During the first weekend of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, I've found that it's hard to remain objective. This happens to all of us who watch the tournament, even if it's the only college basketball in which we partake all season. We have our favorite teams, but by the time the first weekend is complete, only 16 of 345 Division I programs still have hopes of cutting down the nets next month in Houston. The vast majority of us are forced to find another horse to back. It's a fickle time of the year, because each posting of a final score may see another temporary darling out of the running. We root for underdogs. We root for teams we've picked on our brackets. But we always root for somebody.
I've always had a contentious relationship with objectivity. Perhaps it's a result of an academic background in the liberal arts. Journalism came later. Even after I entered the newspaper industry, I found it hard to move beyond my affinity for the practitioners of New Journalism, like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. As a result, I've always felt more comfortable taking subjective angles in my work and probably too often, I show up as a character in what I write. It's not just that I don't believe in objectivity; I really don't even believe that it's possible. It's a counterfeit ideal and where it truly exists, it's only a product of indifference. If you're indifferent to something, why are you reporting on it? I think it's for these reasons that I fell into using statistical analysis as the backbone for my sports writing. Without these truly objective methods, I'd be far too prone to lapse into the hyper-emotionalism that still bubbles up in my work far too often.
I don't spend much time analyzing college basketball. It's not that I don't like it. Like Kevin Pelton, I love basketball in every form. However, I also have separate, but equal, passions for baseball and fiction, and there is only so much time in a day. For reasons that I won't go into, I prefer the NBA game to all other forms of basketball and so I spend copious amounts of time and energy trying to understand that league as best I possibly can.
Like so many others, I have fallen into the pattern of trying to get up to speed with the college game in early March. The conference tournaments are like my Cliff's Notes on college basketball. I track the results, read back through College Basketball Prospectus and compare preseason expectations with what has actually come to pass. By the time the curtain is raised on NCAA Tournament drama, I have a pretty good feel of who are the main characters and who has taken the most interesting supporting roles.
This year was different because the circus came to town, so to speak. Due to the tremendous efforts of Joe Sheehan and, especially, John Gasaway over the years, Basketball Prospectus has grown to the point where we qualified for media credentials for this year's tournament, a credential that is not that easy to come by. So it was with great pleasure that I crammed my brain with as much background as possible and set out to cover eight teams of which I knew very little about two weeks ago. Many of the names were familiar--the coaches and veteran players were recognizable from past seasons--but each season is different. For example, I had a good idea about the personalities and talents of John Thompson III, Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. But I had no real idea what a Georgetown team looked like with those individuals minus Greg Monroe, who left after last season. It's a different team and, for me, each new team is a kind of revelation.
Then there are the completely unknown teams, like Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams are the inspiration for this venting of my spleen. As I mentioned the other day, I hadn't paid any attention at all to VCU until last week. I doubt I'm alone in this respect. Because I wasn't familiar with their story, all I knew about them was that they showed up, along with UAB, as a consensus head-scratcher when it came to getting into the tournament. I hadn't followed the process nearly close enough to judge it for myself, but that was the only impression I had of Shaka Smart's team. Well, there was one other. VCU has turned out two pretty good NBA players over the last two years in Oklahoma City guard Eric Maynor and high-flying Milwaukee rookie Larry Sanders. So it seemed to me this team must almost certainly lack star power because, after all, how many NBA-caliber players could Virginia Commonwealth produce? Two in two years seems like a quota of some sort. This is a bias of observing the college game from the perspective of an NBA aficionado.
It's an unfortunate bias, because it leads one into the same trap that ESPN's Mike Wilbon fell into when he declared that the college game lacked star power, with its shortage of NBA-level talents. This notion of "star power" is a strange one. There may not be any college players that have starred in an Addias commercial with Ken Jeong, but what does that matter? Is the level of play lower than that of the NBA? Yes, it is, but why does that matter, either? There are things that make college sports unique and special--diversity of styles, the personal attachment of alumni, the way schools define regions, the very youth of the players--that have nothing to do with whether or not a certain amount of athletes will play in the NBA. (Also, there is plenty of star power in the college game.) As much as I love the NBA, the one phenomenon that simply doesn't exist is the one that has helped make March Madness the cultural touchstone that it's become: The idea of the Cinderella team.
Over the course of the last few days, I've found that I've lost my objectivity about Virginia Commonwealth. Yes, I was objective about the Rams because I was indifferent to them. Now, after watching their camaraderie on the court, the joy with which they play the game, the love they have for their coach--I don't see how it's possible to avoid getting caught up in it. Their story is magical and, at this point, it can't end badly. Even if VCU loses tonight to Purdue, they've already exceeded expectations and captured at least one person's imagination. With each win, the Rams come closer to becoming this year's version of recent surprise teams like George Mason or Butler.
From implacable senior point guard Joey Rodriguez to senior guard Brandon Rozzell, the always-smiling and always-talking three-point gunner, this is a really likable team. Rodriguez talked after Friday's win over Georgetown about how close the team is, about how they are all best friends, and said they simply didn't want it to end. "It" being this tournament run. You know what? I love a good buddy flick as the next guy. I don't want it to end, either.
The Butler comparison may be more apt than George Mason. While VCU is a veteran-laden bunch, Smart has really upped the ante on the recruiting trail, so this year's tournament run may simply be our introduction to the next mid-major power. George Mason bobbed up and went away. (Though it may be back this year.) Butler seems as if it may have some staying power. So will VCU, if Smart stays. Which leads me back to the cold reality of the business of college athletics and the subjective prism through which we see all things.
Shaka Smart did not emerge from a vacuum. He's worked for Keith Dambrot, Oliver Purnell and Billy Donovan, guys with some pretty powerful big-conference connections. He's rocketed from a low-level assistant at Akron to a possible Sweet 16 head coach in five years and he's gotten there two weeks before he turns 34 years of age. When you look at the way that his team plays--with joy, intensity, togetherness--and the way he recruits, his charisma, his intelligence, his upside: How could VCU hope to keep him?
There are already high-profile job openings at Oklahoma and Arkansas. In the case of the Razorbacks, there have been persistent rumors that Missouri coach Mike Anderson may be taking over. These are just rumors and there are indications that the original source of these speculations has gone into backpedal mode. However, as a Missouri product myself, I found that I was surprisingly undisturbed by the possibility of Anderson jumping ship. Part of it was because I've tired of the frenetic style that Anderson coaches which, I believe, leads to far too much undisciplined basketball. However, the main reason I didn't so much care was that I looked out onto the court at the United Center the other night and, about 10 feet away, stood Shaka Smart. It's the conceit of every fan of every big-conference school that if a guy leaves, it's really just an opportunity for an upgrade.
That's the nature of the NCAA Tournament. It's all about the moment. Players graduate or turn pro. The coaches of the Cinderella teams that we adopt as our own use the success as a springboard. Every game is a win-at-all-costs proposition. If the scoreboard doesn't turn your way, it's all over. As I prepare to head to the UC to watch VCU take on Purdue, and then Notre Dame play Florida State, I forgive myself for my subjectivity. In two weeks, it'll be over and for another 11 months, I'll be indifferent. It's about as objective as I can get. I'll leave you with some words from Rodriguez, the VCU veteran who played alongside those now-NBA players that I previously mentioned. I asked him about the atmosphere surrounding the Rams and how much of is due to Smart.
"A lot of it," Rodriguez said. "You know, coach gives us a lot of freedom. He doesn't let us look over our shoulder. Even more importantly, you know, he's like a best friend. You can talk to him about anything. When you got a guy like that leading the way, it's easy for us to come out here and perform and have a good time. Before every game, to come out there and just have fun. We keep doing that, we got a bright future, and we're going to go deep in this tournament."
Yeah, you gotta love a buddy flick.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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