and Virginia Tech is NIT-bound, so that must mean it's NCAA Tournament time.

College basketball's siren song sounds today, providing us with Cinderella teams, unexpected upsets and heart-stopping buzzer beaters on the way to the Final Four in Houston. Here are a few March Madness musings:

1. Expansion slot -- This is the first season of the new 68-team format, with eight teams having to play for the final four slots. This replaces the dreadful 64 vs. 65 play-in game, which featured Division 1 detritus battling for the right to be trampled by a No. 1 seed days later. What a reward.

The new format is more egalitarian as now power-conference schools like Clemson and USC, who face-off against Alabama-Birmingham and Virginia Commonwealth, respectively, are subjected to the Dayton, Ohio preliminary proceedings, euphemistically re-labeled the First Four, along with the usual hyphenated suspects like Texas-San Antonio and North Carolina-Asheville.

Sixty-eight is enough. No more tournament expansion, please. Forget a move to 96 teams. The primary purpose of the tournament is to crown a champion, not to serve as endless television content or a participation trophy. None of the teams playing in Dayton today or Wednesday are going to win the NCAA's men's Division 1 basketball championship. None. Neither were snubbed teams like Colorado, Virginia Tech and Alabama. Additional expansion is simply going to dilute the field, which this year is the weakest in recent memory (five teams with 14 losses), while increasing missed class time for student-athletes.

2. Power outrage -- There was an uproar when Virginia Tech, Colorado and Alabama were left out of the field in favor of UAB and VCU. Virginia Tech has a legitimate gripe, and UAB has no business in the dance. However, both Colorado and Alabama simply suffered too many bad losses to complain.

Colorado beat Kansas State thrice and upset Texas, but they also lost four in a row in the Big 12 in January, three to teams that weren't even serious bubble-dwellers. Their non-conference schedule featured such titans as Idaho State, Alcorn State, Longwood and the University of Texas-Pan American. They lost games to New Mexico, San Francisco and Harvard.

Alabama lost to Seton Hall, Iowa and Providence out of conference, as well as St. Peter's, which made the tournament. The Crimson Tide beat Kentucky, but its best road win came at Tennessee in the final game of Volunteers' coach Bruce Pearl's eight-game suspension. A Virginia Tech team that had some bad losses as well (Virginia, twice) but beat Duke is more deserving than both Alabama teams. That brings me to ...

3. The Big Least -- The two least tournament-worthy teams are UAB and Penn State. Penn State was 16-13 during the regular-season before its run to the Big Ten tournament final gave it a 19-14 record. The Nittany Lions lost to Maine ... at home, by 10. Virginia Tech beat them by 10. The Nittany Lions seemed to get extra credit for twice defeating fellow-14-loss Michigan State, which wouldn't be dancing if not for its Final Four pedigree, and a pair of ugly wins over Wisconsin. The selection committee, headed by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, gave far too much credence to the mediocre middle of the Big Ten, taking seven teams.

Count Saint Mary's as a victim of power conference prejudice. The Gaels, who went 25-8 and tied Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference crown, were one spot behind Michigan State in the RPI. Like Michigan State, Saint Mary's played a tough non-conference schedule and didn't fare well. Saint Mary's fell to BYU (74-73) and San Diego State, as well as Utah State and Vanderbilt. They scored an early win over St. John's.

That's the lesson for the little guys. The selection committee tells you to schedule up, but if you lose the games it will be held against you. If one of the BCS conference members does it, it's spun into a resume-booster.

4. Ranking the regions -- The East is the toughest region. The committee didn't do Ohio State any favors. They could run into George Mason or Villanova in their second game, and also potentially contend with Kentucky, Syracuse, Washington or North Carolina. A close second is the West, where the No. 11 and No. 12 seeds are Missouri and Memphis.

The top-seeded Duke Blue Devils should reach the Anaheim regional, but to survive and advance to Houston the defending national champions could play Texas or Arizona and then run into Connecticut. Next, is the Southwest. Kansas is clearly the most-talented team there, and it's going to be tough to match its size up front with the Morris twins, Marcus and Markeiff. Not a good draw for Boston University. Purdue or Louisville could give the Jayhawks a run.

The weakest region is the Southeast. It's a winnable draw for Brandon Davies-free Brigham Young, the No. 3 seed, behind Florida and top-seeded Pittsburgh. That could mean lots of Jimmer Fredette fawning and stories on BYU's honor code.

5. Best opening matchup -- There are some good ones, but the most intriguing is Kentucky vs. Princeton. Talk about opposite ends of the NCAA spectrum -- on and off the court.

Current Kentucky and former UMass coach John Calipari is merely running an NBA internship program. Calipari called Kentucky having five players picked in the first-round of 2011 NBA Draft "the greatest night in the history of Kentucky basketball," and went on to say it was like winning a national championship. This year the Wildcats tried to get Enes Kanter, who had played professionally in Turkey, declared eligible. That pretty much tells you Kentucky's priorities. Any actual educational experience is an unintended byproduct of NBA apprenticeship.

Princeton on the other hand has real student-athletes, with the emphasis on student. The SEC team it's familiar with is the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Tigers have a storied basketball tradition, but more of their players end up with an MBA than in the NBA. Basketball is merely part of their college experience, not the sole reason for having a college experience. It's a fascinating contrast of styles all around.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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