Keeping Perspective: March Madness Doesn’t Define a Team

Now that Louisville has won the national title, the 2012-13 Cardinals will be immortalized in NCAA basketball history. As the runner up, Michigan will also be remembered through time, but exponentially less so than the champs. And perhaps only a handful of die-hard fans will still be able to recollect the members of this year’s Final Four ten years down the road.

That’s about it.

Who’s going to look back years down the road and remember that #1 Gonzaga was 32-2 before being upset by Wichita State in the third round? Who’ll remember that Florida posted 26 regular season wins by double-digits prior to their implosion against Michigan in the Elite Eight? How about 1-seeded Kansas or Indiana? How about Duke, Ohio State, and Michigan State? Who’ll remember these teams’ fantastic seasons? Two weeks down the road and it’ll be as if they never happened.

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Whether they lost because of uncontrollable bad breaks (Kansas to Trey Burke’s unadvisedly deep three-pointer) or an unfortunate matchup (Gonzaga against Final Four member Wichita State), the above group of teams will be looked back upon – if at all – as flawed contenders. Clearly, they weren’t elite because they couldn’t reach the Final Four.

In reality, that kind of interpretation couldn’t be less accurate. It’s crucial to maintain perspective: just because a team loses one game at an unfortunate time of the year doesn’t mean they’re not one of the best teams; and just because a team wins six in a row at the ideal time of the year doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the top dog. Every year there are deserving teams that, for whatever reason, fail to put together a quality run in late March. After all, only one team gets to cut down the nets.

Because winning streaks occur sporadically, teams shouldn’t be judged because of their performance during an arbitrary time of the season. A team should be judged by the success of their whole year. That’s why March Madness shouldn’t solely define a team.

Imagine if Gonzaga’s regular season domination happened during the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs would have walked through all six tournament opponents to an easy and convincing championship victory. Everyone would have agreed that they were clearly the best team. And perhaps they would have been, but the judgement shouldn’t be dependent on timing.

Keeping a reasonable perspective takes little away from the national champion. Louisville is a spectacular team – and most likely the best in the country. But the Cardinals aren’t the best because of their mind-blowing winning streak to end the year; they’re the best because of their wholly impressive season, dating back to solid play in early November.

It’s always important to keep in mind the fragility of March Madness. If Burke’s tournament-saving three pointer against the Jayhawks doesn’t drop in the Sweet Sixteen, Kansas or Florida would have played for the national title. They might have even knocked off Louisville in the title game. The entire tournament would have unfolded differently. The fragility is what makes the tournament special – but it’s also what makes it somewhat unrepresentative of the full season.

Accordingly, it’s important not to overweight the results of March Madness. The contenders that busted out early are nearly as talented as the champs. Teams like Indiana, Kansas, and Duke were early-season favorites, holding the top spots in the opinion polls for consecutive weeks in November, December, and January. Did they all of the sudden lose their talent? Of course not. They’re more or less as good as Louisville; they just happened to have their longest winning streaks near the beginning of their seasons, making them appear worse.

The upshot is that the best teams will be back next year, given that they can effectively reload with young talent. The premier programs – like Florida, Indiana, Duke, and Kansas (among others) -will be back challenging for a title next year along with Final Four members Louisville, Michigan, and Syracuse. They’re all prestigious programs headed by great head coaches.

The jury is still out on Wichita State. They’re good, but one four game winning streak doesn’t automatically propel them from above average mid-major to elite powerhouse. The Shockers will probably be back in the tournament next year, but they’ll be hard-pressed to make another run similar to this year’s. Then again, the underrated Butler Bulldogs repeated as national finalists in 2011 after being written off as lucky following their improbable finals run from the previous year. You can’t discount any team, including the Shockers; that’s the beauty of the tournament.

But just as it gives the tournament excitement, the chaotic nature of March Madness also lends an unfair bias to the luckier teams that survive to the later rounds. That’s why we shouldn’t forget the fallen contenders. If not for a couple of unfortunate breaks here or there, it could just as easily have been a team like Kansas or Indiana cutting down the nets instead of Louisville on Monday night.

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