The calendar is about to turn to April. Spring-like weather has finally arrived. The North Carolina basketball season has ended. It is time for change.
The conclusion of the 2017-2018 Tar Heel campaign also brings the end (for a while at least) to the weekly Tar Heel Hangover piece. During the spring and summer, discussion and debate tends to shift from Mondays when the polls are released to the weekends when stress is released.
Friday Food For Thought is meant to be a conversation starter. Each week, this article will present a topic for debate. Whether in the comments section, on the golf course, or around the weekend game table, the goal is to provide enough background that either side could be a winner. In order to facilitate the discourse, a suggested beverage pairing will also be included. So speak up, mix it up, and drink up.
The Issue: would a Loyola-Chicago championship ruin the NCAA Tournament?
Everyone loves a Cinderella. In order or priority, fans root for (1) their own team, (2) against Duke, (3) their conference, (4) underdogs. But how far do we really want the underdog to go?
Every year, there are lovable teams that make deep tournament runs. They are unknowns who emerge to stardom in March and capture our hearts for a week or two. Then they vanish, and that is just fine. We all want Cinderella to dance at the ball, but no one wants her to be queen. There is a certain comfort to knowing that the National Champion is a great team that has earned its way to the sport’s pinnacle.
The 32-5 Loyola-Chicago team (do you know their mascot without looking?) had a great season in the Missouri Valley Conference going 15-3 and winning the regular season and conference tournament championship. The Ramblers, however, would not fit into anyone’s current definition of National Champion. An RPI in the mid 20’s is respectable but a strength of schedule in the mid 170’s is not.
The NCAA Tournament is all about the best teams surviving the craziness and cutting down the nets. The lowest seeded teams to win in the last 30 years were Kansas in 1988 as a 6 seed and Connecticut in 2014 as a 7. 20 of the 30 champions have been a one seed. The only champion that did not hail from a major conference was the season-long favorite UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in 1990. This is normal and brings order to the chaos that is March.
There have, of course, been a number of surprises in the Final Four. Many of those are from major conferences so again, the shock is limited. South Carolina as a 7 seed last year. Syracuse as a 10 seed the year before. North Carolina and Wisconsin as 8 seeds in 2000. Though there were non-major conference surprises like VCU in 2011 and George Mason in 2006 as 11 seeds, those are exceptions whose paths ended short of a title.
The Ramblers have defeated 6 seeded Miami, 3 seeded Tennessee, 7 seeded Nevada, and 9 seeded Kansas State. That’s not exactly a murderers row of top-seeded teams. Their games have been exciting with their first three wins by a combined 4 points. That is great television and makes for great stories. That does not equate to a great champion.
NCAA basketball champions should be feared and respected. By only allowing 4 teams into its playoff, football has ensured that this kind of thing never happens. Don’t want a team like UCF to win the championship? Fine, just don’t let them play. Who cares if they are the only undefeated team in the nation. We want to watch teams that people tell us are great play great football against each other. Basketball championships should be the same. The purpose of a three week juggernaut is to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is time for the kids to go to bed and the big boys to play.
First of all, it is insane to discount the value of a great Cinderella story. The NCAA Tournament has become legendary precisely because this type of run is both unpredictable and possible. While the inherent equality of the game may not be reflected in the bids, it most certainly is demonstrated on the court. Everyone has an equal chance to rise through six forty-minute struggles. Survive and advance does not just apply to the blue bloods; it applies to everyone that is still playing.
And before you diminish the Loyola-Chicago path to the Final Four, consider that if they win the championship, their total opponent seed count will be 29. Since 1986, that would rank as the second hardest. That’s right, only the 2014 University of Connecticut Huskies had a harder road with a total of 28. North Carolina’s championships have been 33 in 1993, 34 in 2017, 35 in 2009, and 42 in 2005. In 1990, UNLV defeated a 16, 11, 8, 12, 4, and 3 on their way to a cake walk 54 total seed and they are considered one of the great teams of all time.
Additionally, just because one doesn’t know a team does not mean the team isn’t good and won’t continue to be good. Utah in 1998 and Memphis in 2008 (I think we can still count this for purposes of the discussion) had great runs from non-major conferences to the championship game, but the seal was really broken by 5th seeded Butler in 2010. That was the year that a rimmed out half-court heave was the difference between immortality and historical footnote. Oh, well. Except, they returned to the final game the following year as an 8 seed and are now viewed as a basketball power instead of a novelty.
Perhaps most importantly, the Ramblers have already won a National Championship in 1963. Who hasn’t won a Natty since then? Every Pac 12 school except UCLA and Arizona. Every SEC school except for Kentucky, Arkansas, and Florida. Every Big 12 school except Kansas. Every other school in Illinois. Some of the ACC (Retrieving some information from the Wahoos here).
The bottom line is Loyola-Chicago has beaten the last four teams that stepped on the court against them. Defeat two more and they will be champions. If you don’t like it, then your team should have advanced to play them and then beaten them.
In need of encouragement to debate - Warm weather has broken out and this feels like a great time for Kevin’s Breakfast Drink. Mix 2 parts Mango Vodka with 4 parts orange juice. I prefer Absolut. Serve on ice in a travel mug that will keep it cold through the entire debate or front 9.
Can debate without assistance - The kids’ special as we refer to it. Half cranberry juice and half ginger ale. Do not use the mixed cran-grape or cran-apple or cran-Duke kid that declared. Regular cranberry and regular ginger ale. A treat for all.