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How March Madness History Evolved To What We Know Today

The ramp-up to March Madness is in gear, with conference regular season championships being finalized this week, the league tournaments going next week, fights for at-large bids and seeding in full-force and finally Selection Sunday going on Sunday, March 15. As we get set for another great college basketball run, here’s brief look back on the seminal moments in the development of March Madness history as we know it.

TheSportsNotebook.com sees the modern era of college basketball as essentially beginning in 1976. It was the first year after John Wooden retired. The UCLA legend had captured his 10th national title in 12 years in 1975, and his retirement opened the door for parity. Thus, we can consider the first non-Wooden March—won by Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana Hoosiers—as the first step of the new era.

March Madness historyA forgotten point about Knight’s Indiana team is that they faced a stacked regional. The three opponents in the regional (Alabama, Western Michigan and Marquette) were all ranked in the final AP Top 10. We don’t know what order they were seeded in, because…well, there weren’t any seeds at that time.

The stacked bracket of the 1976 Mideast Region would certainly not happen today—Marquette was ranked #2 in the nation and we had a 1 vs. 2 battle in the round of eight. What’s even less remembered is that Alabama had Indiana seriously in the ropes in the final two minutes of their Sweet 16 game before Scott May rescued the Hoosiers.

That means the next step in the NCAA Tournament’s evolution is to implement seeding and bracket balance. That happened in 1979.

1979 was the most important year in the development of March Madness history. There was seeding and of course there was the legendary Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird showdown in the championship game. The highest-rated college basketball telecast ever didn’t live up to expectations, as Magic’s Michigan State team handled Bird’s Indiana State with room to spare. But the buildup to the game put college basketball on everyone’s radar.

Still two other things happened in 1979. The first is an occurrence that’s commonplace today, but was unheard of in ’79, and it’s a gutted bracket. The East Regional had North Carolina and Duke as its top two seeds. They were both upset in the second round on the same court in Raleigh, a day still called “Black Saturday” in the state. The two lowest-seeded teams in the bracket, 9th-seeded Penn and 10th-seeded St. John’s, ultimately met to go to the Final Four. Penn won.

The second is that the field expanded from 32 teams to 40 teams. By pushing past the five-round format, the NCAA had created the structure where eventually everyone would be playing on the Thursday/Friday of the first week.

It’s one thing to have a gutted bracket, but how about a gutted Final Four? We got that in 1980. While Louisville, a 2-seed, made it to Indianapolis and won the national championship, the other three participants were seeded #5 or lower in their respective regionals.

Even though we had seen one regional gutted by upsets and a Final Four filled with darkhorses, the whole notion of “the magic of the upset” that defines March Madness for so many, hadn’t yet taken hold. Let’s move on to 1981.

Eight of the nation’s top 16 teams lost on the first weekend, but it was the way it all went down that captured everyone’s imagination. DePaul, the top-ranked team in the country, lost to St. Joe’s on a last-second basket. The TV networks quickly moved to Louisville-Arkansas, where the Razorbacks won by a point on a half-court desperation heave from U.S. Reed. There was no time to catch your breath before NBC took us to the West Regional, where top seed Oregon State fell to Kansas State on a baseline jumper from Rolando Blackman with two seconds left.

In a matter of minutes, the country’s two best teams, along with the defending national champion, had been eliminated on last-second shots. That’s March Madness.

There was still one thing missing, and it was a Cinderella national championship. Enter Jim Valvano and N.C. State. The footage of Valvano’s 1983 N.C. State team winning on a last-second dunk is right up there with Christian Laettner’s game-winning shot in the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game as the most iconic image of March Madness. N.C. State concluded an improbable run from the 6-seed to win it all.

1985 completed the evolution. The field expanded to 64 teams, creating the bracket structure that we all know today. Villanova stunned Georgetown in the championship game, winning the crown as an 8-seed and further validating the notion that March was a place where everyone had a chance.

The decade of 1976-85 were the transformational years of March Madness. Wooden’s retirement paved the way for parity. The bracket was seeded, the field expanded, there was an epic Magic-Bird finale, and the magic of the upsets started rolling in at every level of the tournament. Our March would never be the same.

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The National Championship Chances Of Wisconsin Basketball

The Wisconsin basketball team clinched a share of the Big Ten title yesterday with a 68-61 win over Michigan State, in the atmosphere of a noisy Kohl Center, of which I was in attendance for. In a college basketball culture that has mostly lost interest in conference championships, the Big Ten still cares. Nobody left their seats for the trophy presentation and subsequent video tribute to the four graduating seniors, including Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky.

But now let’s get to the question typical fans around the rest of the country do care about—can this Wisconsin basketball team win the national championship?

Frank KaminskyI see Wisconsin’s situation as very combustible in March. I like the way they match up with the top teams in the country, including undefeated Kentucky.

However, we also know that nationally elite teams (seeded #1 or #2 in their regional come tourney time) get taken out in March all the time. I see Wisconsin as perhaps the likeliest of the top seven or eight teams to get their hearts broken on the tournament’s opening weekend.

Let’s start with the latter assertion. Wisconsin is not a great defensive basketball team, as they’ve often been in years past under Bo Ryan. They rank 47thth in defensive efficiency, which measures points per possession (essentially adjusting defense for pace of play and better measuring a team’s ability to get a stop when they really need one). More than anything else, that leaves you vulnerable by the Saturday/Sunday game of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.

By the time you narrow the field down to the best 32 teams in the country, everyone has players who can shoot. What’s needed is the ability to put those shooters under serious duress, something Kentucky and Virginia can both do at an extremely high level. Those teams are in position to survive a poor shooting game themselves because no team seeded in the 7 thru 10 range (where all the opponents for the top two seeds will come from) will put up a lot of points against them.

Wisconsin can’t say that, and it’s going to require a top offensive effort each time out in the NCAA Tournament. The good news is that the Badgers are the best in the nation at offensive efficiency, and even on the defensive side, they don’t commit fouls. I’m not saying that an upset is likely, just that the Badgers do have a vulnerability here that some other elite teams don’t have.

Another thing that concerns me is the hidden intangible of NCAA basketball and it’s plain old luck, and getting the right bounce in close games. Wisconsin survived two hair-raising games en route to the Final Four last season.

One of them came in the Round of 32 against Oregon. In spite of playing in front of a home-neutral crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin needed to rally from behind and to eventually pull it out on a sequence where they got four straight offensive rebounds and finally a back-breaker trey from now-departed Ben Brust. The other was a one-point overtime win over Arizona in the regional final.

The bounce of the ball is fickle and it’s tough to get it two years in a row—ask Wichita State, who ran to the Final Four in 2012 as a 9-seed, but lost in the Round of 32 last year when they were undefeated. It’s not that consecutive Final Four trips are unthinkable—Louisville did it in 2012-13, even Butler pulled it off in 2010-11 to pick a couple recent examples. But Wisconsin fans should be alert to the fact that we may need to overcome some bad bounces on the way this time rather than getting them.

That’s the negative side of the story, and why I’m exceptionally nervous about that first weekend. But there’s a flip side too, and it’s that I really believe the Badgers match up well with Kentucky if it comes to that—and if they match up well with Kentucky, then UW can match up with anyone.

Kentucky is used to completely locking down teams defensively. But even assuming a solid defensive effort from the Wildcats, is it unthinkable that Wisconsin could score 60 points? It’s certainly not a guarantee, and would be a battle. But the Badgers have size down low, with Kaminsky, helping neutralize some of Kentucky’s shotblockers. Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker also have good size at forward and Wisconsin can play a big lineup without losing offensive flow.

If the Badgers get to 60, it won’t be easy for offensively challenged teams to match that, in spite of the Wisconsin defensive issues. The fact the Badgers don’t foul, mean opposing offenses will have to earn every point, and a team like Kentucky—and Virginia, who is a poor man’s version of the ‘Cats—have real problems on the offensive end.

I should point out that I don’t think Kentucky is worse offensively than the teams Wisconsin might play in the second game, when I’m concerned about the upset. But in both cases, I’m adjusting for expectations.

It’s going to be extremely interesting to see what happens with the Badgers. But at the very least—at the absolute minimum—this Wisconsin basketball team has a Big Ten championship, and over a two-year cycle they have both a conference title and Final Four trip. Not bad at all.

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The Mystifying Outrage Of Nick Markakis

Nick Markakis was a staple of the Baltimore Orioles outfield for the past eight years, and he had hoped to retire as an Oriole. Given that, I suppose it’s not surprising that he’s upset with his former organization for not re-signing him this offseason. Markakis took a four-year, $44 million deal with the Atlanta Braves. What is surprising is what he chose to be angry about and how he expressed it.

NickMarkakis“Don’t believe a word they say” was the Markakis quote that made it into the headlines and served the purpose of getting me to click on the story and find out what on earth the Oriole front office was saying. As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, I’m used to management media campaigns being used to slander players or managers the team fired, cut, traded or just opted not to re-sign.

The most notorious example was trying to claim Terry Francona was addicted to painkiller meds in 2011.

So what was Baltimore saying about Markakis that we weren’t supposed to believe? Well, Markakis had neck surgery in the offseason. The team said the length of the contract he was offered by Atlanta was their main concern—he’ll be 35 when the deal expires. Markakis said that’s “all B.S.” It’s really his neck they were worried about.

I guess I’m wondering where the smoking gun is in all this. Is Baltimore supposed to be embarrassed about being concerned over a surgery that affects a player’s disc and already his him questionable for Opening Day? Why would they be trying to hide from that? The length of the contract and Markakis’ health are hardly completely different issues. The four years might be an issue because of the neck surgery.

It’s not surprising an athlete who wanted to end his career somewhere feels rejected by the organization’s belief—a correct one in my view—that going to four years is just too big of a risk. It’s not surprising if he plays with an extra vengeance this year. But none of what happened is a reason to “don’t believe anything they say.”

I like Markakis, both his game and the way he carries himself. But he does need to chill a little bit on this subject. He’ll still get a standing ovation when his new team visits Camden Yards this year.

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Evaluating The Troubled Mike Shanahan Legacy

The ultimate Mike Shanahan legacy remains in some doubt, presuming the former head coach of the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins never returns to the sidelines. To some, he’s the two-time Super Bowl winner, a surefire Hall of Famer and was only derailed in D.C. by a meddling owner and a diva quarterback. To others, the question “What has he done without John Elway?” is the concise summation of the criticisms.

Shanahan recently gave a 90-minute radio interview in Washington D.C. in which he essentially looked to cast blame at the feet of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for the poor showing from 2010-13, with Robert Griffin III mostly exempt, except when Shanahan felt the quarterback was serving as the messenger boy for the owner and that the coach never really wanted to draft him in the first place.

Washington Redskins history

As much as possible, this post will look to leave the Shanahan/RG3/Snyder love triangle aside and instead focus on the bigger question—was Mike Shanahan really a great coach or just someone who stumbled into having John Elway as his quarterback in the late 1990s?

To put my cards on the table first, I loathe Mike Shanahan. As a Redskins fan, I was happy when he was hired and became completely disillusioned with how he handled everything. I assign him the lion’s share of the blame for what went down. I say this not to reopen that debate, but to make sure readers at least know my perspective.

As a result, there’s an emotional side of me that wants to agree with the “What has he done without Elway?” jab. But that’s not fair. John Elway was still a great quarterback when Shanahan became head coach in 1995, but he was in the twilight of his career, going out on top in 1998. Elway in his prime never won the Super Bowl. With Shanahan, he won twice. Clearly, the head coach deserves some credit.

But there’s also no denying what happened after Elway retired. It’s not like Denver disappeared, but they spent the better part of Shanahan’s final ten years (1999-2008) being a borderline playoff team. They would either miss by a little bit, or make it and then promptly get waxed in the first round. The one exception to this trend was 2005, when the Broncos won the AFC West and reached the AFC Championship Game, where they were crushed at home by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If a head coach was on the job for ten years, made the playoffs four times and had one year of advancing in the postseason, without ever making the Super Bowl, would you call him great? That’s the Mike Shanahan track record in Denver without Elway. It’s not terrible, but it’s only marginally better than Marvin Lewis, and that’s in spite of the fact the Bronco organization has long been considered exemplary.

The one thing Mike Shanahan brought to the table then, and continued to do in Washington, was coach the running game. Whether it was Alfred Morris, Clinton Portis or the crème da la crème in Terrell Davis, the coach was masterful at finding running backs in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft and turning them into elite players. Whether it was his system or just his ability to identify the diamond in the rough, there’s no question that this was Shanahan’s calling card.

What’s possible then is that Mike Shanahan stepped into the perfect situation in Denver in the late 1990s, one that was ideally suited to what he did well. He had a quarterback in place. The roster overall was at least competent. What the Broncos never could do in Elway’s prime was run the ball. Enter Shanahan, and after him Terrell Davis. And bring in two Super Bowl trophies.

If this theory is correct—and the overall arc of Mike Shanahan’s career absolutely bears it out—then it means that Shanahan deserves appropriate credit for his role with those championship teams, but at the same time, he would not be on a par with other multiple Super Bowl winners.

It would mark him a “niche” head coach, rather than a Joe Gibbs or Bill Parcells or Don Shula, who built winners in different ways.  Or Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick or Jimmy Johnson, who had great quarterbacks, but drafted those quarterbacks themselves.

The fact of the matter is, that Mike Shanahan’s judgment in picking his own players—especially quarterbacks, is absolutely terrible. He ran through Brian Griese and Jake Plummer in Denver. He sold everyone in Washington that John Beck was the second coming of Dan Marino. The high point of Shanahan’s career in quarterback evaluation is Jay Cutler. Sorry, but I couldn’t type that last sentence without laughing.

After Shanahan’s early success in Denver, he got more control over personnel. This rarely works with any head coach and Shanahan was no different. The team declined, and he missed the playoffs each of his final three seasons in Denver. He followed that up by getting total control of the football operation in Washington, and averaged six wins a year for four seasons. The record is what it is.

What’s more, by admitting he didn’t want to draft Griffin, and only succumbing to the pressures of ownership, Shanahan undercuts his one success in Washington. The only notable success was the 10-6 season and NFC East title of 2012, a success almost entirely driven by RG3 carrying a terrible defense into the playoffs—with an assist from the Shanahan running game, now led by Alfred Morris. It was an oddly smaller-scale version of what happened in Denver.

But had Shanahan made his own decisions, the Redskins would have likely had another lifeless 6-10 season in 2012. The head coach and his apologists do forget that he spent two years in Washington without RG3 and went 11-21 with no signs of improvement. The whole “RG3 Ruined Shanahan” storyline runs into the reef labeled “Facts.”

I think it’s also worth noting what happened this last offseason. Shanahan clearly wanted back into coaching and interviewed for three different jobs, in San Francisco, Oakland and Buffalo. He went 0-for-3. That could just be his age (62) being a factor, but what’s perhaps more damning is the interviews he didn’t get, and those are the ones in Chicago and Denver.

Chicago’s future is completely invested in Cutler, and it’s going down the tubes fast. Shanahan, still a believer in Cutler, didn’t get a call to even discuss the job. The Bears hired John Fox, not exactly a spring chicken in terms of youth.

Then there’s Denver. Shanahan’s old quarterback, John Elway was making the hiring decision. The team has an extremely narrow window of opportunity, presuming Peyton Manning comes back. It would be the ideal way to re-create the scenario of the late 1990s. Once again, no phone call. In fact, a news report I saw from Denver had a local reporter with sources in the front office literally smirking at the thought that Shanahan even had a chance.

There’s a reason for that—all reports are that Elway and Shanahan hate each other. Jake Plummer has also publicly expressed distaste for his former coach. The relationship between Shanahan and RG3 is no secret. This is a head coach who has known real success with only three quarterbacks and they all hate him. Does Shanahan bear no responsibility for this?

I submit then, that the ultimate Mike Shanahan legacy is this—if you impose a quarterback choice on him, make sure he has no control over personnel (something I advocate for most coaches), make sure there’s established leadership in the locker room to overcome the coach’s personality issues, and allow Shanahan’s skill at coaching the running game to take hold, then it can work.

I know it sounds like a backhanded way of praising him, but in truth, most NFL coaches are just interchangeable and don’t even bring that to the table.

Mike Shanahan still deserves his spot in Canton, as the head coach of a back-to-back Super Bowl champion. But when it comes to sorting out his ultimate legacy, it’s a bit more complex.

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Guessing The New England Patriots Thursday Night Opponent On Opening Night

One of the many proofs that I need to get a life is that I was speculating on who the New England Patriots would play in the NFL’s 2015 Thursday night opener, where the Super Bowl champion plays at home. Even worse, is that this is also now a tradition for me, guessing how the league will schedule this game.

So in honor of the fact that it’s a slow time in sports before March Madness, and I obviously have too much time on my hands, we’ll take a look at who the New England Patriots Thursday night opponent might be.

The opponents for each team are established by a pre-determined formula and known as soon as the previous regular season ends. Here’s who we know the Patriots will play in 2015, though the sequence is obviously not yet determined…

Tom Brady*The usual home-and-home with their three AFC East rivals (Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets)

*Everyone in the AFC South (Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans)

*The two other AFC division winners from 2014 (Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers)

*Everyone in the NFC East (Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Washington Redskins)

Here’s how I would break down the likelihood of each team being chosen to be the Patriots’ foil for the season-opener in Foxboro…

THE MARQUEE FAVORITES

Denver Broncos:  Any time you can get Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on the same field, it’s a leading candidate. The relative age of both quarterbacks could also work in favor of putting this game earlier in the schedule. Last year, Peyton had a bad quad that restricted him the last six weeks and in the playoffs. Who knows what could happen to him, Brady or any quarterback pushing 40 and playing a long season

Indianapolis Colts: This is the big X-factor game. It’s got a natural appeal, as a possible changing-of-the-guard game with Andrew Luck and Brady. And it’s a rematch of the AFC Championship Game. But on the flip side, I can’t imagine the NFL wanting to bring more publicity to Deflate-Gate. It’s going to happen anyway when these teams play, but if you make it the prime-time opener, you’re asking for months of hype on a topic the NFL wants to see disappear

VERY STRONG CANDIDATES

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are similar to the Packers of last year being chosen to go to Seattle. There’s no huge rivalry between the Patriots and Steelers (I know fans on both sides have some bad blood from their AFC Championship Games of 2001 and 2004, but that’s been a long time). But this is also the kind of game it would be easy to get fired up for, much like Packers-Seahawks.

Dallas Cowboys: Even when the Cowboys weren’t very good they got chosen for this spot, opening with the New York Giants in 2012. Now that they’re coming off a 12-win season, how much more attractive will Tony Romo, Demarco Murray & Co. will be.

New York Giants: The Super Bowl history of the Giants and Patriots would normally put this possibility on the front line of possibilities, especially with the Thursday night opener having a strong Super Bowl theme. But with New York looking in disarray the last couple years and the franchise’s ownership being powerful in the NFL, I can see them talking their way out of making Eli Manning put his struggling career on display so quickly in the season.

INTERESTING DARKHORSES

Buffalo Bills: Rex Ryan is in Buffalo now, putting this possibility in play. Also, recall that the Bills came to Foxboro in 2009 as part of the season-opening Monday Night doubleheader and played a thrilling game where Brady had to throw two late touchdown passes to avert an upset.

Houston Texans: The league could showcase J.J. Watt going against Tom Brady. You could do worse when it comes to TV appeal.

Philadelphia Eagles: Had the Eagles made the playoffs, they would be one line higher. But with Philly having faded in December and facing quarterback uncertainty, this possibility is now a stretch

POSSIBLE BUT NOT LIKELY

Miami Dolphins: The division rival who’s played New England the most competitively in recent years, but it’s not a matchup that really moves the needle nationally. There’s some precedent for this type of game—the Redskins were chosen to go play the New York Giants in 2008 and Pats-Dolphins would be a similar game. But I can’t see it

New York Jets: If Rex were still on the sideline and the Jets at least competitive, a New York-Boston battle could go all the way to the front line. Now it’s highly unlikely. The only possible reason would be the New York-Boston combination and the possibility the NFL would want to showcase a new African-American head coach in Todd Bowles.

Washington Redskins: I can’t see this happening. The only rationale would be if someone in the league office believes RG3 is going to comeback strong and wants to pit him against Brady. But Griffin could lose the job in training camp and in either case, that’s a lot that has to happen.

If the NFL really had guts, they would schedule this game for Thanksgiving Night. An old joke is that when the Pilgrims came to America, the first Thanksgiving football game was between Redskins and Patriots. But the politically correct crowd would go nuts and see it as an opportunity for more fundraising and publicity.

NO CHANCE

Jacksonville Jaguars & Tennessee Titans

The only way either of these happen is if whomever does the schedule is drinking heavily prior to making the decision.

So who’s it going to be? I’m going to follow the NFL’s model of last year where they eschewed the two obvious favorites to go to Seattle (Denver & San Francisco) and went for a team that still had plenty of marquee value. I’ll guess that we open the 2015 NFL season with the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.

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