Sunday, March 16, 2003

NCAA brackets often lacking rhyme, reason


There it was. You couldn't miss it. Big block letters spelled out "Ford Center" on top of the downtown Oklahoma City arena.

We were driving back from Dallas on I-35 Sunday afternoon, and we could see the venue of the NCAA men's basketball tournament first- and second-round site off to the northwest as we headed north.

"Do you think we'll be coming back here?" someone asked.

"Don't know," I said. "You'd think the NCAA committee would send Oklahoma and Texas to Oklahoma City and shuffle the Jayhawks off to Indianapolis."

You would think.

Those are the three most useless words in the English language when speculating about an NCAA bracket. It has to be easier to pick the PowerBall than correctly predict all 65 slots on that grid.

Then there is the 2-year-old pod system that further confuses the issue because ... well, who knows why some places are where they are anyway. For instance, Kansas was sent to St. Louis last year as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional. That was fine, except St. Louis, while located in the Midwest, was actually a South Regional site, and Kansas went there because of the pod factor, which rewards high seeds by sending them to sites closest to their campuses.

This is why Kansas was sent Sunday to Oklahoma City. The Sooner State's capital city is the nearest of the eight first- and second-round sites to Lawrence. Yet for the second year in a row the Jayhawks have been podded.

You could have knocked me over with a referee's whistle when I finally saw on the televised selection show -- thank you CBS for all those maddening commercials inserted between the announcements of regional pairings -- the Jayhawks had been assigned to the West Regional.

The West? Kansas never goes to the West. Well, hardly ever.

This is the 14th straight year Roy Williams has had the Jayhawks in the NCAA Tournament (KU was ineligible his first year) and only once before had Kansas been dispatched to the West. That was in 1996, when KU went -- coincidentally, also as a No. 2 seed -- to Tempe, Ariz., and then on to Denver's old McNichols Arena where Kansas fell four points shy of reaching the Final Four, bowing to Syracuse, 60-57, in the Elite Eight.

To all of you who believe Kansas was shafted out of a No. 1 seed Sunday by a misguided and miscalculating selection committee, fuhgedaboudit. Seeds don't mean squat.

In the three previous times Kansas has been a No. 2 seed under Williams, the Jayhawks have: 1) reached the Final Four (1993), 2) come within one game of the Final Four (1996) and 3) lost in the second round (1990). In other words, you never know in the NCAA crapshoot.

Curiously, 10 years ago when KU was the second-seeded team in the Midwest Regional, the Final Four was in New Orleans -- the same Louisiana Superdome where this year's championship round is scheduled April 5 and 7 ... or, if you feel they should maintain the "March Madness" theme, on March 36 and March 38.

That '93 Kansas team -- famous for spitting in the Mississippi River for good luck -- had more than fortune going for it. Those Jayhawks had depth and a left-handed guard named Rex Walters, who never seemed to miss a shot until North Carolina neutralized him in a Final Four semifinal.

A decade later, Kansas will go into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed hoping for a trip to New Orleans with not much depth and Williams hoping seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich play at their level of competence, Keith Langford gets hot, Jeff Graves stays out of foul trouble and point guard Aaron Miles lays off the Mr. Hyde potion.

Meanwhile, I'm sure Williams, whose idea it was to spit in the Mississippi in '93, is nervous about returning to Oklahoma City, the scene of arguably his most devastating tournament loss -- No. 8-seed Rhode Island's 80-75 stunner over his top-seeded Raef LaFrentz-Paul Pierce juggernaut in 1998.

Williams can take some consolation in the fact next week's games will be played at the two-year-old Ford Center and not the Myriad, which was torn down and replaced by a convention center.

Then again, he may want to have his team spit in an Oklahoma City river.

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