The second weekend of America's three week obsession with looking at names of universities written in brackets that are normally a power of two has a stop in Anaheim this weekend at the Honda Center. The NCAA men's basketball tournament has filled America's need to watch sports for eight hours a day, along with giving people a reason to find out where Belmont College is. (Nashville)
(For people on the East Coast, the NCAA tournament gives them an excuse to learn where UC Santa Barbara is. I believe that some people in ACC/Big East territory believe Santa Barbara is near the beach.)
One fourth of the Sweet Sixteen, the West Regional, will be played on Thursday and Saturday. The first game will start about 4:15 pm and match up the second seed in the region, San Diego State (California's lone representative left in the tournament) and Connecticut. At about 6:45 pm, defending champion and #1 seed Duke will play the #5 seed, Arizona. The winners will play again on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four in Houston, which starts on April 2.
The Aztecs had never won an NCAA tournament game prior to this season. San Diego State lost two games in the regular season, both to BYU, but beat the Cougars in the Mountain West Conference championship game. Connecticut has won seven straight games, including a stretch of five wins in five days to win the Big East conference tournament.
San Diego State won its first game in the tournament with relative ease over Northern Colorado, but needed two overtimes to defeat Temple. Connecticut had relatively easy wins over Bucknell and fellow Big East member Cincinnati.
Defending champion Duke won its first game against Hampton easily, but then held on for dear life against Michigan in its next game. Arizona had narrow wins over both Memphis and Texas to make it to Anaheim.
Thursday's game will be a chance for Arizona's star player, Derrick Williams, to get home to see his family. Williams starred at La Mirada High.
This year's tournament has been subject to much more mathematical analysis than it has in the past. Newer methods of evaluating basketball statistics have made it further into the mainstream. The New York Times has had Nate Silver making regular updates to his predictions on winners for each game as well as updates for the tournament's most likely winner. Silver's work is based in great part on that of Ken Pomeroy.
Silver gives San Diego State a 70% chance of beating UConn, while Pomeroy only gives the Aztecs a 67% chance. Las Vegas books have the game more or less even. Both Silver and Pomeroy give Duke at least an 80% chance of defeating Arizona.
Despite all the probabilities, both Silver and Pomeroy would acknowledge that any one basketball game could see just about anything happen. (Silver is 15th out of 28 among New York Times staffers who made picks.) The first weekend of the tournament saw its usual share of games with buzzer beaters, controversial officiating decisions, and upsets that make the tournament such compelling viewing. Or in my case for the weird ending to the Butler-Pitt game, compelling hits of the refresh button on my phone to figure out what was going on because I was stuck in line at Philippe's when that game ended. (It was a very good sandwich, so I was happy.)
And this year, watching the tournament changed greatly. CBS decided to share the cost of broadcasting the tournament with TBS, TNT, and TruTV (formerly Court TV). Also, CBS streams all the games online for free over the Internet. In the past, CBS had control of all the games and you would only be able to see whichever game was deemed to be of the greatest local interest to you. If another game was more exciting, you had to hope that CBS had the chance to switch over. Now, each game is shown from start to finish on one channel. (The games from Anaheim will be on CBS with Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery calling the action. Except lots of shouts of "My Goodness" and "Onions!" and healthy-sized helpings of sycophancy for Jim Calhoun and Mike Krzyzewski.)
The other three regions each have their own intriguing themes.
The Southeast Region, played in New Orleans, will have #2 Florida (which eliminated UCLA on Saturday) take on #3 BYU, with the sensational Jimmer Fredette, who has averaged 28.8 points per game this season. He scored 32 in BYU's win against Wofford last Thursday and then 34 on Saturday against Gonzaga. The other game in New Orleans will have last year's runnerup, #8 Butler against #4 seed Wisconsin. This region is regarded as the most wide open for any team to win. This is also the regional that Gus Johnson is working.
The Southwest Region, played in San Antonio, has #1 seed Kansas seemingly primed to move on to the Final Four. The Jayhawks play #12 seed Richmond on Friday. The winner of that game will face the winner of a game between #10 seed Florida State and #11 seed Virginia Commonwealth. VCU has won three games in the tournament already, defeating USC last Wednesday in one of "the First Four" games that the NCAA used this season. This is the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 where three double digit seeds made it to the second week in one region. While Kansas is the likeliest winner out of this region, the allure of an all-Richmond final would be delightfully odd.
Few people picked the Rams (that's VCU for those not paying attention to such things) to go far in the tournament because on most websites for filling out brackets, the teams that played in the "First Four" games were just considered automatic losses in the second round. For a lot of people, they might have VCU in the Sweet Sixteen because they thought USC was going to make it.
The East Region, played in Newark, is full of basketball bluebloods. In one game #1 seed Ohio State will play #4 seed Kentucky. The other sees #2 seed North Carolina playing #11 Marquette. All four teams have won championships before. Ohio State is Nate Silver's choice as the likeliest winner of the entire tournament, although it's only a 28% chance. Marquette is the longest shot left in the tournament at 0.3% according to Sliver, primarily because Marquette would likely have to beat a #2 seed and a #1 seed to get to the Final Four.
In the women's tournament, UCLA was the only local school to get an invitation. Despite a 27-4 regular season, the Bruins were given a #3 seed and sent to Spokane to play Montana, whom they beat, and then got to face #11 seed Gonzaga on the Bulldogs' home court. The Zags, behind a 29-point, 17-assist performance from Courtney Vandersloot, beat the Bruins Tuesday night, 89-75. The #1 seeds Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford, and Baylor are all heavy favorites to make it to the Final Four in Indianapolis.