Hilltoppers still bottom of the heap

Stand up if you think Western Kentucky is better than Duke and Georgetown. If you just stood up, go sit in the corner. You’re dumb.

In the first round of the tournament, the WKU Hilltoppers edged past an overrated fellow mid-major in Drake whose senior leader is going pro next year … in investment banking. And they only beat this shaky Drake squad because a role player miraculously sunk a last-second three pointer over a band of Bulldog defenders. The shot must have been guided by Dick Vitale, Norse God of College Basketball, himself.

The Hilltoppers then lucked out, facing a San Diego team in the second round who had two quality wins all year — its conference title game and its first-round win over UConn. San Diego had worn itself out and laid an ostrich-sized egg against WKU as they struggled on both the offensive and defensive ends. Had UConn played with some semblance of confidence and beaten San Diego, Western Kentucky would have been smoked in the second round. Hasheem Thabeet and his 10-foot, 13-inch frame might have shut out Western Kentucky.

Western Kentucky, in fact, would have lost to all of the other Sweet 16 teams, and I suspect its game against UCLA will resemble Elmo versus Hulk Hogan in a wrestling match. Except the basketball game won’t be as funny.

This isn’t a David versus Goliath matchup; it’s a matchup between Goliath and the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

Duke and Georgetown, on the other hand, ran into decent teams that had a single man on a mission who would not be beaten. Joe Alexander on West Virginia and Stephon “rice-on” Curry showed what a good shooter on a hot streak can do to an otherwise more talented team. The better teams lost because the hottest player on the court played for the less talented team, which is what makes basketball unpredictable and great. One individual’s contribution can overcome a lack of talent on his team’s part. See Allen Iverson’s years in Philadelphia or LeBron James’ last few years in Cleveland.

The mismatches created when certain teams play and an anomalous shooting performances by a key player, therefore, can prove more important than the talent of the team in determining which teams will advance in the NCAA tournament. But in the end, the weaker teams almost always get weeded out, and Western Kentucky should get its swift and decisive comeuppance shortly.

But Western Kentucky’s inevitable obliteration will not change the fortunes of teams that deserved the spot in the Sweet 16 that Western Kentucky occupies. Gerald Henderson and Roy Hibbert know their college careers are done and are already looking toward the NBA.

So what does a team’s performance in the tournament tell us about its overall talent level?

Little.

Is a team that advances in the tournament necessarily better than one that did not advance?

No.

So why does the tournament exist in its current form? In England, there are no playoffs for soccer. The team in first place at the end of the season wins the championship. In most professional American sports, the playoffs consist of series that gives the better team more of a chance to assert its superiority than a set of do-or-die, one-and-done contests.

The tournament exists in its current form because we watch it. People fill out brackets and hang on every last second prayer of a shot that could flip the world of college basketball on its head.

College sports have a different goal from professional sports. Professional sports know they will make money regardless of their playoff system because they offer a product superior to that of any other league that plays the same sport. So their playoffs focus on determining the best team in the world. In theory, the winner of the World Series is the best baseball team in the world; the winner of the Stanley Cup is the best hockey team in the world.

But college teams are never the best. Even the best college basketball team would likely be swatted by the worst of NBA teams. Okay, the worst team not named the Miami Heat. I think some intramural basketball teams here at Yale would have a shot at bringing down that hopeless franchise.

So with no king of the basketball world to be crowned, the fact that the best team does not always win the NCAA tournament becomes insignificant. The focus of the tournament becomes creating excitement, showcasing superstars who will soon be in the NBA and generating revenue for NCAA basketball programs — not fairly determining the champion.

And college basketball succeeds.

Collin Gutman is a sophomore in Pierson College.

Comments