Thursday, March 27, 2014

Baylor and Stanford: The Luck of the Draw

After strong play in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Baylor and Stanford came back to Earth on Thursday, losing handily to Wisconsin and Dayton. As well as they played in the first two rounds, Baylor went 9-9 in the Big 12 while Stanford went 10-8 in the Pac 12. They were the same slightly above-average teams they've been all season; they just got very favorable match-ups in their pod.

That's what the NCAA Tourney always comes down too - match-ups. If you changed up which 2 and 3 seeds were in Stanford and Baylor's pods, neither team advances to the Sweet 16. Stanford couldn't have asked for a better road than New Mexico and Kansas while Baylor was set up perfectly against Nebraska and Creighton. So much of a team's success or failure is determined by the seeding committee. 

Let's take Baylor's first two games, which gave them the mythical state crown of Nebraska. There's no big men in that state - the Huskers went 6'10 and 6'7  on the front-line; Creighton went 6'7 and 6'8. Baylor goes 7'1, 6'9 - they just overwhelmed small teams who couldn't handle their size. When they played a Wisconsin team that had good big men and good guards, they got run out the gym.

Size was the key for Stanford. At 6'11, 6'10 and 6'7, they had one of the biggest frontlines in the field of 68. In the first round, they played a New Mexico team which had no real Plan B if bludgeoning teams upfront didn't work. In the second, they played a Kansas team that was missing their center and couldn't shoot 3's - allowing Stanford to pound them inside on offense and sit in a zone on defense. 

Dayton had the better guards, so they sped the game up, got it going up-and-down and killed Stanford in transition. Stanford wasn't exactly a team full of world-beaters - if they had been the 10 seed in Wisconsin's regional, they would have had no chance to advance. The Badgers had the size to keep up with them and the players to expose their lack of athleticism and ball-handling on the perimeter. 

The NCAA Tournament is unpredictable in the sense that no one in February would have told you that Baylor and Stanford were going to the Sweet 16 - but that's because no one could have known who they were going to face. That's why having a balanced team that is strong at all five positions is so important, because you never know who you are going to face in a one-and-done scenario.

So when you see two average teams play above their heads in the first two rounds and get blown out in the Sweet 16, don't just write the whole thing off as completely unknowable. There are reasons these teams win or lose and if you back through the match-ups, you can find them. If Baylor and Stanford are proof of anything, it's this - even if your team isn't that great, a huge front-line can take you pretty far in March.

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