Houston, we have a Final Four preview

April 2, 2011

After licking our wounds from bombing badly on our Tournament predictions, the IoT team took a bit of time out during a hectic week to reflect on how we got to tonight’s unusual Final Four.

Jimmy: Jeremy, this year’s NCAA Tournament is forcing all of us to rethink some things that seemed pretty certain a few weeks ago: the strength of the Big East and the competitive distance between the majors and mid-major, to name two.

I think Connecticut and Virginia Commonwealth may be challenging fundamental ideas about the effect of fatigue on tournament teams. There’s been a school of thought in bracket-building that says to avoid teams coming off grueling, four-game conference tournament apperances. Some coaches, Roy Williams, for instance, have a reputation for easing up during conference tournaments to save their teams for the NCAAs. I think we’ve all been burned by the team that “gets hot at the right time” by winning several conference tourney games, only to flame out in the first round of the Big Dance.

And then along come UConn and Virginia Commonwealth, who have taken the longest Final Four paths in history. The Huskies played — and won — nine games in 18 days. That’s a month’s worth of competition in a little more than two weeks. UConn’s ability to play at such a high level so often is even more impressive when you consider how much the Huskies lean on one player, Kemba Walker. He’s playing 38 minutes a game over that period and has scored more than a third of UConn’s postseason points.

Just to give Walker his due, here’s his stat line for the last nine games:

Min/gm Pts/gm Asst/gm Reb/gm Stl/gm
Kemba Walker 38.2 26.3 5.3 5.9 2.2

He’s also shooting better from the field and the line than he did during the regular season, and getting 10 free-throw attempts per game. If the tournament ended right now, he’d easily be your most outstanding player.

VCU, meanwhile, has won more March Madness games than any national semifinalist in history. The Rams are the first play-in team to reach the Final Four since the NCAA began handing out fake tournament berths in 2001. I’m wondering if we should rethink our stance on the “First Four” — it may be a bad idea, but there’s no denying that the extra NCAA tournament game makes VCU’s achievement that much richer.

Jeremy, are UConn and VCU’s performances cause for fundamentally rethinking the role of fatigue in tournament performance? Or are we just looking at two very special teams?

Jeremy: Jimmy, what we’re looking at has been a fundamentally screwy NCAA Tournament.

Not to diminish UConn’s or VCU’s feats of endurance (especially UConn’s), but fatigue really shouldn’t have been a factor for either team once they got to the second weekend of the Tournament. And honestly, I’m not sure how big of a deal it was on the first weekend.

Don’t get me wrong. UConn winning five games in five days to take the Big East Tournament title was one of the more amazing accomplishments in college basketball history. I’m also sure they could have used another day or two off before their first game. But the Huskies got nearly five days to rest before playing Bucknell in their opener, and that wasn’t exactly a challenge.

In fact, I’d say UConn benefited in terms of rest from their seeding and draw. Before they won the Big East, the Huskies were projected in at least one bracket as a 5 seed. By getting upgraded to a 3 seed, they got an easier opener. I suspect their familiarity with fellow Big East team Cincinnati helped in their second game (although that, of course, could have cut either way).

As for VCU, I would have been a little more worried about them from a fatigue standpoint if they had faced Clemson’s ridiculous First Four schedule. Instead, they got the late game in their pod for the second round and had a much shorter distance to travel than the Tigers.

Again, both great accomplishments, but I don’t see them redefining the role of fatigue in the Tournament.

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