Monday, March 28, 2011

VCU Run Could Be Bad News For NCAA Tourney

As much as I love watching the underdog bust everyone's brackets in the NCAA Tournament, this year's Cinderella story might wind up doing more harm than good in the long run.

I don't just say that because Virginia Commonwealth, which is advancing to the Final Four for the first time ever, is the bitter rival of my alma mater, Old Dominion. There is a little bitterness there, but most of that is directed at Butler, which beat ODU in the first round (or second round, whatever) on a last-second play.

I begrudgingly root for VCU this time of year because it helps the conference; the more VCU wins, the better the Colonial Athletic Association looks, and the more money it gets.

But in terms of the tournament itself, I fear what this run will create. This was the first year in which the tournament had a 68-team field, including what's called the "First Four" -- four play-in games in Dayton, Ohio the Tuesday before the rest of the tournament starts.

VCU was among the eight teams playing in the First Four, by virtue of being on the last bubble teams selected. How close were the Rams to not being in the tournament? Virtually every college basketball analyst -- particularly two balding members of the ESPN team -- blasted the decision, even without evidence to back up their claims.

But VCU beat USC in the First Four, then throttled both Georgetown and Purdue to reach the Sweet 16. From there, the Rams took out Florida State in overtime before stunning No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight. VCU advanced to its first Final Four, and head coach Shaka Smart is looking at a massive payday, whether he leaves VCU or not.

The run has been great for the CAA; receiving three bids for the first time ever -- league champion ODU was a No. 9 seed and George Mason received a No. 8 seed as an at-large -- the CAA had to prove it deserved them.

ODU fell to Butler at the buzzer -- you know, the same Butler team that's making its second straight Final Four -- and George Mason upended Villanova in its first game before being run over by No. 1 seed Ohio State.

But VCU matched the 2006 George Mason team, becoming the second CAA team to make the Final Four. Which, like I said, is great for both the school and the conference ... but not the tournament.

Before the field expanded to 68 teams, the NCAA seriously considered expanding the field to 96 teams. Some believe such expansion is an inevitability; coaches, particularly coaches from schools that seem to be on the bubble every year, believe there are enough good teams to fill out a 96-team field and still have a compelling, competitive tournament.

VCU's run only helps their cause.

The analysts who argued against VCU's inclusion pointed to such schools as Colorado and Virginia Tech as more deserving of a bid -- despite Colorado not having any notable out-of-conference wins and Virginia Tech once again playing a cupcake non-conference schedule (and refusing to play such schools as ODU, George Mason and VCU).

Sure, the Hokies beat Duke, but they followed that up by losing to Boston College (at home) and Clemson. The Rams, meanwhile, had wins over Wichita State, George Mason and ODU -- and advanced to the title game of the CAA Tournament.

Would Colorado or Virginia Tech gone on a run like this if they had been given a bid? There's no way to tell; the tournament is so unpredictable anymore that hundreds of thousands of brackets were toast before the end of the first weekend.

But VCU's historic run validates those who feel the bubble teams should be let in by virtue of an even more expanded field. If the 67th- or 68th-best team in the country can make it from the First Four to the Final Four, then who's to say the 84th-best team in the nation can't get hot and win a few games?

I'd like to think a 96-team NCAA field is not an inevitability; maybe I'm naive. But I think there are ways to make the the 68-team field better before we even think about expanding the field again. For example, I'd like to see the committee stop putting automatic bid earners in the First Four; make the First Four a series of games between the "last four in" and the "last four out;" winners get 12 seeds.

But if we do wind up with a 96-team field in the coming years, we may have the Rams to thank for that. VCU and the CAA -- and even the NCAA -- might win in the short term, but in the long term, this run could prove disastrous for the tournament.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

BYU Gets One Right

Let me preface this entry by saying that I'm not a Mormon, and I'm not entirely familiar with the details of that particular spiritual path. However, I am aware of Brigham Young University as a prominent private Mormon institution, one with a strict honor code.

How strict? Well, aside from the commonplace ban on such things as drugs and alcohol, BYU forbids its students from drinking coffee or tea. The school also forbids foul language. Between the coffee and bad words, I'd be kicked out within the first week, if not the first day.

BYU also forbids pre-marital sex. Whatever your feelings on that particular subject, BYU is a private school, and as such, has the right to impose this restriction on its students.

This became a national matter on Tuesday, when No. 3 BYU (27-3, 13-2 Mountain West) dismissed Brandon Davies from the team for the rest of the season for violating the school's Honor Code. On Wednesday, it was reported that Davies had sex with his girlfriend.

On the surface, it sounds ridiculous -- kicking the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer off the team because he slept with a woman with whom he was in a committed relationship. And in 98 percent of the schools in this country, it would be ridiculous. But BYU, with its Mormon principles, explicitly tells all students -- athlete or not -- that pre-marital sex is forbidden.

So if you go to BYU and get caught having sex, without a wedding ring, then you're at the mercy of whatever punishment the school deems appropriate.

What Davies' departure means for the rest of the Cougars' season is unknown -- though BYU looked lost in its first game without him on Wednesday, an 82-64 loss at home to New Mexico. But the Cougars were in line for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the team had a good shot at making a deep run, if not win the national title.

This suspension could jeopardize that. A lot of others schools forgive far greater breaches of policy, and even law, in order for their star players to stay on the field or court at the most important part of the season -- but not BYU.

Whatever you think of the school, or the Mormon faith, or the BYU Honor Code, the school at least deserves credit for sticking to its values, even if it means ruining what could've been a special season. Davies violated that code, and he deserves to be punished for it -- not because what he did was necessarily "wrong," but because the school made it clear from Day One what the policy was, and he went against it.

If more schools stuck to their standards like BYU, college athletics would be far better off. I'm not saying every school should outlaw coffee or pre-marital sex -- A) it's a Mormon thing, and B) it would be impossible to keep all those 18- to 21-year-olds off each other -- but if a school has a set of rules and standards, it should adhere to them, even when the offender happens to be really good at a big-time sport.

BYU could've looked the other way and let this magical season play out; instead, the school stuck to its guns and punished Davies. No matter what becomes of the Cougars' season, at least the school still has its honor and credibility.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An NBA Reality Check

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh left Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, this past summer to join the Miami Heat, people seemingly took offense. The reaction was similar through the first half of the NBA season, when Carmelo Anthony made it clear he wanted to get out of Denver once his contract was up this season, preferring to join the New York Knicks -- who signed Amar'e Stuodamire in the offseason.

With a "Big Three" already in place with the Boston Celtics -- though one could argue it's a Big Four, adding point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix -- recent moves seem to point toward a consolidation of talent within a few of the league's teams.

Especially if you believe the rumor about Dwight Howard opting out of his deal next year, leaving Orlando and joining ... the Los Angeles Lakers?

That may be true, or it might not be; it's worth noting that Kevin Durant has re-upped with Oklahoma City (small market) in the offseason and the team with the best record in the league is also from a small market (San Antonio).

What gets me is how everyone's screaming like it's the Apocalypse, accusing players of having too much power and holding their organizations hostage. I don't follow the NBA religiously -- I prefer college basketball -- but I follow it enough to have a general idea of what's going on. What I've seen in the last several months is a case of free agent athletes exercising those rights to play where they want.

James and Bosh were free agents after last season; they both had the right to choose where they wanted to play. Dwyane Wade was also a free agent, but he chose to stay in Miami. Stoudamire was a free agent as well -- one the Phoenix Suns chose not to re-sign, so he decided to sign with the Knicks.

The Utah Jazz decided not to re-sign Carlos Boozer after last season, so he signed a free agent deal with the Chicago Bulls. The Jazz also decided to part ways with point guard Deron Williams, sending him to New Jersey.

In the case of Stoudamire, Boozer and Williams, the decision rest with the teams, not the players. James, Bosh and Anthony have also exercised their rights as free agents; in the case of Anthony, he told Denver that this season, his last under his current contract, would likely be his last with the Nuggets -- unlike James, who waited until after the season to decide and held an hour-long ESPN special in which he ripped out Cleveland's heart on national television.

So with that knowledge, what was Denver to do? Let the season play out as it was, watch Anthony leave at the end of the year and get nothing in return? Or work around the league to see if they could get a trade done, just so the team could get something in return?

Denver would never get equal value, but the trade was better than just letting Anthony walk.

Just ask the Cavaliers.

The fact of the matter is, free agents have the right to go wherever they please once their contracts have expired. Sometimes they give notice of their intentions (Anthony), sometimes they don't (James, Bosh). And especially in the NBA, the stars drive the interest and the business of the sport.

When Anthony decided to play for the Knicks, it wasn't just because he'd be going home again; it was a business move. Let's face it, New York City is basketball-crazy, and if Anthony helps resurrect the Knicks, then the team and the league benefit.

Likewise for the league's other major markets. This isn't to say the small-market teams are hopeless -- San Antonio and Oklahoma City are perfect examples of viable, competitive teams in small markets -- but the NBA is a far more viable and interesting product when the New Yorks, Miamis, Chicagos, Bostons and Los Angeles of the world are competitive.

In reality, what's happening in the NBA today is no different than it's ever been; it just seems that way, given the evolution of 24-hour sports media over the last decade. It's really business as usual in the NBA, and -- pending CBA battles aside -- the league is as healthy and popular as ever.

You want something to bitch about? The NFL's about to have a lockout; try there.