NCAA tournament: Weekend observations

The only thing more consistent than Gonzaga, Memphis and Xavier in the NCAA tournament each year is the question they have to field about playing in a weak conference.

The West Coast, Conference USA and Atlantic 10 are annually attacked for not being strong enough to prepare a team for tournament play. Apparently people think you get extra points in basketball if your campus has an 80,000-seat football stadium.

In the last three seasons Memphis has reached two Elite Eights and a national title game. Xavier has two Elite Eights in the last four years. Gonzaga is in its fifth Sweet 16 in the last 11 seasons.

The lack of a BCS-affiliation once again meant nothing to three of March’s most enduring programs. All three programs were seeded high enough that to advance to the second weekend they didn’t need to spring an upset but avoid one.

So when do they get to stop hearing about it?

“Where would we finish in the ACC?” asked Memphis coach John Calipari. “We don’t know. We’re not in the league. Where would we finish in the Big East? We don’t know. We’re not in that league.”

His point was who cares about a conference, which is true. To answer his question, all three programs would finish near the top.

The only real benefit of conference affiliation is in recruiting. The bigger leagues receive more media exposure which attracts players. They also tend to have more strong programs, which also is a draw.

These aren’t the only things that help with recruiting, though.

Memphis, Gonzaga and Xavier do not lack for great players. All three programs have proven for years they can stockpile recruits. They recruit about as well, and in Memphis’ situation better, than just about any BCS conference team.

Whether it’s their city, their campus, their academics or their coach, great players come, great players go and these programs stick around. They aren’t the product of one star or even one style of play.

Last year Xavier’s Elite Eight team featured a high-powered offense led by water bug guard Drew Lavender. This year the Musketeers are more physical and more defensive-oriented.

And say what you want about quality of opponent, but Xavier’s Sean Miller said his team was prepared to beat Wisconsin 60-49 Sunday because of games against St. Louis and Miami of Ohio.

“One thing that we rely on a lot is our schedule,” Miller said.

Memphis is annually in on the best players in America – this spring it may sign’s Nos. 1-, 2- and 3-ranked players nationally. They want to play for Calipari. They want to live in a big city. They want to call an NBA arena their home. Whatever it is, Conference USA isn’t stopping them from getting players. He has the talent to compete for the Final Four every season.

It’s why Calipari is unlikely to leave Memphis for any college job. What would be tangibly better for him? Being in some small SEC town wouldn’t improve his fortunes.

It’s why Mark Few has resisted dozens of offers to leave Spokane. If he ever goes, it isn’t because the West Coast Conference is limiting him. Sean Miller may one day jump for a bigger payday than Xavier can offer, but he hasn’t been in a hurry. He knows how good he has it.

All three coaches have brought in great players. And if you get players, you can get deep into March. Where, once again next year the basketball coaches will have to answer questions about conferences that care about football.

• Welcome to a chalk Sweet 16, where the three aforementioned powerhouses qualify as “Cinderella.”

PhotoArizona’s coach Russ Pennell hugs Nic Wise after defeating Cleveland State for a berth in the Sweet 16.
((AP Photo/Lynne Sladky))

Don’t look for the big story in the papers this week about some little school getting its moment in the sun. Siena, Western Kentucky and Cleveland State’s day is done. Everyone left is a major league program.

All four No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds advanced. So did two of the four seeds.

Our upsets? No. 5 seed Purdue in the West and No. 12 Arizona in the Midwest. The Wildcats are a good story because many people didn’t think they deserved a bid at all. They’ve seized the opportunity.

That said, no one is going to mistake Arizona for an underdog. This is the Wildcats’ 25th consecutive NCAA tournament, the longest current streak. They won a national title in 1997. And their current roster features McDonald’s All Americans such as Chase Buddinger.

Having the top teams advance was actually predictable (not that I predicted it). Down the stretch of the regular season, very few teams made an impressive run to play their way into the NCAA tournament. It looked like there were maybe 20 good teams and then a lot of nothing.

It turns out the consensus was accurate: Fourteen of the identified 16 best teams in the country (and 15 of 20) advanced.

This isn’t a tournament for fans of the underdog. The good news is it’s on from here on out.

• The most intriguing possible matchup next weekend would be Connecticut-Memphis in the Elite Eight in Glendale, Ariz.

When Calipari was the coach at Massachusetts, he and UConn head coach Jim Calhoun feuded openly. The two are like oil and water and both are intensely competitive. Accusations flew from both sides about dirty recruiting and Calipari added fuel to the fire by demanding UConn set up a game with UMass.

When Calhoun finally agreed to play, the schools set up a press conference. That morning in 1996, Calipari was hired as head coach of the New Jersey Nets and as a result didn’t show at the press conference. A none-pleased Calhoun got to sit next to an empty chair. He took it out on UMass anyway, beating the post-Calipari Minutemen annually until the series was again dropped.

Memphis and Connecticut matched up last season in a Madison Square Garden tournament with the Tigers prevailing. That was in November, though, and the rivalry has died down a bit. It might ratchet back up for an Elite Eight game. The press conferences could be better than the actual contest.

• A couple other side stories on matchups, Xavier’s Sean Miller will face his alma mater Pitt on Thursday in Boston. Miller is best remembered for making a pass to Jerome Lane, who promptly slammed it home and broke the backboard. Bill Raftery made the legendary call, “Send it in, Jerome!”

Also, Louisville coach Rick Pitino gets a crack at Arizona, in Indianapolis no less. The last time they were all together was the 1997 national championship game. Pitino coached Kentucky then. Arizona won in overtime, keeping UK from back-to-back titles (the next year, 1998, Kentucky won the national title with coach Tubby Smith).

• The entire was-Missouri’s-J.T. Tiller-really-injured debate will never be accepted in Milwaukee; especially since his wrist injury healed quick enough for him to return to the game.

Still, give Tigers coach Mike Anderson some credit for a gutsy replacement choice. When given the chance to sub in a free-throw shooter with 5.5 seconds left in a tie game, he went with freshman Kim English.

English was just a 68 percent free-throw shooter and had sat on the bench nearly the entire second half.

“Kim English, he just gave me that look,” Anderson said. “Sometimes you just have that feeling.”

English hit them both, his only free throws of the game, and Missouri won.

“I’m so happy that he had faith in me,” English told the Associated Press.

• It’s unfortunate that the focus of the Marquette loss will also fall on Lazar Hayward for stepping over the line while trying to inbound the ball with 5.5 seconds left. It was an unforced error and negated Marquette’s chance at a last-second shot, but the odds of a team converting with 5.5 seconds left are low. Not getting a chance at a desperation shot is not why Marquette lost.

• The same for the missed timeout call by Western Kentucky on Saturday night. The Hilltoppers wanted to set something up with 0.9 seconds remaining against Gonzaga. The refs should’ve seen it, but what’s the likelihood that play is working?

Sometimes these late-game gaffes are blown way out of proportion.

• The argument about best conference looks over, five Big East teams – Connecticut, Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse and Villanova – not only all advanced, but also they won their games by an average of 18.2 points. The possibility of an all-Big East Final Four remains.

The Big 12 is next with three teams, the ACC and Big Ten have two and the A-10, Conference USA, Pac-10 and West Coast each have one.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 22, 2009