Safe to say it’s been a pretty unusual tournament so far but that is not unexpected given that this is an unusual year in so many ways. Here are some takeaways from the first three rounds:
- There was a time it looked like Ohio State picked a good year to be good, but it turned out Ohio State wasn’t really that good. The Buckeyes just got hot for a couple of weeks in February and ended up actually appearing to deserve a No. 2 seed before getting Cinderella’d by a legitimately tough, skilled and talented Oral Roberts team that reminded us about a lot of what is great about March.
- Meanwhile, Michigan really might finally break through and win it all after being the runner-up twice in the previous decade. To me the Wolverines and Illinois were legit contenders while the rest of the Big Ten was pretenders at best. We saw the Illini flop, but Juwan Howard’s team is still going because the Wolverines are more disciplined & unselfish than they are talented (and they do have talent, of course). Others years they likely would have an expiration date against a Duke or Kentucky team loaded with NBA-bound blue-chippers, but this year — well, hey, Gonzaga might be just that good or better than Duke or Kentucky so never mind.
- At first it looks like Michigan got a break with UCLA upsetting Alabama, but the Bruins are probably a tougher matchup than the Crimson Tide. I assume Michigan would have punked Bama like they did LSU, but Mick Cronin’s UCLA team is not going to back down from Michigan’s Michigan State-esque (Call it “Izzo Lite”) strategy of committing more fouls than the refs are willing to call and getting away with it.
- I have to confess I thought Cronin going to UCLA was a major gaffe for both parties, but he’s making it look good so far. We’ll see what kind of recruiter he is there, but so far his coaching acumen has translated. And for better or for worse, recruiting is going to change a lot in the very near future as it will figures to involve pulling in guys from other colleges as much as high schools, so what did or didn’t work at Cincinnati might not matter as much at UCLA anyway.
- How Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann navigates this strange new world will be interesting to watch. So far we know he can coach, but he hasn’t constructed the type of roster to do what he was hired to do: win championships. He’s been more Jim O’Brien than vintage Thad Matta through four seasons. Give everybody the same roster and I might like my chances, but that ain’t how it works. It never will be how it works, though the reshuffling of roster construction and talent acquisition might lead to more parity. That would theoretically let coaches who are great teachers shine, but time will tell.
- That’s a cliche, of course, but it’s one of the few that seems reliable anymore. Also this one: you just never know. Some research told me Holtmann might be a better hire than Archie Miller at Indiana, but I thought Miller would still do better in Bloomington than he did. Miller wasn’t a great recruiter at Dayton, but but coached ‘em up like few others. At Indiana, he seems to have done the opposite. I thought his key to success there might be to let the program recruit itself and continue to be a good developer of players and teams, but he never seems to have gotten through to the guys there. It’s a tough business. Sometimes the bounce of the ball in a tournament game can make all the difference, but you’ve got to get there for that to be possible.