The NCAA Tournament always contains its share of thrills, upsets, Cinderellas, and surprising runs. This season has been no exception with most of the hullabaloo created by the George Mason Patriots (see Jeff's "Who Are These Guys?" article from Tuesday). As surprising as GMU's run has been, all four of these schools were unlikely picks for the Final Four when this season started.
In the preseason, only UCLA was ranked in the AP and ESPN polls, and modestly so at #18 and #19 respectively. I averaged the preseason top 25 from six other preseason hoops sources (The Bracket Board, Dick Vitale, Andy Katz, Yoni Cohen, SLAM, and Athlon). UCLA came in at #15. None of the teams were ranked in the top 25, and George Mason did not receive a single vote from any of the above sources.
Florida and LSU were figured to be decent teams, but they play in the oft-ridiculed SEC. The idea that the SEC could place two schools not named Kentucky in the Final Four would have been a humdinger of a joke back in November. Furthermore, those two had been tossed in the "always underachieves in the Tournament" hopper before their runs this season. Billy Donovan and John Brady have done much to polish their reputations this season by traveling the long road to Indianapolis.
UCLA had become better and tougher under Ben Howland, but they figured to be a year away from a deep NCAA run. The Bruins looked too inexperienced to do it this year, and they also played in a much-maligned power conference. George Mason came from the far left of left field.
This Final Four is a clear departure from most Final Fours in more ways than just having a team from a non-power conference. Take a look at recent history:
2005: North Carolina (champion), Michigan State, Louisville and Illinois. All four were among the preseason favorites.
2004: UConn (champion), Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, Duke. Georgia Tech was a surprise in 2004, but the other three were preseason bulwarks.
2003: Syracuse (champion), Kansas, Texas, Marquette. Kansas and Texas were preseason juggernauts. Syracuse and Marquette were mild surprises.
2002: Maryland (champion), Indiana, Oklahoma, Kansas. Three of the four were highly regarded in the preseason with Indiana as a surprise team.
2001: Duke (Champion), Arizona, Maryland, Michigan State. All were highly ranked in the preseason.
2000: Michigan State (champion), Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina. While two of these teams were 8-seeds, UNC and Florida were both highly thought-of in the preseason.
In fact, one can continue back throughout Tournament history and see that rarely (if ever) have four teams with less fanfare to start the season made the Final Four. Again, only one of these four was even ranked in November. Yet, one of these remaining clubs is taking home a national championship.
Not only are all four of these teams somewhat surprising, but they perform their work with similar tools: namely defense. All four reside in the top 15 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. That is, they are among the top 15 teams in the land at holding teams to the least number of points per possession. All of these rankings are out of 334 Division-I teams.
None of the four prefer a breakneck pace either. In fact, George Mason and UCLA are among the slowest-paced teams in the country. LSU is the only team that could be considered a faster-paced team, and they are barely in the top 100 nationally.
However, these defensively-oriented and slower-paced teams are not offensively inept. The all rank in the Top 53 in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions).
So what do all of these numbers mean? For one, this weekend will likely consist of games played in the 60s. If LSU has its way, the score might go higher, but these teams generally like a slower pace with an emphasis on measured half-court offense and stifling defense, as opposed to a helter skelter, shoot-'em-up-and-turn-'em-over affair. Last year's North Carolina team was #10 in pace of play. There is no one close to that pace in this year's Final Four.
These numbers also indicate that Florida is clearly the most balanced club. Their inside-outside balance can be seen just by watching them play, but they also bring the 6th most efficient offense and the 8th most efficient defense to the table. Of course, these are numbers from the entire year and not just the NCAA Tourney.
In the tourney, George Mason has shot the threeball at a much higher clip than they did in the regular season. This is what has made them so lethal on the offensive end and has allowed them to successfully navigate an arduous road to Indy (Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and UConn).
Finally, this Final Four will crown a worthy, albeit unexpected, champion. All four of these teams not only made it to Indianapolis, but they defeated 1-seeds to do it. Therefore, to say "X-team" does not deserve to be the national champ is hogwash. These are four of the best defensive teams in the country who have played against the best competition in the land for four straight games.
There have been a couple of writers suggesting that the NCAA Tourney does not crown the "best" team as champion. Something tells me that if UConn had beaten GMU, these articles would have never appeared. What sport does crown the best team champion? Baseball? Maybe, but starting pitching sure does carry an awful lot of weight in the postseason. The NBA? OK, but it takes an ice age to get through the playoffs. The Super Bowl? It is not hard to argue that the best team in the NFL did not play in the Super Bowl (see: Colts, Indianapolis).
The wonderful bracket crowns a most deserving a champion. There are no computers, no $150 million payroll gaps, no BCS, and no 7-game series. A team earns its place in the field by winning a conference tournament or being selected as one of the top 34 teams that did not manage an automatic bid. Then, they must win six games. All of this is done in a neat and tidy three weekends.
This is the culmination of the greatest championship in sports and these four teams will undoubtedly treat us to some wonderful basketball this weekend. Let us crown our unexpected champion.